On a rainy August night in 1957, in the ladies’ room of a mysterious subterranean bar in Greenwich Village, our hero Arnold Schnabel and his faithful companion Big Ben Blagwell have made the acquaintance of three ladies: Becky Thatcher, Hester Prynne, and Brett Ashley...
(Kindly go here to read our preceding thrilling episode; potential completists may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 53-volume masterpiece.)
“At this point in my life the only thing that keeps me going is the prospect of a new chapter of Arnold Schnabel’s monumental chef-d'œuvre.” — Harold Bloom, in The AARP Literary Supplement.
When Ben and I came out of the ladies’ room the women were already almost halfway down that dim narrow hallway, all three of them talking at once and the heels of their shoes making a sound like someone tossing handfuls of marbles on the concrete floor.
Ben put his big hand (again, and I hope for the last time, the only size hand he had) on my arm.
“Arnie,” he said, in a low voice, a low voice for him anyway, which wasn’t really all that low, but I don’t suppose the women could hear him over their own voices and the clacking of their heels, even if they were interested in what he had to say. “Arnie, listen, maybe we ought to decide ahead of time. Which one do you want?”
“Yeah, which one do you like? Becky, Hester, or Brett”
“Well, Ben, like I said, I really should be going soon.”
“Yeah, but just for argument’s sake, which one do you prefer. I mean if push came to shove. If you had to choose with a Luger to your head.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The blond one?”
“Becky? Are you sure, Arnie? I don’t know, pal, she seems like a handful, you ask me.”
“Uh,” I said.
“Hey, let’s talk while we walk,” he said. “We’re losin’ em.”
It was true, the women were already turning the corner of the hallway, still chattering away together, the sound of their footsteps growing slightly less reverberant now, like the sound of a tennis table tournament rising up from the windows of a basement parish hall as you walk by, alone, headed towards a tavern in which you hope no one will try to talk to you.
Ben kept his hand on my arm and pulled me along.
“So which one?” he said. “I mean setting Becky aside just for a minute. You don’t like Hester, do you?”
“She’s the one with the red letter A on her dress, right?”
“Right. Don’t know why she has that letter A on her dress if her name’s Hester Prynne.”
“Well, if I remember correctly, I think it's because in this novel she was in, The Scarlet Letter, she —”
“Arnie, save the goddam literary talk for later. I don’t really care why she’s got a goddam A on her dress. I care about what’s under the dress.”
“Oh,” I said. “You like her?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I like them women what’s got spirit, ya know? So you don’t mind if I take her?”
“No, sure, go ahead,” I said.
“Thanks, buddy. I’ll do you a favor sometime.”
“No problem,” I said.
We came to where the hallway turned to the right. The women were up ahead, still chattering amongst each other.
“Hold on a sec,” said Ben. He still had his hand on my arm, and he yanked me to a standstill.
“Here’s my dilemma,” he said.
It seemed odd to me that Ben would have a dilemma, but he lost no time in elucidating.
“I like that Becky, too,” he said. “That gal’s got sand. And I like a gal with sand. I like a gal with sand and I like a gal with spirit, too.”
“I don’t know what to say, Ben.”
“Don’t say nothing. Except do me a favor. You mind taking Brett?”
“The English girl?”
“Yeah. She ain’t bad-looking, Arnie. She ain’t bad looking at all. She’s got a figure like a fine racing yacht, all smooth lacquered curves but with like a built-in speed and power, like. I don’t sound like a queer, do I?”
“No, not at all.”
“She’s class, Arnie. Class all the way. Which is good for a classy guy like you. But me? A dame like that I’m always worryin’ about breakin’ one of her little Dresden china teacups, y’know?”
“Try gettin’ these big sausages into one of them delicate Dresden teacup handles.”
He took his hand off my arm finally, and, putting his cigarette in his mouth, he held out both his hands splayed before my face, knuckles outward. For the first time, and I have no idea why it took me so long to notice this, but I noticed that he had a single letter tattooed on the first knuckle of each of the first four fingers of his hands; the ink was a faded navy blue, and crossed here and there with scar tissue, but with his hands held out so close to my face I could read the letters easily enough, even though they were upside down. On his right hand were the letters DYNA, on his left hand: MITE.
“Yes, I can see how you would have problems with delicate china, Ben,” I said.
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and lowered his hands.
“The thing is, Arnie,” he said, “high class English broads like that give me the willies. I always feel like they’re gonna correct my grammar or something on account of my unfortunately curtailed education which was not a very good one even before it got its curt tailed, ya wanta know the God’s honest truth.”
“Um,” I said.
“So you’ll take Brett then.”
“I don’t think I’ll be taking any of them, really, Ben.”
“Okay, fine, but if you do take one, take the English broad, okay?”
“Uh,” I said.
“Good. That’ll leave Becky and Hester for me, and who knows, if I’m lucky, I mean really lucky, maybe I can get them to go for one of them menageries like they have in them French post cards. You know what I’m talkin’ about, right?”
“Um,” I said.
“Word of advice about these English broads though, Arnie. Word of advice. Get ready for a wild ride. I mean a buckin’ bronco ride if ya know what I mean. These high class English dames, once you finally get ‘em on the springs you gotta be prepared to go the full fifteen rounds, but with the gloves off and no Marquess of Queensberry rules, neither.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Just a word to the wisenheimer.”
“Sure,” I said.
Ben turned his head and looked down the empty hallway.
“Shit,” he said. “We lost ‘em. Come on, pal, let’s catch up.”
I started to limp along (because limping was the only way I was able to ambulate myself, due to the pain which persisted in my right leg, even during those passages in which I have neglected to mention it). But once again Ben grabbed my arm.
“Wait, Arnie, not so fast.” He slowed me down to a very moderate hobble. “You never want to seem too anxious with dames, Arnie. Act like you really don’t give a damn.”
“Well, like I said, Ben,” I said, “I really don’t think I’m going to, you know —”
“Good, that’s good, Arnie, nonchalant like that. Like you’d just as soon go home and have a quick date with Lady Five Fingers while you’re drinkin’ a cold pint can of Rheingold and leafin’ through one of them men’s adventure magazines, ‘cause ya know why? ‘Cause then you don’t have to worry about talkin’ to her in the morning. Good. Keep playing it like that.”
“The thing is, Ben —” I said. We were coming out into the bar area again, between one end of the crowded bar and the bandstand, on which the combo were still playing, loudly, with a bunch of people in front of the bandstand waving their arms and shouting.
“What, Arnie?” said, or shouted, Ben. “You were saying something? Where’d those babes go?” He had let go of my arm and was now swiveling his head left to right, looking out at the people in front of the band, the people dancing, the people crowded up at the bar.
I put my mouth near the side of his head and shouted.
“My friend Josh is waiting for me upstairs.”
“Josh?” said Ben. He was still looking through the crowd, smoking his cigarette, searching for the girls.
“My friend Josh,” I said. “I don’t think I told you about him.”
Ben turned and looked down at me (I might have mentioned this about a thousand pages back, but Ben was about four inches taller than me).
“You have a friend?”
“Yes,” I said. “Believe it or not.”
“Not that I’m jealous, Arnie.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I mean, I got other friends, too.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Plenty of friends. Shipmates, mostly. The brotherhood of the sea.”
“Who is this guy. You don’t mind my asking.”
“My friend Josh?”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
“Yes,” I said. “Josh. Well, he’s a young guy, sort of young, well, early thirties I guess.”
“Good looking guy?”
“Yes, he’s pretty good-looking,” I said. “Girls seem to like him.”
“So he’s no pansy is what you’re saying.”
“No,” I said. “No, I don’t think he’s a, uh —”
“No, I don’t think he’s a pansy, Ben,” I said.
“I’m really glad to hear that. Not that I got nothing against pansies. I am a seafaring man, Arnie, and one thing about us old sea-dogs, we are very shall we say liberal on the subject of pansies, and you would be too if you ever shipped out on a slow tanker from Frisco to Jakarta.”
“Well, he’s not a pansy, anyway, Ben,” I said.
“What’s his rice bowl?”
“His gig. His métier like the Frogs say.”
“What’s he do for a living?”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “I mean if he does anything for a living.”
“Well,” I said. “This isn’t easy to say.”
“He’s not like a secret government agent, is he?”
“No, nothing like that,” I said.
“Wait. He ain’t one of them international soldiers of fortune, is he?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not that.”
“Spit it out, Arnie. I can take it.”
“He’s the son of God,” I said. “Jesus. Jesus, Christ I guess is his last name. But he goes by the name of Josh. Because he’s traveling incognito, like a regular man.”
“Christ,” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said. “Jesus Christ.”
“No, I meant Christ, as in Jesus Christ, I mean like holy shit.”
“I mean, Jesus Christ, Arnie. You’re friends with Jesus? Christ?”
“Yes,” I said. “I know it’s hard to believe.”
“Christ,” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said.
“I mean Jesus,” said Ben. “Jesus Christ. I’m impressed.”
“Um,” I said, “well —”
“So what’s he like?” He took a drag on his Sweet Caporal, then slowly exhaled, while he took another look around the bar, then he looked at me again. “Good people?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good guy, huh?”
“But then I guess he would be. Son of God and all.”
“Yes,” I said.
“He ain’t like stuck up or nothing?”
“No, not really.”
“Not that you could blame him if he was,” said Ben. “Being the son of, you know, the Big Guy.”
“I think humility is one of his basic precepts,” I said.
“I say you chaps.”
Suddenly Brett was standing in front of us. She was tall for a woman, and she still held her cigarette, or maybe it was a new cigarette, not that it matters, in her cigarette holder, which was black and shiny.
“Hey,” said Ben.
“Um,” I said.
She looked at me, through a living plume of cigarette smoke.
“A lady could die of thirst,” she said.
Ben drove his elbow into my side, but it didn’t hurt too much.
(To be continued, not to do so would be cruel.)
(Special thanks to Kathleen Maher, who has sand.)