Our hero Arnold Schnabel and his aged companion Mr. Jones are still trying to make their way back to the world of the living...
(Kindly go here to read our preceding chapter; anyone looking for a new harmless obsession may click here to return to the faraway very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 57-volume memoir.)
“Recently I found myself trapped for some several hours in the ancient elevator of the Union League in Philadelphia; fortunately I had my ‘smart phone’ on me and thus was able to pass the time quite pleasantly re-reading some of my favorite Arnold Schnabel episodes.” -- Harold Bloom, on Live! with Regis and Kelly.
I kept climbing up the ladder, going slowly, one step at a time, sliding my hands up the wet rails without ever completely letting go with either hand. Both my legs hurt at various places, and I wouldn’t have put it past either of them to seize up on me at any moment. After having made it this far I didn’t want to slip and fall down into that inky water.
Pretty soon my eyes and nose, not unlike Kilroy’s, were suddenly above the level of the top of the wall, which was about two feet broad, with everything beyond obscured by fog, if there was anything beyond. The fog was not still, but stirring very gently, as though it were breathing. Mr. Jones was nowhere to be seen. The handrails of the ladder curved up above the wall into twin inverted “U”s, fixed into the stone with bolted metal plates. I climbed on up, and, keeping hold of the rails, I called out into that grey and lightly swirling void.
“What?” came his voice, from somewhere below.
“Where are you?” I called.
“Down here, Arnie-boy. There’s a flight of steps right at your feet.”
Looking down I saw some stone steps rising up out of, or descending into, the fog below. The steps were about three feet wide.
“Oh, okay,” I said.
The steps looked wet.
“You see them?” called Mr. Jones’s voice.
“Yes,” I said.
There was no handrail.
“Come on down. But be careful.”
“I will,” I said.
“You don’t need to take any more croppers today.”
“No,” I said.
“So come on.”
“How many steps are there?” I asked.
“Just a half-dozen or so. Eight maybe.”
“I wish there was a railing,” I said.
“So write your congressman. Come on, buddy, if I can make it then you should be able to.”
“Right,” I said.
“Just be careful.”
“I will,” I said.
“One step at a time, you’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” I said. “So it’s just like six or eight steps, right?”
“Around six or eight,” said Mr. Jones. “Maybe ten.” I think he was getting a little impatient. “I didn’t count them. Now come on.”
“Okay,” I said, and I stepped down.
One step at a time. I took another step. I felt a jolt of pain in one knee, but to be honest I was getting used to these by now. I just had to take my time and be careful. I took another step and now I could make out the dim silhouette of what must be Mr. Jones, standing near what must be the foot of the steps.
“Oh, I can see you now,” I said.
“That’s great, Arnold. Now hurry the fuck up.”
I took another step, perhaps too quickly in my embarrassment at my own timidity, because the sole of one of my Keds slipped out from under me, and I fell, backwards, and downwards, my backside thumping hard upon first one step, then another, and a third, maybe a fourth, till finally my feet hit hard pavement and I pitched forward into a pair of thin short legs, knocking them and the old man’s body to which they were attached to the ground.
“Fucking Christ,” said Mr. Jones.
“Ow,” I said.
“I told you to be careful.”
“I was trying to be,” I said. “Ow.”
“You tackle me, and you’re the one who says ow?”
“I’m really sorry,” I said.
“Get your face out of my crotch, damn it!”
I rolled off of him. I was in a great deal of pain, most of which now emanated from my rear end, but I thought it best not to mention this at the present moment.
“Are you okay, Mr. Jones?”
“Considering that some big fool just tackled me to the bricks, yes. Now help me up.”
Gritting my teeth, I first got myself on my feet, and then reached down, took hold of both of Mr. Jones’s forearms, and pulled him upright.
“I hope I didn’t hurt you,” I said. “Too much.”
“I’ll live,” he said. “Or rather I will live if indeed we are at last in the world of the living.”
Keeping one hand on his arm, I looked around. Except for the first few of the stone steps I had just so ineptly descended and a bit of the wall on either side of them, all I could see was Mr. Jones and a yard or so of the ground around us, paved with grey cobblestones.
“Fucking fog,” said Mr. Jones.
“Well, I guess we should just keep walking,” I said.
“It beats just standing here.”
“Just do me a favor.”
“Don’t tackle me no more.”
“I’ll try not to,” I said. “Let’s just take it slow and easy, at least till we get clear of this fog.”
And so arm in arm we headed slowly into the fog, me limping more than ever, Mr. Jones shuffling as decrepitly as ever.
Then I began to hear a sound, like the beating of a heart, and then a sort of rhythmic crashing sound like distant waves at the shore, but speeded up, and then when I also heard what at first I thought was a woman crying I realized it was not noise I was hearing but music.
“Mr. Jones,” I said, “Do you hear that?”
“Stop a second.”
I put my other hand on his arm.
“Why you always grabbing me for like that, son?”
“Sorry,” I said, taking my hands away. “But listen.”
He cupped a hand to his ear and turned his head so the ear was facing in the direction we had been walking.
“Now I hear it,” he said. “Sounds like one of them hot jazz combos.”
“We must be back in the world of the living then,” I said.
“So one would assume,” he said. “But where in the world of the living actually are we? Somehow this doesn’t seem like Cape May, does it?”
“No, I said, “unless it’s some part of Cape May I’m not quite familiar with.”
“You’re quite familiar with Cape May then, are you?”
“Well, there are parts I suppose I haven’t been to,” I said. “Maybe we’re out near, I don’t know, the Coast Guard base.”
“The Coast Guard base.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“You think so.”
“Well, I just mean, like, you know --”
“Yeah,” I said, already suffused with doubt.
“Well, personally I never travel more than five blocks from my room,” said Mr. Jones. “So what do I know?”
“I think we should just keep walking towards the music,” I said. “It must be a bar.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Mr. Jones. “A little whiskey, just to cut through the fog in our lungs.”
“Well, I was thinking we could ask where we are, get some directions maybe.”
“Yeah, sure. And we’ll have a whiskey while we’re askin’.”
“Well, maybe one,” I said.
“Or two,” said Mr. Jones. “After all, it’s not every day that a fella comes back from the dead.”
“True,” I said, although this was in fact the second day in a row that I had done so, if indeed we were back from the dead.
“A man’s got a right to celebrate,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” I said.
“A couple whiskeys. Couple beers. Wait -- maybe Manhattans! You like Manhattans, right?”
“Well, uh --”
“Or, say, ya know what’s good? Champagne Cocktails. Ever have one?”
“Um, I don’t think so --”
“Cognac and champagne. And some other shit, but cognac and champagne are the key elements. We can only hope they have some good cognac and champagne in this dive we’re headed toward. How much money you got on you, anyway?”
Both Mr. Jones and I gave out with little yelps of fright at the sound of these last words and the sudden sight of their apparent speaker, who seemed to emerge from the fog before us all at once although he was standing still, a small pale man in a sharkskin zoot suit and a bolo tie, lighting a cigarette with a lighter and smiling. He had glossy black hair that bulged up in a sort of bubble over his forehead and he had a long scar on one cheek.
“Holy shit,” said Mr. Jones. “You scared us there, buddy.”
“Heh heh.” The man clicked his lighter shut and dropped it into the side pocket of his jacket. “It’s this damn fog,” he said, keeping the cigarette in his mouth. He had some sort of English accent. “Can’t see your nose in front of your face.”
“I can never see my nose in front of my face,” said Mr. Jones. “Because my nose is on my face.”
“Okay, I’ll rephrase that,” said the man. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked at it for a moment. Then he looked at me, and then at Mr. Jones. “This damn fog is so thick you could cut it with a knife.”
“That’s better,” said Mr. Jones.
“But a sharp knife,” said the man. (On second thought he could have been Australian or South African, or something else.) Again he looked at me and Mr. Jones in turn, and then he went on. “It’s like that thick. This fog. You’d need a real sharp knife to cut it. Razor sharp.”
“Okay, I get it,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yeah, sure,” said the man. “So, you chaps new in town?”
“That depends,” said Mr. Jones. “What town is this?”
“Ha ha. I would say you slay me, pops, but then you might assail me again on a point of verbal accuracy.”
“Even speaking figuratively,” said Mr. Jones, “I fail to see how my simple question would slay you or otherwise incapacitate you to the extent of making you unable to answer my simple question.”
“Ha ha. Trust me, gramps, if I was in a position to be slain you would be doing so now.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Just what I said. If I could be slain you would be slaying me, absolutely killing me, that’s how funny you are. You should be in the music halls, or panto. Take your act on the road, like. Maybe a carny. The Old Joking Midget they could call you. You pays your penny and he slays you. Dead.”
“Listen,” said Mr. Jones, “you, you dockside lout, all we want to know is what town this is. Is that so hard a question?”
“Ha ha, you chaps really are lost, ain’t ya?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Jones. “We’re lost. In the fog. Now can you please tell us where we are.”
“Ha ha. You’re lost all right.”
“Excuse me -- sir,” I said.
“The big man speaks. And here I was thinking you was the strong silent type. What gives, daddy-o?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“I am an open book. A bible. A telephone directory. I am a compendium of favorite items from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. I am the Sears Roebuck Catalogue and Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia. I am Father Bartlett’s Lives of the Saints and the goddam Torah rolled into one. I am the Domesday Book. Ask away, my friend.”
“Okay,” I said. “What we’d like to know is if this is --”
“If what is?”
“This --” I said, making a sideways sweep of my hand.
“Whoa, John Barrymore with the dramatic gestures,” said the fellow.
“Um, yeah,” I said. “So, like, um, what we’d like to know is if this --”
“This,” said the guy, sweeping his hand.
“Yeah,” I said. “We were wondering if this is the, uh, um --”
“Take your time.”
“Hey, fuck you, pal,” said Mr. Jones.
“Aw, now that ain’t nice,” said the man.
“Is this the land of the living?” I said.
“What?” said the man.
“Is this the land of the living.”
“The land of the living.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Ha ha,” he said.
“Answer the question,” said Mr. Jones.
“Ha ha,” said the man.
“What?” said Mr. Jones.
“That’s my answer,” said the man. “Ha ha is my answer.”
“So you’re saying we’re not in the world of the living,” said Mr. Jones.
“Ha ha,” said the man.
“Answer us,” said Mr. Jones. “You insolent ponce. Yes or no.”
“No,” said the man. “Nix. Nyet. Nein. Ixnay. No.”
“Shit,” said Mr. Jones.
“Ha ha,” said the man.
“That fucking ferryman,” said Mr. Jones.
“Who?” said the man. “Harry?”
“Yeah,” said Mr. Jones.
“Goddam Harry, always getting lost. Pathetic.”
“Damn his eyes,” said Mr. Jones. “So what is this place?”
“This place?” The man looked around, as if there were anything at all to see except fog. “Some people call it the Island of Lost Souls. Some people call it the Place With No Name, or the Port of Grim Shadows. Some people call it Nowheresvile, daddy-o.”
“What do you call it?” asked Mr. Jones.
“I don’t call it nothing, pops. I don’t call it nothing at all.”
“Nothing,” said Mr. Jones.
“Nothing,” said the man.
“Nothing?” I said.
“Not a goddam thing,” said the man.
“Well, okay, then,” I said. “I guess we’ll be moving along.”
“Where yez goin’ ya don’t mind my asking.”
“We were headed towards the sound of that music,” I said.
“Oh.” The music had been playing faintly in the distance all throughout the above conversation, and I could now hear what sounded like a saxophone. “That joint,” said the man.
“You know it?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know it.”
“Well, that’s where we’re going.”
“Hold on just a second.”
“I beg your pardon?’
He put his cigarette in his mouth, then reached into his jacket and brought out something, did something with his fingers, and a four-inch blade flicked out. It looked very sharp. He pointed the blade toward my throat.
(Continued here, and onward, come hell or high water and everything in between.)
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