ANTE UP, SUCKERS!
The show put on for the freshwomen and their parents, what few diehards remained, did not end at the champagne reception given by President Buffy. They gathered--well, just once more, folks?--for this, their daughters' first dinner in the WCW cafeteria.
A four-foot-square ice cube had been sculpted into a swan that was Avon-worthy. It was glistening in one big glorious drip at the center of the buffet table, roosting in a nest of fresh flowers beside a white and off-white layer cake decorated with the school emblem and motto: FILLAE NOSTRAE SICUT ANTARII LAPIES, from Tremellius, who took it from Psalms, "...that our daughters may be as cornerstones, polished after the similitude of a palace."
An elderly gentleman named Hans, who had an accent that could only be described in the context of post-war Hollywood Germany, was poised at the finish line of the buffet table, dressed in crisp chef's whites, serving a side of roast beef. And while the international flavor, however peculiar, impressed them immeasurably, assuming it confirmed some long lost barony, the way the old man's hands trembled as he sliced the beef made everyone laugh a bit nervously, anticipating a blitzkrieg. Eventually, it took every bit of their good breeding to keep from grabbing the carving knife from his convulsively determined hands and shouting at him through clenched teeth, "Please, Your Excellency! Allow me!"
Little did they know that this hoary old fellow had been adopted from a community halfway house--between the harsh world and a mental hospital--where he had told everyone he was Kaiser Wilhelm. His palsy was a side effect of his medication. Hans was here because of Dr. Jojo Crews, who had guilted the college into providing employment and housing to a few perfectly pleasant former mental patients. So they had given Hans a white chef's hat and put a carving knife in his hands on these special occasions calling for Baron of Beef.
It was because of the buffet bottleneck caused by Hans that Elizabeth and Mary Constance struck up a conversation.
"If you show me your parents, I'll show you mine," was Elizabeth's opening line. Hearing the lowdown register of the voice coming from behind her, Mary Constance turned around expecting to see some fugitive from a reform school recruited on a field hockey scholarship. Instead she found herself looking at a petite brunette whose appearance brought to mind cheerleader. A cheerleader who was trying a little too hard to look mousy, thought Mary Constance. Elizabeth's hair was pulled up into a lop-sided chignon, and her sly green eyes were made-up, moderately, behind horn-rimmed glasses. A touch of dark forest Forever Evergreen in the crease and black mascara. She appeared to be sublimating some truer tendency to flamboyance.
"What a smartass," thought Mary Constance, grinning mordaciously. Her first impression of Elizabeth was that there was something about her that just made you want to bite her.
"I'm an orphan," Mary Constance replied, mugging sadly, "I was raised in a convent," crossing herself to lay the groundwork for future absolution.
Elizabeth had seen
Mary Constance earlier in the day saying goodbye to a woman who looked
too much like her mother to be anyone but her mother. But she said, "I'm
very sorry to hear that," anyway, with deadpan sincerity, willing
to play anyone's game.
And Mary Constance sent a look back over her shoulder to Elizabeth, screwing up her face as she mouthed the word "fraulein?!" countering with by an audible "begosh and begorrah!"
As they walked together through the dining hall looking for a suitable table, Mary Constance was muttering under her breath that her "dear old Irish Dad, who fought in 'The Big One,' would keel over if he heard some old Nazi calling his daughter a 'fraulein.' Saints preserve us!"
"I thought you
were an orphan."
"Much more convincing," Elizabeth smiled. She was thinking that Mary Constance's colorful speech mannerisms were a curious counterpoint to the self-conscious refinement of this Upper Alban Hill community. In a place like this it was safe to assume that the ones who talked like juvenile delinquents had the largest trust funds. Being genuinely snooty was more characteristic of the middle class.
Elizabeth and Mary Constance sat together at a far table in the dining hall with six or seven other classmates who had also managed to ditch their parents. Elizabeth noticed that they were all going about getting acquainted rather complacently considering they were only eighteen. They had already worked themselves into a collective snit regarding the accommodations. Throughout the dining hall, the buzz of bees in bonnets was loudest at those tables where Moms and Dads still clung like honeycomb. Elizabeth was observing a little scene at a nearby table featuring weepy parents and a whiny daughter when Mary Constance leaned in with her impishly over-plucked eyebrows and said, "Look at them carrying on like they're sailing for Australia. I know for a fact that these people live three blocks away."
"Mr. and Mrs.
in moderation. And mind you: neither a nymphomaniac nor a lesbian be!"
Someone from across
the table corrected her robotically: "Women."
said Elizabeth, who had been listening like the best student. She pressed
her lips together and shook her head to convey the sincerity of a person
perfectly content to play the straight man.
"You heard me,
sister. And if you know what's good for you, you'll learn real fast how
to spot 'em too," she cautioned, tending toward the supernaturally
snide side, having been educated by nuns. "This place is crawling
with them. The bloodsuckers."
"You scoff, sister," said Mary Constance, "but I'm a good Catholic girl myself. I've got my crucifix, see ... " She pulled her necklace out from underneath the Peter Pan collar of the ladylike dress her mother had insisted she wear, holding the cross up under her heart-shaped chin. "There's no way those bloodsucking lesbos are going to catch me unawares. But you, Miss Breedlove! Saints preserve you, lass! We'll have to get you a garlic mattress or something. Won't we ladies?--Where's your room, Miss Breedlove?"
said an uppity voice from across the table, and Mary Constance looked
at her in the manner of her favorite tyrant, just as Elizabeth replied,
"Fey Five," which commanded all of the attention.
"Well, I do. Some senior dropped out at the last minute and I got her room. A single on the third floor."
Mary Constance crossed
herself before she asked, "So which one are you, sister?"
but 'nymph' would be the preferred word." She blinked at them a couple
of times like she was playing at being a dipso (dipsa?) and then she smiled
neatly, "Dr. Beatrice Brock. English. Medieval, Elizabethan and Victorian
"I'll be seeing some of you in my Bronte seminar, no doubt," she said brightly, looking at Mary Constance and Elizabeth the longest--though not long enough for them to introduce themselves--before turning back to her own table with a warning to avoid the potato salad if they knew what was good for them.
After dinner, they broke off into groups heading back to their assigned dorms for their Big Sister Bashes. Elizabeth found herself in an awkward position, standing in the dining hall between two groups of women: those who lived in Whitman Hall on one hill and those who lived in Bertha Beekman Hall on the other.
Mary Constance lived in Whitman and was surrounded by the classmates who had become her instant cronies: her roommate, Helen Campbell, and a half-dozen others who lived on her floor, including Vivian Voorhees and Gracie Fisk.
As Elizabeth was
trying to decide where to go, her Big Sister, Dusie, approached her. "Sorry
about this, little sis," she said, with a sweetly helpless shrug,
"that's the one bad thing about being the only frosh in Fey House.
Hey, um, by the way," she hummed, "I meant to ask you something..."
"Well. My roommate?
Pip? You know? She's a psych major? Well, she needs volunteers for her
tutorial experiment, and I'm, like, her assistant? Helping her out on
the research part of it? She has these little tests ... "
Dusie's attempt to
explain Pip's tutorial experiment proved so convoluted that Elizabeth
said yes just to put an end to it. And Dusie positively gushed, she was
so grateful, squeezing Elizabeth's forearm warmly, "Thanks so much!"
"So this is
your Big Sister, Dusie Hertz?" Mary Constance cooed at Dusie like
a kindergarten teacher, "How do you do? I'm Mary Constance McNaught.
You're a model, aren't you? I've seen your pictures in the Sunday Supplement."
The moment Dusie
was out of earshot, Mary Constance shook her head. "What a kai-kai,"
Whitman Hall was the biggest dorm on campus, housing freshwomen and sophomores mostly, one hundred and twenty-two of them. Elizabeth accompanied Mary Constance and her entourage to a double on the second floor that belonged to Mary Constance's Big Sister, Trish Macon, and Trish's roommate, Judy Feidelman. They positioned themselves politely on various perches about the room like tuckered-out cats yawning "now what?"
Judy Feidelman walked in carrying a case of beer shouting, "OK, Trish, you can cut the cornerstones and tiddlywinks bullshit," referring to all of the speeches that had been made that day invoking the school motto. "'Our daughters are our cornerstones ..., '" she bellowed like the antithesis of a cheerleader, and a chorus of Big Sister sophomores responded:
"They get laid!"
When none of them
budged because they suspected this might be some kind of a trap, Trish
hollered at them, "Those of you who are mama's girls and frigid bitches
and daddy's little deadbeat darlings--those of you who don't know how
to party-hearty--better head on over to Bertha Beekman Hall right now,
where they're serving warm milk and cookies and playing Old Maid and Go
Fish! until lights out. Right Fidel?"
And this time, they all scrambled for the door, except for Elizabeth, of course. For the next five minutes, she heard the hurry-scurry of footsteps and activity, her classmates banging doors, searching through drawers, doing a quick-change into clothes they actually wore. And then they reappeared as themselves in a seeming uniform of worn-out jeans and corduroys, tee shirts, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, or some combination thereofsans bras. In their possession was the most colorful assortment of smoking paraphernalia imaginable: bongs and pipes and papers, papers, everybody had the papers. Trish passed out beers while Fidel cued up Van Morrison on the stereo. Within the hour, the diehards were down and dirty on the floor playing poker for shots of tequila.
"Ante up, suckers!" Mary Constance growled, holding out a shot glass thick and slick with Cuervo Gold to Elizabeth who had won with a queen high in Five Card Stud. She took a lick of salt, downed the shot, sucked on a slice of lime, and raked in the pot, about five dollars and a couple of joints. She had been on a winning streak, and this shot made her feel like she was going to lose it.
she said, suddenly rising to her feet a bit wobbly, chuckling, "whoa..."
Because it was such a balmy September night with an ample moon, they found themselves down by the pond behind Fey House, crowded on a bench telling ghost stories. The one about "Fey Ray" became everybody's instant favorite. Mary Constance had heard the tale years before from a couple of Willard women she had befriended in the student union around the pool table where she sometimes hung out after high school waiting for her mother to clock off from the kitchen.
Fey Ray, or, Ray Willard Fey, was the original inhabitant of Fey House. A pipe-smoking flapper from the Roaring '20s, she had married later in life, at least for those days, at the age of thirty-five, and only because she wanted a baby. Her husband, Perry Fey, was a golf pro at the swanky Tumbling Rock Valley Country Club. Nine months after their honeymoon, Ray Fey gave birth to a son. Several months later, she became a widow by rather curious circumstances. It seems her toothsome, athletic husband had died from massive head injuries sustained in a bowling accident.
"A bowling accident?"
her eyes against a dope-y curl of smoke floating up into her face. This
was just like a slumber party, she thought, except nobody was fighting--yet.
There was a quaint, two-lane bowling alley in the basement of Fey House, paneled in rich hardwood inlay and appointed with brass fixtures. In Ray Fey's day there were no automatic pin setters, so the players (or their servants) had to set the pins by hand, standing in a little pit up to their waists at the end of the lane. When the bowling ball was in play, the pinsetter sat up on a little plank, legs dangling out of harm's way.
Except for poor Perry "The Pinhead" Fey. On the night of his death he had been hosting a party, serving illegal substances to his guests (booze, that is), and after a whirlwind evening of drinking games, he and his wife found themselves alone in the bowling alley. The servants being among those who were passed out cold upstairs, Perry and Ray Fey were obliged to take turns setting up each other's pins. Ray had been winning, which never failed to get the competitive Perry's testosterone up. He could not stand to be beaten by a girl.
Ray was at the foul
line ready to roll while Perry was in the pit setting up the pins. Perry
gave her the go-ahead, so she bowled the ball just as he jumped for the
safety plank. But Perry slipped, taking out the ninepin with his noggin
a split second before the bowling ball did.
That's what Ray Fey said anyway. And she stood up magnificently at the inquest, a real Willard girl, putting anyone who even dared think foul play to shame by virtue of her ladylike behavior under pressure.
Many years later, a story emerged implicating Ray Fey in an "unnatural relationship" with her lifelong housekeeper and companion, Miss Francine Hamilton, who she called "Frankie." WCW legend had it that when they were both elderly and cantankerous, Frankie strangled Ray in the closet of the master bedroom, during a fight over whether or not Ray could wear white shoes to a luncheon after Labor Day.
Another legend had
it that Ray and Frankie hadn't died at all, but rather, had gone "into
the closet to become ... "
Every Halloween, Fey House was converted into a haunted house and tours were conducted as a part of a raucous costume party to which everybody on campus was invited. Even the jaded enjoyed a good scream when Fey Ray sprang from the closet flashing glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs and breasts smeared with "blood," wielding a bowling ball with Perry The Pinhead's name on it. When she threw the ball (which was styrofoam) it never failed to topple the whole lot of them, bouncing around like bowling pins in fits of hilarity, screeching and squealing enough to raise the pinhead dead.
Despite the exhausting events of the day, Elizabeth did not sleep soundly through the night. She awoke at one point with the onslaught of a wicked hangover, feeling feverish and thirsty but too confused by her new surroundings to get up and set out in search of water. She was almost asleep again when she heard hushed voices. Sensing urgency, it took her a moment to locate the source. She sat up in bed, pulling her cotton comforter around her, not from the chill of the open window but for modestys sake, because she slept in her birthday jammies. Leaning toward the ledge of the window, she saw Dusie standing on the landing of the fire escape below, wearing nothing but a white tee shirt, underpants, and bobbie socks.
Pip was calling to
her quietly from the window, trying to coax her back into their room,
but Dusie mewled meekly, "Leave me alone."