Let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his motley crew of companions on this hot and fateful August night in 1957, here in the crowded front barroom of a rather unusual Greenwich Village establishment known as “Valhalla”…
(Please click here to read our previous chapter; go here to return to the only dimly-remembered beginnings of this 73-volume Gold View Award™-winning masterpiece.)
“Starting a new chapter of Arnold Schnabel’s monumental chef-d'œuvre can feel very much like wandering into a strange foreign city, a city in a universe where none of the normal rules of life (and of death) apply.” — Harold Bloom, in The Olney Times (Sunday Weekend Edition).
I felt bad, but what could I do, the damage was done, and at least I had my book back now.
And so we made our way across that crowded barroom to where Henry stood waiting by the door marked “Private”, that door I had already passed through once while trying to escape from Emily, the putative heroine of this universe I was determined to escape from.
“Where’d you get the book, Porter?” said Henry.
“Oh, this,” I said, attempting, I don’t know why, to sound casual. “I dropped it in the men’s room, and I guess somebody found it, and the, uh, waitress, uh –”
I suddenly realized I had forgotten her name again.
“The waitress?” said Henry.
“Yes,” I said, “the, um, the waitress, um, gave it back to me.”
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t know why, but I felt as if I were lying.
“You don’t sound very sure,” said Henry.
“No, it was, um, her,” I said.
“The waitress,” he said.
“Yes.” Suddenly a name popped up through the quicksand of my mind. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” I said, loud and clear.
“What?” he said. “Who?”
“Elizabeth,” I said. “Barrett? Browning?”
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”
“Yes?” I said.
“Mrs. Browning is not a waitress here.”
“He means Harriet Beecher Stowe,” said Thurgood.
“Oh, Harriet,” said Henry.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s what I meant to say. Thank you, Thurgood.”
“You are quite welcome,” he said, and I was glad he had helped me out, but I wished he didn’t have to look so horribly smug.
“So, Porter,” said Henry.
Quite quickly I remembered that I was Porter, for the time being anyway, and possibly for the rest of my life.
“Yes?” I said.
“What you are saying,” said Henry, “– and correct me if I’m wrong – is that Harriet gave you that book?”
“Yes,” I said, and suddenly I just wanted to lie down and take a nap.
“Can we please get a drink now?” said Pat. She still had one arm in mine, but she held her glass in the other, and she showed it to Henry. “I need a refill, pops.”
“Yes, of course, milady,” said Henry. “Posthaste.” But he was leaning down, trying to read the cover of my book. I held it up for him to see the front cover.
He leaned his head forward closer toward the book, I suppose he was nearsighted.
“The Ace of Death,” he read aloud, “a novel of despair and terror, by Horace P. Sternwall. Didn’t you have that with you earlier tonight?”
“Yes,” I said, and I felt myself beginning to despair again, fearing that I would spend the rest of eternity standing here in this noisy crowded barroom, talking nonsense and getting nowhere. “I – I lost it – in the men’s room –”
“In the men’s room? Did those bore-asses in there try to steal it from you? Melville, Hawthorne, Cooper, that crew? Emerson?”
“I don’t think they meant to steal it,” I said, “but a sort of scuffle broke out, and, I don’t know, I dropped it.”
“Brawling again,” he said.
“Just a little scuffle,” I said. “No big deal.”
“I should go in there and kick their asses, scuffling with a gentleman like you.”
“Really, no need to,” I said.
“I’ll be the judge of that. I’ve had it up to here with those bores. I’ve got a mind to go in there right now and kick the whole pack of them back down to the sub-basement.”
“Please don’t,” I said.
“You try to be nice to these fellows. You let them hang about in the men’s room. And they abuse the privilege. Every goddam time –”
“All right, stop right there, Henry,” said Ferdinand, and he swooped down angrily and hovered right in his face. “You said we were going to go in your office and get our drink on.”
“Yes, of course, my minuscule friend, but of course.”
“Then why are we still jaw-wagging out here?”
“Yeah, let’s go, pops,” said Pat.
“Yes, of course,” said Henry, but he reached over and put his pudgy finger and thumb on the upper part of the spine of the book.
“Ace of Death. Never read it, although I think I’ve heard good things about Sternwall. Is it any good?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “I haven’t read it yet.”
“Hey. Let’s go, Henry,” said Ferdinand.
“Oh, Yes. All right,” said Henry, and he reached into his trousers pocket and took out a ring of keys. He put his cigar in his mouth, held up the keys, fingered through them. “Weird key, funny key, round key, skinny key, big square key, here we go – little square key.”
Having separated one key from the rest he leaned downward and tried to insert it into the keyhole, but the key wouldn’t go in.
“How odd,” he said.
“What’s the hold-up, Henry?” said Ferdinand, swooping down and hovering near the doorknob.
“Key won’t work,” said Henry. “That’s weird.”
“You sure you’re using the right key?”
“Little square key,” said Henry, and he held it up. “Little square key.”
“Try it again,” said Ferdinand.
Again Henry tried to get the key into the keyhole, tried and failed and tried and failed.
The rock-and-roll music crashed all around us, the dancing hot and sweating human beings surged and shoved against us. My knee hurt. My head ached in two places. My clothes were dirty and wet and I should mention that perspiration once again flowed freely from my every pore, so that I felt as if my insides would soon be as dry as a mummy’s. My mouth tasted of the recent memory of vomit and my tongue felt like a small mouse that had crawled in there and was dying. The incipient despair I have referred to now welled up within me, and soon, very soon, it would fill all my being, and I would go mad, and if I went mad this time, I somehow knew I would never go sane again.
“Little square key,” said Henry. “Works every other time.”
“I’m gonna scream,” said Ferdinand. “I swear to God I’m gonna scream bloody murder I don’t get a fucking drink soon.”
Pat had been leaning her head against my shoulder, I think she might have been dozing, but now her head popped up.
“Yeah, let’s get a fucking drink, pops,” she said.
“If you like I could try to pick the lock,” said Thurgood. “I’ll just need a hatpin or the like.”
Suddenly I remembered that I had opened this door once before, and without the aid of a key.
“Excuse me, Henry,” I said. “May I try it?”
“Help yourself,” he said, holding out the ring of keys. “Little square one. It used to work. I honestly don’t know what the problem is.”
“Okay,” I said.
I took the keys, stepped forward to the door, put my hand on the knob, turned it, pushed, and the door opened, inward, just as it had done before.
I stepped to one side.
“Jesus Christ,” said Ferdinand.
“Well, that was amazing,” said Henry. “How did you do that?”
“It wasn’t locked,” I said.
I held out the ring of keys. He took them.
“Now that’s really weird,” he said. “I always keep it locked. All right, look, just to make me happy, close the door again.”
“Seriously, I am going to scream,” said Ferdinand.
“Just one moment, my tiny friend,” said Henry.
I closed the door, because he asked me to, because this night would never end.
Henry bent down and again attempted to insert the key in the lock. This time it went in. He turned the key, took it out of the keyhole.
“All right, try to open it now,” he said.
I put my hand on the knob, turned it, but now the door was locked.
“It’s locked now,” I said, and my voice sounded like someone else’s, I don’t know who, just someone else.
“Now that is really weird,” he said. “You know, I think I’m going to write a short story based on this incident. I shall call it ‘The Recalcitrant Lock’.”
“How about this for a title,” said Ferdinand. “How about ‘The Drunk Man Who Couldn’t Get His Key in the Lock’?”
Henry stared at Ferdinand, who was now floating up and down, at around Henry’s eye level, up and down, six or eight inches each way.
“So you’re saying,” said Henry, “I was too drunk to get my key in the lock?”
“I am not saying anything of the sort,” said Ferdinand. “But please will you please unlock the door again so we can go inside and start drinking. Like now. Please.”
“Why, yes, of course!” said Henry.
I simply must spare the reader (my nonexistent reader) and myself (existent at the time of writing) an accounting of the next two minutes, beyond saying it took us that long to get the door open again, and this time only by the expedient of I myself taking the keys from Henry’s soft pudgy hand and unlocking and then opening the door.
At last we were in his office, and after only a delay of another thirty seconds Henry found the overhead light switch, turned it on, and we all followed him in.
Thurgood came in last.
“Close the door and turn the deadbolt,” said Henry. “We don’t want anyone disturbing us.”
“Got it,” said Thurgood, and he did as requested.
“Please have a seat, everyone,” said Henry. “I’ll get the bottle.”
“Oh, thank God,” said Ferdinand.
I had to admit that I felt the same way. I needed a drink. It didn’t have to be private stock fine malt whisky, but if that was what Henry was pouring then it would do.
It was a very small office, and windowless, with a small cluttered desk with a chair behind it, and two other arm chairs right in front of it. Metal filing cabinets, cardboard and wooden boxes on the floor, shelves on the walls filled with books and magazines. To the left was an iron spiral staircase, the one that led upstairs to Mr. Philpot’s shop. The room smelled of cigars and booze and dust, and it was hot, even more hot athough maybe slghtly less humid than the barroom throbbing right outside the door.
“Please, sit anywhere,” said Henry, and he went behind the desk, bumping into a corner as he did so.
Thurgood plopped down in one chair, Pat finally let go of my arm and sat in the other one. Henry sat down in a swivel chair behind the desk, and that took care of all the available chairs. He opened a drawer, took out a bottle and a stack of multi-colored paper cups.
“You will please forgive the Dixie Cups,” he said. “If you prefer I could dash out to the bar and get some proper glassware –”
“The Dixie Cups are fine,” said Ferdinand. “Now pour away, Henry.”
“This I’ll have you know is not just my private stock fine malt whisky,” said Henry. “It is my very special private stock, aged twenty years in Madeira barrels –”
“Henry,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes, my Lilliputian friend?” said Henry.
“Pour the goddam whisky.”
“Ha ha, yes, but of course!”
Henry unstacked and laid out five Dixie Cups, uncorked the bottle, which had no label, and poured what looked like a triple shot into each cup.
As he was doing this I opened up my book, The Ace of Death. It still had Mr. Philpot’s book marker in it, between the front cover and the flyleaf. I turned the page, and there was another blank page, two facing blank pages to be exact. I turned another page, and there were two more blank pages. I turned several more pages, all blank, then I flipped through the book with my thumb.
All the pages of the book were blank.
(Continued here, damning the torpedoes and full steam ahead.)
(Kindly refer to the right-hand column of this page for a listing of links to all other other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, all contents approved by the Arnold Schnabel Society. Now appearing also in the Collingswood Patch™: “Living proof that literacy lives in South Jersey.”)