Friday, December 12, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 421: Penelope

We left our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his friends Ferdinand (the loquacious fly) and Horace P. Sternwall (the famed author of dozens of crowd-pleasing novels such as
The Martian Invasion Caper and They Called Her Clementine) here in the foyer of a country caravanserai called the “Stop-Rite Inn”...

(Kindly click here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’re looking for a really long project to distract you from the awareness of your own mortality then by all means go here to go the very first chapter of this 54-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)

“I find that all my really ‘with-it’, ‘hip’ students are ‘totally into’ Arnold Schnabel – why, some of them even sport Arnold Schnabel t-shirts and baseball caps!” – Harold Bloom, in the
Olney Times Literary Supplement.

“Thank you! Thank you, thank you, miss!” Horace babbled, again.

“You’re quite welcome,” she said, “Mr. –”

“Sternwall!” said Horace, “Horace P. Sternwall! Perhaps you’ve read some of my books?”

“Hmm,” she said. “What sort of books do you write?”

“Primarily searing tales of men caught in savage whirlpools of deceit and murder.”

“Oh,” she said, not seeming too impressed.

“Although,” said Horace, moving right along without missing a beat, “I have also published widely in the realms of both western and historical fiction, as well as science fiction, and fantasy, and, and –”

“Don’t stop now,” she said.

“I am also,” said Horace, in a more confidential tone, “quite well known for novels of beautiful young women caught in the webs of forbidden passions.”

“You mean like lesbian novels?”

“To put it bluntly, yes. Although these have all been published under various of my noms de plume, such as Hannah P. Steinway, Helena Peters Strong, or Hortense Paula St. Claire.”

“Wait a minute,” said the redhead. “Did you say Hortense Paula St. Claire?”

“Yes,” said Horace.

“Hortense Paula St. Claire, who wrote Slaves of Sappho?”

“That was I,” said Horace, smiling as if modestly.

“I love that book!” yelped the redhead.

“Oh, my,” said Horace, “thank you!”

“Goddam adore that book,” she said.

“What’s going on, my dear?” said Mr. Peacock, who was still standing behind us.

“I’ve read this gentleman’s book, Popsy,” she said.

“What book?” said the old man.

Slaves of Sappho, by Hortense Paula St. Claire.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Peacock. “Never heard of it.”

“That’s because the last new book you read was The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. By the way,” she said, “give me that stupid gun before you kill someone.”

She held out her hand, and Horace and I stepped to either side as the old fellow came forward and, not without difficulty turning the pistol end to end, and almost dropping it, he handed it to the redhead, butt first.

“We don’t need any more killings here,” she said, and she pulled open a drawer under a small table with a cracked vase sitting on it, with dried pussy willows sticking out of the vase.

“Sometimes killing is necessary, my dear,” said the old man.

“Yes,” she said, “but I think that in the case of these good gentlemen killing will not prove necessary.”

She put the big revolver in the drawer, and shut it.

I sighed with relief, as did Horace.

“I didn’t get your name, mister,” the young woman said to me.

“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel.”

“Doesn’t sound familiar. Is your work published?”

At this question it occurred to me that for once I didn’t have to lie in response to a personal question.

“Yes,” I said. “For quite a few years now I have published a poem every week.”

“Every week?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Just one every week though.”

“And where are these poems published?”

“Well – The Olney Times,” I said.

“I am not familiar with that publication.”

“No one is, I’m afraid,” I said, “except people who live in Olney.”

“And where is Olney?”

“It’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia that no one knows about except for people in Philadelphia, and not even a lot of them.”

“So this Olney Times sounds like a rather obscure publication,” she said.

“I think that’s safe to say,” I said. 

“Arnold does himself injustice!” blurted Horace, who apparently was an impulsive if not a compulsive liar. “The Olney Times is considered one of the foremost regional literary journals of our nation, and indeed, in the entire world!”

“Oh,” she said. “Really?” She turned her gaze suddenly to Ferdinand, who was hovering just slightly above her bust line and about six inches away from it. “And you, Mr. Fly, have you a name?”

“I do indeed, miss!” said Ferdinand, making a smart little up-and-down figure-eight and stopping on an invisible dime to hover directly in front of the redhead’s face. “Ferdinand, the talking fly, at your service!”

“Cute,” she said.

“And may we know your name, dear miss?” said Horace.

“I am Penelope,” she said. “Penelope Peacock.”

She held her hand out to Horace, and he took it in both of his.

“We are very pleased to make your acquaintance!” said Horace.

“That goes double for me, sis,” said Ferdinand.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” she said. She disengaged her hand from Horace’s grasp, and then held it out to me. “Mr. –” she paused for just a moment, but then plunged on, “Schnabel,” she said, amazingly getting my name right on the first try.

I looked at her extended right hand, it was slender and very pale with long and sharp-looking red-painted nails. I have never felt comfortable shaking a woman’s hand. I know that the attentive reader – if I were to have one – will have noticed already my expressions of distaste for shaking hands with men; I suppose I must now admit that I don’t like to shake hands with women as well, or, for that matter, children of either gender. But I took her hand anyway, in just one of mine, as I hate to seem impolite even more than I hate shaking people’s hands.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss –”

I drew a blank on her last name. I was hungry, tired, out of sorts, and also fairly drunk now that I think about it. I thought of quickly substituting her first name, but I couldn’t remember that, either.

“Peacock,” she said.

“Oh, right, Peacock!” I said, idiotically, and now I got even more flustered, because I was trying to pull my hand away from hers, but she wouldn’t let go of mine, digging her nails into my palm.

“But please just call me Penelope,” she said, staring into my eyes, with her eyes, which were blue, and – I was going to write “piercing” but then I realized that that is just another adjective I’ve picked up from all the trashy novels I’ve read. So instead I’ll simply say that her eyes seemed to be the pale blue tunnels through which peered two tiny round windows opening into some other dark universe, perhaps a universe even more frightening than the one I was currently marooned in.

“Um,” I said, and I gave my hand another pull.

She dug her nails into my flesh one last time, still staring at me from that dark other universe, and then finally opened her fingers.

I quickly drew my hand away, and caressed its tortured palm with the fingers of my other hand.

“Now that introductions are out of the way,” said Penelope, “let us go into the parlor.”

“At last,” I thought, but didn’t say.

She turned and headed into the next room, and Horace and Ferdinand followed her, as did I, with Mr. Peacock bringing up the rear.

We were now in this large, cluttered, comfortable-looking old-fashioned living room. There was a big stone fireplace, with a big fire lit in it, and in front of the fireplace were some cozy-looking stuffed chairs with little doily-covered tables among them.

“Warmth!” exclaimed Horace, rubbing his hands together. “A roaring fire! Do you always keep the fire so merry?”

“Not always,” said Penelope. “But with this damnable rainstorm it seemed a good idea. Keep the damp out you know. Why don’t you gentlemen seat yourselves near the fire, at least until your clothes dry?”

“They didn’t bring any luggage with them!” chirped Mr. Peacock. He had picked up his pipe again and he jabbed its mouthpiece in the direction of Horace and me.

“Of course they didn’t, Popsy,” she said. 

“Yes, you see,” said Horace, “we got lost on the dark roads, and ran out of gas, and didn’t intend to stop over anywhere –”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” said Penelope.

“So, you know,” said Horace, “we didn’t bring any luggage, or –”

“Yes, quite,” she said. “Do sit down, take those two easy chairs closest to the fire – your clothes will be dry in no time, and please do not be too shy to remove your shoes and socks if you so wish. We are quite informal here.”

“Gee, thanks, Penelope,” said Horace.

She had herded us gently over towards the fire, and Horace sat himself down in one of the two chairs she had indicated, taking the one farther away. I sat in the other one, separated from Horace’s chair by a small table, covered with a lace doily, with a large glass ashtray on it, with ash in it but no actual butts either of cigars or cigarettes. Next to the ashtray was a table-lighter in the shape of a toad, made of bronze or of something that looked like bronze, and there was also what looked like a cigarette box on the table, made of silver or some other silver-like metal.

I sat back, and I stared into the flames of the fire, and felt its heat bathing over me. 

Penelope stood to my right, and a little in front of me.

“Is that better?”

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Take your shoes off.”

“I think I’ll just keep them on for the time being,” I said, with my usual modesty.

“Yeah, me, too,” said Horace. I don’t think he was being modest. I think he just didn’t want anyone to see the holes in his socks. I didn’t blame him.

“Perhaps you gentleman would like a nice hot pot of tea,” said Penelope.

“Tea?” said Horace.

“Yes,” said Penelope. “Assam, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong?”

“Oh, gee,” said Horace, “I don’t know. Tea would keep me up all night.”

“What about some chamomile,” she said.

“Chamomile,” said Horace. “Well, uh, ahem –”

“Or St. John’s wort,” she said.

“St. John’s wort,” said Horace, with a vague expression on his face. “Hmm –”

“I think what Horace is getting at,” said Ferdinand, who I now saw was still managing to hover not far from Penelope’s bosom, “is how about something a bit stiffer?”

“Oh!” she said. “Perhaps some sherry, or port?”

“Mr. Peacock had made some mention of brandy I think?” said Horace, twisting around to look at the old man, who was lurking behind our chairs.

“Why yes!” said the dotard. “Brandy, that’s the ticket for a wet night! In fact, it’s already been paid for!”

“What do you mean, Popsy,” said Penelope.

“I mean these chaps have already paid in advance for the prix-fixe late supper, as well as a room with double bed.”

“And I think a couple of bottles of Margaux were included in the bargain,” said Horace, “if I’m not terribly mistaken.”

“A brace of Margaux indeed!” said the old man. 

“And brandy, too?” said Penelope.

“Why yes, brandy, too!” said Mr. Peacock.

“And how much did you charge these gentlemen for all this magnificence, Popsy?”

“Why, I believe it was fifty dollars, wasn’t it, Mr. Sternwallader?”

“In that range I believe, yes,” said Horace.

“Oh, that’s highway robbery!” said Penelope. “Popsy, give the gentlemen at least half of that back.”

“What’s that make it, twenty-five?”

“Yes,” she said. “We are not out to gouge these poor men –”

“And a fly,” said Ferdinand.

“And a fly,” said Penelope. “Caught out lost in the rain. Fork it back over now, Popsy.”

“Well, you know,” said Mr. Peacock, “at my age, figures start to dance the Charleston in the decaying tawdry ballroom of my brain. Heh heh.”

He reached into his pocket and brought out a wallet that looked like a rat run over on the road and left out to dry. He pried it open.

“All I got’s a couple of twenties,” he said. “You fellows got any change on you?”

“Tell you what, Mr. Peacock,” said Horace. “Just give us the twenty, and maybe you can toss in a couple more brandies.”

“That hardly seems fair to you and your companions, Mr. Sternwall,” said Penelope.

“What about if I break out the good stuff?” said Mr. Peacock. “How about if we make it a bottle of fifty-year old Napoleon brandy?”

“Done and done!” said Horace. “Bring it on, my good sir! But you and Miss Penelope must join us in a glass or two.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the old fellow, and he tottered over and held out the two twenty-dollar bills to Horace, who hesitated just long enough to see that Penelope had turned away and was walking to the other side of the room. Then he swiftly took the bills and shoved them into his pocket.

“You catching all this, Arnie,” whispered Ferdinand in my ear.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” I telepathically communicated back to him. 

“He already took a fifty-dollar refund from the old goat, after supposedly giving him ten bucks, but you know what? I was watching him, and actually he only gave the old idiot seven. And now he just got another forty out of him.”

“Maybe I should say something,”
I said, mentally.

“Nix!” said my friend the fly. “You want to get us tossed out in the rain?”

“No,” I said, or thought.

“So just relax for once in your life, Arnie.”

“I feel bad,”
I said. 
“You’ll feel a lot worse walking down that dark road in the thunder and rain, with an empty stomach.”

He had a point, and, as the warmth of the fire transformed the rainwater in my clothes into a steamy mist that rose up gently from the weavings of the cloth, I decided to hold my tongue, at least for the time being.

It was so warm and comfortable in that chair, and I was – and have remained – weak.

(To be continued, as a free service to Arnold’s millions of loyal fans.)

(Kindly scroll down the right hand column of this page to find a rigorously updated listing of links to all other officially published chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Arnold’s saga is now available on Kindle™: the perfect present for that certain someone on your holiday shopping list!)

Friday, December 5, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 420: red head

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends Ferdinand (the loquacious fly) and the renowned Horace P. Sternwall
(author of such forgotten classics as Three Gals from Poughkeepsie and Mathilda, My Second Cousin, Twice-Removed) as they seek shelter from the storm at a certain secluded hostelry called the “Stop-Rite Inn”...

(Please go here to read our preceding chapter; if your reading of the entirety of Proust in the original has left you looking for a really ambitious new literary project then click here to go back to the beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)

“One is tempted to say that Arnold, Ferdinand and Horace are the Three Musketeers of American literature, but to call them such would serve only to limit the depth and richness of Arnold and his friends quite unfairly, IMHO.” – Harold Bloom, in the
Boys’ Life Literary Supplement.

We were in a shallow narrow foyer, with an open doorway at the other end of it, beyond which I could see what looked like a cozy living room from a time before I was born, even older-looking than that of my aunts’ living room back in Cape May, and I knew for a fact that all of their furniture was at least second-hand, picked up at bargain prices at estate auctions and lawn sales.

Horace and I stood there awkwardly (or at least I stood there awkwardly, who am I to speak for Horace’s state of mind?) as Mr. Peacock, with his pipe in his teeth, turned a big old mortice key which had already been in the door lock. He then shot a steel barrel bolt the size of a policeman’s nightstick through its hasp, and finally secured the knob of a security chain the links of which were made of three-inch lengths of steel as thick as my index finger.

The above-mentioned process was performed slowly, with three or four repetitions of each separate step, and occasional pauses between them, but I was used to old people taking a long time to do things, and I tried to be patient, dripping soaking wet and starving as I was.

Mr. Peacock now put his hand on the doorknob, which looked like a child’s pale aggie marble except that it was the size of a baseball and webbed with a thousand tiny cracks. After turning and pulling at it several times the old fellow finally gave up and turned to me and my companions. He took the pipe from his mouth before he spoke.

“I expect you gentlemen would like to dry those wet things before you dine.”

“I’m fine the way I am, pops,” said Ferdinand, who was hovering midway between my head’s and Horace’s.

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Peacock. “I suppose after all there are certain advantages to being a fly, are there not?”

“Wardrobe is not one of my big concerns, I will grant you that,” said Ferdinand. “But allow me to ask you a question if I may.”

“A question?” said Mr. Peacock, staring with one wide eye through his monocle while his other eye squinted. 

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “A question. If I may.”

“You’re not going to ask about –”

The old man paused, his old mouth hanging open. Then after five or six seconds that felt like ten minutes his lower jaw slowly raised up to meet, almost, his upper, and he abruptly started a completely new sentence:

“I hope you’re not going to ask about, about –”

Again, he paused, but this time with his thin old lips pressed together, which was less horrifying than his mouth hanging open, but still not pleasant to look at.

“Look, pops,” said Ferdinand, after the pause had passed the one-minute mark, “all I was gonna ask was, what’s with all the heavy locks? You got more security on that door than they got on the big vault down at Fort Knox.”

“Oh!” said Mr. Peacock. “The door. The locks. Well, you see as you have probably noticed we are quite isolated out here. One never knows if some travelling marauders, brigands, highwayman might try to force their way in and wreak havoc.”

Horace elbowed me in the side, but I tried to keep a straight face.

“Well, that makes sense, sir,” he said. “Doesn’t it, Arnold?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Don’t want those brigands breaking in!” Horace added.

“No,” said Mr. Peacock. “As for my own life, what little might be left of it, I care not a fig. But I am not alone in this house. I should hate for anyone else to be brutally murdered, or raped. Or both.”

“Oh, of course!” said Horace. “I mean of course not. Um –”

“Hey, I got another question though, pops,” said Ferdinand. He was still hovering there, between me and Horace.

“Yes?” said Mr. Peacock.

“How did you know me and my friends weren’t brigands?”

“Well, I suppose I couldn’t be entirely sure,” said Mr. Peacock. “However, speaking only of the two human members of your little band – I should say you two gentlemen struck me as – oh, how shall I put it?”

“Innocent?” said Horace.

“No, that’s not quite the word I was searching for,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Harmless?” said Ferdinand.

“’Harmless’,” said Mr. Peacock. “That’s as well may be, but again not quite the word I am seeking.”

“Take your time,” said Ferdinand.

Mr. Peacock seemed to take Ferdinand’s admonition literally. He put his pipe in his mouth and puffed.

I stifled, or tried to stifle, a sigh, and then hard on its heels a yawn, and, trying not to think of Beef Wellington I looked at the wall, which was covered with faded and warped paper in shades of brown and black, showing little men on horses chasing foxes. A waist-high bookcase had a lot of old-looking hardbound books in it, as well as some newer-looking paperbacks, and three or four stacks of old National Geographic magazines, the real old kind from before the time when they started putting pictures on the covers. I resisted the urge to pick one up and read an article about the headhunters of the Amazon. On top of the bookcase were various dusty knick-knacks that looked like they were actually very old as opposed to knick-knacks that were imitations of what old knick-knacks might have looked like, including a heavy brown-glass ashtray, cracked and chipped, and with a dozen or more butts of cigarettes and cigars and a few handfuls of ash in it. There were some framed pictures on the walls, maybe even real paintings as opposed to reproductions of paintings, but they were so dark that they all looked like renditions of the same shadowy cluttered basement.

Finally Mr. Peacock spoke again.

Feckless,” he said.

“What?” said Horace.

“Feckless,” said Mr. Peacock. “You and your friend Mr. Schnozzle seemed quite feckless to me. I hope you are not offended.”

“Not at all,” said Horace.

“And besides you see, had you indeed proved to be brigands I was prepared.”

And with that he suddenly put his pipe in his mouth and then reached inside his smoking-jacket and brought out a large revolver with a long barrel, and pointed toward the space in the air midway between my right lung and Horace’s heart.

“Hey!” yelped Horace, and he held out both his hands, palms outward. “Easy with that thing, Mr. Peacock!”

“What?” said Mr. Peacock. “With this?” The pistol was so big I wondered how this little old man could even hold it straight, but even as I thought this he put his pipe into the ashtray on the bookcase and then brought his left hand up under his right to support his grip on the pistol. Nevertheless the barrel still wobbled a little. “This ‘thing’?”

He pointed the gun toward Horace (and I have to confess I was glad of this, coward that I was, and am).

“Yes!” said Horace. “Jesus Christ, Mr. Peacock, quit horsing around, will ya?”

“You’re not brigands, are you?” said the old man, and with that I finally realized: he was mad, insane, or at the very least in an advanced state of senility.

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” I said. “We’re just two lost men.”

“And a fly,” said Ferdinand, who sounded amused.

“And a fly,” I said. “All we wanted was some shelter from the rain, and something to eat –” 
“And to drink!” added Ferdinand.

“But how do I know you are not all secret brigands,” said Mr. Peacock, now moving the pistol shakily back and forth to cover both me and Horace, “planning to bide your time until the house is asleep, only to burst from your room and wreak havoc and bloody murder?”

“But, but –” said Horace, “you yourself just said we looked – and I quote you, sir – ‘feckless’!”

“Perhaps you were only pretending to seem feckless,” observed the old man, after a short pause, and in a way that someone just arriving on the scene might have thought sounded thoughtful.

“Oh, boy,” said Ferdinand. 
“Look, please, Mr. Peacock," said Horace,  "will you please lower that pistol? It’s very – disconcerting.”

“Lower my pistol so that you two hooligans can pounce upon me?”

“But we’re not going to pounce!” said Horace, with a distinct whine in his voice.

“So you say,” said Mr. Peacock. “Perhaps I should call the police.”

“What for?” said Horace. “We’re innocent! As my friend Arnold says, we only came here looking for some shelter, for some –”

“Then why are you afraid of me calling the police?”

“I’m not afraid!” said Horace. “We’re not afraid!”

“You look afraid.”

“That’s because you’re pointing a gun at me!”

“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand.

“I think I may just have to telephone the police,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” said Horace, “please, just let us go, we beg you, and you’ll never see us again! Please!”

“Don’t snivel, Horace,” said Ferdinand.

“I’m sorry!” said Horace. “I’m like that. I snivel when somebody points a gun at me. Excuse me for being human!”

“Hey!” said Ferdinand. “I resemble that remark!”

I thought I’d better try to step in here before things got really out of hand.

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” I said. “Maybe it really is better that we just leave –”

“What? So that you can lurk about outside and then break in and wreak havoc and bloody murder in the dark watches of the night?”

“No,” I said, “so that we can just walk away down that dark road in the rain.”

Smartypants,” he said. “A clever jackanapes!”

“Hardly,” I said. “Now if you’ll just unlock the door –”

“There’s only one reason I don’t plug both you scoundrels right now,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s a very good reason!” said Horace. “A very good reason indeed, what ever it may be, and again I just want to say –”

“Don’t you want to know what the reason is?” said Mr. Peacock.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s an excellent reason!” babbled Horace.

“How do you know?” said the crazy old man.

“Oh,” said Horace, “well, just because I can tell that you are a very intelligent gentleman, and, and, a scholar, and, and –”

“The reason is have you ever seen what a .45 calibre bullet can do to a man’s brains at this distance?”

“Um, well, not personally,” said Horace, “you see I was a supply sergeant in the war, and so–”

“Splatter your brains all over my sitting room rug!” said Mr. Peacock. “Be a dickens of a job to clean it up! That’s why I don’t plug the both of you right here!”

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” I said, “all we want to do is leave.”

“I thought you said you were hungry!”

“I am,” I said, “but we seem to have upset you in some way, and so if you’ll just unlock the door and let us go –”

“And I suppose you want your money back, too!” he croaked.

“No!” yelped Horace. “Not at all! You can keep the money!”

“Oh, brother!” said Ferdinand.

“I don’t want your money!” said Mr. Peacock. “I spit on your money! What did you give me?”

“Um,” said Horace, “uh, I think it was –”

“Twenty was it?” said Mr. Peacock. 

“Uh,” said Horace, “um, uh –”

“You think I want your twenty dollars?”

“Well,” said Horace, “uh –”

“Very well, then. Hands up!” said the old madman. “The both of you! Raise ‘em high and turn around!”

“Aw, gee,” said Horace, but he was already raising his arms.

“What about me?” said Ferdinand. “You want me to put my hands up?’

“Don’t get wise with me, you infernal creature!” said Mr. Peacock. “You just turn your little body around and keep hovering there, and don’t think I can’t plug you with this pistol, tiny as you are.”

“Oh, I’m quaking,” said Ferdinand, but he did seem to turn around as he hovered in the air, although it’s hard to say, with a fly.

“You, too, Mr. Schadenfreude,” said Mr. Peacock, pointing the actually-quaking barrel of the pistol at me.

“It’s Schnabel, actually,” I said.

“Whatever damn name you’re going by! Raise your hands and turn round!”

I sighed, but did as he bade me.

I felt Ferdinand land in my ear.

“You believe this old bastard?” he whispered.

I said nothing, but I thought something, and Ferdinand heard my thoughts.

“I know you don’t want to get him upset,” he said.

Look, I thought, knowing Ferdinand could hear my unspoken words, let’s just do what he says, and then maybe he’ll let us go.

“Out into that torrential downpour,”
he said in my ear. “To walk down a dark road to God knows where.”

Look, Ferdinand – I started to telepathically communicate, but then I heard Mr. Peacock’s voice again.

“All right,” he said. “You can all turn around now.”

We turned around.

The wobbling gun was now held only by his ancient bony right hand, and in his left he was holding out a crumpled fifty-dollar bill.

“Here,” he said. “Mr. Schopenhauer.”

He was waving the fifty at Horace, who said: “Who me?”

“Yeah, you. Take your twenty back.”

“My – twenty?”

“You want it or don’t you?”

“Well, I - uh – may I put my hands down?”

“Yes! Both of you! Hands down!”

We lowered our hands, or at least Horace and I lowered our hands. 

“Take your blood money!” said Mr. Peacock, to Horace.

“Only if you insist, sir,” said Horace, and he took the fifty-dollar bill and quickly shoved it into his trousers pocket.

Popsy,” said a woman’s voice, from behind me and Horace. “What on earth is going on?”

Horace and I both turned, to see a beautiful young red-haired woman, wearing a pale purple dress.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello to you!” said Horace.

Hubba hubba!” said Ferdinand.

“What did you say?” said the young woman, looking at me.

“Nothing,” I said.

“It sounded as if you said ‘hubba hubba’, but I didn’t see your lips move.”

“That was me, miss,” said Ferdinand, making a graceful dip in front of her, perhaps this was his version of a gallant bow. “Ferdinand is my name, and, yes, I am indeed a talking fly.”

“Most extraordinary,” she said. “I don’t believe I’ve met a talking fly before.”

“Very few people have,” said Ferdinand.

“What an extraordinary privilege for me,” she said. “Popsy, why are you holding that gun?”

“What, this gun?” said Mr. Peacock.

“I see no other gun in your hands,” she said.

“I was merely demonstrating to these gentlemen my readiness and ableness to deal with brigands.”

“Please put it away. Unless of course these gentlemen are indeed brigands.”

“We’re not!” said Horace. “I assure you we’re not. As we have explained to your – grandfather?”

“Great-great-grandfather as it happens,” she said.

“Great-great-grandfather –” said Horace.

“Too much of a mouthful to address him as such each time I must address him,” she said.

“I can appreciate that,” said Horace.

“Therefore I address him as Popsy.”

“As we were saying, anyway,” said Horace, “our car ran out of gas, and so –”

“Ah ha, the old car ran out of gas on a rainy night scenario,” she said.

“Oh, but it really happened,” said Horace.

“You look rather shabby,” she said. “The pair of you.”

“But that’s only because we are writers,” said Horace. “Creative chaps. You might say of a slightly raffish, bohemian bent.”

“Well, that’s different then,” she said. “Unless of course you’re lying.” She looked at me. “Is he lying? Are you really a pair of bohemian writers?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s true that I write poems.”

“Recite me a poem you’ve written.”

“I’m not sure I can remember one,” I said.

“I want to hear a poem. You’re a poet. Recite a poem.”

“Okay,” I said. In desperation I made up a short poem right there on the spot:

“I went downstairs and made some tea;
yesterday stared back at me,
a new day dawning to take its place –
with what new pain, what new disgrace?”

A pause ensued.

I waited for a slap in my face, bullet in my back, but neither came.

“Won’t you come in and get dry, gentlemen?” she said, at last.

(Continued here; such is our duty and our privilege.)

(Please look to the right hand column of this page to find a frequently accurate listing of links to all other legally-released chapters of
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Friday, November 28, 2014

“Uncle Mike From St. Louis”

  “Uncle Mike From St. Louis” 
by Horace P. Sternwall

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Post Post Modern Literature, Olney Community College; editor of “A Girl’s Got to Do What a Girl’s Got to Do”: The Gwendolyn and Auntie Margaret Stories of Horace P. Sternwall, Vol. 1; the Olney Community College Press. 

Original Illustrations by rhoda penmarq.


Gwendolyn had rarely seen Auntie Margaret so terribly excited. 

In fact the only other time she could recall Auntie getting quite so excited was back when they were living in Paris the time her horse came in at 27-to-1 at the Hippodrome de Longchamp just the very day before they were due to move by necessity from their nice suite at the George Cinq to the slightly louche Hotel Modern on the rue Claude Bernard, which is where they always wound up when, as Auntie said, they were “low on the chips”.

“Oh, you’re going to love your Uncle Mike, darling,” said Auntie Margaret.

“I’m so looking forward to meeting him at long last,” said Gwendolyn.

Auntie was “doing her face”, smoking a cigarette, sitting at her make-up table in front of the mirror with all the little lights. She had taken this little table and mirror with them from New York to London to Paris and then to Monte Carlo and then back to Paris, then to London again, and back to Paris, then to Rome and to Berlin and back one more time to Paris and now back to New York again. She had a special padded trunk just for the table and mirror.

Serge wandered into the room, wearing his grey topcoat and hat and smoking a cigarette. Gwendolyn could see him in the mirror.

“Time to fly, dear Margaret,” he said. “Pierre’s waiting downstairs in the Hupmobile.”

“All right,” said Auntie Margaret. She turned and stared at Gwendolyn. “How do I look, darling?”

“I think you look just stunning, Auntie Margaret.”

“Thank you, darling. I needed that. I’m just all nerves.”

“Margaret, dear –” said Serge.

“All right, I’m coming.”

She took one last drag on her cigarette, then stubbed it out in the ashtray; stood up, then bent down and touched her cheek to Gwendolyn’s, but only slightly, not wanting to mess up her splendid make-up job.

“Wish I could come,” said Gwendolyn.

“Don’t worry, you’ll see your Uncle Mike later this evening after we attend to – you know –”

“That bit of business,” said Gwendolyn.

“Yes,” said Auntie Margaret. “Just a bit of grown-up business, but now we must dash or the poor man will be standing all alone on the train platform with not a soul to greet him.”

“Hurry, then,” said Gwendolyn. “And hurry back.”

“We will, darling. Soon as we attend to our, you know –”

“I know,” said Gwendolyn.

“Right,” Said Auntie. “All right, Serge, let’s blow.”

Gwendolyn hadn’t even known she had had an Uncle Mike from St. Louis until the day before yesterday, when they all sat eating dinner down in the Prince Hal Room.

“I never told you about your Uncle Mike?” Auntie Margaret said. “From St. Louis?”

“Never,” said Gwendolyn. “I’m sure I would have remembered.”

“Well, I suppose his name just never came up before,” said Auntie Gwendolyn. “But you’ll love him.”

“Do you know Uncle Mike, Pierre?” Gwendolyn asked. 

“Oh, yes, indeed,” said Pierre. “I know Mike.”

“What about you, Serge?” asked Gwendolyn.

What about me, ma p’tite,” said Serge.

“Do you know my Uncle Mike? From St. Louis.”

“Do I know your Uncle Mike?” said Serge. “Indeed I do.”

“Your Uncle Mike is a great man,” said Pierre.

“A mensch,” said Serge. “You know what mensch means, ma p’tite?

“Yes,” said Gwendolyn. “It means he’s what we Americans call ‘regular’.”

“Yes,” said Serge. “They don’t come more regular than old Mike.”

Gwendolyn had told Auntie Margaret she would stay in the suite and do her homework and then read a book, but her homework was a matter of mere minutes, and so she sneaked down the stairs and walked down the back alley to the automat and had a slice of cheesecake and a cup of hot cocoa while she studied the entertainment section of the Daily News. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast was playing up at the Adlephi, so she took the subway uptown and quite enjoyed the movie, and was back in the suite by ten reading Wuthering Heights. She fell asleep on the divan and then she was awakened by Auntie Margaret’s soft hand caressing her head.

“Darling,” said Auntie. “It’s way past your bedtime.”

Pierre and Serge were standing there behind her. Both of them were smoking cigarettes.

“Where is Uncle Mike?” said Gwendolyn.

“Uncle Mike - “ Auntie Margaret paused. She so rarely if ever paused. She had been crouching by the divan, but now she stood up. “Take my wrap, someone,” she said.

Pierre and Serge both came over, but Pierre got to the angora wrap first, removed it from Auntie’s shoulders, draped it over his arm. Pierre and Serge were both still wearing the topcoats and hats they had gone out in.

“We should go and take care of this, dear Margaret,” said Serge.

“Yes,” said Auntie Margaret. “I suppose you should.”

“Will you be all right here alone, dear Margaret?” said Pierre.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I have Gwendolyn with me.”

At this point Gwendolyn was sitting up on the divan.

“Where is Uncle Mike?” she said.

“Where are my cigarettes?” said Auntie Margaret.

“Here,” said Gwendolyn. She lifted the silver cigarette box from the end table, opened it, and offered it to her aunt.

“Thank you, darling,” said Auntie Margaret.

Serge was right there with his lighter.

“Thank you, Serge,” said Auntie Margaret. “You’d better go now, the both of you. Hurry. I don’t want to think of him – just go, please.”

“You should have a drink, dear Gwendolyn,” said Pierre. “Let me fetch one for you.”

“No, Pierre, you really must hurry. I’ll make myself a drink, thank you.”

“I’ll make you a drink, Auntie,” said Gwendolyn. “You just sit down.”

“Sit down?”

“Yes.” Gwendolyn got up, touched her aunt’s arm. “Go on, sit down, Auntie, I’ll fix you a nice drink.”

“That’s a good girl,” said Pierre. “Take care of your auntie.” He turned to Serge. “On y va?”

Ouais,” said Serge.

Auntie Margaret had sat down on the divan, staring straight ahead, with the lit cigarette still in her mouth.

“We should return in no later than one hour,” said Pierre.

Auntie Margaret said nothing, just kept staring straight ahead.

Pierre went over to the hatrack by the door and hung up Auntie’s wrap. Serge opened the door, and without another word they left.

“What would you like to drink, Auntie?” said Gwendolyn. “Auntie?”

At last Auntie Margaret took the cigarette from her lips, and she tapped it on the edge of the ashtray on the end table, even though the cigarette didn’t really need to be tapped yet.

“Auntie,” said Gwendolyn.

“Yes, darling.”

“What would you like to drink?”

“Oh. A drink,” she said. “Just a highball, dear. Bourbon, please. The Old Forester.”

“Right away,” said Gwendolyn, and she turned to go to the drinks table.

“Gwendolyn,” said Auntie Margaret.

Gwendolyn stopped and turned.

“Yes, Auntie?”

“Make it a stiff one, please, darling.”

“I was going to,” said Gwendolyn.

“You’re a dear, darling.”

Gwendolyn turned again and went over to the little table with the bottles and glasses and the siphon and the ice bucket.

She didn’t suppose she would ever meet Uncle Mike now. 

This story originally appeared in somewhat different form, and lavishly illustrated by rhoda penmarq, in Tales of the Hotel St Crispian.

(Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, Arnold Schnabel has been given the week off, but he will be back next week with an all-new chapter of
Railroad Train to Heaven!)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 419: welcome

We last saw our hero Arnold Schnabel caught in a thunderstorm and running down a dark road towards the possible shelter of a large gabled house. Running along with Arnold is the raffish Horace P. Sternwall, author of such oddly-forgotten classics as A Gal Named Elizabeth and Big Gun For a Little Lady; and riding along safely within the porch of Arnold’s ear is his boon companion Ferdinand, the talking fly...

(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you have decided to take to your bed for the winter with your opium pipe and your lashings of rich Assam tea and are looking for something to kill the time with then click here to return to the very beginning of this 74-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“How oddly right it seems that Arnold Schnabel should have encountered on his life’s journey to immortality no other than the great Horace P. Sternwall – the only other writer to give him a serious challenge for the mantle of America’s preëminent literary genius.” – Harold Bloom, in the
Hustler Literary Quarterly.

The rain poured down and the thunder cracked and boomed and shook the road as if some bored army was firing artillery at us for sport as Horace and I ran madly on, Horace shouting through the clattering of the rain and the roaring from the pitiless black heavens above us the single exclamation, over and over again: “Motherfucker!

I didn’t know what I would do when we reached that big house. I only knew I wanted to get under some sort of shelter from this lashing rain. Would we be turned away? Forced out into the torrent again? Possibly. Why not?

Would we be summarily run off the property, perhaps at the point of a shotgun, off into this deluge to fend for ourselves? Who knew?

I wondered if you could die from tramping in the pouring rain. At least it wasn’t an icy cold rain. It was more like an average, just slightly cold but still bitter rain. Maybe we would get used to it after an hour or so…

Thus were my thoughts occupied until finally Horace and I came abreast of the house.

The lightning revealed a waist-high picket fence a couple of yards in from the road, and a wooden gate; without ceremony Horace went over to the gate, lifted its latch, swung it open, and ran on through. 

I followed hard on his heels, my feet slapping along the stone walk that led up to the big house, which was set back about about twenty yards from the road. 

We reached a roofed porch, dimly lit by a lamp set above a double doorway within. Horace tramped up the four wooden steps into the shelter of this porch,  and I was right behind him.

Now at last out of the rain, Horace bent over, his hands on his knees, wheezing, and still muttering “motherfucker” repeatedly.

I must have been in better physical condition, and so although I too wheezed, I did so not as heartily and loudly as Horace. 

“Hey, look,” said Ferdinand,  and he flew out of my ear and toward the double door right in front of us. The electric light above it, in a yellow, tulip-shaped fixture, illuminated a  a wooden sign hung over the lintel, a sign made to look like a sawn piece of log with some of the bark still on it; carved into the wood and painted in black were the words


“Motherfucker,” wheezed Horace. “You were right, Arnie. It is an inn!”

“How about our, Arnie," said Ferdinand, "hey, Horace?”

“It’s not just some like secluded scary mansion,” said Horace.

“A ‘quaint country inn’,” said Ferdinand.

“I hope they have food,” I panted. Now that I was out of the storm I was starving again.

“Maybe they got a bar, too,” said Horace.

“I'm going to ring the bell,” I said.

“What a take-charge guy!” said Ferdinand.

“Don’t get in his way when he’s hungry!” said Horace.

“Oh, I won’t, believe you me!” said Ferdinand, and he made a big show of flying out of my way as I went over to the door.

There was a button to one side, and I pressed it.

I heard a sound like a gong go off inside.

“I hope we’re not waking everyone up,” I said.

“Nah,” said Horace, “it’s early still.”

“How do you know?” I said. “Neither of us has a watch."

“Point taken,” said Horace. “Press the buzzer again.”

I pressed the button again, the gong sounded from inside.

I waited, we all waited, in our soaked and dripping clothes. Well, Horace and I waited in our soaked and dripping clothes. I’m sure Ferdinand was perfectly dry.

We waited.

“One more time, Arnie,” said Horace.

“I don’t want to be obnoxious,” I said.

“Press the fucking button.”

“Let’s just wait a little bit longer,” I said.

“Okay, fine,” he said. “Let's wait. We’ll just stand here here dripping wet. I really hope I don’t get pneumonia –”

“Horace, I’m soaking wet too,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Certainly you are. Did I say –”

“Let’s just wait a little longer, in case they were upstairs, or, I don’t know –”

“In the bathroom?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Let’s just wait a minute.”

“I said let’s wait,” he said.

“Oh my God, will you just listen to you two,” said Ferdinand. “Why don’t you both get married for Christ’s sake?”

This produced one of those awkward pauses that have occurred with such great frequency in my life.

After half a minute I relented.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll ring the bell again.”

“Thank you!” said Horace.

“Jesus, Mary and –” Ferdinand started to say, and then, “hello!”

Before I could press the buzzer someone opened the door, or one of the double doors.

It was a little old man. 

Even in this world I was not free of little old men.

This one wore a red-and-purple smoking jacket, and he had a lit and smoking brown pipe in his hand. He wore a red ascot with black dots on it, tucked into a soft-collared white shirt. He was mostly bald but the hair he had on his head was silky white and rather long; he wore a monocle with a purple ribbon attached to it that dangled down into his jacket breast pocket, in which was tucked also a white handkerchief. His skin was the color of a sandy beach on a moonlit winter night. He was only about five feet tall.

He stared up at me out of the thick glass of his monocle.

“Good evening,” he said. “May I help you gentlemen?”

“We’re soaked and lost,” I said. “And very hungry. But we have money.”

“Oh, dear,” said the old man, and he seemed on the verge of shutting the door without further ado.

Wait!” cried Horace. “You see, sir, we were driving, and we got lost on the dark road and our automobile ran out of gas! As my colleague says, and as you can see, we have gotten soaked as we walked down the road looking for a gas station. Do you think we might come in just to get dry and perhaps have a drink while we wait for the storm to abate?”

“Your automobile ran out of gas?” said the old man.

“Yes!” said Horace.


“Several miles away,” said Horace. He turned to me. “Wouldn’t you say several miles, Arnold?”

“At least several,” I said.

“You won’t get a gas station man out before morning,” said the old man.

“No, I suppose not,” said Horace. “However, if you’re still serving drinks, then perhaps –”

“Would you like a room for the night?” said the old man.

“A room,” said Horace.

“Yes,” said the old man. “A room. Or two rooms if you prefer. Then you could telephone the nearest garage come morning and they’ll send a a chap out with some gasoline for your automobile.”

I know that Horace was thinking about how much a room would cost. I know I was. If it came down to a room versus food I knew I would opt for food, just as Horace would go for booze if it came down to a room versus booze.

I saw no reason to be coy under the circumstances.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Could you tell us how much a room would cost?”

“One room or two?”

“How much is one room?” I said.

“One room with a double bed will be five dollars.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m sorry if five dollars seems dear,” said the old man. “But that includes an American-style breakfast. Bacon, sausage or scrapple, with eggs any style, including omelets, as well as pancakes, waffles, mush, or home fries.”

My stomach suddenly felt as hollow and empty as the deepest dark reaches of interstellar space.

“I wonder if we could get something to eat now?” I said.

“Well,” said the old man, “you realize it wouldn’t be included in the price of the room.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. I was on the verge of grabbing him by the lapels of his smoking jacket and throwing him aside, preparatory to storming into the house and stomping madly about looking for the kitchen. “So is it too late to get something to eat? Anything at all –”

“We offer a limited but quite satisfying prix-fixe late evening menu,” he said, “at two dollars and fifty cents per guest. Not inclusive of tax.”

“Two-fifty a person?” said Horace.

“What can we get for two-fifty?” I butted in.

The old man took a puff or two of his pipe. His eyes closed. I wondered if he had fallen asleep, but then his eyes opened again and he spoke:

“We have a very tasty and savory Beef Wellington.”

“You have Beef Wellington?” said Horace.

“I should not have mentioned it if we did not.”

“For two-fifty?” said Horace

“Not including tax.”

“No of course not,” said Horace.

“It comes with Yorkshire pudding and buttered lightly-blanched peeled asparagus; dinner rolls included.”

“For two-fifty?” said Horace.

“That price does include your choice of a soup or salad course, as well as dessert. Tonight we’re serving warm peach cobbler with ice cream and a cheese soufflé with crème fraiche.”

“Okay, we’ll take that,” I said.

“The Beef Wellington dinner?” said the old man.

“Yes,” I said.

“I forgot to mention, for the weight-conscious we offer a fresh fruit plate for dessert."

“We’re not weight-conscious,” I said

“I didn’t think you were, but I felt obliged to mention the fruit plate anyway.”

“Of course,” said Horace. “But, um, what about beverages –”

“Unlimited cups of coffee,” said the man.

“Well, that sounds great,” said Horace. “But, uh –”

“You got a bar in here, pops?” said Ferdinand.

“What?” said the old man.

“A bar,” said Ferdinand, hovering a foot in front of the old guy’s face. “Do you sell alcoholic beverages. Cocktails. Beer. Wine.”

“I didn’t realize there were three of you,” said the old man.

“Yes, there are  three of us,” said Ferdinand, “but I myself obviously don’t need a whole three-course meal, at least not a human-size one. Just a small tiny little finger bowl say, maybe with some of the gravy from the beef, and a few crumbs. And I’m not picky, but I would like something decent to drink with my meal.”

“Some wine, perhaps?” said the old man.

“Wine would be great,” said Ferdinand.

“In fact we have a lovely Margaux. My grandson brought back several cases from France after his service with the American Expeditionary Force in nineteen hundred and nineteen. It’s really only just coming into its full flower now I think.”

“Sounds great,” said Ferdinand. “We’ll take a bottle.”

“Well,” said Horace, “heh heh, perhaps we should ask first how much –”

“Two dollars,” said the old fellow.

“Two dollars!” yelped Horace.

“I’m sorry if that seems dear,” said the old man.

“No,” Horace said. “Wait, hold on.” He reached in his back pocket and took out his old worn wallet. “Let’s see, you said five for the room, two-fifty each for the supper, and that’s another two bucks for the wine, totaling –”

“Nine dollars,” said the old fellow, “not inclusive of tax.”

Horace had been fingering the few bills in his wallet, but now he looked up.

“Nine?” he said.

“Wait,” said the old man. He seemed to stare out at the dark rain that was still crashing through the world just beyond the porch. “Five plus two-fifty, plus two for the bottle of Margaux –”

“What about two bottles of Margaux?” said Horace.

“Make it two bottles of the Margaux then, so that’s five plus what did I say?”

“I think you said two-fifty,” said Horace.

“Five plus two-fifty,” said the old man, “so that’s –”

“With the wine I think that’s seven-fifty altogether,” said Horace.

“Not inclusive of tax,” said the old man.

Horace stared at the man. Horace was still holding his wallet open. He glanced at me in what seemed a very meaningful way.

“Arnie, how much cash you got on you?”

I had a moment’s panic. How did I know I had any money at all in this world? Quickly I dug out my own wallet from the back pocket of my jeans.

“You see,” said Horace, addressing the old fellow, “we hadn’t expected to be stopping anywhere tonight, and so we didn’t think to bring a lot of money.”

“Yes, of course,” said the old man.

I opened my wallet and sighed quite audibly with relief when I saw I had a five and two singles in it, all very crumpled, but they looked real.

“I have seven dollars,” I said.

“Hand me five, will you?” said Horace.

I gave him the five.

“I think you said seven-fifty?” said Horace to the old fellow.

“I believe that’s what I said.”

Horace took some bills from his own wallet, mixed them in with my five, shuffled them, put a few of them back in his wallet, put his wallet away, then folded up the remaining bills in quarters and handed them to the old man.

“Here’s ten dollars, sir," said Horace,  "payment in advance. Do you think you could toss in a couple of brandies also, just to take the breath of the damp off us?"

“Oh, I don’t see why not,” said the old man.

Horace extended his right hand in the gesture of a proffered handshake.

“My name is Horace P. Sternwall by the way.”

The old man had the little square of folded bills in one hand and his pipe in the other, so he put the money in his side jacket pocket, and then gave Horace a polite but quick handshake.

“My name is Peacock,” said the old man. “Abner Dwayne Peacock.”

“Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Peacock,” said Horace. “This is my friend Arnold Schnabel.”

“How do you do, Mr. Scrabble,” said Mr. Peacock.

He didn’t offer his hand, which was okay with me.

“Just call me Ferdinand, pops,” said Ferdinand.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Mr. Peacock. “Well, I suppose you might as well all come in and get dry.”

He stood aside, holding the door open for us. The room behind him looked warm and comforting.

Horace went in, followed by Ferdinand. I put my wallet back in my jeans and went in also.

Mr. Peacock closed the door behind us, and the clattering and booming of the thunderstorm, which had so quickly and completely become part of my universe that I had become barely aware of it, now grew muffled and faraway, as if part of some other world.

(Continued here; we couldn’t possibly abandon Arnold’s tale at this juncture.)

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