Our hero Arnold Schnabel and the aged reprobate Mr. Jones have gotten lost in a forest in the world beyond this world. They encounter a little boy whom they’ve met before and who offers to lead them out of the woods, but only at a price...
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“How did I spend my summer vacation? Lying in a hammock beneath a shady oak tree in Cape May, reading Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Jack Paar Show.
“Here ya go, kid,” said Mr. Jones, and he handed the boy the pipe. The kid put the stem in his mouth and Mr. Jones struck a match. “Just two puffs now, sonny. You don’t wanta stunt your growth.”
The kid looked at him with an impatient glare, and Mr. Jones gave him a light.
“Two puffs,” said Mr. Jones, “and hold it in.”
The kid took three puffs and was just about to take a fourth one, but Mr. Jones took the pipe away.
“I said two puffs. Now hold it in.”
The kid held his breath and Mr. Jones put the pipe in his own mouth and puffed away. When he had sufficiently filled his leathery old lungs he handed the pipe to me. There didn’t seem to be much left in the bowl anyway, so just to be polite I finished it off with one good drag.
Mr. Jones took the pipe off me and looked in the bowl. He exhaled his smoke before speaking.
“Yeah, it’s kicked.”
He stuck the pipe back in his jacket pocket along with his matches.
The boy was still holding his breath.
“You can let the smoke out now, sonny,” said Mr. Jones.
The boy slowly let the smoke out through his mouth, and I did too.
“Not bad,” said the boy. “You sure you got no more?”
“I’m cleaned out, kiddo,” said Mr. Jones.
“What about you, Joe?” the boy said to me.
“No, uh,” I said, “I’m sorry, I, uh –”
“What else you Joes got?”
“What?” said Mr. Jones.
“What else you got.”
“I just told you that was the last of our weed,” said Mr. Jones, “and we ain’t got no more cigareets, neither.”
“Where you go, anyhow?” said the kid.
“That’s none of your business, little boy,” said Mr. Jones. “Just take us to the road like we agreed.”
“You go purgatory?”
“Certainly not,” said Mr. Jones.
“Where you go then.”
“I just told you that’s none of your goddam beeswax,” said Mr. Jones.
“Listen, little boy,” I said, before things got out of hand, “we just want to get back to the land of the living. We, uh, got the okay from St. Peter, and –”
“Land of living.”
“Yes,” I said. “The world of the, uh –”
“Land of living,” said the kid. “Highly ovulated.”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Ovulated. You deef, Joe?”
“Um, uh --”
“I think he’s trying to say ‘overrated’, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yeah,” said the boy. “Ovulated.”
“Ha ha, gotta say I agree with you, sonny-Jim,” said Mr. Jones.
“Well, overrated or not we’d still like to get back to it if you don’t mind,” I said.
“I no mind,” said the boy. “What else you got.”
“Look, kid,” said Mr. Jones. “what do you want? You want some money? How about a nice shiny nickel.” He put his hand into his trousers pocket, brought it out, and opened his palm, with some small change in it. “Here. Two nickels. And a dime. A coupla pennies. Go to the penny arcade and have yourself a ball.”
The boy looked at the change for a moment and then with lightning swiftness his little hand darted out, swiped the coins up, and stuffed them in the pocket of his shorts.
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones. “You’re welcome by the way. Now lead on.”
The kid ignored him and looked at me. Then he seemed to look down at my left pocket. I patted this pocket and my right one, too. I stuck my hand in the right pocket and felt a coin. I brought it out, a quarter.
“Gimme,” said the little boy.
I gave him the quarter and he stuck it into his pocket. Then he pointed at my left hand.
“Ling,” said the boy.
He pointed to my left hand.
“He means ‘ring’, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones. “He wants your goddam ring.”
“Oh, my ring,” I said. I held up my splayed hand with Mr. Arbuthnot’s gold ring on my little finger.
“Kid’s a highway robber,” said Mr. Jones.
“Listen,” I said, “little boy, this is not actually my ring. It belongs to someone else --”
“Gimme ling,” said the boy.
“Gimme ling, I take you load.”
“Gimme ling, I take you load.”
“He means road,” said Mr. Jones. “Give him the ring and he’ll take us to the road.”
“Yeah,” said the kid. “Gimme ling, I take you to the load.”
“Oh, Christ, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones, “give him the damn ring. He’s got us buffaloed and he knows it.”
The kid held out his hand.
“LIng,” he said.
“Give him the goddam ling, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones. “And let’s get the hell out of this joint.”
“Well, I really shouldn’t,” I said.
“Give it to him.”
“Ling,” said the little boy. His upturned hand was still outstretched. He wiggled its fingers.
I twisted the ring off my finger, it only took me a minute or so, and I placed it into the lad’s palm. He quickly secreted it into the same pocket he had put Mr. Jones’s coins.
“Okay, now I take you to load.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Without another word the boy turned and started walking off quickly through the woods, going in the direction Mr. Jones and I had just been headed. We followed.
“How ya like that?” said Mr. Jones, in a low voice. “We coulda just kept going the way we was.”
“Yes,” I said. “But we didn’t know that then.”
“Kinda like ironic,” said Mr. Jones. “And to think he got some free Mary Jane out of us. And your precious ring. And your quarter.”
“And your twenty-two cents,” I said.
“Little bastard. Still, I suppose it’s a modest price to pay to return to the land of beer and Manhattans.”
We forged ahead and then not a minute later we saw the reddish-brown brick of the road through the trees.
“Goddam,” said Mr. Jones.
The boy stood there just at the edge of the forest, waiting for us.
“Well,” I said, when we reached him, “thank you, little boy.”
“You sure you got no more cigareets.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I said.
“Next time you bring more cigareets.”
“We will,” I said.
“Next time we’ll bring a couple of cartons,” said Mr. Jones. “Will that be okay?”
“Any particular brand?”
“Luckies,” said the boy.
“Luckies it is, then,” said Mr. Jones. “Maybe we’ll bring you some more weed, too.”
Suddenly the kid looked even more serious than he usually did. At first I wondered if he had somehow taken offence at Mr. Jones’s badinage, but then I realized he was looking at something behind us.
I turned, and I saw moving shapes in the depths of the woods. Then I heard that awful screeching beginning again.
“Oh, shit,” said Mr. Jones, who was looking at what I was looking at.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Look, we’ll have to run across the road and try to lose them in the woods again.”
“Getting tired of this shit, man,” said Mr. Jones.
“Well, come on,” I said. I stepped out toward the road, but the little boy was now pointing to the other side. Sure enough, I saw movement in those woods as well.
“Goddam,” said Mr. Jones.
The boy started running up the road, back in the direction we had been coming from earlier.
“Look at that kid go,” said Mr. Jones.
“Okay, piggy-back, Mr. Jones.”
“I find all this very undignified.”
I turned my back to him, flexed my knees. He clambered up onto me, I took hold of his marionette’s thighs, and headed off up the road after the little boy.
The screeching grew louder behind us. I ran. After a dozen paces both my legs were throbbing with pain, I think it was primarily my right knee and my left ankle this time. But I ran on.
The little boy scooted along in front of us, and after a minute he disappeared into the woods on the left. I knew I couldn’t make it much farther, so I determined to duck into the woods at roughly the same place, but then I tripped somehow, I think the pains in my knee and ankle just caused me to lose balance.
I landed on the hard bricks with my hands first, so at least I didn’t bang up my legs again, too much, but Mr. Jones of course flew off of me and rolled toward the middle of the road while his hat rolled to the side of the road.
“Goddam it, Arnold!”
“Sorry,” I said.
I pushed myself to my feet again. The heels of my hands were bruised, but that was my least worry now. I glanced back and I could see that naked horde from hell again, screeching with a sound like a thousand air raid sirens.
I staggered over to Mr. Jones, scooped him up with both hands and tossed him over my shoulders in a fireman’s carry.
“Hey, easy!” yelled Mr. Jones.
Holding him by one skinny leg and one skinnier arm I staggered toward the woods to the left, flinching with pain with each step I took.
The screeching grew louder and I could hear the drumming of hundreds of naked feet on brick.
I was panting again, of course, and sweating like a pig. Mr. Jones was making little grunting noises in my ear. I wondered what hell would be like.
And then I heard another, newer sound, and yet a familiar sound, a deep whirring noise from the opposite direction of the encroaching horde from hell.
I raised and turned my head and there up the road a motor car was roaring toward us.
I had been trying to get into the woods again, but now I turned and ran straight up along the side of the road, staggering and panting, the car came closer, got bigger, it was an old car, and a big one, dark green – a Duesenberg? No, a Pierce-Arrow, I could tell by the headlamps. It skidded to a stop to my right, and of course I stopped too.
Inside at the wheel was Saint Peter.
“Get the hell in,” he yelled through the open passenger window.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I opened the door, tossed Mr. Jones into the front seat and got in next to him. I slammed the door shut just as the damned of hell finally caught up to us, wide-eyed and screeching naked men of all ages, and some women too.
The road was narrow, so instead of doing a U-turn, Saint Peter put the car into reverse and backed up at an angle to the side of the road.
As he shifted into first and began to turn the wheel to the left the damned swarmed all around the car.
“Goddam it,” he said.
Turning the wheel with his left hand he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a cocked and locked army .45, thumbed the safety down and held the gun out to me.
“You got one in the chamber. Don’t be afraid to use it.”
I had actually carried one of these pistols in the war, but except for one afternoon on the firing range back at Fort Benning I had never fired one. But I took the gun anyway.
Saint Peter was already making his turn, and a couple of naked damned people were crawling over the hood of the car. Saint Peter pressed down on the gas pedal, wrenching the steering wheel hard with both hands, the dead people rolled off the hood and I felt an awful bump as we ran over someone with a front wheel and a fraction of a second later a second bump as the rear wheel went over him or her. Someone reached through my window and grabbed at my neck, screeching hideously.
“Shoot the damned bastard, Arnold!” yelled Mr. Jones.
I couldn’t do it. I was in an awkward position to shoot anyway, with the gun in my right hand and this damned person hanging onto my neck. Fortunately, as Saint Peter wheeled the big car around, the dead man’s grip weakened, I put my elbow up into his face and he fell away, still screeching, but more and more damned people were crowding all around the car. I did what I could. I fired a couple of shots out the window above their heads, some of them threw their hands up and flinched. There was another double bump as we ran over someone again, and then a second later Saint Peter had shifted gears again and we were roaring up the highway and the screeching was fading away behind us. Then another hand came through my window, a grasping, clawing hand, someone was on the roof of the car.
“Shoot through the roof, Arnie boy!” cackled Mr. Jones.
A single tortured voice screeched from above and the hand kept reaching in, grasping, clawing at my face.
“Goddam it, shoot the bastard” yelled Mr. Jones.
But I couldn’t do it. I switched the gun to my left hand, grabbed the dead person’s arm with my right hand and yanked hard. A naked body came down off the roof, I let go of the arm, the naked damned person dropped screeching down behind us to the road, the screeching stopped abruptly, and I saw the man roll six feet backwards and then lie perfectly still and shrinking smaller and smaller as we drove away.
I turned to the front again. I was panting, and drenched with sweat. Mr. Jones was panting also and his naked bald skull was beaded with sweat.
We kept straight on up the road at high speed.
“Put the goddam safety on that gun,” said Saint Peter.
I pushed up the safety lever. My hands were shaking.
“Give it to me,” said Saint Peter.
I handed the gun over to him. He looked at it to make sure the safety was really on, then stuck it into his jacket pocket.
For a minute none of us said anything. Saint Peter’s knuckles on the steering wheel were white. Finally he spoke.
“Tell me something,” he said. “Does being stupid come naturally to you two, or do you work at it?”
(Continued here, shamelessly.)
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