Our hero Arnold Schnabel, seeking divine assistance with his problems in the real world, has returned to a Greenwich Village bar called Valhalla…
(Go here to read our previous episode; those looking for a lifelong project may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning 99-volume memoir.)
“Little did we haughty littérateurs know, as we wrote our weighty articles and books and delivered our sonorous lectures on the so-called ‘giants’ -- Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, Proust, and all the other usual suspects -- that all the while a man who was easily their equal was quietly living and humbly working in our own time, and, to some extent, in our own world: a man named Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in Cosmopolitan.
The fat bald man in the three-piece suit immediately came up to me. I seemed to remember his name was James, or Henry. James Henry? He put out his hand, it was very plump and white.
“Mr. Walker, you’ve come back!” He was practically shouting, the music was very loud, I think it was an Elvis Presley song. “Gracing our humble establishment twice in one night, quel honneur!”
I shook his hand, which was warm and damp. His face was pink, and shiny with sweat, his wing collar was crooked, and his wide bow tie had come partially undone.
“Such a handsome young fellow, and so talented!”
“Well, I don’t know about the talented part,” I said.
“What?” he said. “You’re in the mood for a tart?”
“No,” I said, speaking louder, it was not just the music but all the people in this place, shouting and laughing. “I said I don’t know about the talented part,” I yelled.
“Part? You’ve got a part in a play?”
“No,” I yelled, louder. “I said I don’t know about the part of what you said about me being talented.”
“Talented? But everyone is raving about your epic poem, The Yawning Young Faces!”
He was still holding my hand even though the handshake was over. I pulled mine away and wiped it on my jeans.
“Actually it’s called The Brawny Embraces,” I said.
“The Tawny Disgraces?” he said.
I was already tired of the subject.
“Yeah,” I said. “Whatever.” In fact I had been tired of the subject before it was even broached. It was very hot in this place, and I loosened my tie and unbuttoned the top button of my shirt. James or Henry watched me, beaming. “By the way,” I said, moving things along, “is my friend Josh still here?”
“Is it still posh in here? We’re not posh here. Down to earth we are!”
“No,” I yelled. “I left my friend here! Josh! His name is Josh.”
“Yes. Josh. Straw hat? Blue suit?”
“No,” I said. “Blue suit.”
“New suit. What color?”
“Blue,” I said, louder, and as clearly as I could. “He was wearing a blue suit. And a straw trilby I think it’s called.”
“He’s called Willoughby?”
“No, he’s wearing a trilby, a straw trilby hat.”
“Quilby?” said the man. “How old is this Quilby chap?”
I really just wanted to shove past the old fellow but I knew I must play this game to its end, if it had an end. I composed myself and spoke as loudly as I could without screaming.
“He’s about, uh, thirty-three --”
“Thirty-three you say? The Christ age.”
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly.”
“In a new suit?”
“Blue suit,” I said. “Straw trilby hat. His name is Josh.”
“What’s his name? Stosh?”
“Stosh!” I yelled. Then, more quietly, but with emphasis: “Josh.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh!” said the man. “You mean Joshua!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Josh. Joshua.”
“Oh, he’s still here all right. Joshua’s here.”
“Thank God,” I muttered.
“Odd? What’s odd about it?”
“What?” I said. “Nothing, I suppose.”
“Then why did you say it was odd?”
I sighed. For what it’s worth another loud rock and roll song was playing on the jukebox, Little Richard maybe, Gene Vincent, what do I know? Anyway --
“God,” I said. “I didn’t say odd. I said God.”
“What about God?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was just saying thank God that Josh is here.”
“He’s queer? Oh, I doubt that. In fact I should say quite the opposite. I should say he’s quite the lady’s man. Oh yes indeed.”
“Oh,” I said, already wondering if I had something new to worry about. “Well, look, is he still in the back room?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, he’s still back there all right. Would you like me to take you back?”
“No,” I said, yelled. “That’s okay. I know the way.”
“Yes, I suppose it’s not hard to find, is it?”
“No,” I said.
“The back room.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’d be surprised though how many people ask me where the back room is. Do you know what I tell them?”
“That it’s in the back?”
“Ha ha, yes, indeed, that’s what I tell them. ‘In the back.’ Except when I’m feeling wicked. Then I tell them it’s upstairs. Ha ha.”
“Heh heh,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ll be going back there now.”
“You’re sure you can find it now?”
“Pretty sure,” I said. “Upstairs, right?”
“What? No, not upstairs. It’s a used-book shop upstairs.”
I think I sighed again at this juncture.
“I was kidding,” I said.
“Kidding? Oh! Yes, of course. You young fellows, always with the hearty raillery!”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m gonna head back there now.”
“No,” I said. “To the back room.”
“To the bathroom?”
“Back room,” I said. “I’m going to the back room.”
“That’s what I thought you said. Say, let me buy you a drink.” He put his hand on my arm. “Come on over to the bar. What’s your tipple? I’m very partial to a fine malt whisky myself.”
“Maybe later,” I said. I put my hand on the forearm from which extended the hand that was gripping my arm, and I tugged, but the hand held tight.
“Just one libation,” he said. “Your friend isn’t going anywhere soon.”
“I have a message for him,” I said.
“And it cannot wait? For the brief span of time it will take us to consume two double malt whiskies, my private stock?”
“Let me just give him the message,” I said. “And maybe afterwards we can have a, uh --”
“Fine malt whisky, private stock.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Later.”
He finally let me dislodge his grip from my arm, although his chubby fingers continued to make grasping movements in the air even as I did so.
I stepped to his side.
“I’ll be right out here,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, and I took a step.
“If I’m not out here then ask the bartender to get me.”
“Sure,” I said, over my shoulder.
“Fine malt whisky.”
“Right,” I said, taking another step.
“Private stock!” he shouted.
I kept walking, past the crowded bar and the booths opposite all filled with people. At the far end of the room I was just about to turn left to head past the Wurlitzer and toward the back when I noticed the cigarette machine, and I stopped when I came abreast of it. I hesitated. I really wanted a cigarette. A Pall Mall, preferably. In fact I wanted a whole pack of Pall Malls. The little sign said the cigarettes were only a quarter, which was a pretty good price. I put my hand in my right jeans pocket, having no idea what I would find there, if anything. I pulled out a few crumpled tissues of Kleenex, and the remainder of an opened tube of Lifesavers, but I found no small change. I tried the little change-pocket of the jeans, and there was something in there, but it turned out to be a half-smoked hand-rolled cigarette. I held it to my nose; as I suspected, it was a reefer. I put it back into the change pocket and tried my left front pocket. No coins in here either, but I did find a box of matches. I put the matches back, and then in my right back pocket found Porter Walker’s beat-up old wallet. I opened it up. He, or I, or both of us, had two fives and a couple of singles, which seemed pretty good for Porter, in fact it was not bad for me either. I decided to cast caution to the winds and go over and ask the bartender for some change. I somehow knew it would be a mistake to do so, but, what can I say? I really wanted a pack of Pall Malls. I took out a dollar bill and put the wallet away.
I turned my head and looked back at the bar area.
The whole length of the bar was jammed, all the stools filled, and a lot of people standing, but I saw an open spot down at the near end where the bar curved inward to the wall. I went over to it and looked hopefully toward the bartender, who was down at the other end.
“Hey, pal,” said a woman’s voice, and I felt a nudge on my arm. It was a woman with her curly brown hair done up in a slightly disordered fashion on the top of her head. “Service station,” she said. “Keep this space clear, okay? I got a job to do.”
She laid a metal tray on the bar top and started taking dirty glasses and empty bottles off it.
“Sorry,” I said, standing aside. “I just wanted to get some change for the cigarette machine.”
I held up my dollar bill in a gesture of good faith.
“Why don’t you just breathe deeply, you’ll get all the smoke you need in this joint.”
“Heh heh, yeah, I guess that’s right,” I said. And she had a point.
She was wearing a long dress not unlike the one that other waitress here wore, except this waitress’s dress was mostly brown whereas the other one had worn a grey dress. Anyway, they both wore lace-trimmed aprons. And this lady reached into hers and brought out an opened pack of Camels and offered me the pack.
“Thanks,” I said. “I really prefer Pall Malls.”
She gave the pack a shake and pulled a cigarette out with her lips. I remembered the box of matches in my pocket and quickly scrabbled them out. She waited while I did so. I put my dollar bill in my shirt pocket, took out a match and gave her a light.
“Thanks,” she said, and blew a plume of smoke to the left of my head. She put a finger and thumb on the matchbox I held. “The Algonquin. Hanging out at the round table?”
“I, uh, did have lunch there,” I said, although I had no memory of helping myself to the matches. But then I’ve never been able to resist anything that’s free of charge. I stuck them back in my pocket.
“Wait,” she said. “You’re not that Porter Walker guy, are you?”
“Um, yes,” I said. It was easier to say yes, far easier. Nobody wants to be told they’re talking to a fictional character.
“You’ve already become legendary,” she said.
I had nothing to say to this. I looked down the bar. The bartender was closer, but he was still very busy.
“Can I give you some advice?” said the waitress.
I would have preferred just to get my change, but I didn’t want to seem arrogant or impolite.
“Sure,” I said.
“Don’t take this literary game too seriously. Look at me. I wrote a best-seller once. In fact it was the number one fiction bestseller of the century. The only book that sold more copies was the Bible, which come to think of it probably makes my book the number-two fiction bestseller.”
“Gee,” I said.
“You know what my book was?”
I took a wild guess.
“The Old Farmer’s Almanac?”
“You trying to be funny?”
“No,” I said. “Um, was it Gone With the Wind?”
“Nice try, but wrong century. Ever hear of a little book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin?”
“Oh, sure,” I said.
“So you know who I am?”
“Louisa May Alcott?”
“You trying to be funny again?”
“Um, it’s on the tip of my tongue,” I said, although it really wasn’t.
“Stowe,” she said. “Beecher Stowe. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Ring a bell?”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “I knew that. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Great book.”
“Thank you.” She took a drag of her cigarette, then turned and yelled down the bar. “Hey, Jack! Two pitchers of Rheingold, one of Falstaff! Four shots of I.W. Harper!”
“Two pitchers Rheingold, one Falstaff, four Harper!” the bartender yelled back.
“So,” said Mrs. Alcott, turning back to me, “you liked my book, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, although I knew I was treading on dangerous ground.
“Lots of people liked that book,” she said. “Millions. But look at me, I still wind up working for tips in this joint.”
“It doesn’t seem so bad,” I said.
She really did make a sound like “hmmph”, I’m not making it up.
“Hey,” I said, “you wouldn’t happen to have change for a dollar, would you?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “It’ll take you all night to get some change from slowpoke Jack over there.”
I took the dollar bill out of my shirt pocket. She reached into a small pocket in her apron and brought out some small change.
“So who was your favorite character?” she said.
I was holding out the dollar bill, but she didn’t take it.
“Favorite character?” I said.
“In my book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“My favorite character -- wow, I kind of liked them all, really.”
“But if someone holds a pistol to your head and you have to choose.”
“Well,” I said, and I felt myself begin to sweat even more profusely than I already had been. “If you really force me to choose I guess I’ll have to say Uncle Tom.”
“Uncle Tom, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Great character.”
“Okay then, everybody loves Uncle Tom. Who’s your second favorite character.”
“Wow, that’s a hard question.”
“It can’t be that hard.”
Desperately I tried to remember the “Classics Comics” version of this novel, which I had skimmed through once when I was in the army, the only version of this American classic I had ever read.
“I liked the little girl,” I said.
“Yes, uh, Little Nell.”
Her fist closed around the change in her palm.
“Eva,” she said. “Little Eva. Not Little Nell. Little Nell was Old Curiosity Shop.”
“That’s what I meant to say,” I said. “Little Nell. I mean, Eva, Little Eva. That’s what I meant to say.”
I was still holding up my limp dollar bill.
“Get your own damn change,” she said. “Fucker.”
(Continued here, nothing can stop us now.)
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