Our distinguished guests will be with us overnight. Today is to be given over to cocktails, dining and sparkling conversation. Tomorrow, we’ll tour the falls and nearby Goat Island, natural wonders tamed by Frederick Olmsted, world-renowned designer of New York’s Central Park.
Sinatra laughs when Dr. Guenther lays out the itinerary. “This Olmsted cat tamed Niagara Falls? Doesn’t sound too natural to me.”
“Man’s job is to perfect the imperfect,” Dr. Guenther explains. “Even a singing sensation like yourself can always be improved upon. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Sinatra frowns. “Doc, I can tell you from personal experience that singers are born, not made. You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but an audience is like a broad. If you’re indifferent, Endsville. I never learned to read music, but I sure as hell know how to sell a number.”
“Without a doubt,” says Guenther. “But even a great talent like yours can be enhanced through collaboration, yes? I’m thinking of your recent work with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. ‘Night and Day.’ ‘In the Wee Small Hours.’ Pure genius.”
“He’s got you there, darling,” smiles the princess.
Sinatra holds up his hands in good-natured surrender. “I’m just a saloon singer, Doc. You’re the self-improvement expert.”
I watch in amazement as the princess canoodles with Sinatra. She kisses his cheek as he pats her bottom. It’s one of the most unlikely couplings I could imagine. In Nonna Peppy’s books, Sinatra was always A-number-one, but how did he manage to seduce a member of the royal family? Come to that, how did the woman I always knew as the Queen — trooping the colours, giving the Christmas address, stoically ruling the Commonwealth without complaining or explaining — turn into a fun-loving socialite with a taste for bad boys from New Jersey? Maybe growing up carefree and powerless made her more like her tragically romantic younger sister, Margaret. Something has changed history and saved her from being weighed down by a crown and the title Your Majesty.
It’s the twist of fate we’ve been waiting for. The question is, What difference does a romance between should-be-queen princess and a saloon-singer-made-good make to the flow of history?
Everyone retires to their rooms to powder their noses. Sexton fusses over the fresh flowers and fruit basket in the princess’s suite. The princess assures her that her rooms are utterly charming. Sinatra will sleep across the hall — not that anyone thinks he’ll have the decency to stay put, given his reputation as a notorious sex fiend. The MacDonnells and Dr. Duffy have been assigned rooms a respectful distance away from the celebrity lovebirds.
“We don’t want the baby disturbing Her Royal Highness and her . . . friend,” says Sexton to Holly and me as we carry fresh towels to the guest rooms.
“Cocktails at six, dinner at seven!” she sings out.
Bottles of bourbon, Jack Daniel’s, sherry, vodka and ginger ale (for Holly). A cut-glass punchbowl brimming with spiked eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg. In the parlour, a glittering drinks table has been set up near the tree, strung with red and green electric lights and silver tinsel. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters harmonize about Christmas in Hawaii. The fireplace is blazing. Given the heat of the day, Sexton discreetly opens a window.
She hands me a bourbon, neat, which I sip as slowly as possible despite my impulse to gulp it down. It’s been almost a year since I tasted alcohol. Unicorn Girl, looking elegant in a sleeveless black cocktail dress, stands beside me holding an untouched glass of sherry. Her sleeve of unicorn tattoos causes Sexton to comment to me sotto voce on the barbaric practices of primitive cultures. Unicorn Girl pretends not to hear, sniffs her sherry and grimaces as if there’s something nasty in it.
Across the room, the Trespasser winks at me through the haze of cigar smoke. I cast my eyes down at my empty glass and dab perspiration from my forehead with my cocktail napkin.
The only one who notices the silent interplay between the Trespasser and me is — predictably — Sinatra. He salutes us with his glass of Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, his favourite tipple according to Sexton, who read about him in LIFE magazine.
“Bottoms up,” mutters Sinatra, knocking back the last of his drink.
“Can I freshen that?” the Trespasser asks Sinatra, heading for the drinks table.
“Won’t say no,” says Sinatra, handing over his tumbler. “You the same kind of scientist as our esteemed host?”
“Afraid not. I’m a quantum physicist.”
“What the hell is that?” laughs Sinatra.
“If I may,” interrupts Guenther, scooping another cup of eggnog out of the punch bowl. “Dr. Benjamin Duffy, late of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently employed by Bell Telephone Laboratories, a centre of brilliance and innovation based in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Dr. Duffy is an expert in the existence of alternate space-time continuums. There is a theory of quantum physics being floated, by a Princeton man no less, that what we think of as reality is but one of many worlds.”
Mr. MacDonnell contemplates his cigar. “Interesting notion. Does he have any thoughts on elves and fairies?”
“Some of us believe that his theory is not without merit,” interjects the Trespasser.
Guenther nods. “Surely time travel is as worthy of exploration as space travel! His Majesty, King Edward, has expressed interest in financially supporting such research. Imagine the possibilities opened up by changing history!”
The princess chimes in. “Dr. Guenther is a great friend of my uncle and his wife.”
“Indeed, Queen Wallis and I are acquainted through her Baltimore cousins,” says Guenther. “A woman of high intelligence.”
“A highly intelligent woman? That alone is unusual,” mutters Mr. MacDonnell.
“Hey, if you cats could time travel, would it be back in time or to the future?” asks Sinatra, ready to turn the topic into a party game.
“Back,” says the princess, getting into the spirit of things. “Imagine meeting young Shakespeare, or Queen Elizabeth, or Christopher Wren.”
“Being a man of the future, I’d go forward,” says Dr. Guenther.
“I’m with you there, Doc,” agrees Sinatra and goes to the drinks table for another shot of Jack Daniel’s. “Fly me to the moon, and all that world of tomorrow jazz.”
“However exciting that might sound, space travel distracts from the far greater possibilities of time travel,” Guenther says.
“And time travel could also help us solve the immigrant problem, as you’ve suggested in your comic strips,” comments Mr. MacDonnell. “Reverse bad decisions by the bleeding hearts! Reform history! Send the damn foreigners back where they came from!”
“You draw funnies, Doc?” asks Sinatra. “Unusual sideline for a scientist.”
Mr. MacDonnell clears his throat. “The Adventures of Futureman is much more than a mere amusement, I can assure you, Mr. Sinatra. It’s a graphic illustration of the sorry state America now finds itself in. No longer the strong, clean, moral country we once were. Our nation is turning into the world’s garbage dump for people no one wants.”
Dr. Guenther turns to Sinatra. “I can’t stand waste in any form, especially of the lost and wretched members of society. Of which we seem to have more than our share in this country. I’ve made use of some of them on my experimental farm.”
“As labour?” asks Sinatra.
Guenther shakes his head. “As test subjects. I was researching whether the weaker strains of the human race could be improved through cross-species mutations, much the way hybridization can strengthen plants.”
Sinatra frowns at Guenther through a haze of cigarette smoke. “We just fought a war over this type of thinking, Doc.”
“Some of us did,” mutters Mr. MacDonnell, causing Sinatra to shoot him an angry look.
Guenther waves his hand dismissively. “That was over ten years ago. Today we have other wars to fight. Against communism. Disease. Illegal aliens. Gangsters. Juvenile delinquents. Often these scourges go hand in hand.”
“Huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores,” quotes the Trespasser. “Words from the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Isn’t that the foundation America is supposed to be built upon?”
Guenther sends a ring of cigar smoke to the ceiling of the parlour. “In my experience, sir, wretches rarely yearn to be free and wouldn’t know what to do with their freedom if they had it. All they do is infect our nation with ignorance and inferior blood.”
“Hear, hear,” interjects Mr. MacDonnell.
“Hold on there, gentlemen. My people came to America as immigrants,” points out Sinatra, the bonhomie gone from his voice. “They worked hard to get ahead in this country. And I ain’t done so bad myself.”
“Exception proves the rule,” mutters Mr. MacDonnell.
Sinatra turns toward the publisher, fists clenched. Guenther puts a placating hand on his shoulder. “Your blue eyes tell the story, sir. You must have Norman blood as well as Latinate. Most immigrants aren’t made of the same stuff as you are. Take Deborah and Holly here. I came across them, and outcasts like them, washed up on the river below the gorge. Eager to throw their lives away rather than accept their proper places in society.”
“Attempted suicides?” asks Mr. MacDonnell in a low voice, glancing over at his wife. “They usually try it again, you know.”
Mrs. MacDonnell is huddled in a dim corner of the parlour. She’s holding a sherry, but her hands are trembling so violently she can barely lift the glass to her lips.
“Pharmacological advances have led to medications that calm the nerves without befuddling the senses,” says Dr. Guenther to Mr. MacDonnell.
Mr. MacDonnell snorts. “She’s already got a medicine chest full of mother’s little helpers. Our family physician says she simply has too much time on her hands. If only I had such problems!”
Mrs. MacDonnell glances at her husband and manages a nervous sip. From upstairs, we can hear the squeaky cries of baby Gloria in her bassinette.
“Gus?” asks Mrs. MacDonnell, leaving the rest of her question unspoken until the baby’s cries grow more frantic. “Don’t you think I should see to Gloria?”
“Nonsense, Audrey! Best thing is to let her cry it out,” says Mr. MacDonnell. “Pick them up every time they make a peep, you spoil them.”
Sinatra, losing interest, glances at the Telefunken. “Sleigh Ride” is playing. The princess hums along, swishing the skirt of her cocktail dress in time to the music.
Sinatra starts to snap his fingers to the bouncy beat. “I do this number on my new Christmas album. Recorded it during a heat wave in Palm Springs. Hundred degrees in the shade and I’m singing about Jack Frost and blizzards, I kid you not. My version’s got more swing than Der Bingel’s. Nothing against the old man.” He smiles at the princess.
“We very much look forward to hearing your interpretation, Mr. Sinatra,” says Sexton, as Cook lumbers into the parlour to announce that dinner is served.
“Ring-a-ding-ding! Jingle all the way. Milady, your carriage awaits,” says Sinatra, offering his arm to the laughing princess.
Turkey, ham, goose and duck, with all the trimmings. Each place setting has a glittering array of silverware with separate plates, chargers, bowls and glasses for every course. Beside each setting is a small gift, which we’re encouraged to unwrap before the soup comes out. Holly, Mrs. MacDonnell and I all get the same gift: a petit point pillbox filled with Miltown 600s, a new higher dosage of the drug. “Good for the nerves,” explains Sexton to the ladies.
The men each get a box of cigars. The princess unwraps a gold purse compact, the lid engraved with a tree nymph, symbol of Nowellville House. Ariel gets nothing because, as Sexton explains, “We naturally assumed you were a man, dear, and a box of cigars simply wouldn’t do for a young lady.”
Dr. Guenther sits at the head of the table with the Trespasser to his right and the princess on his left. His pontificating never stops, even with his mouth full.
“Humanity has always had its weak links, but we can no longer afford to be anything less than perfect. Not with the power of the atomic bomb in the hands of our mortal enemies,” he says, slicing into his duck breast. “But how to perfect humanity, eh, Duffy? We must become one with the thinking machines we’re developing. I’ve experimented with biological mergers with some success, but it’s clear that machines are the real answer. Artificial intelligence conjoined with the best in human intelligence. Man-machine centaurs will rule the next century, mark me.”
The princess hangs on his every word, but Sinatra stares at Dr. Guenther with obvious distaste. When he and I catch each other’s eyes over the table, Sinatra raises an eyebrow at me as if to say Can you believe the Ferdinand this scurve is shovelling?
I respond with a small smile and the tiniest possible shake of my head.
After dinner, Mr. MacDonnell sends Mrs. MacDonnell to their rooms to have a lie-down to calm her nerves, while the rest of us go back to the parlour to watch The Milton Berle Show. At first I’m surprised that formally dressed guests at a grand house party would settle down to watch a TV show together after dinner. But this is a different time, when hit shows had a sense of occasion to them. And you only got to see them once. Milton Berle was someone whose show you didn’t dare miss, especially because tonight’s special guest is none other than the latest singing sensation throughout the nation, Elvis Presley.
“What an abomination,” sighs Sexton, tugging the hem of her dress over her knees.
“My kids think he’s totally zorch,” says Sinatra, lighting a Chesterfield for the princess and a second for himself. “Not my kind of music, but the boy’s got something going for him. I wish dames still screamed over me like that.”
The princess gives Sinatra a warm smile and rubs his arm. “You’re not so bad for an old man of forty-one.”
Sinatra grins back at her as if the two of them are sharing a private joke. Their affection seems genuine, although in private Sexton confided to me that Dr. Guenther only invited the singer to (in Sexton’s words) “get that oversexed garlic-eating crooner out of the princess’s system. Elizabeth is, after all, next in line to the throne, unless Edward and his queen consort have issue. Which, despite Queen Wallis’s age, is to be profoundly hoped for, in order to avoid the chaos and embarrassment of a woman on the throne after Edward passes.”
Presley swivels his hips and belts out “Hound Dog.” He’s so sexy and beautiful that I can’t bear to think about his bloated body, dead of an overdose on a bathroom floor twenty years from now.
Sinatra reaches over and gives me a nudge. “You’re young enough to be a rock ’n’ roll fan, Deborah. What do you think? Singing sensation or flash in the pan?”
“Elvis changes everything,” I answer. “Unfortunately he’s destined to die young. He’ll be so missed that people will make their livings by impersonating him.”
Sexton gives a derisive laugh. “Our dear Deborah is something of a soothsayer. She claims she can see the future.”
Milton Berle — better known as Uncle Milty — comes out on stage applauding, then mimics Elvis by gyrating moronically and doing a silly walk on the sides of his shoes. Berle’s send-up is startlingly aggressive, mocking, almost insulting. I wonder if Elvis wants to sock him one.
The two launch into a shtick about Elvis’s sex appeal.
“I don’t like these girls always screaming, trying to tear my clothes off,” Elvis mumbles. “I want a quiet type of girl. Someone who’ll, y’know, calm me down.”
Berle grimaces in mock disbelief and looks at the camera to deliver his punchline. “Calm you down? You don’t want a girl. You want a Miltown.”
The live audience breaks up.
“So what do you see in my future?” asks Sinatra.
I consider what to say. Should I tell him he and his ex, Ava Gardner, will never get over one another? That his buddy Jack Kennedy will be assassinated? That he’ll make a fool of himself when he throws a violent hissy fit over not being cast in The Godfather? The boozy Las Vegas years with the Rat Pack? His struggles to keep his music relevant as his voice falters and the world’s tastes change? Should I tell him to stop smoking? What difference would any of that make really?
“Oh, you’ll have a long successful career and live to a ripe old age. Years after your death, people will still be listening to your recordings.”
Sinatra brightens. “Oh yeah? Hey, I like this chick.”
“What about me, Deborah?” asks the princess. “What do you see in my future?”
“That’s easy,” I answer. “You’re going to be the Queen of England.”
The princess’s smile fades and she takes Sinatra’s hand. She looks upset.
“Hey, but that means I get to be king, huh?” grins Sinatra, trying to cheer her up.
I point at the TV screen, where Elvis has just launched into “Jailhouse Rock.”
“No, he’ll be the King. You’ll be the Chairman of the Board.”
Excerpted and adapted from The Sisters Sputnik by Terri Favro. © 2022 by Terri Favro. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd.
A past winner of the Accenti Magazine Award, Terri Favro is an Italian-Canadian novelist, essayist, blogger and storyteller who loves writing about migration, comic strips, robots and weird science. Publisher’s Weekly called her new novel The Sisters Sputnik “fast-paced and entertaining.” Her other books include Sputnik’s Children (a Globe100 book, long-listed for CBC Canada Reads) and Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact and Speculation. Terri lives in Toronto and blogs at terrifavro.ca