Our hero Arnold Schnabel, in search of his friend Josh (otherwise known as the son of God) has re-entered the world of a forgotten novel titled Ye Cannot Quench (written by the likewise-forgotten Gertrude Evans, author of many other once mildly-popular books such as The Song of the Plumber, Fear Not the Morning Fog, A Girl Called Pippa, and Return to Clifton Heights).
When last seen, Arnold (now in the corporeal host of “Porter Walker”, a young “bohemian” poet) was just leaving Philpot’s Rare Books Shop on MacDougal Street, in New York’s scenic Greenwich Village, or at least a version thereof, on a version of a warm and wet night in August of 1957, in the company of his fellow ink-stained wretch, Theophilus P. Thurgood.
(Kindly go here to read our previous chapter; click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 72-volume memoir.)
“To be quite honest the only thing that keeps me going at my advanced age is the anticipation of reading the next chapter of Arnold Schnabel’s masterpiece on my Kindle™.” — Harold Bloom, on The Rachael Ray Show.
The night was still very warm and humid, smelling of motor exhaust and beer, of urine and vomit, but compared to the stifling and smoky atmosphere of Mr. Philpot’s shop the air felt almost fresh. Thurgood and I made it down to the sidewalk, and with his steely arm still entrapping mine we turned right-face in lockstep and went down the steps into the dim sunken areaway of the Valhalla bar.
“Wait,” said Thurgood, and he finally let go of my arm. “How do I look?”
I didn’t want to, but I looked at him in the reddish glow of the Rheingold beer sign, which gave his pale skin some color at least, but without making him look any less hideous, just hideous in a different way.
But perhaps it’s wrong to say he looked hideous.
Maybe repellant would be a better word.
“Well?” he said.
He took off his black beret and ran his fingers through his greasy-looking and grease-colored hair, smoothing it back behind his ears. He put the beret back on, flat on top of his head, and then he tightened the knot of the bandanna around his neck. He tugged at the cuffs of his wrinkled suit, which had seemed tan-colored up in Mr. Philpot’s, then a weak grey on the steps outside the shop, and now had the color of a sick cat’s tongue down here in the areaway. He took a drag on his cigarette and turned in three-quarters profile, as if posing for a book cover photograph.
“You look okay,” I said.
He turned to face me full on.
“You’re quite sure?”
“Yeah,” I said. After all, “okay” covered a lot of ground, if you wanted it to.
And for a moment I wondered if I really could just make a break for it, now that he no longer had my arm shackled in his arm, just scramble up the steps and make a mad dash up or down the street for freedom, or at least for a dream of freedom. But then I remembered the persistent pain in my right knee. I wouldn’t make it even to the sidewalk before he would tackle me and drag me back down the steps, with me fruitlessly scrabbling and scraping my fingernails on the wet concrete.
“You’re looking at me funny,” he said.
“I don’t mean to.”
“Listen, maybe you could lend me your necktie.”
“I really don’t think that will be necessary,” I said. “As I just said, I saw other people in there without ties.”
“But maybe that was just because they were regulars. Or because they knew somebody. Somebody like your pal what do you call him, Jed?”
“Josh,” I said.
“Josh, Jed, whatever. Come on, buddy, be a pal.”
I fingered my loosened tie.
“But —” I said.
“Your tie is dark grey,” he said, before I could think of something else to say, no matter how useless. “I think it would go well with my suit. Lookit, I’ll lend you my bandanna if you like.”
Even in this shadowy and dim rosy light his bandanna gave off a thick damp sheen as if it had been soaked in motor oil.
“No thanks,” I said.
“It’s a top-notch bandanna,” he said. “I bought it at Abercrombie & Fitch, because I saw a picture of Hemingway wearing one just like it.”
“No, really,” I said.
“Okay, suit yourself. So can I have your tie? I promise to give it back. To be honest it looks like a pretty cheap necktie, anyway. Where’d you get it, Sears? Robert Hall? Kresge’s 5&10?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“So you’ll let me wear it?”
I was still carrying that stupid book that Mr. Philpot had railroaded me into buying — The Ace of Death, by Horace P. Sternwall. It was a hardback, and it occurred to me that I might try giving Thurgood a swift sudden bash on the head with it and then making good my escape. But then the book he was carrying, Two Weeks in a One Horse Town, the one he had bought from Mr. Philpot (presumably with a Jaguar XK1200) was a very much thicker book than mine, at least as thick as one of those Russian novels I used to look at on library shelves but could never quite bring myself to check out, not when there were still plenty of cheap thrillers about guys caught in a death-spiral of despair and doomed passion for me to read. If it came to a battle of books, Thurgood could easily bash my skull in with his volume, whereas my more modest tome would at best only stun him slightly.
“Look,” he said, “if you don’t want me to borrow your damned necktie, then stop beating about the bush and just say so. There’ll be no hard feelings. But I would think a fellow writer would show some solidarity, even if you are a poet. I don’t know why you poets look down on us novelists. Ours is every bit as legitimate a field of literary endeavor as yours.”
“But as I have said,” I said, and I don’t know why I just didn’t give him the tie. I really didn’t care about it. I suppose it was just because I didn’t like him, and I found him importunate. Also, as I had gradually become aware, he smelled funny, like a cardboard box full of old shoes in a forgotten corner of a damp moldy basement. “You really don’t need a tie to go in there.”
“You’re not just saying that, so they’ll turn me away at the door, while you go in and hobnob with your friend?”
“No, I’m not just saying it,” I said.
“Well, all right, then,” he said. “Let’s go in. But you go first.”
“Sure,” I said, and I was thinking that with any luck I could leave him at the front bar while I pretended to go to the men’s room, and then head to the back room to find Josh, provided he was still there.
I limped over to the door and put my hand on the handle, but then all of a sudden Thurgood put his hand on my arm, the arm that ended in the hand I was about to open the door with. Even though his hand was as skinny as every other part of him he had one of those grips that the writers of the trashy novels I like to read would probably refer to as steely.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re not going to ditch me when we get in there, are you?”
“Oh, no,” I said, which after all, strictly speaking, was not a lie, since I had only been intending to ditch him, without considering it an absolute certainty that I would be able to do so. By this stage in my personal development I think it is safe to say that I considered nothing to be an absolute certainty.
“At least have a drink with me for Christ’s sake,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Just — ‘okay’?”
“Well, uh —”
“Not ‘certainly’? Or ‘of course’?”
“Certainly,” I said. “Of course.”
“You don’t sound enthusiastic.”
“It’s my nature,” I said. “I’m not an enthusiastic fellow.”
“So — you’re not one of these ecstatic sort of poets.”
“No,” I said.
“Not so much the Walt Whitman type, say.”
“Well, uh,” I said. “Um.”
“But I had heard that your epic poem is one of these sort of fevered dithyrambic long-rolling-lined epic jobs, in praise of the great city and all the tedious people in it and all that sort of nonsense.”
“My poem may be that way,” I said, “but I’m not.”
My forearm arm was beginning to hurt now where he was grasping it.
“Personally I hate ecstasy,” he said. “At least other people’s purported ecstasy. What’s more boring than someone else’s ecstasy?”
“Can you let go of my arm?” I said.
“Oh, your arm, yes, sorry.”
He let go. I flexed my hand a few times, to restore the flow of blood. Then I put it back on the door handle.“Well, here goes nothing,” said Thurgood. “I’m very nervous.”
I opened the door, and the music which I had been hearing outside in a muffled way but hadn’t quite taken notice of now crashed over us, some raucous rock ‘n’ roll or boogie-woogie jukebox song. The place had gotten even more packed with people since I had been there earlier that evening, many of them dancing and nearly all of them shouting or screaming or laughing.
That fat man who apparently managed or owned the place, James or Henry or whatever his name was, was standing by the near end of the bar, talking to some men. He had a cigar in his right hand and a glass with an amber liquid in it in his left, and he looked much drunker than he had during my previous visit a half hour or a year ago.
I came in, the door closing on its door-closer behind me, and Thurgood was there right beside me, so close that the back of his hand was touching mine, and for an awful moment I thought he was going to take my hand in his. I quickly pulled my hand up and pretended to adjust my tie.
The fat fellow was now staring at me, or in my direction, through the warm swirling smoke. It occurred to me that he might be nearsighted, and he wasn’t wearing glasses. But then suddenly he cocked his head back and then rushed over to me.
“Mr. Walker! I’ve been looking all over for you! I didn’t see you leave!” he shouted over the music, or rather through it. He switched his cigar to the hand that held the glass, and he took my hand in his hand, which was hot, and, sad to say, somewhat sticky. His wing collar had come unbuttoned, and his bow tie hung halfway down his chest, barely knotted. “Where ever have you been?”
“I, uh, slipped out quietly just for a moment,” I said. I turned my head just slightly to try to get out of the direct range of his breath, which smelled of cigars and whiskey, and not in a good way.
“You say you flipped out mildly and potent?”
“Um,” I said.
“Hello, Mr. James!” shouted Thurgood. “My name is Thurgood! Theophilus P. Thurgood!”
“What?” said this Mr. James (which I supposed provisionally was his name, unless Thurgood had it wrong, which wouldn’t surprise me). “You say you’re up to no good?”
“No! Thurgood!” Now Thurgood was almost screaming. “My name is Thurgood! Theophilus P. Thurgood!”
“No! Thurgood! Theophilus P. Thurgood!”
“Oh,” said the fat man.
“Theophilus P. Thurgood!”
“Oh,” said Mr. James. “Yes, I think I’ve heard of you.”
“Theophilus P. Thurgood!” yelled Thurgood, again.
“I said I heard you,” said the fat man. “No need to shout.”
He kept his hand in mine. It was a soft, damp, hot hand, like that of a freakishly oversized infant, but it seemed to hold secret reserves of strength.
“Look, Mr. James, I have a brand new book,” shouted Thurgood, and he smiled in a way that seemed hopeful, but which, unless I was reading too much into it, produced a somehow despairing effect with his glistening black whiskers surrounding his thin pale lips and tobacco-yellow teeth. He stuck his Pall Mall between the upper and lower ones and held out his book with both hands, its front cover facing the fat man. “See? Hot off the presses! Look how big it is!”
The fat guy looked at it for a second, and then, still not letting go of my hand, he came closer to me and shouted up towards my right ear, the one that was farthest from Thurgood. I say “shouted up” because he was about six inches shorter than me:
“This fellow with you?”
His bad warm breath wafted up into my face.
I didn’t want to turn to face him and his breath directly, but I did, because I didn’t feel like repeating myself five or six times.
“Yes!” I shouted. “He’s with me!”
And then, over the fat man’s bald head, through the crowd and the churning smoke, I saw Josh, the son of God. He was in the small area between the bar and the booths, and he was leaping about. At first I thought he was throwing a fit, but then I realized that he was only dancing the boogie woogie.
(To be continued, come hell or high water or super-storm.)
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, visit his blog , or read a synopsis of the action thus far .