Once again our hero Arnold Schnabel (with his comrades Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the fly) finds himself ascending the spiral staircase leading from Mr. Arbuthnot’s Whatnot Shoppe to that aged gentleman’s living quarters, here in the rain-drenched and flooding seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, on this fateful Sunday afternoon in August of 1963...
(Please click here to read our preceding episode; those who have successfully completed both War and Peace and Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu may go here to start at the beginning of this Gold View Award-winning 49-volume memoir.)
“Arnold Schnabel’s monumental masterwork is so much more than a book or even a series of books; nay, I rather look on it more as a way of life.” -- Harold Bloom in Women’s Wear Daily.
Fortunately, and obviously, or else I wouldn’t be writing this, Ben did not fall down on me and we all made it successfully up to Mr. Arbuthnot’s apartment, and none too soon in my case because as soon as I passed through the doorway from the stairwell my knee went out on me, I think it was the right one, not that it matters, but one of my knees collapsed under me and I pitched headlong onto a throw rug.
“Ow,” I said, because I was in pain. “Ow.”
I squirmed on the rug, gripping my knee, neither of which actions lessened the pain in the slightest.
“Oh, dear,” I heard Mr. Arbuthnot say.
“Jesus Christ, Arnie,” said the fly.
“Fuckin’ hell,” said Ben.
“Lift him up,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Sure.” said Ben, “Where you want me to put him, on that couch?”
“No!” I said, I imagine in a rather constricted voice. “Not the couch!”
Ben had already hauled me up to my feet with a hand under each of my armpits.
“Let me lay you on the couch, Arnie. You can stretch your leg out that way.”
“No!” I said, but, meaning the best I’m sure, Ben ignored my protestations, lifted me as easily as though I were one of the hollow shop mannequins downstairs, carried me around the coffee table and laid me down on that tiger-striped couch, into which of course I immediately sank almost to the level of the floor.
“Wow,” said Ben. “You need some new springs in that couch, Mr. Arbuthnot.”
“You think so?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Get me out of here,” I said, and even to myself my voice sounded muffled and distant, like a voice from far within a cave or a mine.
“You look ridiculous,” said Ferdinand, buzzing around above me.
“I feel ridiculous. Get me out.”
“You look like you’re lying in your coffin, Arnie,” said Ben’s voice.
I felt like I was lying in my own coffin, too. A fairly comfortably upholstered coffin, but still a coffin.
“That divan has never sunk down like that with me,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“That’s because you weigh about as much as I do,” said Ferdinand. “Lift him out, Ben.”
There was a bit more back-and-forth among us, I was in so much pain that I stopped paying attention, even to what I was saying, but the upshot of it was that Ben did lift me out with the intention of setting me into the easy chair to the left of the sofa, his left, but I suppose I was a bit ungainly to handle even for a fellow as strong as Ben, because he tripped over the coffee table, sending me flying diagonally into the chair, which toppled backward with me tumbling over it, and then I was unconscious.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that once again I entered a different realm of consciousness, and in this realm I was finally being buried, in an actual coffin, they had screwed the lid shut and they were lowering me down. At last I was as low as I was ever going to go, and in the darkness I felt and heard the ropes being pulled back up. Then I heard a handful of dirt falling on the outside of the coffin’s lid. After a half a minute another handful of dirt fell. Four or five more handfuls followed at similar intervals, and then that was it. Was this everyone who had bothered to show up at my burial? Six or seven people? Let’s see, there would be my mother of course and her three sisters Greta, Elizabetta and Edith. Probably Kevin would show up, he wouldn’t want to miss it, not out of any great affection for me perhaps, but only to see someone buried. Who else? Would Charlie Coleman have come? Oh, wait, surely Elektra would be there, wouldn’t she? And what about Steve, or Josh. For that matter what about Ben or Ferdinand. Of course Ferdinand could not be expected to throw in the traditional handful of dirt. But then it occurred to me: I was thinking, I was aware of myself, even though everything was black all around me, so how could I be dead? Had I merely been in a very deep coma? Had some horrible misdiagnosis been made? Or -- was this death? This lying here in darkness, forever. And if so, what would I do with myself for all eternity? It wouldn’t be so bad if only I had some light, and an endless supply of paperback novels. Maybe if I tried knocking against the lid of the coffin someone would hear me before the grave diggers started shoveling the dirt on top of me in earnest.
I struck out with my right fist.
“Ow!” said Ben.
My fist hurt. I tried to punch the lid again, but something held my arm down. I tried to punch the lid with my left fist but something heavy held my left arm down.
“Hey, calm down, champ, it’s only me,” said Ben.
He was leaning over me, holding down both my arms by the biceps. His breath smelled like rum and Sweet Caporal cigarettes, but it was not a bad smell. A drop of sweat fell from his face onto mine, and if felt like the water of life, his warm strong breath felt like the breath of life.
“I’m alive,” I said, although my voice sounded as if it were coming from downstairs.
“Sure, buddy, you just hit your noggin on the floor. If I let your arms go you promise not to punch me no more?”
“Yes,” I said, and now my voice sounded closer, from somewhere in this room.
He let go of my arms and sat back on his haunches. With one hand he rubbed his jaw, where I suppose I had punched him. He looked very huge squatting there next to me.
Two flies flew over my face and hovered.
“I think he’ll be okay,” Ferdinand said. “His pupils ain’t dilated. Arnie, how many of me do you see?”
“Two,” I said.
“Close your eyes a second, then open ‘em again.”
I closed my eyes. My head hurt. More specifically a place on the upper left quadrant of my forehead hurt. My right knee on the other hand didn’t hurt so much now.
“All right, open your eyes,” said Ferdinand.
I opened my eyes.
“How many of me do you see?” he asked.
“Just one this time,” I said. “Where did the other fly go?”
“He’s okay,” said Ferdinand. “Lift him up, Ben, and this time don’t drop him.”
“I didn’t drop him on purpose,” said Ben.
“Just be careful -- you dump him down like that again he might not wake up next time.”
“I’m comfortable here,” I said.
“Lift him up, Ben,” said Ferdinand.
It only now dawned on me that I was lying on my back on the floor, and so I didn’t struggle when I felt myself being lifted up again.
“Okay, lay him in the chair,” said Ferdinand, “and try not to knock it over this time.”
“I can walk,” I said.
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Ben, and it was true that I could feel my feet, but they seemed to be possibly at the ends of someone else’s legs.
Then I was sitting in the easy chair to the left of the sofa. Apparently someone had set the chair upright again.
“How is he?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
He was standing there with a glass in his hand.
“He’ll be fine,” said Ben. “Give him that whiskey.”
“There you are, Arnold,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
I took the glass he was offering me. I drank what was in it in a gulp. It was whiskey all right. The rich smells and the dim lights of a thousand bars rose up somewhere behind my eyes and snippets of a hundred thousand inane conversations played in the background on a thousand juke boxes.
“How do you feel now?” asked Ferdinand.
“Good,” I said. “Much better.”
Which was true. My head hurt and my leg hurt, but I wasn’t being buried alive, so I was better.
Mr. Arbuthnot took the empty glass from me. I noticed that Mr. Jones was sitting sleeping in the stuffed chair on the other side of the coffee table. He must have been there all along, but of course I hadn’t noticed him, having collapsed as soon as I got up here. His little straw fedora with the feather in it had slipped forward almost to his eyes.
“I didn’t know Mr. Jones was up here,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He took my empty glass. “I hadn’t mentioned that.”
“He’s sleeping pretty soundly, ain’t he?” said Ben.
“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
I saw Ferdinand fly over near to Mr. Jones’s head.
“This guy is out like a light,” said the fly.
“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “So, shall I make those Manhattans now?”
“Wait,” said Ferdinand. “This guy ain’t breathing.”
“Heh heh, I’ll make those cocktails now,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Hold on, pal,” said Ferdinand, and he buzzed away from Mr. Jones and didn’t stop till he was floating in front of Mr. Arbuthnot. “What’s up with the stiff, pops?”
“Well, let’s have a drink and we’ll talk it over.”
“Yeah, Ferdy,” said Ben, “let’s have a drink.”
“We’ll have a drink after we get some answers,” said Ferdinand. “Spill, pops.”
“Oh, all right,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “He’s dead. He’s a friend of mine named Jones. He came over, he had some hop with him.”
“Hop?” said Ferdinand. “Ya mean the big O?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Opium. Which he had lifted from one of my stashes last night, without my permission I might add. Anyway, I chose to forgive him, as he was rather intoxicated when he nicked the dope. So, in the spirit of good fellowship, I took out my pipe, we split a couple of bowls and then all of a sudden he gave out with a gasp, sat back, and he croaked, okay? Am I to be despised for sharing some hop with an old pal?”
“No,” said Ferdinand. “But am I right in assuming your dead old friend has something to do with this favor you want from us?”
“Well -- yes.”
“And this favor is?”
“I was wondering if you boys would get rid of him for me.”
“You got a lot of nerve, pal.”
“Look,” said Ben, “let’s not rush to judgement here. I say we have a drink or two and talk it over.”
“What is there to talk over?” said Ferdinand. “We already got a copper watching Arnie’s every move, just dying to put a pinch on him for the slightest reason, and this guy wants us to dump a stiff for him?”
“I would help you fellows,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“I’ll bet you would,” said Ferdinand. “Arnie, what do you think?”
“Well,” I said. My faculties had returned nearly to full strength, such as that was. The throbbing pain in my head dueled with the one in my right knee, but far from unbearably.
“Well what?” said Ferdinand.
“Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said, “why don’t you just call the police and tell them that Mr. Jones suddenly had a heart attack? You don’t have to say anything about the opium.”
“Well, here’s the thing, Arnold,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “-- by the way, may I call you Arnold?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Here’s the thing, Arnold. I’ve had a couple of shall we say run-ins with the local bulls.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And to be truthful, so has Jonesie over there.”
“Nothing too major for either of us. Drunk and disorderly. Public disturbance. Loitering with intent.”
“I see,” I said.
“And, uh, well, there were a couple of dope busts.”
“Oh,” I said.
“We were able to beat the dope raps with the help of my Philadelphia lawyer, heh heh, but here’s the thing: what if they perform an autopsy on Jonesie? God knows what they’ll find in that man’s system. What if the coppers decide to bring the heat down on me, what if they haul me in and start asking questions. I’m too old for the third degree.”
“Just say you don’t know anything.”
“Easy for you to say. You ever been worked on with a rubber hose?”
“No,” I said.
“You ever been slammed in the head with a telephone book?”
“No,” I said.
“I been given the third degree,” said Ben.
“And it’s no fun, is it?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“I been given the third degree by Nazi bitches and Commie slatterns and blood-crazed jungle babes and I’ll tell ya it wasn’t too much fun,” said Ben.
“See?” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “I’m not asking much. Just take him out and dump him somewhere. Old guys like him drop dead on the street every day.”
“In the middle of this fucking torrential downpour with the streets flooding you want us to go out and dump his body?” said Ferdinand.
“I was thinking maybe you could take him out the back way and just sort of toss him out in the street,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “It’s really perfect timing because no one will be out and the flood will wash him away.”
“That’s cold, old man,” said Ferdinand. “How would you like it if someone just dumped your corpse out into the flood.”
“I assure you I shouldn’t mind it in the least,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
I twisted the ring on my little finger. Josh had revived Mr. Jones the night before. But unfortunately Josh wasn’t here now. As far as I knew he was still in the world of Miss Evans’s novel, maybe still drinking in that Greenwich Village basement bar with those girls and those deceased famous writers.
“Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said, “How long has Mr. Jones been -- uh --”
“Dead?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, not too terribly long,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Twenty minutes?”
I twisted the little gold ring again, and then I had another one of my brainwaves. I held up my fist, with only the little finger extended, the little finger with the ring on it.
“What about the ring?” I asked.
“Oh,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “The ring.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You said it had special powers.”
“Well, yes, I did say that,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“What’s up with the ring?” said Ben. “Is it like a magic ring?”
“Quiet, Ben,” said Ferdinand.
“Mr. Arbuthnot,” I said, “do you think I could use the ring to bring Mr. Jones back?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said.
“It’s a yes or no question Arnie asked,” said Ferdinand.
“What was the question again?”
“Stop stalling, Methuselah. Answer the man’s question. Can Arnie use the ring to bring this guy back to life?”
“Well, yes, possibly. Possibly I say. It all depends on the innate spiritual power of the wearer --”
“So, Arnie, give it a shot,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah,” said Ben, “this I gotta see. I remember one time I was down in the jungle up the Amazon and these headhunter Amazon women had this special potion --”
“Later for that, Ben,” said the fly. “Arnie, do your stuff before the old guy starts to putrefy.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Wait,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Think about this. The power of that ring is not limitless. Every time you use it you decrease some of its strength. Do you really want to use it up on reviving this old reprobate who probably hasn’t six months more to live anyway?”
“That is really cold,” said Ferdinand.
“Well, it’s only the truth,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“It’s up to you, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “It’s your ring.”
“But it’s not his ring!” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “It’s mine! I only gave it to him so that he could try to trade it to Wally for some more stuff!”
“Who the hell is Wally?” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah, who’s Wally?” said Ben. “And what ‘stuff’?”
“Help me up, Ben,” I said.
“Sure, pal. ‘Scuse me, gramps.”
Ben lifted Mr. Arbuthnot as if he were a little ceramic lawn troll, placed him a couple of feet away, and then came over and gave me a hand up, pulling me up by my forearm.
“You okay, pal?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said. “I think you can let go of my arm now.”
“Okay. Nice and easy now.”
Ben let go of me. I took a breath and then I limped the short distance over to the chair in which Mr. Jones sat.
“That’s it, buddy,” said Ben.
“It’s my ring you know,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Clam up, pops,” said Ferdinand. “You wanted us to do you a favor, take care of a problem for ya, so, okay, Arnie’s gonna try and take care of it. Ain’t you, Arnie?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“It probably won’t work anyway,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “You’re going to drain the ring of its power and we’ll still have a goddam corpse on our hands.”
“Shut up and let him concentrate,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Tell ya what, if this don’t work we’ll dump the dead guy for ya.”
“Relax, Max,” said Ben. “I wanta watch this.”
I tried to remember how Josh had revived Mr. Arbuthnot the night before. It all seemed so long ago. And, anyway, he was the son of God, whereas I was a mere human, even if I did have the ring.
I twisted the ring on my finger, then, not knowing what else to do, I laid my my hand, my left hand, the one with the ring on its little finger, onto the dimpled crown of Mr. Jones’s straw fedora.
“Take his hat off,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” said Ben.
“Oh, like you’re an expert?” said Ferdinand.
I removed Mr. Jones’s hat and placed it on his lap. Then I laid my left hand on his skull. It was as bald and smooth as an egg, and somehow it didn’t feel much more sturdy than an egg.
“See? Nothing?” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Try to concentrate,” said the fly.
“Maybe you need to say some magic words,” said Ben.
“Magic words -- bullshit,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “They never work.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Ben. “What about like in the Catholic mass when the priest changes the host into the body of Christ?”
“Oh, come on,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “What’re you, five years old?”
“Hey, Arnie,” said the fly, “try to like send your life force through the ring.”
“I still think you gotta say some words,” said Ben.
“Words, schmerds,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Look,” I said. “Could everyone please be quiet just for a minute?”
“Yeah, pipe down, you guys,” said Ferdinand. “He’s trying to concentrate.”
“Maybe we should make some drinks,” said Ben.
“Ben, please,” I said.
Then suddenly all three of them stopped talking, and the only sound was that of the rain and the wind outside. It was just me, with my hand on the dead man’s head. It was a small head, not much bigger than a softball really. It felt slightly warm under my hand, but then the room was very warm and stuffy. I was sweating profusely. Come to think of it I suppose I had been sweating profusely pretty much continuously through the whole day.
I tried to concentrate, to will the life that had just left this ravaged and desiccated remnant of a human being back into its housing, even if it was only for six more drunken and drug-addled months, and who was I to be judgemental.
(Continued here, and onward, provided our funding doesn’t dry up.)
(Kindly refer to the right hand column of this page for a scrupulously up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Published by special permission of the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia™. Nihil Obstat: Bishop John J. “Big John” Graham.)