Let’s return to Bob’s Bowery Bar and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend the trumpet-playing angel “Gabe”...
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“To read and to surrender oneself fully to Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling and magisterial chef-d'œuvre is perhaps the one sure means vouchsafed to mortal man and woman to escape the constraints of time and space.” – Harold Bloom, in the Us Weekly Literary Quarterly.
Gabe blew one last long sad note, a note that stretched and bent into a handful of other sad notes and then became the long sad note again expiring into the noise of the oblivious shouting and laughing drunkards all around us. He drew the trumpet from his lips, then took out his handkerchief from his breast pocket, wiped the horn’s mouthpiece, put the handkerchief away.
Another song came on the jukebox – I didn’t recognize it, but it was a rock-and-roll song, and it sounded like the singer was saying, “Tell your ma, tell your pa, our love is gonna last, oh wa oh wa…” I know that doesn’t sound right, but that’s what it sounded like to me.
Gabe turned to me.
“Somehow I don’t think we’ve seen the last of old Nicky,” he said.
“I think you’re right,” I said.
“The ultimate bad penny.”
“Well, at least he’s gone for now. Thank you, Gabe.”
“It wasn’t me, Arnold.”
“No? I thought it was, like, your trumpet playing –”
“It was you, Arnie.”
“Maybe it was the reefer then,” I said.
“The reefer might have helped.”
“The reefer and the music you were playing.”
“The music probably didn’t hurt. But it was you.”
“But I didn’t do anything, except give him the reefer.”
“Who said you had to do anything?”
“Oh, I get it,” I said, remembering the words of the Buddha, who was still probably sitting at the bar, with my other nemesis Emily. “Like, zen.”
“Like whatever you want to call it, my man, but I call it you.”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “But, in the past, if I wanted to get rid of him I always had to play some sort of trick on him.”
“Tricks are for kids.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I said nothing.
“Well, look, man,” said Gabe, “I got another set to play.”
“I might not be able to stay and listen to much of it.”
“I understand, buddy. You want to get back home.”
“I’m going to try to get back home, yes.”
“To your world.”
“To what I think of as my world, yes.”
“Slide me some skin again then, brother. You remember how?”
“Yes. On the down side, right?”
“On the down side.”
I put out my right hand, palm upward, Gabe raised his right hand, brought it gracefully down to mind, touched my palm and fingers with his palm and fingers and slid them gently away, producing that pleasant tingle once again.
“Say hi to our mutual friend,” he said.
“You mean Josh.”
“I do, my man.”
“Okay, I will.”
“And, Arnold, listen –”
“Yes?” I said.
“If you don’t make it back, to, to –”
“To my so-called ‘my world’ –”
“Yes. If you don’t make it back, don’t take it too hard.”
“I’ll try not to,” I said.
“Just relax. Dig the music.”
“I’ll try to do that,” I said.
“Who knows what the morrow may bring?”
“If there is a morrow,” I said.
“Ha ha,” he said.
“Ha ha,” I said.
“All right, I really got to get back and blow my horn. I’ll see you round, my man.”
“And if I don’t see you round?”
“Then I’ll see you square.”
“Ha ha,” I said, again.
“Here, my man,” he said, and he held up what looked very much like another reefer, another big fat one.
“Oh, God, no,” I said.
“For later,” he said, and ducking his hand under my seersucker lapel he dropped the reefer into my shirt pocket.
“Okay, thanks, Gabe,” I said, not wanting to seem churlish or ungrateful.
He smiled and gently patted me on the arm, then went off into the crowd of drunken dancers.
And now it was my turn, finally, to plunge into that crowd. How long had I been standing in roughly this same spot? It seemed like a couple of months at least, but, as I had well learned, time expands or contracts depending on circumstances and one’s mental and spiritual state.
I really didn’t have far to go. I just had to head to the right a little ways, perhaps a dozen feet, a few yards, a universe or two.
I stepped into the dancing mob, and, yes, I was buffeted, and kicked, shoved and elbowed, but I stayed on my feet, even though I was pushed and drawn as if by a tide to the left, towards the other side of the room, away from the row of booths, but I kept struggling forward and to my right, trying to heave against the tide, and then just a few minutes after setting sail I could see the booth where my friends sat, about a dozen feet away, a few yards, a universe or two away, and in flashes of visibility I saw Ben, and Josh, and Mr. Philpot, and Horace – I couldn’t see Ferdinand at this distance of course, him being only a fly, but I had no doubt he was there also – and, yes, between Ben and Horace, I caught a glimpse of me. At least I assumed it was me, me in my Porter Walker persona, younger and more handsome than the actual me, or what I like to think of as the actual me, i.e. one Arnold Schnabel, erstwhile railroad brakeman and part-time poet, current madman.
What could I do? I had leapt before and I was still alive to tell the tale, and so I leapt, leaped, threw my consciousness across that crowded barroom floor, and landed in the head of the man in the seersucker jacket sitting in the booth.
“Now that’s some goddam good writing,” said Ben, and he clapped the book shut. “Way to go, Horace.”
“Thank you, Ben,” said Horace.
Just to remind the reader, I sat closest to the wall on the side of the booth nearest to the entrance. Horace was squeezed in next to me, and Ben’s enormous body took up the space to the left of Horace. Directly across from me was Mr. Philpot, and Josh sat next to him. Ferdinand the fly sat on the rim of my empty shot-glass.
“I’ve said it before, Horace,” said Ben, or I suppose I should write “boomed Ben”, or even “boomed Ben, in his gruff, masculine baritone”, but somehow I can’t bring myself to do that, maybe I’m just not cut out to be a writer, “you write like a motherfucker.”
“Perhaps that should be the blurb on the paperback edition,” said Mr. Philpot. “’Sternwall writes like a motherfucker. – Ben whatever your name is again’.”
“Blagwell, Mr. Philpot,” said Ben. “Ben Blagwell. But they call me Big Ben Blagwell, on accounta –”
“On account of your gargantuan size,” said Ferdinand. “We get it, Big Ben.”
“Yeah,” said Ben, “on accounta that word you said. It means big, right?”
“Very big,” said Ferdinand.
“Hey, Josh,” said Ben, roared Ben, over the noise of the drunks and the rock-and-roll jukebox music, it was another song now, “Be Bop A Lula” I think it was. “Josh!” he yelled again.
Josh’s head had been lowered, as if he were staring into the half-filled schooner in front of him, which he cradled in both hands, but now his head popped up.
“Yes?” he said.
“What’d ya think?” said Ben.
“Of what?” said Josh.
“Of Horace’s goddam book I was just reading from.”
“Oh,” said Josh. “It was, very, very, uh –”
“He wasn’t listening,” said Mr. Philpot. He gave Josh a nudge with his elbow. “It’s okay, your excellency. You probably like real literature. My good friend Henry James perhaps, if he isn’t too modern for your tastes. Or maybe Flaubert, in the original French, of course –”
“Well, I confess I did drift off,” said Josh. He had a cigarette stub between two of his fingers, he started to raise it to his lips, but it had gone out. He dropped it into a big green tin ashtray near the center of the table, an ashtray filled with cigarette and cigar butts, but can one say the center of a rectangular table? Having no background in geometry, I do not know. “But no reflection on your novel, Horace,” he added. “I’ve had a very long day, and I’ve drunk perhaps too much.”
“Don’t feel bad, sir,” said Horace. “I really think novels are best read in the privacy of one’s study.”
“What’d you think, Arnie?” said Ben, to me, in my current corporeal host.
“It was pretty good, Ben,” I said.
“Just pretty good?”
“Okay, no,” I said, “it was great. It was really good. I mean really great. Great.”
“Really fucking great,” said Ben.
“Gee, you guys,” said Horace, as if he had actually written the book himself, “you’re very flattering.”
“The pitcher’s empty,” said Ben, referring to the pitcher which had held the bock. “And so is my glass.”
“I’ve been remiss,” said Josh. “Let me get this round.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Mr. Philpot. “I’ll take another Old Forester, too.”
“Of course,” said Josh. “Another pitcher of bock, five old Foresters?”
“Six Old Foresters,” said Ferdinand.
“Six – sorry, Ferdinand,” said Josh.
I didn’t want a shot, or any more bock, in fact the glass of bock in front of me was almost full, but I didn’t want to seem a killjoy, so I said nothing.
I discreetly took my Everlast ballpoint pen out of my shirt pocket. I just needed something to write on. Apparently I had put the cardboard Rheingold coaster back down on the table, its blank side up, but I had put my glass of bock back onto the coaster. I lifted the glass up and the coaster came up with it, adhering to the bottom of the glass. I picked the coaster off, laid the glass down, put the coaster next to it. I took the cap off my pen, stuck it onto the barrel. I made a practice squiggle near the edge of the coaster, but the cardboard was damp and stained with the bock, and I had to press the pen hard to make any mark at all, and a smudgy mark at that. The coaster would be really hard to write on.
Then I remembered that book that the negro poet Lucius whatever his name was had given to me. Was it still in my seersucker jacket’s inside breast pocket? I reached my fingers in there, felt the book that was indeed there, and brought it out, Songs from a Negro Slum Tenement, by Lucius Pierrepont St. Clair III, with its cover painting of some impoverished negroes sitting on the stoop of what most likely was the titular tenement building..
I knew the thing to do was just to open the book right inside the back cover, hoping there would be at least one blank page and a blank inside cover, and then set immediately to writing, writing myself out of this world.
The other fellows (and one fly, but I considered him a fellow) were all ignoring me. Josh was waving a hand at the blonde waitress, who saw him and was heading our way with a trayful of beer bottles and glasses. Music was playing again, the music of live musicians, not the jukebox, the lady singer was singing a song about the cows coming home, and I recognized the sound of Gabe’s horn. Ben was telling a story about something that had happened to him and me in Singapore one time, Mr. Philpot was saying things like “Do tell”, Horace was drinking the last of his glass of bock, Ferdinand had taken flight again, buzzing drunkenly around and all over the table, Josh was lighting a cigarette with his fancy gold lighter as he watched the waitress approach.
I now suddenly recalled that my sole reason for coming back here to this particular fictional universe and to this bar was to say goodbye to my friends, and to Mr. Philpot, although he wasn’t quite a friend I suppose.
I cleared my throat, and said, “Um.”
No one paid me any mind. They were all having a good time.
It occurred to me that maybe I didn’t have to say goodbye after all, that even if I did succeed in traveling back to my own world, that this version of myself would still be here, just as I apparently had been here all the while another version of myself had been dealing with hoodlums and Wiggly Jones (the little hippie boy), a tornado, Dr. Blanche the lady psychiatrist, and, yes, none other than the Buddha himself.
At any rate I decided not to say goodbye. Maybe I just didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I don’t know. I didn’t know. I still don’t know.
I opened the book to the last page.
It was blank.
This was all I needed, blank paper and a pen.
I began to write.
(Thus concludes the tenth volume of the memoirs of Arnold Schnabel; our dedicated editorial staff shall now proceed with preparing Volume 2 for publication. We wish to thank everyone who has supported this project, and we hope you will enjoy all the succeeding volumes of Arnold Schnabel’s masterwork as they become available in book form.)