Let’s rejoin Arnold (or Porter) in an obscure Greenwich Village bistro called Valhalla, where he sits with his friends Josh, Pat, Carlotta, and some old guy named Sam Clemens...
(Go here to read our previous episode; newcomers looking for Ph.D. thesis material may go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 72-volume memoir. “What better way to spend a rainy autumn afternoon than to lie abed with one’s pipe, a snifter of fine Napoleon brandy, and a volume of Schnabel?” -- Harold Bloom, in the Woman’s Home Companion.)
“Great,” said Emily, “one Falstaff and four more Old Forester Manhattans.”
“Make sure the Manhattans are nice and cold,” said Josh.
“Were they not cold last time?” asked Emily.
“Uh, yes, of course –”
“Then I assure you your Manhattans will be as cold as human ingenuity can make them.”
“Thanks,” said Josh.
“Oh, and bring some menus, will you, please,” said Carlotta.
“We do not have bills of fare at Valhalla.”
“Then how do we know what to order?”
“You simply order what you would like. If our chef can make it he will.”
“Okay, just asking.”
“You really should try the moules au gratin,” said Walt, who was still hovering near our table, along with Mr. James and Edgar.
“Mools oh what?” said Carlotta.
“Baked mussels,” said Sam. “They’re okay.”
“I’m telling you,” said Edgar, “the macaroni-and-cheese is to die for.”
“If I may recommend just once again the Beef Wellington,” said Mr. James. “We had some visitors from France a fortnight ago, Monsieur Flaubert, Monsieur Proust, Monsieur France?”
“Monsieur France from France,” said Pat.
“Quite. And Messieurs Baudelaire and Huysmans as well, and they all raved about the Beef Wellington. Monsieur Proust said -- and I believe this is a nearly direct transcription of his spoken word – he said –”
“Look, James,” said Carlotta, “all’s I want is a burger. A cheeseburger, with Cheddar cheese. Maybe a nice thick rasher of bacon. If you’ve got some fresh Jersey tomato I’ll take a slice of that. Do you think your chef can handle that?”
“I believe that is within the capability of our Cordon Bleu-trained chef, yes.”
“Great,” she said. “I wouldn’t say no to a kosher pickle either.”
“As you wish it shall be done, miss.”
“So do you all want to order your food now?” asked Emily. “Or do you want me to bring the drinks first.”
“Better bring the drinks first,” said Josh.
“No,” said Pat, “let’s order the food before we starve to death over here. Hey, Emily, you got french fries?”
“Monsieur France,” said Mr. James, “pronounced our frites avec de la mayonnaise, in his precise words, ‘très géniales, très, très --”
“So you have fries?” said Pat.
“Indeed we do, miss.”
“Great, I’ll take a cheese-and-bacon burger too, with a pickle, and fries, lots of fries.”
“Ooh, I want fries too,” said Carlotta. “Extra crispy.”
“Are you getting all this Emily?” asked Mr. James.
“Every word,” she said, writing on her pad. “And how, dare I ask, would you ladies like your bacon-and-cheeseburgers cooked?”
“I want to see blood,” said Pat.
“Yeah, me too,” said Carlotta. “I want to practically hear that cow go moo.”
“Rare then,” said Emily. ”And Mr. Walker, will you also be dining with us tonight?”
Somehow I was ravenous again, even after my feast in the Oak Room earlier that day. I only had those few dollars on me, but I figured that Josh would pick up the bill, so I told Emily I’d have what the ladies were having.
“Samuel,” said Emily.
“Yes?” he said.
“Will you be having something to eat.”
“Oh, I just stopped by for a drink, really,” said Sam, “and after all I had a ship’s biscuit, oh, my, just an hour or two ago, you know, at the front bar –”
“Fine,” said Emily. “Mr. Josh?”
“Wait,” said Josh, “Sam, order something.”
“Oh, really, I’m not very hungry –”
“Come on, a ship’s biscuit is no meal. Order anything you like, it’s on me.”
“Oh no really.”
“Look, don’t insult me, Sam.”
“Well, okay, then. Maybe just a small order of the Beef Wellington?”
“Make it a regular order, Emily,” said Josh.
“Right. Regular Beef Wellington,” said Emily, writing on her pad.
“Can I get it rare?” said Sam.
“Rare it is.”
“Oh, and maybe some of those baby asparagus? With the Hollandaise?”
“Splendid,” she said.
“But could I get the Hollandaise on the side?”
She looked at him, then wrote something on her pad.
“Anything else,” she said.
“I guess I could eat a few of those fries.”
“Side of fries,” she said.
“With the homemade mayo?”
“The only kind we serve. And something for you, sir?” said Emily to Josh.
“Me?” said Josh.
“Oh, hey, Josh,” said Walt, “if you don’t like mussels you have to try to the spaghetti with house red gravy --”
“I’m telling you,” said Edgar. “The macaroni-and-cheese –”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” said Josh.
This last remark got my attention.
“Josh,” I said.
“What did you call him?” said Edgar.
“Porter,” said Josh. “Porter. Yes, Porter?”
“Order some food, Josh,” I said. He was my one best hope of getting out of this world. If he kept on drinking the way he was without eating it could be years, maybe a lifetime before I escaped.
“No buts,” I said. “Miss Emily, bring Josh a bacon cheeseburger too, and don’t forget the pickle and fries.”
“Well --” said Josh.
“What?” I said.
“Could I try that macaroni-and-cheese?”
“Yes!” said Edgar. “Yes!”
Emily gave Edgar a look.
“Don’t you and Walt have seats at the bar, Edgar?”
“Sure, Emily,” said Edgar, “we’re just socializing a little is all –”
“You are annoying these people. Why don’t you return to your own seats and mind your own business.”
“Perhaps you can extemporaneously compose a poem about a talking bird.”
“Aw, come on, Emily,” said Walt.
“And you,” said Emily, “perhaps a couple of dozen verses in praise of stout young fellows and their hearty good fellowship.”
“Hey,” said Walt.
“Heaving male bosoms and rough shouts of ecstasy in the darkness.”
“Aw, come on –”
“Emily,” said Josh, “it’s okay, really. They’re not bothering us.”
“Not too much,” said Pat.
“Hey, James,” said Carlotta, “what’s up with this band?” (The combo were now playing “Old Folks at Home”.) “Any chance of them kicking it up a bit?”
“In what sense?”
“In the sense of something we could dance to maybe?”
“Mr. Foster’s band plays many a rousing roundelay suitable for both fandangoes and square dances.”
Carlotta rose up in her seat, put her hand to the side of her mouth and yelled towards the band, “Hey, boys, bring it up a notch! We wanta dance!”
I twisted around to look at the band, and, far from being offended, the singing banjo player spoke into his microphone, “You heard the little lady, boys. Number 43, and put a little muscle into it -- a one, a two --”
And suddenly the band ripped into a rousing fast rendition of “Old Black Joe.”
“Porter!” yelled Carlotta. She knocked back the last of her drink. “Dance with me!”
“No!” I yelled back.
“Square!” she responded.
Sam stood up, almost knocking his chair to the floor, and offered Carlotta the crook of his arm.
“May I have the honor, dear lady.”
“You certainly may!”
Sam dropped his cigar in the ashtray, Carlotta popped up and grabbed his arm, and off they went.
“Come on, Josh baby,” said Pat, bouncing in her seat. “Let’s dance.”
“Oh, no,” said Josh. “I don’t dance.”
“I’ll dance with you, miss!” said Edgar.
“You’re on,” she said. “Let’s go, Eddy boy.”
In a matter of seconds Josh and I were finally alone at the table. Carlotta was dancing with Sam, Pat with Edgar, Walt was watching them and clapping his hands and stamping his feet in time to the music.
Emily shook her head, took the cocktail tray from under her arm and started collecting the empty glasses from the table. I quickly picked my own glass up and put my hand over it.
“Aren’t you finished with that?” she asked.
“Um, not quite,” I said. “Just a little sip left. Heh heh.”
She rolled her eyes, but the thing was I had noticed that the fly was still on the cherry, and it looked like he was passed out. I would have hated for the bartender to toss him into the garbage.
“You get the drinks, Emily,” said Mr. James. “I’ll put the food orders in.”
“Fine,” she said. She ripped off her dupe, handed it to Mr. James, and headed over to the bar.
Mr. James leaned toward the table.
“If you will excuse me, gentlemen.”
“Sure, Jim,” said Josh.
“It’s James, actually, sir.”
“Oh, sorry, James it is then.”
“Mister James, in point of fact. My surname you see.”
“Oh, sorry. Mister James.”
“My Christian name is Henry.”
“Henry, right. Y’know, I knew that –”
“Got you. Henry James. Thanks, Henry.”
Henry James stood there for a moment, and then bowed and went off.
“He seemed odd,” said Josh.
“I think he’s disappointed that you don’t know who he is.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a famous writer apparently.”
“Oh, that Henry James. Cool. Golden Bowl. What Maisie Knew.”
“You’ve read him?”
“Well, I think I told you, Arnold, I read everything. It’s sort of part of my job.”
“Oh, right, I forgot.”
“Keeping it all straight is another matter though.”
“I can imagine.”
“I mean, not only every book in every language since the dawn of literacy but every newspaper, every, every Playbill, every Racing Form, every –” He picked up the bottle of Heinz ketchup that was on the table. “Every ketchup label. It gets a little overwhelming. Even for me.”
He put down the ketchup bottle, looked up at the band.
“Good band,” he said. “I think that’s Stephen Foster on the banjo and vocals.”
“Josh,” I said.
He started slapping his hand on the table.
“Josh, we need to talk.”
“Go, boys!” he yelled.
“Look at them dancing. Check out old Sam cutting a rug there.”
I got up and moved into the seat that Pat had just vacated, so that I was sitting directly across from Josh.
“Yes, Arnold. Porter. I guess I should call you Porter.”
“Sure,” I said.
“As long as you’re stuck in this universe, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I want to talk to you about.”
“Go, boys!” he shouted again. “Go!”
“Yes, Arnold. Porter.”
“Josh, pay attention.”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Stop pounding the table.”
He stopped pounding the table.
“Josh, we need to talk,” I said. “About me being stuck in this universe.”
“Oh,” he said. “That.”
“Yes,” I said. “That.”
For a change he hadn’t had a lit cigarette going, but now he picked up his pack of Pall Malls, shook one up, put it in his mouth.
“Right,” he said.
He dropped the pack back on the table, picked up his lighter, clicked it, lit his cigarette.
“That,” he said, and he exhaled the smoke, looking at the dancers.
Then he looked at me.
“That is a problem,” he said.
(Continued here, as a part of my court-ordered community service.)
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