Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his ancient companion Mr. Jones – having been disembarked at a fog-shrouded place known variously as the Island of Lost Souls, the Place with no Name, the Port of Grim Shadows, or Nowheresville – must now deal with a knife-wielding stranger in a zoot suit...
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“Although he lived his life in relative obscurity, Arnold Schnabel has by now assumed his well-justified place among those giants of 20th century literature: Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Horace P. Sternwall.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Nate Berkus Show.
“All right, mate,” said the man. “Nice and easy now, let’s see your wallet, and no funny business or I’ll perforate you right good and don’t believe I won’t. Sid the Shiv they calls me and not without good reason.”
“Sid the what?” said Mr. Jones.
“The Shiv,” said the man. “Sid the Shiv.”
“Thought you said Sid the Shit.”
“Right. Don’t push me, grandpa. I got what they call a sociopathic personality.”
“What’s that? Shrink-talk for being an asshole?”
“I’m warnin’ ya. Button your lip, gramps, I got a little respect for me elders but not a lot.”
“I don’t fucking believe this,” said Mr. Jones. “Even in the goddam afterworld we gotta worry about cheap little hoods and switchblade artists.”
“What made you think it would be any different?” said the man, keeping the point of the blade about two inches from my throat. “By the way, I’ll wanta see your wallet too, granddad.”
“Fuck you,” said Mr. Jones.
“’Fuck you’?” said the man. “Howzabout I give your boyfriend here a little fuck you?”
And he brought the point of the knife even closer to my throat.
“Okay,” I said, “take it easy.” And I reached into the back pocket of my bermudas for my wallet.
“Don’t give it to him, Arnie boy,” said Mr. Jones.
The man stuck his knife’s point right up to the skin of my throat, just to the left of my Adam’s apple.
“Nice and easy, chum,” he said.
I got my wallet out of my pocket, but I was understandably nervous, and it slipped from my fingers and fell to the cobblestones at my feet.
“Oh,” I said.
“You playin’ games with me, chum?” said the man in the zoot suit. I suppose I should call him Sid. Sid the Shiv. He poked the point of his knife at my throat. “I said you playin’ games with me?”
“No,” I said.
“I won’t,” I said.
“I got my blade on you, boy.”
“I know,” I said.
“Just so you know that,” he said, and, keeping his knife arm outstretched, he started to bend down to pick the wallet up, but then suddenly stopped. “Oh, I get it,” he said, and he straightened up again, leaving the wallet where it was. “Oldest trick in the book. Distract a man and then cosh him. Where’s your cosh?”
“Your sap, your blackjack.”
“I don’t have one.”
He glanced at Mr. Jones.
“You, pops, pick up your clumsy friend’s wallet.”
“Fuck you,” said Mr. Jones.
“Pick it up or I give your pal an emergency tracheotomy.”
“You ain’t got the balls,” said Mr. Jones.
“Um, listen, sir,” I said. “I’ll pick it up.”
“All right,” he said. “Pick it up, but slow and easy like.”
“Okay,” I said, and I started to bend over.
“Oh, no,” said the guy.
I was slightly bent over.
“Not that way, pal. Second oldest trick in the book. You bends over and comes up with a roundhouse right-hook haymaker in me breadbasket.”
“Really, I was just bending over to pick it up.”
“Don’t take the piss with me, mate.” Once again he held the knife’s point very close to my throat. “Don’t ever take the piss with me.”
“I’m not sure what that means,” I said.
“There ya go,” he said. “Takin’ the piss again, and I just told you not to.”
“Okay. Bend your knees,” said the man, “slow and easy, facing me. Just like you was doin’ a deep-knee bend. Then when you get down far enough reach out your right hand – again, slow and easy like – and pick up the wallet. Then, slow and easy, rise up again, and hand me the wallet.”
“How you gonna do it?”
“Slow and easy?”
“Y’know, I really don’t have very much money in the wallet,” I said.
“Slow and easy, mate.”
“Okay,” I said. And I started to flex my knees.
“Slow,” said the guy, drawing his knife back a few inches but keeping it pointed at my carotid artery. I bended my knees as slowly as I could. “Easy,” he said.
Believe me, I was trying my best to go as slowly and easily as I could, with Sid’s blade descending along with me, but then my knee went out on me again, my right knee it was this time, and with a flash of pain I pitched forward, my head butting the man right in the pit of the stomach, knocking him backwards, I heard his head thump against the cobbles, and then I was lying on top of him and he was lying still.
“Ow,” I said, pushing myself off the man. “Ow.”
Lying on my back I brought my throbbing knee up and put both my hands around it, which did nothing to ease the pain.
“Ow,” I said, staring up at the swirling greyness of the fog.
Then Mr. Jones was leaning over me.
“You okay, buddy?”
“My leg,” I said. “Ow.”
“Nice move, Arnold. You knocked the bastard out cold. Dig this.” He showed me a knife. “Got his switchblade. Nice one, too. Looks like one of them Dago blades.” He folded the blade into the handle and dropped the knife into the side pocket of his jacket.
“All right, let’s get you up,” he said.
He pulled on my arm, and I managed to get up to a sitting position, where I stopped, holding my knee with both hands and trying not to say ow.
Mr. Jones reached down and picked my wallet up off the cobblestones, handed it to me.
“There ya go, buddy.”
Holding my knee with one hand, with the other hand I shoved the wallet back into the rear pocket of my bermudas.
“Now come on, you lazy bastard,” said Mr. Jones. “Let’s get that drink.”
“I’m not sure I can stand up,” I said.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” said Mr. Jones. “Well, fortunately, I got a little somethin’ for ya.”
He reached into his suit jacket and brought out a little Bayer aspirin tin.
“Oh, aspirin might help a little,” I said. “Better give me two. Ow. Or three. No, make it just two, because I haven’t eaten lately and –”
“You’ll only need one,” he said, and he clicked the tin open. “And besides, one is all I got left. I was saving it for an emergency, but what the hell, I like you, Arnold.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Ow. What is it. Ow.”
“Just take it. It’ll make the pain go away.”
“It’s not addictive, is it?”
“Just fucking take it, man. You won’t get addicted from one tab. Christ.”
There was one pill in the tin. With genuinely trembling fingers I took it out, put it in my mouth.
“Just swallow it,” said Mr. Jones. He clicked the tin shut and put it away again. “The quicker the better.”
I swallowed the pill.
“Ow,” I said. “How long will it take to work?”
“Give it a minute, buddy. Here, let me feel that knee.”
“No! Don’t touch it!”
I kept both my hands over it, as if it were some precious little animal I was protecting.
“Stop your whining and let me feel it. I just wanta see if anything’s broke.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “Just be careful.”
I lifted my hands off and looked away and up into the fog.
I felt gentle old fingers touching and prodding that nexus of pain that was my knee.
“Ow,” I said. “Be careful.”
“You big baby,” said Mr. Jones. (Ow, I thought, but did not say.) “This knee ain’t busted. Sure, it’s scraped, and swollen, but you didn’t break nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Arnie, you know how many freight trains I jumped on and off of in my younger days?”
“That’s right. A lot. You think a freight-hoppin’ hobo don’t know from knee injuries?”
“Argggh,” said Sid.
“What did he say?” asked Mr. Jones.
“Argghh,” Sid said again.
He was still lying on his back, right next to me, but now he was stirring, although his eyes were still closed. His pompadour had partially collapsed, and greasy strands of hair lay down over his face like spider legs.
“He looks in pretty bad shape,” I said.
“He got what he deserves,” said Mr. Jones. “Turn him over, will you?”
“Just turn him over.”
Using both hands I gripped the man at his hip and shoulder and turned him over on his stomach. He was very light, and this wasn’t hard to do.
“Argghh,” he said.
“Did you want to check his head, Mr. Jones?”
“You know, check his head to see if he’s seriously injured, or –”
“Yeah, right,” said Mr. Jones.
Going around to the other side of the man, Mr. Jones hunkered down, picked up the rear flap of his zoot suit-jacket, and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Be cool, brother.”
Mr. Jones opened the wallet and took some bills out of it. He dropped the wallet onto the pavement, and counted the money.
“Mr. Jones,” I said. “You can’t just rob him like that.”
“Arnie,” said Mr. Jones, “we’re letting this creep off easy. Somebody else would call the bulls. As it is he gets off with a headache and a, what, a twenty-two dollar fine.” He shoved the money into his trousers pocket. “Plus he loses his switchblade. Tough. How’s your knee now?”
“I think the pill is starting to kick in a little.”
“Arrghh,” said the man again.
“Shaddap, shitbird,” said Mr. Jones.
The man made an effort to push himself up from the paving stones, but then collapsed again.
Mr. Jones nimbly stepped over the man’s legs.
“Come on,” he said. “Get up. First round’s on me.”
He held out his thin and gnarly little hand to me. It occurred to me that if I really let him try to pull me up the result would most likely be him lying on the ground and me still sitting on it. However, just to make him feel useful, I took his hand, and, gritting my teeth, I pushed up from the pavement using my free hand and my better leg.
When I was finally standing again Mr. Jones patted me on the arm.
“There ya go, buddy. Standing up like a good soldier.”
“Argghhh,” said Sid, lying there on the cobblestones.
“What about him?” I said.
“What about him?” said Mr. Jones.
“It seems a shame just to leave him lying here,” I said.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Come on, let’s get them drinks.”
“Let me just check on him,” I said.
I hobbled a step or two closer to the man and bent over his head.
“Hey,” I said. “Sid. Are you okay?”
“Bloody hell,” he said.
“Leave him,” said Mr. Jones. “He’s okay,”
“Bloody hell,” the guy said again.
He was still lying prone, his face to one side, most of it obscured by what used to be his hairstyle. He put one hand on the back of his head. I felt bad.
“Listen,” I said, “do you want us to, uh, try to take you somewhere? Or get help? Or –”
He said something I couldn’t make out. He took his hand away from his head, and tightened both his hands into fists, pulsing the heels of his hands against the wet cobblestones.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Third oldest trick in the book,” he said, in low, strained voice. “Fuckin’ sucker head-butt.”
“It was an accident,” I said. “My knee went out.”
“Accident my arse.”
“No, really –”
He mumbled something else but I couldn’t hear what he said. I bent over closer.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I couldn’t hear you.”
Again he mumbled something unintelligible.
I bent over a little closer.
“Could you repeat that?” I said.
And then, in a voice only barely above a whisper he said, “I’m gonna fucking kill you. I swear. If I see you again I’m gonna fucking kill you. And the old man. I’m gonna murder yez both.”
I straightened up.
“What did he say?” asked Mr. Jones.
“He said he was okay,” I said.
“Uh, yeah, he said he’s just gonna rest for a bit. But he’ll be okay.”
“Argghh,” said Sid.
“He don’t sound too okay,” said Mr. Jones. “But fuck him. Let’s get that drink.”
“Kill you,” said Sid.
“What did he say?” said Mr. Jones.
“Um, ‘See you,’” I said.
“Kill yez both,” said Sid.
“What?” said Mr. Jones.
“See us both,” I said. “He said he’d see us both.”
“Not if we see him first,” said Mr. Jones. “Come on.”
The jazz music was still playing out there in the fog somewhere, and had been playing. We headed off in the direction of the music, me limping, Mr. Jones shuffling, and behind us I could hear Sid’s voice fading into the fog behind us.
“Kill yez...murder yez both...the both o’ yez...argghh…”
(Continued here, and for at least another ten or twenty years.)
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