Let’s rejoin our bold hero Arnold Schnabel (accompanied by his stout companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the loquacious fly) as, once again, he enters a bar, in this case the Kettle of Fish, on Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Street, on a fateful rainy night in August of 1957…
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“Arnold Schnabel! How swiftly the name flies from one’s lips when the literary reporters at the annual PEN conference ask one yet again to name the preëminent American man (or woman) of letters!” – Harold Bloom, in the Ladies’ Home Journal Literary Supplement.
The place was mobbed, even more crowded than it had been during my last visit earlier that night or was it thirty-eight months ago? I saw faces I recognized although none of their names immediately rose to the turbulent surface of my mind, and I saw many other faces I didn’t recognize. A band was playing jazz music, and through the barely translucent cloud of tobacco smoke that filled the room like dirty dishwater I could see the vague ghostly shapes of the musicians way back in their little corner, but I couldn’t tell if it was the same combo that had been playing here earlier.
Ben of course had followed in behind me, and at once he clapped his great hand on my shoulder, but before I could go sprawling spread-eagled to the floor he grabbed my left arm with his other hand and held me up by my biceps. He took his cigarette out of his mouth, leaned his head down close to mine and bellowed in my ear:
“So, Arnie, how about them drinks?”
“Hey, man!” yelled out Ferdinand, from inside my ear, “watch where you’re yelling!”
He flew out of my ear and hovered in a menacing way in front of Ben’s face.
“Sorry, little buddy,” said Ben. “But it’s noisy in here!”
“I know it’s noisy,” said Ferdinand, “but it’s not that noisy that you got to blow my goddam eardrums out.”
“You got eardrums?” said Ben.
“Yes, I ‘got eardrums’,” said Ferdinand. “And so does poor Arnie, or at least he did before half a minute ago.”
“I’m really sorry, pal,” said Ben, and he even looked as if he meant it, or at least as if he meant to give the impression that he meant it.
“Look, don’t bother being sorry,” said Ferdinand. “Just try to speak in a reasonably loud voice. For Christ’s sake.”
“I been told before I got a loud mouth,” said Ben. “It’s from working in them engine rooms all them years, and also going through all them kamikaze attacks, and –”
“Hey,” said Ferdinand. “I appreciate all that, but it’s still no excuse.”
“It ain’t?” said Ben.
“No,” said Ferdinand. “It ain’t.”
“All the blood I saw. The screaming and dying. The spilled guts. The men and boys crying for their moms –”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Ferdinand.
“It don’t?” said Ben.
“It don’t,” said Ferdinand.
While this above-quoted dialogue was going on, I was busy thinking that I really didn’t want to make a big deal out of coming in here. I just wanted to get hold of a pen or a pencil so that I could try to write myself out of this world, and I silently resolved not to let myself become distracted or diverted from this plan.
But of course things immediately got complicated.
A stocky curly-haired guy came up to me. He was dressed for the hot sticky weather, in khaki trousers and a light blue polo shirt with a little green alligator sewn onto its breast. He held a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“You Porter Walker?” he said.
I suddenly experienced one of those little brain implosions I have no more than a hundred times a day, and so instead of saying yes, I forgot for the moment who I was in this world.
“No,” I said.
“You’re not? What’s your name?”
“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel.”
“Y’know,” said Ben, loudly, “you might just have a little more sympathy for veterans who have served their country.”
“What?” said the curly-haired man.
“Oh, boo hoo,” said Ferdinand. “You want to borrow my pink perfumed hanky, you big crybaby?”
“Who said that?” said the curly-haired man.
“We’re not talking to you, pal,” said Ben. “So keep out of it.”
“Yeah, mind your own beeswax, curly,” said Ferdinand.
“What?” said the man. “Who said that?”
“What’d we just tell ya?” said Ben. “This is between me and my friend, so butt out.”
“Yeah, take a hike, shorty,” said Ferdinand. “Go play some night polo.”
“What?” said the man. “Who? How?”
I made a snap decision, because the last thing I wanted was for a brawl to break out that would get us thrown out of here before I could acquire a writing implement. Ben was still holding onto my arm, so I quickly pried his hand loose, thank God he didn’t resist, and then with my now freed left arm I grabbed the stocky man by his right arm and pulled him a few feet away from Ben, over to the wall near the entrance.
“Listen,” I said, and I released his arm, “don’t mind my friend. As you might have gathered he’s a war veteran, and sometimes he hears voices when he’s been drinking.”
“But I heard another voice.”
“That was him,” I improvised. “He throws his voice and has conversations with himself.”
“Wow, that was amazing, then. He could be a professional ventriloquist.”
“That’s true,” I said. “I’ve told him that. But he’s sensitive about it.”
“Of course, as he should be. He’s insane.”
“Not insane,” I said. “Just a little disturbed. And plus he’s been drinking all day long pretty much.”
“Well, that will do it,” said the man. “I get a little crazy sometimes too when I drink all day.”
“It’s a bad habit to get into,” I said.
Looking back over my shoulder I could see Ben still standing there by the front door, gesturing with his cigarette and apparently talking to himself, but I knew the truth.
“I was told you were this guy Porter Walker,” said the man.
“Oh.” Suddenly I remembered who I was. “That’s right. I am Porter Walker.”
“Then why did you tell me you were this Harold Schnitzler then?”
“Arnold Schnabel actually,” I said.
“Why did you tell me that?”
“I was afraid you might be a –” I searched for the right phrase, or at least a possibly plausible one – “an importunate stranger.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh my dear God in stygian hell,” said the man.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Hey,” I said, “I wonder if you might have a pen or a pencil I might borrow, or, even better, that I might purchase from you?”
“A pen or pencil,” I said. “I have some money. Not a lot, but –”
“You’ve just accused me of being an importunate stranger, and now you ask me for a pen or pencil?”
“Oh, no,” I said.
And suddenly I became aware that I was sweating profusely yet again, oozing yet more moistness into my clothes from the inside just after they had gotten freshly wet from the outside from that pouring rain as I had hobbled across the street, and I had an urge to whip off my seersucker jacket and the stupid sodden plaid work shirt I was wearing, and even my bluejeans and socks and shoes, but of course I didn’t do any of that.
“I didn’t mean to accuse you of being an importunate stranger,” I said.
“But that’s what I am, all that I am to you,” he said. “Some stranger in a bar who abruptly comes up to you and asks you if you are you.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” I said, just trying to move things along.
“But do you not see,” he said, and he took a moment to take a gulp from his drink, which looked like a highball of some sort, “I mind. I was behaving in just such a way that annoys me when others do it to me. Because I get that all the time. ‘Hey, are you that Mailer guy?’”
“Who?” I said.
“Mailer,” he said. “Norman Mailer.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of Norman Mailer,” I said. “I think I saw him on TV one time, you know you do look a little like him.”
“Yes,” I said. “A little. But I guess it does get annoying having people come up to you out of the blue asking if you’re him.”
“But I am him,” he said.
“Norman Mailer. I’m Norman Mailer.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well, no wonder –”
“No wonder what?”
“People come up to you and ask you if you are you.”
“Yes, okay, granted, no wonder, but it’s still fucking annoying.”
“Ah, I see,” I said, and in a way I could, I had never liked even people I knew saying hello to me, and many was the time when I had stayed indoors and ignored pressing errands just because I wasn’t in the mood to have people say hello to me and ask how I was, and then having to lie to them, because no one wants to hear that you are on the verge of despair.
“Soon you’ll know how annoying it can be,” he said. “That is if this new epic poem I have heard about is as good as the cognoscenti say it is.”
“The cognoscenti. The intelligentsia.”
I didn’t know who either of those were, but I let it pass.
“And is it that good?” he said.
“What’s that?” I said.
“What epic?” I said, although I didn’t care, I was just making conversation until I sensed a good opportunity to bring up the pencil and pen again.
“What epic?” he said. “Why, your epic! The one that Smythe & Son are bringing out.”
“Oh, that one,” I said. “Yes, well, it’s really not very good, so maybe I’ll be lucky and people won’t be coming up to me after all.”
“What do you mean, your epic is not very good?”
“Well, it’s only my opinion,” I said.
“The buzz around the Manhattan literary world is that it is nothing less than a bold and courageous new masterpiece.”
“Oh, well, maybe I’m wrong then,” I said. “What do I know?”
“But you wrote the goddam thing.”
“Well, true,” I said, although what he said was not exactly true.
“People are saying it is the boldest and most courageous new long work by an American in prose or poetry since Moby-Dick.”
“Yes! You’ve also been compared to Longfellow, to Whitman, to Hart Crane. Would you say you owe a debt to Crane?”
I waited. I can be patient sometimes when I have to be.
“Wait a minute,” he said, staring at me.
I continued to wait. If I could get something to write with from him, then the present boredom would be worth it.
“Could it be?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said, and for once I was telling the truth.
“Could it be,” he said, “that you are in truth a common-man writer?”
“Yes, that must be it,” I said. “By the way, getting back to the pen or pencil thing –”
“A veritable bard of the unvoiced working class? Untrammeled by an academic education?”
“Well, it’s true I didn’t graduate from high school,” I said, “but I did get my diploma afterwards, when –”
“And here I went to Harvard,” he said, or yelled. We were both yelling actually, because of the noise of the music and of the people in the bar. “Harvard! The graveyard of authenticity, the cesspool of reality, the sewer of the pulsing hot blood of the American streets and back alleys and hardscrabble farms and empty yawning plains. No wonder I have failed – failed as yet, mind you, but failed so far – to write a truly great novel.”
“Just a pen or a pencil,” I said, “it doesn’t matter which really, and if you like I could buy it off you.”
“What is it with you and this pen or pencil crap?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “It’s just that I wanted to write something.”
“Now I get it.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think I have five dollars or so –”
“You are stricken with inspiration.”
“With the divine afflatus.”
“Um,” I said.
“A new work is churning up from the roiling dark belly of your innermost sacred self.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. Sometimes I know when it’s best to humor people, and this seemed as if it might be one of those times.
“Boiling up, and perforce it must come out. Vomiting from your soul.”
“Right,” I said.
“A new epic poem?”
“Well,” I said, “maybe a novel.”
“I wish I could vomit up a novel just like that.”
“It might not be a good novel I vomit up,” I said.
“Don’t say that. Stop putting down your own work. Leave that crap to the critics and to your jealous fellow writers. What is that book you’ve got there.”
“Oh, this,” I said. Somehow I was still hanging onto that stupid book with all the blank pages. “This is the book I’m going to write.”
“Yes,” I said. “The pages are all blank you see.”
I held the book up and riffled through the pages.
“What a great idea,” he said. “Just get a blank book and fill it up. Why didn’t I ever think of that? It is so beautifully simple. And what is this?” he put his thumb and finger on the upper corner of the front cover. “The Ace of Death, by Horace P. Sternwall. Ace of Death is the the title?”
“Right, I guess so,” I said.
“But why Horace P. Sternwall if your name is Porter Walker?”
“I’ve decided to write it under a pen name,” I said, without missing a beat, I was becoming so accustomed to lying.
“Brilliant,” he said. “So people will judge it on its own merits and not be prejudiced by your famous name and reputation.”
“Right,” I said. “So, about that pen or pencil?”
“Sorry, pal, don’t have a pen or pencil on me.”
All this meaningless conversation, for naught.
The story of my life.
(Continued here, as is only meet and just.)
(Please look to the right hand column of this page to find a rigorously accurate listing of all other bona fide published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, now available on that new Kindle™ you just got. Arnold’s true adventures also appear in the Collingswood Patch™: “New Jersey’s last and best hope for a literary renaissance.”)