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“Oh, Christ,” I said.
“No,” said the fly, “just a humble fly I’m afraid -- although as I started to tell ya before, such was not always the case.”
I didn’t even try to stifle the sigh I now sighed.
“Sorry if I’m boring you,” said the fly.
“Okay, what is it?”
“What is what?”
“You said you wanted to ask me something.”
“Oh, yes -- but, again, if you don’t mind my askin’ --”
“What is it?”
“Okay, then,” he said. “My question for you is what the goddam hell is up with you and the dames? I mean to the casual observer it would seem that the babes are drawn to you much as -- if I may say so myself -- much as the proverbial fly is drawn to shit. What is your secret, my friend?”
“So you’ve been following me,” I said.
“Bingo. You are one astute fella, Porter. If I may call you Porter.”
“Sure,” I said, but not with enthusiasm.
“So answer my question, Porter. What is your secret with the frails. It sure can’t be your William Powellesque gift for playful banter.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I guess it must be your looks then.” He rubbed his chin with a tiny leg. “I gotta admit you do sorta have that sensitive Monty Clift kinda thing goin’ on. Ah, well, dames, who can figure ‘em, huh? So, tell me, what gives with that lady Mrs. Morgenstern down the hall? She was givin’ ya the old once-over and that’s for sure --”
“Look,” I said, “if you don’t mind, I really prefer not to talk about ladies when they’re not present.”
“Yeah? And anyone ever tell you you are one lousy conversationalist?”
“No one has to tell me, I already know it.”
“Well, okay, fair enough.” He flew a little closer to my face. “Tell ya what, you let me do the talking, pal. Just relax.”
“Listen,” I said.
“I don’t think I want to --”
“You said you would listen to my story.”
“Back at the San Remo you said that if we was in your pad you would listen. Okay, we’re in your pad. You gonna go back on your word?”
“I didn’t mean for you to follow me home.”
“Then what did you mean.”
“I meant that at some possible time in the future, then I would maybe listen to your story.”
“You are really fucking rude.”
“One self-absorbed, selfish, rude motherfucker.”
Outside I could hear it beginning to rain again.
“Listen,” I said. “Recently I have had numerous encounters with the son of God.”
“The son of God.”
“Not God per se but the son of God.”
I didn’t want to get into the whole doctrine of the Trinity right then. I moved on.
“Also, I -- I have been pursued by a mad lady novelist.”
“Yeah? What’s her name?”
“Don’t think I ever heard of her.”
“Also, I have traveled through a painting with another fellow and visited 19th century France.”
“I -- I made it back from there, but then I was further pursued by the mad lady novelist.”
“Yes, Miss Evans. At one point in an attempt to evade her I even tried to climb down a drainpipe from a third floor bathroom window, but I fell, and I would have died or been crippled were it not for Jesus appearing again and breaking my fall, so that I only suffered a sprain. What else. Oh, later on I was struck by lightning and provisionally died. I went to God’s house and got lost looking for the bathroom.”
“You are weird,” said the fly.
“Fortunately Jesus spoke with his father and I was allowed to return to life.”
“Later that day I went back in time again, to the 1930s in the Philippines, where I met an elderly lady of my acquaintance when she was young and beautiful.”
“Yeah? Did ya do her?”
“No, I did not do her.”
At least I didn’t think I did her.
“Just askin’, pal. Don’t take it to heart.”
“A man was killed.”
I had almost forgotten about old Jimmy.
“Her -- this lady’s husband.”
“Oh. And how exactly was he killed?”
The rain was falling harder now, and with it the street outside had grown quieter.
“How was he killed?” repeated the fly. “This lady’s husband.”
“He -- he was rushing at me, attacking me --”
“Attacking you? And why may I ask was he attacking you?”
The fly flew over to the butt-filled ashtray on my beat-up little night table.
“Go on,” he said. “Why’d he attack you?”
“Well, uh, I was, uh, having tea with his wife --”
I pulled myself up a little bit against the headboard, so that I could keep a better eye on the fly.
“Tea,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Tea. And little sandwiches and cookies.”
The fly picked a tiny strand of tobacco from the end of a Pall Mall butt and flew with it over to my belly.
“Tea and sandwiches and cookies,” he said, gnawing on the minuscule piece of tobacco. “Perfectly innocent I suppose.”
“Yes,” I said, probably not very convincingly.
“So what’d ya do when this guy attacked you for absolutely no reason? Stab him with a convenient butter knife perhaps?”
“No! Not at all. He -- he slipped on the tea tray that he had knocked on the floor.”
“Oh, he slipped.”
“Yes, he slipped, and I -- I just stepped aside. We were on this second-floor veranda. He was a big man, and he -- he stumbled and fell through the screening. Down into the mud in the yard, down below. It was raining.”
“Yes, but much harder. Anyway, he died, instantly.”
“In other words you killed him.”
“it was an accident!”
“All right! All right!” He had finished off the tobacco, and now he rubbed his little front legs together. “I believe ya, Porter. Don’t get all hot under the collar, fella.”
“Okay, then. Go on. I’m all ears.”
“Let’s see, I managed to return to my own time, but later that night I met a dead martyr named St. Thomas Becket.”
“The one who got the top of his head chopped off if I recall correctly.”
“Yes, and the top of his head actually did keep slipping off.”
“Musta been most disconcerting.”
“It was. And then in a men’s room I was approached by a demon named Jack Scratch who tried to get me to sell my soul.”
“Yeah? What’d he offer ya, seven years good luck? Worldly riches? Eternal youth?”
He was resting his chin on the foot of one front leg.
“Well,” I said, “he wound up by offering me immortality. Or immortality until the end of the world, anyway.”
“So’d ya take him up on it?’
“No, I most certainly did not.”
“Big mistake, pal.”
“Well, I’ll live with it.”
“Yeah, till ya die. So what else.”
He flew up in the air again, and once again hovered near my face.
“What else. I met a strange curio shop proprietor named Mr. Arbuthnot who was able to stop time.”
“No, it wasn’t so nice. His cat almost destroyed the universe.”
“Maybe. Then I wound up with this doll that Mr. Arbuthnot gave my friend, and the doll came to life.”
“Every man’s dream.”
“Not really. But I got rid of her by walking back in time on the boardwalk.”
“That makes sense.”
“And later, I guess because that Jack Scratch guy didn’t get me to sell my soul, I was approached by the Devil himself.”
“Old Lucifer himself, no kidding.”
“Yeah, but he calls himself Lucky.”
“Yes. Anyway, I got rid of him by a trick, but then he showed up again later that night, and he was really mad that time. But I managed to trick him again with this pen that I had gotten from this Mr. Arbuthnot guy.”
“Okay, I’m following you so far.”
“But it turns out he tricked me.”
“Lucky tricked you.”
“Yeah. He exiled me into this absurd novel I was reading, a novel written by this crazy lady novelist, Miss Evans. That’s why I’m here now.”
“You mean you’re living in a novel?”
“Yes. My real name is Arnold Schnabel, and I was a brakeman for the Reading Railroad for many years, till I had a breakdown --
“You had a breakdown?”
“Yes, a mental breakdown.”
“I’m surprised to hear that. Do go on.”
“Well, I had this, uh, breakdown, and, uh, my mother took me to Cape May for the summer to recuperate. This was in 1963.”
“But it’s 1957 now.”
“I know. I was in the future. In the real world. Then the Devil sent me back here into this novel taking place in 1957.”
“You’re saying we’re in a novel?”
“So you’re saying I don’t even exist?”
I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Not necessarily,” I said.
“You mean I don’t necessarily not exist?”
“No, I mean that’s, uh, not necessarily what I was saying.”
“But you are saying I’m just a figment of some goofy writer broad’s imagination.”
“How would you like it if I told you you were just a figment of somebody’s fucking imagination.”
I glanced over at my bed table. There was an opened pack of Pall Malls there. I sort of wanted one, but even more I just wanted to sleep.
“Also I quit smoking yesterday.”
“So smoke. If you’re just a character in a crumby novel, who gives a shit?”
I sighed again. Outside the window it was raining even harder now. The cars and trucks and buses made hissing sounds in the wet street. And I was lying here talking to a fly.
“What?” said the fly. “Spit it out.”
I looked at him, hovering there.
“And now I’m talking to a fly,” I said.
“Yes? And? Your point is?”
“Look,” I said, “all I’m getting at is that I’ve had a very eventful and stressful couple of days -- I haven't even mentioned half the stuff that's happened -- and --”
“Oh,” said the fly. “Here, listen.”
He hovered, closer, rubbing a couple of his arms together.
“What?” I said.
“That is the sound of the world’s tiniest violin --”
I couldn’t help it, I swiped at him, but he flew up just in time.
“Hey, watch it, pal.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry. But I had too much to drink at lunch and I just want to sleep.”
“Well why the fuck didn’t ya say that to begin with?”
“Asshole. And after I sit here and listen to your whole goddam life story.”
“Look,” I said to the fly, “I said I was sorry.”
“Coulda fuckin’ killed me, swipin’ at me like that.”
“I doubt that,” I said.
“Yeah, me too, really. But look, I don’t hold a grudge. Go to sleep. Take a nap and we’ll talk later. Ya want me to wake you up?”
“Do you want me to wake you up. It’s a yes or no question.”
“No. No thanks.”
“What if you oversleep for your date with that Betsy babe.”
“Look, I’ll wake you up. Say an hour and a half? That’ll give ya time to take a bath maybe, get a little cleaned up. A shave wouldn’t kill ya, neither.”
Anything to shut him up.
“So an hour and a half.”
“Yes, good. An hour and a half. Thank you.”
“No problem. You got anything else to eat around here except cigarette butts?”
“Somehow I doubt it.”
“What? No bread crumbs even?”
“Possibly some crumbs,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll look around.”
“Help yourself,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “I will.”
(Continued here, and for who knows for how much longer. A whole new previously unsuspected milk crate full of Arnold’s neatly handwritten marble copybooks has recently been discovered under some stacks of old National Geographics in the former coal bin in the basement of Arnold’s mother’s house in the Olney section of Philadelphia, PA.)
(Please refer to the right hand column of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil Obstat, Bishop John “Fat Jack” Graham, Papal Censor.)