Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companions here on this sultry wet night in Greenwich Village, just outside the Kettle of Fish bar on MacDougal Street...
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; click here to return to the barely-remembered misty beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 57-volume autobiography.)
“There is the so-called ‘real world’, and then there is that other, that infinitely more rich world: Arnold Schnabel’s world.” – Harold Bloom, in the Family Circle Literary Supplement.
Missy stared at me, holding the reefer smoke in her lungs, already she was becoming expert, and then, after half a minute or so, with a gentle sighing sound, she released the smoke, in my direction, and once again Ferdinand was hovering there in front of her to breathe in as much of it as he could.
Finally she spoke:
“Your world,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She held out what was left of the reefer to me. Already I forgot that I didn’t want to smoke anymore, and the fact that I had smoked just a minute before probably contributed to my forgetting, so I took it, and, again, “toked”.
“Do you mind if I ask you what that means?” she said. “I mean if I’m not prying.”
I held in the smoke before replying, trying to think of a suitable answer to her question, but before I could think of one Horace took the “roach” from my fingers, and quickly began toking from it himself.
At last I exhaled, and, sure enough there was Ferdinand, just four inches from my mouth, doing his best to make sure that as little as possible of the precious smoke went to waste.
Missy was still staring at me, as was Muriel, both of them smoking their Herbert Tareytons again; Horace still had his cigarette going, so all in all there was a lot of smoking going on.
“Take your time,” said Missy.
She really was a very pretty girl, despite that one slight blemish on her cheek, the one that Horace hadn’t mentioned in Slaves of Sappho. Her prettiness was just one more impediment to my ability to speak sensibly.
“Oh,” I said, for starters. But then, suddenly I just didn’t feel like going into it all again. “Forget it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Weirdo,” said Muriel.
“I’ll say!” said Missy.
Now I felt bad. I hate to seem rude.
“It’s just hard to explain,” I said.
“Give it a shot,” said Muriel.
“Okay, it’s like this,” I said. “I come from the real world. This world, however –” I made a truncated waving gesture with my right hand, which felt oddly like someone else’s hand, “you see – it’s a fictional world.”
“Fictional world,” said Missy.
“Yes,” I said. “I know it seems and feels like reality, but it’s a world of – how can I put this – imagination?”
“Imagination,” said Missy.
“So – what,” said Muriel, “you’re saying all this –” and she made a little wave with the hand that held her cigarette – “is imaginary?”
I knew I shouldn’t even have started. It’s just not always a good idea to be truthful.
“Um,” I said.
“You’re saying we’re imaginary?”
Now I was in trouble. I glanced at Horace, as if he could help out – after all, these girls were his literary creations – but he was only smiling, tight-lipped, holding in his smoke.
Muriel was still staring at me, waiting for a reply, so was Missy. I could hear Ferdinand giggling.
“I could possibly be mistaken,” I said.
“Oh, brother,” said Muriel. “You are just so high, man!”
Horace laughed now, snorting marijuana smoke through his nostrils. Ferdinand laughed too, and also made tiny snorting and coughing sounds as he bounced around in the smoke.
It was true after all, I was, in beatnik argot, “high”. But as high as I was, I realized there was no point in continuing the present topic of conversation, and, so, smiling as little falsely as I was able, despite the fact that my face felt like a rubber mask, I said, “That’s true, ha ha.”
“In a nutshell,” said Horace, smiling, “Arnie thinks we’re all fictional characters – everybody except for him, that is!”
“Well, that’s just a teeny bit solipsistic,” said Muriel.
“We prefer to speak of Arnie as just being slightly self-absorbed,” said Ferdinand, and if a fly can smile, I think he was smiling.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorry for being self-absorbed?” asked Ferdinand.
“Yes,” I said. “And sorry in general.”
“But, really, Arnie,” he went on, “what makes you think your world is any more real than any other world?”
“Well,” I said, and that’s all I said, because I was unable to answer his question.
“Okay, whatever,” said Horace. “Hey, nobody’s perfect. You girls want anymore of this?”
He held out the half-inch nubbin of reefer that remained.
Missy looked like she was about to respond in the affirmative, raising her small and delicate right hand, but Muriel said, “No, we’re cool, man.”
“Save it for later then,” said Horace, and he put out the “roach” by tapping the cinder with his thumb and forefinger.
I confess I was a little annoyed at Horace for not backing me up. After all, if anyone knew that Muriel and Missy were fictional characters it was he. But, if he also was a fictional character, perhaps he just didn’t see anything remarkable in our present situation. He dropped the extinguished roach into his shirt pocket.
“Okay!” he said. “Let’s get some drinks.”
Here we go again, I thought, but I knew I had to be strong, or at least attempt not to be weak.
“Sorry, Horace,” I said. “but, as I said before, I really can’t go in the bar.”
He looked at me, with a sad expression on his face.
“So, like, you’re serious.”
He really did look disappointed.
“Arnie don’t joke,” said Ferdinand, hovering lazily near my face. George Jessel he is not.”
“I mean, I told you I’m buying, Arnie,” said Horace. “I’ve got money.”
This was true, all that money he had bilked out of senile Mr. Peacock, it must have been burning a hole in his wallet.
“Look, you go, Horace,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“Well, gee, Arnie,” he said.
“Well, tell ya what, boys,” said Muriel. “Thanks for the reefer, but we’re going in.” She turned to Missy. “Ready, darlin’?”
“Sure!” said Missy, and turning to Horace, she said, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Steinmetz.”
“Well, actually,” he said, “it’s –”
“And you, too, Mr. Schwabel,” she said, addressing me, and I didn’t bother even trying to correct her.
“Let’s go, doll,” said Muriel, and taking Missy by the arm, she led her away, over to the nearby entrance of the Kettle of Fish, with its big vertical neon sign in the window saying
in bright glowing yellow and red. Muriel opened the door, and the laughter and shouting of drunken human beings escaped into the open air, the two girls went in, the door closed behind them, and with them went all but the faint babble of those drunken revelers inside.
Horace turned to me.
“Well, I hope you’re happy now, Arnold. We might have gotten somewhere with those girls.”
“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand.
“What do you mean, ha ha?” said Horace.
“I mean they’re a couple of lesbos, Horace,” said Ferdinand. “Get real.”
“Well, I suppose you have a point. But, still, you never know. I wrote this one book one time, well, it was one of my books published under a nom de plume, Hallie Peterson St. James I think, and anyway, in this book, Lesbian Dawn it’s called, these two girls meet a fellow in a dockside bar, and –”
“Horace,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes?” said Horace.
“Still, it would have done no harm, just to have a drink or two –”
“Okay,” I said. “Look, I’m going across the street to Mr. Philpot’s shop. If you want to go in the bar, Horace, go ahead, no hard feelings. Same for you, Ferdinand.”
“Arnie,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes?” I said.
“Have I ever abandoned you yet?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, I’m not going to start now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was saying I was sorry a lot. I was sorry a lot. “I appreciate that, Ferdinand.”
I looked at Horace.
“Well, I guess I’m in, too,” he said, but not with any apparent enthusiasm.
“Great,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We turned, finally, to cross MacDougal. A couple of cars came by, and when they had passed I made a little jump over the water in the gutter, and Horace did also. We crossed the street successfully, jumping the gutter water on the other side, and there we were, at the steps leading up to Mr. Philpot’s shop. Light came through the windows, so that was encouraging. We mounted the steps and came to the door. I pressed the button, and the chime sounded from inside.
We waited, Horace and I, and Ferdinand, who was buzzing in a lazy way around our heads.
“Press the button again, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, after a minute.
“No, I’d better not,” I said. “He got mad the last time when I rang more than once.”
“Fuck that old goat,” said Ferdinand.
But right then the door opened, and there was little round Mr. Philpot, looking the same as the last time I had seen him: the sixty-or-seventy-year-old dark suit, the shirt with a wing collar, the stained old tie (I don’t know if I mentioned the tie before, a wide, scarf-like tie, with a color and design reminiscent of the bottom of a rusty old garbage pail that hasn’t been cleaned properly since the Civil War), the bald head and pince-nez wire-rimmed glasses with horribly magnified old-man’s eyes behind them, bloodshot, the irises the color of wet stale tobacco ash, the pupils dilated and as flat and black as drops of congealed tar. He had his pipe in his hand, the one with a gargoyle carved into the bowl.
“Fuck what old goat?” he said.
“Hello, Mr. Philpot,” I said. “It’s me.”
“You,” he said, and then, looking at Horace, “and you! I thought I had taken care of you, you cheapjack hack.”
“Same old pleasant Mr. Philpot,” said Horace.
“Hi, Mr. Philpot,” said Ferdinand.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “Theodore, isn’t it?’
“Close,” said Ferdinand, “Ferdinand.”
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
“May we come in?” I said.
“I thought you went to micturate in the facilities in the rear of my shop,” he said.
“I did,” I said.
“Micturate or go to micturate?”
“Both,” I said.
“Then why are you suddenly appearing at the front door.”
“Um,” I said. “uh – hey, by the way, is my friend Josh still here?”
“Your lord and savior?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Of course he’s here. As is your other friend, the big chap.”
“Ben,” I said. “Big Ben Blagwell.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Is that Arnie?” I heard Ben’s bellowing voice from inside, and I have to admit that for once I was glad to hear it.
“Yes!” said Mr. Philpot, over his shoulder. “The fly as well! And some other tramp.”
“Hey, now, wait a minute, Mr. Philpot –” said Horace.
Mr. Philpot pointed the end of his pipe at Horace. “You owe me money!” he said. “One hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Oh, I do, do I?” said Horace.
“Yes, you do!” said Mr. Philpot. “A hundred and fifty! Cash!”
“Okay,” said Horace. “Okay. Fine. You want some money? Here. Nobody call me a cheapjack hack.” He took his beat up old wallet out of the back pocket of his old work trousers. “Here. I’ll give you some money, jerk.” He opened the wallet and fingered through the bills in it without taking them out, all the money he had cheated Mr. Peacock out of in that other fictional universe, plus whatever he had already had on him. “Okay, here, I’ll give you seventy-five, that’s half –”
“You owe me a hundred and fifty,” said Mr. Philpot. “Not seventy-five!”
“Oh, come on, Mr. Philpot,” said Horace. “You know I’m good for it. Why do you always have to be such an asshole?”
“Call me an asshole,” said Mr. Philpot. “All right, sonny Jim, you asked for it –”
He started to reach inside his suit jacket, and I was thinking, “Oh, no, not another gun,” but thank God, which I suppose means thank himself, Josh appeared behind Mr. Philpot, towering over him. Josh was only about my height, six feet, but since Mr. Philpot only stood about five foot two, yes, Josh towered over him.
“Arnold,” he said, smiling. He too looked as he had looked the last time I had seen him. The wrinkled and soiled blue suit, the loosened tie, the trilby hat, the bruises on his face, and as usual he had a lit cigarette in his hand. “Where the heck have you been? I thought you went to take a pee.”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
(To be continued; an army of Schnabelists would have it no other way.)
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