Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel, who has found himself trapped in the world of a strangely obscure “paperback original” novel titled Rummies of the Open Road…
(Kindly click here to read our preceding chapter; if you have way too much time on your hands you may go here to return to the all-but-forgotten beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume memoir.)
“Just when you’re beginning to think that you may have some faint inkling of where Arnold Schnabel is going with his narrative he opens a door and shoves you headlong into yet another completely unexpected but infinitely fascinating universe.” – Harold Bloom, in The Cosmopolitan Literary Supplement.
For a moment no one said anything. I could tell Laughing Lou was more than ready to continue to force us to nudge him along. Someone had to do it, so I plunged in.
“So you know why we’re here,” I said.
“Well, ‘why’ is a very loaded word, isn’t it?” he said. “Ha ha! But let me put it this way: I know how you got here.”
“You do?” I said.
“Oh, ho, ha ha! Yes indeed, my friend, I do indeed. Ha ha!”
“That we’ve been –”
I hesitated. It sounded so stupid just to say it all out loud.
“Go on,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha!”
“That we have been – transported into the world of a paperback novel,” I said.
“Sentence fragment,” said Horace.
“Shut up, Horace,” I said.
“Jeeze,” he said. “I was only pointing it out. I mean, you’re supposed to be a poet –”
“Poets are allowed to use sentence fragments,” said Ferdinand. “You know that, Horace.”
“Well, yes, I suppose you’re right,” he said, but he seemed to be saying it grudgingly.
“And besides,” said Laughing Lou, “not that I’m a literary fella myself like you and Arnie here – ha ha! – but if this is a fictional universe, then isn’t dialogue allowed to be ungrammatical, as a representation of the way people actually speak?”
“He’s right, Horace,” said Ferdinand, who had settled down and was sitting on the rim of his whiskey glass. “Come on, you’re a published author – own up.”
“Okay,” said Horace. “I stand corrected. But still I think the speech of a poet-character like Arnold might be a little more – shall we say – elegant than that of your average –”
“Horace,” I said. “I apologize for telling you to shut up. That was rude of me. But can we change the subject?”
“Fine. I could care less,” he said.
“Couldn’t care less,” said Ferdinand.
“Whatever,” said Horace.
“Anyway,” I said, “getting back to the subject.”
“Great, get back to the subject,” said Horace. “And I won’t even mention the sentence fragment you just uttered.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you, Horace.” I turned to Laughing Lou. “So you knew all along that we were – we were –“
What were we?
“Exiles,” said Laughing Lou. “Castaways in the world of a trashy drugstore paperback.”
“Okay, now hold on a minute,” said Horace. “Right there. What’s this about trashy?”
“Ha ha!” said Laughing Lou. “I see I have touched a nerve.”
“I’ll have you know I don’t consider my novels to be 'trashy',” said Horace. “Populist, perhaps. Demotic, maybe. Not filled with highfalutin descriptions that no one wants to read, and ten-dollar words that no one ever uses in real life – sure. Not devoid of something so old-fashioned as plot and story – yes, I plead guilty. But on the other hand, if you’re looking for good honest yarns meant for regular working men and women, and decidedly not for ivory-tower Ivy League professors, well –”
“You talk like you actually wrote this novel we’re in,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha!”
“Well, it is my novel!” said Horace. “I mean, it’s got my name on it, right under the title –”
“Ha ha! Yes, so it does!”
“Damn straight it does. 'Alcoholics in the Alley, by Horace P. Sternwall' –”
“What was that title again?” said Laughing Lou.
“Um,” said Horace, “Wait, no, that wasn’t it. Drunks in the Street. No. Boozehounds of the Great Highway?”
“'Boozehounds of the Great Highway?” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! Boozehounds of the Great Highway? Really?”
Horace looked at me.
“Arnie, help me out, I’m having a mental block.”
“Rummies of the Open Road,” I said.
“Right,” he said. “Rummies of the Open Road. By Horace P. Sternwall. Me.”
“Except,” said Laughing Lou, “ha ha! – you didn’t actually write it, did you Horace?”
“Well –” said Horace.
“You paid that old man Mr. Philpot for the book, didn’t you?”
“Well, okay – so what if I did?” said Horace. “It’s still my book if I paid him for it –”
“Except,” said Laughing Lou, “ha ha! – except that you didn’t come up with all the scratch, did you? So he trapped you in the pages of the book.”
“Well, okay,” said Horace, “something like that, but like I told Arnie here, I was gonna pay the old bastard –”
“In fact,” said Laughing Lou, “you were suspended in the pages of the aforesaid paperback, a disembodied consciousness surrounded by nothingness until Arnold here happened to come along, and –”
“Okay, okay –” said Horace.
“Until poor innocent Arnie came along,” said Laughing Lou, “and you talked him into opening the book – didn’t you? In that lavatory?”
“Yeah, yeah –” said Horace.
“Talked him into opening the book,” said Laughing Lou, “which against his better judgment he did. Casting his eyes upon those printed words within. And by so doing – by the magical mystical act of reading – he transformed you into a living and breathing character in that book!”
“Okay, fine,” said Horace.
“Because what is a book without a reader?”
“I don’t know,” said Horace. “But I think you’re going to tell me.”
“Ha ha!,” said Laughing Lou, for what seemed like the millionth time. “A book without a reader, my friend, is a world – no, it is a universe – that has not yet been created!”
“Oh. Really?” said Horace.
“Yes, really,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! Because you see a book has two creators: the author; and just as important: the reader. Ha ha!”
“Very, like, profound,” said Horace.
He picked up his glass of whiskey and drank the couple of fingers that were still in it.
“Have some more bourbon, Horace,” said Laughing Lou. “Help yourself.”
“Thanks, I will,” said Horace.
He picked up the bottle and poured himself another four or five fingers.
“You owe this man a tremendous debt,” said Laughing Lou, and he pointed his big fat finger at me. “He it was who brought your book, and you, to life.”
“Okay,” said Horace. “Fine. Thanks, Arnold. Sincerely.”
He took another drink of whiskey, but a shorter one this time.
“Unfortunately for friend Arnold, though,” said Laughing Lou, “through this act of creation he too became a character in your sordid little potboiler.”
“Look, do we have to open up that whole can of worms again?” said Horace. “Arnold and I have already been through all that, and I assured him I had like no intention of trapping him in the world of my novel –”
“Your novel, Horace?”
“Okay, fine,” said Horace. “The novel I paid Philpot to create.”
“But not enough,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! Otherwise you wouldn’t be stuck here in it. Nor would poor Arnold. Exiled. So far from his home. In a cheap tawdry paperback.”
“All right, all right! Jeeze,” said Horace. “Lighten up a little. And anyway, what’s with all this expository dialogue, or monologue I should say? It’s boring –”
“And Ferdinand!” said Laughing Lou. “Friend fly – who innocently went looking for his friend Arnie when he took a suspiciously long time in the john, and found the previously mentioned facilities empty – empty that is except for this ‘paperback original’ novel – oh, what was its title again, Horace?”
“Um, uh,” said Horace, “uh, Winos of the Wasteland? Or –”
“Rummies of the Open Road,” said Laughing Lou.
“That’s what I meant to say,” said Horace.
“And this ballsy little fly, he sees this - this book – lying open on the pisser floor, and does he hesitate?”
“I did not,” said Ferdinand.
“He flies down into that forbidding jungle of printed words and finds himself also transported, body and soul, into this world.”
“Hey, anything for a friend,” said Ferdinand.
“That is a true friend,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha!”
“Okay,” said Horace. “So Arnie and Ferdinand are great guys, and I’m a jerk, because it’s all on account of me that they’re stuck in this world.”
“Nobody’s calling you a jerk, Horace,” said Laughing Lou.
“Well, it seemed like you were implying it.”
“Maybe it’s time for you to lighten up, my friend,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha!”
I took another drink of my ale, and put the bottle down. It was empty.
“Laughing Lou,” I said, “may I ask how you know all this?”
“You may indeed,” he said. “Ha ha! Yes, sir, you may indeed ask! Ha ha!”
But then he said nothing. He was going to make me ask again, now that he had given me permission to ask. And it suddenly occurred to me that if I was a character in a cheap paperback novel there was no reason at all why I had to act like the Arnold Schnabel I had always been. I could act like what I now was, a character in a cheap novel.
So I did something completely out of character for Arnold Schnabel, for myself.
I made a fist with my right hand, raised it above my head and banged it down hard on the table.
The three empty beer bottles on the table all fell over, the ashtrays leapt up, the whiskey glasses also all jumped up an inch, spilling varying amounts of their contents, Ferdinand zipping up from his glass lest he should be drenched in bourbon, and the open bottle of Heaven Sent bourbon almost toppled over, but Horace quickly reached out and grabbed it.
I stood up, knocking my chair over to the floor.
“God damn it!” I yelled. “’Laughing Lou!’ Laughing Lou! What’s so goddam funny, anyway?”
“Arnie,” said Horace, “please, we’re guests here.”
“Ha ha, go Arnie!” said Ferdinand, buzzing merrily around above the table.
“Listen, ‘Laughing Lou’,” I said. “We want some answers, and we’re sick and tired of having to pry each word out of you!”
“Wow,” said Laughing Lou.
“Now answer my question,” I said. “How did you know all this about us? And quit beating around the bush.”
“Now you’re acting like a character!” said Laughing Lou. “By George! A strong, dynamic character, too! Ha ha!”
“Answer my goddam question, you big annoying fat slob,” I said.
“Ha ha!” he said.
“And will you please stop saying ‘ha ha’ all the time?” I said. “It’s – it’s –”
“Infuriating?” said Ferdinand, who was hovering around the center of the table.
“Yes – infuriating!” I said.
“But it’s a character trait,” said Laughing Lou. “That’s why I’m called Laughing Lou. Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha ha!”
“All right, stand up,” I said.
“May I ask why?” he said.
“Because I’m going to knock you down,” I said, “you big, fat, annoying –”
“What?” he said.
“Arnie, please,” said Horace.
“I think ‘fuck’ is the word you’re looking for, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “As in big fat annoying fuck.”
“Ha ha!” said Laughing Lou. “My God, you fellows are characters! Yes indeed! Oh, look,” he said.
“What?” I said.
He held up his enormous cigar, in his left hand. “My Churchill’s gone out. Let me just get the old gold-plated Ronson out and relight it before you give me a roundhouse haymaker and knock me out for the count.”
He put his right hand inside his suit jacket, and then he brought out a revolver, a snubnose, and he pointed it at me.
“Oh! Look,” he said. “It’s not my gold-plated Ronson. It’s my nickel-plated Colt. Chambered for .38 Special. Do an awful lot of damage at this range. Ha ha! Now pick up that chair.”
I stood there.
“I said pick up the chair,” said Laughing Lou.
“I’ll pick it up,” said Horace, and he started to slide his own chair away from the table.
“You sit right there, Horace,” said Laughing Lou.
“Okay,” said Horace.
“Now pick up that chair, Arnie,” said Laughing Lou. “Or maybe I’ll decide to shoot Horace.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” said Horace.
Laughing Lou was looking at me, but now he had the gun pointed at Horace.
“Maybe I’ll just wing him,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! Put one in his elbow. That’s got to hurt!”
“Arnie, please,” said Horace.
I turned around, and I set the chair upright again, standing beside it, with my right hand on the chair back.
“Good man,” said Laughing Lou. He was pointing the gun at me again now. “Now sit down, please, Arnold.”
I stood there, with my hand on the back of the chair.
“Oh, I get it!” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! You’re thinking of swinging that chair over the table at me, aren’t you? Thinking the sudden movement will make me flinch and fire into the air.”
To be honest, that was exactly what I had been thinking.
“Arnie, don’t do anything stupid,” said Horace.
“Oh, let him try it if he must,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! Who knows, maybe it will work. That sort of thing sometimes does in this sort of novel. Ha ha!”
He was still pointing the gun at me, in the general direction of my chest.
“Arnie,” said Horace, “please, sit down. Let’s all be friends.”
“Right,” said Laughing Lou. “No reason we can’t be friends. Now sit the fuck down.”
“Fuck him, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, who was still hovering above the table, at the height of the top of my head. “He’s not going to shoot you.”
“Oh, am I not?” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! Shall we see?”
He cocked the hammer of the pistol.
Then I saw the thin black line of Ferdinand flying like a shot right into Laughing Lou’s face, into his left eye, the eye that was closest to me, Laughing Lou flinched, his head snapping back and to the right, Ferdinand bouncing away from his face just as I swung the chair over the table at Laughing Lou’s head.
(To be continued, with grateful thanks for the continued sponsorship of Bob’s Bowery Bar™ at the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “Many is the morning I have staggered into Bob’s with a brutal hangover, a marble copybook and a few #2 pencils, and emerged after lunch with a new short story or a chapter or two of a novel, my creativity spurred – and my physical malaise alleviated – by Bob’s excellent ‘basement-brewed’ house bock.” – Horace P. Sternwall, author of the best-selling novel Sidewalks of Despair.)
(Illustration by James Avati. Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a quite possibly current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©; all contents vetted and approved by the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia, PA.)