Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel’s friend Horace P. Sternwall (author of such unjustly-obscure classics as They Call Him Cad and Female Residence) has been reading aloud from his “paperback original” novel Slaves of Sappho. Our scene: two young women – the tall and dark Muriel and the small and blonde Missy – have just made each other’s acquaintance in an automat in Greenwich Village...
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“It is high time that Arnold Schnabel and Horace P. Sternwall are recognized as the two preëminent American authors of the 20th century, Schnabel in the field of autobiography and Sternwall in that of fiction, although I must admit that terms like ‘autobiography’ and ‘fiction’ must be applied with caution to the works of both of these masters.” – Harold Bloom, in the S&H Green Stamp Catalogue Literary Supplement.
Muriel took a Herbert Tareyton for herself and then, after fishing around in her big leather bag for only a minute, but an excruciating minute (excruciating for Missy, anyway – Muriel’s face was calm, impassive, and – Missy realized it fully only now – strangely beautiful) she produced a lighter, not one of the slim and delicate lighters women normally used, but a sturdy rectangular one, of polished chrome, engraved with the cursive capital initials M and A.
She lit Missy’s cigarette and then her own, and then she sat back in her chair, gazing at Missy from under the brim of her Panama.
“On second thought maybe I should just keep my big nose out of other people’s business,” she said, at last.
“Your nose isn’t big,” said Missy, realizing at once that although what she had said was true it was a very stupid thing to say.
“I was speaking figuratively,” said Muriel, in that slow southern drawl, dragging out the last word, with the accent on the third syllable and pronouncing the “a” long, as in “face”. Or “disgrace”.
“I really don’t mind,” said Missy, coughing slightly; she really hardly ever smoked, and had never much liked it, but she rather liked it now.
“Okay, then, honey,” said Muriel, “you asked for it.”
And now she leaned forward, putting her forearms on the table.
“This Brad of yours –”
“Brad, your not-quite fiancé –”
“Oh – it’s Chad, actually,” said Missy.
“Brad, Chad, Thad – like they say back home in Georgia, it don’t make no never mind.”
“Okay,” said Missy.
“This Chad does not love you, honey.”
“He does not.”
“But how can you know that?” said Missy. “You’ve never even met him. And you’ve only just met me.”
“I know it by just what you’re after telling me, darlin', that’s how I know it.”
“But, but –”
“But what, Missy?”
“You know what a ‘but’ is, sweetheart?”
“No,” said Missy. “I mean, yes, I guess I know – it’s a conjunction –”
“Conjunction, shmunction,” said Muriel. “You see this Herbert Tareyton?”
She held out her cigarette between two of those long and slender fingers.
“Yes,” said Missy. “I see it.”
“A butt is what this cigarette will be when I finish smoking it and stub it out in that there ashtray on the table.”
“I don’t get it,” said Missy.
“Nothing much to get,” said Muriel, “except that this Tad –”
“Sorry, except that this Chad fella is never going to marry you.”
“But how can you know that?”
Missy was embarrassed to realize that tears were coming to her eyes, and she held her eyes wide open, as if by doing so she could force the tears back into their ducts.
Muriel sat back in her chair again and took a slow drag on her Herbert Tareyton before replying, looking out the window at that dirty old brick wall of the Hotel St Crispian across the alleyway. Then she looked again at Missy.
“I’m older than you, honey. I can tell.”
“How old are you?” asked Missy.
“But that’s only a year older than me!”
“Twenty-four come October.”
“But still, Muriel, you’re not that much older –”
“It’s not just age, honey,” said Muriel. “It’s experience. Some people can live to be ninety-nine and they still don’t know a mule from a donkey.”
“A mule from a – donkey?”
“I’ll be straight with you, Missy. If I may.”
“A man wants to marry you, he does not pussyfoot around like a hound dog trying to figure out how to get across the creek without getting his paw pads wet.”
“If this boy really wanted to marry you you would have a ring on that finger this very moment.”
Missy covered the fingers of her left hand with those of her right.
Now she really felt as if she were going to cry. She bit her lip and stared into her coffee cup. Then she picked up the cup and took a sip. The coffee was cold.
“Of course I could be wrong,” said Muriel.
“Do you think so?” said Missy.
“I don’t say I think so,” said Muriel. “I’m just sayin’ I could be wrong. And could don’t mean am. Can I ask you a question.”
“I guess so,” said Missy.
“It’s gonna be a personal question, so you just jump right in if I overstep.”
“How is this – I’m sorry, I want to say Chuck, but I know that’s not right –”
“You mean Chad?”
“Right, Chad. How is he on the springs – just between us girls, so you can be honest now.”
“On the springs?”
“In bed, darlin’.”
“Oh. In bed.”
“In bed. Back seat of his Model T. Behind the football stands.”
“And, again, you don’t want to answer, that’s your privilege.”
“I don’t mean to be indelicate, but after all this is the 1950s, not the 1890s, although truth be told I wonder if things were any different back then.”
“Go on, child. These things need to be spoken about. If there’s one thing I learned on the couch it’s bottlin’ stuff up is only gonna give you psychic dyspepsia.”
“I’m sorry,” said Missy. “The couch?”
“You ever try it?”
“Never felt the need?”
“Well, maybe – but you see, I don’t make very much money, and –”
“Your parents can’t help you out?”
“No. My father is only a high-school teacher, and my mother is a housewife, taking care of my little brothers and sisters, so –”
“But you still haven’t answered my question.”
“That is if you want to.”
“Go on, shyness will get you nowhere in this life, honey. How is he, uh –”
“Yes. In the boudoir.”
“Well, to be honest, we’ve never actually, uh –”
“You’re tellin’ me that soldier boy and you have never –”
“And you never even –”
“Well, let’s say you never even manually or shall we say orally relieved him of his pent-up seed?”
“Oh, no. You see, Chad would never respect me if I did anything like that. He’s very old-fashioned. And proper. And –”
“You’re in bigger trouble than I thought you were.”
“What do you mean?”
“You say he’s a lawyer?”
“Well, he got his law degree, yes, but he was drafted before he –”
“So he’s not a window-dresser, or a hairdresser, or any kind of dresser?””
“I’m going to ask you a few hard questions now, Missy.”
Suddenly Missy felt an overwhelming urge to get up and run, to run as fast as she could, maybe even run into the middle of the street in front of the first fast-moving truck she saw.
“I think maybe I’d better go,” she said.
“You got someplace to go to?”
“No. But I feel – uncomfortable.”
“Just settle down. Another thing I learned on that psychoanalyst’s couch, you run from your problems and they’re gonna follow you around wherever you go, just like a pack of annoyin’ little puppy hounds snappin’ at your heels.”
And then Muriel did a strange thing – or at least it seemed strange to Missy – she reached over the table and touched Missy’s cheek with those long slender red-nailed fingers, and Missy felt something she had never felt before. She couldn’t put it into words, and anyway Muriel didn’t give her time to.
“Smoke your Herbert Tareyton, darlin’,” she said, letting her fingers slide down Missy’s cheek and then drawing that slender white hand back to her own side of the table. “It’s cork-tipped.”
Missy did as Muriel suggested, breathing in the smoke carefully so that she wouldn’t cough, and she had to admit that this act of smoking did relax her, somewhat. Maybe she should start smoking on a regular basis?
“Feel better?” said Muriel.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Take a drink out of that glass of water there.”
Wordlessly Muriel obeyed, and the water also made her feel better, not great, but better than the state of panic she had felt herself approaching just a minute before.
“Now,” said Muriel, “getting back to – Chad, right?”
“Yes,” said Missy. “You’ve got it right this time.”
“Does he by any chance like opera?”
“What? How did you know?”
“What about Broadway musicals?”
“That’s amazing,” said Missy. “Yes!”
“Okay, now here’s the clincher,” said Muriel, and she took a drag of her Herbert Tareyton before continuing. “Is ‘Chad’ – in any way, shape or form – an enthusiast of the ballet?”
“How did you know all this?” blurted Missy. “Are you a mind-reader?”
“Not a mind-reader, honey. I’m a people-reader. Just a couple more questions now, and then we’ll be through with the hard part. Did Brad ever –”
“Did Chad ever take you shopping? Help you pick out clothes?”
“Well, yes – but that was only because he knew I didn’t have much money, and –”
“What do you mean?”
“And I do mean oh boy.”
“Okay, where’d you meet Mr. Chadwick, anyway?”
“How did you know his real name was Chadwick?”
“Just guessing. Where’d you meet him – a pottery class?”
“Now there you’re wrong, Muriel,” said Missy, with a feeling that at last she was showing a little spunk right here. “I’ve never even taken a pottery class.”
“Where did you meet him then? I’ll bet it wasn’t any football game.”
“No, in fact I met him at my job.”
“At your job.”
“Yes, you see I was already working at Macy’s when I was at Barnard –”
“Barnard, well done!”
“Thank you. I was a scholarship student, but I still needed to work part-time because my parents –”
“I know, the impoverished parents, do go on –”
“And so, one day I was at the cosmetics counter and this nice young man came up, looking for foundation cream –”
“And this was Chadwick.”
“Yes, you see he wanted some foundation cream for his mother you see, and –”
“I think I’ve heard enough. You want a drink, Missy?”
“Yes, as in a cocktail.”
“Gee, I don’t know, I’m not much of a drinker really.”
“Never too late to start, honey. Let’s go.”
“’Less you got somewheres else to be?”
“Good,” said Muriel. She opened up her big leather bag and dropped the lighter and the pack of Herbert Tareytons unceremoniously back into it, then shoved her chair back and stood up. “Let’s go, honey. I’m buyin’, and we got some serious talkin’ to do.”
Missy bit her lip for approximately two seconds, and then she heaved a sigh, a long and deep sigh.
She really had nowhere else to go, nowhere at all.
“All right,” she said. “Maybe just one.”
(Continued here, bashing on regardless.)
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