Saturday, April 7, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 296: Thurgood

Let’s rejoin our intrepid memoirist Arnold Schnabel, in a shop called “Philpot’s Rare Books”, on MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village, NYC, on a wet hot night in August of 1957...

(Please click here to read our previous thrilling chapter; prospective initiates may go here to return to the misty beginnings of this Gold View Award©-winning 91-volume masterpiece.)

“Arnold Schnabel. Arnold Schnabel. Arnold Schnabel! If you say the name three times in quick succession whilst clicking your heels smartly on each third syllable you may find yourself transported to a world so much less boring than the one to which we have been condemned at birth.” -- Harold Bloom, in Maxim.

I stood up from the chair and watched as Mr. Philpot took some keys out of his pocket and unlocked two separate locks with two different keys, turned a dead bolt, released a chain lock, and finally opened the door.

“Thank God!” said the man who had presumably been pounding on the door.

“Don’t thank God, Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot. “I’m the one who opened it.”

The man came in past him, and, seeing me, stopped.

“Oh,” he said. “Hello. I do hope I’m not intruding.”

“I thought I had already indicated that you were intruding,” said Mr. Philpot. He closed the door.

The man was standing there staring at me. He was very tall, very thin, with a sparse dark beard and deep-set dark eyes. He wore a wrinkled tan-colored suit, with a wrinkled, open-necked off-white shirt and a print bandanna tied around his neck. He had a black beret on his head, and greasy-looking dark hair fell down over his ears and shirt-collar. His skin was the color of clam meat.

Mr. Philpot re-locked the two key locks, turned the dead bolt back, replaced the chain lock, and then turned and waved a hand at the thin man.

“Mr. Walker, this is Thurgood.”

“Wait a minute,” said Thurgood. “Not -- yes, yes, I saw your picture in the Voice -- you’re Porter Walker. The poet.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

“Well, whaddaya know? May I shake your hand, sir?”

“Okay,” I said.

He came over to me and grabbed my hand in both of his before I had even completely raised mine.

“I heard about your deal with Smythe,” said Thurgood, not so much shaking my hand as kneading it, like a lump of hamburger meat. “Thirty thousand simoleons, huh?”

“Nonsense,” said Mr. Philpot. “It’s only twenty thousand he got, so don’t try to put the bite on the poor fellow at first acquaintance.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Thurgood, staring into my eyes, not letting go of my hand, no longer kneading it, but still holding it tightly in both of his, which were sweaty, bony, and strangely powerful considering how thin they were.

“I think I should make something clear,” I said. “I’m not getting anywhere near twenty thousand for my book.”

“That’s not what I heard,” said Thurgood.

“Nor I, to be quite honest,” said Mr. Philpot. He had gone back over to his desk and was replacing the cork in the sherry bottle.

“Well, I’m really not getting --”

“It’s all right, old man,” said Thurgood, massaging my hand again now, not gently, and smiling, showing a nearly complete set of nicotine-stained teeth. “We understand. We understand completely. Don’t we, Mr. Philpot?”

“I understand nothing,” said Mr. Philpot.

“What’s that by the way?” said Thurgood, to Mr. Philpot. “On your desk there?”

“There are many things on my desk,” said Mr. Philpot.

“I mean the bottle.”

“Oh, the bottle,” said Mr. Philpot. “Just a cheap domestic sherry.”

“Looks like an Amontillado to me. What’s in those jelly glasses looks like Amontillado as well. May I have some?”

“I only have two glasses,” said Mr. Philpot.

“I have a powerful thirst on me,” said Thurgood.

“There’s a bar downstairs,” said Mr. Philpot.

“They won’t let me in there.”

“Try the Kettle of Fish across the street, or the San Remo down the corner.”

“If you don’t want to offer me a drink just say so,” said Thurgood.

“I don’t want to offer you a drink,” said Mr. Philpot.

“I don’t mind drinking out of the bottle,” said Thurgood.

“You may not mind it, but I assure you I should mind it,” said Mr. Philpot.

“I’ll pour it directly into my open mouth, the bottle’s lip never touching mine.”

“In a word: no,” said Mr. Philpot.

Let me just interpose here that Thurgood still held onto my hand with both of his. It almost felt as if a boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my hand, and was attempting to kill it, or at least render it unconscious preparatory to devouring it whole.

Thurgood now looked again into my eyes.

“It is Amontillado, isn’t it, Mr. Walker?”

“Yes,” I said. “Look, you can finish my glass, I really don’t want it.”

“Are you serious?”

“Mr. Walker!” said Mr. Philpot.

“You heard him,” said Thurgood. “He said I could have his!”

At last he tossed my hand away as if it were an unappetizing dead mouse, and quickly he went the couple of steps to the desk and took up the jelly glass, which was about half-full. He raised it to his nose and sniffed deeply. His face had gone serious, but now he smiled again.

“Amontillado all right, you old scamp, Mr. Philpot.”

“Damn your eyes,” said Mr. Philpot.

Thurgood turned and held the jelly glass up to the yellow light of the wall fixture, swirling the liquid inside it. I couldn’t help but notice that his fingernails were very dirty. It almost looked as if he had painted their edges black.

“Oh, yes, indeed,” he said. “How old? Fifty years? A hundred years?”

“Never you mind how old,” said Mr. Philpot.

Thurgood lowered the glass and once again put his nose to it.

“I’m really going to enjoy this,” he said.

“Oh, I’m sure you will,” said Mr. Philpot. “Especially since you’re not paying for it.”

“All I’ve had to drink for weeks is draft Rheingold,” said Thurgood. “And precious little of even that proletarian beverage.”

“Nothing wrong with Rheingold,” said Mr. Philpot. “A quaffable workman’s brew, at a reasonable price.”

“Cheap swill, you mean,” said Thurgood.

Still not drinking the sherry, he turned to me.

“Once upon a time I drank only the finest wines, at all hours of the day and night, and as much as I pleased.”

“Well,” I said, rubbing my strangled hand with the other one, trying to restore it to life. “That’s, uh --”

“But no more, alas!” said Thurgood. “No more! All my inheritance, gone!”

“And whose fault is that?” said Mr. Philpot.

“Whose fault indeed?” said Thurgood. Once again he sniffed at the sherry, closing his eyes.

“I’ll tell you whose fault it is,” said Mr. Philpot. He was still standing by his desk, and I saw him making movements as if making sure its drawers were all shut. “It’s your own damned fault as a wastrel and a fool.”

Wastrel,” said Thurgood. “Fool. That’s what they call me.”

“It’s what you are,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Excuse me for just one moment, gentlemen,” said Thurgood. He closed his eyes again, and, after taking a deep breath, he lifted the jelly glass to his lips, and then swallowed its contents all at once in two or three gulps. Opening his eyes, he then exhaled through his mouth.

Turning to me, he smiled.

“I needed that,” he said, nodding.

“Very well,” said Mr. Philpot, picking up his own glass of sherry before Thurgood could try to grab it. “Now tell me what you want.”

Thurgood stared into his empty glass, then held it to his nose once again.

“What was it we were talking about?” he said. “Oh, yes. Mr. Philpot asked whose fault it was that I have squandered my inheritance and been cut off mercilessly by both sides of my illustrious family, including many collateral branches, and friends of my family, on both sides, and friends of the afore-mentioned collateral branches, and their friends and relatives, both near and far, whose fault is it you ask,” he said, staring at me, and smiling.

“I didn’t ask,” I said.

“Whose fault, Mr. Walker?” said Thurgood. “Whose fault?”

“I honestly don’t know,” I said.

“Nor does he care,” said Mr. Philpot, and he took a good drink from his jelly glass of sherry.

“I’ll tell you whose fault it is,” said Thurgood, still smiling, and he placed his empty glass on the desk top, giving it one last caress. “I’ll tell you,” he said, looking at me, not smiling now.

“Tell me what the bloody hell you want, Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot. “Let us finish the transaction -- if you do indeed have some money on you, enough money for whatever it is you do want, that is -- and then pray leave Mr. Walker and myself in peace.”

“I’ll tell you whose fault it is!” said Thurgood, and now he was almost yelling. Suddenly he extended his long thin right arm, and pointed a long bony finger at Mr. Philpot. “It’s his fault! The mean little toad! His fault and no one else’s!”

Mr. Philpot quickly put his glass down and then put his right hand into the pocket in which he had put his pocket-knife/corkscrew.

“Hey, now, let’s calm down,” I said.

“But it’s true!” said Thurgood. “It’s true! This bloated little homunculus has bled me dry!”

“You’ve gotten a fair deal for every book I’ve sold you,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Fair? Fair? Do you call a million dollars for one book fair?”

“It was a very rare book,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Damn you,” said Thurgood, but he was speaking in a quieter voice now, and I was hoping that violence had been safely avoided.

“Stop your whining and tell me what it is you want, Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot.

“A book, damn you. I want a book.”

“Oh, okay. I’ve got a batch of James Branch Cabells just came in today --”

“Fuck James Branch Cabell, you know I don’t read that shit.”

“I think Cabell’s quite amusing myself.”

“You know what kind of book I want.”

Looking at the desk top, Thurgood went through the motions of patting various pockets in his trousers, his jacket and shirt.

“I seem to be out of cigarettes,” he said.

“I’ve never known you not to be out of cigarettes,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Do you mind if I have one from the box on your desk there?”

“Oh, all right,” said Philpot, “but just one. I’m running a business here, not a free tobacco dispensary.”

“Heh heh, thanks, Mr. Philpot.”

Thurgood went over to the table and lifted the lid of the carved wooden cigarette box.

“Hey,” he said, pointing to the wall behind Mr. Philpot, “is that a new picture?”

“What?” said Mr. Philpot. He turned to look at the old black and grey print that was on the wall there, and as he did so I saw that Thurgood grabbed a handful of cigarettes from the box and quickly stuffed them into the side pocket of his jacket, lifting his hand out, holding just one cigarette in its fingers, just as Mr. Philpot turned to face him again.

“That Dürer,” said Mr. Philpot, he reached over and closed the cigarette box, then moved it to the far side of the desk, “has been at that exact same spot for at least a hundred and twenty-five years.”

“No kidding,” said Thurgood. He helped himself to a match from the cardboard box on the desktop, and gave himself a light. “Fancy that.”

He exhaled a great cloud of smoke. He did seem to have the capacity for enjoying the little pleasures of life.

“Hey,” he said, and he pointed towards the desk-top with his cigarette. “And what’s this?”

He picked up the book that Mr. Philpot had just sold me, or railroaded me into buying, however one should put it.

“That belongs to Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot.

The Ace of Death,” said Thurgood. “By Horace P. Sternwall.” He looked at me, holding the book up. “Any good?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just now bought it and I haven’t read a word of it.”

“I’ll bet it’s good,” he said. “I’ll bet it’s really good. Can I read it when you’re finished?”

“No, you may not read his book when he’s finished with it,” said Mr. Philpot. “Now put it down and tell me what the fuck you want.”

“Let me know if it’s any good, will you?” said Thurgood to me.

“Sure,” I said, although I hoped and prayed I never would see him again after this night. “I’ll even lend it to you when I’m finished.”

“See!” said Thurgood, swiveling his head back and forth to me and Mr. Philpot, as if he were watching a very rapid exchange of volleys at a tennis match. “See! Not everyone is a mean, selfish old troll!”

“Look here, Thurgood, tell me exactly what it is you want, or clear out,” said Mr. Philpot.

“You already know exactly what I want,” said Thurgood. He turned to me again. “He knows exactly what I want. What did he charge you for your book, by the way?”

“Don’t tell him, Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Tell me,” said Thurgood to me. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise. I’m just curious, that’s all.”

“It was --”

“Mr. Walker!” said Mr. Philpot. “It’s none of his business!”

Thurgood turned his back to Mr. Philpot and, leaning in close to me, he said, “Please.” And then, almost in a whisper, “Please tell me.”

“Okay, it was five bucks,” I said.

“Five -- bucks?” said Thurgood. He straightened up. “This is slang of course, a buck being a thousand, right.”

“No,” I said. “A buck just meaning a buck. A dollar.”

“Five -- dollars?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Five --”

He simply stared at me. He had been holding his cigarette between his thumb and finger, but now he put the cigarette between his lips, and left it there, hanging down at a crazy angle.

“Oh, Christ, here we go,” said Mr. Philpot.

Suddenly Thurgood’s shoulders slumped, and his long arms seemed to grow limp, hanging straight down from his bony shoulders. Then, slowly, his knees began to bend, and continued to bend, until finally he was kneeling, and then squatting on the floor.

Then he began to cry, with the cigarette still in his thin lips, the tears rolling down his hollow clammy cheeks and into his dark scraggly beard, his bony shoulders shaking, the cigarette trembling and spilling ash on his shirt, while he emitted a high keening sound, like a cat in heat, or like a dog whose master has died.

(Continued here, between the devil and the deep blue sea.) (Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this site to find a current listing of links to all other officially-published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s edition brought to you by Postum™, the official non-caffeinated breakfast beverage of the Arnold Schnabel Society.)


DR said...

"His skin was the color of clam meat."


Dan Leo said...

Dean, I have a feeling you know this guy...

Unknown said...

That would be so sweet: a time and place where books are an addiction. Yet they've left this character as disheveled and desperate as the junkies at Dunkin Donuts.

Dan Leo said... I want a donut!