Saturday, May 21, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 251: errands


Let’s rejoin our bold hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends in the rambling old Biddle house, here in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a fateful rainy afternoon in August of 1963...


(Go here to read our previous episode; the morbidly curious may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning 49-volume memoir.)

“I fully intend to spend my summer vacation doing little else but lying in a hammock drinking mint iced tea and re-reading Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.


“So what do you know about this Sister Mary Elizabeth?”

“Not much,” I said. “Just that up until yesterday she was a nun, but she’s decided to quit the convent.”

Larry leaned to one side a bit, toward the dining room, and peeked around the corner of the hallway. The dining room was still a babble of chatter.

He straightened up, returned his gaze to me.

“She’s really digging Ulysses,” he said.

“So she told me,” I said.

He sighed, then said, “So, Arnie, what are you gonna do with yourself this lovely afternoon?”

“Well, I have a couple of errands I should run,” I said, doing my best to sound casually normal.

“Ah.”

Thank God, Larry seemed to have no interest in asking me what my errands might be. After a pause, he said, in a thoughtful-looking way, “I think I need a nap." Then, "So. Shall we say ten o’clock tomorrow morning?”

“Sure,” I said.

“With any luck we’ll have a decent script in a week. All right, pal.” He arranged his beer can and his cigar into his left hand, and offered me his right hand. I shook it.

“What the hell, maybe we’ll run into each other tonight,” he said.

“Maybe,” I said.

Having let go of my hand, Larry was wiping the palm of his right hand on his trousers. I suppose I was still sweating fairly profusely.

With his right hand he took his cigar from the hand that held his beer can.

“A rainy August Sunday in a small town at the seashore. Who knows what adventures await?” He puffed on the cigar, looking away. Then he looked at me again with his bloodshot eyes. “All right, buddy. I’m off to my room now.”

“See you later, Larry.”

Without bothering to say anything to the others in the dining room, he went down the hall with his cigar and his beer can, and started up the stairs.

I now found myself in another awkward situation. Who am I kidding, my entire life since I first became aware of myself has just been one long enormous awkward situation containing a succession of millions of somewhat smaller awkward situations. But the present awkwardness had to do with the fact that I no longer had any particular reason to be here in Mrs. Biddle’s house, whereas I had promised to fetch Mr. Arbuthnot’s cat some fresh seafood and also to try to get Mr. Arbuthnot some of that “stuff” from Wally in exchange for the gold ring that Arbuthnot had given me. Two absurd tasks, undoubtedly, but I had promised, and so such was my fate.

The easiest thing to do would be simply not to say anything to anyone but to go back down the hall the way Larry had gone, and keep going all the way to the rear entrance. I had started to do this when a second later Daphne called, suddenly and firmly:

“Arnold! Where are you going?”

After flinching involuntarily, as if I had been shot in the back with a BB rifle, I stopped, in mid-step, and turned.

She came right up to me with a can of Schmidt’s in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her head slightly cocked to one side.

“I have to, uh, do a couple of little errands,” I said.

“Oh. For your aunts and your mother?”

“Well, no, actually they’re for this old man I know.”

“An old man.”

“Yes, there’s this old man, and, uh, I told him I’d run some errands for him.”

She yawned, putting the back of her cigarette-holding hand to her mouth.

“Oh, sorry!” she said. “Not that it isn’t all fascinating about the errands and the old man. Not to mention so very nice of you. Helping out old people and all.”

She stifled another yawn, and I took a drink from my can of beer, a good drink. Still yawning, Daphne put out her forefinger and touched the ring on the little finger of the hand that held my beer.

“What’s up with this ring?” she asked.

“Oh, the ring.”

“That’s new, isn’t it?”

“I think it might be pretty old,” I said.

“I mean new for you.”

Dick came over to us.

“What’s going on?”

“Arnold’s wearing a new ring,” said Daphne.

“Really?”

She touched the ring again.

“See?”

“Well,” said Dick. “Where’d you get the ring, Arnold?”

“From Mr. Arbuthnot.”

“Arbuthnot? That crazy old man?”

“Yes,” I said.

Suddenly Dick clapped his forehead with the hand that held his Chesterfield. Ash fell from the cigarette.

“What is it, Dick?” said Daphne.

“I just remembered something.”

“What?”

“Darling, may I have a brief word alone with Arnold?”

“Sure,” she said, and she walked away.

“I think she agreed a little too readily to give us a moment alone,” said Dick, in a low voice. “Anyway, let’s go in to the kitchen.”

He touched my arm, and we went down the hall, and into the kitchen. Dick turned and stood with his back to one of the chairs at the red-topped table.

“Arnold, I totally forgot about that doll.”

“The doll.”

That creepy Victorian doll that Mr. Arbuthnot gave me to give to Daphne. Didn’t I accidentally leave it with you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Outside the Ugly Mug, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “You gave it to me to hold while you lit a cigarette, and then you walked away. By the time I realized that I was still holding it --”

“I was long gone.”

“Yes.”

“I understand. Do you still have it?”

I think I looked away, perhaps gnawing my lower lip while doing so. I felt funny just standing there, so I walked over a few feet to the kitchen counter near the sink, turned and stood with the small of my back against it.

“Arnold?”

“Dick, I’m afraid I don’t have the doll any more.”

“You lost it?”

“Not exactly.”

“Honestly,” said Dick, “it’s not all that important to me.”

“Um --”

“And there really was something -- disquieting about that doll anyway. Don’t you think?”

“Uh, yes,” I said.

“You agree?”

“Yes, I would have to agree.”

“So what happened to it?”

“That’s a -- a long story,” I said.

“You seem reluctant to tell it.”

“Well, it’s just kind of long and involved.”

“Really? Now I’m intrigued. Can’t you just give me a brief rundown?”

I took a drink from my can of beer. Dick took a swig from his. He took a drag on his cigarette, then slowly exhaled. The window behind the sink was open, and the rain was still pouring outside, rattling against the side of the house and on the plants and the leaves of the trees.

“The doll came alive,” I said.

“Alive.”

“Yes. It was a girl who had been trapped in the form of the doll. Since 1910.”

“1910.”

“Yes.”

“So -- briefly if you will -- what happened with this doll after she came to life?”

“Well, a lot of stuff happened --”

“Good stuff or bad stuff?”

“Both.”

“Ah. So where is she now?”

“I wound up taking her back in time to 1910.”

“You took her back in time.”

“Yes.”

“So you have this -- power.”

“I’m not sure how much control I have over it,” I said.

“I see.”

He turned around, saw an ashtray on the table, reached over and tapped the ash of his cigarette into it. He turned back, took another drink from his can of beer.

“She must have been -- very grateful,” he said

“I think she was, in her way.”

“Well,” said Dick, “I’m glad I never mentioned her to Daphne then.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s for for the best I think.”

“So do you have these sorts of -- adventures -- frequently?” asked Dick.

“I’m afraid I do,” I said. “At least of late I do. The last week or so. Although it seems much longer.”

There was an opened box of Uneeda Biscuits on the counter. I picked the box up and stared at the picture of the little boy in the yellow slicker and rainhat, carrying his box of Uneeda Biscuits.


“The time seems -- longer,” said Dick.

“Yes,” I said.

You couldn’t see it but the little box the boy was carrying must have had a picture of this same little boy on it, carrying an even smaller box.

“Like how much longer?” asked Dick.

“Well, a day will seem like a year or more.”

And the boy on that tinier box carried a tinier box with a tinier boy. And so on.

“Are you hungry?” asked Dick. “Have a cracker.”

“No,” I said.

I put the box back down on the counter.

“So,” said Dick.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you know, Arnold, in a way, it’s quite a relief for me to hear all this. I was afraid it was just me. Too much of that government-issue LSD, you know? So what do you think? Is it just this town?”

“Possibly,” I said. “Or possibly we’re both insane.”

“Well, insanity’s always a possibility, isn’t it? I mean, what’s more insane than -- than all this?”

He waved the hand that held the Chesterfield.

“You don’t mean this kitchen,” I said.

“No, I mean all of it. Existence. It’s all like a madman’s dream. Oh, well. You want another beer?”

“No, I really should go,” I said. “I have to get some fresh seafood for Mr. Arbuthnot’s cat.”

“His cat? Scooby was it.”

“Shnooby,” I said.

“That damned cat.”

“Yes,” I said.

“So, wait, you told that old troll you’d get fresh seafood for his cat? Shnooby?”

“Yeah.”

I shrugged.

“Where are you going for it? The Acme?”

“No,” I said. “It has to be fresh, from the docks.”

“Oh, of course. And what about the ring?”

“This ring.”

I held up the hand, my left hand, on the little finger of which was the gold ring.

“That’s no ordinary ring, is it?”

“No.”

“Something to do with Arbuthnot?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “I told him I’d try to do something else for him today. And the ring, well, the ring has to do with that.”

Dick paused for a moment, looking at me.

“Arnold,” he said, “do you need some help?”

“No,” I said. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“Because if you need someone to back you up --”

“I think I can handle it,” I said.

“You don’t sound entirely sure.”

“I’m never entirely sure.”

“I’d better come with you.”

“No, really, Dick, I know you’d rather spend the afternoon with Daphne.”

“Well, that’s true. I mean all we’re doing is playing Canasta. But she’s mad for Canasta that girl. And, well, I do have to catch the six o’clock ferry this evening, so I can be back to work at the Pentagon tomorrow morning, bright and early --”

“I’ll be fine, Dick.”

“If you say so. But, look, if you need help, just ring me up here. You probably don’t have Mrs. Biddle’s phone humber, do you?”

“No --”

“Okay, how’s your memory?”

“Like a steel trap.”

“Her number is --” He spoke a Cape May phone number. “Got that?”

“Sure,” I said.

He said the number again.

“Got it?”

“Got it,” I said. I’d already forgotten it, but I figured if I could find a public telephone and if I had a dime then there was a good chance the phone booth would have a directory, and if not I could call information.

“Good,” said Dick. He said the number again, and again it went right in one of my ears and out the other without meeting the least resistance. “Got it?” he asked, again.

“Got it,” I said.

“Maybe I should find a pad and pencil and write it down.”

“No, that’s okay,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

“Good, because it’s not listed.”

Oh well. I felt too embarrassed to ask him to repeat the number one more time, so I let it go.

I took another drink of beer, finishing the can. I put the can on the counter, near the Uneeda crackers.

“Well, I think I’ll just slip out quietly the back way,” I said.

“I understand,” said Dick. “I’ll tell everyone you had -- errands.”

“Thanks, Dick.”

We went out of the kitchen, shook hands, said a few more manly words of farewell, and I went towards the rear and Dick the other way.

When I got to the back room I realized that it was still raining and that I still had no umbrella. Any normal man would have gone back and asked to borrow an umbrella. But somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.

I went to the screen door, opened it. The rain continued unabated.

Perhaps if I stood here the rain would stop in the next five seconds.

I waited five seconds, but the rain continued, the same as before.

I closed the screen door and thought about it, looking out at the rainy green scene through the screen.

My aunts’ house was only a block away. But still, walking even that one block in this downpour would be more than enough to completely drench me, and possibly ruin my cordovans.

So, really it was no big deal, I should just go back and ask to borrow an umbrella.

But then this would lead to more conversation. And to who only knew what else.

I turned away from the door and looked at the shelves of books, as if the solution to my dilemma might lie somewhere in the pages of these volumes.

My eye was caught by the lurid colors of Havana Hellcats, still sitting over there on the seat of a rocking chair. I walked over, picked the book up. I turned it over and looked at the back cover.

“Trapped in a tropical paradise that turns into a burning inferno of passion and betrayal, Yank soldier-of-fortune Ben Blagwell goes up against a harem of lesbian murderesses whose only motto is ‘More!’”

“By Horace P. Sternwall, author of Say It With a .38, Two Ways to Tuesday, and The Magic Pen Wiper.

“’I couldn’t put this book down, and neither will you!’ -- Bennett Cerf”

“’Not for nothing has Sternwall been compared with Maugham and Conrad.’ -- Bernard DeVoto

“Sternwall’s Big Ben Blagwell deserves a place in the pantheon of the great heroes of literature, right up there with Leatherstocking, Ivanhoe, D'Artagnan, and Humphrey Clinker.” -- Lionel Trilling

I opened the book to the first page of the novel. I brought the opened book to my nose and breathed in the reassuring smell of the pulpy paper. Then I lowered the book and read the opening lines.

“Your name Ben Blagwell?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’d like to buy you a drink if you’re Ben Blagwell.”

“I only drink with my friends,” said Big Ben Blagwell.

“And what’s a chap got to do to become your friend?”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you.”

“Innkeeper!” called the fat man in the wrinkled white suit. “Another drink for my friend here. What’re you drinking, Ben?”

“Planter’s Punch, with a float of ‘151’.”

“Two Planter’s Punches,” said the fat man.

“With a float of ‘151’,” Ben reminded him.

“And a float of ‘151’,” said the fat man.

“Sit down, my friend,” said Big Ben Blagwell.

I closed the book. Ben Blagwell wouldn’t be afraid to go back and ask for an umbrella. Far from it. Why couldn’t I be more like Big Ben Blagwell?

“All right, buddy,” said someone behind me, in a deep, gruff voice.

I turned. It was a big muscular, sun-bronzed guy with four or five days’ growth of a ginger beard, a crushed and dingy white yachting cap, a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt, equally wrinkled denim trousers, dirty white deck shoes. He had a tattoo of an anchor on one forearm, and there was some sort of a bird on the other.

He took a drag from a cigarette.

“What gives?” he said.

“Nothing,” I said. “I was just looking at this book here. I was on my way out, and, uh --”

“Who are you, anyway?”

“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel. I’m a friend of Mrs. Biddle’s, sort of.”

“Mrs. Biddle.”

“Yes,” I said. “Um, I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Blagwell’s my name. Ben Blagwell.”


(Continued here; a worldwide army of Schnabelians demands it.)

(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other cybernetically-accessible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, all of them available free, gratis and for nothing. This project sponsored in part by a generous grant from the Uneeda Biscuits™ Endowment for the Memoiristic Arts.)

4 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

To my mind (for what it's worth), insane people are exhausting. Spend ten minutes with anyone who's insane and you'll feel as if you've run a marathon. So Arnold's not insane and neither is Dick. The DeVore's? Can't say.

Dean Rohrer said...

“Your name Ben Blagwell?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’d like to buy you a drink if you’re Ben Blagwell.”

“I only drink with my friends,” said Big Ben Blagwell.

“And what’s a chap got to do to become your friend.”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you.”


hahaha--great

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen: word. Arnie and Dick aren't insane, it's just that insane things keep happening to them. Now the DeVores and Gertrude on the other hand...

Dean, we might have to request your services for the new Big Ben Blagwell graphic novel.

Manny said...

Sane/insane? Thank God for the touchstone of Harold Bloom when reading Arnold.