Let’s rejoin our intrepid hero Arnold Schnabel (at the moment inhabiting the persona of “Porter Walker, epic poet”) here in Greenwich Village’s Kettle of Fish tavern, where Arnold has just made the acquaintance of a certain aged white-haired poet…
(Kindly click here to read our preceding chapter; If you’ve finally given up all hope of spending your leisure time even remotely profitably then you may as well go here to return to the far-off misty beginnings of this 59-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“Settled in my old easy chair by a roaring fire, with an afghan over my lap, my faithful collie ‘Milton’ curled up by my feet and my meerschaum to hand – what better way to spend an evening in the celestial company of Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling chef-d'œuvre?” – Harold Bloom, in the AARP Literary Supplement.
“That’s a good strong grip you got there, m’boy,” he said, hanging onto my hand in a feeble way, “and your hand feels somewhat rough and callused, too, unlike most of these modern-day pansy-boy poets. You’re not a pansy, are you?”
“No, sir,” I said.
“Would you tell me if you were?”
“Probably not,” I said.
“Ha ha, come on, let’s really feel that grip. Let’s have a handshake contest.”
“A handshake contest. You squeeze the other guy’s hand like hell and the first one who screams like a little girl and says ‘I give’ loses.”
“I’d prefer not to,” I said.
“Come on, punk, see if you can take this!”
He screwed his face up and tightened his thin ancient lips, and I saw oily moisture oozing out of the cracks and fissures of his face, the pallor of which now turned from the color of the tissue paper lining a dresser drawer in a room no one has entered since 1909 to that of an earthworm only recently dead of old age. I felt a very slight pressure from his hand in mine, but just very slight, barely noticeable in fact, like the gentle dreaming fluttering of a sleeping sparrow.
“Can’t take it, can you,” he said, through his gritted teeth, or, more likely, dentures. “You give up, punk?”
I prayed to God, well, to Josh: Give me the strength, Josh, I prayed, the strength not only not to crush this old maniac’s twiggish little hand, but also the strength not to throw him down like an old rag doll to the floor.
“Go on!” he yelled. “Just say ‘I give’, and I’ll let you go!”
And then, even though I didn’t hear from Josh – I’m sure he was preoccupied with much more important matters – I realized on my own that even though this old fool might deserve to be whirled about my head and then hurled across the room, cartwheeling above the drunken revelers’ heads to splat against the far wall, doing so would not advance me one iota towards the accomplishment of my mission, which was after all to return finally to that world I liked to call my own, with all its faults, all its many faults.
“Okay,” I said. “I give.”
“Ha ha!” he cackled, it was a sound like someone choking on a chicken bone. He pulled his hand away from mine. “Not bad for an old fart, huh, kid?”
“No, sir,” I said. “That’s quite some grip you have there.”
“Know how I got that strong grip?”
“No,” I said.
“And don’t say it was from choking the chicken.”
“Um. Uh –” I said.
He shook his little gnarled fist in my face.
“Want to know how I got this grip?”
I didn’t, but I knew if I admitted as much he might pull a knife or a gun on me, so I said, “Yes, I would like to know.”
“Oh, well, that sounds like a good –”
“Chopping wood. Try it. Get yourself a good strong heavy axe and chop some fucking wood.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You got a fireplace? Or maybe a wood-burning stove?”
“Well,” I said, “no, but –”
“Maybe I could get one?”
“A fireplace? Or a wood-burning stove?”
“Yes?” I said.
“You fucking with me?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“You fuck with me and I’ll fuck you up.”
“Um, listen,” I said. “Mr. Frost?”
“I said to call me Bobby.”
“Bobby,” I said. “I wonder if you have a pen or a pencil you could lend me, or maybe even better if I could purchase it from you –”
“I need a pen. Or a pencil.”
“Don’t sigh when I ask you a question,” he said, or yelled. I suppose I should reiterate that both of us were shouting all this nonsense because of the noise of the people and the music in this place. “I said ‘what’!” he shouted. “What do you need a fucking pen or a pencil for at midnight in a bar in the Village?”
I held up the green blank book I was still carrying.
“I need to write something,” I said. “In this.”
“What’s that? Like your notebook?”
“Sort of,” I said.
I opened the book up, facing him, and I flipped through the pages.
“See, I have to fill up all these blank pages.”
“Fill up all the pages.”
“Right,” I said. “Then I’ll have a new book.”
“Okay,” he said. “Fair enough.” He put an ancient index finger on the title embossed on the cover. “But why does it say ‘The Ace of Death, a novel of despair and terror, by Horace P. Sternwall’?”
“Well,” I said, “that’s a long story.”
“Make it a short one.”
“This old bookseller talked me into buying this book, but then when I finally opened it up I saw that all the pages were blank.”
“Bookseller? Who was this bookseller?”
“Mr. Philpot?” I said.
“Philpot! Damn him! Damn his eyes! Damn him and all he stands for!”
“Well, anyway,” I said.
“He gypped you,” he said. “Just as he has gypped, hornswoggled and cheap-jacked so many before you! Selling you a blank fucking book!”
“I didn’t mind, really,” I said. “Anyway, I do want to write something in it.”
“You don’t have much choice now, do you?”
“What do you think?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, didn’t want to know, and was afraid to know.
“Look,” I said, “I think I have seven dollars or so. I’ll give you all of it for a pencil.”
“Seven Yankee dollars for a pencil? Are you quite mad?”
“That’s possible,” I said.
“Let me look into your eyes, boy.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t, sir.”
“I’d really prefer you didn’t, Bobby,” I said.
“Shut up. Now look into my eyes.”
I looked into his old watery pale blue eyes. I saw the same mystery I saw whenever I looked into anyone’s eyes, as well as an obvious hostility.
After half a minute I couldn’t or wouldn’t take any more.
“Okay, look,” I said. “If you don’t have a pen or a pencil, that’s okay, I’ll ask someone else.”
“Quiet,” he said. “I’m examining your soul.”
“Oh,” I said. “Will it take long?”
“It’ll take as long as it takes.”
He continued to stare into my eyes, and once again I prayed to Josh:
“Oh, Josh,” I prayed, “if you can hear me, could you please take a minute from your busy schedule and just disengage me somehow from this annoying old man? I’m not asking you to perform a miracle and to make a pen or a pencil magically appear in my pocket, and I’m certainly not asking you to try again just to transport me back to my own world, I realize that is asking too much, but if you could just –”
“Yes, Arnold?” said Josh’s voice, from somewhere in my head. “What was that?”
“Oh, it’s you, Josh,” I prayed.
“Sure it’s me. What’s up, buddy?”
“Are you busy?” I prayed, because he did sound preoccupied.
“I am, a little, but don’t worry, what is it?”
“Oh, my gosh,” I prayed. “I just remembered. You must be with Carlotta.”
“How’d you guess?”
“Well, they told me back at that Valhalla place that –”
“Boy, people love to gossip, don’t they?”
“They do, I guess,” I prayed. “By the way,” he said, “where the hell did you disappear to? I got some laudanum for you but when I came out you were gone.”
“It’s – complicated, Josh,” I prayed. “But, listen, never mind, go back to what you were doing.”
“So you think you know what I’m doing?”
“Well, I couldn’t say for sure,” I prayed.
“You slay me, Arnold. So you’re sure you’re okay?”
“Well, I’m still trying to get back to my world,” I prayed.
“Wish I could help you,” he said.
“I’ll work it out,” I prayed.
“You’re really sure? Because I could wrap things up here, meet up with you, maybe we could try to work something out?”
“No, really, Josh,” I prayed. “You enjoy yourself.”
“Where are you, anyway? That the San Remo?”
“No,” I prayed, “it’s the Kettle of Fish?”
“Oh, right,” he said. “The Kettle of Fish, I should have known that. I swear, I really am losing all my Godly powers.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll retain some of them,” I prayed, I don’t know why.
“Well, look,” he said, “if you’re really okay –”
There was a moment’s silence in my cavernous skull, and then I heard Josh’s voice again:
“Carlotta’s really swell, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, she’s great,” I said, prayed.
“Okay, then – look, Arnold, I’ll check in with you, uh, you know, afterwards –”
“Maybe we’ll swing by the Kettle of Fish later, if you think you might still be there –”
“I hope not,” I mumbled in my prayers.
“Nothing, Josh,” I prayed. “Sure, maybe I’ll catch you here later –”
“Okay, au revoir then, buddy!”
“Oh, wait, but Josh, if you do come here, will you bring a pen or a pencil?” I prayed, but it was too late, he was gone.
“Okay,” said Robert Frost.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“I have looked into your soul, such as it is, and you have passed the test.”
“I have? What test?”
“The test of are you worthy to assume my mantle as America’s most beloved poet.”
“And you’ll do. At least I hope you’ll do.”
“Oh,” I said again.
“That’s all you got to say?”
“Thanks?” I said.
“That’s better. A little politeness never killed anybody, y’know.”
“So,” I said, “getting back to that pen or pencil –”
“Fuck that. I’m talking about something important here.”
“I’ll get you your pen or pencil. I’ll get you a goddam peacock quill if that’s what you want.”
“But there’s just one thing you got to know. And that is I’m not dead yet. I’m not saying I won’t be dead pretty soon, but until that black day the mantle is mine and all mine, you got that?”
“What did I just say?”
“Um, that the mantle won’t be mine until you, uh, pass away.”
“And what mantle am I talking about?”
“Most beloved poet?”
“America’s most beloved poet.”
“Right,” I said. “I meant that.”
“Okay, then. You want to see it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“The mantle. Do you want to see it?”
“Of America’s most beloved poet?”
“I’m not talking about the mantle of Communist Russia’s most beloved poet. You’re not a Communist, are you?”
“No, not at all –”
“What are you?”
“Well, nothing really, I mean, I normally vote Democrat, but –”
“Party of the working man, bla bla bla.”
“Well, I’m not really very political, really –”
“Good, keep it that way. Stick to writing your epic poems, although if you’ll take my advice you’ll learn how to knock out a nice lyric poem once in a while.”
“Nature poems are always good. Snow, trees, clip clop of the horses’ hooves, all that crap.”
“Right,” I said, “you know, if you could see your way to lending me that pen or pencil then I might dash off a nice little lyric poem right away.”
“Cows. Flowers. Flowers are good. Milk cans. Water pitchers. Any kind of farming implements.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“People love that stuff. Because the people who actually read this shit never live on farms or out in the woods, so they like to read poems about all that nature stuff.”
“Well, that makes sense. So if I could –”
“Makes ‘em feel good about themselves and their boring little lives.”
“If I could just get that pen –”
“Come on, I’ll show it to you.”
“No, not the pen.”
“Not the pen.”
“Not the pen. Not yet. I’m gonna show you the mantle.”
“The mantle of America’s most beloved poet.”
“You do want to see it, don’t you?”
What could I say?
To America’s most beloved poet?
“Sure,” I said, although I didn’t want to see his mantle.
But maybe if I went along and looked at his mantle he would finally give me a pen, a pencil, a peacock quill, something to write with.
At this point I would settle for a safety pin to poke a hole in my finger with, so that I could write what I had to write with my own blood.
(Continued here, and until the fat lady’s song calls the final cow back to the barn.)
(Please cast your eye down the right hand column of this page to find a likely-as-not current listing of all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, now available for a modest fee on your new Kindle™; also appearing absolutely free of charge in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s clarion call of literary ecstasy.”)