Let us return to a certain hot and rainy night in old Manhattan and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new guardian angel “Bowery Bert”, just as they are about to enter that fabled watering-hole Bob’s Bowery Bar…
(Kindly click here to read our immediately preceding chapter; go here if for your own good reasons you wish to return to the very beginning of this 71-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“First came Marcel Proust, and then, hard on the glorious Parisian’s heels, that magisterial Dubliner James Joyce, but it wasn’t until some several decades later that the Divine Trinity of 20th century literature became complete, when a modest Philadelphian named Arnold Schnabel somewhat tentatively began to write his towering chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, from the Introduction to his Railroad Train to Heaven: an Abridged Version for Younger Readers (Olney Community College Press).
I stepped inside, and once again I was in that world I knew all too well, Bar World, and my new guardian angel was right there with me, in fact he had even hooked his arm into my left arm, whether out of camaraderie or merely to make sure I didn’t escape him, well, that’s not for me to say.
The wind slammed the door shut behind us, and despite the torrential rain outside, or who knows, maybe because of it, the bar was even more packed with shouting and laughing drunks than when I had just previously been in here – what, when was it, an hour ago, forty-five minutes? It felt like five months, but I knew that couldn’t be right.
The jukebox blared with saxophone music, and the sticky hot air churned with tobacco smoke and the odors of beer and whiskey and gin and of sweating unwashed bodies, with acrid swirling notes of colognes and perfumes which I could only assume were of the cheapest brands, not that I would know the difference if they weren’t – in other words everything was as before, but more so. I knew from bitter experience there was nothing to do but breathe deep, breathe it all in so that you got used to it, and I must admit that after more than twenty years of wasting my precious time in bars it never took me too long to get used to it.
And I was doing that, breathing in the hot thick humid stench of it all and preparing myself for my next move when Bert yanked on my arm, pulling my torso and the head on top of it closer to his eager face with those eyes so hideously magnified by his glasses.
“Where is he?” he yelled, over the saxophone music that was blaring from the jukebox and the shouting and laughing of all the drunkards in this place. “Where is Jesus?”
“Josh you mean,” I shouted back down to him. “Remember, he likes to be called Josh now.”
“Yes, quite – Josh,” said Bert. “Pardon me. I shall remember that.”
(Actually I didn’t care in the least what he called Josh, and I was pretty sure Josh wouldn’t care either; I think I was just having a little wicked fun with my new guardian angel, but that was his fault for being so annoying.)
“Anyway,” I said, yelled, “he was over there –” I jerked a thumb to the right, “in a booth.”
From where we were standing just inside the door I couldn’t actually see the booth in question – a couple of other booths came first, and there were people staggering and dancing all around us.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” said Bert. “Let’s go, sonny Jim!”
“Okay,” I said, and with Bert still hanging onto my arm I began to work my way through the alcoholics between where we had been standing and the booth in question. I had no plan beyond getting to the booth, and anyway, by this point I had become fully cognizant of the flimsiness of all human plans. I continued doing what I did because I didn’t know what else to do. And, anyway, sure enough, my plan was foiled almost immediately, as who should I see dancing furiously in that mob not six feet away but my old nemesis Emily. I then also saw that she was dancing with – or at least dancing in the near vicinity of – my publisher, or at least my alter ego’s publisher, Julian Smythe.
I stopped, and turned around, so that my back was towards Emily and Julian, and as Bert still had his arm in mind, I perforce turned him around also.
“Hey, what gives?” he said. He’d had his cigar in his mouth but now he took it out. “You trying to dance the black bottom with me? Well, I’ll tell you right now, buddy, Bowery Bert don’t roll that way!”
Without ceremony I pulled him further around so that he was facing me, or facing upward at me, what with him being almost a foot shorter than me. I freed the arm he had been holding onto and, bending forward, I cupped my hand to the side of my mouth.
“I’m not trying to dance with you,” I stage-whispered, into his tiny ear, which was shriveled and grey like a dead growth of fungus on an old tree. “I just saw someone I don’t want to see.”
“It’s this girl, her name’s Emily.”
“Ah ha! Cherchez la femme!” he yelled, pronouncing the word like “fem”. “You dog, you! Who is she, one of your doxies?”
“No,” I said. “She’s the heroine of a novel in the fictional world we’re in.”
“Okay,” he said. “I can, as you young people say, ‘dig’ that. So what?”
“Well, you see, in this novel, well, I guess I did have a sort of affair with her –”
“Ha! I knew it! How was she?”
“Look, Bert, I really don’t want to talk about any of that sort of thing –”
“I don’t even remember what she was like, anyway, because I got into the novel after all that happened.”
Bert took a puff on his cigar, and needless to say, blew the smoke up into my face.
“Y’know,” he said, “I’m not so sure I even want to try to understand what you’re talking about.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “To be honest I really don’t care if you understand it either.”
“Good, so neither of us cares.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Great. Fabulous.”
“Okay, don’t get upset.”
“I’m not upset.”
“You look upset.”
“Okay, I am upset. But it’s just because I don’t want to see this girl.”
“Is she that bad?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Wow. Now I want to meet her.”
“Well, you can meet her if you want to,” I said. “But I intend to avoid her like the plague. So, you know –”
“Hey, you’re not getting rid of me that easy, pal. I’m your guardian angel and I’m sticking with you. Which one is she, anyway?”
“The really drunk-looking one –”
“They’re all drunk-looking.”
“I meant to say,” I said, “before you interrupted me, the drunk-looking one with the tousled dark hair in the wrinkled grey suit, dancing with the tall guy in the dark suit who looks kind of like Rock Hudson.”
“Okay,” said Bert, peeking around my waist to my right. “I see her, and him. She ain’t bad. A little thin for my taste, but I wouldn’t kick her out of the sack. Who’s the stud?”
“He’s my publisher, Julian Smythe.”
“You have a publisher?”
“I don’t, but the fictional character whose body I currently inhabit does.”
“And who, pray tell, is this 'fictional character', if I may be so bold as to ask?”
“His name is Porter Walker.”
“So you’re telling me that in this particular, uh, reality, you are this ‘Porter Walker’?”
”And so your character I take it is a writer of some sort – like what, oh – no – not a poet?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t think so,” he said. “I mean, no offense, but you just don’t strike me as the next Longfellow.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“You’re that afraid of some drunk girl?”
“The last time we met she knocked me out.”
“Is that how you got that shiner?”
“I guess so,” I said. I touched the area below my left eye. I had forgotten about the black eye, but obviously it had not miraculously healed.
Bert leaned to my left this time and took another peek behind me.
“She don’t look like she packs much of a punch.”
“She hit me with her purse,” I explained, “and she had a big jar of Pond’s cold cream in it.”
“Ha ha, beautiful! I like a woman with spirit!”
“Is she still there?”
“Oh, yeah, she’s there, all right, and it looks like she’s boogalooing closer, too.”
“Damn,” I said. “Damn. Damn it.”
“Hey, buddy, that kind of language doesn’t help.”
“You should say ‘Darn’ if you must say something. Or even better, ‘Gee’.
“So is this what you do as a guardian angel? Tell people to watch their language?”
“And is this what you do as a human being? Tell guardian angels how to do their fucking job?”
“Look,” I said, “there, you just cursed.”
“Fuck is not a curse. It’s a crude word but it’s not a curse word.”
“Well, how come you can say f–”
“Don’t say it.”
“Okay,” I said. “But how come you get to say the F-word and I can’t even say ‘damn’?”
“I told you not to say that word.”
“Fine,” I said. “Then how come you get to say the F-word and I can’t even say the D-word.”
“Because,” he said, “I am an angel. And you are only a human being. And before you start complaining let me say I don’t make the rules. Now come on, let’s shake a leg. I want to meet Jesus, or Josh, or whatever he’s calling himself these days.”
“But if I turn around she’ll see me.”
“This what, Edie is it?”
“You’re that afraid of her.”
“You’d be afraid too if she knocked you out with her purse.”
“Okay, Arnie, now bend down closer to me because I’m going to tell you something.”
“I can hear you okay from where I am,” I said.
“Good. Because I want you to listen to me and listen tight.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And stop darting your eyes around while I’m talking to you.”
“Look,” I said, “Bert – and it’s okay I call you Bert, right?”
“I thought we had already established that.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “Bert. Will you please just tell me what you have to say and be done with it.”
“Telling me my job again.”
“Okay,” I said. “Don’t tell me what you were going to say. I don’t care.”
“What I was going to say,” he said, “before you got so fucking weird – is that as your guardian angel I am advising you to stop being such a pussy, afraid of some little female, and turn around and lead us to your friend Josh. That is what I am advising you, in my capacity as your guardian angel. And, believe me, I have been doing this job a long time. Now let’s move.”
“If we wait she may go to the other side of the bar, where she might not see me.”
“You’re grasping at straws now.”
“But you don’t know her.”
“I think she sounds fascinating.”
“She’s not. She’s really boring.”
“Maybe you just need to get to know her better.”
“I don’t want to get to know her better. And anyway, she’s a character in a novel.”
“Well, so are you, that is if I’m following you correctly.”
“But this is not the real me. I’m only stuck in this body.”
“That’s what every human being ever since Adam and Eve has said.”
“Look, you’re supposed to be my guardian angel –”
“Not supposed to be. I am.”
“Then help me.”
“Oh, all right, don’t worry, I’ll help you.”
“You’re very welcome.”
He seemed so smug, but I resisted the urge to pick him up and toss him into the middle of that mob of dancing people. I might mention here that for the hundredth time that day I was now streaming with sweat, and so now my clothes, which were already damp from the rain, were now becoming soaked from the inside as well. Bert on the other hand looked as cool and dry as a mummy in his grey suit and cloth cap, but then, as he had reminded me me more than once already, he was an angel, not a human being. Could it be that he actually might be able to help me? I decided to swallow my pride, at least for the time being.
“What should I do?” I said.
“Okay,” said Bert. “You’re a character in a novel, right?”
“No, more accurately put, I am trapped in the corporeal form of a character in a novel.”
“In other words, you’re a character in a novel.”
“Okay, fine, I’m a character in a novel.”
“Great. So act like a character in a novel.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean do something stupid,” he said. He took another puff on his cigar. A funny thing about that cigar, no matter how much he smoked it, it always stayed the same length.
“You’re telling me to do something stupid,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Somehow I don’t think that will be hard for you. Somehow I don’t think that will be hard for you at all.”
I had to admit that he was right.
(Please look to the right-hand column of this page to find an ostensibly current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. The holidays are almost upon us, so why not give your friends and family the most precious gift of all, a great book – and click here to order the new paperback edition of our friend Kathleen Maher’s magical novel Diary of a Heretic!)