Friday, March 15, 2013

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 338: Billy

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel (currently in the corporeal host of “Porter Walker, epic poet”) here in the men’s room  of a most unusual underground bar in New York City’s scenic and bohemian Greenwich Village, on this sultry night in August of 1957...

(Kindly go here to read our preceding episode; if you’ve read every other book extant, and only then, you may click here to return to the far-off beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume masterpiece.)

“Ah, the first fresh glimmerings of spring, and what better way to spend a fine afternoon than to wander off into the woods with a box of Uneeda™ crackers, a thermos of strong black coffee, and a stout morocco-bound volume of Arnold Schnabel’s magnificent chef-d'œuvre.” — Harold Bloom, host of
The Uneeda™ Literary Hour (airing Tuesdays at 10PM {EST}, on the Dumont Television Network).

“Y’know, Ishmael,” said another, younger fellow who had just wandered over, wiping his hands on some brown paper, “I always wondered, when you say, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ is that because Ishmael actually is your name, or is that only what you suggest that people call you.”

“It’s funny you should ask me that, Billy,” said the guy who had said to call him Ishmael, “and I must say you’re the first person who ever has. I think it shows you possess a lively and inquiring intelligence.”

“I’m just a poor honest seamen,” said the kid, who did seem to be dressed the way sailors are dressed in pirate movies, but then again this was Greenwich Village, “a swabbie like yourself, although I have not had the benefit of your superior education.”

“Education, ha, education, my dear friend, can be had by anyone who knows how to read.”

“Yes, but don’t you find reading books a summat dull activity, Ishmael?”

“It can be, Billy, it can be,” said Ishmael, and he puffed on his pipe the way I have noticed pipe-smokers do when they feel — or when they want to look as if they feel — that they have said something profound. “Sometimes I think the greatest and deepest education is simply the act of gazing out at the enormous ocean when one is sailing upon her gently heaving breast, at the endless waves, at the limitless sky, and, if it be night, at the myriad twinkling stars that bejewel the black velvet of the celestial firmament.”

“Gazing at the ocean and the sky is all well and good,” said the kid, who was crumpling the brown paper up into a compact little ball, “but that can get deadly boring too after a few minutes sometimes, don’t you think?.”

“Ah, yes, such is the restlessness of human nature,” said Ishmael. ”But what is to be done?”

“I have no idea,” said this Billy. “Being uneducated and all meself. So Ishmael really is your name?”

Ishmael smiled, and nodded his head, but in such a way that you couldn’t be sure if he was nodding his head in assent or for some other reason, perhaps a philosophical one.

“Billy, Billy, Billy,” he said.

“That’s me name,” said Billy, who spoke, as I had just now realized, with an English accent. He was a very handsome young fellow, with wavy blond hair

“Billy Budd,” said Ishmael. “Noble, innocent Billy Budd. ‘Three cheers for you!’ I say. And just as you once bravely cried, ‘God bless Captain Vere!’ so also do I now cry, ‘God bless Billy Budd!’

“That’s awful nice of you, Ishmael,” said Billy.

“Just one seadog giving another his just due,” said Ishmael.

“But, begging your pardon, you still ain’t answered me question.”

“Question,” said Ishmael. “You asked a question?”

“Yes,” said Billy. “I asked if —”

A loud flushing noise came from the toilet stall behind me, it sounded like a junk shop had been dragged up to the top of a steep rocky hill and then pushed over the edge.

“Ah!” said Ishmael, turning to me. “I think your friend might be finished finally.”

“Yes, possibly,” I said. “Although in my experience it’s always good to wait a minute or two after that first flush.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ishmael, “I haven’t heard any retching noises emanating from that steel cell of the evacuative processes for quite some little time now. Perhaps we should check on him, just to —”

“He’ll be all right,” said Billy. “Just a drop too much rum taken I’ll warrant. But, Ishmael —”

“Oh, but I have been rude!” said Ishmael. “Billy, I should like to introduce you to my new acquaintance, Mr. — Porter Walker, isn’t it?” he said, looking at me in a pleasant way.

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Porter, meet Billy,” said Ishmael. “Now clasp hands like true shipmates on the great swarming bark of humankind.”

“Cheers, mate,” Billy said to me, and, transferring the crumpled ball of brown paper from his right hand to his left, he offered the right hand to me, and, a slave as ever to society’s customs no matter how unpleasant I find them, I took it. His hand was very callused, and, as is so often the case with men I meet, he gripped my hand with what I considered excessive force, and continued to hold it beyond the quick formal shake I prefer.

“Mr. Walker is a an epic poet,” said Ishmael.

“Epic poet?” said Billy, smiling at me. “A dirty job but somebody’s got to do it, right, mate?”

“So it seems,” I said.

He released my hand, probably realizing there was no need to assert his superior manhood further with a mere poet. Without missing a beat he turned back to Ishmael.

“Getting back to me question, Ishmael —”

“Question?” said Ishmael. “Isn’t all of life a question? A question never answered, but a question we nevertheless fain must ask —”

“Is Ishmael your real name?” said Billy.

“Does any of us really have a real name?” said Ishmael, and he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve.

Billy tossed the paper ball up into the air a couple of feet or so, caught it deftly behind his back with his other hand.

“Good catch, Billy,” said Ishmael. “Do you practice a great deal, or —”

“All I’m asking is if Ishmael is your Christian name,” said Billy.

“But don’t you find it presumptuous that people so blandly use the term Christian name,” said Ishmael. “As if the Jew and the Hindu are not also the possessors of given names?”

“I just want to know if Ishmael is the name your parents gave you,” said Billy.

“How do you know my parents gave me a name?” said Ishmael. “What if I was a poor foundling?”

“And were you a poor foundling?”

“No,” said Ishmael.

“So is Ishmael the name your parents gave you?”

Ishmael sighed. He took a draw on his pipe, but it had gone out. He stared at its bowl, and then looked at Billy. There were other guys in the rest room through all this, using the urinals and stalls and washing their hands and coming and going, paying no attention to any of this tedium.

“I cannot lie,” said Ishmael, finally. He tapped the dead ash out of his pipe. The ash fell to the floor, but some of it got onto his trousers. “Ishmael is not the forename inscribed on my baptismal certificate,” he said. “But nevertheless it is the name I prefer to be called.”

“Sure, Ishmael,” said Billy. He suddenly turned and tossed the paper ball toward the wire trashcan next to the paper-towel dispenser. It hit the wall behind the can, but caromed down into it.

“I say, good shot, Billy,” said Ishmael.

Billy put his hands into his pockets. He looked at Ishmael for a moment and then he spoke, with his head cocked slightly to one side:

“So what is your Christian name, Ishmael?”

“Ah, but, Billy, I am not a Christian, nor be I Jew, Moslem, or Hindu. Because my church is the church that is roofed by the aforementioned infinite firmament —”

“Right, I get that,” said Billy — he was slightly swaying as he stood there, his legs spread and his hands in his pockets, almost as if he were standing on the deck of a sailing ship at sea — “so let me rephrase the question. What was the first name your parents gave you?”

“But does it matter? I never felt that name suited me somehow,” said Ishmael. “It seemed not to fit my questing, restless spirit.”

“Look,” said Billy, he took a Players tobacco pouch out of his pocket, and a packet of Zig-Zag cigarette papers, “if you don’t want to tell me, just say so, mate.”

“I just feel it’s unnecessary,” said Ishmael.

“It’s not Nigel, is it?” said Billy. “Or Mortimer? Or Cecil?”

“No, it’s none of those,” said Ishmael.

Billy selected a paper and put the Zig-Zag packet back into his pocket.

“So what is it?” he said. “Seymour? Melvin?”

He expertly shook a bit of tobacco onto the paper.

“What do you think of Players tobacco?” said Ishmael, in one last-ditch attempt to change the subject. But it didn’t work.

“It’s not Tobias, is it?” said Billy. He pulled the string on the tobacco pouch with his teeth, closing it up, and he put it back into his pocket. “Don’t tell me it’s Evelyn?”

“For God’s sake no,” said Ishmael.

Billy looked like he was all set to roll his cigarette finally, but he halted and stared at Ishmael.

“Your given moniker’s Hillary, ain’t it?” he said. “It’s no shame to admit it if it is.”

“It’s Bertrand,” said Ishmael. “My Christian name is Bertrand, okay?”

“Like Bert,” said Billy. “Or Bertie.”

“Right,” said Ishmael.

Billy was rolling his cigarette now, calmly and expertly.

“You don’t look like a Bert,” he said. “Or a Bertie.”

“Thank you,” said Ishmael. “I quite agree. Which is why I have taken the name of —”

“But you do look like a Bertrand,” said Billy.

“I do?” said Ishmael.

“I mean no offense,” said Billy. “But you do. Look like a Bertrand I mean. It’s a right gentlemanly name I thinks.”

“Well, thank you,” said Ishmael. “That’s nice of you to say, Billy. But I still prefer that people call me Ishmael.”

“And that’s your prerogative,” said Billy.

“You probably think I’m silly.”

“That’s not for me to say,” said Billy.

“Let me ask you a question,” said Ishmael.

“Fire away, mate.”

“Would you read a novel that began with the words ‘Call me Bertrand’?”

Billy had finished rolling his cigarette, and he gave its length a lick of his tongue before replying.

“As opposed to beginning the novel with the words ‘Call me Ishmael’?” he said.

“Yes, precisely,” said Ishmael.

Billy put the perfectly-rolled cigarette into his mouth and patted his pockets. Ishmael put his pipe stem into his mouth, took out a book of matches, and gave Billy a light.

“Thanks,” said Billy, and he exhaled a fresh cloud of smoke into that already smoky men’s room.

Ishmael waved out the match and tossed it in the direction of the wire waste basket. It fell short by several feet. He put the match book away.

“Well, Billy?” he said.

“Well, what?” said Billy. He had taken the cigarette out of his mouth and was gazing fondly at it.

“Now it’s you who have not answered my question,” said Ishmael.

“Which was?” said Billy.

“Let me recast it thus: which would you rather read, a book beginning ‘Call me Ishmael’ or one that starts with ‘Call me Bertrand’?”

“I’m not much of a book reader,” said Billy.

Ishmael sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “Books are overrated, anyway.”

“But if you want to be called Ishmael I’ll call you Ishmael,” said Billy.

“Thank you,” said Ishmael. He turned to me. “I think your friend is finished in there.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

I went over to the stall.

“Josh,” I said. “Are you okay?”

I heard a cough. Then a pause. And then Josh’s voice, barely above a whisper.

“I’m okay,” he said.

“Do you need help?” I said.

Another pause.

A cough. A spitting sound, and another cough.

“Josh? I said.

I pushed the door, but it wouldn’t open all the way. I peeked into the opening. Josh was still kneeling on the tiles, his head over the toilet bowl. The heels of his shoes prevented the door from opening more than a foot or so.

He looked over his shoulder and up at me. He still had on his straw Trilby hat, on the back of his head.

“I’m getting up now,” he said.

I stepped away. A half a minute later he did come out of the stall. He looked as bad as he had when he had gone in, if not worse, but he probably felt better now, which is not to say he felt good. And which wasn’t to say he wouldn’t feel worst of all tomorrow.

Well, I thought, no one had forced him to take human form.

“I heard that,” he said, without moving his lips, and I quickly realized we were communicating telepathically.

“Oh, sorry,” I thought.

“No, you’re right, Arnold. No one forced me.”

And he gave me a weak pat on the arm, and smiled, but just as weakly.

“Now that is friendship,” said Ishmael. “See how the two boon companions speak volumes of their manly love without a word spoken.”

“Touching it is,” said Billy.

“Would you like a Wrigley’s Spearmint, sir?” said Ishmael. “I find a stick of the Wrigley’s does wonders after a good hurling, to freshen and sweeten the tongue and palate.”

“Wrigley’s Spearmint?” said Josh. “Y’know, I’ve never tried it.”

“Oh, sure, it’s a wonder,” said Ishmael. “Isn’t it, Billy?”

“I wouldn’t call it one of the Seven Wonders of the World,” said Billy. “But the occasional chaw of gum does indeed liven up the old gob.”

“Just one moment, brother,” said Ishmael, and, his unlit pipe in his mouth, he dug into his pocket and came up with an opened packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. He slipped out a foil of gum, came over to Josh and, even opening the foil a little, he handed the stick of gum to Josh.

Josh unwrapped the stick (with trembling fingers I noticed), and then looked around, holding the foil.

“Here ya go, mate,” said Billy, and he came over with his hand outstretched, the way a beggar does. Josh dropped the foil in his hand, Billy quickly rolled it up into a ball, turned, and laid up a high arcing shot to the waste basket. This time it went right in without bouncing off the wall.

“Another good shot,” said Ishmael.

Josh put the gum in his mouth, and then slowly began to chew, slowly.

His face had the color of a slum-district sidewalk in the rain, tendrils of his hair lay stuck to his forehead like poisoned moth worms, his pale blue suit was almost soaked through with what I hoped was only sweat, but at least I couldn’t see any obvious vomit stains, not even on his tie, the knot of which was almost down to his chest.

He gave a sort of smile, still chewing.

“Good, isn’t it, friend?” said Ishmael.

Josh chewed a bit more before replying, and then he said, in a quiet but firm voice:

“This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. In all eternity.”

“Ah, you speak somewhat figuratively, and, dare I say, in a somewhat Rabelaisianly exaggerated or hyperbolic fashion, friend,” said Ishmael.

“No,” said Josh, chewing. “I speak quite literally. This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. In all eternity. Not only since the world was created, but even in the myriad of eternities preceding that event.”

“I’ve often wondered about that time,” said Ishmael. “That time before time, when all was only God and God was all, all alone in a universe comprised only of himself.”

“Don’t forget the son and the Holy Ghost,” said Billy. “Them two was there, so he weren’t completely alone.”

“A cogent point, Billy,” said Ishmael, or Bertrand, or whatever his name was.

(Continued here, as is only meet and just.)

(Please look to the right-hand column of this page for a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Now also published in the
Collingswood Patch™: “All the news that’s fit to print, and some that isn’t.”)


Unknown said...

Those were the days--honest conversation in the rest room. I used three "Ladies' Room"s today. No one said a word.

Dan Leo said...

Meanwhile, Arnold seems to have a hard time avoiding conversations in men's rooms!

Unknown said...

Arnold/Porter cannot entertain requests from other worlds and eras. But I dreamed Bartleby needed the men's room.