Our hero Arnold Schnabel (with his companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the fly) finds himself once again in Mr. Arbuthnot’s Whatnot Shoppe, on this rainy Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, here in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Go here to read our previous chapter; the morbidly curious may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award-winning 47-volume memoir.)
“The sheer wealth and richness of Arnold Schnabel’s world -- how one longs to return to it after even a brief absence.” -- Harold Bloom in GQ.
Once again I was sweating. There was a black table fan oscillating on the glass counter by the cash register, but now that the door was closed all the fan was doing was pushing around the hot air and the tobacco smoke.
“Well, we might as well go up to my flat,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “We’ll wait out the rain up there.”
“Yeah. The rain,” said Ben.
He was on the other side of the doorway from where I was. He stood there, holding his red Schwinn with one hand. He looked out the window, or maybe he was looking at all the junk in the display, perhaps he wasn't looking at anything. Then he pushed down his kickstand with the sole of his dirty white deck shoe and stood the bike up. He turned and took a drag of his cigarette.
“And the flood,” he said.
“Yes, and the flood,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“You think this front door is gonna hold?” asked Ben, eyeing the door with the look of a man who knew his doors.
“I hope so,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “That’s two-inch mahogany, inch-thick bulletproof glass, and the bottom rail fits exactly flush into the bronze weatherstripping in the threshold.”
Ben knocked the wood of the door with his knuckles, and then the glass pane.
“Seems pretty sturdy,” he said. “But will it stand up to a tidal wave?”
“I have no idea,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Perhaps a small tidal wave?”
“Maybe,” said Ben.
I moved my orange Schwinn closer to the window on this side of the doorway, and kicked down the kickstand, the doing of which caused a fresh bolt of pain to run up my leg, although, oddly enough this was not the same leg that had most recently immobilized me.
“Ow,” I said, but no one paid any attention to me.
Mr. Arbuthnot and Ferdinand were both looking at Ben, who was down on his haunches now, running his fingers along the lower edge of the door.
“Maybe,” he said. “Just maybe.” He stood up, wiped his fingers on his denims, took another drag of his cigarette. He looked through the thick glass of the door at the crashing watery greyness outside. The buildings across the street were only vaguely and waveringly visible. “It’s a chance,” he said. He turned and looked at me, at Ferdinand, at Mr. Arbuthnot. “But it’s a chance we’re gonna have to take.”
“I suppose so,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “I don’t really see any alternative.”
“Me neither,” said Ben. “We’re trapped. If this door busts open and the water rushes in we just gotta pray the flood don’t knock the whole house down.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“I’ve seen it happen. Houses bigger and stronger than this one broken apart like some little broad’s dollhouse.”
“Oh my,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Washed away -- like, like what?” said Ben.
“Like dollhouses,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Yeah,” said Ben, “but, I know, even better, you ever seen them little houses guys build out of matchsticks?”
“Why, yes, I have,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “You see, in my trade --”
“Imagine one of them little matchstick houses and I stamped on it. Hard. And then threw the pieces in the river where they get washed away. Along with everybody that was inside ‘em --”
“Little matchstick men,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Yeah, or like little army men maybe,” said Ben. “Or them little people in train sets. Dead. All of them, washed away --”
“Jesus Christ, Ben!” said the fly.
“What’s the problem, little buddy?”
“Can’t you be any more melodramatic?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Listen, you big ape, this is just a little flood in a South Jersey shore town! This ain’t like some fuckin’ massive flood in the Philippines or goddamn India or someplace like that! We don’t have floods like that in this country!”
Ben took a drag of his cigarette and let the smoke out slowly before he replied.
“You ever hear of a little town called Johnstown, my friend? A little flood called the Great Johnstown Flood?”
“I remember that one,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He was re-lighting his pipe with a wooden match, making tiny sucking sounds. “Eighteen hundred and eighty-eight?”
“Somewhere around there,” said Ben.
Mr. Arbuthnot waved the match out and flicked it at the vase near the doorway, the one he had said was a priceless Ming vase. The match bounced off the side of the vase and down to the wooden floor. There were a lot of other matches on the floor there too.
“Better’n twenty-two hundred people, drowned like rats,” said Ben. “Men, women, children. Pets and farm animals.”
“Oh, fucking hell,” said Ferdinand, “will you just cut it out with the gloom and doom?”
“As the flood tore down the valley it picked up debris, not only human beings and animals but bricks and shattered lumber and thousands of yards of barbed wire from a wire factory. Survivors said the debris-choked flood looked like some monstrous avalanche, a mountain rolling over and over on itself, crushing everything in its path. Gee, imagine them poor people trying to stay afloat but getting all tangled up in the barbed wire. What a horrible way to check out.”
“All right,” said the fly, “if you don’t shut the fuck up about the Johnstown flood right now, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but you ain't gonna like it.”
“I’m only talking,” said Ben. “No need to get all upset.”
“Talk about something else,” said the fly. “Christ, I need a drink now.”
“Hey, I could go for a snort too,” said Ben. He turned to Mr. Arbuthnot. “Got anything for some thirsty sailors, grandpop?”
“Well, as it happens you’re in luck, young man, because during that all-too-brief interlude between torrential downpours this afternoon I ducked out to the Ugly Mug’s package shop and picked up a couple of bottles of Canadian Club and another of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth.”
“No rum, huh?”
“If I had only known that was your preference I assure you I would have purchased a fifth, perhaps even a half-gallon.”
“Heh heh, you’re all right, pops, I don’t care what anybody says about you. Hey, where do I dump my cigarette?”
“Just toss it in that priceless Ming vase by the door there.”
He indicated the cracked and stained old piece of pottery in which I had stood my umbrella earlier today. Ben flicked his cigarette butt into it.
“All right,” he said, “let’s go hoist a few.”
“Yes, let’s,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Nothing I like better than bending an elbow with the boys. But in return for my hospitality I wonder if you and Arnold, and, uh --”
“Ferdinand,” said Ferdinand.
“And Ferdinand,” continued Mr. Arbuthnot. He drew on his pipe, but it was out. He looked into the bowl, then turned it over and gave it a tap with his finger, letting the ashes fall to the floor. “I wonder if you fellows might do me a service.”
“Oh, Christ, here we go,” said the fly.
“Now, Ferdy,” said Ben. He was running his fingers along the derrière of a mannequin wearing a dress of the sort that was fashionable around the year 1910.
“Nothin’ for nothin’,” said Ferdinand.
“Just a small service,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He blew through his pipe and then stuck it into his jacket pocket.
“All I want is a drink of whiskey,” said Ferdinand. “And now in order to get it I gotta do this old geezer a service.”
“But I assure you --” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“What ever happened to the days when some pals drop by your trap you offer ‘em a goddam drink no strings attached?”
“Let’s hear what he’s got to say,” said Ben. He had been lifting up the mannequin’s skirt to look at its legs, but now he let the material drop, which it did sending off a flurry of dust.
“Fuck him,” said Ferdinand. “Let him keep his Canadian Club. I prefer a good bourbon my own self.”
“You misunderstand me, Mr. Ferdinand,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “I will gladly offer you gentlemen all the liquor I possess, free, gratis and for nothing; never let it be said that Arbuthnot was mean with his liquor or his drugs.”
“Wait, you got drugs?” said Ferdinand, and Ben perked up as well.
“I wish,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Me and Arnie smoked up the last of my stash earlier today.”
Both the fly and Ben turned and gave me a look, as if they were somewhat pleasantly surprised.
“Layers upon layers with you, Arnold,” said Ferdinand.
“I’ll say,” said Ben.
“But anyway,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “I was only speaking figuratively when I said that in return for my liquor I wondered if you would do me a service.”
“So what the hell did you mean?” said Ferdinand.
“I meant to say that I have a small favor to ask which if you gentleman would agree to carry it out would perhaps redound as happily to your own advantage as to mine.”
“A favor,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “A small favor.”
“Seems like we were already doin’ you a favor,” said Ferdinand. “With this seafood caper.”
“Yes, indeed you were, and believe me I sincerely appreciate it,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “But listen, isn’t anyone else tired of standing around down here? Why don’t we go up to my digs and we’ll talk this over with some very cold and very strong Manhattans?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Ferdinand. “At least the Manhattans part does.”
“Same here,” said Ben. “Arnie, you’ve been awful quiet.”
“Oh, well, uh, you know,” I said. Both my legs were aching and I was hot and sweaty, but I knew no one wanted to hear my problems.
“The strong quiet type,” said Ben.
“That’s our Arnie,” said Ferdinand.
“Follow me, gentleman,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“So it’s okay we just leave the bikes out here?” said Ben.
“Unless you want to carry them upstairs,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“No thanks,” said Ben.
Mr. Arbuthnot turned and headed toward the stairway with his quick small steps.
I started to follow, but Ben came over and grabbed me by the arm. His hand went easily all around my biceps.
“Arnie,” he whispered. “This guy on the level? We ain’t gonna get dry-gulched up there are we?”
“Ah, Christ,” whispered Ferdinand, but a little louder, “will you cool it? I got news for you, real life ain’t an Alan Ladd movie.”
“Maybe your life ain’t,” said Ben.
“What’re you gentlemen whispering about back there?” called Mr. Arbuthnot, over by the entranceway to the staircase.
“I was just asking Arnie if he knew where the head was,” said Ben. “I gotta take a wicked one.”
“You can use the lavatory upstairs,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Provided you can wait that long.”
“Oh, I can hold it in, I guess,” said Ben. “I was just, you know, wondering if you had one down here, or --”
“I do,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “But as I said, if you’ll wait till we get upstairs --”
“Ben, just shut up,” whispered the fly.
“Are you coming then, gentlemen?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Sure, right away,” said Ben. He let go of my arm, and now my biceps ached a little where he had been grabbing it. “Let’s go, boys.”
He strode across the shop floor, and I hobbled along right behind. The fly was in my ear.
“Arnie,” whispered Ferdinand, “whaddaya think? We gonna have a problem with this old fart?”
“Um,” I said.
“Telepathically,” Ferdinand whispered.
“Oh, sorry,” I thought. “Well, to answer your question, I really don’t know. But every time I come here something weird seems to happen.”
“Weird I can handle,” whispered the fly. “Just so long as he don’t like poison us, or slip us a Mickey Finn.”
“Hey, I heard that,” thought Ben, glancing back at us. “Whaddaya think, Arnie?”
“I don’t think he’ll slip us a Mickey Finn,” I thought back. “Why would he do that?”
“How would I know?” thought Ben. “Maybe he’s a cannibal and likes to eat human flesh. Live human flesh.”
“Well, that leaves me in the clear,” said the fly, laughing silently.
Mr. Arbuthnot had switched on the entranceway light and gone up a few steps, but now he turned to look down at us from the spiral staircase.
“Follow me, lads,” he said. “Mr. Bogwell --”
“Blagwell,” said Ben. “But, please, call me Ben.”
“Very well, Ben it is then, watch your noggin going up these stairs. They were not built for giants like yourself.”
“Sure, chief, I’ll be careful.”
“You wouldn’t want to strike your head and fall and crush Mr. Schnabel.”
“Nah, wouldn’t want to do that.”
Like a small monkey in an old man’s suit Mr. Arbuthnot then scrabbled spryly up the stairs.
Ben looked at me, raised his eyebrows briefly, then started climbing the stairs. I let him go up four or five steps, and then followed. My legs still ached and I pulled myself along on the wooden handrail. Ferdinand sat in my ear.
“Anything happens up there, don’t worry,” said the fly. “I got you covered.”
Great, I thought, I have a fly looking out for me.
“Hey, I heard that,” whispered Ferdinand.
“Sorry,” I whispered back.
“But -- I know -- I’m just a fly.”
“Okay, but just remember, flies have feelings too.”
Up above us Ben was huffing and puffing at the effort of climbing the stairs.
“If that guy falls on you though you’re on your own,” whispered Ferdinand.
“I realize that,” I whispered, and a couple of drops of Ben’s sweat fell on my face.
“Yeah, if that guy takes a tumbler it’s every man for himself,” whispered Ferdinand.
“And every fly,” I whispered.
(Continued here; the adventure has only just begun.)
(Painting by Mort Kunstler. Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-the-minute listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode made possible in part by a generous grant from John’s Bargain Stores™. “Where Arnold Schnabel’s mother shopped!”)