Our hero Arnold Schnabel and that ancient reprobate Mr. Jones, trying to return to the land of the living from the land of the dead, desperately shuffle and limp respectively into a forest in an attempt to escape the screeching hordes of hell..
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“Larry Winchester, Horace P. Sternwall, and Arnold Schnabel: the holy trinity of Post-Post-Modernism.” -- Harold Bloom, on Person to Person, with Edward R. Murrow.
It was slow going, what with my bad legs and Mr. Jones’s eighty-seven years, and with the thick thorny bushes growing in between the trees, the creepers and vines in our way, the fallen branches and the thick layers of dead leaves at our feet, the increasing dimness as we plunged further into the forest. After a few minutes the horrible screeching noise reached a crescendo behind us and I could tell that the mob from hell had reached the place on the road that we had just entered the forest from.
“Oh, shit,” panted Mr. Jones, “now we’re in for it.”
He stopped, and leaned his arm against a thick cypress tree. We had probably made it in no more than a hundred yards from the road, but it might have been a mile for all we could see, which was nothing but the thick, almost dark interior of the forest.
“Fuck this shit,” said the old fellow. “I’m gonna have a fatal heart attack at this rate.”
“You can’t have a fatal heart attack,” I said.
“Why the fuck not?”
“You’re already dead.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that.”
“Come on, Mr. Jones. We can make it.”
“I wonder if you can die again if you’re already dead?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But come on.”
“All right,” he said.
We plunged through the underbrush for a few more yards, and then Mr. Jones tripped and fell to his hands and knees.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “Shit and damn.”
His straw hat had fallen off, and he was talking without raising his bald little head. He looked very pathetic.
“Are you okay?” I said, stupidly, I know.
“Am I okay?” he said. “Do I look okay?”
“Come on,” I said, “I’ll help you up.”
“I can’t go no farther, pal. You go on.”
One of my legs was killing me again. Well, not literally killing me of course, if that was even possible in this world, but hurting me rather intensely. I think it was the right leg this time, not that it matters which leg it was.
“Go on, beat it,” said Mr. Jones, talking directly to the dead leaves and twigs on the ground. “They’re gonna get me sooner or later anyway.”
“Okay,” I said.
I got down beside him on one knee, the knee that wasn’t hurting me more than the other one at the moment, and leaning forward a bit, I grabbed his left arm with my left hand and pulled it over my shoulder.
“What the fuck you doin’,” he said.
“Okay, alley oop,” I said.
“Wait, my lid.”
With my free hand I reached under him and got the hat and planted it on his head. Then I forced myself to a standing position, with Mr. Jones on my back.
“Okay,” I said. “Get your other arm around my neck and I’ll carry you piggyback.”
He did this, and I have to say he didn’t weigh very much, ninety pounds maybe. If my legs had been in good shape I think we would have been fine, at least for a short while anyway, but as it was I took two steps, and then I tripped over a vine or something with my better leg, my worse leg went out from under me and I went down headfirst, with Mr. Jones on my back.
I lay there for a moment, panting, in pain, with Mr. Jones’s shallow breath on my neck.
“Well, at least you tried, pal,” he muttered, and he rolled off of me and lay next to me on his back, his hat coming off again.
I pushed myself up and into a sitting position, facing back in the direction we had been coming from.
“Face it, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones. “We’re doomed.”
I reached down, took hold of his twig-like arm, and pulled him up into a sitting position also. Then I reached behind him, got his hat and put it on his head.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Doomed,” he said again. “Or I suppose I should say we’re damned, rather than doomed.”
“Wait a minute,” I said.
“Sure, I got nothing but time, kid.” He reached into his jacket pocket and took out his pipe. He poked his finger into the bowl. “We’re in luck, the muggles didn’t spill. Will you join me in one last bowl before we are dragged screaming hellward?”
“No, wait, Mr. Jones, listen.”
“Wonder what hell’s like, anyway? Who knows, maybe it’s no worse than some of the joints I already been in.”
He took out his book of matches.
“I feel sorry for you, though, Arnold,” he said. “Nice guy like you, personal friends with Jesus and all, I’m sure you would’ve rated a nice private room in that big house up there on the hill. And now you’re gonna be down in the pits with all the scum and the scoundrels, the skells, the two-bit yeggs and the spivs. Tough break, buddy.”
He put the pipe in his false teeth, and pulled a match from the book.
“Wait a second,” I said, putting my hand on his arm. “Let’s listen.”
“Let go of my arm, buddy, I’m trying to light my bowl here.”
“No, wait, hold it, hear?”
“The noise, the screeching, I think it’s moving along.”
Mr. Jones cupped a hand behind one ear and leaned forward. Then he took the unlit pipe from his teeth.
“By jove, I think you’re right, Arnold. It’s receding.”
“They must think we ran away on the road.”
“Yes, the stupid damned fools.”
“Sounds like they’re running up the road, trying to catch up with us.”
“Good. Now let’s light up.”
“Wait for what?”
“It’s quiet now.”
“Good, that racket was driving me nuts.”
“Yeah, but why did it get completely quiet?”
“Because like you said, they ran up the road.”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“They’re coming back.”
Sure enough the screeching cacophony was returning.
“Ah, shit,” said Mr. Jones. “Might as well get high then.”
He had the pipe back in his mouth, and he was just about to light it, but I grunted my way to my feet again.
“Oh, now what, Arnold? Can’t you relax?”
“Put the pipe away, Mr. Jones.”
“Ah, shit, man --”
I reached down, put my hands under his arms and pulled him to his feet.
“Put the pipe away, Mr. Jones.”
“Damn your eyes,” he said, but he tossed the match away. Then he stuck his finger in the bowl, pressed its contents in, and put the pipe and his matches away. “I find all this running quite undignified.”
“You can go piggyback again or across my shoulders.”
“A ‘fireman’s carry’ as it’s called.”
“Do you know the proper way to execute that carry?”
“Not that I don’t trust you, but I think I’ll go for the piggyback.”
“Fine,” I said.
I bent forward a bit, the old fellow clambered up onto my back. I put my arms under his stick-like thighs and he grabbed onto my shoulders.
“Onward,” he said.
I plunged onward into the woods. The screeching noise behind us grew louder, sounding as if the damned had plunged into the woods themselves.
“Wheel toward the right,” said Mr. Jones. “We foxed them once before, we’ll do it again.”
I wheeled to the right, but after a minute the noise started getting louder again.
“Okay, now wheel left I think,” said Mr. Jones.
I wheeled left. After a minute or two the screeching sounds started to diminish.
“Okay, now to the right again,” said Mr. Jones.
“Are you sure,” I panted.
“Look, leave the directions to me, and you concentrate on not falling down.”
“Okay,” I said. I kept going. My legs still hurt, but not unbearably. At any rate I reasoned to myself, the pains in my legs were surely nothing compared to the everlasting torments of hell, or so I could only presume.
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones, after another minute or two, “now head slightly to the left there.”
I did what he said. It was true that the screeching was fading considerably now.
After a couple of minutes more Mr. Jones said, “Okay, stop.”
I stopped. The gloomy patch of forest we were in looked pretty much like every other patch of it we had passed through.
“Listen,” whispered Mr. Jones. “You hear anything?”
I cocked my head. All I could hear was my own labored breathing.
“No,” I said.
“Goddam,” said Mr. Jones. “We lost ‘em. The infernal damned bastards. We’re home free now. Okay, head on back to the road, Arnold.”
“All right,” I said, hitching Mr. Jones up a bit on my back. “Which way is that, do you think?”
“Yeah. Which way.”
“Um, it’s, uh, to the right I think.”
“Are you sure?”
“Um, yeah, pretty sure.”
I started off to the right.
After a minute Mr. Jones said, “I’m not too heavy, am I?”
“Well, I suppose I can manage a bit farther,” I said.
“I ask that because you are panting like a dog and sweating like a pig.”
“I can make it till we reach the road,” I said, suddenly aware of my panting and sweating.
“I’m afraid you’re gonna keel over again and me with you.”
“No, really,” I said, stumbling just slightly, “uh, I can, uh --”
“Tell ya what,” said Mr. Jones, “let me down and I’ll make it under my own steam.”
“Yeah. To tell the truth I think we’ll make better time that way. Not that I’m criticizing, mind.”
“Oh, no, sure.”
I bent my legs and Mr. Jones slid down off my back.
“Okay, straight on, my boy!”
We set off again, Mr. Jones shuffling through the dead leaves and fallen twigs with renewed vigor and me limping along behind him, still panting like a dog and sweating like a pig. After a minute he started to slow down, and I caught pace with him, or caught shuffle I suppose I should say.
“Ah, won’t be long now,” said Mr. Jones. “Soon we’ll be back in the good old world of the living, sipping ice cold beers side by side at the bar in the Ugly Mug, how’s that sound? And I got the first round. Least I can do.”
“Well, I’ll probably take a pass on that,” I said.
“What, you got a hot date?”
“Well, no --”
“Some babe you’re gonna bang on the beach?”
“No,” I said, “I just have some errands I have to do.”
“Let ‘em wait!”
“Well, we’ll see,” I said.
“An icy cold draft beer, all gleaming and beaded and glistening -- or perhaps even a Manhattan, how’s that sound?”
“Well, I have to admit they both sound good,” I said, “but I told Mr. Arbuthnot I would go to the docks and get some fresh seafood for his cat.”
“Yes, for Shnooby.”
“That little bastard. Let him eat Nine Lives like any normal cat. You and me, pal. The Ugly Mug. First round’s on me.”
“I don’t want any argument. You brought me back from the dead. Least I can do is buy you a beer.”
“Well, we’re not back yet,” I said.
“No, that’s true. Where’s that road anyway?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was hoping we would have reached it by now.”
“Maybe we’re going the wrong way.”
“I said maybe we’re going in the wrong direction.”
“But I was following you,” I said.
“What do I look like, a trained boy scout? I thought it was this way. Let’s keep going a little farther.”
We went farther, this time without saying anything, for two or three more minutes. My thought processes during these minutes consisted mostly of me trying to tell myself not to panic.
Finally Mr. Jones stopped and put his hand on my arm.
“Doesn’t this look like the woods are getting thicker?” he said.
I looked around.
“They’re definitely not getting any thinner,” I said. “If that’s the word, or --”
“I hate to say this, Arnold, but I think we’re lost.”
I paused now before speaking. I had never really liked being in woods. I looked around. There was nothing to see but woods.
“Yeah,” I said, finally. “We’re lost.”
“I know this though,” said Mr. Jones.
“One direction is the right direction.”
He reached into his jacket pocket and took out his pipe. He put his finger in the bowl.
“We still got a little left,” he said.
He reached into his pocket again and brought out his matches. Sticking his pipe in between his dentures, he struck a match and put it to the pipe, drawing on it with little sucking sounds.
He handed me the pipe, and, once again without thinking, I drew a modest lungful.
Mr. Jones exhaled, and took the pipe from me.
“Well, if it don’t work out, Arnold, we gave it the old school try.”
“Yeah,” I said, and then I exhaled. I was learning to talk while holding smoke in my lungs.
“Hey, misters,” said a child’s voice.
Mr. Jones and I both turned around toward my right. The little oriental boy was standing just a few feet away.
“Holy shit,” said Mr. Jones. “Where did you come from?”
The boy ignored this question.
“You got any more cigareets,” he said.
“No, no more cigareets,” said Mr. Jones. “I gave you my last pack.”
“You got pipe tobacco,” said the little boy.
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones. “First off, this ain’t tobacco in this pipe. It’s Mary Jane. Marijuana. Savvy? And second of all we only got a little bit left.”
“Gimme puff,” said the kid.
“How you like this kid?” Mr. Jones said to me. “Persistent little bastard.”
“Come on, Joe,” said the boy. “Gimme puff.”
“This stuff ain’t for kids,” said Mr. Jones.
“Little boy,” I said. “Do you know the way back to the road?”
“Sure I do, Joe. You want me take you?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
“You give me puff I take you.”
I looked at Mr. Jones. He looked at me. He shrugged. I suppose I shrugged too, or gave a facial expression equivalent to a shrug. Normally I would never in a million years allow some old degenerate to give marijuana to a small child to smoke, but let’s face it, the kid had us over a barrel.
“Okay,” I said. “You can have one puff.”
“Two puffs, Joe,” said the boy.
“Well, all right,” I said. “But only two.”
(Continued here, and so on, relentlessly.)
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