Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and that venerable scamp Mr. Jones on the cobblestone pathway leading down the hill from God’s house...
(Go here to read our immediately preceding chapter; curious scholars may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award-winning 82-volume memoir).
“American literature may be neatly divided up between the pre-Arnold Schnabel and the post-Arnold Schnabel eras.” -- Harold Bloom, in True Danger magazine.
We continued on down that winding path, through the rhododendrons and chrysanthemums, the rose bushes and geraniums, the elms and the oaks, the overgrown grass. The sky was still grey. There was a smell of honeysuckle in the air. My aunts and my mother would be happy here, I thought, and they would certainly do something about the unmown grass.
We made slow progress, my legs were still hurting and Mr. Jones was still eighty-seven years old.
“So,” he said, “this is all we do, just walk out of here?”
“I hope so,” I said.
“How’d you get out last time?”
“Or any time.”
“I was only here the once.”
“Then how’d you get back that time?”
“Let me see.” It had only been the day before, but so much had happened since then. I rubbed the bruise on my forehead, which hadn’t really been hurting me noticeably since I had arrived here on the grounds of God’s house, but of course after I rubbed the bruise it did hurt...
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” said Mr. Jones.
“What was it you asked again?”
“I asked how you made it back to the land of the living last time."
“Oh, right. Let me see, I was in the big house --”
“No jesting? You made it into the house?”
“Well, yes, but you see I was with, um --”
“Or what is it? Josh you call him?”
“Yes,” I said. “He seems to like to go by Josh nowadays.”
“I wonder why?”
“Well, I think he doesn’t really want everyone to know that he’s -- you know --”
“The son of God.”
“Yes,” I said.
“He’s like traveling incognito.”
“Yes. He wants to be just like a regular human being.”
“Well, I can see that,” said Mr. Jones. “It probably gets boring being the son of God, century after fucking century. Ad infinitum.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“I’ve only been me for eighty-seven years and I’m damn sick of myself.”
I had no reply to this. I had been over myself ever since the age of six at least.
“So, you’re inside the big house,” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, right, I was inside the house back there, and, I had gotten lost for a while --”
“You got lost? I thought you were with Jesus. Or Josh.”
“I was, but he went into this room to talk to his father, and I was waiting outside in this corridor.”
“And what? You got bored and decided to take a walk?”
“I had to go to the bathroom. I was looking for a bathroom.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“What are you, in kindygarten? You gotta go pee every five minutes?”
“Well, the thing is, he was in this room quite some time, and --”
“So why didn’t you just ask someone where the john was?”
“Well, there was no one around.”
“So I just started trying doors -- and in fact the first one I opened I found this man working in an office at a desk.”
“Oh yeah? Who was he?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t ask.”
“Must have been another saint. Or maybe an angel.”
“So why didn’t you ask him where the jakes was?”
“Well, you know, I did actually, and he gave me directions to the bathroom, but I was so nervous I forgot them as soon as he told me, so I went out and started wandering around, and got totally lost.”
“You’re too much, Arnold.”
“I know. Finally I opened this one door and it was the same office and the same guy again.”
“And did you ask him for directions again?”
“No, I was too embarrassed. He asked me if I had found the bathroom, but I lied and told him I had, and that I had just come in to thank him.”
“You slay me. So then what did you do?”
“I left his office and got lost again.”
“Never a dull moment with you, is there, Arnold?”
“No,” I said. “Anyway, finally --”
Now I remembered that I had almost urinated in a vase. But I couldn’t bring myself to admit this to Mr. Jones. Some things are best left unsaid. Come to think of it probably most things are best left unsaid, but some more than others --
“Finally what?” said Mr. Jones.
Once again I had lost my train of thought, and it occurred to me that ‘train of thought’ was a poor description of what typically went on in my brain, which was more like some enormous switchyard with dozens of trains pulling in and out constantly, weaving in and around each other, occasionally hitching onto other trains --
“Look,” said Mr. Jones, “if you don’t want to tell me I won’t be offended.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Unconsciously I touched the bruise on my forehead again, which had stopped hurting since the last time I had touched it, but which now of course resumed hurting. “Where was I?”
“You were wandering around in the big house looking for the john. And then you were saying ‘finally’ something.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “So, finally, I saw this vase.”
Now why did I go and mention that vase, and right after deciding definitely not to. Again, I will hand this question over to the psychiatrists of the future.
“Yes,” I said.
“You pissed in the vase?”
“No, thank God,” I said. “Because right then Josh --”
“Yes,” I said. “Jesus, Josh -- anyway, he appeared.”
“You mean just like that, out of thin air?”
“No, he just came walking around the corner at the far end of this corridor.”
“Oh, okay. So you hadn’t started peeing in the vase yet.”
“Yes, I mean no, I hadn’t started, uh --”
“Did you have your johnson out?”
“Um, I’d rather not say.”
“You had it out.”
“Anyway, I quickly turned and put it away, I don’t think he noticed.”
“Good thing for you. So what happened? Jesus show you to the john?”
“No, I didn’t tell him I had to go.”
“Just held it in, huh?”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, he told me he had talked over my case with his father, and that it was decided that I didn’t have to be dead, that I was still alive in other words, and then next second I was back on earth, alive.”
“Just like that?
“Yes, it happened very suddenly, like waking up from a dream.”
“I see. And how had you wound up here anyway?”
“Hit by lightning, on the beach.”
“You should never be out at the beach in a thunderstorm.”
“Yes, I realize that now.”
“Even if you have an umbrella. Did you have an umbrella?”
“No, I had been swimming.”
“Very foolish to swim in the rain. Unless of course you want to die. Did you want to die?”
“Oh, no, I was just swimming -- you know -- just swimming --”
“You’re leaving something out.”
I seem to be, if not, like George Washington, unable to tell a lie, then unable to tell one convincingly, even if only a lie of omission.
“I was swimming with a young lady,” I said.
“So, I get it, it was a deserted beach and you two were making the beast with two backs and you didn’t notice or care when it started to rain.”
“Hey, don’t get excited, I was only like what’s the word postulating.”
“Well, okay, then,” I said.
“Postulating that you were copulating, ha ha.”
I didn’t dignify this last remark with a reply. We walked on a bit more. It was really taking us a long time to get down this hill. I was still limping of course, but Mr. Jones was walking slower and slower as we went, barely shuffling along. I’ve often wondered about old people and how slow they are. It must be an odd way to live, when just walking to the corner store and back will take up half your day --
“I’m trying to remember,” said Mr. Jones.
“I’m trying to remember the last time I hid the salami myself, either on the beach or anywhere else.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I think it was during the war.”
“You mean World War One?” I said.
“No, you smart-ass, World War Two. Jeeze.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Give me a little credit,” said Mr. Jones. “I was still only in my sixties in them days. Not quite ready to put my stick up on the rack for good.”
“Yes,” I said, “well, there’s the gate up ahead --”
“’42 to ’45,” said Mr. Jones. “Women were desperate then with so many of the lads away overseas. So desperate that even an older gentleman like myself was not looked upon completely askance. I would frequent the taprooms near the factories, where the Rosie the Riveters would come in after their shifts. Yes, those were good days.”
“Maybe once we get outside the gate,” I said, “maybe then we’ll just somehow --”
“All those ladies with nothing to go home to but Fibber McGee and Molly on the Philco.”
Mr. Jones stopped me with his dry little hand on my arm and looked up at me.
“They were randy as goats these girls,” he said. “Especially the married ones, you understand, because they knew what they were missing. All I had to do usually was buy ‘em a glass of beer, and sometimes I’d get a handjob right there at the bar --”
“Okay,” I said. His hand on my arm felt like a crab claw. I peeled it off. “Look, Mr. Jones.”
“If you don’t mind, I prefer not to hear your reminiscences of the war years.”
“No,” I said.
“But my memories are all I have. Do you find them distasteful?”
I started limping down the path again, and Mr. Jones shuffled along beside me.
“How would you like it if I told you your memories were distasteful?”
“I wouldn’t care,” I said.
“That’s because you’re young. You’re still out there, banging babes on the beach.”
“I used to bang babes on the beach.”
“Or in hansom cabs. Tell the driver to take us round the park a few times. Clippety-clop, the sound of the horse’s hooves obscuring our grunts and cries of ecstasy.”
“I’m sure they were.”
“And that supercilious ass St. Peter would probably have us believe those splendid assignations were mortal sins.”
“Well, technically-speaking, they were,” I said.
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Jones. “He only says that because he’s not getting any himself.”
“Okay, look, Mr. Jones, maybe you’d better change the subject, at least till we get back.”
“Oh, you may have a point there, my boy. How much farther do we have to walk anyway?”
We had come at last to the open wrought-iron gate.
“Well, here’s the gate,” I said.
“I can see that. So what do we do, just walk through?”
“Well, I don’t see what else to do,” I said.
“Let’s go then.”
We walked through the gate. I hadn’t really noticed what it was like out here before, but there was a narrow road going by the entrance, paved with worn old reddish-brown brick. On the other side of the road was a forest, mostly pine it looked like, although I could see some cypresses and even a couple of weeping willows. There was no sidewalk, although there was a dirt path on this side of the road.
“Now what?” said Mr. Jones.
“Well, I’m not sure,” I said. “As I said, last time I just came back to life sort of instantaneously.”
“But your friend was with you,” said Mr. Jones. “This ‘Josh’ fellow.”
“Yes, that’s true,” I said.
“Maybe he had something to do with it.”
“He probably did,” I said.
“But he’s not here now.”
“So now what do we do?”
“Keep walking, I suppose.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones. “Which way?”
This was a good question. After all, a wrong turn might take us to a very bad place indeed.
“To the right?” I said.
“You have no idea, do you?”
“No,” I said.
“What if we go right and we wind up in hell?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes we might wind up in hell.”
“So what do we do?”
“We should have asked St. Peter,” I said.
“Yeah, we should’ve, but we didn’t. Do you want to go back up and ask him?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither,” said Mr. Jones. “I don’t trust that guy, saint or no saint.”
“Look,” I said, “Let’s just close our eyes and concentrate.”
“Close our eyes and concentrate.”
“Yes,” I said.
“What is this, a magic act?”
“Well, unless you want to just start walking.”
“I’m tired of walking.”
“Yeah,” I said, “so am I.”
“Okay, we’ll try it your way,” he said.
“You mean closing our eyes and concentrating?”
“Okay, then, let’s give it a try.”
“Fine,” he said.
I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate. I can only presume that Mr. Jones did the same.
I won’t even attempt to describe what went on in my brain for the next minute or so, but after that period of time I heard Mr. Jones’s voice.
“I don’t know about you, Arnold, but I’m still here.”
I opened my eyes.
We were both still there.
“What about them woods over there?” said Mr. Jones.
“What about them?” I said.
“Maybe the world of the living is on the other side of them woods.”
“It could be,” I said.
“But again we don’t know.”
“No,” I said.
“Well,” said Mr. Jones, “the way I look at it, only one of these directions probably leads to hell, so one of the other directions must lead back to the world of the living. So we got right, left, or straight ahead into the woods.”
“But then there’s purgatory,” I said. “And limbo.”
“What the hell is limbo.”
“It’s -- it’s where the pagan babies go.”
“The pagan babies?”
“Okay, fuck this shit, let’s just choose a direction and go.”
Suddenly we heard a ringing.
“What the hell is that?” said Mr. Jones.
“It’s some sort of ringing,” I said.
“I know it’s some sort of ringing, but what the hell is it?”
“Wait,” I said, “it’s coming from that box.”
I pointed to a green metal box that was fixed to the outside of one of the brick columns that the gate was attached to.
“Go see what it is.”
I went over. There was a little rusted metal catch on the box near the brick. I pulled on the catch and the box swung away from the post, revealing an old-fashioned intercom, with a receiver on a hook, an embedded bell, and a couple of grilled panels one above the other.
“Pick it up,” said Mr. Jones.
I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear.
The ringing stopped.
“Speak into the grill,” said a crackly voice.
“Hello?” I said.
“Not the upper grill,” said the voice. “That’s the speaker. Talk into the lower grill.
I leaned down and forward toward the lower grill.
“Hello?” I said again.
“This is Peter. Why are you two still standing around down there?”
I looked past the gate post and up the hill. I could see Peter standing in the doorway, with his hand near his head, obviously using an intercom up there.
“We don’t know which way to go,” I said.
“What? Speak into the grill.”
I leaned back down closer to the grill and spoke louder.
“We don’t know which way to go,” I repeated.
St. Peter said something but I couldn’t make out what he said.
“What did he say?” said Mr. Jones.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What did you say?” said St. Peter’s voice.
“I said I couldn’t hear what you said,” I said, very loudly.
“You don’t have to scream,” said his voice. “Just speak clearly and into the grill.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I’m not deaf you know.”
“Sorry,” I said, in what I hoped was a more gently modulated voice.
(To be continued, there’s no help for it.)
(Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page for a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. A few tickets are still available for the Annual Arnold Schnabel’s Birthday Beer & Beef Bash this October at the VFW on Chew Avenue; the announced MC, Marty “Gooney” McFarland, had an unfortunate accident falling down “Dead Man’s Hill” in Fisher’s Park after an evening at the Green Parrot, so there will be a special raffle that night to help pay for his broken leg, because Gooney doesn’t have health insurance ever since he lost his job at the Tastykake factory. The prize will be one of Arnold Schnabel’s original marble copybooks, filled with his dense but neat Palmer-Method handwriting; second prize: a box of butter cookies from Fink’s Bakery.)