Our intrepid hero Arnold Schnabel has journeyed to the spirit world in an attempt to bring back the recently-deceased Mr. Jones, and St. Peter, guarding the door to God’s house, has finally and begrudgingly told Arnold to take the aged miscreant and go...
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“By all accounts -- and they are, alas, few and sparse -- Arnold Schnabel was a polite but quiet fellow, giving little indication to his contemporaries of the oceanic genius that surged beneath his unassuming demeanor.” -- Harold Bloom, in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
When we were several yards down the cobblestone path Mr. Jones said, “What an asshole that St. Peter is. No wonder they crucified him upside down.”
“Shhh,” was my reply.
“What? He can’t hear us from here.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” I said.
“I can hear every word you two are saying,” yelled St. Peter from up there on porch behind us.
“Oh, Christ,” said Mr. Jones.
“Just keep walking,” I said in a low voice.
“I’m walking, I’m walking,” said Mr. Jones.
Down we continued along that winding path, through the rich wet geraniums and rhododendrons, past big old oak and elm trees.
“What’s with the limp, partner?” asked Mr. Jones.
“Oh, I fell last night,” I said.
“Yeah, we all had a little drop too much partaken last night -- not to mention that dynamite opiated hash of Arbuthnot’s, ha ha. So, Arnold, you seem to have a bit of pull around here.”
“Well, maybe just a little,” I said.
“I’m impressed. And here I thought you were just a, uh, well -- anyway, I got to thank you for doing this for me.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“You seem like you’re in pain. Are you in pain?”
“Yes,” I said. “But --”
“You want some hop?”
“Opium. I got some in my pocket. Also a pipe and some matches.”
“No thank you,” I said.
“It’ll kill that pain for ya.”
“No thanks anyway,” I said.
“You mind if I smoke a quick bowl?”
“We’ll just duck behind one of these bushes.”
I stopped, and Mr. Jones stopped also.
“Mr. Jones,” I said.
“Yes?” said Mr. Jones.
“Um,” I said.
“Speak freely, son.”
“Okay,” I said. “Look, Mr. Jones, we’ve just barely saved you not only from death but from eternal damnation. Can’t you wait until we get back to the world of the living before you smoke your -- your ‘hop’?”
“But there’s nobody around.” He went through the motions of looking around, with little birdlike movements of his little head. “Lemme just smoke a quick bowl.”
“But what if there’s --”
I didn’t finish my sentence.
“What if there’s what?” said Mr. Jones.
“What if there’s an angel or something around?” I said.
Again Mr. Jones looked to the right and to the left, then up and down, and then at me, his head slightly cocked.
“I don’t see no angels,” he said.
It was true, there was no one around. I glanced back up to the porch. It looked as if St. Peter might still be watching us, although it was hard to tell. He might have just been staring off into the distance.
“Look, let’s just get out of here,” I said, and I continued walking down the path.
A few yards farther down the path curved around a large yellow bush, I think it was a forsythia. When Mr. Jones and I had passed behind the bush he put his hand on my arm.
“Okay, here is good,” he said. He stopped and pulled a pipe out of his jacket’s side pocket. It was a regular tobacco pipe, albeit a very small one. From his inside jacket pocket he took out a folded-up piece of tin foil.
“Mr. Jones!” I said.
“Relax, kid, nobody can see us behind this bush. Here, hold the pipe while I open this up.”
He handed me the pipe. I suppose I didn’t have to take it, but I did, I have no idea why. We must leave some questions for the psychiatrists of the future. Mr. Jones opened up the little wad of tin foil, revealing what looked like a little ball of grey clay.
“Okay, hold that pipe closer.”
Again, I didn’t have to do as he commanded, but I did. He picked up the little grey ball and dropped it into the bowl of the pipe. He licked the tin foil with his leathery-looking little grey tongue, then tossed the foil away. Then he reached into his jacket pocket again and brought out a book of matches. Sid’s Tavern matches.
“Sure you don’t want some?” he said.
“No, thanks,” I said, and I handed him the pipe. He shrugged and put the stem between his dentures, struck a match, put the light into the bowl and puffed.
I looked around nervously.
“If St. Peter’s still watching us he’s going to wonder why we’re standing behind this bush,” I said.
“Fuck him,” said Mr. Jones, still puffing on his pipe. He waved the match out and tossed it into the wet grass. Then he exhaled. I had to admit the smoke was not unpleasant.
“Ah,” he said. “That hit the spot.”
“Okay, let’s go,” I said.
“Hold on, I still got some in the bowl.”
“Mr. Jones,” I said, “you’re going to get addicted.”
He looked at me through his old eyes, staring out of their little pockets of wrinkled pallid flesh.
“I’m eighty-seven years old,” he said. “And you think I’m worried about getting addicted to hop?”
“Okay,” I said. “It was a stupid thing to say.”
“Let me just finish the bowl and then we can split,” he said.
“All right,” I said.
He struck another match and put the light into the bowl.
I waited. All was silent except for the little sucking sounds Mr. Jones made as he smoked his opium. I shifted from foot to foot. My leg still hurt, well, both of them hurt, but one hurt more than the other. Also I suddenly realized that I had to go to the bathroom.
Mr. Jones exhaled again, and smiled at me, nodding his head.
“Really good stuff,” he said. “Arbuthnot gets the good shit, I’ll tell ya.”
“Okay, we’d better go now,” I said, shifting from one foot to another.
“Not finished yet. Don’t rush me.”
“Oh, Christ,” I muttered. And then, “Ow.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, it’s just my leg,” I said. I had just had another spasm, I think it was in the other leg, the one that had hurt less just a few moments before. They were taking turns.
“I’m tellin’ ya, kid,” said Mr. Jones, “you take a hit of this shit you won’t be feeling any pain.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. I could deal with the pain, but I really just wanted to get out of there and get to a bathroom.
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones. “Just give me another minute.”
“Or two,” he said.
“You can’t hurry the hop-smoking ritual.” He lit another match, but instead of lighting his pipe again he said, “Why are you so jittery, anyway? You’re twitching like a spastic.”
“If you must know, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Poop or pee?”
“Pee,” I said.
“Oh. Well why don’t you just go then.”
“You mean right here?”
“What the hell.”
“I’d better wait till we get back,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” he said.
He put the light in the bowl, made several tiny little puffs, held in the smoke, then let it out.
“Are you finished now?” I asked.
“No, man,” he said, smiling, his eyes half-closed. “The dope’s kinda damp. Burns slow, y’know? Gimme another minute or two.”
I said nothing, shifting my weight every second from one sore leg to the other.
“You’ll feel better if you relieve yourself behind this bush,” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, Christ,” I said.
“He’s not gonna help you now. Go ahead, go behind the bush.”
“What if someone comes by?”
“I’ll keep a lookout. Now go, go -- watching you bounce around like that is bringing me down.”
“If we could just leave --”
“After I finish my bowl.”
“Again, he’s the wrong person to ask for help in this situation. Now go. I’ll watch the path.”
I looked around. No one was in sight. There weren’t even any birds or insects around.
“Okay,” I said. “But keep your eyes open.”
“And please finish that hop.”
“I intend to.”
“Okay, then,” I said.
I hobbled a couple of yards away from him, farther away from the path, but still keeping the forsythia between me and the house.
I unzipped and did what I had to do. It took a while. I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since right after breakfast, which seemed like seven months ago, and even as I was voiding liquid from my body I felt thirsty all of a sudden. A tall glass of cold water would be nice. I would ask Mr. Arbuthnot for one when we got back. And then, yes, a Manhattan would do well...
“Oh my God,” said a familiar voice.
I looked over my shoulder. St. Peter was standing over there on the path by the other side of the forsythia. He had his smoking meerschaum in his hand.
“Uh-oh,” said Mr. Jones.
“Are you kidding me?” said St. Peter.
It was too late to stop now. I finished doing what I was doing, then zipped up.
“I’m sorry, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones. “I was looking the other way.”
“Disgraceful,” said St. Peter. “You couldn’t wait till you got back?”
“It was my fault,” said Mr. Jones. “I wanted to stop for a smoke, and Mr. Schnabel just couldn’t hold it in.”
“And you, Mr. Jones, you couldn’t wait till you got back for a smoke?”
“Hey, you’ve got a lit pipe in your hand yourself,” said Mr. Jones. “Don’t act like you’re such a puritan.”
I couldn’t believe it but Mr. Jones proceeded to light another match and put it to his pipe again.
“What is that tobacco you’re using, anyway?” said St. Peter.
“Special blend,” said Mr. Jones, puffing.
“Smells funny,” said St. Peter.
“Hey, we can’t all afford the high quality stuff you probably get up here.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” said St. Peter. He sighed, shook his head. “Well, if you are finished with what you were doing, Mr. Schnabel --”
“Yes,” I said. After wiping my hands off on my bermudas I had come over to the path side of the forsythia. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s a little late for sorry now, isn’t it? But if I were you two I would just --”
“’Stay not upon the order of your going, but go,’” said Mr. Jones.
“What?” said St. Peter.
“It’s from Macbeth,” said Mr. Jones. “Shakespeare.”
“Oh, him,” said St. Peter.
“I guess he’s up in the big house, right?” said Mr. Jones.
“Shakespeare? A theatre person? Please. He still has at least a couple of more centuries in purgatory.”
“Ha ha,” said Mr. Jones. “You slay me, Pete.”
“You may call me Peter,” said St. Peter.
“Well, we’ll be going now,” I said, and I put my hand on Mr. Jones’s arm. It felt like a dried twig covered in worn flannel. I pulled on it, but Mr. Jones wouldn’t move yet.
“So, Peter,” said Mr. Jones, “what are you up to? Taking a little walk?”
“No,” said St. Peter. “I just came down here to see what you two were up to. I’ll be getting back to the porch now.”
“Duty calls,” said Mr. Jones.
“It’s a job,” said St. Peter.
“And a very important job,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes, that’s true. Someone has to do it.”
“Someone’s gotta keep the riffraff out,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said St. Peter. He took a couple of puffs on his meerschaum. “Everybody wants to go to heaven. But so many people just don’t want to give up their vices.”
“They want something for nothing,” said Mr. Jones.
“Exactly,” said St. Peter.
“It must get tiresome,” said Mr. Jones. He had struck yet another match and was lighting his pipe one more time. “Dealing with all these dead people.”
“Yes,” said St. Peter. “It can be very tiresome.”
“Maybe you could ask the big guy for a different job.”
“Why not? There must be plenty other saints could do the job.”
“Yes, I suppose there are.”
“So ask him. What you got to lose?”
“Well, you see, it’s, uh --”
“It’s my punishment,” said St. Peter, looking away.
“Your punishment?” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said St. Peter.
“I get it. For letting the bulls drag the son of God away to get tortured and crucified, to die horribly, in agony --”
“Look,” said St. Peter. “I tried to intervene, I really did. I even chopped this one fellow’s ear off --”
“Nice one,” said Mr. Jones. “But then you still let them drag him away, didn’t you.”
“He told us to back off --”
“That didn’t mean you had to back off.”
“And then later you denied even knowing him -- not once but three times, right?
“Look,” said St. Peter, “Whatever I did or did not do that night I was forgiven for it a long time ago.”
“Then why the punishment?”
“Why? Because -- well -- oh, forget it, what’s done is done.”
He put the bit of his pipe between his teeth and drew, but the pipe had gone out.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly.
“What?” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“I should go,” said St. Peter.
“Back to the porch,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said St. Peter. “Back to the porch.”
“I still wanta know why Arnold said ‘oh’ like that.”
St. Peter looked at me.
“Maybe he’ll tell you,” he said. He shook the ashes out of his pipe. “Goodbye, gentlemen.”
“See ya,” said Mr. Jones. “In my case I’m sure sooner than later.”
“Yes, no doubt.”
“I’ll try to watch those mortal sins.”
“You would do well to do so. You should go to confession as soon as possible.”
“I will. I ain’t Catholic, but I will.”
“Good.” St. Peter blew through the stem of the pipe once, then put it into the pocket of his canvas jacket. “Well, good day to you, gentleman.”
He turned and headed back up the path toward the porch.
We watched him go. Mr. Jones put his own pipe back into his pocket.
“Okay,” he said to me, “spill.”
“He was a martyr,” I said, in a low voice. “Martyrs aren’t allowed in God’s house.”
“They’re not? Since when?”
“Since always, I guess.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Neither did I,” I said. “But I met this other martyr last night, St. Thomas Becket, and he told me that was the case.”
“So old Peter got eternity on the door because he let himself get martyred? That don’t seem fair.”
“It does seem harsh,” I said.
“On the other hand it beats an eternity in the flames of hell.”
“Yes, I’m sure it does,” I said.
“So Peter’s got nothing to complain about.”
“Yes, it could be worse,” I said.
“Imagine going through getting yourself crucified upside down though,” said Mr. Jones, “all for nothing.”
“Yes,” I said. “He must have been very disappointed.”
“What a moron,” he said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. This place is starting to give me the creeps.”
(Continued here, because God told us to.)
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