On a hot rainy night in August of 1957, let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel (now trapped in the fictional persona of “Porter Walker, bohemian poet”) and his associates – Thurgood, Pat, Henry James, and of course Ferdinand the talking fly – here in the cramped smoky office of that peculiar Greenwich Village watering hole known as “Valhalla”…
(Please click here to read our previous chapter; go here to return to the long ago and far away beginnings of this 72-volume Gold View Award™-winning masterpiece.)
“What better way to spend a cold November evening than sitting in one’s easy chair by the fire with a cup of hot Fox’s U-bet™ cocoa, a fatty of prime sensemilla, and a volume of Railroad Train to Heaven© on one’s lap.” — Harold Bloom, in High Times.
“So you want to read some of my book now, Porter?” said Thurgood.
He looked so eager, and sad, sadly eager sitting there in his chair, holding his drink and his cigarette in his left hand, and as if shyly holding up with his right hand his book, turned so that its cover was facing me.
But I didn’t want to read his stupid novel now, and I knew it was a stupid novel because after all, had I not been in it and experienced quite a few stupid adventures therein? The more I thought about it the more my offering to read aloud from his book seemed like a bad idea. What I really wanted to do right now was just to get away somewhere and write my own book, which would probably be just as stupid, but at least it would be mine.
But here again I was trapped by my lifelong reluctance to go back on my word, a reluctance which I now realize is absurd. Why should we be held to something we might have said in a state of ignorance, of idiocy, or madness? But, nevertheless, reluctant I was to refuse the man.
“Just like ten pages,” he said, raising his book slightly up and slightly down, suggestively. “Ten, fifteen pages.”
“What?” said Thurgood.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Oh,” I said. “Um. I guess I’m just getting a little, uh, tired –”
“I mean,” I said, “it’s been a long day. And it is kind of hot and stuffy in here.”
“Sorry,” said Henry. He gave a small wave with his cigar. “No air conditioning.”
In the short time we had been in here the office had gotten only hotter, stuffier, smokier. For the seventy-fifth time in the past few hours I realized that I was streaming with sweat. I could feel the perspiration pooling around my feet in my heavy work shoes.
“So what are you saying,” said Thurgood, “you don’t want to read from my book after all?”
“Nobody wants to hear your boring book, Thurgood,” said Pat. She tapped her cigarette and its ash fell to the ashy floor. “And Porter doesn’t want to read from it, either.”
“But he said he would read it from it,” said Thurgood. “Didn’t you, Porter?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, “but –”
“I guess all of a sudden I do sort of feel like, you know, just going home, taking a shower, and –”
“But you said you would read from my book." He took a quick and furious drag on his cigarette, and exhaled so hard the plume of smoke shot at me like a guided missile and exploded against my chest. “You can go home and take a shower afterwards,” he said, a little more calmly.
“That’s true,” I said.
“So you’ll read a little bit? Just five pages.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Five or ten pages.”
“Um,” I said. “Uh, okay.”
“Gee,” he said. “You don’t seem enthusiastic.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m, uh, enthusiastic.”
“You don’t sound enthusiastic.”
“Maybe he had an attack of sanity,” said Pat.
“Ha ha, good one, milady,” said Henry.
“Thanks, pops,” said Pat.
“Ow,” I said.
I had just received an electric bolt of pain under my right knee cap. I shifted my weight to my left leg.
“What? Now what?” said Thurgood.
“Oh, it’s just this knee,” I said, making a slow thwarted kicking movement with my bad leg.
“Yes, my knee hurts,” I said. “It gets worse when I stand too long.”
“Oh. That’s too bad,” said Thurgood. But I couldn’t help but notice that neither he nor the other two occupants of the only three chairs in this office offered to get up and give me a seat.
One of the sore spots on my head started to ache harder all of a sudden, as if someone had just given it a sharp tap with a ball-peen hammer. Gingerly I touched this fresh locus of pain, and I suppose I couldn’t help but grimace.
“Ow,” I said, again.
“Now what?” said Thurgood.
“I hurt my head too,” I said.
“Your hurt your knee and your head?” said Thurgood, in a challenging way.
“Yes, my knee and my head,” I said. “My head in two places actually, but mostly it’s my knee that hurts, my leg –”
“You know, Porter,” said Henry, “if your leg and your head are hurting you I’ve still got this.”
He reached into the side pocket of his suit and took out a small dark brown bottle or vial with a cork in it.
Suddenly Ferdinand sailed up again out of the Dixie Cup he had been in, flew in a corkscrew trajectory over the desk, and began buzzing around the vial.
“Whatcha got there, Hank?” said Ferdinand.
“Ha ha,” said Henry. “’Hank!’ Why no one has called me Hank since, since – well, in point of fact, my minuscule friend, no one has ever called me Hank!”
“Yeah? So what’s in the bottle, Hank?” said Ferdinand.
“Laudanum, my dear fellow,” said Henry. “Laudanum of the finest and purest manufacture. Would you care to try some?”
“Would I?” said Ferdinand. “Of course I would, and thank you very much, man.”
“Just a tiny bit, mind,” said Henry. “It is rather strong, and, after all, you do have a somewhat shall we say undersized body.”
“Don’t worry about me, Hank,” said Ferdinand. “I got the metabolism of a fly.”
“Ha ha, quite risible!” said Henry.
“Yeah, risible as all hell,” said Ferdinand. “Now pull that cork out, daddy-o.”
“Um, wait a minute,” I said. “Isn’t laudanum a, um, narcotic?”
“Yes, of course it is,” said Henry. “And a most excellent narcotic too, I might add.”
“Y’know, I’ve always wanted to try laudanum,” said Thurgood.
“What is laudanum, actually?” said Pat.
“A narcotic,” said Thurgood. “Some kind of tincture of opium or something –”
“Ooh, opium!” said Pat. “I want to try some too. Can I have some, Henry? Just a sip?”
“Oh,” said Henry, “I daresay that there’s enough in this little bottle for us all to get nicely high. Plus it’ll definitely obviate Porter’s aches and pains for him. I do think we should let him have the largest portion, don’t you?”
“Sure,” said Pat. “I only want a little bit.”
“Let’s go, Hank,” said Ferdinand. “Pull the cork, big guy.”
Henry put his cigar in his mouth, pulled the cork, and Ferdinand as usual couldn’t control himself, but flew like a shot right into the mouth of the vial.
Henry put down the cork and then took his cigar from his mouth.
“Oh, my,” he said.
“Boy, he was eager,” said Pat.
“Greedy little guy,” said Thurgood.
We all were quiet for a moment. The noise of the jukebox music and the bar full of shouting and laughing and dancing people continued unabated right outside the office door, but we inside here were silent.
Henry raised the little bottle to one eye and peered in.
“I don’t see him,” he said. “Hello? Hello, my insectoid friend?”
“Oh, jeeze,” I said.
I limped over to Henry’s side of the desk.
“Can I see that, please, Henry?” I said.
“But of course, dear Porter,” said Henry. “Did I not in all verisimilitude extract it from the deepest recesses of my habiliments for the sole objective of mollifying your own physical discomforts?”
“Right,” I said.
I put my drink and my book on the desk and took the proffered brown vial from Henry’s pudgy hand.
“Ferdinand,” I said into the dark open mouth of the vial. “You’ve had enough, now come out of there.”
“Yeah,” said Pat, “save a little for us, man.”
Ferdinand didn’t reply.
I lifted the vial to my eye, bending my head and peering into it just as Henry had done, but it was too dark in there, I could see nothing but what looked like cough syrup.
Quickly I picked up my Dixie Cup and drank down in a gulp its remaining contents.
“There you go, Porter,” said Henry, “drunk down like a stout fellow!”
I ignored him, and gasped; I’ve never been good at drinking shots of whiskey, I’m more the slow-sipping, savoring the accruing oblivion kind of guy. Anyway, raising up the now empty Dixie Cup, I brought the vial up next to it, and, tilting the cup to an almost horizontal angle, I brought the mouth of the vial to just over the cup’s rim, and carefully tipped the bottle until a reddish-brown liquid started to ooze from it. I suppose I had poured out an ounce, when, sure enough, Ferdinand’s tiny body came sliding out in the little dark river.
I stopped pouring, and kept the cup tilted, so that Ferdinand lay against the side of the inside of the cup.
“Got him,” I said.
“Oh, I say, well done!” said Henry.
“What a hog,” said Pat.
“Is he dead?” said Thurgood.
I said nothing. Ferdinand was perfectly immobile and silent, but I knew by now how hardy he was, or could be. I put down the vial, and then, sticking my index finger into the cup, I scooped him out on my fingertip.
“He looks dead,” said Pat.
“Too bad,” said Thurgood. “Well, at least he died happy.”
“Poor little chap,” said Henry. “Well, shall we all have a little dose in his memory? The taste is quite bitter I’m afraid, but if you chase it with a gulp of this fine barrel-aged malt it’s not so bad.”
“Wait,” I said.
Putting down the Dixie Cup, I brought Ferdinand close to my mouth and blew on him, gently, once, then twice.
A second passed, and I thought I saw a tiny leg stir.
I blew again, and this time a wing flapped once, lazily.
“Is he alive?” said Pat.
“I think so,” I said.
“Good, lay him down and let’s all try some of this laudanum stuff.”
I blew on him once more, and now his other wing flapped, just barely, but it did move.
“Ferdinand,” I said. “Ferdy. Can you hear me, pal?”
“Wha,” he said, after a slight pause.
“Oh, bravo,” said Henry.
“Hey, well done, Porter,” said Thurgood.
“Hooray, the fly lives,” said Pat.
“Wha?” said Ferdinand.
He weakly raised one of his legs and slowly flapped a wing, and I had another brainwave.
“Listen,” I said, darting quick glances at the other humans in the room, “I think I’d better take him outside, get him some fresh air.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” said Thurgood.
“Yes, he’s a hardy little fellow,” said Henry.
“Yeah, he’s all right,” said Pat. “Take more than a little laudanum to kill that fly.”
“No,” I said, “I really think I should get him out in the air.”
I put down the Dixie Cup with the laudanum in it.
“Wha?” said Ferdinand. “Whuzzit?”
“Hang in there, buddy,” I said. “I’ll take care of you.”
“Aww,” said Pat.
“Touching,” said Henry.
“So I’ll just step outside,” I said, and I started to come out from behind Henry’s desk.
“Wait,” said Thurgood. “Aren’t you going to read from my book?”
“Maybe later,” I said. “I’m just a little worried about my friend here.”
“But the laudanum?” said Henry. “Don’t you want some?”
I paused, and I glanced at the cup with the reddish brown liquid in it. It was tempting; after all I was in pain. But then I decided a little pain wasn’t so bad, especially compared to what might happen if I started drinking laudanum.
“Maybe later,” I said, and I took another painful step.
“Porter,” said Henry.
I stopped, turned and looked at the fat man.
He reached over and picked up my book, The Ace of Death, my novel consisting of nothing, nothing but nothing, or at least nothing as yet.
I hobbled back and took the book with my free hand, then turned again, took another step.
Pat’s hand grabbed me by the forearm.
“You coming back, Porter?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. I was still holding Ferdinand aloft on the tip of my right index finger. “I’ll have to see how he’s doing.”
She let her hand slide down my arm to my hand, and then off it until she was touching my upper thigh, massaging my thigh, the inner part.
I think I neglected to mention that the erection which Pat had caused me to be possessed of back in the barroom had retreated to flaccidity during that frustrating time when we were dealing with the lock to this office. But now, as she kneaded my thigh with her red-nailed fingers, I felt the first throbbings of the erection – or a different but identical one – returning, again.
Unfortunately I held my book in one hand and I had Ferdinand on the tip of my index finger of the other, and so I was unable to pry Pat’s hand loose from my thigh. Instead I tried simply to step away, stepping first with my uninjured leg (relatively uninjured; in truth I had several bruises on that leg as well), and then trying to step with the leg whose upper inner thigh she was massaging, the right one, but she gripped tight on the material of my jeans and wouldn’t let go, and I actually dragged her and the chair she sat in with me for half a foot.
“Pat,” I said. “Please.”
“Oh, go then,” she said.
She let go of my jeans. But then she slapped my rear end.
“But come back, Porter,” she said, in a low but commanding voice, as she stared up into my eyes.
Then she gave my rear end a squeeze.
“Um, uh, sure, uh, maybe,” I said.
Abruptly she took her hand away from my buttock and looked away from me, towards Henry, and his laudanum bottle.
“Okay, Henry,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
I took another hobbling step and then another, and I was at the door. I turned the deadbolt, opened the door and went out into that crowded bar.
I closed the door behind me. I had my book and I had Ferdinand on my fingertip.
“Whadza,” he said.
“It’s okay, Ferdinand,” I said.
None of that dancing throng seemed to notice or care that I was having a conversation with a fly on my fingertip.
“Wheh we goan,” said Ferdinand.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Goin’,” he said. “Where we goin’”
“We’re getting out of here,” I said.
Just to be on the safe side I carefully dropped him into my shirt pocket for safe-keeping, and then I forged forth into that mob of dancing and shouting and laughing people.
(Continued here, for the greater good of all mankind.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page and scroll down to find a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Now appearing also in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s last bastion of cultural literacy.”)