Saturday, March 19, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 242: Salt Chunk

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel in conversation with the venerable Mr. Arbuthnot in that gentleman’s rooms above his “Whatnot Shoppe”, in the quaint seashore town of Cape May, New Jersey, on a rainy Sunday in August of 1963...

Click here to read our previous chapter; go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award-winning 69-volume memoir, of which Harold Bloom has written (in Maxim), “How often in the course of my days when I find myself enmired in yet another idiotic conversation do I not wish that I could be home in bed with a thermos of Fox’s U-bet™ hot cocoa and one of my stout leather-bound volumes of Arnold Schnabel?”


“Food of the gods? In that little tin?”

“Yes,” he said, “in this little tin. The legendary ancient food of the gods.”

“Y’know, I’m not really familiar with what that is exactly.”

“You’re not.”

“No.”

“It’s referred to quite frequently in the classic works of Greek antiquity. Homer. Aristophanes. Sappho?”

“Um. Uh --”

He lowered his hands, and the little tin, and he sighed.

“One is tempted, Mr. Schnabel, to use phrases like ‘pearls before swine’.”

“It’s true,” I said, “that I had a poor and a truncated education.”

“Oh, well, at least you know enough to use words like ‘truncated’.”

“In my slipshod way I’ve picked up my share of big words,” I said in my own half-hearted praise. “I do like to read.”

“Ah, yes, modern poetry I’ll vouchsafe must be your line of country, being a young modern poet of today yourself. I’ll bet you’re a John Greenleaf Whittier man, aren’t you?”

“Uh --”

“Or perhaps Robert Browning.”

“Um --”

“I know, Housman, you’re a Housman lad if I ever saw one, you scamp.”

“No,” I said. “I’m afraid I just read cheap paperback novels mostly. Stories of murder, and dark passions, guys caught in whirlpools of deceit and despair, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, I get it, then you’re doubtless mad for this new crop of novelist Johnnies. Frank Norris. Jack London. Ford Madox Ford.”

While speaking this last group of words he gestured with his right hand across the room to a bookcase, apparently in an attempt to distract my attention, but his ploy failed because although I did glance at the bookcase, I nevertheless caught him from the corner of my eye slipping the little tin canister into the side pocket of his suit coat. I didn’t say anything, but I could see that he saw that I saw. For a few pathetic moments he pretended that he was not aware that he had pocketed the stuff, all the while rattling off authors’ names:

“James Branch Cabell. Joris-Karl Huysmans? George Gissing? Ronald Firbank? John Buchan?”

“Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said, “all you have to do is ask me for that stuff if you want it that badly.”

“What stuff?”

“Come on.”

“Oh, the stuff! Yes, oh my, where ever did I put it?”

“In your left jacket pocket.”

“Oh, yes.” He patted his pocket, then put his hand in it and brought out the tin. “Ah. Here it is. Heh heh. So you say I can have it?”

“I only have one question first. If it’s so valuable then why did you tell me what it is?”

“Oh. Why didn’t I lie, simply say it was ordinary snuff?”

“Yes.”

“Thus making it more likely that you would let me have it.”

“Yes.”

He looked away.

“It’s the stuff,” he said. “When one is within its propinquity one loses the ability to lie. No matter how much one wishes to lie.” He raised his face to look at me again. “And that’s no lie.”

“I’m not so sure I could make it through the day without lying,” I said. “So maybe it’s best that I let you keep it.”

“But you don’t even know what it is!”

“Food of the gods?”

“Yes, but do you even know what that phrase means?”

“Um, uh --”

“It makes you like a god.”

“Ah.”

“That’s why you can’t lie when you’re on the stuff. Gods don’t lie. What do they care? Unlike human beings gods really don’t give a shit what anyone thinks.”

“Well, it really doesn’t sound right for me then,” I said.

“Yes, but Arnold -- may I call you Arnold?”

“Sure.”

“Arnold, what about all the godlike qualities you could take on?”

“Hmm. Like what?”

“Like what? What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “X-ray vision?”

“X-ray vision.”

“Yeah, or maybe you could have super-hearing? Like, hearing what people a mile away were saying?”


“Wouldn’t that get annoying?”

“Um --”

“Isn’t it bad enough listening to people’s conversations when they’re right up close to you?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess --”

“But, no, my dear boy, I’m afraid being godlike does not necessarily entail having X-ray vision or what you call super-hearing.”

“Y’know, it’s interesting you say that, Mr. Arbuthnot, because my friend Josh, you know, the one who is really, uh --”

“Jesus?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with him lately, and it turns out he’s not really omniscient at all, and definitely not, like, omnipotent, although --”

“Arnold.”

“Yes?”

“May we get back to the subject at hand?”

He held up the little canister between his thumb and forefinger.

“Oh, right,” I said.

“By the way, don’t you feel a bit awkward just standing here on either side of this coffee table?”

“I do, actually, a bit,” I said. “But I usually feel awkward anyway.”

“Would you like to sit?”

“Yes. But not in that sofa.”

“I don’t see why not. It’s quite plush.”

“It’s my back,” I said. For some reason, unlike Mr. Arbuthnot, I was still able to tell lies or at least prevaricate despite being in the presence of this food of the gods stuff. “I need a bit more support when I sit, or else my back goes out.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“I was foolish not to.”

“Shall we go into the dining room?”

“Sure.”

I came around the coffee table and started to follow Mr. Arbuthnot into the dining room when suddenly I realized I was about to step on Shnooby the cat, who was just lying there on the floor. I tried to halt my tread but nonetheless the sole of my shoe landed on the cat, who understandably squealed and leaped away as I hopped forward on my other foot and staggered into Mr. Arbuthnot who shot flying forward just as one would expect a five-foot-two old man to fly when tackled from behind by some six-foot oaf.

Quickly I hobbled over and picked Mr. Arbuthnot up by both shoulders from where he lay spread-eagled on a jumbled up carpet.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, setting him on his feet, and turning him gently around so I could see his face. “Are you okay? It was the cat, I didn’t see him --”

“That damned cat,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, breathing heavily. “I’ve told him once I’ve told him a thousand times. If he must lie down then lie on a divan or a bed like a normal human being.”

He put his fingers to his nose.

“My pince-nez has fallen off.”

“You mean your glasses?”

“You’re very astute.”

“Can you stand unaided?”

“I believe so.”

I let go of him. He didn’t fall down. I straightened out the carpet, and I saw the rimless glasses on the floor, fortunately unbroken. I picked them up and handed them to Mr. Arbuthnot with another mumbled apology.

He put the glasses on his nose, and then said, “Oh no.”

“What is it, Mr. Arbuthnot?”

“The stuff. I dropped it.”

“Oh.”

“You made me drop it. Where is it?”

“I’ll find it.”

“You must.”

“It’s got to be right around here,” I said, bending over and studiously looking.

“I don’t see it.” Mr. Arbuthnot was bending over and looking also, and being so much shorter than I he was much closer to the floor. “Look under that carpet I fell on,” he said.

I lifted one edge of the carpet a few inches.

“Damn it, man,” he said, “lift it up all the way, all the way, toss it aside.”

The carpet was about six feet square, but I picked the whole thing up with both hands and tossed it.

“I didn’t mean literally toss it, Arnold. That’s a 17th century Tabriz carpet you just blithely sent sailing across the room.”

“Sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry, but, damn! The tin’s not there! Where is that thing? Where can it be, Arnold?”

“I’m looking.”

It would have helped if he had some lights on. The room really was pretty dim.

“Look harder,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.

“It’s got to turn up,” I said. “I mean it couldn’t have rolled or slid that far away.”

“So where is it?”

“Well, I’m looking.”

“So am I, and it’s nowhere to be seen!”

I straightened up. My back really was hurting a little now, maybe I had indeed thrown it out a little when I was struggling with Mr. Arbuthnot’s sofa, and all this bending over and prowling around like Groucho Marx wasn’t helping it any.

“Look, Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said, rubbing my sacroiliac. “It’ll turn up. Why don’t we just sit down a while. You can smoke a pipe, I’ll --”

“You’ll what?”

“Well, I’ll just sit there.”

“With nothing to drink, nothing to smoke? What are you, a goddam zombie?”

I said nothing to this. Mr. Arbuthnot stood there, staring at me, his fists clenched, his eyes bulging behind his glasses. His brow was wet with sweat. I looked away, towards a window and the falling rain outside. I wished I was out there somewhere.

“Mr. Schnabel?”

I turned and looked at the old man. He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve, mopped his forehead, put the handkerchief away again, and sighed.

“I apologize,” he said. “But you see, Arnold, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve got the yen. I’ve got the yen now and I won’t be satisfied till I find that tin. Look, don’t give up. Help me find it and I’ll share it with you.”

“Okay,” I said, wearily, “I’ll help you find it, but I won’t share it with you.”

“What? You won’t give me any? After you said you would?”


“No,” I said, “I mean, yes, I’ll give it to you, but I don’t want any.”

“You fool! You unconscionable fool! Do you know what you’re missing out on?”

“I know. ‘Food of the gods’. Ancient legendary, you know --”

“No! You don’t know! How can you know if you’ve never tried it? Well I have tried it my good man. Last time? Nineteen hundred and seven, Istanbul, a little shop on the Asian side of the old Galata Bridge -- it’s always in these little shops you see, the most fetid and disreputable little holes-in-the-wall and dens of iniquity. And the time before that? Why it was at Salt Chunk Mary’s house, out west in Pocatello, Idaho, in, oh my, it must have been in the year eighteen hundred and --”

“Oh, wait,” I said, “excuse me, but there it is. I see it.”

“Where?”

“Under your dining room table over there.”

“Oh thank God.”

“I’ll get it.”

I went over to the table, with its lace cloth and its candelabrum and eight chairs. I could clearly see the canister now, glowing in a stray beam of pale light in the dimness under the table. I pushed a chair aside, got down on one knee and reached for the tin when suddenly Shnooby darted out of nowhere and batted the tin across the floor again and took off after it like a bat out of hell, or a cat out of hell I suppose I might as well say.

“That wretched cat!” cried Mr. Arbuthnot. “He’s trying to steal our stuff! Go after it, Arnold!”

I pulled myself up with the aid of one of the chairs and hurried around the table. I saw Shnooby over there, a few feet away from a big grandfather clock. The cat was facing me, and the canister was on the floor by his front paws.

“Don’t alarm him,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, from behind me.

“Nice cat,” I said. “Nice kitty.”

And I limped as inconspicuously as I was able to toward him and the stuff. I bent over to pick it up, but once again Shnooby batted the tin and sent it sailing under the carven legs of the grandfather clock and then bolted under the clock himself.

“Now he’s toying with us,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “He’s probably pissed off because we wouldn’t let him destroy the galaxy last night. Get down there and reach under and get it.”

I was getting really tired of this, but I had to kill some time anyway until it was safe to leave here, so I went over, got down on my knees, put one forearm on the floor and reached my right hand under the grandfather clock’s base.


“Ow!”

I yanked my hand out.

“Oh, did he scratch you, Arnold?”

I said nothing, but merely looked at the three scarlet lines on the back of my hand.

“I hope he didn’t scratch you too severely? I’ll get you some mercurochrome but first I think we should get that stuff, don’t you? You’re a strong stout young chappie, just push the clock aside.”

Wearily I got to my feet again.

“Just push it aside a bit. There you go. Careful though, that’s a genuine Bornholm clock, and nearly as old as I am, heh heh. Easy does it now. That’s it, use your shoulder. Ah, there’s the little rascal, there he is. Oh no. Oh God no. Oh God no, tell me it isn’t so.”

I had shifted the clock aside and away from the wall a bit, and there on the floor crouched Shnooby, looking up at me with his yellow eyes, and before him on the floor lay the little canister, open, its cap lying a few inches away.

The canister was completely empty.

Shnooby licked his chops.


(Continued here, for the sakes of our children’s children.)

(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode sponsored in part by Fox’s U-bet™ the official chocolate syrup of the Arnold Schnabel Society’s upcoming “SchnabelFest©”, featuring an entire week of performances, lectures, exhibitions and discussions on all things Schnabel, culminating in a “Beef ‘n’ Beer Blast” at the VFW on Chew Avenue, musical entertainment provided by Rockin’ Harry Hirsch & His Combo (featuring the Crass Brothers), with special guests Missy McDonough and Joe Donatello.)

3 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

This is a first for me. In all the years I've pondered God and Lucifer, good and evil,it has never occurred to me that there must exist a Happy Medium! Schnooby? At this point, if Arbuthnot is correct, the cat cannot lie. That would be first on the list, I think, for any Happy Medium!

DGrill said...

Good old Salt Chunk Mary, I knew her well. Eat beans first, talk business later . . .

Manny said...

Ha! Great ending. I feel Arbuthnot's anguish.