Our hero Arnold Schnabel — now in the persona of “Porter Walker, broodingly handsome bohemian poet”, a character in the all-but-forgotten novel Ye Cannot Quench (which topped out, briefly, at #93 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List in October of 1960) — has finally found his divine friend “Josh”.
Let us rejoin Arnold and Josh then, on this hot wet night in 1957, in the dark areaway outside a Greenwich Village basement bar called Valhalla…
(Kindly go here to read our previous thrill-packed episode; the bold of heart may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 47-volume masterpiece.)
“Arnold Schnabel! How trippingly those words roll off the tongue whenever one of my students asks me who my all-time ‘fave rave’ author is!” — Harold Bloom, on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Isn’t life always this way?
We set out on one of our little missions, or one of our great missions, great to us, anyway, and while we’re on our mission, in fact when we seem on the verge of perhaps accomplishing our mission, we run into someone else who is also on a mission, a mission which has nothing to do with our own, nothing at all.
“Do you really think she’s great, Arnold?”
“Yeah,” I said, “um —”
Did I mention that Josh had a black eye? How inept of me not to. Because he did, a great big shiner, also a bruise on his cheekbone on the other side of his face, and I noticed that his hands were swollen and his knuckles scraped, from that bar fight he had gotten into earlier that same evening, a time which felt to me as if it had happened approximately two years previously.
“Or is it just me?” he asked.
“Um,” I said.
As ignorant of the ways of God and man as I am, I realized that this was not the time for complete honesty. And, after all, who was I to say that Carlotta was not great? For all I knew she was the greatest woman who had ever been born, maybe even beating out Josh’s own earthly mother.
“Well,” I said, “I can’t say I know her all that well —”
“But you live down the hall from her.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“She seems to think she knows you pretty well.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well. Um?”
Josh was forgetting for the nonce that it was Porter Walker — the fictional character whose body I now inhabited — who lived down the hall from Carlotta and Pat, and that I, “Arnold Schnabel”, knew next to nothing of whatever Porter might be expected to know; but I didn’t get into all that now. For one thing, it was obvious that Josh was even drunker now than he had been the last time I had seen him, when he had been very drunk indeed. He had been staring at me, his mouth slightly open, while these last thoughts rumbled slowly through my brain.
“So you don’t think she’s absolutely wonderful, do you?” he said.
“Sure I do,” I said, although I might have unintentionally paused before speaking.
Josh continued to stare at me.
“I feel as if you’re not saying something, buddy.”
“I’m practically always not saying something,” I said.
“Yes, but I sense you’re holding back something, Arnold. Or should I call you Porter?”
“It might be less weird if you call me Porter,” I said. “Since that’s what everyone else calls me. But I really don’t care.”
“What is it you’re holding back, Arnold? Or Porter?”
I wondered if he knew that Porter had had carnal relations with Carlotta. True, as one of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, Josh was generally supposed to be omniscient, but in my experience — and if I recalled correctly, even by his own admission — he was in all practicality somewhat rather less than that. Maybe the world and all the worlds that men and women had created within the world had finally just got to be too much even for the son of God to comprehend. Or maybe he just found it all to tedious to comprehend. Anyway, I made a snap decision and decided not to mention Porter’s having slept with Carlotta. After all, if the shoe were on the other foot, and if my friend had slept with a girl I was in love with, the last thing I would want to know would be just that fact.
“She’s a really beautiful girl,” I said, at last, which didn’t answer his question, but at least it was something I could say that was not a baldfaced and arrant lie.
“Yes,” Josh said. “That’s true. She is very beautiful, isn’t she? But what is physical beauty? Is that reason enough to be madly in love with someone? Especially when one considers how fleeting human beauty is. In ten years she might well start losing her looks. In twenty she’ll be middle-aged. In forty years she’ll be somewhat shall we say elderly.”
“This is all true,” I said.
“While I will always look just as I do today, for all eternity.”
“Well,” I said, feeling a little desperate now, “couldn’t you use your, uh, special powers, as, as —”
“As the son of God,” said Josh. “You can say it.”
“Well, then, couldn’t you use your special powers as the son of, uh —”
“God,” he prompted me. “It’s not a dirty word, Arnold.”
“As the son of God to — to halt the aging process, I mean just in Carlotta’s case, that is.”
He stared at me for a moment, without saying anything. He looked out toward the street, took a drag on his cigarette, tapped the ash down to the shadowy concrete at our feet.
I became aware of the muffled rumbling of the jukebox music inside the bar, the faint yelling and laughing of human voices.
“Yes, I suppose I could do that.”
Suddenly I was thinking about something else. For some reason I was just realizing that I had to urinate. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had gone to the bathroom, in this or any other world.
“Listen, Arnold,” said Josh. “Despite the popular misconception, it’s not my job to perform magical parlor tricks. I tried that stuff a couple of thousand years ago, and look what good it did the world. How did we go from the Sermon on the Mount to the Children’s Crusade, to the Spanish Inquisition?”
Now I remembered, when I was in trapped in the world of that one novel, Say It With a .38, I had gone out to that foul outhouse in the backyard of that bar in Singapore.
“No,” he said. “No more of that miracle nonsense. But this is my question: is it just her physical beauty that I’m in love with — this beauty which is doomed to gradual decay and, ultimately, putrefaction — or is it her inner beauty?”
Then I remembered that, yes, I had indeed gone into that outhouse, but I hadn’t urinated, no, I had done something far more humiliating, and something which for that matter was technically a mortal sin.
Josh just stared at me again, smoking.
“I know you’re not paying attention,” he said, finally.
“No, sure,” I said, “you were talking about, uh, Carlotta’s, um, inner beauty, and whether that was what, you, uh —”
“I know you were thinking about something else, Arnold.”
“No,” I said, “I was just, you know, uh, taking it all in, sort of —”
“I mean I literally know you were thinking about something else, Arnold. Just because I prefer not to use all of my as you say special powers doesn’t mean I am unable to. And, you know, hey, if you find thinking about that sordid incident in that fetid Singapore outhouse so much more fascinating than the fact that I’ve fallen in love for the first time in all eternity, well —”
“Here’s the thing, Josh,” I said.
“If you’re going to apologize, please, there’s no need. I realize that you humans have absurdly short attention spans when someone else is talking, whereas you find every little detail of your own little lives to be of the most fascinating interest —”
“Josh,” I said. “It’s just that I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I really need to pee. It’s very hard to concentrate on a conversation, especially a philosophical one, when you have to go to the bathroom.”
Josh paused again.
“Now I feel like a jerk.”
“Oh, please don’t,” I said. “I mean, you know, you didn’t know.”
“Talk about being self-centered,” he said. “Will you accept my apology?”
“No need for an apology,” I said.
“But I insist on apologizing.”
“Well, okay, then,” I said.
“I apologize, Arnold. Porter. Whatever.”
“And I accept your apology,” I said. “So, now, maybe we should go back inside.”
“Oh, sure. You must be dying of boredom listening to me, anyway.”
“No, no, not at all, and we can talk about it some more, after, you know —”
“You take a pee,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Afterwards.”
He smiled, and his teeth, which only a few minutes before had almost seemed to be glowing, now actually were glowing in the dimness of that areaway, as if there was a tiny but powerful electric light in his mouth.
“You slay me, Arnold,” he said.
“Heh heh,” I replied, shifting from one foot to the other.
“I mean if I could be slain, you would slay me,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Heh heh,” fighting off the urge to press my hand against my organ of micturition.
He flicked his cigarette away, it soared in a thin red streaming arc up out of the areaway, and just kept flying up and up, so that it looked as if it must soar over the roofs of the buildings across MacDougal Street, but I couldn’t tell for sure if it did or not, because of the awning over the areaway.
“But, Arnold,” said Josh, and he moved a step closer to me, “before we go back in. I know it’s been almost two thousand years since I walked the earth and all, so maybe my memory’s just a little bit hazy, but do all human beings have to go to the bathroom as often as you do, and at such inopportune moments?”
I thought about this for a moment, but just for a brief moment, because after all I really did have to go, and each second spent out here only made me have to go more awfully.
“Josh,” I said, “there’s the world of books, and movies, and TV shows, where no one ever has to go to the bathroom. And then there’s the real world. And this, apparently, for me anyway, is the real world.”
He smiled again, those white teeth glowing in a way no mortal man’s ever could or would. Another thing I noticed, because he was now standing quite close to me, and because we were roughly the same height: even after all the booze, and all the Pall Malls, his breath didn’t smell bad. It actually smelled nice, like my aunts’ garden in Cape May in the morning right after a rainfall, like geraniums and delphiniums, roses and chrysanthemums.
“That’s what I like about you,” Josh said. He tightened the knot of his tie, but not completely, and he left the top three buttons of his shirt the way they were, which is to say unbuttoned. Then he adjusted his straw Trilby on his head, but it was still crooked. The hat that is, not his head. “You always keep it real, Arnold.”
“Um,” I said, and shifted on my feet again.
He gave me a pat on the arm.
“Let’s go back inside, pal.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice.
(Continued here, what else can we do at this point?)
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