And then there’s Arnold Schnabel.
In our last episode of his sprawling memoir, Arnold and his friend Dick Ridpath (coincidentally one of the stars of our other serial, Larry Winchester’s A Town Called Disdain™), after stepping through a painting and into a seaside resort in Gilded Age France, have made the acquaintance of a certain aspiring writer by the name of Marcel Proust...
We then experienced one of those silences that drift over the best of conversations. Young Marcel was gazing out toward the ocean, while Dick was smiling, looking around the room at the women with their billowy dresses and hats like sprouting topiary and the men with their top hats and waxed moustaches and Van Dykes.
I drank my beer.
If this was one of my psychotic episodes it was certainly one of my more realistic ones.
But then I thought, what if this were my real life, and if the life I remembered living before was a dream, some sort of crazed fantasy?
But if the latter were the case, why did I not have any memories of life here in the 19th century?
If I were indeed a 19th century man, then I was an insane 19th century man, because all my memories were of a 20th century life.
So either way, 19th century man or 20th century man, I was screwed: I was a nut.
Unless — unless Dick and I actually had travelled back in time and across an ocean. The very idea of which was of course insane.
I sighed and took another sip of the excellent ale.
“Un ange passe, messieurs?”
This was said by a very short bearded gentleman in a derby who was standing by our table, smiling.
Marcel stood up, and reaching down, shook the short fellow’s hand. He introduced us, and Dick and I, joining in the old-school politeness, stood to shake the man’s hand, which was normal-sized even if he was only about four feet eight inches tall.
I didn’t catch his name. He and Marcel chatted a bit, and Marcel made a graceful hand signal to the passing faithful waiter. In a flash the waiter was right there with another chair for the short guy. The short guy said something to the waiter, and we all sat. The man said to me in much better English than Marcel spoke:
“So, you are enjoying your visit to France?”
“Uh, yeah” I said. “I mean yes. Oui. Beaucoup.”
“Marcel tells me you are a poet.”
“Oh, it’s just a hobby, really,” I said.
“Un passe-temps,” said Dick.
It was weird, I was understanding more of the French as we went along. Especially when Dick spoke it. If these French people didn’t have such strong French accents I would be in pretty good shape.
The little guy said something in French to Marcel that I couldn’t make out, and then he turned again to me and said, “Monsieur, all art is an ‘obby.”
“Not if you make a living from it," I said.
The little guy laughed, and translated for Marcel, but then the waiter appeared again, with a tray on which were a bottle of something green, a carafe of water and some glasses, a bowl of what looked like sugar cubes, and a small plate with little slotted spoons on it, all of which he proceeded to lay down on the already crowded little table, and then he bowed and went away again.
I couldn’t read French very well, but I could read what was printed on the label of the bottle of green liquid, and what it said was “absinthe”.
This situation now had every possibility of getting really ugly really soon.
I could handle getting obliterated occasionally back home in Olney, or in Cape May. It had always been my policy that if I must get drunk I would try to do it within easy stumbling distance of my own humble abode. But getting obliterated in another century, in another continent, no, this was too much, even if I was crazy.
I polished off the beer in my glass and stood up.
“Je regrette, monsieur —”
“Henri!” said the little guy.
“Okay. Je regrette, Henri, mais, uh, nous devons vraiment partir maintenant. Je regrette beaucoup —”
“Non, non!” he cried.
It occurred to me that he was already two or three sheets to the wind.
“No, I’m really sorry, monsieur, mais — Dick, help me out.”
“Come on, Arnold, one absinthe. One and done.”
“No, Dick, remember? We have to go to, uh, that thing.”
I stared poison daggers at him, but to tell the truth I’m sure that If Dick had pulled me firmly back down to my seat then I would have stayed there, and woken up the next day in some dockside alleyway in 19th century France. But he took pity on me.
“Oh, right,” he said, “the thing.”
“La chose?” said Marcel, seeming glad to repeat a word he recognized.
Dick said something in French, something about meeting some jeunes filles, and he finished his glass of ale and stood up. Marcel and the little guy stood up also, and hands were shaken all around. Dick said a few more words to Marcel, something about wishing him good luck with his writing. The little guy Henri had already sat down and poured himself about four fingers of absinthe, and he was busy now slowly dripping water over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and into his glass, transforming the green spirits into a slowly swirling cloud of oblivion.
Dick and I both had one more quick handshake with Marcel, and we were about to go when Dick said, “Oh, we never paid for our beer,” and he pulled out his wallet.
Marcel had sat down but now he practically leaped up again, waving his hand and saying, ”Non, non, monsieur! C’est à moi!”
So we let Marcel pick up our tab, and we headed back out to the terrace. The sun was starting to set over the sea, or the English Channel, whatever it was, and the little boats and ships had turned into silhouettes, casting mirrored silhouettes onto the deep green water.
“Can we go back now?” I asked Dick.
(Go here for our next fabulous chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to many other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Walmart Award for Creative Memoir.)
And now, France Gall: