Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his friends – that lovable brawler Big Ben Blagwell; Josh, the quondam savior of mankind; that ancient purveyor of the rarest books, Mr. Philpot; the unjustly obscure author Horace P. Sternwall; and Ferdinand the loquacious fly – have hitched a ride in a Ford Model AA truck as an enormous storm threatens to overcome them from the rear..
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“When the final roll is called of the truly great masters of world literature surely the name of Arnold Schnabel must be included along with those of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Proust, Joyce, and Sternwall.” – Harold Bloom, in the Mojo Literary Supplement.
I began to feel myself teetering on the verge of complete insanity once again, just as I had teetered hundreds of times before – no, thousands of times, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, although millions might possibly be stretching it a little bit. Would this be the time when finally I would slip into the great dark abyss of mindlessness once again, perhaps never to slip back out of it?
Behind us that great dark storm the size of half the sky had now given birth to an enormous tornado of a darker and more sinister substance, as if it were composed of billions of churning and swarming angry Brillo pads, its whipping tail coursing along the road perhaps a half-mile back, pulling its mile-high weaving and swaying body straight toward us and getting closer by the second.
What would be worse, to go completely and hopelessly mad or to be swept up like a matchstick by the tornado, to be cast cartwheeling through the sky and then to be reduced to a long broken trail of blood and meat and pulverized bones?
But then I remembered, even if my companions were unaware of it, that I and they were all characters in a fictional world, the world of Horace’s novel The Jolly Six Bums – I had started reading the book at the very beginning, so surely we couldn’t all be killed so early in the novel – no novel was that short.
Maybe the farmer would get us to shelter in time, a nice basement or root cellar, or even a dedicated storm cellar. Considering that this was a Horace P. Sternwall novel we were in, it would not be out of the question for a beautiful and passionate farmer’s daughter to be in the offing, maybe even more than one, or at least a beautiful and frustrated farmer’s wife. Oh, sure, there could well be some business with the farmer and his shotgun or his strapping sons with pitchforks, but in the end would not the jolly six bums prevail, back on the road again, singing a proud and merry bum song? But when I leaned my head over the side-rails of the truck and looked beyond the cab at the road ahead I saw no sign of a farmhouse or any other dwelling or shelter, only empty fields, whether fields or wheat or some other grain or vegetable I could not say, being a city boy myself. When I turned back I saw my human companions all staring rearward at that huge roaring twister now perhaps only a quarter-mile behind us and each passing millisecond growing larger and taller and nearer.
“Yep, we’re doomed all right,” cackled Mr. Philpot.
“Sure looks like it,” said Ben. “A tough break. I still had a few Planter’s Punches with floats of ‘151’ I was hoping to quaff down.”
“And a few more shots of Carstairs whiskey for me,” said Horace, “a few more tall schooners of bock. My tastes are simple. Were simple.”
“The touch of a woman’s soft warm body is what I’ll miss,” said Ferdinand, still sitting in the porch of my left ear. “And don’t look at me like that. I may be a fly, but I can appreciate female pulchritude. Could appreciate.”
“And as for me,” said Josh, “I have to say I was looking forward to my first-ever sexual experience.”
“Tough one, Josh,” said Ben.
“I used to fuck a lot,” said Mr. Philpot. “And not so long ago, either. You fellows ever hear of Lily Langtry?”
“Wow,” said Horace, “you made whoopee with Lily Langtry?”
By way of answer Mr. Philpot made a motion with an imaginary billiards cue of drawing a score-keeping bead across its line.
“Who was Lily Langtry?” said Ben.
“’Who was Lily Langtry?’” said Mr. Philpot, “why only the most beautiful actress of her age!”
“No kidding,” said Ben. “Hot number, huh?”
“Red hot, sonny boy,” said Mr. Philpot. “They called her ‘the Jersey Lily’.”
“Jersey girl, huh?” said Ben. “I always liked Jersey girls. Down to earth like. I remember this one babe from Bayonne –”
As Ben went on with his story about the babe from Bayonne I looked back and saw that enormous twister twisting closer and closer, now only a football field’s length behind us and roaring so loud now that Ben’s booming voice became only a faint and unintelligible humming and barking.
It suddenly occurred to me that if I were indeed a main character in this novel – and, who knows, perhaps even the hero – then maybe it was up to me to save the day, rather than just sitting here passively awaiting my doom while hoping vaguely for a miracle, which, considering that the son of God was sitting with a sad resigned expression right next to me, did not seem likely. But how could I, a mere bum, defeat an enormous tornado?
And then I realized that the answer was sitting there right next to me, to my right: the aforementioned cardboard box of paperback books. I reached in and grabbed the first one my hand fell upon.
The book was titled Lady Psychiatrist, by “Hannah Pierce Sandler”. The cover painting showed a shapely woman in a black dress and pearls sitting with her legs crossed and holding a pad and pen. To the right of her a distressed-looking man sat on a sofa with his head in his hands.
Above the title this sentence was emblazoned with a brush in orange-red ink:
“Dr. Blanche cured the souls of tortured people – but could she find the cure for the emptiness in her own heart?”
Down near the bottom of the cover was another sentence, but in bold black type:
“A searing look into the world of psychoanalysis that asks the question: can the professional woman of today find fulfillment in work alone?”
I was not surprised to see that this sentence was attributed to “Horace P. Sternwall”, and the thought occurred to me that most likely Horace was no other than "Hannah Pierce Sandler", or vice versa.
I glanced again to the rear of the truck. The tornado was no farther than fifty yards away. I had no time to lose, I had everything to lose.
I opened the book, flipped quickly through the front matter, and went straight to the first sentence of the first chapter.
I was in a hallway, and standing in front of a door with frosted glass. Painted on the glass in black paint, bordered with gold, was the name
Dr. Blanche Weinberg
Well, I was here, and not about to be swept up bodily to my doom by a massive tornado, so, not knowing what else to do, I put my hand on the doorknob, turned it, the door opened, and I went in.
A young blonde woman sat a desk across the room.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” I said.
I seemed to be in a waiting room, which made sense. Two large windows looked out onto a city skyline. One of the windows had an air-conditioner in it, it was humming, the room was pleasantly cool. Chairs were placed along the walls, as well as small tables, with ashtrays and magazines.
The blonde tapped the point of a pencil on a page of a book on the desk.
“You must be Mr. Walker,” she said. “Mr. Porter Walker?”
Well, I supposed I was. After all, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been "Porter Walker" before.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re just a teeny bit late, Mr. Walker.”
“Sorry,” I said. I glanced at my wrist, but Porter Walker did not wear a watch. There was a clock on the wall, behind the young woman. It said ten minutes past four.
“You do realize that you will have to pay for the full hour, Mr. Walker?”
“Uh, yeah, sure, that’s okay,” I said. “My fault.”
I glanced at the wall to my left. It had a couple of abstract paintings on it. I wondered if it was such a good idea to have abstract paintings in a psychiatrist’s office. The paintings looked like representations of my brain on bad days.
“Was the traffic dreadful?” said the blonde.
She had a heavy New York City accent, which I am too lazy to try to represent with artful spelling, but take my word for it.
“Uh,” I said.
“Or did you take the subway?”
“Um,” I said.
“Or the bus?”
I hated to start right off by lying, and so, since driving a car or taking the subway or a bus all would involve at least some walking, I said, “I walked.”
“All the way from –” she glanced at the book on her desk, “Bleecker and the Bowery?”
“I like to walk,” I said.
“You should give yourself more time if you’re going to walk.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll do that in the future.”
“I live all the way out in Coney Island. I always give myself a good hour to get to work, just in case of the subways.”
“That’s smart,” I said.
She was a pretty girl, with a bubble of hair as bright as the sun, but I think it was dyed, it looked a little too bright.
“You know what I do when I get to work early?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“I sit in the coffee shop downstairs and drink a hot cocoa or an egg cream and watch the passing parade through the window.”
“The passing parade of humanity.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Sometimes I read a book, but mostly I get caught up in watching the passing parade.”
“That’s –” what? “understandable,” I said.
“I see –” she tapped the book on her desk with her pencil again, “that you list your occupation as ‘poet’.”
“Is there good money in poetry?”
I thought of my many years of writing poems for the Olney Times, starting out at fifty cents a poem, and eventually working my way up to a dollar. But then hadn’t Porter Walker gotten a tidy advance for his bad epic poem?
“It all depends,” I said.
“Oh, but, look, I’m eating up your time,” she said. “And you’re still gonna have to pay for it. One mo.”
She picked up the receiver of the phone on her desk, I neglected to mention, she had a dark blue office-style phone on her desk, along with a lot of other things, I don’t know what all, it’s not as if I’m a novelist who notices such details, and she pressed a button on the face of the telephone. After a moment she said, into the phone:
“Dr. Blanche, Mr. Walker is here. Yeah, he knows he’s late. Okay, I’ll send him right in.”
She hung up the phone.
“Dr. Blanche is waiting for you,” she said.
“Great,” I said.
“Just go right in.”
With a backward gesture of her hand she indicated a door to her right.
I walked over to the door.
“My name’s Donna,” said a voice as I put my hand on the doorknob. The voice belonged to the girl behind the desk.
I turned to her and said, “Hello, Donna. My name is Arnold.”
“What?” she said. “I thought your name was Porter. Porter Walker.”
“Right,” I said. “Sorry, I meant to say Porter.”
“Then why did you say Arnold?”
“Uh, it’s a long story,” I said. “I don’t think I have time to go into it right now.”
“Oh, I get it,” she said. “It’s probably something you should talk about with Dr. Blanche. You might have Dissociative Identity Disorder.”
“Yes,” I said. “I think I might have a touch of, uh, what you said –”
“Dissociative Identity Disorder. Dr. Blanche can help you with that, Mr. Walker. Or would you prefer that I call you Arnold?”
“Porter’s okay,” I said.
“Okay, Porter. You’d better go in. You’re fifteen minutes late as it is.”
“Right,” I said.
“I’ll see you when you come out,” she said, and then after a pause added, “Porter.”
“Sure, thanks, uh –”
“Donna. Donna Corbucci. You’re not prejudiced against Italians, are you?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“Dr. Blanche is Jewish.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“This is good, that you’re not prejudiced,” she said.
She picked up a paperback book. It was A Stone for Danny Fisher, by Harold Robbins.
I opened the door.
Illustration by Paul Rader.
(Continued here, and so on, until Arnold’s last marble composition book has been transcribed, complete and unexpurgated, and with only the most blatant misspellings silently corrected.)