Our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companion in adventure Ferdinand (the loquacious fly) have met two future literary paragons here in the men’s room of the San Remo Café, on a hot and rainy night in that momentous August of 1957...
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“Who would have suspected that this humble former brakeman – who quite freely admitted to having read practically none of the American so-called ‘canon’ – would himself create the crowning glory of that canon?” — Harold Bloom, in Criterion.
“Don’t mind Jack,” said Bill. “He’s had a drop too much of the lush taken on top of some yagé tea we drank earlier this evening over at Herbie Huncke’s trap. He’ll be okay after he finishes emptying his stomach. How you doin’, anyway, Porter? You look like shit if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Um,” I said.
Meanwhile Ferdinand had flown off of his perch on top of the mirror, and was flying back and forth above our heads in an agitated-looking figure-eight pattern.
“Christ,” he said, “as a fly I never expected to be saying this, but I am really getting sick of the smell of puke.”
“Well, okay, let’s go then,” I said.
“Hold on a second, Porter,” said Bill. He took out a pack of Old Golds, gave it a shake, and put a cigarette between his lips. “Did I just hear you conversing with that there fly?”
I sighed. I was getting tired of lying all the time, and, anyway, what did I care? This wasn’t even my world. I wasn’t even in my own body. I came to the conclusion instantaneously that in fact I didn’t care.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m talking to the fly. His name is Ferdinand by the way. Ferdinand, this is, uh, Bill.”
I didn’t know Bill’s last name, or if I had known it I had forgotten it.
“Hiya, Bill,” said the fly, hovering in front of Bill’s face.
“Wow,” said Bill. “Like, hello to you, uh, Ferdinand.”
“No need to wonder if a handshake is de rigueur, Bill,” said Ferdinand. “It is not. However, I wonder if you would let me have a toke of your cigarette smoke, that is if you intend to light up that Old Gold which is hanging so elegantly from your thin aristocratic lips.”
“Why, yes, of course, old man,” said Bill. He took a book of paper matches out of his suit jacket pocket, tore off a match and lighted up.
“Good man,” said Ferdinand. “Now, if you don’t mind, just hold that ciggy still while I breathe in some of that delicious smoke.”
Bill held out the cigarette and Ferdinand hovered a few inches above it, directly in the thin column of smoke rising up from its end.
“Damn, that’s good,” said Ferdinand. “Thank you, sir.”
“Think nothing of it,” said Bill. “So, Porter,” he said to me, or to the version of me known as ‘Porter’, “tell me, am I hallucinating?”
“No,” I said. “That is, not unless I’m hallucinating also. Ferdinand really is a talking fly.”
“Extraordinary,” said Bill.
“At your service, sir,” said Ferdinand, “to be sure. I can see by your tailoring and tell by your accent that you are a gentleman. I am not so sure about your lumberjack friend there retching so vigorously into the sink.”
“Oh – Jack,” said Bill. “He’s no lumberjack, just a bohemian writer.”
“Oh, well, that’s okay, then,” said Ferdinand.
“In fact he has a new novel coming out next month about which we’re all very hopeful.”
“What’s it, like a noble epic about lumberjacks then?” said Ferdinand.
“Ha ha,” far from it,” said Bill. “More like a freewheeling headlong tale of restless souls motoring madly across the continent in search of experience and thrills, and, yes, spiritual exaltation.”
“And enlightenment,” said Jack, in a croaking voice, still leaning over the washbasin, and grasping it with both hands.
“And enlightenment,” said Bill.
“Sounds swell,” said Ferdinand. “How you doing over there, Jack?”
“Oh, Christ,” said Jack, and he heaved again into the sink. “Oh fucking hell.”
“Run some water in that sink,” said Ferdinand.
“Oh, right,” said Jack, and he turned on the cold water tap.
“Well, look, Bill,” I said. “We really have to go.”
“Stick around, Porter,” said Bill. “You too, Ferdinand. I just got my remittance check from home. Let me buy you fellows a drink.”
“Sure,” said Ferdinand.
“Ferdinand,” I said. “Remember? We have to go?”
“Oh, right,” said Ferdinand. “Okay. Sorry, Bill, I guess we gotta take a rain check on that drink.”
“Where you fellas headed in such an all-fired hurry?”
“This joint called the Valhalla,” said Ferdinand. “It’s right up the –”
“The Valhalla?” said Bill.
“The Valhalla?” said Jack, who had been splashing water into his mouth and on his face. He straightened up and turned around, with the water dripping down his face and onto his lumberjack shirt.
“Yeah, the Valhalla,” said Ferdinand. “Right acrost the street and up the block a little –”
“Hey, you’re a talking fly,” said Jack. “This means I got the DTs. Mon dieu, mon dieu –”
He had been looking pretty pale to begin with, but now he went even paler, and he began to shake.
“Relax, Jack, my boy,” said Bill. “Our friend here is the real McCoy. A gen-u-wine talking fly, and not one of these cheapjack imitations neither.”
“Yeah, take it easy, pal,” said Ferdinand. “What was it the bawdy Bard wrote, there are more things in heaven and earth, Jack, than are dreamt of in your Popular Mechanics magazines.”
“Oh, my fucking God,” said Jack. He ran his fingers through his wet hair, staring at Ferdinand. That is he – not his fingers or his hair – stared at Ferdinand, who was still keeping his little body hovering in the thin plume of smoke trailing up from Bill’s cigarette, and seemed to be quite enjoying it, at least as far as I could tell. (To be honest, a fly is not the most expressive creature in the world, but I daresay I was beginning to know Ferdinand well enough to be able to tell when he was enjoying himself or not.)
“Hey, Jack,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes?” said Jack.
“You got stock in the water company?”
“No,” said Jack.
“Then turn off the water.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Jack, and he turned off the water tap.
“Thank you,” said Ferdinand. “I just think it’s really wasteful to waste water like that, call me old fashioned.”
“By the way, just to complete the introductions,” said Bill, “Ferdinand, this is my friend, Mr. Kerouac, but his friends call him Jack.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jack,” said Ferdinand. “I seen you hanging around the San Remo – you too, Bill, and it’s nice finally to be innerduced.”
“So you have visited this fine establishment before?” said Bill.
“Oh, yeah, it’s my hang-out,” said Ferdinand. “Usually I’m in the men’s room here, sometimes in the ladies’. Sometimes out in the bar if I want to get a slurp of spilled beer or a whiff of tobacco smoke. It’s a nice stopping-place. Casual like, y’know? I like that. Try hanging out in one of these fancy joints uptown if you’re a fly, just try it. You’ll have a waiter snapping your ass with his fucking filthy napkin in no time.”
“Yes, I can well imagine,” said Bill.
“Well, look, Ferdinand,” I said, “we really should be moving along.”
“To the Valhalla,” said Bill.
“Yes,” I said.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “Have you ever been there before?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Wait,” said Jack. He had torn off a paper towel and was mopping his face, but now he stopped. “You’re saying they let you in the Valhalla?”
“Um, yes,” I said.
“But nobody gets in the Valhalla,” said Jack. “No one. None of the free mad yelling lost wandering souls of the blue night. No one. Not the speed-jiving parking-lot man rattling out his demotic fellaheen poetry, not the drunken Negro trumpet man with the sad eyes of the sad souls of the lost lonely streets of night, not the pale ghostly thin junkie –”
“Hey, I resemble that remark,” said Bill.
“No one gets in the Valhalla,” said Jack. He gave his face one more wipe with the paper towel, then crumpled it up and tossed it near to but not into the waste basket. Then he looked at me. “Nobody,” he said.
“And God knows we and all our friends have tried,” said Bill. “But we have always without fail been summarily turned away. How did you get in?”
“I just went in,” I said.
“Yeah, but then again,” said Ferdinand, “if I may interject: look who you went in with.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I forgot. I went there with my friend, Josh.”
“Wait, said Bill, “you mean your pal Josh that we met here earlier today?”
“Yes, the same Josh,” I said.
“Nice guy,” said Bill.
“Big spender, that’s for sure,” said Jack.
“A very cultivated fellow, I thought,” said Bill. “And, yes, very free and easy when it came to buying the rounds. So he was the one who got you into the Valhalla.”
“Well, uh, maybe,” I said. “But, look, I’m sorry, but you see in fact I have to meet him over there, and so I’m afraid Ferdinand and I –”
“Your friend Josh is in the Valhalla right now?” said Jack.
“Well, he was a little while ago,” I said.
“Do you think he could get us in there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t realize it was so hard to get into.”
“Hard to get into, he says,” said Jack.
“More like impossible to get into,” said Bill.
“Well, anyway –” I said.
“What’s it like in there?” said Jack. “Pretty beautiful I’ll bet right? Filled with beautiful souls, some of them singing the long mournful praises of that deep blues-wailing night that never ends. Others merely nodding their saintly stoned heads, digging it, digging everything.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said.
“Can we come with?” said Bill. “We promise to behave.”
“Well, uh –” I said.
“Look,” said Ferdinand, “if - and I say if Arnold –”
“Wait,” said Jack. “Who the fuck is Arnold, man?”
“I meant to say Porter,” said Ferdinand. “Porter. Porter, Porter, Porter.”
“Okay,” said Jack. “Porter.”
“As I was saying,” said Ferdinand, “if Porter let’s you come, and I repeat, if – you fellas are not gonna embarrass him in any way, shape or form, are yez?”
“Heavens, no,” said Bill.
“What about you, Jackie boy?” said Ferdinand. “You gonna be able to drink sensibly like a grown-up without throwing up again?”
“Yes,” said Jack. “I’ll just stick to beer.”
“You need to eat something is what you need. Order a burger, some fries.”
“I will,” said Jack. “I promise. The great juicy hamburger of the American night, with cheese and fried onions, perhaps a slice of the blood-red tomato fresh from the lonesome dirt-road farms of New Jersey. Do you think they’re still serving food?”
“No idea,” said Ferdinand. “But if not then get some peanuts or pretzels.”
“Right, I’ll do that,” said Jack.
“All right then,” said Ferdinand. “I mean if it’s okay with Arnie I mean Porter here.”
“Sure. Fine,” I said.
“You mean we can come?” said Jack.
“Sure,” I said. “But, look –”
“You’re in a hurry to go,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes, I hate to rush anyone,” I said.
“So let’s go then,” said Ferdinand.
“I can’t believe we’re going to get into the Valhalla,” said Jack.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” said Bill. “They won’t even let Hemingway in that joint.”
“Hemingway’s a pretentious asshole,” said Ferdinand. “Come on, fellas, let’s roll before Arnie I mean Porter here gets any more uptight than he already is.”
(Continued here, unrelentingly.)
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