Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his hearty comrade Big Ben Blagwell here in a rather unusual sub-basement bar in Greenwich Village, on this fateful August night in 1957...
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“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I consider Arnold Schnabel’s mammoth masterwork to be the ne plus ultra of American literature.” — Harold Bloom, opening remarks at the yearly convention of the Arnold Schnabel Society at the Pvt. Raymond T. Osmond VFW Post at Chew and Lawrence; Philadelphia PA.
“Well, Lady Brett,” said Ben (or, again, “shouted Ben”, because as I said this place was very noisy, so please just assume that everyone is shouting until our narrative takes us elsewhere, if it ever does), ”we certainly wouldn’t want a lady to die of thirst, now would we, Arnie, I mean Porter?”
“No,” I said, with a sinking feeling that my personal narrative might never take me from this place unless I took some strong measures not to be the passive protagonist I had pretty much played my whole life, or lives.
“You don’t seem enthusiastic, Mr. Porter, at the prospect of having cocktails with three I daresay reasonably attractive ladies,” said Brett, looking into my eyes through the smoke trailing up from her cigarette. Although her hair was dark her skin was very pale, almost as pale as her jersey and her skirt. Her eyes were a smoky blue. (I’m trying to remember to describe these people I kept meeting, but it’s not always easy for me, as sometimes I get so wrapped up in myself that I fail to notice even the most basic features of someone until I’ve been around them for a year or two.)
“He’s enthusiastic,” said Ben (filling in the conversational void which I had inadvertently created as a byproduct of my private lucubrations). “Arnie I mean Porter’s just like reserved, like, ain’t you, Arnie, Porter, whatever?”
He gave me another elbow in the ribs, well, it was the same elbow, a little harder this time, but not quite hard enough to cause me to gasp in pain.
“How very curious,” said Brett. “A reserved American. You intrigue me, Mr. Porter.”
“We was just about to try and find you ladies,” said Ben, “so’s we could buy you them drinks we promised.”
“Oh, splendid,” said Brett. “We’re just over at the other end of the bar.”
“We are on our way, ma’am,” said Ben. “Let’s weigh anchor. I gotta say I got me a powerful thirst my own self.”
“Yes but I’ll tell you what, dear Ben is it?”
“Ben it is,” said Ben. “Big Ben Blagwell they call me. On account of the size of me.”
“Yes you are a big boy,” said Brett. “And just full of beans, aren’t you?”
“I was born full of beans,” said Ben. “Not to mention piss and vinegar. Oh, shit, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.”
“Say what?” said Brett.
“Piss,” said Ben. “Shit, now I’ve said it again.”
“Plus the word shit,” said Brett.
“Damn,” said Ben. “Please forgive me and my like uncouth ways. But it’s like I said, too many years before the mast and down in the fo’c’sle and the engine room, and in low dockside taverns from Boston to Bangkok and back again.”
“You are forgiven,” said Brett.
“Swell,” said Ben. “Now let’s get them drinks. Say, let me ask you something, Lady Brett, you ever have a Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’?”
“I never have, actually,” said Brett. “Is it as good as a Sidecar, or a French 75?”
“Better,” said Ben.
“Well, I must have one then.”
“Good, let’s cast off, baby.”
“Yes but as I was attempting to say before we somehow got sidetracked, Big Ben,” she said, “why don’t you run along ahead, or rather heave prow-first into that sea of humanity full steam ahead in your parlance, as I want just a brief private word with Mr. Porter. But do please order me one of those Planter’s Punches, they sound delightful.”
“With a float of ‘151’,” said Ben.
“Righto,” said Brett.
“You gotta have the float of ‘151’, otherwise it’s just a plain ordinary Planter’s Punch,” said Ben.
“Yes, of course,” said Brett. “Now just you set sail right through this mob of drunks, and down at the other end of the bar, dear Ben, you’ll find the lovely Misses Becky and Hester. Panting with thirst.”
“I am already gone,” said Ben, and his face, which was always red, or at least inflamed, suddenly grew more red, almost like an overripe tomato just before it starts to bubble and burst its skin. He leaned in toward me and whispered, that is yelled in a somewhat lower voice, into my ear.
“Pal,” he said, “you are in like Flynn.”
He struck me once with his fist on my triceps but I managed not to fall down, and then he turned and shoved himself off into the crowd.
“Alone at last,” said Brett.
“Yes,” I said.
“Ah, he speaks.”
“Yes,” I said. “But listen —”
“I have to tell you something,” I said.
“Oh no. Don’t tell me,” she said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Don’t tell me you’re a pansy. Good-looking chap like you, and with a rather attractive stubble of beard.”
I felt my chin. It was true, I seemed to have a day or two’s growth of beard. But that was Porter, not me. I normally shave every morning, even when I’m hungover and the very thought of shaving makes me want to remove the blade from the safety razor and put an end to the need to shave forever.
She was looking at me with a sad expression.
“How very sad,” she said. “What a dreadful waste of manhood.”
“Well,” I said, I don’t know why, I guess my pride was challenged, “I’m actually not a pansy.”
“But —” I said.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “That most awful of all conjunctions. But. Damn you and your but. What is it.”
“What is your but. Don’t tell me you were wounded in the war. Please don’t tell me that.”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, thank God,” she said. “I couldn’t go through that again. Being madly, horribly in love with a man who is unable to perform because of a war wound.”
“I wasn’t wounded,” I said.
“So you are able to perform then.”
“If you mean what I think you mean —” I said.
“And I think you know what I mean,” she said.
“Yes, well, technically, I suppose I am able,” I said.
“That’s all I need to know,” she said.
“That word again,” she said. “That dreadful word. Can we agree never to use that word with each other again?”
“It’s a pretty common word,” I said.
“Promise me,” she said.
“Well, okay,” I said, “but — oh, gee, I said it again.”
“Please don’t say it again. Never again.”
“Okay,” I said. “But, oh, sorry —”
“Oh, never mind,” she said. “You can say it if you must.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“So what is it?”
“What is it?”
“This but of yours.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, you see, the thing is, I really have to be somewhere.”
“Somewhere else you mean.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why. Where. Why.”
I realized suddenly that these were hard questions for me to answer, especially under these circumstances, the noise, the music, the shouting and laughing people all around, and the fact that Brett was standing very close to me, so close that her breasts, which were not small, were just touching the front of my seersucker jacket. I hesitated, as I tried to assemble some appropriate words in a coherent order.
“What could possibly be so important, dear Porter?” she said. “Is it a rendezvous with a woman?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Then what is the pressing urgency.”
“Well, it’s not a really pressing urgency,” I said. “But —”
“That word again,” she said. “That damned word.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But — and again I apologize for using the word —”
“I told you you could use it,” she said. “Even though each time you do it’s as if you’re driving an upholsterer’s tack into my bosom.” And as she said this she pressed her bosom closer against me. “What is it you’re trying to tell me, dear Porter? Please just say it. I’ve been hurt before. I’ll be hurt again. Just spit it out dear boy. I can take it.”
“It’s just that I have a friend waiting for me upstairs,” I said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “You see, I was with this friend of mine in the bar upstairs, and I left to find a men’s room.”
“At least you found a ladies’ room, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “Anyway, I left him some time ago to try and find the men’s room, and he’ll be wondering where I am.”
“Will he really?”
“I suppose he’s sitting all alone at the bar, glancing at his wristwatch every ten seconds.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said. “I mean, you know, he’s with a few other people.”
“Yes, a couple of girls, and —”
“A couple of girls you say. So already the lying, the prevarication begins. I should have known. Go. Go then to your friend and to these girls and I’m sure they’re so terribly and awfully charming.”
“But,” I said.
“Go, go to your little playthings.”
“But they’re not my playthings,” I said.
“And these ‘girls’, are they very pretty?”
“Well,” I said, sinking ever deeper and deeper, “yeah, I guess they’re pretty —”
“Yeah, they’re pretty,” I said.
“Why didn’t you just tell me, Porter. I’m a big girl. As I said, I’ve been hurt before. I’ll be hurt again. And again.”
But,” I said.
“Please go, dear Porter. And enjoy what I believe you Yanks call your ‘double date’, and I hope it culminates in the most satisfying orgy."
“But we’re not on a double date with these girls,” I said, realizing even as the words left my mouth that once again I was falling victim to my own propensity for attempted honesty. “They’re just a couple of girls my friend and I ran into. They live down the hall from me, and —”
“They live down the hall from you.”
“Yes,” I said. “I really just don’t want my friend, you know, worrying about me.”
“Worrying about you.”
“Well,” I said, and once again I felt a fresh new flood of perspiration oozing from all my thousands of pores all at once. “Uh —”
She looked at me, I suppose trying to divine if I were lying, and, truth be told, at this juncture even I didn’t know if I was lying or not.
Her cigarette in its black holder had burned down and gone out. She pulled out the stub and dropped it to the floor. Then she pointed the mouthpiece of the holder at my face.
“This ‘friend’ of yours,” she said. “He also is not a pansy?”
“No,” I said. “He’s not a pansy.”
“And he’s with these two attractive girls you say.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Two very attractive girls.”
“Pretty attractive,” I said.
“He’s with two extremely attractive girls,” she said. “Doing what? Sitting in a booth or at the bar?”
“Well, they were dancing, actually,” I said.
“Dancing you say? Perhaps the Charleston, or the Lindy Hop?”
“I think it was more of a free-form thing,” I said.
“The Boogaloo maybe?”
“Possibly,” I said.
“So, to sum up,” she said. “This pal of yours is dancing the Black Bottom with two ravishing young girls and you really think, you honestly believe he’s waiting with bated breath for your return?”
“Well, I don’t know about bated breath,” I said.
“Oh, dear Porter,” she said. “Do you honestly think he cares if you’re just a tiny bit late, or indeed if you ever show up?”
She moved closer to me, so that her breasts were now pressed firmly against my ribcage.
“Um, well,” I said, “I just, um —”
“And don’t you think he might — provided of course he is a true friend and not a begrudging viper — don’t you think he might be happy for you that you are in the company of a beautiful and ardent woman such as myself?”
She touched my cheek, the stubble on my cheek, with her fingertips. I noticed that her fingernails were painted red.
“I didn’t really think of that,” I said. “But, still, it seems kind of rude just to go off and not come back.”
“You must think me a frightfully importunate bitch,” she said.
“No,” I said.
To make matters worse I now began to feel the first faint quiverings of an erection.
“I’m such a fool,” she said. “Throwing myself at a man simply because he is a handsome brooding young poet. And I know I would only make you miserable. And myself too, it goes without saying. And yet we could possibly have some good moments, could we not?”
“Well, sure,” I said, and I moved back a half step, so that she might not notice my erection which was growing slowly but surely of its own free will. “I mean, anything is possible, but —”
“That damned word again.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Porter,” she said.
She took a half-step closer to me.
“Yes?” I said.
“One damned drink,” she said. “Don’t make me beg. I will beg if you force me to, but I beg you not to force me to beg.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“Oh good, so you’ll at least have one drink with me.”
“All right,” I said. I knew I was beaten. And, after all, there really was no pressing urgency. She was right. Josh probably wouldn’t miss me. He was the son of God. He had a lot more to think about than me and my little problems.
She put her arm in mine. She gave me a yank, and pulled me toward the bar. My leg had not miraculously cured itself, and so I limped, and I was now further hobbled by the almost full erection I was now possessed of.
To be honest, I really felt as if I could use a drink at this point.
(Continued here, under a doctor’s supervision.)
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