Let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel, seated uneasily in the front seat of a 1929 Pierce-Arrow “French Brougham” with that ancient reprobate Mr. Jones and the car’s driver, Saint Peter, as they motor along a narrow brick road through a forest in a world beyond this world…
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Neither Mr. Jones nor I said anything, although we did glance at each other, briefly. For half a minute Saint Peter also kept silent, but then he spoke again.
“I tell you quite clearly to go one way,” he said. “And then you go the other.”
“Hey, look,” said Mr. Jones, “we weren’t sure whether you meant go left facing the road or go left facing the house. Okay?”
“Then why the hell didn’t you just get on the intercom again and ask me?”
Again, neither Mr. Jones nor I said anything, and, again, we glanced at each other, even more briefly this time.
“And then I see you two nitwits going the wrong way,” said Saint Peter, after another brief pause, “and I get up off of my comfortable chair, and go ring the intercom again, but do you two stop? Do you?”
“Oh,” I said.
“’Oh’ what?” said Saint Peter.
“Y’know,” I said, “I thought I heard a ringing back there, but --”
“Well, I think I asked Mr. Jones if he heard it, but then we started talking about something else, and I guess I got distracted, and, well --”
Once again both Mr. Jones and I chose to remain silent here, although the old fellow did give me a nudge with his elbow in my ribs.
“You two are just lucky I was able to get the car out of the garage and get out here in time,” said Saint Peter.
“Well, we really want to thank you, uh, Saint Peter,” said Mr. Jones. “Don’t we Arnold?”
“Yes,” I said, quickly. “Thanks a lot. We really appreciate --”
“You saw those damned people,” said Saint Peter.
“Yes,” I said.
“I mean you saw them, right?”
“Yeah, we saw them all right,” said Mr. Jones.
“You two are so lucky. They would have dragged you down to the deepest pit of hell so quick.”
“Right,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”
“Your heads would be spinning,” said Saint Peter.
“Right,” I said again.
“I mean literally,” he said. “Literally they would be spinning.”
“Literally?” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said Saint Peter. “Literally. I’ve seen it and it’s not pretty. Not pretty, at all.”
“I imagine,” said Mr. Jones.
“And those damned people would be laughing all the way. Laughing, and screeching.”
“I hate that fucking screeching,” said Mr. Jones.
“I’d appreciate your not using that gutter language in this motorcar.”
“Sorry,” said Mr. Jones.
“You know who this car belongs to, don’t you?”
“To the, uh, Deity?”
“Correct. So show some respect.”
“Like I was in church,” said Mr. Jones.
“Exactly,” said Saint Peter.
“Well,” said Mr. Jones, “I will, uh, certainly --”
“But I hate it too,” said Saint Peter.
“What’s that,” said Mr. Jones.
“That screeching,” said Saint Peter. “Hate it.”
“Yes, it’s very, uh -- hateful,” said Mr. Jones.
“Exactly,” said Saint Peter. “Hateful. Listen --”
“Yes?” I said. He seemed to want someone to say something, so that’s why I said this. I didn’t want him to get any more upset than he already was.
“There’s a reason,” he said.
“A reason,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s a reason those people are damned.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“They are not nice people.”
“No,” I said.
“Not nice at all.”
“I could see that,” said Mr. Jones.
“Well --” I said.
“Well what?” said Saint Peter.
“Well, thanks again,” I said.
“For, uh, driving out and rescuing us --”
“Yeah, thanks a million,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks, you know, thanks a lot --”
“Okay, enough,” said Saint Peter. “It’s all part of my job, there’s no need to thank me.”
We were passing by the grounds of the big house now, with the spiked wrought-iron fence.
“Beautiful motorcar you have here by the way,” said Mr. Jones. "What’s this, the 1930 Pierce-Arrow?”
“I wouldn’t drive the 1930 model,” said Saint Peter. “The ’29 was the last really quality year for Pierce-Arrow.”
“Oh, really?” said Mr. Jones. “So what year’s this baby?”
“It’s a beauty.” Mr. Jones ran his hands along part of the dashboard. “What’s that, mahogany woodwork there?”
“Only the best,” said Mr. Jones.
“Some people might prefer, say, the Rolls-Royce Phantom II, especially with the Thrupp & Maberly body,” said Saint Peter.
“Highly overrated automobile,” said Mr. Jones.
“I have to agree,” said Saint Peter. “To tell the truth I’d take the 1930 8-litre Bentley over anything Rolls ever put out.”
“Oh, definitely,” said Mr. Jones.
“But then when Rolls bought out Bentley, in ‘31?”
Saint Peter looked at us, took his right hand off the wheel and turned its thumb down.
“Downhill,” said Mr. Jones.
“In my opinion, yes,” said Saint Peter. He put his hand back on the wheel and, thank God, or whomever, turned his eyes back to the road.
We were coming up to the entrance of the big house, but Saint Peter gave no signs of stopping, and in fact he drove right on past the gate. I was about to ask him how much farther we had to go, but he spoke first.
“But even that 1930 Bentley had nothing on this machine,” he said.
“Oh, I agree,” said Mr. Jones. He gave me another nudge in the ribs. “Don’t you agree, Arnold?”
“Oh,” I said, “uh --”
“It’s only my opinion,” said Saint Peter.
“You’re preaching to the choir, sir,” said Mr. Jones.
“Just call me a Pierce-Arrow man.”
“Shame Pierce-Arrow had to go out of business,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes, it was,” said Saint Peter.
“Wasn’t there something you could have done about that?”
“Something you could have done to keep the company in business.”
“Who? Me? No,” he said. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“You couldn’t, like, have said a word, to -- you know -- the big guy?”
For a moment Saint Peter said nothing, he just kept his eyes on the road. He was driving at a steady seventy right down the middle of that narrow brick road. Keeping his right hand on the wheel, with his left hand he now reached into his jacket pocket and took out his meerschaum pipe and put it in his mouth. Then he reached into the same pocket again, brought out his leather tobacco pouch and thumbed it open.
“What I mean is,” said Mr. Jones, “couldn’t you have taken the big man aside and said, like, “Hey, chief, this Pierce-Arrow outfit, they make a great quality motorcar, can’t we fix things up for ‘em --”
Saint Peter now did something I hate to see living human beings do, that is to drive a car at high speeds with only their elbows on the steering wheel while they fill their pipe with their free hands. It’s very disconcerting. I think it even bothered Mr. Jones, because as soon as Saint Peter got the pipe filled and had put away his pouch Mr. Jones had his matches out and was offering him a light.
“Oh, thank you,” said Saint Peter, inclining his head to one side so that Mr. Jones could apply the match he had just struck. When the pipe was well lit, Saint Peter pulled out the ashtray on the dashboard, and Mr. Jones popped the match into it.
Saint Peter smoked, and drove, the smoke trailed out the window in a horizontal grey ribbon. The fenced-in grounds of the big house on the left side had given way to more forest now. Saint Peter kept the car going at seventy, right down the middle of the road. I suppose there was no other traffic here. After a minute he suddenly took the pipe out of his mouth and glanced at Mr. Jones.
“What did you just ask me?” he said.
“I asked if you couldn’t have like talked to the big guy about helping out the Pierce-Arrow Company. On accounta they made such a fine quality motorcar.”
“No,” said Saint Peter.
“No.” He took a couple of puffs on his pipe, and then he continued. “Look. Every day somebody somewhere is dying of some horrible disease, or starving to death, or being massacred. Every day the innocent get trampled into the mud. Every day there are earthquakes, floods, typhoons. Every day. Wars breaking out. Epidemics. All right, maybe not every day but almost every day. Every horrible human misery you can imagine. Every day. So, think about it, with all this going on I’m supposed to ask the father to bail out an automobile company?”
“I never thought about it like that.”
“No one ever does,” said Saint Peter.
We drove along in silence for another long half a minute. The forest seemed to be encroaching closer and more thickly now, on both sides. Then Mr. Jones spoke again.
“May I ask you another question?”
“Them people you ran over.”
“Couldn’t be helped.”
“No, of course not. And that other guy what Arnie yanked off the roof.”
“Yes,” said Saint Peter. “Well played, by the way, Mr. Schnabel. You could have simply shot him through the roof with the .45, but then we would have had one or two very ugly holes through it. Not to mention a lot of blood all over the roof and dripping down off it.”
“Uh, yes,” I said.
“So my question --” said Mr. Jones, “them people we just run over, and that guy Arnold dumped down onto the road --”
“Yes, what about them?”
“Well, presuming they got killed --”
“Oh, I think we can safely assume they were killed.”
“Okay, assuming that, then, like where do they go to? I mean since we’re already in the next world?”
“Where do they go?”
“I mean like their souls.”
“Yeah. Is there like another hell they go to? Or maybe they get off easy and they go to another purgatory?”
“Where do they go.”
“Yeah,” said Mr. Jones. “Where do they go?”
“I have no idea,” said Saint Peter.
“Oh. So God never, like, told you, or --”
Suddenly Saint Peter was slowing down, putting the brake on and pulling the car over to the right side of the road.
“Okay,” he said. “This is as far as I take you.”
“So we like get out here,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said Saint Peter. He kept the motor running. “Just keep walking straight ahead.”
“Straight ahead?” said Mr. Jones.
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones. He held out his hand, but Saint Peter just kept looking straight ahead, puffing on his pipe, his right hand on the gear shift.
I opened the passenger door, got out onto the side of the road. I helped Mr. Jones out.
“Please don’t slam the door,” called out Saint Peter. “It damages the lock mechanism.”
Carefully I pushed the door to, but it wouldn’t shut all the way.
“Pull the handle out a bit and then close the door,” said Saint Peter.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. I pulled the handle out a bit and pushed the door in, but it still wouldn’t close.
“Pull the handle out,” said Mr. Jones.
“I thought I was,” I said.
“Do it again,” said Mr. Jones.
“Will you please just shut the door,” called Saint Peter.
I pulled the handle out a bit more and pushed the door shut, successfully this time, or so I thought for a fraction of a second.
“I asked you not to slam it,” said Saint Peter.
“Sorry,” I said.
Saint Peter sighed, put the car in reverse, backed up into the roadside, then pulled the car out, turning around in the road and taking off in the opposite direction.
“He asked you not to slam the fucking door, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones.
“I know,” I said. “I was nervous.”
“Don’t sweat it. Well, I guess it’s shank’s mare from here on.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
We started walking along the road, or, rather, as before, I started limping, and Mr. Jones started shuffling. All around us was silence. The ragged strip of sky above our heads still was overcast. Not a bird sang, or screeched. Not a breath of air stirred the leaves of the trees that thickly walled in both sides of that narrow red brick road.
(Continued here, because God told us to.)
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The Deity! I've never heard anyone say that but of course I've read it. And in case I ever have to talk with St. Peter (quelle horreur!, I better learn about early automobiles.
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