Let us rejoin Arnold on this fateful wet night in the summer of 1957 in New York City’s Greenwich Village, that mecca of beatniks and libertines, wiseguys and wisemen, cool cats, hot chicks, and charlatans and shucksters of all stripes...
(Click here to read our previous chapter, or go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 63-volume masterpiece. “Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef d’oeuvre is a sort of literary Walmart in which one may wander for decades and still find something new and astounding down every aisle.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Hollywood Reporter.)
The room was small, a bar on the right and some booths along the left wall, a juke box and a cigarette machine in the back. The bar and the tables were filled with people, but I couldn’t see Pat or Josh anywhere. A portly bald gentleman in a three-piece suit came up to us. His shirt had an old-fashioned wing collar and he wore a wide bow tie with a diamond pin stuck in it.
“Welcome, and how do you do? My name is Mr. James. Two for dinner, or just cocktails?”
“Well, actually, we’re looking for some friends,” I said.
“Oh. And your name is?”
I almost said “Schnabel” but I was learning the game.
“Walker,” I said. “Porter Walker.”
“Ah, yes, of course, Mr. Walker, I’ve heard of you.”
“Oh yes indeed, word gets around in the Village you know. And is that your magnum opus?”
He referred to the typescript of my epic poem, which I was still lugging around.
“Oh, yeah,” I said.
I had forgotten I was still carrying it.
“It’s getting somewhat rumpled and foxed and ragged, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
“You really shouldn’t carry it around loose like that.”
“I know. I didn’t plan to,” I said.
“What you need is one of those soft leather but waterproof document cases, with a stout buckle. Hartmann makes a nice one.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to get one of those,” I said.
“Or at least a paper sack from the supermarket,” said Carlotta.
“Some day a collector will pay good money for that bulky and disheveled sheath of paper,” said this Mr. James.
“I doubt that,” I said.
“It will be stored under glass in ideal atmospheric conditions: this very manuscript or I suppose one should say typescript which you now carry under your arm as casually as if it were last Sunday’s newspaper.”
Now he was making me feel guilty.
“Hey, mister,” said Carlotta, “where did you say our friends were?”
“Oh, yes, of course, your friends are in the back room.”
“Back room,” I said.
“Yes, as you can see we’re quite full out here.”
“Won’t you both please follow me?”
“Don’t do it,” whispered the fly in my ear. “I smell trouble.”
Almost as if he had heard the fly Mr. James said in a defensive way, “It’s really not as frightening as it sounds. ‘Back room’, with its connotations of vice and low dealings. It’s quite gemütlich really. Many of our clientèle prefer it to the front room.”
“Can you hear the juke box back there?” asked Carlotta.
“In the back room we feature live entertainment.”
“Lead on, James,” said Carlotta.
“Oh, Christ,” whispered the fly.
The man turned and headed toward the back, and we followed him. There was a turning to the left of the jukebox and the cigarette machine, and we went past a door marked “Private” and another one marked “Basement. No Admittance”. We turned right into a narrow hallway, past a pay phone mounted on a wall, then past a room marked “Ladies” on the right and another one for “Gentlemen” on the left. I was tempted to go straight away into the men’s room, but I didn’t want to abandon Carlotta until we had found Josh and Pat.
The hallway finally opened onto another dim room, smaller and windowless but also filled with people, with a bar off to the right and six or seven tables with checked tablecloths and candles in straw-covered wine bottles; at the far end of the room Pat and Josh sat at one of the tables near what looked like a tiny stage.
Mr. James stopped and turned to us.
“See, not so terribly dreadful.” He waved his hand at a large chipped flowered vase next to the wall, out of which the shafts and handles of several umbrellas protruded. “You may put your umbrella in this vase here, miss.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep it with me,” said Carlotta.
“Of course,” he said, with perhaps a hint of a note of disapproval.”
“Where’s the entertainment?” asked Carlotta.
“Taking ten,” said Mr. James. He took his pocket watch from his vest pocket and clicked it open. “Make it five.”
“Hey, James,” said Carlotta, “what’s this place called anyway? We didn’t see a sign outside.”
“No, we’ve never had a sign,” he said.
“Except for the Rheingold sign,” she said.
“That’s true. The sales representative offered it to us and we didn’t have the heart to say no. You don’t think it makes us look louche, do you?”
“Hell, no,” she said, “I drink Rheingold like water, myself.”
“I too find it a most refreshing beverage,” he said. “The perfect restorative after a long day.”
“And a pretty good pick-me-up after a long night, too,” she said.
“Heh heh, well, let me take you to your friends.”
“You didn’t tell us what this place is called,” said Carlotta.
“Oh,” he said, “sorry. Valhalla.”
“Yes. As in ‘literary Valhalla’.”
“Heh heh, yes.”
He smiled and led us across the room.
Josh and Pat were deep in conversation, smoking cigarettes and leaning toward each other over the table, on which stood what looked like four glimmering Manhattans, the two in front of Pat and Josh already half-empty.
“Pardon me, sir,” said Mr. James to Josh. “Your friends are here.”
“What?” said Josh, and he looked up. “Well, finally!” He stood up. He was still wearing his straw trilby hat, pushed back on his head. “We wondered what happened to you two.”
Mr. James pulled out the chair next to Josh for Carlotta, and she sat, dropping her umbrella on the floor under the table.
“I love it when I sit down and there’s already a drink on the table for me,” she said.
Mr. James then pulled out a chair next to Pat for me, but I said, “Um, I think I’ll, uh --”
“I, uh, I have to, uh --” I think I made a sort of twitching movement with my head, vaguely in the direction of the hallway back there to the rear and to my left.
“I, uh --”
This time I jerked my entire head toward my left shoulder, hoping he would get it.
“Are you quite all right, Mr. Walker?”
“What’s the matter, Porter?” said Josh, who was still standing. “I thought we were going to have a drink.”
“I -- uh --”
“You don’t have to have a Manhattan if you don’t want one. You want a beer?”
“No,” I said.
“Mister What-is-it,” said Josh, “can you bring Porter a beer?”
“Of course --”
“Listen,” I said. “Um --”
“Old Fashioned?” said Josh.
“No,” I said. “No, I --”
“He has to go to the little boy’s room,” said Pat.
“Oh,” said Josh. “Oh.”
Mr. James turned to me.
“We just passed it,” he said. “In the hallway.”
“Yes, I know,” I said.
A thin lady in a long high-collared grey dress came over. She also wore a lacy apron, of the sort my mother wore at Christmas or Easter dinner. She had a cocktail tray under one arm. She was very pale and her dark hair was pulled tightly back behind her small ears.
Josh had started to sit, but now as another lady had approached he remained standing, although he did reach down and take up his drink.
“Is there a problem, Henry?” the lady asked Mr. James.
“I don’t think so,” said Mr. James.
“May I help you, sir?” said the lady.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Why don’t you sit?”
She gestured gracefully to the empty chair, the back of which Mr. James still held, as if expectantly.
“Well, I, uh --”
Suddenly a great grey-bearded man wearing a slouch hat and a loose cravat around his neck came over from the bar and touched my arm.
“Please, you must stay,” he said.
“Oh, I intend to stay,” I said. “It’s just --”
A smaller man dressed in a black frock coat like an undertaker with dark curly hair and a thick moustache now came up next to the bearded man. He had a half-smoked cigar in one hand and a decorative ceramic beer stein in the other.
“What’s the problem, Walt?”
“I’m not quite sure,” said the bearded man.
“Don’t you like your table, sir?” said the moustached man.
“Oh, no,” I said, “I like it fine, it’s just --”
“He has to go to the gents’,” said Josh.
The lady in the long dress put her hand to her mouth, and her eyes went wide.
“Oh,” said the bearded fellow. “Is that all it is. It’s right back down the hall there,” he said to me, pointing.
“Yes,” I said, “I know.”
“You should go then,” said the moustached man.
“I intend to,” I said.
“I’m Edgar, by the way,” and he offered his hand, which, having no choice, I took. “And your name is?”
“Porter,” I said, stifling a sigh. “Porter Walker.”
“Not the Porter Walker.”
I couldn’t even say anything to this.
“I’m very honored,” said Edgar. “This is Walt.”
“Hello, Walt,” I said.
I offered my hand to the bearded man, this Walt, but instead of shaking my hand he put his arms around me in a bear hug.
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, my lad.”
He finally stopped hugging me and gestured with his grey head toward the thin lady, who still held her hand over her mouth.
“I take it you’ve met Emily.”
She lowered her hand from her mouth.
“Not formally,” she said. “It is indeed a privilege of which I am scarcely worthy, sir.” She bowed her head.
She didn’t offer her hand, so I didn’t offer mine. I was dying to get to that men’s room.
“Is that your masterwork there?” asked Walt, referring to my damned poem.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“I hope you’re not going to take it into the men’s room with you.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” I said.
“I’ll watch it for you,” he said, and he held out his hand.
“Don’t give it to him,” the fly whispered in my ear.
“Really, it’s safe with me,” said Walt.
“Don’t do it,” said the fly. “You don’t know this guy.”
I suppose that despite myself I was hesitating.
“Well, you don’t have to give it to me,” said Walt, and he looked hurt.
“Fuck him,” whispered the fly.
I don’t know why I was listening to a fly. But somehow, for some reason, I allowed myself to be influenced by him. Maybe after all I just didn’t want to have to listen to his “I-told-you-so”s if I did give the poem to Walt.
“I never let my poem out of my sight,” I said.
“Never?” said Walt.
“Well, I mean when I’m carrying it around like this.”
“If I’m at home it’s different.”
“I’ll stick it in a drawer maybe.”
“Quite. I do the same thing.”
“You know how it is,” I said.
“Sure, by all means, keep it with you,” he said.
“Right,” said Edgar. “Even when you’re going to the lavatory.”
“Edgar!” said Emily.
“What? I can’t say lavatory?”
“You should say facility.”
“Okay,” he said. “Facility. Jesus.”
“Just leave it on the table, Porter,” said Carlotta. “Why the big song and dance?”
“Yeah,” said Pat, “why are you being so weird? Or weird-er I should say.
“Yeah, we’ll keep an eye on it,” said Josh, still standing there, swaying just slightly, and taking a drink of his Manhattan.
“Josh,” said Pat, “sit down.”
“Okay,” he said, and he did.
“Put your poem on the table, Porter,” Carlotta repeated.
I started to say okay, but then I realized that this could be interpreted as a slight to Walt.
“No, I’ll take it with me,” I said.
“That’s just stupid,” said Pat.
“Whatever,” said Carlotta. “Hey, James, what’s good to eat here?”
She had taken out a cigarette and Josh was right there with his lighter.
“The Beef Wellington is very popular,” said Mr. James.
“Do you have cheeseburgers?”
“Finest in town.”
“The macaroni-and-cheese is excellent too,” said Edgar.
“Go for the moules au gratin,” said Walt.
“The Chicken Kiev is very nice,” said Emily.
“Hey, pal,” whispered the fly. “Why are you still standing here?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What?” said Mr. James.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You know where it is, right?”
“Yes,” I said, “thank you.”
“Hurry back,” said Carlotta, “your Manhattan’s getting warm.”
At last I turned and walked away, deliberately walking as slowly as I could without wetting myself.
(Continued here, and straight on to hell and to heaven and all points in between.)
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