Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel on a sultry summer night in 1957, in that Mecca of the arts known as Greenwich Village…
(Please click here to read our preceding episode; go here to return to the barely-remembered misty beginnings of this Gold View Award©-winning 69-volume memoir.)
“Ever since discovering that I could read Arnold Schnabel’s masterpiece on my Kindle I have found myself missing airplane connections and forgetting grandchildren’s birthdays, and indeed one day last week I sat down on a bench to wait for the bus to the university and ended up missing work entirely, spending the next eight hours on that bench in a world ever so much richer than the one that breathed and pulsed all about me.” -- Harold Bloom, in Better Homes and Gardens.
I barely had room to walk between the bookshelves, and indeed I had to put one shoulder forward and twist my torso slightly to one side to make sure I wouldn’t knock into the densely packed rows of books on either side of me, perhaps to send a whole wall of them crashing down against another one and that one against another and so on in pandemonium. So I tried to walk carefully, and slowly, following the little old fat man making his own slow but sure way ahead of me in the shadows.
The room was very warm and humid, with a strong odor of pipe tobacco and closed windows and shut doors, but with an even stronger smell of old books, much stronger than that of Smythe’s Book Shoppe in Cape May or of my old reliable Fahey’s Book Shop back in Olney, even stronger and thicker than the mysterious and ancient atmosphere that prevailed in the basement of Leary’s down on Ninth Street in Philadelphia, where so often I would pass an idle hour picking through cheap and lurid used paperbacks while my mother shopped the sales at Gimbels next door.
It felt to me as if this smell or this universe of smells emanated from the millions of lives both real and imagined contained in all these thousands of books along with the billions of moments and thoughts and words and actions and emotions and even the trillions of seconds of boredom that made up these lives.
Then I remembered the LSD pill I had swallowed in the next world, the next world but one I suppose I should say, and I wondered if its effects were still active in this world.
Mr. Philpot turned and looked back at me in the dimness. He was about six feet ahead of me.
“You’re minding your step now?”
“Trying to,” I said.
If this was a bookshop I wondered why he didn’t have a bit of overhead lighting on, but then it occurred to me that it was quite late at night and probably after-hours.
“Careful,” said Mr. Philpot, pointing to the floor as I surged ahead, “there’s some Brooklyn to poor Miss Havisham and Robert Stack, and yet --”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“I said, ‘Careful, there’s some books on the floor there I haven’t got around to stacking yet.’”
And just as the meaning of these words took shape in my fine mind I tripped over a pile of books on the floor and fell to all fours with a quadruple thump.
“Ow,” I said, because I had hurt my right knee.
“That’s what I meant,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yes,” I said, gritting my teeth in pain. “I see.”
“Here, let me help you up.”
“No, I’m okay,” I said, through the spaces in my clenched teeth.
How ironic that I had flown to this world to escape a pain in my back only to receive (or revive) a pain in my knee. If there was a lesson to be learned in all this it was probably wasted on me.
“You’re sure you don’t need a hand.”
I could see his little feet on the wooden floor in front of me. His shoes were of patent leather, or at least a reasonable imitation thereof.
“No, just give me a second,” I said.
“Hurt your knee?”
“Yes, a little.”
“I hope you won’t sue me.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m always hurting this knee.”
“Perhaps you hurt it first on the football field. Crashing pellmell through the opposing line, crushing all in your path.”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Or a fall from a velocipede, pedaled at too furious a speed down a steep hill?”
“Let’s just say I fell last night,” I said.
“Ah! You had a drop partaken then?”
It was boring staring at the floor and at Mr. Philpot’s shoes. I would take a deep breath and force myself up.
“You’re sure you don’t need a hand?”
To tell the truth I could have used a hand, even a couple of hands, in fact a stretcher handled by two stout orderlies would have been nice, but I didn’t want to have to feel the touch of Mr. Philpot’s small old man’s hand again, and so I took the planned deep breath and shoved myself back and up to my knees, grunting, then, before I had time to lose courage, shifted with an even louder grunt to a half-kneeling position, and then, after another deep breath and with a third and yet still louder grunt approaching the status of a shout, back up to into a standing position.
I managed not to fall down again, at least not right away.
“I can tell you’re in pain,” said Mr. Philpot, looking up at me through his Theodore Roosevelt glasses, and puffing on his little long-stemmed pipe.
I said nothing, but I suppose my ashen, sweat-streaming face and my frozen grimace spoke volumes.
“A touch of my sherry will cure what ails you. I’d offer to give you my arm but we don’t have room to walk side by side in these narrow stacks.”
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to speak without moving the muscles of my face, for fear that such movement would reverberate down to my knee and increase the agony still emanating therefrom.
“If you like you can put a hand on my shoulder as you walk behind me.”
“I’ll manage,” were the words I emitted.
“Very well, then, but by all that’s good and holy for God’s sake be careful.”
“I’ll try to be.”
He led the way, moving slowly as old men usually must, and I limped along, moving slowly because I had no choice unless I wanted to trample him underfoot, and also because I would not physically be able to move more quickly even if I had a choice.
We emerged at last, one after the other, at the end of this dark alley of books, into a crosswise passageway bordered by a pale grey wall on one side and the ends of the tall rows of bookshelves on the other. In the wall were a couple of windows, with blinds up but the sashes down. Through the dusty windowpane of the closest one I could see the wet street below, the row of buildings across the street, and the sidewalk opposite. Off to the left was the neon sign of the Kettle of Fish:
“You’re quite safe in here,” said Mr. Philpot. “This way please.”
He went to the left, the passageway opened up into a slightly more open area where there was a door on the right, closed, and then a cluttered wooden desk in a corner under a wall-mounted lamp, which was switched on, and which appeared to be the sole current source of manmade illumination within the room. An armchair was on the inward side of the desk. Two other chairs stood along the wall near the doorway, and another one by the far wall, in which were two more windows, closed, and looking out onto a dark brick wall. A few dark pictures hung in frames on the wall, it was hard to tell what they depicted, if anything.
The plaster walls, the moldings, the pictures, the window frames, the dull wooden floor, everything looked old and worn, even older than my aunts’ house in Cape May.
Mr. Philpot turned and faced me.
“By the cut of your jib I would call you an Amontillado man.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said.
“What do you usually drink?”
“Beer,” I said.
“The cheap kind.”
“A preference no doubt determined by the financial straits of the professional poet, not only of this age but even no doubt that of the time of Homer. But all this will change now that you’ve gotten this twenty-thousand dollar advance on your new book.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that much,” I said.
“Heh heh, you’re right to play it cagey, sir. Once word really hits the street you will be manhandled by every two-bit literary hustler in the Village tugging at your sleeves attempting to cadge a hand-out. Here, take a seat.”
Putting his pipe in his mouth, he took one of the chairs by the near wall and brought it to the desk, opposite the chair that was already there. I sat down. The desk had a chess board set up on it to one side, with all the pieces in their places ready to go, and the rest of the desk-top was littered with old-looking books and magazines, a pewter or tin mug with pencils and pens sticking out of it, a jar of ink, a wooden pipe rack with three pipes of different makes and sizes in it, a leather tobacco pouch, a large box of Diamond matches, and a large dirty glass ashtray; there was also, right in front of the other chair, a big black book that looked like a business ledger, with little slips of paper sticking out of it. Mr. Philpot sat down in the chair, knocked the bowl of his pipe empty into the ashtray, then laid the pipe on the rack. He opened a drawer under the desk and brought out a black bottle with no label on it, with a cap of red wax. Then he brought out two jelly glasses and set them on the desk. He shut the drawer.
“How’s the knee, old boy?”
“Better now that I’m sitting,” I said.
He reached into his coat pocket and took out a pocket knife with a tortoiseshell handle. He pulled out a long blade and set to work cutting away the red wax from the mouth of the bottle, bracing the bottom of the bottle on the desk-top, turning the bottle with one hand and holding the sharp edge of the knife to the wax with his other hand. When he finished he dropped the peeled wax cap into a wire wastebasket to his right. Then he folded the blade back in and pulled a corkscrew out of the handle.
“You’re going to love this stuff,” he said. “Nothing like this domestic swill they call sherry.”
He was a pro. He put the bottle between his fat little thighs, put the corkscrew into the cork and had it extracted in a matter of seconds.
He stood the bottle on the desk while he removed the cork from the screw, put the cork on the desk, then folded up his pocketknife/corkscrew and put it away. He then picked up the jelly glasses, one in each hand, and held them up towards the electric light, which was in a dusty orange fixture the shape of an opened tulip. The jelly glasses looked grey and smudgy. Putting the glasses down again, Mr. Philpot pulled a handkerchief from out of his sleeve and proceeded to give the inside of each glass a quick wipe, after which the glasses were still grey but slightly less smudgy than they had been. He tucked the handkerchief back up his sleeve, and then, after rubbing his hands together quickly and vigorously, he picked up the bottle in both hands and poured a tea-colored liquid from it into one of the jelly glasses, filling it to within an inch of the brim, and then did likewise with the other glass.
He put down the bottle, and slid one of the glasses toward me, pushing it through the books and magazines in its way. I picked it up.
“To immortality, Mr. Walker. If not of the individual soul then to the works of the soul.”
“Sure,” I said.
I took a sip, it tasted good, kind of like the way I’d imagine fermented straw to taste like, so I went ahead and took a good gulp of it.
Mr. Philpot had only taken a sip out of his own glass.
“What do you think, sir?”
“Of the wine?”
“Now you are tossing words about.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Can you not feel the burning hot yellow sun of Córdoba in this wine? The skies bluer and more clear than the eyes of a newborn child? The air smelling of dust and olives?”
“Yes,” I said, because it was easier than telling the truth.
“And even,” he said, passing his nostrils over his glass, “just the slightest soupçon of the dried feces of the noble fighting bulls. And I mean that in the best possible sense.”
He took another sip and then put his glass down. He looked at me through his glasses. I took another drink. I was starting to pick up that dried bull-feces thing, now that he had mentioned it, and I wished he hadn’t.
He took a fresh pipe from the rack. This one was a long-stemmed corncob, like the kind General MacArthur used to smoke. Mr. Philpot put the stem in his mouth and blew through it with little hissing breaths.
“How’s the knee now?” he said, suddenly.
“Better,” I said.
“Would you like more sherry?”
“I don’t want to impose on your hospitality.”
“Nonsense.” He took up the bottle, reached over the desk and topped off my glass, which I held out towards him to make it easier for him, seeing as the length of his arm, like the rest of him, was exceedingly short. He put the bottle down again. “I was only sitting here,” he said. “Doing some paperwork.”
He tapped the big ledger with the stem of his pipe.
“So,” I said, just to make conversation. “This is a book shop?”
“Brilliantly deduced. Oh, by the way, feel free to smoke, my friend.”
There was a carved wooden box on the desk, I’ve forgotten to mention this. Mr. Philpot flipped the top open on its hinges and shoved it a foot closer in my direction. Inside were cigarettes, a lot of cigarettes.
“I, uh, I -- I quit,” I said. “Yesterday. Um.”
“You don’t sound very certain.”
“I almost lapsed a short while ago.”
“Help yourself,” he said. “They’re Pall Malls.”
I lifted my right hand, then hesitated.
Mr. Philpot meanwhile picked up his tobacco pouch and began filling the corncob pipe.
“I should be very interested in reading your book when it comes out,” he said.
“It’s really not very good,” I said. My hand was still in mid-air.
“Ha ha, you are modest.”
“It’s only my opinion,” I said. “But I’m no expert.”
“Admirably modest! And who, if I may ask, are your own favorite poets?”
This was a hard question to answer, because although in my supposedly real life I had written a poem a week since I was eighteen years old, I had never much liked to read poetry, although God knows I had tried, on more than a few occasions. But then I remembered the one poetry book I had actually bought this summer, even if I had only read a few pages of it, and understood nothing of what I had read:
“T.S. Eliot’s pretty good,” I said.
“Tommy Eliot? So you like the new boys, eh? Well, that’s only natural, youth is drawn to youth, and, as my old pal Alfie Tennyson put it:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’
Don’t you agree?”
“Uh, sure,” I said.
I still couldn’t decide whether to have a cigarette or not, so I took another good gulp of the sherry, cow-feces taste or no, it had alcohol in it.
“You seem nervous, Mr. Walker. Are you in a great hurry to get away?”
“Well,” I said, “I was trying to meet up with a friend of mine in the bar downstairs --”
“And then you saw this maiden fair from whom you felt it prudent to beat a hasty retreat.”
“Yes,” I said.
Once again I raised my right hand, preparatory to lowering it into the cigarette box, if only I could make up my mind to do so. In the meantime Mr. Philpot had finished packing his pipe with tobacco, and he was now lighting it with one of the wooden Diamond matches.
“And do you think your fair pursuer is still down there?”
“Probably,” I said.
He puffed away at the pipe, the smoke barely moving in the thick warm air.
“Maybe you should wait a bit before returning.”
His pipe well lit, he waved the match out and tossed it at the ashtray, missing it.
“Well, now that I think about it,” I said, picking up the match and dropping it into the ashtray, “it might be safe for me to return. Now.”
“Back the way you came, by the staircase?”
“No, not that way, you see --”
“You think she might be waiting for you down there?” he said.
“Not exactly waiting for me,” I said, after a pause. What could I say, that Emily and Julian were most likely engaged in illicit relations in that dark room below us? “But there,” I added.
“So it might be prudent for you to wait a while before going back.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
My hand strayed to the open cigarette box, I ran my finger along its side. I was toying with it, or maybe it was toying with me.
“Do you want my advice, Mr. Walker?”
I didn’t, really. But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I said, “Sure.”
“You’re young. You seem healthy. Except for your knee of course. My advice to you is not to worry so much about things. Look at all the poor starving diseased wretches of the world. You could be one of them. Most of humanity is one of them. You are not. Revel in your good luck, exult in your youth -- while they last!”
“Okay,” I said.
“So, another sherry?”
“May I be quite honest with you, sir?”
I closed the lid of the cigarette box. I kept the tips of my fingers on the box for a few seconds, but then pulled them away.
“My real name is Arnold Schnabel,” I said. “I come from another world, or universe, a state of reality I think of as my real world. This world in which we both now exist seems to be a world of fiction, in which I have assumed the role of a young romantic poet named Porter Walker.”
“Yes, go on.”
He was sitting back in his arm chair, puffing away on his corncob pipe.
“I have come here,” I said, “in search of my friend Josh, who is in reality the son of God.”
“I see, and this -- this ‘Josh’ you speak of -- he is the friend you were hoping to meet up with?”
“And your reasons for wanting to meet him? To -- to find spiritual salvation, or fulfillment, or the answer to the riddle of existence perhaps?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “You see, I hurt my back in the other world, and I was hoping Josh could do something about it.”
“You -- hurt your back?”
“Yes. Pulled something, trying to open a window.”
“Those things can be very painful.”
“Very painful indeed.”
“Yeah, so that’s why I, uh --”
“And this young lady, how does she fit into the picture?”
“Oh, the young lady.”
“The one you were trying to escape from.”
“Well, she’s actually the heroine of this fictional world we’re in.”
“I know it all sounds a little absurd, saying it out loud like this,” I said.
“Oh, no, not at all, not at all.”
He sat there, smoking, looking at me through those Teddy Roosevelt glasses.
I took another good drink of the sherry, almost finishing the glass.
“Now I’m thinking maybe I should wait,” I said. “Give her some time to go away.”
“If she goes away.”
“I could show you some of my books in the meantime.”
“You do like books?”
There was no point in lying anymore, perhaps there never had been. And so after a brief pause I answered his question as honestly as I was able to.
“I like books in which the hero is trapped in a web of passion, and betrayal, of fear and suspense.”
“Caught in a whirlpool of dread and despair?”
“Yeah, that kind of thing.”
He said nothing for half a minute, just sat there smoking, and nodding his bald head. I seriously considered opening that cigarette box up again and taking a cigarette. My hand began inching toward the box, like a crab with its own mind. But then Mr. Philpot leaned forward.
“What about another sort of book?”
“Well, to be honest,” I said, “those are really the only kinds of books I like to read. I know I have poor taste.”
“No, I mean a completely different sort of book from any book you’ve ever seen.”
“Well, maybe, as long as it has, you know --”
“Chaps caught in whirlpools of lust and passion.”
“Here you go, this one just came in.”
He picked up a hardbound book with a green dust jacket that was there on the desk, tossed it over toward me, where it landed in front of me with a satisfying thwack.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What would you like it to be?”
“I don’t know. A story about a guy who gets caught up in a spiraling nightmare of despair and --”
“Then that’s what it is.”
“What’s it called?”
“What would you like it to be called?”
“Um, Nightmare of Doom.”
“You can do better than that.”
“Death’s Final Nightmare.”
“And is that your final choice?”
“Pick a good one now.”
“The Ace of Doom.”
“Ace of Doom.”
“No, The Ace of Death.”
“The Ace of Death. Very good. And who by?”
“Yes. The name of the author.”
“I don’t know. Joe Blow.”
“Mr. Walker, please.”
“Okay, uh, Horace P. Sternwall.”
“Oh, he’s good. Okay. Turn the book over.”
I hadn’t realized it but the book had been lying face down. I turned it over. Embossed on the front cover and darkened with deep blue ink were the words:
The Ace of Death
a novel of despair and terror
Horace P. Sternwall
(Continued here, the surface has barely been scratched.)
(Illustration by Norman Saunders. Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other officially-published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, an American International Production. A Hugo Haas Production.)