Let’s return to a certain rainy August night in 1957 and to the entrance area just outside of Bob’s Bowery Bar, where we find our memoirist Arnold Schnabel with his friends Josh (also known as the son of God), Big Ben Blagwell (that rollicking brawling but eminently good-hearted adventurer), and Ferdinand (the loquacious fly)…
(Please click here to read last week’s thrilling episode; anyone looking for years of harmless amusement may go here to return to the faraway misty beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 63-volume autobiography.)
“Arnold Schnabel’s towering and sprawling chef-d'œuvre must surely be counted among the great masterpieces of confessional literature, the equal of those of Rousseau, St. Augustine, Casanova, and David Niven.” – Harold Bloom, in The Psychology Today Literary Supplement.
Illustrated by rhoda penmarq.
“Y’know, I still kind of wish I could go over to Carlotta’s place,” said Josh.
“Goddammit, Josh,” said Ben, “and again, I apologize for swearing, but you gotta get your mind off that dame.”
“But it’s so hard to do that,” said Josh.
“Which is why we’re gonna A, get you loaded, and, B, get you laid.”
“But not too loaded,” said Ferdinand, looping around in a lazy way among the three more humanoid members of our little group.
“Right,” said Ben, “loaded but not too loaded. You don’t want the old belaying pin turning soft on you at the critical moment.”
“I’m sorry,” said Josh, “but – ‘belaying pin’?”
“He means your pecker,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Your aforementioned johnson, buddy.”
“Oh, yes,” said Josh. “My, uh, ‘johnson’, heh heh –”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “There’s a certain art if I may say so myself in getting three sheets to the wind but not so much so that at the critical moment you are unable to get the old johnson up and keep it up.”
“Yes,” said Josh, “now that you mention it, I remember the apostles talking about that sort of thing, about how too much wine affects a man’s ability to achieve and maintain and ultimately to perform to completion the copulative act –”
“Okay, hold it right there, Josh,” said Ferdinand. “You’re telling us the apostles used to talk about this kind of stuff?”
“Well, yes, I mean, sometimes,” said Josh.
“So they were just like regular joes,” said Ben, “them apostles.”
“Yes, regular joes,” said Josh. “Very religious chaps of course, and dedicated for the most part, but still able to enjoy a goblet of Galileean wine and some carefree badinage at the end of a long day of tramping the dusty roads of Israel and spreading the good word. Why, I remember at the marriage feast of Cana –”
“Okay, whatever,” said Ben. He lifted his schooner and downed the last of the black liquid it had held. “Let’s go. I need a refill. And you, Arnie,” he said, pointing his great forefinger at me, “don’t think that our business with Josh is gonna interfere with you and me getting our load on, buddy.”
“Or me,” said Ferdinand, buzzing eagerly around in and amongst us.
“That’s right,” said Ben. “Or Ferdy.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
“Great,” said Ben. “Let’s go in there and get shit-faced, get Josh laid, and then get really shit-faced, and, sure, tomorrow we’ll wake up, possibly in some dank cobblestone alleyway, feeling like the whole world has been created only for the purpose of causing us unbearable misery, but remember this, my friend: that agony which will seem unbearable and unending at the time will gradually subside, but one thing that will never subside will be the fellowship of shipmates we will have shared on this rusty old tramp steamer we call life. This fellowship will last until we die.”
“Great,” I said. “Let’s do it. Oh, by the way, Josh?”
He had tossed away the latest Pall Mall he’d smoked down to a stub as usual, and, also as usual, he was lighting up a fresh one right away with his handsome monogrammed lighter.
“I was wondering,” I said, trying not to sound calculating, “do you remember that book I had, I think I gave it to you for safe-keeping when I went to the men’s room?”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “The Ace of Death, by Horace P. Sternwall. Except all the pages were blank.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Quite risible of Mr. Philpot to sell you a blank book.”
“Right,” I said. “Where is it by the way?”
“Still lying on the table we were sitting at in the bar, as far as I know. Why?”
“Oh, just wondering,” I said.
“Look, worry about the damn blank book later,” said Ben. “Let’s bust a move.”
And at last, after what seemed like two months at least, we went back into the bar, Ben going through the door first, with Ferdinand buzzing merrily around just behind him, then Josh, and me bringing up the rear.
Over the last few minutes I had developed a new plan, and it did not involve getting, as Ben put it, shit-faced and waking up the next day in some alleyway. What it involved was me getting my hands on that blank book I had bought from Mr. Philpot so long ago, taking out the Eversharp ballpoint pen in my shirt pocket, and proceeding to write my way out of this world and back into my own. The faithful reader of these notes might recall that I had attempted to do this once before, earlier that evening, when I had had a brief period of solitude in Mr. Philpot’s shop, but I had dilly-dallied and equivocated over the wording, and next thing I knew Ben came back with a keg of rum, my writing was interrupted, many adventures ensued, and here I was still exiled in this fictional universe.
This time I had to concentrate, just open the book and start writing and refuse to stop writing until I was back in Cape May in what I persisted in thinking of as “the real world”. It wouldn’t be easy even to open the book with Ben insisting I get drunk with him, but I would just have to find a way. What that way would be I didn’t know, but the first thing I had to do was to get my hands on the book.
I should probably admit here that my thinking was entirely selfish. If I had been a better man, like Ben, or like Ferdinand, even though he was a fly and not a man, I would have been concerned with Josh’s dilemma, I would be trying to do something about it just as Ben and Ferdinand at least said they intended to do. But I was not a better man, I was only me, and although I sympathized with Josh, I felt far more sympathy for myself.
And so we plunged into that drunken dancing and thrashing crowd again, the band still playing, the singer singing, and for some reason I remember these lyrics quite clearly:
I’m a just a mean old nasty mamaBen forged ahead, parting the way with his enormous body and his scarred elbows held out from his torso, Ferdinand buzzing in circles above his head, Josh right behind him and me behind Josh, but we hadn’t gone two yards before Ben stopped suddenly, with Josh bumping into his back and me stumbling against Josh.
from Tuscaloosa Alabama
I’m ready for a little drama
so won’t you bang me with your hamma
I ducked my head around to see what the hold-up was, and to be honest I was not surprised to see that it was Bowery Bert, my guardian angel, brandishing his umbrella in his left hand and his hard little cigar in his right and shouting up at Ben:
“Watch where you’re going, you great lout! Just because you’re big doesn’t mean I won’t thrash you with this umbrella or poke your eye out with its ferrule!”
“Ha ha!” said Ferdinand. “Look at the size of this little shriveled up old shrimp gonna thrash Big Ben!”
“Who said that?” said Bert. “Whoever it was, prepare to be thrashed yourself!”
“Hey, cool down, pops, I apologize,” said Ben.
“Fuck your apology,” said Bert, and then he saw me lurking behind Ben. “You! Where have you been?”
I stepped a little to the right side of Ben.
“I’m sorry, Bert,” I said, yelled actually, now that I was back in this noisy bar full of shouting and laughing drunk people. “I just stepped outside for a minute.”
“Leaving me to take care of that drunken floozy,” said Bert.
“Yeah, I’m really sorry about that, Bert,” I said.
“Well, you’ll be happy to know I palmed her off on your publisher, Jules whatever –"
“Julian, actually,” I said.
“I don’t give a fuck what his name is.”
“Ha ha, I like this little guy,” said Ben.
“Me too,” said Ferdinand. “I wanta be like him when I’m an old fart.”
“Is that a fly speaking?” said Bert.
“At your service, sir,” said Ferdinand, descending to the level of Bert’s nose and hovering there. “Ferdinand is my name, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance, old timer.”
“Are these friends of yours?” said Bert, addressing me. “A clumsy lumbering giant and a talking fly?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “Fellows, this is Bert.”
“’Bowery’ Bert,” said Bowery Bert.
“’Bowery Bert’, sorry,” I said.
“So you know this feisty old codger?” said Ferdinand.
“Uh, yes,” I said.
“Of course he knows me,” said Bert. “I am his guardian angel.”
“Guardian angel?” said Ben. “No kidding?”
“Do I look like a kidder, oaf?”
“Uh, no –” said Ben.
“I really love this guy,” said Ferdinand.
“By the way, Ben’s the name, old timer,” said Ben, bending down and extending his enormous right hand, but then the only kind of right hand he had was the enormous kind, “Ben Blagwell, but everybody calls me ‘Big Ben’ Blagwell, on account of how big I am.”
“You say that as if I’m supposed to give a shit,” said Bert, ignoring that enormous hand. “And who’s that other chap cowering back there?”
At this Josh stepped around to Ben’s left, and politely extended his own normal-sized hand. “Josh is my name,” he said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.”
“Holy shit,” said Bert. “It’s you, isn’t it?”
“Well,” said Josh.
“The son of God his own self,” said Bert. Transferring his cigar from his right hand to the hand that held his umbrella, he took Josh’s hand in his own gnarled little old hand with its cracked and stained fingernails with a black crescent of grime under their tips. “You don’t know how many eons, sir, I have dreamed of this moment, to shake your hand. I should fall to my knees I know, but you see I have tendonitis and bursitis and the arthritis and if I get down on my knees I might not be able to get up again.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Josh. “A simple handshake will do.”
“If the big fellow here would be willing to pick me up after a suitable time I should be glad to kneel before you, sir, nay, even to prostrate my old bag of bones.”
“No, honestly,” said Josh. “A handshake will suffice, I assure you.”
“May I perhaps kiss the divine hand?” said Bert. “That is if the thought of my desiccated old lips touching your sacred flesh does not make that selfsame godly flesh crawl.”
“I would prefer that you didn’t,” said Josh.
“But of course!” said Bert. “How presumptuous of a mere lower-grade angel like myself.”
“Not presumptuous at all,” said Josh. “And by the way, may I have my hand back?”
“Most certainly, divinity!” said Bert, at last freeing Josh’s hand from his. “It’s just that I’m so excited.”
“No need to be,” said Josh. “You see, I’ve become a human being.”
“Well, sure,” said Bert. “You’re once again walking the unworthy earth in the corporeal host of a man, but, hey, you’re still the son of the big guy upstairs.”
“But that’s the thing, Bert, you see I’ve relinquished my status as the son of God. I’m just a man now.”
“Please, dear lord, don’t mess with my mind, I’m just a poor old guardian angel –”
“But it’s the truth, sir, I’m no longer divine. I’m just a human now.”
“There you go, messing with my mind, but that’s all right, you’re the son of God, which makes you more or less God yourself, so you can do whatever you want to do. Because you’re God. Or one-third of God, anyway.”
“Not anymore I’m not.”
“Wow, are you serious?”
“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand.
“Heh heh,” said Ben.
I didn’t say anything.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” said Bert, to Josh.
“No,” said Josh, and I detected what might have been a note of impatience in his tone.
“You’re telling me,” said Bert, “that I been waiting untold millennia for a chance actually to meet at least one of the blessed trinity, and now when I finally do you’re not even divine anymore, you’re just a man.”
“I’m afraid that’s about the size of it,” said Josh.
“Well, then, pardon my French,” said Bert, “but fuck me. And you know what?”
“What?” said Josh.
“Fuck you,” said Bert. “And fuck you, gorilla,” he said to Ben. “And fuck you, fly,” he said to Ferdinand. Then he pointed his umbrella at me. “And fuck you, asshole. Get yourself another guardian angel.”
For a second I thought he was going to poke me in the eye with the umbrella, but instead he lowered the umbrella and shoved on past me, heading for the front door. I turned and watched him go.
At the open doorway he turned and raised his umbrella one more time and shouted:
“Fuck all y’all!”
And then he turned, opened the umbrella, and went out into that crashing downpour.
(To be continued, inexorably.)
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