Let’s return to that fog-shrouded island of lost souls and to a low dockside tavern called The Dead Man, amongst the dubious denizens of which our memoirist Arnold Schnabel has recognized his old nemesis the prince of darkness...
(Please click here to refresh your memory of our immediately preceding episode; go here to return to the far-off misty beginnings of this 79-volume Gold View Award©-winning masterpiece.)
“Oftentimes at night when I lie in bed plagued with thoughts of the ineffable meaninglessness of existence I switch on the lamp, pick up the volume of Arnold Schnabel from my bed table (for there is always such a volume there), open it, read a paragraph or two, perhaps a page, and soon enough and invariably a great feeling of peace and beauty suffuses my personal sense of being.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Merv Griffin Show.
“Well, well, well,” he said. “If it isn’t my old bosom pal Arnold Schnabel. And, oh, let me just flick through my mental Rolodex.” By now he was standing right in front of us, smiling broadly as he spoke, which when you think about it is not only hard to do but somewhat frightening even if it is sincere, as I’m sure it wasn’t in this case. “Mister,” he said, addressing Mr. Jones, “Mister --”
“Go on,” said Mr. Jones, “I can tell you almost have it.”
“Ah, that crusty wit! Mr. Jones, of course! I don’t think we’ve ever been introduced. Lucky is my name.”
“I’ve seen you around town,” said Mr. Jones. Neither the little old man nor the tall handsome devil made the slightest move to shake the other’s hand.
“As have I seen you,” said Lucky. “Making your rounds of the bars of old Cape May.”
“And as I have noticed you as well in those selfsame bars, in your elegant suits and with your haughty demeanor. And I’ve seen plenty other fancy Dans like you in my long life. Guys who think their shit don’t stink like everybody else’s. You don’t impress me. But on the other hand I gotta hand it to ya for the way you handled that delinquent Teddy Boy. Not that me and Arnie needed help, mind you.”
“Oh, did you not?” said Lucky.
“No,” said Mr. Jones. “My pal Arnie here already knocked the little bastard down for the ten-count once already, and I had my hand all the time on this little friend in my pocket.” And saying this Mr. Jones brought his right hand out from his suit-jacket pocket, and with it Sid’s switchblade, the blade of which flicked out, its tip pointed toward Lucky’s throat. “But thanks, anyway, pal.”
“Tough old fellow, aren’t you?” said Lucky.
“Tough enough to live eighty-seven years,” said Mr. Jones.
He folded up the knife and dropped it back into his jacket pocket.
“You had a good long run, didn’t you?” said Lucky. “But now, alas, death has finally caught up with you as it must with all men, hasn’t it.”
“Fuck death,” said Mr. Jones. “Me and Arnie are on our way back, buddy.”
“Your way back? Back to where?”
“Back to that green and pleasant land of the living,” said Mr. Jones. “Soon as we have another refreshment or two that is.”
“But you can’t do that,” said Lucky.
“What, have another drink or two?”
“No,” said Lucky. “You can’t return to the land of the living. Once you have passed over to what I think Shakespeare called --”
“Fuck Shakespeare,” said Mr. Jones, “’Cause we’re goin’ back.”
“But that would be, oh, how shall I put it, heh heh, highly irregular,” said Lucky.
“Who gives a shit?” said Mr. Jones, “From what I’ve seen the afterlife is at least as irregular as life is, maybe even more so.”
“But you can’t,” said Lucky, “you can’t just, you know --”
“Oh yes we can,” said Mr. Jones. “We can because we got the okay from St. Peter himself.”
“Himself,” said Mr. Jones.
“That jumped-up fisherman.”
“I got nothing against fishermen, per se, but I confess I did meself find him to be a bit of an asshole,” said Mr. Jones. “But Arnie here got through his hard bark.”
“Oh. Did you, Arnold?” said Lucky.
Once again my attention had wandered. There was a blond woman sitting on the barstool closest to Mr. Jones, and she had on a rather low-cut sparkly red dress which revealed much of her large bosom. Her face was almost as frightening as Lucky’s; it wasn’t so much that she was ugly, although she wasn’t exactly pretty, it was just something about the way she was grimacing at the tall and handsome devil as if she were a chained dog and he was a bowl of fresh chopped meat just out of her reach. Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, despite myself I had been staring at her breasts and not paying close attention to the conversation between Mr. Jones and Lucky (and it has only been through the deepest concentration and putting myself into a sort of hypnotic trance with the aid of a rather strong marijuana cigarette that I have been able to bring back from oblivion and transcribe this aforementioned dialogue, which, now that I think of it, may bear little resemblance to what was actually said, but no matter, let’s move on).
“I said,” said Lucky, “’Did you?’”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Another distraction was the loud music. I glanced over at the bandstand, and Gabriel -- who was not playing his trumpet at the moment, while the organist played a solo -- gave me a wave of recognition and greeting. I turned back to Lucky. “Did I what?”
“Something about having some sort of influence on St. Peter.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Yeah. You see, I had come back here --”
“To the nether world,” butted in Finch, who I think had been looking for an opportunity to get into the picture.
“Yes,” I said, “to bring back Mr. Jones.” I was really getting tired of explaining all this to everyone. This was proving to be another way death was like life. All this tedious repetition. I almost wished I had a card I could hand out that would briefly summarize the situation and save me the trouble. “So, anyway,” I went on, doggedly, “I talked it over with him --”
“With St. Peter,” said Lucky.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re saying you talked it over with St. Peter.”
“And Peter actually listened to you?”
“Yeah, I just explained to him that --”
“St. Peter actually listened to what someone like you had to say.”
“Hey. No need to take that tone, buddy,” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Lucky. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. Surprised, and -- I must confess -- a little disappointed. Dismayed. Appalled.”
“What the fuck,” said Mr. Jones.
“There used to be some standards up there,” said Lucky.
“Now, wait a minute, you, you popinjay --” said Mr. Jones.
“I think all the gentleman is saying,” said Finch, “is that it used to be notoriously hard to sway St. Peter one way or the other, and --”
“I don’t remember asking you for your two cents,” said Lucky.
“Sorry,” said Finch. “My name is Finch, by the way,” and he extended his little cold fish of a hand, which Lucky pointedly ignored.
“St. Peter’s a stuck-up jackass,” spoke the woman sitting next to Mr. Jones. “I never done nothing wrong to nobody my whole life and he wouldn’t let me through the damn door. Wouldn’t even let me up the steps to the porch. Just waved me away like I was a beggar with leprosy and told me to get back down the hill and don’t come back.”
“Sounds like good old St. Peter,” said Finch, flexing the fingers of his right hand as if that were the reason he had raised it up in the first place, to get the kinks out from the strain of lifting his beer glass. “Why, when I tried to walk up the hill he actually came down from the porch and began throwing pebbles down at me --”
“Shut up, Finch,” said the woman. “No one cared what you had to say when you was alive and they certainly don’t give a flying fuck now that you’re dead.”
“Hey, I like your style, lady,” said Mr. Jones.
“You’re pretty cute too for an old fart,” said the lady. “But not as cute as tall dark and handsome here in the white suit. What was your handle again, big boy?”
“Oh, just call me Lucky.”
“And are you lucky?”
“Everyone always asks me that.”
“Answer the question, bucko.”
“I will not answer it.”
“That means you ain’t been so lucky.”
“No, it doesn’t. It simply means that I choose not to speak of myself and my personal affairs or indeed of anything at all to every random person I run into the way you Americans typically do.”
“Don’t you insult my country you goddam foreigner.”
“May I ask what country you hail from, sir,” butted in Finch again. “I cannot quite place your accent, which is something many people say of me, which I think is the result of --”
“Shut the fuck up, Finch,” said the woman. “Stop buttin’ in and I ain’t gonna tell ya again.”
“But you’ve been telling me that for years, Molly,” said Finch. “Decades even.”
“Keep it up, marshmallow man, I’ll poke your eye out with a hatpin and don’t think I won’t.”
“Hey, Finch!” The bartender yelled and we all turned, all except for Lucky, who was already facing toward the bar. “I got two I.W. Harper Manhattans here, plus a glass of Rheingold. You said you was buying. You owe me four-twenty-five.”
“Oh,” said Finch. “Yes. Of course. How much was that again?”
Finch had his wallet in his hand, but it seemed that he was having trouble getting it open.
“You heard me,” said the bartender. “Four dollars and twenty-five cents. Get it up.”
“Excuse me,” said Lucky. “Bartender, let me get that.”
He reached into his trousers pocket and brought out a roll of bills folded into a gold money-clip. He peeled off a twenty and tossed it onto the bar.
“I’ll take a Manhattan, too,” he said. “The same way.”
“Hey, what about me, big shot,” said the woman, Molly I gathered her name was.
“What? Oh, all right,” said Lucky, “one for the, uh, charming young lady as well.”
“Make mine a Sidecar then, Jack,” said Molly, “with sugar on the rim, and use Rémy Martin, not that Christian Brothers swill.”
Without a word the bartender went away, presumably to the part of the bar where he mixed the cocktails.
“Um, uh,” said Finch.
“What?” said Lucky. He was flipping through his roll of bills with his thumb. I couldn’t help but notice that they all seemed to be twenties and fifties. “Speak up, man.”
“Um, uh, thank you,” said Finch, “for the, the beer --”
“You’re welcome,” said Lucky. He put the roll of bills back into his pocket.
“Ha ha. Dodged the bullet, didn’t ya, Finchie,” said Molly.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Finch.
“I mean you got out of buying a round, cheapskate.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Look at this bum,” said Molly. “I’ve seen him nurse a glass of flat beer for two hours, hoping some damn fool will include him in a round, and as soon as somebody does include him then all of a sudden he switches to top-shelf Manhattans and Martinis and Old Fashioneds, don’t ya, Finchie.”
“Now that’s not true, Molly, why --”
He had been gripping his wallet throughout all of this, but now he shoved it back safely inside his jacket.
“So, Arnold,” said Lucky.
He had stopped smiling for a while there but now he was smiling again.
“Yes?” I said.
“You tricked me a couple of times before, didn’t you?”
“Um,” I said.
“Yes, you did,” he said. “I fully admit it.”
“Aw,” said the woman Molly. “He twicked the big tall man. Naughty boy!”
“Miss,” said Lucky, “do you mind? I’m trying to have a conversation with my friend Arnold here.”
“What’re you, a fairy? You got me sitting here on this stool and you’d rather talk to this jerk wearing Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt and Keds? What do you think this dive is, pal?” she said, addressing me now. “A beach bar down at Miami Beach, or Key West maybe?”
I had suddenly realized that I had a fresh Manhattan sitting there untouched, and had just taken a good gulp of it.
“Well, uh,” I said -- the Manhattan tasted better than the previous one had. The I.W. Harper really did seem to make a difference -- “in fact I did just come from a beach resort, and so --”
“As I said, Arnold,” said Lucky, more loudly now, “I admit you tricked me a couple of times, but now --”
“Uh,” I said.
“It was actually more than a couple of times,” I said.
“Don’t please let’s quibble.”
“Well, I’m only saying.”
I took another sip, the whiskey and vermouth seemed to help me remember, the music helped me remember, Gabriel was blowing his horn again while the girl sang into the microphone, the song was “Don’t Explain”.
“It was more like three, no, four times really,” I said. “There was that one time in the men’s room at the Prince Edward Room at the Chalfonte. Then there was that time late at night in the street in Cape May, where was it, on Hughes Street --”
“Okay, that’s two,” said Lucky, “let’s move on.”
“Then last night when I was trapped in Miss Evans’s novel I tricked you again, remember? In my little apartment on the Bowery?”
“That one didn’t count. It was a fictional universe --”
“Well, I think it counts,” I said, “and then earlier today I tricked you again at the Pilot House, with Miss Evans --”
“That also hardly counted as ‘tricking’ me. I merely chose not to make a move then, in front of so many witnesses --”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Now I think you’re the one who’s quibbling.”
“Ha! Tell him, Arnold!” said Mr. Jones.
“Yeah, let him have it both barrels, beach boy,” said the woman.
“Heh heh,” Finch laughed in a perhaps not completely mirthless way.
“So,” I said, “just saying, I tricked you at least four times.”
For once Lucky was at a loss for words, and he wasn’t smiling any more.
“Hey, I got your drinks here.”
It was the bartender. He laid the drinks down.
“I.W. Harper Manhattan,” he said. “Rémy Martin Sidecar. Plus the previous round. That makes it --”
“Just take it out of the twenty there,” said Lucky. “In fact, here.” He took out his roll of money again and peeled off another twenty, threw it down, peeled off one more, threw that one down. “Keep ‘em comin’,” he said.
“What,” said the bartender. “For everybody? Even Finch and Molly?”
“Sure,” said Lucky, “why not.”
Suddenly Finch lifted his previously untouched glass of beer and drank it in one go.
“As long as you’re here, Jack,” he said, putting the empty glass down, “I suppose I’m ready.”
“I’m sure you are,” said Jack.
“The beer’s starting to make me feel a little bloated though. I wonder if I might switch to an I.W. Harper Manhattan as well.”
The bartender looked from Finch to Lucky.
“Go ahead,” said Lucky. He was still holding his money roll in his right hand, tapping it against the knuckles of his left hand. “Give him a Manhattan.”
“With I.W. Harper,” said Finch.
“Ha ha,” said Molly. “Fuckin’ Finch.” But she laid her glass down too, and it was empty. “Hit me up again, too, Jack, and a little more Rémy in it this time.”
I took another good sip from my Manhattan. It tasted even better, but I knew this was no time to get caught up in a drinking fest.
“Well, drink up, Mr. Jones,” I said. “We really should go.”
“What’s the hurry,” he said. “We got a live one here, Arnie, let’s stay for at least one more.”
“Yes,” said Lucky. He pocketed his money roll, then reached past me to pick up his Manhattan. “What’s the rush?”
“I have errands to do,” I said.
“Errands? Like what? Since when do you do anything at all productive with your day? Certainly not since your little psychotic episode.”
“It’s true,” I said, “I have been on a sort of vacation. But nevertheless I told this gentleman I know, Mr. Arbuthnot --”
“Arbuthnot, I know him,” said Lucky.
“Well, I told him or I would get some fresh seafood for his cat. Shnooby.”
“That’s not going to happen, Arnold.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “But we’re still leaving. Or attempting to leave. As soon as we finish these drinks. I hope.”
“Wait a minute,” said Lucky. “I just realized something. You’re drunk. You’re hammered.”
“Or, no, wait -- you’re high, that’s it, isnt it? You’re on drugs.”
“Well, just one pill,” I said.
“What kind of pill?”
I turned to Mr. Jones. For some reason I was once again floating about six feet over his head, even though he was standing right next to me.
“Hey, Mr. Jones,” I called down. “What was that pill you gave me?”
“Stop shouting,” he said. “It’s not that noisy in here.”
“Sorry,” I said, I hoped in a more normal tone. “What was that pill again, the one you gave me?”
“Oh, it was one of them newfangled pills,” He said.
It suddenly occurred to me that no one ever said oldfangled. Why was that?
“LSD,” said Mr. Jones.
“LSD,” said Mr. Jones. “The pill you took. They call it LSD.”
(Continued here, and onward into the new year and God only knows how many more to come.)
(Turn to the right-hand column of this page to find a rigorously compiled listing of links to all other “street-legal” episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. All contents vetted and approved by the Holy See™ of Rome. Nihil Obtat, Bishop John J. “Jocular Jack” Graham, SJ.)