Saturday, March 9, 2013

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 337: epic

Our hero Arnold Schnabel — currently in the guise of that handsome bohemian poet “Porter Walker” — has finally met up again with his deific friend “Josh”, here in this crowded and unique subterranean bar in Greenwich Village, on a certain hot wet night in August of 1957...

(Please click here to read our previous chapter; the brave and the bold may go here to return to the mist-shrouded beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 78-volume autobiography. Made possible in part by a generous grant from Bosco™ chocolate-flavored syrup, the official chocolate-flavored syrup of the Arnold Schnabel Society©.)

“What better way to end a busy day than with a steamy hot cocoa — made with delicious Bosco™ chocolate-flavored syrup — and a volume of
Railroad Train to Heaven™. A roaring fire would be a nice touch as well.” — Harold Bloom, host of The Bosco™ Chocolate-Flavored Syrup Literary Showcase Hour (airing Tuesdays at 9PM {EST}, on the Dumont Television Network).

But here’s the thing about happiness: it always ends, and so did mine end when immediately Josh’s facial expression went from a beaming grin to a look of pale-faced stupefaction. He pressed his lips together, and his head and upper body suffered a sort of spasm, as if he had been stuck in the back with a hot poker. Then he stood stock still, staring at the floor and holding up his right hand as if he were taking an oath.

“I’m okay,” he said, after a long moment, and he lowered his hand.
But then another spasm rippled up through his torso to the crooked straw Trilby hat on his head, and he pressed his lips tightly together again.

“Josh?” I said.

Once again he raised his hand, and then all of a sudden he made a fist of it, and pressed it to his mouth.

“He’s gonna spew,” said Ahab. “Like the great white whale in mating season, he’s gonna spew all right. You better step away from him, young fella.”

“Just keep him away from me,” said Mack Treacher.

“Oh, dear,” said Brett.

“Josh?” I said.

“I’m —” he stared at me.

“Yes?” I said.

“I’m — not okay,” he whispered, through barely opened lips, and looking at me in sorrow through tear-filled eyes.

He really did look bad, with his wrinkled and cigarette-burned light-blue suit, his blackened eye, the purple bruise on his cheekbone, his hat on all awry, the look of distress on his bone-white and sweating face

I’m no hero, God knows, Josh knows, but I couldn’t just let him throw up there at the crowded bar, so for once I took matters in hand. For a fraction of a second I considered trying to get him over my shoulders in a fireman’s-carry, or some approximation of it, but then I thought, no, Porter was no Mack Treacher or Big Ben Blagwell, he was just a slender young poet probably not fond of any exercise more strenuous than lighting a cigarette or lifting a mug of beer, and also I was not keen to have Josh vomit all down the back of my seersucker sport jacket; so instead, without a word I grabbed Josh’s upper arm and pulled him firmly and quickly through the crowd and back towards the passage leading to the restrooms. No one we shoved into seemed particularly offended by our passage, and I suppose this was the sort of bar where this kind of thing was a not uncommon occurrence.

In a matter of thirty seconds we had reached the turning into the hallway behind the bar.

“Hang in there, Josh,” I said.

“You’re hurting my arm,” he said.

“It’s for your own good,” I said.

“I think I’m better now,” he said, but then his upper body pitched forward and he thrust his fist against his mouth, again. Fortunately he held in whatever wanted to come out. I gave him one second and then resumed pulling him along.

This time I didn’t make the mistake of turning left at the end of the hall and going to the ladies’ room, and instead turned to the right, thinking as I did so that this too was probably a mistake, but at the very least it was a different mistake, a new mistake, although as I dragged Josh stumbling down the narrow and dim brick-walled passage I also considered that this course of action might well be a worse mistake.

We came to a door. This one, like the door to the ladies’ room, had no sign indicating the preferred gender of whosoever should dare enter, only a pale rectangle on the faded green-painted wood where presumably such a sign had once been.

I pushed open the door, and there were some men in there, of course there were, there were always men in the men’s rooms of crowded bars, anyway I pulled Josh over to the stalls.

The first door I tried was bolted, and a voice yelled, “Wait a goddam minute, I’m trying to drop a load in here!”
I tried the next door — locked also.

“Fuck off,” said the voice of its occupant.

I tried the third door. It opened.

“Oh, thank God,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” said Josh, with a silly-looking grin on his damp pallid face, but then another spasm shook him, he bent forward as if someone had hit him on the shoulders with a baseball bat and he pressed his fist to his mouth again. His hat fell off, but, surprisingly, he caught it by the brim with his free hand.

“Go in, Josh,” I said.

He straightened up. His face had grown paler still, the color of the belly of a dead hermit crab washed up on the beach on a grey day. Stray locks of his hair adhered to his forehead like strands of dark-blond seaweed.

“Y’know,” he said, “I really think I’m okay now, Arnold —”

I didn’t say anything, merely shoved him into the stall and closed the door behind him, and by the awful sounds which soon erupted from behind the dented and scarred metal, not a second too soon. 

I stepped away from the stall.

This was not the first time I had been in such a situation with Josh. In fact, by some ways of measuring time, I had been in a very similar situation with him just the night before, even if that night seemed years ago and thousands of pages of my autobiography in the past.

Could it be that Josh — the son of God — had a drinking problem? But then who was I to be judgmental? Certainly I had drunk myself to the point of vomiting on at least two dozen occasions in my life, and that was a conservative estimate. How many New Year’s and Christmas Eves had I finished up in just this fashion back in Olney, if not in a barroom men’s room then perhaps in the alleyway outside the VFW, or in Fisher Park, across the street from the Green Parrot or the Huddle; how many Cape May Fourths of July had I brought to an ignoble end by staggering out of Sid’s Tavern and across the street to the beach, leaving something eminently unpleasant in the sand by the boardwalk’s steps for innocent vacationers to encounter or even step into the next morning?

My musings were interrupted by a suntanned and bearded young fellow in loose clothing who was lighting his pipe and nodding toward the stall into which I had shoved Josh.

“Now you’re what I call a pal,” said the guy, I guess he was in his late twenties.

“Well, you know how it is,” I said.

“Oh, yes, I do, I most certainly do. You see I am a seafaring fellow, and we all know how seafaring chaps behave once they reach port.”

“Yeah,” I said. 

To be honest, I really didn’t want to get into a conversation with this guy, even though he seemed not blatantly insane or dangerous. That’s just me. I’d always prefer not to have a conversation, with anyone, unless I’ve either smoked marijuana or reached a particular stage of drunkenness, usually the stage immediately preceding the one Josh was in now, and I was currently at least six Manhattans or ten beers away from that stage. And I hadn’t smoked marijuana in the immediate past, although it did occur to me that I was still at least somewhat under the influence of LSD

“A fellow of few words you are,” said the young guy, smiling as he puffed on his pipe, which was a long-stemmed one, but not excessively so.

“They never seem few enough,” I said. “At least in retrospect.”

“Ha ha,” he said. “I take it from your raffish attire and unshaven visage that you are — let me guess — a young novelist, perhaps in the final stages of writing your classic and groundbreaking Bildungsroman.”

“Well, not exactly,” I said.

“Wait, you’re not a painter,” he said, his smile was gone now, his head slightly cocked, “your fingernails are not quite dirty enough.”

“No,” I said.

“And your hands look just a little too uncallused to be a sculptor’s —”

“No,” I said.

“Oh, you are a sculptor? Perhaps then you create little delicate sculptures — or figurines — or possibly even scrimshaw, the sort of art that demands a delicate touch and not the great hearty blows of a ten pound mallet on a spike.”

“No,” I said. “I mean I meant no, I’m not a sculptor.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. He scratched his beard, which looked sun-streaked. He wore an odd hat, it was like a candy-striped Christmas stocking stuck on his head. He stopped scratching, smiled, and pointed the stem of his pipe at me. “Musician, right? Bebop? Bebop’s cool, although I prefer sea shanties myself, preferably sung in a New Englander accent. What’s your ax, daddy-o?”

“My what?”

“What do you blow? The licorice stick, am I right? You seem just a little slender for a sax man.”

“I’m not a musician either,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m —”

“Wait,” he said. “Of course. How could I be so stupid. You’re a poet, right?”

“Well, yes,” I said, “I guess —”

“Lyric or epic.”

I sighed, but not voluntarily. I was just tired of this whole subject.

“Lyric I suppose,” I said. “No, wait, epic I think. Or lyrical epic.”

“Lyrical epic,” he said.

“I guess so,” I said.

“So what you’re saying is you write epic poetry but in a lyrical way.”

“Yes,” I said, wishing he would go away, but he didn’t.

“Well, I think in that case you would just be classed as an epic poet,” he said. “Because — not that I’m any kind of an expert — but I would only suppose that all epic poetry at least aspires to a certain level of lyricism.”

“Yes, I guess you’re right,” I said.

Josh was still producing horrible retching sounds as all this blather was going on. He didn’t care what kind of poet I was, and neither did I.

“So to answer my original question,” said the annoying young fellow, “I suppose we’d have to say you are an epic poet.”

“Right,” I said.

“Epic,” he said, nodding his head and puffing on his pipe.

“Um,” I said.

Josh continued to make noises as if all the universe and all possible imagined universes from before the dawn of time and to the end of eternity and beyond were passing from his gagging throat into the toilet bowl, which, I speculated, might be overflowing by now.

“That’s really fantastic,” said the young fellow, still nodding his head.

“What is?” I asked.

“That you write epic poetry,” he said. “Fantastic, really.”

I had a funny feeling he might be trying to trick me in some way.

“You mean fantastic in the literal sense?” I said.

“No,” he said. “I mean in the sense of, you know, that’s really, well, I think the kids today would say: ‘groovy’.”


“Really,” he said. “You should be proud.”

“But I’m not a very good poet,” I said.

“That’s not for you to judge,” he said. “And, anyway — what’s good? What’s bad? It’s all relative, all subjective. You want to know what’s important? You want to know what’s really important?”

He was waiting for me to say something, so finally I did.

“Um,” I said.

“What’s important,” he said, “what’s really important, is not whether your epic poetry is good or bad. What’s important is just that you’re out there, actually writing your epic poems. That’s really admirable. Don’t you think? Do you make any money at it?”

“Well, yes,” I said, “I just sold an epic poem to a publisher, I don’t know why he bought it —”

“Did you get much money for it?”

“More than it was worth,” I said.

“You can’t put a price on creativity.”

“But don’t people do that all the time?”

“The important thing like I said is that you’re out there, every day. Writing your epic poems. And getting paid for it too. That’s impressive. It really is.”

“Well, I guess it beats working,” I said.

“Writing epic poems is work,” he said.

“Well, not like a job,” I said.

“But it is your job,” he said. “Epic poet. You should put that on your tax return. Occupation: epic poet.”

“I will,” I said.

“That is your job.”

“Yes,” I said

“It’s a very noble job,” he said. “We need more epic poets.”

“Do you really think so?” I said.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “Lots more. Right, Quint?”

While we had been conversing — although I realize it’s a stretch to call what we had been doing conversing — a big red-haired fellow had come over near us, buttoning the fly of his old-fashioned tweed trousers. He had a lit cigar in his mouth.

“Right, what?” said this guy Quint.

“Don’t we need lots more epic poets.”

Quint just stared at the young fellow, and then, after he had finished buttoning his fly he took the cigar out of his mouth and spat on the floor.

“That’s what I think of epic poets,” he said.

Then he put the cigar back into his mouth, walked over to the door, opened it, and went out.

“Don’t listen to him,” said the young guy. “Everybody knows he’s an asshole. What’s your name, by the way?”

I wasn’t about to give him my real name, and, after all, my real name wasn’t my real name anyway, not in this world.

“Porter Walker,” I said.

He had been holding his pipe in his right hand, but now he shifted it to his left, and offered me his right hand. I’m never purposely rude, at least not without what I deem a good reason, so I took his hand and shook it.

“Call me Ishmael,” he said.

(Continued here, and until the last dying fall and beyond.)

The Sirens and Ulysses, by William Etty.)

(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other officially-released episodes of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Now published simultaneously (but with variant typographical errors) in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s last remaining bastion of literacy and culture.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

But here’s the thing about happiness: it always ends...

Absolutely the best way to put it.