But our hero Arnold Schnabel cares not a whit for any of the above. He has his own problems, having been transformed by the prince of darkness into the second male lead of Ye Cannot Quench, by Gertrude Evans, author of many other out-of-print classics such as Rollerskate Carhop; My Husband the Communist; Up the Mighty Allegheny; and My Tears Will Dry Tomorrow.
Let’s rejoin Arnold (in his current incarnation as “Porter Walker, romantic poet”) and his young friend Betsy at the crowded smoky bar of the Kettle of Fish, on MacDougal Street...
(Click here to read our previous episode; go here to return to the first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning forty-two-volume memoir. ”Somehow to call it a masterpiece seems to sully it with a word which has become more meaningless each year. Simply call it ‘Arnold Schnabel’. Like Shakespeare, like Homer, like Dickens, the very name opens up to its own universe, a very rich universe indeed.” -- Harold Bloom, in Cosmopolitan.)
The big guy sitting to my right nudged my arm.
“Yes?” I said.
He was in his early sixties I guess, more fat than big now that I got a look at him; he looked like a stevedore in his jeans and t-shirt and sweat-stained baseball cap.
“I hear the lady call you Porter?”
“Yes,” I said.
Great, I thought, now what has Porter done to this guy? Did I deflower his daughter? Carry on a liaison with his wife or maiden sister? Dance a ‘tea’-induced boogaloo in the aisle of his church during Sunday mass?
“Porter Walker is it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, reluctantly.
He was a lot older than me and pretty fat, but you can never tell with these longshoreman guys, some of them just really like to fight. I hoped he wasn’t going to get violent. I tensed my shoulder muscles, involuntarily, and I lowered my chin, voluntarily, just in case he was going to try for a sudden Joe Louis-style lethal uppercut.
But instead of a fist he offered his open hand.
“Wilson is the name. Edmund Wilson.”
I shook his hand.
“Arnold Schnabel,” I said.
“What? You just said your name was Porter.”
“Porter Walker I mean,” I said, and moving on quickly, “and this is Betsy. Betsy, Mr. Wilson.”
He lifted his great bulk off of his barstool, doffed his cap, and bowed.
“Pleased to meet you, Betsy. Call me Bunny.”
“Hello, Bunny,” said Betsy.
He put his cap back on and heaved himself back onto his barstool. I noticed he was drinking a martini, which seemed like an odd drink for a stevedore. And I retrospectively realized that his hand had been soft and his grip gentle.
“I suppose that neither of you has heard of me,” he said. “Is that correct.”
“The name sounds familiar,” said Betsy.
“Perhaps it is my demotic attire which throws you off. Edmund Wilson? I write books, articles --”
“Oh, Edmund Wilson!” said Betsy. “I’ve heard of you.”
“How about you, Porter? Wilson? Edmund Wilson?”
“Never mind. I realize that I am not dressed as befits one whose passport reads ‘littérateur’. But there is a reason for these plebeian togs.”
He paused. That was okay with me. Maybe the pause would stretch on forever. Meanwhile the bongo player was taking a solo, attacking his drums with undiminished intensity and eliciting scattered shouts of “Go!” and “Too much, baby”!
“Yes, there is a reason,” repeated Bunny.
The bongoist played faster and faster. It was like in a Tarzan or Jungle Jim movie, right before someone says that the natives are restless.
“I wonder if you can guess what the reason is,” said Bunny.
Betsy broke down finally and said, “Okay, Bunny, why the glad rags?”
“Why indeed, Betsy, am I dressed like a common workman? Porter?”
Suddenly Freddy’s accordion burst into the bongo player’s solo and a second later came a crashing chord from Magda’s piano and a booming series of notes from the bassist, accompanied by a wave of shouting and whistling from the audience.
“Well, what do you think, Porter?” said Bunny.
“Why do you think I am dressed thus.”
This was as bad as being back in school. And I had never liked school.
“Go ahead, Porter,” he said.
“Because it’s comfortable?” I ventured.
“No,” he said. “I’ll tell you why, Porter, and Betsy too, if I may bend your lovely ear as well.”
“Bend away,” said Betsy.
“One of the problems with being what in olden times was called a lion of literature,” he said, “is that one loses touch with the common man. And the common woman. Not to imply that you are common, Betsy.”
“Thank you, Bunny,” she said.
“And so every once in a while I take the train in from my quiet place in the country, I book a room at the Prince George Hotel, and there I divest myself of my customary tweeds and change into this outfit, which normally I wear only whilst gardening or perhaps chopping wood in my yard. Then, eschewing the high-tone midtown joints I normally frequent during my visits to the city, I come down to the Village and haunt the bohemian bars and bistros of my youth, here where no one knows or cares anymore who Edmund Wilson is.”
“But I have heard of you,” said Betsy. “I think.”
“Ah, but have you read any of my books?”
“Um, no, but --”
Freddy had started singing a new song, an upbeat little number about sitting on a farm.
“What about you, Porter?” asked Bunny.
A parchment farm?
“Um --” I said, if one can be said to say “Um”.
“Ever read any of my books?”
Was parchment made on farms?
“Okay,’ said Bunny. “How about Memoirs of Hecate County?”
“Memoirs,” I said, “Memoirs of --?
“Hecate. Hecate County.”
“Memoirs of Hecate County,” I said. I’m not sure but I may even have stroked my chin. “Memoirs -- oh, wait, I think I saw the movie, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor?”
“That was Raintree County. Based on an entirely different book.”
“Oh, sorry --”
“How about Axel’s Castle?”
“Uh, is that about knights, and jousts, and --”
“No. To the Finland Station?”
“Finland Station. Is that a spy book? I think I might have read it if it had these spies --”
“They’re all after these plans of Hitler’s invasion of Russia --”
“And there’s this girl spy --”
“No. Not my book. Not my book at all.”
“Oh, well, I mostly just read mysteries really --”
“No matter,” he said. “Nobody under the age of fifty has read my books. But at one time believe it or not I was an up-and-comer. Like Porter here. But now no one cares. Still, I write my articles, my books, and, thank God some of my old friends are now powerful editors and publishers, so I make a modest living. But I am already approaching footnote status in the history of American literature.”
He glared at us, at Betsy and at me.
“But somebody must read your books,” I said, just before things could get really awkward. “I mean --”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “The academics. The pipe and bow tie boys. God love them. Although I don’t believe in God. But they’ve managed to keep bores like Hawthorne and Melville in print, so perhaps there’s hope for me still.”
He turned then, and stared at the space behind the bar.
Freddy had stopped singing and Ursula was wailing on her saxophone again.
I looked at Betsy. She shrugged. I was about to gently turn my body more toward her and away from Bunny when suddenly he spoke again.
“May I buy you two young people a libation.”
“Well, uh --”
“Bartender!” he yelled. “Three more martinis here, please.”
“Right away, Mr. Wilson.”
“Same way, but even drier and colder. Bury the cocktail glasses in shaven ice for a couple of minutes."
“Sure, Mr. Wilson.”
“Hey, I thought no one knew you here, Bunny,” said Betsy.
“Except for the bartenders, of course,” he said.
He picked up his martini, took a sip, looked around the bar.
“Gee the times I used to have in joints like this. Me and the boys, Ernie Hemingway, Scotty Fitzgerald, Big Bill Faulkner. He wasn’t really big but I called him that, Big Bill. Yeah, Scotty’s dead, Ernie and Big Bill might as well be, and pretty soon I’ll keel over from a bum liver or a coronary. But I’ll tell ya, I wouldn’t trade the memories! No, wouldn’t trade the memories.”
He clapped me on the shoulder.
“Heard you took old Smythe for a ten grand advance, kid.”
“Well, no, not exactly,” I said.
“Oh, sure!” he said. “I know. I know. Strictly on the QT, huh?” He tapped the side of his nose. “But I know, I hear things, at my club mostly. So tell me, Porter, why’d you introduce yourself as what was it, Arnold Schlmozzel?”
“Schnabel,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel.”
“Yeah, what was up with that?”
“I, uh --”
“Oh, I get it. That’s your ‘street’ name. That’s the name you give people when you don’t want them to know who you are.”
“No, that’s okay. You want to preserve your anonymity. I completely understand. I wish I had thought of that in my younger days, but oh, no, my ambition and vanity precluded even the possibility of such a noble ploy. I used to love to stroll into ‘22’ or the Stork Club and have Cary Grant call out, ‘Say, hey, Bunny baby,’ or Marlene Dietrich yell, ‘Hey, Bunny, who ya bangin’ lately?’ Oh, sorry, Betsy.”
“That’s all right, Bunny,” said Betsy. “So you were quite the popular fella back in the old days.”
“I was, I was. And you know I always loved books and good conversation and all that sort of thing, philosophy, history and whatnot, but what I really liked was the ladies. And they liked me. Yes, the name of Edmund ‘Bunny’ Wilson meant something in those days. And let’s just say a mighty pen wasn’t the only thing I was famous for wielding.” He lifted his glass and polished off his martini. “I hate it when I go off on some rant and let my martini get warm. Oh, no, look who’s coming --”
“Bunny,” said Nicky, showing up out of nowhere again and patting Bunny’s shoulder. “Slumming, old man?”
“No more than you, Nicky. Just chatting with your new wunderkind, Porter here. And his lady friend Betsy.”
“Oh,” I said, “Betsy’s not my --”
“Ha ha,” said Nicky.
“What,” said Bunny.
“Oh, okay,” said Bunny.
Nicky still had his hand on Bunny’s shoulder.
“Hey, Nicky,” he said. “Are you arresting me? Taking me downtown?”
“Uh, no --”
“You need my help to stand up? You about to keel over in a fainting fit?”
“Off the cloth, moth.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Nicky, and he took his hand away from Bunny’s shoulder. “So, Bunny, what do you think of Cheever’s new --”
“Hey, look, Nicky,” said Bunny, “the kids and I are trying to have a little chinwag here. Know what I mean?”
“That’s great, Bunny, I think you’ll find that Porter is --”
“Grab some change off the bar there and buy yourself a hint, Clint.”
“Take a hike, Spike.”
“Oh, sorry, I’ll just --”
“Later, gator,” said Bunny, and Nicky drifted away.
“That fuckin’ guy,” said Bunny. “Oh, sorry, Betsy, I allowed myself to be overcome momentarily by my proletarian costume.”
“That’s o-fucking-kay, Bunny,” said Betsy.
“Ah, a girl with spirit, with fire!”
“What are you, a pirate?” she asked.
“Touché! Ah, our libations have arrived.”
The bartender laid three martinis down in front of us.
“As dry as the burning sands of the Kalahari?” Bunny asked the bartender.
“I only muttered the word vermouth,” said the bartender, “under my breath and looking away.”
“Excellent,” said Bunny, “and yet as icy cold as the black vast wastes of interstellar space?”
“Uh, yeah, that too,” said the bartender. “That’ll be three bucks, Mr. Wilson.”
“Take it from my pile there,” said Bunny. “Raise your glasses my young friends.”
We did as we were told.
Once again Bunny looked out over the crowded bar. Then he looked back to us.
“To youth,” he said.
We drank. Bunny settled down in his seat, but he continued to sit facing us, his right arm on the bar.
“I want to read this epic poem of yours, Porter.”
“Well, I’ll uh, ask Nicky to send you a copy when it’s published.”
“Fuck that noise. I want to read it now, in manuscript, I want to read this voice of his generation.”
“It’s really not very good,” I said.
“Well, that’s only my opinion.”
“Smythe & Son don’t seem to agree with you.”
“Well, maybe they’re right.”
“Let me read it.”
“I’m not sure I even have a copy,” I said.
“Why are you playing so hard to get.”
“I’m not, really. There’s a girl in here named Emily who has a copy in her briefcase I think.”
“And why does she have your poem in her briefcase?”
“She’s my editor.”
“And she’s in here boozing it up carrying your poem around? What if she loses it?”
“Maybe there’s another copy?” I said.
“You don’t even know? Christ, man, I’ll never forget the time Hadley lost all of Ernie’s early stories in the train station.”
“Was this that Finland Station?” I said, trying to show I had been paying at least some attention.
“No, it wasn’t the Finland Station. I think it was the goddam Gare de Lyon in Paris. Anyway, you coulda heard Ernie bawling all the way across the Atlantic. Always make copies, man. A ream of carbon paper is not gonna bust you.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Don’t take this abstracted artist thing too far.”
“You’re not always gonna be young and good-looking.”
“This is your time. Don’t fuck it up.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“You look sad. Are you sad?”
Most of all I was tired of having to talk to him, but now that he mentioned it I did feel somewhat sad, because I could see Nicky standing all by himself about a dozen feet away, not standing at the bar but several feet away from it. He didn’t have a drink, but he was smoking and seemingly staring at nothing. He looked very worried, even depressed. Had I been wrong about him? Maybe he wasn’t the Devil, Lucky, whatever his name was. Maybe he just happened to look like Lucky, and he was just a guy trying to do his job, which included catering to people like Bunny, and, yes, like myself.
I turned to Betsy.
“Listen, Betsy, will you excuse me just for a minute.”
“A minute like the last time?”
“No, a real minute.”
I turned back to Bunny.
“Bunny,” I said, “would you excuse me, for just a moment?”
“Sure, Porter. Betsy and I will have a une petite tête-à-tête. She might not enjoy it but I know I will.”
“I’ll really just be a minute,” I said to him. To Betsy I said, “Be right back.”
“Hurry,” she said.
I walked over to Nicky.
“Oh, Porter. Fancy meeting you here. Heh heh.”
“Yeah, listen, Nicky. I’ve thought it over, and you can arrange interviews and photography sessions and TV shows if you like. For me.”
As they say in my thriller novels, his entire demeanor changed.
“Oh my God. Porter. Really?”
He put out his hand, and, yes, I gave him mine. I have to say he shook it just a little bit longer than I would have preferred, with that eerily warm and powerful grip of his. Finally he took his hand away. He was beaming. My hand was tingling.
“May I ask what changed your mind, old boy?”
“Oh, I don’t know --”
“Something did. Please tell me.”
“Well, I was talking to Bunny over there --”
“Great guy, Bunny.”
“Yeah, and I saw you standing over here, and -- um --”
“You looked so, so sad. So crushed. Sort of.”
“All I was thinking was should I try to catch the late train home or just have a couple more drinks and sack out at my club tonight.”
“Why should I be sad?”
“Oh, no reason.”
“Heh heh. So we’re okay on the interviews and photo shoots and TV spots.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“Well, great then, better get back to Betsy before Bunny tries to steal her off you.”
“Right,” I said. “See ya.”
“We’ll talk. Ciao.”
We shook hands, again for just a little too long, and then I headed back towards Betsy and Bunny. I saw Julian and Emily sitting together at the bar, about six places down from where Bunny sat. Emily was speaking to Julian, and he was staring down at the bar top, nodding his head. I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for Emily too, but after the way I had just been fooled with Nicky I decided right then and there to stay out of it and mind my own business before I made even more trouble for myself.
(Continued here, because a legion of fans demand it.)
(Kindly look to the right hand side of this page for a quite often up-to-date listing of links to all other legally accessible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©; sponsored in part by Brylcreem™: ”Are you a prematurely balding guy who shaves his head? Just rub Brylcreem into your scalp for that ‘healthy’ glow.”)