Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel’s friend the prolific author Horace P. Sternwall (A Desperate Man; The God’s Honest Truth; etc.) has been reading aloud from his sadly out-of-print classic Slaves of Sappho…
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“There are certain lengthy sections in Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre when his voice suddenly merges with that of his friend Horace P. Sternwall, and then one can only ask: is it Arnold’s voice, or Horace’s, or perhaps a third voice, a shall we say ‘universal’ voice, a voice somehow beyond what we think of as belonging to ‘one’ person?” – Harold Bloom, in the Parade Magazine Literary Supplement.
“So,” said Muriel. She placed the little red plastic arrow with its slice of orange on her beverage napkin, and then she looked at Missy. “First off, I suggest you take a good long drink of that Tom Collins there.”
“But why?” said Missy.
“You’ll know why in just one second. Now go on, honey, just sip it through that straw there and make pretend it’s nothin’ more than a nice cool glass of lemonade.”
“Will it make me drunk?” said Missy.
She had an uncle who got drunk, Uncle Maurice, and he became most unpleasant when he did. Missy didn’t want to get like that.
“One little old Tom Collins is not going to make you drunk, child,” said Muriel, narrowing her eyes under the brim of her Panama hat. ”But what it will do is help soften the blow.”
“The blow? What blow? Oh, please, Muriel, will you just tell me?”
“Not until I see at least three inches of that cocktail go through that straw and down your gullet.”
“Oh, all right.”
Missy lowered her lips to the straw, putting both her hands on the glass, and she drew in some of the cold sweet liquid, swallowed it, and then looked up at Muriel.
“Good,” said Muriel. “Very good. But that’s only one inch. Now take a breath, put your mouth on that straw again and let’s see you send two more inches down the hatch.”
Missy sighed, but did as her new friend (if that was indeed what she was, and not just some random madwoman she had allowed herself to be taken captive by) had bade her do.
When she had drunk the required two inches she took her lips away from the straw. The funny thing was, the drink actually had tasted like a lemonade, but better than lemonade, because with its coolness and sweetness it brought a warmth and a glow, a glowing warmth, a warming glow, which seemed to start from somewhere in her stomach and then had spread upwards almost immediately to her brain.
“What do you think?” said Muriel, taking a drag on her Herbert Tareyton.
“It’s very good!” said Missy, and she took a drag on her own Herbert Tareyton, and this time she hardly coughed at all.
“See, I didn’t steer you wrong, now did I?”
“Not at all! Now what was it you wanted to tell me, Muriel?”
“Wait, hold on just a sec, while I catch up,” said Muriel, and, putting those red lips on her straw, she drew three inches of her own Tom Collins through it. She then licked her lips, and, looking Missy square in the eye, she said the most horrifying words Missy had ever heard spoken to her in her lifetime.
“Your boyfriend Chadwick is a homosexual.”
“A what?” said Missy, although she had heard every word as clearly as the chiming of a bell.
“A homosexual,” said Muriel, carefully enunciating each syllable. “A fairy. A poofter. A queer. A little old pansy through and through, from his pomaded hairdo right on down to his shiny patent-leather dancing pumps.”
Missy put her hand to her mouth.
“How did you – how did –”
“How did I what, honey?”
“How did you – know about the dancing pumps?”
To this Muriel said nothing, but merely rolled her eyes, and then shook her head, as if sadly, and then she lowered her red lips to her Tom Collins’s straw again, and relieved the tall glass of two more inches of its contents. She then raised her head and looked at Missy with an expression that seemed at least sympathetic.
For a moment, for several moments, Missy stared into those deep dark eyes. Her hand was still over her mouth, but now she slowly lowered it. She felt a falling sensation deep inside her, and she wondered if she were about to topple off her stool. But then something happened in her mind, a sort of kaleidoscopic explosion of living images, all of them of Chad:
Chad holding a red satin dress up to his chest and looking at himself and the dress in the full-length mirror that time he took her shopping at Saks…
Chad taking off his hat and gently patting his gleaming hair, that hair which was always so immaculately trimmed and combed and, yes, pomaded…
Chad’s half-closed eyes following the swirling movements of a slim young man on the ice-skating rink, round and round…
And Chad producing his own nail file – a good French one – from his breast pocket, that time she broke her nail getting into her seat when they went to see that revival of The Women at the Thalia…
“Oh my God,” she said, at last.
“Sorry, honey,” said Muriel.
“How could I be so blind – such a fool?”
“Well, I’m sure he’s very good-looking and all,” said Muriel, taking a drag of her Herbert Tareyton. “Very well-groomed I bet.”
“Extremely well-groomed,” said Missy.
“A very good dresser!” said Missy. “Oh, but why? Why did he lead me on?”
Muriel made the facial equivalent of a shrug, a slight brief movement of her lower jaw to one side.
“Y’know, Missy, back there in the automat I told you I didn’t think Chadwick ever was gonna marry you, because he kept putting off making a wedding-date and all, but you know what? Now I think he probably did intend to tie the knot eventually.”
“You say he’s a lawyer?”
“Well, everybody knows that to really get ahead in the law a man needs to be a family man. So, sure, he would have married you, and maybe even have thought of England and gone ahead and given you a squallin’ brat or two.”
“Thought of England?”
“Just a phrase, honey. Point is, he would’ve gone through the motions. But all the time he would be living what they call – the twilight life.”
“The twilight life?”
“Yes,” said Muriel, and without moving her face at all, she looked away, as if into some sad past. “A life lived in the shadows.” Her dark eyes then swiveled back to meet Missy’s. “A parallel life if you will that he would lead in certain bars and Turkish bathhouses right here in the Village, on evenings when he told you he had to work late at the office.” She took another drag of her Herbert Tareyton. “A secret life partaken of also in certain particular men’s rooms in the train stations and bus stations –”
“Oh, no –”
Suddenly Missy remembered several occasions when they were out somewhere and Chad had excused himself, to go to the men’s room, occasions when he had been gone twenty or even twenty-five minutes – and when he finally came back, seeming strangely relaxed, he would smile and say there had been a long line –
“Oh, yes, honey,” said Muriel. “Pansies just love their men’s rooms. ‘Toilet traders’ they call these boys –”
“How – horrible!”
Muriel shrugged, using just one bare shoulder, and tilting her face briefly to one side.
“The thing about men, Missy, bent or straight – and it’s high time you learned this – they’re just not like us women. They don’t care too much how or where they get it or who they get it from, just as long as they get it. It’s just their essentially brutish nature. Why, some of these fellas will camp out in one of those men’s rooms for hours on end, takin’ all comers, just sort of makin’ a day of it so to speak –”
“Oh, stop, Muriel! Please! I can’t stand to hear any more! It’s just all so – so sordid!”
“Well, the hard part is over now, honey,” said Muriel. She touched Missy’s cheek with those long slender fingers, with their long red nails. “Look at you, you’re about to cry.”
“I want to cry.”
“Well, heck, child, let it out.”
“I don’t want to make a spectacle.”
“Then I suggest you put your lips to that straw and just drink the rest of that Tom Collins down in one go.”
“Do you think that will help?”
“It’s not going to hurt. It only hurts after you’ve had seven or eight of them, and even then it doesn’t hurt till the next day. Now go on and drink.”
Once again Missy did as her new friend told her to, and Muriel did the same with her drink. When they had finished Muriel looked at Missy and cocked that one thin eyebrow again.
“Feel better, honey?”
“I guess so,” said Missy. “I feel a little woozy.”
“Worse things than feelin’ woozy,” said Muriel, and, raising her hand like a child at school she turned and called down the bar to the bartender: “Yoo-hoo! Raoul? Two more of the same if you please.”
“Right away, Miss Armitage,” called back Raoul, again with that smile that was only a hint of a smile.
Muriel turned back to Missy.
“How you like the band, darlin’?”
“The – the band?” said Missy.
Muriel cocked her thumb over her shoulder.
“Tony Winston and his Winstonians, featurin’ the lovely Miss Lily LaRue.”
“Oh!” said Missy. She hadn’t been paying attention to the band at all ever since they came in here. The music had just been part of the background noise, and this again was like a movie. She recognized the song that Lily LaRue was singing, “Love for Sale”. “They’re fine,” she said.
“Believe it or not those boys can play some hot licks when they’re not playin’ to a square room like this one. And you should hear that Lily LaRue belt it out when she’s havin’ fun after hours.”
“I’m sure she’s swell,” said Missy.
“Oh, she’s a swell gal all right, that Lily,” said Muriel. “Really swell gal, and a personal friend of mine, as are Tony and all the boys in his band.”
“Gee, it must be exciting, to know musicians.’
“I like artistic people,” said Muriel. “You might say bohemian people.”
“Chad used to be friendly with artistic people. Dancers mostly – and –”
“Window dressers,” said Missy, and she felt her shoulders slump.
“You’ve got to forget about Chad, darlin’.” Muriel put her hand on Missy’s face again. “You’ve got to make your own life, your own friends.”
“But all I know are the stupid girls at Macy’s, and my stupid flatmates –”
Muriel slowly drew her hand away, those slim long fingers sliding down Missy’s cheek.
“But you must have had some – girlfriends at Barnard?”
“Oh, I did, I did!” said Missy, “but, somehow, after graduation, we all just drifted apart –”
“Sad, isn’t it?”
“Real friends should stick together, that’s what I say.”
“That’s what I think, too, Muriel! But girls can be so – so fickle – and - and –”
“Don’t I know it, honey! Oh, but look who’s here!”
Raoul was there again, and as if with magical hands he removed their empty glasses and replaced them with new ones.
“Thank you very much, Raoul,” said Muriel.
“You’re very welcome, Miss Armitage,” he said, again with that smile which seemed more like a memory of a smile than an actual smile, then he drifted away again.
“Well, Missy,” said Muriel, “now that the hard part is over, the good part begins.”
“It sure does, sweetheart. Let’s touch glasses.”
This was another thing Missy had never done before, but she had seen it in movies. She raised her glass, Muriel raised hers, and then tapped its rim against Missy’s glass.
“To your new life, Missy, uh –”
“Hallebrand,” said Missy.
“To your new life, Missy Hallebrand. Which starts now.”
Muriel put the straw of her drink in between those red lips, and Missy followed suit, sucking in that cold sweet liquid that became so warm and soothing once it was inside her lonely little body. She looked into the dark eyes of Muriel.
“Feel better, darlin’?” said Muriel.
“Yes,” said Missy. “Very much so! Thank you, Muriel – for, for everything!”
And suddenly she became aware of the music, and of Lily LaRue singing:
Sit there and count your fingers
What can you do, little girl you're through
Sit there, count your little fingers
Unhappy little girl blue...
And now Missy began to cry.
Muriel reached across the bar top to a stack of paper beverage napkins, picked up a few of them, and put them in Missy’s hand.
“Go ahead, darlin’,” she said. “You just let it all out now.”
(Continued here, and onward, relentlessly.)
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