It is precisely 12:39 PM by the priceless Bornholm grandfather clock in the rooms of the venerable Mr. Arbuthnot, here in the quaint resort and fishing port of Cape May, New Jersey, on this fateful rainy Sunday in August, 1963...
(Go here to read our previous episode; click here to be transported instantaneously back to the misty beginnings of this Gold View Award-winning 57-volume autobiography.)
“Arnold Schnabel -- the very name itself conjures up an entire universe so much richer and more varied, so much more adventurous and glorious than that paltry world in which we ordinary mortals toil and moil in our divers ways to that single end: the grave.” -- Harold Bloom (in a speech given at the Arnold Schnabel Society’s annual “Schnabelfest”©, in Fisher Park).
“Well, that was very refreshing,” said Shnooby. “Might you have any more of that stuff perchance?”
“Oh, great,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “now you’ve really done it, Arnold!”
“What has he done?” asked the cat, with a genuinely quizzical-looking expression.
“What has he done? He’s let you eat the stuff!”
“And you condemn him for this?” asked the cat.
“No, no, I don’t condemn him, Shnooby, but --”
“But you wanted it for yourself. You greedy old man.”
“Of course I wanted it!”
“Oh, and I don’t matter, I suppose.”
“Shnooby, you’re a cat! And a very well-cared-for cat I might add.”
“I was a cat. Now I’m a god,” said the cat, and he licked one of his paws.
“For as long as that stuff has its effect on you, you’re a god,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
At this Shnooby stopped licking his paw.
“Oh?” said the cat. “And how long will that be? This -- how shall I put it -- period of efficacy.”
“How should I know?” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “I’ve never seen a cat eat it before!”
The cat paused, his head cocked to one side, as if he were in thought, then he barely lifted one paw and lazily batted the empty canister, sending it sliding toward my feet where it was stopped by my Thom McAn cordovan.
“Arbuthnot,” said the cat, “you said you last partook of the stuff -- when was it -- nineteen-oh-seven?”
“Yes. In Istanbul, in this little shop near the Galata Br-”
“And how old were you then? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I don’t mind at all. Let me see.” The old fellow took out his pipe. “In nineteen-oh-seven -- well, let’s see, yes, it was in the summer I recall, July, no, August it was, yes, August, and my birthday falls in Ocotber, so, let’s just do the maths here, shall we? Nineteen hundred and seven, yes --“ While he was dithering thus I picked up the empty canister, and also its cap, lest someone slip on them and break a neck, and I placed them on the dining room table. “Well,” said Mr. Arbuthnot at last, “I suppose I would have been just shy of ninety-nine then. Years of age.”
“And how much of the stuff did you consume?” asked Shnooby.
“Oh, it was a little tin of it just like the one you had. That’s been the standard measure for --”
“So,” said the cat, “that was like -- what year is it now, anyway?”
“What year is it?” repeated Mr. Arbuthnot. He patted his other jacket pocket, then brought out his tobacco pouch. “What is it - 1953? Fifty-two?”
“It’s 1963,” I said.
“Thank you, Mr. Schnabel,” said the cat. Then, turning to Mr. Arbuthnot again, “Fifty-six years ago you had that last ‘bump’ of the stuff, and just look at you now, you hardly look a day over eighty-five. So I’d say that’s a pretty powerful dose in one of those tins.”
“Yes, that’s undeniably true,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“So, a little cat like me, I should think I’m looking at godlike qualities for at least a century or so.”
“Possibly,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He stuck his fingers into his pouch of tobacco and brought out a nice bushy tuft of it.
“Things will have to change around here of course,” said the cat, with a slight yawn.
“Oh, I’m sure they will,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. Little stray wisps of tobacco fell to the floor as he filled the bowl of his pipe.
“Okay, first off,” said the cat, “no more of this Nine Lives crap. I want fresh seafood -- and I mean fresh, right off the boats thank you -- four, maybe five nights a week. I want fresh-killed chicken two, three times a week, and look, none of this supermarket garbage. I want farm chickens, locally raised.”
“And how am I supposed to get all this fresh seafood and poultry?” said Mr. Arbuthnot, putting away his tobacco pouch. “I don’t have an automobile to drive out to the farms and the docks.”
The cat yawned, then looked at me.
“You have a car?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, we do have a car, my mother and I, but we left it back in Phila-”
“Okay, I don’t need to hear your life story, my friend. Look, can you get a bicycle, preferably one with a basket on the handlebars?”
“Yes,” I said. “In fact my aunts have a couple of old Schwinns --”
“Problem solved,” said the cat. “You bicycle out to the docks and the farms, bring me back my grub. Arbuthnot will give you the money.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said.
“What? What’s the problem?”
“Well, excuse me, but you’re not even my cat.”
“Yes. And your point is?”
“I mean, why should I do all this shopping for someone else’s cat?”
“Look, pal, you’re not going to make this difficult, are you?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“Because it doesn’t have to go down that way.”
“No buts. I’m gonna get my grub, and you’re gonna get it for me. In return you will have my protection. Here on out, anybody fucks with you, they fuck with me. And why? Because I like you? No, not really, not that I dislike you but that’s not the issue here. The issue is that you are my new food source, and nobody fucks around with my food source. Do I make myself clear? So anybody gives you any problems in any way, shape or form you come to me and I will do what I can to take care of the problem.”
The cat came over and rubbed against my trouser leg.
Then he stood on his hind legs and put both his front paws on my knees.
He looked up into my eyes with a very serious expression.
“Do we have a deal?”
I thought it over quickly. All that this deal really meant was a longish bike journey every day, and, after all, the exercise would be good for me, both physically and mentally, possibly even spiritually, whatever that last adverb meant.
“All right,” I said. “It’s a deal. But Mr. Arbuthnot pays for the fish and chickens.”
“Absolutely,” said the cat. “Fair is fair.”
“Great,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Swell.”
The cat jumped away from my legs and walked over to Mr. Arbuthnot, who had got his pipe lit and was now leaning back against the dining room table, puffing away.
“Okay, give him some money,” said the cat. “He might as well start today.”
Keeping his pipe between his dentures, Mr. Arbuthnot reached into his side trousers pocket and brought out a wad of greenbacks in a gold clip.
“All right, how much?” he asked.
“You’re asking me?” said the cat. He turned back to me. “Okay, what fish are running now, do ya know, Arnold?”
“Well, bluefish, I guess,” I said. “And scallops should be good this time of year.”
“Bluefish, scallops. Scallops, bluefish. Okay, tell ya what, bring me a nice fat little bluefish and say a half-dozen juicy scallops.”
“Okay,” I said.
“How much you think that will cost?”
“I don’t know,” I said “My mother and aunts do all the food shopping.”
“Christ,” said the cat. “Arbuthnot, just give him some money.”
“I think a five should cover it.”
“Give him a five then. No, give him a sawbuck, I don’t want him coming back here short-handed just because he didn’t take enough dough.”
“But --” started Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Give him a ten. He’ll bring back the change.”
“I still say a five --”
“Oh, very well. Here you are, Arnold.”
I went over and took the ten he grudgingly peeled off.
“I’ll bring back a receipt,” I said.
“Don’t bother,” sighed Mr. Arbuthnot, dropping his money back into his pocket. “They do say a railwayman’s word is his bond.”
“Well, that’s not necessarily --”
He waved his hand.
“Y’know, It just occurred to me,” he said. “I think I might have a little bit of gage left, or maybe some kif. Would you like to share some?”
“If gage or kif are what I think they may be,” I said, folding up the ten and putting it in my pants pocket, “then I don’t think I had better.”
“I probably only have a little if any.”
“No, really --”
“A couple of tokes.”
“No, honestly --”
“Arnold, really --”
The cat jumped up onto the table and turned around so that he could have both of us in his field of vision.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, I hate to break up this delightful raillery worthy of an Oscar Wilde or a Bernard Shaw, but what about my grub?”
“I’ll bring some by later,” I said.
“Later? What’s wrong with straight away?”
“Arnold can’t leave straight away,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “He’s trying to dodge some idiot harness bull who’s trying to hang a pinch on him.”
“For being different.”
“Goddam cops. So how long’s Arnold got to lay low here?"
Mr. Arbuthnot glanced at the grandfather clock, which still stood awry and away from the wall.
“Maybe fifteen minutes,” he said.
“All right,” said the cat. “I guess I can wait. I’ll take a nap in the meantime.”
“By the way, Arnold,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “would you mind pushing that clock back the way it was?”
“Oh, sure,” I said.
I went over and shoved the clock back into its place, which was easy to find by the pale stencil of a grandfather clock on the smoke-stained old wallpaper.
When I turned around the cat was already curled up in a ball on the lace dining-room tablecloth, apparently sound asleep.
Mr. Arbuthnot put his fingers to his lips, then gestured for me to follow him.
He headed off, and I followed him across the room and through a short hallway into what proved to be his kitchen, with an old scratched enamel table, yellowed white with red trim, and four chairs covered in cracked plastic, red with yellowed white trim. I suppose the set had looked cheery when he’d first bought it way back in the Roaring Twenties.
(Continued here, and until that last recalcitrant cow comes home.)
Kindly look to the right hand column of this page for a scrupulously up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©.
Coming soon from Penmarq Books: My Pal Arnie: a Personal Memoir of Arnold Schnabel by Horace P. Sternwall, available exclusively at Walmart (between the hardware and the gardening departments) “I breezed through this delightful book last night while I was watching TV -- it’s a winner!” -- Charlie Sheen, in his New Books of Interest column in the Hollywood Reporter.