Lady with a Pretzel, from Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher (1940)

The waiter slammed the shallow basket of pretzels down on the table, and turned away. It never occurred to him, evidently, to pass the pretzels to each person at the table. That was the sort of place it was. Rough! The lady sighed with satisfaction. This was Life. Life in the raw. She was seeing Life.

At the same moment she saw herself in the dingy mirror opposite, and her satisfaction was in no way diminished. While seeing Life she retained all her own perfect style. She was pleased now that she had not borrowed her maid’s hat, as she had thought of doing while planning her costume for this excursion into the underworld. In novels great ladies always borrowed their maids’ things when circumstances compelled them to venture in dubious regions. But Cécile’s hats were grotesques, and there was no sense in making a comic of yourself just because you were going to dine with gunmen. It was only fair to them to try to look your best. Poor things, they had so few chances to view the authentically chic! She had no doubt that these various persons about them, though not outwardly as sensational as she had hoped, were gunmen and gangsters of the deepest dye, for she had been assured that this place was the real thing, and not faked in the least. It ought to be. They had had a hard enough time finding it.

She would have to stretch across the table for the pretzels. The others of her own party were absorbed in their beer, and their own noisy foolish familiar jokes. They weren’t paying any attention to her. The men felt obliged to forget their manners as soon as they got in a dive like this. The waiter, of course, had put the pretzels at an awkward distance from her. She was sure that he had done it just to annoy her. She had noticed the minute she saw him that he had taken an instantaneous dislike to her. He resented her. She was sorry that he did. He probably thought that she was just a sheltered, nurtured parasite, exquisite and fragile. He could have no comprehension of the peculiar problems that made her life hell. She felt very helpless and unhappy and weak. He wasn’t even looking at her!

A criminal type, obviously. He was too strong to be a Waiter by rights. A criminal temporarily disguised as a waiter to evade the police. Then a waiter had to be strong in a place like this. He must also be a “bouncer,” she believed. A bouncer? Such an odd word. To be bounced. Wasn’t there a song: “I Want to be Bounced by You”? If she got Oswald to take him into their house as a butler, he would look distinguished behind her chair, or behind Oswald’s chair facing her. . . . “Really, Adele, what an unusual-looking butler you have! Quite handsome!” . . . “I shouldn’t say he was handsome, my dear. We found him in one of those awful drinking places Oswald is always dragging me to. Marvellous beer! He’s an ex-convict. . . .”

She couldn’t understand how that couple in the corner who had just ordered two more beers from the ex-convict ever got to such a place as this. They looked so respectable. Iust a respectable married couple from the suburbs. Drab middle-class people. It was disconcerting to see people like that here. You only expected to find underworld types, and perhaps a few smart adventurers like themselves. But this couple was so obviously married, plain good honest shopkeeping people. The maid’s night out. Or their wedding anniversary. They gave a drab dull note to the whole room. Why was it that you could never get away from the respectable? They popped up everywhere, with their ethics and their morals and their good sensible shoes, and their appalling appetite for nutritious food.

Not that the food here was likely be nutritious. She eyed the remote pretzels skeptically. Hard, crustaceous edibles they were. Heaven knows how long they had been exposed to the dusty draughts of this place. Countless calloused hands had doubtless pawed them over, the hands of killers. Brutal hands! She shivered. She couldn’t imagine the submerged, distorted depths of society where such ugly contortions of pastry would be looked upon as really palatable and a delicacy.

But it was proof of the independence of the true aristocrat that she did not scorn an interest in the underworld. One must be amused at all costs. Had not great ladies long ago sneaked out of the Tuileries to have supper with the apaches? What she was doing now was all in the great tradition.

It required courage, too, to be here. Any moment there might be trouble. A fight! Some row. Someone at a near-by table might jump up and pull a gun. For all she knew they might keep a machine gun in the pantry. The respectable married couple in Hie corner would jump up and scream and carry on, but she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t flicker an eyelash. She had courage, the courage of the great lady. That waiter was looking at her now, scornfully, icily. He thought she was fragile, did he, and afraid? She would show him. She straightened in her chair, leaned across the table, and took a pretzel.

Cover of first US edition of 'Celibate at Twilight'Celibate at Twilight is a collection of fifty short stories (most under five pages long), many of them published in The New Yorker between 1925 and 1940. (I will probably get in Dutch with the magazine for daring to post this without their permission, but this book has been out of print for 70+ years). Mosher went to work for the magazine about a year after it debuted, and worked more as a manuscript-reader and editorial staff member than a writer until he started writing the “Current Cinema” column in 1937.

About fifteen of the stories deal with Mr. Opal, a middle-aged, mild-mannered bachelor most popular among members of the better society as a last-minute man to round out a dinner party. Mr. Opal is an upper-crust equivalent of cartoonist H. T. Webster’s timid soul, Caspar Milquetoast. But I prefer the character sketches like “Lady with a Pretzel,” which is such a perfect distillation of the stereotype society woman indulging in a bit of slumming so she can see “Life in the Raw.”

Mosher served as an orderly in a U. S. Army hospital in France in World War One, and after kicking around the Continent for a while after the war, returned to the States and eventually landed a job with the magazine. He was friends with Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, Wolcott Gibbs, and James Thurber and was one of the first members of the Manhattan gay community to make Fire Island his summer base. He died of a heart ailment at the age of 50 in 1942.

In one of the few obituaries ever published in the magazine, Wolcott Gibbs wrote of Mosher,

His editorial judgment has been responsible for much of the tone of The New Yorker and the appearance in it of a great many new writers. The fiction he produced from time to time, and collected in a book called Celibate at Twilight, was a very accurate mirror of its author’s personality–witty, perceptive, and informed by a deep and tolerant knowledge of the world. He was one of the most delightful companions we have ever known, and we record his death with a heavy sense of loss.

Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher
New York: Random House, 1940

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