We left our hero Arnold Schnabel in the company of the ardent novelist Gertrude Evans on a rainy Sunday afternoon in August, 1963, just inside the entrance of the Ugly Mug tavern...
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“Little did we oh-so-earnest literati of the latter half of the twentieth century know that a former brakeman for the Reading Railroad by the name of Arnold Schnabel was calmly composing, in complete obscurity, that massive memoir which we now recognize as the great American epic.” -- Harold Bloom, in Better Homes and Gardens.
She put her arm in mine again and we worked our way together through the bar, which was as packed on this rainy afternoon as on a Saturday night, the moist warm air thick with smoke and the smells of the perfume and the cigarettes and the sweat of all these people drinking and shouting and laughing through the keening of the electric organ and the banging and clashing of the drums, while the man who normally played the saxophone sang words from an unknown language into a microphone.
The DeVores had taken seats in a booth near the far end. Mrs. DeVore sat facing towards us, staring blankly. Mr. DeVore was all twisted around in his seat, smiling broadly and energetically waving his arm in a come-hither motion at us.
Miss Evans stopped, gripped my arm tighter in her arm, and put her mouth near my ear.
“Now, really, darling, just one, to be polite. I had to spend hours with these two morons last night, and it was hell, absolute hell I tell you.”
“Sure,” I said.
We got to the booth, and Miss Evans let go of my arm and slid in next to Mrs. DeVore, shoving the lady inward with her hip.
“Sit down next to me, Arnold buddy,” said DeVore, and he scooted toward the wall, patting the wooden bench with his hand.
I made a slight move as if to sit, but then did my impression of someone just then realizing something.
“Hey,” I said, “Y’know, I think first maybe I’d better just, uh, you know, go to, uh --”
“The little boys’ room?” said DeVore, still smiling as if in ecstasy.
“Yes,” I said.
“Hey, even the great poets gotta strangle the worm sometimes, pal!”
“Bob!” said his wife.
“Aw, honey,” said Bob, so that was his name, I’d really have to try to remember that.
“Honestly, Robert,” she said. “Miss Evans doesn’t want to hear that sort of language.”
“I assure you that this is just the sort of salty language I adore to hear,” said Miss Evans, opening her blue purse. “I am a writer. I must absorb the language as it is spoken by the people.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Bob, Bob DeVore, Robert, Bob. “Hey, Arnie, before ya go, whatcha drinkin’, pal?”
“Oh, uh, just a beer,” I said.
“Nonsense,” said Miss Evans, taking out her cigarettes. “Manhattans are what we need, and strong ones.”
DeVore scrabbled up a book of matches and tore one off.
“Okay, a Manhattan then,” I said.
“Manhattans it is!” said DeVore, and he gleefully leaned across the table and struck a match to give Miss Evans a light.
“Well, okay, I’ll be right back then,” I said, and I started to go.
“Hey, Arnold, wait,” said DeVore. He had finished lighting Miss Evans’s cigarette and he now he tossed it, still burning to the floor.
“Yes?” I said. I prudently put the sole of my Thom McAn cordovan on the match.
“Is it raining in the john?” he asked.
“Your umbrella, you need to take that umbrella to the crapper with you?”
“Bob!” said Mrs. DeVore.
“Here,” DeVore said to me, holding out his grasping hand, and maybe he wasn’t as stupid as he seemed. “Give me your umbrella, pal, I’ll stick it under the table.”
I gave him my umbrella, said again that I would be right back, and, after smiling weakly at Miss Evans, who already looked bored, I went around the booth and down the little hallway that led to the rest rooms.
I went past the ladies’ room door, past the pay-telephone, past the men’s room door and down to the side exit. I opened the door. It was still raining, of course. I hesitated, partially because I now had no umbrella, but also out of guilt, and even more so out of anticipation of the outrageously implausible lies I would have to come up with to explain my disappearance. But, after all, I had rescued Miss Evans from the Devil, had I not? Was I also obliged to walk her home, where she would undoubtedly force me into her room and then -- I didn’t even want to think about what might happen then. I had managed to escape relatively unscathed the last time she had dragged me in there, and in fact it was she who had gotten knocked unconscious, but maybe next time I wouldn’t be so lucky, maybe next time it would be my turn to be rendered senseless or even worse.
No, I had done my bit.
Hunching my shoulders -- as if that would do me any good -- I headed out again into the rain.
I hadn’t gone two steps when I realized I was making a horrible mistake.
I quickly turned back and was inside the door before it could even close.
I turned and stood there, holding the door partway open.
I couldn’t just escape into the rain, and not merely because I had told my companions that I would be right back.
No, I couldn’t walk the four or five blocks home in this downpour without an umbrella, and the reason was that even if I didn’t care so much if I got soaked to the bone, my mother would care, my aunts would care, they would care very much indeed.
Oh, sure, I could try to sneak in the side door without anyone seeing me; but I would still be stuck with a soaking wet Sunday Krass Brothers suit which there would be no way to hide from my mother’s eagle eye, no way at all. Not to mention my nice dress shoes.
My mother would want to know why.
Why had I done such a thing? Why had I left my umbrella somewhere and walked home in a torrential downpour? She and my aunts would surely think this a symptom of insanity; and, after all, they would be quite justified in thinking so.
So much then for my brilliant plan of abandoning Miss Evans here with the DeVores.
Should I just give up? Go back and drink my Manhattan and play it from there?
To sit in a booth with Miss Evans and the DeVores, that might really be just the thing to send me straight back to Byberry.
And then I saw the answer to my quandary, right there across the street on the corner. The Cavalier Shop. A men’s clothing store. A men’s clothing store which surely stocked umbrellas. I took out my wallet and checked it. I still had seven dollars. More than enough for a modest but serviceable umbrella.
I looked both ways to make sure no cars were coming, and then, hunching my shoulders again, I bolted out the door, leaped over the gutter flowing with water, made it across the street in two more barbaric jumps, took another leap over the little river in the gutter on the other side, took a few more mad strides up the street and then a sharp turn at the corner to the shelter of the Cavalier Shop’s entrance awning.
And there in the window of the shop’s glass door as clear as day hung a sign which said in large red letters: CLOSED.
I rarely curse but I confess I then cursed, and aloud too, and more than once.
Panting, and wet, and miserable, I stared at the sign and through the shop’s plate-windows into the dim and empty interior. Irony of ironies, right inside the door stood a wooden rack of smart new umbrellas, from the Johnny Carson Collection.
I sighed and turned around and stared out at the rainy street.
The sidewalks were deserted, and there weren’t even any cars passing by.
Anyone with any sense had gone in somewhere out of the rain by now. Everyone in town was indoors, either drinking it up in bars or lounging at home or in their rented rooms and apartments, playing Scrabble and Monopoly, smoking cigarettes and reading the Sunday papers, watching Hopalong Cassidy movies on television, or perhaps sitting in the Beach Theatre eating popcorn and watching that new Rock Hudson movie, everyone was inside doing something normal. Everyone except me.
I felt a spasm of pain in my left knee, and then another spasm in my right ankle. As I stood there both spasms metamorphosed into a general continuous cacophony of pain surging up both my legs from my feet to my thighs. How foolish I had been to attempt that mad dash on my already sore legs. I really was insane, or, if not stark raving mad, then at least an idiot.
I stood there, trapped, my legs throbbing, my clothes damp with rain from the outside and my sweat from the inside. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could sit down but of course there was nowhere to sit.
Oh well. I had had a pretty good run. I had met Elektra. I had defeated the Devil himself on three or was it four occasions. I had had some very interesting adventures. But now I was to be defeated for lack of an umbrella. Any minute now that importunate policeman would come cruising slowly down the street and arrest me for loitering with intent to commit God knows what malfeasance or outrage to common decency. It would be jail time or the looney bin, and I really didn’t know which would be worse.
If I had had a cigarette I would have given up my no-smoking resolution right then and there without a moment’s hesitation. In fact I even patted my jacket pockets, but of course I had no cigarettes because like a fool I had given up smoking the day before.
I looked up and down the street again, with all that rain sweeping down.
Directly across the street was Dellas’s 5&10. They probably carried umbrellas. But, no luck, they looked to be closed as well.
Down the street Wally’s cigar shop was open of course, Wally observed no holy days, or maybe every day was a holy day for him, but at any rate he wouldn’t stock umbrellas, and anyway even if he did he would probably demand some horrible price for one.
But wait, just halfway up the block on the other side, there was Mr. Arbuthnot’s shop. He would surely have an umbrella, and he would probably lend it to me. Of course getting the umbrella from him would entail me running across the street and up that half a block, in the rain, and then I would have to talk to Mr. Arbuthnot, and possibly also to his cat, but I couldn’t see any other possible course of action.
I turned up the collar of my suit jacket and took a deep breath. I bent forward, gearing myself up for another furious sprint or hobble through the rain. A station wagon was coming down the street from the right. I waited for it to pass, and it did, an old red Buick with wood paneling, but, just as I was just about to leap out, the wagon stopped in the middle of the intersection and then backed up, pulling in front of where I crouched.
The driver’s window of the wagon came down, and a young woman with short bright auburn hair looked out at me. She looked familiar.
“Arnold,” she said, “what are you doing there?”
“I’m, uh --”
She definitely looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place her.
“You’re what?” she said.
“I, um, I was about to run across the street,” I said.
“Haven’t you ever heard of these things called umbrellas?”
“Well, yes, and, in fact, I, uh --”
“You want a lift?”
“Well, only if you’re going my way --”
“Which way are you going?”
I pointed limply in the direction in which she had just been driving.
“Hop in,” she said.
Hunching my shoulders one more time I dashed out and around the front of the car to the passenger side, opened the door, got in, and closed the door.
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she said. The light had just gone red, so we were just sitting there, the windshield wipers swishing up and down, the rain beating down on the roof of the car. Now that I was sitting my legs miraculously stopped hurting. The girl was looking at me. She wore a blue dress with no sleeves and a scooped neck, the dress seemed very loose on her. Her hair was damp, the shoulders of her dress were spotted with rain. A plain small black purse lay on the seat next to her. She had brown leather sandals on her feet. I just couldn’t place who she was. She wore no jewelry at all, and she was rather pale for a girl at the seashore.
The car smelled of warm old leather and of tobacco. The girl continued to look at me, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand lightly on the gear shift.
“It’s me,” she said. “Don’t you remember?”
And then it hit me. It was that young nun, Sister -- what was her name? Mary Katherine? Mary Margaret?
“Sure I remember you,” I said. “Sister, uh, Sister, um --”
“Sister Mary Elizabeth, yes, of course, how are you?”
“I’m fine. Considering.”
“Yeah.” She turned and looked ahead. The light was still red. She turned to look at me again. “How are you?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said.
“You don’t look okay.”
“No. You’re all wet and sweaty and out of breath. And why were you limping?”
“I fell last night.”
“Fell? Were you drunk?”
It seemed simpler just to say yes. So I said yes.
“Everyone was drunk last night,” she said. “It seemed like the whole town was drunk. Even I was drunk, and I’ve never been drunk. Is it always like this?”
“Yes,” I said. “Everyone’s drunk now, too.”
“Are you drunk now?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t mention the reefer I had smoked with Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Me neither,” she said. “My first drunk, my first hangover. Boy. Never again.”
How many times had I said that? But, instead of speaking this thought aloud, I said, “The light’s changed.”
“Oh,” she said.
She shifted the car into gear and stepped on the gas.
I touched the worn polished wood of the dashboard.
“This is a nice old car,” I said. “What is this, a ’46, ‘47?”
“I have no idea,” she said, and then instead of continuing on down the street she stopped in front of the Ugly Mug.
“Why are you stopping?” I asked. And here of all places, I might have added.
“I’m on what they call a ‘beer run’,” she said. “They ran out of beer at Mrs. Biddle’s, so I volunteered, even though I’m not drinking any. I can get beer here, right?”
“I tried that Pete’s Tavern place we were in last night but they were closed. Hey, if I give you some money do you mind running in, since you’re already wet? I forgot to bring an umbrella too.”
I suppose I looked nervous.
“What is it?” she asked.
“There are some people in there who I’m trying to --”
“Whom you are trying to.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Whom.”
“Whom I’m trying to avoid.”
“Do you remember that woman Miss Evans, and those people named DeVore?”
“Oh, no, really?’
“Yes,” I said.
“Wait, is this why you have no umbrella?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “When you saw me I had just escaped from them. The only way I could get away was to leave my umbrella.”
“So they would think you were coming back.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Pretty smart move. Except for the fact that it’s raining tadpoles.”
“Yes,” I said. “I didn’t plan it out as well as I should have.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m not going in there either then. I don’t want those people latching onto me. Where else can we get beer?”
“Collier’s,” I said, “liquor store, two blocks away, and on our way.”
“Just point me to it,” she said, shifting the car into gear again.
I did as she asked.
I may not know much, but I always know where to get beer.
(Continued here, and indefinitely unless the world really ends on May 21.)
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