Saturday, April 2, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 244: sang-froid


Let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and the aged Mr. Arbuthnot in that latter gentlemen’s kitchen in his rooms above his quaint little “Whatnot Shoppe”, in the quaint little seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, on this rainy Sunday in August of 1963...


(Click here to read our previous episode; the adventurous may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 72-volume masterpiece.)

“American literature -- nay, world literature -- may be neatly divided into three eras: ‘Pre-Arnold Schnabel’, ‘Arnold Schnabel’ and ‘Post-Arnold Schnabel’.” -- Harold Bloom in Good Housekeeping.


“Sit down, old man, and let me see what hidden treasures I can dig up in here.”

I took a chair, folded my hands on the table.

“Really sorry by the way about all that business out there,” said Mr. Arbuthnot as he set to work unscrewing lids from jars and rummaging through cupboards and drawers.

“Well, it wasn’t your fault,” I said.

“No, no, I suppose it wasn’t, but still I’m sorry that you got shanghaied into all this.”

“It’s no great hardship for me just to bicycle to the docks or a farm and back each day,” I said, and I imagined a slight halo around my head.

“Well, now, that there is an admirable way to look at it, my boy. A vigorous daily bout of exercise in the fresh air, best thing in the world for you. Provided you don’t have an accident, fall under the wheels of a garbage truck. Damn it, I think that Jones fellow has been digging into all my little stashes. Oh, but wait, here we go, sitting right here in a saucer.”

He turned around -- he was at the kitchen sink -- and showed me a fat, hand-rolled cigarette, only one-third smoked.

“Now we’re talking,” he said, and he came over to the table and sat across from me. On the table was an unclean ashtray of smoky blue glass. “The St Crispian Hotel,” it read, in flaked gilt, “At Your Comfort We Excel”. Mr. Arbuthnot knocked the bowl of his pipe empty into the ashtray, then pocketed the pipe, took out his book of matches and lit the reefer. He took several good drags, and held in the smoke.

“I gotta say,” he said, in a constricted voice, still holding in the smoke, “I’m impressed by your sang-froid, my boy. Most people would get just a trifle upset at the sight and sound of a talking cat.” He let out a great cloud of smoke in my direction, and when it cleared I could see that he was smiling. “You are one cool customer, Daddy-o. Here, take a hit.”

He extended the reefer. I took it, without meaning to, without meaning not to. And with the same absence of will I took a deep drag, and held the smoke in.

“There ya go, pal,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “You’re no square. Holding it in like a good fellow.”

Finally I exhaled.

“I have a friend who is a talking fly,” I said.

“A talking fly?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “So, you know --”

In a circular motion I waved the hand that held the reefer, as if this waving would somehow translate my thoughts.

“So a talking cat,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “is no big deal for you.” He got up from his seat, reached across the table and took the reefer from my fingers. He sat back, took a couple of short drags and held in the smoke. “And this talking, uh, fly friend, he -- is it a he?”

“Yes,” I said. “At least I’m pretty sure he’s a he.”

“And he is -- he is in addition to your friend who is Jesus.”

“Yes, he’s a different friend. I just met the fly last night.”

“Uh-huh.”

He finally exhaled, again blowing the smoke straight across the table at me.

“You see,” I said, “I found myself exiled in this book I was reading --”

“Hold on. Back up. You were exiled in a book?”

“Yes,” I said. He proffered the reefer. I took it and had another drag. “The Devil knew I didn’t like the book, so he exiled me in it, to get back at me.”

“Why did he want to get back at you?”

I was holding in the smoke, I was getting almost expert at this.

“I say why did the devil want to get back at you,” repeated Mr, Arbuthnot.

“Oh,” I said, finally exhaling, “we had had a couple of altercations, he and I. And I suppose I had gotten the better of him both times. So he was angry. Anyway it was in the world of this book that I met this talking fly.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“So, anyway, I managed to trick the Devil again, he was in the novel too, he was a publicist named Nicky Boskins --”

“Nicky Boskins.”

“Yeah, although in this world, the one we’re in now, he goes by the name of Lucky.”

“Lucky.”

“Yeah.” I took another drag, then another. “Anyway, I tricked him again and I made it back to this world, and somehow the fly came with me.”

“I see. And where is this fly now?”

“I guess he’s still back at my aunts’ place.”

“I suppose you didn’t want him tagging along to your tryst with -- Calliope is it?”

“Elektra.”

“Elektra,” he said. “Hey, pass that stick back, will you?”

“Oh, sorry,” I said. I handed it over to him. I watched him smoking it, then pushed my chair back, got up and went over to look out the open window over the sink. We were in the back of the building, and outside was Lyle Lane. The rain fell unremitting on the old houses, the trees and bushes and gardens. Down the street to the left I recognized Mrs. Davenport’s big ramshackle house, where Mr. Jones lived, if he still lived, if you could call what he did living, and I suppose one must.

“Damn,” I said.

“What’s the matter, buddy?”

I turned.

“I just remembered,” I said. “Again. I mean I remembered it earlier and then I forgot it again --”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m supposed to be getting together with this guy today to work on a screenplay, and I’m already almost three hours late.”

“Who’s this ‘guy’?”

“His name’s Larry Winchester. He’s a movie director.”

“Larry Winchester. What movies has he directed?”

“Let me see, what did he tell me. Uh, Two For Tortuga?”

Two For Tortuga. Hmm. Don’t know it. What else?”

The Vacant City?”

“No.”

Several Lonely People?”

“Don’t think so.”

Return of the 300 Spartans?”

“Sounds good but no.”

Stopover in Singapore?”

“Stopover where?”

Stopover in Singapore.”

“No, sorry.”

Mademoiselle 38? Ask Not The Hangman? White Slave Ship? Assignment in Bangalore?

”Didn’t you say that last one already?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, right, that was the Stopover one.”

In Singapore,” I said.

“These are all talkies, right?”

“Yes.”

This was getting dull. I turned around to look out the window again.

“What are you staring at out there?”

“Nothing,” I said. “The rain, the trees.”

“Ah, yes, the glories of nature.”

I glanced at my watch. It was almost one o’clock. I turned away from the window again.

“Well, look,” I said, “this has been -- interesting --”

“Well put.”

“But I should be going.”

“Yes, our master plan.”

He got up from his seat, took another drag from the reefer and offered it again to me. I went over and took it, it was very small now, barely smokeable, but I carefully took a couple of small drags. It was only then that I remembered that I had not wanted to smoke reefer, but it was too late now. I passed it back to him. He took one last little drag himself and put the stub out in the ashtray.

“Okay, let’s split,” he said.

We made our way out of the kitchen, Mr. Arbuthnot leading the way. Shnooby was still sleeping soundly on the dining room table. Mr. Arbuthnot turned to me, smiling, and held a finger to his lips.

We crossed into the living room and to the stairhead, and -- this time with me leading the way -- we went downstairs.

Back in his shop Mr. Arbuthnot reminded me not to forget my umbrella. I thanked him, headed across the room, took the umbrella out of the priceless Ming Dynasty vase, and finally Mr. Arbuthnot and I stood on either side of the front door, looking out at the sidewalk, the street, the rain.

“You won’t forget the seafood for Shnooby?”

I sighed.

“Do you think he’ll mind if I take a little while?” I asked.

“It all depends on how long he sleeps and on how long you take. Are you having second thoughts?”

“Well, it’s just a question of -- you know --”

“Fitting it into your busy schedule.”

“Yes," I said.

“I’m sure you’ll manage.”

“I’ll try.”

“If I were you I shouldn’t want to disappoint Shnooby.”

“Yes,” I said. “I probably shouldn’t.”

“Not if you value your life.”


“What?”

“Just joking. Ha ha. I’m sure things won’t have to go quite that far. Look, here come the first of the worshipers I think, making their way home from church.”

“Yes.”

“And there’s some across the street heading for luncheon at the Cape Coffee Shoppe. Have you had their pies?”

“Yes,” I said, “they’re not bad.”

“Might I ask one question before you slip away.”

“Yes?”

“Why did Wally lay that stuff on you, man?”

“I have no idea.”

“That bastard. I wonder if he has more?”

“I think he might,” I said. “He seemed to imply that he did.”

Suddenly Mr. Arbuthnot came over to me and grabbed one of my lapels in each of his small old fists.

Don’t toy with me, pal.

“I’m not,” I said. “It’s just that he said something about maybe my coming back for more. If I liked it.”

“Then he must have it!”

“I couldn’t say for certain,” I said.

“Damn his eyes. Do you think you could buy some from him for me?”

“Is it legal?”

“Legality be damned!”

“But -- excuse me, Mr. Arbuthnot, why can’t you just go over there yourself and --”

“Because that man hates me! And I despise him. We’ve been crossing the street when one of us sees the other coming for years, decades --”

“Oh.”

“Out of the question. I wouldn’t lower myself. So what do you say? Can you help me out?”

He still had his hands on my lapels.

“All right, I’ll see what I can do,” I said.

“Why don’t you go over there now?”

“Mr. Arbuthnot, please, I already told you that --”

“Oh, I know, I know, your precious Eleutheria --”

“And I have to meet this guy Larry, too, remember, and get Shnooby his seafood --”

“Yes, yes.” He finally let go of my lapels, and smoothed them out with his fingers, or at least went through the motions of smoothing them out. “Forgive me. But perhaps on the way to my place with Shnooby’s food you could drop by at Wally’s --”

“All right,” I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Whatever you do, don’t say it’s for me.”

“I won’t.”

“But wait. He won’t sell it cheap, you can count on that, now that he thinks you’re hooked.”

“How much do you think he’ll charge?”

“Good question. The moon? The stars? Or merely the earth? Damn his eyes, damn him and all he stands for.”

“Uh --” I put my hand on the door knob.

“Wait,” said the old man

I waited, but I kept my hand on the door knob.

He reached inside his jacket and brought out an old cracked brown leather wallet. He unfolded it and then undid a metal clasp over a tiny compartment. He dug his finger and thumb into the little pocket and brought out a plain gold ring, or at least a golden-colored ring.

“Here,” he said. “Offer this to Wally. But make sure you’ve got the stuff in your other hand before you give him this.”

I took my hand off the door knob it and took the ring. I held it up and looked at it in the grey light that came in from the street.

“Valuable ring, huh?”

“Valuable, you ask? Tell me, are you familiar with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen?”

Just to move things along I said, “Sure.”

“Then you remember the titular ring in that operatic cycle, and its awful powers?”

“The powers of the ring?”

“Yes, of the legendary ring of the Nibelung.”

“Its powers.”

“Yes, do you remember its awful powers?”

“Uh, sure.”

“Well, that ring, my boy, that unassuming little band of gold in your hand right there makes the ring in Der Ring des Nibelungen look like something that came out of a Cracker Jack box!”

“Okay, then,” I said, “I’ll take good care of it.”

And I dropped it into my right trousers pocket.


(Continued here, for various inexplicable reasons.)

(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, along with a separate listing of links to many of his beloved poems, suitable for recitation as a final statement before the jury adjourns to decide one’s fate.)

8 comments:

Di said...

There's "post Arnold Schnabel"?

For the first time ever, I doubt Harold Bloom. It's an uncomfortable feeling. Make it go away.

Dan Leo said...

Aww, don't worry, Di -- we haven't reached the "post Arnold" era yet, not by a long shot!

kathleenmaher said...

"I took it, without meaning to, without meaning not to."

All my life I've aspired to pure indifference.
The air is full of truth-telling here, which compounds the unknowable Why?

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen: word.

Jennifer said...

I feel like I've ditched a class for the past 2 months and have shown up only to find it's approaching the final and I have no idea what's going on. :(

Dan Leo said...

Jennifer -- never fear, I'll lend you my Cliffs Notes!

Manny said...

I've missed one or two, but it seems that Arnold is still a magnet for trouble.

Dan Leo said...

Manny -- trouble is Arnie's business!