In our previous episode, Arnold was having drinks at the Ugly Mug with his inamorata, the ravishing bohemian Elektra, and his friend and collaborator, the famed cinéaste, littérateur, and bon vivant Larry Winchester...
She was still deep in conversation with Larry, both of them leaning in toward the other’s face as the music and the chatter and laughter swirled around them and me. I couldn’t make out a word they were saying.
And then Elektra did a nice thing -- she reached her right hand behind her and put it on my knee. I in my turn put my hand on hers, and she squeezed my knee, just slightly, as if it were a tomato on a grocer’s shelf...
My faithful reader will be thrilled to know that I now realized that I had to go to the bathroom. It felt as if I had already gone at least twenty-five times that day, but in fact I hadn’t gone since leaving my aunts’ house an hour and a half before, so here it was, inevitably, time to go once again.
Sometimes it seems it’s hardly worth the trouble drinking anything, even water, it only means that sooner or later you have to stop doing whatever you’re doing, or not doing, and drag yourself up and go wearily in search of a toilet again.
It’s tedious enough going to the men’s room in a bar under the best circumstances, but now -- with Larry’s mushrooms, as I just now realized, having somehow dissolved the usually impregnable borders between my own self and the rest of the universe pulsing and throbbing within the four walls and the floor and ceiling of this crowded and smoky noise-filled bar -- now the thought of going to the men’s room seemed as daunting as a trek through the Amazonian rain forest.
Would that I could discreetly do what I had once witnessed an old fellow do at Pat’s Tavern back in Olney, to wit, pull down my zipper and, whistling a merry tune, calmly relieve myself right where I sat.
But that wouldn’t do.
And so, with a pat on Elektra’s hand on my knee, I pushed my stool back a bit without knocking it over, and stood up without falling down.
Elektra swiveled round on her stool.
“Where you going, lover?”
I don’t think I’ve ever actually come right out and told a woman, not even my mother, that I was going to the bathroom, and I wasn’t about to start now. I made some sort of shrugging, slightly apologetic and falsely casual dumbshow, and Elektra quickly either got the drift or got bored, said, “Oh, okay,” and returned to her conversation with Larry, who had seemed paused in the midst of a long sentence and which he now resumed.
I set sail, past St. Thomas Becket, who now just looked like any other middle-aged drunk dozing at a bar, which he most likely was, and coolly I made it past the musicians and rounded the curved end of the bar, negotiated past the clattering kitchen window and past the cigarette machine and into the hallway we had entered by.
In what seemed like mere moments, and in fact what must have been mere moments, I was at the men’s room door; I pushed it, it opened, and there I was. So far so good.
There were two urinals, both free, and I went to the farther one.
I unzipped, and with only a modicum of fumbling I managed to bring it out.
Could it be? Would I actually be able to micturate and then to return to my barstool without incident or misadventure?
A small balding man of about fifty came into the men’s room, and of course I turned my gaze solidly to the smoke-yellowed tiled wall in front of me.
The little man took the urinal next to me, on my right.
I’ve always hated these situations. If guys would just keep to themselves it wouldn’t be so bad, but rarely is this the case. I don’t know what it is about me that makes men think I am someone to talk to at urinals. Maybe I’m not singled out this way, maybe it happens to everyone, I don’t know, all I know is that nearly every guy who stands next to me in a urinal talks to me, or at me, or at any rate talks in my presence, usually accompanied by grunts and groans and deep sighs of urinative relief.
“Ah, boy,” said the little man, with a sigh.
I said nothing.
I could clearly hear him urinate, but my own previously ready-to-go bladder now refused to co-operate.
“Ah, boy,” he said again, and I could tell he was now looking up and over at me.
He seemed to want some sort of response.
“Boy oh boy oh boy oh boy,” he said, and then grunted.
My urine remained trapped in my bladder.
“You pee-shy?” he asked suddenly.
I sighed, staring straight at the wall.
“Normally, no,” I said.
“Oh, it’s me,” he said. “I bother you?”
“No,” I lied.
“Good of you to say so.”
He was still urinating away, and now he began to murmur wordlessly.
After a minute he finally finished, and with a few final sighs and grunts he zipped up.
“I’ll be out of your way now, Arnold.”
He went over towards the wash basin, and as he turned on the faucet my bladder finally relented and I began to pee.
But wait, how did he know my name?
“Of course I know your name, Arnold,” he said.
I refused to turn and look at him. I only wanted to finish what I was doing and get out of there.
I heard him pulling on the the hand-towel machine, humming as he did so. He was humming “Fly Me to the Moon”.
I finally finished, and zipped up, but the guy was standing over by the sink again, combing his hair, what little there was of it.
I headed for the door.
“I’m through with the sink,” he said, just as I was about to leave without washing my hands.
“Oh, okay, thanks,” I said.
He stepped back a little ways, but not very far, and I went to the sink.
I pumped out some detergent, turned on the faucet, and then saw that there was no one in the mirror behind me.
I turned and there he was, smiling, putting the finishing touches on his hair, which he had carefully arranged in delicate black swirls across his bald pate.
I looked back into the mirror and he was gone again.
“Mirrors cannot capture me, Arnold.”
Now it was my turn to sigh, as I set to work quickly washing my hands.
I turned off the tap, and I was about to go for the exit again without bothering with the towel machine when suddenly he was standing between me and the door.
“Jack’s the name,” he said, lighting a pipe he had taken out from somewhere, and using his index fingertip for a match. “Jack Scratch.” Having lit his tobacco, he blew the flame from his fingertip, then extended his hand, a wisp of smoke still rising from the fingertip. “At your service, sir.”
(Continued here. Kindly look to the right hand side of this page for a purportedly up-to-date listing of all other published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Rick Warren Purpose-Driven Book Award.)