My husband was dead and my children were away at boarding school. When the cleaning woman wasn’t there I’d often lie about the house en déshabillé. Just me and a bottle of Johnnie Black, some King Sanos, and The Edge of Night. If I had to answer the door I put on an old kimono hanging by the pantry.
One day I had a visitor. It was somebody from one of the large breakfast-food concerns.
“Yes, Missus Pringlebury, we are test-marketing a new formula of cornflakes. We’ll leave you these two plain, unmarked boxes of cornflakes. You eat them, okay? Tell us which one you like best. If we pick the one you like best, we’ll put your picture on the box!”
“One you like better,” I murmured.
“Oh I can’t tell you,” came the reply. The rep made a little hieratic gesture which I took to mean “scout’s honor.”
“I mean there’re only two boxes of cornflakes here,” I said, only mildly irritated. “I need at least three boxes of cornflakes to tell you which one I like best.”
“No! We can only let you have two.”
I tried another tack: “Do I have to eat them all?”
“Every last crumb! But we’ll put your picture on the box. How’s about it?”
I am no good at saying no. So I said: “I don’t have any milk in the house.”
The cereal rep considered this gravely. “Yeah, you really need milk. Milkman not come today?”
“Milkman hasn’t been here since 1958,” I said evenly, reaching for my patent-leather pocketbook from Bendel’s. “Here’s a dollar. Run down to Gristede’s and get me a quart.”
“Aw, no, I’m not sposta to pick up groceries. I just deliver boxes of cornflakes.”
Waving the scotch bottle in my free hand, I was soon able to persuade my interlocutor of the illogic of this position. Ten minutes later I was the proud owner of a Pure-Pak carton of homogenized Sealtest. The rep declined my invitation to have a second nip and share a bowl of cornflakes, and thus we parted amicably. I was again blessedly alone.
I put the grey cardboard boxes up on the shelf beside the Spic and Span, and wondered vaguely whether I’d ever even bother opening them, let alone consume their flaky goodness. Put my picture on the box! If that wasn’t the most idiotic come-on! Would it be a photograph? Bradford Bachrach, maybe: me in black v-neck dress and pearls? Absurd.
Or would I be an illustration, maybe a line-drawing like the lady on the Spic and Span box? Instead of the janitor’s mop I’d have a spoon. More: I’d be at the breakfast table in hair curlers, happily wolfing down my bowl of cornflakes. Oh boy, that would turn anyone’s stomach. Even mine. And my kids would never speak to me again.
No, no. The only way the cereal box could work is if I did a Bob Richards. Like on the box of Wheaties, the package front could show me pole-vaulting in short-shorts and singlet. It would be a young, pretty me, of course.
Yes, this was the way to do it. My kids wouldn’t be embarrassed. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even know it was me, unless the picture had a cutline or my signature next to it. It might say something like “Penny Pepper Pringlebury, 1944 Olympic Champion.” Or maybe, “Olympic Champion Penny Pepper,” since I wasn’t married yet in 1944.
The truth is that I was never much of an athlete, although I did try the pole vault a couple of times when I was at Miss Hall’s. Our coach made some noises about how if I worked hard I could go to the Olympics. Now, she was talking about the next Olympic Games, which were coming up in 1940, but I wouldn’t have been ready by then. So we both decided my year was really 1944. The 1944 Olympics were going to be in London, and that sounded really neat. You’d have King Edward sitting in one VIP box, and Chancellor Hitler sitting in another. Or maybe they’d be sitting together. Then I’d come in and do my pole vault and the King would invite me to join them in the tea pavilion.
The only problem was, 1944 was so far off it didn’t seem real, so I never got around to practicing the pole vault. Nowadays they’d say I couldn’t focus on my goals. Thinking about being in London in 1944 was like imagining myself in a Buck Rogers movie. Except it wouldn’t be totally futuristic, because London would probably still have some of the same old buildings—the palaces and that clock-tower thing, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Cenotaph—the stuff you always see in newsreels and on biscuit tins from Charles & Co. (“The Old Curiosity Shop, Immortalized by Charles Dickens.”)
I was supposed to have seen those places when I was four years old. My father was sent over there by The Schenectady Transformer Company, because they were trying to sell electromagnets and things to the Cable & Wireless people. But that was back in 1925, and I didn’t remember anything except the Regents Park zoo, or some zoo. Or maybe I just remember a picture of me at the zoo.
I don’t know what you remember of the 1920s, but all I remember is Lucky Lindy. When I was in secondary school the history textbook had about a half-page on the History of the World Since the Great War, and half of that half-page was taken up with picture of Lucky Lindy in his ticker-tape parade up Broadway. So that’s always been the Twenties to me.
The funny thing was, whenever our teachers talked about the Twenties, they would swan around the classroom, exclaiming what a wild, exciting decade the Nineteen-Twenties were, and we’d all wonder: what kind of fun did these old spinsters really have, seven, eight, ten years ago? Maybe the Twenties were just a made-up thing that middle-aged people in the 1930s talked about, to reassure themselves that at one point, in the not-too-distant past, they really did have a good time. That’s what I think anyway.
As things turned out, it’s just as well that I never practiced the pole vault. Because when 1944 finally rolled around there were no more Olympics. Not in London, not in Berlin, or anywhere else. There was a big war going on, so they had to call them off.
After that, one thing led to another. In ’46 I got married, and in ’47 I started having babies. Then ’48 came, and not only was I not ready for the Olympics, I didn’t even know they still had Olympics! It came as quite a surprise when I read in Time magazine that they were having the Olympics in London that summer, even though London was all bombed out and everybody was out of shape and malnourished because of the war and socialism. Everyone figured the USA and USSR would win most of the medals, and I think they did.
I couldn’t figure out what to do with the cornflakes. You’re not supposed to waste food. Some people make a religion of that (people who don’t go to church, mainly), but I don’t.
I could give these boxes to the poor, maybe donate them to one of those places down on the Bowery. But I didn’t know how to do that. And who wants to go near Bowery bums? In the old days I could gotten on the Third Avenue El, which went over the Bowery, and thrown the boxes out the window. But the El’s been gone for years. Furthermore, Bowery bums don’t even eat cornflakes, do they? They’re supposed to subsist on Old Rotgut, and maybe an occasional hardboiled egg with a little salt.
Perhaps I would keep the cornflakes around for six months or so, and then if they were still up there on the shelf at the end of six months I could reason to myself that the contents were probably pretty stale by now, and then I’d toss them out.
That way I wouldn’t be wasteful. This was a very good plan, I decided.
One problem, though. The breakfast-food person seemed like a real eager-beaver and would probably return a week or two later, right on schedule. It would be too mortifying to open the door with a hangover and see the cornflake rep standing there, well within line-of-sight of the unopened cornflake boxes on the upper shelf by the Spic and Span.
I had to come up with a solution, and come up with one right away, because if I waited till tomorrow I’d forget about the whole thing, and then next week would come and it would be too late.
So I dumped the contents down the crapper. Both boxes. A separate flush for each. I’d never noticed before how much cornflakes look like vomit when they’re in the commode. All that vomit you see out on the sidewalk sometimes: does it look like cornflakes because people who vomit eat a lot of cornflakes, or does everything just look like cornflakes when it’s been processed into vomit? I’ll bet Mr. Wizard did a program on this once.
That was a good move on my part, because the cornflake person did indeed return on the 22nd, a little under two weeks later, just as she said she would. Did I mention the cornflake lady was a woman? I didn’t pay much attention to those details at the time, in fact I hadn’t entirely decided on the person’s sex until after the first visit. It was one of those ambiguous people that can be anything. Like West Highland White terriers. Nobody ever thinks of a Westie as being this sex or that sex. But when she went out to buy the milk, I realized she had to be a woman, because the big cornflake combines wouldn’t send a man around door-to-door, giving out unlabeled boxes of cornflakes. That would freak people out, like those scare stories you always hear about Halloween. When you’re test-marketing foodstuffs, you just naturally want to use women.
Just think about it. What kind of men would be available for door-to-door market research? Guys who look like the background extras from Playhouse 90, that’s who. Dissolute unemployed actors. Seedy-looking little fellas in wrinkled clothes that smell like piss in an ashtray. Nervous homosexuals from Milwaukee who can’t pass the data-entry exam at Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Beane and aren’t pretty enough to sell handbags at Bonwit Teller. Errgh, I’m pouring myself a double just thinking about it all!
My point is, women can get away with anything. They can blow up Algiers with bombs under their skirts. Go ahead honey, no one will care. You got nothing to lose, you’re just a dame.
Well not really. That would be like thinking Keely Smith is a boy. The English language really needs a better expression for what I am trying to say.
Anyway I offered her a scotch and told her she reminded me of a roommate I had at Miss Hall’s back in ’36. Her eyes lit up at that. She said she had a close friend who had been at Miss Hall’s.
This friend from Miss Hall’s had an unusual career. She was a Fish Stick Demonstrator. What she did was, she’d set up a stand in a supermarket aisle, and plug in an electric frying pan. Then she’d fry up some fish sticks, and cut each one in half, and then half again, then half again till finally there were eight pieces; then she put them on tiny paper plates with toothpicks in them.
It sounded awfully tedious. The Fish Stick Demonstrator didn’t do this just once, to one fish stick; oh no, she often fried six or eight fish sticks at a time! But the work wasn’t as bad as it sounds (the Cornflake Dame assured me) because most people didn’t like fish sticks.
Whole hours would go by without anyone taking a sample. All afternoon there would be these housewives in hair curlers pushing their shopping carts down the aisle, speeding up when they saw someone was giving out free grub. “Care to sample a fish stick smidgen?” the Demonstrator would say perkily. And the housewives would react as though someone was offering them a plate of cat food.
It was a pretty funny story. The Cornflake Dame twisted her face into amusing grimaces, showing how the hair-curler housewives must have looked. We sat down in the kitchen and laughed and cried over the whole preposterous tale. “Fish sticks!” we kept screaming.
I averred that the Fish Stick Lady probably didn’t know what she was getting into when she took the job. But the Cornflake Dame said “she musta knowed,” or she wouldn’t have taken a job with Mrs. Hall’s Fish Stick Company in the first place. It now dawned upon my Johnnie-fogged brain that my new friend meant Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks, and she got it mixed up with Miss Hall’s School.
This put a new twist to the story. This wasn’t the tale of a boarding-school girl down on her luck. No, it was the story of an industrious working girl plying her honest trade down at the Grand Union.
I decided not to correct her on this point. “Here’s to fish sticks!” I laughed, and we clinked our glasses.
But that’s not even half the story. Our Fish Stick Demonstrator lost her job after two weeks, through some strange and tragic circumstances. It seems she was doing her fish-stick cookery near the lobster tank.
Now, if you’ve never been to a modern supermarket, I should explain the lobster tank business. Most supermarkets nowadays like to keep a lobster tank down at the far end of the store. This is mainly to entertain the children, although every once in a while someone actually buys a live lobster.
Anyway one day there was a retarded person hanging around and eating up all the fish sticks. This retard wanted to play with a lobster, and reached into the tank.
“No, no, mustn’t stick hand in lobster tank!” the Fish Stick Demonstrator admonished. “Read sign!”
The sign on the tank was supposed to warn customers to use the special long-handled lobster tongs that stood in a holder at the side of the tank. Except someone had walked off with the tongs, and the sign was misspelled. It said:
DO NOT PUT HANDS IN TANK!
USE TONGUES ONLY!
Meantime the fish sticks were burning in the electric fryer. The store’s assistant manager came around the corner to see where the smell was coming from. And there was the Fish Stick Demonstrator with her head in the tank, noodling for lobsters with her tongue. I am not clear on the details, but it appears her association with Mrs. Paul’s Fish Stick Company ended that very day.
The Cornflake Dame and I drank to the future prospects of her friend, the Fish Stick Demonstrator. Then I gave her the empty boxes.
She was thrilled. “Did you really eat them all? Did you find them scrumptious and flavorful?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “They’re okay if you’re really hungry, but the cardboard-like texture pales on one after the first couple of bowls.” I was improvising, imagining the way a food-critic might talk.
“Sawdust? Did they taste like sawdust?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Because some of the boxes got sawdust in them. We didn’t find it out until we heard that someone was complaining about termites. A lot of people load up their breakfast food with so much sugar they can’t tell what they’re eating. Did you know sugar kills bugs? Company was gonna come out with something called ‘Sugar Frosted Sugar Cubes,’ and it would be almost 100% sugar. We had Hanna-Barbera design us a cartoon character and everything, Zelda the Magic Zebra, she’s got a top hat and a tutu. It was set to launch a couple years ago. It was very exciting. But then we had that Cuba business and sugar just got too expensive.”
The Cornflake Dame picked up my telephone pencil (I kept it on a string, so I wouldn’t lose it) and tried to show me Zelda the Zebra. Either she couldn’t draw very well, or this was one of those new abstract cartoon styles out of Czechoslovakia. It didn’t look at all like a zebra, magical or otherwise. It looked like a striped goose in opera hat and bloomers. I told her so.
“Well I went to Parsons School of Design,” she said. “Two semesters. I got better things to do than test-market cornflakes, you know.” She drew a big X over her zebra-goose and then scribbled all over the page.
Obviously I had hurt her feelings. I offered her another drink and gushed phonily about how I was looking forward to see my picture on the box of cornflakes.
“That’s only if they pick the one you like,” she said, very sulkily. “So which one did you like?”
I picked one at random and handed it to her. “This one was dee-lish!” She looked at the bottom of the box. There was an alphanumeric code which I’d never bothered to notice. She took a clipboard out of her sample case and carefully entered the letters and numbers into a series of boxes on a yellow printed sheet.
“Well it’s a pleasure doing business with you, Mrs. Dingleberry,” she said, most insincerely. “You can keep the empty boxes as souvenirs.”
And that was that.
A few days later I started noticing some odd things. I’d get prank phone calls in the middle of the night. “Do you have King Sano in the can? Better let him out! Ha ha ha.” It didn’t even make any sense.
And all sorts of little things were missing. The telephone pencil, for one thing. The Cornflake Dame had slipped my telephone pencil out of its string tether and put it her purse when my back was turned. She thought I didn’t see her but I saw her reflection in the toaster. I didn’t say anything because I was trying to hustle her out.
I didn’t really care about that pencil; I had another one someplace, in one of the junk drawers, and you have to pity people who are so hard up they steal your pencil-stumps when they think you’re not looking. So that didn’t matter. What mattered was that my silver picture frame in the foyer was gone. It had a snapshot of me looking grumpy in the South of France some years ago. I didn’t care about the picture, but the Tiffany’s frame had sentimental value. It was a souvenir of a broken engagement I had during the War. Originally it held a portrait of my fiancé, a West Point cadet who looked like Tom Poston. Tom Poston wasn’t famous till years later, but when the kids saw a picture of him in my album, they said, “Oh he looks Tom Poston on the Steve Allen Show!”
He was a great guy, this guy I was going to marry, and we got along swell. But he didn’t want a church wedding, and so we argued, and one thing led to another, and finally we broke it off. Fate turns on such trifles!
I hear he’s running chartered fishing boats now, in Canada or Australia or someplace. But to make a long story short, I got tired of explaining who the West Point guy in the silver frame was, so around 1956 I stuck this picture of me on top of it.
Back to the question of who stole my silver frame. I didn’t think Cornflake Dame was the culprit. I had her pegged as a pencil-burglar, and people like that do not steal sterling-silver frames from Tiffany’s. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the delivery boy from Gristede’s either, or the colored boy who delivers from the liquor store. And it couldn’t be the cleaning woman, because she didn’t come by anymore. She’d phoned me up and told me that she’d just joined a new religion that doesn’t allow you to work for alcoholics.
I narrowed it down to two likely candidates. One was Hamish, the old doorman, who sometimes brings me up the mail or other deliveries. Hamish always had his eyes on that frame. He never came by that he didn’t tell me what an exquisite frame it was, and a wonderful photograph of me, and how I looked just like a movie actress. Actually I think he wanted to go to bed with me. He was smart enough not to make a pass, though. He knew it wouldn’t work, because he’s married, and he’s too old for me, and of course he’s the doorman. That kind of thing works only in the movies and dirty novels.
The other possibility, the only other person who had been inside the apartment in the past few weeks other than myself, the Cornflake Dame, Hamish the Doorman, and the cleaning woman who didn’t come by anymore, was old Mrs. Cochrane in 4F down the hall. As soon as my mind lighted on Mrs. Cochrane I was certain she was the guilty party. She had tea here last month, and actually picked the frame up a few times, moved it up and down to feel the weight, and turned it over and stroked the maroon felt on the back. She didn’t compliment it openly, or make small-talk about how the snapshot of me looked like Susan Hayward. She just kept peeking at it through the corner of her eye, all the way from sofa in the living room where we were having tea. I tried offering her a more comfortable chair, so we could look at each other as we talked. But no, she wanted to stay right where she was, peeking at the silver frame on the foyer table twenty feet away.
Conversation was rather forced, as I recall. She knew I had kids, because she’d seen the pictures on the piano, and she vaguely remembered seeing the twins with me in the lobby years ago, back before I was a hermit. So we made small-talk about the twins. I told her how I hoped I’d be able to handle the stress of going outside again, so I could travel to their graduations up in New England at the end of May. They’re boy-and-girl twins, so of course they go to different schools.
So much for the kids. Mrs. Cochrane knew I grew up in the Twenties, so she asked me if I remembered Lucky Lindy. Of course I remembered Lucky Lindy. My Great-Uncle Jimmy was his stockbroker. I never met Lucky Lindy or Great-Uncle Jimmy, but my parents were talking about him all the time. It was grown-up talk. I didn’t intrude.
Mrs. Cochrane wasn’t prying for inside information, of course. She just wanted to know if I remembered the Lucky Lindy motorcade up Broadway in 1927. Of course I remembered it. Everyone remembers it. You were there, or you saw it in a newsreel, or you saw it on television from Walter Cronkite’s The Twentieth Century.
We ran out that conversational string as far as it would take us, and then Mrs. Cochrane started discussing music. She told me how she had liked the old-fashioned tune that was playing on the TV set when she came in.
I didn’t know what tune she was talking about. I leave the TV on a lot, even when I’m in the bathroom. But I sang her all the commercial jingles I knew, just to see if it was one of those. It didn’t seem to be.
Finally we decided that what Mrs. Cochrane had heard was the the background music to an animated cartoon. It was one of those old 1930s productions where the characters all have sausage-noses and rubber limbs. They play these all afternoon on Channel 5.
“She’ll be coming ’round the mountain blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah,” and so forth. That was the lilting score to which old Mrs. Cochrane referred.
“I so loved that old tune as a child,” said old Mrs. Cochrane, whose childhood presumably encompassed the first and second Cleveland Administrations. “She’ll be riding six white horses when she comes, when she comes,” she sang. “She’ll be riding six white horses when she comes. She’ll be riding six white horses, She’ll be riding six white horses, She’ll be riding six white horses when she comes.”
“Catchy,” I said. “And rather apocalyptic.”
“Why whatever do you mean?” asked old Mrs. Cochrane, genuinely curious.
“It’s about death, I think. This unnamed ‘She’ is the White Angel of Death, and she’s riding six white horses—clippity-clop, clippity-clop, clippity-clippity-clippity-clop—Mule Trai-ain! She comes to us all, and we know our time is up when we start hearing the clippity-clop comin’ ’round the mountain. First you hear just a faint clippity-clop, then it gets louder, and finally we realize she’s coming for us. And we’ll all come out to meet her when she comes, when she comes, for there is no getting away from her. Ha ha, oh listen to me, all profound all of a sudden!”
Old Mrs. Cochrane was genuinely perturbed. “Oh dear. Oh my. Never heard that explanation in my life. It all sounds like the kind of story some Communist folksinger would make up. It’s just a little children’s song. Why can’t they let it be? Why do they have to make everything so dark and horrible in the modern world? Why is there so much cruelty and madness? I can’t take it any longer.”
And she rose to go, though she didn’t move as fast as I’d like.
“Clippity-clop, clippity-clop, clippity-clippity-clippity-clop,” I sang, patting my cupped palms on the tea table. “Mule trai-ain!” I can do a pretty good Frankie Laine.
I made up this business about the White Angel of Death just to amuse old Mrs. Cochrane, because really we didn’t have much to talk about. I didn’t mean to upset her, but good intentions never work with old people. When old people visit you they should bring a little 3×5 index card listing permissible topics, and things they can be conversant upon.
For example, most old people can talk about Lucky Lindy. If not Lucky Lindy, then maybe the Lindbergh Baby. In the course of a long life, I have discovered that everyone over 35 has opinions on the Lindbergh Baby. When you’re a kid, though, it’s hard to talk to old people, and kids today don’t know about the Lindbergh Baby.
About ten years ago we had an old German woman down the hall in 4G. Her elderly sister often came to visit her. Sometimes, when the twins were around, the old German ladies would have the twins in to eat pastries with them, as they did not have any children or grandchildren of their own to eat pastries with. The pastries were yummy but the visits were otherwise very rough on the twins because they were only six or seven years old. I felt bad about making them make friends with the old German ladies. The twins really had nothing to talk about with old people.
But they tried. Lord knows they tried. They talked about things they saw on TV. One time they talked about the movie Mighty Joe Young, which they knew well because Channel 9 showed it about fifteen times a week. They told the old German ladies how the movie started out in Africa, and there’s this little girl who trades her flashlight for a baby monkey, and then the monkey grows up into a giant gorilla, and the girl ends up starring in a Broadway show along with the giant gorilla, but then the gorilla gets put in jail, and then there’s this big fire…
The twins’ film description was highly detailed and convoluted, the way little kids’ explanations always are. The poor old German ladies were totally lost. The only thing they picked up on was that there was a gorilla in the picture.
So when at long last the kids finished their crazy synopsis, the elderly sister said, “Zo! You like to watch movies about animals, then?”
I kept thinking about this while I had tea with old Mrs. Cochrane.
When I stopped singing “Mule Train” and saw Mrs. Cochrane out the door, she said she’d invite me over to her place the following week. I dreaded this reciprocity. These days I don’t like leaving my apartment even to use the garbage chute. But I smiled sweetly (I hope) and thanked her. As she left, she stole another lustful glance at my silver picture-frame.
I made a mental note to stock up on a few drinks and some tame, long-winded anecdotes before teatime arrived again. I forgot to remember the anecdotes, however.
I’d never seen past the foyer of Mrs. Cochrane’s place, and didn’t expect the place to be anything other than the usual old-lady bells and smells. The living room, or “parlor,” as she called it, was a mad revelation. No paintings, prints, photos, samplers hung from the walls or adorned tabletops. Instead Mrs. Cochrane had decorated the place almost entirely with mirrors, in silver frames. Some were ancient and tarnished, others were shiny and new. Some still had price tags on them. I had a notion that some of these were shoplifted, but Mrs. Cochrane explained that these were actually unwanted wedding gifts donated to some church charity auction, “and which I picked for a song!”
“People always give silver frames as presents,” she expostulated, “but the kids today don’t know how to use ’em, so they give ’em away to the rummage sale.”
“They’re very nice,” I said. “I see you have oodles and oodles of them.”
“None as nice as yours, though! That Tiffany’s honey in your foyer is a real keeper! You can’t get that quality anymore.”
“Thank you. Mmm, this tea is very nice,” I said.
“It’s okay,” said Mrs. Cochrane. “You want a lady finger?”
“Did they ever find the Lindbergh baby?” I said, suddenly and desperately.
“Huh? There’s a non sequitur if ever I heard one,” replied old Mrs. Cochrane.
“Well? Did they?”
“Out in the backyard with his skull smashed in, is what I remember. It was in all the papers.”
“Yes,” I said, “but there’s always someone turning up claiming to be the Lindbergh baby. Wasn’t there one in Rowayton, Connecticut last year? Then there was a college student out in California about ten years ago, and someone else over in England. They can’t all be the Lindbergh baby.”
“Naah. Out in the backyard with his skull smashed in. That’s good enough for me. Hunh.”
We stared at our teacups for another couple of minutes. Then Mrs. Cochrane opened her mouth to say something, but I was a half-second ahead of her. “Did you ever see the movie Mighty Joe Young?” I asked.
“Oh that picture show was ages ago. A giant monkey, right? Why you asking?”
“It was my children’s favorite. Million Dollar Movie used to show it three times a day, five days a week.”
“Your children. Yeah, I was going to ask you about your children. Just to be polite,” said Mrs. Cochrane. “Why do they never come visit anymore? Why don’t they live with you?”
“Because they’re at school way the hell up in New England. They’ll be back for a little bit in the summer. Maybe you’ll run into them then. But just a couple weeks. Then they have to go to Europe. Then they have to go to college.”
“Busy busy busy!” said old Mrs. Cochrane. “Must be a big deal, having two kids graduate high school at once, huh? You think anyone’s going to be giving them any silver frames or mirrors for graduation that they don’t want?”
“I, I shouldn’t think so. Odd kind of graduation present.”
“Drive up where?”
“Up to those funny schools where you institutionalized your children. They’re being released, you said.”
“I, I rather doubt it. I don’t drive.”
“So how you getting up there? You got a train station or something nearby?”
“I don’t believe I’ll be attending their commencements. I don’t think they want their friends to see me. I think they’re ashamed of me.”
Mrs. Cochrane laughed as though this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. “Lady, you’re out of your tree! Kids are always ashamed of their parents. I used to make my maw wear a nurse’s outfit whenever she went into the city with me, so people would think she was my nanny. Look, I got a niece out in Upper Montclair. She drives everywhere. Great big Buick Riviera, she has. What say I call her up and get her to drive us up to see your kids. All three of us together. It’ll be fun. We can pack a picnic. Then when we get up there I can ask your kids’ friends if they got any silver frames they don’t want.”
“No, I don’t think that would work.” I wanted to get the conversation back to Mighty Joe Young.
“I can’t believe you don’t want to go to your own children’s graduation! Come on. Have a little fun.”
“Well maybe I’ll go to their college graduations in a few years,” I said. “I’ll be in better shape by then. Yes, I’ll be better then. It’s just these moods I go through.”
Old Mrs. Cochrane shook her head and tore off a big bite from a linzer cookie, chewing while she spoke. “Look, hon, I’m not your psychiatrist. I don’t want you telling me things I oughtn’t to know.” She looked at her cookie. She had jam on her chin. “Anyway,” she continued, “other people’s problems are so boring.”
“Missus Cochrane! What a thing to say!” I was flabbergasted. “And sitting here in your crazy wilderness of mirrors! You’re a fine one to judge.”
“All I’m saying is. Oh never mind. Want some cake?”
I always open up to the wrong people. First the Cornflake Dame and now this.
My intention was to get old Mrs. Cochrane out of my life for good, after that second tea party. But she wouldn’t let me leave her crazy place until I agreed she could visit me again for tea the following week. This would have been a good time for me to take a vacation. Only I couldn’t, because I couldn’t go outside. I hadn’t even been down to the lobby since before Christmas.
But an alternative plan was spawned there in her mirror-stuffed sitting room, as she wheedled and deedled me. I could say yes, and then not do it, because I was very ill. I was contagious. Something like that. I could have the doorman deliver the message because I was too ill to speak on the phone.
This is what I did, and that got me off the hook for a little while. But the following week I was shuffling down the hallway in my bathrobe, getting rid of the last two weeks’ worth of garbage (the cleaning woman having disappeared), and whom you suppose I run into but the Mirror Lady herself?
“Oh Mrs. Pringlebury! I was afraid you were dead,” was Mrs. Cochrane’s greeting. “Most of my friends are, you know.”
She insisted on bringing me a pot of her homemade potato-bacon soup. “It cures all diseases and has everything necessary to sustain life. I practically live on it. That’s why I’ve lived so long. How old do you think I am?”
“How did you know?”
“Just a guess.”
“Oh. Well. Anyway I don’t look that old. I don’t think so anyway. You know, eating all that breakfast food isn’t good for you.” She was pointing at the empty cornflake boxes up on the shelf, next to the Spic and Span. “All that sugar!”
“Those are sugar-free cornflakes.”
“Still not good for you.”
“The boxes are empty, anyway,” I added.
“Lordy! It’s wonderful you’re still alive after eating all that garbage!”
“Please, Mrs. Cochrane. I didn’t eat them. I don’t eat cornflakes. These were full boxes, but I flushed the contents down the toilet.”
She stuck out her lower lip and nodded gravely. “Wise thinking!”
She left me with the crock of soup, and later on I heated up a little bit. It wasn’t half bad. How cunning of old Mrs. Cochrane to worm her way into my good graces with potato-bacon soup! I wondered if you really could live on nothing but. Of course Mrs. Cochrane also devours cake and linzer cookies, but maybe she does that just for the sugar, which I don’t need because I drink so much Johnnie Walker Black.
This was around the same period in which the Cornflake Dame returned and stole my pencil. A few days later I noticed someone had stolen my sterling-silver Tiffany frame with that picture of me looking grumpy in the South of France, with my old fiancé hidden underneath that, in his cadet greys.
Although I did not realize it at the time, the story was starting to make sense.
I thought of inviting myself back to Mrs. Cochrane’s apartment and surreptitiously lifting my frame when she wasn’t looking. But this was a bad idea to begin with. First of all, I didn’t want to go near that crazy place. And even if I did try to steal back my frame, you just knew she was going to be onto me like a dog on a porkchop.
I couldn’t confront her and call her a thief. Not after that great potato-bacon soup which I wanted more of. But maybe there was a way out of the dilemma. Maybe I could get someone to stage a burglary there when she was away or asleep. This phony burglar could take a whole bunch of things, and my frame could be one of them.
I didn’t know how to arrange something like that, but I knew someone who probably did. Hamish the doorman! He had been a doorman for fifty years, and he’d seen all types of humanity. Who better than a doorman to know the murky underbelly of a great metropolis? Apart from maybe a cop, or a coroner. The more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed. I made up my mind to go talk to Hamish as soon as I could, or as soon as I could make it down to the lobby.
A week or two went by before I finally faced up to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to get down to the lobby anytime soon. I had to change tactics. I decided to ask Hamish to bring me up my mail (which was plausible, as he hadn’t brought it up for at least a month). Then, when he got to my apartment, I’d invite him in and tell him about my little caper.
Hamish’s face lit up like a streetlamp when I told I wanted to find someone to break into Mrs. Cochrane’s apartment.
“But this is no problem at all, Mrs. Pringlebury! I have the keys to all the apartments! I can take you there right now myself. It will be my pleasure!”
“But Hamish, this has to be a secret. We have to do it when old Mrs. Cochrane is out. Is she ever out?”
“Indeed she is out and she is never coming back, Mrs. Pringlebury. Mrs. Cochrane died last Tuesday!”
What a stroke of luck! You hear of people “dying of a Tuesday” but you never expect it to happen.
Hamish told me the moving-and-storage people would be coming by in a day or two to pack up Mrs. Cochrane’s things. So if we wanted a look around, we’d better do it now. He got the key and we went in.
He was astonished as I had been by the jungle of silver frames and mirrors in the living room. Demurely he remarked, “She must have liked to look at herself a lot.”
“No Hamish,” I said, ” that wasn’t it. She just liked sterling silver frames and mirrors. Now somewhere around here is my frame. You know, the one with the picture of me where you say I look like a movie star.”
We found some very fine silver frames in that place, some even nicer than mine, but none of them had my picture in them. After about twenty minutes Hamish told me it was time to scram.
“Why don’t you just take this one”—he handed me an empty silver frame slightly larger than my old one—”and put another photograph of yourself in it? Perhaps one with a happy smile on your face this time?”
“No no, you don’t understand, Hamish. It has to be my frame. It has a sentimental attachment to me.”
Hamish kept pressing it on me, so I took it. This empty, naked frame. Maybe I could give it to one of the kids. As a graduation gift. Why not? I found another silver frame that was equally nice. Frames for the twins! For graduation!
And just so no one is kept in suspense here: I never found my old frame. Put that idea out of your head entirely. It never turned up.
Mrs. Cochrane didn’t go to church, so they gave her one of those nondenominational memorial services at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home. I half-wanted to go, just to see what kind of people were going to show up.
Mrs. Cochrane often said that most of her friends and family were dead. It would be funny if I went and turned out to be the only one in the pews. The funeral leader would ask me for a eulogy. I could get up and talk complete gibberish, and no one would be the wiser. About how Mrs. Cochrane pretended to be poor but actually had ten million dollars’ worth of Silver Certificates sewn into her mattress. She had thirteen husbands and thirteen children. She was an accomplished fisherwoman and tied her own flies. She was lifelong friends with Colonel Lindbergh and worked with him on inventing an artificial heart.
I didn’t say any of this stuff, of course, because in my condition I couldn’t go anywhere. Later on someone from the funeral parlor told me that no one showed up at Mrs. Cochrane’s funeral, no one at all. Not even the niece from Upper Montclair. Just as I’d supposed. So no eulogy, all they did was play music to an empty house.
Fortunately I was able to make a contribution here, as Hamish had informed Frank E. Campbell’s that I was Mrs. Cochrane’s friend and neighbor, and could recommend what tunes would be appropriate. When the funeral director phoned up a day or two later, I was brimming with ideas.
“‘She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes, when she comes.’ That was her favorite song,” I gushed. “Old Mrs. Cochrane was surprised when I told her that in my opinion it was actually a hymn, a happy song about death. So you see it is very suitable. Old Mrs. Cochrane liked happy songs about death, she did.”
“Excellent! We’ll give the service a rousing finish with that! Any other suggestions?”
“Um, how’s about “Mule Train”? Mrs. Cochrane was a big Frankie Laine fan, you know.”
“Interesting. Also very rousing. Anything else you know of?”
“Well, ‘Home on the Range,’ of course. And there’s a section of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferd Grofé that I know she liked a great deal.” I hummed a little bit of it, and clucked my tongue for the clip-clop sounds.
“Very equestrian-minded lady was the late Mrs. Cochrane, I take it.”
“Horses and mules! They were her life,” I agreed, warming to the theme. “Her living quarters were filled with sculptures and paintings of horses. And mules. Not so much donkeys. No cows or pigs. But she had lots of veterinary prints of horses and mules. She liked to build plastic models of horses. The Visible Horse, she had that—a see-through horse with all its glands. And scale models of Misty of Chincoteague. Now these are probably all in storage now, but you can get little plastic horses at the five-and-ten.”
“These are brilliant ideas, Mrs. Pringlebury. I hope we’ll be seeing you at the service? ”
“It’s a crying shame, but I can’t go. My children are graduating from Miss Hall’s and Taft next weekend, and I have to get up there a few days early to help them graduate.”
“Ah well, we all have our priorities. But rest assured your contributions are much appreciated.”
Let me make it clear that I did not in fact go to my children’s graduations. This was not entirely because of my agoraphobia. Another problem came up, of such fierce proportions I began to fear that I would ever leave my apartment again.
I called up Gristede’s and asked if they had any potato-bacon soup. Of course they didn’t. But as I had soup on my mind I asked them to send over a crate of assorted canned soup (“any kind but tomato”). And maybe some bread and milk and something else. What goes with bread and milk? Cornflakes. Suddenly I wanted cornflakes. I hadn’t eaten cornflakes since around 1937. But now I wanted cornflakes.
“What brand?” asked the boy taking my order. “We got Post, we got Kellogg’s of course, we got these new Country Corn Flakes, we got—”
“You just bring me whatever looks new and interesting and edible.”
And so it happened that I was probably the first person on my block to buy a box of the brand-new breakfast food, Mrs. Pringlebury’s “Olde Fashioned Home Style” Corn Flakes. Note that “corn flakes.” Two words. Because that’s how they spelt it in the olden days.
Not only had they stolen my name, they had gone and put my picture on the box. They’d retouched out the cigarette and stuck a great big cereal bowl in front of me. I still looked grumpy, so I couldn’t imagine that this package art was going to sell the product. But then I saw the side of the box, where they’d followed the quaintsy Pepperidge Farm idea and printed a long screed of hokum:
Mrs. Pringlebury’s: The SERIOUS Corn Flake!
Mrs. Pringlebury was a stern taskmaster when it came to cooking corn flakes. For years she experimented in her humble kitchen, until she found just the right recipe for her fresh-baked homemade Corn Flakes. You see, unlike other corn flakes, Mrs. Pringlebury’s Corn Flakes are made from only the most select ears of corn, and home-baked until they are just right! That’s why Mrs. Pringlebury’s Corn Flakes retain their crispy texture and rich flavor even after they have been sitting in milk. Try Mrs. Pringlebury’s Olde Fashioned Home Style Corn Flakes with fruit or sugar, or just milk. They’re also a great snack right all by themselves, right out of the box. You’ll be thankful Mrs. Pringlebury was a serious lady, because all her serious work really paid off. You’ll notice the difference with your very first bite!
Mrs. Pringlebury was a serious lady? What, am I dead? Or am I supposed to be a fake person like Betty Crocker?
And where’s the Cornflake Dame who’s obviously responsible for all this malarkey? She not only stole my pencil, she stole my name and my picture and silver frame, and all this time I’ve been blaming the late Mrs. Cochrane.
Maybe they were both in on it together. Maybe old Mrs. Cochrane was getting too chummy with me, and the Cornflake Dame was afraid she’d spill the beans. When you plan a caper with someone, you have to ride the streetcar together all the way to the end of the line. Unless of course you smother the other person with a pillow, which is probably what the Cornflake Dame did.
I was dying of embarrassment. “I’ll have to put a paper bag on my head every time I go outside,” I thought. Although this photo was taken almost a decade ago, I hadn’t really changed that much. I imagined myself walking down Park Avenue and people pointing at me out of taxicabs: “Look! Look! It’s Mrs. Pringlebury, the Corn Flake Tycooness!” The same way we used to point at Babs Hutton when she came to town. Then I remembered I couldn’t go outside anyway, so this made me feel a little better.
The worst was yet to come.
Timmie and Tharla hitched rides from some friends and turned up at the apartment a week or so after Mrs. Cochrane’s funeral. I flipped the cereal box front to the wall so they wouldn’t witness my humiliation.
Bless their hearts, Timmie and Tharla never gave me any trouble about my condition. One evening they and some friends were going to to see Barefoot in the Park (the Biltmore Theatre was giving out free tickets because they’d had another cast change and had to “paper the house”), and the friends tried to invite me along, just to be social.
Timmie covered for me. “Oh no, maw’s already seen it, with the original cast. Elizabeth Ashley! Ain’t that right, maw?”
“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘ain’t,’ Timothy,” I said in my most haughty tone. This made it clear to Timmie and Tharla’s friends that I was one of those Funless Moms you never want to spend the evening with.
One night Timmie and Tharla and a couple of their random, interchangeable prep-school friends were playing Monopoly and watching television. What was on TV was one of those silly rural comedies about Ozark hillbillies and Upstate New York hayseeds that seem to be all the rage these days on the CBS Television Network; and are furthermore responsible for recent graduates of the Taft School using such expressions as “Ain’t that right, maw?”
The kids weren’t paying much attention to the drama of rural idiocy, but they all turned to look at the television set when the commercials came on. That’s how kids are, even when they’re 17 years old.
And lo! There it was, in living black-and-white (this being the CBS Television Network). A 60-second-commercial for Mrs. Pringlebury’s Olde Fashioned Home Style Corn Flakes. It had a catchy jingle:
Mrs. Pringlebury’s Corn Flakes are the one!
Mrs. Pringlebury bakes ’em till they’re done!
Mrs. Pringlebury’s Corn Flakes,
They’re the one and only Corn Flakes,
That are natur’lly nutritious from the sun!
You can figure out what tune the jingle was set to. Now I’ll never get it out of my head. Old Mrs. Cochrane and the Cornflake Dame were in cahoots for sure.
And that “Naturally nutritious from the sun”! Can you tell me what the hell that means?
The visuals were a montage of split-second animations and comic images that leaned heavily upon American Regionalist humorous art of the 1930s, with particular attention to Grant Wood’s American Gothic. One quickie animation had my face pasted upon Whistler’s Mother while making it appear I was singing the jingle.
This played on the television set while I thumbed through a magazine on my lap, pretending not to pay attention. (Today’s Health had an article about alcoholism. It always does.) Since the kids weren’t pointing at me or laughing and saying, “You’re faaamous, Mrs. Pringlebury,” I figured they were being very circumspect.
Their minds seemed to be on something else, however. They were talking about something they’d seen on the news. The movie star Susan Hayward was trying to issue an injunction against the cereal manufacturer for using her picture as the image of Mrs. Pringlebury. Except there was some doubt whether it truly was Susan Hayward, as she didn’t seem able to produce the negative of the image.
(Hamish will love this story, I thought.)
“Famous movie star, my left hinie!” exclaimed Timmie. “I do not believe I’ve ever heard of this Susan Hayward,” he said, with an authoritative sneer. “This is obviously a case of some old has-been Gloria Swanson type Hollywood actress trying to bring herself back into the public eye. And what is her vehicle? A box of cornflakes! C’est a rire! It is to laugh!”
“Thank you for the translation,” said Cecily, or Cecile, a Miss Hall’s girl. “I’ve heard of Susan Hayward. She got gassed to death for killing a crippled widow. In a movie, I mean.”
“That is gross-me-out,” commented my daughter Tharla.
“Are you related to Pringlebury’s Corn Flakes, Mrs. Pringlebury?” asked Skip, or Trey, one of Timmie’s friends from Taft.
“Well I’m actually a Pepper, not a Pringlebury,” I explained. “But there have been Pringleburys in western Massachusetts and Upstate New York since at least 1680. They have a war memorial in Saratoga Springs that lists fourteen Pringleburys killed in Belleau Wood. And look here…”
I pulled out last year’s Social Register and opened to P. “See? Almost two full pages of Pringleburys. I don’t even know half of them.”
“She looks sort of like you,” averred Skip, or Trey, meaning Susan Hayward.
“Our mother looks like most people,” said Timmie. “Before she married our father, she was engaged to a West Point cadet who looked just like Tom Poston. Just think, my father could have been Tom Poston!”
“But then you’d be Timmie and Tharla Poston instead of Timmie and Tharla Pringlebury,” said Cecily, or Cecile.
“Tragic,” said Tharla.
Quick as they arrived, my children packed up and left for Orly Airport on a Pan Am 707, and six weeks of sun and fun in Normandy, Belgium, and San Marino. It was a good time to be out of the city because a serious drought had started and restaurants stopped serving water when you sat down. It was against the law. There were ads on the sides of buses that told you to drink Teacher’s Scotch and soda instead of scotch and water.
Mind, I never saw these bus ads. There aren’t any bus routes outside my window. Timmie and Tharla told me about them. All I saw was Mayor Wagner on the TV news every night, telling us to stop drinking water, and threatening to put Schrafft’s waitresses in jail if they kept giving out free water. So you knew it was pretty serious.
Some of these waitresses had been working at Schrafft’s for thirty years, and found it very hard to break the habit. Teacher’s Scotch tried to get restaurants to give their patrons a complimentary scotch-and-soda as a substitute, but the customers kept wanting to know if they could get J&B or Johnnie Walker instead, which rather ruined the whole promotion.
One night the top news was that Susan Hayward had finally dropped her legal action against the breakfast-food company. This filled me with dread. I knew what was coming next. The reason she couldn’t get the injunction is that someone at the company went to the judge and showed him the original photograph.
“A surprising twist in the Susan Hayward Cereal Scandal!” said the voice on the TV. “It seems there really is a Mrs. Pringlebury…and she smokes!” Now the TV showed a closeup of me looking grumpy, with the cigarette dangling from my lip, and no cereal bowl. “We’ll have the full details for you after this word from our sponsor.”
The sponsor was a cigarette, Philip Morris Commander. “Have a Commander (toot-toot!)—Welcome Aboard!” They’re not a bad cigarette, as filterless cigarettes go. They’re particularly good if you’re a light smoker and just want to take a couple puffs every once in a while and then put the butt out. What you do is, you take all twenty cigarettes out of a pack and then slice them all down the middle and put them in your cigarette box or humidor. That way you get forty mini-ciggies that can be lit at either end. Very economical, and a great way to cut down on smoking, if that’s your thing.
Anyway, the news show came back on and showed us a group of people gathered under the canopy of my apartment building. Reporters, apparently, staking me out. Hamish stood in the doorway and pushed them away with both hands. You could make out some questions: Does she really make the cornflakes in her humble kitchen? Is it true she hasn’t been outside in seventeen years? Is she available for product endorsements? Why did they airbrush the cigarette out of the picture on the cereal box? What are the secret ingredients in her cereal?
I was so grateful that Timmie and Tharla weren’t here to witness this circus. Briefly I thought of throwing myself out the window, but that wouldn’t help matters. It would just feed the frenzy. Anyway, I live on the fourth floor, and my living room windows are directly over the canopy, so a jump from there would not be a reliable recipe for suicide. I sneaked a look down and it seemed there were even more people down there than you could see on TV.
It was raining out, and there were too many people to fit under the canopy. One of New York’s Finest came by in his rain slicker and hood and made them disperse. He had a piece of paper in one hand and read from it for a while, so I suppose he was reading them the Riot Act. They pretty much ignored that, so he thrashed them with his billy club. That sent the message home. Newsies can’t take violence.
Meantime, the television was still talking about the Cereal Lady Mystery, and what an elusive figure I was. They really dug into my past. They had a newspaper photo of my dead husband, my yearbook photo from Skidmore, and even my old fiancé in his West Point uniform (well, we know where they got that). These people almost never go back to your secondary school days, so I figured I was pretty safe for the pre-1940 years. News folk hereabouts tend to be a low-class, foreign bunch, and they don’t know where to look for things. There wasn’t much chance they’d embarrass me by digging up a photograph of me doing the pole-vault at Miss Hall’s. So I didn’t worry too much about that. Besides, you can’t even make out my face in that picture.
They only dark secret they could turn up was the Lindbergh thing. Not even my kids knew about that.
I can only give you the broad outlines of the story, vaguely remembered from what my mother told me. Her father had a younger brother. This younger brother, in his more elderly days, dispensed advice and administrative guidance to the Lindbergh Baby kidnappers. This was in 1932. I hasten to add that he himself did not kidnap or kill anyone; his involvement was more of a desk job.
As far as I can recall the story, there was a Famous and Influential Individual who wanted the Lindbergh Baby dead. Maybe there was something wrong with the Baby, maybe there was something wrong with Lucky Lindy. (Or Mrs. Lucky Lindy, maybe. Personally I always thought her nostrils were far too large for such a petite woman.)
Whoever this Famous and Influential Individual was, he did not wish to get caught. Therefore this Famous and Influential Individual had to locate a kind of general contractor, someone who was who well-connected with both High Life and Low Life; a person who could raise heaps of money on short notice, hire the black-bag men, and pay off the police investigators. Ideally this contractor should be someone with a few skeletons in his closet, someone you could blackmail and manipulate.
And so we come to my Great-Uncle Jimmy McMarjoribanks. At one point he was an Assistant District Attorney in New York City, but for most of the last fifty years he’d just been a Wall Street Wheeler-Dealer. No one ever connected Uncle Jimmy with the Lindbergh Baby. The newspapers all got distracted by focusing on the ransom note and ransom money, which was just chicken feed compared with the million or so Uncle Jimmy put together. It just didn’t occur to the newspaper boys that the Lindbergh Baby might have been a paid “hit.”
That should be the end of the story. But don’t break out the champagne. Some Important and Influential Personage decided that it was dangerous having Uncle Jimmy at large, even though Uncle Jimmy was old and sickly. So in 1937 the SEC nabbed him on an old securities case and got him sent to the Federal pokey, where he soon died “of natural causes.” They cremated him before anyone could do an autopsy. Then they buried him up in Valhalla, New York, just to be on the safe side.
Funny thing about those big crimes of the Thirties. If you’re related to John Dillinger, or you once met Willie Sutton, you’re going to brag about that. People will take you out to dinner just to hear the details. The one exception is the Lindbergh Case. This is because baby-killing is still regarded as Beyond the Pale. Hardly a year goes by that the Book-of-the-Month Club doesn’t have a new book on the kidnapping. Nobody wants to be on friendly relations with the Lindbergh Case.
An even bigger consideration is that most of the principals involved in the caper are still alive (excepting of course Uncle Jimmy and the Lindbergh Baby). The Powers That Be like to keep pushing this story that the kidnapping was masterminded by a couple of foreign losers from the Bronx, which most people found hard to believe the first time around.
Now, McMarjoribanks happens to be an extremely uncommon name, at least in America. It wouldn’t take much digging around to find out that James J. McMarjoribanks was my great-uncle. If that came out, it would ruin my kids’ lives. Even now, today. That would be like being related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The damned Lindbergh Baby still sells papers.
I could tell they were sniffing around the edges, those news people, because they kept talking about the Cereal Lady Mystery long after people ought to have been dead from boredom. Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald talked about it three days in row, so I stopped listening to them. One week, two weeks later, the story was back on the front page of the Journal-American, along with my pole-vault picture from the Miss Hall’s yearbook. They even printed photos of my parents with Great-Aunt Clara at Lake Placid in 1932. They reason they wanted to print a picture of Great-Aunt Clara is that her maiden name was Clara McMarjoribanks, and she was the twin sister of Great-Uncle Jimmy. You could tell they were onto something.
Usually I don’t answer my phone, but it was ringing off the hook for a while, and before I disconnected it from the wall I answered it a few times. “Mrs. Pringlebury, can you tell us anything about your Great-Uncle James McMarjoribanks and the Lindbergh Case?” they asked.
“I was just a baby myself at the time,” I replied, and hung up. That was catnip to them. They kept on ringing. Finally I yanked the connection out of the wall and told Hamish on the intercom not to let in any visitors.
“I have not let in any visitors,” Hamish assured me. “But the Mayor, he wishes to visit. He has dropped by two times now. Twice!”
“What does the Mayor want? Does he think I am drinking too much water? Tell him I only drink Teacher’s Scotch and soda.”
“I cannot tell him that, Mrs. Pringlebury. He is His Honor the Mayor. Besides, you do not drink that brand of scotch. Remember, every day I see the colored boy when he delivers from the liquor store.”
Mayor Wagner wanted to give me a plaque, or a testimonial scroll or something. In the twelve years he’d been mayor, over ten thousand businesses had left the city, and my homemade-cornflake business constituted the first new manufacturing business in Manhattan since 1947. Or so the award said. He wanted to bring photographers by and present the award to me in my kitchen.
Any way you looked at it, this all had the makings of a disaster. But I thought I might be able to work it to my advantage. I reconnected my telephone and phoned City Hall. I asked the mayor if he could quash the newspapers’ investigation into my Great-Uncle Jimmy’s involvement with the Lindbergh case.
“We don’t do that sort of quashing, Mrs. Pringlebury. We might be able to persuade. A little. For example, if you decided to buy a series of full-page display ads in the newspapers in question, that might just do the trick.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Worked for me.”
“You’d have to speak to the breakfast-food company, Mister Mayor, if you want them to buy advertising. I don’t actually make the cornflakes. I’m just what you call a figurehead.”
“I can relate to that, Mrs. Pringlebury. It doesn’t have to be cornflakes, you know. You could advertise something else. Cigarettes, for example. Do you smoke, Mrs. Pringlebury?”
“My brand never advertises, Mister Mayor.”
“Well maybe it’s time for them to start.”
Which is why the Journal-American, the Herald-Tribune, the World Telegram and Sun, and other leading newspapers soon began to run a series of full-page display advertisements depicting me on my living-room sofa, languidly puffing on a King Sano cigarette. Although I was identified as Mrs. P. P. Pringlebury, I was presented as a household name, an established society figure, with no direct reference made to the cornflake brand. It was very clever of King Sano’s ad agency to leverage off my cereal celebrity like that.
Television commercials, too: they’re in the planning stages. I’m practicing blowing smoke rings like they did in the old Oasis commercials.
The Mayor has been most helpful in other ways. I kept thinking about how humiliating it was going to be for Timmie and Tharla when they came back from Europe to find their mother plastered all over newspapers and billboards and TV commercials. What could I tell them?
“Just tell them you’re broke. The money ran out. You have to do this to pay for their college tuition. They’ll understand.”
“What a brilliant idea!”
“You bet. That’s why I’m finishing up my third term as mayor. My son Bobby still thinks the only reason I do this lousy job is to pay for Harvard.”
“Thanks so much for helping with the Lindbergh thing.”
“Anytime. Oh, and Mrs. Pringlebury?”
“Is today a good day to bring you your plaque? It’s just collecting dust here on the credenza.”