(Click here to return to the first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning memoir, which, in the words of that noted scholarly wag Harold Bloom, “would be the only book I should need or want were I ever to be shipped off to Guantanamo”.)
We shook hands over the coffee table.
“Josh never was much of a drinker,” he said.
He laid his case on the table, then reached a hand into his inside jacket pocket.
“You should have seen him at the marriage feast at Cana, man. A scream and a half.”
He brought out a thin hand-rolled cigarette, and with his left hand he brought up a slim gold lighter from his side jacket pocket. He lit the cigarette, drew in a long slow drag, held in the smoke with his eyes closed, and slowly exhaled, slowly opening his eyes. It wasn’t tobacco he was smoking.
“You want a toke, Arnold?”
“No, I’d better not,” I said.
“It’s good stuff, man. Mellow. Help you sleep.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yea, verily, I say unto you. And dig: no hangover.”
He was holding out the reefer. It did look inviting, especially considering the no-hangover factor.
“Well, maybe just a puff,” I said.
The next moment I remember as a moment we were sitting in wicker rocking chairs out on the balcony, although I had no clear memory of going out there nor of how much time had passed.
Jazz music played in the living room, the sort of jazz that Elektra and her friends listened to. Apparently Gabriel had put a record on.
“He had his load on,” Gabriel was saying.
In a mild panic I glanced at my watch, but its radium dial read only five past three; so it was okay, I’d only lost ten minutes or so. I could spare that.
“So the man comes up to Josh, and he’s like, ‘We’re sorry, sir, we’re out of wine. You dig?'”
I paused, mulling, and then said, “Yes, I dig.”
My words felt like large wads of bubble gum, but apparently Gabriel understood them.
“No, man, I know you dig. I mean the old cat at the wedding said ‘You dig’. Pass the joint, brother.”
I passed him the reefer.
“Wait,” I said. “I thought it was Mary who told Je-”
“’Josh’, man. Be cool. He wants to be called Josh down here.”
“Sorry. But I thought it was Mary who told Josh about the wine running out.”
Now my words seemed like bubbles from bubble gum, floating through the warm dark air, but again I was understood.
“Not true, man. It was the old cat, the father of the bride. Don’t believe everything the Bible tells you, Arnold. Half that shit is bogus. Two thirds. At least. Where was I?”
“The old man told Josh they were out of wine.”
“Right. Dig. So Josh pulls out his pouch, and, as usual, he’s loaded with shekels. He reaches his hand in, pulls out a fistful. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘send somebody down to the wine-merchant, and tell him to bring back the good stuff this time. None of this Mogen David shit either.’ But the old cat, father of the bride, dig, he says, ‘O Lord, you don’t understand, we’ve already bought out the wine-merchant. There is like no wine to be had in all of Cana. But that’s cool, O Lord, we can, you know, brew up some frankincense tea --” But Josh won’t hear of it, ‘cause he’s got his load on, dig, and now he’s got his load on he wants to keep it on. So he says, ‘That pitcher, bring it here.’ ‘That pitcher of water, O Lord?’ ‘Yes, that one.’ One of the man’s sons brings it over. Old Josh he just waves his hand over the mouth of that pitcher, then he picks up his goblet. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘now pour me a drink.’ The boy picked up the pitcher, gave it a shake, and then filled Josh’s goblet with the smoothest red wine you’ve ever tasted.”
It seemed as if I should say something here, but I couldn’t think of anything. Perhaps if I had been given an hour or two I might have come up with something.
But Gabriel continued.
“The thing is, Josh just didn’t want to call it a night. You’ve seen him in action.”
“Yes,” I said.
“His first miracle,” said Gabriel. “Thing was, his father and the uh --”
“The Holy Ghost?”
“Well, he goes by the the Holy Spirit now, but, you’re right, back then it was the Holy Ghost. Anyway, they had all agreed, the three of them ahead of time: no miracles. They figured if mankind couldn’t get the message without parlour tricks then the hell with ‘em, dig?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“But Josh forgot, ‘cause he wanted that wine. And so, well, after that first miracle, you know, man, you gotta give the crowd what they want. And next thing you know it’s raising Lazarus from the dead, multiplying the loaves and fishes, walking on the water, you name it.”
I was trying to get the energy up to say my goodnight and leave, but I didn’t want to seem rude, or as if I didn’t appreciate getting all this inside information.
“Now you take the last supper,” said Gabriel.
He looked at me with narrowed eyes from under his porkpie hat. He seemed to want just a little response before going on.
“You were there?” I managed to ask.
Now my words looked like the dialogue balloons in a comic book, floating there above and to the side of my head.
Gabriel filled his lungs, then passed the reefer back to me.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, exhaling a great cloud of smoke that blew away my word balloons. “I was leading the band again that night, same as at the Cana gig. Now don’t get me wrong, ninety-nine nights out of a hundred Josh is the most steady cat you can imagine –one, maybe two glasses of wine – cool as ice, but every one-hundredth time, I don’t know, the pressures just get too much for him. And that supper was one of those times. He knew what was coming.”
“Dig. Imagine having that bulls**t hanging over your head.”
“I’m sure I would drink too,” I said.
“So he gets his load on, and then all of a sudden he points at Judas, and he says, like, ‘You, man, you. I thought you were my brother. How could you, man?’ Judas is just getting ready to stick a piece of bread in his mouth, and he’s like, ‘What?’ And Josh just goes, ‘You, man.’ The band was on break. You could’ve heard a pin drop. Judas just puts his piece of bread down, gets up, and walks out. Everybody thought Josh was just being drunk and paranoid. Turned out he may have been drunk but he wasn’t paranoid."
He reached into his inside jacket pocket again, and brought out a whiskey flask. He held it out in my direction, but I shook my head no, decisively. He shrugged, unscrewed the cap, took a drink. He re-capped the flask and put it away.
"And then," he said, "he starts talking about the bread being his body, the wine being his blood. And everybody’s just staring at him, like, ‘Man, what the hell are you talking about, brother, because you sure ain’t making any sense.’ You dig?”
“Do you mean do I dig?” I asked. “Or was that everyone asking the, uh, silent question to, uh –”
“That time I was asking you, Arnold.”
And now I forgot what the question was. I also didn’t care. But to be polite I told him I dug.
“Dig it,” he said. “Nobody knew what the hell he was talking about.”
I realized that I had been holding the reefer, and it was lit, but that I had not been smoking it. So I took a drag as Gabriel continued to talk. He had a very soothing voice, a gentle and rolling voice, and it seemed to flow in harmony with the jazz music and the warm night's breeze, the night sky, that enormous dark ocean out there...
And then I wondered, wasn’t this music keeping the other guests of the hotel up? I was thinking of suggesting to Gabriel that we turn the record off, or at least lower the volume, when he said, again:
I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t been paying attention, so again I said I dug.
“And so that was it, man,” he said. “The meaning of life, and of the whole universe. He said it just that once, and he made everyone there swear not to tell anyone and not to put it into the gospels. You won’t tell him I told you, will you?”
“No, no,” I said, and truer words I’ve never spoken.
“Thanks, man. I mean, it’s probably cool anyway, ‘cause I know he digs you.”
I stood up. The rocker I had been sitting in rocked against the back of my legs. The ocean beyond the rooftops moved like something breathing in the darkness, and the warm dark breeze smelled of the ocean. I remembered going over on the troop ship in 1943, standing on the deck at night, the ship and the whole convoy blacked out, I remembered looking out at the emptiness all around, this convoy of dark boats filled with human beings hell-bent on killing other human beings, I remembered wishing that I was back on the railroad, riding the trains back and forth through the countryside, and at the end of my trips going back to my mother’s house at B and Nedro by the factory. That was all I wanted then, just to go back to Olney and my job, to my mother and my neighborhood.
“You okay, man?” said Gabriel.
“Oh, sure,” I said. “But I should take off.”
“Sleep tight, man. I’m gonna sit out here and smoke some more of that joint if you’ll pass it over.”
I hadn’t realized I was still holding it. Oddly enough, even though I was pretty sure that we had been smoking it all this time, the reefer hadn’t burned down at all. I gave it to Gabriel.
We shook hands again.
“I’ll probably catch you tomorrow, man,” he said.
“So you’re staying here?”
“Oh, sure, I have my own room in there. It’s kind of my job, to keep an eye on Josh.”
“Okay. Well, good night, then,” I said.
“I’ll be jamming with those cats at the Mug again tomorrow night if you want to drop by.”
“Maybe I will,” I said.
“You know your way out?”
I went back in, Josh was still sound asleep on the couch. I made it to the door, and out.
Once I closed the door I noticed that the jazz music was no longer audible.
Like a ghost I floated down the stairs, through the lobby and down the front steps.
I turned up Howard. Soon I would be home, at last. It had certainly been an interesting day, but I was glad to bring it to a close.
I turned left on Columbia, turned right when I got to Stockton. The old town was finally quiet. They had probably thrown out the last of the revelers from Sid’s, from the Pilot House and the Ugly Mug and from the King Edward Room, perhaps even from Pete’s Tavern. Nearly everyone had drunk their fill and had finally collapsed into their beds if not into a convenient flower bed.
I turned left on Hughes, and a shuffling small figure made itself visible coming up the sidewalk from the other direction. It was too late to turn and run, or to jump behind a bush and hide. I continued forward, prepared for another demonic encounter, or as prepared as I could hope to be.
Fortunately it was only Buddy Kelly, someone I think I’ve mentioned in these pages before, but if I haven’t, then I’ll say he is a local fellow, a mechanic, somewhat troll-like in appearance, but an amiable-enough sort. It had been odd to find him in the company of Mr. MacNamara and Dick and Daphne and Steve at the VFW the night before last, but after all this is a democracy we’re living in, ostensibly, and those in the upper echelons of society are free to associate at will with those of the lower, although those of the lower do not enjoy the same freedom to associate at will with those above them.
“Arnold!” yelled Buddy, and he pumped my hand. His grip was powerful, despite his short stature, and he was quite drunk.
“Hello, Buddy,” I said.
“Damn, you look like s**t, Arnold.”
I had completely forgotten my scraped knees and elbow and hand. I’d also forgotten the pain attendant upon these contusions, but now that Buddy had brought attention to them I became aware again of the pain.
“Out on a spree?” he asked.
“That’s putting it mildly.”
Did I mention he was smoking a cigar? Well, he was.
He wouldn’t stop shaking my hand, so I put my left hand on his right and managed to prize it away from mine.
“Well, good night, Buddy.”
“Wait! The major was looking for you, pal,” he said, as if pretending to give me a warning, or perhaps giving me a warning under the pretence of pretending to do so.
“Who is the major?” I asked.
“Oh. Mr. MacNamara?”
“What did he want, do you know?”
“He wanted to know what you did with his daughter.”
“Daphne. His daughter.”
I flipped back through the chapters of my memory about four hundred pages, and finally hit on the appropriate passage.
“I left her at Pete’s Tavern,” I said. “But it was okay. She was with that old guy, Tommy?”
“Mrs. Biddle’s friend.”
“Right,” I said. “And they were with this nun, Sister Mary Elizabeth.”
“A nun, huh?”
“Yes,” I said. “But she was dressed in civilian clothes.”
“Well, that’s okay then. I mean priests go out in civvies some times, right?”
“That’s true,” I said. “In fact, come to think of it there was a priest in civilian clothes there, too.”
Why was I dragging Father Reilly into this? I didn’t have time to recount my entire night to Buddy. I needed my sleep.
“Who’s this joker?” said Buddy.
Buddy pointed past me.
“That joker. He looks in worse shape than you do, Arnold.”
I turned. Halfway down the block but determinedly shambling toward us, dragging one leg, came Mr. Lucky, his ash-colored suit rumpled and torn, and a pale mist or smoke swirling up from his head and shoulders.
(Continued here, and well into the middle of the century at least.)
(Please look to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, deemed “acceptable, with reservations” by the Commissariat of Inspirational Literature.)
Something is thickening - I think it's the plot.
Really enjoyed this episode, Dan. Thank you.
Love the song and the singer.
Aw, thanks, Di.
And June Christy is one of my faves. I love the atmosphere of that song.
Brought me to my knees, this episode did.
“So he gets his load on, and then all of a sudden he points at Judas, and he says, like, ‘You, man, you. I thought you were my brother. How could you, man?’ Judas is just getting ready to stick a piece of bread in his mouth, and he’s like, ‘What?’ And Josh just goes, ‘You, man.’
ha ha ha!
Kathleen, coming from a writer of your talent, I'm sure Arnold is very pleased with your comment.
And, Dean, as usual you have a knack for appreciating Arnold's most poignant passages (they're often my faves too).
The meaning of life!!! And he misses it! AHHHHH!!!
All I want to know is, where was the Gospel of Arnold when I was going through parochial school!?!
Dan- this was yet another classic. You're on a roll.
I wonder, if we assume that Arnold is a somewhat unreliable narrator, whether this was indeed Gabriel or just some jive-talking hepcat with dynamite shit?
Jen, I know, leave it to Arnold to space out just when Gabriel reveals the meaning of life...
Manny, hey, bro, whaddaya mean "unreliable narrator"? O ye of little faith!
Just saying is all... it has been a long night for him.
Manny, I'll say it's been a long night. I just checked back, and Arnold first set out from his aunts' house with Daphne, Tommy and the sister way back in Chapter 102, which was just over a year ago in "our" time. So it appears that Arnold has, if not conquered time, then set time back on its heels.
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