Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend Ferdinand, the talking fly, who have just entered the San Remo Café, at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, in Greenwich Village, on a warm and wet night in August of 1957…
(Kindly click here to read our previous chapter; those who dare may go here to return to the first hesitant beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume masterpiece of autobiography.)
“Yes, summer vacation approaches its end, and once again I have spent the great bulk of it sitting on the porch of our rental cottage in Cape May immersed in Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre.” — Harold Bloom, in The Sporting News.
As I got near the bar Ferdinand landed on the porch of my ear and whispered, “Hey, you know who that big guy is?”
“What?” I said. “What big guy?”
I didn’t know who he meant, but I didn’t like the sound of “big guy”, so I stopped in my tracks.
“Hey, first thing, stop talking out loud,” said Ferdinand. “These bartenders in here see you looking like you’re talking to yourself they’re gonna bounce your ass out of here so fast your head’ll spin off. Just think what you’re saying, pal, and try to to be cool for once in your life.”
– Okay, I thought. Who, may I ask, were you referring to?
“You mean the big guy?” said Ferdinand.
– Yes, I thought.
– I refer, he said, to that big heavyset gentleman at the bar right up ahead, wearing the black basque beret.
I realized that Ferdinand too was now communicating telepathically, which I also realized was a good thing, probably.
This big man in the black beret was standing next to the small open space at the bar that I had been heading for. He wore a short-sleeved white sport shirt, not tucked in, and white trousers and leather sandals. His face was mostly turned away, but I could see he had a thick white beard. He was fairly fat and he was smoking a big cigar.
– Okay, I see who you mean, I thought. What about him.
– Christ, buddy, don’t you know who that is?
– Ferdinand, I thought, as calmly as I could, don’t you realize by now that I don’t know who anyone is?
– Guess, Arnie. Go ahead, just guess.
– I don’t know, I thought. Santa Claus?
– Very funny, wise guy. Take another guess.
I looked at the guy for a couple of seconds more before answering.
– Is it Monty Wooley?
– Monty Wooley? replied Ferdinand. Are you serious? No, it’s not Monty Wooley. Guess again.
– Okay, I thought. Oh, I know who it is. Burl Ives, right?
– Wrong. Completely wrong. Try again.
– Wait, I thought. How about Orson Welles?
– Nope, wrong again. Lookit, you want me just to tell you?
– Yes, I thought. That would be –
– It’s Hemingway, thought Ferdinand. Ernest fucking Hemingway.
– Oh, I thought.
– Yes, I said, in the vast echoing caverns of my brain. Oh.
– You don’t seem very impressed.
– Okay, I’m impressed.
– You don’t sound impressed.
– Ferdinand, I thought, I’ve just left the company of the son of God. Before that, apparently I met several of America’s greatest dead writers, as well as their fictional characters. I briefly met with the holy ghost in a bar filled with characters from old movies. Earlier today I traveled to the world beyond death and then back again. At this very moment I’m conversing telepathically with a fly. I’m finding it more and more difficult to be impressed lately.
– Well, excuse me! thought Ferdinand.
– So let’s get that beer, I thought.
– Hey, now you’re talking, pal, he thought right back at me.
– And, I added, with all the firmness I could muster without actually speaking aloud, while we’re drinking it we are going to talk about how we can get me home.
– Sure, pal, sure, thought Ferdinand, whatever you say, now lay on, MacDuff, and into the breech, my brother.
So I limped on ahead and squeezed into the space at the bar, to the right of the big man with the beret.
The big guy – whom Ferdinand claimed was Ernest Hemingway, but what did I know, he still looked kind of like Orson Welles to me – the big fellow was drinking out of one of those great big metal beer steins, the kind that have engravings all over and a lid with a hinge on it. I hesitated to judge anyone just on the vessel they were drinking beer out of, but nevertheless I felt my mind verging on a judgment anyway.
Just to be on the safe side, I stood sideways at the bar with my back to the man, and tried to face as far away from him as I could while I waited for the bartender to notice me. I have never been one to wave my hand like a drowning man at a bartender, let alone yell “Hey, chief,” and I wasn’t about to start now. It’s always been my theory that if you stand or sit there quietly and long enough the bartender will notice you finally and maybe even come over and ask you what it is you want, if anything, and then when he does, if he does, at least he won’t be annoyed and surreptitiously spit into your drink or slip a mickey into it just out of spite.
“’Scuse me, buddy,” said a very masculine and loud voice behind me, and I just knew it was the big man. “’Scuse me. No offence.”
I sighed, and turned, and looked at the big guy. Right away I knew he was drunk. I haven’t wasted fifty thousand hours of my life in bars for nothing, and I know a drunk man when I see one. He was looking at me very intently and yet vaguely at the same time, in that way that drunk people do.
“Yes?” I said.
“No offense. Hemingway’s the name.” He put down that big fancy beer stein and held out his hand, which was a big and hairy one, and I thought, oh, no, here we go again. Another guy who is going to try to crush my hand into a gelatinous powder. But by this time I suppose I had just had enough.
“I would shake your hand, Mr. Hemingway,” I said, “but I recently hurt it somehow, and it’s very sensitive, and my doctor told me to avoid any undue stress until it heals.”
“Gee, that’s a shame, pal. What happened? Did you get in a fight?”
“Um, yes,” I said.
“And yet, you’ll forgive me I hope for mentioning this, but I possess the trained novelist’s eye for detail, and I see that your knuckles are not bruised or swollen. Nor scraped in any way.”
“Yes, that’s true,” I said. I pretended to massage my right hand with my left. “You see, I was attempting to perform a karate chop –”
“Ah, you mean jiu-jitsu.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Gotta know what you’re doing with a jiu-jitsu chop, my friend.”
“Yes, so I discovered,” I said.
“Hit a bone?”
“Well, uh, yeah, I hit a bone.”
“No good if you strike a bone.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Go for the throat next time, or even better the back of the neck.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said.
“Or, you know, just punch the guy in the stomach or kick him in the balls.”
“Right,” I said.
“Those are your safest bets if you don’t want to hurt your hands.”
“Yes, I imagine they would be,” I said.
“Just tonight I had a little set-to with this chappie who was getting wise with me. Had to slap him around a little. Maybe I shouldn’t have, he was pretty tight. Claimed he was the son of God.”
“Oh, wow,” I said.
Suddenly I remembered Josh telling me about getting in a fight with Ernest Hemingway. I know, I was being pretty slow on the uptake, but all that seemed like almost three years ago.
“What?” said Hemingway.
“Nothing,” I said.
Ferdinand started making a hissing noise in my ear, his version of laughter.
“Nothing is nothing,” said Hemingway.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing is nothing,” he said. “In this whole God damned world, nothing is nothing, not even a man, one man alone in a world that is nothing, for he too is nothing, alone, until the end.”
He took a drag on his big cigar before answering me, and slowly let the smoke rise out of his mouth which was somewhere there in his big beard.
“Nothing,” he said, staring at me.
“Okay,” I said.
“So you agree.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and I wasn’t sure that he did either, and so, rather than lie, I played it safe.
“I don’t disagree,” I said.
Ferdinand laughed again in my ear.
“Ha ha ha,” said Ferdinand. “Oh, Jesus Christ.”
Hemingway stared at me. Even in this bar, which was filled with smoke and not very well lit, the whites of his eyes were blatantly pink in color.
“May I know your name,” he said at last. “If I’m not being too intrusive.”
“Arnold,” I said. “I mean Porter. Porter Walker.”
“Which is it, Arnold or Porter whatever.”
“In this universe my name is Porter Walker.”
“In this universe.”
“Yes,” I said.
“But in some other universe your name is Arnold?”
“So it seems,” I said.
“May I ask if you are insane.”
“You may,” I said.
“Are you insane.”
He took another drag of his cigar, looking at me all the while. You never know what will happen when you tell people the truth, rather than what you think they might want to hear. But he decided not to slap me around.
“I like you, Porter,” he said. “Shall I call you Porter?”
“Okay,” I said.
“And, please, call me Papa.”
“Well, okay,” I said.
“Papa,” he said.
“Papa,” I said, wearily.
Ferdinand was laughing once more in my ear, making that hissing sound, as if he were laughing through his teeth, if he had teeth.
“Do you hear a weird noise?” said Hemingway.
“I hear a lot of weird noises,” I said.
“But a strange odd hissing noise, as if all the air were suddenly being sucked out of the universe?”
“No, I can’t say that I do,” I said, although of course I heard it quite plainly, as it originated in one of my ears, the right one to be exact.
“Oh, well, probably just one of my old head injuries acting up,” said Hemingway. “Say, you sure you don’t want to shake hands with me?”
“I really wish I could,’ I said. “But that karate chop, you know.”
“Jiu-jitsu chop you mean.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I could shake your left hand.”
“Well, you see,” I said, “you’re not going to believe this, but I hurt my left hand too.”
“What, another faulty jiu-jitsu chop?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. When I messed up the first one I tried it again with the left –”
“And you hit a bone again?”
“You should have kicked the guy in the balls.”
“Well, finally that’s what I did,” I said, hoping to bring this thread of the conversation to its end.
“So you won the fight.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Good, Parker. Good. It is Parker, isn’t it?”
“Well, Porter, actually,” I said.
“Porter,” he said. “But listen. There is one fight that none of us win.”
I looked away for a moment, hoping I would see a bartender standing right there, waiting to take my order, but this was not the case.
– Oh, Christ, thought Ferdinand, in my ear. You really know how to pick ‘em, Arnie.
“Hey, Porter,” said Hemingway, talking louder now.
“Yes?” I said, and I turned again to face him.
“Do you want to know what that fight is?” said Hemingway, “the fight that none of us win.”
– Oh, Jesus, thought Ferdinand.
“I will tell you what that fight is,” said Hemingway.
“Yes?” I said.
“It is the fight against old man death.”
“Ah,” I said.
“No beating old man death,” said Hemingway.
“No, I suppose not,” I said.
“But I’ve been talking your ear off,” he said. “You probably came in for a drink, right?”
“Well, uh –”
“Not to listen to an old man speak of death, and of battles we cannot win, but which we must fight anyway. Until we die.”
“I did have an idea of possibly getting a beer,” I said.
He lifted up that big engraved beer stein, and thumbed back the lever on the lid to open it.
“Cold, thirst slaking, throat soothing beer,” he said, “the bubbles singing of days of youth when we thought we would never die.”
– Oh, Christ almighty, said Ferdinand in my ear.
Hemingway lifted the stein to his lips, and drank, deeply, and I could see rivulets of beer seeping into the jungle of his whiskers as he did so.
Why did they always pick me?
(Continued here, it’s the sporting thing to do.)
(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find what quite frequently is an up-to-date listing of links to all other cybernetically-published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven™. Now appearing also in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s modest but firm voice of culture and literacy.”)