Now Arnold/Porter has finally gotten alone with his friend (and alleged personal savior) Josh in an unusual Greenwich Village basement bistro called Valhalla, on this long hot night in the summer of 1957...
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Great, I thought. Really great, because if the son of God says something is a problem then you can be pretty sure it really is a problem.
He stared out at the dancers again, nodding his head in time to the music, smoking his cigarette. He still had his straw trilby askew on his head. The bruise on his cheekbone had turned a darker purple, his blackened eye had almost swollen shut.
“Josh,” I said. It really was like pulling teeth with him tonight.
“Can we, uh –”
“Can we talk a bit more?”
“I mean about my, you know –”
“About my –”
“About your, uh –”
“Well, sure,” he said. “Of course we can. Of course. Okay. Here’s the thing. The thing is, the thing of it is – oh – I should have offered you a cigarette, here –”
He picked up the pack of cigarettes again, offered it to me.
“I’ve quit, Josh. Remember?”
“Oh. Even as Porter Walker you’ve quit?”
“I didn’t know that. Well, that’s admirable.”
He put the pack back down on the table. He still had his lighter in his other hand. It was one of those one-motion lighters, and he clicked it, lighting it, then raised his thumb, letting the cap close, extinguishing the flame. He clicked the lighter again, lighting it, let the cap fall again. He paused, then clicked the flame alight once more.
“Hey, can I see your lighter, Josh?”
He let the cap shut again, handed the lighter to me.
“Do you want it?”
“No thanks,” I said.
I just wanted to get it away from him. I’d never really looked at it before. It was gold, with purple enamel, a Ronson, engraved with the initials “J.C.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like it, Porter?”
“Even if you’ve given up smoking you can use it for lighting ladies’ cigarettes. Or for reefers. You haven’t given up reefers, have you?”
I put the lighter down on the checked tablecloth, which I noticed had many cigarette burns and holes in it.
“Listen, Josh,” I said. “What are we going to do to get me out of here?”
“Okay,” he said. “Right to the point. I like that about you, Arnold. Well, then.” He looked up. “Oh, look, here’s our drinks.”
Emily was there with her tray, and without a word she laid down the drink order, four Manhattans, a bottle of Falstaff.
“Thank you so much, Emily,” said Josh. “Really quick service.”
“You have to be quick in this place,” she said. “You try waiting on writers. They’re not very patient people, especially when it comes to drinks.”
“Heh heh, well, thanks a lot anyway,” said Josh.
“I hope your Manhattan is cold enough.”
“Oh, I’m sure it is, look at it, all beaded and glimmering.”
“Do you want to taste it to make sure?”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Because I’ll bring you another one if it’s not cold enough.”
Josh quickly brought the drink to his lips and took a taste.
“Perfect,” he said.
“Splendid,” said Emily.
She started to pour my beer into the glass she had brought for it, but I said, “Oh, that’s okay, I like to drink out of the bottle.”
She looked at me. She still held the bottle in the air.
“You can’t really taste beer if you drink it out of the bottle.”
“Oh. Well –”
“The subtle aromas and phenolics of the hops and yeast can only be appreciated to the fullest when the beer is allowed to open up in all its foamy glory in a suitable glass.”
“Even a somewhat demotic shall we say beer like Falstaff.”
“Let me pour it for you.”
I put my hand over the glass.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just a little quirk of mine. Heh heh.”
Actually, I wasn’t about to say so to Emily, but I had noticed that the glass didn’t look very clean, and that it had a lipstick smudge on it.
“Fine,” she said.
She put the bottle down with a very audible thump, then reached for my empty Manhattan glass, but I was quicker than her, I grabbed it and held it out of her reach.
“Can I please keep this glass for a bit?”
“Why in heaven’s name?”
“I want the cherry.”
The cherry that my friend the fly was still sleeping on.
“So eat the cherry and let me take the glass.”
“I want to save the cherry for later.”
“Later,” she said.
“Yes, like for dessert, heh heh.”
She stared at me for a few seconds.
“I hope you’re not one of these people who steals glassware.”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“I hope not,” she said. “Because that’s another thing writers do, besides complain about their drinks and about slow service, they steal glassware, and silverware.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that.”
“Ashtrays. Plates. Salt-and-pepper shakers.”
“Oh, I –”
“They even steal the facility tissue.”
“Entire rolls of facility tissue.”
“I think she means toilet paper,” said Josh.
“Please, sir,” said Emily, turning to Josh. “Language. There are plenty of low and mean Bowery taverns you can go to if you must speak thus.”
“Sorry,” he said.
She turned back to me.
“Would you believe we even had someone steal the soap-dispenser from the –”
She paused, as if reluctant to even say the euphemism.
“From the facility,” I said, just wanting to get this tedious conversation over with.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you. The soap, the paper towels, even the Mr. Clean we keep under the sink. They would steal the tables and chairs if they thought they could get away with it.”
“I promise not to steal the glass,” I said.
“Fine,” she said.
She went back to the bar.
I picked up a beverage napkin from the table. It had a cartoon on it. Two men in a bar. One guy was saying to the other one, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink because when they get up in the morning that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” I picked the cherry out of the Manhattan glass and placed the cherry, with the sleeping fly on it, in the center of the napkin. Then I folded the napkin twice, gently, and placed it in the right side-pocket of my seersucker jacket.
“I’m not even going to ask why you’re saving that cherry,” said Josh.
“Just as well,” I said. “Now, back to my problem.”
He took another drink of his Manhattan, I took a slug of my Falstaff, out of the bottle.
“Okay, here’s the thing,” he said. “Now, you probably know from your catechism, that I, or at least my father and I, along with the, uh –”
“The Holy Ghost.”
“Spirit. He likes to be called the Holy Spirit now.”
“Right,” I said. “Sorry. The Holy Spirit.”
“So you probably know that I, or we – same thing – you know about that, too, right?”
“The Doctrine of the Trinity?”
“Right. Very good. The Trinity. I know the concept is a bit of a mind bender, but –” He shrugged. “Some things just can’t be explained.”
“I accept that,” I said.
“So,” he said, “You know that I, we, whatever, are, am, whatever – you know that we, I, am, are, the, uh, the Creator of Heaven and Earth –”
“And of all things,” I said.
“Um – yeah – well –”
“What?” I said.
“That’s where it gets sticky,” he said.
“The of all things part.”
“You’re saying you’re not the Creator of all things?”
“Okay, originally we did create the whole shebang.” He gestured expansively with both hands. “The world, the universe, mankind –”
“I know,” I said. “In seven days.”
“No,” he said. “What? Seven days? Are you crazy?”
“Well, I thought that the Bible –”
“Arnold, Porter, please, trust me, it took a little longer than seven days, okay? I was there, trust me. We’re talking billions, billions, I don’t know, trillions of years. Before man even showed up.”
“You can’t take the Bible as – you know –”
“Okay,” I said. “That part always did sound funny to me.”
“Okay. So we created the universe, and then, a long time later, I mean a really, really long time later, we created man. You’re with me so far?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Great. What’s this song they’re playing now?”
The band had switched to another uptempo number.
“’My Old Kentucky Home’,” I said.
“Nice song. Okay, so we create man, I mean it’s a gradual process, you know, some fish crawls out of the ocean, a hundred million years later you’ve got a monkey, then a couple of million years after that, finally, finally you’ve got – voilà –”
“Man,” I said.
“Yes. And woman of course.”
“Adam and Eve,” I said.
“Well, again, Arnold, there never actually was an Adam and Eve, per se.”
“But think of it as lots and lots of different Adams and Eves. Spread out over a very, very long period of time. And the first ones really weren’t much to write home about, to tell the truth. Hairy, bow-legged. Brutal. Filthy. Pretty vile really.”
“Okay, I get it,” I said.
“All right, so a couple hundred thousand, no, maybe more, anyway, many many thousands of years later one of these cave people is sitting around the campfire, you know, eating some wooly mammoth meat –”
“– maybe drinking an early version of beer of some sort, or mead maybe –”
“Or even smoking some reefer. Because they had reefer back then.”
“Of course. I mean, they didn’t start out with reefers as such, but you know how it is, one of these cave men tosses some marijuana leaves on the fire for kindling, and, look out, next thing you know everyone’s feeling pretty happy.”
“So, one fine night they’re sitting around talking, and instead of just talking about the woolly mammoth they chased around and killed that day, one of these cave guys starts making up a story.”
“What kind of story?”
“Well, maybe a story about some really, really enormous woolly mammoth and how some people chased and killed it.”
“So the thing is, this first exaggeration, this story about a really really enormous woolly mammoth, that was the first short story. The first work of fiction. And the other cave people liked it. They liked it because this story was scarier and just more interesting than talking about the ordinary woolly mammoths that they killed every day. Get it?”
“I guess so.”
“This was the birth of fiction. The beginning of all stories and novels, plays and poetry.”
“So that’s what we, I, my father and the Holy Spirit and I, that’s what we didn’t create.”
“Men created these stories.”
“They created their own worlds.”
“Millions of worlds, all over the world.”
“I see,” I said.
“Millions of worlds, a different world for each storyteller.”
“Worlds made by men.”
“By men and by women.”
“Like Miss Evans,” I said.
“Yes, like Miss Evans,” he said. “And all these millions of worlds sort of make up another great big universe that’s sort of separate from this great big universe that I – well, with the help of my father and the, uh –”
“The Holy Spirit –”
“– yes, that we, I, the three of us, which is really just the one of us, that we created.”
“Another universe,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “The universe we’re in now, existing within and without and alongside the so-called real universe.”
His cigarette had burnt down almost to the end. He stubbed it out in the ashtray that was already filled with butts.
“But this other universe isn’t real,” I said.
“Porter, look around you, isn’t this all real?” He knocked on the table. “Feels real to me.”
I took a good drink of the Falstaff.
“How’s that beer taste? Real?”
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
“Yes,” I said.
He picked up his Manhattan, took a good sip.
“Talking too much,” he said. “I’m letting my drink get warm.”
“So what are you getting at, Josh?”
“Oh. What am I getting at. Well, here’s the thing, in a nutshell. In a nutshell –”
“Josh, will you please just spit it out.”
“Okay. This –“ He gestured with his hand, the one that wasn’t holding the Manhattan. “This is not my world, Porter. This is Miss Evans’s world, which exists within this whole other bigger world, the world of fiction, of stories, of poetry, of – gee – of plays, and operas, of songs –”
“So, like I said – I mean, sorry, as I said – I didn’t create this world. Men did, men and women –”
“So, to cut a long story short, I have no power in this world. Or very little power. Very little power.”
I took another, longer drink of beer, almost killing the bottle.
“So you’re saying you can’t help me.”
“I would if I could, Porter. Believe me I would. But even I have my limits.”
“You’re the son of God, Josh.”
“I know. I know. And you might think I would have a little more power over a situation like this. I would have thought I had a little more power here. But I don’t.”
"I'm sorry, Porter."
I took another drink from the bottle, finishing it.
I put the bottle back down and looked around.
“What are you looking for?” asked Josh.
“I’m looking for Emily,” I said. “I need another beer.”
(Continued here, and until the last cow has come limping home.)
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