Our hero Arnold Schnabel has escaped from one forgotten novel, only to find himself in the world of yet another obscure masterpiece, i.e., Ye Cannot Quench, by Gertrude Evans, author of numerous other sadly-out-o-print novels, e.g., Three Young Ladies Fair; The Bark of the Poodle; The Testament of Rose Underwood; and Return to Rogue Mountain…
A warm wet evening in that fateful August of 1957.
Mr. Philpot’s Rare Books Shop, in Greenwich Village.
The Dramatis Personae:
Arnold Schnabel, now in the guise of the passionate and handsome young poet “Porter Walker”.
Mr. Philpot, a dealer in only the rarest possible books, those which have not yet been written.
Theophilus P. Thurgood, novelist.
(Please click here to read our previous episode; go here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 53-volume memoir.)
“Whenever I hear the words ‘a stunning achievement’ I immediately think Railroad Train to Heaven. But that’s just me.” — Harold Bloom, in The Jewish Daily Forward.
Suddenly — I suppose he couldn’t hold it in any longer — Mr. Philpot burst out laughing. It was a spluttering, wheezing laugh, a little old man’s laugh, but then what other kind of laugh would he have?
“What the hell’s the matter with you, Mr. Philpot?” said Thurgood.
“Oh, Christ,” said Mr. Philpot, gasping.
“What?” said Thurgood. “What’s so damned funny. I hope you’re not laughing at me.”
“Oh, shit,” wheezed Mr. Philpot.
“Because if you’re laughing at me —”
“You’ll what?” said Mr. Philpot, suddenly not laughing, and he fixed Thurgood with his little old blurry eyes, magnified by the thick lenses of his pince-nez, eyes that looked like they might once have been blue, when he was much younger and just starting out in the book-selling trade, back when writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott were the current rage. “What’ll you do, Thurgood?”
“Well, I wouldn’t strike you, but only because of your advanced age. But I would — I would up and leave!”
“Is that a promise? Because if so I shall immediately burst out into another great and even heartier peal of laughter.”
And he did burst into laughter again, but this time it sounded a bit forced.
“What the fuck are you laughing at?” said Thurgood.
“Oh, shit,” said Mr. Philpot, wheezing again.
“Tell me, damn it!” said Thurgood. He was still grasping his book to his thin chest. Did I mention he had a thin chest? Well, he did, in fact everything about him was thin, not just his chest, but his whole long body, his arms and hands, his face, his nose, his neck, his hair, his beard, and of course his skin, both in the literal and figurative senses. “You know how touchy and insecure and racked with self-loathing I am! Why must you torture me, you greedy and evil little gnome?”
“Oh, relax, Theophilus,” said Mr. Philpot. He tapped his pipe out into the dirty glass ashtray. “I’m not really laughing at you. Not too much, anyway.”
“Then what is it, damn it!”
Thurgood picked up the jelly glass he had been drinking out of, but it was empty.
“I’m laughing,” said Mr. Philpot, and he paused while he blew through his pipe, “I’m laughing at what Mr. Walker here is saying.”
“I fail to see the humor in anything Mr. Walker —”
“This ‘Josh’ he’s going to meet,” said Mr. Philpot, “is in fact none other than — Jesus Christ!”
And after saying this he picked up his leather tobacco pouch and began calmly refilling his pipe.
Thurgood looked from Mr. Philpot to me, then back to Mr. Philpot.
“You mean ‘the son of God’ Jesus Christ?”
“That’s the one,” said Mr. Philpot, tamping the tobacco with his ancient little index finger.
Thurgood again turned to look up at me, I was still standing there near the desk for some reason or more likely some host of reasons, some of them dating back to my unhappy childhood.
“No shit?” said Thurgood, to me.
“Um,” I said.
“So you’re really friends with Jesus Christ?”
“Well,” I said.
My right knee was still hurting, so I put my hand on the back of the chair I had been sitting in and shifted most of my weight to my left leg, which wasn’t hurting, not yet, anyway.
“Wow,” said Thurgood. “What a contact. I mean, Jesus — he’s got to be a good person to know, right?”
“Uh,” I said.
“Ah, Thurgood,” said Mr. Philpot. “Thurgood, Thurgood.”
“What?” said Thurgood. He finally put his book down on the table, face up. He was still holding the empty jelly glass in one hand.
“You slay me,” said Mr. Philpot, “you really do.”
“Because our friend Mr. Walker is personal friends with our Lord and merciful Savior, and all you can think of to say is that he — the son of God mind you, one third of the Holy Trinity, co-creator of heaven and of earth — that he — I should say He with a capital H — He is ‘a good contact’.”
“Well, can you think of a better contact?”
Mr. Philpot took a match out of the box on the desk, struck it, and lit his pipe with his careful little old-man’s puffs.
After he had it lit, and after exuding an enormous cloud of smoke, he said: “God the father?”
“Well, okay,” said Thurgood, “God the father, sure, but next to him, and I think even more than the Holy Ghost, you’ve got to admit that Jesus is about the second-best contact in all of creation.”
“Whatever,” said Mr. Philpot.
He picked up his own jelly glass, which still had some of the straw-colored wine in it, and he tossed it down.
“By the way,” said Thurgood, “Mr. Philpot, do you think I could have just a little bit more of the Amontillado?”
He held out his empty jelly glass.
“No,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Well, fuck you, then. I’ll just leave, too.”
“Don’t let the door hit you in your narrow ass on the way out,” said Mr. Philpot.
Thurgood put down the jelly glass, picked up his book, pushed his chair back, and stood up, although it seemed that he could barely take his eyes off the bottle of Amontillado.
“Let’s go, Mr. Porter,” he said. “I know when I’m not welcome.”
“I’ll tell you when you’re not welcome,” said Mr. Philpot. “Always. That’s when you’re not welcome. Always! Ha!”
He took up the bottle of Amontillado and poured what was left of it into his jelly glass, nearly filling it.
“I am really going to enjoy this glass of a hundred-and-seventeen-year old Amontillado,” he said.
Without another word Thurgood turned and walked the few steps over to the door, and began turning and opening the various locks and bolts on it. It seemed as if he had performed this operation many times before.
Finally, he opened the door, and turned.
“I am never setting foot in this shop again,” he said.
“You’ll be back,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Are you coming, Mr. Walker?” said Thurgood.
“Oh. Yes,” I said.
I started to go, but Mr. Philpot pointed with the stem of his pipe at the book he had sold me.
“Don’t forget your book, Mr. Walker.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
I picked up the book.
The Ace of Death, by Horace P. Sternwall.
I didn’t want it.
What was it? Just another tawdry novel about some poor sap who gets caught up in a whirlpool of despair and passion, a deadly vortex in which I also might find myself trapped, but doomed perhaps to play not even the friend of the lead character but some one-dimensional loser who gets bumped off in the first chapter.
But I didn’t want to be impolite, so I took it anyway.
“Well, good night, Mr. Philpot,” I said.
“I’m not so sure if you will be back, Mr. Walker,” he said. “I suppose it all depends on if you’re able to find your friend Josh?”
“I really wouldn’t know,” I said.
“Well, if you don’t succeed in returning to what you consider the ‘real’ world, please visit me again. No obligation to buy anything of course.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Mr. Walker, are you coming or not?” said Thurgood.
“I’m coming,” I said.
He was standing to one side, still holding the door open. I limped over, favoring my injured leg, and went through the doorway and out into the warm and humid night air, onto a small, iron-railed concrete landing under an awning, with steps leading down to the pavement and MacDougal Street, which looked the way it had when I had last seen it, wet with the rain that had fallen earlier in the evening and gleaming with the soft light of streetlamps. A car swooshed slowly by, I think it was a ’48 Hudson. Thurgood came out behind me, closing the door behind him.
“The hell’s the matter with your leg?” said Thurgood.
“I hurt it,” I said. “I tripped over a pile of books in Mr. Philpot’s —”
“You believe that guy?” he said.
“Um,” I said.
“Such an asshole,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I had this awful feeling that Thurgood was going to be yet another person who was going to become a part of my life, whether I wanted him to or not.
“But,” said Thurgood. “I got over on him, the little toad.” He reached into the side pocket of his suit and took out a cigarette and showed me. “See this? I grabbed a whole handful of Pall Malls out of the box when the mean old bastard was looking the other way. Got a bunch of matches, too. You want a smoke?”
I did actually. But I hesitated.
“Here, take this one,” said Thurgood, holding the cigarette under my face.
I really wanted the cigarette, but on the other hand, even in the dim light out here under this awning, I couldn’t help but see how dirty Thurgood’s fingernails were, and I wondered what was in his pockets. Who knew what was in them? Certainly it didn’t look as if his suit had been dry-cleaned for months, maybe years.
“I’m trying to quit,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “One of those. One of the would-be immortals. Well, suit yourself.” He put the cigarette between his own lips, which were just as thin as his fingers and as sallow as the rest of his visible flesh, then, putting his book under his arm, he took a match out of his pocket, struck it on one of his two grimy thumbnails, lit the cigarette. “But I’ll tell you this,” he said. He flicked the match down to the sidewalk. “If I were pals with the son of God I wouldn’t be worrying about getting cancer.”
“Well, I do think I feel better since I quit,” I said. “I mean physically.”
Thurgood stared at me while he took a good drag on his cigarette. It looked like one of those stares people give you when they’re trying not to say something deprecatory. Very slowly he let out the smoke while he kept staring at me. Then finally he said:
“And how long ago did you quit?”
I thought this over. It felt like about five years, but I knew it wasn’t anywhere near that long, not in what might be termed “real” time.
So, rather than get into a big long tedious explanation I just said, “Yesterday morning,” which was true in a sense.
Thurgood rolled his eyes, and emitted a soft snort through his nose.
“You’ll be smoking again,” he said, and he kept staring at me, as if he had never been so sure of anything in his life, and would never in his life be so sure of anything else ever again.
“Well, okay,” I said. “So. It was nice meeting you.”
I didn’t hold out my hand. I didn’t want to seem rude, but his hands looked like they would feel like the insides of old banana peels.
“Where are you going, anyway?” he said.
“Um, I really did want to find this, uh, friend of mine.”
“Jesus. Jesus Christ.”
“Well, I call him Josh.”
“Why the hell not just call him Jesus, or, I don’t know, Lord maybe, or Savior?”
“Well, he prefers to be called Josh,” I said.
“Because Joshua is like one of the names of Jesus? Like Jehovah? Or, like, the Messiah or something?”
“Well, I think he just doesn’t want to draw attention to himself,” I said.
“Oh, I get it,” he said. “Incognito.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So —”
“But you still didn’t tell me where you’re going to meet him.”
I knew where this was leading.
“Um,” I said.
“I mean you don’t have to tell me," he said. "It’s none of my business. I was just curious, that’s all.”
“I was hoping to find him in the bar downstairs,” I said, at last, knowing I would never get rid of this man now, for all eternity.
“Oh? Valhalla?” he said. “You like that place?”
“It’s — okay,” I said.
“Do you think you could get me in there?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Whenever I’ve tried to go in there they turn me away. They tell me it’s ‘private’. Private my ass. Just a bunch of stuck-up snobs, you ask me. Will you see if you can get me in?”
I said nothing. I was already thinking of what I should have done. I should have just made up some place I was going to, and then walked around the block, and — after making sure the coast was clear — ducked quickly into the bar, alone. But I had fouled up again.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t make any promises. I’ve only been in there twice myself.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” he said. “Just try. And in return I’ll buy you a beer.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
“Or maybe you’d prefer a cocktail,” he said. “A Manhattan maybe? I told Philpot I only had ten dollars on me, but actually I have seventeen, and change. So I can buy you a top-shelf Manhattan if you like. What kind of whiskey do you like, Four Roses? Old Forester?”
“Look,” I said. “I’m glad to ask them to let you in, but you don’t have to buy me a drink.”
What I didn’t tell him was that I didn’t mind a free drink, I just didn’t want to have to drink it with him.
“Well, we’ll work it out once we get in there,” he said. “Do you think it’s okay that I’m not wearing a tie?”
I have no idea if I mentioned this or not, a thousand pages or so ago when I first mentioned Thurgood, but he wore a faded print bandanna around his neck, but no necktie.
“I wear a bandanna because I am an artist,” he said. “That’s why I wear a beret also, and this wrinkled white suit.”
He must have noticed me looking at his suit, and a subtle change of expression on my face.
“What?” he said. He looked down at himself, his arms outspread. “Okay, maybe not white. This suit used to be white at one time. Now I guess you’d be hard-pressed to call it a pallid grey. But look at you, at least I’m not wearing — what — blue jeans, unpolished work shoes, a rumpled seersucker jacket, a plaid shirt, even if you are wearing a necktie.”
“I think I saw people in there without neckties,” I said.
“Ah! So it’s a bohemian establishment!”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Great, so what are we waiting for?” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Okay,” I said.
“How’s your leg?”
“It still hurts,” I said.
“Here, let me help you.”
He put his arm in mine. I’ve never felt comfortable with a man putting his arm in mine, and Thurgood’s arm, as thin as it was, felt like a steel cable fixing itself around my biceps.
We went down the steps, awkwardly, side by side, arm in arm.
It felt as if he were gripping my arm in his not out of friendly feeling but to keep me from breaking away and trying to escape.
(To be continued, inexorably.)
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.