(Go here to see our previous episode; click here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 43-volume memoir. “I used to think Joyce and Proust were hot stuff. I used to think that Cormac McCarthy and Saul Bellow were great American writers. And then one day in Ballin’s drugstore on Lincoln Avenue I saw on a revolving rack of budget-priced paperbacks the first volume of Arnold Schnabel’s epic masterwork, and after that all was changed, changed utterly.” -- Harold Bloom, in the Family Circle.)
“Try not to be upset, Porter,” said Josh. “Or would you prefer I call you Arnold? At least when others aren’t around? Would that make you --”
“I don’t care, Josh,” I said.
I saw Emily, standing near the bar, her cocktail tray under her arm, her arms folded. She was looking at the dancers, or at least looking in their direction. The band was playing “I Dream of Jeanie” now, but at a furious pace, and Pat and Edgar and Sam and Carlotta and some other people were all dancing what looked like the rhumba to it. Edgar had his cigar in one hand and his decorative beer stein in the other. Sam danced with his cigar clenched between his teeth, his hands raised above his grey head. Walt had joined the band, accompanying them on a jew’s harp and stamping his feet.
“You’d better wave to her if you want a drink,” said Josh.
“She’s not even looking this way,” I said.
“Do you want me to go over and get her?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think she would like that.”
“But she’s a waitress,” he said. “It’s her job to get people drinks.”
“I know,” I said.
“Excuse me!” This was a guy who was sitting at the next table, behind Josh. “Excuse me.”
The guy was all the way turned around in his chair, and leaning toward our table. I hate that. I hate it when people at other tables in bars have to stick their noses in your business. And not only this guy, but the other three people at his table were also all looking at me and Josh.
“I beg your pardon,” the guy said, loudly. “I couldn’t help over-hearing.”
They always say this, too. With all this blaring music, and with me and Josh conversing in normal tones, perhaps even less than normal, this guy still couldn’t help over-hearing. Right.
Josh had turned around in his seat so he could look at the man, who was somberly dressed and had rather long hair, but nothing surprised me any more in this place.
“Yes?” said Josh.
“Don’t mean to intrude,” the man said, intruding.
“Oh, no,” said Josh, “that’s perfectly, uh, you know –”
“Couldn’t help it,” said the man.
“Oh,” said Josh.
The guy was speaking very loudly, because of the music one would suppose, but he was also speaking louder than necessary.
“About your friend’s difficulty,” he said.
Loud, as if Josh and I were in a boat on a stormy sea and this guy was in a passing boat, hailing us.
“His little difficulty,” he repeated, just in case all the people in the rest of the room hadn’t heard him.
“Oh,” said Josh. “Do you know the waitress?”
“Do you know the waitress,” said Josh. “Do you think you could get her attention without getting her upset?”
“Yeah,” said Josh. “My friend Porter would like another beer.”
“Oh,” said the man. “Well – I know her, sure. But I don’t know about getting her attention. No, I would just wait if I were your friend. She’s bound to come by your table sooner or later.”
“Oh,” said Josh, as in Oh, well, thanks for nothing, Nosey Parker.
Josh started to turn back around towards me, but the man called, “I wasn’t talking about your friend’s difficulty in getting a beer.”
Josh turned and looked at the fellow again.
“No. I was talking about his other difficulty.”
“You heard all that?” said Josh.
“I heard enough.”
“You have awfully good hearing.”
“Well, I was turned around looking at the band, you see, and at the dancers.”
“Oh, okay,” said Josh.
“May I say something?”
Josh darted me a look, which the man couldn’t see, a look which said, “Do we have a choice?” Then he said to the man, “Sure, go ahead.”
“Oh, by the way, my name is Jonathan, Jonathan Edwards.” When Josh didn’t say anything right away the man said, “The Reverend Jonathan Edwards? Theologian?”
“Theologian,” said Josh.
“18th century? The Great Awakening? Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners?”
“Oh, that Jonathan Edwards,” said Josh. “Of course.”
Josh, so unfailingly polite, now got up from his seat so that he could shake hands with this fellow, who didn’t bother to get up.
“My name’s Josh.”
“Pleased to meet you, Josh,” said the Reverend Edwards, shaking Josh’s hand. “And this is Mistress Bradstreet.” Josh shook hands with this lady, who was sitting next to the Reverend.
“Very pleased to meet you, sir,” said the lady. Like the Reverend she was dressed almost entirely in black, with a few touches of grey or white here and there to relieve the monotony.
“And this is Dr. Franklin,” said the Reverend, gesturing to a bald fat man with long grey hair growing from the sides and back of his head, and wearing rectangular wire-rim glasses. He at least half-rose from his seat as Josh leaned awkwardly over the table to shake his hand.
“Call me Ben,” said Dr. Franklin. He was chewing, and in his left hand he held what looked like a pastrami-on-rye.
“Hi, Ben,” said Josh.
“And last but far from least, that’s Mrs. Wharton.”
This was a very distinguished-looking lady with a very big hat and a veil.
Josh leaned all the way across the table to shake her hand too.
“Call me Edie,” she said to Josh. She was smoking a cigarette in the longest holder I’d ever seen.
“Very pleased to meet you, Edie.”
“And what’s your quiet friend’s name over there?” she said.
“Oh,” said Josh, still standing. “That’s Arnold.”
“Arnold,” said Mrs. Wharton, Edie, whatever she wanted to go by.
“Arnold Schnabel,” said Josh.
“I thought I heard him called Porter.”
“Damn!” said Josh. “I mean, darn, sorry.”
“Quite all right, young man. I lived many years in France. I am no Puritan.”
“I’m a Puritan,” said Mistress Bradstreet.
“I’m really terribly sorry,” said Josh.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” said Mistress Bradstreet.
“I keep doing that,” said Josh.
“What, cursing in front of ladies?” said Reverend Edwards.
“No,” said Josh, “I mean, yeah, that too maybe. But I keep saying my friend’s name is Arnold Schnabel. And it’s not. His name is Porter. Porter Walker.”
All four of them called out variations of “Hello, ‘Porter’”.
I waved in a vague way to their table, but I didn’t get up or say anything. I had met enough weird people for one night, for one lifetime, for two lifetimes.
“But is his name really ‘Porter Walker’?” said this Mrs. Wharton.
“What? Sure it is. He’s a, uh, a poet –”
“Handsome brooding romantic poet?” she said.
“Uh, yeah, heh heh.”
“Very handsome,” said Mistress Bradstreet. “I’m a poet, too, by the way.”
“So, you’ve got yourself in a bit of a pickle, Porter,” said Reverend Edwards, smiling.
“Could be worse,” said Ben. He had finished his sandwich, and now he was eating some potato chips.
“Here’s what you need to do,” said the Reverend.
“Oh, great, here it comes,” said Ben.
“Mr. Josh,” said Mrs. Wharton, “please sit.”
“Oh, okay,” said Josh, and he sat down, but kept himself turned in his seat towards the table of intruders.
“What you need to do,” said Reverend Edwards, to me, “is to pray to your Lord and Savior.”
“Okay, here we go,” said Ben, and he picked up a great metal flagon.
“No, seriously,” said Reverend Edwards. “It really works. Prayer.”
“Right,” said Ben, and he took a drink of whatever he was drinking.
“No, don’t listen to Ben, he’s a skeptic. I’m telling you it works,” said the Reverend. “I mean, sometimes it works.”
“Right,” said Ben, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “It works except when it doesn’t work.”
“Hey, I’m only trying to help the kid,” said the Reverend.
“Do him a favor,” said Mrs. Wharton, “don’t do him any favors.”
“I shall write a poem for him,” said Mistress Bradstreet. She reached across the table and grabbed one of Ben’s potato chips. “In my poem he shall achieve his goal.”
“Yeah, a poem will help him,” said Ben. “By the way, Mistress Bradstreet, just help yourself to my potato chips.”
“I don’t see what harm a little prayer can do,” said the Reverend Edwards.
“No harm,” said Ben, “no harm at all. It’ll waste his precious time but it probably won’t do him any harm.”
“If I may say,” said Josh, “I don’t think prayer is the answer to Porter’s problem.”
“What is his problem, anyway?” said Mrs. Wharton. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
She was drinking something brown out of a glass the shape and size of a small goldfish bowl cut in half.
“He wants to escape from this universe,” said Reverend Edwards. “Get back to his own world.”
“He’s a literary character, isn’t he?” said Mrs. Wharton. “This is his world.”
“Well --” said Josh.
“It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“Oh, do bend my ear.”
“Are you a demon, sir?” Mistress Bradstreet asked me.
“What – Porter?” said Josh. “He’s not a demon. He’s a regular human being.”
“What?” said Ben.
“I mean he’s a regular man, not a literary character. But – uh – someone – someone very bad exiled him here in the persona of a character in a popular novel. Well, a mildly popular novel –”
“Someone,” said Reverend Edwards.
“Who?” said Mistress Bradstreet.
“The Fallen Angel,” said the Reverend. He picked up his glass, he and Mistress Bradstreet were drinking something red out of small stemmed glasses, and he turned to Ben. “See, Ben, I told you the Fallen Angel exists.”
Ben shrugged, ran his finger in his plate, then licked his finger.
I pushed my chair back.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Porter, where you going?” said Josh.
“I’m going to the bar for a beer.”
“Wait for me," he tossed back the last of his Manhattan, "I’ll go with you.” He rose again, turned to the people at the other table. “Nice meeting you all,” he said.
“Hey, if you can, will you send Emily over to our table?” said Ben.
“Yeah, sure,” said Josh.
“Remember, Porter,” said Reverend Edwards. “Prayer.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Lots of prayer.”
Josh was at my side now. He touched my arm and we started for the bar, taking a roundabout route so the dancers wouldn’t plow into us.
“Sorry about that,” said Josh.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Human beings love to poke around in other people’s business, don’t they?”
“Some of us do,” I said.
Suddenly I stopped.
“Hey,” I said.
“That Ben guy. That was Benjamin Franklin.”
“The guy who invented electricity.”
“He didn’t quite invent electricity, Porter.”
“But he signed the Declaration of Independence. Started the first post office, the first fire company.”
“Among many other accomplishments.”
“What is he doing in this fictional universe?”
“I have no idea.”
“He wasn’t a novelist or a poet, was he?”
“No – oh, wait, Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
“Well, it’s got all these little two-line poems, so, yeah, it counts. Or so it seems. Plus he wrote an autobiography, and those things are always at least half fiction, so –”
“Okay, the Reverend guy, he said he was a theologian?”
“Yeah. Jonathan Edwards. American theologian, 1703 to, uh –”
“So what’s he doing in the fictional universe?”
“Porter, come on, theology is even more fictional than autobiography. In fact it’s usually even more fictional than fiction is.”
Suddenly Edgar slammed backwards into me, almost knocking me over and spilling beer on my jacket sleeve.
“Hey, watch it, Mac,” I said.
Carlotta was laughing as she continued to rhumba, holding one hand over her mouth.
“Oh, sorry!” said Edgar, and he plunged back into the dance.
“Where are you two gentlemen going?”
This was Emily.
“We’re just going to the bar for a drink,” said Josh.
“Why don’t you go back to your table and I’ll bring you your drinks? Couldn’t you wait till I came by again?”
“Oh, sure,” said Josh. “It’s just that –”
“We want to have a private talk,” I said.
“Private,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Josh, “a private chat. Oh, by the way, those people at the next table asked us to ask you to –"
“Those people were horning in on your conversation, weren’t they? That's why you're escaping to the bar.”
“Oh, no,” said Josh, “we just want to, you know –”
She put her hand on my arm. The arm that wasn't wet with Edgar's beer.
“I beg your forgiveness, sir. For their rudeness.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I hope so.” She was surreptitiously putting something into my hand. “I’ll have a word with them.”
“Um,” I said.
She closed my hand around whatever it was she had put in my palm.
“Enjoy your drink," she said. "I’d better go check my tables.”
And off she went presumably to check on her tables.
“I think you have a fan there, Porter,” said Josh.
I opened my fist, there was a folded up piece of paper in my palm.
“What the hell is that?” said Josh.
I unfolded the paper, which was a lined sheet from a waitress’s order pad.
“What’s it say?”
I handed him the paper.
“’Meet me outside in 5. Emily.’”
Josh handed the slip back to me. She had drawn a little heart under the message, right above the printed words “Thank you for your patronage and please come again.”
He looked at me, then looked over across the room to where Emily was having words with the people at the table next to ours.
(Continued here, come hell or high water.)
(Please refer to the right hand column of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other conceivable chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode bought to you by Depends™: “Special discounts for members of the Amalgamated Tea Party of America -- call now for details!”)