Saturday, November 5, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 275: row, Harry

Attempting to return to the world of the living, our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companion that ancient hedonist Mr. Jones have encountered a ferryman named Harry…

(Click here to read our previous chapter; go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 74-volume memoir, soon to be a major television series from Masterpiece Theatre, directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Ralph Fiennes as Arnold, with special guest star Sir Ian McKellan in the role of Mr. Jones; featuring Andy Devine as Harry the boatman.)

“Arnold Schnabel has been compared to Proust, to Joyce, to Beckett, to Romain Rolland, and God knows to whom else; but in the end he may be compared only to himself, and that is enough, nay, more than enough.” -- Harold Bloom, in a talk at “The Annual Arnold Schnabel Symposium” at Olney Community College, Philadelphia, PA.

The boat was gently bobbing sideways in the shallow water right next to the shore, tied to a rusted corrugated metal stake in the ground. It was a plain old rowboat, about fourteen feet long and four feet at its widest. It had been painted white with blue trim, but the white paint was yellowed, the blue was faded, all of it was peeling and warped. Beyond the boat a few feet of dark water was visible and then there was nothing but fog.

“Just climb in the stern there, gentlemen,” said Harry the ferryman.

The three of us went down and Harry and I held the side of the boat while Mr. Jones climbed in. I followed him in, and we sat side by side on the seat at the rear, facing the front of the boat, or the bow I suppose I should say.

Harry climbed in, and because of his great weight the boat rocked radically, coming very close to turning over. After nearly falling out he sat down with a thump on the seat in the middle of the boat, facing forward, and then started to pull an oar up from the floor, turning around to us as he did so.

“Cast off that line back there, willya?”

I turned around, and went to work on the rope, which was tied to a ring on the stern. It was a simple knot, so it only took me a minute and a half – two minutes tops – to get it untied and then to toss the rope to the shore.

By the time I turned around again Harry had two oars shipped. He was twisted around in his seat, looking at me.

“Not too good with knots, are you?” he said.

“I’m afraid I have little experience with boats,” I said.

“No kidding?”

He took a last good drag on his cigar, then tossed it out into the water where it hissed and then floated away into the fog. Turning forward again, he pushed away from the shore with one oar, then worked both oars until we were headed out into the river.

We floated into the fog. The air smelled slightly of burnt matches, of wet wool and rotten eggs. Harry grunted as he rowed, and soon he began to sing a song, unpleasantly, in his high-pitched, raspy voice, the only voice he had no doubt, a song with little discernible melody or rhythm or form, not that I’m anyone to be critical:

Oh we’re off once again ‘cross the ol’ River Styx,
that mighty river of death.
Some say that there’s more pricks than kicks
on this mighty old river of death,

but I say there’s nothing like a good clean breath
of the sulphurous fog of the river of death
and I’d rather row with a cavalier air
on this ol’ mighty river of death

than walk through the park
with your lady fair
and nary a thought of doom,
yes I’d rather be nowhere
really, than on this river dark
and grim and silent as a tomb…

Mr. Jones nudged me with his elbow. I turned and he gestured
with his finger for me to lower my head. I did so.

“Not really so silent right now, is it?” Mr. Jones whispered up into my ear.

“Well, I guess it’s his tradition,” I whispered back.

“It used to be a tradition to lynch darkies down south. But that didn’t make it right,” whispered Mr. Jones.

Harry had continued to sing while we were whispering, but now he stopped rowing and turned in his seat to look back at us.

“You like my shanty?”

“Yes!” said Mr. Jones.

“I made it up myself,” said Harry. “It has about ten thousand verses.”

“No kidding?” said Mr. Jones. “I hope it doesn’t take ten thousand verses to get across the river here.”

“Ha ha, no, not usually. But it breaks up the monotony. Sometimes I alter the melody, put in little like interludes or different sections, you know, like the movements of a symphony, or I’ll imagine different characters are singing, sorta like an opera, or a whaddyacallit?”

“A Broadway musical?” said Mr. Jones.

“No, more like, um – a cantata, yeah, that’s what it’s called, a cantata.”

“A cantata.”

“Yeah, like, I’ll have parts with say, Ulysses, or Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, or Ahab. You know who Ahab was, right?”

Moby-Dick?” said Mr. Jones.

“Exactly. Man, that Melville could write like a son-of-a-bitch. A little dull and long-winded maybe, a little too obvious one might say in his symbolisms and metaphors, but –”

“I liked the movie with that young fella, Gregory Peck,” said Mr. Jones.

“What movie?”


“Never saw it,” said Harry.

“Y’know, excuse me,” said Mr. Jones, “but I think the boat is veering a bit to the left there.”

“What?” said Harry. He turned around to face forward again, then worked the oars, turning us back at least roughly in the original direction. Then he paused and turned back to look at us again. “Just a little off-course, nothing to get excited about.”

“Maybe you should keep facing front, just to be on the safe side,” said Mr. Jones.

“I know what I’m doing,” said Harry. “I’ve been rowing this damn boat way before even you were born, gramps.”

“Still, I think we’d both feel better if you just sort of watched where you’re going,” said Mr. Jones.

“I’m just trying to be sociable.”

“Yes, but –"

“Shoot the shit a little,” said the boatman.

“I realize that,” said Mr. Jones.

“It gets lonely sometimes sitting on that riverbank.”

“I should think you would be very busy ferrying people across,” said Mr. Jones. “Dead people.”

“That’s the other side gets all the business. There’s another guy over there handles that. He’s always busy.”

“People always dying, huh?” said Mr. Jones.

“Always,” said Harry. “But people going the other way? Going back? Very few.”

“Few,” said Mr. Jones.

“And far between,” said Harry. “I sit there weeks sometimes without a customer.”

“Weeks?” said Mr. Jones.

“Week, months, I lose track of the time. I sit and smoke, read books.”

He reached into his jacket pocket, brought out the paperback book he’d been reading when we had first seen him.

“You guys ever read this one? Backstreets of Bangkok?”

“Never heard of it,” said Mr. Jones.

Horace P. Sternwall? Ever hear of him?”

“Sounds familiar,” I said.

I noticed that the boat was turning to the left again now that he was not rowing.

“Somebody left it in the boat,” said the man. “It’s pretty good. I’ve read it about twenty times. Thirty times. I gotta get some new books.”

“Um, Harry –” said Mr. Jones.

The boat was still turning, and was now about at a 60-degree angle from its previous course.

“If you guys want to borrow the book you can have it,” said Harry. “I’ve practically got it memorized at this point.

“Well, thanks, but we really want just to get across,” said Mr. Jones.

“Well, okay.” He put the book away, took up his oars, started rowing again.

We were surrounded by fog. I turned and looked back, and I could no longer see the shore we had set off from. I looked up and saw only fog. All I could see was a few feet of dark water around the boat, and fog.

“Um, excuse me, Harry?” I called.

He stopped rowing and turned.

“Yeah? You want the book?”

“Um – no –”

“It’s a good one. It’s all about this guy named Ben Blagwell who gets trapped in this web of treachery and deceit --”

“Listen, Harry,” I interrupted, “I think you might be going the wrong way.”

“Going the wrong way?”

“Well, I saw the boat turning again while you were talking just then.”

He looked into the water.

“Oh,” he said. “Y’know, I think you’re right, I can tell by the way the water’s flowing. My mistake.”

He started turning the boat with the oars, turning to the left.

“Um,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“You’re turning the same way that the boat was turning just before.”

“I am?”

“Yes,” I said. “It was turning to the left.”

“To the left?”


“To port you mean.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“So you’re saying I should heave to starboard?”

“That’s right, right?”

“In nautical language, yes.”

“Yes, you need to turn to the right –”

“To starboard.”

“To starboard,” I said, “to get back in the direction we were going before.”

“Okay,” he said, “starboard it is then.”

And now he began turning the boat to the right.

When he had gotten the boat pointed back in the direction he had originally had it going he proceeded to keep turning, but I called out again.

“Excuse me, Harry, I think we’re pointed in the right direction now!”

He paused and turned and looked at me over his shoulder.

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure,” I said.

“So I should keep going straight ahead?”

“Well, you were still turning when I spoke, so maybe if you just turned a little more towards the left now.”

“To port.”

“Yes, to port, just a little.”

He turned, looked to the left and right, into that opaque fog, and then looked back at me.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said.

He faced forward and continued his rowing, turning the boat a little to the left and then going straight ahead, in some direction.

“I say, Harry,” called Mr. Jones, “you’re sure we’re going in the right direction now?”

“Positive,” called back Harry, without turning this time. “We’ll know soon enough, anyway.”

“Well, that’s encouraging,” said Mr. Jones.

“Don’t worry, I know this river like the back of my hand, no matter what anybody tells you.”

“No one told us anything,” said Mr. Jones.


Harry was turning to look at us again, although he kept rowing.

“Nope,” said Mr. Jones, “nobody told us nothing.”

“They didn’t say anything about me.”


“Well, that’s good.” He kept rowing, occasionally glancing back over his shoulder to look at us, maybe to make sure we were paying attention. “Y’know, I used to work the far side of the river, but some assholes complained. Which is why I got stuck on this side. Not that I care. You think I care?”

“No?” said Mr. Jones.

“Nope, I don’t care,” said Harry. “Don’t miss it in the least, no sir, rowing dead people across all day practically nonstop, forget it. Only thing is, I wish I had some new books to read. Hey, do me a favor –” he turned around almost completely again, “when you guys come back, bring me some books, okay?”

“Horace P. Sternwall?” said Mr. Jones.

“Yeah, he’s good,” said Harry. “Or Fredric Brown maybe. Carter Brown. Whatever. I think I’ll sing some more now.”

And once again he turned and began to sing as he rowed, in that high raspy voice.

Oh, I’ve been a boatman on the River Styx
since the days of Dante Alighieri;
I’ve seen the dead come with their whole bag of tricks,
but they can’t trick old boatman Harry.

I’ve seen the saints and I’ve seen the sinners,
I’ve seen the bland, the losers and winners,
they all come across sooner or later,
the celibate, the rake, and the masturbator,
they all come across but so few come back,
they come crying, they come sighing,
alas they cry, alas and alack,
they come moaning, they come groaning,
they’ve all got a story
and they’re all so sorry
for the things they did do
and the things they didn’t,
the Catholic and Protestant,
the Parsi and the Jew,
the Sufi and the Pagan,
the Buddhist and the Hindu,
it don’t matter to me
I’m paid not to judge but to row;
yes, eventually
they all come across, but so,
so few come back.
Alas they cry, alack…

Mr. Jones nudged me in the side, and once again I inclined my head.

“Arnie, you think we might be in hell after all?”

I sighed.

“I hope not,” I whispered.

Harry stopped singing and turned around again.

“You gentlemen okay back there?”

“Sure, we’re fine,” said Mr. Jones. “You can keep rowing.”

“Okay,” said Harry, and he turned forward and kept rowing into the fog, resuming his singing.

Oh, I’m just a boatman on the River Styx,
rowing a boat’s how I get my kicks
I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go
I’m not paid to judge, I’m just paid to row.
Row, row, row, row, Harry, row,
bring on the dead souls,
‘cause that’s the way ol’ Harry rolls.
He’s seen them come, he’s seen them go.
Row, row, row.
Row, Harry, row…

(Continued here, bloodied but unbowed.)

(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other currently-possible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil Obstat, Bishop John J. “Big Jack” Graham, S.J.)


DR said...

that's perfect--trying to get back to the land of the living and the guy who's supposed to get you there is inept...been there!

Dan Leo said...

Who says Arnold's adventures don't have universal significance?