Once again our hero Arnold Schnabel is on a mission, or, perhaps more accurately put, a mission within a mission within a myriad of missions, to wit, to make it to the men’s room of a curious Greenwich Village bar called Valhalla, and there to relieve himself, if only temporarily, which really is the most that any of us can hope for in this world, or, in Arnold’s case, in whatever world he happens to be in, which at this moment is that of the sadly-obscure novel Ye Cannot Quench (Alfred A. Knopf, 1960) by Gertrude Evans, author of such other unfortunately out-of-print novels, such as Keep the Crock Pot Simmering, A Girl Called Fortunata, and Passion’s Pristine Promise.
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“A day without Arnold Schnabel is like a day without food or drink.” — Harold Bloom, on Last Call With Carson Daly.
I should have guessed.
The men’s room was packed, just as packed as that front barroom was.
There were lines of coarsely muttering and chattering guys waiting to get into the urinals and the stalls. It looked like there was barely even room enough to squeeze into one of the lines. The air was hot and thick, like hot dirty vaseline, a dishwater grey from tobacco smoke, and it looked like practically everybody in here was smoking — cigars, cigarettes, pipes, and even, unless I was mistaken, reefers. Oh, and yes, the place reeked, and not just of tobacco and urine and anal excretions and exhalations, but of a thick stench of what could only be called desperation. And, crowded near the two sinks, on the side closest to the door, were those four dodgy men I had seen in here earlier, what were their names? Mel, Nat, Ralph, Something Something-more — it all seemed so long ago, and in a sense it was. And all four of them came right up to me at once and huddled in a tight half-circle around me, all of them trying to shake my hand at once.
“Mr. Walker!” said the one guy, the one with a big beard, “so jolly to see you again!”
“Um, uh, hi,” I said, “uh —” What was his name?
“Herman,” he said. He was pumping my hand in both his hands. “You remember me, right? But call me Mel. Everybody calls me Mel. Short for Melv—”
But right then this other guy, the one with a big droopy moustache, I was pretty sure it was Nat (but then maybe it was Matt?), pulled Mel’s hands away from my hand and replaced them with his own.
“Are you having a splendid time, Mr. Walker?” he said, looking in an earnest way right into my eyes. “Despite what society and the laws of man might dictate?”
“Uh, yeah, pretty good, um — Matt?”
“Nat,” he said, and I couldn’t help but notice that the whiskers of his moustache were a little wet with spittle on their ends. “Not Matt. Nat. Short for Nathaniel.”
“That’s what I meant to say,” I lied.
For the first time really it dawned on me that all four of these guys were dressed in a very old-fashioned way, like the way men used to dress in Civil War days, or even earlier. (Not that I was an expert in these matters, but I had seen movies like Gone With the Wind and Young Mr. Lincoln.)
“You remember me, don’t you pal?” said the one guy whose name totally escaped me. Nat wouldn’t let go of my right hand so this guy took my left and started shaking that in both his hands. This one was clean-shaven, but he needed a haircut. They all needed haircuts.
“He doesn’t remember you,” said the fourth guy, this was the one with the bushy long sideburns. “Do you, Porter?”
“No, uh, I remember you,” I said to the third guy, trying to seem like I wasn’t lying, and hoping he wouldn’t challenge me to actually say his name.
Then this fourth guy, I was pretty sure his name was Ralph, but I wasn’t entirely sure, he put his arm around me and put his hand on my right shoulder, I suppose because I didn’t have a free hand for him to seize and start pumping.
“Good old Porter,” he said, kneading my right shoulder with his one hand and then grabbing the biceps of my left arm, and practically hugging me to his chest. “Tell him his name, Porter.”
“His name?” I said.
“Yes, you said you knew his name — go ahead, say it!”
He was smiling broadly as he said this.
“Um,” I said.
“Go ahead, Porter. Tell him his name,” he said.
“His name is,” I said.
“Yes, go on,” said this guy Ralph, if that was his name, still smiling as if merrily, but in this way that didn’t show his teeth. He had a very long nose, and its tip almost touched my cheek.
“I fear he knows not his name,” said Mel, who looked like he was trying to figure out an opening to try and get closer to me again, what with two of these guys hanging onto my hands and this guy Mel massaging my shoulder vigorously with one hand while squeezing the biceps of my other arm like a clamp with his other hand. “I fear the name has been lost, as a piece of flotsam sucked into one of the great whirlpools of the chill waters of the Bering Sea.”
“Is it Barrymore?” I said.
“Ha ha, Barrymore he says! Barrymore!” said Ralph.
“Barrymore’s close!” said the guy who was obviously not named Barrymore. He shoved his face quite close to mine, looking into my eyes, and he said, “Fenimore. That’s what you meant to say, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “I meant to say that. Fenmore.”
“Fen-i-more,” he said. “With an i."
“Right. Fenimore,” I said. “I, um, made a, uh —”
“A mere slip of the tongue,” said Fenimore.
“Slip of the tongue my fundament,” said the Ralph guy.
“Fuck you, Emerson,” said Fenimore.
“And fuck you if you can’t take a joke,” said the guy who was apparently named Emerson, so I guessed I had been wrong and he wasn’t Ralph after all.
“How’s this for a joke?” said Fenimore, and suddenly he let go of my left hand and swung a quick right hook at Emerson, who was still holding onto my arm and shoulder. The punch must have hit him solidly on the jaw, because he fell straight backwards, pulling me with him, and with me dragging along this Nat guy, so that all three of us fell back against the inside of the men’s room door and then we all fell down to the floor in a thrashing pile.
My bad right knee hadn’t been hurting me so badly the past few minutes, or perhaps it had been hurting the same all along, but the pain had been eclipsed by the discomfort arising from my need to urinate; now, however, as I fell to this knee, once again I felt a sharp stabbing pain, much as if a rusty old railway spike had been driven into my kneecap. I couldn’t help but let out a shout of agony.
“Nice one, Fenimore,” said Mel. “Real classy.”
“Rafe here asked for it,” said Fenimore. “He’s always acting so high and mighty, him and his transcendentalism, but he’s also always ready to stick the needle in just because a fellow has a slip of the tongue and gets my name slightly wrong.”
The other two men and myself were all trying to stand up again, and getting in each other’s way, but finally I managed to grab onto the door handle with my right hand, and haul myself up, trying to keep my weight on my left leg. This Rafe or Ralph guy was still hanging onto my left arm, but with both hands now. I gave him a pull to help him up, but as soon as I did he just shoved me back against the door and stepped forward and said to Fenimore, “I used to pronounced my name 'Rafe'. But people thought that was pretentious, so now I pronounce it 'Ralph'.” He was rubbing his chin now, where Fenimore had punched him. “Ralph, like R-A-L-”
“No matter how you pronounce it, you're still pretentious,” said Fenimore.
“Pretentious, huh? How pretentious is this, wise guy?” and with that he took another step forward and threw a roundhouse right at Fenimore, who managed to duck back before the fist could hit him.
“Hey, Porter,” said Nat, who had made it to a kneeling position, and was holding a hand out toward me. “Little help?” He was smiling under his droopy moustache, but I knew he just wanted an excuse to grab my hand again and never let go.
I’d had enough. I ignored Nat’s extended hand, stepped around him, and pulled on the door handle. The door opened, although I could only get it open a foot or so because Nat was in the way. I started to squeeze through the opening.
“Hey, wait, Mr. Walker,” said Mel, “where are you going?”
“Yeah, don’t go,” said Nat. “They always carry on like this.”
I went out the door, with all four of them yelling after me.
I had two ways I could go, to the left, towards the back room, or to the right, back the way I came. I went right, limping badly, still in pain, the men’s room door closing behind me, the voices of those four losers suddenly muffled as the door closed.
I hobbled back down the narrow hallway, past the door marked “Ladies”. My first inchoate idea was just to leave this place entirely. I could run (or shamble, since I was unable to run in my present condition) across the street to one of the two bars that I knew were on the other side, or, perhaps even better, and safer, maybe just find a dark alleyway or areaway that I could pee in.
But then I turned the corner at the end of the hall, and I saw the door with a sign that said “Basement No Admittance”.
I don’t know why I stopped and turned the knob on that door. It clearly said “No Admittance”. Maybe it was because of all the music and noise coming from that front barroom, and I just didn’t want to have to face all those people again. And maybe, just maybe there was a staff restroom down in the basement. Or a sink, a drain, a dark corner, something or someplace into which or in which I could relieve myself before I wet my jeans. If the door was locked, well, then so be it, I would just fight my way through that mob in the front bar, go outside, and take it from there. But in the meantime there was no harm in just turning the door knob, maybe. So I did. I turned it, there was a satisfying click of a bolt, I pulled, and the door opened, onto a staircase lit only by a bare lightbulb in the low ceiling at the foot of the steps.
I took a deep breath and started down, holding onto the worn wooden rail that was there and taking it one step at a time, favoring my bad leg. It didn’t hurt quite so badly now. It was more like someone had pulled the railway spike out.
At the bottom of the stairs was a space not quite as small as a coffin, with two closed doors, one directly ahead, one to the left. On the right was only a bare old brick wall. The door ahead had a hand-painted sign on it that said “Sub-Basement”, and suddenly I remembered what Sam Clemens had told me about that place, that it was where the really boring writers were condemned to, and from which they were only allowed to come out of to loiter in the men’s room an hour or so every few weeks, writers like Emerson, and Nat, and Mel, and Fenimore. In fact this was probably where I, as a boring writer in my own right, was going to end up as a permanent resident someday. I definitely didn’t want to go down there, not yet, not until I had to, so I tried the knob on the other door. It wasn’t locked, and I opened it. It was dark in there, but, I thought, that might be a good thing. If it was dark that meant that no one was in there. So I stepped in, keeping the door open with one hand, and felt inside the doorway for a light switch. I found one, and another bare ceiling bulb came on. This was just a small room, it looked like a broom closet, and in fact there were a couple of brooms of different types in there, some brushes and a dustpan, a mop and bucket, some rags in a pile on the floor, some bottles and jars of cleaning products on shelves, some lightbulbs, boxes of toilet paper and paper towels. But there was another door, straight ahead, a closed door. I thought I could hear music and voices behind it, but I figured the noise might be coming from the barroom which was directly above. I closed the stairway door behind me, and put my hand on the doorknob of this other door. I turned it. it wasn’t locked.
I thought about it for a second. This could be trouble. But then crossing the street could be trouble. Getting out of bed in the morning could be trouble. It was just a door. And I really had to go to the bathroom.
For a second I considered just going ahead and peeing in this little room, this broom closet or whatever it was. But that wouldn’t be very nice for whoever came in here next, probably some poor old Negro man who had already had a hard life. He didn’t need to deal with something like that when all he wanted to do was to come down for a broom or a mop or something.
So I opened the door.
(Continued here, now that the Mayans have been proven wrong, indefinitely.)
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