In a strangely selective subterranean barroom in Greenwich Village our hero Arnold Schnabel has encountered his old friend, that bold seafaring adventurer, Big Ben Blagwell...
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“The Greeks have their Homer, the English have Shakespeare; the Germans have Goethe, the Russians their Tolstoy and their Dostoyevsky; and, yes, France has its Proust. But we — America, or rather I should say the United States thereof, we have our Arnold Schnabel.” — Harold Bloom, in his “Books Can Be Cool!” column in Tiger Beat.
“Arnie,” he said, “is that you?”
I looked at him for two seconds without saying a word, and then it hit me.
He was the same old Ben, my old friend and companion in adventure (even though by one standard of measuring time I had only met him that very morning), but I however had changed bodies entirely, once again.
“Yes, Ben,” I said. “It’s me. Arnold.”
He wore his usual outfit. The Hawaiian shirt, the crushed and sun-bleached yachting cap, the dungarees; and as usual he was unshaven, with maybe a weeks’ worth of shiny ginger stubble. In fact he looked pretty much the same as the last time I had seen him, in another universe, back in Madame Chang’s chambers in Singapore. He had a cigarette in his mouth, undoubtedly a Sweet Caporal, and a big blood-orange drink in his hand, probably a Planter’s Punch with a float of “151” rum.
“How did you know it was me?” I said, or, rather, shouted, because we were right in between the jazz combo and the bar, and surrounded by yelling and laughing people.
“How did I know it was you?” he said. He took his big hand (the only kind of hand he had after all) off my arm, made a fist of it, and gave me a play-punch on the jaw that only knocked me back a step or so. “It’s that walk of yours, buddy.”
“Yeah, your walk,” he said. “I mean, everybody’s got a distinctive walk, right?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Some more so than others. And you, my friend, you got a very distinctive walk.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, look, Ben —”
“It’s like, on the one hand it’s like you’re walking out to a wall to be shot by a firing squad.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And on the other hand it usually seems like you’re limping, like you got a bum wheel and you’re in like physical pain.”
“Well, I did hurt my leg,” I said. “You see I tripped and fell earlier tonight, and I am in pain, somewhat.”
“Sorry to hear that. Tripped and fell, huh?”
“Yes, I mean I don’t think it’s anything too serious. It only really hurts when I’m standing, or walking. It’ll probably get better eventually.”
“Let’s hope so,” he said. “Let’s hope so. I’m carrying around about a pound of kamikaze shrapnel in both my legs myself. What I do is just try not to think about the pain.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” I said. “I didn’t know —”
“But there’s another distinctive thing about your walk, Arnie.”
“Yeah. I don’t really know any other way to put it, but it’s kind of like you don’t want anybody to know it but you gotta go to the head to take a really, really wicked piss.”
“Well, I do, actually,” I said.
“Gotta take a wicked piss?”
“Yes,” I said.
He laughed, or coughed, it was one or the other or both, and he gave me a slap on the shoulder, but I managed to stay upright.
“Good ol’ Arnie,” he said. “Never a dull moment, hey, pal?”
“Not lately,” I said.
“So what’s your new whaddyacallit, persono-something?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“Well, in this world I seem to be this guy Porter Walker, a young poet.”
“Handsome, too, I might add,” he said.
“So I gather,” I said. “You see, it’s a novel written by a woman — you know.”
“Oh, sure, I know,” he said. “Dames, they love their good-looking heroes, don’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose so.”
“They do, Arnie, they do. At least when they write books they do. You might think a guy like me wouldn’t know about such things. But I read a lot of books. Out on the ocean. On them long sea voyages. And it’s true, mostly I like to read men’s adventure magazines and like Horace P. Sternwall novels and all, but sometimes I’ll pick up a book written by one of these ladies what’s lying around in the ship’s library. And they always got a handsome hero. Usually a handsome ‘brooding’ hero, y’know?”
“Well, I don’t really read those sorts of books too much, Ben, but —”
“You should, Arnie. You might learn something. About like the feminine mind. Their innermost secret desires and longings, and, like passions. You really should.”
“Yeah, I probably should,” I said, “but —”
“Of course in real life it’s different,” he said. He took a drag on his cigarette, and took a look around the bar, and then he looked at me again. “In real life dames settle for what they can get, just like men, Arnie. Just like men. They might want a handsome guy like Clark Gable. But in the end they settle for Wallace Beery if that’s all they can get. God bless their little hearts.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess you’re right, Ben, but, look, I don’t mean to be rude, but to be honest, I really have to, you know —”
“Take a wicked piss?”
“Yeah,” I said. “So, look, let me go find the men’s room, and I’ll see you when I come out.”
“Arnie,” he said.
He took another drag on his cigarette, then took the cigarette out of his mouth and exhaled, slowly, looking at me.
“Think about it, Arnie,” he said, finally. “You may be this ‘Walker Porter’ guy —”
“’Porter Walker’, actually,” I said.
“Whatever, Porter Walker, Porky Pig, Peter Piper, it don’t matter — you’re still Arnie, right? Deep down in your gut and in your brain. In your — whaddyacallit —”
“Exactly. Deep down in your soul. You’re still the same old Arnie. Right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“God love ya.”
“So, Arnie, bearing that in mind — who you really are, you, and not someone goddam else — you tell me what you think your chances are of you going into that men’s room and coming out without something disastrous happening? Tell me what the chances are you’ll come out at all, that you won’t wind up in some other fucked-up (pardon my French) universe? Go on, you’re an intelligent guy, you tell me.”
“Okay,” I said. “I admit my chances are slim that something disastrous won’t happen. But what can I do? My bladder’s about to burst.”
“Tell ya what, buddy, I’ll come with you.”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that, Ben.”
I only said this because I’ve always felt uncomfortable going to a men’s room with another man.
“It’s no problem, Arnie,” he said. “You’re my pal.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but, you know —”
“Anybody fucks with you, they fuck with me.”
“I appreciate that, Ben,” I said. “But, look, you’re, uh —”
“Come hell, come high water. Buddies. Through thick and thin.”
“Yeah, well —”
“Through rivers of shit and oceans of piss. Pals to the bloody end.”
“Great,” I said. “But look, really, I’ll be okay. You just stay here and drink your drink.”
“This drink?” he said. And he looked at the drink in his hand. It was a big glass, a Collins glass, about three-quarters full of reddish-orange liquid, with a white straw in it.
“Yeah,” I said. “Relax and drink your drink, and —”
“Sure,” he said.
“And I’ll be right out,” I said.
“Wait. Hold on,” he said.
He lifted his glass, put the straw in his lips, and in three good slurps all the liquid was drained from the drink. Then he looked into it, stirring the cubes with a straw.
“Dead fly in there,” he said. “Just once I’d like to drink one of these bastards and not get a free dead fly with it. So, okay, let’s hit the head, buddy.”
“But I really am okay to go by myself,” I said. “Why don’t you order another drink, Ben, and then when I get back —”
“Can it,” he said. “I’m sticking with you, pal. And anyways, maybe I need to take a leak, too.”
“Really?” I said, I don’t know why.
“Sure,” he said. “One thing about me, I practically always need to take a leak. Except maybe if my ship’s been torpedoed out from under me and I’m floating around the South China seas in a rubber raft with no water for a week, a scenario like that let’s say.”
“Right,” I said.
He made a fist again and gave me a little punch on the shoulder, but I remained on my feet.
He turned to a tall bearded man in a dark frock coat and a top hat standing at the bar behind him, and he held out his Planter’s Punch glass.
“Hey, Ahab,” he said. “Take this, will ya, and get me a refill. Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’. Get one for my friend here, too, and I’ll cover you when we get back from the head.”
“Cross my palm with silver first and then I will order you your libations,” said this Ahab man. “But not before then.”
He was smoking a pipe with a long black stem, and he held a pewter mug in his hand. Or at least a pewter-like mug. He took a drink out of it, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Y’know, Ahab,” said Ben, after a slight pause, “despite what you may think, it wouldn’t exactly kill you to pick up a round now and then.”
“I believe the price for two Planter’s Punches with floats of ‘151’ rum would be two dollars,” said this Ahab.
“Okay, forget it,” said Ben. The man hadn’t taken the empty glass, so Ben reached past him and put it on the bar. “I’m sorry I asked.”
“I am not a free-drink dispensary,” said this Ahab guy. “Despite what you may have heard in your fo’c’sle scuttlebutt.”
“Yeah, sure. Come on, Arnie,” said Ben, as if it were me holding up the show. “Let’s go drain the main vein. And maybe when we come out we’ll find a different spot at the bar. Somewhere where the assholes ain’t so tight.”
“I heard that,” said this Ahab man.
Ben turned and glared at the man.
“Ben,” I said. “Look, I really have to go.”
“Okay, pal,” he said, and before he could hit me on the shoulder again I started limping off toward this passageway right beyond the end of the bar.
“So, Arnie,” said Ben, doing a little hop and skip to catch up to me, and I could feel the floorboards buckle as he did so, “what’s the deal with this crazy universe, pal?”
“Look, Ben,” I said, “again, I don’t want to be rude, but I really can’t talk right now. I just really need to, you know —”
“Pee,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
We had turned left down this narrow dim hallway behind the bar area, and pretty soon we came to a brick wall with two other passageways going off to the left and right.
“Which way we go?” said Ben.
“You haven’t been to the men’s room yet?”
“Arnie, would I ask which way if I had already gone?”
“No, sorry,” I said. “I think it’s to the left.”
“You’re pretty sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m positive this guy said it was to the left.”
“So let’s go left.”
So we went left down this other hallway, which seemed about twice the length of the one we had just passed through. There was only one naked lightbulb in an overhead fixture, about halfway down the hall, and the walls were bare, worn, unpainted brick, old and brown, and damp-looking.
At last we came to a door. My leg hurt, but the pain was nothing compared with my need to urinate. Maybe Ben’s legs hurt too. I didn’t ask.
“Why isn’t there a men’s room sign on the door?” asked Ben.
“Someone stole it,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, you can see where it used to be,” said Ben, and he pointed with his cigarette at a pale green rectangle on the door, surrounded by the deeper, brownish green of the rest of the door.
“Well, let’s go, then,” said Ben. “What are we waiting for?”
“Yes, you’re right,” I said.
I turned the doorknob and pulled the door open, and it was a bathroom, all right, but there was a woman in it, a woman in a black dress standing at the sink with a cigarette in one hand while she applied scarlet lipstick to her lips from a golden tube she held in her other hand. She turned and looked at me and Ben, standing there. And I don’t know why we were just standing there.
She looked from one to the other of us, and up and down. Then up again. She took a drag on her cigarette, and then finally she spoke:
“I think you have the wrong john, fellas.”
(Continued here, despite the so-called dictates of common sense.)
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