Saturday, July 3, 2010

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 206: fly away

Let us go back in time to a warm rainy night in the summer of 1957 and to that picturesque little world within the greater world of New York City known as Greenwich Village, and specifically to a certain Bohemian tavern called the Kettle of Fish, where we find our hero Arnold Schnabel still trapped in the persona of “Porter Walker, romantic young poet”, a character in the novel Ye Cannot Quench (by Gertrude Evans, author of other now all-but-forgotten minor bestsellers such as I’ll Sing Through My Tears; Steamship to Istamboul; The Dashing Lout; and Thank You Ever So Much But No Thank You)...

(Click here to read our previous episode; go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning sixty-three-volume masterpiece. ”Not so much a memoir of a man’s life as a way of life in itself.” -- Harold Bloom, in Field & Stream.)

Free at last, I made my way to Betsy, who was still chatting with Pat and Carlotta.

I touched her arm, Betsy’s arm. She turned, looked at me, and then past me, I’m sure at Emily.

“Hello, Porter.”

“Hi,” I said. “Sorry.”

“We’ll leave you two lovebirds,” said Pat, taking Carlotta’s arm.

“Yeah,” said Carlotta. “Have fun, you kids.”

They both turned in the direction of the bar but immediately Ralph Edwards was smilingly blocking their way, holding his big green book in front of him like a shield.

“Who the hell are you, anyway?” said Pat.

“Ralph Edwards,” he said, holding his book a little higher. “I’m on the television, This is Your Life!”

“Oh,” said Carlotta. “You can buy us a drink then.”

Mr. Swayze and Mr. Murrow began shouting encouragingly at Pat and Carlotta, and they both rose to their feet, Swayze knocking over his chair again. Betsy and I stood there watching. I leaned my head toward hers.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Can we get a drink?”

I was about to say something like “Absolutely” when that strong warm hand once again laid its awful grip on my biceps.

“We never got the chance to buy the lovely Betsy a drink,” he said.

“That’s okay, Nicky,” I said. “I’ll get her one at the bar.”

“Oh, stay here just for one.”

“I already had one.”

“Betsy didn’t have one yet.”

“That’s okay,” said Betsy. “I’ll have one at the bar.”

Nicky gripped my biceps tighter.

“Please, Porter. Be nice. I’m sure Ralph and John Cameron and Edward R. would love to chat a bit more with you. And with Betsy too of course.”

I put my hand on his wrist and with some difficulty I managed to pry his hand free of my arm.

“You could tell them your theories of poetry,” said Nicky.

“Nicky,” I said, “look at them.”

Nicky turned and looked.

The TV fellows had found two empty chairs, and Pat and Carlotta were now seated together at the table. Edward R. Murrow was already caressing Carlotta’s right arm, Ralph Edwards was fondling Pat’s left thigh, and John Cameron Swayze had come around the table with his chair and was trying to squeeze it in between where Pat and Carlotta sat.

“Look at them,” I repeated. “Do you really think they want to hear my theories of poetry. Assuming I had any theories of poetry to begin with. Which I don’t.”

I noticed Emily standing about ten feet away, on the far side of the table. She was looking toward me, but when she saw me looking at her she quickly turned her head and walked toward the bar, in the direction of Julian’s tall frame leaning over the bar, drinking in what looked from here like utter contentment. It occurred to me that his contentment would pretty soon be brought to an abrupt end at the exact moment that Emily joined him.

“Porter, did you hear what I said,” said Nicky.

“No, sorry, what was it?”

“I was simply saying that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to meet three of the most famous and powerful television personalities --”

“Thank God for that,” I said.

“Heh heh, oh, my, you poets! I’ll tell ya --”

“Yeah, we’re a regular barrel of monkeys. See ya later, Nicky.”

Next thing I knew Betsy and I were walking arm in arm to the bar.

“Wow,” she said. “Are you always such a forceful guy, Porter?”

“No,” I said.

And I suddenly realized that I had indeed just acted uncharacteristically forcefully. As we got to the bar I saw myself and Betsy in the mirror, I saw that I was Porter Walker, handsome young romantic poet, and I thought, well, why not be a little forceful for a change?

One barstool was open. Because I am a gentleman of the old school no matter what body I currently inhabit, I insisted that Betsy take the seat, and I squeezed in next to her, next to a large guy in jeans and a tee shirt.

I put Nicky’s twenty-dollar bill on the bar and pretty soon Betsy and I both had tall brimming mugs of cold Rheingold beer in front of us.

Betsy took a pack of Pall Malls from her purse, and lit her own cigarette without making a big deal out of it.

Waving the match out she looked at me and said, “So, just how strange are you, Porter?”

It was amazing to look into those dark eyes, the same eyes I had known six years in the future. It was so amazing that I neglected to answer her question, but it worked out okay.

“Good,” she said. “A man who doesn’t brag about how strange he is.”

I took a drink of beer. It tasted good, it tasted really good. Betsy was looking at me, smiling. Even in this smoky crowded place I could smell one of those unique fragrances she emanated, this one was like the smell of buttered toast with homemade blueberry preserves.

“But something tells me you are a strange one, Porter,” she said.

I paused for a moment, on the edge of a decision, then I made the decision and plunged ahead.

“Betsy,” I said. “I have to tell you something. And I confess that what I’m going to tell you is going to be -- to sound -- strange.”

“So you’re not going to give me the usual song and dance?”

She took a drink of her own beer.

“No,” I said. “I’m going to give you an unusual song and dance. But I don’t mean that as a boast.”

“I’ll be the judge of all that after I hear it,” she said.

“Fair enough,” I said.

I wanted to come clean with her. Just tell her the whole truth. That I wasn’t really Porter Walker, romantic young poet. That I was really Arnold Schnabel. That the Devil had exiled me here, in the world of Miss Evans’s novel. And that somehow I had found in this world the younger self of the woman I loved in my other world.

“Big mistake, fella.”

This was the fly, whispering in my right ear, the ear that was farther away from Betsy.

“Big, big mistake,” he repeated.

Maybe he had a point. What good would it do to tell Betsy the truth? At best it would frighten her.

“So what is it, Porter?” she said.

The fly said nothing new, but I could hear him buzzing near my ear.

It was time to improvise, to improvise and somehow still not lie. Or at least not lie much.

“I -- I feel as if I know you,” I said.

“I’ve heard that one before,” she said.

“Oh. I suppose you would have,” I said. “I’m a fool.”

“Not if you meant what you said.”

The fly landed right on what I believe is called the antitragus of my ear.

“You got her now, pal. Reel her in!”

I swiped the fly away.

“You did mean it, didn’t you?” said Betsy.

“Yes,” I said. “But then I guess you’ve heard that before too.”

“True. But you do mean it. I think I can tell. And besides I had the same feeling the moment I met you. Not so much that I knew you, but that I would know you. I probably shouldn’t be saying this.”

The fly zoomed back and landed on a wet beer-smudge on the bar top, and he sat there staring at me and Betsy alternately. He seemed to be smiling. I knew what he wanted me to do. To say the right words. To say at least no egregiously wrong words.

Gabriel’s trumpet was blowing again now, working its way through and over the noise of the people in the bar. The tune was still “Miss Otis Regrets”, but only in a distant way, as if Ursula and her saxophone had left the original song somewhere far away and Gabriel was now slowly wending his way back to it.

Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to say the words, the words that would ease the way to what I wanted to do more than anything else, which was to kiss Betsy, I couldn’t say them, because this wasn’t my world, because I wanted to return to my world and to Betsy as she was in my world, Elektra, the only woman -- apart of course from the women in my immediate family -- whom I had ever loved.

The fly flew up again and landed in my ear, the right one, the one Betsy couldn’t see.

“This is good,” he said. “The man of few words approach. She is just eating it up, fella. Just do what you’re doing, looking all James Dean and soulful-like, and she’ll come to you, pal. You are in, my friend, in like Erroll Flynn --”

Well, that did it.

“Listen, Betsy,” I said. “I have to tell you that I’m very attracted to you. But I’m afraid I will have to, to -- I’m afraid I will not be able to try to, to take further, to --”

I needed an excuse. Should I say I had cancer? That I had an irresistible urge just to travel on, to ramble the highways and byways? Should I tell her I was homosexual? That I had been gored by a bull and rendered impotent?

The fly was buzzing furiously in my ear, shouting, “Beautiful, pal, beautiful -- playing hard to get! You’ll have to beat her off with a club now, baby!”

Fortunately Betsy herself came to the rescue and saved me from having to lie to her.

“Relax, Porter. I think you’re an attractive fella, but do you think I can’t see how tangled up with women you already are? That Emily girl? She’s crazy about you.”

“Well, crazy maybe,” I said.

“And Carlotta over there,” said Betsy.

“Oh? What did she say?”

I frankly wanted to know, if only to satisfy my own curiosity as to what had happened between myself and her.

“She didn’t have to say,” said Betsy. “But a woman can tell. And what’s up with your landlady, this Mrs. Morgenstern?”

“Oh, she’s my landlady?”

I hadn’t known that, I thought she just lived down the hall.

“Yes, she’s your landlady, and Pat and Carlotta over there say she’s in love with you too.”


“Along with Emily. And Carlotta. And maybe even Pat. I don’t know, Porter, I don’t think I’m quite ready for you.”

I took a drink of beer. I gazed longingly at her pack of Pall Malls.

“Hey, pal,” said the fly in my ear, “listen, dig it, here’s what ya gotta say now --”

But before he could say anything else I put my hand up as if to scratch my head and quickly captured him in my fist, which I then lowered to the bar.

“Actually, Betsy,” I said, “it’s more like I’m not ready for you.”

“Maybe some day,” she said, smiling, taking a sip of her beer.

Some day.

Six years and a universe away.

If I could ever find my way back there.

I opened my hand and the fly flew up and away.

(Continued here because it’s too late to stop now.)

(Please refer to the right hand column of this page to find a rigorously up-to-date listing of links to all other publicly available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©; sponsored in part by Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: "Meant to be sipped and savored, not gulped as if your life depended on it.”


DR said...

"I needed an excuse. Should I say I had cancer? That I had an irresistible urge just to travel on, to ramble the highways and byways? Should I tell her I was homosexual? That I had been gored by a bull and rendered impotent?"

well done, by jove!

Unknown said...

Dan, another great episode! I love forceful Porter, his impulse to tell the truth, the smart-alec fly, and the sweet romance in Porter and Betsy's agreement to wait.
I read it twice. (Troublesome truth here: partly I read it twice because Ella's performance flat-out blew my mind.)

Unknown said...

Women like forceful guys. Though Arnold seems to attract them no matter what. Maybe women just like guys, period.
Well done episode. I want to seek out this Kettle of Fish place.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, Ella's a hard act to follow, which is why we put her on at the end!

Jennifer said...

I'm hoping the fly makes it back with Arnold as well... whether as a fly or as his human self.

Dan Leo said...

Manny, unfortunately the original Kettle of Fish (which was at 114 MacDougal, right up the block from the San Remo at the southeast corner of Bleecker and MacDougal), is no longer there, although there's a "new" Kettle of Fish somewhere else in the Village. But the original Kettle lives on forever in Arnold's world...

Jennifer, don't worry, I think we'll be seeing more of our friend the fly...