Friday, February 26, 2010

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 188: epic

The bad news is that the Prince of Darkness has transported our long-suffering memoirist Arnold Schnabel into Ye Cannot Quench, a now forgotten novel of 1950s New York; the good news is that Arnold’s “character” -- the handsome and romantic Porter Walker -- has just clinched a publication deal for his epic poem The Brawny Embraces. Let us rejoin Arnold (all right, “Porter”) in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, where he is just finishing a vinous lunch with his dashing publisher Julian Smythe and the putative heroine of the novel, the lovely young Emily...

(Click here to go to our previous episode; newer students may go here to return to that faraway first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning saga.)

Maxie the waiter had reappeared and started deftly laying the empty plates along one extended thin arm.

“Coffee or dessert, Mr. Smythe?”

“Anyone?” asked Julian, glancing from me to Emily.

“I’d like a cup of coffee,” said Emily.


Normally I polish off lunch with at least two or three cups of coffee, as strong and as black as possible, but now all I really wanted to do was just go back to bed, any bed, even my bed in Miss Evans’s novel, I just didn’t care. So I told Julian no, thanks.

“Yeah, me neither,” he said. “How about dessert?”

“I’ll take some chocolate cake if they have it,” said Emily.

“We got a excellent chocolate cake, miss,” said Maxie.

“Dessert, Porter?” asked Julian. “The cherries jubilee are pretty good here.”

“No, thank you, Julian,” I said.

For two cents I would have pushed my plate away, laid my head on the table, and passed out right there.

“Okay, Maxie,” said Julian, “coffee and chocolate cake for the lady and just a couple of those good Napoleon brandies for me and Mr. Walker.”

“Oh, no,” I said.

“Oh, yes,” said Julian.

I don’t remember much of the next fifteen minutes or so. A great snifter the size of a small goldfish bowl was laid before me, with three or four fingers of brandy in it, and in my insanity or general lack of self-control I duly drank it. Julian smoked with his brandy, and I wanted one of his cigarettes, they looked so fat and alluring, but I felt awkward about asking for one after so obstinately insisting that I had quit.

Julian was speaking, and Emily spoke also to a lesser extent between bites of her cake and sips of her coffee. They might as well have been speaking Chinese as far as I was concerned. I stared out across the room, which was emptying out now. Even Nicky and Norman and Truman and Flannery had gone. I was fading fast.

But then I realized that Julian was speaking to me, and this time I understood his words.

“Porter? So, Porter, is this okay with you?”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Because if it’s not --” he said.

Emily was holding one hand over her mouth, as if she were about to belch.

Perhaps Julian had just asked me to commit a dramatic suicide to pump up sales of my book.

“I mean,” he said, “only if it’s all right with you --”

“Um, uh,” what the hell, “sure,” I said.

Emily removed her hand from her mouth and gave a little jump in her seat.

“Oh, you won’t regret it, Porter!” she said, although just her having said that filled me with prospective regret.

“Good,” said Julian. “My old man might think me insane, but who cares? Now, if we’re going to beat this On the Highway book --”

On the Road,” corrected Emily.

“If we’re going to beat this Kerouac guy’s book to the shops you two are going to have to get right to work on the manuscript.”

“Right to work?” I said.

“Don’t worry, Porter,” said Julian, “as editor Emily will be doing the real heavy lifting --”

“Oh, but thank you again, Mr. Smythe,” said Emily. “I won’t let you down for giving me this, this amazing opportunity --”

“Well, I grant you, Emily, it is a drastic leap, to go in just a couple of weeks all the way from the typing pool to editing a major new work on which probably rests the whole fate of our firm --”

“And possibly the course of twentieth-century literature,” said Maxie, laying a leather folder in front of Julian.

“Ah, so you’ve been listening, Maxie,” said Julian.

“Like a elephant,” said Maxie. “And I just wanna say I’m sure Mr. Walker’s book is a gonna be a slam bang smasheroo.”

“Really? Even though it’s poetry?”

“Poetry schmoetry, it don’t matter,” said Maxie. “Me, workin’ in this joint? I seen ‘em come, I seen ‘em go. Ernie Hemingway? Scotty Fitzgerald? Wild Bill Faulkner? I waited on all them guys --”

“And gals,” said Emily.

“And dames, too,” said Maxie. “Dotty Parker, Clare Luce, Pearlie Buck, even ol’ Edie Wharton, and I wanna tellya, I ain’t never seen a writer so nice and quiet and polite as Mr. Walker. So I’m sure his book’s gonna be a sockeroo, even despite the fact it’s a epic poem.”

“Well, the voice of the people has spoken, then,” said Julian.

“That’s me,” said Maxie.

Julian had taken out his wallet, and he threw a wad of twenties into the leather folder after only the most cursory glance at the enclosed bill.

Maxie picked up the folder.

“You take Homer,” said Maxie. “He wrote epic poems and he’s still in print.”

“You’re so right,” said Julian.

“Or John Milton,” said Maxie.

“Right,” said Julian.

“Goddam Dante Alighieri,” said Maxie.

“Right, still in print too,” said Julian.

“The goddam Inferno,” said Maxie. “Story of my goddam life.”

“Well, thanks a lot, Maxie,” said Julian. “Keep the change by the way.”

“Thank you, Mr. Smythe,” said Maxie. But he wasn’t finished. “Beowulf,” he said. “The goddam Mahabarata.”

“Okay --” said Julian.

The Song of Roland,” said Maxie. “The Niebelungelied, fer Chrissake.”

“Haven’t read that one,” said Julian. (I of course hadn’t read any of them. But maybe Porter had.)

“All’s I’m sayin’ is there’s a great tradition of epic poetry,” said Maxie.

“Right, that’s so true, Maxie,” said Julian.

“Is all I’m sayin’.”

“Right. Thank you very much, Maxie,” said Julian.

“All I’m sayin’. God bless you, Mr. Walker.”

“Oh.” I still hadn’t gotten used to my new name. “Well, thanks, uh --”

“Maxie,” he said.


“You ain’t like them other bums, Mr. Walker. Hemingway, Steinbeck, John O’Hara. Bums. You, you’re a regular guy. I mean for a writer and all. A poet and all. You’re a mensch.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Thank you, Maxie,” said Julian.

“I’ll go now,” said Maxie, and off he went, weaving slightly, but managing not to knock anything over.

“Well, that was weird,” said Julian.

“He was drunk,” said Emily.

“Yes,” said Julian. “But can you blame him?”

We got up and left the room.

Out in the lobby Julian said, “Can I drop you somewhere, Porter? I’m going uptown --”

“Porter lives downtown,” said Emily.

“I can still drop you, Porter, ” said Julian, but I could tell he didn’t really want to. I figured he was probably as ready to take a nap as I was.

“That’s okay, Julian,” I said.

“Well, suit yourself,” he said.

We went through the lobby and at the entrance a doorman opened the door for us.

“A cab, Mr. Smythe?”

“Yes, thank you, Benny.”

We trooped outside, the daylight was bright, although everything was still in black and white. The sidewalk was busy with people, the street was full of cars, and after the air-conditioned dining room the air was hot and dirty and smelled of car exhaust. The buildings stretched many stories up to a faraway white river of sky.

Benny ducked across the sidewalk, blowing a whistle, and immediately a Yellow cab pulled up.

“You take this one, Porter,” said Julian, shaking my hand.

I didn’t argue, I was too sleepy. The doorman opened the back door of the cab and I climbed in.

For some reason I had assumed that Emily was coming with me, but she stayed by Julian’s side. The doorman closed the car door and Julian leaned through the front window and handed the driver a five-dollar bill.

“Take my friend downtown, and keep the change, pal.”

“Gee, thanks, buddy,” said the driver.

“’Bye, Porter,” said Emily, leaning forward and waving. “We’ll start work tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“Bright and early! Don’t stay out drinking at the San Remo or the Kettle of Fish all night!”

The driver pulled out, and as we joined the stream of traffic I felt myself disappearing again, starting to slip away into whatever limbo a character in a novel goes away to when he’s not on the page.

I sat upright, concentrating, staring out the window at the all the people passing by on the sidewalk. These people were real, they had their own lives, and I would have mine.

“You all right, Jack?” said the driver.

He was looking at me in the rearview mirror.

“Oh, uh, sure,” I said. “I was just – thinking about something.”

“Okay,” he said.

He looked a little like the actor William Bendix. Maybe he was William Bendix.

“So," he said, "where to, exactly, bud?”

“Where to?”

“Yeah. What's the address ya wanna go to?”

That was a good question.

(Continued here, and until every last one of those dozens and dozens of Arnold’s marble copybooks has been transcribed.

(Please go to the right hand side of this page to find a current listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, soon to be published in series of value-priced pocket-size volumes, suitable for reading on the bus or train or while standing in some interminable line, available exclusively at Woolworth’s shops everywhere.)


Unknown said...

It's just hit me that the damnable Lucky has sent Arnold, poet of Olney, to a time and place (fictional or not) where a US poet's writing might thrive. Of course Julian could be baiting him. Some writers get praised and dumped routinely, although that's probably more prevalent now than then.
Unflappable Arnold--alcohol goes to his head but not dreams of grandeur.

Jennifer said...

The driver pulled out, and as we joined the stream of traffic I felt myself disappearing again, starting to slip away into whatever limbo a character in a novel goes away to when he’s not on the page.

I loved this.

DR said...

“Goddam Dante Alighieri,” said Maxie.

ha ha ha!

Dan Leo said...

Arnold -- the goddam Dante of our times!

Unknown said...

I want to know more about Maxie.

Dan Leo said...

Dianne -- I wouldn't mind seeing more of Maxie either! Let's see what happens...