Saturday, May 14, 2016

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 485: Ace of Death


On this fateful rainy night in a fictional August of 1957 our hero Arnold Schnabel forges his way through a drunken crowd of revelers here in Bob’s Bowery Bar, followed by his friends Big Ben Blagwell (that hearty nautical adventurer), Josh (the quondam son of God), and Ferdinand (the talking fly)…

(Kindly go here to read our immediately preceding episode; the curious student of abnormal psychology may click here to return to the misty obscure beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume memoir.)

“The time has come to recognize Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling
chef-d'œuvre as not just the greatest autobiography in the American canon, but as the greatest American work of any literary genre, tout court.” – Harold Bloom, in The Philadelphia Daily News Book Supplement.






Finally I saw the booth dead ahead, with Mr. Philpot and Horace P. Sternwall sitting in it, with a pitcher of something dark on the table, along with beer schooners and shot glasses with something brown in them, and – yes, my book, my possible salvation, my precious unwritten book or at least a simulacrum of it. I shoved brutally past the last few drunks in my way and lurched into the booth, on Horace’s side, the side closest to the entrance.



There it lay, right in front of me, with the embossed dark lettering on its green cover: The Ace of Death, a novel of despair and terror, by Horace P. Sternwall.

“Oh, thank God,” I said. I picked up the book, with my left hand, as my right hand was still throbbing with pain and partially paralyzed.



“Speaking of which,” said Horace, and he pointed with the cigar he had in his hand, “here’s his son right now! How’s it going, Josh?”


Josh was there, sliding into the place across from me, next to little Mr. Philpot.

“Oh, I’m fine, Horace,” said Josh.

And then came Ben, pushing his enormous body into my side of the booth, squashing me up against Horace, and putting his great right arm around my shoulders.

“Don’t think I’m getting fresh, Arnie,” he said. “But it’s kind of a tight squeeze.


“Oh, boy, whiskey,” said Ferdinand, who was now zigzagging around in his happy way over the table, “and a fresh pitcher of bock!”

Without further preamble he landed on the surface of the liquid in a shot glass near me and began lapping away. Ferdinand was never one to stand on ceremony.


“Hey, Ben,” said Horace, “why don’t you get in the other side? Josh and Mr. Philpot are a lot smaller combined than me and Arnold, for Christ’s sake – oh, sorry, Josh.”

“Quite all right, Horace,” said Josh, and he slid the empty schooner that Ben had given him to hold across the table top to Ben.

“Come on, Ben,” said Horace, “get over there with our lord and savior, big buddy.”

“Ah, but Horace,” said Josh, tapping his cigarette ash into a tin ashtray that was overflowing with cigarette and cigar butts and ashes, “I have news for you and Mr. Philpot – it’s official, I am merely a human being now.”

“Ha ha, you jest, my lord,” said Mr. Philpot, who was smoking a pipe, but it seemed to me to be a different pipe than the one he’d been smoking the last time I saw him – this one was a dark reddish wooden one with what looked like William Shakespeare’s head carved into the bowl. He started to pour some of the dark liquid in the pitcher into an empty schooner in front of Josh.

“No, I’m not jesting, Mr. Philpot,” said Josh, “– thanks for the pour by the way –”

“You are quite welcome, dear lord,” said Mr. Philpot, and he shoved the pitcher over towards me and Ben.

“But that’s just it, sir,” said Josh, “you needn’t call me ‘dear lord’, because I really am just an ordinary human being now.”

“Oh ho, yes, sure,” said Mr. Philpot. “Quite risible my dear lord, quite risible indeed!” He waved at the six filled shot glasses that were set out at intervals on both sides of the table. “I ordered a round of Old Forester’s along with the pitcher, so don’t anyone say old Philpot ever shirks his shout. Horace and I have been waiting for you guys, so let’s drink up.” He picked up the shot glass in front of him and he turned to Josh. “To our friend ‘Josh’,” he said. “He might say he’s just a normal human being, but to me he will always be our most dearly beloved and most merciful lord and savior. Hear, hear, gentlemen!”

Horace, Ben and Josh all picked up the shot glasses nearest to them. I wanted to start writing in the book, but with all the aches and pains emanating increasingly from various places on my body a shot seemed like a good idea at the moment. My right hand was still pulsing with hurt, and so I picked up the shot glass nearest me with my left hand, but I saw that Ferdinand was still lapping away at its contents.


“Hey, easy there, buster!” yelled Ferdinand.

“No, no, my dear chap,” said Mr. Philpot. “That is Ferdinand’s shot.” He pointed to another shot, a few inches farther to the left from where Ferdinand’s had been. “Take that other one.”

“Yeah, jeeze, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, “you already swallowed me once tonight, give me a break.”



“Sorry, Ferdinand,” I said.

I put Ferdinand’s shot glass back on the table and picked up the other one.


I drank, we all drank. The reader with a good memory might recall my claim that I rarely drink shots down at one go, but I made an exception in this case. It burned on the way down of course, but the burn was quickly replaced by a suffusion of pleasure through my entire body and brain, no, not so much pleasure, but a warm numbness that significantly lessened the various physical pains I had been suffering just a moment before, as well as the moral and psychological ones, I’m tempted almost to say the spiritual pains.



My table companions immediately resumed verbal discourse, as Ben poured black foamy liquid into a schooner in front of me, and then into another for him, but their words faded into an untranslated babble as I sighed beneath the weight of Ben’s heavy warm arm.

I took a drink of the black liquid, which I surmised tasted indeed like some sort of beer, apparently or allegedly a bock, not that I could tell for sure, I who customarily drank beers that tasted all alike in their soothing blandness, like Schmidt’s or Ortlieb’s, but this one whatever it was was a welcome change. Maybe if I ever made it back to my own world I would start ordering bocks and stouts, maybe I would even wear a beret and grow a goatee and buy a pair of bongo drums and try to learn how to play them.



I had put the book, The Ace of Death, back down on the table. There it was, my only hope of escaping this dream in which I had been caught for what felt like four years at least. 



I took out the pen from my shirt pocket, that green and yellow Eversharp ballpoint. I used my right hand, which still ached, but to which a modicum of functionality had now returned, thanks to the Old Forester and that first refreshing gulp of bock.



Before opening the book I took a moment to think about what I was going to write. I didn’t want to descend into literary hemming and hawing and false starts as I had done the last time I had tried to write in it.


The thing to do, I thought, was just to get right to the point, the point being to transmit “me”, that is my consciousness of me as Arnold Schnabel, out of the body and the world I was in and back into the body and world I had left behind, my so-called “real” world, making sure to stipulate – if possible, in the very first sentence – that I would be mysteriously but completely free of pain upon my re-entry to my version of planet Earth.

Or was that asking too much? Very well, I would allow a few minor aches and pains, but no debilitating ones. So I would need to write something like: 



Arnold Schnabel suddenly returned to his body and to the world he had grown up in and lived in for forty-two years, and much to his relief he found himself mysteriously but completely free not only of excruciating lower back pain but also of crippling pain in his knees.  



How hard could it be to write something that simple?



I uncapped the pen, put the cap on the rear end of the barrel, took a breath, and opened the book.

 

Where previously there had been a blank page I now saw the printed words:




The Ace of Death
a novel of despair and terror
by
Horace P. Sternwall





I flipped through the book and the pages were filled with print, with words and punctuation marks.

I closed the book.



“Hey,” I said.

“Okay, Ben,” said Josh, “thank you, but no.”

“What’s the matter with her?” said Ben, he was pointing at a fat drunken negro woman dancing what might have been the black bottom, possibly by herself, holding a beer bottle, and with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

“I don’t know,” said Josh. “She just seems a little, how shall I put it –”

“You’re just prejudiced is what you are, my friend,” said Ben.



“I’m not prejudiced!” said Josh.

“Hey,” I said.

“I like negro gals,” said Ferdinand, who was now sitting on the rim of his shot glass, which was half empty. “They’re real, man, no bullshit, not like these white chicks.”

“Gotta say I’m with you, Ferdy,” said Horace. “Gimme that brown sugar, man. What about you, Mr. Philpot, you like your women dark like your beer?”

“I like women anyway I can get ‘em,” said Mr. Philpot, “although at my age I’m afraid I have to pay through the nose for ‘em –”



“Hey, guys,” I said.

“What about you, Arnie,” said Ben. “You like them dusky black gals?”

“Listen,” I said. “Something has happened to my book.”

“Your book,” said Ben, “your book –”

“He’s obsessed with that book,” said Ferdinand.


“It’s a Horace P. Sternwall book,” said Horace. “Why shouldn’t he be obsessed with it? Ha ha!”

“How come there’s words in it now?” I said, tapping the cover. “This book was blank before.”

“Yes, my dear chap,” said Mr. Philpot, with what I assumed was meant to be a chuckle, a sound like an aged crow coughing, “that was rather naughty of me, selling you a blank book, ha ha. I felt guilty and so I put words in it for you. But very much words in our friend Horace’s typical style.”



“There ya go, Arnold,” said Horace, and he gave me a little punch in the arm. “You got one of my books. Enjoy.”

“But I wanted to write my own book,” I said.



“Wow,” said Horace, “that kind of makes me feel like chopped liver.”

“But it’s not even really your book, Horace,” I said. “Mr. Philpot made it somehow, with his – his magic, or voodoo –”

“Still it’s got my name on it,” said Horace. “And Mr. Philpot said it’s in my style.”

“Very much so,” said Mr. Philpot.



“But you see,” I said, “you don’t understand –”



I held up the Eversharp pen, as if this would help him understand.

“It’s like this,” said Ferdinand. He had been drinking some more of his whiskey, but now he’d flown up onto the rim of his shot glass again, and he wiped his mouth with one of his arms before continuing. “Arnold wanted to write his own book because he wanted to make it a – stop me if I misrepresent this, Arnold – he wanted to make it a novel in which he returns to his own world.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Philpot. “Well, that makes sense, but, I’m sorry, I did not know that.”

“No one’s blaming you, Mr. Philpot,” said Ferdinand.

“I’m sure Mr. Philpot meant well,” said Josh.

“I think it was a very nice gesture of Mr. Philpot,” said Horace. “Of course I’m a bit prejudiced because it is one of my books.”

“It looks like a good one, Horace,” said Ben. “The Ace of Death. Sounds pretty, like, suspenseful. I’d like to read it.”

“Thank you, Ben,” said Horace.



“Can I take a look at it, Arnie?” said Ben.

“Yeah, sure, Ben,” I said.



I shoved it over closer to him. 



Now I had no plan, none whatsoever. I was trapped in this universe. 



But then it occurred to me all at once that maybe all I had to do was find a piece of paper, anything, just something to write on. I realized that my schooner of beer was sitting on a cardboard coaster, a Rheingold beer coaster. I lifted the schooner and turned the coaster over. It was blank – yes! This could work…

“Shit,” said Ben, he was holding the book up open near his face, reading while moving his lips. “Say,” he said. “This is good! Great opening here, Horace.”

“Thank you,” said Horace.

“Just dumps you right into the action,” said Ben.

“That’s the way I like to do it,” said Horace. “Just get right to it without a lot of pussyfooting around.”

“Read it out loud, Ben,” said Ferdinand. “I’m curious.”

“Okay,” said Ben.

“No, wait,” I said.

“No, listen, Arnie,” said Ben, “this is really good.”

“No, Ben,” I said, “Jesus, please –



“Yes?” said Josh.



“Ha ha,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Go ahead, read it Ben,” said Horace. “Out loud.”

And Ben began to read out loud.


(To be continued in two weeks, as our editorial staff hopes to take a bit more time to work on Volume One of Arnold’s adventures, in preparation for its publication in book form sometime this year, or decade.)

(Kindly scroll down the right hand column of this page to find a purportedly current listing of links to all other legally-released chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Please click here to order our friend rhoda penmarq’s {under the pen name “horace p sternwall”} “the little cheeseburger girl, and other stories” – it’s the feel-good hit of the summer season!)






Saturday, May 7, 2016

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 484: religion


Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here amidst a drunken crowd in Bob’s Bowery Bar, on this momentous rainy night in a version of August of 1957; in attendance also: that roistering nautical adventurer Big Ben Blagwell, “Josh” (aka the son of God), and Ferdinand, the loquacious fly…

(Please click here to read our immediately previous thrilling chapter; the curiously intrigued may go here to return to the far-off and half-forgotten beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 63-volume memoir.)

“And so is Arnold Schnabel’s towering
chef-d'œuvre indeed a memoir, or a roman fleuve, or a religious testament? Could it perhaps be all three?” – Harold Bloom, in The Sports Illustrated Literary Issue.





I raised my hand and extended it towards Ben’s massive waiting hand, but then I had another attack of honesty or cowardice, cowardly honesty let’s say, and I quickly closed up my fingers and drew my hand back.

“Ben,” I said, “before you shake my hand, I just want to ask you please not to crush it.”

“Gee, Arnie,” said Ben, and he did look somewhat hurt, I have to admit. “I had no intention of crushing your hand.”


“I know,” I said. “But you’re very strong, and I’m afraid that in an access of enthusiasm you might crush my hand.”

“I promise I will be gentle,” he said.

“Ha ha, I love this,” said Ferdinand, who was still hovering in the plume of smoke trailing up from the Sweet Caporal in Ben’s left fist.

“Hey,” said Ben, addressing Ferdinand. “I’m sorry if I’m a strong guy. But you just wait until we get in a scrape. Then maybe you guys will appreciate it how strong I am.”

“We appreciate it,” said Ferdinand. “We appreciate you’re a big ox.”

“Hey, Josh,” said Ben. “Back me up here, will you, brother?”

“What?” said Josh. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear any of that, it’s so noisy in here –”

Actually I think he just wasn’t paying attention. He really was taking on what seemed like very human traits.

“I’m only saying,” said Ben, “that these guys will appreciate it and be thankful how strong I am if we get in a rumble.”

“Oh, I know I will,” said Josh.

“There ya go,” said Ben. “You guys hear that? And that is coming from the son of God himself.”

“Retired son of God,” said Josh, with a slight smile, a smile that almost wasn’t a smile. “I’m a human man now, remember.”

“Yeah,” said Ben. “But still. You used to be the son of God, so that’s got to mean something.”

“Well –” said Josh.

“It means something,” said Ben. “That’s all I’m saying. And it means something to me that you appreciate me.”

“Well, sure – “ said Josh.

“Not that I was ever much for religion myself,” said Ben.

“Well, I’m sure you have your own personal code,” said Josh, “a sort of personal religion –”

“I ain’t about to pray to no God,” said Ben.

“And I think that’s quite a legitimate choice –” said Josh.

“I seen too many guys praying, begging for God to help ‘em when they was burning up down in the boiler room after the ship got hit by a Jap torpedo.”

“Well, I can see how an experience like that –” said Josh.

“God didn’t help them poor guys,” said Ben.

“And I’m very sorry to hear that –” said Josh.

“So what’s the point of praying?” said Ben.

“Well, I think that some people think that prayer is a way to, to, uh –”

“It’s bullshit, Josh,” said Ben. “Excuse me for saying so.”

“No, that’s quite all right –”

“It’s bullshit,” said Ben, again.

“Yes,” said Josh, “well, that’s certainly a valid, er, well, let’s say it’s an honorably arguable position, that, um  –”



“So, yeah,” said Ben, cutting in. “I am not exactly what you would call the religious type. In no way, shape or whatever.”



“Form,” said Ferdinand.

“Form,” said Ben. “In no form am I even remotely religious. And I hope you don’t mind me saying that, Josh.”



“No, not at all,” said Josh.



“Not religious,” said Ben.

“Okay, we get it,” said Ferdinand.

“That’s just me,” said Ben. “Love me or leave me.”



“Heh heh,” said Josh.



“I just don’t buy it,” said Ben. “Religion. At all.”

“And that’s okay,” said Josh. “But –”


He paused, as if he had forgotten what he wanted to say, and I noticed that now he was sweating even more profusely, more so than even Ben or me.



“What?” said Ben.



“Pardon me?” said Josh.

“You said ‘but’. ”



“I did?”

“Yeah,” said Ben.

"Oh," said Josh.

“But what?” said Ben.

“But, uh –” said Josh.



“But,” said Ben.



“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand.



“Hey, Ferdy,” said Ben. “Let Josh finish.”

“Ha ha,” said Ferdy. “Sure, Ben. Oh, shit. Ha ha.”

Ben turned to Josh again.

“Go on, Josh. Don’t listen to him. But what.”

“But –” said Josh, and then: “Oh! I remember now. Just that you may not be ‘religious’ per se, but I think it’s true that nonetheless you have a code, a sort of personal code, which, which, uh  –”

“I got a code,” said Ben. “My code is that you look out for your buddies. That’s my code.”

“And an excellent code it is,” said Josh.

He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow under the brim of his straw trilby.

“I’m gonna piss myself,” said Ferdinand. “I swear.”

“What do you mean?” said Ben. “What’s so funny.”

“What’s so funny is the way you’re torturing poor Josh.”

“I’m not torturing him,” said Ben. “Josh, am I torturing you?”

“No,” said Josh, and, stuffing his handkerchief any old way back into his breast pocket, he quickly looked away, into that crowd of dancing and thrashing drunken people that surrounded us.

“See?” said Ben, addressing Ferdinand. “Josh says I’m not torturing him. ‘Cause all I’m saying is that even if he is the former son of God I don’t hold that against him.”

“You don’t hold what against him?” said Ferdinand.

“Not helping them poor shipmates of mine who were praying to him while they was getting burnt alive.”



“Wow,” said Ferdinand.



“Getting eaten up by sharks in the water.”

“Okay,” said Ferdinand.

“Being tortured by Nazi black leather lace panty vixens.”



“Oh, boy.”



“Horribly tortured,” said Ben.



Josh had turned to face Ben again. Ben took a great drag of his Sweet Caporal, then exhaled the smoke in Josh’s direction.



“Okay, Ben,” said Ferdinand, “let’s get back to the booth and order some drinks.”



“Tortured to death,” said Ben staring directly at Josh.

Josh heaved a great sigh. He glanced away again, into that mob of dancing, thrashing, shouting and laughing drunkards, then he turned back to Ben. It seemed as if he were trying to think of something to say, but coming up blank, and finally all he said was, “Uh –”, and then nothing.

“But I don’t hold it against you, Josh,” said Ben, and he gave Josh a little punch on his left shoulder, little for Ben anyway, because Josh managed to remain on his feet, although he did stumble back a step. He rubbed his shoulder with his right hand and he looked at Ben.

“Look, I’m sorry for everything, Ben,” he said.



“Really?” said Ben, but not in a sarcastic way.


“Yes,” said Josh. “I honestly am sorry. That I – that we, that is my father, myself, and H.G. –”



“H.G.?” said Ben.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Josh. “H.G., the holy ghost –”

“Oh, I get it,” said Ben. “H.G. Holy ghost.”

“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand.

“I’m really sorry,” said Josh, “that I, we, allowed your friends to suffer, and die, but – and you know, I too was tortured, scourged, horribly tortured, even a crown of thorns, and crucified –”



“Screaming,” said Ben.



“Pardon me?” said Josh.

“The screams,” said Ben. “Of my shipmates.”



“Oh,” said Josh.

“The screams,” said Ben, again.



“Gee,” said Josh.

“Blood curdling screams,” said Ben.

“Hey, big guy,” said Ferdinand. “Calm down, okay, buddy?”



“The screaming,” said Ben, looking off into that crowd of drunks.



“Wow,” said Josh, “I really feel, I don’t know, guilty –”


“So, Arnie,” said Ben, turning to me, “I can shake your hand now? If I promise not to crush it.”

“Okay,” I said. The thing was, or one of the things was, that I was beginning to feel the return of all my various aches and physical agonies, in my knees and legs, my arms, my face and head, in other words the pill that Bowery Bert had given me was starting to wear off, but nevertheless I cautiously extended my hand again.



I know, or I’m pretty sure, that Ben didn’t mean to crush my hand, but in fact he did grip it in that fashion that my favorite writers would call 'vice-like', and soon pain exploded from my hand, forcing me to yelp and curse.



“Ow! Fuck!” I said, yes, I said, yelled, yelped that latter word in the presence of the son of God, even if he was only a man now. 


“Hey, sorry, buddy!” said Ben, setting free my throbbing hand. “I forgot myself.”

“It’s okay, Ben,” I said, although it really wasn’t okay, as I waved my paralyzed fingers in the smoky air in front of me, although this waving did nothing to mitigate the waves of pain pulsing from fingerbones, knuckles and joints. “Look, let’s just get back to the booth and order some drinks, okay?”



“Good idea, buddy,” he said. “Gee, it seems like we’ve been trying to get back to that booth for weeks, don’t it? You ready, Josh? No hard feelings, right?”

“No, of course not,” said Josh. He had finally stopped rubbing his shoulder, and he looked as if he needed a stiff drink.

“Let’s move,” said Ferdinand, buzzing around in an excited-seeming way. “I feel like I could chug a whole shot glass of that bock beer!”


Ben raised his great hand again, with an obvious view to giving me the same sort of supposedly comradely blow on the shoulder he had given to Josh, but the last thing I needed was another source of pain and so I quickly turned away and struck off through the mob in the direction of the booth, bolts of pain shooting up from my knees, my right knee primarily, but the left one was nothing to be sniffed at either. I stumbled and limped and shoved my way, holding my crushed right hand close to my chest. 



All I wanted to do was to get to my blank book as soon as possible and try to write myself out of this world and back to my own world – but would I even be able to hold the pen in my hand? Would I be able to concentrate on what I was writing through the myriad agonies that were now rising up from a dozen points in my current corporeal host?

I felt the need for whiskey, and beer, to dull the pain, and, yes, the alcohol would only cause me to suffer another sort of agony when I woke up the next day, if there ever was a next day, and if I ever woke up in it: the agony of hangover, but that was in the future, and this was now, and I wanted whiskey, and beer to wash it down with, I wanted them both the sooner the better, and I made a hurried mental note that when or if I finally did start writing my way into my own world that I would stipulate in the text that I should not be in pain – in other words I would be in a fantasy world.

(Continued here; Arnold has only just started to warm up.)

(Please scroll down the right hand column of this site to find what the editor hopes to be an up-to-date listing of links to all other publicly available chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Please do yourself a favor and click here to order our prolific friend rhoda penmarq’s new book {under the nom de plume “fred flynn”} “darkness, my home town, and other stories”.)








Saturday, April 30, 2016

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 483: balls


We left our hero Arnold Schnabel on a rainy August night in 1957, surrounded by a crowd of dancing and drunken revelers here in Bob’s Bowery Bar, along with his companions Josh, Big Ben Blagwell, and Ferdinand the talking fly…

(Kindly go here to read last week’s episode; the curious and the bewildered may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume memoir.)

“My travels have taken me to many far-flung places on this earth, but even the most exotic of those locales pale in comparison to the wondrousness of the worlds Arnold Schnabel explores in his sprawling, towering
chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, in The National Geographic Literary Quarterly.




“Wow,” said Josh. “I mean, I don’t know, just – wow.” 



He looked from me, to Ben, to Ferdinand, who was hovering in the plume of smoke rising up from the Pall Mall Josh held in his hand. I ask the reader to bear in mind that my companions and I comprised a small island of relative calm in the midst of this mob of dancing, thrashing, shouting and laughing drunkards, and the band was still playing as loud as ever, the singer singing:


Before I let you quit me, big daddy
I’ll put arsenic in your finnan haddy
Before I let you walk out on me, pally

I’ll dump your dead body out in the alley
And so if I write that one of us “said” something, what I really mean to say is that we shouted or yelled. And so:

“Hey,” said or yelled or shouted Ben, “Josh.”

Ben was still holding his empty beer schooner in one hand, but he put his other hand on Josh’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Josh winced, his shoulder sagging, recoiling downward beneath the mighty grip of Ben’s hand.

“Yes?” said Josh, through gritted teeth.



“Fuck that old fart,” said Ben. “Y’know?”

“Hey,” said Ferdinand, “I still say I like that old fart. He’s got spunk.”

“Yes, true,” said Josh, “but, still, I would never have expected such a – such an extreme reaction.”

“Look, Josh,” said Ben, taking his hand off of Josh’s shoulder, and I could actually see the shoulder rise up a few inches now that it no longer had that great slab of meat, sinew and bone squeezing and pressing down on it, “if you’re gonna be human you’re gonna have to get used to this sort of thing. Here, hold this schooner for me, will ya?” Josh took Ben’s proffered empty beer schooner, and Ben took his pack of Sweet Caporals out of his Hawaiian shirt pocket. He gave the pack a shake in his expert way, so that exactly one cigarette popped up an inch from its fellows, and then he popped the cigarette into his lips.



“People acting like self-centered assholes,” he said around the cigarette, and he shoved the pack back into his pocket and then brought his book of Musso & Frank’s matches out of it.

“But he isn’t even a human,” said Josh. I noticed that he was sweating profusely, just like Ben and me; I had never seen him sweat before, so maybe he really was a human being now. “Bert’s an angel,” he said. “A guardian angel.”


“Okay, Josh, tell me something,” said Ben. He paused while he lit his cigarette in that cupped-hands way of his, as if he was standing with splayed legs on the deck of a tramp steamer out on the sea in the midst of a raging typhoon. “How long’s this old guy Bert been doing the gig?” he said, tossing the match to the floor with all the other thousands of matches and butts that were already down there.

“Doing the gig?” said Josh.

“How long’s he been a guardian angel he means,” said Ferdinand, having left Josh’s Pall Mall’s ribbon of smoke to bathe in the great cloud of Sweet Caporal smoke that Ben was exhaling.



“Oh, my goodness,” said Josh, “let’s see, when did we institute the guardian angel program?”


“You tell me, buddy,” said Ben.

“I suppose, oh, roughly, gee, let’s say a million years ago?”

“Well, there ya go,” said Ben. He had neatly closed the cover of the matchbook, and now he slid it back into his shirt pocket.

“Yeah, there ya go,” said Ferdinand.



“I’m sorry,” said Josh.

“He went native,” said Ben.

“Exactly what happened,” said Ferdinand.

“I seen it happen before,” said Ben. “Out in the South Seas, and the African trading ports, down in the Caribbean. White men go out to them places, and five years, ten years on, you couldn’t tell ‘em from the natives, chewing betel nut, spawning litters of little brown and yellow babies, wearing sarongs and smoking opium morning, noon and night, I seen it. Plenty of times. And once a white man goes native, that’s it, there’s no turning back. He might as well been born a Malay or a Chinaman or an African. Don’t ask me why it is but that’s the way it is. I seen it.”

“So you think that’s what happened to Bowery Bert?” said Josh.

“Ain’t it obvious?” said Ben.

“Yes, I supposed it is, now that I think about it,” said Josh.


“So don’t worry about it,” said Ben. “This is what people are like.”

“Self-centered,” said Ferdinand.



“Looking out for number one,” said Ben.

“And querulous about it,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah,” said Ben, “querulous,” but in a hesitant way for him, as if he wasn’t quite sure what the word meant.

“Face it, people can be assholes, Josh,” said Ferdinand. “But, hey, look who I’m talking to. You’re the guy got betrayed, scourged and crucified.”

“Yes, that’s true,” said Josh, taking one of those drags on his Pall Mall that would be described as “contemplative” in the cheap novels I like to read.

“That wasn’t right, what them Romans did to you,” said Ben. “Not in my book.”

“Well, I’m afraid some of my fellow Israelites were also complicit,” said Josh.

“I didn’t want to be the one to say it,” said Ben.

“Romans, Jews, even, if I may say so,” said Ferdinand, “Christians – they can all be assholes.”

“This is why,” said Ben, and he put his great hand on Josh’s shoulder again, “this is how come good buddies got to stick together.”

He gave Josh’s shoulder a shake, and Josh’s whole body shook in sympathy.



“Yes, I suppose you’re right, Ben,” said Josh, through gritted teeth again.



“And I don’t want to cast no aspersions,” said Ben. “But it’s important – damn important – that you choose your buddies well.”



“That’s right,” said Ferdinand. “Damn important.”

“Well, of course,” said Josh, still gritting his teeth, because Ben still had his shoulder in his grip, the kind the aforementioned authors would I think justifiably call vice-like.



“Now don’t take offense, Josh,” said Ben, “but you say 'of course', but then look at them other buddies you had, way back in bible times.”

“You mean the apostles?”



Finally Ben took his hand off of Josh’s shoulder, and now he pointed the index finger of that hand in Josh’s face.

“That’s exactly who I mean,” said Ben.

“But they were good chaps,” said Josh, “I mean, except for Judas of course, and even he had his not so bad points –”

God damn it, Josh,” said Ben, and he closed his hand up in a fist, and made a pounding gesture with it.


“Pardon me,” said Josh.

God damn it to hell, man,” said Ben this time.

“Hey, big guy,” said Ferdinand, “go easy.”

“I can’t go easy,” said Ben. “Just, I don’t know, God damn it! And again, please pardon my language, Josh.”

“No, really,” said Josh, “it’s quite all right –”

“But God damn it all to hell, Josh,” said Ben, “them so-called apostles of yours let them Romans run you in!”

“Well, Peter tried to stick up for me –”

“He tried? Tried? A buddy don’t just ‘try’, Josh. He don’t ‘just try’.”

“He’s got a point, Josh,” said Ferdinand.

“Excuse me for saying so,” said Ben, “and I know they were your friends and all, but them apostles were pussies.”

“But,” said Josh.

“No buts,” said Ben. “They were pussies. They shoulda gone down fighting. Or maybe, if that seemed hopeless on accounta they were vastly outnumbered, they shoulda staged a breakout after you got run in.”

“A breakout?”

“Yeah, a breakout.”

“But there were so many Roman soldiers, guards around –”

“I don’t give a shit. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”



“But –”



“It’d been me in charge I would have busted you out when you were making them stations of the cross. Hacked our way through the guards, hustled you out through the mob, maybe had some horses standing by, chariots or whatever, to make our getaway –”

“I’m not sure how feasible that would have been, really, Ben –”



“Anything is feasible if you got a dozen or so good men who ain’t a bunch of goddam pussies,” said Ben.

“Ha ha, you kill me, Ben,” said Ferdinand.

“Well, I’m serious, Ferdy,” said Ben. “I always thought them apostles were a bunch of pussies.”

“But, Ben,” said Josh, “you see, the whole plan from the beginning was for me to be arrested, tried, scourged and crucified, so that I could redeem mankind –”

“That was your plan?”

“Well, yes,” said Josh.

“Then your plan, pardon me, stunk.”

“Heh heh,” said Ferdinand.

“I’ll tell you one thing, my friend,” said Ben. “Something like that, you getting arrested, then tried, and scourged and crucified, that ain’t ever gonna happen while you got buddies like us around. No, sir.”



“Gee,” said Josh.

“Am I right, Ferdy?” said Ben.

“No buddy of mine’s getting scourged and crucified while I got something to say about it,” said Ferdinand.

“Ain’t that right, Arnie?” said Ben.

“Well,” I said, “I’m not very brave really.”

“Don’t say that, Arnie,” said Ben.

“But I’m actually kind of cowardly,” I said.

“There ya go,” said Ben.



“Pardon me?” I said.

“You say you’re cowardly. I ain’t saying I agree with you, but you say it.”

“Yes,” I said. “Because I am cowardly. I admit it.”

“But it takes a brave man to admit he’s a coward, Arnie,” said Ben.

“Ben’s got a point,” said Ferdinand. “It takes balls to admit you’re a coward.”

“Ferdy’s right,” said Ben. “It takes balls to admit you don’t have balls.”


“Well, maybe so,” I said, “but, hey, look, why are we standing here? Let’s get over to the booth and order some drinks.”



“Wow,” said Ben. “I mean now it’s time for me to say wow.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Ferdinand. “Wow.”



“What is it?” said Josh.

“It’s Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah,” said Ben, staring at me from under that dirty stained yachting cap of his. “It’s like, I don’t know.”

“Like Arnie’s finally got that poker out of his ass,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah,” said Ben, nodding. “You finally got that poker out of your ass, Arnie.”

“Heh heh,” I said.



But little did my friends know that the poker was still firmly up my fundament, and that the real reason I wanted to get back to the booth was to get back to my book. I don’t know why I just couldn’t be honest with them. I was proving their earlier point, really, by this duplicity, their point about human beings being self-centered and always looking out for number one. 



“So, okay, let’s do like Arnie says and get back to the booth and order up some drinks,” said Ben. “You ready, Josh?”

“I suppose so,” he said, glancing briefly at the empty beer schooner he was still holding.

“Listen,” said Ben, and he pointed his finger at Josh again. “You’re a human now.”

“Yes, apparently.”

“And nobody ever said it was easy being a human.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“But this, my friend –” Ben gave a quick wave of that enormous hand of his, “this is as good as it gets.”

“Standing here in this bar you mean?” said Josh.

“Yes,” said Ben. “This is it, maybe even more so than when we’re actually sitting in the booth, and lifting them fresh drinks to our thirsty chapped lips. On accounta right now we have that moment to look forward to, that moment when that cold bock or Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’ or whatever first touches your leathery parched tongue. That’s why this moment right here is so special.”

“Okay.”

“With your buddies,” said Ben.



“Yes, I see.”

“Buddies who care about you.”

“Yes.”

“Who won’t let you get crucified, not if they can help it.”



“Right.”

“Buddies like me, and Ferdy here, and Arnie.”



“Right,” said Josh. “I think I take your point. It’s like –”

“I have a confession to make,” I said, interrupting Josh.

“What?” said Ben.



“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Now what?”

“A confession?” said Josh.

“Yes,” I said. “The only reason I want to get back to the booth is so I can get that blank book I bought off Mr. Philpot, and write in it, with this pen –” I took the green-and-yellow Eversharp ballpoint pen from my shirt pocket and held it up for all to see. “I want to try to do what it seems like I’ve been trying to do for months now, that is to write myself out of this world and back to my own world.”

My three friends were silent, although the noise and music all around us continued as before.



“And so you see,” I said, “that I still have a poker up my ass, and also I am a self-centered, selfish, self-absorbed person.”



I put the pen back in my pocket.


“Wow,” said Ben.

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Wow.”



“That was really, like,” said Ben, “I don’t know. That took real balls to say that, Arnie.”

“Brass balls,” said Ferdinand.



“Put ‘er there, Arnie,” said Ben. 


He offered his great right hand to me, and I didn’t want to take it, because I knew I was probably in for a handshake that might leave my own right hand aching for days, possibly even paralyzed for life, but I also knew I had no choice.



Sometimes you just have to make sacrifices in the name of friendship.


(Continued here, and for no one knows how much longer, as hundreds of Arnold’s marble copybooks filled with his neat Palmer Method handwriting still remain to be painstakingly transcribed, with only the most glaring misspellings silently corrected.)

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 482: Bert again


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?”



“Yes, Arnold?”


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 mama
from Tuscaloosa Alabama

I’m ready for a little drama
so won’t you bang me with your hamma
Ben 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.



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?”

“Quite serious.”

“Holy shit.”

“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.



(Continued here, and onward, inexorably.)

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