Saturday, April 28, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 299: one horse

August, 1957, a hot rainy night in Greenwich Village...and we find our hero Arnold Schnabel in Philpot’s Rare Books, with the proprietor of that very unusual shop and the author Theophilus P. Thurgood, who has enjoined Arnold to read aloud from his brand-new epic novel...

(Please click here to review our preceding chapter; eager neophytes may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 67-volume memoir.)

“Imagine my disappointment the other night when I dropped my Kindle into the tub in the middle of Arnold Schnabel’s most recent adventure.” -- Harold Bloom, in Golf Monthly.

I looked outside the window at the little town. It was dull-looking. The sky above was dull too, the color of worn grey flannel. The bus stopped outside a small diner.

”Walter’s Hole!” yelled the bus driver. “Hey, you, pal!” He was turned around in his seat, looking back at me. I guess I was about four seats back, on the right side of the bus.

“Who? Me?” I said.

“Yeah, you. Your ticket is for Walter’s Hole.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Unless you don’t want to get out here. But then you got to give me some more money.”

What a charmer.

“So you getting out here, or what? I got a schedule to keep.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

I got out of my seat, reached up to the overhead rack and brought down my cardboard suitcase. There were a few other passengers, but it didn’t seem like anyone was paying any attention. I was just another guy getting off a bus at some one horse town. I went to the front of the bus. The bus driver was writing something on a clipboard. The door was open.

“Thanks,” I said.

He looked up from his clipboard. He had a face like a face in a nightmare that you’re trying to forget.

“You’re actually getting off at Walter’s Hole.”

“Is there any law against it?” I said.

“No,” said the bus driver. “No, there ain’t no law against it. But maybe there ought to be.”

I didn’t say anything. I stepped down to the sidewalk.

Nobody else got off the bus, and nobody else was getting on.

I put my suitcase down and took out my cigarettes. The bus doors closed with a wheezing sound, the bus made a groaning noise and then it took off down the the street. I watched it go.

I was here, in this one horse town. It was cold, and all I had on was a tan summer suit. I sighed, and looked at the pack of cigarettes. Old Golds. They weren’t even my brand.

But then I heard voices.

“See?” said Thurgood. “This is the kind of novel I like, just puts you right in there in the middle of the action without a lot of introductory bullshit.”

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Philpot. “Brilliant.”

“What do you call that, Mr. Philpot? When the book just thrusts you into the action like that.”

“I think the term is in medias res.”

“Right,” said Thurgood. “In medias res. Boom. Start with action, not a lot of boring words.”

“And what could be a more exciting bit of action than someone getting off a bus?”

“Hey, wait a minute,” said Thurgood.

“Um -- look, you guys,” I said, now back in the world of Mr. Philpot’s rare books shop. “Do you want me to stop reading?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, how terribly rude of us,” said Mr. Philpot. “Talking over your elegant dramatic reading.”

“Yeah, sorry,” said Thurgood. All at once he drank down the entirety of his jelly glass of Amontillado, and, sighing, put the glass down on the desk top. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “It sounded good, too.” He took a drag of his Pall Mall, and exhaled very slowly. He tapped the cigarette ash down to the floor, even though there was an ashtray on the desk right there in front of him. “I mean,” he said, “I might read it differently myself.”

“How so?” said Mr. Philpot.

“I might put a little more -- inflection into it,” said Thurgood.

Without waiting to be invited to help himself he picked up the bottle of Amontillado, uncorked it, and poured the last few drops that were left into his jelly glass.

“A little emotion,” he said. “Some drama. I mean, monotone is all well and good if it’s Dragnet or something like that. But something that’s a bit more -- grand?”

“Grand,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Something that’s a bit more grand, you got to give it a bit more, I don’t know --”

“Oomph,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Yeah. Oomph,” said Thurgood. He tossed off the last of the Amontillado, sighed again, put the empty glass glass down. “Ba-boom,” he said, looking at me, and I have no idea what he meant by that last utterance, if anything.

“Well, look, maybe you should read it aloud,” I said, offering him the book.

“Oh, no,” said Thurgood, holding up his hands, palms outward. “I want to hear you read it. You were doing fine. Just, you know, this time, give it a little more --”

“Oomph,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Yeah,” said Thurgood. “Hey, Mr. Philpot, you got any more Amontillado?”

“What, of this a-hundred-and-seventeen-year-old stuff? Yeah, I got one more bottle left, but I’ll tell you this, I’m not giving it away.”

“I thought we were friends.”

“We’re friendly,” said Mr. Philpot. “We’re not friends. And there is a vital distinction between the two states of being. So if you want some more of this Amontillado -- this selfsame Amontillado once cellared by the immortal Poe himself -- then you’re going to have to put some money on the wood and make the betting good.”

“You mean old bastard,” said Thurgood. “By the way, Mr. Walker,” he said to me, “please continue reading.”

“You’re sure,” I said.

“Quite sure,” said Thurgood.

“I myself was rather enjoying your recitation, Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot.

“But first,” said Thurgood, turning to Mr. Philpot, “here.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocket watch, the hunter-case kind, with a winding key attached to its toggle ring with a greasy-looking bit of string.

“Family heirloom. A Waltham Model 1857, same kind Abraham Lincoln carried. That’s a 24-karat gold casing you’re looking at there.”

He clicked up the lid of the watch and, leaning over the desk, he showed it to Mr. Philpot, who leaned forward to look at it, but then sat directly back in his chair.

“I’m not going to give you a bottle of my prize Amontillado for that piece of tin.”

“But it was my great-great grandfather’s --”

“I don’t give a shit if it was George Washington’s goddam pocket watch.”

“Damn you,” said Thurgood. “Damn you, Mr. Philpot, and all you stand for.”

“Hey, if you’re going to stand there and curse me then take your goddam book and your boy scout watch and hit the pike, pal.”

“Okay, how about just a glass then?”

“The watch for one glass of the Amontillado?”

“Yeah, I think that’s more than fair, Mr. Philpot. Look at the workmanship on this watch. Here, take a look, look at the engraving and shit.”

Mr. Philpot took the proffered watch and examined it, closing the cover and then clicking it open again.

“Keep good time?”

“To within a minute a day,” said Thurgood.

“It’d be worth more if it had a decent chain.”

“You can get a chain anywhere, Mr. Philpot. I’ll go out on the street and be back with a chain in two minutes if a chain is that important to you. A chain. Come on, Mr. Philpot, don’t be a dick.”

Mr. Philpot held the watch up to the light, holding it by its winding key and greasy string. Then he closed the cover again and put the watch down on the desk top.

“Okay, I’ll let you have one glass of Amontillado for it.”

“It’s a deal,” said Thurgood. “Now bring out the vino.” Then he turned to me. “Go ahead, read, Mr. Walker -- what are you waiting for?”

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Philpot. He picked up the watch all over again and clicked it open once more. “Yes, don’t let our shenanigans deter you, Mr. Walker! Read on!”

“Should I just pick up where I left off?”

“Where else?”

Mr. Philpot closed up the watch one more time, then pulled out a desk drawer and was about to put the watch into it when Thurgood pointed a long bony index finger (the only kind he had) at him.

“Hey, where’s the Amontillado?”

“Hold your horses, Thurgood, it’s right in here.”

He took a bottle out of the drawer, it looked just like the other bottle he had opened, no label and capped with red wax.

“Now we’re talking,” said Thurgood. He turned to me. “Why aren’t you reading?”

“Are you two through talking?”

“Well, excuse us, John Barrymore.”

“Well, I’m not going to read if you’re going to talk.”

“We will be as church mice,” said Thurgood. “Right, Mr. Philpot?”

“Oh, silent as the tomb,” said Mr. Philpot. Having stowed the watch away in the drawer, Mr. Philpot had taken out his corkscrew/pocketknife with the tortoiseshell handle, and was cutting the wax away from the bottle top. “Please, continue, Mr. Walker.”

“I’ll read another paragraph or two, then I really should go,” I said.

“I don’t know what your big hurry is,” said Thurgood.

“Well, I have to --”
“To what? Meet some woman?”

“Quite the opposite,” said Mr. Philpot. He dropped the disk of decapitated red wax into the waste basket. “He’s trying to escape some over-amorous woman.”

“Oh, I know all about that,” said Thurgood, shiftily switching his eyes from Mr. Philpot’s activities with the bottle to me and back again. “I know all about that.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Hey, I get my share,” said Thurgood.

“Oh, yes, of course, beating them away with your walking stick,” said Mr. Philpot.

He had folded the blade back into the knife-handle, and pulled the corkscrew out, and now he pushed its point into the cork.

Thurgood stared at him and licked his lips.

“Well, okay, here goes then,” I said.

At the bus station in L.A. I had told the cashier I wanted the next bus out of town. He asked me where I was going. I said it didn’t matter and I slid a ten-dollar bill into the little hole under the glass.

“I want the next bus out of town,” I said, “for as far as this ten bucks will take me.”

The guy looked at me for about one half-second, then he took my sawbuck, pressed some buttons, cranked a handle, ripped off a ticket and slid it through the opening in the glass.

“Have a nice time in 'Walter’s Hole',” he said.

Everybody’s a comedian.

I took the ticket, picked up my cardboard suitcase, went out and got on the bus. And now, fourteen hours later, here I was.

Walter’s Hole.

Besides the cardboard suitcase, the summer L.A. suit I was wearing (off the rack, Robert Hall’s men’s department), and a scuffed pair of brown brogans, a brown fedora, six dollars and change and my old Mickey Mouse wristwatch, the only other possession on me was the Luger stuck in my waistband. It had been very uncomfortable riding fourteen hours in a bus with that gun chafing against my hip bone, but it had made me feel safer. The Luger took an eight-round magazine, but there were only seven bullets in the gun now. The eighth bullet was the reason I had left Los Angeles in such a hurry.

“This Amontillado really is good,” said Thurgood. He gazed at the jelly glass, holding it up level to his eyes. “I think it’s even better than the other bottle. Are you sure they’re the same batch, Mr. Philpot?”

“Absolutely,” said Mr. Philpot. “But that’s what I like about this wine, it just gets better the more you drink it.”

“It really does,” said Thurgood. “I’m really trying not to just gulp it down all at once.”

“Oh, no, a wine like this must be savored,” said Mr. Philpot.

“I know,” said Thurgood. “I mean, intellectually I know that, but I still feel like just chugging it.”

“Try not to.”

“I’m trying, you’ll notice I’ve just been sipping, but, boy, it’s -- I don’t know --”

“I know,” said Philpot, “it’s hard.”

“It is,” said Thurgood. He took a sip. “See? I managed just to sip. And I’m picking up some entirely new notes. Sort of the flavor of sunlight, on a hot dry day, insects buzzing around --”

“So, Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot, “What’re you up to the rest of the night?”

“Oh, I thought’d hit a couple of the bars, show off my book, get drunk, try to get laid, you know.”

“Bag that shit,” said Mr. Philpot. “What say we hop in my new Jag and take a run out to Atlantic City, maybe hit the late show at the 500 Club.”

“I can’t afford to go to A.C.”

“Ah, come on, I’ll spring for the drinks, but you gotta be my wheelman if I get too drunk.”

“You’ll spring for all the drinks?” said Thurgood.

“Uh, maybe I should stop reading,” I said.

“No, don’t stop,” said Thurgood.

“You’re not even listening,” I said.

“I’m listening,” he said. “The guy gets off a bus. Some little town. Wallace’s Hole.”

“Walter’s Hole,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Whatever,” said Thurgood.

“Look,” I said, “I’m afraid to read any more.”

“Why?” said Thurgood. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

“No,” I said. “But I feel as if I’m getting trapped in the world of the novel.”

“What the hell does that mean?” said Thurgood.

“It’s like I’ve become the main character, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to escape back to being myself.”

“I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life,” he said.

“I know it sounds strange,” I said.

“Why don’t you just come right out and say you don’t like my book.”

“I don’t dislike it,” I said.

“Give it a chance,” he said. “You’re still on the first page for Christ’s sake. You really know how to hurt a guy.”

“I’m sorry.”

I noticed that Mr. Philpot didn’t seem to be paying attention to any of this. He was refilling his pipe, and I think he had refilled his jelly glass with sherry.

“I wouldn’t give up on your epic poem after one page,” said Thurgood. “And I don’t even really like poetry.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll read a couple of more paragraphs.”

“Make it a page. Because some paragraphs are really short.”

“All right,” I said. “One more page.”

I began to read again.

(To be continued, no one really knows why.)

(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other officially-published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Soon to be a major mini-series event on the Dumont Network, starring Montgomery Clift as Arnold Schnabel; a Desilu/Danny Thomas/Dick Powell Co-Production, in association with David Susskind and Quinn Martin; adapted for television by Madalyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr; produced and directed by Larry Winchester.)


Unknown said...

At first I thought Arnold would be safer reading poetry. But then again, why be safe with powers like his?

Dan Leo said...

Poetry or prose, it's never a dull moment for our boy Arnold.