Saturday, March 5, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 240: minuterie

The time:

A rainy noontide in August of 1963.

The place:
Mr. Arbuthnot’s Whatnot Shoppe (a quaint old establishment in the quaint old seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey).

The players:
Mr. Arbuthnot, prop., Arbuthnot’s Whatnot Shop, an old man of mysterious talents.

Shnooby, Mr. Arbuthnot’s black cat.

Arnold Schnabel, poet, adventurer, and memoirist extraordinaire.

(Go here to read our immediately preceding episode; new students may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 87-volume memoir.)

“Just the other morning I went out for what was meant to be a brief but brisk stroll, listening to my homemade audio book of Schnabel’s memoir on my iPod; imagine my surprise when I only came to my senses some sixteen hours later in another town and indeed another state entirely.” -- Harold Bloom, in Mechanix Illustrated.

(This chapter of Arnold's memoir is dedicated to our very talented friend, Kathleen Maher.)

I limped through the shadowy shop towards the back and to the doorway that led up to Mr. Arbuthnot’s living quarters. The cat Shnooby trotted along beside me, and Mr. Arbuthnot followed making no more noise than the cat did, perhaps less.

“The door is unlocked, my good fellow.”

I turned the knob, opened the door to a darker dimness, the short passage, the spiral staircase, a misty light which was only just barely light hanging like a pale shroud from the landing above.

“Oh, there’s an electric light switch to your right, Mr. Schnabel. Never use it myself during the daytime, I’m so used to the gloom, like an old bat, an old vampire bat, heh, heh. Just switch it on. Go ahead. No, to the right I said, the right. Yes. Lower. No, lower still. Lower, old man. You see we’re not all so tall as you strapping young bucks of today. There you go, almost there.”

I found the switch, flicked it, a low-wattage light came on in a greyish yellow ball high up on the landing above, the wooden staircase become somewhat more visible, and visibly dusty. Spiderwebs hung between banisters and walls covered with blistered and stained old paper reminiscent in color and design of photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls which I had once perused in a Life magazine at the barber shop.

I started up the spiral staircase. The cat darted between my legs and flew up ahead of me.

I stopped after a few steps.

“You know, Mr. Arbuthnot --” I said, over my shoulder. He was still at the foot of the staircase, but he had his small old hand on the railing.

“Yes, my boy, what is it.”

“Maybe I really should go after all. I mean Elektra only lives a block or so away.”

“And what if that flatfoot puts the pinch on you?”

“But I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“He didn’t seem to think so.”

“But really, I haven’t.”

“So you say, but it’s your word against his. He seems to have it in for you, my dear boy.”

“I know.”

“Why, may I ask? I mean if I’m not getting too personal.”

I paused, standing there, turned awkwardly on the staircase so that I could look down at Mr. Arbuthnot’s wizened face which was even less scrutable than that of the wooden Indian chief by the doorway of Wally’s Cigar Shop and Pool Room. The cat had come back down the steps partway, and he sat on a step at the level of my face, staring at me with his marbled and somehow questioning yellow eyes.

“The other night,” I said, “he -- “

“He being the flatfoot.”

“Yes,” I said. “He, uh, caught me, uh, talking to myself. On the street.”

“On the street.”



“Uh, down on Perry Street, near Washington.”

“And what time of night was this?”

“I’m not sure. Pretty late.”

“I see,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “And were you perhaps, shall we say, in your cups?”

“Drunk you mean?”

“Merry, let’s say. Feeling little pain. Inebriate. You had a load on.”

“Just a little,” I said.

“A little load. Half a load, say.”

“Well, uh --”

“Were you also a little high maybe? I mean tea high? Or perhaps you had been hitting the old opium pipe with Freddy Ayres and Ursula?”

“Well, I had smoked some marijuana,” I admitted. “But it was my first time ever.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was. And this Johnny Law, does he know about your having just recently been released from a mental institution?”

“Well, it wasn’t that recent,” I said.

“When was it?”

"Um -- April?”


“Well, uh --”

“And there you are. Pretty as a picture by Currier & Ives. In a custom-made frame. I give you a recently released mental patient. Drunk, and possibly reeking of Mary Jane. Talking to himself on the street at night. This is what the bulls call suspicious behavior on the part of a dubious character, and that’s all they need for an excuse to run you in. By the way, what were you talking to yourself about anyway? Nothing too inflammatory I hope.”

I sighed.

“I was talking to Jesus.”


“Yes,” I said.

“As in Christ.”



“No, wait,” I said. “I just remembered. You met him.”

“I met who.”


“I beg your pardon.”

“You met him last night. My friend.”

“What, that nice naval fellow you were in here with?”

“No, that was Dick Ridpath. This was my other friend, Josh. You met him at the Pilot House.

"What, that drunken hobo?"

"He's not a hobo. He merely dresses casually."

"This 'Josh' fellow."

"That's sort of his human name."

“So you’re saying this Josh dude was Jesus.”

“Well, I wouldn’t call him a dude, either."

“That drunken fellow.”

“Well, yes, it’s true, he was drunk.”

“He was Jesus.”

“I know it’s hard to believe. But didn’t you see the way he brought Mr. Jones back from the dead?”

“Well, I can see how you might believe that’s what you saw.”

“No, he did. He’s all-powerful. Well, maybe not completely all-powerful, but pretty powerful.”

“Pretty powerful.’

“Yes,” I said.

Now Mr. Arbuthnot sighed.

“You’re not carrying, are you, Mr. Schnabel?”


“Dope. Tea. The big O.”

“No!” I almost yelled.

“Oh my, I was only asking a civil question.”

“I mean, no,” I said, in a quieter voice.

“Nothing at all, not even a roach?”

“Why would I be carrying a roach?”

“I mean the tail end of a reefer.”

“Oh. No.”

“No pills? Reds, yellows, goofballs? Black beauties? Pink footballs?”

“No, nothing like that,” I said, and then, “um.”

“Um what.”

“I forgot.”

“Forgot what?”

“That guy Wally, down at the cigar shop, he gave me something.”

“He gave you something.”

“Yes,” I said.
"What sort of something?"
"Well, it's this like little canister of something --"
"Yeah, like little, round --"
Suddenly the faint yellow light went out with a click and we were plunged into shadows again.

“What the hell,” I said.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “The switch is set to a minuterie. It goes off automatically after three-and-a-half minutes.”

“Only three-and-a-half minutes?”

“Yes,” he said.

It had felt like so much longer than three-and-a-half minutes, more like fifteen at least, or twenty. An hour. It was very warm and stuffy in this stairwell as well. The air smelled old.

“By the way,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, who made no move at all to flick the light switch on again, “aren’t you feeling a little awkward standing in the middle of the staircase that way?”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Because I wouldn’t mind sitting down,” he said.


“I’m not nearly as young as I once was you know. It’s 1963, not 1863 after all, ha ha.”


“Go on up. We’ll talk in my flat.”

“But I --”

“If that copper runs you in,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, down there in the shadows, a stray beam of faint light giving a pale gleam to the lenses of his glasses, “if this junior Wyatt Earp tosses you in the cooler then you won’t see your girl at all. Even if you’re clean he’ll keep you at the station, grilling you with asinine questions all day just for something to do. And the whole town will hear about it. You know what this burg is like. Me, I know how to keep my trap shut, especially when it concerns a pal. You ask around, I never dropped a nickel on nobody and no one what didn’t have it coming. But the other busybodies and cheapjack stoolies in this town? You kiddin’ me? Take it from a guy what knows. Play it smart, Mr. Schnabel. Have a sherry. Relax for half an hour. Play it cool and play it as it lays.”

“Well --”

“What time does this mass let out about anyway?”

“Around one,” I said. “Depending on how long the sermon is, or --”

“So we keep an eye on the clock. At five to one we go downstairs, keep an eye through the window for the crowd. Soon as they start to come by in more than a trickle, we crack the door and you slip out. Boom. Two minutes later you’re rolling in your sweet baby’s arms.”

“Well, I think she’s working in her shop, so --”

“I did not mean that literally necessarily.”


“Come on, let’s go. Start climbing. I’m getting a sore neck down here.”

“All right,” I said.

I turned finally, and started up the staircase, the cat darting up ahead of me. I had begun to sweat profusely while standing here in this airless dark well, and the palm of my hand felt slimy wet on the banister.

I sensed but did not hear Mr. Arbuthnot climbing the stairs beneath me.

(Continued here, and to heaven and to hell and back again if necessary.)

(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to sundry other other fine chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Be sure to check out rhoda penmarq's production of “the doomed”, a very special mini-series illustrated by the legendary Konrad Kraus and based on the first six chapters of Arnold’s saga, appearing exclusively in “flashing by”!)


Di said...

Goody Goody Goody!
It seems like a long wait since the last episode. Perhaps I've entered Schabel time.

Dan Leo said...

DI: or...

Di said...

Thanks Dan!

Who is the guy in the photo? and is that an on/off button on his chest or a go-faster button?

Dan Leo said...

Di -- ha ha, not sure what kinda button it is, Di, but the handsome devil is the actor Robert Taylor.

Di said...

I love the way this is set in Mr Arbuthnot's creepy stairwell. The Dead Sea Scroll wallpaper is a stroke of genius.

Have you watched the TV Buffy the Vampire slayer series yet? Lots of use of architecture to advance or enrich the plots, stories within storeys as we creep around the subconscious, or the supernatural punches through the walls.

Dan Leo said...

Di, Buffy was one of those shows that I kept hearing was good but somehow just never got around to watching while it was being aired. I think I might just have to do a Buffy marathon and catch up!

Di said...

You promised me that a year ago.
Tell you what, you hire out Buffy series 1 and 2 and I'll take two books of your choice on holiday (coming up soon)

Dan Leo said...

Di, you busted me and my idle promises! But never fear, I was so shamed that I got the first episode of season one of Buffy and started watching it last night! Unfortunately I got sleepy (no fault of the show!) and didn't finish it, but I will get back to for recommending books, hmmm, I'll get back to you on that one...

Unknown said...

Sorry, I was late for the party, but what a fantastic present, Dan.
I've got to go check out those first six chapters. I saw a bit while I was "rushing," still "rushing," but any second now I'm gonna take a break.
And thanks again. It has everything I've ever wanted. Tru ting.

Unknown said...

Mr. Arbuthnot and his living quarters remind me of my dear maternal grandmother and the mysteries of her cluttered apartment. She was a flapper in the 20s, and I suspect she knew a thing or two about kicking the gong around.

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, Kathleen. As you know, my motto is the same as that of the immortal Jeeves. "I endeavour to give satisfaction."

Manny, I wonder if your grandmom kicked the gong around with Arbuthnot back in the day?

Unknown said...

Ha! She probably did. She was quite peripatetic. Lived in New York for a while, but got around the East Coast.