Saturday, March 12, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 241: old lace

Our previous episode closed with our friend Arnold Schnabel climbing a dark spiral staircase at the back of Arbuthnot’s Whatnot Shoppe, here in the quaint old seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, on a rather portentously rainy Sunday in August of 1963…

(Go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award-winning 37-volume masterpiece of autobiography.)

“Maybe I’m just getting old, but (except for my vintage old Horace P. Sternwall paperbacks and the Daily Racing Form) Arnold Schnabel is just about all I am able to read these days.” -- Harold Bloom, in Man’s Life.

When I reached the top of the stairs the cat was waiting, sitting on the back of the tiger-striped sofa, staring at me in a sort of grey opalescent dimness as if the apartment were halfway between being in an early Technicolor movie and an old black-and-white one; no electric lights seemed to be on, but through the windows a soft glow from the rainy outside world suffused these rooms, which seemed even more overstuffed (with old furniture and old objects either of art or utility or perhaps of historical or antiquarian interest) than they had the previous night, that previous evening which felt as if it had happened two years before at least. It was warm and close up here, although not nearly so hot and stuffy as the stairwell had been. The air smelled of tobacco and marijuana, of damp galoshes and moldy old newspapers, of a monastery cloakroom at a retreat for lonely Catholic bachelors who have abandoned all hope for happiness in the physical world.

Mr. Arbuthnot came up silently behind me, I didn’t know he was there until he spoke.

“Please make yourself comfortable, Mr. Schnabel. Take the sofa. I’m sure Shnooby wouldn’t mind sharing.”

I went around the coffee table to the far end of the sofa (as far away from Shnooby as I could get) and sat myself down, sinking into the couch’s recesses until my bottom was probably only an inch or so from the floor.

“Quite cozy, isn’t it, that divan?” said Mr. Arbuthnot over his shoulder. He was heading toward the far end of the room. “I sit down in it and I never want to get up again.”

“I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get up again,” I thought, but did not say. An antimacassar slid down and over my head and face. It felt stiff and dry. “Damn,” I said, aloud. With two fingers I picked the lace off of my head. It felt like a mummified cobweb.

“What?” said Mr. Arbuthnot, halting in his progress. From where I was buried in the chair I could just barely make out his little head. “Oh, you’re admiring my dentelle. Norman lace that is, over a hundred years old, priceless really. Very beautiful, very delicate, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said.

His head disappeared from my restricted field of vision, and suddenly Shnooby the cat launched a lightning-quick attack and snatched at the lace with both front paws. I tried to pull the antimacassar away but the cat’s nails got stuck in it, and I found myself playing tug-of-war with Shnooby for a few brief but furious seconds until finally he leapt away with a squeal, leaving me holding the tattered remnants of the hundred-year-old lacework.

“Is that Shnooby bothering you over there, Mr. Schnabel,” said the old man’s voice.

“No, no bother,” I said.

Quickly I stuffed the destroyed old lace into the space between the back of the sofa and the seat cushions.

“Oh no!” said the voice.

So, he had seen me childishly hiding the tattered lace.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said.

“This is a disaster! A disaster of the first order, I tell you!”

“If there’s anything I can --”

“The Harvey’s Bristol Cream bottle is nearly empty!” he cried.

“What?” I said.

“My sherry! My Harvey’s. I tell you, it was that Jones fellow last night.”

“Oh?”

(What did I care who it was, as long as I was off the hook for the antimacassar incident.)

“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot’s voice. “The old rummy must have polished it off when I was in the lavatory. And look, my fifth of Windsor Canadian, also empty but for half a thimbleful if that. What shall I do?”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Perhaps a cup of tea?” said the voice.

“Don’t bother,” I said. To tell the truth I could have gone for a cup of tea, but this time I was thinking ahead: tea would greatly increase the odds that I would soon have to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t want to have to do that here.

“A quiet smoke perhaps then, Mr. Schnabel?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

Mr. Arbuthnot hove back into my view. By this time I had sunk so low that I was almost looking up at my kneecaps. The old fellow stood across from the coffee table and stared down at me, for once this was possible. His hands were folded together at his chest.

“You have something to smoke, Mr. Schnabel? Cigarettes? I know you younger generation are mad for those readymade cigarettes.”

“Well, no,” I said, trying to keep my chin up despite the awkward position into which I was folded, almost like those ancient guys who were packed off to the next world in big earthenware jars instead of proper coffins. “Actually I’ve given up smoking as of yesterday morning.”

“Oh yes now I recall you mentioning something to that effect. Then why may I ask did you just now agree to my suggestion of a quiet smoke?”

I sighed.

“To answer that question would require more knowledge of myself than I possess,” I said. “And more than I wish to have.”

“Ha ha,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “you young fellows! Always ready with a witty riposte! You’re a regular William Powell, you are! A veritable Franchot Tone! Gee, I’d offer you some weed but I killed my last reefer with my morning coffee, and we smoked up the last of my opiated hash last night at Freddy and Ursula’s crib.”

“Oh, well, look, please, Mr. Arbuthnot, light your pipe. Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit here.”

“And sitting comfortably are you? You look just as snug as a bug in a rug.”

“Uh, well, actually --”

“Ha ha, but you said Wally down at the cigar shop gave you something.”

“What?”

“Wally gave you something you said.”

“Oh, right, yeah.”

Still keeping his hands folded together, he bent forward towards me, smiling, his little head cocked slightly to one side. ”What is it I wonder.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You don’t know.”

He was still smiling, but the smile seemed a little forced.

“Yeah,” I said. “He just gave it to me.”

“But you don’t now what it is.”

“No.”

He finally gave up on the smile, although he bent even closer towards me, leaning over the coffee table.

“He just gave it to you.”

“Yes,” I said. “Said the first one was free. I told him I didn’t want anything, I was just there to buy my little cousin Kevin some comic books, but --”

“Yes, yes, of course, of course,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “but I wonder -- may I see it?”

“What, this stuff he gave me?”

“Stuff? Ha ha! Stuff, indeed. Yes, may I see it.”

“Sure,” I said.

Awkwardly slumped down and almost buried in the sofa as I was, I tried to get my hand down to my right trousers pocket.

“Hold on,” I said.

“Yes, of course, I’ll hold on.”

“Wait a second.”

“Having some difficulty.”

“Yes.”

“You young fellows of this modern age are so big-boned and strapping, aren’t you? That poor old couch can barely support your great muscular frame.”

“Yeah,” I said, contorting.

“What you have to do is lean all the way over to your left side.”

“Uh-huh.”

“All the way now.”

I leaned over all the way and sank even deeper.

“Are you quite all right?”

“I feel like I’m wrestling with a giant marshmallow.”

“Ha ha your dry wit, flashing through the conversation like sheet lightning, now get your right hand in there, just work it in.”

“Hey, you don’t have a rope and pulley, do you?” I said. “I mean for when I have to get out of this?”

“Would that I did,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Would that I did. There, have you got it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Pull it out now but do try not to throw out your sacroiliac.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

Finally I got the little tin canister out of my pocket, and from my sunken and twisted position in the sofa I held the thing out at arm’s length towards the old man.

“Oh, my,” he said. “May I see it? I mean of course I can see it, but I mean may I hold it, hold it in my hands?”

“Sure --”

Quick as a cat he darted out his hand and grabbed the canister from my fingers.

He straightened up, holding the tin just inches from his glasses.

“Well, well, what do we have here?”

“Beats me,” I said, trying to sit up again.

“What do we have here,” he said again, not as a question. “Would you mind if I opened it.”

“No, not at all, go ahead.”

“Very well. Very carefully.”

Holding the tin with his left hand he worked the cap with his right hand.

“Slow and easy, that’s the trick,” he said. “Slow and easy. As the nun said to the bishop. Oh. Here we go.”

He had the thing open now.

“Oh my,” he said. “Oh my indeed.”

He brought the open canister to his nose, bending his head forward. He sniffed, then lifted his face up. He wore a smile again now. I couldn’t tell if the smile was sincere or not, but it looked strange, as if invisible hooks pulling at either end of his mouth were forcing him to bare his neat yellow dentures.

“Well, haven’t seen this stuff in some time, no indeed, not in quite some time,” he said in a hearty-sounding voice.

He gave the open tin a quick pass by his nostrils, flaring them briefly but widely.

“So I guess you don’t really want this?” he said, in a hopeful-sounding way, still holding his smile.

“I didn’t ask for it,” I said. “What is it?”

“What is it? Oh, just, you know, uh, what do you call it --”

He suddenly stopped smiling, or grimacing, whatever it was.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Snuff?” he said.

“Snuff?”

“Yes,” he said. “Snuff.”

“Oh. Wally said you could smoke it, too, or put it in your coffee. Or chew it.”

“He did?”

“Yes.”

“Well, yes, I suppose you could, yes, why not? Chacun à son goût. Each to his own. Whatever. So you don’t want it.”

“Not really,” I said. “So it’s, like, what, tobacco?”

“Is this tobacco?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh no. No, it’s not tobacco. No. So, I wonder, if you really don’t want it --”

All through this I had been struggling to get into some kind of a comfortable sitting position on the sofa, but just then I got so frustrated that I put one hand on the outer edge of the seat beneath the cushion and just hauled myself up and out of it all by main force, winding up with one knee on the rug and my other hand on the coffee table.

“Ow,” I said, because I’d hurt my already sore knee.

“Careful there old man,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “You almost made me spill the stuff.”

“Sorry.”

“Well, it’s still your stuff after all.”

I pushed myself up to a standing position, and looked down on the little old man across the coffee table from me, with his old man’s head bent down as he screwed the cap back onto the tin.

“So what is it exactly, Mr. Arbuthnot?”

“What is it.”

“Yeah.”

“What is it, my dear boy?”

He looked up at me through his glasses.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like, what is it?”

“This,” he said, and he raised up the little canister with both hands, the way the priest holds up the host at its consecration, his fingers were trembling slightly, “this my dear boy --”

He paused, as if he weren’t so sure he wanted to spill the beans after all.

But finally he spoke.

“This my dear boy is what the ancient Greeks called the food of the gods!


(Continued here, and for ten or twenty more years at the very least.)

(Kindly look to the right hand column of this page for a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. “Makes Rousseau’s famous memoirs look painfully shallow.” -- Horace P. Sternwall, in Man’s Adventure.)

6 comments:

Dean Rohrer said...

bravo arnold--i love this arbuthnot universe

kathleenmaher said...

For a moment with the changing proportions and the cat and smoking,(albeit not by a caterpillar), I thought this might Arnold in Wonderland. But no, Arnold's world is wonderful as is.

Manny said...

I can't shake the feeling that Arbuthnot is an anagram for something...That Bruno...Rut Boat ..Tuna Throb...???
Maybe when they sample the nectar it will become clear.

Dan Leo said...

Okay, my place, midnight, you guys and all of Arnold's other friends are invited (yes, including the fly): food of the gods party!

Dean Rohrer said...

abort hunt!

Dan Leo said...

You guys are making me feel like a dullard -- I actually tried, but I couldn't think of a single anagram! But then I'm no good at crossword puzzles, either...