Our hero Arnold Schnabel’s friend that unaccountably obscure author Horace P. Sternwall (The Burglar and the Babe; Talk to the Six-Gun; etc.) continues to read aloud from his modern classic Slaves of Sappho…
(Kindly click here to read our previous thrilling episode; go here to return to the very first chapter of this 59-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)
“At a certain point in Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre one becomes aware of the ineluctable fact that one’s mind has become bent in such a way that it will never come unbent again.” – Harold Bloom, in a speech at the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Annual Beef ‘n’ Beer Gala.
Outside on Bedford Street night had finally arrived, and the air was not quite so oppressive as when Missy had gone into the automat, which wasn’t saying much, as this was still August in New York City, and immediately she felt perspiration breaking out under her dress, one of her three “work outfits”, this one a prim black-and-white checked square-necked Chanel which had cost her a month’s wages even with her staff discount.
Muriel had stopped on the sidewalk, facing Bedford Street, and after taking one last drag on her Herbert Tareyton, she flicked it into the gutter.
“Where to go,” she said. “So many bars in this town. So little time, ha ha.”
Missy had nothing to say to this. Except for a few occasions with Chad, she had hardly ever been to a bar in her life. But she decided to ape Muriel’s nonchalance, and so she flicked – or rather, awkwardly tossed, as if she were throwing a dart – her own Herbert Tareyton into the street. Unfortunately the cigarette flew into the open rear window of a passing taxi cab, hitting a fat man on the side of his jowls, and causing him to let out a piercing yelp. As the cab drove on up the street the man turned and screamed out of his window, using some words Missy had never heard before.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” called Missy.
“Ha ha!” laughed Muriel.
The cab continued on up Bedford Street, but then pulled up to the curb at the corner.
“Oh, no,” said Missy. “I think he’s getting out!”
“Ha ha,” said Muriel. “Let him, the fat slob.”
“Oh, but Muriel, what if he attacks me?”
“Then I’ll hit him with my bag,” said Muriel.
Sure enough, the fat man had gotten out of the cab, and was apparently giving money to the driver through the front passenger window.
“Muriel,” said Missy, “we have to run! What if he gets a policeman and has me arrested? I can’t go to jail!”
“Good point,” said Muriel, and she grabbed Missy’s wrist and hustled her up the steps of the Hotel St Crispian, which stood conveniently quite near to where they had been standing.
An old but very tall and robust-looking doorman opened the door for them.
“Good evening, Miss Armitage,” he said, and bowing slightly to Missy, “and to you, miss. Welcome to the Hotel St Crispian.”
“Hi there, Olaf,” said Muriel. “This is my friend Miss –”
She glanced at Missy, raising one thin eyebrow in what Missy guessed was an interrogative way.
“Oh!” she said. “Hallebrand! Missy Hallebrand!”
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Hallebrand,” said the old man, in an accent that reminded Missy of Boris Karloff, and this time he actually clicked his heels, something Missy had only ever seen done before in movies.
“Say, Olaf,” said Muriel, “you see that fat old boy huffing and puffing his way down the sidewalk towards us?”
“I do indeed, miss.”
“He’s been following my friend Missy here, trying to pick her up, and making mean and hateful remarks, and he’s just an awful nuisance. Do you think you could make him go away?”
“Of course, miss.”
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
“That won’t be necessary, miss. I consider such tasks to be well within the purview of my occupation.”
“You’re a doll, Olaf. Missy and I are just gonna quick duck into the Prince Hal Room.”
“Enjoy yourself, ladies, and don’t worry about that fellow. I know how to handle his kind.”
Missy glanced over her shoulder; the fat man was still slowly but surely waddling down the sidewalk toward the hotel.
Olaf closed the door behind Muriel and Missy, and they saw him squaring his shoulders, facing in the direction the fat man was coming from.
“Sometimes it really pays to be a woman,” said Muriel. “Come on, honey, let’s get ourselves outside a couple of nice cold Tom Collinses.”
She took Missy’s arm and together they started across the very old-fashioned lobby in the direction of a pair of double doors off to the far right, with a sign above them that read “The Prince Hal Room”.
“How did you come to know that doorman?” said Missy, speaking almost in a whisper, although she didn’t know why.
“Oh, but I live here, darlin’,” said Muriel.
“You live in this hotel?” said Missy, in a slightly less whispery voice. She had never known of anyone actually living in a hotel, except maybe in the movies.
“Sure do,” said Muriel. “I find it more convenable than keeping my own apartment. Never could stand to do housework and such. Oh, hiya, Mr. Nolan!”
She was now addressing another very large older man – although not quite so old as Olaf the doorman – sitting in a very comfortable-looking stuffed chair next to a large zebra plant. He was smoking a cigar, and he didn’t look happy, but maybe that was just the way he always looked, or maybe he was just annoyed because he had been interrupted from reading the Federal-Democrat he had open on his lap.
“Hello, Miss Armitage,” he said.
“And how’s the family?” said Muriel. “The wife and that passel of girls you’ve got at home?”
“Presumably clucking happily away at one another, and probably at the present moment stuffing a freeloading priest or two with scones and cakes.”
“Ha ha,” said Muriel. “Hey, listen, Mr. Nolan, just want to let you know – some very mean and very hateful strange fat man was trying to bother my friend Miss, uh –”
“Hallebrand,” piped in Missy.
“Miss Hallebrand,” continued Muriel, “saying the rudest possible things to her, and following the both of us down the street, and I asked Olaf to get rid of him if he tries to enter the hotel, but –”
Mr. Nolan did nothing to hide the great sigh he now heaved. He held up one enormous hand, the enormous hand which was not holding his cigar.
“This mean and hateful fellow,” said Mr. Nolan – and Missy noticed that he too spoke like someone in the movies, with a slight Irish accent, like Victor McLaglen maybe – “besides being fat, is he a big man?”
“Sort of big,” said Muriel. “But more like enormously fat like a big old hippo in the zoo.”
“Well, I’m sure Olaf can handle him then,” said Mr. Nolan. “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll keep a weather eye on the door, and if Olaf seems to need my assistance I will dash to his aid like a shot, with my faithful blackjack in hand.”
“You’re a doll, Mr. Nolan,” said Muriel.
Mr. Nolan said nothing to this, but picked up his Federal-Democrat and presumably resumed reading it.
Muriel gave Missy’s arm a tug and they continued their progress across the lobby.
“That was Mr. Nolan, the house detective,” said Muriel. “He’s a little gruff, but he’s a sweetheart. Reminds me of my Grampa, even if he is Irish, and a Yankee to boot. It’s weird.”
“Everything. All these people up here, all of ‘em Yankees. No offense.”
“Oh, uh –”
“You can’t help it. But I do feel somewhat a stranger. Like Alice down that ol’ rabbit hole.”
Missy was thinking that it had never occurred to her before that she was a Yankee. Muriel was making her think so many things for the first time, and it was all so very confusing. And it was almost like walking with Chad, walking this way with her arm in Muriel’s, and Muriel being much taller than her, and wearing trousers, it was confusing – but, yes, exciting…
There was a glass-encased sign next to the double doors of the Prince Hal Room, advertising something called Tony Winston and his Winstonians, featuring the vocal stylings of the lovely Lily LaRue, with twelve-by-five black-and white photographs of Tony Winston and Lily LaRue, and then they were through the swinging doors into some sort of night club or lounge, Muriel waved away an old man who must have been the maître d'hôtel, another one who seemed as if he were from a movie, named Anatole apparently, and they were walking past a lot of tables with people sitting at them, with a band playing at the other end of the room, a girl singing with the band (“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”), and they came to a long bar on the left, with exactly two seats open near the middle and now they were sitting at the bar on old but comfortable cushioned stools.
“At last!” said Muriel, and she brought her big map case of a bag onto her lap, opened it and began fishing around in it.
Muriel placed her own modestly-sized black plastic purse on top of the bar, and felt awkward because of her almost complete lack of experience in sitting at a bar. What did you do with your hands? This problem was solved almost immediately by Muriel bringing out her somewhat crumpled pack of Herbert Tareytons and offering the pack to Missy.
“Go ahead, honey. If you’re gonna drink, you might as well smoke. Oh, hello, Raoul, how’s it shakin’ ol’ boy?”
This last sentence was spoken to the slim and dignified-looking man in the red vest who had suddenly appeared on the other side of the bar, with a lighter in his hand.
“Shaking very well, Miss Armitage,” he said, and he lit the cigarette which Muriel had just put between her red lips. He then gazed in a somewhat expectant-looking way at Missy, with just the slightest hint of a smile on his dignified face.
Missy felt a surge of panic, as if something were expected of her, something she could only guess at – and then it hit her, causing her to flinch as if she had been poked with a pin between her shoulder blades – the man was waiting for her to put the Herbert Tareyton she was holding in between her lips so that he could light it! Quickly she did so, and the man unflappably clicked the lighter and applied its flame to the cigarette. She coughed, but not too much, and fortunately Muriel spoke again:
“How are your Tom Collinses this evening, Raoul?”
“I trust they are no worse than usual, Miss Armitage,” said Raoul.
“Then we’ll take two of ‘em. Oh, by the way, Raoul, this is my friend Miss, uh –”
“Hallebrand,” said Missy, holding one small fist near her mouth, as she was still coughing just a bit.
“Miss Missy Hallebrand,” said Muriel. “And Missy, this is Raoul, if not the best bartender in town then the best one in this ol’ flea trap.”
“You exaggerate, Miss Armitage,” said Raoul, with that same barely existent smile.
“Well, exaggerate us two of those excellent Tom Collinses, Raoul, if you please!”
“Right away, Miss Armitage. And very pleased to meet you, Miss Hallebrand.”
“Um,” said Missy, and Raoul went away somewhere behind the bar.
Muriel turned to Missy.
“Okay, this place is corny, but what can I say? It’s home. Sort of.”
“I like it,” said Missy.
“Yes, it’s sort of like, I don’t know, a movie.”
“That’s just it,” said Muriel. “You have hit on the exactly correct simile. This whole hotel is like a movie, ‘cept one that came out twenty-five years ago. We’re not careful Warren William and William Powell are gonna walk right up and ask us to dance.”
“Who are Warren William and William Powell?”
“Never mind. But listen, whole reason I’m about to get you outside a drink is what I got to tell you. You want to wait until you drink it, or should I just spit it out and get it over with?”
“Is it really horrible?”
“’Is it really horrible’,” said Muriel. “Well. That all depends on how you look at it.”
“Don’t be afraid. Once you get over the initial shock you’ll be fine.”
“Let me put it this way, honey – you’ll be more fine than you would wind up bein’ if I never told you what I’m fixin’ to tell ya.”
Missy looked into Muriel’s dark eyes, and then she looked away, at the bottles on the other side of the bartender’s area, and at the mirror, in which she could see her own face, looking confused, and next to her – Muriel, looking at Missy, her face in profile under that Panama hat, and looking not confused at all. What am I doing here? thought Missy. How had all this happened, and why did she feel that her life, her sad little life, was about to come crashing down all around her, and her with it.
She sighed, and then turned and looked at Muriel again, who was still looking calmly at her.
“All right,” said Missy. “Go ahead and say it, please.”
“I’m not sure of anything, but I can’t stand the suspense.”
“Okay, then,” said Muriel, “here it is.”
She took a drag of her Herbert Tareyton, and exhaled the smoke, slowly, before continuing. And then she said:
“Your boyfriend – Chadwick?”
“Chad, yes,” said Missy.
“Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to call him Chad. Do you mind if I refer to him as Chadwick? I mean that is his real Christian name, is it not?”
“Yes, but he prefers to be called Chad I think.”
“Here’s the thing about Chadwick,” said Muriel. “He’s gay.”
“As the day is long.”
“But –” Missy felt a great, a palpable feeling of relief suffusing her whole being – “I already knew that, Muriel, I mean, gee.”
“You knew he was gay.”
The man Raoul was suddenly there, putting down two tall beaded golden-colored drinks, each one with a multi-colored straw sticking out of it, and a slice of orange and a cherry impaled on a little red plastic arrow fixed to the rim of the glass.
“Thank you, Raoul!” said Muriel. “Put ‘em on my tab.”
“Certainly, Miss Armitage,” said Raoul, with that barely noticeable smile, and he went away.
“So,” said Muriel, turning again to Missy. “You know. About him bein’ gay and all.”
“Of course I do, Muriel!” said Missy, trying to hold her cigarette at the elegant angle that Muriel held hers. “Everyone knows what a gay fellow Chad is! Always so – so jolly, and ready to sing show tunes around a piano at the drop of a hat, or to go ballroom dancing, and in the winter he loves to go ice-skating, and, and –”
Muriel held up her hand.
“All right, honey, I get it. Now you just listen to me for a little while. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Missy.
Muriel picked up her little plastic arrow and ate the cherry before continuing.
(Continued here, and ever onward into worlds beyond the unknown.)
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