On this fateful rainy night in August of 1957 we last saw our hero Arnold Schnabel hurling himself – “like a diver, or like Superman” – towards the screen of the Philco console television set here in the stately Bleecker Street townhouse of the decadent Belleforest siblings...
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“Some writers create worlds; Arnold Schnabel created (or should we say revealed?) not only worlds but worlds within those worlds, and worlds within those worlds within worlds. And so on, worlds without end.” – Harold Bloom, in the Police Gazette Literary Supplement.
I had a moment of panic in mid-flight, because what if I simply smashed and crashed into that television set, just as one would expect any ordinary maniac to do who took it into himself to dive into a massive electronic appliance composed of glass and metal and hard wood? Time slowed down for me here, as it had done in other dire situations I had found myself in, and so I had time to think of the pain that would soon be produced when my outstretched fingers struck that TV screen: chances are the screen wouldn’t break, but my fingers no doubt would, and perhaps also my wrists, maybe even my forearms and elbows. One thing was pretty sure: that taking a straight-armed leap into that big solid console television set would cause as much physical damage to me as would throwing myself at a brick wall, and maybe even much more because of the possibility of shattered glass and electrocution.
And so this little caper could and probably would, if not kill me, then render my arms and hands useless, and cause them to become yet further wellsprings of excruciating pain, to match the pains that had already been emanating from my knees, and to a lesser extent from various other parts of my present corporeal host.
I would not only be barely able to walk, if at all, but I would be unable even to lift a shot of Carstairs to my lips to ease my pain, forget about a tall mug of beer, and even were I able to slurp beer from a bowl like a dog, I would be unable to unzip my jeans and extricate my supposedly virile member in order to void my bladder of that same beer.
But it was too late, I was already in the air flying straight for that TV screen and the smiling sweaty face of Dan Duryea, and all I could do was close my eyes.
But then I opened my eyes and I was in this bar with Dan Duryea.
He was standing leaning sideways on the bar with his left foot on the rail, smiling at me, and I was standing there facing the bar and him. He had a dirty white suit on, and a limp and stained straw hat, also dirty. He was smoking a cigarette. He needed a shave, and he was sweating profusely.
My little plan had worked. “Hiya, pal,” he said. “Looks like it’s still comin’ down out there.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“The rain. You’re soaking wet.”
This was true, my head and clothes were wet, my socks were wet and squishy in my shoes.
“Ah,” I said. “Yes.”
“You’ll catch your goddam death.” he said, “What you need is somethin’ to warm you up from the inside out. How about a whiskey? I’m buying.”
“Okay,” I said.
Actually I didn’t need to be warmed up. The air-conditioning must have been broken in this place, or maybe they just didn’t have air-conditioning, but it was a least ninety degrees in here, and humid, and very smoky and noisy.
Dan Duryea turned and waved to the bartender, I think it was William Frawley.
“Hey, Bill! Two shots of Carstairs down here!”
“Keep your fuckin’ shirt on,” William Frawley yelled right back. “I’ll get to ya when I get to ya, asshole!”
“Two large schooners of Rheingold, too!” yelled Dan Duyrea.
“Fuck you!” William Frawley yelled right back.
Dan Duryea turned back to me, smiling, still smiling.
“He really loves me, that Bill,” he said. “That’s just his way of showing it.”
He took a drag on his cigarette, and then went into a coughing fit.
I took advantage of his coughing fit to take a look around.
Yes, it was a bar, another one, which would make it, oh, I don’t know, the one-hundred-and-fiftieth bar I had been in since waking up this day, this day which had lasted what felt like four years and nine months already.
The place was crowded, and across the room and slightly above floor level a piano player was playing jazz, but old time jazz, at least it sounded old-time to me.
What city was I in? What world was I in?
One thing I did know, this wasn’t my world, because everything was in black and white and all the shades between, mostly the shades between.
Okay, so I was in some sort of black-and-white movie world. But this sort of thing was becoming old hat to me, this passing from one world to the next, and I had even been in some sort of old-movie world before. Somehow I had survived till now. Unless I hadn’t survived, unless I had died at any of various points in my long day’s and night’s journey, and this was my afterlife, an afterlife of senseless wandering, of frustration and pain, mixed in (I had to admit) with some amusing moments.
The thought of pain caused me to run a quick mental check on my physical condition:
As Dan Duryea had already indicated, I was wet, almost soaking, my head and my jacket and jeans, my shoes and the socks on my feet, so I had obviously been caught out in the rain again, either that or someone had poured a bucket or two of water over me, or someone had hosed me down, but that didn’t matter, being wet was uncomfortable but it wouldn’t kill me, not necessarily – the most important question was: how were my knees?
And here was the good part, my knees didn’t hurt particularly, and for that matter neither did my head or face or my arms or hands. Oh, sure, I could detect a few or more aches and pains here and there, as if I had fallen or been pushed to the pavement a couple of times in the recent past, and maybe also had been beaten up a bit, but just with fists, no saps or pistol butts or purses loaded down with extra-large cold-cream jars, but nothing serious, nothing warranting more than a cursory visit to the emergency ward.
I almost wanted to dance a jig for joy, not that I knew how to dance a jig, and not that I ever would have danced one even if I did know how, but nonetheless I almost felt that if I were the sort of guy you could imagine dancing a jig, I might have danced a quick step or two. After all, this was a bar, and it seemed like a pretty regular bar, the sort where a brief jig would not be cause for expulsion.
Finally Dan Duryea stopped coughing. He had been leaning over, holding his fist to his mouth, and now he looked at me and smiled again, sweating even more profusely.
“Goddam cancer sticks,” he said, and he held up the one he was smoking. “But I love ‘em!”
He coughed again a couple times.
“You want one?” he said, and he reached into his jacket’s side pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Old Golds.
“No thanks,” I said.
His smile disappeared.
“Why not? You ain’t got the cancer, do ya?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve simply given up smoking, but thanks, anyway.”
“Given up smoking,” he said, nodding his head slightly, his smile slowly disappearing.
“Yes,” I said. “I know it’s strange, but I seem to have given up smoking.”
He nodded his head some more, but then he held that crumpled pack out to me anyway, giving it a shake so that the end of exactly one Old Gold peeked out of the opening.
“Go on,” he said. “Live a little. Take one. I got plenty, and I can always get another pack. I ain’t flat broke yet. Close to it maybe, but not yet. Take one.”
I was tempted. Really, did it matter if I smoked in this world? The me who was me in this world, was he really me? Did it matter if this version of me smoked even five packs a day? Why not take one?
“You know you want one,” said Dan Duryea. He was smiling again.
It was true, I wanted one, and I raised my hand to take one, but just then I thought, “No.”
I had gotten this far without a cigarette, and maybe that wasn’t saying much, or anything, but right then it meant something to me, so I lowered my hand.
“No, really,” I said. “Thanks, but I’d rather not.”
“You’re serious,” he said, looking very serious now himself.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay. Sure, pal,” he said.
He gave the pack another little shake, the cigarette that had been sticking out descended back into the pack, and he stuck it back into his pocket.
He smiled, but with just one side of his mouth, and briefly, almost like a tic.
“Maybe later,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe later.”
“If there is a later,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, and I thought of some other things to say, but decided not to say them.
William Frawley was there on the other side of the bar now, sweat streaming down his face, and he put down two pint-sized mugs of beer, or something that looked like beer. He had a bottle of Carstairs whiskey in his other hand, or at least it was what looked like a Carstairs whiskey bottle, with the correct shape and label. He picked up two shot-glasses that were standing in a row of upside-down shot glasses on a dirty-looking strip of nubbly rubber on his side of the bar, he set the two glasses down right side up on the bar and then filled them with brown liquid from the Carstairs bottle.
“Two bucks,” he said. So that was good, too, I was in another cheap bar, a good thing to know.
“Outa my pile there, Bill,” said Dan Duryea, and he tapped a small pile of damp and filthy-looking crumpled bills that may have been real greenbacks, maybe they were counterfeit, how was I to do know?
William Frawley picked up two one-dollar bills.
“Take one for yourself, Bill,” said Dan Duryea, and William Frawley took another single and then went away.
Dan Duryea turned to me and he was smiling again, I could see the dark outlines of nicotine stains on his teeth.
“See?” he said. “Bill loves me.”
He handed me one of the shots and picked up one for himself.
“What should we drink to, pal?”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I said, speaking the truth.
“How about we drink to escaping a deadly whirlpool of betrayal and violence?”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“Except there ain’t no escape,” he said, and now his smile was gone again. “Not for guys like us,” he said. “For guys like us there’s only one escape – death.”
I had no response at hand for this.
“Should we just go ahead and drink then?” I said.
I didn’t even especially want the shot, but on the other hand I did want to move things along if possible, and not spend hours standing here trying to decide what to drink to.
But Dan Duryea wouldn’t let it go at that.
“Just like that?” he said. For a second it looked like he was going to smile again, but it was a false alarm, and now he looked even more serious. “So we drink to nothing. Because that’s all we are, nothing. You, me, everybody in this joint, everybody in this whole wide stinking world. Nothing. Zilch. Zero.”
“Can I be honest with you –” I almost said “Mr. Duryea” but it occurred to me that if we were in a movie then he probably had another name.
“Sure,” he said. “Be honest. I can take it. And if I can’t take it, who gives a shit? Nobody.”
“Okay,” I said. “I just want to say that I really don’t care what we drink to, or if we drink to nothing at all. I’d really rather we just drink the shots and get it over with. I hope I don’t seem rude.”
He paused for a few seconds before speaking. He took a drag on his cigarette, coughed, and then smiled. He held up his shot glass.
“I like your style, pal. Let’s drink.”
So finally we drank our shots. It was whiskey all right, and it burned my throat, and tasted bad, nothing new there, it wasn’t the first shot of Carstairs I had ever drunk, far from it, and if I was lucky it wouldn’t be my last.
I put my empty shot glass down on the bar, and without waiting to be asked I grabbed one of the schooners and gulped down about a third of it, it was beer, the cheap kind, the kind I always drank, and it took away some of the fire in my throat.
Dan Duryea set down his own empty shot-glass and lifted the other schooner, but he just took a sip out of it.
He looked serious again. So far he had had two looks, smiling and serious, although neither one looked very genuine. But maybe for him not being genuine was genuine.
“What’dja say your name was, pal?”
“I didn’t, actually,” I said. “But my name is Arnold, Arnold Schnabel.”
“Schnabel? You a Hebe?”
“Not to my knowledge,” I said.
“So you must be a Kraut, right?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I got nothing against Krauts. Even though I killed more than a few of your countrymen in the war. Hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all,” I said. “Listen, can I ask you a question?”
“What’s my own moniker?”
Actually I had wanted to ask him where we were, what city we were in, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I said, “Yes.”
“Sylvester T. for Tyrone McGillicuddy,” he said. “At your service.”
Fortunately he didn’t offer his hand, and as I took grateful note of this I also noticed that his hands looked sweaty, the fingernails lined with grime at their bitten-down ends. Needless to say I did not extend my own hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Sylvester,” I said.
“Except they call me Slick,” he said.
“’Slick’,” I said.
“Slick,” he said. “And you know why they call me Slick?”
“No,” I said.
“Do ya wanta know?”
I didn’t, but I said I did.
“Take a guess,” he said. “Why do they call me Slick.”
“Because you’re slick?”
“Ah,” he said. “Ah. So you might think. But you’re wrong, Harry.”
I let that go. I didn’t care what he called me.
“You’re dead wrong,” he said.
I said nothing. I didn’t want to encourage him, but, now that I think about it, saying nothing probably encouraged him as much as anything I might have actually said.
After a pause he spoke again, as I knew he would, I hadn’t met anyone in any of the worlds I had visited yet who could keep from talking once they got started.
“They call me Slick ‘cause that’s what I ain’t,” he said. “I ain’t slick. I ain’t slick at all. I’m a loser. Always have been, always will be. A loser. And that’s why they call me Slick.”
“Well, anyway,” I said. “Pleased to meet you, ‘Slick’.”
“And I’m pleased to meet you, Herbie.”
I let that one go, too.
(Continued here, and onward; an army of Schnabelians would have it no other way.)
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