“Are you going to smoke one of those, or are you just torturing yourself?”
It was him. Josh. He was still in his beach-bum attire, the wrinkled khakis, the faded Oxford shirt with tails untucked, the sandals, with his stubbly growth of sandy beard, his longish sun-streaked hair, and his eternal Pall Mall between two fingers.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” he said.
“Oh, sorry -- it’s just -- it’s hard to get used to. You turning up.”
“I understand. What you been doing?”
It had only been a half hour or so since I had left him at the Ugly Mug, but a lot had happened; I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into it, though.
“So you really don’t know?” I asked.
“No, I told you before, even I am not quite omniscient. Why? Did you have some new adventure?”
On second thought I was sure I didn’t want to go into it.
“No, not really,” I said.
“Which means, ‘Yes, really’,” he said. “But, look, if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s all right. What happened to that weird doll by the way?”
“Oh. Well, if you must know, she turned into a living girl.”
“She had made a deal with this Jack Scratch guy --”
“There’s a guy that’ll never quit.”
“Oh, you know him,” I said.
“Oh, sure. I knew him even before he went over to the other side. He’s in town here now, y’know.”
“I know, I met him tonight.”
“You did? And did he try to get you to sign one of his contracts?”
“I hope you didn’t.”
“No,” I said.
“Unlike this doll, or girl, what was her name?”
“So what was her deal?”
“Well, she wanted eternal youth -- this was back in 1910 --”
“Right, she signed a contract for eternal youth, and he gave it to her, but the twist was she had to spend eternity as a doll.”
“Typical. So how did she turn into a real girl?”
“I’m not sure.”
“It must have been you, Arnold. Your special powers. I mean, you know you have them, right?”
“I suppose so. Unless I’m just insane.”
“Which is always a possibility of course,” he said. “Where are you headed?”
“Home,” I said.
“Come on, I’ll walk you. The light’s green.”
We went down the steps.
“Oh, you never did light one up,” he said, gesturing toward the pack of Pall Malls I still held in my left hand.
“Oh. Here, do you want them? They’re your brand. I really am supposed to be trying to quit.”
“Sure, I’ll take them,” he said.
I handed him the pack, and the matches too.
“Thanks, Arnold. Glad to be of help.”
I absent-mindedly patted my pockets, as if to make sure I had no other cigarettes on hand, and it was then that I realized that I still had that fountain pen that Mr. Arbuthnot had given me, for services rendered. It and its case were still in my left pocket, the little bag that held the jar of ink was in my right pocket. It occurred to me that I might do well to divest myself of these things at the first opportunity.
“So where’s the girl?” asked Josh. “Your friend Clarissa.”
We were walking by the movie theatre. A crowd of people were leaving it, and its showing of A Gathering of Eagles, with Rock Hudson.
“Well, she seemed to be having trouble adjusting, so --”
“Why don’t you get a haircut and a shave, buddy,” said some big guy who apparently had come out of the theatre with what I suppose must have been his wife.
“What?” said Josh.
“I said why don’t you get a shave and a haircut?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business, pal?”
“What are you, a beatnik?”
“I’m your personal lord and savior, although believe me, right now I almost wish I weren’t.”
“You heard me.”
“You trying to get wise?”
“I don’t have to try. Everything I say is automatically wise.”
“Punch him, Henry,” said the man’s wife, she must have been that. “He’s being blasphemous.”
“I assure you, madam, that I am constitutionally incapable of blasphemy,” said Josh.
“Why don’t we just step over to the beach and I’ll teach you a lesson,” said the man.
“No, thanks,” said Josh. “I’ll take a pass.”
“Coward? Have you ever been scourged, my friend?”
“Whipped. Brutally. Here, look.”
Josh put his cigarette in his mouth and quickly unbuttoned the top three or four of the buttons he had buttoned on his shirt, and, shrugging it off of his shoulders, he turned his back to the man.
Josh’s back was horribly scarred.
“Oh my God,” said the woman, her hand over her mouth.
“Yes?” said Josh, turning to face the two again.
He pulled the shirt up to his shoulders and began to rebutton it.
“Hey, I’m sorry, buddy,” said the man.
Some people had stopped to look at Josh, but now they moved on, if reluctantly.
“You’re a -- veteran?” said the man.
“Well, let’s say I didn’t get those scars playing a rough game of badminton,” said Josh.
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and dropped it to the pavement.
For the first time I noticed the stigmata scars on his hands.
“Look, I’m sorry, pal,” said the man.
“Apology accepted,” said Josh.
He stubbed out the butt with the sole of his sandal.
“I’ve often wondered,” said the big man, “if I were ever captured. Would I break.”
“Everybody breaks, my friend. It’s just a question of time.”
“Oh yes. By the end I was pleading with my father in heaven. Why me?”
“We should go, Henry,” said the woman.
“Okay,” said the man. “See ya, buddy. Sorry.”
He nodded to me also, took his wife’s arm, and went walking away along the sidewalk.
“This is awkward,” said Josh, “they’re heading in the same direction we are. Let’s give them a little time to get away.”
“Sure,” I said. We walked over and looked at the movie posters.
“The Great Escape,” said Josh. “This looks good. So, getting back to your girlfriend -- Clarissa?”
“Yes,” I said. “Well, to cut a long story short, I took her back to her own time.”
“You took her back to 1910.”
Josh had been studying the poster, but now he turned his head to look at me.
“You’re getting good, Arnold. Very good. Even I can’t travel back and forth in time.”
He turned back to the poster.
“No. I told you, my powers are vastly over-estimated. Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Garner, this one looks really good.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“All men, too, that’s good. Is it just me, or is it boring when they have these love stories in the middle of war movies?”
“It is, kind of,” I said. “But I think they want to give women something to watch.”
“I guess you’re right. Men like the war stories, women like the love stories. Well, I suppose it’s safe for us to move along now.” We started along the sidewalk. “How about a night-cap?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“A couple of hours ago you told me not to drink too much tonight.”
“You seem okay, though. One drink.”
“I really just want to hit the hay.”
“It’s past midnight.”
“It’s Saturday night. One beer.”
“I’m tired, Josh.”
“You can call me Jesus, if you want. Josh was for your friends’ benefit.”
“I think I prefer Josh,” I said.
We walked by the miniature golf course. People were still playing under the bright floodlights.
“Look,” said Josh, “these people are still out enjoying themselves.”
I didn’t say anything. We walked along. Josh hummed what I think might have been a Gregorian chant.
Finally we approached Perry Street. Only a few more blocks to my aunts’ house. We came abreast of Sid’s Tavern. Its door was open. Inside revelers drank and laughed, and a jukebox played “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”.
“Ah, yes,” said Josh. “The sight and sound of people having fun. But it’s okay, you can, you know, go home and lie in your bed, wide awake, staring at the ceiling.”
He stopped. I stopped. He had lit another cigarette, and he stood there holding it.
“All right,” I said. “One beer.”
He broke into a smile.
“Just one, on my sacred word, Arnold.”
We went on in.
(Continued here, and, Josh willing, into the distant reaches of that unknown universe we call the future. Please go to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to all other extant chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. “That saintly madman, that mad saint.” -- Harold Bloom.)
The Small Faces: collibosher --