Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel’s friend that unaccountably-obscure literary titan Horace P. Sternwall (A Gal Named Elizabeth; A Broad Named Maude, etc.) continues to read aloud from his sadly out-of-print classic of twilight love and lust, Slaves of Sappho…
(Please click here to read our previous episode; go here to return to the first chapter of Slaves of Sappho. New recruits may click here to return to the very beginning of Arnold Schnabel’s Gold View Award™-winning masterwork Railroad Train to Heaven©.)
“Surely no other autobiography in the history of mankind has so magnificently recreated a world – or should one rather say ‘created a whole new world’, a world inclusive of whole other new worlds including yet other worlds, and all of them full of wonder and strange beauty.” – Harold Bloom, in the Boys’ Life Literary Quarterly.
Somehow Muriel had summoned an elderly man who must have been the maître d', at any rate the man had appeared, smiling and bowing slightly, and after exchanging a few words with Muriel he led them to a table right in front of the bandstand.
The old man laid down two leather-bound menus he had been carrying under his arm, and just as Missy was about to seat herself he glided around her, and, bowing slightly, moved her chair back a few inches. This was something Chad used to do sometimes, although she had never quite gotten used to it, but she plunged ahead and lowered her small body in the direction of the chair and miraculously the chair met her bottom without incident while simultaneously somehow moving closer to the table. Quickly the old man floated to the other side of the table and performed the same magic with Muriel’s chair.
When Muriel had been safely seated the old fellow then gracefully picked up the folded napkin at her place, gave it a flick and allowed it to settle upon her lap. Knowing that she would be next Missy leaned back in her chair as the man came over and then performed the same feat with her napkin.
He then turned and faced Muriel, again bowing slightly.
“Thank you ever so much, Anatole,” said Muriel, “and listen,” she gestured with her Herbert Tareyton at the menus on the table, “take those things away if you please. You all have the Lobster Thermidor tonight?”
“We do, Miss Armitage,” said the old man, quickly scooping up the menus.
“Good,” said Muriel. “Nice and fresh?”
“We still have several nice lobsters swimming merrily in their tank in the kitchen, miss.”
“Oblivious to their impending doom,” said Muriel. “Well, we’ll take two of the Lobster Thermidor then, with the haricots verts? And those itty bacon bits? You know how I like 'em.”
“I do indeed, miss. Crispy.”
“But not burnt,” said Muriel. “You remember that one time when the bacon bits were burnt black as coal?”
“I do indeed, miss.”
“It’s a fine line, isn’t it, Anatole? Between crispy and burnt.”
“A fine line I assure you Chef will never cross again, Miss Armitage.”
“We can only hope and pray,” said Muriel. “But, oh, wait, tell me something, Anatole – how are the oysters today? Alive and kickin’?”
“Very much so, miss,” said the ancient man named Anatole.
“Better bring us a couple dozen of those little critters then to start off – oh, and just so we get all our vitamins, bring out a couple of tomato salads with ‘em, with Thousand Island dressing. You like Thousand Island dressing, Missy?”
“Gee, I guess so,” said Missy, having some trouble making the words come out of her mouth, as if they were made of rubber, or Jell-O.
“Thousand Island dressing, Anatole,” said Muriel, “and, look, if we’re having the oysters and the lobster I guess we’re just gonna have to go ahead and have some bubbly. You still got some of that pink Veuve Cliquot?”
“Miss Armitage, I always keep at least a few bottles set aside just for you.”
“Ah, you’re so sweet, sir. Well, we’ll start with one bottle then. Now run along before we simply die of thirst!”
“Right away, Miss Armitage,” said Anatole, and he drifted away through the tables.
It was all happening too quickly for Missy to take in, and then there was the music, Lily LaRue singing “Strike Up the Band”, and Muriel sitting back in her chair, taking a drag on her Herbert Tareyton, and gazing at her, at Missy, from under the brim of her Panama hat.
Missy felt awkward with Muriel gazing at her like that, and so she looked at the table, with its two place-settings and bread plates, a white tablecloth, only slightly worn and faded, and with a small blue-glass pitcher, with only one crack in it, with one red rose protruding from it. There was also a clear glass ashtray with the words painted on it, in black: THE ST CRISPIAN HOTEL WHERE THE SERVICE IS SWELL.
“I do hope you like oysters and champagne,” said Muriel. “I didn’t think to ask.”
“I’ve – I’ve never had oysters,” said Missy. “Or champagne.”
Now Muriel leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table. Smoke drifted out of her nostrils, and her eyes felt to Missy as if they were entering her own eyes.
“I have a feeling you’re gonna do more than one thing you’ve never done tonight, Missy.”
Missy didn’t know what Muriel meant. She didn’t know what any of this meant. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what it was she wanted to say. But still she felt she had to say something, with Muriel sitting there, leaning forward over the table, her dark eyes somehow flowing into hers.
“Gee,” she said, “all this must be terribly expensive, Muriel.”
“Expensive is just a matter of relativity, darlin’,” said Missy. “You’ve heard of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?”
“Yes, of course – we studied it at Barnard, it’s the theory that –”
“Well, you want to hear Muriel’s Theory of Relativity?”
“That’s me – Muriel.”
“Oh, yes! Of course –”
“Muriel’s Theory of Relativity is a poor man’s penny is the same as a rich man’s dollar. It also means what’s good for the gander is not always good for the goose, but sometimes it is. And a hot dog is as good as a T-bone steak if that’s what you’ve got a hankerin’ for.”
“I see,” said Missy, trying very hard to concentrate. “So you’re saying it all, uh, depends - on, uh – circumstances –”
“Exactement, as the French say,” said Muriel.
“But still – champagne, and oysters and, and lobster –”
“Don’t worry about it, honey, I got it all covered.”
“Gosh, Muriel, you must have a, a terribly well-paying job!”
“Who said I have a job?”
“But, but –”
“What did I tell you about buts?”
“That they’re what your Herbert Tareyton will be when you finish smoking it?”
“You’ve been paying attention!”
“Oh, yes –”
“You see, honey,” said Muriel, and she tapped the ash of her Herbert Tareyton into the ashtray, “I may not have what most people look on as a job per se, but I am by way of being on a sort of salary from my grandfather. The Judge.”
“Your grandfather’s a judge?”
“Among his other qualifications and titles, yes, he has been on the county bench back home in Collardsville for, oh gosh, must be twenty-five years now.”
“Collardsville, Georgia, seat of the ancestral estate of the Armitages.”
“So – I don’t understand,” said Missy, “do you, um, do some sort of work for your grandfather, or –”
“But, I mean, sorry, not ‘but’, but – I don’t understand –”
“What I do for the Judge,” said Muriel, “is never to set foot in Collardsville, Georgia, again, with the grudging exception of Christmas and perhaps the occasional funeral.”
“You man he pays you to – to stay away?”
“Yes,” said Muriel. “Do you believe that old fool? Payin’ me to stay away? When just between you and me and the wall he’d have to pay me to stay down there in that godforsaken backwater, and a whole heck of a lot more than he’s paying me now, that’s for sure.”
“Gee,” was all that Missy could think to say, but she was spared the immediate obligation to say anything further, as the elderly man Anatole had returned with a bucket with a bottle in it, along with another not-quite so elderly man who carried a three-legged stand in one hand and a tray with two long-stemmed glasses on it in his other hand, and the next minute was dominated by a ceremony in which the not-so-old man placed the glasses on the table, then set up the stand next to the table, Anatole putting the bucket into the stand, then taking the bottle, which was wrapped in a napkin, out of the bucket, twisting foil and wire from the top of the bottle, wresting a cork from it, and then pouring a small amount of pink bubbly liquid from it into the glass that was closest to Muriel. Muriel picked up the glass and drank the little bit of pink bubbly liquid down.
“Not half bad, Anatole – now pour away, if you please.”
Anatole filled the glass in front of Missy and then Muriel’s, put the bottle back in the bucket, which Missy noticed had ice in it, and then he and the other man floated away again.
“Cheers, big ears,” said Muriel, holding up her glass, and smiling in a way that seemed friendly.
Missy picked up her glass, and she knew what she was supposed to do now, so she held it out and touched it to Muriel’s.
Muriel drank down a good long gulp of the pink sparkling liquid, and so Missy did the same.
“And what do you think of the bubbly?” said Muriel, and she took another drag of her Herbert Tareyton.
“I think it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,” said Missy, quite honestly.
“Better even than a Tom Collins?”
“Oh, yes,” said Missy. “I mean the Tom Collinses were swell, but this is like, it’s like –”
“Like little bits of heaven, dancing a jitterbug in your mouth?”
“Yes!” said Missy.
“Want some more?”
“Maybe just a little bit,” said Missy.
Muriel picked the bottle up out of its bucket and topped off their glasses with the magical pink liquid.
“Muriel,” said Missy, after she had taken another but much smaller swallow, and it was as if the bubbles were pushing the words out of her lips, “would you mind if I asked you a personal question?”
“Sure, doll,” said Muriel. “Heck, land knows I’ve been asking you enough of them!”
“Why does your grandfather pay you to stay away from home?”
Muriel had been raising her glass to her lips when Missy asked the question, and she paused a moment before drinking, looking at Missy in a way that seemed impassive. Then she brought the glass the rest of the way to her lips, took a drink, emptying half of its contents this time, and put the glass down.
“He pays me to stay away,” she said, “because I have disgraced the Armitage name.”
“Oh, my goodness!” said Missy. “Listen, Muriel, I really didn’t mean to pry, so please, you don’t have to tell me any more.”
“I have nothing to hide, honey.”
“You – you don’t?”
“Nope. My conscience is clear. Clear as a summer’s day.”
“But – but – oh, I’m sorry, I said ‘but’ again.”
“That’s okay, child, you just say ‘but’ all you want. We’re friends.”
“But what did you do that your grandfather thought you, you know –”
“Disgraced the Armitage family name.”
“Yes. I mean if you want to tell me. I mean I really shouldn’t ask. It’s none of my business.”
“I don’t mind. You see, Missy, in the Judge’s way of thinking – and bear in mind this is a man who allows my father – a notorious drunkard and whoremonger, degenerate gambler and welcher of debts – who allows my father to live rent-free in the familial manse, along with my sainted mother, another world-famous gin-soak and paramour of stable boys and grooms, and not only white ones bear in mind, not to mention my brother, who has spent so many nights sleeping it off in the local hoosegow he’s got his very own goose-down bed there –”
“His own bed?”
“Would you believe it? Says he can’t get a good night’s or day’s as the case may be sleep in one of the regular hoosegow cots, so he had his own goose-down bed put in there and they keep it in a storeroom and bring it out just for him, you believe that?”
“So you can see that disgracing the Armitage family name is something that takes a bit of doing.”
“But what did you do?” said Missy.
“I committed the sin that may not be spoken of.”
“No. At least not in Collardsville, Georgia. But to you I will speak of it. Can you guess?”
Missy tried to think. A sin. A very bad sin. In Georgia.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“Did you get pregnant with a – a Negro?”
Muriel had been taking a drink, and now she made a sort of laughing snort.
She picked up her napkin and put it to her nose.
“Damn,” she said. “Hate it when the bubbly comes out my nostrils like that.”
“I’m sorry,” said Missy.
“Not your fault, honey. But no, I did not get in the family way with one of the Negro field hands. No. In the Judge’s mind I did something far worse.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“I want to tell you.”
“Well, what it was, was – oh, look, hooray, the oysters are here!”
It was the silent not-so-old man again, with three plates balanced on his left arm and a fourth one in his right hand, and in a blur of efficiency he transferred all four plates to the table without breaking or spilling anything – two small bowl-like plates with cubed tomatoes and other things all dribbled over with a thick-looking pale-orange dressing, and two larger plates each holding a dozen oysters on the half shell, the shells nestled into indentations in the plate, with a small bowl of something red nestled in a larger indentation in the center of each plate, and with slices of bright lemons laid attractively near the borders of the plates, a tiny fork also on each plate.
“Bon appétit, ladies,” said the man, and without being asked he deftly lifted the champagne bottle from its bucket and refilled their glasses. He then replaced the bottle in its bed of ice and silently floated away again.
“Here, I’ll show ya how it’s done honey,” said Muriel, and after taking one more drag of her Herbert Tareyton she stubbed it out, then picked up one of the lemon slices on her plate and squeezed some juice on her oysters. “Now you just use this little fork here, pick one out, dip it in the cocktail sauce, and then plump it in your mouth. Like so.”
Missy watched her new friend demonstrate the eating of an oyster.
“Yum,” said Muriel. “Go ahead, try one.”
Missy picked up her little fork and looked at the strange glistening things on her plate. She squeezed a few drops of lemon juice on one, then poked it with her fork, lifted it out from its shell, and then dipped it in the cocktail sauce, just as Muriel had done.
“What were we talking about?” said Muriel, taking another drink of her pink champagne.
“The reason your grandfather pays you to stay away from home?” said Missy, looking at the thing on her fork.
“Oh, yes,” said Muriel, and she impaled another oyster on her own fork. “Reason being, I was shall we say committing the act of darkness with members of my own gender.”
Missy had the oyster in her mouth when Muriel said this. She didn’t know whether to chew it or just swallow it whole. She decided to chew it, and as she did the meaning of Muriel’s words belatedly made itself manifest in her brain.
She felt something on her foot, and she realized it was another foot, a bare foot, Muriel’s foot, and the foot slowly made its way up the inner side of her calf.
The oyster was surprisingly delicious, as was the feeling of Muriel’s foot creeping up the tender flesh of her leg, and she felt a thrill she had never known before, not even that time when Chad, after drinking two gin rickeys, had kissed her on the back of her neck – that one, that only time.
She looked into Muriel’s dark eyes, which were looking into hers, and as she felt that naked foot caressing her inner thigh she thought, yes, this was to be a night of first things – of many first things, and she swallowed the oyster.
(Continued here, and onward, until that last marble copybook filled with Arnold’s neat Palmer Method handwriting has been transcribed.)
(Kindly look to the right hand column of this page to find a usually reasonably-updated listing of links to all other legally-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Believe it or not, we still have some Railroad Train to Heaven© “action figures” left over from the holiday season, so order now and get 90% off all purchases!)