Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends in Arnold’s humble attic room in his aunts’ old and weatherbeaten guest house, here in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May on this hot and humid Sunday afternoon in August of 1963...
(Click here to read our previous episode; the bewildered may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 36-volume memoir.)
“Aramis, Athos, Porthos. Moe, Larry, Curly. Manny, Moe, and Jack. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Hope, Crosby, and Lamarr. To these great trinities of literature and history must now be added the names Big Ben Blagwell, Ferdinand the fly, and -- Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Joe Franklin Show.
“Well, whatever,” I said, “let’s go, guys.”
“Waitin’ on you, boss,” said the fly. Ferdinand. The fly. It still felt funny to think of him as Ferdinand. After thinking of him solely as “the fly” for so long (actually about twenty-four hours, although it felt like approximately fifteen months) I had only just been begun the process of accepting his name as Francis. “Well?” he said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You said you wanted to go, and now you’re just standing there.”
“Oh,” I said. “Uh -- um --”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “I’ve seen this.”
“Seen what?” said the fly.
“This,” said Ben, nodding in my direction.
“Yeah?” said the fly.
“Seen it plenty of times in my career,” said Ben, inhaling his Sweet Caporal smoke, which he really did appear to be enjoying; at any rate he was certainly acting like someone who was really enjoying his cigarette. “Plenty of times,” he said again.
“Oh yeah?” said the fly.
“Yep,” said Ben, nodding his head, staring off and downward, as if into his storied past.
“Uh, yeah, I know whatcha mean, pal,” said the fly.
“Do you?” said Ben, his head slightly cocked, looking at the fly from under the brim of his cap.
“Sure,” said the fly. “Like guys who act all weird and shit.”
“Well, that too, my friend, that too,” said Ben, “-- but, no, more particularly I was thinking of the kind of guy who’s all raring to go on some wild caper fraught with danger, and then when the moment of truth comes he freezes. Turns to stone.”
“Turns yellow, you mean.”
Ben tapped his cigarette ash down to the floor, even though he knew where the ashtray was. But I suppose in his defense it could be said he was lost in a revery.
“Back in the big one,” he said, “I was the coxswain of a Higgins boat, bringing the boys in to storm those beaches defended by bloodthirsty and suicidally unyielding and obdurate Japs, and let me tell ya, sometimes them boys just didn’t want to get out of the boat.”
“Cowards,” said the fly.
“Well, it’s understandable, really,” said Ben, admiring the lit end of his cigarette, that glowing little red eye through which had passed the smoke which now filled every square inch of space in my tiny room. “All of a sudden them boys realized there was a good chance they were going to get killed.”
“So what’dja do with ‘em?” asked the fly.
“We kicked ‘em out of the boat, pulled up the ramp, and hauled ass back to the troop ship for another load.”
“Ha ha, you slay me, big guy,” said the fly.
“Okay,” I said, “I think I really am ready to go now.”
“Cool,” said Ferdinand, there I wrote his name, but it still feels funny. “Hey,” he said, “ya want me to take a look outside the door first, make sure that crazy broad ain’t out there?”
“The crazy broad,” said Ben, smiling. “I keep hearing about her.”
“Meshuggenah,” said the fly. “Like, totally. Pazzo, man. Gone, daddy, way gone.”
“I’m intrigued,” said Ben.
“That’s ‘cause you ain’t met her yet”
“No, I haven’t, but I really want to, now. She good looking?”
“She’s all right. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”
“I’ve always had a soft spot for dames who spell trouble," said Ben. "Trouble with a capital T, like TNT. Dames who ain’t happy till they drag you down into a vortex of madness and lust, betrayal, and death.”
“No kiddin’?” said the fly, and I thought I heard a note of admiration in his tiny voice.
“What’s this dame’s name?” asked Ben.
“Gertrude,” said the fly.
“So, Arnie,” said Ben, “you and this, uh, Gertrude --”
“He says he ain’t bangin’ her,” said the fly. “But she seems to think otherwise.”
“Look,” I said, “she was very drunk last night. She --”
“Yes, go on,” said the fly.
“Yeah, don’t stop now,” said Ben.
“Just when it’s gettin’ good,” said the fly.
“Well, I really prefer not to talk about it,” I said.
“Oh, come on!” said the fly. “Enough with the Catholic choirboy act.”
“But, really,” I said, “there was nothing --”
“Nothing at all,” said the fly.
“No,” I said.
“Like, not a thing.”
“Well, it’s -- it was -- it’s -- it’s complicated --”
“Complicated,” said the fly.
“Wait,” said Ben, “was this like -- uh -- what do they call it -- coitus interruptus?”
“What’s that?” said the fly.
“It’s when you’re bangin’ a broad, but you pull out before --”
“Oh,” said the fly. “’Pulling out’. What’s that phrase you used?”
“Coitus Interruptus,” said Ben.
“Whatever,” said the fly. “Pulling out?”
“Pulling out,” said Ben. “Or I guess maybe being pulled out.”
“Pulling out,” said the fly. “Not a big fan, myself.”
“Me neither,” said Ben.
“I like to finish what I start,” said the fly.
“Same with me, brother,” said Ben.
“Fuck that shit,” said the fly.
“So was it like that?” said Ben, for some reason asking the fly and not me.
“He says not,” said the fly. “I mean,” the fly addressed me now, “that is your story, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “We -- we -- uh, we --”
“Okay, now by we you mean you and the crazy broad, right?” said the fly.
“Yes,” I said, “we, she and I, well, I sort of walked home with her last night, and she was drunk.”
“You took her home, drunk,” said the fly.
“Oh, boy,” said Ben. “Taking a drunk crazy broad home. Now there’s a recipe for trouble. TNT. TNT in a barrel of gasoline.”
“I really just ran into her on my way home,” I said.
“Sure,” said Ben.
“No, really,” I said. “And there were other people there, anyway.”
“Other people?” said the fly. “The plot thickens. And into what species of a rancid bouillabaisse I shudder to think.”
“Look,” I said, “I’d really prefer not to talk about what happened.”
“There, see, I knew something happened,” said the fly.
“Nothing happened, really,” I said.
“Then how’d she get that big bruise on her forehead,” said the fly.
“Bruise?” said Ben.
“Like a ripe shiny plum on her forehead,” said the fly. “How’d she get it, Arnie?”
“She, uh, fell, sort of,” I said.
“Okay, look,” I said, “let’s go.”
Just standing there in that smoky tiny garret, even in my polo shirt and bermudas, I was now streaming with sweat all over again. I suddenly felt as if I’d lost ten quarts of bodily liquids just in the last five minutes.
“Ferdinand,” I said.
“Yes, sir!” the fly said, standing to attention in the air a foot or so away from my face.
“Look,” I said. “I’ll crack the door a little bit. Then you fly out and see if --”
“Oh, look who’s giving the orders now.”
“Please,” I said. “Please will you fly out.”
“That’s better. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “So could you please just fly out and see if Miss Evans --”
“Miss Evans?” said Ben.
“Gertrude,” I said. “Evans is her last name.”
“Got it,” said Ben.
“Okay, so I fly out,” said the fly; “if the coast is clear I come back in and give you guys the go-ahead. I know the drill.”
“Good, I said. Let’s go.”
“And what’s the magic word,” said the fly.
“Let’s go please,” I said. Would I ever get out of there? Maybe not.
“You want me to follow behind?” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said.
“’Cause I’ll go first, I don’t mind.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
“See?” said Ben to the fly. “He’s okay now.”
“We’ll see,” said the fly.
I went down the steps, at long last, and at the bottom I gently opened the door just an inch or so. The fly flew past me and out. I waited. Ben had come halfway down the steps, and he waited also. He was streaming with sweat, I was streaming with sweat. At least he had a cigarette.
The fly flew back in through the crack.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Nobody out there.”
“Any noise from her room?”
“The one down the hall there?”
“Yes, on the right.”
“I think I might’ve heard snoring.”
“Well, that’s okay,” I said.
“Come on, let’s go,” said Ben. “It’s stifling up in here. Hot and stifling like the engine room of a tramp steamer in the Sulu Sea in the rainy season.”
“All right,” I said. “But, look, let’s just walk very --”
“I know,” said Ben, “quiet, like a couple of shadows.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I pushed the door open, went through, and started down the hall, walking slowly and carefully, with Ben a few paces behind me and the fly buzzing along slightly ahead of me.
As I came to Miss Evans’s door I halted, holding one hand up so that Ben would not come lumbering into me and send me sprawling along the floor. I listened, my head cocked in the direction of the door. The fly circled slowly above my head, making only a very gentle buzzing sound. Behind me I heard Ben’s raspy breathing, although I believe he was trying not to breathe loudly.
The framed photograph of Robert Taylor looked down on us from his place on the wall, his expression one of wry amusement dissolving inexorably into boredom.
Then, sure enough, I heard wafting from within Miss Evans’s room the gentle and almost childlike sound of a woman snoring.
Well, good for her, at least she had escaped the DeVores, and God knows she had seemed in need of a nap when last I had seen her.
I continued to the staircase, Ben behind me and the fly now leading the way, and quietly downstairs we went, none of us saying a word until we had descended past the second floor landing.
(Continued here, because such is our destiny.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Many thanks to everyone who helped make last week’s Arnold Schnabel Walking Tour in Cape May such a resounding success, and we hope everyone got home safely.)