We left our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his friends Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the talking fly here in the rather specialized book shop of a certain Mr. Philpot, on this rainy Greenwich Village night in August of 1957...
(Kindly click here to read our previous chapter; go here to return to the very beginning of this 76-volume Gold View Award™-winning masterpiece of spiritual literature.)
“Do I at last feel the first tentative gentle exhalations of Spring? Must I now lay down my Kindle™ loaded to the max with volume upon glorious volume of Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre, and emerge from my comfortable Victorian house, staggering and blinking, into the all-too-real light of day? Oh well, I suppose I must, but, first – one more chapter, just one!” – Harold Bloom, in the AARP Review of Books.
“Why, yes, of course,” said Mr. Philpot. “And what about you, Mr. Walker or Schnabel or whatever you’re calling yourself at the moment – a tot of rum, young sir?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“It’s on the house.”
“No, really, I’m fine.”
“No, thank you, I’m good, Mr. Philpot.”
“You insult me, sir. You insult me to the very core of my being.”
“Um,” I said.
“To the very core, sir. I assure you better men than you have not refused my hospitality.”
“Uh,” I said, if one can be said to say “uh”.
“A very great man called John Greenleaf Whittier was not so snooty about accepting a free libation from me, I’ll tell you that much.”
“John Greenleaf Whittier,” said Ferdinand. “You slay me, Mr. Philpot.”
“John Greenleaf Whittier was a very great man,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Arnie, look, just take a drink for Christ’s sake,” said Ben.
“I certainly don’t want to twist your arm, Mr. Walker-Schnabel,” said Mr. Philpot.
“In my experience Arnie’s arm don’t take too much twisting to get him to take a drink,” said Ferdinand.
“Come on, Arnie,” said Ben. “Live a little for once in your dull and sad little life.”
“Okay,” I said, just to try to move things along. “I’ll have a small one.”
“Rum then?” said Mr. Philpot.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, then,” he said, “rum seems to be the order of the day! You there – large fellow,” he said to Ben.
“Aye aye, sir,” said Ben.
“What was your name again? Brick Boghall?”
“Blagwell, actually,” said Ben. “Ben Blagwell. But most people call me Big Ben on account of –”
“I get it,” said Mr. Philpot, “come with me, will you?”
“But I was in the middle of trying to tell my story. About these Filipina killer harlot guerilla babes that I fell in with after I escaped from that Jap sub and that monsoon, and –”
“Let me ask you this,” said Mr. Philpot. “If I may?”
“Sure, pops,” said Ben. “Fire away.”
“Would not your tale be more enjoyably told – and undoubtedly more enjoyably listened to – whilst all and sundry sip my century-and-a-half-old cask-aged rum? Royal Navy issue, I remind you.”
“You got a point there,” said Ben. “I ain’t gonna deny it.”
“Then come with me, please.”
“Where?” said Ben.
“Oh, afraid are you? Big strapping great fellow like you?”
“I’m not afraid,” said Ben. “I just want to know where you’re taking me, old-timer.”
“To the back of the shop with me to fetch the keg of rum out of the storeroom.”
“Oh,” said Ben. “In that case, sure, lead the way, granddad.”
“Follow me,” said Mr. Philpot, and he waddled off into one of the shadowy narrow aisles of tall bookshelves.
Ben came over to me, bent his face down to my ear and whispered.
“What do you think, Arnie? This is trap? Am I gonna get dry-gulched back there?”
“I honestly have no idea, Ben,” I said.
“Big man,” said Ferdinand, buzzing around right near us. “Afraid of a little old bookseller.”
“Hey, buddy, how I know he ain’t got an accomplice back there,” said Ben. “Maybe a whole pack of accomplices. Assassins. Armed to the teeth.”
“You want me to come with you?” said Ferdinand.
“Gee,” said Ben. “Would you?”
“You’re kidding, right?” said Ferdinand.
“No, I’m not,” said Ben. “Come on, Ferdy, keep me company, man.”
“Christ almighty –”
“Hey!” called Mr. Philpot’s voice. “What’s the hold-up? I can’t carry that keg by myself!”
“Be right there, old buddy!” yelled Ben. Then in a lower voice, to Ferdinand: “Come on, Ferdy pal. I’d do it for you.”
“I didn’t realize you were such a coward,” said Ferdinand.
“I ain’t a coward,” said Ben. “I just like have a fear of dark shadows and the unknown. You don’t know the things I’ve seen, the shit I been through. Did I ever tell you about Papua’a Pit of a Thousand Tortures?”
“Papua’s Pit of a Thousand Tortures.”
“No,” said Ferdinand. “You didn’t tell me that one.”
“You want to hear it?”
“What about the rum?
“Oh, right, the rum,” said Ben. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Look, I’m scared. I admit it. Just come with me, Ferdy, and I’ll be your buddy for life.”
“You’re pathetic,” said Ferdinand.
“Arnie,” said Ben, turning to me. “You come with me, okay?”
“Ben,” I said, “he’s just a little old man.”
I knew it was cruel to say this, but on the other hand I knew that if I went with Ben that somehow I would get sidetracked on some whole new nightmarish adventure that might last months or even years.
“I thought you were my friend,” said Ben. “I thought both you guys were my friends. I guess I thought wrong.”
“Ben,” I said. “Look –”
“No, that’s okay,” said Ben. “It’s fine. But maybe both of you so-called ‘friends’ of mine will feel just a little bit different when I get bushwhacked by a pack of fiendish sadistic cutthroats –”
“All right,” said Ferdinand. “Look, I’ll go with you, Ben. Although I don’t know what kind of help I’m gonna be if he does have a gang of assassins back there.”
“Just for like moral support,” said Ben.
“Fine, great, let’s go,” said Ferdinand.
“Thanks,” said Ben.
“Hey!” yelled Mr. Philpot, from somewhere beyond that dark forest of books, his little old man’s voice screeching and breaking in an unpleasant way, much like the awful squawk emitted by a duck when my Aunt Edith would slit its throat to make her duck’s blood soup. “Let’s shake a leg!”
“Be right there!” bellowed Ben. “My, uh, shoelace came undone!”
“Well, did you tie it?” squawked the voice.
“That I did, sir!”
“Then get your fat ass back here and give me a hand, you huge oaf!”
“I’m coming!” yelled Ben. “Jeeze, keep your shirt on!” He turned to Ferdinand. “Okay, you ready, little guy?”
“Sure. But just one thing,” said Ferdinand. “If I get really shit-faced – and I think there’s a pretty good chance I will – you gotta promise to take care of me.”
“I will, pal.”
“Just like stick me carefully in your pack of Sweet Caporals in your shirt pocket, till I sleep it off.”
“I got you covered, little buddy.” Ben turned to me. “Arnie, last chance, pal, you sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“Pretty sure,” I said.
“All right,” said Ben. “And, look, Arnie, we ain’t back in two minutes you maybe better just make a run for it. Nobody will think the less of you for it.”
“What the fuck!” screeched the voice of Mr. Philpot.
“Let’s go, big fella,” said Ferdinand. “Before the old guy throws a cardiac infarction.”
“Okay,” said Ben, and with one last nervous look at me he said, “just wish I had me a good old service .45, or maybe a Smith Model 10, four-inch barrel –”
“Stop stalling, Ben,” said Ferdinand.
“All right, I’m coming,” said Ben. Then in a low voice again he said, “Least I got this.”
He took something out of his dungarees pocket, and a blade flipped out from the switchblade now in his hand.
“Stiletto,” he said. “Wop-made, sharp as an old fairy’s wit, too.”
“Jesus Christ!” shrieked Mr. Philpot’s voice.
“Coming, old buddy!” Ben bellowed.
He closed the knife up and put it back into his pocket.
“Believe this guy?” said Ferdinand, hovering by my face.
“Okay, here goes nothing,” said Ben. And he finally went into that dark row of books down which Mr. Philpot had disappeared, walking sideways so that he could fit into the narrow dark space between the shelves.
“Be right back, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, and he flew off after Ben.
At last I was alone, for the first time in what felt like approximately eight months but which had probably only been an hour or so.
The inside of the shop was the same as when last I had been here, probably the same as it had been for the past fifty or a hundred years. The same thick warm smell of old books and tobacco smoke. The two front windows looking out on the street, the crashing rain against the panes rendering everything outside uncertain and vague, although I could still make out the shimmering reddish-orange neon sign of the Kettle of Fish across the street.
The only light inside the shop came from the dusty lamp on the wall to the right, over Mr. Philpot’s cluttered desk in the corner, with the side window in back of his chair looking out onto blurry blackness. The dark paintings and etchings on the walls seemed to depict nothing but shadowy figures and shapes and more shadows.
On the near side of Mr. Philpot’s desk was the armchair I had sat in earlier that night, months ago. The desk still had a chess board set up on it on its left side, the pieces standing in their ranks waiting to be played, and the desk top was still cluttered with books and magazines and newspapers, as well as some sort of metal beer stein with pencils and pens sticking up out of it; a jar of ink, a pipe rack, a tobacco pouch and a box of Diamond kitchen matches, a glass ashtray filled with ashes and cigarette butts, a carven wood cigarette box, two smeared empty jelly glasses, and a black wine-bottle, which I assumed was the one we had been drinking from earlier that same night so long ago.
I went over to the desk and sat down in the chair.
I was wet, soaked really, and dirty, and battered and bruised, but I was still not in any great pain, not yet – that ambrosia-laced bock I had drunk was certainly doing its job.
I put my book on the desk. It occurred to me that now was as good a time as ever to try to write myself out of this situation. I opened the book up. As previously stated, all the pages were blank. I looked at that first blank page.
Then I put my hand to my shirt pocket. The ballpoint pen I had bought from Eddie Guest was still there, and I took it out. I uncapped it, put the yellow cap onto the blue barrel of the pen. I could hear Ben’s and Mr. Philpot’s voices somewhere on the other side of that room filled with shadows and books, I could even hear Ferdinand’s small piping voice, but I couldn’t make out what any of them were saying.
I had my book, I had my pen, now all I had to do was to write something.
The only problem now was what exactly to write.
But I knew that this was no time to agonize over finding the exact perfect words.
Inexact imperfect words would have to do if that was all I could come up with.
And so I put pen to paper and began to write.
(Continued here; Arnold is only just getting warmed up.)
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