Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his aged companion the disreputable Mr. Jones, walking through the fog in a place with no name towards an unknown destination in a world beyond this world...
(Kindly go here to read our immediately preceding episode; the intrigued and the perplexed both may click here to start this 77-volume Gold View Award-winning memoir at the very beginning.)
“If Proust’s great accomplishment was to conquer time, then that of Arnold Schnabel was to render meaningless the very concept of time.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show.
Sid’s voice diminished behind us, and the jazz music grew louder. Mr. Jones pretty soon was walking so slowly as to be barely moving at all, and I took his arm and tried to give him what support I could, given that even despite the pill I had taken a shuddering bolt of pain ignited in my right knee with each step my right leg took. I could see nothing but my ancient companion and the damp cobblestones within a couple of yards' radius of our feet; everything else was that grey and gently breathing cloud all around us and above us. It had been daylight when we had first embarked on that foggy river, but now what little light that had been filtering slowly through the fog from above was fading; night was falling in this world beyond the world, which seemed strange, but then on second thought no stranger than anything else I had seen or experienced here beyond the pale.
I noticed that the air had a fishy smell to it, the smell of the docks, but a river smell as opposed to an ocean smell. There was also an odor of wet leather, of rope and of motor oil, and – I am only trying to be as honest as I am able here – a slight but distinct smell of feces.
We limped and shuffled on through the fog, Mr. Jones and I.
The music grew louder, I didn’t recognize the tune, or rather it sounded somehow like hundreds of tunes I had heard thousands of times but didn’t know the names of, songs on jukeboxes or diners in bad neighborhoods or in the sort of gangster movies that play as second features (which, to be honest, I tend to enjoy more than the main feature).
I could no longer hear Sid the Shiv at all. I wondered if I should have tried to help him in some way, even if he did say he intended to kill both Mr. Jones and me. But what could I have done really? I could barely walk now myself; it would have been extremely difficult for me to have carried or dragged him. But then I thought: yes, difficult, and certainly painful, but probably not impossible. Let’s face it, I had left him there because he had said he intended to kill me and Mr. Jones. But wouldn’t a good Christian have tried to help the man anyway? And, having helped him, wouldn’t that improve my (and Mr. Jones’s) chances of not being killed by the fellow?
I stopped. And since I was holding Mr. Jones’s arm, he stopped too.
“Mr. Jones,” I said. “I think we should go back and get that guy.”
“Are you completely insane?”
“Well, I might be –”
“Now I know why they put you in that loony bin.”
“Well, uh, heh heh, it just seems a little cruel to leave him lying there, incapacitated, on the cobblestones.”
“He tried to rob us, Arnold. He threatened you with a switchblade.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“What’re you, bucking for sainthood?”
“Well, uh, I just think we should, or anyway I should, go back and, uh, I don’t know –”
I paused. Mr. Jones stared at me. Then:
“You know what I should do, Arnold?”
“Um, go on ahead? While I go back for the guy?”
“Yes, I should go on ahead,” he said. “But, however, if you are so foolishly insistent upon pursuing this absurd course of action I shall accompany you. And why, you ask. You ask me why.”
“Ask me why.”
“Um, why,” I said.
“Why you ask? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m afraid he’ll get the drop on you and try to bump you while you’re helping him. How do you know he ain’t got another shiv secreted on him somewheres? Or a rod.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I shoulda patted him down good when I lifted his wallet. I must be getting old. What am I saying, I’m eighty-seven, of course I’m old. But look, I still got his shiv.” He patted his right side pocket. “So I’ll come with you and sorta ride shotgun. He tries to pull anything while you’re helping him and I’ll stick him like a Christmas turkey.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “But only as a last resort, okay?”
“Only if he tries some monkey business.”
“Tell you what,” I said, “maybe it’s best if I just frisk him first.”
“Okay, that’s a good idea.”
“Just to make sure he doesn’t have a gun or another knife,” I said.
“Or a razor,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” I said.
“Or a blackjack. Brass knuckles maybe. Or an icepick.”
“Right,” I said, and already I was starting to have second thoughts. What if he knifed me or shot me or coshed me before I had a chance to frisk and disarm him? What if he also killed Mr. Jones? It would be my fault. “You know –” I said.
“Now I’m worried."
“That he’ll get the drop on you.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Slit you ear to ear before you have a chance to frisk him.”
“Or pull a belly gun, maybe a derringer, and plug us both.”
“Well, you know,” I said. “I doubt if he has a gun. I mean, if he did, he would probably have pulled it on us when he tried to rob us.”
“That’s true,” said Mr. Jones. “I’ll grant you that one. But he still might have another blade on him. I mean his name is Sid the Shiv after all.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good,” said Mr. Jones, “let’s get those drinks.”
“I still feel bad though,” I said.
“You’re killing me, Arnold. I mean, I know, I know, I’m already dead, but you’re killing me, boy.”
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s an idea. What we’ll do is we’ll go to this bar or whatever it is, and we’ll phone for an ambulance.”
“Phone for an ambulance.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Arnie, we’re in the afterworld, in some place that’s apparently neither heaven nor hell nor limbo. What did he call it?”
“I don’t know. Island of Lost Souls or something.”
“Port of Grim Shadows.”
“Place With No Name.”
“Nowheresville,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Point being, do they even have ambulances here?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.
“But, look,” said Mr. Jones. “We’ll ask.”
“Right,” I said.
“We’ll ask the the bartender,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” I said. “The bartender will know. And he’ll probably know what number to call.”
“Indeed he will,” said Mr. Jones. “If there is a bartender. If there’s even really a bar out here and not just this endless fog.”
“But there’s that music,” I said.
“That could mean nothing,” said Mr. Jones. “It could just be, what, the music of the spheres. But, look, let’s go find out. I’m tired of standing here jabbering.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Kill you,” said a voice.
“What was that?” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, shit,” I said. “Pardon me.”
“You’re pardoned. What was that?”
“Kill yez,” said the voice, louder now.
“It’s him,” I said, in a whisper.
“That guy. Sid. The Shiv.”
“Fucking kill yez,” said the voice.
“Shit,” whispered Mr. Jones. “What’s he saying.”
“Kill yez,” said the invisible Sid, louder.
“He’s saying, ‘Kill yez,’” I whispered.
“That can’t be good,” said Mr. Jones.
“No,” I said.
Mr. Jones took the switchblade out of his jacket pocket.
“You good with a knife?” he asked in a whisper.
“I doubt it,” I said.
“Weren’t you in the army?”
“Yes, but I was an engineer.”
“Okay, I better hang onto the knife then. What do you want to do?”
“Let’s keep heading for that music,” I said. “Maybe we’ll be safe there.”
“Maybe,” said Mr. Jones, and he put the knife back into his pocket “But even if we aren’t we might still be able to get a drink. Let’s move.”
I took his arm again and off we went into the fog, moving as fast as we could, which I’d estimate was about one yard every half-minute or so.
Behind us in the fog Sid’s voice followed us, saying variously, “Kill yez...murder yez...kill yez both...fuckin’ kill yez…”
But his voice never seemed to get any louder or to sound closer, so I could only assume that he was moving as slowly as we were, either because he chose to, or, more likely, because he was physically unable to thanks to my head-butt and to the injuries he had sustained as the result of his attendant fall on those hard paving stones.
The music however continued to increase in volume with each shuffle and limp Mr. Jones and I completed, and, finally, after a few minutes in which we spoke not even in a whisper (not wanting to reveal our position and also perhaps because neither of us had anything to say), a few minutes during which I thought enough thoughts to fill a book the size of the Bible with gibberish, I saw a red and orange glow in the fog ahead.
“Mr. Jones,” I whispered, “can you see that?”
“What?” he whispered back. “I see nothing, only a thick greyness which might be the external manifestation of my own soul.”
“I think I see a neon sign.”
“Oh, thank God,” he said. “Or whomever. Let’s hurry before that bastard catches up with us and we’re forced to fight for our lives, if one can fight for one’s life in death.”
We quickened our pace to perhaps two yards every half minute, and pretty soon I saw cursive thick letters take shape out of the fog, orange letters outlined by red, and near these letters I saw other smaller blotches and smears of yellow and red and orange.
“What’s it say?” whispered Mr. Jones. “Can you read it?”
“Yes,” I whispered back.
“Well, what is it?”
“The Dead Man,” I said.
“The Dead Man?”
“Yes,” I said.
We shuffled and limped a few more feet toward the neon and the music. I could no longer hear Sid, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.
“I can make out some other words now,” I whispered. “Smaller ones.”
“What do they say.”
“Cold Beer and Fine Cocktails. Live Music. Crabs.”
“Crabs. That’s somehow encouraging.”
“Yes,” I said.
Finally a building began to take shape ahead of us; what with the fog I couldn’t tell how tall it was, or even how broad it was, but now along with the neon signs I could see walls of dark reddish-brown brick, windows made out of yellowed glass bricks, a dark green metallic-looking door, a cracked flagstone sidewalk.
Night seemed to have fallen almost completely now, but as we drew closer to the bar the light of the neon and a much dimmer glow from the other side of the glass bricks cast faint gleamings on the damp pavement and on the cobblestones below the curbing in front of the building. A crooked sign on the scratched and dented door became visible and then legible: NO LOITERING. The dockside and fecal smells now became subsumed by the rich odors of beer and whiskey and tobacco smoke, with undercurrents of frying-grease and of urine.
The jazz music was loud and now I could also hear muffled harsh laughter and shouting.
“At last,” said Mr. Jones. “At long fucking last. Now that we’re here it don’t seem too bad.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It looks pretty rough.”
“You wanta stay out here and deal with Sid the Shiv?”
“No,” I said. “Let’s go in.”
I helped Mr. Jones step up from the curb and now I suddenly realized that I had somehow become separate from the pain in my knee.
“Hey,” I said. “I think that pill’s really starting to work now.”
“Of course it is. I wouldn’t lay bad shit on a pal.”
“It’s like I know the pain is there but the pain doesn’t bother me. Like it’s someone else’s pain. In someone else’s leg. That’s weird. Both my legs feel like someone else’s legs.”
“Yeah, it’s working all right,” said Mr. Jones.
“Everything feels somehow beautiful now,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s working,” he said. “Come on, let’s get outside those drinks.”
“I love drinks,” I said.
“Okay, you can let go of my arm now, Arnie boy.”
I let go of his arm.
“I really love you, Mr. Jones,” I said.
“Yeah, sure, kid.”
“I feel like you have the wisdom of the ages.”
“Sure I do. Let’s go.”
We made our way across the pavement to the door. Mr. Jones shuffled, I floated along beside him. The door had a big curved brass handle, tarnished and scarred. I pulled the door open and a blast of music and smoke and human voices and little blobs and points of liquid color and shadows and human faces all assaulted us. The bar inside was crowded with the people who belonged to these faces.
“Looks like a nice stopping place,” said Mr. Jones.
I held the door open for him. Mr. Jones went in, and I floated in after him.
(Continued here, despite all the dictates of common sense.)
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