Sunday, December 21, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 116: St. Thomas Becket and the lives of the saints

Previously in our serialization of the memoir Harold Bloom has called “the one really essential American work of literature of the 20th Century, perhaps of any century”:

Having gone into Cape May’s Ugly Mug with his inamorata Elektra and his friend and collaborator Larry Winchester, our hero Arnold Schnabel has, at Larry’s urging, taken a mouthful of a mysterious dried fungoid substance. Meanwhile, Elektra has joined the jazz trio onstage and is belting out “Wade In The Water”...

Elektra finished her song to great applause and shouting, and after blowing kisses to the musicians she leapt down from the stage and came smiling back to us. Larry got to his feet to embrace her and kiss her on the cheek. I however remained glued to my barstool -- no, not glued, it was more as if the stool had mysteriously become one with my body, or as if I had become one with the stool.

“Arnold,” said Larry, “move over one, will you? I want to have a word with Elektra.”

Since I was unable to get out of my seat, I began an awkward shuffling maneuver which consisted of me sliding my barstool into the space where Elektra’s was while simultaneously sliding her stool out of the way and over to where my stool was.

“Arnold, what are you doing?” asked Elektra.

“Just moving over,” I said.

“Just get out of your stool.”

I sighed, averting my eyes from hers. I was hoping not to have to explain my predicament.

“He’s feeling the mushrooms,” said Larry.

“Oh,” she said.

She then put her hands on my upper arms and lifted me to a standing position as if I were the weight of a kitten.

I looked down at her face, and into her kind brown eyes, still glowing from the music she had created.

“It’s okay, Arnold, it’s just the mushrooms.”

“The mushrooms?”

“They’re making you high. Like reefer, only a little stronger. You’ll get used to it.”

“Oh, well, that’s a relief,” I said. “I thought I was part of my stool.”

“Now sit down in the other stool and behave.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to do what I had so often done in bars, i.e., to act as if I were not completely out of my gourd.

So I managed to sit down in the seat that had been Elektra’s, and she sat in the one I had just vacated.

There was another transitional moment where Elektra slid my half-drunk mug of beer in front of me and grabbed her own barely touched one. She and Larry dove into conversation, and I felt the music of the band -- they were now playing “A Taste of Honey” I believe -- flowing over me, filling the smoky air all around me as if the music were a warm liquid and I and all the other people in here were some exotic aquatic race living in a submerged Atlantis under the sea.

So, for once I got to be slightly crazy and not feel bad about it.

I sighed, and took a drink of beer, which, because Larry had ordered it, was Tuborg, a more expensive but only slightly less insipid brew than the swill I normally drink, but which now tasted like the nectar of the gods, or at least of the saints, gently gurgling like magical mountain spring water all the way down my throat and esophagus to my belly, where the sacred mushrooms, which I had by now finally swallowed in their entirety, radiated wonder and warmth throughout the inner regions of my body.

When I looked up from my beer the barroom was no longer a big aquarium, but on the other hand now all the people around me had become saints, straight out of my tattered old paperback of the abridged and revised Father Butler’s Lives of the Saints For Young People, which my mother had given me as a Christmas present in 1945. The only difference was that the drawings in that book are in black-and-white, whereas in here everyone was in full color. But there they all were, including quite a few of the lesser known ones, like St. Eadnot, St. Epagaphras, St. Engelbert, St. Abakerazum, St. Zeno, and the husband-and-wife Saints Vitalis and Valeria, along with a half-dozen or so of the better-known ones, like John the Baptist, St. Sebastian, and St. Thomas More.

Saint Thomas Becket was sitting next to me, and he raised his beer mug in my direction.

“Is that your lady friend there?” he asked.

“Why, yes, she is,” I said.

“Bravo, old man.”

He had an English accent, which made sense. I should mention that he, like all the other saints here, was dressed in modern clothing. He was wearing bermuda shorts, in a madras pattern, and a short-sleeved white shirt with epaulettes.

“If I had had something like that to live for, old man, I’ll tell you one thing, I would have thought twice about being such a hard case and allowing myself to be martyred by those bastard knights of King Henry’s.”

I nodded. But:

“May I ask you a question, Your Excellency?”

“’Thomas’, please, or better still, ‘Tom’.”

“Tom --”

“And may I know your name, good sir?”

“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel. You can call me Arnold.”

“And call you Arnold I shall.”


“You had a question, Arnold?”

“Um -- oh, right, Tom, I hope you don’t mind me bringing it up, but -- wasn’t the top of your head chopped off?”

“It was indeed. However, once we martyrs get to the other side we are all restored to the way we looked in our prime. Which is a good thing since so many of us were burned at the stake or torn limb from limb or eaten by lions or whatnot.”

“Right. That makes sense.”

I took a drink of beer, which emptied my mug.

“Allow me to replenish your goblet, sir,” he said.

“Oh, no --”

“No no no, my good man, you see I am spending eternity trying to dispel the dreadful canard that an Englishman will never buy a round.”

He got one of the bartenders’ attention and ordered whatever I was drinking again and same again for himself.

“I was a damned fool,” he said.

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but rather than ask as a normal person might have done, I simply nodded my head.

“You agree then?” he asked.

“Um --”

“I was a fool, wasn’t I? To go and annoy the king so much that he sent those knights to kill me. Get the top of my damned head lopped off, brains splattered all over the tiles. A bloody fool.”

“Well, I don’t know, Your Excellency --”

“’Tom’,” he said.

“Tom --”

“You disagree.”

“Well, I mean, if that’s what you believed in, I mean, the, uh, principle of the thing --”

To tell the truth I couldn’t quite remember why he had been martyred, but I figured he must have had a good reason for going through with the deal.

“Tosh,” he said.


“To die for a religious principle is absolute tosh. Of course I can say that now without fear of damnation, since I’m already in the ranks of the saints, even if we martyrs are in the lesser ranks. We’re not even allowed in God’s house; no, no martyrs in God’s house, and so that’s why we wander the earth for all time. Oh well, could be worse I suppose, no use complaining.”

To tell the truth, from what I had seen of God’s house and the way it was run, Saint Thomas Becket’s fate didn’t seem so bad.

The bartender had finally put our beers in front of us.

“Ah, thank you, my good man,” said St. Thomas Becket.

I noticed he paid the bartender for the drinks in exact change and then put the rest of his money back into his pocket.

He quickly polished off the mug he had been drinking, and raised his new one to me.

“To your very good health, sir,” he said.

I raised my mug.

“Cheers,” I said.

We drank, and then he leaned in towards me, and with a movement of his eyes he referred to Elektra. I glanced at her -- she was deep in conversation with Larry, turned towards him and leaning forward slightly.

“That, my friend,” he said, “is far more important than some nonsensical religious principle.”

I wasn’t about to argue with him.

He leaned back and took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, Camels. He offered me one, but I shook my head. Fortunately there was so much smoke in this place that smoking itself seemed redundant.

He lit himself up with some paper Ugly Mug matches, even though he had a lighter lying in front of him on the bar. Then suddenly he seemed to forget I was there. He sat there, smoking, staring down at that mysterious nether region one sees in the inside of U-shaped bars, all those dark shelves with their boxes of straws and their jars of cherries and olives, the cartons of packaged beer nuts, the bottles of back-up liquors waiting to be called into service.

St. Thomas Becket carefully placed his cigarette in an ashtray, and then his eyes closed, his head slumped forward, and the top of his head slipped down an inch or so over his forehead as if it were no more than a cheap toupée.

I turned away. Given the choice to look at a saint sleeping at the bar with the top of his head slipping down or looking at Elektra’s lovely back and shoulders, believe me, I chose the latter.

(Go here for our special holiday entr'acte, "Arnold's Olney, Part 2", a Ken Burns Production. Kindly look to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of of all other possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major motion picture from Larry Winchester Productions, starring Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Anna Karina.)

The Modern Folk Quartet -- this could be the night:


Anonymous said...

Best Ever

Unknown said...

Best yet,,Anonymous. We've only heard about two, maybe three, days in Arnold's life. I only hope that Larry and Arnold take Elektra with them when they go to Paris...something to do with their screenplay-in progress.
I don't know if Arnold feels this way, but I for one miss Elektra when she's away.

Anonymous said...

Best Ever

Dan Leo said...

Ah yes, keep those "best evers" comin'!

Y'know, Kathleen, I haven't peeked ahead, but I suspect that Larry and Elektra are discussing this Paris deal even now...

Unknown said...

Best ever and best yet.
Hope St. Tom isn't going to stiff the bartender, though.

Buon Natale, Dan!

Jennifer said...

I agree! BEST EVAH!