Let’s rejoin our hero now on a sultry night in 1957, just outside of the San Remo Café, on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal...
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Soon the girls were upon me, kissing me on both cheeks and shrieking as though I were a long-lost brother or fiancé, or both, presumed dead in the war but actually having suffered from amnesia for five or ten years as a result of a severe war wound to the head.
After a minute or so of this nonsense Carlotta pushed herself away from me and pointed her umbrella at Josh, almost as if she were about to say "on guard".
“So what’s your friend’s name, Porter?”
“Yeah, don’t be rude, Porter,” said Pat, slapping me gently on the arm.
“Jesus,” said Josh, smiling broadly.
Here we go again I thought, and quickly said, “Josh. This is Josh. Josh is his name.”
“Oh. Right. Josh,” said Josh.
“Hell-o,” said Pat, with emphasis.
“Hell-o indeed,” said Carlotta with even more emphasis.
“Uh, Josh,” I said, “Josh, I’d like you to meet Pat and Carlotta.”
“Charmed I’m sure,” said Carlotta, extending her hand, palm downward.
“I am not worthy,” said Josh, taking her hand and kissing it.
“Ooh,” said Carlotta.
She removed her hand and waved it, as if she had just dipped it into too-hot water.
Josh now bowed to Pat, and she stuck out her own hand.
“Oh, gimme a fuckin’ break,” the fly whispered into my ear, as Josh put his lips to Pat’s hand.
“So where’s Betsy?” Carlotta asked me, turning suddenly to me.
“She went home,” I said.
“Oh did she now.”
“Can’t win ‘em all, Porter,” said Pat, waving her kissed hand just as Carlotta had done.
“Porter and I were just about to go somewhere for a cocktail,” said Josh.
“What a coincidence,” said Pat. “So were we.”
“Too many wolves where we just were,” said Carlotta.
“A veritable den of wolves,” said Pat.
“Middle-aged drunken wolves,” said Carlotta.
“Even if they did have their own TV shows,” said Pat.
“Yeah,” said Carlotta. “There’s only so much a girl can be prepared to do for her career.”
“And then she must say no,” said Pat.
“Or else forfeit all self-respect,” said Carlotta.
“Besides it’s more profitable in the long run to keep them hanging,” said Pat.
“Always leave ‘em wanting more,” said Carlotta.
“I toldja these dames were cock teasers,” said the fly, a little too loudly, and both girls turned to see where the noise was coming from, namely my left ear, but fortunately Josh spoke up .
“Perhaps you lovely ladies would be kind enough to join Porter and myself for cocktails,” said Josh.
“Great,” said Carlotta. “We were just about to stop into the San Remo for a quick one.”
“Or two,” said Pat.
“Oh,” said Josh, glancing over at the bar’s closed door, “the San Remo.”
“Something wrong with the San Remo?” said Carlotta.
“Well,” said Josh, “heh heh, you see, in point of fact I’ve just left the San Remo. Rather precipitately.”
“Didn’t get thrown out, did you, Josh?” asked Pat.
“Well, heh heh, yes, I was, one might say, invited to leave," said Josh, smiling weakly. "You see some gentlemen and I were discussing religious matters. And in retrospect perhaps I did behave in a somewhat shall we say militaristic and possibly even dogmatic manner.”
“Oh, boy,” said Pat.
“How old are you, Josh?” said Carlotta.
“Gee, I’m not sure,” he said. “A billion years? Give or take an aeon? When was the Big Bang?”
“Ha ha,” said Carlotta, “well, at any rate you’re not eighteen years old, are you?”
“Oh lord no.”
“Then wise up,” she said. “Never discuss religion in a bar.”
“Or anywhere if you can help it,” said Pat.
“You’re not a freshman in college anymore,” said Carlotta.
“School’s out, buster,” said Pat. “Welcome to real life.”
“Well, I suppose you ladies have a point,” said Josh. “But it’s just that the subject had turned to the Albigensian Heresy, and --”
“Josh,” said Carlotta.
“What did we just tell you.”
“Let everybody believe their own fairy tales,” said Carlotta.
“It’s the American way.”
“Yes,” said Josh, looking chastened. “Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.”
“Not that I don’t believe in God,” she said.
“What does she look like,” said Pat, “a Communist?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” said Josh.
“Just kidding, sport,” said Pat.
“Okay, where should we go then?” said Carlotta.
“We were just wondering that same thing,” said Josh, beginning to smile again.
“Where you wanta go, Porter?” said Pat.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I really and truly had to go to the men’s room now, any men’s room. “Someplace near.”
“Okay, not Chumley’s, not the White Horse,” said Pat.
“Too many would-be Eugene O’Neills and Dylan Thomases in those joints anyway,” said Carlotta.
“Boring, too many would-be Jackson Pollocks. As if one Pollock wasn’t plenty.”
“Look,” I said, shifting from foot to foot. “There’s a bar right over there I think.”
Everyone looked. Across the street and a few doors up a red neon Rheingold Beer sign glowed feebly in a dark areaway separated from the sidewalk by a metal railing.
“What is that place?” said Pat.
“Beats me, I've never even noticed it before,” said Carlotta.
“Me neither,” said Pat.
“I wonder what it’s called,” said Carlotta.
“It doesn’t seem to have a name,” said Pat.
“Unless it’s called Rheingold Beer,” said Carlotta.
“Okay,” whispered the fly, “this is driving me nuts. Step in here, pal, before I do.”
“Let’s go there,” I said.
“Swell,” said Josh.
“What if it’s a dive?” said Carlotta.
“I like dives,” said Josh.
“You’re not a woman,” said Pat.
“If we go in there and it’s a dive you men have to protect us,” said Carlotta.
“Like these broads need protection,” whispered the fly.
“We’ll protect you,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Oh my, you’re so forceful all of a sudden, Porter,” said Carlotta.
“Rowr,” said Pat. “Come on, let’s jaywalk.”
She put her arm in Josh’s and started pulling him across the street.
Carlotta put her arm in mine, but just then a police car came down the street and we waited for it to pass.
“So,” said Carlotta in my ear, the one the fly was not still sitting in, “what’s the story on Josh? Haven’t seen him around before. You two old friends?”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that,” I said.
“Does he always get blotto?”
“No,” I said. “Not always.”
After all, I had been with Josh on several occasions when he hadn’t had a single drink. And who was I to cast possible aspersions anyway?
The cop car had stopped at the traffic light, but now it turned left on Bleecker, and Carlotta and I started across MacDougal at an angle. Pat and Josh were already descending the steps down to the entrance of the Rheingold place.
“Married?” asked Carlotta.
“Josh. Married. I didn’t see a ring, but that means nothing these days.”
“Is Josh married?”
“Yes, Porter. Is he married.”
“Oh. No,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said. “Girlfriend?”
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
We were on the opposite sidewalk now and Carlotta stopped and let go of my arm, staring at me.
“Does he have a girlfriend?” I temporized.
“Yes,” she said. “What am I, speaking Chinese? Girlfriend. Does he have one.”
The question gave me pause. What about Mary Magdalene? As far as I knew (and like most Catholics, I had always pretty much let the priests do my Bible reading for me) Josh’s relationship with the Magdalene had never been expatiated upon at any great length by the writers of the gospels. But perhaps Matthew and Mark and the other two were merely being understandably discreet.
“Um,” I said.
At this Carlotta batted me on the head with her umbrella.
“Christ sake,” whispered the fly, “answer the crazy bitch before she kills the both of us.”
And it’s true, she was raising her umbrella to strike me again.
“I, uh, I honestly don’t know if he has a girlfriend,” I said, finally. “At present,” I added, just to be on the safe side.
She lowered the umbrella.
“And he’s supposed to be your friend,” she said, seemingly more in sadness than in disdain. “You men are so weird. You don’t even talk to each other the least little bit about the things we women talk to each other about all the time.” She shook her head, then took my arm again. “What do men talk about, anyway?”
She ignored my reply, gave my arm a tug, and we resumed our way up the sidewalk.
“He looks well-off,” she said, “even if he does look like he’s been rolling around on a barroom floor, and come to think of it I guess he has been. Is he rich?”
“Well, I don’t think he has to worry about money, really,” I said.
“Family money, huh?”
“You could say that.”
“What’s their racket?”
Again I took pause.
“Yeah,” she said. “What’s the family racket?”
I couldn’t bring myself to say that their racket was being the Divine Trinity, that is to say being God the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things. So I piled on one more white lie:
(If the entire universe could be called real estate.)
“Nice,” she said. “Landed gentry.”
“Sort of,” I said.
This last exchange had transpired as Carlotta and I stood together, still arm-in-arm, at the top of the steps that led down into the Rheingold place’s dark areaway. Pat and Josh had already gone inside.
“Well, let’s go have that cocktail, Porter, shall we?”
“Sure,” I said.
We went down the steps. There was no other signage besides the red Rheingold neon in the glass-brick window. I opened the plain heavy wooden door. The barroom inside was very dim, and a record was playing, I think it was Chris Connor. Carlotta stepped past me and I followed, letting the door close behind me.
(Continued here, relentlessly.)
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