We left our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend Ferdinand the talkative fly in the midst of a rather unpleasant regurgitative experience in the men’s room of the San Remo Café, here in Greenwich Village, on a warm and wet night in that momentous August of 1957...
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’ve completely surrendered any pretense to rational behavior then you are welcome to click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 71-volume memoir.)
“Kindly pry your eyes loose from your so-called smart phones, while I attempt to lure you into that world which contains all worlds, the world of Arnold Schnabel.” — Harold Bloom, opening remarks to the first class of his Fall 2013 course at Yale University: “Railroad Train to Heaven: A Tentative Introduction”.
I had been having terrible luck in men’s rooms this day, this day which at this rate would never end.
Just a little earlier this evening had been the men’s room in that sub-basement bar beneath that Valhalla place, with those unpleasantly sinister characters from classic American literature, or at least I assumed the works they sprang from were classics since I was pretty sure all of them had been adapted into Classics Illustrated comic books.
And then the men’s room before that, upstairs in the Valhalla, where I had somehow gotten mixed up in a brawl with a band of tedious dead authors of what I supposed I must assume to be classic literature, not that I had read any of their books, and after meeting these fellows and their creations I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to read them.
And then before that had been that horrible outhouse in Singapore, I guess really that one had been the worst of all.
Although the one before that had been pretty bad too, in that diner in some little town out in the middle of nowhere. Where that skinny fellow who claimed to have a wife and six kids had tried to proposition me, or at least the me I was at that time.
And now here I was in the men’s room of the San Remo, the very same men’s room where, come to think of it, I had first met Ferdinand, thirty months ago or maybe just last night.
Here I was again, holding my breath as I dipped forefinger and thumb into the vomitous and urinous water and extracted my no longer screaming friend, my utterly silent friend, from that stinking mess.
I held the poor slimy fellow up as close to my face as I could bear. He was not only silent now but unmoving also. Had the explosive force of his exit from my mouth and into the toilet finally been too much for the little guy?
“Is he dead?” said a familiar gruff voice behind and above me.
Still on my knees, I twisted around and looked up.
It was Hemingway.
“If he’s dead you might as well just flick him back in and pull the chain, pal. Dead is dead, and dead men do not care how or even if they are buried. Nor, or so I can only imagine, do dead flies.”
“I can’t just flush him,” I said.
I closed the seat of the toilet, and bracing my free hand on it, I pushed myself to my feet, favoring my bad knee, which ached worse now from kneeling on that hard tile floor.
I turned around. Hemingway was standing there right outside of the door of the stall. He still had that enormous beer stein in one hand, and his big cigar in his other hand. He still had that black beret on his head.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“I hope you’re going to flush the toilet,” he said.
“Oh, right, sorry,” I said.
I turned around again. It was one of those old-fashioned toilets with the water tank mounted up on the wall, with a chain that ended in a worn brown teardrop-shaped wooden handle, a handle probably rife with bacteria, but what could one do about that except to wash one’s hands immediately after leaving the stall?
I pulled the chain, and the toilet flushed with a sound of a hundred tool boxes being dumped from a dump truck down the steps of a subway station.
The rainbow-colored garbage in the bowl spun about, but instead of sinking it rose up, swirling, bubbling, like some living thing trying to escape into the greater world.
“Oh, great,” said Hemingway, who was still standing right behind me, breathing warm tobacco smoke onto the back of my neck. “Now you’ve done it.”
“But you told me to flush it,” I said, staring with horror at the toilet and what was in it, rising, inexorably, relentlessly.
“Hey, man, don’t shift the blame on me,” he said.
I backed up a half step, not wanting the vomit and urine and God knows what else to overflow onto my shoes, and I bumped into Hemingway, or into his belly anyway, which felt very round and soft, like a beach ball.
“Hey, watch it, Mac,” he said.
I was about to say something I might have regretted, or, more probably, not, but just then I noticed that the living thing that was in the toilet stopped rising just as it reached the edge of the bowl.
The awful clanking noise had finally subsided also, its distant echoes fading slowly away, as if those hundreds of tool boxes were now tumbling off into subterranean chambers hidden deep in the bowels of the earth.
“Thank God,” I said.
The toilet suddenly gave out with one final belching noise, and a large bubble rose to the surface and popped. And with that, I couldn’t be sure, but it almost seemed as if the vile mess began infinitesimally slowly to start to descend back down into the bowl.
“That was a close one,” said Hemingway, still standing right behind me, and in fact it was almost as if he were now deliberately resting his enormous pot belly in the small of my back.
I turned around.
“Would you excuse me, please?” I said.
“What do you mean?” he said. “For throwing up, or for almost flooding the whole john with your vomit.”
“I meant excuse me, would you please step aside,” I said.
“Oh. Sure,” he said. “Why didn’t you say so?”
And he stepped aside a little bit, tapping his cigar ash onto the floor as he did so.
“Thank you,” I said, and I started limping toward the washbasin.
“Toilet or trash can, or washed down the drainpipe, it’s all the same to a dead fly,” said Hemingway.
At the sink I turned the cold water tap on, and adjusted it so that it was just barely a trickle.
“What are you doing, gonna rinse him off a little?” said Hemingway.
“Yes,” I said, although I was sorely tempted to say nothing.
I still held Ferdinand’s unmoving little body between my thumb and forefinger, and now I held him under the gentle trickle from the spigot.
“Sure,” said Hemingway. “Give the little guy a rinse. What the hell.”
I could hear him coming closer to me. Why did people always want to come so close? In my experience it is so much more pleasant to move farther away.
“That’s it, clean him up good.”
He was now practically looming over my shoulder, and his cigar smoke wafted past both sides of my head.
“It’s only right I suppose, to bathe the dead,” he said, “even if it is only a dead fly.”
“Listen,” I said, continuing to let the cool water trickle over Ferdinand, “Mr. Hemingway –”
I glanced at him through the mirror above the sink.
“Please. I told you before,” he said. “Call me ‘Papa’. We’re both members of the creative writers’ club, even if you are a poet. Let’s keep it on a first name basis. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay. Ernest,” I said.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s amend what I said. Let’s say let’s keep it on a first-nickname basis.”
“In other words call me Papa.”
“Okay. Papa,” I said.
“My name’s not Paul,” I said.
“I thought it was Paul.”
“No,” I said. “It’s Porter. In this world I’m Porter.”
“Right,” he said. “But in some other world you’re – don’t tell me – Harold –”
“Arnold,” I said.
“Albert,” he said.
“Arnold,” I said.
“Yes,” I said, “but, listen, Papa, do you mind stepping away from me?”
“Stepping what? Away? Why, am I bothering you standing here?”
“Yes,” I said. “You’re looming. And you’re also breathing your cigar smoke over my shoulder.”
“Hey, this is a real Cuban Cohiba, pal, not some Dutch Masters you pick up behind the counter at Walgreen’s I’ll have you know.”
“I’m sure it’s a fine cigar,” I said. “I’d just prefer you didn’t blow the smoke over my shoulder.”
“Christ, all right, don’t get all bent out of shape about it, pal.”
At last he stepped back, but only a foot or so.
I continued to let the water trickle over Ferdinand.
“He’s probably clean now, you know, Philip,” said Hemingway.
“I know,” I said.
It was true, poor Ferdinand was clean and glistening.
“So just do him a favor,” said Hemingway. “Say a fond farewell and wash him down the drain.”
I turned around.
Hemingway was standing there, drinking out of his stein. He let the lid of the stein click shut, and then he wiped his whiskers with the back of his hand, the one that he held the cigar with.
“What?” he said. “What’s your problem.”
“Listen, ‘Papa’,” I said. “This fly may be a fly. But he’s not an ordinary fly. You saw – or heard – the proof of that yourself. He is, or was, a talking fly, a sentient fly, a fly with feelings, and with his own sort of wit, and also, if I may say so, he is or was a fly with a certain sense of loyalty. He was not without his faults. Who is? But he has stood by me in some tough times, and I’m not afraid to say, or ashamed to say, that he was my friend. So I’ll kindly request that you keep your suggestions about what I should do with his little body to yourself.”
“Most people would be happy to hear my suggestions. I did win the Nobel Prize, y’know.”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“For Literature,” he said.
“I still don’t care,” I said.
He said nothing for a few moments. I wondered if he was going to punch me. But he didn’t.
“You got some hard crust on you, boy,” he said. “You’re talking to someone wasn’t afraid to go ten rounds with Tolstoy, or Turgenev, or even Flaubert. Old man Joyce, well, that was another matter. Don’t know if I’d want to step into the ring with old Jim. Maybe just maybe a three-rounder, an exhibition bout, like.”
I just looked at him.
“He was a pal of mine, Jimmy Joyce.” said Hemingway. “Slim Jim I used to call him. I knew everybody. Pablo Picasso? Good friend, very good friend. Gary Cooper? Hunting buddy of mine, great guy. Marlene Dietrich? The movie star? Very good friend of mine. Not that the Kraut and I ever got it on, you know. That’s what I used to call her, ‘the Kraut’. I mean I probably could’ve got it on with her if I’d wanted to –”
“Fuck you, you name-dropping blowhard,” said a small, weak, but familiar voice.
“Oh, no,” said Hemingway, or Papa.
“Arnie’s not impressed, and you know what, I’m not so impressed either,” said Ferdinand, still between my thumb and index finger.
I lifted my other hand up and placed him gently in its palm.
“Ferdinand,” I said. “I’m so glad you’re alive.”
“No thanks to you, pal,” he said.
“Wait, just tell me this,” said Hemingway. “Percival, am I imagining all this? A talking fly?”
“Maybe Arnold’s imagining you, Papa,” said Ferdinand. “Or maybe I am. What do you think of that?”
“I think –” said Hemingway.
“Oh, do you,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes, I do,” said Hemingway. “I think – I think I need a very large and a very strong frozen daiquiri, topped with a good splash of ‘151’ rum.”
“Yeah, that’ll make you feel lots better,” said Ferdinand.
“Perhaps,” said Hemingway. “Perhaps for a moment it will. A brief moment. So. I guess I’ll catch you guys later then.”
“Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out,” said Ferdinand. “Papa.”
Hemingway looked at Ferdinand, and for a moment it almost seemed as if he were going to challenge my tiny friend to a fight. But instead he put his cigar in his mouth, turned, staggered to the door, opened it, and left.
“Trying to high-horse us,” said Ferdinand. “Guys like that piss me the fuck off. I don’t care if he did win the Nobel Prize. And I still say he shot his wad after The Sun Also Rises.”
(Continued here, bashing on regardless.)
(Please look to the right-hand column of this page for a usually reasonably-updated listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven™. Now published also in the Collingswood Patch™: “That faint voice of freedom one sometimes hears late at night as one wanders drunkenly and quite lost through the Pine Barrens.”)