The quaint New Jersey seaside town of Cape May is suffering a flood following a heavy rainstorm on this Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, but Arnold Schnabel and his companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the talking fly are not to be deterred from their quest...
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“While lying on the beach the other day I became so absorbed in my fifth or sixth re-reading of the fourth volume of Arnold Schnabel’s masterwork that when I finally got up I found that I had incurred a rather severe sunburn.” -- Harold Bloom in Holiday magazine.
As we drew opposite the shop I saw Mr. Arbuthnot standing in his open doorway, and there was no pretending this time; he said nothing, but he saw that I saw him.
“Ben,” I said, “could we stop here a minute?”
“What?” he said. “We just got started again.”
But, twisting his head around and seeing that I was stopping, he braked his bike too.
“What’s goin’ on?” he said.
“Yeah,” said the fly, who had left my ear and was flying in circles in front of me. “What the hell is it now?”
I said nothing, but pointed my face at Mr. Arbuthnot, standing there in his doorway in his little grey three-piece suit, puffing on his pipe.
“Who’s the old guy?” asked the fly telepathically.
“He’s Mr. Arbuthnot,” I replied in the same manner. “The old man I told you about, with the cat.”
“So that’s the old geezer,” said Ben silently.
“Yes,” I said, aloud.
“Mr. Schnabel,” called Mr. Arbuthnot, “am I to understand that you’re only now beginning your journey to the docks.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Arbuthnot,” I called back. “I ran into some unforeseen difficulties.”
“Come over here so we don’t have to shout at each other like a couple of street ruffians.”
Dismounting my bike, I walked it through the water to the entrance area of the Whatnot Shoppe, and Ben followed me.
The flood had risen to just below the level of the raised sill of Mr. Arbuthnot’s doorway. The shop was dim behind him, with only one or two electric lamps greyly illuminating the cluttered interior.
Mr. Arbuthnot took a few puffs from his little Meerschaum, and he slowly let out a little cloud of pearly smoke before speaking again.
“Tell me, Mr. Schnabel,” he said, “have you quite relapsed into insanity?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, after only a slight pause. “But then I might not be the best person to answer that question.”
“Ben Blagwell,” said Ben abruptly.
He had pulled his bike up beside mine, and now he put out his enormous right hand, well, an enormous right hand was the only sort of right hand he possessed, at any rate he offered this appendage to Mr. Arbuthnot, and the old man looked at it through those thick rimless glasses of his, in fact he looked at the hand for a good thirty seconds, and I wondered if perhaps the prescription for his glasses needed to be updated and he was trying to discern if this was indeed a hand Ben was proffering and not a ham or a puppy bulldog.
“Come on, old timer,” said Ben, “don’t leave me hanging, old buddy.”
Finally Mr. Arbuthnot transferred his pipe from his right to his left hand, and he put his right hand in Ben’s, which swallowed it up and then pumped up and down, causing Mr. Arbuthnot’s tiny old body to rock and shake like a marionette whose puppeteer has suffered a severe sneezing fit. His glasses came off his nose, he managed to grab them before they could fall, but then his dentures popped out of his mouth. Fortunately Ben was quick, he let go of Mr. Arbuthnot’s hand and caught the teeth in mid air.
“Gee, sorry, sir,” said Ben, and he held out the small yellow set of dentures on his palm to Mr. Arbuthnot, who was putting the rubber-tipped wire temples of the glasses back behind his miniature shell-like ears. The old fellow grabbed the dentures, turned his head aside, popped the teeth back into his mouth and turned to face me again.
“Mr. Schnabel,” he said, “where did you pick up this great oaf?”
“Hey, wait a minute, gramps,” said Ben. He was wiping his hand on the tail of his wrinkled Hawaiian shirt. “I said I was sorry.”
“Yeah, he can’t help it,” said the fly. “He’s big boned is all and don’t know his own strength.”
“Who said that?” said Arbuthnot. “Have you some infernal invisible spirit in your company?”
“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand. “You talk like a book, grandpop. A bad book.”
“How dare you, whosoever you are. My speech is known for its impeccability.”
“Maybe back when Anthony Trollope was considered hot stuff it was,” said the fly.
“Do not impugn the name of Trollope in my presence,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Who’s this trollop, anyway?” said Ben. “I like trollops, myself.”
“Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said. “I’m sorry if my friends, uh, alarmed you --”
“Not to mention nearly yanking my arm off,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Look,” said Ben, “How many times I gotta say I was sorry. You want me to punch myself in the face?”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Hey, lucky for you, Ben,” said Ferdinand. “Ya wouldn’t wanta knock your own goddam block off.”
“Who is that?” said Mr. Arbuthnot, addressing me.
“It’s the fly,” I said, pointing towards the fly who was buzzing merrily up and down in spirals in front of Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Ha ha ha,” laughed the fly. “Ferdinand’s the name, pal. Don’t wear it out.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “So you weren’t kidding, Mr. Schnabel. You really do have a talking fly for a friend. Or should I say fiend?”
“Hey, I take umbrage at that remark,” said the fly. “What’re you, prejudiced?”
“Against flies?” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Yes, I am. Vile, hideous creatures.”
“Fuck you,” said the fly.
“All right, guys,” I said. “Let’s all take a breath here.”
“Fuck him,” said Ferdinand. “The withered up little troll. We’re doin’ him a favor and now he’s insulting us.”
“Look,” I said, holding up my finger, perhaps rudely I admit, at Mr. Arbuthnot, who I could see was about to respond combatively to Ferdinand, “let’s not play the blame game now.”
“Blame game,” said the fly, “Where’d you pick that phrase up, from one of your headshrinkers?”
“Well, it was a phrase we used in the group therapy sessions,” I said.
“Ha -- I knew it,” said the fly.
Ben meanwhile was lighting up another Sweet Caporal, bending his head, cupping the flame from the imaginary typhoon whipping all around us.
He tossed the match away and, exhaling a cloud of smoke that nearly filled the shop’s entrance area, he said, “Arnie’s right. Let’s take it from the top. Whaddaya say, grandpa?”
“You may call me Mr. Arbuthnot. And, yes, I agree to let bygones be bygones.”
“Swell,” said Ben. He looked at Ferdinand, or rather followed him with his eyes, as the fly was still zooming all around in front of Mr. Arbuthnot. “Come on, Ferdy, take the high road.”
Suddenly Ferdinand stopped, and hovered.
“Okay,” he said. “We take it from the top.”
“Great,” I said. “Well, anyway, Mr. Arbuthnot, I know I’m getting off to a late start, but in fact Ben and Ferdinand and I were on our way out to the docks just now.”
“You’re bicycling out to the docks in this flood?”
“Well, yes,” I said.
“Don’t you realize the flooding will be much worse down by the docks?”
“Oh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Y’know, that makes sense,” said Ben.
“Well,” I said, “this policeman I was just talking to --”
“Wait,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “This the John Law that was shadowing you earlier?”
“Oh, the plot thickens,” said Ferdinand.
“I’ll say it does,” said Ben.
“So?” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Was it the same flatfoot?”
“Well, sort of,” I said.
“He either was or he wasn’t, Arnold.”
“It was him,” I said.
“This joker’s got it in for you, don’t he?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “He’s just doing his job, I guess --”
“Bullshit,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“I’ll second that,” said Ben.
“Jumped-up little crossing guard,” said the fly. “Guys like that I shit in their food.”
“Ha ha,” said Ben.
“Hee hee,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “I can see it would behoove me to keep on your good side, Mr. Fly.”
“Ferdinand’s the name, Mr. Arbuthnot,” said the fly.
“Ferdinand it is then,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Anyway,” I said. “This cop said as long as it doesn’t rain again the flooding shouldn’t get much worse, and when the, uh, tide goes back out, then, uh --”
“If,” said Ben.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“He said if we don’t get hit by that front heading down from nor’east.”
“Oh, right, yes,” I said. “If. But if we don’t get, uh --”
“Hit,” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said. “If we don’t get hit by more, uh, rain, then, uh, you know --”
For some reason Mr. Arbuthnot was staring at me with his head slightly cocked and with a crooked grin on his face, and I didn’t know why. It was disconcerting, but I attempted to sum up my argument.
“Anyway, if it doesn’t rain again then the flood should subside,” I blurted.
Mr. Arbuthnot nodded his head, puffing on his pipe, still smiling crookedly.
Ben had started making that hissing laugh of his again, shooting out little jets of cigarette smoke with each hiss. I couldn’t see what was so funny all of a sudden.
“Arnie,” said the fly.
“Yes?” I said.
He said something but I couldn’t quite make out what it was.
“What?” I said.
He spoke again, and again I couldn’t hear him.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “what did you say, Ferdinand?”
“I said will you just shut the hell up and listen!” he shouted.
“Listen to what?” I said.
“Oh, boy,” said Ben. He had stopped hissing, and now he coughed a couple of times, and wiped a tear from his eye.
“What is it?” I said.
“Arnie,” said the fly, “will ya just shut your trap a goddamn second and listen?”
I shut my trap and listened.
I heard the sound of rain, loud rattling rain popping onto Mr. Arbuthnot’s shop awning and crashing into the flooded street in a continuous barrage of small explosions. The rain had been loud earlier today but now it was as if -- as if what? -- as if the great circus tent stretched across the sky had been slit by some mad god’s sword and now billions of pebbles were crashing down through it to the earth.
“Or you could just say it’s raining cats and dogs,” said Ferdinand.
I turned. The street was nearly invisible from the lashing rain.
I turned back again to face Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Oh, well,” I said.
“What?” the old man shouted.
“I said, ‘Oh well!’” I shouted back.
“Oh, well, indeed,” shouted Mr. Arbuthnot. “All right, come inside then, all of you. I want to close this door before the deluge rushes in.”
Mr. Arbuthnot stepped back into his shop. Ben waved me ahead, and I went in first with my orange bike. Then the fly flew in, and finally Ben came in with the red Schwinn, ducking his head under the top beam of the doorway. Mr. Arbuthnot closed the door behind us, and suddenly the noise from outside was muffled by more than half. I noticed now that this was a very heavy door, with a glass pane at least an inch thick. Mr. Arbuthnot turned a bolt lever to lock the door.
“Hey,” called a familiar voice, “he’s back finally.”
It was Shnooby, the black cat, standing at the entrance to the shadowy stairway at the rear of the store. Quickly he trotted across the shop floor and rubbed against both my legs once and then stood up on his hind legs with his front paws against my right knee.
“So,” he said, looking up at me, “did you get my seafood? Where is it? And who’s Paul Bunyan over there?”
“What,” said Ben, “a talking cat now?”
“You got a problem with that, big guy?” said the cat.
“No,” said Ben, and he looked away, taking a drag of his cigarette.
“Wow,” said the fly, flying around near my head, “you didn’t tell me the cat could talk.”
“I, uh,” I said.
“My name is Ferdinand,” said the fly. “What’s your name, pussy?”
“My name ain’t pussy,” said Shnooby. “It’s Shnooby, and I don’t want to hear no cracks about it, ‘specially from a fly named Ferdinand.”
“Lighten up, pussy,” said Ferdinand.
“Come down here and I’ll lighten you up,” said Shnooby. He was still standing on his hind legs, with his front paws against my knee. Looking at me again he said, “Where’s my seafood?”
“Well,” I said, “I was on my way to get it just now --”
“Was on your way?”
“Well, I had been unavoidably delayed, but I was on my way to the docks with Ferdinand here, and Ben -- by the way, Ben, this is Shnooby.”
“Pleased to meet you, Shnooby,” said Ben.
“Likewise,” said Shnooby, without taking his eyes away from mine. “So where’s my fresh seafood?”
“Well, it started to rain again and the streets are flooded and so, um --”
“I invited them in,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Yeah?” said Shnooby. “What’re you, the Sisters of Mercy?”
“But they would never be able to get there by bicycle in this torrential downpour,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Later,” I said, to Shnooby. “I promise I’ll go later. If the rain stops. And if the streets aren’t too flooded.”
“If,” said Shnooby.
“Yes,” I said. “If.”
“You make me sick with your ifs,” the cat said.
Finally he jumped away from me, and darted back to the entrance to the stairway. Then he turned.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to go upstairs. I am going to go in the kitchen and eat some boring Nine Lives dried cat food, chicken and liver formula. Then I am going to take a nap. When I wake up I want to see some fresh seafood in this house. And I don’t want to hear any ifs.”
Then he turned and darted up the dark stairs.
“Wow,” said the fly. “Just, you know. Wow.”
“Don’t judge him harshly,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “He’s cross like that when he’s disappointed.”
“What an asshole,” said Ferdinand.
“He’s really not so bad if he gets what he wants,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“I like him,” said Ben. “He’s got gumption.”
“Yeah, he’s got gumption all right,” said Ferdinand. “And he’s still an asshole.”
(Continued here, come hell, high water, and everything in between.)
(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find a purportedly accurate listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode sponsored in part by Krass Brothers Men Store: “Store of the Stars!”)