Friday, June 11, 2010

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 203: when universes collide, or, those stumbling words

Our hero Arnold Schnabel has been marooned by the prince of darkness in a novel of 1950s New York City, Gertrude Evans’s Ye Cannot Quench* (Knopf, 1959; reprinted in paperback as She Loved Too Well, Handi-Books, 1960). In his current guise as “Porter Walker, bohemian poet”, he has just met up with his date Betsy at the Greenwich Village bistro the Kettle of Fish when the PR man Nicky Boskins drags him over to a table to meet the famous TV personalities Ralph Edwards, John Cameron Swayze and Edward R. Murrow; but then who should walk in the door but the putative heroine of the novel, Emily...

(Click here to read our previous episode or go here to return to the first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

*Good news. Coming soon from the Library of America, Gertrude Evans: Four Early Novels; featuring Ye Cannot Quench (first time ever in its full unbowdlerized form); Crocodile Road; Angst; and Tears of the Damned; introduction and notes by Kitty Carlisle.)

If Nicky was the last person I wanted to run into here, then Emily ran a close second.

For a brief moment I considered putting down my shot glass, turning a quick about-face, and then, hunching over as far as I could without drawing undue attention to myself, ducking back through the crowd to Betsy, grabbing her by the arm and trying to find a back exit out of this place. But no, then Betsy would think me crazier than she already thought. No matter, Emily saw me nearly right away, for an awful moment our eyes locked through the smoke, you could almost see the alternating close-ups if this had been a movie. But then behind her I saw Julian, folding up a black umbrella; this was good, or at least better. Perhaps with Julian as a buffer whatever was about to happen might not be so bad after all.

“If there was one person Emily did not wish to see at this moment it was Porter, and there he was, holding a shot glass, standing with Nicky Boskins by a table of distinguished-looking gentlemen, and staring at her, at Emily!”

It was that voice again, Miss Evans’s voice, sounding not so much like Katharine Hepburn this time, but like some other actress, with an even more of a sort of English accent --

“She knew she shouldn’t have come here with Julian. But he had wanted his ‘taste of your louche bohemian milieu’ as he had put it, and so she had relented; she knew she could never say no to him, not to those enormous commanding brown eyes nor to those thick broad shoulders.”

Her voice drowned out everything else, the people’s chatter, Gabriel’s trumpet --

“The question was: would she ever be able to say anything but yes to Porter? Soulful intense poetic Porter. There was but one thing to do. Hold her head up high.” Audrey Hepburn, that’s who the voice sounded like. “Hold her head up high and march right up to Porter and say hello.”

Sure enough, Emily marched right over to the table.

She was wearing the same clothes she’d been wearing at lunch, the grey skirt and jacket, and she had her black purse and her briefcase, but her hair had lost its Nazi helmet-like quality. It looked more like a halved coconut now.

“Well, Porter, hello there,” she said.

“Hello,” I said.

Ralph Edwards was still standing, but now John Cameron Swayze and Edward R. Murrow also stood up, and this time John Cameron Swayze didn’t almost fall down, but he did knock his chair over.

Julian came up just then, reached down and pulled the chair upright.

“Having fun, boys?” said Julian. Unlike Emily he had changed his clothes, he had on a blue blazer with white trousers and a pink polo shirt with the collar turned up.

“And who is this lovely young lady, Julian?” said John Cameron Swayze.

“Oh, pardon me,” said Julian. And he went through the round of introducing Emily to the TV guys. He mentioned her last name, but I didn’t quite catch it, Fotherington, Fotheringham, Fotheringay, I supposed I would find out sooner or later. She seemed very excited to meet these gentlemen, but she also kept darting quick glances my way all through the introductions.

“Did Porter know?” continued Miss Evans’s voice. “Did he suspect?”

“A native of a small town in West Virginia,” Ralph Edwards was saying, “Emily came to New York City not only to seek a career but to find love --”

“Hey, Ralph,” said John Cameron Swayze, “you’re off the clock, baby. Cool it.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Ralph Edwards.

“Porter’s eyes were avoiding hers,” Miss Evans went on. “If he didn’t know, then he suspected.”

Suspected what, I wondered. The only thing I knew or suspected was that I wanted to escape from her and these other people as soon as possible.

“What are you doing with this Smythe scalawag, young lady,” said Edward R. Murrow.

“I work for him,” she answered, and Miss Evan’s voice added, ”shyly.”

“Works with me,” said Julian. “Emily just got promoted to the post of editor today, and her first project is Porter here’s new book.”

“The voice of his generation,” said Edward R. Murrow, “the so-called Beat Generation, goateed devotés of avant-garde jazz and all-night ‘tea’ parties, tea being slang for marijuana, also called ‘gage’ or ‘muggles’ --”

“Ed,” said John Cameron Swayze, “will you shut the goddam hell up about this so-called Beat Generation? All’s it is is the latest goddam fad. In our day it was bearskin coats and swallowing goldfish. And bathtub gin. Who gives a shit?”

“Um, ladies present, Cam,” said Ralph Edwards.

“Oh, I’m sure Emily has heard far worse down in the ancestral holler in West Virginny, haven’t you, sweetheart?”

“Well, uh,” she said, “heh heh --”

“Didn’t see you at the club this evening, Julian,” said Nicky. “I’m sure they all missed you and your absolutely lethal serve on the racquets court.”

“I was, uh, otherwise engaged,” said Julian, and it seemed that he made a point not to look anywhere near Emily as he said this, whereas she flinched as if someone had just pinched her and then quickly opened her purse and started running her fingers inside it. “Did you play?” Julian asked Nicky, and Miss Evans’s voice added, “although Emily doubted that he cared one whit whether Nicky had played or had not.”

“Oh, no, after I finally cut loose from Truman and Norman and Flannery -- dumped ‘em at Toots Shor’s -- I met up with Kerouac and Ginsberg and those fellows down at the San Remo, along with a very interesting fellow whom I believe Porter is good friends with, chap called Josh, and --”

“You met Josh,” I said.

“Yes. He speaks very highly of you, too.”

“Who was this ‘Josh’, Emily wondered,” said Miss Evans’s voice.

Emily snapped her purse shut, as if she had just been making sure she hadn’t lost her keys.

“Anyway,” said Nicky, addressing Julian again now, “you know how it is. Libations were partaken of --”

“Yeah, sure,” said Julian, “speaking of which,” and he put his arm in Emily’s, “let’s hit the bar, Em. If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, I haven’t had a drink in like an hour, and that just won’t do.”

“Wait, Julian,” said Emily, slipping her arm free from his, “you go ahead, I just want a lightning-quick word with Porter. Really I’ll be ever so quick.”

“Sure,” he said. “What are you drinking?”

“Oh, I don’t know, whatever you’re having --”

“Do you think they make Old Fashioneds here?”

“Possibly,” she said.

“Old Fashioneds it is then. See ya, gents.”

As he turned, I could be mistaken, but I think I saw him breathe a sigh, perhaps of relief. And off he went to the bar.

“Now was the moment,” said Miss Evans. “She must tell Porter.”

I felt a touch on the back of my arm. I turned. It was Betsy.

“Hi,” she said. “The waitress said these guys wanted to buy me a drink. Gabriel’s laying out again now, so here I am.”

I hadn’t noticed, but now Freddy was singing, “These Foolish Things”…

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Look, let’s just --”

“Who was this dark Mediterranean beauty so obviously displaying her sultry charms to Porter?” asked Miss Evans’s voice.

“Hello,” Emily said to Betsy. Emily was suddenly standing right near Betsy and myself.

“Hello,” said Betsy.

The next second seemed to last a week, with Freddy singing “These Foolish Things” over and over again. I realized I was sweating profusely.

“My, Porter, aren’t you going to introduce us?” said Emily.

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “Uh, this is Elek- I mean, Betsy, Betsy, and, uh, Betsy, this is Miss, uh --” I had no idea what her last name was, and to my horror I realized I couldn’t even remember her first name --

“Oh, please, just call me Emily. Any friend of Porter’s.”

The two girls shook hands.

Ralph Edwards still stood there beaming, holding his big blue book, but Edward R. Murrow and John Cameron Swayze had sat down again and were drinking beer.

“Look at young Porter there,” said John Cameron Swayze. “The ladies love him.”

“As handsome as he is talented,” said Ralph Edwards, picking up his glass of beer, “young women have been known to swoon when he takes the stage at an open-mike poetry reading --”

“I used to get babes like that,” said Edward R. Murrow. “Soon as they heard I was on the radio --”

“I trust you’re having a pleasant evening out with young Julian?” said Nicky to Emily.

Emily, blushed, and finally I got it. And even if I hadn’t got it, Miss Evans’s voice immediately gave it to me:

Nicky knew, she thought. Nicky knew and Porter knew. Probably even this dark temptress now so blatantly forcing herself on Porter knew, and by tomorrow all of New York would know. She, Emily, the small-town so-called ‘nice’ girl from Herbert’s Hole, West Virginia, she was Julian’s latest conquest!”

The three television guys there were talking through all this, I knew because I could see their lips moving even if I couldn’t hear them.

Then Emily said, “Oh, I just happened to run into Julian, I mean Mr. Smythe. He invited me for a drink, and so --”

“So you just happened to wander in here,” said Nicky. “How nice.”

Betsy squeezed my arm, put her lips near my ear and whispered:

“Let’s get away from these people.”

Sweeter words I had never heard.

(Continued here, only twenty-six-and-a-half volumes to go.)

(Kindly look to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other possible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, free, gratis, and for nothing, although generous monetary donations are accepted. “For me a day without Schnabel is like a day without my pre-dinner martini.” -- Harold Bloom, in Argosy.)

Turner Layton:


kathleenmaher said...

Great episode. Now everyone's at the party, or almost: not Josh, not the fly...of course that's probably a co-incidence.
PS. Curious the editor didn't cut Gertrude's intrusions, but literary styles change, the same as the synonyms for marijuana. (muggles?)

Dan Leo said...

Hey, wait a minute, Kathleen, ya mean you don't like Gertrude's writing?

Jennifer said...

Egads! I'm behind!! I promise to catch up tomorrow.

Dan Leo said...

Enjoy, Jen, I always enjoy your comments.

Unknown said...

I would never say anything bad about Gertrude's writing, but poor Arnold (Porter)! Her narrative asides would drive anyone to madness.

Dan Leo said...

Hey you guys! Stop hatin' on Gertrude's prose or you can just forget about those free copies (autographed) of the Library of America edition of her early novels!

Dianne said...

Thank the Lord for small mercies.

Dan Leo said...

I'll put you on the mailing list for Gertrude's book, Dianne.

Anonymous said...


Dan Leo said...

Oh yes!

Dianne said...

You'll have to handcuff me and tie me down first!

Jennifer said...

It's obvious that Arnold has already sold his soul... only in hell would Gertrude's narration drown out all else!

Dan Leo said...

Heh heh, you know, Jen, that good old Arnold isn't gonna give up without a fight...

kathleenmaher said...

I said styles change, and never suggested I disliked Gertrude's cunning prose. She's got a definite style, which is a laudable possession in and of itself. (In college "in and of itself" was something we said more often than not, if you can imagine.) And her characters! Gertrude's characters are beyond enviable.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, I'm searching high and low for a copy of Gertrude's novel. Personally I'd love to read it!