Friday, January 29, 2010

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 184: carpe diem

The Devil has transported our hero Arnold Schnabel into the pages of a novel called Ye Cannot Quench, a now-forgotten potboiler recounting a young woman’s adventures upon moving from West Virginia to the New York City of the mid-1950s...

Let us now rejoin Arnold (in the guise of his character, “Porter Walker”, romantic bohemian poet) at lunch in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, with our heroine Emily and her boss, the handsome young publisher Julian Smythe, with whom Arnold (sorry, “Porter”) has just closed a deal for the publication of his epic bohemian poem, The Brawny Embraces...

(Go here to read our preceding chapter; click here to return to the first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

As I dipped the shrimp into the cocktail sauce and proceeded to swallow the thing with only the most rudimentary chewing I heard another swell of orchestral music, and I suspected that we were entering one of those sections of the story in which my presence was to be dispensed with.

I could feel myself dissolving away like an image on a movie screen.

I fought back.

I bit my lower lip, I breathed in deeply through my nose, I concentrated on the here-ness and the now-ness of where and when I was, in all its black-and-white immediacy.

“Lunch was splendid,” I heard Miss Evans’s magisterial voice from above, it sounded now like the voice of the Blessed Mother in The Song of Bernadette, “and fortunately Porter behaved himself for the rest of the --”

That’s where I would foil her.

What does it mean?” I nearly shouted.

“I beg your pardon?” said Julian, holding the shell of a clam casino poised before his mouth.

“What does any of this mean?” I asked.

“What?” he said. “You mean what does lunch mean? Or just appetizers?”

“Porter,” said Emily, “don’t be a weirdo.”

“It’s all right, Emily,” said Julian. “Porter’s a poet after all.”

“What does any of this mean?” I asked. “This existence. This whole life. This planet.”

“I haven’t the faintest notion what any of it means,” said Julian. With a little cocktail fork he slid the clam and its thick hat of bacon into his mouth and chewed. “Personally I just live day to day.”

I heard Miss Evans’s heavenly voice rewrite herself in mid-sentence:

“ -- that is to say Porter behaved himself at least until after he had devoured his first shrimp.”

I was on a roll now.

“It can’t just be about shrimp,” I said. “Or clams.”

“Don’t forget the oysters,” said Julian, picking up one of those mollusks and poking it with his cocktail fork.

“Or oysters,” I said.

“Okay, then,” he said, transporting the oyster and its trappings into his mouth, “what’s it all about?”

“Porter,” said Emily, “stop talking nonsense and eat your food.”

“Oh, how are the shrimps, by the way, Porter?” asked Julian.

“Pretty good,” I said.

“Try some of these oysters and clams, old boy, they’re excellent.”

What could I do, I was still famished. I grabbed a cocktail fork, stabbed an oyster Rockefeller, and shoved it in. It was very good, and as I chewed I thought, Wait, why fight it? Why not disappear for a chapter or two? What do I care?

But the next second I felt, against all logic, that I must continue to fight for my existence, and a continuous existence at that; it might not be my real existence, but it was the only existence I had right now.

Indeed I felt, locked in my chest, that innate fear of oblivion which I have noticed in myself no matter how dull my life has been, that nagging desire to see another day no matter how poor its prospects, that fear of being nothing which has not only kept me alive through many dark nights but also awake, staring up into the oblivion which will someday claim me whether I like it or not.

I washed the oyster down with a gulp of the good beer.

But, wait, hadn’t I visited God’s house the previous day? Was that not proof of continued existence after death? A rather cold and bleak existence by all appearances, but better than nothing.

But then again what if yesterday’s visit was merely a fantasy, a dream? What if nothing existed on that far shore but nothing? If that were so then I would be nothing myself and unaware of the nothingness.

But still I was afraid.

And so it wasn’t so much the state of nothingness that I feared so much as the prospect of nothingness and the passage into nothingness.

The passage, that was the scary part, and the passage into the nothingness of not appearing on the printed page for twenty, thirty, who knew how many more pages, this awful passage was what I recoiled against now.

I wanted to live out each second of my (or Porter’s) life, and not be shuffled aside according to the artistic choice or whim of Miss Evans; yes, call it the sin of pride if you will, but I wanted not only to continue to live each moment as it came but I also wanted to live each of these moments with at least as much autonomy as I possessed in my other life, which wasn’t much, true, but better than none at all.

“You’re awfully quiet all of a sudden, Porter,” said Julian. Having eaten one shrimp, he grabbed another and immersed it in cocktail sauce.

I picked up one of the clams.

“I think I’ve figured it out,” I said.

“What? The meaning of life?”

“Yes,” I said.

I poked the clam and bacon with my fork, stuck it into my mouth.

“Well, don’t hold out on us, old boy.”

Emily, chewing in a very lady-like manner, stared at me with her head cocked slightly to one side.

I chewed also, and picked up my glass. I swallowed the clam and whatever else had been congealed to it, washed it down with the excellent cold beer. And then, and not a moment before the audience would have been streaming down the aisles in droves to the popcorn stand, I spoke:

“It’s living each second,” I said.

“Living each second,” said Julian.

“Yes,” I said.

I picked up my beer bottle, but it was empty.

Carpe diem,” said Julian.

“Seize the day,” translated Emily.

Julian gazed at me as he chewed his shrimp, and I could imagine him thinking that I had said just the sort of thing someone like me might be expected to say. I felt abashed. Even now that I was a character in a novel I kept saying idiotic things. Why couldn’t I be someone like that guy in The Fountainhead, the Gary Cooper guy, and say something a little more original than “living each second”?

“Living each second to the fullest, I suppose,” said Julian, smiling indulgently.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. I was already bored with the subject, or rather with my own inadequacy as a philosopher.

“Well, ya know, that’s where I disagree with you,” said Julian.

Well, here was a curve ball. Was Julian also kicking against the conventional constraints of Miss Evans’s novel?

Emily had put her cocktail fork down.

“Julian,” she said, “I mean, Mr. Smythe, how can you say such a thing? I mean, isn’t life meant to be lived to the fullest, are we not meant to savor each moment, and, and --”

Julian looked away from her, raising his empty-again martini glass.

Arnold Stang was right there, he must have been waiting just off camera, perhaps enjoying a quiet cigarette while he awaited his cue.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Smythe, another round?”

“No, Maxie.” (Ah ha, so at least he really wasn’t called Arnold Stang. That was something to hang onto.) “Bring us,” said Julian, “I don’t know, a good Chevalier-Montrachet maybe. Wine okay with you two?”

I shrugged. Wine, beer, as long as it had alcohol in it --

“Oh, no, I shouldn’t --” said Emily.

“Okay,” said Julian, “a bottle of Chevalier-Montrachet then, the ’49 if you have it, Maxie, and make sure it’s cold.”

“Right away, Mr. Smythe --”

“Oh, and while you’re at it, bring out -- oh -- how about a nice Pétrus, you still have any of that ’45 left?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, bring one of those babies too and let it air out a bit.”

“Right away, sir.”

Off he scurried.

“Oh, but Mr. Smythe,” said Emily, “I couldn’t possibly drink any wine. I have to go back to the office after lunch.”

“Ah, better lay off the wine, then, Emily,” said Julian, taking out his cigarette case again and clicking it open.

“Cigarette, Porter?”

“No, thanks,” I said, only because I was still shoveling down shrimps and clams and oysters as if I was afraid of never being fed again.

This time Julian neglected to offer Emily a cigarette.

“So here’s my trouble with the living each moment to the fullest gag,” he said, lighting himself up and inhaling deeply.

He certainly seemed to be living each moment to its fullest, but I let the thought remain unspoken.

“I’ve tried it,” he said, “just trying to squeeze the juice out of every damn moment, and I’ll tell ya, it gets very -- what’s the word -- tiring. Yes, tiring.

“I can see how it would get that way,” I said.

“You change your mind awfully quickly, Porter.”

“He’s mercurial,” said Emily.

“Right,” said Julian. And, tilting his head slightly away from Emily, he gave me a wink.

Was he on to me? Did he know I was only an impostor? A real-life composer of bad sonnets, trapped in the body of a composer of bad epics?

Emily now began to speak again, about how if one lived each moment to the fullest it wouldn’t matter if one got tired, that this tiredness would be a rich tiredness, and that after a good night’s sleep one would rise up bursting with a hunger for the new day.

I ate, and nodded my head.

Julian smoked, and nodded his head, almost imperceptibly.

At one point I noticed his eyes close, and his chin was beginning to descend to his broad chest when Arnold Stang, or Maxie, showed up with a tray with two bottles of wine and six wine-glasses on it.

Julian’s head jerked up at once.

“Ah, Maxie, you’re a life-saver. Let’s have some of that Montrachet first.”

Maxie set to work opening a bottle of white wine.

“Emily began to feel ever so slightly left out,” said Miss Evans from on high. “The two men -- intense young poet and devil-may-care young titan of publishing -- seemed to be about to bond with each other in a way she, a mere woman, never could. With either of them. She felt the tears well up in her grey eyes.”

Suddenly Emily pushed her chair back, grabbed her purse, and stood up.

Both Julian and I half-rose, but she waved us back down.

“I simply must powder my nose. Please, enjoy your wine, gentlemen.”

Off she went. I couldn’t be sure, but I think she may have been in a huff.

Maxie had gotten the cork out of the bottle, and now he poured a small amount into a glass he had placed in front of Julian.

“Oh, please, pour away, Maxie, and fill up my friend’s glass too.”

Maxie did this, then he put the bottle down and proceeded to open the other bottle, a red wine.

“Try your wine, Porter,” said Julian.

I tasted it, Julian watching me.

“What do you think?”

“Not bad,” I said.

Julian smiled and tasted his wine.

“Not bad at all,” he said. He leaned forward a bit towards me.

“Would you like me to decant the Pétrus, Mr. Smythe?” said Maxie.

“No, just leave it, thanks, Maxie,” said Julian.

Maxie put the bottle down and went away. Julian leaned a little closer, tapped his cigarette ash into the ashtray, some of the ash got onto the table cloth.

His lips started to move but his voice was drowned out by Miss Evans’s narration:

“In the ladies’ room Emily locked herself into a stall, sat down, took from her purse the lace handkerchief her grandmother had embroidered for her, and proceeded to burst into bitter tears.”

So, I had succeeded in continuing to exist even though the main narrative had moved elsewhere, and so had Julian. This was a triumph. Now I only had to get rid of that annoying voice from above.

“I’m sorry, Julian,” I said. “My mind wandered. What did you say?”

(Continued here, no one knows why.)

(Please look to the right hand side of this page for an often-current list of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. “A book for all seasons.” -- Harold Bloom, on Oprah.)


Unknown said...

Farewell, J.D., blessings up and honor, mon. Arnold's got the baton.

The passage, that was the scary part, and the passage into the nothingness...

Dan Leo said...

It's funny, 'cause Arnold is at least on the fringes of J.D. territory here...

Unknown said...

Nothing to keep a panic attack at bay like some great shrimp cocktail and fine wine.
That said, I'm getting a little worried about Arnold's mental state. I think he's well into J.D. territory.

Dan Leo said...

I know what you mean, Manny. If Holden walks in (dragged in by his goddam parents and some of their goddam phony friends) even I'm gonna get scared.

Jennifer said...

Was Julian also kicking against the conventional constraints of Miss Evans’s novel?

I have the feeling I'll never read a book the same way again... now wondering if the characters in it are struggling for as much control of the direction as the author.

Maybe that's why some people innately feel the need to read the last page first. Perhaps it locks down the story, preventing it from changing while we've set the book down, off to work on other things.

DR said...

i wish time passed as slowly for me as it does for arnold

Dan Leo said...

Dean, I dig. Time means nothing to Arnold.

Jen, your comment caused my mind to bend in a not unenjoyable way, or perhaps it was just the cold pills. I began to think of a possible book which would have a different plot for each reader who opened it. Maybe Jorge Luis Borges already wrote this book. At any rate, thank Josh that Arnold's opus is a memoir, and thus his characters have no chance of usurping his auctorial authority.