Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel has found himself in a rather unusual sub-basement bar in that Mecca of Bohemia known as Greenwich Village, here on this fateful August night in 1957...
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“When I think of the great writers of the 20th century, of course the usual names pop up — your Proust, your Joyce, your Kafka and your Thomas Mann. But then I think, yes, but there is one who looms so loftily above the rest of the crowd, so much so that he comprises his own genre, serenely alone in his own class, and that one is Arnold Schnabel.” — Harold Bloom, in Maxim.
I started to take the five-dollar bill out of my wallet, but the big guy to my right put his hand on the wallet and shoved it back into my chest.
“Hey, put your money away,” said the big guy. “I got this.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “That’s okay.”
I knew what letting him buy the round meant.
“Bullshit,” said the big guy, and he hefted one of his buttocks off the barstool so that he could pull his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans.
“No, really,” I said, because I knew that if he bought us a drink he would never leave us alone.
“I said bullshit,” said the guy.
He had his own wallet out now, it was a big fat, bulging wallet, made out of cracked and worn black leather, a manly wallet.
“No, honestly, I, uh, I —” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, except that I was afraid that if I let him buy this round then he would hound me to the ends of the earth, no, beyond the ends of the earth, to the ends of uncountable and unaccountable worlds and universes and dimensions, but I couldn’t say that.
I started to take some money out of my wallet again, but again the big guy shoved the wallet back into my chest.
“I said I got it,” he said, and then he extracted two dollar-bills from his wallet and threw them on the bar. “Keep the change, barkeep,” he said. “And I’ll take another refill of this java.”
“Gee, thanks, pal,” said the bartender, and he took the money and went to the cash register, as, in defeat, I put my wallet back into my pocket.
“Thank you ever so much,” said Brett to the big guy. She didn’t appear to be, like me, afraid of him and of the possibility of his making our lives a living hell, both of our lives, for all eternity.
“My pleasure,” said the big fellow, and he leaned to one side again to shove the wallet back into his own back pocket. “Go ahead, drink your drinks. I wish I could drink one with you two. But, like I said, I’ve got a drinking problem. You’ll note I don’t call it a disease. To me that’s the coward’s way out, and one thing I am not, I’m proud to say, is a coward —”
As he went on talking I was looking at Brett, waiting for her to take the first drink, because I didn’t want to forget my manners; fortunately, after half a minute of at least pretending she was listening to the guy, she did lift the glass, put the straw between her lips, and start taking a good long slurp.
I didn’t hesitate but lifted my mug and gulped deeply, and when I put the mug down again it was two-thirds empty.
“Too many good guys I saw killed,” the big man was saying. “Friends of mine. Buddies. Guys I knew would lay down their lives for mine, just as I would lay down my life for theirs, without a moment’s hesitation —”
“Hey, I have a question, though,” yelled this Ahab guy to Brett’s left. He was leaning forward over the bar again, and twisting his head to one side so that he could look at the big guy.
“Yes?” said the big guy.
“My question is, when you’ve got a crew like that —”
“Team,” said the big man. “We call it a team, not a crew.”
“All right, team then,” said Ahab; “my question is, when you’ve got a team like that, where every man is willing to give his life for every other man on the team, what do you do when everybody tries to give their life for everybody else at the same time?”
“What?” said the big guy. The bartender had come back, and he refilled the big man’s cup from a big dented metal percolator.
“Fresh pot,” said the bartender.
“Oh, thank you,” said the big man.
“That’ll be a dime,” said the bartender.
“I thought it was free refills,” said the big man.
“Within reason it is,” said the bartender. “But this is like your tenth refill. So that’ll be a dime.”
“Okay,” said the big man. “Jeeze.”
He put his big thumb into the change pocket of his jeans, and took out a quarter.
“Here,” he said, putting the quarter on the bar. “Keep the change.”
“Gee, thanks, mister,” said the bartender. He scooped up the quarter and went away with his coffee pot.
The big guy picked up the cup and took a sip.
“Gotta say, it’s good coffee, though,” he said. “I’ll be up all night, but hell, I’m here to do a job, not sleep.”
He sighed, licked his lips, then put the cup back down on its saucer. Then he took a drag on his cigarette and looked at me, then at Brett, then back to me again.
“Name’s Treacher, by the way,” he said, and he held out his hand. “Mack Treacher.”
What could I do, I took his hand, awkwardly, awkwardly because he was sitting on a barstool to my right, and I was standing there crowded right up next to him. He did what I knew he was going to do, which was to grip my hand as mightily as if he were trying to reduce it to the consistency of hamburger. I tried to fight back with my own version of a death grip, but his was much stronger, he was probably one of those guys who practice squeezing baseballs for hours on end just so they can triumph in moments like this. But I’ll say this for him, as soon as I relaxed my grip, tacitly admitting defeat, he immediately released my hand.
“And what’s your name, pal?” said Mack Treacher.
“Arnold,” I said, waving my hand in the air to get the circulation going again. “I mean, no, it’s Porter, Porter Walker.”
“Pleased to meet you, Porter,” he said. “And the young lady?”
“Oh, this is Brett,” I said.
“Brett,” said Mack Treacher. “A lovely name for a lady. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see wedding rings on either of your ring fingers, so am I correct in assuming that you two are not married?”
“Oh dear God no,” said Brett. “I’ve had it with marriage, let me tell you.”
“I am so glad to hear that,” said the big guy. “Because I feel the same way. I gave everything to that woman I was married to. And, sure, I wasn’t the easiest guy in the world to get along with, what with my drinking, and my panic attacks, my waking up screaming in the night, reliving that awful night in Beirut when I lost every man in my team —”
“Y’know, speaking of your team,” yelled Ahab, leaning over the bar again and twisting his head so that he could address Mack Treacher, “you still haven’t answered my question, shipmate.”
“What?” said Mack Treacher. “What question? And why do you keep butting in, pal? We’re trying to have a conversation here.”
“You butted into our conversation, if I recall correctly,” said Ahab.
“I did not.”
“Damned if you didn’t. Now answer my question.”
“What question?” said the big man. “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”
“My question about what happens with your ‘team’ if every man jack in the team decides to give up his life for every other man jack in the team, simultaneous like. What happens then?”
“That’s an absurd question,” said Mack Treacher.
“The reason I ask is,” said Ahab, “is that in that case it would result in every man jack in the team giving up his life for every other man jack, thus annihilating the entire team. And that’s got to be counter-productive, right? I mean to the accomplishment of whatever the hell your mission is supposed to be.”
“If it happened,” said Mack Treacher, “yeah, sure, that would be as you say counter-productive, but it never would happen. It’s just —”
“Ha,” said Ahab.
“What?” said Mack Treacher.
“I said ha. Because you’re right, it never would happen. Because there’s always one man who lets everybody else lay down their lives for him. Which is exactly what you did, wasn’t it? You let your team sacrifice themselves for you.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“You let them die.”
“I did not. I was there. I did everything —”
“Maybe you did everything. Or maybe you didn’t. But the fact is, they died, and you lived.”
“I know,” said Mack Treacher. “I know.”
“You let them die.”
“I didn’t mean to,” said Mack Treacher.
“How’s your beer, buddy,” said Ahab, to me.
“Pretty good,” I said. I picked up the beer mug, took another gulp, then realized the mug was now empty.
I glanced at Brett, and her drink was empty as well.
“Let me buy you two another round,” said the big guy.
“You can’t buy friendship,” said Ahab. “Not with a couple of rounds of drinks. Something I learned a long time ago.”
“I’m not trying to buy their friendship,” said Mack Treacher. “I’m just being sociable.”
“What you’re doing is butting in on their privacy,” said Ahab.
“Oh, like you weren’t,” said Mack Treacher.
“At least I admit it,” said Ahab.
“Well, look,” said Brett, “I’d like another drink, and I don’t care especially who buys it.”
“It wouldn’t hurt you dames to buy your own drinks now and then,” said Ahab.
“And why on earth should we?” said Brett. “We are the weaker sex you know. We should have some perquisites.”
“Look,” I said, “I really should be going, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, but dear Mr. Porter,” said Brett. “We haven’t even had a chance to chat.”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” said Ahab.
“Just what I said,” I said.
“Hey, Porter,” said Mack Treacher. “Don’t let me chase you away. Lookit, you want me to, I’ll butt out, just drink my coffee, smoke my cigarettes, listen to the music.”
“I think our young friend would like that,” yelled Ahab. “I think he’d like it very much.”
“I think he would like it even more if you butted out, pal,” said Mack Treacher. “God, you’re such a buzz-kill, man.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said Ahab.
“It means you’re a killjoy,” said Mack Treacher. “I assume you know what that means.”
“I do,” said Ahab. “In my day we called it a party-pooper. And I resent you of all people characterizing me as such. The trouble with fellows like you is that you can’t face the truth. Try taking a good long look in a looking-glass sometime, fellow. Try listening to yourself. Try seeing what other people see in you, which is a blustering big bore-ass of a blowhard.”
“It sounds to me like you’re describing yourself, peg-leg,” said Mack Treacher.
“You’re pathetic,” said Ahab. “And not in the classical sense either. You’re just a shallow one-dimensional character who likes to pretend he’s got more than a quarter-inch of depth.”
“You’re just lucky you got a peg leg,” said Mack Treacher. “Otherwise I’d show you how shallow I am.”
“I’m sure you would,” said Ahab. “And as for my peg leg, please, don’t let that stop you. I’ll pull my peg leg off and smack you in the head with it. Then I’ll take it and shove it —”
“Well, look,” I said, blatantly interrupting in a way I rarely do, “I hate to butt in myself, but the thing is, I really do have to go.”
“Why?” said Ahab. “What’s so all-fired important? You young guys, always having to be somewhere.”
“But,” I said, “you see, there’s this friend of mine —”
“His famous friend,” said Brett.
“Hey, Porter,” said Mack Treacher, “are you telling us you’re leaving this beautiful lady here alone at this bar because you have to meet a 'friend'?”
“Maybe it’s his special friend,” said Ahab. “If you know what I mean.”
“Look,” I said. I started to say something to Ahab, but then I thought better of it. I addressed Brett. “Listen, Miss Brett.”
“Just Brett, dear boy,” she said. “Some people call me Lady Ashley. But to you let’s just make it Brett.”
“Listen, Brett,” I said. “I’m really sorry, but —”
“Hey, if you gotta go, pal, go,” said Mack Treacher. “I’ll keep the lady company.”
“Oh, please don’t go yet, Mr. Porter,” said Brett. “Just one more drink, dear boy.”
“Don’t listen to her, Porter,” said Ahab. “Go to your ‘special friend’.”
“What are you drinking, Lady Brett?” said Mack Treacher. “Same again?”
“Oh, please, dear Porter,” said Brett, putting her hand on my arm, and gripping it. She had a strong grip for a lady. Not as strong as Mack Treacher’s, but pretty strong. “Please don’t leave.”
She pressed herself close to me. I only now just realized that the erection I had had when we first squeezed up to the bar had gone away, and the reason I realized it was that now I felt the first warning quiverings of its return.
“Please, darling Porter,” she whispered, but it was more like the way people whisper when they’re just pretending to whisper. “Pretty please.”
“But,” I said, knowing that I would give in, and knowing that I would never get out of here, ever, and then I felt a punch on the back of my right shoulder.
Now what was it?
I turned around.
It was Josh.
I didn’t have to find him. He had found me.
I think I can honestly say that I had never been happier in my life than I was at that moment.
“Hey, buddy,” he said. “What’s shakin’?”
(To be continued, relentlessly.)
Railroad Train to Heaven is the living work of fiction writer Dan Leo, who's been working on its more than 300 weekly installments for the better part of five years. To catch up on previous episodes, visithis blog, or read a synopsis of the action thus far.