Let’s rejoin Arnold (or Porter) in the hallway outside the men’s room of a mysterious Greenwich Village basement bistro known as Valhalla, where we find him in conversation with a gentleman named Sam Clemens...
(Click here to read our previous episode; if you absolutely have nothing better to do you may go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 49-volume memoir (with a two-volume appendix of explanatory notes and scholarly essays, edited by Orville Prescott). “Railroad Train to Heaven -- one-stop shopping for all your literary needs.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Cape May Pennysaver.)
“Wait,” I said.
Yes, I was having another one of my famous brainwaves, although the upshot of this particular flush of mental activity had not yet become clear.
Sam simply stared at me and waited, smoking his cigar.
“Wait,” I said again.
“Sure, kid. I’ve got all eternity after all.”
“Your name is Sam,” I said. “Sam Clemens?”
“And here I told you a whole five minutes ago. You’ve got a memory like a steel trap, my boy.”
“You’re -- you’re --”
“Keep going, Porter, you’re right on the verge. I can feel it.”
“Oh, hey, pal, I recognize him now,” whispered the fly. “The Tom Sawyer guy, you know, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher -- what’s-his-name --”
And so at last, with a little help from the fly, I got it.
“You’re Mark Twain,” I said.
“I think it be no other than e’en so. The bard of Avon said that,” said Sam. “And about fucking time. I said that.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I -- I just thought you were --”
“Some old homo,” whispered the fly in my ear.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” said Sam. “Although I should have thought that a fellow scribbler would have been at least vaguely aware of my offstage name.”
“Well, now that you mention it I suppose I did know that Samuel Clemens was your real name, but --”
“I know, I reckon it’s a mite surprising to see me walking around, what, forty-seven years after I kicked the bucket.”
“A little,” I said.
“Hey, buck up, you’ll get to be a literary immortal yourself someday if that little pamphlet you’re toting around is as good as gossip has it.”
“Oh, this thing,” I said, shifting my five-pound epic from one hand to another. “I’m afraid if it gets me anywhere it’ll be down in the sub-basement.”
“Yeah, but don’t forget, with an hour’s excursion into the men’s room every two-three weeks.”
“Chatting with the other bore-asses of the literary firmament and passing out paper towels and introducing yourself to people who’ve never heard of you and don’t care to.”
“Yeah, I’ve got that to look forward to.”
“Ha ha, I doubt it, Porter. A real bore never thinks he’s a bore.”
“Maybe I’m not boring, but my poem is.”
“Don’t be so damned modest. By the way, you know you should really get something to carry your masterpiece in. A nice leather document case, dispatch pouch --”
“Yeah, so I’ve been told.”
“I’ll bet. Okay, let’s get that drink.”
“Well, I’m with some friends, actually --”
“Oh, well, if you’d prefer just to return to your friends, I don’t want to horn in --”
“But perhaps I’ll just say hello.” He stuck his cigar in his mouth, took my arm, and started to lead me back to the front room. “Where y'all sitting, in one of the booths up front?”
“No, actually, we’re in the back room.”
He stopped in his tracks, let go of my arm, took his cigar out of his mouth, and looked at me.
“The back room. They put you in the back room?”
“Did you know someone?”
“Shit. Even I have trouble getting a table in the back room.”
But then I remembered Josh.
“Maybe my friend knew someone,” I said. “He got here first.”
“Oh. He another writer?”
“And James still gave him a table in the back. Is he rich this friend of yours?”
“Uh-huh. Important family? Like, you know, old money?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“That explains it then. Don’t get me wrong, I like James, but the man is a snob. You wouldn’t catch him writing about an ill-born no ’count rapscallion like Huck Finn, now would you?”
“Well, I, uh --”
“And just try to find a Negro anywhere in the man’s canon. I dare you. Go ahead.”
“Or look for an Indian, or even a half-breed like Injun Joe.”
I of course had no idea what this Henry fellow had or had not written and how many Negroes and Indians were in his canon if any.
“Oh but tarnation,” said Sam, “why are we standing here in the corridor jawboning about that old la-de-da when we could be drinking?” He punched me lightly on the shoulder. “Come on, introduce me to your friends.”
I said okay, and we turned and headed down to the back room. Sam took my arm again, but I think that was just his old-fashioned way of being friendly, so I studiously ignored it when the fly whispered in my ear again, “Homo.”
In the other room the entertainment had come on, a small skiffle band playing and singing “Camptown Races”.
“So where are your friends, Porter?” asked Sam.
“Over there, near the stage,” I pointed to our table, around which Mr. James and Walt and Edgar and Emily were all still standing.
“My word, those girls at the table are with you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Which one’s yours, the blonde in black or the brunette in red?”
“Well, actually --
“The brunette, right?”
“I am thoroughly impressed, my boy. Most women that good-looking wouldn’t be caught dead in this joint. You know the ladies, they tend to go more for musicians and actors, or else prize-fighters, rugby players, ruffians like that. Hoo boy. Hey, listen, by the way, Porter,” he whispered in my ear, the one the fly wasn’t sitting in, “if anybody asks, just say we’re old friends you and me. Okay?”
We walked over to the table, Sam still holding onto my arm.
“Bonjour, tout le monde!” he said.
“Oh. Samuel,” said Mr. James. He glanced down at Sam’s and my intertwined arms. “I thought you were sitting at the front bar.”
“I was,” said Sam, “but I ran into my old buddy Porter here in the head.”
“Samuel!” said Emily.
“What? What did I say?”
“You said H-E-A-D.”
“Head? I can’t say head now?”
“Not in the sense you have just employed it.”
“You’re supposed to say facility, Sam,” said Edgar.
“Much better had it been,” said Emily, “had you not made specific reference at all to the location of your encounter with Mr. Walker.”
“Yes, leave something to the imagination, Sam, heh heh,” said Walt.
“Yeah, okay,” said Sam. Ignoring these others he addressed my friends. “My name is Sam,” he said. “Friend of Porter’s.”
Josh stood up, and, reaching over Carlotta’s head, he offered his hand.
“Any friend of Porter’s,” said Josh. “Call me Josh.”
Sam finally let go of my arm, so that he could transfer his cigar from his right hand to his left, and he shook Josh’s hand.
“Very pleased to meet you, sir. And who may I ask are these lovely young ladies?”
“This is Carlotta,” said Josh, “and this is Pat.”
Sam kissed Carlotta’s and Pat’s hands in turn. I noticed that Josh’s drink was already empty, as was Pat’s. There was still a swallow left in Carlotta’s glass. Mine was untouched, getting warmer by the second.
“Mr. Walker, perhaps you would care to sit now,” said Mr. James to me, pulling out the empty chair next to Pat.
I did care to, and so I sat, Mr. James deftly sliding the chair under my descending derrière. I put my damned epic poem on the table.
Josh was still standing.
“Would you like to join us, sir?” he said to Sam.
I picked up my Manhattan.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude,” said Sam.
“Nonsense,” said Josh. “Mr. -- James, right?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. James.
I took a taste of the Manhattan.
“Can you find a chair for our friend Sam, please,” said Josh.
“I’ll get one,” said Edgar, and off he went.
Everyone started to talk at once, and the band was now playing “Oh! Susannah”.
I took another, longer drink of my Manhattan. It tasted good. Even a lukewarm Manhattan is better than no Manhattan at all.
Edgar scurried up with a chair from somewhere, Sam sat in it, Josh sat down too finally, and the conversation and the music swirled around me and then faded into the background as I heard a disembodied voice speaking above it all, but this time it wasn’t Miss Evans speaking. It was a man’s voice, and it took me a moment to realize it was my own voice, or rather Porter’s:
“So,” I said, “at the least I seemed to have succeeded in escaping the absurd machinations of Miss Evans’s novel and had branched off into my own infinitely more absurd storyline. But I still remained trapped if not in the mechanics of her plot then in the world of her novel. And meanwhile, what was happening back in my own world? Was I still lying in bed, comatose, no more sentient than a slug? And what about my poor mother? What about Elektra? What about my appointment to meet Larry Winchester for our writing session? What about breakfast?”
“Porter,” said Carlotta. She put her hand on mine, the one that wasn’t holding my drink.
“Yes?” I said.
“The lady wants to know if you would like another drink.”
I looked down at my Manhattan. It was gone but for a tiny garnet film at the bottom of the glass, and the cherry. The fly sat on the cherry, licking it.
“Just a beer, I think,” I said.
“Fine, a beer,” said the Emily lady. She was holding a pad in one hand and a pencil in the other. “Rheingold, Falstaff, or Miller High Life?”
Normally I would have gone for the Rheingold, but considering where I was I ordered the more literary Falstaff.
(Continued here; in the words of Lyle Gorch: “Why not?”)
(Please look to the right hand side of this page to find what may on a good day be a complete listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. And be sure to pre-order the upcoming Ha Karate! DVD release of Larry Winchester’s long unavailable 1964 film adaptation of Gertrude Evans’s Ye Cannot Quench, starring Michael Parks as “Porter Walker” and featuring Hal Holbrook as “Sam”. With commentary by Larry Winchester and Gertrude Evans.)
thank the gods that Ye Cannot Quench is finally out on dvd! this is a great, great piece. i'm making my way from the beginning and reading the new installments so i should meet up with myself somewhere in the vast middle, which is where i believe the "end" of railroad train to heaven lies. if it lies anywhere.
Thanks a lot, Jason. As the Impressions sang in "People Get Ready": "You don't need no ticket, you just get on board."
I tried to parse Emily's dialogue but I've always had trouble with that. Perhaps if you'd included a few em dashes.
PS. Clemens/Twain's Huck Finn is, I think, a true hero: he'd rather burn in hell than betray his friend Jim--and he believes in hell.
How your do this dialogue thing so damned well with 'nary a breath between lines is beyond me! Send some talking magic over my way, will you?
"A real bore never thinks he’s a bore.”
Kathleen, Huck Finn is the great American hero -- well, next to Arnold of course.
Catherine, the dialogue magic is on its way!
Dean: but it's so true, isn't it?
Normally I would have gone for the Rheingold, but considering where I was I ordered the more literary Falstaff.
Why do I foresee Arnold as somehow rewriting Gertrude's novel and it becoming the success it never was??
Jennifer, I only wish you were an editor at a mighty New York publishing house!
Next time I'm going to leave that washroom attendant a better tip. And I won't swat the fly either.
I've always referred to Mark Twain as "some old homo".
Manny and Anon: you're both very, very naughty.
Falstaff was the cheapest beer in in my youth, because of the returnables. I think a case was $3.50.
I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors -
Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--
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