August of 1957: a rainy hot night in Greenwich Village, and we rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here in a most exclusive basement boîte called “Valhalla”…
(Kindly go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’re looking for a new and relatively harmless hobby to last you into your golden years you may click here to return to the very beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“As I slowly work my way through the seemingly infinite universe that is Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre I have come to the happy realization that it only gets better as it goes along.” — Harold Bloom, in The Collingswood Patch™.
She pulled her face back away from my ear and looked up into my eyes. Yes, a glance told me she too was drunk, which didn’t surprise me at all.
“What’s the matter?” I said. Meaning what was the matter besides the fact that she was drunk.
“This creepy guy is bothering me,” she said.
“Oh. Are you sure he’s creepy?” I said, I don’t know why, I suppose I just didn’t want any more trouble than what might be absolutely unavoidable.
After blinking her eyelids for a moment or two she spoke.
“Of course I know,” she said. “You think I don’t know a creepy guy when I see one?”
“Say, who is this creepy guy, Pat?” said Thurgood, who was still holding onto my left arm, just as Henry still held onto my right arm, just as Pat still had her arms around my neck. “Just point him out to me.”
“What?” she said.
Thurgood didn’t reply right away, because he had started to take a drink from his glass with his free hand, dipping his face down to the drink so that he wouldn’t drop the book he had under that arm. I supposed it was fine malt whisky he was drinking, since Josh had probably been buying the rounds. He swallowed his mouthful, maybe a little too quickly, because he coughed. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Went down the wrong way. But what I said was, show me who this creepy guy is. Just point him out and I’ll give me the old one-two I will.”
“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Henry, who had been unusually quiet, and in fact he had had his eyes closed for a few seconds there, and I think he might have fallen briefly asleep on his feet.
“I won’t?” said Thurgood.
“No,” said Henry. “I’ll have no common brawling in this establishment. If there are any creepy fellows in here then I’ll deal with them.”
Henry said nothing, but he took his hand off my arm, at last. He put his cigar in his mouth, and then put his hand into his suit-coat pocket and brought out a set of tarnished and well-worn brass knuckles and slid them onto his pudgy white right hand.
He took the cigar out of his mouth and then held up his now-armored fist.
“Yes,” he said. “Me. And my little friend here. I call him Mr. Knuckles.”
“Oh,” said Thurgood. “Okay then.”
“Now, where is this creep, milady?” said Henry.
“Right here,” said Pat. She kept one arm around my neck, but she took the right one off so that she could point at Thurgood with her cigarette. “Him. He’s the creep. Been bothering me all night.”
“Hey now wait a minute,” said Thurgood. “I am not a creep. I am a writer, a bohemian author, as you can tell by my wrinkled summer suit, my unpressed and open-necked shirt, by the bandanna around my neck, by the very beret upon my head, and my stubbly beard, and, lastly but certainly not least, by my brand new book.” He finally took his hand off my arm so he could take the book out from under his arm and show it to Pat. “See, Two Weeks in a One Horse Town, by Theophilus P. Thurgood. That, ‘milady’, is me.”
“I know,” she said. “How many times are you going to tell me. But get this, author-man, I don’t care about your stupid book.”
“It is not a stupid book,” he said. “It’s a, a muscular, sprawling epic, sensitive and poetic, but not fancy-poetic –”
“It looks boring,” said Pat.
“What do you mean? How can a book look boring?”
“The same way a creepy guy can look creepy.”
“What poppycock. You are literally judging a book by its cover.”
“Also, your name is Theophilus?”
“I didn’t give myself the name, so give me a break,” said Thurgood.
“Your name is stupid and your book looks boring,” said Pat.
Suddenly I remembered what had happened when I had started reading Thurgood’s book aloud, earlier that evening, or a year and seven months ago, whenever it was. And now just as suddenly I had a brainwave – an incipient and amorphous brainwave it’s true, but it was better than no brainwave at all.
“Hey, Henry,” I said. “Do you think Thurgood and Pat could join us in your office? I was thinking that if Thurgood didn’t mind I might read a passage from his new book.”
“What?” said Henry.
“Thurgood’s book,” I said. “I could read a bit of it.”
“What?” said Thurgood. “You mean, like, read it aloud?”
“Sure,” I said.
“All right, just hold on here,” said Henry.
“I don’t want to listen to his stupid book,” said Pat.
“No, it’s pretty good,” I said. “I read some of it earlier tonight, and I thought it was, um –”
“Gripping, you said,” said Thurgood. “Also riveting, and spellbinding.”
“Yeah, right,” I said.
“I want another drink,” said Pat. She had both her arms around my neck again now, and she was pressing her body against mine.
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll all have a drink.”
“Hang on,” said Henry. “Porter, you’re saying you want him to join us. In my office.”
He had taken his brass knuckles off, but he still had them in his hand, and he pointed at Thurgood with them.
“Just for a little while,” I said. “I’ll buy Thurgood and Pat a drink. I have six or seven dollars I think.”
“I am not talking about your buying drinks, my dear fellow, please do not injure me, but – oh, all right, damn it all, man, I can see having the lady here join us in my office, but –”
He glanced at Thurgood, and he didn’t say anything but he gave me a look that said, “My dear fellow, please!”
“No, Thurgood’s okay,” I said. “He’s –” I searched for a reasonable word. I didn’t find one, so I said, “He’s cool.”
“I am?” said Thurgood. “Really?”
“No, he’s not cool,” said Pat. “He’s a creep.”
“You just don’t know him well, Pat,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m a – a cool guy,” said Thurgood, although he didn’t sound very convinced of it himself.
I regret to interpolate here that Pat’s pressing of herself against my own body had produced the first stirrings of a completely involuntary erection on my part. I put my hands on her hips, and tried to push her gently apart from me, but she wouldn’t budge, she was very muscular for a girl.
“Hey,” said Ferdinand, who had amazingly said nothing all through this last series of exchanges. He had been buzzing around above our heads, but now he stopped in mid-air, hovering just above my eye level and a few inches away. “May I say something? May I?”
We all looked at him. Pat didn’t say anything, all she did was take a drag from her cigarette. Maybe she had encountered talking flies before. And why not?
“You have the floor my antliophoric friend,” said Henry, with a smile, and he finally put his brass knuckles away.
“Thank you, I think,” said Ferdinand. “And, now that I have your attention one and all, may I please suggest that we stop this maddeningly inane chatter and start drinking, or else I am going to fly over to that bar this very second and I don’t care whose beer I land in or whose Old Fashioned, but it’s gonna be somebody’s.”
“You know, Ferdinand has a point, I think,” I said, to Henry.
“And, yes, I must concede that it is a good one,” said Henry. “Very well, then, if you will, Porter – and your, uh, friends – please come with me.”
“Now we’re talking,” said Ferdinand.
“Okay, then, lead the way, Henry,” I said with what I hoped was at least a passable air of polite conviviality, but which sounded horribly strained to me. Fortunately Henry and Pat were pretty drunk, so I don’t think they noticed, and Thurgood, although he seemed only half-drunk, was probably too self-involved to notice or care, and I’m sure Ferdinand didn’t care even if he did notice, and Henry abruptly turned and forged into the crowd.
I forcibly removed Pat’s arm from around my neck, causing some of her drink to spill onto my seersucker jacket, but that was a matter of complete indifference to me. I took her right arm in my left and followed hard on Henry’s heels, walking as quickly as I could, hindered as I was by what was now an almost full-blown erection.
“Hey, wait for me,” said Thurgood.
Henry was like a fat icebreaking sea ship, plowing his way relentlessly through that surging mob of dancers, and I saw he was not afraid to use his elbows when he had to. Some new old rock and roll song was on the jukebox, I don’t know what it was, one of those guys who sounded like Elvis Presley but probably wasn’t Elvis Presley, I didn’t care, I just wanted to get into that office and try to implement my new and as-yet only half-baked brainwave.
Through the mass of people to my right I could see the heads of Hemingway, of Jack and Bill, crowded close together at the bar. I also saw another fellow, standing right near them, perhaps with them, a tall slim dark-haired man, and I thought he might have been my nemesis, Lucky, or Nicky, the prince of darkness, whatever he was calling himself these days, but then he turned towards the bar and I couldn’t see his face. I kept going, shoving along with Pat on my arm, following Henry across the room, with Ferdinand buzzing in excited circles above my head.
“Hey, good-looking,” said a woman's voice, and yet another hand grabbed my arm. This one belonged to that waitress, what was her name, Louisa May Alcott? Or was it Charlotte Brontë?
“Yes?” I said.
Jane Austen? No, that wasn’t it.
“Is this yours?”
She held up a book, another book. It looked new, but dirty, and stained, and the dust jacket was torn.
The Ace of Death
a novel of despair and terror
by Horace P. Sternwall
“Oh,” I said. “Yes.”
My book. That book. I had totally forgotten about it. But then I had had so many things on my mind.
“Somebody found it on the men’s room floor,” she said.
She held it out to me, and I took it from her.
“Gee,” I said.
Yes. This might possibly work even better than Thurgood’s book; or worse, I had no way of knowing. But still –
“I never heard of it,” she said.
“Yes, it’s new,” I said, without going into the mysterious details of how I had obtained it.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a – a shattering story of a man caught in a deadly whirlpool of passion. And despair.”
“Oh,” she said. “Sounds good.”
Pat was pulling on my arm, and now Thurgood was pushing me from behind.
“Well,” I said, “um, thanks a lot –”
“Sure, Porter,” she said.
It was slightly embarrassing that she remembered my name. And then it hit me. Of course – Edith Wharton – “Yeah, I’ll see you later, Edith,” I said.
“Um, I’ll see you later?”
“What did you call me - Edith?”
“Um, Willa?” I said.
She paused only for two seconds before speaking, but they were both very long seconds.
“Harriet, asshole,” she said. “Beecher Stowe. Harriet.”
“Harriet,” I said. “Right. Little Women –”
“Fuck you,” she said. “Just – fuck you.”
She turned and headed back to the bar. Ferdinand flew down and hovered in front of my face and gave me a hard look with every one of his eyes.
“Come on, let’s go, pal.”
Pat tugged on my arm.
“Yeah, come on, buddy.”
Thurgood gave me a little push from behind.
“Yeah, come on, man.”
I went on.
(Continued here, at the same measured and stately pace.)
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