January 31, 1950
Snibbins came into the room and presented me with twenty dollars. He looked apologetic as he explained, “Chesterfields aren’t worth very much this season, and he didn’t like the idea of the patchwork quilts sewn in over the linings. Not a selling point at all, he claimed.” “My God, doesn’t he realize what a patchwork-quilt lining means on a cold wintry night? You shouldn’t have settled for less than thirty, but, we do need the money.” I looked around the room and noticed that all the furniture must have been sold.
Every mail brought ultimatums from haberdashers, the phone company, and the old university itself. Today our Chesterfields had gone; tomorrow it might be the very clothes we were wearing. With the dollar really nothing more than a New Deal disguise for a dime, Snibbins and I had recently come face to face with reality—it was impossible to go through Harvard on $940.72 a year, even if the catalogue did say so.
Snibbins looked particularly sad, tears rolling down his cheeks, staining his regimental tie, dripping down over his tattersall, finally settling in his watch pocket where they raised havoc with his waterproof, shockproof watch. His gray flannels looked conspicuously mussed — these were the dark pair, which I have always called his “Gray Flannels Number One.”
“Dammit,” Snibbins said. “It’s a question of selling apples on the street or pewter beer mugs from door to door.”
“There is a more subtle approach,” I commented. “Go from door to door, explaining that you’re running some sort of questionnaire, and then suddenly pull out an order blank and a list of magazines—with the extra-bonus-point magazines starred with red pencil—and you tell the person that you are working your way through college and that you must get fifty thousand points by July 30, 1953 in order to qualify for a prize of an extra prize of fifteen dollars, a Mickey Mouse wrist watch, and an all-expenses-paid week-end in Binghampton.”
Snibbins answered, “Yes, but I have no sales personality—in fact, I have no personality at all. Besides, there must be an easier way.”
I nodded. “What about some sort of work that we could carry on in the room? Perhaps a veterinary and kennel business.”
“Against the rules.”
“I’ve got a daring idea. We’ll start a smuggling business on illegal French novels, Henry Miller, Frank Harris, and that sort.”
“But what we want is quick money and big money. Thousands,millionsof dollars. We don’t want a job, Snibbins, what we want is an oldfashioned, American style, roottootin’ pay-off.”
“It’s a damn shame those pyramid clubs aren’t still going.”
Snibbins remembered the bottle of Pernod which he had salvaged from our liquor cabinet which had gone out last week, and after a few highball glasses of the stuff, we thought ourselves to be not so downhearted after all—we suddenly discovered all sorts of grand ideas.
And the idea that we finally hit on, well, it was a scheme which makes the A & P look like a fruit stand. The strange thing about it was that it looked just as attractive the following morning. A week later, in the conservative Parisian newspaper of thehaut monde, Le Figaro,an advertisement appeared in the personal section: “Refined, cultured, young, spirited American gentleman desires correspondence with French lady of considerable means. Object is matrimony, with an American marriage certificate. Do not reply unless you want American citizenship with all its benefits and are willing to pay for it.”
A few days later we received a letter which was postmarked from Paris. I remembered Snibbins’ venture, and so I ran directly to him—by this time we had even sold what was left of the Pernod—and told him of our success. “Wealth and power at our doorstep,” I yelled to him. “We should be able to buy back the Bentley next week.” He ripped the letter open, read its contents, and began jumping up and down—at times Snibbins was a rather unstable fellow. He spoke, “Why, it’s from French royalty, the Countess de Pigale, and she sounds really game. She offers us a big kiss behind the ears and three million francs to boot!” This was good news, I said to myself. “Why that’s ten thousand dollars—we’re solvent once again! Listen to this! She says it will be fine if we simply meet her in New York, sign the necessary papers, and then send her off to Reno for the automatic divorce.”
“Fine,” I said. “Now there’s a young lady who knows when she’s well off. Get her over here immediately.”
The sky was blue and the sea was calm when the He de France sailed up the East River and into her berth. It is always a fair day and a calm sea when any modern steamship enters port, not to be confused with the rough, stormy seas which one finds when reading about the grand old days of clipper ships and fine old British gentlemen traveling to Australia to replenish their fortunes and pay their respects to Lord Poppitsford, the Governor-General.
After a few toots of the ship’s whistle and one prolonged blast of the ship’s horn, which discharged a threatening tremolo, the gangplank was lowered, the Captain stared down from the bridge, the crowds cheered as they saw their friends, and the ship’s parrot commented,“Les Americains,quels foux!”
The Countess ran swiftly down the gangplank, embraced us tenderly as only a French countess can do, shoved the three million francs into Snibbins’ hand, whispered,“Je t’aime, je t’aime, and finally asked, “Are you the young men who are to meet the Countess de Pigale?”
We rushed the Countess to a small uptown cafe called Au Cheval Pie, which always reeked with French atmosphere, with a Edith Piaf-ish chanteuse repeating the Marseillaise over and over again, with waitresses who would always whisper, “Allo, bebe,” in your ears, and the tip, of course, conveniently figured into your bill.
This remembrance of gay Paris should be enjoyable to our Countess, so we thought, and she made herself very comfortable in a cane-backed chair. After unloading a cigaret vending machine into her purse, she ordered an ale and a dish of pretzels. Our Countess had turned out to a different sort of person than what we expected.
That evening we went to every place with a French name in town: Au Cordon Bleu, Cafe de Paris, Cafe de la Paix, Chez Pierre, Chez Mao Tse-Tsung. Going to the hotel in the early morning, the Countess, who was sitting up straight in the Skyview Taxi, suddenly turned to us and commented, “I sure as hell wished you guys had taken me to some American joints tonight. What about going to them in Reno, Snibbie?” she asked.
By this time, she had persuaded Snibbins to go to Reno with her. He did not need much persuasion, for he wanted to end any marriage with our Countess as soon as possible and with all certainty. In the afternoon, I said good-bye to them at La Guardia Field, and Snibbins also gave me my half, five thousand dollars.
I hastened back to school, got the Bentley out of hock, bought a case of Pernod for Snibbins return, and refurnished the rooms in standard Victorian. When I opened the mail box, dozens of letters from France slipped out. I put them in a little pile on Snibbins’ desk and considered Vaffaire d’amour a fait accompli.By this time, the days were going by very quickly, days turned into months, months into years, years back into months. The Pernod looked rather good, and, as any roommate of Snibbins would have done, I decided to try the new batch out. Good old Snibbins, I kept saying to myself, bottle after bottle. I fell asleep, and dreamed that I was a French Count in the court of Louis XIV, who resembled Snibbins quite a bit. I had a strange sensation of being beheaded, which is not a comforting feeling at all. I felt confused and was awakened by a noise at the door.
I opened it, and noticed a telegram and the morning paper. All it said was, “HOPE YOU ARE STILL A FRIEND AND WILL PLAY ALONG.” What could this mean, I asked myself innocently? Perhaps old Snibbins is playing some game. Then I noticed the newspaper. The headlines explained the telegram, “HARVARD STUDENT DIVORCES COUNTESS,” they screamed. “NAMES ROOMMATE AS CO-RESPONDENT.”