Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companion the aged degenerate Mr. Jones, who have just entered a tavern called The Dead Man, somewhere in a world beyond this world...
(Click here to read our previous episode; anyone with way too much time on their hands may go here to begin this 52-volume Gold View Award©-winning memoir at the very beginning.)
“In these hundreds of neatly handwritten black marble copybooks this unassuming former railroad brakeman left a literary legacy unparalleled in its depth and scope since the days when Shakespeare so vigorously stomped upon the terra.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Les Crane Show.
Mr. Jones turned and looked up at me, and I looked down at him.
“Why are you so far down?” I called.
“I’m always this far down,” he yelled, his voice reverberating up through the six or seven feet of smoky air that separated his upturned face from my downturned one. “It’s just that pill you took. Took, took, took,” his voice echoed.
“Oh,” I said, “then that also explains why my voice sounds like someone else’s voice. Voice, voice, voice,” my own voice echoed.
“Yes, of course. But you feel okay, right? Right, right, right...”
I decided just to ignore the echoes.
“Never better,” I said.
“You’re going to feel better still once we get a drink or two in us.”
“A drink. Yes. But then --”
“Then --” I had to think about it for a moment. It was distracting that he seemed so far away even though he was standing right next to me. But I decided that this was something else (like so much in life, and, yes, like so much in death too I supposed) better left ignored.
“Take your time,” said Mr. Jones.
“I forget what I was going to say.”
“Fine, let’s get our load on.”
“Oh, wait, now I remember.”
I paused, for no reason that I was aware of.
“Speak freely,” said Mr. Jones.
“After we get a drink,” I said, “we have to try to --”
“After a couple of drinks,” said Mr. Jones.
“Okay, after a couple of drinks we have to try to figure out a way to --” it felt as if it were taking me forever to say this sentence; I quickly rushed to the finish line: “-- we gotta find a way to get back to the world of the living.”
“Ah, yes, the world of the living,” he said. “Although I must say this place looks pretty lively.”
The joint was packed, the bar was jammed, and all the tables and booths were full. On a low stage down to the right the jazz band played, and a Negro woman was stepping up to the microphone stand. She nodded to the fellow playing the trumpet, a slim Negro man in a shiny grey suit and a porkpie hat...
“Holy cow,” I said.
“What?” said Mr. Jones.
“I recognize one of those musicians,” I said. “The trumpet player.”
Mr. Jones turned and looked, and listened.
“Cat’s blowing a mean horn,” he said. “Who is he?”
“His name’s Gabriel. Gabe.”
“And you know him. From the real world.”
“We’ve met a couple of times.”
“In Cape May?”
“Yes, and also, uh, when I was trapped in the world of this novel I was reading, I met him again in this bar in Greenwich Village, I think it was called the Kettle of Fish.”
“Okay, you’re losing me. But look, let’s belly up and get those drinks.”
“He might be able to help us,” I said.
“The trumpet player.”
“How’s a trumpet player gonna help us?”
“He’s a friend of Jesus.”
“Friend of -- okay.” He put his arm in mine. “Let’s have a glass or two, and we can talk about it.”
“Okay,” I said, and Mr. Jones was guiding me toward the bar. He was moving much more quickly now, or at least so it seemed to me; I suppose the prospect of alcoholic refreshment had added, if not a spring to his step, then some vitality to his customary shuffle.
The area along the bar had appeared to me to be as filled with people as it could possibly get, but somehow Mr. Jones managed to squeeze both of us into a standing space. He already had a five-dollar bill out, undoubtedly one of Sid’s bills, and he held it aloft.
“Mr. Bartender, sir!” he called, loudly, his high thin voice cutting through the babble of voices, the music, and the amplified voice of the girl on the stage, who was singing “Blue Moon”.
One of the two bartenders who were back there came over. He looked like Wallace Beery.
“What’ll it be, pops?”
“Two shots of house bourbon, please, and two beers, any kind, as long as they’re cold.”
“Draft or bottle?”
The man was good, he already had two shot glasses on the bar and was pouring out two shots of I.W. Harper.
“Better make it bottles,” said Mr. Jones, “and don’t bother with glasses.”
The man went away and Mr. Jones picked up both shot glasses and handed me one.
“Don’t trust draft beer in places like this,” he said. “Don’t trust their glasses to be clean either. Now with a whiskey glass it’s different. The whiskey proves an excellent sterilizing agent. Cheers.”
“Cheers,” I said, and we both drank our shots in one go. I felt the whiskey sloshing like lit lighter fluid down my throat and when it reached the bottom of my neck it almost instantaneously spread downward through my body, all the way to the tips of my toes.
“Ah,” said Mr. Jones. “Now we’re talking.”
The bartender was there already with two opened bottles of beer, as I said, he was good.
“And, now, sir,” said Mr. Jones to the barman, “whilst my uncle and I are disposing of these --” he picked up the bottle nearest to him and glanced at the label, “Tree Frog Premium Lagers, would you be so good as to prepare us two Manhattans, icy cold, cold like an old nun’s kiss -- please chill the glasses in ice for a minute first -- oh, and if you don’t mind, use just a tiny splash of sweet vermouth. And you can hold the cherries.”
The man went away again, muttering, and Mr. Jones turned and looked up at me.
“Drink up, Arnold. God knows you’ve earned it today.”
We both lifted our beer bottles and drank. The cold beer coursed down my throat, soothing the delicate internal passages that the whiskey had so recently ravaged. It tasted good, which is to say no better or worse than the million mouthfuls of cheap beer I had previously drunk, so good in fact that I took a breath and took another two or three good gulps, and I saw Mr. Jones doing the same.
We both sighed, and then gazed at each other with that look that says, Yes, once again alcoholic beverages have successfully done what little (and yet so much) we have asked them to do.
“Whiskey and beer,” said Mr. Jones. “And Manhattans -- tell me, what more does life have to offer?”
I thought about this for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what,” said a man sitting on a stool to my right.
“What?” said Mr. Jones.
“I said I’ll tell you what more life has to offer,” said the man. He was a small, pudgy fellow, with uncombed greying hair. “If you want to know.” He had a raspy, squeaky voice, sort of like he was out of breath.
“And what’s that?” said Mr. Jones.
“Jack-shit,” said the man.
“Jack-shit?” said Mr. Jones.
”That’s it,” said the man. “That’s what else life has to offer: jack-shit and fuck-all.”
“Jack-shit and fuck-all you say?” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes, and, if you’re lucky, an occasional moment of non-alcoholic ecstasy, via either the right hand or the wrong woman, or through the means of one of those other substances, both organic and artificial, which the good lord has given us to escape the tedium and meaninglessness of existence. But all that goes without saying of course.”
“Sir, you are a man after my own heart,” said Mr. Jones, and he took another swig out of his bottle.
“Finch is the name,” said the man, including me in this self-introduction, and he offered his hand. I was closer to him, so I took it and gave it a shake. His hand felt cool and damp, like a small butterfish just when you take it out of the refrigerator. I quickly extricated my own hand and picked up my beer bottle as the man leaned over and down to shake Mr. Jones’e hand.
“Jones is my name,” said Mr. Jones. “Please to meet you, Finch. My somewhat socially-inept friend here is Arnold, Arnold Schnabel.”
I was busy gulping beer as he said this, but I quickly took the bottle away from my mouth. It was empty now anyway.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the man. He wore a wrinkled off-white suit, he had beady blue bloodshot eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, and he needed a shave. “I haven’t noticed you fellows here before. New in town?”
“Brand new,” said Mr. Jones. “Just got off the boat.”
“I hadn’t heard about any new arrivals.”
“It was an accident,” said Mr. Jones. “This idiot boatman was supposed to take us back to the world of the living --
“Harry, right?” The man smiled broadly. His teeth were small and yellow, and at least a couple of them were missing. “Great big heavyset guy? Harry?”
“Yeah, that’s the guy,” said Mr. Jones.
“Left you off here by mistake, did he?” He was almost panting. “What a dummy!”
“Yeah, he’s a moron all right,” said Mr. Jones.
“Ha ha, poor Harry!”
“Poor him? What about us?”
“Oh, poor you two as well.” He stopped smiling, abruptly. “But don’t worry, gents, it’s not so bad here.”
The bartender was back and he laid down two Manhattans in front of me and Mr. Jones.
“There you are, my good man,” said Mr. Jones, and he held out his five dollar bill toward the man.
“It’s five-fifty,” said the bartender.
“Five-fifty?” said Mr. Jones.
“Two shots, two beers, two Manhattans. Five-fifty.”
“You didn’t use top-shelf whiskey for those Manhattans, did you?”
“No,” said the bartender. “I used Schenley’s. Cheapest whiskey we got.”
“Seems awfully dear for a place like this.”
“I don’t make up the prices.”
“Tell you what -- Jack?” said this man Finch, addressing the bartender. “Let me buy this round.”
“Okay,” said the bartender. “Five-fifty.”
“I’ll pay for it when I pay for my next glass of beer.”
“Five-fifty,” said the bartender.
“Can’t I just pay for it when I pay for my next one?”
“You could, but if you want to play the big shot then you gotta put the money on the wood and make the betting good.”
“Oh, all right.”
Finch had had both his hands around his half-full beer glass, but now he very slowly began to draw his right hand away.
“Mr. Finch,” I said. “It’s okay, I’ll buy the drinks.” And I started to get my wallet out.
“Oh, no, I insist,” he said. He was still drawing one hand away from his beer glass, along the top of the bar, but very slowly, as if his arm were partially paralyzed.
“Five-fifty,” said the bartender.
I finished taking my wallet out, opened it up.
“Really, I’ll get it,” said Finch, but his right hand was still only about four inches distant from his beer glass, and moving if anything even slower, as if some invisible force was pulling on it in the opposite direction.
I took out a five and a one, and I gave them to the bartender.
“You can keep the change,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said, and he went over to the cash register.
Now all of a sudden Finch had his wallet out, and he started to open it.
“Oh,” he said. “I wanted to get that.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“So,” said the man. He quickly put the wallet away, then picked up his glass of beer. “To your very good health, gentlemen. Mr. Jones. And Mr. Schneider --”
“Schnabel,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “S-C-H-N-A--”
“Oh, I know how to spell Schnabel. Known a few Schnabels in my time.” He took a sip of his drink, and then put it down. “You’re not Jewish, are you?”
“No, I said.” I tasted my Manhattan. I’d tasted worse.
“Lutheran?” said the man.
“No,” I said. “I’m Catholic.”
“Excellent religion. Not that it matters anyway,” he said. “Nobody gives a hoot about any of that stuff here.”
“Never could stand bible-thumpers,” said Mr. Jones, taking a good drink of his Manhattan. “Live and let live, that’s my motto.”
“Well, it’s a little late for that now, Mr. Jones,” said Finch. “Everyone’s already dead here. Ha ha. But seriously I can give you fellows some tips if you like. Help you get settled in. I know where there might be a cheap room available. You chaps mind sharing a room?”
“Hey, pal,” said Mr. Jones, “we got no intention of staying here long enough to need a room.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Arnie and me’re gonna have a few drinks, just enough to get a little merry, and then we are out of here, gone like Satchmo, man, way gone.”
“Where? Back to the world of the living, where do you think?”
“But you can’t go back to the world of the living. No one leaves this island.”
“Hey, we managed to get here, we’ll manage to leave here, pal.”
“But it’s not allowed. That’s like asking to get out of being in hell if that’s where they send you. You’re not allowed to leave. Even in purgatory or limbo you just can’t get up and leave whenever you want to.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Look, fellas, I bleed for you guys. From the heart I bleed. I know it’s tough, ‘cause as you say, seemingly Harry was meant to take you over to the land of the living and all --
“Not seemingly was meant to,” said Mr. Jones. “He was actually meant to take us back to the world of the living. But he fucked up.”
“Well, that’s unfortunate, it really is,” said Finch, “that’s really unfortunate, and like I say my heart bleeds, but, I’m sorry, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but once you’re here, I’m sorry, but that’s it. You’re here. For life. Except your life never ends. Because, you know, you’re dead. But don’t worry about it, like I said, I’ll help you fellows get settled in. Just leave it to me. Just leave it to old Finchie, boys. Why, for just a modest fee --”
“Okay, here we go, should’ve seen it comin’,” said Mr. Jones.
“Seen what coming?” said Finch.
“The bite. Why didn’t you just come right out and ask us for a handout?”
“Hey, I’m just trying to make a living,” said the man. “Or a death I suppose I should say. A life in death. A living death. Trying to.”
“And this is what you do to make a living?” said Mr. Jones.
“A dying,” said the man. “Trying to make a dying.”
“By taking advantage of newcomers?” said Mr. Jones.
“We all have to do what we can to get by, sir. Everyone here. You’ll learn that, soon enough. And I can help you there, too. I know a host of likely grifts I can steer a hearty pair like you two toward. Like you, Mr. Schaefer --”
“Um,” I said. I had been sipping my Manhattan. It wasn’t the worst Manhattan I’d ever had. In fact I’d probably put it in the top 50% more or less.
“Yes?” said the man.
I forgot what I wanted to say again. Then I remembered that I had been about to correct him about my name. But I decided to let it go. It didn’t matter what he called me.
“Never mind,” I said. “Go on.”
“Take a strapping fellow like you, Mr. Schuster, and a wily well-spoken old gent like Mr. Jones here, why, what you could do is use Mr. Jones as the Judas goat, have him come on all innocent-like and ask passersby on the street to help him with something, like he dropped his watch or his wallet in a dark alleyway but he can’t find it ‘cause he’s old and nearsighted, and then when he lures the greedy son-of-a-bitch into the darkness, then you Mr. Schmidt can jump out from behind an ash can and knock the sucker on the head with a sap.”
“Um --” I said.
“I could help you find some good marks. I’m good at that. All I would ask for my share would be say twenty percent of the take.”
“Um, hold on,” I said.
“Ten percent,” he said.
“Listen,” said Mr. Jones. “You slimy four-flusher --”
“Five percent,” said Finch. “That’s more than fair.”
“Look, pal,” said Mr. Jones. “We are not a couple of cheapjack back-alley muggers.”
“Okay, then, maybe some other grift,” said the man. “I certainly didn’t mean to offend you. What about three-card monte then?”
“Nor are we grifters of any sort.”
“But you have to be on some kind of grift. Unless you want to be bumming for spare change, but let me tell you, you won’t make much beer money that way round here. No, sir. Now, me, I always try to give a bum a penny, if I can spare it, but most of the low-class scum around here? Forget it. Never saw so many misers in my life, squeeze a nickel so hard they make the Indian ride the buffalo’s back.”
“Look, ”said Mr. Jones. “Like we already told you. We ain’t staying here.”
“Oh, very funny. That’s what I said, what, forty-two years ago, and look at me, I’m still here.”
“You been on that barstool for forty-two years?” said Mr. Jones.
“Not continuously, no,” said Finch. “I do have a room to go home to. Which is more than some of these birds in this dump can say. It may not be the Ritz, or the Waldorf-Astoria, it might not even be the Hotel St Crispian, but it’s okay. Maybe you fellows would like to share it with me? You could have the bed. I really don’t mind sleeping on the throw rug. Split three ways, the rent would be --”
“No, thanks,” said Mr. Jones.
“But I’m hardly ever even home. You would barely even know I was there.”
“Listen very carefully,” said Mr. Jones.
“Fuck you,” said Mr. Jones.
(Continued here, and damn the torpedoes!)
(Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page for a current listing of links to all other cybernetically-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, now available, for a modest fee, directly to your Kindle. All proceeds to be forwarded to The Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia to use as that august organization deems fit.)