Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel, on this hot rainy night in August of 1957, amid the smoke and the noise of that celebrated Bohemian caravansary Bob’s Bowery Bar, where he has met yet another new acquaintance...
(Kindly click here to read our immediately preceding chapter; go here to return to the long-ago and only dimly-remembered beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 68-volume autobiography.)
“My favorite vacation pastime is to sit in my favorite rocker on the porch of our summer home in Cape May and read Railroad Train to Heaven all afternoon. Later I like to take a post-prandial evening walk, through those same leafy streets that Arnold Schnabel walked through, and then perhaps to stop into the Pilot House or the Ugly Mug and order a mug of draft beer. And when the bartender asks me what kind, I say what Arnold would have said: ‘The cheap kind.’” – Harold Bloom, in the Cape May Star & Wave Literary Supplement.
“You heard him, Bob,” said the woman to the bartender. “Double Carstairs and a cheap-beer back.”
The big bartender went away without a word. I suppose I should just say ‘the bartender went away’, since he was the only bartender in evidence, and I’ve already mentioned that he was big. It wasn’t as if there were some small bartender there who might have gone away.
“What are you thinking about?” said the woman to me.
“I was wondering how I should describe this, if I write it down later.”
“How would you describe it?”
“I would say the bartender went away.”
“You’re not one for fancy words, are you?”
“No,” I said, and there must have been something about the way I said that one word, a trailing off, a hint of something else, because she said:
“No,” I said, “I’m not one for fancy words. But then I’m not one for unfancy words either.”
She stared at me from under her jungle hat, and she took another drag on her cigarette. It was another awkward moment. One might think I had grown used to awkward moments after a lifetime consisting of nearly nothing else, but this was not the case.
The bartender reappeared. With smooth efficiency that belied his impassive massiveness he put a large and thick glass mug of something yellow and just slightly foamy in front of me, the handle facing me, and then next to it he laid down a thick beveled old-fashioned glass with about four fingers of something brown in it.
“Double Carstairs and a Tree Frog golden lager,” he said. “Tree Frog’s the cheapest beer we’ve got.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Out of here, Bob,” said the woman, and she tapped the pile of bills and change in front of her.
The bartender picked up three quarters and went away again.
So that Zaramajevski guy hadn’t been kidding, this really was a cheap bar.
“Go ahead,” said the woman to me. “Drink. You look like you need it.”
I picked up the glass with the brown liquid in it, and I drank about a third of it. It was whiskey all right, or something that tasted like whiskey, which was good enough for me.
“Feel better?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, or gasped. “Thank you.”
I picked up the mug and took a drink. It was beer all right, or else something very much like beer. Like most beer it was neither especially good nor notably bad. But it was beer, which was a good thing, especially for me in my present state of physical pain, of hunger, and confusion.
The woman had what looked like a martini in front of her, mostly full. I was surprised they even had martinis in this sort of place. But I wasn’t surprised enough to mention anything about it. Anyway, she picked up the drink, took a sip, then laid it down again. I noticed that there was lipstick on the glass’s rim. I assumed and, yes, I hoped, that it was her lipstick.
Next to her glass was a cigarette case, made of gold or something the color of gold, with a swirly letter N on it made out of little sparkling stones. Next to the case stood a thin lighter that matched the cigarette case in color and design, complete with the swirly sparkling letter N.
The woman turned and looked at me again.
“My name is Nadine,” she said.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Arnold.”
“Arnold? No, you’re not. You’re Porter Walker.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I forgot.”
“You forgot your own name?”
“Um,” I said.
“Or are you perhaps attempting to go incognito.”
“Yes,” I said. Why not lie? As I kept reminding myself, these people were all fictional characters. As was I. Since this whole universe was a lie, why shouldn’t I lie?
She swiveled on her barstool so that she faced me more directly. Her legs were crossed, under a loose ivory-colored skirt, and the tip of her shoe touched my leg.
“I saw your performance earlier tonight,” she said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
I was distracted by the sharp toe of her shoe, pressing against my shinbone just below the painful area of my right knee.
“Your poetry reading,” she said. “At the Kettle of Fish.”
Suddenly I remembered what she was talking about. Had it really been that same night? Because it felt like five years ago.
“Oh, right,” I said.
“I found it quite – what’s the word? ‘Moving’?”
She looked at me as if she expected an answer.
“Well –” I said. I suppose I should mention here yet again that this place was extremely noisy, and so I more or less had to shout everything I said. But strangely this woman didn’t have to shout to be heard. It was as if her words went straight into my ear through some invisible tunnel. “Uh, um –” I shouted.
“But ‘moving’ is so cliché, isn’t it,” she said, after probably realizing I wasn’t going to say anything intelligent. “Like ‘stunning’," she said. "Or ‘shattering’. Or ‘brilliant’.”
I didn’t care about any of what she was saying. I decided I’d better just finish off my whiskey and beer as quickly as possible, and then make my excuses and find Josh.
I took another drink of the whiskey. The trouble with straight whiskey is that it’s hard for me to bolt it down all at once. I suppose I’m not a very accomplished alcoholic in that regard. But I managed another good swallow of what was in the glass, leaving maybe one last gulp in it.
“But, nevertheless” she went on, “I was moved by your reading. And in fact I found it both stunning and brilliant. If not quite completely shattering.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I too am a poet,” she said.
Now I knew I needed to make a getaway, and as quick as humanly possible.
I picked up the old-fashioned glass and bolted down the rest of the whiskey.
“I would like you to read some of my poetry,” she said.
What could I say? I had already accepted a double shot of Carstairs and a beer from her. I was trapped. And so I had to fall back on my old friend mendaciousness.
“I’d like to read it sometime,” I said.
“Oh good. I’m glad you said that.”
“No problem,” I said.
“Would you like to come up to my place and read some of my work?”
“Well,” I said, “uh, sure. I’ll have to take a look at my schedule, but –”
“I mean now.”
“Now?” I said.
“Yes. Why. Are you all that busy? Because frankly you look like you’re out on a bender. Black eye. Bruises. Clothes dirty and wet. Have you been brawling?”
“Not exactly,” I said, and I took a good gulp of the beer.
“Please don’t lie to me,” she said. “I’m a fellow poet, even if I am a woman. How did you get that black eye if you weren’t brawling.”
“A girl hit me with her purse,” I said.
“Of course,” she said. “There. Telling the truth isn’t all that painful, is it?”
I really had no answer to this, if it really was anything more than a rhetorical question, so I took another swallow of beer. One more gulp and the mug would be empty, and then I could go.
“And,” she said, “did you deserve to be struck in the eye with a girl’s purse?”
She looked straight at me as if she really did want an answer, and so I answered her, as truthfully as I could.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“You know what I think, Porter –” she said, and then, “I may call you Porter, mayn’t I?”
“Sure,” I said.
“And you must call me Nadine.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay, Nadine,” I said.
“I think you are a naughty boy, Porter.”
I didn’t say anything to this. I picked up the beer mug. Just one more big gulp left, and I was about to take that gulp and make a run for it, but she said:
“That’s it. Finish your beer. And we’ll go.”
I put the mug down without drinking from it.
“Listen,” I said. “Nadine?”
“I like it when you say my name. Say it again.”
“Listen, Nadine,” I said, and then quickly before she could interrupt me, “I can’t really go right now. To read your poems.”
“I have a friend here,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “He’s here somewhere.”
“Then why were you with those two sad sacks Zaramajevski and St. Cloud?”
“They – they – they just – they just –”
“Yes,” I said. “I was just using the men’s room when the colored man, what’s his name –”
“Yes, him, he waylaid me, and then the little guy –”
“Yes,” I said. “when we left the men’s room he waylaid me also, and –”
“A couple of jokers,” she said. “You’re lucky I rescued you. Come on, finish your beer and we’ll go. I have plenty to drink at home.”
“But my friend –”
“So he really exists, this ‘friend’?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Where is he?”
I turned around, rising up on my tiptoes and I looked around that crowded barroom.
“Oh, there he is,” I said.
I pointed to a booth to the left of the entrance. Through the dancing and milling bodies I could see flashes of Josh sitting in one of the outside seats, and across from him was Horace P. Sternwall and, next to Horace, Mr. Philpot. Looming above the back of the booth and next to Josh was Big Ben Blagwell’s head with its yachting cap. Presumably Ferdinand was there also, lapping up beer and whiskey to beat the band.
“The chap in the light blue suit and the trilby?” she said, twisted around on her barstool, and in such a way that I could disconcertingly see a section of her breast peeking between the cloth of her shirt and the gauzy material of her scarf. “Drunken looking fellow?"
“Yes,” I said. “That’s him.”
“What about those other fellas. Are they your ‘friends’ also?”
“Well, uh, I guess so – I mean –”
“Quite a jolly-looking little crew I must say. I’m sure they’ll miss you terribly.”
She then turned and lifted up her martini, which was still half-full, and drained it in two quick gulps. She put the empty glass down next to her pile of money, and pushed the glass and the money a few inches farther away from her, in a dismissive sort of way. Then she reached under the rounded edge of the outside of the bar and brought up a large pale-leather bag which must have been hanging on a hook. She opened the flap of the bag and dropped her cigarette case and lighter into it. She closed the flap of the bag with a sharp thwapping sound and then draped the strap of the bag over her shoulder. She reached under the edge of the bar again and this time came up with a furled umbrella, which matched the color of her shirt and her skirt. Then she slipped off the stool and stood facing me. She was about six inches shorter than me but somehow she seemed as if she could beat me up if she really wanted to. She took one last drag on her cigarette and dropped it to the floor. Then she tapped my chest with the ferrule of her umbrella.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“But, miss –”
“Nadine. How many times must I tell you. Call me Nadine, you bad man.”
“Nadine,” I said.
“My friend wanted to have a, uh, private talk with me.”
“The blue-suit chap.”
“Yes,” I said. “His name is Josh, you see, and he wanted to have a talk about something, but I was hungry, so we thought we would go here where I could get something to eat, and we could, you know –”
“Yeah,” I said.
“While you ate something.”
“Yes,” I said.
“It all seems so terribly vague, doesn’t it?”
“Well, um, uh, I don’t know,” I said, vaguely.
“And what about those other chaps.”
“The chaps this ‘friend’ of yours is sitting carousing with.”
“Oh, them. Well, we sort of caught a ride with them, because the one old fellow, Mr. Philpot, he has a car, a Jaguar, and –”
“That little old man with the derby drives a Jag? What kind?”
“A Mark VII I think, a red one. So, anyway, uh –”
“Why don’t you just say you don’t want to read my poetry.”
“Oh, I do,” I lied. “But you see, Josh –”
“Yeah,” I said. “He really seemed anxious to talk about, uh –”
“Yes. And –”
“Most men find me attractive.”
“Oh, you are,” I said. “But it’s just, you know –”
“Is it that girl,” she said.
“Is what what girl?” I said, and I suddenly realized that I was sweating, the sweat pouring down my face and dripping to the sawdust-covered floor like warm sticky rain. But for some reason this woman Nadine was not sweating.
“Is it that girl who gave you the black eye with her purse, in which she must carry a brick I must say.”
“No, it’s not her,” I said.
“Then some other girl.”
“Yes?” I said, in desperation.
She put the tip of her umbrella against my tie, right below the knot.
“Listen, buster,” she said. “You listen up and listen tight. I am not asking you to make the beast with two backs with me. If I may be at least as crude as the bawdy bard. All I am asking is that you read a page or two of my poetry.”
“But my friend –”
She drew the umbrella back, and I hoped she wasn’t going to hit me with it.
“Yes,” I said. I lifted my hand and gently moved the umbrella to the side. “You see, my friend really did want to talk to me. It seemed to be something – important.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Something about a girl, perhaps?”
“Um, uh, I’m not sure, uh –”
“Look at your friend. Go on. Take a good look at him.”
I turned and looked across that crowded barroom to where Josh sat.
“Do you see him?” said this Nadine woman.
“Yes,” I said.
Josh was laughing, smoking, drinking. Having a good time, which was more than I could say for myself.
“Does he look as if he’s just dying to have a tête-à-tête with you?”
I sighed, for the fifty-thousandth time that day.
“No,” I said.
“He looks as if he’s having quite a jolly time with your other pals, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
She moved closer to me, close enough that her breasts touched my rib cage. She tilted her head back so that she could stare up into my eyes.
“I live just up Bleecker,” she said. “We can be there in a trice. You’ll read my poetry and then we’ll come back here. Your friends won’t even know you’ve been gone.”
“But – Nadine?”
“Yes? Now what is it?”
“The thing is, or, the other thing is, I really need to eat. I’m starving –”
“You really are behaving as if you do not want to read my poetry.”
“But I really am hungry,” I said, consciously trying not to whine, but failing I think. “Also my knees are really killing me because of a couple of accidents I had tonight, and I just want to sit down –”
“No one likes a complainer, Porter.”
“Look, you can sit down on my very comfortable Persian divan when we get to my place, and I’m sure we can raid the old icebox and fix you a very lovely sandwich or two. Now quit fucking around if you’ll pardon my French, finish that beer if you want it and let’s go.”
I sighed, then I picked up the mug, and drank, and as I did so I gazed across the bar at Josh, flickering in and out of view as the drunken people milled and danced, and I said a prayer that he would help me, but he just kept right on laughing and talking and drinking, and he didn't seem to hear my prayer.
(Continued here, we’re only just getting started.)
(Kindly scroll down the right-hand column of this page to find an often-current listing of links to all other electrically-published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. A few tickets are still available for the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Annual 4th of July party at the Raymond T. Osmond VFW Post at Chew and Lawrence. Open bar and “sausage ‘n’ beef” buffet, with musical entertainment provided by “Freddy Ayres & Ursula”, with special guest “Magda” on the Hohner electric piano and vocals.)