It’s August, 1957, a hot and rainy night in Greenwich Village, and in the rare-books shop of Mr. Philpot, that gentleman and our hero Arnold Schnabel have been joined by a somewhat louche-appearing fellow called Thurgood, who has just fallen to his knees and burst into tears…
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“I’ve been reading so much Arnold Schnabel on my Kindle lately that the other night I dreamt I was Arnold Schnabel. In fact I dreamt that I was Arnold Schnabel dreaming. And in this dream he was dreaming that he was in a dream. And in the far, far distance of that dream I caught a fleeting glimpse of a man in a crowd. And that man was Arnold Schnabel. Then, unfortunately, I awoke.” -- Harold Bloom, in his “Books for Stout and Hearty Lads” column in Boys’ Life.
“Oh, for God’s sakes,” said Mr. Philpot. “Get up, man, and stop that fearful caterwauling.”
Thurgood continued to sob and keen, sitting back on his haunches now, his shoulders shaking, his knuckles grazing the dirty wooden floor, the cigarette still bobbing between his thin lips, the only kind of lips he had.
The tears that had coursed down into his thin wiry beard now dripped from his chin whiskers and onto his suit-jacket and shirt. I had rarely seen a man so distraught, even at the many funeral masses in which I had served as an usher.
“Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot, gesturing to the sherry bottle, “would you like some more Amontillado?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I really should go.”
“What? And leave me here with him?”
Thurgood cried a little louder right then, as if someone had been kicking him and had just kicked him again particularly hard.
“Well,” I said, “I really do have to go sometime --"
“Yes, but surely not right away. Don’t forget that lady who’s stalking you.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“Women in heat can be very persistent. You may not think that one such as I would know such things, but if I do say so myself I have had my share of the joys and pains of the feminine varieties of lust and obsession, and, yes, dare I say, of love, or at least of what was understood to be love, or called love, or pretended to be love.”
He took a sip of his sherry, staring off into the distance of his past I suppose, imagined or otherwise.
“Maybe I’ll just stay a little bit longer,” I said.
He put down his jelly glass, picked up his corncob pipe and his tobacco pouch, blew through the pipe and then began to fill its bowl with tobacco.
I stood there, not knowing quite what to do.
Thurgood had quieted down a bit by now. He was still sobbing, but he was no longer emitting the keening, wailing noise.
“Hey,” I said. “Mr. Thurgood --”
“Just call him Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot. He was lighting his pipe with one of the wooden Diamond matches, puffing on the mouthpiece with precise little puffs. When the tobacco was well lit he waved the match out and tossed it toward the ashtray, missing it. “That’s all anyone calls him,” he said, exhaling a great cloud of smoke. “Just Thurgood.”
“Really?” I said. His smoking was reminding me of cigarettes, and I was tempted to take him up on his earlier offer of a Pall Mall from that wooden box on his desk.
“Just Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot. “Right, Thurgood old man?”
Now Thurgood let out another wail of agony, somehow still keeping the cigarette in his lips.
“Um, Thurgood?” I said.
He only continued sobbing.
“He’ll be okay,” said Mr. Philpot. “Here, Mr. Walker, have some more of this excellent Amontillado.”
Holding his pipe between his dentures, he took up the bottle again and pulled the cork.
“Mr. Thurgood,” I said again, bending down toward him.
“Leave him be, Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot. “Look, I filled your glass. Sit and have a drink.”
I glanced over at the table. The jelly glass had indeed been refilled, and Mr. Philpot had refilled his own as well. Removing his pipe from his mouth, he lifted his own glass and took a sip, smiling at me in an encouraging way.
I decided to give it one last try before going ahead and enjoying myself, or trying to, right in front of someone else’s misery.
“Mr. Thurgood,” I said. “Come on. Get up. It can’t be that bad.”
He stopped sobbing a little, and looked up at me.
“Just -- call me -- Thurgood,” he said, in short wet bleats. He finally took the cigarette out of his mouth, and tapped the ash to the floor. “Everybody -- calls me -- Thurgood.”
“Okay. Thurgood,” I said. “Why don’t you get up? I’ll let you have my Amontillado again.”
“No!” yelled Mr. Philpot.
“It’s okay,” I said to the old man. “I’m not really crazy about it, to tell the truth.”
“But that’s a hundred-and-seventeen-year-old wine!”
“Yeah,” I said, although I hadn’t been aware of this fact before, “but I’m really more of a beer guy, maybe a Manhattan now and then.”
“Can I -- really -- have your -- your Amontillado?” said Thurgood, only sniffling now.
“Sure,” I said.
I went over to the desk, it was only a step or two away, and I picked up the jelly glass.
“You’re wasting that good Amontillado,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yeah,” I said. “But still.”
I brought the glass over to Thurgood and held it down to him.
“Here,” I said. “This will make you feel better.”
Without a moment’s hesitation he took the glass from my hand, tilted back his head, and emptied the glass in one go down his throat.
He sighed, and held the glass up for me to take, which I did.
“You know,” he said, “I do feel better now.”
He wiped his nose and upper lip with the jacket-sleeve of his right arm.
“Terrific,” said Mr. Philpot, and he took a drink from his own jelly glass.
“Would you like me to help you up, Thurgood?” I said.
“That depends,” he said.
He took a grey handkerchief out from inside his jacket and dabbed at his face.
“Yes?” I said.
My knee was starting to hurt again. I felt like sitting down.
“Yes what?” said Thurgood.
“You said it depends,” I said, shifting my weight to the leg that didn’t hurt, or, more accurately put, the leg that didn’t hurt as much as the other one.
“Oh, yes,” said Thurgood, and he blew his nose -- one handed, because he still held his cigarette in the other hand -- and then looked at the handkerchief. Apparently satisfied with its contents he thrust the sodden handkerchief back into his inside jacket pocket. Then he gazed over toward Mr. Philpot’s desk. “It depends on if I can have another drink.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” said Mr. Philpot. “Is there no end to your villainy, man?”
Thurgood took off his beret and fanned his face. His long and disordered dark hair was slick and shiny, but thinning a bit at his crown.
Ignoring Mr. Philpot, he addressed me.
“Just one more restorative glass.”
“It’s not mine,” I said. “Or I’d give you the whole bottle.”
“Well, there’s not even a whole bottle’s worth left in the bottle,” he said.
“This is true,” I said. Not mentioning that it was he who had drunk most of what had been drunk from the bottle.
“The cheek of this fellow,” said Mr. Philpot. “See here, Thurgood, get the hell up.”
Thurgood ignored him again, put the beret back on his head at what is commonly called a rakish angle, and addressed me again.
“Just tell Mr. Philpot you would like another glass. Then, after he gives it to you, it will be legally yours. And you can give it to me.”
“That doesn’t seem quite -- honest,” I said.
“What are you, some sort of Jesuit? The Rabbi of Prague? We’re talking about a goddam drink here, for a man who has been crushed to his core. I’m not asking for the Crown Jewels.”
“You believe this fucking guy?” said Mr. Philpot.
He had climbed up onto his desk, and was sitting on it, smoking his pipe, his short little legs dangling.
“Here, Thurgood,” I said. “Let me help you up.”
“Oh, all right.”
He raised his right arm slightly, as if it cost him a great deal of effort to do so. I took it in both hands and pulled. The muscles in his thin long arm were like coils of steel wrapped in leather. I got him to his feet, and now it was he who loomed over me.
“So,” he said, turning to Mr. Philpot. He shot the cuffs of his shirtsleeves under his wrinkled tan suit jacket. “About our order of business.”
“About time,” said Mr. Philpot.
“I wonder though if I may after all merely just wet my whistle with another small taste of that excellent Amontillado before we begin negotiations.”
“You may indeed wonder,” said Mr. Philpot, “and the answer is no. You’ve already cadged two glasses full. This is a rare books shop, not a charity ward for alcoholics.”
“You point is well taken,” conceded Thurgood. “Might I suggest in response that if we arrive at a mutually satisfactory bargain, that part and parcel of the deal will be a parting jelly-glassful of that delightful beverage, for me that is.”
“Oh, very well, if we arrive at an agreement, then one glass of Amontillado will come with the deal. But please note my use of the conjunction ‘if’.”
“It is duly noted.”
“Noted; agreed; proceed,” said Mr. Philpot.
“I want a book this time where I really plumb the depths of the human soul.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Philpot. “I think we can handle that.”
“I want this one to be a startling new direction from my previous books, though.”
Putting his cigarette back into his lips, Thurgood made a two-handed gesture as if to straighten his tie, but as he only had a sweaty-looking bandanna around his neck, he fiddled with that.
“Okay,” said Mr. Philpot. “That’s easy.”
“Less of a poetic language kind of thing, more of a -- how shall I put it?” Thurgood took a good drag on what was left of his cigarette, then took it out of his mouth and stared at the lit end. “A chiseled-in-stone quality.”
“Chiseled in stone. More of a classical approach then?”
“In a sense, yes. Just less of that fancy, poetic shit.’
He turned to me.
“No offense, Mr. Walker. I know you’re a poet yourself.”
“No offense,” I said.
“Anything else?” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yes,” said Thurgood. “Tragic. It’s got to have a tragic ending.”
“All your books have tragic endings,” said Mr. Philpot.
Thurgood said nothing to this for nearly a full minute. He just stood there, smoking. Mr. Philpot got down off his desk and went around and sat in his chair, but I was still standing, my knee still hurting. Then Thurgood spoke.
“You know,” he said. “I think you’re right, Mr. Philpot. Every one of my books has ended with the hero dying.”
“Much as in real life,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yeah, it is like real life, isn’t it?” said Thurgood. “So, okay, we won’t kill the hero in this one.”
“It won’t be a tragedy then,” said Mr. Philpot.
“We’ll have him almost get killed,” said Thurgood. “And then, like, in the end, he can have a chance -- however slight, however farfetched -- at redemption.”
“Redemption,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yeah,” said Thurgood. “Redemption.”
“You don’t really believe in that shit, do you?”
“I don’t have to believe in it,” said Thurgood. “As long as the punters dig it, who gives a good goddam.”
“Okay, then,” said Mr. Philpot, “redemption at the end it is.”
“I’m not talking about some fairytale ending, you understand,” said Thurgood.
“No, of course not,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Other people can die in the end,” said Thurgood.
“Sure,” said Mr. Philpot.
“I know, the hero’s girlfriend can die.”
“In his arms maybe.”
“You’re treading on dangerous ground there, Thurgood.”
“A bit much?”
“Yes, quite possibly. There’s a difference between a redemptive ending and a sloppy sentimental one.”
“Right,” said Thurgood. “You’re right.” He had smoked his Pall Mall right down to the last soggy half-inch, and he stubbed it out in the ashtray on the desk. He turned to me as he did. “He’s always right.”
“So,” said Mr. Philpot. He was leaning back in his chair, puffing on his pipe. “Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? A book like the one you’re talking about -- oh, wait, how many pages?”
“Big,” said Thurgood. As if his hand had a mind of its own it creeped along the desk until it reached the cigarette box, and his fingers began tracing the grooves carved in its wooden sides and lid. “I’m thinking big. Seven, eight, maybe nine hundred pages.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Philpot. “New direction, a more classical prose style --”
“Not necessarily classical, just not that fancy poetic crap,” said Thurgood. Very quickly his fingers opened the lid of the cigarette box just very slightly, dipped into it, and came out with a free Pall Mall.
“Right,” said Mr. Philpot. He leaned forward and pushed the cigarette box to the far side of the table, and then leaned back again. “Tragic but not completely tragic, redemptive but not sloppy sentimental, and told in shall we say good plain muscular prose --”
“Muscular, right, that’s good,” said Thurgood.
As if absentmindedly he put the cigarette in his mouth, picked up the box of Diamond matches, took out five or six of the matches, and palming all but one of them, he proceeded to light the cigarette.
He exhaled a cloud of smoke and gazed in the direction of those rows upon rows of thousands of books. I noticed that he dropped the palmed matches into the hip pocket of his suit jacket, the same one into which he had dropped the stolen cigarettes not long before.
“Okay then,” said Mr. Philpot. “Muscular and big.”
“Yes. Big,” said Thurgood. “I think my audience expects a big book from me by now.”
“And you know what I always say,” said Mr. Philpot. “Give the people what they want, not what you want to give them.”
“I agree,” said Thurgood, “within limits of course.”
“Certainly,” said Mr. Philpot. “Okay, I know you’re a little short, so let’s say, oh, tell you what, I’ll give you a break, let’s say fifty grand.”
“Oh, fuck you, Philpot, you know I don’t have that kind of money.”
“How much you got.”
“In cash? Less than ten dollars, which I intend to use to get drunk tonight.”
“Good night then, and thank you for wasting my precious time.”
“However, Mr. Philpot, I got something else.”
“What? Other than unmitigated gall, that is.”
“I have this.”
Thurgood reached into his trousers pocket and tossed a couple of keys attached to a rabbit’s foot onto the desk.
“What’s that?” said Mr. Philpot.
“The -- not the XK120?”
“It’s the only one I have. Just had the tires rotated too.”
Mr. Philpot picked up the rabbit’s foot and dangled the keys.
“You didn’t just smash it up, did you?”
“It’s parked right outside. Even got a quarter tank of gas in it.”
“Right outside, huh?”
“Papers in the glove compartment.”
“Okay, my friend, you got yourself a deal.”
Mr. Philpot started to put the keys in his pocket, but like a flash Thurgood reached over and put his hand on Mr. Philpot’s wrist.
“Book first,” he said.
“Of course,” said Mr. Philpot. “The book. Oh, what’s the title, by the way?”
“Oh, title. I don’t know. What’s a good title.”
“You tell me.”
Still holding onto the old man’s wrist, Thurgood turned to me.
“What’s a good title, Mr. Walker? You’re a poet.”
“Yes, but I’m a bad poet,” I said.
“Come on, give me a good book title.”
“Two Weeks in a One Horse Town,” I said.
“There’s your title,” said Thurgood, turning to Mr. Philpot, and releasing the old man’s wrist. “Now cough up the book.”
(Continued here, as it has been ordained by a higher power.)
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