When last we saw Arnold (or Porter), he was having a drink with his deific friend Josh at the back-room bar of a mysterious Greenwich Village bistro called Valhalla, when who should suddenly appear but the publicist Nicky Boskins, an urbane gentleman with a disquieting resemblance to the aforementioned Dark Prince...
(We have had an unfortunate break in our publication schedule; those in need of a refreshened memory may go here to read our previous episode; for the curious newcomer, click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning saga of the man Harold Bloom has called “the consummate hero of our age; indeed a hero for all the ages”.)
He was proffering his hand, so there wasn’t much else to do but transfer Thomas Wolfe’s Parker ballpoint from my right hand to my left, and give Nicky my right hand. As usual his grip was oddly strong and weirdly warm, like that of a heavyweight boxer with a high fever.
“Who’s your buddy?” he said, not letting go of my hand.
(What was it with these guys and their lingering handshakes? Personally speaking I’d prefer not to shake anyone’s hand, ever.)
“My name’s Josh,” said Josh, filling in the space left by my socially-inept lucubrations.
“Oh, yeah, this is Josh,” I said, trying ineffectually to tug my hand free of Nicky's. “Josh, this is Mr., uh –”
Josh had his own hand expectantly extended to Nicky, but now that I had foolishly gone for the more formal “Mister” introduction I couldn’t remember Nicky’s last name. Bottoms? Buscomb? Buttons? Battersea?
“Mr. um, uh –” I stalled. "Ba-, Buh-"
“Boskins,” said Nicky, I think with a slightly disappointed inflection, and finally dropping my throbbing hand as if it were a day-old dead flounder. “But call me Nicky, Josh.”
“Nicky it is,” said Josh, and they clasped hands.
“Strong grip you’ve got there,” said Nicky.
“You too,” said Josh.
Instead of letting it go at that and releasing their respective grips like normal people, they continued to squeeze each other’s right hands.
“Do you perform isometrics?” asked Nicky. “Or perhaps some other form of manual exercise.” Sweat was breaking out on his forehead.
“Not if I can help it,” said Josh, gritting his cigarette in his teeth.
“Nevertheless I daresay you do some hearty work with your hands,” said Nicky. “Sculpture perhaps?”
“Carpentry, actually,” said Josh.
Sweat was pouring down both their faces now.
“Professional carpenter?” said Nicky.
“No,” said Josh. “I wouldn’t say so.”
“And what is your line if I may be so bold to ask?”
I could feel the heat emanating from their fastened squeezing hands glowing red in the dim bar light.
“Your métier,” said Nicky. He was smiling but breathing hard. “Your ‘gig’ as our friend Porter here might call it. Your work.”
“Oh,” said Josh. With his free left hand he took the cigarette from between his teeth. “I don’t work.”
“Lucky you,” said Nicky. “Where’d you get that shiner?”
“You have a terrific black eye, or didn’t you know?”
Without relinquishing his grip Josh turned on his barstool and looked at the mirror behind the bar.
“Well, so I do,” he said.
“Somebody take a poke at you?”
“There was a brief outburst of hostilities, yes. This Hemingway fellow.”
“You got in a scrap with Ernie Hemingway? Where was this?”
“Across the street there. The San Remo?”
“Hemingway was in there and I missed him?”
“I suppose you said something disparaging about his writing?”
“Yes, but in the same breath I had mentioned how very much I admire his early work.”
“In other words you told him he’s a washed-up old has-been.”
“What gets me is he threw the first punch and yet I was the one who got kicked out of the place.”
“Welcome to Greenwich Village. Famous writers get away with murder here.”
All through this banter they kept their death-grips on each other’s hands, their tensed faces glowing like stop-lights now, their shirt collars soaked with perspiration, beads of sweat dancing like rain off their suit jackets, their eyes bulging as if they were both in the midst of the world’s most stubbornly impacted bowel movements.
Suddenly the waitress Emily was standing there. She no longer carried her cocktail tray.
“Is this some primitive masculine mating ritual?” she said.
“Oh, hello,” said Josh.
“Heh heh,” said Nicky.
“Perhaps you should remove your clothing and treat us to a demonstration of ancient Hellenistic wrestling,” she said. “We could ask Whitman to referee.”
Nicky and Josh’s faces both flushed an even deeper red, and finally they disengaged each other’s hands with a wet popping sound.
She now ignored Josh and Nicky and stared at me, then tossed her head toward the hallway. (But not literally, I hasten to add.)
“Um,” I said.
She continued to stare at me for thirty long seconds, then turned and walked with a prim but determined stride toward the previously indicated exit.
“What the hell was that all about?” said Nicky, waving his inflamed right hand up and down.
“Porter has a date,” said Josh, massaging his own slightly swollen right hand with his left hand.
“With Miss Emily?”
Josh shrugged, reaching for his beer bottle.
“Ha ha. Hey, Tom,” said Nicky, calling to the bartender, and holding out three fingers. “Three more of the same here. How about a round of shots, gentlemen?”
I started to say “No thank you” but Josh butted in with a “Sure, don’t mind if we do”, and Nicky called out, “And, Tom, three good drams of whatever these fellows are drinking.”
“Old Forester?” said Josh.
“Three Old Foresters,” called Nicky, taking out a silver cigarette case. Josh still had a cigarette going, but Nicky clicked his case open and offered its contents to me. I came really close to taking one. I even lifted up my hand as if to take one. But then I felt a stare from across the room. It was the waitress, Emily, standing at the entrance to the hallway, glaring at me, her fists balled at her sides.
“Go ahead, take one, Porter,” said Nicky.
“No, I’d better not,” I said. “I’ve, uh, quit smoking –”
“Not me,” he said. He took one out, snapped the case shut, dropped it into his side jacket pocket. “So what happened to your little friend from earlier tonight? Betty?”
“Betsy,” I said. “She, uh, went home.”
He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out his cigarette holder. It was shiny and black.
“Can’t win ‘em all, pal,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
I turned away from him, glanced at the cocktail napkin on the bar before me, the one I had intended to use to write myself out of this mess. I still held Thomas Wolfe’s pen in my left hand. I transferred the pen back to my right hand, but I couldn’t concentrate. Not with Emily the waitress over there across the room, staring a hole into the back of my skull. I put the pen down, picked up my bottle of Falstaff and took a good gulp.
The band had now kicked into a rousing rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer”, with Walt taking a guest lead vocal.
I took another good long gulp of the beer and finished the bottle.
I got up off my stool.
Nicky had screwed the cigarette into his holder, and Josh was giving him a light with his black and gold Ronson.
“I’d better go,” I said.
“Oh my God, you’re really going to meet her?” said Nicky, exhaling a great cloud of warm fragrant smoke.
“I’ll be right back.”
“Fantastic,” he said.
“Should I come looking for you?” said Josh. “I mean if you’re not back in say fifteen minutes.”
“No, really, I won’t be long.”
“Or half an hour?”
“All the years I’ve been coming in here,” said Nicky. “I have never seen that girl show a carnal interest in a fellow. No, wait, I remember she had a crush on Hart Crane one time. But needless to say that didn’t work out.”
“I’ll just be a minute,” I said.
“I’ll keep your barstool warm,” said Nicky.
I started off across the room.
Emily turned and disappeared down the hallway.
I followed her.
(Continued here, bashing on regardless.)
(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page for a probably up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Coming soon, exclusively to Woolworths: It Might as Well Be Schnabel: A Miscellany; edited by Kitty Carlisle, with a Foreword by Steve Allen; an Ace Giant Paperback Original; 75¢.)