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I walked into a hotel lobby, not really knowing why, but then I saw Emily standing next to an old grandfather clock.
I waved, and she walked toward me faster than I walked toward her. Her hair had been sprayed into the shape of a Nazi soldier’s helmet, and she had somehow changed her clothes in the last second or two. She now wore a rather tight grey skirt with a matching jacket, and she carried a large black shiny pocket book and also a briefcase, brown or dark grey, how could I tell in this black-and-white world?
“I knew it,” she said by way of greeting.
“What’s that?” I said.
“I knew you wouldn’t wear a tie.”
I looked down. I was wearing the same clothes I was wearing what seemed to be a moment ago, the plaid shirt, the jeans, the work shoes.
“And no jacket,” she said. “Must you be such a relentless rebel? Fortunately I came prepared. Come with me before we get thrown out on our collective ear.”
She slipped her arm in mine and pulled me over to a corner with an ornate mirror, a cushioned armchair, a small table and a vase with an enormous ficus bush in it.
She stood the briefcase on the table, unbuckled it, took out a folded-up article of clothing and shook it out.
“Got it on sale at Macy’s, but I’ll have you know I want to be reimbursed just as soon as you receive your advance.”
It was a seersucker sport jacket. She held it up against my torso.
“It looks like a good fit. Try it on, Porter.”
I slipped the jacket on. It was just a little too loose, but I prefer jackets that way.
“Okay,” she said, “a trifle large, but that’s better than too small. This way you look hungry. Serious. But don’t act too serious. Or too hungry.”
Which reminded me, I still hadn’t eaten, and I was very hungry.
She was reaching into the briefcase again, and now she pulled out a necktie. She held it up against my chest.
“I deliberately got a matte dark grey so that it wouldn’t clash too severely with the your habitual lumberjack couture.”
She cocked her head, studying the effect of the ensemble, then handed me the tie.
“All right, put it on. You do know how to tie a tie, don’t you?”
She was speaking with a sort of English accent again.
I put the tie on. Anything to get us closer to some food.
But then as I tightened my knot while looking into the mirror I noticed a stubble of beard on my face, even though I had just shaved.
And then it hit me.
Since I had last seen Emily there must have been a chapter or two in Miss Evans’s book in which I had remained offstage.
And so I had jumped ahead in time. Or, perhaps more accurately put, time and existence had happened without my participation.
“By the way,” I said, trying to sound casual, “what day is today, anyway?”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
She stood back, examining me.
“Just curious,” I said.
“Tuesday, you distracted artist, you.”
She buttoned my jacket.
Tuesday; that wasn’t too bad. I was pretty sure I had woken up on a Saturday in this world, so I’d only lost two days, well, three really, since I’d only experienced the morning of the first day.
But I still hadn’t eaten, or if I had I had no memory of it.
“So, are we going to have some breakfast?” I asked. I’ve always had a good nose for food, and I smelled meat.
“Breakfast? Do you always eat breakfast at one in the afternoon, Porter?”
“Sure,” I said. It seemed like a good idea just to go with the character I was supposed to be. Why make waves?
“Well, call it what you will, it’s luncheon for me and Julian.”
“Ah, Julian. He’s the publisher guy, right? Kind of a Rock Hudson type?””
“Porter, do not try my nerves. Do you know what this could mean for your career?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, truthfully.
“It could change everything. Put you on the literary map. Or do you want to drive a hack your whole life?”
“No,” I said.
“Then behave.” She wet her fingertips with her tongue and smoothed back my hair. “There, you look bohemian but presentable. Let’s go in.”
I followed her lead, we walked across the lobby to where it opened onto a small but cozy-looking dining room. The sign near the entrance said “The Oak Room”.
A maître d’ was there at a lectern. He eyed my beard, my jeans and my unshined shoes, but before he could call the house dick over and have me dragged out Emily spoke up.
“Mr. Smythe’s table, please.”
“Oh, Mr. Smythe. Yes, of course, right this way.”
He grabbed some menus and led us across the crowded room to a little nook and a round table with a white table-cloth, a vase of hibiscus.
The man pulled out a chair for Emily, but I sat down under my own steam.
“May I offer the, uh, gentleman and the lady a cocktail?” he asked us, as he laid down three menus.
“I’ll have an Old Fashioned,” said Emily. “How about you, Porter?”
“I’ll take a beer,” I said.
“We have a fine Czech Pilsener, sir. Unless of course you would care for a domestic.”
“Sure, domestic is fine,” I said.
“Nonsense, George,” said a tall man in a dark suit who had just loomed into the picture. “Bring him the Pilsener, and make sure it’s arctically cold.”
“Of course, Mr. Smythe, and for you, sir -- comme d’habitude?”
“Right. Make it a double.”
Having been brought up right, I had pushed my chair back and stood up. The man thrust out his hand.
“Julian Smythe. And you must be Mr. Walker.”
I shook his hand. He really did look like Rock Hudson. (But then I remembered that I looked like Montgomery Clift.)
“Sit down, pal,” he said.
I sat, he sat, and while he and Emily exchanged greetings I opened my menu. The first thing I noticed was the prices, and I hoped that my wallet had somehow gained more than the four dollar bills that were in there the last time I checked.
But Julian pulled the menu out of my hands.
“Don’t look at that,” he said. “That’s for the tourists. Let me order. Do you like a good T-bone?”
“Very much so,” I said. “But maybe just a grilled cheese for me -- you see I just lost my job, and --”
“Don’t worry about it, Porter. May I call you Porter?”
“Uh, sure,” I said.
“Call me Julian; and lunch is on me, Porter. Or on the firm I should say. Which is another way of saying it’s on my old man. So, a T-bone? Or perhaps some Dover sole, but only if it’s been flown in fresh this morning.”
“T-bone’s good for me,” I said.
He took out what might have been a gold-plated cigarette case and clicked it open.
I hesitated, pondering. Had I quit smoking in this world as well? Well, anyway, maybe just one wouldn’t hurt --
But I hesitated too long; he offered the case to Emily, she took one, he took one, he clicked the case shut and lit Emily and himself up with a lighter that might have been gold-plated also, maybe it was only silver.
“So,” he said to me, exhaling a delicious cloud of smoke, “Emily here thinks you’re the next Walt Whitman. Did you bring Porter’s poem, Emily?”
I couldn’t help but notice that Emily had been gazing wide-eyed at this Julian ever since he had joined us.
“Oh,” she said, “yes, of course, Mr. Smythe.”
She had put her briefcase on the floor. She opened it up, reached in with both hands, brought out a thick sheath of typescript, and laid it on the table.
Julian flipped through some of the pages with his thumb.
“I’ll be honest, Porter. I’m not big on poetry. However, from what I’ve read of your little epic here I’ll say that one good thing about it is that it almost reads like prose. Or let’s say that it reads like prose in the way that a bird like Faulkner reads like poetry. Which to my way of thinking is a problem with fellows like Faulkner, Joyce, Fitzgerald, that whole crew. But you probably disagree.”
“Oh, no,” I said, honestly enough, since I hadn’t read any of the authors he had mentioned.
“But my opinions don’t matter,” he said. “Me, I’ll take a good car magazine any day. Or Photoplay, Silver Screen, that’s more my speed.”
“Photoplay is good,” I offered.
“What matters is we need a new author, one of the young crowd. Something the young people can ‘dig’ as you bohemians say. Ah, thank you, George.”
The maître d’ was there, personally laying down our drinks. Julian’s was a very large martini, with three or four olives skewered on a plastic spear. George poured some of my bottle of Czech Pilsener into a glass for me.
“Chin-chin,” said Julian, and we all drank. “Oh, boy, I needed that,” he said, having drunk half his double in one go.
“Tell me, Porter, do you know this guy Kerouac?”
“No,” I said.
“I’ve heard of him,” I said.
“Thought you would have. Anyway, Viking’s got a book of his in the pipeline, called -- what is it, Emily? Up The Highway? Down The Turnpike?”
“On The Road, I think,” said Emily.
“Whatever the hell it is, supposed to come out this September, and the advance word is it’s going to be a smasheroo best-seller. And let me tell ya, poetic prose? I’ve seen the galleys, and, buddy, we’re talking some serious damn poetic prose, might as well be a damned epic poem. So, what does Smythe & Son do? We beat Viking to the punch and put out our own damn poetic bohemian epic.”
I had been tasting my beer, and it really was very good, much better than the Schmidt’s or Ortlieb’s I usually swilled, and as I drank I was noticing some famous people at the other tables: Bennett Cerf, Kitty Carlisle, Steve Allen. I was pretty sure one guy was Oscar Levant --
“So what do you think?” asked Julian.
“What about?” I said
I felt a sharp toe of a shoe kick against my shin.
“I think I’m going to like you, Porter, even if you are a poet.” He took another good gulp of his martini. “We’re going to publish your poem, pal. What do you think of that?”
I thought I’d better play my cards close to the vest.
“Sounds good,” I said. “How much do I get paid?”
“Porter --” said Emily.
“No, that’s okay, Emily,” said Julian. “To answer Mr. Walker’s question, our standard advance for a first book is two hundred dollars, and a sliding scale of royalties, of course.”
“Sliding scale?” I asked, having no idea what that was.
“It’s standard, I assure you,” he said.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said. “Make it two thousand and we’ll call it a deal.”
“You mean two thousand up front?”
I didn’t know what that meant either, but rather than admit my ignorance, I said, “Yes.”
“You’re kidding me. Robert Frost doesn’t get two thousand up front.”
I did have some vague idea who Robert Frost was. Wasn’t he the one who wrote the poem about stopping in the snow somewhere? That wasn’t much better than the sort of stuff I wrote...
“Porter --” said Emily.
“No, that’s okay, Emily,” said Julian. He lifted up his martini, finished it off. He raised the empty glass to the level of the top of his glossy head, and suddenly a waiter was there, one I hadn’t noticed before. He looked like Arnold Stang.
“Another martini, Mr. Smythe?”
“A double,” said Julian. “And another Pilsener for my friend here. Ready for another Old Fashioned, Emily?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t, Mr. Smythe.”
“And another Old Fashioned for the lady,” said Julian.
“Right away, Mr. Smythe,” said Arnold Stang, and off he went.
Julian stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. The words The Algonquin Hotel were painted on it.
“Two thousand,” said Julian.
I thought it over for a second. Had I gone too far? After all, two hundred wasn’t so bad. I was used to getting just a dollar apiece for my Olney Times poems. I was just about to say I’d take the two hundred when Julian spoke first.
“Okay, Porter, two thousand it is. But it’s just an advance mind you, coming out of your royalties.”
“Oh, sure,” I said.
Actually I had just meant two thousand flat, I wasn’t even thinking about royalties. It seemed hard to believe anyone would actually buy this mammoth poem, not based on what I had read of it. I knew I wouldn’t have.
“Just do me a favor,” said Julian. “Don’t tell anyone about the advance. If old Bob Frost finds out he’ll have a cow. An absolute cow.”
“Oh, I won’t tell anyone,” I said.
(Continued here; what else can we do?)
(Please go to the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other previously published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, soon to be a major motion picture starring Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, and Montgomery Clift; directed by Vincente Minnelli.)