On a rainy Sunday afternoon in August of 1963 our hero Arnold Schnabel has made a new acquaintance in the “reading room” at the rear of Mrs. Biddle’s rambling Victorian house in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Click here to see our previous chapter; those who think they are ready to accept the challenge may go here to read the beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 81-volume memoir.) “When the roll call of the great American writers is read -- Larry Winchester, Horace P. Sternwall, Fredric Brown, David Goodis, et al. -- pride of place must surely be given to Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in Boys’ Life.
He offered me his hand, which was nearly the size of a baseball infielder’s glove, with lumpy scarred knuckles and bulging veins under a matting of wiry sandy hair, and I took it, or rather it swallowed up my own hand in a grip that might fairly be described as vise-like.
“Ow,” I said.
“Oh, sorry, Arnie.”
He released my throbbing extremity, which I at once brought to chest-height and started flapping in the hopes that the blood would return before gangrene set in.
“Occasionally I forget the strength of this hand,” he said, admiring its palmar aspect with its mighty callused fingers splayed, fingers as thick and almost as brown as cigars. “Tempered to the strength of coiled steel in hundreds of barroom arm-wrestling matches from Borneo to Boston, from Port Arthur, Manchuria to Port Arthur, Texas.”
“I guess you haven’t lost too many of those,” I said, continuing to waggle my own hand, trying to whip some life into the thing.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Ben. He took another drag of his cigarette, looking around the room. He had the flattened nose of a boxer, or at any rate of a man who had gotten hit on the nose a lot; possibly as a result of this nasal damage his deep voice had a thick, gluey quality to it, sort of like that of a foghorn on a foggy night, or like that of a large Alsatian dog talking in its sleep.
“Someday I’ll stop winning,” he said, after a pause. “I’ll grow old. A pathetic character in some dockside dive. Someday some punk kid will snap this now-massive arm like a twig. Then I’ll not only be a pathetic character, I’ll be a pathetic cripple. Alone, unloved, pitied if not despised. They’ll find me dead in the gutter one fine morning, overdosed on canned heat.”
I finally stopped wagging my hand; the pain had subsided into only a throbbing numbness.
Big Ben Blagwell was now looking me square in the eye. His eyes were blue under the bill of his cap, and he was squinting, as if he were staring into bright daylight.
“Do ya know what it’s like when you can’t even afford grain alcohol?”
“No,” I said.
He took a drag off his cigarette -- I guess it goes without saying that it was an unfiltered cigarette -- and he looked around again.
“Where the hell are we, anyway?”
“Mrs. Biddle’s house.”
“And where is that?”
“Cape May, New Jersey.”
Ben scratched his beard-stubble with one of those thick gnarled fingers.
“Seemed like a minute ago I was down in Cuba, trying to smuggle out a schooner-load of Romeo y Julietas when I got hi-jacked by a pack of lesbian pirates. Damn, I musta really tied one on this time.”
I was still holding Havana Hellcats in my left hand. I laid it face down on the seat of the rocking chair where I had found it.
“Book any good?” he asked.
“I only read the first page. But it seemed pretty good.”
“I like to read,” said Ben. “Man’s Adventure. Man’s Life. Man’s Story. Men Today. New Man. Real Men. True Men. Man’s Book. Man’s Action. Man’s Epic. Man’s Magazine. Male. Man. You ever read any of them books?”
“Well, I’ve seen them on the magazine racks."
I opened and closed my right hand a couple of times. The feeling had come back.
“You want me to leave you alone if you want to read?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I really have to go, actually.”
“Things to do, huh?”
“Don’t let me keep you.”
I walked over to the screened door. Then stopped.
“Hey, Arnie -- it is Arnie, right?”
“Yes.” I half turned. “Or Arnold.”
“Arnie, you gonna go out there in that monsoon with no umbrella?”
“Um, no; no, I suppose not.”
“You got an umbrella?”
“Um, no,” I said. “Not with me.”
Just then a young woman in a black maid’s uniform and carrying a black umbrella came up the steps outside, and I opened the screen door for her. She seemed slightly familiar. She kept the umbrella’s cover outside until she had closed it up, and then she came in.
“Tank you,” she said. “You’re a gentleman, you are, sir.”
She spoke with an Irish accent. Her hair was black, and curly, tied back behind her head. She carried a black plastic purse.
I closed the door behind her, and she buttoned up her umbrella and hung it on a wooden peg near the door.
“And who are you, sweetheart?” asked Ben.
“I’m Maria. Mrs. Biddle’s maid.”
She was wearing galoshes, and she folded one leg up and pulled one off. The galosh that is, not her leg.
“The mysterious Mrs. Biddle,” said Ben.
“She’s not so mysterious once you get to know her,” said the maid. She dropped the one galosh to the side of the doorway and then pulled off the other one. She had plain little black shoes on. She looked at me. “You’re Mr. Schnabel, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You don’t remember me.” She put the one galosh down neatly side by side with the other one, then straightened up and looked at me, her head slightly cocked to one side. “Do ya now?” she said
“I was workin’ the night of the party the evenin’ before last.”
“Oh,” I said. Even though she was only talking she sounded somehow as if she were singing. “Now I remember,” I said.
And I did, if only barely.
“Mrs. Biddle was quite taken with you she was,” she said.
I said nothing to this.
She turned to Ben.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Blagwell’s the name, Ben Blagwell.”
“But please, call me Ben.”
“Mr. Ben then.”
“Just Ben then it is.”
“Come in to do a little work?” said Ben.
“Just a half day on account of it’s the Sabbath.” She turned to me again. “I’ve seen you at mass at the Star of the Sea. I didn’t see you at church today though, Mr. Schnabel.”
“Oh. I, uh, I went to the twelve today.”
“Sure I was at the twelve and I didn’t see ya.”
“I was in the back?”
“Arnie,” said Ben, “just own up to the fact that you missed mass today.”
“I missed mass today,” I admitted.
“Well, you’d better just hope you don’t get run over by a fire engine and crushed to death before you can make it to confession, Mr. Schnabel.”
“Ha ha,” laughed Ben.
“Honestly, Mr. Ben,” said Maria, “I for the life of me can’t understand how a man would trade an hour’s time in church of a Sunday for an eternity burning in the everlasting fires of hell, can you now?”
“Never could understand it,” said Ben. “Now or ever.”
“Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me,” said Maria, “I’ve work to do.”
“Nice meeting you, Maria,” said Ben, with a slight bow and a finger to his cap.
“Nice meeting you, Mr. Ben,” said Maria. She turned to me.
“Do be careful in the coming week, Mr. Schnabel.”
“I’ll try to be,” I said.
“If I was you I’d go straight away to that nice young Father Reilly and ask him to hear your confession privately.”
“I might do that,” I lied.
“Well, just be careful until you do,” she said. “An eternity is a long time.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Screamin’ in agony, a long time it is to be roasting in fire, with no hope of surcease until the end of time and beyant.”
“It is,” I said.
“Ta,” she said, and she walked out of the room and down the hallway.
Ben gave out a low, two-noted whistle. It sounded like the call of a demented macaw in the distance.
“Now that is one sick twisted little colleen,” he said. “But I think I’m in love. You think she liked me?”
“I think maybe she liked you better than she did me,” I said.
“You should have asked her for an umbrella.”
“Damn,” I said. “I forgot.”
“Run after her.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“Why, for Christ’s sake?”
“I’m trying to get away from the people in there.”
“You go in, you ask for an umbrella, they give you one, you thank them, you leave. Is that so complicated?”
“Christ. You want me to go ask for ya?”
I thought about it for about half a minute; Ben stood there patiently smoking his cigarette as I did so; but then I said, “But they don’t even know who you are.”
“Yes, but --”
“So, okay, take her umbrella.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that.”
He sighed, exhaling a great cloud of smoke. He stared at the inch-long stub that was left of his cigarette, then walked over to a standing ashtray.
“How long are these errands going to take you, Arnie?”
“Well, I guess I could get them done in an hour if I hurry.”
“So Maria will still be here in an hour.” He stubbed out the cigarette, then pointed at Maria’s black umbrella hanging by the door. “Just take the damn umbrella and bring it back. She won’t even notice it’s gone.”
He strode over to the doorway, took the umbrella off the peg, and brought it over to me.
“Here. Take it.”
I took it.
“Maybe I should just go in and ask someone to lend me an umbrella,” I said.
“It’s one or the other,” said Ben Blagwell. “Take Maureen O’Sullivan’s umbrella without asking, or go in and ask her or someone else if you can borrow an umbrella. There’s no third way.”
Nervously, with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand I fiddled with the gold ring on the little finger of my left hand, the hand that held Maria’s umbrella.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that there’s often a third way, even when there doesn’t appear to be one at first.”
“Oh really? And what would be your, uh, third way in say this situation?”
“Well,” I said, “for instance, I don’t know, I could just continue to stand, or sit, or both, alternately, in here until the rain stops.”
“And what if the rain don’t stop?”
“It has to stop eventually.”
“Granted,” said Ben. “But what about your errands.”
“Yes,” I said. “Then the errands wouldn’t get done.”
“And also someone’s bound to wander back here and wonder why you’ve been hanging around this room all day instead of just asking to borrow an umbrella and then doing your errands like a sane human being. What are you, slap happy?”
“Wait,” I said.
“What? What now?”
“Listen,” I said, holding up one finger.
Ben cocked his head to one side, paused for a moment.
“I don’t hear nothing,” he said.
“That’s just it,” I said. “Look.” With my normal-sized finger I pointed out at the world on the other side of one of the big screened windows.
Ben turned and looked out at the back yard. Even through the screen the grass of the lawn glowed a rich deep emerald, like the felt of a pool table.
“The rain’s stopped,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
He took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his Hawaiian-shirt pocket. Sweet Caporals.
“I guess there is a third way,” he said.
(Continued here, and at least until the next Rapture.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other “street legal” chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil Obstat: Archbishop John J. “The Big Man” Graham.)