Our hero Arnold Schnabel has entered the world of the now regrettably out-of-print novel Ye Cannot Quench (Grove Press, 1960) by Gertrude Evans, in which he has assumed the persona of “Porter Walker, young bohemian poet”. Let’s rejoin him as he tries to find somewhere to void his bladder, down in the lower bowels of a Greenwich Village basement bar called Valhalla, on a sultry night in August of 1957...
(Please click here to read our previous chapter; just in case you’re getting a little tired of rereading The Fellowship of the Ring over and over again and are in the market for a new literary obsession, then you may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 57-volume memoir.)
“Once again I rang out the old year and rang in the new sitting by the fire with a glass of Taylor port, a Dutch Masters panatela, and a volume of Arnold Schnabel.” — Harold Bloom, on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow.
Inside was what looked like yet another barroom, and this one was also packed with people, thick with smoke, humid, and hot, with a jazz combo banging away in the far right corner.
Was this perhaps a private room of some sort? I didn’t care. I had to go to the bathroom, and if this was a bar then it stood to reason it had to have a bathroom, a men’s room, a toilet, a hole in the floor, I didn’t care, at this point I would have gladly bellied up to an open window if the place had one, which of course it wouldn’t have, since this was a basement below a bar that was a basement bar to begin with.
I closed the door behind me and tried to look inconspicuous and casual. I believe I am good at looking inconspicuous, but then I’ve never been good at looking or needless to say being casual.
I took one limping step and then a big hand grasped my right forearm.
“Hold it, pal.”
It was a big guy, sitting on a barstool against the wall, a very big black-bearded guy wearing a dark blue watch cap and a faded red-and-white checked lumberjack’s shirt, with suspenders. He had a great big corncob pipe between his teeth and a pint bottle of Rheingold in his free hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He laid his beer bottle on a wooden ledge behind him, took a puff on his pipe, and then took the pipe out of his mouth.
“What are you sorry for?” he said. “You ain’t done nothing.”
Actually it sounded more like “You ain’ done nuzzin’,” like he had a slight French or French-Canadian accent.
“Well,” I said, “I mean, uh —”
“Not yet you ain’t done nothing,” he said.
“Um,” I said.
“You got a book?” he said. “I don’t see no book.”
“A book,” I said.
“Yeah. Where’s your book?”
“That’s right. One of them things with pages with words printed on ‘em. Didn’t you bring your book?”
My book. Did he mean the one I — as Porter Walker, the young bohemian poet — had written? What was it called? The Brawny Embraces?
“Well,” I said, “I did have my book earlier tonight, but you see, it’s still just in typescript form, because it hasn’t been published yet, but I think my publisher has a copy, um —”
“Yes, his name is, uh, Julian Smythe? Of Smythe & Smythe? Or maybe it’s Smythe & Son?”
“You didn’t bring no book.”
“Um, no, as I said, I, uh, had it on me earlier, the typescript that is, but —”
“I ain’t talking about no typescript. You’re telling me you ain’t got no book, that what you telling me?”
The veil fell. From my eyes that is.
Maybe he was referring somehow to that book Mr. Philpot had sold me, had more or less forced me to buy, what was its title?
“Wait,” I said, “I did have a book, I got it from Mr. Philpot?”
“Mr. Philpot,” said the big guy. “You got one of his books?”
“Yes,” I said. “Just earlier tonight, although God knows it seems like about nine months ago. Heh heh. You know Mr. Philpot?”
“Course I know Mr. Philpot. You think I’m some illiterate Canuck?”
“Oh, no,” I said, “I just wasn’t sure if, er, um — so, you know his shop too then?”
“Where is it?” he said.
“The shop?” I said. “Why, it’s just right up —”
“Not the goddam shop,” he said. “I know where Mr. Philpot’s goddam shop is. The book.”
“The book,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “The book you claim you got from Mr. Philpot. Where is it.”
Where was the book?
“The book,” I said. I began patting my various pockets, with my one free hand, the left one, as he still held my right forearm firmly in his own enormous hand. “The book —”
“Was it a paperback book?” he said.
“No,” I said, “it was a, um —” I was still foolishly patting my pockets, “it was a, you know, a, uh —”
“A hardback book,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Hardback. Hardbound. Hard, uh.”
He still kept his big hand on my arm. It was a really big hand. (I might as well mention that my sore leg was still sore. It hadn’t gotten any worse in the last minute or two, but it hadn’t gotten any better. I’m not looking for sympathy, just striving for some sort of truth.)
“Is it a regular-size hardback book?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Pretty regular, I guess.”
“So it ain’t one of them tiny little hardbound books, like you get at gift shops at the Chicago World’s Fair and like that with little sayings from Ben Franklin or Pascal?”
“No,” I said, “it was just a regular, you know, um —”
“Yes,” I said.
“How many pages?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Two hundred? Two-fifty?”
“So,” he said.
He turned and knocked his pipe against the edge of the ledge behind him, letting the ash fall to the floor, which was covered with sawdust, I hadn’t seen that in a while. He stuck the pipe in the pocket of his workman’s shirt, and then picked up his bottle of Rheingold and took a good swig, emptying it. Then he put the bottle on the wooden ledge, which already had a half-dozen other empty Rheingold bottles on it. He wiped the whiskers around his mouth with the back of his hand and then looked at me. He had dark brown eyes, like a bull’s. He had never let go of my arm this whole time. I tried to keep my weight on my left leg, the one that didn’t hurt, at least not at this point.
“So,” he said, again, “if it’s a two hundred-fifty-page hardbound book it ain’t gonna fit in one of them pockets of yours.”
“No,” I said. I don’t know why, but I gave each of the side pockets of my seersucker jacket just one more pat each.
“So where’s the goddam book, pal.”
“I just had it.”
“You just had it when?”
“Just a little while ago, when I came in the bar upstairs.”
“You had it when you come in.”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m sure I had it. And then, and then, um —”
“Take your time. Why you so nervous?”
“To be honest, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“What, you gotta pee?”
“Yes,” I said. “I really only came in here just to see if I could use the, uh, you know —”
“Sooner we get this straightened out, sooner you can go to the bathroom, pal. If we let you use the bathroom.” (He pronounced it “batroom”, but I just can’t bear to transcribe his accent phonetically, so try if you will to bear in mind that he spoke with a French Canadian accent, if that’s what it was.)
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I had to go to the bathroom when I came in upstairs, and I know I had the book then, and I tried to use the men’s room up there, but —”
“Yes, I tried, but there were these four guys in there, and they accosted me.”
“Four guys, accosted you.”
“Yes,” I said.
“What four guys.”
“Listen,” I said. “Do you think you could let go of my arm? You’re cutting off the circulation, and it’s growing numb.”
“I’ll just ease up on my grip a little,” he said, and, to be honest, he did. A little. “That better?”
“Yes,” I said. “But can’t you just let go of it?”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job, buddy. Nobody asked you to come in here.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” I said.
What could I do, this guy was enormous, practically a giant.
“So who were these four fellas you say accosted you in the men’s room?” he said.
“Well, one was named Mel,” I said. “And one was named Matt, I think, no, Nat.”
Because of his accent he said “Nataniel”, but I figured he meant to say Nathaniel.
“Yes,” I said. “Nathaniel. And this other guy was named Emerson, I believe, and the other one was, um — Penmore?”
“No,” I said. “That wasn’t it. Fenmore, I think.”
“You mean Fenimore?”
“Yes,” I said, “exactly. Fenimore. Anyway, these guys accosted me, all trying to shake my hand at once, and, well, I guess I dropped the book, it was all pretty confusing, and then this guy Emerson and the other guy Fenimore got in a fight, so —”
“Goddam those guys,” said this giant.
“Yeah, heh heh,” I said. “They were pretty obnoxious, really.”
“Goddam them straight to hell.”
“Um,” I said.
“Probably one of them stole your goddam book,” said the big guy. ”Lifted it right out of your goddam hand while they was all crowding around ya giving you the gladhand hail-fellow-well-met routine.”
“Maybe,” I said. “That’s possible.”
“Possible? Guys like that, professional bore-asses like Melville, Emerson? Hawthorne? Fucking Cooper? Not just possible but fucking probable.”
I didn’t know who or what he was talking about. I didn’t care. My leg hurt, and I just wanted to pee.
“So, look,” I said. “Do you think I can just use the men’s room?”
“Not so fast, pal.” He gave my arm, my forearm actually, a squeeze with that huge hand. People always say “hamlike” when they talk about really big hands, but usually a big hand isn’t really that big, but this guy’s hand was, and not just one of those one-pound hams that come in a tin container either, but a regular Sunday-dinner ham. “You say you got that book from Mr. Philpot.”
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“You did say that, or you did get the book from Mr. Philpot.”
“Both,” I said.
“And how do I know you’re not lying?”
“Maybe you could call him up?”
The guy stared at me. For maybe thirty seconds. The jazz band played. People shouted and laughed, but at least they weren’t shouting or laughing at me, not that I knew of, anyway. The big man opened his mouth a little as if he were going to say something, but then he said nothing, and the seconds ticked by, perhaps another thirty of them, although it felt like many more than that, and then finally he said:
“So, what you’re telling me is that the fucking onus is on me to find out about the book. I’m supposed to get up, go all the way over to the bar over there, ask the bartender for the phone, and then call Mr. Philpot up. That’s what you’re saying, right?”
“Well,” I said, “He was in just a little while ago, so chances are he’s still there —”
“This guy giving you any trouble, Paul?” said a young guy who had just come over. He had a corncob pipe in one hand, but it was a normal-size one, not like that big thing that the big guy had.
“No trouble, Tom,” said the big guy, who apparently was named Paul. “Nothing I can’t handle anyway. Says he got a book from Mr. Philpot, except them bore-asses up in the men’s room upstairs stole it off him.”
“Well, I didn’t say for sure they had stolen it,” I said. “It’s just that I think I may have left it there, somehow, or, like, dropped it, or —.”
“Or had it stolen,” said Paul.
“I guess that’s a possibility,” I said.
“What kind of book we talking about here,” said this Tom guy. He had tousled, dark-blond hair, with a cowlick, and he was dressed very casually, in a worn blue work shirt and bluejeans, but then this was Greenwich Village after all. “This like one of these literary novels?”
“Um, well, I haven’t actually read it yet,” I said, “but I believe it’s about some guy who gets trapped in a web of passion, and betrayal, of fear and suspense.”
“Like caught in a deadly whirlpool of dread and despair?”
“Yeah, like that,” I said.
“It got a title?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s called, uh, um, The Ace of Doom, no — The Ace of Death, that’s right, The Ace of Death.”
“Yes. Ace of Death.”
“Who by? Woolrich? Goodis? Fredric Brown?”
“Um, no,” I said. “It’s by Horace, um — what’s his name — Horace, uh —”
“Horace P. Sternwall?”
“Yes!” I said. “Exactly. Horace P. Sternwell.”
“Sternwall,” he said.
“Right. Sternwall. Horace P.,” I said. “Sternwall.”
This Tom kid just stared at me for about minute, taking an occasional puff on his pipe. I guess he was trying to figure out if I was lying or not. I tried to look honest, which is not easy when your leg hurts and when you really have to urinate. But finally he looked at that big Paul guy, and said:
“Okay, Paul. He’s cool. He can come in.”
And, at last, the giant let go of my forearm.
I shook my hand and arm out, just to get the blood flowing back into my fingers again.
(Continued here, doggedly.)
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