Our hero Arnold Schnabel has agreed to buy a lady named Brett a drink, here in this crowded and noisy subterranean bar in Greenwich Village, on a hot wet night in August of 1957...
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“I confess that when I idly picked up off a drugstore rack that Ace ‘paperback original’ of the first volume of Arnold Schnabel’s magnum opus with its rather lurid cover painting I thought it was about a private eye who’s a burnt-out recovering alcoholic former Navy SEAL who has gone through a nasty divorce and whose teenage daughter doesn’t like him and whose old buddy calls him up for a favor. Oh, how wrong I was.” — Harold Bloom, in the AARP Literary Supplement.
She pulled me right over to the bar, shoving aside with her left elbow a tall man in a black frock coat and a top hat.
“Hey, watch it, sister,” said the man. It was that bearded guy that Ben had been talking to earlier. I couldn’t remember his name. Arab or Scarab or something like that. “You almost made me spill my grog.”
“Oh, dear, did I?” said Brett.
“You most certainly did,” he said. Besides drinking what I guessed was grog out of some sort of metal stein or tankard he was smoking a long thin pipe. “But I shall give you a pass as you are a lady.”
“Thanks, Ahab,” said Brett. (Ahab, not Arab, definitely not Scarab.) “I say, do you know Mr. Porter.”
“I saw him earlier,” said Ahab. “But the fellow he was with didn’t bother introducing us. I suppose his friend thought I didn’t matter.”
“Oh, but you do matter!” said Brett. She was still hanging onto my arm, and we were squeezed into this little space at the bar, with Ahab standing on one side of us, and some big guy sitting on a stool to the right of me. “Ahab,” she yelled, because, again, everybody was yelling in this place, anyone who wanted to be heard, anyway — “meet Mr. Porter!”
(For a fraction of a second I considered correcting her, pointing out that Porter was my current first name, my last name being Walker, but then I didn’t bother, as I really didn’t care very much what I was called.)
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” said Ahab, but he didn’t seem very excited, and he didn’t offer to shake my hand.
“Hello,” I said.
“How about those drinks, dear Mr. Porter?” Brett said, to me.
“Oh, right,” I said, and I reached into my back pocket with my free hand and got out my wallet, Porter’s wallet. Brett didn’t let go of my other arm, I guess she was afraid I might make a run for it, and so I opened the wallet awkwardly, perforce holding it near my chest, and took a look: a five and two ones — seven bucks, so I figured I was good for a round and I’d still have at least a few dollars left over.
The bartender was there.
“French 75, Brett?”
“No, Pudd’nhead, I’d like to try a Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’. Do you think you could make one of those?”
“No problem,” said the bartender.
“That’s a gay drink,” said Ahab.
“Well, we can’t all drink grog all the time,” said Brett.
“Drink what you like,” he said, “I’m only saying it’s a gay drink.”
“Thank you for allowing me to drink what I want, dear Ahab,” said Brett, and then to the bartender, “Two Planter’s Punches, with floats of ‘151’, please.”
“Oh, wait,” I said. “I’ll just take a beer.”
“Beer,” said Ahab.
“What?” said Brett.
“Beer,” he said again.
“What?” said Brett. “There’s something wrong with beer?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that,” said Brett.
“But it’s not a real drink,” he said.
“Oh, no?” said Brett. “What kind of drink is it then? An ersatz drink? A faux drink?”
“It’s a step above tea,” he said. “But only a step. Maybe a half-step.”
“Well, thank you so much for your opinion,” she said.
“Sometimes I have a beer in the morning,” he said. “But only after I’ve had a good strong beaker of grog.”
“Well, that’s just simply fabulous,” said Brett.
She turned back to the bartender, who had been standing there through all this; I had noticed him making a raised-finger gesture to some other customers, as if to say, “Sorry, I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
“Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’,” she said. “And a beer for my friend here.”
She tugged on my arm, which she still held firmly in hers.
You could tell the bartender was in a hurry. He looked at me.
“What kind of beer, pal? Rheingold, Schlitz, Schmidt’s, Blatt’s, or Falstaff?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“That’s true enough,” said Ahab.
“How about a draft Rheingold then?” said the bartender.
“Fine,” I said.
The bartender went away.
“Rheingold’s a crap beer,” said Ahab.
“Oh, dry up, Ahab,” said Brett.
She finally let go of my arm and put her purse on the bar and opened it. I think I forgot to mention that she was carrying a purse. I suppose this oversight doesn’t matter too much. Women often carry purses. Must we always mention the fact, or can it just go understood, like the fact that they are wearing some sort of shoes, or lipstick? Well, better later than never, let it be known she had a purse, which I frankly hadn’t noticed before. It was black, and it was the kind that didn’t have a strap or a handle. It was made of a shiny black leather, and that’s all I’ll say about it except that she opened it up and took a silver or silver-colored cigarette case out of it.
“You want a good beer you won’t get one in this joint,” said Ahab, and, speaking of noticing things belatedly, I finally became cognizant of the fact that he evidently had a peg leg, I could see its base sticking out under the cuffs of one of his black trouser-legs. “You want a good beer you’ve got to go to Liverpool or London,” he went on, “or the port of Hamburg in Germany —”
“Oh, Ahab, will you please just shut the hell up,” said Brett, as she took a cigarette out of the case, clicked the case shut, and tapped one end of the cigarette against the case’s lid. “Why don’t you go chase a whale or something, because you’re really being a dreadful bore.”
“Amsterdam,” he said. “There’s burg you can get some good beer in.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Brett, and she turned her back on Ahab, so that she was facing me.
“Finland’s got some good beers, too,” yelled Ahab. “Porters and stouts mostly.”
Brett had been carrying her black cigarette holder in one hand all this time, and she now screwed the cigarette into the holder.
“Don’t mind him, dear Porter,” she said to me. “He’s quite insane you know. Do you have a light for a lady?”
“Oh, gee,” I said, and I started patting all my pockets, even though I knew, or I thought I knew, that I had neither matches nor a lighter.
“Here ya go, little lady,” said this big guy who was sitting on a stool to my right — I was squeezed right up against him, actually — and he reached across in front of me and clicked a Zippo lighter. It didn’t light right away, but by the fifth click it did, after he had shaken it a few times.
Brett let him light her cigarette, then she exhaled out of the side of her mouth and said, “Thanks ever so much.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said, and he clicked the lighter shut and stood it on the bar top. “Thank the poor downtrodden mother who gave birth to me,” he said, “the seventh of twelve kids on a hardscrabble pig farm in Nebraska. Thank the drunken brute of a father who beat me with a razor strop. Thank the good sense I had to enlist in the navy the day I turned eighteen. Thank the raw guts and determination that got me through SEAL training. Thank the men — and, yes, I am sad to say, the women and the children — whom I had to kill in service to my country, a country that turned its back on me when I was dishonorably discharged after taking matters into my own hands in Beirut after my team got wiped out because of the betrayal of some goddam politicians. Thank that dirty trollop of a wife of mine who ran off with a traveling evangelist, leaving me to raise our daughter alone, a daughter who hates my guts I might add, and you might as well thank her too. Thank all the mercenary gun-for-hire jobs I’ve done since getting thrown out of the navy, each one of those jobs supposedly being that ‘one last job’, that one last job just to pay for my ungrateful bitch daughter’s college education and get me set up with a little chicken ranch out in the hills somewhere. And don’t forget to thank my alcoholism, which I still battle daily, and let me tell you it’s not easy when I find myself in a bar like this, although so far, as you can see, I’ve been limiting myself to black coffee, which is not bad by the way, considering this is a bar and not a coffee shop. So thank the coffee, too.”
A thick coffee cup, half-filled with what one might presume was black coffee, sat in a thick saucer on the bar in front of the guy. He gestured at the cup, with his big hand. Well, both his hands were big, but he gestured to the cup with his right big hand, which held a lit cigarette.
I suppose I should mention that he was wearing a black baseball cap with a yellow-and-black badge on the front of it, an eagle sitting on an anchor and holding a trident and a flintlock pistol. He wore a tight black t-shirt, and blue jeans that seemed artificially faded in some way. His nose looked like it had been broken and he had a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache. I couldn’t tell for sure because of the cap, but it looked like his head was shaven, either that, or he had just gotten a very short buzz cut.
He looked very muscular, although he did have a basketball-sized pot belly. A tattoo on his left upper arm consisted of the word Mom, in a human heart, although only the bottom half of the letters were visible under the sleeve of his t-shirt. So you can see I’m making an effort to describe people. I only hope I have been reasonably accurate, although already I am not so sure.
“Oh, yeah,” said the man, holding up the cigarette for us to see. “Thank the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, too. These damn things will kill me someday. So thank the slow and painful death that awaits me unless I die a violent death first. And you know what else you can thank?”
“I have no idea,” said Brett. “But I’m dying to know.”
“What about you, buddy?” the man said to me. “You know what else the lady can thank?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe the fact that you own a cigarette lighter?”
He stared at me. He took a drag on his cigarette, continuing to stare at me. Then he said:
“Well, uh,” I said.
“No, seriously,” he said. “You’re very good. But that’s not what I had in mind. Do you want to know what it is?”
“Yes?” I said.
“You don’t sound too sure,” he said.
“To be honest,” I said, “I’m not sure.”
He stared at me again. The band continued to play, the people all around us continued to laugh and yell. My sore leg ached, I tried to keep my weight on the other one. Finally the man spoke again:
“Like I said, you are very, very good.” He paused for a second or two, and then he added: “Maybe too good.”
“Thank you?” I said.
“Hey, you know where you can get a good beer?” shouted Ahab.
I turned and looked at him. He was leaning forward over the bar a bit, his face turned toward Brett and myself and the big man.
“Singapore,” yelled Ahab. “The port of Singapore. You’re ever in Singapore try a Tiger beer.”
“Tiger beer’s okay,” said the big man to my right.
“I’m just saying,” said Ahab. “You can get a decent beer in Singapore.”
“Thanks for the tip,” said the big man.
Ahab turned away, and I think he started talking to the people on his left.
“You know what I call people like that?” said the big man.
“Insane?” said Brett.
“I call them 'bar bores',” said the big man. “Not happy unless they’re boring the ass off of somebody. Anyway, where was I?”
“I haven’t the faintest,” said Brett.
“Where was I, buddy?” said the big man, to me.
“I think it was something about who or what the lady should thank, for getting her cigarette lit, or —”
“Oh, right. Thanks. So, anyway, I’m going to tell you, both of you, what the little lady here can be thankful for.”
“I’m not so little,” said Brett.
“The tall lady,” said the man. “I’m going to tell you, miss, what else you can thank.”
“My breath is absolutely bated,” said Brett.
“You can thank the time warp that brought me here,” said the big guy, “from the year 2013, a warp I stepped into when I was investigating a secret cult of vampire zombies who were attempting to take over the entire world.”
The guy took a drag on his cigarette and then tapped its ash into a tin ashtray that was in front of him.
“Thank the time warp,” he said.
“The time warp?” said Brett.
“Yeah, time warp,” said the man. “More accurately put, a tear in the time/space continuum.”
“I see,” said Brett.
“But you might just as well call it a time warp, that’s what everyone else does.”
“Splendid,” said Brett. “Well, let me just say then, thank goodness for the time warp.”
“Don’t thank goodness, lady. Goodness or God or Heaven or Christ got nothing to do with it. Just thank the time warp.”
“Splendid then,” said Brett, “thank you, time warp!”
At long last the bartender was there with Brett’s drink and a mug of draft beer for me, at least I hoped it was draft beer.
“Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’ and a mug of Rheingold,” the bartender said. “Two-fifty.”
Oh well, I thought, as I opened up my wallet, at least the drinks were reasonably priced.
Ahab turned away from the people he had been talking to, or talking at, and looked at my mug of beer and then at me.
“Rheingold’s a crap beer,” he said.
(To be continued, the doctors say it’s good therapy.)
(Painting by Paul Cadmus.)
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.