Let’s return to a certain hot and rainy night in 1957 and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here in the crowded, smoky and bacchanalian confines of Bob’s Bowery Bar…
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; potential completists may click here to return to the very first chapter of this 57-volume Gold View Award™-winning masterpiece.)
“What other work of autobiographical literature features in its cast of characters not only the son of God, but also the prince of darkness, the holy ghost, and, yes, even a guardian angel by the name of ‘Bowery Bert’?” – Harold Bloom, in The Arnold Schnabel Society’s Quarterly Review.
“Okay,” I said. “And what exactly is it you think I should do, Bert?”
“You really want me to tell you what you should do?” he said, with a slight smile that one of the authors of the cheap paperbacks I like to read might describe as “roguish”.
“Yes,” I said. “That I think pretty well sums up or rephrases if not exactly repeats what I have just said, yes.”
I don’t know why I was talking in this elaborate way all of a sudden. Could it be that I was at last surrendering to, or had been conquered by, this world of cheap fiction in which I had been trapped for so long?
“Okay, then,” he said, after taking a “meditative” series of puffs on his Parodi or Di Nobili. “I’ll tell you what you should do.”
I waited, but apparently he hadn’t quite yet milked the moment for all it was worth, to him anyway, oh no, not yet. I stood there sweating into my clothes amidst all these drunken staggering people shouting and laughing and thrashing around to the jukebox music, while Bert just leaned sort of raffishly on his umbrella, smoking his cigar. Every once in a while he nodded his head, as if agreeing with himself about something. He was mostly staring up at me in this very serious-looking way, with those grey eyes so monstrously magnified behind the thick lenses of his glasses, but sometimes he looked around, out at the crowd of drunks, even bending his head to the side to look past me, no doubt at the boogalooing Emily. One minute passed, and then another. I really wanted not to give him the satisfaction of hearing me ask him yet again to please say what was on his mind, but then it occurred to me that the concept of time probably meant nothing to him, being an angel and immortal, and possibly he would be quite willing to stand here all night waiting for me to egg him along some more, and so at last I broke down and spoke:
“Please,” I said, “Bert, just tell me what I should do.”
“You really want to know.”
“Yes,” I said, stifling a sigh with all my might. “I really want to know, now will you please just tell me.”
“Don’t get all hot under the collar.”
“In fact,” I said, “I am quite literally hot under the collar. I’m sweating like a pig, and I wish you would just tell me whatever it is you have to tell me.”
“Tell me, damn it.”
“Look, do I have to remind you about the language?”
“Apparently yes. Now tell me.”
“Bert, if you don’t stop torturing me I’m going to –”
Now it was me who paused.
“Nothing,” I said. “I have no other recourse.”
“Well, I’m glad you realize that.”
“Yes,” I said. “I fully realize that, and so now please tell me what it is you would have me do.”
“If you’re man enough to do it.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “And I realize that might be a big ‘if’. Now what is it?”
“You’re right it’s a big ‘if’. To tell the truth, and please don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not entirely sure you are man enough.”
I did an odd thing at this juncture, odd for me, anyway. I suppose I really was changing, if not into a more fictional sort of character, then at least less of a passive one. But what I did was I put one hand each on Bert’s upper arms and lifted him up, so that he was face to face with me, his feet dangling a foot above the floor. I held him there, at arm’s length. He must have weighed only ninety pounds, if that, and I was so filled with the strength of despair that I felt as if I could hold him up there easily for an hour. He had his cigar in his mouth, and his eyes seemed bigger than ever, like they were pushing his glasses away from his face.
“What the fuck?” he said.
“I swear, Bert,” I said, “if you don’t tell me what’s on your mind, I’m going to –”
He was making little treading movements with his legs.
“Lemme down, you scoundrel,” he said, talking around his cigar.
“Not until you tell me what you want me to do.”
“I’ll tell you if you let me down.”
I sighed. My moment of fury had passed, and I lowered him back down.
“Christ,” he said. He took a good puff on his cigar, then took it out of his mouth and tapped the ash with his finger, the ash tumbling down onto my work shoes, again.
He looked up at me.
“You calmed down now?”
“Yes,” I said, not entirely truthfully.
“Okay, then,” he said. “I’ll tell you what you should do. I mean if you really want to hear it.”
Quite involuntarily I raised my right hand and made a fist with it. Bert flinched, and then quickly continued.
“What I want you to do is to march right over to Edith over there –”
“Emily,” I said. “Her name is Emily.”
“Emily then. I’m sorry. Y’know, go ahead and sue me if you want to but after about a couple of dozen centuries or so in my job you start to get the names of human beings just a little mixed up now and then.”
“Fine,” I said. “So you’re saying I should march over to Emily?”
“Yeah, that’s right. March right up to her, say hello, and then what I want you to do is to apologize to her.”
“Apologize to her? For what?”
“You must have done something that got her upset.”
“I didn’t do anything to her.”
“You said you had sex with her, didn’t you?”
“Well, my character did.”
“In other words, you did.”
“So you want me to apologize for having sex with her?”
“No, that will make her even more mad. Just apologize.”
“Apologize for doing nothing?”
“You must have done something. Why else would she have knocked you out with her purse?”
“Because she’s insane?”
“That’s quite possible, and all the more reason why you should apologize, and as sincerely-seeming as you can pretend.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Well, no, it’s probably a really stupid idea, but since you’re in the world of a stupid novel, then you might as well do something stupid.”
“I think I’d rather do something smart.”
“Okay, look, your character in this fictional universe, the poet, what’s his name?”
“'Porter Walker', okay – now is this character smart or stupid?”
“Then you should do something stupid. Just as long as it’s dramatic and moves the plot along, the stupider the better. Go on, go apologize to the silly twit.”
“I just don’t see anything good coming out of doing that.”
“Arnold, look, do you think they teach us nothing in guardian angel school?”
“There’s a guardian angel school?”
“Of course there is. Not so much a school, but a sort of boot camp if you will. And graduating is not easy, believe you me. You got to pass every single course at least with a C and you got to keep taking the courses over and over again until you do pass them. Some angels it takes a hundred earth years. Some of them a thousand years, or more.”
“How many years did it take you?”
“What difference does it make how long it took me? All you got to know is that I did graduate, finally.”
“Yeah. I’m not gonna say I breezed through the school passing every single course the first time I took them, but, you know –”
“Yeah, but how long exactly did it take you?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just curious. I think you might appreciate that. I mean if it took you a thousand years I might have to bear that in mind before taking your advice.”
“It wasn’t a thousand years.”
“That’s not very reassuring.”
“If you must know it took me more than a hundred years to graduate but quite a bit less than a thousand.”
“More than a hundred years?” I said.
“Whatever,” he said. “Point is, I graduated, and I got the diploma to prove it. So quit your stalling, turn around, get the hell over to her to what’s her name – Edna –”
“'Emily' – say ‘excuse me’, and – oh, wait, first say excuse me to the big stud, James is it?”
“Him. Say ‘excuse me’ to him for butting in, because you want to be a gentleman, you want to take the high road. And then ask him if he would mind if you had just a quick word with Enid –”
“Emily, whatever, and what you do then is, you gently take her aside, and then without pussyfooting around, just flat out apologize to her.”
“And then what?”
“And then hope she doesn’t hit you with her purse again.”
“I don’t know, Bert,” I said.
“You don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if this is such a great idea.”
“Of course you don’t know. But that’s why you have me. Here –” He stuck his cigar in his mouth, reached into his suit coat and took out his flask again. Hooking his umbrella over his arm, he unscrewed the cap. “Take another shot of Windsor Canadian first,” he said. “A little Dutch courage never hurt anybody. Go on, take a good hit. There’s plenty left. You see, this flask is kind of like my cigar, which as you might have noticed has not burnt down even a fraction of an inch this whole time you have known me. Yes, this is a very special flask supplied only to guardian angels upon our graduation from guardian angel school – the so-called 'bottomless whiskey flask', which, believe you me, comes in handy when you’re dealing with human beings all day and night for a living. So, please, be my guest. My perquisite is your perquisite. So long as you do what I tell you and don’t fuck up.”
I started to take the flask, but then – and here I really was acting like a different character than the one I was used to playing – I lowered my hand.
“Hey, you know what, Bert,” I said. “I think I’m good actually.”
“Really?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Believe it or not.”
“Okay, then,” he said, and he took the flask. “You mind if I have one?”
“No, please,” I said. “Go right ahead.”
Without a second’s pause he lifted the flask to his lips and took a couple of good gulps. He sighed, nodded his head in an approving sort of way, screwed the cap back on, put the flask away.
“All right,” he said. “Go do it. Walk over and apologize to her, but make it quick. I mean, make it sound sincere, but then act like you don’t want to, you know, impinge on her precious time, then come back and get me and we’ll go meet Jesus.”
“Sorry – ‘Josh’.”
“Well, okay,” I said.
I took a deep breath, then turned around. Julian and Emily were dancing not three feet away from me. Both of them were obviously completely plastered now. I had no idea what time it was, but I doubted that either of them were going to make it to the office in the morning, and probably not in the afternoon, either.
They were dancing in a fashion that might be called “Negro”, or at least white people’s awkward simulation of Negro dancing. They were both pumping their arms in the air, undeterred by the fact that Julian held his briefcase in one hand, or it might have been Emily’s briefcase, while Emily swung her hard black purse around by its strap. I took two steps toward them, and said, croaked, yelled:
They both stopped in mid-gyration, turned and stared at me.
“Porter!” said Julian, because that was my fictional character’s name.
“Porter!” said Emily.
“Julian,” I said, “I wonder if I might just speak to Emily for just a moment.”
“Sure, old buddy,” he said, his sweaty face was smiling broadly, and he clapped me on the shoulder. “Take as much time as you need. I’ll be at the bar.”
“Oh, but I’ll only need a second,” I said.
“Take two seconds,” he said, smiling even more broadly, and without another word he turned and strode off through the crowd in the direction of the bar.
“What is it, Porter?” said Emily. She was glistening with perspiration, and the carefully sprayed dark helmet that had once been her hairstyle now looked as if several buckets of water had been dumped over it. “You’re not mad at me for knocking you out with my purse, are ya?”
She had lapsed into some sort of southern accent, maybe it was in fact her native way of speaking.
“I’m not mad at you,” I said. “In fact, Emily, I want to apologize to you.”
“Oh, just – you know –”
“Yes, sweetheart, I do know.” She put her hand on my tie and gave it a tug. “How I know. But how manly of you to be a man about it and come right out and apologize. Like a real man. Not like that big old faggot Julian.”
“Well, uh, that’s all I wanted to say, Emily,” I said. “I’ll let you get back to your, uh, dancing now.”
She pulled on my tie, pulling me closer to her.
“Fuck my dancing.”
“You heard me, stud. Fuck my dancing.”
She let go of my tie, but now she ran her fingers along the stubble on my chin.
“Take me up to your apartment,” she said.
“My, uh, apartment?”
“Yeah, take me up there. Right now.”
“But what about Julian?”
“To hell with Julian.”
“But you see I’m with a friend.”
“Where is she, I’ll scratch the bitch’s eyes out.”
“It’s not a she. It’s a man.”
“A man? What man?”
I turned and pointed at Bert, standing there just a few feet away, smiling and nodding his head. He raised his hand and gave a little wave.
“That little old fella is your friend?” said Emily.
“Sort of,” I said.
She stuck her arm in mine and pulled me over to where Bert was.
“Hey, granddad,” she said, “I’m just gonna borrow your young friend here for a spell. You mind?”
“Oh, well, uh, heh heh,” he said.
“Thanks, pops,” she said, and she dragged me past him, towards the door.
I twisted around and looked back at Bowery Bert.
He shrugged, with a grin a paperback novelist would almost certainly describe as “sheepish”.
Emily gave my arm a good yank. As I think I have mentioned, perhaps a thousand pages ago, she was a small woman, but nevertheless she seemed to have the strength of a vigorous young male practitioner of Charles Atlas’s dynamic tension program.
“Come on, big boy,” she said, and she continued to pull me along towards the front door.
So much for Bert’s guardian angel school.
(Illustration by Ernest "Darcy" Chiriaka. Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page to find a quite frequently current listing of links to all other officially-released chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. We still have a limited supply of Railroad Train to Heaven Action Figures™ available for the gift-giving season, so order now – kids just love ‘em!)