Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 124: still life

“John Updike called Arnold Schnabel ‘the Marcel Proust of our time’, but I think it more accurate to call Proust the Schnabel of his own time.” – Harold Bloom

In our previous episode our memoirist Arnold and his friend Dick Ridpath learned through the means of Mr. Arbuthnot’s mysterious globe what it’s like to walk through and observe the world as ghosts do, unnoticed and invisible. However, Arnold has left his lady friend Elektra waiting in the Ugly Mug, and so the three astral travelers have returned to Mr. Arbuthnot’s apartment above his shop on Washington Street in old Cape May, NJ, on this warm August evening in 1963...

The little black cat was rubbing himself against my calves, circumnavigating first one leg, then the other.

“Perhaps just one more sherry, gentlemen?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“We really should go,” said Dick.

“I have other things I could show you,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“Really?” said Dick.

“Oh yes indeed.”

“Well –” Dick turned to me. “What do you think, Arnold?”

“I should get back,” I said.

“You don’t want to keep a lady waiting,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“No,” I said. “Or anyone, really.”

“I believe you pride yourself on your punctuality,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Like all good railroad men.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

We still stood there in front of the old globe. The cat rubbed against my bare calves. Mr. Arbuthnot puffed on his little Meerschaum.

“Time,” he said, “our inexorable enemy.”

“So we’ll see you later, Mr. Arbuthnot” said Dick, putting his hand on my arm. “Thanks for the sherry, and for – everything.”

“My pleasure,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “But what if I told you I had a book which can stop time.”

“Pardon me?”

“Just one moment.”

Off he went again, this time to a large bookcase. Putting his pipe in his mouth, he pulled over a set of three wooden steps, climbed up on them, reached up to the top shelf on his tiptoes, and with both hands brought down a rather large leather volume. He hopped down the steps with the book and said, “Follow me, gentlemen, into the dining room.”

“We really should go,” said Dick.

“This will only take a minute,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“Well –”

“I promise. One minute. Come with me.”

He went into the next room, and Dick and I, after glancing resignedly at each other, followed him into a dining room lit by an electric chandelier and as crowded as the living room was with all sorts of odd objects; in the middle was a large table, covered in lace, with eight chairs around it and a brass candelabrum in its center with unlit candles in its sticks.

Mr. Arbuthnot went up to the near corner of the table, laid the book down, and pushed the two nearest chairs each a couple of feet away.

“It’s best if we look at it standing,” he said, cupping his pipe in his hand. “Better angle this way. Come stand on either side of me, gentlemen.”

We did as he bade us. I stood to Mr. Arbuthnot’s right, Dick to his left. The cat had come into the room with us, and he jumped onto a chair and then onto the table, watching us.

Mr. Arbuthnot put one small hand on the volume. Its leather was cracked and worn, and free of any printing or engraving.

“This, gentlemen, is the Book of Time.”

“Wow,” said Dick. “Where’d you get it?”

“That, my friend, is a slightly involved story, and you said you were pressed for time.”

“Oh, right,” said Dick.

“Okay, here goes,” said the old man. “You’re ready?”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Dick.

“Well spoken. Here goes then.”

He opened the book, and on its first page was the beginning of time, in other words darkness, but before we could fall into it he flipped the pages rapidly, shuffling through the epochs and the years, shuffling through time and the ages of the Earth.

“As you can see, it takes eons before man even appears.”

“There’s the dinosaurs,” Dick pointed out.

“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, flipping the pages. “And here’s the woolly mammoth. Look at the size of that baby. Okay, here we go.”

Finally men in their rudimentary stages made their appearance, shuffling across vast prairies in search of something to kill and devour.

“Nasty creatures,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “But things clip along a little more quickly now. Here we go, ancient Phoenicians, the Egyptians, here come the Greeks, the Romans. They all had their day in the sun.”

“Do you have an ashtray?” asked Dick.

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Mr. Schnabel, keep turning the pages, but whatever you do, don’t go past the present moment.”

He went away from the table. I reached down and turned the pages of time. I didn’t want to take forever here, so I began to turn forty or fifty pages at a time. Pretty soon what looked like George Washington’s time came along, and I kept flipping batches of pages and decades rapidly, through the 19th century, and into the 20th.

Mr. Arbuthnot came back to the table and put an ashtray in front of Dick, who immediately tapped his ash into it.

“How are we doing, Mr. Schnabel?”

“Pretty good,” I said, and turned another sheath of the lives and the years of mankind.

“Oh no!” cried the old man, and he grabbed my hand.

I caught a glimpse of the future. To be honest it didn’t look too much worse than a lot of what had gone before.

“You can’t look at that!” said the old man, and with a bump of his small bony hip he pushed me aside.

“Why not?” said Dick.

“Because –” with the scrabbling fingers of both his hands Mr. Arbuthnot turned the pages back, “you may be looking at a time in which you no longer exist.”

“Oh,” said Dick. “And why would that be so bad?”

“Trust me,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “You don’t want that to happen. It might cause the entire universe to explode. Or implode. At any rate it wouldn’t be very pleasant.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“No harm done. Personally for myself I couldn’t care less. I’ve lived my life. But you fellows are young. You have your whole lives et cetera.”

He had shuffled the pages safely back to what looked like the late 1950s, and now, turning the pages more slowly, he finally came to the present.

“And here we are,” he said finally, turning one last page. “August 10, 1963. Mr. Schnabel, the time by your admirable Ball railwayman’s watch.”

“What?”

“What time is it, sir, to the second.”

“Oh. 10:08,” I said. “And fourteen seconds.”

“Good. And here,” he poked his finger into the book, “we are. There. It’s done.”

He lifted his finger.

“What’s done?” asked Dick.

“We have stopped time. It will now remain 10:08 and fourteen seconds on August the, uh –”

“The tenth,” said Dick.

“– right, the tenth of August, 1963, until I touch the book again. Come on, I’ll show you.”

And, leaving the book open on the table, off he scurried again, this time heading for the doorway back in the living room. He opened the door and turned and waved us on; Dick and I followed him, down the stairs, and through the dark shop.

At first I didn’t notice anything unusual about the outside world as Mr. Arbuthnot took out a keychain, put a key in the front door lock and turned it.

He withdrew the key, opened the door and beckoned us through. Dick went first, and then myself, with Mr. Arbuthnot following and shutting the door.

And then I saw that all the world was still and silent, as if I had stepped into a photograph. All the people walking on the pavement and crossing the street, all the automobiles in the street, even the leaves on the trees and the dark grey clouds in the sky, even the light of the stars, all was still and frozen.

Time had stopped.


(Continued here. Please look to the right hand side of this page to find an allegedly up-to-date listing of links to all other extant chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Comet Cleanser Award for Patriotic Literature.)

Procol Harum: the devil came from Kansas --

7 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

This is scary. How are they ever going to get away?

Jennifer said...

It's the bell, book, and candle!!

Anonymous said...

I hate it when that happens

LISA HOLDREN said...

Gosh, I had a hard time reading to the end! Maybe it is a short attention span, reading so many blogs as I do, trying to find ones I like...but I liked yours, just wished it had been shorter. Kathleen will tell you how I am about 500 word posts. I agree it is scary...Found you on Kathleen's site.

Quite a voice, you have!

Dean Rohrer said...

This is my favorite reading ever.

Jennifer said...

Dan... Bell, Book, and Candle happened to be on TCM last night. Spooky... I kept expecting to see Arnold at The Zodiac, but all I could see was Jimmy Stewart... with a RUG!!! :(

Dan Leo said...

Hmm, the younger, pre-toupée Jimmy Stewart as Arnold?

Get Stewart's agent on the horn!