Wednesday, April 30, 2008

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Sixty-Five: from Skid Row to Leary’s to Panama Street

Our previous episode of Larry Winchester’s sprawling epic found Dick Ridpath dumped unceremoniously to the curb on Philadelphia’s notorious Skid Row after having been mysteriously kidnapped, tortured, drugged and interrogated for a week. Fortunately, Dick has remarkable powers of recuperation, and drugging him may have been a stupid idea to begin with.

It is a steel-grey day in January, 1965, perhaps the last year when most of the world was still in black-and-white...


After the van drove away Dick just sat there on the curb for a while. Well, he hadn’t been shot in the back of the head, that was something.

It was a grey morning, but his eyes had been taped shut for a week, and so he sat there with his hand over his face until the blurriness dissipated. He was wearing the clothes he’d been picked up in, a grey Joseph A. Bank suit, a Burberry topcoat. His tie had disappeared, as had his belt. He touched his face with his left hand and felt a week’s growth of beard. He looked at the fingers of that hand. His captors had been so thoughtful as to put Band-Aids around the tips, where they had torn the fingernails out. The Band-Aids were red with blood, but the fingertips only mildly throbbed. They must have poured at least a fifth of gin down his throat, and gin was an admirable anesthetic, at least until the hangover set in.

Dick stood up, the world rocking slightly. The air stung his face with a thin sharp snow. The snow smelled like shit.

Several bums stood against the wall right there.

“Hey, guys,” he said. “Where am I?”

“Skid Row, chief,” said one man.

“Thanks, but what town?”

The bums all laughed. Dick waited.

“What town,” he said again.

This time no one laughed.

“Philly, boss,” said one man.

“Thanks.”

His home town, this was convenient.

He turned and looked around, getting his bearings. There was the hump of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge over there. He headed south. On Market Street in front of Gimbels he bought a soft pretzel and a black coffee from a sidewalk vendor. He ate the pretzel slowly in the spitting snow, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, the passing people giving him a wide berth. Then he drank the steaming bad coffee, the sidewalk tilting slowly back and forth like the deck of a ship at sea.

He dumped the empty paper cup in a trash can and turned down Ninth Street, between the department store and the post office.

At the alleyway next to Leary’s bookstore he stopped, and he found himself looking through the used book stalls under the black tin awnings. The clerks were starting to cover up the books with plastic sheets, but no one said anything to Dick as he fumbled through the stacks in the swirling snow. He found a bloated, quite used copy of Erroll Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways, and he bought it for a dime from the frightened assistant and stuck it in his coat pocket.

His parents’ house was at 19th and Panama. An easy walk, provided he didn’t pass out. At Broad and Chestnut it occurred to him that he should call first, and he stopped in a phone booth, dropped in a dime and dialed. No answer. No big deal, his parents were often out of town.


Whoever had kidnapped him had left him with his keys, including his parents’ house key. He let himself in.

The house had that empty carboard-box smell about it that it had when no one in the family had been in it for a while. Dick’s brothers were dead, his little sister Betty away at Radcliffe. His father was probably down in Honduras, his mother God knows where, anywhere but where his father was.

He made his way to kitchen, found an unopened quart bottle of milk in the refrigerator, tore off the cap and drank the entire quart in long slow gulps. He did a slow-motion somersault as a Ferris wheel spun through his head, and when he woke up it was Mrs. Bailey, the maid, holding his head.

“Mr. Richard? Mr. Richard?”

“What? Oh, hi, Mrs. Bailey.”

She smelled warm and he wanted to bury his face in her bosom.

He fell asleep again.

“Mr. Richard!”

This woman was indefatigable.

“What? What, Mrs. Bailey?”

“You gotta get off the floor. You’ve been drinking. And what happened to your fingers?”

“Oh.”

He looked at his bloody fingertips. Now they hurt. Now they hurt like hell. They hurt like he had just dipped them into a Fryolator of boiling peanut oil. Meanwhile his brain felt like it was trying to punch its way out of his skull. His stomach didn’t feel so hot either.

“Mr. Richard --”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll get up.”

She was a strong woman, and she helped him to his feet. The broken milk bottle was all over the kitchen floor.

“You musta really tied one on.”

“Yeah, I guess I did.”

He leaned against the counter and she poured him a glass of water. He drank it and asked her some questions, finding out what day it was, what time it was. Apparently he’d been lying on the linoleum for three or four hours at least.

“All right, I gotta go lie down.”

“I think that’s a good idea. You want some food?”

“Food?”

“I’ll fix you something.”

“Okay, great. And find me some cigarettes, please.”


In his room he lay on his bed, wearing his dead brother Jim’s pajamas, smoking his father’s Chesterfields, drinking the hot Ovaltine and eating the milk toast Mrs. Bailey had brought him. He had swallowed four of his mothers Demerols, and the pain in his fingertips was only a distant tingle now.

It suddenly occurred to him that he should call the warren. He picked up the phone and dialed long distance and Gladys picked up.

“Hi, Gladys. It’s Dick. I guess I’ve been AWOL again.”

“How can you be AWOL if you’ve got two weeks’ liberty?”

“I do?”

“Dick, are you drunk? You sound funny.”

“No, I’m fine. Um -- who’s there? Who’s duty officer?”

“Pym. He just got in.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Um, do you mind putting him on, Gladys?”

It took a minute or so, and then came Pym’s voice.

“Dickie boy, how’s your vacation going? Dick? You there, kid?”

Dick could hear Pym sucking on his pipe. Pym’s greatest living hero as to personal style was Hugh Hefner.

“Where ya callin’ from, Dickie?”

“Philadelphia.”

“Parents’ place?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s the family? How’s the Commodore?”

“All right, look, Al, you’re not gonna believe this but I was kidnapped and tortured and drugged for a week.”

“Oh ho. Sure you were. Next you’ll be saying they were little green men who took you away. Mm-hm.”

Pym had this annoying habit of bookending his little attempted witticisms with an “oh-ho” or a “mm-hm”. He really was a lame, spiritually-stunted little motherfucker, and one of the chief reasons Dick spent as little time in the warren as possible. And anyway --

“They weren’t green,” said Dick. “They were -- light grey.”

“What?”

“Huh?”

“What’s this about light grey people?”

Dick was unable to talk. he was starting to remember something and at the same time he was growing sleepy, incredibly sleepy, sleepier than he had ever been.

“Al, lookit, I’m gonna sign off now.”

“Wait, Dick --”

Dick reached the receiver over to its cradle, which seemed to be five feet away even though it was right there next to him on the night table.

Very deliberately and slowly he leaned over that five foot space, that six foot space, and he stubbed out his cigarette in that ashtray that was seven feet away from him.

Where had he been that other week, the week he’d supposedly been over the hill? But he hadn’t been over the hill. He’d been in New Mexico, quietly perusing air force files, driving around in a jeep to these supposed UFO-sighting places, keeping in daily touch with the warren, and then he gets back and everyone’s saying Where Have You Been? It was too weird. And so he phones back to the air force people in New Mexico and they’re acting as if they haven’t seen him in a week, but they had, he could account for every minute of his time there, and and yet everyone’s behaving as if he’d just disappeared for a week. And then they’re insisting he go into the hospital for testing, and of course the doctors find nothing wrong with him, he was a sound as a bell, never felt better, and then, and then, he leaves the hospital, and he, and he, he was in a cab and he fell asleep, he was very sleepy, and then he woke up or was woken up and his eyes were taped over, and that’s when the questioning and the drugging started and then the fingernail-pulling and so forth.

It was all very weird. What was he thinking when he thought he’d been kidnapped twice?

Okay, he was on the verge of getting it, really on the verge now.

And then he went down, into a deeper sleep than he had ever known.

****



(Click here to go to our next thrilling chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant episodes of Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain™, a Quinn/Martin Production.)

And now, Manfred Mann (with Paul Jones singing):

Saturday, April 26, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Seventy: Henri

The rest of us get up in the morning, go to some stupid job, come back home and wonder why there’s nothing good on TV. On weekends we sleep for an hour extra and then get up and wonder why there’s nothing good on TV.

And then there’s Arnold Schnabel.

In our last episode of his sprawling memoir, Arnold and his friend Dick Ridpath (coincidentally one of the stars of our other serial, Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain), after stepping through a painting and into a seaside resort in Gilded Age France, have made the acquaintance of a certain aspiring writer by the name of Marcel Proust...


We then experienced one of those silences that drift over the best of conversations. Young Marcel was gazing out toward the ocean, while Dick was smiling, looking around the room at the women with their billowy dresses and hats like sprouting topiary and the men with their top hats and waxed moustaches and Van Dykes.
   
I drank my beer.
   
If this was one of my psychotic episodes it was certainly one of my more realistic ones.
   
But then I thought, what if this were my real life, and if the life I remembered living before was a dream, some sort of crazed fantasy?
   
But if the latter were the case, why did I not have any memories of life here in the 19th century?
   
If I were indeed a 19th century man, then I was an insane 19th century man, because all my memories were of a 20th century life.
   
So either way, 19th century man or 20th century man, I was screwed: I was a nut.
   
Unless — unless Dick and I actually had travelled back in time and across an ocean. The very idea of which was of course insane.
   
I sighed and took another sip of the excellent ale.
   
“Un ange passe, messieurs?”
   
This was said by a very short bearded gentleman in a derby who was standing by our table, smiling.
   
Marcel stood up, and reaching down, shook the short fellow’s hand. He introduced us, and Dick and I, joining in the old-school politeness, stood to shake the man’s hand, which was normal-sized even if he was only about four feet eight inches tall.
   
I didn’t catch his name. He and Marcel chatted a bit, and Marcel made a graceful hand signal to the passing faithful waiter. In a flash the waiter was right there with another chair for the short guy. The short guy said something to the waiter, and we all sat. The man said to me in much better English than Marcel spoke:
   
“So, you are enjoying your visit to France?”     
“Uh, yeah” I said. “I mean yes. Oui. Beaucoup.”
   
“Marcel tells me you are a poet.”
   
“Oh, it’s just a hobby, really,” I said.
   
“'Obby?”
   
“Un passe-temps,” said Dick.
 
It was weird, I was understanding more of the French as we went along. Especially when Dick spoke it. If these French people didn’t have such strong French accents I would be in pretty good shape.
   
The little guy said something in French to Marcel that I couldn’t make out, and then he turned again to me and said, “Monsieur, all art is an ‘obby.”
   
“Not if you make a living from it," I said.
   
The little guy laughed, and translated for Marcel, but then the waiter appeared again, with a tray on which were a bottle of something green, a carafe of water and some glasses, a bowl of what looked like sugar cubes, and a small plate with little slotted spoons on it, all of which he proceeded to lay down on the already crowded little table, and then he bowed and went away again.
   
I couldn’t read French very well, but I could read what was printed on the label of the bottle of green liquid, and what it said was “absinthe”.
   
This situation now had every possibility of getting really ugly really soon.
   
I could handle getting obliterated occasionally back home in Olney, or in Cape May. It had always been my policy that if I must get drunk I would try to do it within easy stumbling distance of my own humble abode. But getting obliterated in another century, in another continent, no, this was too much, even if I was crazy.
   
I polished off the beer in my glass and stood up.
  
“Je regrette, monsieur —”
   
“Henri!” said the little guy.
   
“Okay. Je regrette, Henri, mais, uh, nous devons vraiment partir maintenant. Je regrette beaucoup —
   
“Non, non!” he cried.
   
It occurred to me that he was already two or three sheets to the wind.
   
“No, I’m really sorry, monsieur, mais — Dick, help me out.”
   
“Come on, Arnold, one absinthe. One and done.”
   
“No, Dick, remember? We have to go to, uh, that thing.”
   
I stared poison daggers at him, but to tell the truth I’m sure that If Dick had pulled me firmly back down to my seat then I would have stayed there, and woken up the next day in some dockside alleyway in 19th century France. But he took pity on me.
   
“Oh, right,” he said, “the thing.”
   
“La chose?” said Marcel, seeming glad to repeat a word he recognized.
   
Dick said something in French, something about meeting some jeunes filles, and he finished his glass of ale and stood up. Marcel and the little guy stood up also, and hands were shaken all around. Dick said a few more words to Marcel, something about wishing him good luck with his writing. The little guy Henri had already sat down and poured himself about four fingers of absinthe, and he was busy now slowly dripping water over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and into his glass, transforming the green spirits into a slowly swirling cloud of oblivion.
   
Dick and I both had one more quick handshake with Marcel, and we were about to go when Dick said, “Oh, we never paid for our beer,” and he pulled out his wallet.
   
Marcel had sat down but now he practically leaped up again, waving his hand and saying, ”Non, non, monsieur! C’est à moi!”
   
So we let Marcel pick up our tab, and we headed back out to the terrace. The sun was starting to set over the sea, or the English Channel, whatever it was, and the little boats and ships had turned into silhouettes, casting mirrored silhouettes onto the deep green water.
   
“Can we go back now?” I asked Dick.

(Go here for our next fabulous chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to many other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Walmart Award for Creative Memoir.)

And now, France Gall:

Friday, April 25, 2008

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Sixty-Four: universes in collision at Q Section

Larry Winchester (“Perhaps the only human being who can be called a world-class genius both as a novelist and as a film-maker” -- Harold Bloom) now takes us deeper still into the mysteries of Q Section. (In case you need some brushing up, go here for our last chapter, or, damn it, go all the way back to the beginning. Midterms are approaching.)

Under Vice Admiral Hackington’s stewardship Q Section’s operations became even more abstruse, its methods more extreme. It also became more secretive than ever. Formerly Q Section had operated loosely under the aegis of the Office of Naval Intelligence, but now even this connection was severed, and the section henceforth operated under the immediate command of the Chief of Naval Operations. Or so everyone assumed. Pym was not so sure. President Kennedy was assassinated a few months after the Vice Admiral took over, and it was rumored that even President Johnson was unaware, and was kept unaware, of Q Section’s existence.

Pym sometimes wondered if anyone knew of Q Section’s existence at all except for the people in the section.

By the time Dick returned from Tibet things were indeed quite different in the warren. Oh, sure, Hackington was the boss, he was the chief, no one disputed that. But Pym -- whose official title now was Operations Executive Officer -- he was the Vice Admiral’s mouthpiece. And his earpiece too, for that matter. Pym knew what people said behind closed doors. He literally knew what people said behind closed doors because at his suggestion Hackington had agreed to let him bug every square inch of the warren. So Pym knew what they said all right. He knew what they called him. They called him a weasel, a brown-noser. Well, let them. They would pay. There were far worse things than being a brown-noser after all. Far worse things. Like being a nonentity, let’s say.

Two opposing factions developed within the section. Dick became accepted as the voice of the more moderate faction. Hackington was the very loud and strident voice of the other faction, and so everyone knew damn well what faction Pym was in. But Dick was liked and respected. Pym on the other hand was universally disliked and despised (even Hackington, whose chief toady and jackal Pym was, even Hackington basically couldn’t stand the man). Dick also knew a great deal, more even than Hackington knew. Dick had the capability of making big trouble if he wanted to. And on a much more primal level Pym feared that Dick would beat him up or even kill him if he caught Pym trying something really insidious against him. No, Dick would have to be dealt with patiently as well as cunningly. For the time being it was best to let him have his way to a great extent, let him pursue his mysteries, his little bugaboos, let him. Sooner or later he would leave himself open, and then he would be dealt with. And Pym would do the dealing.

****

The thing was, Pym really did admire Dick. He did.

And he had never admired him more than during that week when Dick, loaded up with sodium pentothal and methamphetamine and LSD, denied food and sleep, his eyes taped shut, had managed to crack corny jokes even as Pym was pulling out his fingernails with a pair of needlenose pliers.

Dick had never broken, not really. Sure, he’d talked, finally, but he hadn’t really said anything. Who knows, if they had had time, another month maybe, perhaps they could have broken him. But then the word had come down from Vice Admiral Hackington to turn him loose, and they had. Loaded him up with Gilbey’s gin and dumped him out on the sidewalk in Philly’s Skid Row with nothing but one crumpled dollar bill in his wallet.

****

(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. And please check out the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant episodes of Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain™. All material approved by the Commissariat of Homeland Insecurity and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo. Nihil Obstat: Bishop John J. (“Big Jack”) Graham.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 69: young Marcel

Our previous episode of this Rite Aid Award-winning memoir found our hero Arnold Schnabel sitting at a seaside hotel bar in Belle Époque France with Dick Ridpath, that mysterious but charming naval officer, the pair of them having travelled back in time by stepping through a painting on a staircase landing at the Biddle house in Cape May, New Jersey. Dick has recognized the young Marcel Proust sitting alone at a table, drinking tea and reading a book...

“Come on, Arnold,” said Dick, giving me a pat on the arm. “Let’s just go over and introduce ourselves. Have a little chat.”
   
“But — what will we say to him?”
   
It would be different if the guy was sitting right next to us at the bar, but it did seem odd just to go over to someone sitting by himself at a table.
   
“I’ll think of something,” said Dick. “Listen, Arnold, nobody goes to a café just to read a book. If they really wanted to read they’d sit alone in a quiet room. But everyone who reads in a public place secretly wants someone interesting to come up and ask them what they’re reading, or ask for a light, whatever.”
   
“Yeah, but —”
   
“No buts! Come on, buddy, this is Marcel Proust! He’s like on the same level of Shakespeare! Well, almost. If it was Shakespeare you’d go over, wouldn’t you?”
   
“Frankly, no,” I said. But then I thought of certain embarrassingly gregarious episodes in my checkered past, and I had to add, “Unless I had a load on.”
   
“Am I going to have to buy you an absinthe then? Has it come to that?”
   
I had some vague recollection of the concept of absinthe from when I was in France during the war, although I couldn’t remember ever drinking it back then.
   
“Well — that’s pretty strong, isn’t it?”
   
“Damn straight that shit is strong. Let’s have a couple.”
   
“I don’t know, Dick.”
   
“Well, it’s like this, Arnold. I hate to pull rank on you, but either we go over to Marcel and have a chat, or — and again, I hate to be like this — we’re going to have to have a couple of absinthes, in which case you’ll be so drunk you'll be absolutely flying over there for a chin-wag with young Marcel. The choice is yours, soldier.”
   
“Well, sir, how about if I tell you to go take a running flying leap into that ocean out there?”
   
Dick smiled broadly, put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it with little shaking movements.
   
“That’s the Arnold I like,” he said.
   
He stood up, taking his glass and the bottle, and flicked his head in Marcel Proust’s direction.
   
“Come on, buddy.”
   
I stood up as well, taking my glass, and we headed over to Marcel Proust’s little table.
   
He was sitting near the open French doors, but, rather than facing the terrace and the dark green sea beyond, he sat sideways, facing in the direction of the bar, so that with a look to his right he could gaze on the saloon and its inhabitants, and by looking to the left he could gaze outside at the ladies under their parasols, the gentlemen in their straw hats, the bright green neatly-mown grass, the quietly stirring chrysanthemums, the sea with its toy-like boats in slow motion, and, off farther to the left, a grove of sighing lindens, and, under the trees, benches with people sitting at them, the women’s dresses as colorful and exuberant as the flowers that exploded gently all about these sunny grounds.
   
We were standing by his table. He seemed rather self-consciously absorbed in his book, which he held propped up against a flowered teapot. He was a pale young man with skin as smooth as bone china, with shiny dark hair and a wispy black moustache.
   
“Vous lisez Ruskin, monsieur?” said Dick.
   
I could just barely understand what Dick was saying. I saw the name Ruskin on the spine of the young fellow’s book. Of course I had no idea who this Ruskin was.
   
“Oui,” said Monsieur Proust, smiling and seeming not to mind the intrusion.
   
The next exchange between Dick and Marcel Proust pretty much went past me, although I got the impression that they were saying something about this Ruskin fellow.
   
Next thing I knew, Monsieur Proust was waving his hand, inviting Dick and myself to join him.
   
There was only one free chair, though, and I was about to go look around for one, but Marcel Proust simply snapped his fingers and a humble middle-aged waiter appeared at once. Marcel said something to him, the waiter bowed and slipped away and came back with a chair in about four seconds flat.
   
So, there we were sitting with Marcel Proust. Dick introduced us.
   
Monsieur Proust shook my hand, rising in his seat slightly.
   
“You speak Franch, Meestair Schnabel?”
   
“Not too much, uh, pas beaucoup,” I said. “Je regrette.”
   
I think I’ve mentioned somewhere in these notes that the army had made me take a French course before the Normandy invasion, and I had used some basic French during the seven or eight months I was in France during the war, but I hadn’t spoken it or tried to read it since then.
   
“I am zo sorry,” he said. “My Eengleezh eez ‘orrible.”
   
Despite what he said — and his accent certainly was as thick as peanut butter — the book he was reading was apparently in English (it had an English title anyway). {“The Stones of Venice, Vol. III” — marginal insertion in Schnabel’s holograph. – Editor.}
   
He had a small plate with some scallop-shaped little cakes on it in front of him, and he offered them to us. Dick and I both took one, and they were delicious, a little like the butter cake they make at Fink’s bakery back in Olney.
   
He then asked us about ourselves, and Dick told him, in French, that he was an American naval officer, and I believe he told Marcel Proust that I worked on the railroad. But then he said something about me being a poet.
   
“Un poète!” said Marcel, his eyes lighting up.
   
Here we go. It’s tough enough having one of these “oh you’re a poet” conversations in English. Try having one with a French guy when you speak hardly any French and his English isn’t so hot either. Let me tell you, it’s impossible. After one or two eternal minutes of torture I thought I’d better change the subject. One thing that practically always works is to ask someone about what they do in life, or what they would like to do. With Dick’s translating help I tried this now, and it worked.
   
At first I couldn’t understand what Monsieur Proust said, but he made a scribbling motion, and Dick said, as if warm butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, “He wants to be a writer, Arnold. A novelist. Like Balzac or Flaubert or —” Dick said some names I didn’t recognize and whose sounds left no corresponding sequence of letters on my brainpan.
   
Monsieur Proust said something I couldn't make out at all, and finished with a shrug.
   
“He says he has no idea what he’ll write about,” said Dick. “Because he doesn’t really do much in his life and he says he has no imagination to create stories and characters.”
   
“Tell him I’ve never let any of that stop me,” I said.
   
Dick translated, and Marcel smiled and said yet another thing that was all Greek to me, although I could see he was asking me a question.
   
“He wants to know what you write about, Arnold.”
   
Dick had asked me this same question the night before.
   
“Just the things I do all day,” I admitted. I tried to put it in French. “Les choses que je fait,” I said, bits of the language somehow tumbling back to me over the past two decades of life. “Les choses que je vois.”
   
“Zee sings you see?” asked Marcel.
   
“Oui,” I said. “And the stuff I think. Les choses, uh, dont je pense.
   
“Les choses que vous faites,”
he said. “Les choses que vous voyez, et les choses dont vous pensez.”
   
“Yep,” I said. “I mean oui.”
   
“Formidable,” he said. He picked up one of the little cakes and absentmindedly broke a little piece off of it. Then just as absentmindedly he put the little piece of cake into his teaspoon. He dipped the teaspoon into his teacup, moistening the cake. Then, staring off toward the sea, he raised the spoon to his lips, taking a small taste of the tea and cake.
   
Suddenly he seemed as if paralyzed, staring off into the distance.
   
I looked at Dick, but Dick was staring at Monsieur Proust.
   
Finally, after about a minute, Marcel seemed to snap out of it. He smiled at us with his sad dark eyes, and put the teaspoon, still with a splash of tea and a morsel of cake in it, back onto his little ornate china saucer.
   
“Formidable,” he said. “Tout-à-fait formidable.”
   
I didn’t think what I’d said had been quite so formidable as all that, but what the heck, I guess writers are just strange people.


(Go here for our next fabulous episode. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for a list of links to all other recovered chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, all material vetted and approved by the Commissariat of Homeland Insecurity.)


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Sixty-Three: Mister Pym and the troubled Vice Admiral


Larry Winchester (winner of the Pep Boys Award for Epic Literature) now takes us once again down into the bowels of the Pentagon and into the offices of that top-secret naval bureau known as “Q Section”...

(Click here to read our previous exciting episode; go here to return to the beginning.)

Vice Admiral Hackington, second-in-command of Q Section under Admiral Quigley, had been an early advocate of military drug experimentation, but he had never been quite the same after that long weekend spent at Harvard University with Dick Ridpath and Dr. Timothy Leary.

Since then he rarely left his office, and on the rare occasions when Pym passed him in the corridor the Vice Admiral did not so much as acknowledge Pym’s baleful presence with a nod.

All the more surprising then when one day he came into Pym’s office and informed him that Dick Ridpath was a demon.

He then asked Pym if he, Pym, were a demon.

Pym replied that to the best of his knowledge he was not.

The Vice Admiral then asked Pym if he thought that he, Vice Admiral Hackington, was a demon.

Pym replied that he did not think so.

The Vice Admiral then said, “Good. We must stick together. There are many demons in this place.”

Pym decided right then that he would indeed stick with the Vice Admiral.

After all, at least the Vice Admiral had actually deigned to talk to him for once.

And oh, how he talked.

Sometimes Vice Admiral Hackington would ask Pym to drive him home. (The Vice Admiral never drove his own car any more, fearing he would be blown up by a planted bomb.) They would often go for long drives through the Virginia countryside, the Vice Admiral talking all the while about “the demons". He explained quite calmly that he had looked into Dick’s eyes during that weekend at Dr. Leary’s and he had seen in those eyes a vast pullulating race of nonhuman beings, and he knew that Dick was in the vanguard of this race whose goal was to take over the planet. He said he had first suspected this when Dick, on the plane ride up to Cambridge, had confessed a complete indifference to college football, and even to the Annapolis team of which he had once been a stellar running back.

Pym’s narrow ferretlike stomach would start to grumble on these long drives, but usually the Vice Admiral would finally order him to pull into some obscure roadside place where he would order fried chicken and hush puppies and iced tea. Pym would order the same. The Vice Admiral would always smile nervously and ask Pym if he would like to taste his, the Vice Admiral’s, iced tea and hush puppies and fried chicken, and always before he, the Vice Admiral had tasted anything. And Pym would do it. What the hell, if it were poisoned at least he would die in the service. In the service of what he was not quite sure. It was true, these greasy spoon dinners were a long way from Dick’s sumptuous meals of Lobster Thermidor and Beef Wellington with Admiral Quigley at Harvey’s or the Shoreham (washed down with many exquisitely chilled and bone-dry Bombay Martinis), but they were a damn sight better than nothing.

And then came that other fateful long weekend when Vice Admiral Hackington and Admiral Quigley went sailing together and, according to Vice Admiral Hackington, Admiral Quigley suddenly slipped and fell to his briny death several miles off the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey.

Ridpath was away in Tibet, so if ever the time was ripe for Pym to make his move it was now. Hackington had come back from that sailing weekend a gibbering wreck. Pym found him in his office fondling his World War II-vintage Victory Model revolver, sobbing and mumbling that the demons had done it, the demons had done it.

This now was Pym’s moment and he seized it in both hands.

He loaded Vice Admiral Hackington up with tranquilizers and scotch and spoke to him, calmly but firmly, of the Vice Admiral’s mission. When Hackington started to gibber again Pym slapped him, once, twice, hard. The Vice Admiral must not crack now. He must fight, he must not give in, that’s what the demons wanted, for him to capitulate, to do something stupid and self-destructive. Pym would help him. Pym was his loyal subordinate. Together they would fight, and they would defeat the demons. Gradually Hackington’s forehead cleared, his eyes grew calm, his panting subsided. Pym flipped a Kleenex out of the box on the Vice Admiral’s desk and handed it to him. Hackington wiped his tumid and wet red face. He still held the revolver in his right hand.

“Can I trust you, Mr. Pym?” he asked, in a voice that seemed to come from very far away.

“Give me your sidearm, sir, please.”

The Vice Admiral handed it over. Pym cocked the hammer and then said, “If you give me the order, sir, I will blow my brains out this second.”

Pym put the muzzle of the gun into his mouth, and staring along its barrel he saw the deliberation going on in Hackington’s eyes. Actually, he thought, if he tells me to shoot I will ram this pistol up against his fat head, pull the trigger and make it look like a suicide, the batty old annoying fart (did he think he was the only one in this damned section ever to suffer a bad trip on LSD?)

However, Hackington said, “Please, take that thing out of your mouth; I trust you, Pym.”

Pym slid the gun barrel out of his mouth, lowered the hammer, and then wiped his drool off the weapon with a fresh Kleenex before placing it on the Vice Admiral’s desk.

“Please, call me Alexis, sir.”

****


(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. And kindly look to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant episodes of Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain™.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 68: sideways

In our previous episode of his seemingly endless memoir, our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend the enigmatic naval officer Dick Ridpath climbed through a painting and into a 19th Century French seaside resort.

Just another day for our Arnold...


I looked around. We were standing on this terrace on some sort of bluff overlooking the water. It seemed to be late afternoon. On the landward side of the terrace was what appeared to be a small but smart hotel. The other people on the terrace paid us no mind. A white-bearded man and a woman with a parasol sat in chairs staring out toward this sea like green crushed velvet on which a strikingly large number of sailboats and steamships wended lazily this way and that. A younger couple stood near a trellis-work fence above what I assumed was a beach. The redolent hibiscus I had smelled blossomed deep gold along the fence with white and bright yellow chrysanthemums and some other bunchy pink and purple flowers.
   
The temperature I’d say was in the low 70s. You could hear people talking, but other than that everything was as muted as a dream.
   
“We seem to have left our beers behind,” Dick said. “Care for a libation?”
   
“Sure,” I said.
   
I figured as long as I was going to be utterly insane I might as well go ahead and have a drink.
   
“There must be a bar in that hotel. Let’s go up.”
   
We walked past a few more people strolling about or sitting at tables. I noticed that they were speaking French.
   
“Where are we, Dick?”
   
“I think it’s Normandy. Or maybe Brittany. One of those places. Here we go.”
   
We went up a couple of steps and through some open French doors, their glass frosted and etched in designs of various flowers and vines.
   
Sure enough, we were in a saloon, almost full with stylish people sitting at tables with white table-cloths and at a long mahogany bar.
   
“Table or bar?” asked Dick.
   
“Bar,” I said, resignedly.
   
We walked over and grabbed a couple of empty stools. The bartender came over.
   
“Beer?” Dick asked me.
   
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
   
He spoke briefly in French with the bartender. All I could make out was bière and s’il vous plaît and merci.
   
Dick turned to me and said, “He says they’ve got a pretty good saison.”
   
“Great,” I said, not that I knew or cared what a saison was, as long as there was alcohol in its list of ingredients.
   
Our cigarettes were burning down. Dick slid a large glass ashtray over and we both stubbed out our butts.
   
“Oh, jeeze,” Dick said, “I hope we have something to pay for this.”
   
He patted his pockets and from inside his jacket he brought out a rather large wallet. He opened it up, revealing a healthy-looking sheaf of colorful foreign currency.
   
“Well, this should do,” he said, and he put the wallet back in his jacket.
   
“So, what do you think?” he asked. “About all this?”
   
“Oh, it’s all really great, Dick,” I said.
   
“I’m glad you like it.”
   
The bartender loomed up just then with two large round glasses and a big bottle like a champagne bottle, with a rounded cork and a wire hood. He showed the label to Dick, and Dick gave him the go-ahead nod.
   
We both kept quiet while the bartender twisted off the wire and then worked out the cork. This is one reason why I’ve never liked to order bottles of wine on those rare occasions when I’ve taken my mother out to dinner. I hate that awkward eternity when the sweating waiter is wrestling the bottle open, and then that absurd ritual of him pouring a taste into my glass. I always want to say, “Pour away, my good man, it’s all the same to me, and after all it isn’t as if I haven’t ordered the cheapest bottle on the menu anyway.”
   
At last the barman filled our glasses, thank God dispensing with any taste-testing ritual, and then he went away. 
   

“Now let’s raise our glasses,” said Dick.
   
I raised my glass. I did have to admit that the beer looked good. It actually had a decent head for one thing, unlike the Schmidt’s or Ortlieb’s I customarily drink.
   
“Cheers,” said Dick.
   
We touched our glasses and drank, and in fact the beer was excellent, even better than the occasional German lagers I would permit myself to drink at the Schwarzwald Inn.
   
“Not bad, huh?”
   
“Yeah, it’s pretty good,” I said.
   
Perhaps complete insanity was not so bad after all. I wiped a bit of foam off my nose.
   
Dick was leaning sideways against the bar, looking at the people at the tables. Nearly everyone was chatting away, but still the place seemed oddly quiet. Then I realized that of course there was no radio or jukebox.
   
I also noticed that the air smelled different from what I was used to. A seaside and flowery breeze not unlike Cape May’s wafted in from the terrace and mingled with the barroom smells of cigarettes and cigars, but under it all were hints of burning coal and just the faintest suggestion of compost.
   
“Oh my God,” said Dick, interrupting my olfactory reverie. “Don’t look now, but I swear that’s the young Marcel Proust over there.”
   
“Who?”
   
“Marcel Proust.” He spelled out the last name for me. The young moustachioed man he was referring to was sitting by himself at a small table, apparently drinking tea and reading a book. “Famous French writer. Wrote an enormous seven-volume novel called Remembrance of Things Past. I’ve been trying to read it in French for years now, and I’m still only midway through the fifth volume.”
   
“Oh,” I said. If he had been talking about David Goodis or Richard Stark I might have been able to add a bit more to the conversation.
   
“Wow,” said Dick. “He’s awfully young. That means he hasn’t started his masterwork yet. Look at him over there. He’s reading his book, but occasionally he looks up. Observing. Just taking it all in. I wonder if we should talk to him.”
   
Leave the guy alone I thought. But I don’t know why I thought this. Maybe because I’ve never really liked it when people try to talk to me. Except when I’m drunk of course. In which case I only dislike it later, in the cold retrospective of hangover.
   
“Let’s go chat with him,” said Dick.
   
“You go, Dick, I’ll just sit here.”
   
“No, I can’t go alone. He’ll think I’m gay and I’m trying to cruise him.”
   
I had no idea what Dick meant by this. I would think that appearing gay is an admirable quality. And I don’t know at all what he meant by “cruising”. I suppose it’s some sort of sailor’s slang.


(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. And please turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Texaco Award for Excellence in Memoiristic or Confessional Literature.)

And now a word from Jeanne Moreau:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Sixty-Two: an insignificant and meaningless man


This long-lost American epic (serialized here exclusively for the first-time ever in all its uncut glory) continues as Larry Winchester takes us deeper than perhaps we would like to go into the haunted sub-basements of the mind of Captain Alexis J. Pym, USN:

At long last everyone else was gone. He could feel the great slumbering beast that was the Pentagon purring softly all around him. He left his cell and went down the corridor quietly to Dick’s office. It was kept locked during his absences but during his short and infrequent periods in residence Dick never bothered to lock it, usually never even shut the door.

Pym took one last look up and down the narrow corridor and then stepped inside, closing the door gently behind him. He tiptoed through the darkness to the desk. He knew the way. Feeling for the metal chain of the desk lamp. An old tarnished metal gooseneck lamp that Dick had found in an abandoned train station in Montana.

And the light came on revealing the wonderland of Dick’s world.

Pym went around and sat in Dick’s chair, that absurdly comfortable wooden swivel-chair with its oh so silent and smooth ball-bearing casters. It had been given to Dick by Dick’s mother, to whom it had been given by Harold Ross, the New Yorker editor. (Having formerly belonged to Ambrose Bierce.)

Beyond the bright splash of lamplight on the desk Pym could see Dick’s furnishings all about the small cozy room. The filing cabinets, which he knew were filled with everything but files: books, letters, souvenirs, clothing. Over in a corner his golf bag and clubs. Hanging from industrial metal hooks screwed into the walls were his tennis racquets, his scuba equipment. Hanging between two adjacent walls from the same sinister hooks his hammock of Nigerian hemp netting. Shoved in another corner, his seabag. And all over the walls Dick’s own bamboo-framed Japanese-style brush-and-ink drawings.

Pym leaned forward and smelled the old wood of the desk. No doubt like the chair it held some glamorous history, but he would never ask. (There was a rumor that the desk had once belonged to Joseph Conrad. Only a rumor.)

He set to work. What new treasures had Dick brought? There was always something, and it was never hard to find. Usually on this first day of his return Dick would simply lay his new stuff right on top of the desk. Or maybe it would be carelessly shoved into a top drawer left only partially closed.

A lubricious love letter from a famous Hollywood starlet, nude photograph enclosed.

A postcard from W. Somerset Maugham.

A snapshot, smeared with wine and some sort of sauce or gravy, of Dick, his arm around the waist of the Dalai Lama.

A long, philosophical letter on the subject of evil from Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

Another letter, chatty, gossipy, perhaps slightly drunken, from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

The business card of a whorehouse in Rangoon: For Discriminating Gentleman’s Happiness.

An empty box of Craven A cigarettes.

An unemptied ashtray from the Sands Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas.

And in the top right drawer Dick’s Browning Hi-Power. With loaded magazine. How many men had Dick killed with it? Pym would never know. He was not permitted to know.

In another drawer various pillboxes and vials.

Pym opened one of the pillboxes and swallowed one of the pills that were in it and soon he was sitting in that chair watching and feeling his mind dissolve. He staggered and reeled his way back to his own cell, it took centuries, eons, epochs, it took the thousandth part of one millisecond, and the walls and the floor and ceiling of the corridor tried to suck his body and his soul into them, and the fluorescent light was turning him into fluorescent light, and finally he passed through the great portal of sadness into his own cell and closed the door and lay on the floor and his pale and paltry self expanded like some great engorged bloated jellyfish until it filled every empty molecule of the cell, his gently breathing throbbing self pressed gently but solidly up against every inch of the inside surface of this white concrete box, his mind trying to enter and become one with the cool concrete, with this enormous building, with the earth and with the universe, trying but ultimately failing.

By the next morning as the drug finally wore off he was convinced finally and forever of his own insignificance and meaninglessness. But he got through that day as he got through all the succeeding days, by dint of habit, and fear, and something else. A feeling that he must stay here. He must see this thing through.




(Kindly go here for our next formally rigorous chapter. And please turn to the right hand side of this page to find listings of links to all other extant episodes of Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain™, an American International Production.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 67: the landing

When last we saw Arnold Schnabel, author of these (“gripping, stunning” -- Harold Bloom) memoirs, he was drinking Schmidt’s beer with the mysterious naval officer Dick Ridpath in the kitchen of the stately Biddle residence in the quaint Victorian resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a hot August night in that fateful year of 1963...


“Where is everybody, anyway?” asked Dick.

“Well, there’s a bunch of them up on the second-floor porch,” I said.

“Ah. Do you want to go up?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Your girlfriend’s up there? What’s her name, Eurydice?”

“Elektra,” I said.

“Oh, right, Elektra. Real pretty girl, Arnold. I’m impressed.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not worthy.”

He smiled at me.

“Let’s go up.”

“Okay. Uh, where’s Daphne?” I asked as we headed out of the kitchen.

“Still playing badminton probably. Oh. Hello, Mrs. Biddle.”

She was coming down the hall our way, moving quickly along with determined cracks of her walking stick. It hadn’t registered with me before, but she was wearing a light-colored dress with winged collars and buttons down the front that somehow made me think she should be on a rubber plantation in Malaya or the Philippines.

“You two,” she said. “What are you up to?”

“Heading upstairs,” said Dick.

“To smoke reefer with Sammy, no doubt.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Dick. “Why don’t you join us?”

“My goodness,” she said. “I haven’t blown gage as we used to call it since the thirties.”

“Come on up.”

“No, I should stay down here with those living corpses in there. Besides, I’m winning at canasta. You, Arnold,” she said to me.

“Yes?”

I successfully fought the impulse to click my heels and stand to attention.

“Don’t forget to come see me,” she said.

“All right.”

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

Same thing I did everyday. Which was:

“Nothing.”

“Good. Stop by around four. We’ll have tea. You do drink tea.”

“Copiously,” I lied.

“I’ll feed you. Come hungry.”

“I’m always hungry,” I said.

“All right, begone. I’m just going in to get some more ice and whisky.”

And she brushed past us and into the kitchen, leaving a fugitive fragrance of dried roses and Scotch.

Dick and I headed up the stairs.

At the landing Dick stopped and looked at a painting on the wall. An actual real painting, and not a reproduction of one, or a photograph of the Pope or Bishop Sheen or Jackie Kennedy such as one would find in our own little house back in Olney. It was a sun-dappled picture of a bunch of people in top hats and bonnets and with parasols standing around near some lake.

I waited patiently while Dick stared at the picture; I’ve come to realize that when it comes to odd behavior I am in no position to be critical. And then suddenly Dick turned and said, “What do you think of the concept of the vision quest?”

“Um, I really don’t know much about it.”

“It’s this sort of deliberately difficult journey that American Indian boys go on. To become a man and learn to appreciate nature. And the spiritual world. And this helps him decide in what direction to go in life.”

“Ah,” I said.

“A lot of cultures have this sort of thing. Some sort of rite of passage.” He turned to me.

“Do you think we miss something in our culture by not having that?”

“Beats me.”

Dick was now looking at another painting on the adjacent wall of the landing. More of the old-fashioned people, staring out at an ocean or sea with a lot of boats sailing around on it.

“The navy has me studying all this sort of thing,” he said. "I just got back from almost a year in Japan, checking out Buddhism. And I might go to Tibet.”

“That sounds interesting,” I said.

“Yeah.”

There was a little wooden table in the corner, with a cut glass vase with some geraniums in it. Dick put his beer bottle on the table, then took out his cigarettes and offered me one. I shook my head no and took out my own. What the hell, it had been well over a minute since I’d finished my last one.

Dick lit us up with a battered old Ronson with the letters U.S.N. on it. He clicked the lighter shut and dropped it in a pocket.

“Daphne just told me that you’ve had visitations from Jesus,” he said.

“Well, if you want to call it that.”

“So what does he say?”

“Well, he gives me advice.”

“Really? Good advice?”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure.”

He took a drag of his cigarette. I suppose it was the kind of drag the authors I like to read would call contemplative.

“A lot of people would kill to be in your shoes, Arnold.”

“Overall, it’s pretty disconcerting, Dick,” I said. “I could do without it.”

He paused, then said, “So what do you think of all this Rat Pack business? Frank and Dean, and Sammy. Joey.”

“They seem like nice guys,” I said.

“So you don’t think it’s odd they’re here. In Cape May.”

“Now that you mention it.”

“They’re friends of Mac’s. Daphne’s father.”

“Ah,” I said.

“He seems to know everyone. But you don’t really care, do you?”

“They’re all just people.”

“That’s true,” said Dick. “They wipe their asses just like the rest of us.” He paused, staring at the floor. Then, “But look,” he said, looking up, “you want to see something neat? Watch this.”

He turned to the painting of the people on the beach front, put his cigarette between his lips and then pulled himself up and climbed down into the painting.

I saw him in there with all the other people.

He was waving at me and calling for me to come on in.

What the hell, I did as he had done. I put my beer bottle on the little table, grabbed the sides of the frame, and climbed up and down into the picture just as if I was climbing out of a window and into the outside world.

Except now I was standing on this sunny beach front and Dick was standing there before me with a broad smile on his face. He wore an old-fashioned blue sport-jacket over a white shirt and white trousers. He had a bright red cravat around his neck with a diamond stick-pin, and he wore a straw boater.

The seaside air was bright and warm and the breeze smelled of hibiscus and lemon.

“So, what do you think?” asked Dick. “Pretty neat, hey, Arnold?”

I looked down and saw that I was similarly attired in 19th century gentleman's fashion. I even had suede spats on over my two-toned shoes. Looking up I saw the shadowed underside of the brim of a straw hat.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty neat.”


(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Parade Magazine Award third-place winner, Railroad Train to Heaven™.)


And now, Miss June Christy:

Friday, April 11, 2008

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Sixty-One: remembrances concerning a man named Ridpath

Our exclusive serialization of the never-before-published uncut version of this sprawling masterwork continues as our author Larry Winchester delves deeper still into the murky psyche of one Captain Alexis J. Pym, USN...


Not that Ridpath was a bad guy.

For instance he’d always bring back souvenirs and presents for everybody when he returned from one of his outlandish assignments. Little trinkets and things for the girls in the warren. Stranger items for the men.

Pym still harbored in his lower right desk drawer a shrunken head that Dick had brought back from the Amazon, a poison dart blowpipe from Borneo, and a vial of rhinoceros-horn aphrodisiac from Bechuanaland (sampled only once -- he had worn his penis raw in a masturbatory frenzy in his little office, slavering and drooling over a deck of pornographic playing cards Dick had brought over from Burma).

Pym liked the guy. Everyone did. Especially women. And the Admiral of course. Everyone liked Dick.

Bonjour tout le monde,” he would say upon making one of his infrequent returns to the warren. Bonjour tout le monde. Only Ridpath could pull off that sort of thing. Certainly Pym could not, he knew, having tried it one wet miserable cold November morning, after having practiced all weekend in the den of his faceless splitlevel in suburban Virginia, with Pat Boone turned up loud on his hi-fi so that his nameless robot of a wife and his two strange zombielike children should not hear him. He had come to the warren and tried to toss it off casually and urbanely, pipe in hand -- "Bonjour tout le monde!" -- and everyone in earshot had looked up, briefly, from their desks, and a few others who were walking somewhere had halted and turned, momentarily, and one or two people had peeked out of their office doorways, just for a second. With contempt. Followed quickly by lack of interest. Pym had flushed deeply, feeling the sweat breaking out under his underwear, and he had tried to chuckle urbanely, producing only a high-pitched croak which he tried to turn into a cough which came out as a strangled wheeze.

And then he had scurried off to his own little office which he always referred to (but only in his thoughts) as “my cell”. And he stood there, hyperventilating, holding the first knuckle of his right index finger between his sharp little teeth.

Oh, those days when Ridpath was due to return.

You could feel a special body-electric current in that normally flat deathly fluorescent air of the warren.

Say Ridpath was due back on a Tuesday; all the girls on that Tuesday would have fresh new hairdos, their make-up shimmering and bright, their outfits clean and slinky or crisp as the wrapping paper on ripe fresh fruit; nylons hissed and whispered like locusts in heat and the subterranean atmosphere was alive with a dozen warring hothouse scents.

Needless to say only the most rudimentary work would barely be attempted.

Pym himself would have gotten a haircut the day before, and even perhaps a manicure as well. He would have had his uniform cleaned, starched, and pressed, and he would have personally polished his shoes so brightly he could see his own ghostly doubled visage looking up at him from them as he languished in his cell not working, suffused in his own private cloud of Aqua Velva.

And the thing of it was, Ridpath never returned on the day he was supposed to. Never. Forget about showing up on time, he just didn’t show up at all. Oh, sure, he would phone, probably at about four in the afternoon, asking to be connected to the Admiral, and of course the Admiral would take the call, and Pym would creep slowly past the Admiral’s office and hear the Admiral chuckling, saying, “Oh, Dick, you kill me! You slay me!”

The Admiral had never called Pym by his Christian name (however, Pym had reflected that when your first name was Alexis perhaps not to be addressed by this name was not such a bad thing, not such a bad thing at all, and damn his parents to hell).

And so maybe, maybe on the Wednesday or more likely on the Thursday, Dick would show up, finally. Two or three days when virtually no work was being done, and all because of this, this -- anticipation.

But oh the feeling in the warren when all of a sudden there fell a complete and echoing silence and then you heard it, that pleasant euphonious baritone: “Bonjour tout le monde!”

And then all bloody hell broke loose. The chirping and the squealing of the women rising up like the mating chorus of a flock of ecstatic parakeets. And under it all that chuckling friendly baritone.

Pym would go to his door and press his ear against the cool plywood, listening as Dick’s joyful, noisy advent surged closer. The women laughing and screeching, the men joking and hey-buddying, and borne along within this happy babble, Dick’s quiet but carrying friendly voice.

Standing inside his door, his heart thumping, that sweaty feeling under his Fruit-of-the-Looms, that sweaty feeling now all over his body except under his armpits which he had absolutely caked with Ban Roll-On. And as the noise drew closer he drew his reddened knuckle out from between his teeth, scuttled back to his desk for his pipe, with trembling hands packed it, with six or seven matches finally lit it, puffing desperately, the noise almost at his door now, and he went to the door, but no, he needed his prop, his other prop, and he went back to his desk and grabbed a folder, yes, some papers he had to take somewhere, yes, an errand, he, he at least was working, not just sitting around all day waiting for Dick, and he put the folder under his arm and went to the door and took several deep breaths, the noise outside came louder, the parade was almost upon him, he opened the door, and there he was, Dick, tall and so very there, sun-burnished and radiant (or, true, sometimes perhaps so very pale, the sad paleness of Michelangelo’s David) but there, smiling, chatting, laden with presents and with that scuffed and battered old attaché case of his, surrounded by almost the entire staff of Q Section.

And then everyone stopped and looked at him, Pym, standing there, sweating.

Was there really such a great pause or did he only imagine it? That momentary silence. Did Dick’s sky-blue eyes really glaze over for just a fraction of a second? Did his famous smile really falter just briefly?

But then there it was, that strong hand thrust out from under the parcels and Dick smiling broadly and warmly and saying, as he always said to Pym, “Hey, fella, how’s it hangin’?”

How indeed. How else but limply and in defeat?

And Pym bravely extended his own hand, but it was the hand that held the pipe, Dick chuckled fondly, Pym blushed and transferred the pipe to his other hand, and in so doing he dropped his folder of fake work to the floor, and blushing deeper still he bent over to pick it up, catching a slow-motion glimpse of his miserable ghastly face in his hyper-polished shoes, and retrieving his fake folder he dropped his pipe, the burning tobacco spilling across the tiles as the pipe spun and slid between some woman’s pumps.

And so forth.

Pym would stay in the warren late on these days. “Working.” “Catching up on some work.” “Trying to straighten out some of this back paperwork.” Dick would have gone for cocktails and dinner with the Admiral. Pym would not have been invited. But that was okay, he had “work” to do.

Someone around here had to get some work done.

He would sit in his office, his cell, until everyone had gone. He would have phoned his nameless wife. She didn’t care. She was probably grateful. She could watch My Little Margie in robotic peace and drink her martinis undisturbed by his baleful presence in their pastel-hued splitlevel with its Swedish furniture and its faintly disturbing paintings of Paris street scenes which she had bought on a subscription plan advertised in the back pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.


(Kindly go here for our next thrilling chapter. And turn to the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of links to all other extant episodes of Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain™, soon to be a major mini-series event from the Hallmark Hall of Fame starring Justin Timberlake; a Sheldon Leonard Production.)

And now just a brief word from Miss Joan Jett:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 66: male bonding

Previously in this Texaco Award-nominated sprawling memoir, our hero Arnold Schnabel managed, at least for the nonce, to escape the advances of the amorous novelist Gertrude Evans. What new adventures lie in store?

Our scene: a second-floor corridor of the imposing Biddle residence in Cape May, New Jersey, on this seemingly endless sultry August evening in 1963...


I moved quickly. I certainly wouldn’t have put it past Miss Evans to come running out after me and grabbing me again, perhaps to throw me down on the hall carpet with a deft jiu-jitsu maneuver.
   
I headed for the staircase and descended the stairs two steps at a time, glancing up at the turning of the first flight just to make sure she wasn’t following me.
   
Almost falling down the ground-floor flight I practically slammed into Daphne’s father, Mr. MacNamara.
   
“Whoa,” he said, holding one hand against my chest and hanging onto the bannister with his other hand.
   
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.
   
“What’s the rush, Arnold?”
   
“I, um —”
   
I suppose I looked like a lunatic. Which I suppose is what I should have looked like, since I was acting like a lunatic.
   
He removed his hand from my chest, then took another step up so that we stood at the same level, facing each other. He looked into my eyes.
   
He’s in his late or middle forties, tall and solidly built, the sort of man that the writers of the paperback novels I like to read would call “ruggedly handsome”. He wore a madras sport shirt and tan shorts. His nose appeared to have been broken at one time, and his eyes were somewhat hooded, almost sleepy-looking, and yet somehow very watchful. He seemed to be looking into me, but for some reason I found this calming instead of disconcerting.
   
“Where you headed, Arnold?”
   
His voice was deep, and I found this reassuring also.
   
“I was going to get a drink of water,” I said.
   
“Running like you had a hellhound on your trail?”
  
“There was — um — there was —”
   
“A woman,” he said.
   
“Yeah,” I exhaled.
   
He took out a pack of Chesterfields, gave them a shake and offered them to me.
   
I had my own Pall Malls of course, but I took one of his Chesterfields. He shook another one up and put it in his lips. Getting a hold of myself I took out my lighter and lit us both up.
   
For some reason it didn’t seem strange to be standing smoking in this narrow staircase with this man.
   
“I guess you’ve seen a lot,” he said.
   
“No more than the average person,” I said.
   
“I’m not talking about things you’ve seen in the physical world. Anyone can see that shit. I’ve seen that shit. You know what I mean.”
   
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
   
“But you know what, Arnold?”
   
“What?”
   
“There’s even more to see.”
   
“Really?”
   
“And I don’t mean in the physical world.”
   
That was what I thought he meant.
   
“Well,” he said, “you’d better get that drink of water.”
   
“Yeah,” I said.
   
He patted my shoulder and continued up the stairs, and I went down them.
   
At the foot of the stairs I could hear the gentle, crackling-leaf voices of the old people in the dining room, playing their canasta or shooting craps or whatever it was they were doing. I turned right, down the hall and into the kitchen. I found a glass on a drainboard and at long last I filled it with cold water from the tap, and I drank, in great continuous gulps. This felt so good I repeated the operation, drinking another full glassful. I sighed, and stood there, staring at the steel sink. Putting my cigarette between my lips I rinsed out the glass and put it back in the dish rack.
   
I was ready now, or as ready as I could expect to be.
   
The kitchen was empty of other human beings, but I felt life all around me, as if even the walls of this house were alive.
   
Dick Ridpath walked into the kitchen.
   
“Oh, Arnold,” he said. “How’s it going?”
   
“Okay, Dick,” I said.
   
“Having a good time?”
   
“Sure,” I said.
   
“Ready for another beer?”
   
“I don’t know if I should,” I said.
   
“Why not?”
   
“I’m afraid of being hungover.”
   
“How many have you had?”
   
“Um —” I tried to remember. Two beers in the yard? One with Daphne in the kitchen. A Manhattan on the porch. “I think I’ve had about about three beers and one Manhattan,” I said.
   
“Oh, Christ, have a beer.” He went to the enormous double-doored Frigidaire and took out two brown bottles. “It’s only Schmidt’s,” he said.
   
He popped them open on the wall-opener and handed me one.
   
“Cheers, Arnold.”
   
We drank. I had to admit it tasted good. And after all, what was a slight hangover in the great course of things? It wasn’t as if I had anything to do the next day. Or any day.
   
“Daphne told me she had a chat with you,” he said.
   
“Yeah.”
   
“Did she say anything about me?”
   
“She said she’s madly in love with you.”
   
“Seriously?”
   
“Yes.”
   
“Wow.”
   
He stared at the linoleum tiles on the floor.
   
After half a minute he looked up, at me.
   
“Should I ask her to marry me then?”
   
“I think you should wait a few years,” I said. “She’s still young.”
   
“Right,” he said. “Right.”
   
He was looking at the floor again.
   
“She’ll wait for you,” I said.
   
He looked up.
   
“She will?”
   
“Yes,” I said. “I think so.”
   
“Right,” he said. “Don’t rush things.”
   
There was an ashtray on the kitchen table. I went over and put out my cigarette.
   
“You can’t change the things you’ve done, can you, Arnold?”
   
I turned and looked at him.
   
“No,” I said.
   
“But we do have some say about the things we do now.”
   
“Yes,” I said, after thinking it over for half a minute.
   
“Right," he said.
   
He turned his head slightly, seeming to gaze out the kitchen window. I had no idea what was on his mind, or on his conscience. Sometimes it's hard to say enough, and sometimes I think it's easy to say too much. I've come to realize that some men's souls are like bombed-out cities. But even the most bombed-out city can be rebuilt, in time. I held my peace.
   
For some moments it was as if he had forgotten I was there. I could hear the leaves of some dark bush brushing against the window screen, the strumming of guitar strings and low voices from upstairs on the porch, and as if from another house I heard the ancient murmuring from down the hall in the dining room.
   
Then Dick turned to me.
   
“Why are we being so serious?” he asked.
   
“I have no idea,” I said.
   
“Shall we go rejoin the party?”
   
“Sure,” I said.


(Click here to go to our next thrilling installment. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for listings of links to many other fine episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, in some of which something actually even happens.)

Today’s soundtrack provided by the Hollies:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Sixty: water boy

(Click here for our previous episode; go here to return to the beginning of our epic.)

Never fear, Larry Winchester will eventually remember to return to his lead characters (last seen partaking of a Native American peyote ceremony), but now he turns the mighty Panavision camera of his prose to a character last seen poking dubiously around in Dick’s old office in the basement of the Pentagon...


Ladies and gentlemen, we give you:


Captain Alexis J. Pym, Q Section, US Navy, the only passenger in a C-130 high above the clouds en route to New Mexico, leafed through Dick Ridpath’s dossier, feeling for a clue, a hint, some meaning. He knew the dossier by heart (having pretty much assembled it himself) but he pored through the pages anyway. For four years he had followed Dick’s movements, all the time searching for some pattern.

In Ridpath’s first few months back on civvy street he had evinced little interest in pursuing any particular career. He shared a shabby loft in Greenwich Village with an artist friend. He underwent analysis with Dr. Theodor Reik and acupuncture with a certain Dr. Xu. He took up the Chinese discipline of chi kung. He spent a lot of time with the MacNamara girl, frequenting jazz clubs and going to foreign films. He accepted occasional job offers which utilized some of his unusual skills; these offers came unsolicited and by way of relationships he had forged in his naval career. In May of ‘65 he helped coordinate a successful Filipino raid on a pirate base in the Sulu sea. That summer he set up an internal security system for the Sandoz company in Switzerland, and in September of that year he ferreted out a double agent from the ranks of MI6 in less than two weeks.

Then he married Daphne MacNamara and the at least somewhat predictable pattern of the dashingly efficient agent-for-hire had broken up. Ridpath made it known to anyone who contacted him that he was simply no longer interested in any sort of military or intelligence work.

Thenceforth there was no pattern, not unless a laughably absurd series of commercial misadventures and near disasters could be called a pattern. Not unless the lack of a pattern could be called a pattern.


Pym had not actually seen Dick in person since that week he had spent interrogating him, well, say it, torturing him, back in February 1965.

He had always secretly admired Dick, had even perhaps had a sort of schoolboy crush on him (although Pym was no faggot, God damn it...)

Pym had been warming the bench in his capacity as water boy when Dick scored that winning touchdown in the 1950 Army/Navy game, and that had pretty much been the story of Pym’s subsequent career. He had jockeyed a desk in san Diego while Dick was oh-so-nonchalantly winning the Navy Cross in Korea. And after Dick transferred from the UDTs to Naval Intelligence, Pym had begged him to get him into intelligence also, and Dick had done this favor for Pym, but Dick was always the field operator while Pym was the one who got to edit his reports. And it had been the same when Pym followed Dick like a faithful dog into the newly-formed Q Section...


Q Section had never actually “officially’ existed. It had come into being out of the turbid mists of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, and its civilian and military personnel were nominally employed by the fictitious entity known as the “Naval Office of Comparative Statistics”. Pym wasn’t quite sure where the phrase “Q Section” came from. Was it Q for Quigley, Admiral Quigley, the founding Chief? So one might think, but then again Admiral Quigley had a framed sampler on his office wall which read “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Pym had looked the phrase up and it meant “Who shall keep watch over the guardians?”

Supposedly the section had been okayed by President Eisenhower during one of his famous golf games with Admiral Quigley. Apparently the admiral and the ex-general (who had been friends since the invasion of North Africa in 1942) were not entirely happy with the CIA’s hegemony over American intelligence, and so the CIA was not informed of Q Section’s existence. Of course if the CIA boys had had any real intelligence they might have thought it a little odd that a man of Dick Ridpath’s calibre had been transferred from the field section of the Office of Naval Intelligence to an obscure statistical department. But that was the CIA for you. They were always requesting Dick’s services anyway, since so many of their own agents were such incompetent blunderers. Little did they know that Dick’s status as an occasional special agent for the CIA enabled him to keep the Admiral informed on all the latest CIA skullduggery, and this information influenced to some extent Q Section’s own investigations and operations.

Q Section’s offices were a maze of former broom closets and storage rooms in a sub-basement of the Pentagon and were known to everyone in Q Section only as “the warren”. On Pym’s first day Dick had taken him around and very nicely introduced him to everyone, and then Pym hadn’t even seen him again for almost six months.

That pattern was set. He had had to stay in that cramped little windowless warren while Dick got to spend a year in a dojo in Yokohama, another year in a monastery in the Himalayas. Dick was the one who got sent to Easter Island, to Cuba, to Haiti. He was the one who got to take LSD with Cary Grant and mescaline with Aldous Huxley. He was the one who got to be “special consultant” on that frogman movie with Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson and Diana Dors. Always Ridpath who was being sent out on some mysterious operation that only the Admiral and Dick knew the details of.

And when Dick got back from a mission the old Admiral always took him to lunch at the Colony or the Shoreham, and according to warren scuttlebutt, to a rather exclusive bordello in Georgetown which catered only to the absolute highest echelons of military and government service.

The old Admiral had never once taken Pym to lunch. (It was true that the Admiral had once, upon returning from the Philadelphia Naval base, offered Pym half of a day-old hoagie; Pym had accepted the sandwich but had never quite decided if this offer was a feather in his cap or an insult.)

And who could ever forget the day when Dick was invited to make up a fourth at golf (along with the Admiral and Dick’s future father-in-law Mike “Mac” MacNamara) with none other than President Eisenhower? Not only that but Dick had won the round (and, reportedly, ten bucks from the president).



(Click here for our next thrilling installment. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant episodes of Larry Winchester's A Town Called Disdain™, a Rank Production.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Sixty-Five: Kierkegaard’s great leap into faith

When last we saw Arnold Schnabel (author and hero of these memoirs*) he had found himself yet again in a compromising situation with the hot-blooded young novelist Gertrude Evans, in a bedroom of the stately Biddle residence, in Cape May NJ, on an increasingly sultry night in August, 1963...

*”Like Proust except the sentences aren’t so long.” -- Harold Bloom

I said nothing. Not because I was trying to be the strong, silent type, but because I couldn’t think of anything to say, let alone something witty or profound.

Suddenly she grabbed the cloth of my shirt at my chest in both her hands and pulled me closer to her.

“Have you read Kierkegaard?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

I had heard the name, but it lay stranded somewhere between Kant and Knut Hamsun on that long list of authors I intended to get to when I found the time in my busy schedule.

“He speaks of a great leap. A leap into faith. Don’t be afraid to take that leap, Arnold.”

“It’s not the leap into faith that I’m afraid of,” I said.

“What are you afraid of?”

She stared deep and questioningly into my eyes, even though I’d just finished telling her it was her I was afraid of; I’ve noticed in life that with some people you just have to keep telling them something, perhaps with slight variations, until at last they get it through their thick heads that you actually mean what you say.

But before I could answer she answered for me:

“It’s me,” she said. “Isn’t it? You’re afraid of me. Why are you afraid of me?”

I didn’t quite know where to begin. But I did know there was probably no extremely gentle way to answer this question. So on the spur of the moment I decided to fall back on the time-honored recourse of babbling the first nonsense that came into my head.

“I’m afraid of your passion,” I said. “I’m afraid to take that leap because I fear it would be like leaping into some great dark lake. No, some great dark sea. A great dark warm, stormy dark sea. In which I would drown.”

“You’re such a poet,” she said.

“Well, I guess I’ll go get that drink of water now,” I said.

She hesitated only a fraction of a second before tightening her double fist-hold on my shirt front and pulling me around and then pushing me back and down onto a bed that I had only vaguely been aware was even there.

I lay back on the bed, looking up at her in the half-darkness. I became aware that Frank had started singing again, out on the porch:
Fly me to the moon
And let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
She stepped closer to the bed, between my legs. She lowered one of the straps of her sundress off her shoulder, and a soft pale crescent of bosom appeared.

Moving like an Olympic gymnast I lifted my right leg up and to the other side of her, sprang to my feet and quickly sidestepped around her, heading for the door.

She grabbed my arm, again, and pulled me around to face her.

“Tonight, then. My room,” she whispered.

The loosened shoulder strap lay down at her elbow, and that side of her dress hung low, revealing more than enough of her to cause me to sigh.

Where was my friend Jesus when I needed him, I wondered.

“Right here, buddy,” he said.

And sure enough he was standing behind her in the shadows, glowing in his white shirt and trousers. He popped a cigarette into his mouth from a pack of Pall Malls, and shoved the pack back into his shirt pocket.
In other words please be true
In other words…
“You don’t have to look over my shoulder,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to look into my eyes.”

“Yeah, don’t look at me, Arnold,” he said, taking a lighter out of his pocket.

I looked into her eyes. She put her hand on my cheek.

“Or I could come to your room,” she said.

“Give her a break, Arnold,” he said. He lit the cigarette, clicked the lighter shut, took a drag. “Christ you can be a stick-in-the-mud.”

“Your poet’s garret,” she said. “I could creep away before dawn, and your mother and aunts would be none the wiser.”

“Miss Evans,” I said.

“Gertrude,” she said.

“Listen, Gertrude,” I said.

“I’m listening.”

“I’m leaping, but I’m leaping in the other direction.”

“So, tonight then?” she said.

It was as if I were speaking Chinese.

“You’re not speaking Chinese,” he said, with a grin. “But you are speaking with a woman.”
In other words please be true
In other words, in other words
I love you
I removed her hands, from my face and from my arm. Nevertheless she kissed me, warmly but briefly. She drew her face away from mine.

Her eyes were dark blue, gleaming and beckoning.

I noticed him smiling, nodding his head.

I turned, went to the door, opened it and went out.

I really needed a glass of water now.


(Whew! Click here for our next chapter. And turn to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to other steamy episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™.)