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A beer sounded very good. My flesh still oozed with sweat from every pore, my mouth felt and tasted as if I had been gargling with sand, I was both exhausted and exhilarated, as if I had managed finally to lose that pack of bloodhounds and crawl out of the swamp to the possible escape route of a dark unpaved country road.
“All right,” said the fly, “soon as the applause settles down a bit, say something clever, take your bow and make it for the bar. Oh, don’t forget to thank the band and ask the audience to remember to tip the waitresses and bartenders, on accounta ya get more free drinks that way.”
“Okay,” I said, aloud, not meaning to speak aloud. Of course the audience thought I was addressing them and not a humanoid insect in my ear, and they took this single word as an invitation to cheer and shout even more vociferously.
“I, uh, thank you very much,” I said into the microphone.
“More! More! More!” cried my audience.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I, uh, I, um --”
“More! More! More!”
“Um,” I said.
“More! More!” they yelled. A few even yelled the old standby “Go, daddy-o!” again.
What was the matter with these people? What was so enthralling about listening to someone spout nonsense? It occurred to me that I had rarely in my life ever really wanted to listen to anyone speak, not even Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, not even Jackie Gleason or John F. Kennedy, or Jack Paar or Steve Allen, not even Oscar Levant, or --
“Come on, pal,” said the fly, “say thank you and good night and get off the goddam stage. I’m gettin’ thirsty here.”
“Uh,” I said. And followed this, after a pause, with another “Um”.
“More! More! Go, daddy! Go!”
I felt a tap on my arm. It was Freddy, leaning toward me on his stool, still playing his accordion.
“Do you want to do another number, Porter?”
I leaned down toward him.
“I’d prefer not to,” I said.
The crowd continued to shout and yell.
“Better let me handle it,” said Freddy.
Playing his accordion all the while, he nimbly got up off his stool, came over next to me, and, rising up on his toes, he took the microphone in one hand and angled it downward to accommodate the reality of his mouth being about eight inches closer to the ground than mine.
“Thank you so much, everyone,” he said. “We’re going to take a very short break now --”
“No! No! No!” shouted various people.
“But we’ll be back before you can say Jack Robinson!” said Freddy. “Now let’s have another big hand for the voice of his generation, Mr. Porter Walker!”
The applause and the shouting and whistling rose up like a great clamorous wave and crashed down over me.
What happened in the next several minutes was rather confusing, and I will spare the reader (in other words I will spare myself) any detailed attempt to describe what occurred during them except to say that like Marciano leaving the ring after handily KO-ing yet another opponent I was jostled and shouted at and screamed at, my shoulders and back were pounded heartily, people yelled things in my ear which I could not decipher, I was hustled and shoved and pushed, and finally I found myself in a small cramped storeroom at the back of the bar with Freddy, Ursula, Magda, Gabriel and the bongo player.
“Pull up a beer box, Porter,” said Gabriel, reaching into an inside pocket and taking out a hand-rolled cigarette. The others all had cigarettes going already.
“Yeah, take a load off, handsome,” said Ursula. She had taken a seat on a beer keg, her feet dangling a foot above the floor. Like the others, except for her pianist granddaughter Magda, she had brought her instrument into the room with her, and she was dipping her saxophone's disconnected mouthpiece into what looked like a glass of whiskey. “You look, how do you say, ‘all in’,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess I am a little,” I said, wishing I had my own glass of whiskey. And a beer. Then I remembered: “Oh, but wait -- I left my -- uh -- my friend out there --”
“Maintain, my man,” said Gabriel, lighting his cigarette with his slim gold lighter. “Charlie’s getting her.”
“The bass man.” He held the lit cigarette out toward me. “Here, have a smoke, man --”
“Oh, wait, is that --”
“It’s primo, man, go ahead.”
He slowly exhaled smoked through his nostrils.
“I really shouldn’t.”
“Why, pray tell?”
He took a much deeper draw on the reefer while awaiting the telling of my excuse.
“Because time tends to disappear when I smoke marijuana.”
“Yes,” he said, holding in the smoke. “I dig that. But why don’t you want to smoke some? I told you, man, it’s primo.”
“But,” I said, “time is all we have. If time disappears it’s as if we didn’t even exist. For a time.”
“You sound like you’re already stoned,” said the bongo player. It was the first time I’d heard him speak. He sounded familiar, and now that I thought about it he looked familiar. “Give me a toke, Gabe.”
Gabriel handed him the reefer, finally exhaling an enormous cloud of smoke as he did so.
“You weren’t so uptight the other night, handsome,” said Ursula.
“Not by a long shot,” said Magda.
So, as usual, Porter’s antics were dogging my trail.
“Maybe Porter’s still high from that night,” said Freddy. He was sitting with his legs crossed on a stack of Canada Dry ginger ale boxes.
“Never saw a man smoke so much reefer in my life,” said Ursula. “And that includes Bob Mitchum.”
“Whoa,” said the bongo man, his eyes widening.
“What’d I say?” said Gabriel. “Primo.”
The bongo guy slowly let out his own cloud of smoke, and, despite my former protestations, or perhaps because he had forgotten them already, he extended the reefer in my direction, but Magda took it. In the meantime Gabriel had produced another reefer from an inner pocket and lit it up. After taking another good draw he handed it to Ursula.
“Thank you, Gabe,” she said. “I was beginning to feel like chopped liver over here.”
Gabriel was still holding in his fresh lungful of smoke, all the while looking me in the eyes.
“I dug your poetry, man.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
He pursed his lips and gently emitted a series of smoke rings in my direction.
Magda reached through her own self-created fog of smoke and passed her reefer to Freddy.
“That was some heavy shit,” she said.
“I told y'all it was primo, lady,” said Gabriel.
“No, man,” said Magda. “I mean Porter’s poetry was some heavy shit.”
“Oh, dig,” said Gabriel.
“But your shit is heavy too,” she said.
“Dig that, too,” said Gabriel.
Ursula passed the reefer she had been smoking to me. Without thinking, or perhaps I should say thinking even less than the little I normally think, I took the reefer and drew deeply on it.
The door to the storeroom opened, and Betsy stood there with the enormous bass-player looming behind her with his bass fiddle.
“Go on in, little lady,” said the bass man.
Sure enough, time disappeared again, and of the next patch of experience I remember little but that small dank smoke-filled storeroom, the one electric light bulb in the brownish-yellow ceiling, the faces of the musicians, the smell of beer and tobacco and marijuana, and the touch of Betsy’s fingers on the back of my hand as we sat side by side on some cardboard beer boxes.
Then Betsy and I were leaving the storeroom by a back door and walking a few steps down a dark cobbled alley. I pushed open a wrought-iron gate and we went out to the sidewalk.
“Oh, wait,” she said. She was carrying her furled umbrella, and she put this under her arm, opened up her purse, took out some money.
“Here, I got your change you left on the bar. I gave the bartender a tip for you.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said, and I took the bills. I realized I was still toting around my ream of epic poetry. The pages were damp with sweat.
“The subway’s down this way,” said Betsy, gesturing to her left.
“No,” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean --” What did I mean? “I mean, don’t take the subway. Let me put you in a cab at least. Look, look at all the money I have.”
“Porter, I take the subway all the time. Save your money.”
“No, please, let me --”
I wanted to do something for her.
“I live all the way up on West 72nd, so let me just take the subway. You can walk me to the stop.”
This actually sounded like a good idea. A romantic walk through Greenwich Village to the nearest subway entrance. But there was one little problem. I suddenly realized I had to go to the bathroom. What could I do?
“I insist on putting you in a cab,” I said.
“Aren’t you gallant?”
She looked so beautiful and kind, looking up into my eyes with her dark eyes. It wasn’t raining any more, although it was still warm outside. From the bar’s entrance I heard jazz music, Gabriel’s trumpet playing a solo, it sounded like, like what?
“It sounds like licorice,” I said.
“Gabriel’s trumpet. It sounds like licorice.”
She cocked her head, listening, I fell in love with her all over again.
“Licorice,” she said. “The black kind?”
“The red kind,” I said. “I haven’t had it since I was about fourteen, but I remember being very fond of it, when I had a penny to buy some. But that’s what it sounds like. Licorice, the red kind.”
“You’re so high, man.”
“That’s true,” I said.
A car horn beeped.
I turned. A yellow cab had stopped.
“Oh, wait,” I yelled, too loud, to the cab driver. I turned back to Betsy. I wanted to touch her but I still held the money in one hand and my poem in the other.
“Listen,” I said.
Her dark eyes with the gleam of the streetlamp in them were like all the comfort that the world could hold.
“I’m listening,” she said.
“I may never see you again.”
“You’re going somewhere?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I want you to know.”
Her mouth opened slightly and I wanted more than anything to kiss her.
“What do you want me to know?” she said.
“Someday you’ll meet a man, and you will save his life. You will make him live after a lifetime of only halfway living.”
“You’re very strange, Porter.”
The cabby beeped his horn again.
Betsy rose up on her toes, and, putting her hands on my arms, she kissed me on the mouth, just briefly, then she looked at me.
“Good night, crazy man,” she said.
“Good night, Elektra.”
“I mean Betsy. Good night, Betsy.”
“You’re very strange.”
She touched my cheek.
I turned, walked over to the cab, leaned in. It was the same cab driver I had had earlier that day, which didn’t surprise me.
“Hey, the poet,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Hi. Listen, take the lady home, okay? West, uh --”
“72nd,” said Betsy.
“72nd,” I said.
I put my poem under one arm, and with my right hand I took a ten out of my left hand and gave it to the driver. He whistled.
“Anything you say, buddy.”
I turned back to Betsy.
“Good night,” I said.
“Crazy man,” she said.
I remembered to open the taxi door for her. She got in, and I closed the door.
She looked at me. I looked at her. But neither of us said anything.
The cab driver put the car in gear and drove away. With the hand that held the rest of the money I awkwardly waved, although I could tell Betsy wasn’t looking back at me.
“Very nice,” said the fly. “Really touching, pal. Now, can we get that drink?”
(Continued here, regardless of the advice of legal counsel.)
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