On a sultry summer night in 1957 our memoirist Arnold Schnabel has found himself in the Greenwich Village bookshop of a certain stout little old gentleman by the name of Philpot…
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“It was Arnold Schnabel’s genius to create a whole new wonderful world -- or should one rather say ‘re-create’, for surely this world was most eminently real -- perhaps the most real world of all.” -- Harold Bloom, in Crawdaddy.
“You can have it,” said Mr. Philpot. “At a reasonable price.”
He puffed on his pipe, looking at me.
“I’m actually reading two or three books already at the moment,” I said.
“Oh, really? And what are you reading?”
“Um, well, uh, oh -- The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot.”
“You and Eliot,” he said, smiling, and shaking his head. “Can’t get enough of his stuff, can you?” He emitted a wheezing, high-pitched little sound that might have been a chuckle. “Oh, how well I remember young Tommy Eliot, a bony, shy, sallow prep-school lad from St. Louis, haunting these stacks for hours on fine summer afternoons when he should have been out playing baseball or rowing skiffs on the harbor. What is it you admire about his stuff? Is it the mastery of language or his brilliant synthesis of so many recondite influences?”
“Well, I guess it’s the mastery of language,” I said, lying my head off.
“Ah, but of course, being a wordsmith yourself. What else.”
“What else are you reading.”
“Well, let me see, oh, yeah -- This Sweet Sickness? By Patricia Highsmith?”
“I’ve heard of her, but I haven’t heard of that book.”
“I don’t think it’s been published yet.”
“I see, and you said you might be reading a third one?”
“Yes. It’s called Ye Cannot Quench, by Gertrude Evans.”
“Never heard of that one either.”
“It hasn’t been published yet either.”
How could I explain that we were both existing in the world of Miss Evans’s novel, or, not even that, an offshoot of the world of that novel? I didn’t want to get into it.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Not really your kind of thing?”
“No murders, no webs or whirlpools of passion and betrayal, of violence and lust?”
“No," I said. “Well, it’s got some lust in it, but --”
“Yes," said Mr. Philpot. "But.”
“But -- well, you see, it’s all about this girl who comes to the big city, and she gets a job, and then right away she meets a couple of guys, and she kind of likes both of them, but --”
“Oh, how tedious. Why are you torturing yourself by reading this shopgirl twaddle?”
“I know the author. She gave it to me to read.”
“Oh, well, that is awkward, isn’t it? You sure you don’t want that book?” he said, pointing to The Ace of Death lying there in front of me. “It’s the only one of its kind.”
I put my finger on the green-dyed hard cover, but I didn’t open the book.
“You mean, like, it’s different from other novels about webs, and whirlpools, of, of passion and --”
“I mean it is the one and only copy in existence.”
“Wow,” I said. “That is pretty rare.”
“The only way it could be more rare would be for it not to exist at all. Which it didn’t just a minute ago.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You told me what sort of book you liked to read, you gave me a title and an author, and -- voilà!”
He gestured toward the book with his stubby little hand.
“Gee,” I said.
“Gee, as you young people say, indeed. But that’s just the sort of shop I run.”
“Your shop must be -- very popular.”
“Oh, no indeed, not popular at all. Philpot’s Rare Books is not meant for hoi polloi. It is meant for only the most discerning readers. Such as yourself.”
He was doing what people so often do, what I so often did myself, which was to ignore what someone has just plainly said, such as in the present case my admission that I only like to read trashy thrillers. What else could I do now but ignore what he had just said?
“Well,” I said, “I feel bad not buying the book after it’s just been made expressly for me.”
“I shouldn’t want you to feel obliged to purchase it. However, as I said, I can let you have it for a very fair price, a very fair and just price indeed.”
“Say one thousand dollars.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I really don’t have that kind of money.”
“How much do you have?”
“Not much. I think I have about twelve bucks on me.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Sure. Better than nothing.”
“That seems like quite a discount from a thousand dollars.”
“I charge what the market will bear.”
“Don’t feel bad. I had some rich guy in here the other day gave me fifty Gs for a book.”
“It was the story of his life. Except in this version he was not a miserable son-of-a-bitch, and he found true love and fulfillment and, because the book leaves off at the protagonist’s age of thirty-five, he is immortal.”
“So don’t worry about me, Mr. Walker. Or should I call you Mr. what-was-it, Snodgrass?”
“Schnabel, actually. But you can call me, uh, Porter Walker, I suppose.”
“Then I shall, Mr. Walker. And as for the asking price for your own custom-made tale of excruciating suspense and dread, I’ll take whatever you presently have in your wallet.”
“Well,” I said, “the thing is, I might want to buy a beer or two --”
“Oh, with this friend of yours. This -- what is it -- Joshua?”
“The son of God.”
“So he says,” I said.
“And aren’t we all children of God?”
“But perhaps some of us more than others.”
He raised his jelly glass, closed his eyes, sniffed or pretended to sniff the aroma of the wine, then opened his eyes and put the glass down again.
“We won’t quibble,” he said. “Since you’re a new customer, let’s make it a fin and we’ll call it a deal.”
He put the stem of his corncob pipe in his mouth and stared at me through the Teddy Roosevelt glasses.
What could I do? I leaned to one side and took my wallet out of my back pocket.
“Five bucks even?” I said.
“Yes, we won’t worry about the sales tax.”
I opened the wallet, took out a five, and, rising in my seat, I handed it over to Mr. Philpot across the desk.
“Thank you,” he said. He opened a drawer, opened a metal box in the drawer, and dropped the bill into it. He closed the lid on the box and shoved the drawer shut. He picked up a pad of printed slips. “Would you like a receipt?”
“That’s not necessary,” I said.
“For your records? You know, as a professional poet you should be able to write off books as a business expense.”
“Don’t bother,” I said.
“Would you like a paper bag for your purchase?”
“No, that’s okay.”
I didn’t even want the book, let alone a paper bag for it.
“Here, take one of my bookmarks.”
From the books and magazines and whatnot cluttering his desk-top he picked up a pale yellow book-marker and handed it to me. There was a drawing on it of an old-fashioned old man who looked much like Mr. Philpot, standing on a step-ladder and reaching for a book on a book shelf. “Philpot’s Rare Books” it said. “For the Discriminating Bibliophile. 107 MacDougal Street, New York City.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I slipped the bookmark under the front cover of the book. To tell the truth I felt just a little railroaded. Normally I never bought new hardback books, and I couldn’t see paying five dollars for this one, even if it was custom-made, not when I could get a brand-new Pocket Book for thirty-five cents, or just go to the library and pay nothing at all.
“Here,” said Mr. Philpot, “let me top off your Amontillado again,” and before I could say anything he had lifted up from his seat and was pouring more wine into my glass.
Now I felt bad. I was begrudging the five dollars spent on my custom-made, one-of-a-kind book, and completely forgetting the sherry the man was regaling me with, free, gratis and for nothing, even if it did taste like straw.
“When I get more money I’ll buy some more books off you,” I found myself saying, even though I knew I intended to return to my own world, presumably never to return to this one and to this shop.
“Oh, splendid,” said Mr. Philpot. “Splendid.” Gripping the mouthpiece of his pipe with his teeth or more probably his dentures, he rubbed his chubby little hands together. Then he removed the pipe from his mouth, and, smiling, pointed its stem at me. “Once you cash that advance check, eh? Twenty grand can buy a lot of good books.”
“Well, again, I don’t know what you heard, but I’m not getting twenty grand,” I said. “It’s only --”
“Oh, pish, Mr. Walker, once your magnum opus hits the market you’ll be rolling in greenbacks. Nothing the reading public likes more than a big, fat, epic poem.”
“We were speaking of Homer. You think the Odyssey or the Iliad have ever been out of print?”
“Well, I guess not.”
“You think Milton’s Paradise Lost still isn’t flying off the shelves?”
“Do you suppose Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion isn’t still wowing them in Peoria?”
“You reckon Longfellow’s Evangeline is still not a favorite of women’s reading groups all across this great land of liberty?”
“Well, I never really thought about it --”
“Of course not, because you are a poet, from what I’ve heard a fine epic poet yourself, your mind is on higher things than sales reports.”
“Well, it’s true, I never think about sales reports.”
“As well you shouldn’t.”
Suddenly there was a knocking on the door, behind me and to my right.
“Who the hell is that?” said Mr. Philpot.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It was a rhetorical question.”
The knocking continued, loudly.
“I should have that knocker removed,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Are you closed?” I asked.
“I’m always closed,” he said.
The knocking didn’t stop. Then came a voice.
“Mr. Philpot! I know you’re in there! I can hear your voice! Let me in! I have money!”
“Damn,” said Mr. Philpot, in a low voice. “Take my advice, Mr. Walker. Never go into trade.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Mr. Philpot!” yelled the voice. “I said I have money! Let me in!”
“This fucking guy,” muttered Mr. Philpot, not stirring from his seat. “Thinks it’s all about the gelt.”
“The what?” I said.
“The scratch,” said Mr. Philpot. “The do-re-mi. The money.”
“Come on, Mr. Philpot!” called the voice. “I can hear you in there!”
The knocking became a pounding, as of the heel of a fist.
“Go away!” yelled Mr. Philpot, in his high, wheezy voice. “Come back tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow may never come!” yelled the voice, followed by more pounding.
“Oh, Christ,” said Mr. Philpot. “Listen,” he said, to me, “you mind if I deal with this character for a minute? I’ll try and make it quick.”
“Well, actually,” I said, “maybe I should go now.”
“No, don’t go yet.”
“Really,” I said, “you’ve been very hospitable, but I should probably --”
“I implore you, just stay a bit longer, Mr. Walker. You see I’d prefer not to be left alone with this fellow.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Come on, Mr. Philpot!” yelled the voice. “I’ll make it worth your while!”
“Please,” said Mr. Philpot, to me. “Just stay a bit longer. I should be most indebted to you.”
“Well -- okay,” I said.
“Mr. Philpot!” yelled the voice. “Let me in!”
“Thank you, Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Mr. Philpot!” yelled the voice. More pounding.
“Christ,” said Mr. Philpot. He knocked the bowl of his pipe into the ashtray, and got up from his chair, stretching out to his full height of five feet or so. “All right!” he yelled. “Keep your shirt on, God damn it!”
He went over to the door. The man outside was still knocking, still pounding.
I took a good drink of the sherry.
(Continued here, and so on, both in this world and possibly in the next.) (Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other street-legal episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil Obstat, Monsignor James J. “Diamond Jim” Murray, SJ.)