Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend “Josh” (AKA the son of God) in this crowded sub-cellar bar in Greenwich Village, on a hot wet night in August of 1957…
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“Well,” said Josh, “shall we belly up to the bar?”
“It’s awfully crowded,” I said, with my usual flair for stating the obvious.
“It is,” Josh said, or shouted in my ear, seeing as how we were right in front of the band, who were playing “A Night in Tunisia”, the piano player taking a solo. I noticed a slim Negro man standing next to the piano, holding a trumpet but not playing it at the moment. He was staring downward, nodding in a thoughtful-looking way. He wore a sharkskin suit and a porkpie hat, and suddenly it dawned on me who he was.
“Josh,” I said (shouted), pointing, “look, it’s your friend, Gabriel.”
“What?” said Josh. He turned and looked. “Oh. Man, that guy gets around, doesn’t he?”
“He does,” I said.
It had only been earlier that day (although in a sense it felt like fifteen months ago) that I had seen Gabriel playing in that bar called The Dead Man on the island of lost souls.
“Wait here,” Josh said. “I’ll just be a minute.”
And he plunged through that mob of yelling people in front of the bandstand.
I waited, or began to wait.
Moments like this made me miss cigarettes.
What is there to do when you’re waiting if you can’t smoke a cigarette? Stand there and pretend to be listening to the music? Start keening in despair? Go insane, or, rather, go more insane than one already was?
I became aware of that ache in my right knee, only partially healed by Josh’s miraculous touch, and I shifted my weight more to the left leg.
I looked toward the stage, and Gabriel the trumpet player was squatting down at the front of the stage, bent forward, talking to Josh.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned. It was that English lady Brett.
“I say, is your friend quite all right now.”
She had this way of stating questions as if they were statements.
“Yes,” I said, anyway.
“You left me there stranded between those two massively boring chaps.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“No, don’t be, darling. You were doing the right thing, taking care of your friend. I know that’s how you men are. Crawling through the mud of no-man’s land under absolutely withering Boche machine gun fire to drag your wounded comrade back to the comparative safety of the trenches.”
“Well, uh, he’d only had a bit too much to drink,” I said.
“Yes I know.” She looked over towards the stage, where Josh and Gabriel were apparently still conversing. “He does seem to be better now,” she said.
“He is, I think,” I said.
“And now I suppose you two will be going off together.”
“Well, he did want to have a brief word with me.”
“A brief word.”
“He said it would be brief,” I said.
She stepped closer to me, so that her breasts were touching the lower part of my chest. I would have taken a step backwards, but the crowd was thick behind me, and there was nowhere to step.
“Just tell me if you don’t find me attractive,” she said.
“But,” I said.
“Is not my skin as white and as smooth as a lily’s.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You seem uncertain.”
“No,” I said.
“Then what is it. You were thinking something, I could tell.”
“I was thinking, why don’t people ever say that a lily is as white and smooth as a woman’s skin?”
She stared at me.
She was smoking a cigarette out of the side of her shiny red lips in her shiny black holder. The music blared all around us. People were pumping their fists in the air and shouting things at the pianist like, “Go, daddy!” and “Too much!” They reminded me of newsreels I had seen of the Nuremberg rallies.
“All right,” said Brett. “I can see you’re in a hurry to go off with your friend.”
“Well, uh,” I said.
“But what about a quick one first,” she said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Just a quickie. We can use the ladies’ if you don’t mind.”
“Um,” I said, breaking out in a tidal wave of cowardly sweat. “I really don’t think I should.”
“It won’t take a mo,” she said. “Don’t know about you, but I’m very quick. Never could see the point of sweaty endless hours of thrashing about. Get to it and get it done, then one may return to the serious business of life: drinking, smoking, talking rubbish.”
“But my friend said he would just be a minute.”
“He’s already been a minute.”
“I really can’t,” I said.
“Is it another woman.”
It occurred to me that, surprisingly, this actually was the case, or at least some part of the case.
“Yes,” I said.
“What. Another woman.”
“I should have known, shouldn’t I have.”
“I — don’t know,” I said.
“Another woman. A woman. And of course you must be faithful to her. Where is she.”
“No, tomorrow, last week, next year. Damn you.”
“She’s in Cape May,” I said. I didn’t mention that Elektra was in an entirely different universe or dimension, though. I had that much sense.
“Cape May,” said Brett, after taking a drag on her cigarette. “And where the bloody hell is Cape May.”
“It’s in New Jersey,” I said, “down at the southernmost tip of New Jersey?”
“It sounds dreadfully far away.”
“Yeah, it’s about a hundred and thirty miles,” I said, this being the sort of thing I knew from working on the railroad most of my adult life.
“That’s quite far,” she said.
“It is,” I said, and I was starting to wonder what was taking Josh so long.
“So I take it you won’t be seeing her tonight,” said Brett. “Unless perhaps you and your friend are going to hop in his roadster and drive all the way down there in the middle of the night.”
“I, um, well, I hadn’t, that is, um,” I said. My usual razor sharp wit and verbal ingenuity were failing me miserably.
“I see,” said Brett.
I didn’t know what she saw, or what she believed she saw, or what she was pretending that she saw, and after an awkward pause, in other words the only sort of pause I commonly experience, I said, if one can be said to say such an utterance:
“And so,” she said, “in actual fact there is nothing, absolutely nothing to keep us from having a quick one, is there. Unless that is you adhere to some absurdly Victorian mode of fidelity.”
By now she was blatantly rubbing up against me, moving her body side to side, holding her forearms up as if she were dancing a rhumba.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can’t.”
She slowed the rhumba, but did not stop it entirely.
“So you do adhere to a Victorian mode of fidelity.”
“It’s just that when I see her again —”
“Yes,” I said. “When I see her I’ll feel so guilty that she’ll be able to tell that I was unfaithful.”
“But it’s true,” I said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but I’m —” I didn’t want to say psychotic — I’m not sure why, shyness perhaps, or embarrassment — “I’m very neurotic,” I said.
“I have noticed something like that, yes,” she said. She continued to rub up against me. “On the other hand what I feel bulging from your groin does not feel neurotic at all.” She referred of course to the erection I was now beginning to suffer. “Come on, big boy, two minutes in the ladies’ room, and I have French letters in my purse if that’s what you’re worried about.”
I hadn’t been consciously aware of it, but she held her black leather purse in one hand, and she now rubbed the cool leather of the purse against the stubble on my jaw.
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” I said, although now that I think about it, I suppose I should have been.
She gave me a bat on the side of my face with the purse, but not a really hard one.
“Was it the war,” she said. “Was it that horrible war that made you this way, dear boy.”
“No,” I said. “God made me this way.”
“Damn him,” she said. “Damn him and all his saints and angels. Damn him, I say.”
“Damn who?” said Josh, who had finally come back.
“Damn God,” said Brett.
“Damn God?” said Josh. “That seems a little harsh.”
“Damn him and all he stands for,” said Brett. “Are you feeling better by the way? Last time I saw you you looked slightly oh how shall I put it, nébuleux.”
“I feel much better, thank you.”
“And may I know your name,” said Brett.
“Jesus,” said Josh.
“I beg your pardon,” she said.
“Josh, I mean,” said Josh. “My name is Josh.”
“You said Jesus,” said Brett.
“Yes, I meant, ‘Jesus, how rude of me not to have introduced myself.’”
“I’m called Brett. Or Lady Ashley if one must be so damnably formal.”
“I hate to be damnably anything,” said Josh.
“You’re quite witty, I see,” she said.
“I’m world-famous for my little sayings,” said Josh.
“And modest on top of it,” said Brett. “Mr. Porter here tells me that you two simply must have a chat, and it can’t wait.”
“Yes, we’re a little pressed for time,” said Josh. “You see there’s a young lady in the bar upstairs, and —”
“Young lady,” said Brett.
“Two young ladies, actually,” said Josh.
“Two young ladies,” said Brett. “Not to mention the one in Cape Cod.”
“Cape Cod?” said Josh.
“Cape May,” I said.
“Yes,” said Brett. “Mr. Porter’s other lady friend, in Cape May.”
“Oh, you mean Athena,” said Josh.
“Whatever her name is,” said Brett.
“Elektra,” I said.
“Oh, right,” said Josh. “Elektra.”
Brett looked from Josh to me.
“Athena,” she said. “And now Elektra. Plus two more upstairs. How many bloody women do you have, Mr. Porter.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I ‘have’ any women —” I said.
“Liar,” she said.
“Arnold’s no liar,” said Josh. “I mean, he may not be the most, um, the most forthcoming fellow in the world —”
“Arnold,” said Brett.
“I mean Porter,” said Josh. “I call him Arnold sometimes, heh heh.”
“Damn you,” said Brett. “Damn the both of you as dissembling cads and bounders.”
“Pardon?” said Josh.
She turned to me.
“Oh, Mr. Porter, or Arnold, or whatever your name really is,” she said. “We could have had a damned good time together.”
This seemed to me to be a supposition based on scanty evidence, but I said nothing, which was perhaps not the best thing for me to do, because she put her cigarette holder with its cigarette into her mouth, transferred her purse from her right hand to her left, and then raised her right hand high almost as if she were about to take an oath, but instead she swiped the arm down suddenly and hard and slapped me across the face, causing me to stumble backwards into the crowd of people thrashing about in front of the bandstand. Josh grabbed my arm and pulled me forward before I could fall.
My face stung.
Brett stared at me for a moment, and then at Josh. Then she turned and headed back towards the crowded bar.
“See, Arnold?” said Josh. “Women. I really don’t understand them. Come on, Gabriel told me about a quiet place where we can have our little chat, then we really should bolt upstairs before the girls get bored and leave.”
(Continued here, and on and on, not only for our own sakes, but as a service to generations yet unborn.)
(Illustration by Giulio Cesare Procaccini.)
(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find what is on a good day a current listing of links to all other cybernetically-released chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Published simultaneously in the Collingswood Patch™: “Not just another small-town rag.”)