On a wet August night in 1957, in a Greenwich Village bar called Valhalla, our hero Arnold Schnabel attempts to escape only the latest in a lifelong series of awkward situations by entering a dark room labeled “Private”…
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“I shall never forget that drizzly cold November day when, having entered a Walgreens in search of a Benzedrine inhaler, I found myself gazing at a carousel of lurid paperbacks, and there, in an Ace Double tête-bêche -- Horace P. Sternwall’s excellent (and now sadly out-of-print) Journal of a Winter in Budapest was the other book included -- I saw for the first time that first edition of the first volume of Arnold Schnabel’s masterpiece. And from that moment forth, my life was changed, changed utterly.” -- Harold Bloom, in Better Homes and Gardens.
(Continued here, what else can we do.)
(Illustration by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.)
I stood with my back to the door. I was sweating. I had never stopped sweating since entering this tavern, but somehow now I was sweating even more voluminously, or at least so it seemed to me. I could feel the sweat seeping out of me and into my clothes, and not just my shirt and my boxer shorts, I could feel my jeans and my seersucker jacket growing more sodden and heavy each passing slow moment. I stared into the darkness and then I heard the voices of Emily and Julian from the other side of the door.
“Julian, wait, damn it!”
“Oh, all right.”
It sounded like Julian was right on the other side of the door.
“Just wait a minute,” said Emily’s voice.
“Yes?” said Julian’s voice.
He was definitely on the other side of the door, with his back to it, so that he and I were standing back-to-back only inches apart. I held my breath.
“What is it?” said Julian.
“I don’t want you to go,” said Emily.
“But I really must hit the sack, Edna.”
“What? What did you call me?”
“Um, I didn’t call you anything.”
“You called me Edna.”
“Nonsense. I didn’t say Edna.”
“You did. You called me Edna.”
“No I didn’t. It’s this damned rock-and-roll music they’re playing in here. Can’t hear yourself think.”
“I heard you call me Edna.”
“I assure you, you misheard me.”
“Then what did you say.”
“I said, um, ‘I really must hit the sack --’”
“I heard that part. Then you called me Edna.”
“Ah, but you see, what I actually said, was, ‘I really must hit the sack, and, uh --’”
“Yes, I was merely pausing you see --”
“Yes. I was about to say, ‘I really must hit the sack, and, uh, get a good night’s, um, you know --”
“So you do know my name.”
“Of course I do. It’s -- Miss, um --”
“What’s my Christian name?”
“Your Christian name.”
“You know, I’ve often wondered about that phrase,” said Julian, with what sounded like a forced chuckle. “Because you never hear Jews talking about their Jewish names, do you? Or, say, Arab fellows talking about their Arabian names --”
“Arabian isn’t a religion.”
“Yes, I suppose not, but my point is just --”
“Arabian is a nationality.”
“Right,” said Julian, “or maybe a race? I’m not quite sure.”
“Arabs have Arabian names,” said Emily.
“Very true,” said Julian. “Ali Baba, say.”
“Just as there are French names,” said Emily. “Russian names. Ivan, like.”
“Nikita,” said Julian.
“Andrushka,” said Emily.
“Yes,” said Julian, “exactly. But I was only saying that Christians seem to be the only ones who call their first name their Christian name.”
“Why would a non-Christian call their first name their Christian name?”
“Um, uh, never mind.”
“What’s my first name?” said Emily.
“Um -- what do you mean?” said Julian.
“What is it?”
“Oh, uh, you mean, is it -- French? Or Russian?”
“No, just what is it?”
I turned my head and whispered into the wood of the door:
“What?” said Emily.
“Emily!” said Julian. “Your name’s Emily.”
“I thought I heard someone else.”
“I thought I did too, but after all it is noisy in here. Emily.”
“Let’s have another drink.”
“No. Emily. I really must get to bed.”
“You’ve already been to bed tonight.”
“Heh heh, well, that’s true, Emily, but I really must get some sleep, heh heh.”
“You slept earlier tonight.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose I did doze off for a bit, didn’t I?”
“You did indeed. When we were making love. You fell asleep, like a log.”
“Well, I do tend to drift into the arms of Orpheus after, you know --”
“You mean Morpheus.”
“Right. Arms of Morpheus. After I have, uh, --”
“You didn’t fall asleep after. You fell asleep during. Or, technically speaking, before.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Before we were able fully to engage in the act of, you know --”
“Yes. Just as we were starting to get somewhere you suddenly started snoring.”
“Did I really?”
“I should know. You should know, too, for that matter. And now you do.”
“I beg your pardon. I mean retroactively I beg your pardon. But after all we did have a rather heavy lunch, followed by quite a few cocktails if I recall.”
“So, that you recall.”
“Heh heh. I promise to make it up to you.”
“You can make it up to me now.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Retroactively or actively.”
“I said you can make it up to me now.”
“What? Here? Now?”
“Impossible. We can’t do it right here in this public place. Even if this is the Village.”
“What about in there?”
“That room behind that door you have your back against.”
I was still standing with my back to the door, staring into the darkness.
“This door?” said Julian, and it sounded as if he had turned to look at it.
“Yes, Julian,” said Emily’s voice. “That door.”
The room I was in appeared to be windowless, the only and very slight illumination being that which seeped in around the edges of the door I had my back to.
“It’s marked ‘Private’,” said Julian’s voice.
“What better than a room marked ‘Private’?” said Emily.
“It’s probably locked.”
I couldn’t make out anything in the room, everything was darkness and shadows, some shadows darker than others.
“Try the knob and see if it’s locked,” said Emily.
“Gee, you really think we should?”
I had to try to escape somehow. But how?
“Go ahead, Julian, turn the knob.”
“What if we get in trouble?”
“You’re a wealthy and very well-dressed young publisher. You’re not going to get in trouble.”
“Gee,” said Julian, “I dunno.”
I scrunched my eyes shut and tried to will myself back into my old body, in my old world, in Mr. Arbuthnot’s kitchen, even if in that world I was in a state of excruciating and perhaps permanently crippling pain.
“Passion, Julian,” said Emily’s voice. “Passion. That’s what you need.”
“You think so?”
I opened my eyes and sure enough, I was still there.
“Here,” said Emily’s voice, sounding closer, “let me try the damn doorknob.”
Just then, turning my head back and forth like a cornered animal I noticed the faintest possible gleam of light to my left and upward.
“Step aside, big boy,” said Emily’s voice.
I heard the doorknob turning, and I stepped to the left, arms outstretched, and after two or three paces I bumped into what I now saw was a spiral metal staircase, just barely visible, and up above I saw the thin grey-yellow rectangular outline of a door.
“It’s open, all right,” said Emily’s voice. “It’s dark in there.”
“Well, look, if we’re going in, then let’s go in,” said Julian’s voice.
Finding the handrails of the staircase with my fingers I started up the stairs.
“Hey, don’t rush me, pal,” said Emily.
“I just don’t want anyone to see us going in,” said Julian.
“Wait, did you hear something in there?” said Emily’s voice.
“I hope it’s not a rat,” said Julian.
“Didn’t sound like a rat.”
By this time I was at the top of the staircase and face to face with a door. I felt with my hand around where a doorknob would normally be, and I found one.
“What did it sound like?” said Julian’s voice.
“A kitty cat,” said Emily.
“Oh, well, cats are all right,” said Julian.
I opened the door. It gave onto a short dark and very narrow hallway, but there was a pale yellowish gleam at the other end.
“Come on in, big boy,” said Emily’s voice back down below.
“Oh, well, all right,” said Julian, “but just for a little while.”
I closed the door behind me as gently as I could and then went quietly toward the pale light.
The hallway opened up into a shadowy room filled with narrow rows of high shelves packed with books. There did seem to be an electric light on somewhere in the room, but it must have been way over on the other side. I took a step and almost tripped over a large cardboard box filled with books.
“Hello, Henry, is that you, old boy?”
It was an old man’s voice.
“No,” I said into the dimness. “It’s, uh, my name is --”
A little old man emerged from the shadows between two bookshelves. Yet another little old man, this one in an old- fashioned dark suit with a wing collar. He held a lit pipe, one of those little pipes with a long curved stem. He was round and small and mostly bald, and he wore pince-nez glasses like the ones Theodore Roosevelt used to wear, with a ribbon dangling down and tied to his collar button.
“Hello,” he said.
“I’m afraid I’ve, uh, sort of gotten lost,” I said.
“Were you looking for the gentlemen’s facilities?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, my dear, I hope you’re not here to rob me. I have precious little cash on hand, but what I have you’re welcome to, of course.”
“I’m not here to rob you,” I said. “I was just trying to, um, escape --”
“Not from the police I hope.”
“From a young lady perhaps.”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Oh, well, say no more then.”
“Okay,” I said.
He stepped forward and offered me his hand.
“Philpot’s the name,” said the little man. “Augustus Philpot.”
I took his hand. It was soft and pudgy and a little damp.
“And your name is, if I may be so bold as to ask?” he asked.
He was yet another one of these long-shakers, as if his little hand were some sort of eager little animal trying to mate with my own hand. I pulled my hand away.
“My name is -- well, I suppose it’s Porter Walker,” I said.
“Not the rising young bohemian poet?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said.
“This is an honor indeed. May I offer you some sherry, Mr. Walker?”
What the hell, as long as I was there.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Splendid. Follow me, and mind your step,” said Mr. Philpot.
He turned back into the shadowy alleyway between the bookshelves.
(Continued here, what else can we do.)
(Illustration by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.)
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