Let’s return to that bohemian hotspot the San Remo Café, at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal in Greenwich Village, where our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend Ferdinand the fly have encountered no less a literary notable than Ernest “Papa” Hemingway...
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’ve finally given up all hope of doing anything worthwhile with your life then you may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 79-volume memoir.)
“Sing his name boldly, sing it loud and sing it proudly, sing the name of a humble former railroad brakeman, the finest and most noble writer this country has yet produced and probably ever will produce – that name of course is ‘Arnold Schnabel’.” — Harold Bloom, commencement address at Olney Community College, Philadelphia PA; June 6, 2013. (Reprinted in slightly shortened form in The Olney Community College Zephyr.)
Finally he took the great stein from his lips and emitted a great sigh. He let the lid of the stein close, laid it down on the bar, and then wiped his mouth and its adjacent whiskers with the back of his big hairy hand.
He took a drag on his big cigar, staring at me all the while.
My leg ached, the right one, the same one, the pain had not mysteriously shifted from one leg to the other. I wished I had a stool to sit on. There was an empty stool behind Hemingway, but he wasn’t using it. I had met guys like this before, who would never sit at a bar, who always had to stand, at least until they fell over. I leaned my forearm against the edge of the bar, to take some of the weight off my leg.
“You’re probably wondering why I introduced myself,” said Hemingway suddenly.
Actually I hadn’t been, I had gone way past wondering why anyone did whatever they did, I had only been hoping that the bartender would come over and ask me what I wanted to drink, but I didn’t say any of this.
“Um, yes,” is what I did say.
“I’ll tell you why,” said Hemingway. “It was because of your raffish attire and general bohemian appearance. The blue jeans with the rumpled seersucker jacket and the plaid shirt. The unpolished work shoes, the unshaven jaw and the decidedly unmilitaristic haircut, or should I say lack of one. Am I to assume, sir, that you are a member of the artistic fraternity?”
There was no use denying it.
“Yes,” I said. “I am a poet.”
“Not a novelist?”
“No,” I said. “Just a poet.”
“What kind of poet if I may be so bold as to ask.”
“Epic, I’m afraid.”
“The epic poet is the novelist of poets.”
“Yes, I guess that’s true,” I said.
“However,” he said, “the novelist is not necessarily the poet of fiction writers.”
I suddenly felt a deep wave of boredom billowing up within me, which took physical manifestation in the form of an irrepressible yawn, which I did my best to disguise by pretending to cough, and by holding my hand over my mouth.
“You’re not a lunger, are you?” said Hemingway.
“I’m sorry, a what?” I said.
“A consumptive, a tubercular.”
“Not that I know of,” I said.
“Used to know lots of lungers back in the old days, in Paris. Especially among the poets.”
“It’s just all the smoke in here I think,” I said.
I faked a couple of half-hearted coughs for good measure.
Hemingway took another pull on his cigar, and let the smoke out slow.
“Paris,” he said. “Oh, yes, I was young, like you, and handsome, like you, beating off les jeunes filles with a stick I needn’t tell you. But then I suppose it’s the same for you, isn’t it Patrick?”
“Pardon me?” I said, and I could hear Ferdinand snickering again in my ear.
“The young ladies,” said Hemingway. “You have to beat them off with a stick I’ll bet.”
“Well, not a stick exactly,” I said.
“Ha ha. Modest. I like that. No one likes a braggart. Well, take my advice, Paul, get all the screwing in that you can now while you’re young, and able, and before you have to start shelling out your hard-earned francs and sous for it. And before you’re old, and unable.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Would you like me to give you some more advice?” he said.
I didn’t want his advice. I wanted him to leave me alone.
“Sure,” I said.
“Write your poetry as if the cold wind of the Arctic is blowing up your ass. Write as if the fires of hell are breathing into your throat. Write also as you would make love to a woman, tenderly, but firmly and with vigor, always letting her know who’s boss. Write as if you were eating a rare charbroiled steak after a long day at the corrida watching the bulls die bravely and in agony. Write as if each word you write is to be etched on your tombstone. Do you have all that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Write as you would drink from a great stein of beer. Like this one in fact.”
He lifted the great engraved stein up once again, thumbed back its lid, and drank, again. This was a really big stein, by the way, I would say it held a quart at least. Once again little streams of beer flowed into his whiskers, and then he separated the stein from his face, closed its lid, put the stein back down and stared at me.
“Damn that was good,” he said.
His eyes were a deep muddy brown where they weren’t pink, brown fading into a filmy black in their pupils, and these eyes stared at me, or at least in my direction. The whiskers surrounding his mouth glistened with beer in a way that was not pleasant.
“They say the first one is the best,” he said, “and the first one is good, but there is something to be said for the twelfth one also, when one’s mind teeters on the very edge of a great realization, and do you know what that realization is, Peter?”
“Arnold,” I said.
“Wait,” he said, didn’t you say it was Peter? Or Patrick?”
“Well, actually, I said it was Porter,” I said. “In this universe. In my own universe it’s Arnold, so I guess Porter is to be preferred here, actually.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand, in my ear.
“I just heard that weird sound again,” said Hemingway. “But it was a different weird sound. Like a tiny voice.”
Ferdinand began laughing again, that hissing laughter of his. It was pretty annoying, really, especially as it was emanating from within my ear.
“Now I hear that other strange sound,” said Hemingway. “As if all the life of the universe were hissing through a hole in the fabric of existence to dissipate in the black reaches of interstellar space. You don’t hear that?”
I was tempted to tell him about Ferdinand, sorely tempted, but I just didn’t want to get in a big discussion if I could help it. So I blatantly lied.
“I don’t hear anything,” I said.
“Just the noise of the bar all around us.”
“The noise of the bar. The juke box. The laughing chattering and shouting people.”
“Yes,” I said.
“What was I saying? Before I went off on this latest tangent.”
Ferdinand snickered again, but not so loudly this time.
“I think you were saying something about your mind teetering on the edge of a great realization, after the twelfth beer.”
“During the twelfth beer.”
“During,” I said.
“Yes. And do you want to know what that realization is?”
“Do we have a choice?” said Ferdinand.
“What?” said Hemingway. “Did you hear that?”
“No,” I said. “So, Mr. Hemingway –”
“Papa,” I said. “Tell us.”
“Us? What do you mean, ‘Tell us’? It’s just you and me here.”
“Right,” I said. “I meant tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“About the great realization. On the twelfth beer.”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean if you want to.”
“The realization,” he said. “The realization on the twelfth beer.”
“Right,” I said.
“The realization that we are here for only a certain number of moments, a seemingly endless series of moments, but they are not endless, for one day they will cease.”
“That’s his big realization?” said Ferdinand.
“I heard a voice again,” said Hemingway. “A tiny but persistent voice. You didn’t hear it?”
“Uh,” I said.
“Oh, God,” he said. “It’s coming from within my own brain then. This is it. The final onslaught of madness.”
Now I felt sorry for him.
“Look,” I said, “Mr. Hemingway –”
“Papa,” I said.
“What,” he said.
“It’s not you,” I said. “It’s me. There’s a fly in my ear. A talking, sentient fly. So don’t feel bad, because you’re not going insane. I would like to introduce you to him. His name is Ferdinand.”
“What the fuck,” said Hemingway.
Ferdinand obligingly flew out of my ear, buzzed around my head, and then stopped to hover approximately midway between Hemingway’s face and mine.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hemingway,” said Ferdinand. “Or may I call you Papa. And I would gladly shake your great manly mitt if only I had a hand per se. As I do not, allow me only to say I am a great admirer of your work.”
“So I am going mad,” said Hemingway.
“However,” said Ferdinand, “I have to say that for me your best stuff remains the early short stories, and The Sun Also Rises, despite a regrettable strain of anti-semitism in the latter work.”
Hemingway simply stared at Ferdinand for maybe thirty seconds. And then he said, “Oh, God.”
“Oh, God what?” said Ferdinand. “A guy can’t have an opinion?”
“Oh God in heaven,” said Hemingway.
“I thought you didn’t believe in God,” said Ferdinand.
“I must go now,” said Hemingway. “I must go into the men’s room and splash cold water on my face and on the back of my neck. And then I must stare into the mirror and pray to a God in whom I do not believe, I must pray to him that this present bout of insanity will pass.”
“Hey, I was only giving you my opinion, Papa,” said Ferdinand. “Don’t get so bent out of shape. I never claimed to be no literary critic.”
“Dear God,” said Hemingway. “Dear God in hell.” He picked up his stein, and with his cigar in his other hand, he turned and staggered off away from the bar, in the direction of the rest rooms.
– Well, he was touchy, said Ferdinand, communicating telepathically again.
It’s only to be expected, I thought.
– Can’t even take a little criticism, thought Ferdinand. From a fly.
“Can I help you, sir?” said a gruff loud voice.
It was a bartender. A big, Italian-looking bartender, with a build like Wallace Beery’s but with a face like J. Carroll Naish’s.
“Yes, I’ll have a mug of draft beer,” I said, “any kind.”
“What happened to Papa?” he said.
“He went to use the men’s room.”
“Took his stein with him?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Afraid somebody’s gonna steal it,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Or take a drink out of it.”
“Possibly,” I said.
“Spit in it maybe.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” I said.
“You don’t know the bums come in here,” he said. “Writers. Novelists. You a writer?”
“Well, only a poet,” I said.
“Poets are the worst,” he said. “I’ll get you your beer.”
He went away towards the beer taps.
– Hey, Arnie, said Ferdinand’s voice in my brain. Grab papa’s stool before someone else does. Take a load off, pal.
Hemingway was gone, who knew for how long. I pulled the stool a little closer to the bar and sat down. It felt good to sit.
Ferdinand buzzed in merry curlicues before me.
– Oh boy oh boy oh boy, said Ferdinand’s silent voice. Can’t wait for this beer!
It didn’t take much to make that fly happy.
(Continued here, unremittingly.)
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