With a small deep cry of joy Larry pulled us along into the entrance before its door even began to close, he pulled Elektra through the side hall past the packaged goods store and she pulled me along and then we came into that crowded smoky temple packed with the worshippers of Bacchus.
A jazz band blared away on the tiny stage, three colored men in grey suits and slender dark ties playing respectively an electric organ, a saxophone, and drums.
“Larry!” Elektra cupped her hand to the side of her mouth and yelled into Larry’s ear. “The place looks totally full!”
“No,” he said, his voice carrying through the surrounding noise as an actor’s does in a movie. “There’s always room. Leave it to me.”
Elektra held my arm, and we stood there by the cigarette machine at the back hallway entrance as Larry plunged forward to the long elliptical bar to our right.
“What have we gotten into?” Elektra asked.
“We can escape if you want,” I said.
“Oh, no, that wouldn’t be cool. But if Larry gets completely out of hand, then let’s escape. I don’t feel like getting into another brawl tonight.”
“Me neither,” I said.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Larry, it’s just that I had seen lots of fellows in similar states of excitement in lots of bars in my lifetime, and how well I knew that at any moment barstools could be flying through the air, bodies tumbling to the floor, and women heartily screaming their lungs out.
Elektra and I stood there, and listened to the band. They were playing “Caravan”.
I’m not sure what Larry said or did, but a couple of minutes after he left us he was back and pulling Elektra by her arm. She pulled me, and we went past the kitchen and its serving window and by the band in the opposite corner; Elektra waved to the musicians as we passed by, and they all nodded to her with a grace I will perhaps possess in four or five more incarnations.
On this other side of the bar Larry had somehow caused three empty barstools to appear just a couple of yards from the stage. Larry guided me into the middle seat, he sat to my left, and Elektra to my right. Soon cold mugs of cold beer were before us, and, at Larry’s insistence, shots of tequila, which I had never tasted before.
“A toast,” he said.
We raised our shot-glasses.
“To nothing,” said Larry.
We drank, to nothing, and the tequila tasted no more vile than the Four Roses or the Windsor Canadian I had been drinking most of my adult life.
“Now,” said Larry. I realized that he had taken out a plastic Baggie enclosing some sort of dried and twisted substance. He opened it in his lap. “Arnold, I want you to try a chaw of this.”
“Well, I don’t normally chew tobacco, Larry,” I said, although I had never seen chewing tobacco like this before.
“It’s not tobacco. It’s mushrooms.”
“Mushrooms? We’re going to order burgers in a minute, aren’t we?” I asked. “And fries?”
“Yes, of course. But this will be an appetizer.”
He held out a chunk the size of a very large walnut between two fingers.
Elektra leaned over.
“Larry, you naughty boy.”
“Yeah, sure, have a bite, sweetheart.”
She took the chunk and put it in her mouth.
“Chew it slow,” said Larry.
“Oh, I will.”
“So, Arnie,” said Larry, digging out another chunk. “Try some?”
“What’s it like?”
“It will make you happy. The Indians down in Mexico take it as part of their religion.”
Well, big deal, I thought. As a Catholic I had eaten thousands of slivers of unleavened bread as part of my religion, and look what that had gotten me, a trip to the nut house.
“Live it up a little, Arnie.”
Larry held out his hand, the withered grey plug in his palm.
But then on the other hand my life had become infinitely more interesting since my stay in the nut house.
“Well, okay,” I said, and I took the proffered chunk and popped it in my mouth.
“Now chew it slow,” said Larry.
“Got it,” I said.
It didn’t taste great. It reminded me of bad army vegetables.
Larry popped a third chunk into his own mouth, and then put the Baggie away into the pocket of his khakis.
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Arnie, do you have a passport?”
Oddly enough, I did, and do. Every other year for the past ten years years I had gone on a parish trip to various holy places in Europe. Once I even got to meet Pope Pius XII; well, I kissed his ring anyway, if you can call that meeting someone. This was over the Labor Day weekend of 1958, only a month or so before that pontiff’s heart failure and death, which I sincerely hope our brief meeting in no way hastened, although sometimes I wondered, as I could not have failed to notice the look of grey horror which fell over that good man’s face as I awkwardly dropped to one knee before him.
“Oddly enough, I do, Larry, have a passport,” I said, realizing I had paused perhaps a little too long before answering his question.
“Good. I take it you speak German.”
“I can speak the village dialect that my mother and her sisters speak, after a fashion,” I said, still chewing the mushroom. I didn’t bother mentioning that, in the seven or eight months I had served in Germany I had met not a single German who understood more than every seventh or eighth word of this dialect.
“Good. What about French?”
“They made me take a crash course in the army, and I spoke it a little sometimes when we were in France and Belgium. But not very well.”
Not even getting into how impossible it had been to understand the French that the French and Belgians spoke when they talked to me, the GI who supposedly spoke French.
“I suppose you haven’t had much chance to speak it since the war.”
“Well, only twice really,” I said. I was still dutifully chewing the mushroom, occasionally moistening it with a mouthful of beer on its way to my throat. “Once when our parish group visited the shrine at Lourdes, and I was in charge of asking for directions, and --”
It occurred to me that the only other time I had attempted to speak French since the war had been yesterday, when I had gone back in time and across the Atlantic Ocean with Dick, and had met that nice young Monsieur Proust and his short little friend Henri.
“Um, actually it was only that once,” I said, chewing and lying at the same time. Or is it a lie to deny an experience which might very well have been an hallucination? Anyway, “Just that once,” I said, “when I, um, went to Lourdes.”
“You’ll pick it up again.”
I became aware now that the musicians had finished “Caravan” and the organist was speaking into his microphone and inviting “the lovely Miss Elektra” to get up and sing.
“Go!” said Larry. “I want to hear this voice everybody’s talking about.”
“What the hell,” she said, and, after taking a quick drink of beer, she got off her stool and went over to the little stage.
Larry had taken his hand off of my shoulder some time ago, but now he put his hand on it again.
“I want you to come to Paris with me, Arnie, and help me produce my movie.”
I said nothing. I didn’t even know where to start. I just kept chewing.
“I know,” said Larry. “You’re gonna say you know nothing about making movies. But don’t worry, I’ll show you the ropes. And we’ll have a ball. Oh, wait, Artemis is getting ready to sing. Let’s listen.”
Elektra stood next to the organist, his microphone in her left hand, and after he had played a couple of rolling measures that reminded me of the ocean at night, she began to sing a song about wading in the water.
(Continued here. Kindly refer to the right hand side of this page for an exhaustive but not exhausting list of of all other published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, soon to be a major motion picture from Larry Winchester Productions, starring John Cassavetes, Eddie Constantine, and Anna Karina.)
Judy Henske, too cool: