Let’s rejoin Arnold/Porter then, on a sultry wet night in the summer of 1957, in the back room of a slightly sinister bistro known as Valhalla…
(Click here to read our previous episode; go here if you must to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 47-volume memoir. “Not to damn it with faint praise, but Schnabel’s massive opus is, in my perhaps not quite humble opinion, the finest literary achievement of our time.” -- Harold Bloom (on The Maury Povich Show).
I had just reached the opening to the hallway, and I could see Emily walking ahead down there, not looking back, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I turned. It was Sam Clemens, he was all out of breath, sweating from dancing, his hair even more disordered than it had been before.
“Where you going,” he said, and then he panted heavily three or four times. I wondered what would happen if he had a coronary. Was there another afterlife he would be consigned to after this one? “You’re not leaving already, are you, Porter? We haven’t even eaten yet.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“What, you have to use the head again already?”
(Why didn’t I just say yes? Probably because in the back of my mind I knew he would stand there and watch to make sure I went into the men’s room; perhaps he would even go in there with me, and then I would be forced to try to urinate when I didn't really have to, and to talk to the doomed boring writers again -- yes, all this flashed by in the back of my fine mind in the space of a half-second.)
“Where you going then?” Sam asked.
“Just outside for a minute.”
“Uh, for a breath of fresh air?”
“Fresh air? What are you, a health nut? Oh. Oh, I get it.”
He was cocking his head to one side, looking past me down the hall.
I half-turned my body, half-turned my head, and there at the other end of the hall stood Emily the waitress, staring at me, her fists balled again.
I turned back to Sam.
“I get it,” he said again. “I was young once too, believe it or not.”
I should have mentioned that he was practically shouting all this, as the band was still playing very loudly, a jig or a reel or perhaps a fandango of some sort, and Walt was playing along with his jew’s harp again.
“Steaming up and down the mighty Mississippi,” said Sam, “dead reckoning through fogs and thunderstorms and pitch-black night, doing a man’s job -- let me tell ya, when we pulled in to a hot town like Osceola or Cape Girardeau --”
“Well, look, Sam,” I said, “I’ll really be right back.”
“Not that it’s any of my business,” he said.
Who was I to disagree with him? I started to turn but he grabbed my arm.
“Hey, Porter, you’re not gonna leave your manuscript on the table, are you?”
“Well, as I said,” I said, peeling his hand off my arm, “I’ll be right back.”
“Porter, look around you. Nothing but writers in this joint. Look at Bradstreet over there.” He pointed to the table we had been sitting at. The Mistress Bradstreet woman was twisted around in her chair and leaning over to our table with her hand on my poem -- well, Porter’s poem -- and apparently reading it. “Don’t be surprised if some of your lines turn up verbatim in her next poem, pal.”
“She can have them,” I said.
“Ah, don’t be like that, Porter. Look, you leave that poem there for even one minute I’ll lay you eight to five it’s not even there when you come back. And then where are you. Back driving a truck.”
“Cab, truck, whatever.”
“Okay, uh, tell ya what,” I said, “will you keep an eye on it for me, Sam?”
“Oh no, I don’t want that responsibility --” he held out both his hands, palms outward, fingers pointed up, “no, sir, not me, buddy, uh-uh, I’ll never forget Ivan Turgenev asked me to watch his damn epic novel once in this café in Paris, and --”
“All right,” I said, “all right. I’ll get it.” And I went past him, heading back to the table. Sam quickly caught up with me, skipping once or twice to keep pace.
“Hey, don’t get huffy, Porter. I’m only looking out for you.”
“Sure,” I said.
Out of the corner of her eye Mistress Bradstreet saw me coming from about ten feet away, and at once turned around and settled back in her chair, ostentatiously joining in with the conversation of her friends. I went over, picked the typescript up, stood it up lengthwise on the tabletop and tapped it down a couple of times, straightening the pages somewhat. To tell the truth this unruly mass of paper was beginning to look worse for the wear, the pages stained and bloated with beer and whiskey and smeared with tobacco ashes.
Carlotta rushed over all perspiring and out of breath and grabbed Sam’s arm.
“Come on, Sam! They’re gonna play a square dance next!”
“Sure thing, little lady!”
“Where you going, Porter?” she yelled at me.
“He’s just going outside for a breath of air,” said Sam, as if he were deliberately trying to sound as mendacious as possible.
“Don’t cover for him, I’ll bet he’s going out to meet that scary waitress. Good luck with that, Porter! Come on, Sam, let’s kick it around some more!”
She pulled him back onto the dance floor. I put my manuscript under my arm and headed back again for the hallway. This whole business of being talked into going back for my epic felt like some awkwardly contrived plot development, but I couldn’t see any way out of it at the moment.
Emily the waitress was still waiting at the other end of the hall. When she saw that I was really coming she turned and disappeared into the front room. I followed.
The front bar had gotten busier, and louder, the jukebox blaring rock-and-roll. Emily now stood near the entrance door, staring at me across the room through its shifting clouds of smoke. She turned, opened the door and went out. I followed.
When I opened the door to go out I almost bumped into Emily, who stood there facing the entrance.
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
It had started to rain again, but an awning from a shop above kept most of the areaway dry. The electric Rheingold sign reddened Emily’s formerly pallid face.
The door closed by itself behind me, and the noise and the music of the bar all but faded away.
“Thank you for coming out here, Mr. Walker,” she said. She stood very close to me. But then the space kept dry by the awning was not a large one. “I won’t detain you long. I know you must be terribly desirous of returning to the bar, to drink and carouse with your friends.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘terribly desirous’,” I said.
“But still desirous.”
“Well, I at least want to get back in time to eat my bacon-cheeseburger before it gets cold.”
“And your french fries.”
“Yes, those too,” I said.
“You men like to eat, don’t you?”
“I think all human beings like to eat,” I said. “Regardless of sex.”
“Please don’t use that sort of language in front of me. I don’t care what you say behind my back but please don’t use such vulgar language within my earshot.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it.”
“I’ll try not to,” I said.
“Anyway you’re wrong.”
“About all human beings liking to eat, regardless of -- of --”
“Yes, regardless of whether that person be male or female. Personally I would prefer never to eat. Except perhaps for a half a slice of dry toast with my morning cup of black coffee. A bite of crisp butter cookie with my afternoon tea. Very occasionally I might have a tiny slice of gingerbread with warm milk on a cold night before I retire.”
“I stand corrected,” I said.
Now I was really getting hungry.
“I see you brought your epic poem,” she said.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “This old thing.”
“Afraid to leave it in there?”
“Not really, but Sam advised me to take it with me.”
“Mr. Clemens spoke with reason. Yours would not be the first literary work to go missing in that place. You know you really shouldn’t be carrying it around like that all loose and unprotected from the elements and misadventure.”
“I know,” I said.
“Don’t you have an attaché case? A portfolio of some sort?”
“Not that I know of. But I promise to buy one or the other with the first installment of my book advance.”
“Don’t do it on my account.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“I wish you wouldn’t be cruel. I have only your best interests at heart.”
“I didn’t mean to be cruel,” I said. “I only meant that I would buy a briefcase or something because it would be the -- uh -- the practical thing to do, and, also, uh --”
“Well, and also because then people would stop telling me to buy a briefcase. Or attaché case.”
“A leather portfolio would do.”
“Yes,” I said, “or one of those.”
“So, you’re probably wondering why I asked you to come out here with me.”
“Uh, yeah, but, um, listen, Emily?”
“That is indeed my Christian name, and, yes, you may address me as such.”
“Okay, um --”
“Perhaps I may address you by your forename.”
“You are perspiring, Porter, even though we have come out here from that smoky fetid place reeking of tobacco smoke and, yes, of the cloying fumes of marijuana and opium, into the relatively fresh night air.”
It was true, I could feel the cool sweat on my brow. I reached into my jacket pocket, brought out the cocktail napkin I felt in there so I could mop my forehead with it. Then I realized that this was the napkin I had folded the cherry and the sleeping fly into.
I didn’t want to seem strange by putting the napkin back in my pocket right after taking it out, so, very gently, I dabbed my forehead with it.
I heard a buzzing.
“What is that noise?” said Emily.
“Yes, a buzzing sound, it seems to be coming from your forehead.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Now I was really sweating. I dabbed my forehead some more, and the buzzing grew louder.
“Don’t tell me you don’t hear that,” she said.
“A buzzing, like unto a fly, or a mosquito.”
“No, I don’t, uh --”
“Perhaps it is the workings of the machinery of your poet’s mind.”
“I doubt that,” I said.
“So you do hear it?”
“No, I can’t say that I do, heh heh --”
Like a fool I kept dabbing at my relentlessly oozing forehead, and of course the poor trapped fly buzzed all the louder.
“You’re telling me you can’t hear that,” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Perhaps I am going mad then.”
“Oh, no, heh heh --”
The buzzing stopped.
The cocktail napkin had grown quite sodden. Had I asphyxiated the poor fly?
Sweat still streaming from my eyebrows into my eyes I carefully began to unfold the napkin, and all of a sudden the fly burst out of it like a shot and flew madly away.
“Was that a fly?” Emily said.
“I thought I saw a fly fly out of that beverage napkin.”
“Oh, really?” I quickly stuffed the napkin and its enfolded cherry back into my jacket pocket. “So, Emily,” I said, “here’s the thing.”
“Here’s what thing?”
“Well, the thing is, I just wanted to tell you, uh, I have a girlfriend.”
“You know, a lady friend.”
“I am familiar with both terms. What I do not understand is why you feel it incumbent upon yourself to share this information with me. I assure you I have no interest in your private affairs. In fact I suspect that the less I know of them the better.”
“Oh, well, it’s just because, you know, you asked me to meet you out here and all --”
“I see,” she said.
“How dare you.”
“How dare you. Do I look like the sort of female who makes carnal assignations with gentlemen she has only just barely met?”
“Well, no --”
“How dare you.”
“But -- that note you gave me. The little heart you drew.”
“I always draw little hearts with my notes. Even my notes to the milkman are adorned with little hearts.”
“Oh,” I said. “I misunderstood.”
She looked away, out to the sidewalk and the street above us, the glistening rain falling through the light of a streetlamp, her face glowing red from the neon Rheingold sign. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I don’t know if I even want to show you now,” she said.
Still looking away she reached into the pocket of her apron and brought out a small sheath of papers, folded once.
“These,” she said. “My more recent scribblings of verse. I wanted to, to ask you --”
She turned and looked at me, with wet eyes.
“I wanted to ask if you would read them, and tell me if they suspire.”
“If they breathe.”
“You know,” she said, I think beginning to lose patience with me, “do they live?”
“Oh,” I said. “Is that all?”
“’Is that all?’”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it that way, I just meant, like, you know, whew --”
“I mean, I’m glad I was mistaken about why you wanted to meet me and all.”
“Oh. You’re glad.”
“Well, I mean, only because --”
“Because I am a mousy small creature, odd and ill-favored.”
“No, not at all, I mean, just because I have a girlfriend --”
“Yes, yes, of course. So will you read them.”
“Well, I’m not much of an expert really.”
“But your book is about to be published.”
“Yeah, but really, I mean, I never even read other people’s poems. All I read is mysteries mostly.”
“Yeah. Or, like, books about guys caught in a whirlpool of lust and passion --”
“Or comic books,” I said.
“Yes,” I said.
“So you won’t read my poems.”
“Oh, no, I’ll read them, I mean if you really want me to, but --”
Footsteps were approaching on the sidewalk. It sounded like a man and a woman.
Then I heard a familiar ringing voice.
“Oh! What is this place? Is this a bar? Let’s go in this place!”
And then, standing on the sidewalk at the top of the areaway steps in the rain, I saw Julian and Emily -- the other Emily -- Julian holding an open umbrella in one hand and Emily’s briefcase in the other, and both of them looking exceedingly drunk.
“Porter!” cried Emily. “So there you are!”
“Oh, boy,” muttered Julian.
Emily practically fell down the steps in her hurry, and she slammed into me, grabbing me by both arms and kissing me on the cheek.
“Porter, darling, where have you been?”
She was talking in her sort-of English accent again, pronouncing “been” as “bean”.
“Oh, nowhere,” I said.
Still holding tightly to both my arms she turned to face Emily the waitress.
“And who is your new friend.”
“Oh,” I said. “Emily, this is Emily.”
(Continued here, bloodied, but unbowed.)
(Turn to the right hand column of this page to find what is, on a good day, an up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode sponsored in part by The Amalgamated Tea Party of America: “Let’s Keep America Safe For Fat White People”.)