(Go here to read our previous chapter; curious students of abnormal psychology may click here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 62-volume memoir, “The ne plus ultra of American literature; read Schnabel and you can just forget about Melville and Whitman and Hawthorne and the rest of those tired old bore-asses.” -- Harold Bloom, in Criterion.)
“So, uh, Mickey --” I started to say, nervously, but he interrupted me.
“What’dja say your name was, pal?”
“I don’t think I ever did,” I said, “but it’s Arnold. No, I mean Porter.”
“Arnold or Porter, huh?” He kept his motorcycle-booted foot on the gas pedal, and I watched the silvery speedometer arrow inexorably rising. “So which is it, Arnold or Porter?”
“Porter,” I said. “Porter Walker. Arnold is just -- oh, forget it -- Porter, Porter Walker.”
“Porter Walker?” said the Richard Jaeckel guy in the back seat. He was shouting, but then the jazz music on the radio was very loud. “Sounds like a fag name to me.”
“You got no room to maneuver when it comes to faggy names, Sidney,” said Mickey.
“Sid!” said Sidney. “My name is Sid! Sid!”
“Sidney,” said the Vic Morrow guy. “That is kind of a fag name, ain’t it?”
“Oh, and like Howard ain’t a fag name neither?” said Sidney.
“Howie!” said Howard, “You know I don’t like bein’ called Howard. Howie, ya little asswipe!”
“You both got fag names,” said the Timothy Carey guy. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha --”
“Shut the fuck up, Herschel,” said Mickey.
“Herschel’s a fag name,” said Sidney.
“Alla yez, shut the fuck up! Jesus Christ!” said Mickey.
He was doing at least sixty now, and he’d just blown through another red light. Fortunately there hadn’t been any other traffic on the street. Not yet, anyway.
“Ya see what I got to deal with,” said Mickey, turning to look at me as the car flew along the rainy street. “Buncha morons. Almost enough to make me wish I hadn’t dropped out of high school. So, ‘Porter’ --”
“Fag name,” said Sidney.
“Porter,” continued Mickey, “you on the run?”
“You on the lamski?”
“From the cops. Is that why you got two different names?”
“No,” I said. “No. No.”
“You AWOL from the service?”
“You can tell us. We ain’t gonna drop a dime on ya.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m not on the, uh --”
“Yes,” I said. “That. I’m not on the run.”
“Then why you got two different names?”
The car was up to seventy miles an hour now. I had one hand on the dashboard, another one gripping the rounded edge of my leather-upholstered seat.
Mickey had been watching the road but now he turned to look at me.
“You’re sweating, Porter. This car’s got air-conditioning, y’know. You want me to put the air-conditioning on?”
“Air-conditioning. Ya want it on so you ain’t spritzin’ all over?”
“Um, listen, Mickey, I don’t care, but, look, do you think you could slow down?”
“I’m only doin’, what, seventy-two, no, seventy-three now --”
“Mickey, you’re going to get stopped by a cop.”
“No I ain’t. Not in this jalopy, baby. You see this speedometer? Goes up to one-forty. How much you wanta bet I can’t push it to one-fifty?”
“Listen, I’m sure you probably can, Mickey, but --”
“I don’t want to die.”
The arrow now was approaching the number 80 on the dial.
The stoplight down the block had just turned red. Was this crazy kid going to run it? Was he just going to keep his foot on the gas pedal until we went soaring off into the middle of the East River?
Suddenly he switched his foot to the brake, miraculously the car decelerated and by the time we got to the red light the car stopped without even a mild jolt.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered the fly in my ear.
“What?” said Mickey.
“Jesus Christ,” I said.
The guys in back all burst out laughing.
“You all right now?” said Mickey.
“Yes,” I said. I took my one hand off the dashboard and the other one off the edge of the seat and I rubbed my wet palms on my jeans. “Thank you.”
“Here,” said Mickey, and he flicked a switch on the dashboard. Cool air flowed out from vents in the footspace. “That better?”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s okay, y’know,” he said. “Whatever you’re on the run from. We don’t give a shit.”
“I’m not on the run.”
“Then why do you look hunted?”
“Haunted he looks,” said Herschel. “Haunted like.”
“He does look kinda haunted,” said Sidney. “But hunted, too.”
“Yeah,” said Howard. “Kinda like a man caught in a whirlpool of deadly obsession. Hunted. Haunted.”
The light had changed, but instead of taking off again Mickey stared at me.
“So, Porter,” he said. “You hunted, or haunted, or both?”
“Both I suppose,” I said. We couldn’t be far from my building now. A couple more minutes of this.
“So, what do you do, exactly,” said Mickey. “For like a living?”
“I’m a railroad brakeman. No I’m not, I was a cab driver, but I lost my job. But I’m a -- oh, forget it.”
He put his foot on the accelerator, crossed the intersection, but now he drove at a reasonable speed, or anyway a more reasonable speed.
“It’s embarrassing,” I said.
“I’m a poet.”.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, no, I’m not kidding.”
“Poets is fags,” said Sidney.
“Shaddap, Sidney,” said Mickey. He turned to me again. “A poet, huh?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Could you, like, recite a poem for us?”
“I don’t have any poems on me at the moment.”
“Don’t you got none memorized?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Give us a poem, daddy-o,” said Herschel.
“Yeah, give us a fucking poem,” said Sidney.
“I don’t wanta hear no fucking poem,” said Howard.
“Give us a poem,” said Mickey. “Otherwise I run this baby up to one-fifty.”
“Jesus Christ,” whispered the fly in my ear, “give him a goddam poem!”
“Okay,” I said.
I tried to draw inspiration from the soaring jazz music on the radio. I took a deep breath, and spoke:Driving through night-time streets of doom
Through this warm and dirty rain
Past buildings fraught with gloom
In a car more powerful than pain,
Driving through a life filled with death
With a brain filled with madness
Through a world filled with the breath
Of the forgotten and the hopeless,
I drive through a narrow tunnel reeking
Of the stale odor of human piss,
Racing into a future I am not seeking
Out of a past that no longer exists;
To return to my home was all that I wanted
But instead I drive on: haunted, hunted.
I fell silent. The poem was as finished as it was ever going to be.
The jazz music played on. The windshield wipers wiped, not in time to the music.
No one said anything. We drove on down the rainy empty street, this street that had been filled with human beings both on foot and in motor vehicles when I walked along it earlier today, what seemed like a year ago.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Hey, we asked for it,” said Mickey. He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “So, Porter,” he continued, “how well you know my aunt, Mrs. Morgenstern?”
From what I had picked up from Carlotta’s and Pat’s insinuations I was afraid I might know that lady quite well indeed, but I decided on the spur of the moment to play my cards close to the vest.
“Oh, you know,” I said, “just sort of, uh, she lives down the hall, and, uh, she lets me use her phone, and -- um --”
“So you know her pretty well.”
“Well, uh, um --”
“You’re friendly with her?”
“Uh, yes, yes, I’m, uh --”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. I want for you to give her something for me.”
He reached inside his jacket and brought out a wad of cash folded into a rubber band.
“Here, take this.”
What could I do? I took it.
“There’s two hundred fifty bucks there. I want you to give it to her and tell her her nephew Mickey says thanks for helpin’ me out with my lawyer fee.”
“I appreciate it, buddy.”
“You better put it away now.”
I put the wad into the inside pocket of my seersucker.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
He pulled the car up to the curb on the left.
I didn’t recognize it at first, but it was the entrance to my building, between the grocery and the shoe-repair shop.
“That’s my uncle’s shoe-repair shop,” said Mickey. “You believe that guy, leaning over a bench, fixin’ shoes all day? Not for me, pal. Coupla more good scores and I’m gonna set myself up in my own business. Whatta ya think of that?”
“That’s good,” I said. I really just wanted to get out of the car. “A business is good.”
“I’m thinkin’ reefer.”
“Yeah. Sellin’ reefer. Always gonna be a market for reefer, right? And the beauty of it is, because it’s illegal I don’t gotta pay no taxes. Then with my profits I start buyin’ property. This shitty neighborhood, someday, who knows, it might be like fuckin’ Park Avenue, fuckin’ Sutton Place. Fuckin’ stockbrokers livin’ here. So I buy now while it’s still a slum and then by the time the neighborhood changes I’m a goddam millionaire.”
“Well, that’s uh --”
“Okay, see ya later, Porter.”
I tentatively held out my hand, but he kept both hands on the steering wheel. He was staring straight ahead into the rainy street, the windshield wiper wiping, the jazz music playing.
“Well, good night,” I said. “Thanks for the ride.”
Still staring straight ahead he took a pack of Camels out of the side pocket of his red windbreaker.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. He popped a cigarette into his mouth. “Anytime.”
He pocketed his cigarettes, then punched in the dashboard cigarette lighter.
I opened my door, got out of the car and into the rain.
“Leave the door open, fag,” said Howard. He pushed the back of the front passenger seat forward, climbed out, then got in the front seat. “Awright, you can close it now,” he said.
I closed the door, and Mickey pulled the car out, making a right turn on the Bowery.
I was alone again, in the misty rain, breathing in that thick slum air.
“C’mon pal, let’s get in out of this rain.”
I was almost alone.
(Continued here, and to the crack of doom and possibly beyond.)
(Kindly look to the right hand side of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to innumerable other chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Make sure to pick up as many copies as you can of “A Schnabel For All Seasons: The Wit and Wisdom of Arnold Schnabel”, edited by Bennett Cerf, with an introduction by Oscar Levant; a Gold Medal Original Permabook, $.75; the perfect stocking-stuffer for the more literate of your familial and social circle; available at better drug stores and bus stations everywhere.)
(And a tip of the Leo lid to Rocco Sacco!)