On the fog-shrouded island of lost souls, in a riverfront tavern called The Dead Man, our intrepid hero Arnold Schnabel and his aged companion the sybaritic Mr. Jones are in conversation with a chubby little man named Finch...
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“Now, that’s no way to talk,” said Finch. “Nice old gent like you.”
“Who ever said I was nice?” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes but still,” said Finch. “I was only trying to be helpful. Mr. Schultz,” he said, looking up at me, “you understand, don’t you?”
I was floating five or six feet above him, even though he was sitting right next to where I stood.
“I’m sorry,” I called down. “What do I understand?”
“You needn’t shout at me,” said Finch. “It was only a civil question.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re so far down there.”
“You’re scaring me,” he said.
“Ha ha,” I think it would be fair to describe Mr. Jones as cackling here. “Arnie just took a pill, that’s all. It’s got him high as a kite.”
“A pill?” said Finch, looking from Mr. Jones to me and and back to Mr. Jones. “You’ve got pills? Do you have any more?”
“Sorry, pal,” said Mr. Jones. “I gave Arnie the last one on accounta he’s got a bum wheel.”
“I wish I had a pill,” said Finch.
“Well, you still got your beer,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said Finch. He raised up his stubby, greasy glass, with its two or three inches of yellow liquid that looked like nothing more nor less than a urine sample. “I still have my beer.”
“I always wondered if they would have beer in heaven,” said Mr. Jones.
“Ah, but my dear Mr. Jones, we are not in heaven, no, not by a long shot. However, I don’t know but I’ve been told that in God the father’s house they have taps in the bathrooms that dispense only the finest chilled German lagers and Belgian ales.”
“Arnie here has visited the big house,” said Mr. Jones. “Ain’t that true, Arnold?”
Suddenly I realized that I was now back at the level of my brain, if not quite within my brain entirely.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was very hard to concentrate, what with the loud music, the shouting of men, the shrieking of women, the continual outbursts of mirthless-sounding laughter from both sexes. “What was the question?”
“Finch here says the bathrooms up in God’s house have fine German lagers and Belgian ales on draft. Is that true?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never used the bathroom there.”
“Hold on a minute,” said Finch. “You were really in God’s house?”
“Yes,” I said. “But only briefly.”
I decided all at once that I wasn’t going to go into the whole business of my trying and failing to find a bathroom up there in God’s house.
“I’ll bet it was really nice, huh?” said Finch.
“Yes,” I said. “It was – it was –”
“Class all the way I bet.”
“Uh, yes,” I said, “it was, uh, very –”
“I heard that for mouthwash there they use only the finest Napoleon brandy, and that in the ladies’ bathrooms they have genuine French champagne on tap. I heard you can eat steak three times a day if you like.”
“Well, uh, I wouldn’t know –”
“Try getting a decent steak in this joint, or anywhere in this town.”
“I heard there’s perpetually-filled cigar humidors and silver cigarette boxes on every table – and good cigars too, Cubans, and excellent cigarettes, Luckies, Camels, Old Golds, that’s what I heard! You didn’t happen to grab any free smokes while you was there, did you?”
“Um, no _”
“This is all we can get here.” From his shirt pocket he brought out a crumpled, almost-empty packet of cigarettes with foreign writing on it. ”Soviet-made. Cut with sawdust, and dried horse shit too probably, judging from the taste. You want one?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“I’ll take one,” said Mr. Jones.
“Certainly,” said Finch, and he extended the pack to Mr. Jones.
“Mind if I take one for later?” said Mr. Jones, taking two.
“Oh, no, uh, go right ahead,” said Finch, since Mr. Jones had already stuck one behind his ear and the other between his dentures.
With a sigh Finch took one out for himself. Looking at Mr. Jones in a sheepish way he said, “You wouldn’t have a light would you?”
“I certainly do,” said Mr. Jones, and, producing his book of Sid’s Tavern matches he gave first Finch and then himself a light.
“Ah, thank you,” said Finch. “I’m afraid matches are another commodity not so easy to come by here. May I see those?”
“Sure,” said Mr. Jones, and he handed over the matches. Keeping his cigarette in his mouth, Finch lifted his glasses with one hand and examined the book of matches. “Sid’s Tavern. Cape May, New Jersey. So bars still give away free matches?”
“Sure,” said Mr. Jones.
“Nice place, Sid’s?”
“It’s all right,” said Mr. Jones.
Finch sighed again, and nodded, putting the matches into his side jacket pocket.
“Hey, partner, can I have them matches back?” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, sorry,” said Finch. “Absent-minded of me. Heh heh.” He extricated the matches and gave them back to Mr. Jones, who quickly pocketed them again.
Finch looked at me through his own cloud of smoke that did smell distinctly of burning sawdust and of horse manure.
“How come you didn’t stay there, Mr. Schoendienst?”
“In God’s house. Why did you leave? I hope they didn’t kick you out.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “It was – well, they decided I didn’t have to die after all, I guess, so I was able to come back to the world of the living.”
“And you’re still trying to get back,” he said, smirking slightly.
“Oh, no, I made it back all right.”
“Wait, you made it back? To the world of the living?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But why are you here then? I don’t understand.”
“Well, I came back here again, to, uh, this world –”
“The world of the dead. What they call the next world in the previous world.”
“Yes,” I said. “I just came back again this afternoon actually, because Mr. Jones had died and I wanted to try to bring him back.”
“To the world of the living.”
“Yes,” I said.
“So you’re able to travel back and forth at will from the world of the living to the world of the dead?”
“Well, not exactly at will,” I said. “It’s only been a couple of times.”
“And you’re even able to bring the dead back with you.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s what I’m trying to do, but –”
“You know what this means,” said Finch. “It must mean you’re a saint.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
“A saint or a devil.”
“Ha ha!” Mr. Jones cackled again. “Arnold! A devil! Ha ha!” He clapped me on the back. “Arnold’s no devil. Nicest guy in the world. Nicest guy in any world. Wouldn’t hurt a fly, wouldja, Arnold?”
Here again I chose not to reveal something about myself, namely that I was on friendly terms with a talking fly. I didn’t want to appear to be boasting.
“A saint,” said Finch. He tapped his cigarette with the index finger of the hand that held it and the ash fell to his lap. He had an ashtray in front of him, a scuffed tin one filled with butts, I don’t know why didn’t use it. “Here on the island of lost souls, a saint,” he continued. “May I have the honor of purchasing you a fresh libation, sir?”
“Well,” I said, “we really were intending to move along, you see, to – to –”
“To return,” said Finch.
“Yes,” I said.
“To the world of the living.”
“Yes,” I said. “We hope to, anyway.”
“And I wish you godspeed on your journey and all the best of luck. But please, just have one more drink. On me. It would be my pleasure.”
“What about me?” said Mr. Jones.
“And a drink for you too, Mr. Jones, of course,” said Finch. “Why, any friend of a saint must needs be a saint himself!”
“Hey,” said Mr. Jones. “You hear that, Arnold? We’re a pair of saints you and me!”
“So you’ll do me the honor?” said Finch, addressing me.
“Well, um,” I said.
“Sure, pal,” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, splendid,” said Finch. “So what will it be? A couple more beers?”
“Well, okay,” I said.
“No, fuck that noise,” said Mr. Jones. He quickly finished his Manhattan and put the empty glass down on the bar. “Manhattans.”
“Oh, Manhattans,” said Finch.
“Yeah, except this time tell the bartender to use I.W. Harper instead of Schenley’s.”
“I.W. Harper,” said Finch. He seemed nervous.
“Yeah,” said Mr. Jones.
“Um, what about you, Mr. Schwartz,” said Finch, meaning me.
“Oh, just a beer,” I said.
“Two Manhattans,” said Mr. Jones.
“Two?” said Finch. I noticed he was starting to sweat, and he was getting short of breath again.
“Two,” said Mr. Jones. “You should have one too.”
“Oh, no, thank you, I’ll just stick to my draft Rheingold, thanks.”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Jack!” He was calling the bartender, the one who looked like Wallace Beery. There was another bartender there who also looked like a movie actor, although I couldn’t quite place him. Wallace Ford? “I say, Jack!”
Jack turned his head.
“Can’t you see I’m waiting on someone else?”
And it was true, he was filling a glass mug at a beer tap.
“Sorry,” said Finch. “When you get time.”
“Wait your fucking turn,” said Jack, and he went back to filling the mug.
“Heh heh, he’s a card that Jack,” said Finch, and he took a sip from his greasy-looking beer glass.
“You’d better get your money ready,” said Mr. Jones.
“For the drinks.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. I suppose I better had, heh heh.” He reached inside his suit jacket and brought out his wallet. It was old-looking and brown, a worn brown. “You gentlemen notice that I keep my wallet in the inner breast pocket of my coat, a pocket into which I have had my tailor add a button and buttonhole for additional security. One can’t be too careful in this world.”
“Maybe you should get like a little chain attached to the wallet,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yeah, a sturdy steel chain. Lock the other end of it to your belt maybe.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” said Finch.
Suddenly the bartender was standing in front of Finch with a fresh stubby glass filled with yellow liquid, with a small but noticeable head on it which evaporated before my eyes in a matter of a second.
“Two bits,” said the bartender.
“Ah, yes, thank you, Jack, but I would like also to buy a round for my two friends here.”
“For real?” said the bartender.
“Yes,” said Finch.
“What, two glasses of Rheingold?”
“No,” said Finch. “Uh, two Manhattans please.”
“Two Manhattans,” said the bartender.
“Yes,” said Finch.
“With I.W. Harper this time,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” said Finch. “Make it, uh, I.W. Harper.”
Now the bartender glared at me with an angry look on his face.
“What the fuck,” said the bartender.
“Um, uh,” I said, but then I realized he was looking past me.
I turned around. That little fellow in the zoot suit, Sid the Shiv, was standing in the open doorway of the bar. His pompadour was still deflated, the strands spreading like long dark fingers down over his pale face, and he was slightly bent forward, with his left hand on the pit of his stomach. In his right hand he held what looked like an opened straight razor. He was looking all around but he showed no sign of recognizing either me or Mr. Jones. Then he reached inside his jacket with his left hand, took out a folded-up pair of eyeglasses, and, flicking them open with just the one hand, he put them on. He quickly glanced around again, and his magnified eyes locked on mine.
“There you are!” he yelled.
“You!” bellowed the bartender. “Sid! Outa here! You’re banned and you know it!”
“Fuck you, Jack!”
And Sid staggered forward, his razor held out to the side. The music continued to play, people continued obliviously to laugh and shout at one another. I already had my empty beer bottle in my hand, and I had some vague notion of throwing it at the fellow, when suddenly a tall man in a cream-colored suit stepped out from somewhere to the left of Sid, grabbed his wrist and, stepping behind him, twisted the little man’s arm around his back. Sid gave out with a horrible scream which coincided with a snapping sound, and he pitched to the floor, still screaming, his glasses falling off his face. The man in the cream suit stood over him, folding up the razor. He put the razor in his suit-jacket pocket. He was smoking a cigarette in a black holder. Besides the white suit he was also wearing a cream-colored panama hat with a black band. He had a thin black moustache and I realized that he was my old nemesis, Lucky, also known as Nicky Boskins, more popularly known as Lucifer.
Sid was writhing on the floor, holding his limp right arm, screaming.
Without saying a word, but with a smile at me, Lucky bent down, with his cigarette holder between his teeth, grabbed Sid with one hand by the collar of his zoot-suit jacket, and dragged him back to the doorway, which was still open. He tossed Sid, still screaming all the way, out into the grey fog, and then he closed the door.
The music had never stopped, but much of the chatter and laughter had subsided as people had noticed the altercation, if you could call it that. Now that Sid was outside and his screams were all but inaudible the crowd returned to their interrupted laughter, their shouting and shrieking.
Now Lucky came forward toward us, toward me. He was smiling, still with his cigarette holder in his teeth.
Then behind him I saw the door open again. Sid kneeled in the doorway.
The place grew somewhat quieter again.
“Jesus Christ!” yelled Jack the bartender. “What the fuck’s the matter with you, Sid?”
Sid said something, called something.
“What?” yelled Jack.
Sid said something again. The place got a little quieter still, although the music continued. The girl singer was singing a different song now, I think it was “Gloomy Sunday”.
“What did he say?” asked Mr. Jones.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Now Lucky spoke, addressing Sid.
“What the hell are you saying?”
Again Sid belched something unintelligible.
“Asses?” said Lucky. “You’re calling us asses?”
Sid belched again.
“I think he said molasses,” said Finch. “God knows why.”
Sid yelled now, and finally I understood.
“Glasses,” I said, pointing to Sid’s eyeglasses, which were just a few inches away from Lucky’s feet, toward the bar. “He wants his glasses.”
“Oh,” said Lucky. He stepped forward, then, using a sideways swiping movement with his foot – he was wearing white bucks – he kicked Sid’s eyeglasses across the floor and to the doorway. Sid picked them up with his one good arm, his left arm, and put them inside his jacket. Then he closed the door. Once again the chatter, the laughing and the shouting resumed.
Lucky came toward us. He was smiling.
(Continued here, and onward; to do any less would be to ignore one’s mission in life.)
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