Saturday, June 25, 2011
Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends in Arnold’s humble attic room in his aunts’ old and weatherbeaten guest house, here in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May on this hot and humid Sunday afternoon in August of 1963...
(Click here to read our previous episode; the bewildered may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 36-volume memoir.)
“Aramis, Athos, Porthos. Moe, Larry, Curly. Manny, Moe, and Jack. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Hope, Crosby, and Lamarr. To these great trinities of literature and history must now be added the names Big Ben Blagwell, Ferdinand the fly, and -- Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Joe Franklin Show.
“Well, whatever,” I said, “let’s go, guys.”
“Waitin’ on you, boss,” said the fly. Ferdinand. The fly. It still felt funny to think of him as Ferdinand. After thinking of him solely as “the fly” for so long (actually about twenty-four hours, although it felt like approximately fifteen months) I had only just been begun the process of accepting his name as Francis. “Well?” he said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You said you wanted to go, and now you’re just standing there.”
“Oh,” I said. “Uh -- um --”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “I’ve seen this.”
“Seen what?” said the fly.
“This,” said Ben, nodding in my direction.
“Yeah?” said the fly.
“Seen it plenty of times in my career,” said Ben, inhaling his Sweet Caporal smoke, which he really did appear to be enjoying; at any rate he was certainly acting like someone who was really enjoying his cigarette. “Plenty of times,” he said again.
“Oh yeah?” said the fly.
“Yep,” said Ben, nodding his head, staring off and downward, as if into his storied past.
“Uh, yeah, I know whatcha mean, pal,” said the fly.
“Do you?” said Ben, his head slightly cocked, looking at the fly from under the brim of his cap.
“Sure,” said the fly. “Like guys who act all weird and shit.”
“Well, that too, my friend, that too,” said Ben, “-- but, no, more particularly I was thinking of the kind of guy who’s all raring to go on some wild caper fraught with danger, and then when the moment of truth comes he freezes. Turns to stone.”
“Turns yellow, you mean.”
Ben tapped his cigarette ash down to the floor, even though he knew where the ashtray was. But I suppose in his defense it could be said he was lost in a revery.
“Back in the big one,” he said, “I was the coxswain of a Higgins boat, bringing the boys in to storm those beaches defended by bloodthirsty and suicidally unyielding and obdurate Japs, and let me tell ya, sometimes them boys just didn’t want to get out of the boat.”
“Cowards,” said the fly.
“Well, it’s understandable, really,” said Ben, admiring the lit end of his cigarette, that glowing little red eye through which had passed the smoke which now filled every square inch of space in my tiny room. “All of a sudden them boys realized there was a good chance they were going to get killed.”
“So what’dja do with ‘em?” asked the fly.
“We kicked ‘em out of the boat, pulled up the ramp, and hauled ass back to the troop ship for another load.”
“Ha ha, you slay me, big guy,” said the fly.
“Okay,” I said, “I think I really am ready to go now.”
“Cool,” said Ferdinand, there I wrote his name, but it still feels funny. “Hey,” he said, “ya want me to take a look outside the door first, make sure that crazy broad ain’t out there?”
“The crazy broad,” said Ben, smiling. “I keep hearing about her.”
“Meshuggenah,” said the fly. “Like, totally. Pazzo, man. Gone, daddy, way gone.”
“I’m intrigued,” said Ben.
“That’s ‘cause you ain’t met her yet”
“No, I haven’t, but I really want to, now. She good looking?”
“She’s all right. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”
“I’ve always had a soft spot for dames who spell trouble," said Ben. "Trouble with a capital T, like TNT. Dames who ain’t happy till they drag you down into a vortex of madness and lust, betrayal, and death.”
“No kiddin’?” said the fly, and I thought I heard a note of admiration in his tiny voice.
“What’s this dame’s name?” asked Ben.
“Gertrude,” said the fly.
“So, Arnie,” said Ben, “you and this, uh, Gertrude --”
“He says he ain’t bangin’ her,” said the fly. “But she seems to think otherwise.”
“Look,” I said, “she was very drunk last night. She --”
“Yes, go on,” said the fly.
“Yeah, don’t stop now,” said Ben.
“Just when it’s gettin’ good,” said the fly.
“Well, I really prefer not to talk about it,” I said.
“Oh, come on!” said the fly. “Enough with the Catholic choirboy act.”
“But, really,” I said, “there was nothing --”
“Nothing at all,” said the fly.
“No,” I said.
“Like, not a thing.”
“Well, it’s -- it was -- it’s -- it’s complicated --”
“Complicated,” said the fly.
“Wait,” said Ben, “was this like -- uh -- what do they call it -- coitus interruptus?”
“What’s that?” said the fly.
“It’s when you’re bangin’ a broad, but you pull out before --”
“Oh,” said the fly. “’Pulling out’. What’s that phrase you used?”
“Coitus Interruptus,” said Ben.
“Whatever,” said the fly. “Pulling out?”
“Pulling out,” said Ben. “Or I guess maybe being pulled out.”
“Pulling out,” said the fly. “Not a big fan, myself.”
“Me neither,” said Ben.
“I like to finish what I start,” said the fly.
“Same with me, brother,” said Ben.
“Fuck that shit,” said the fly.
“So was it like that?” said Ben, for some reason asking the fly and not me.
“He says not,” said the fly. “I mean,” the fly addressed me now, “that is your story, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “We -- we -- uh, we --”
“Okay, now by we you mean you and the crazy broad, right?” said the fly.
“Yes,” I said, “we, she and I, well, I sort of walked home with her last night, and she was drunk.”
“You took her home, drunk,” said the fly.
“Oh, boy,” said Ben. “Taking a drunk crazy broad home. Now there’s a recipe for trouble. TNT. TNT in a barrel of gasoline.”
“I really just ran into her on my way home,” I said.
“Sure,” said Ben.
“No, really,” I said. “And there were other people there, anyway.”
“Other people?” said the fly. “The plot thickens. And into what species of a rancid bouillabaisse I shudder to think.”
“Look,” I said, “I’d really prefer not to talk about what happened.”
“There, see, I knew something happened,” said the fly.
“Nothing happened, really,” I said.
“Then how’d she get that big bruise on her forehead,” said the fly.
“Bruise?” said Ben.
“Like a ripe shiny plum on her forehead,” said the fly. “How’d she get it, Arnie?”
“She, uh, fell, sort of,” I said.
“Okay, look,” I said, “let’s go.”
Just standing there in that smoky tiny garret, even in my polo shirt and bermudas, I was now streaming with sweat all over again. I suddenly felt as if I’d lost ten quarts of bodily liquids just in the last five minutes.
“Ferdinand,” I said.
“Yes, sir!” the fly said, standing to attention in the air a foot or so away from my face.
“Look,” I said. “I’ll crack the door a little bit. Then you fly out and see if --”
“Oh, look who’s giving the orders now.”
“Please,” I said. “Please will you fly out.”
“That’s better. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “So could you please just fly out and see if Miss Evans --”
“Miss Evans?” said Ben.
“Gertrude,” I said. “Evans is her last name.”
“Got it,” said Ben.
“Okay, so I fly out,” said the fly; “if the coast is clear I come back in and give you guys the go-ahead. I know the drill.”
“Good, I said. Let’s go.”
“And what’s the magic word,” said the fly.
“Let’s go please,” I said. Would I ever get out of there? Maybe not.
“You want me to follow behind?” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said.
“’Cause I’ll go first, I don’t mind.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
“See?” said Ben to the fly. “He’s okay now.”
“We’ll see,” said the fly.
I went down the steps, at long last, and at the bottom I gently opened the door just an inch or so. The fly flew past me and out. I waited. Ben had come halfway down the steps, and he waited also. He was streaming with sweat, I was streaming with sweat. At least he had a cigarette.
The fly flew back in through the crack.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Nobody out there.”
“Any noise from her room?”
“The one down the hall there?”
“Yes, on the right.”
“I think I might’ve heard snoring.”
“Well, that’s okay,” I said.
“Come on, let’s go,” said Ben. “It’s stifling up in here. Hot and stifling like the engine room of a tramp steamer in the Sulu Sea in the rainy season.”
“All right,” I said. “But, look, let’s just walk very --”
“I know,” said Ben, “quiet, like a couple of shadows.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I pushed the door open, went through, and started down the hall, walking slowly and carefully, with Ben a few paces behind me and the fly buzzing along slightly ahead of me.
As I came to Miss Evans’s door I halted, holding one hand up so that Ben would not come lumbering into me and send me sprawling along the floor. I listened, my head cocked in the direction of the door. The fly circled slowly above my head, making only a very gentle buzzing sound. Behind me I heard Ben’s raspy breathing, although I believe he was trying not to breathe loudly.
The framed photograph of Robert Taylor looked down on us from his place on the wall, his expression one of wry amusement dissolving inexorably into boredom.
Then, sure enough, I heard wafting from within Miss Evans’s room the gentle and almost childlike sound of a woman snoring.
Well, good for her, at least she had escaped the DeVores, and God knows she had seemed in need of a nap when last I had seen her.
I continued to the staircase, Ben behind me and the fly now leading the way, and quietly downstairs we went, none of us saying a word until we had descended past the second floor landing.
(Continued here, because such is our destiny.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Many thanks to everyone who helped make last week’s Arnold Schnabel Walking Tour in Cape May such a resounding success, and we hope everyone got home safely.)
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel in his tiny attic room in his aunts’ rambling old guest house here in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on this humid Sunday afternoon in August of 1963. Also in attendance: Big Ben Blagwell (hero of such bold adventures as The Magic Pen Wiper and Havana Hellcats) and Arnold’s friend a talking fly...
(Go here to read our previous chapter; advanced students of abnormal psychology may click here to go back to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 67-volume memoir.)
“I’m so looking forward to hosting the Arnold Schnabel Walking tour in historic Cape May next week.” -- Harold Bloom, in conversation with Ed Hurst on WPVI’s The Steel Pier Show.
“What the fuck,” said Ben.
“Heh heh,” laughed the fly.
“Hey,” said Ben, “excuse me, but have I gone nuts or did I just hear that fly talk.”
“Ha ha,” said the fly.
“And did I just hear him laughing just now,” said Ben.
“Um,” I said, “yes?”
“Yes you mean I heard the fly talk or yes I’ve gone fuckin’ nuts.”
“Ha ha!” the fly laughed again, but really sounding like he was forcing it a bit now.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a talking fly.”
“It?” said the fly, buzzing right up to my nose.
“He,” I said. “He’s a talking fly.”
“Fucking hell,” said Ben.
“Ha ha, oh Christ,” said the fly, now buzzing up and down merrily in front of my face.
“And now he’s talking and laughing,” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said. “I know it’s strange, but, uh, Ben, this is my friend, uh --” what did he say his name was? Oh, right -- “Francis,” I said.
“Francis,” said Ben. “Francis the fly.”
“Yeah,” I said, without enthusiasm.
The fly was now hovering again near my nose, although he was facing Ben.
“So am I supposed to shake hands?” said Ben.
“Don’t worry about it, pal,” said the fly. “And look, I’m sorry about laughing like that. But your face. The look on your face. Fucking priceless.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet it was,” said Ben.
“I was laughing with you not at you,” said the fly. “Believe me I would not want to piss off a great big piece of strapping manhood like yourself, what was your handle again?”
“Blagwell, Ben; they call me Big Ben Blagwell.”
“And big you are, pal, big you are. Like I said, big like a gorilla, and I mean no disrespect by that.”
“And you’re Francis.”
“Ah, fuck, I gotta tell ya, that’s just something I told Arnold here.”
“So you’re name really isn’t Francis.”
“No. Say, what’s that smell about you, pal -- I like it.”
“Probably the smell of rum, and strong tobacco, of exploded cordite, and sweat.”
“Somethin’ else. Old Spice?”
“No, that’s Atkinson’s eau de cologne, actually. You see, I sweat a lot, so I find a good cologne --”
“Hey, I like it, I like a lot,” said the fly. “It’s a manly kinda smell.”
“So what’s your real name?” asked Ben. He seemed anxious to change the subject.
“Ah, never mind about that.”
“Well, okay.” Ben still had his cigarette behind his ear, and now he took it out and looked at it. (It looked a little damp and limp from where I stood.) He smoothed it out with his thumb and forefinger, or at least he made the motions of doing so. “I mean,” he said, “if you don’t want us to call you anything, well -- you know --”
“All right,” said the fly, “but look, I tell you guys my real name you gotta promise not to make fun of it.”
I had errands to do. I had errands to do, and I wanted to see Elektra again sometime this century. I spoke up.
“Look,” I said, “we’re not going to make fun of your name. Besides, it can’t be much worse than Arnold.”
“Right,” said Ben. “How you think I felt growing up being called Benjamin. That was no treat, let me tell you.”
I should mention also that it was very hot and humid in my little attic room, and I was streaming sweat into my Krass Brothers Sunday suit. Ben was sweating profusely too, but it didn't seem to bother him. He was probably used to cramped cabins in smuggling ships down in the tropics.
“Come on, pal,” he said to the fly. “We just want to know your name, man.”
“Okay,” said the fly, after a brief but hot and sweaty pause. “My name is Ferdinand.”
“Ferdinand,” said Ben.
“Right,” said the fly.
“So that’s what your friends call you?”
“I’m a fly. Flies don’t have friends.”
“I thought Arnold was your friend.”
“Okay,” said the fly. “Arnold’s my friend. I like Arnold. Arnold’s good people, I don’t care what anybody says about him.”
“So anyway, we can call you Ferdinand.”
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”
“Ferdinand the fly.”
“Awright,” said the fly. “I know where this shit is going.”
He was facing Ben, but he was still hovering fairly near my nose, and I could see he was getting a little upset.
“Ferdinand the fucking fly,” said Ben. “Ha ha ha!” he laughed.
“See?” said the fly, turning to me, “What’d I tell ya.”
“Ha ha ha!” laughed Ben.
“Hey, fuck you, pal,” said the fly, Francis, I mean Ferdinand.
“Ha ha ha,” said Ben, and now he was the one forcing it I’m pretty sure. “You should see your little face,” he said to the fly, who really did have a disturbed look on his face somehow (but don’t ask me how).
“Ah, fuck you, Mighty Joe Young,” said the fly. “I shoulda just kept my trap shut. Pearls before swine tryin’ a have a intelligent friendly conversation with some people.”
“Okay, look,” said Ben. He wiped a tear from his eye, or at least pretended to. It was probably just sweat if it was anything. “I’m sorry. Let’s take it from the top. Okay? If you’re pals with Arnie here then that’s good enough for me.”
“Well --” said the fly. He buzzed around in a slow double helix a few times, and then stopped, hovering, midway between Ben and myself. “All right,” he said, “bygones be bygones.”
“Great,” said Ben. “Now, Arnie, about them matches --”
“Oh,” I said, and, crouching over as I always did in my little garret, I went over to the table next to my army cot.
“So, Ben,” said the fly (I’m sorry, I can’t get used yet to calling him Ferdinand, if that is his name), “what, you came up here just to get some matches?”
“That’s about the size of it,” said Ben.
I opened the drawer in the table, and along with some other things of no importance to anyone but me (e.g., my keys, some cocktail napkins with lines of potential poetry scrawled on them, a bottle of chlorpromazine tablets which I hadn’t opened in a couple of months) I saw a few boxes and books of matches, along with one opened and one sealed pack of Pall Malls, and my lighter.
I heard the fly buzzing somewhere behind me, slightly above the level of my head.
For a second I considered giving Ben my old Zippo lighter, but then thought better of it. I might need it before long, along with the Pall Malls and chlorpromazine. I took out an unused book of Sid’s Tavern matches and shut the drawer.
“So you still ain’t smoking,” said the fly.
“No,” I said, “trying not to.”
I took the matches over to Ben.
“Wants to live forever, Ben,” said the fly.
“That’s what I told him,” said Ben. He took the matches I was standing there (or crouching there) holding out to him. "Thanks, Arnie."
"Keep them," I said.
"I owe you," he said, and, sticking the cigarette in his mouth, he tore off a match, struck it, and, cupping his enormous hands as though he were on the deck of a small ship in a high gale on a raging sea instead of in a tiny garret into which not a breath of a breeze came through the little windows, he lit his cigarette at last.
“Nobody lives forever,” said the fly.
“Nobody,” said Ben.
Exhaling a great fragrant cloud of smoke, he waved the match out, seemingly looking around in an absent-minded and nicotine-sated way for an an ashtray to toss it into rather than onto the floor as one might have not been surprised to see him do. I held my hand out and he dropped the extinguished match into my palm.
“Hey, y’know, look at me,” said the fly. “I’m a fly. I’m only a couple weeks old and I’m lucky if I live another month. But you don't hear me whining and moaning about it."
I made my hunchbacked way over to the little table again and dropped the match into the ashtray there.
“It ain’t how long you live,” said Ben.
“It’s how you live,” said the fly.
“What I was trying to tell Arnie here earlier,” said Ben. He stowed the matches away safely in his shirt pocket, then took another, slower and deeper drag of his cigarette.
I took off my damp suit jacket, laid it on the cot, sat down and started to unlace my shoes.
“Hey, Ben, ya mind if I breathe in some of your smoke?” asked the fly.
“Not at all, my friend,” said Ben, “not at all.”
The fly was hovering near Ben’s face now, and Ben gently exhaled another great cloud of smoke in the fly’s direction.
“Nice,” said the fly. “Very nice. Whatcha smokin’ there, Raleighs?”
“Sweet Caporals,” said Ben.
“Good smoke,” said the fly. “I was a Philip Morris man myself, king-size.”
“Wait,” said Ben, “you were a man?”
“That I was, my friend, that I was. And now I’m a fly. All because I signed a contract without reading the fine print.”
I had my shoes and socks off, and now I went ahead and started to take off my Sunday trousers.
“You always want to read the fine print,” said Ben.
“Everybody says that,” says the fly. “But nobody really does.”
“I know I never have,” said Ben.
“Take my advice,” said the fly, “read the fine print.”
“I can’t understand that legal shit,” said Ben.
“So you get a lawyer to read it.”
“I don’t trust lawyers,” said Ben.
“Nobody trusts lawyers,” said the fly. “But would you rather get turned into a fly?”
“No,” said Ben. “No. I mean, no offence.”
“I’m not offended. You think I like being a fly?”
“I don’t know.”
“Eating shit? Living in constant fear of being swatted or eaten up slowly and painfully by some fucking spider? Getting turned down by stuck-up human chicks, just ‘cause you’re a insect? This sound like fun to you?”
“No,” said Ben.
“So just do it. Hire a lawyer to read the fine print.”
“Maybe I just won’t sign any contracts,” said Ben.
“Maybe that’s best,” said the fly.
I had hung up my suit and changed into my usual casual attire. Plaid bermudas, a pale blue polo shit, my Keds with no socks. I felt loads better now that I was out of that hot wet suit. I was as ready now to face the world again as I would ever be.
“Hey, I hate to break this up,” I said.
“Look at you,” said the fly. “All ready for a vigorous game of shuffleboard by the pool.”
“Ha ha,” said Ben.
“I really have to get going,” I said.
“Good, where we goin’?” said the fly.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Where are we goin’?”
We? Both Ben and the fly stared at me through the cigarette smoke that now nearly filled the little room.
“Well, uh, I was really just going to do these, uh --”
“Yeah, I know, errands,” said Ben.
“What errands?” said the fly.
“That’s what I’m asking,” said Ben.
Somehow I saw that there was no getting around it.
“I’ll explain on the way,” I said.
“Hey, this is great," said the fly. "You know who we are?”
“Two men and a fly?” asked Ben in reply.
“No, ya big dummy,” said the fly. “The Three Musketeers, that’s who we are. What’s their names?”
“Don’t know,” said Ben. “D’Artagnan?”
“No, he was the friend of the Three Musketeers.”
“I don’t know,” said Ben. “I remember that movie, sort of -- Gene Kelly, right?”
“Aramis,” said the fly. “Aramis, and Porthos -- and --”
“What?” said Ben.
“And the other fucking guy,” said the fly.
(Continued here, because we owe it to the children of tomorrow.)
(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page for a listing of links to all other officially released chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Tickets still available for next week’s "Arnold Schnabel Walking Tour" in Cape May, hosted by Professor Harold Bloom. Private party afterwards in Mrs Biddle’s back yard, featuring Tommy’s Special Iced Tea, Charlie Coleman’s Special Barbecued Short-ribs, and Mrs Schnabel’s Homemade German Potato Salad; and an icy cold keg of Ortlieb’s beer courtesy of the VFW. Featuring for your entertainment the musical stylings of “The Sweet Sounds of Summer with Freddy Ayres and Ursula; special guest Magda on the Hohner Pianet”. Lemonade and regular iced tea available also at no extra charge.)
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Found some more of the old pictures, in a hatbox on top of a stack of old issues of the Catholic Standard & Times, up in Mrs Biddle's attic.(Please click here to read the complete saga.)
This was the day that Daphne drove Sister Mary Elizabeth back to the convent out at the Point to get Sister Mary Elizabeth's stuff...
Saturday, June 11, 2011
The torrential rains have finally ceased on this Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, as our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new acquaintance Big Ben Blagwell approach Arnold’s aunts’ guest house here in the genteelly shabby seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Click here to refresh your memory of our previous episode; latecomers to the festivities may go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 99-volume autobiography.)
“The discovery and ongoing publication of Arnold Schnabel’s memoirs surely ranks as the greatest literary event of the 21st century. And we still have eighty-nine years to go.” -- Harold Bloom, in Reader’s Digest.
“This is my aunts’ house up here,” I said.
“Quaint,” said Ben. “I’m gonna say circa 1865. Perhaps it was built by a ship’s captain, to house his growing brood. Or then again it might have belonged to some rich Philadelphia banker or textiles baron as a summer ‘cottage’.”
“It just belongs to my three maiden aunts now,” I said. “They bought it when they retired from Bell Telephone.”
“Bel Tel, another good outfit. Who’s the squirt on the porch?”
“That’s my little cousin Kevin.”
“Is he gonna be trouble?”
“As long as you give him comic books he leaves you alone,” I said. “But he can be annoying when he runs out of them.
“Thanks for the tip. Anything else I need to know about the set-up?”
“Well, if we run into my aunts or my mother just try not to curse. They’re very old-fashioned and religious.”
“Don’t worry about me, Arnie. I know how to handle these old broads,’ he said. “Schnabel. 'Schnabel.' You Jewish?”
“No, we’re Roman Catholic.”
“Then I’ll be Catholic too. What the hell, one time out in Siam I had to make like I was a Buddhist monk to get out of a jam. Seems I got on the wrong side of this warlord named Kong. 'King' Kong they called him -- heh heh -- well, anyways --”
“Excuse me, listen, Ben?”
We had come to the crooked wooden front gate.
“I think it would be best if we just went in the side way, quietly,” I said, in a low voice.
“Side way, front way, don’t matter to me, pal.”
I lifted the latch, and we went through. Kevin finally raised his eyes from his comic and looked at us, but he said nothing.
Ben and I walked up the cracked bluestone path together, with Kevin staring at us as if I had shown up accompanied by one of his comic book super heroes, The Thing, or perhaps The Hulk.
I saw that I would not be able to avoid at least a cursory conversation with the boy, but I hoped against hope I could keep it short.
This was not to be.
He tossed his comic to the pile of its fellows on the floor and got up from his rocker and came to the head of the porch steps.
“Cousin Arnold,” he said.
“Hello, Kevin,” I said.
“Who is the man.”
“Kevin,” I said, “this is my friend, Mr. Blagwell.”
Kevin almost fell down the steps and ran up to Ben.
“Are you a pirate?” he asked.
“Well, sonny boy,” said Ben, and he patted the top of Kevin’s small bulbous head, with its dull thin hair like something you would find glued onto the skull of a ventriloquist’s puppet in a third-rate carnival, “as a matter of fact I’m more by way of being a nautical gentleman of fortune, although I have on occasion done a bit of smuggling.”
“Oh, wow, a smuggler. How tall are you?”
“Six foot four, my lad, and two hundred and fifty pounds of sinew and muscle.”
“Will you take me on your ship?”
“You ever been on a ship?”
“No, but I want to ship out. I could be your cabin boy.”
“You’ll have to ask your parents.”
“They’ll only say no. My parents are boring.”
“Oh, I doubt that, Kevin.” Ben wiped the hand he’d been patting Kevin’s head with on the side of his denims. Kevin’s hair often seems to have jelly or butter or some other sticky substance in it. “What’s your old man do, Kevin?”
“He’s a certified public accountant, and my mom’s a secretary for the archdiocese.”
“Hmm, maybe they are boring after all.”
“Take me with you.”
Something told me I’d better nip this in the bud.
“Okay, Kevin,” I butted in, “we’re going to go in now. This way, Ben.”
“What happened to your umbrella, Cousin Arnold?”
“Oh, I, uh, left it somewhere.”
“You mean you lost it?”
“That lady was looking for you.”
“A lady was looking for Arnold?” asked Ben.
“Yes,” said Kevin.
“Would this be his lady friend?”
“The weird lady,” said Kevin.
“Aren’t they all weird?” said Ben.
“Yes,” said Kevin, “but this one is extra weird.”
The front screen door opened, and my mother was standing there.
“Arnold?” she said, as if I had finally returned after being gone for twenty years, presumed lost at sea.
I am afraid that I must here omit my recounting of the immediately subsequent conversation, because at that moment, as I had on occasion done before, I floated out of my body, my consciousness rising up out of the top of my head to the height of the lower branches of that big oak tree in the front yard. I alighted in the crook of a branch and waited for the three human beings below to finish talking about whatever it was they were talking about. I could hear the voices but they carried no more meaning to me than the rustling of the leaves and the whistling and screeching of a few blackbirds who sat on some higher branches, in fact even less sense than the birds, as I was able to pick up some snippets of their conversation, something about whether there would be more insects to eat either in the garden directly below or over on the Perry Street side of the house where the chrysanthemums and rhododendrons were particularly luxurious.
I waited. I could tell that I was nervously speaking as few words as possible to my mother, who was apparently remaining in her place at the open door. She often does this, carries on conversations half in and half out of the house. I saw that Ben had politely doffed his cap, and then I heard the low but somehow reassuring rumble of his voice, as if someone were playing a placatory tuba solo in the distance. Kevin continued to gaze up at Ben in what I suppose was a mixture of wonder and admiration if not adoration. All this went on for perhaps several minutes -- I can’t be sure, time means nothing to birds and insects and children and even less to disembodied spirits -- with Ben apparently doing most of the talking, although I could hear the occasional bird-like utterance from my mother’s direction, interspersed now and then with a chirp or two from Kevin. Ben patted Kevin’s head a couple of times (but not hard enough to send the boy sprawling to the ground) and once he scratched the crown of his own head with its close-cropped ginger-colored hair.
Finally I heard the faint but unmistakeable whinging sound of the screen door closing, and Ben replaced his yachting cap. I said something or other sounding dull, flat and unprofitable, and Kevin responded with his own unique keening noise, but then he turned and plopped his slump-shouldered way up the wooden steps.
Ben and I started on the path around to the left of the house, and I thought it would now be best for me to return to my corporeal host.
I flew down and re-entered my brains in the middle of a dialogue between myself and Ben.
“...you ask her just to get me some matches?”
“What?” I said.
“God, you really do phase out, don’t you, pal?”
“I said why didn’t you just ask your old lady to get me some matches?”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, she doesn’t smoke, and neither do my aunts. She would have had to go into the kitchen and get the box of kitchen matches.”
“Ladies like that love to get matches. Hell, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they weren’t waiting on men hand and foot.”
“I know,” I said, “but then my aunts would have gotten involved somehow, and, I don’t know --”
“I know, I know, you gotta do these important errands of yours.”
“Yes,” I said. “And -- I don’t know --”
It was true, I didn’t know.
“Man,” said Ben, “for a guy who has no job, living off a pension, you sure seem to lead a complicated life.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Not that I’m being critical, y’unnerstand. Say, you ain’t got any rum up in your room, do ya?”
“No,” I said, “I’m afraid not.”
“No, sorry, I don’t keep alcohol in my room.”
“What’re you, a goddam tea-totaler?”
“No, far from it. But if I kept liquor in my room I’d just drink it.”
“That’s the whole point.”
“Well, there’s plenty of bars in town, Ben.”
“Okay, don’t get sore.”
“I’m not sore,” I said, although I must confess I was beginning to become a little annoyed. It occurred to me that perhaps it hadn’t been such a bad idea my not having any real friends all those years before this summer.
“Y’know, not that I want to pry into your family business or nothing,” said Ben, strengthening the postulation I had just been mulling, “I mean I know all families have their proprietary mysteries and sui generis customs and arcane laws and taboos, but how come your mom didn’t seem to think it a little strange that we should go in through the side way instead of through the front door as might seem expected in any other household in the world be it of the western or oriental civilizations or indeed any culture anywhere that has dwellings with both side and front portals?”
“In a word, Ben,” I said, “she’s used to me going in the side door practically all the time for the very reason that she knows that I do my best to keep my interactions with her and her sisters and Kevin to the polite minimum.”
“She knows you’re a weirdo.”
“Yes, she’s well aware of that fact. Here’s the side door.”
“I can see that. Where’s your room?”
“Up in the attic,” I said, opening the screen door and gesturing for Ben to go first.
“The attic? You’re kidding me, right?”
“No,” I said.
He came in, and so did I, the screen door flapping shut behind us.
Ben looked around, at the narrow hallway, the stairs, the floral wallpaper which had possibly been colorful when it was first hung back in the roaring twenties, the framed rotogravures of Pope John XXIII and President Kennedy and Bishop Sheen, the small table covered with yellow lace with the seashell ashtray and the little painted statue of the Immaculate Conception.
“Smells funny in here, don’t it?” he said.
“It’s an old house,” I said.
“Smells like -- y’know when you were a kid, and you visited your grandmother, and you went down in the basement and you found these stacks of old National Geographics that somehow your grandmother couldn’t bring herself to throw out, or burn? It smells like that.”
“Well, we’d better go up,” I said.
“Not that it’s a bad smell,” he said, and he drew a deep breath, which caused a rasping, slightly rattling sound to come from his nose. He exhaled slowly, and now the noise was a deep wheeze, like the sound a bassoonist might produce when blowing tentatively into his instrument as the strings are tuning up. “It’s a somehow reassuring smell,” he said. “But okay, let’s go up.”
“Follow me,” I said, and I started up the stairs, with Ben following, his heavy footsteps causing the entire staircase to tremble.
“Reminds me of a little joint I used to stop at in Frisco,” he said. “Mad Mabel’s Seaman’s Lodge, down by the wharf there on Pacific Avenue. What a dame ol’ Mabel was. Anything goes was her motto, long as you took care of your nightly bill in advance, paid for any broken furniture and got rid of any dead bodies before the cops found ‘em. Get you anything a good seafaring man might want, too, for a price, but a fair price. Nice clean girl, or boy? Half-ounce of pure-grade opium with a half-gallon of good scotch to cut the phlegm? No problem for Mad Mabel, long as you had the gelt. Just don’t try to screw her over, boy. Saw her take an empty fifth of aquavit to a big Swede stoker one time who got crazy mean drunk one night and beat the living daylights out of one of Mabel’s best rent boys. After Mabel got through with that Swede a hangover was the least of his worries.”
The last several sentences had been spoken with increasingly frequent and longer pauses and huffings and puffings. Ben seemed to be in pretty good shape, but apparently he smoked a lot of cigarettes.
“Mad Mabel’s,” said Ben. “Last time I stopped there was the time I got into the middle of this fracas with the Sydney Ducks and Chang the slave trader --”
“Listen, Ben,” I said.
“Yeah, Arnie?” said Ben, huffing and puffing.
I stopped, and turned to look down at him. I spoke in a very low voice.
“We’re coming to the third floor now, and the entrance to my attic is down the hall.”
“There’s this woman who’s staying on this floor. She might be in her room --”
“This the weird lady the squirt was talking about?”
“Arnie, Arnie, Arnie,” he said, smiling, and shaking his head back and forth.
“Anyway,” I went on, “I’d prefer that she didn’t know I’m here, so would you mind being quiet, just till we get up to my room?”
“Sure, Arnie. Arnie, Arnie --”
“I will not make a peep, my friend. I’ll also try not to tread the floorboards too thunderously, or as little as my massiveness permits.”
We got to the third floor, and, turning again, I jabbed my finger in the direction of Miss Evans’s door. No sound came from her room, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t in there, or even standing with her ear pressed to the door, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.
Ben nodded. He was sweating from the climb, but he seemed to be doing his best not to pant too heavily.
We walked slowly down the corridor to the door to the attic. I glanced back, but there was still no sound from Miss Evans’s room.
“Close the door behind us,” I whispered to Ben.
Carefully I opened my door and started up the steps to my room. Ben followed, and, as I had asked him to, he closed the door behind us, quietly.
At the top of the steps I turned as he came up.
“Careful of your head, Ben,” I said, in a more normal voice now. “The ceiling’s very low.”
“Yeah, I see that,” he said. He came up the steps and, even though he stood under the main beam, under the highest line of the ceiling, he had to hunch over.
“Cozy,” he said, looking around the little room, with its few furnishings and my few possessions.
“Hey, pal,” said the fly, buzzing over to hover by my nose, “who’s the gorilla?”
(Continued here, and until Hell freezes over, melts, and then fires up all over again.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. The Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia wishes to thank everyone who stopped by their booth at last weekend’s Saint Helena’s Parish Carnival, and we apologize to the many people who were unable to purchase a tin of “Mrs. Schnabel’s Old-Time Homemade Zwieback”, but the entire stock sold out the first evening. The ladies of the society are busy as bees baking and packaging a fresh batch, which will be available either by mail order or at the society’s weekly high tea at the VFW on Chew Avenue.)
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new acquaintance “Big” Ben Blagwell on this fateful Sunday afternoon in August of 1963 in the reading room of Mrs. Biddle’s grand old house in Cape May, New Jersey, upon which quaint seaside town the torrential rains have finally ceased falling...
(Go here to read our preceding episode; newly-matriculated students may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 37-volume masterpiece.)
“Pound for pound the greatest writer in the pantheon of American literature, Arnold Schnabel stands alone in a one-man front rank, with Horace P. Sternwall, Larry Winchester and Fredric Brown humbly holding their caps a few steps behind him, while behind them fart and roister all the rest of the writerly rabble in an unruly and not very pleasant-smelling mob.” -- Harold Bloom, in Boxing Illustrated.
He shook the pack so that a few of the cigarettes protruded, and offered them to me.
I started to take one and then stopped.
“I keep forgetting,” I said. “I quit yesterday.”
Ben looked at me, still holding the pack in the offering gesture.
“I, uh, quit smoking.”
“Why, in God’s name?”
He gave the pack another shake, and moving it and his mouth simultaneously together, he drew out a Sweet Caporal with his lips, which I noticed now were slightly chapped.
“Well,” I said, “you know, the Surgeon General’s Report --”
“Fuck the Surgeon General.” He shoved the pack back into his shirt pocket, then patted that pocket. “These Surgeon Generals wanta take away one of the few pleasures a working man can count on.”
He thrust his hands searchingly into his denims pockets, both front and back.
“But the risk of cancer,” I said. “And, you know, heart attacks --”
He stopped searching his pockets and stared at me again, the unlit cigarette still hanging on his lips.
“And, um,” I went on, “emphysema?”
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and then said:
“What do you want to do, live to be ninety?”
“Well, uh,” I said.
“Old, feeble, decrepit, boring. You call that living?”
“Well, not a very high standard of living, I suppose.”
“Or do you want to live your life to the full like a man, not only eating and drinking and fucking like a man, but smoking like a goddam man, and then, sure, croaking like a man at the age of fifty of cancer or a heart attack, the way a man who’s lived croaks, with no whining, no tears, and no regrets, because you’ll know that in your fifty years you have lived your life, like a man, and not just passed through it like a ghost.”
“Well, now that you put it that way --”
“Hey, I don’t suppose you have a light on ya, do you, Arnie?”
“Uh, no,” I said, going through the motions of checking all my own pockets, “no, I don’t think so --”
“You see any matches around here?”
He began looking around the room for matches, and, just to be sociable -- after all, it was my fault that he had been transported here out of what looked like a pretty interesting adventure in Cuba -- I looked around also.
“You find anything, Arnie?”
“No, sorry, Ben, I don’t see any matches around.”
“Do me a favor, go in and ask one of your friends in there for a book of matches.”
“Look,” I said, “I hate to say this, but I’m really trying to get away from here.”
“It’ll take you half a minute to go in and get me some matches.”
“But I’m afraid something will happen that will -- that will -- prevent me -- from -- from --”
“I know, from doing these precious ‘errands’ of yours.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’d go in,” he said, “but I don’t even know these people.”
“Yes,” I said, “that would look strange. Look, tell you what, my house, or rather my aunts’ house, which is where I’m staying, is only a block from here. If you come with me I’ll get you a light.”
“A block away?”
“Well, okay, I guess I can wait that long.” He stuck the cigarette behind his ear. “We walking?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“I hope it’s not going to take you out of your way or anything.”
“No, it’s on my way, and, anyway, I want to change out of this suit.”
“Your Sunday suit. Looks kinda rumpled, and damp. Like you’ve just been chased by a pack of oriental thugs through a warren of dockside alleys in Hong Kong.”
“So you’re sure I wouldn’t be inconveniencing you.”
“Well then, let’s get goin’, pal.”
He waved his hand toward the doorway.
“Okay,” I said.
I was still holding Maria’s umbrella, so I went over and hung it back on its peg by the doorway. I opened the screen door, remembered my politeness and gestured for Ben to go first, but he said, “Lead the way, my friend, because I don’t have the faintest idea where we’re going.”
“Okay,” I said again, and I went down the steps, and Ben followed me down.
The world was gleaming wet and green. The sky was still overcast like an enormous circus tent of grey canvas stretched over the world, but the colors of everything around me seemed even richer than on a sunny day, and the air smelled like flowers and wet soil.
“You gonna admire the scenery, or are we gonna bust a move,” said Ben.
“Sorry. Well, I think the quickest way is just to go around the side of the house here and then out the front way.”
“Lead the way my friend.”
We walked side by side to the right, and around the corner of the house, then onto the wet flagstone path that ran long about six feet from the house between banks of bushes and flowers.
“Nice crib old Mrs. Biddle’s got here,” said Ben, looking up at the gables and dormers and the faded white-painted walls and the windows with their open dark green shutters. “She a good friend of yours?”
“Well, I only met her --” I was about to say “recently”, but then I remembered that I had met her in another life, thirty years before and in a foreign tropical country. So instead I said, “Well, yeah, come to think of it, we have known each other for a, uh, while.”
“So what’s your story, Arnie? Let me guess. I’m pretty good at these things, sizing a guy up. I’m going to say you’re the scion of a wealthy old Philadelphia family. Philadelphia lawyers? Yes, an old and respected family law firm. You were a good boy, went to Harvard Law -- no, Penn -- U. of P. for you, you kept close to home, and if you didn’t finish at the absolute top of your class you were in the top, say, five percent, and then you joined the family firm, and you were a good and honest lawyer, and a member in good standing of the Union League and the Racquet Club as well as the both the Merion Cricket and Golf Clubs. But you always felt that something was missing from your life, you always felt that the law was not quite your cup of tea. That you were not quite -- fulfilled. So you decided to -- to take the summer off, perhaps to take a year off. You also decided that you no longer loved your wife --”
“Wait a minute, Ben,” I said. We had turned the corner to the front of the house. Fortunately no one was on the porch. “I’m sorry, but I’m just a railroad brakeman. I had a -- I had a nervous breakdown, and --”
“Just a nervous breakdown?”
“Well, okay, a complete mental breakdown, and anyway, when I got out of the mental hospital --”
“How long were you in for?”
“About three months.”
“Only three months.”
“Well, a little more --”
“Okay, so go on.”
We turned left and started down the front path to the sidewalk.
“Well, I tried to go back to work, but that didn’t work out --”
“Uh-huh,” said Ben.
“So, anyway, the railroad --”
“Okay, go on.”
“Well, the, uh, railroad put me on a half-pay disability, a leave of absence --”
“Right,” said Ben. “And?”
“And so my mother brought me here to Cape May, to -- to recuperate for the summer at my aunts’ guest house. And that’s all there is to it, really.”
“Okay, don’t get upset.”
“I’m not upset.”
We had reached the front gate, which was open, and we went through to the Windsor Avenue sidewalk.
“We just go around the corner here,” I said. “And my aunts’ house is a couple blocks away.”
We turned the corner at North Street, walking in silence for a bit, but then Ben spoke:
“I still get the feeling you’re leaving something out, Arnie.”
“There’s always something left out, Ben.”
“Yeah, like the truth.”
“Okay,” I said. “I write poems. I’ve been publishing a poem a week in my local neighborhood paper in Philly since I was eighteen.”
“Poems, huh? Any good, these poems?”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“But I guess it’s kind of a nice outlet for ya.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“It’s good to have a hobby,” said Ben. “Especially when you don’t have much else in the way of a life.”
I said nothing to this.
“By the way,” he said, “I notice you’re limping. War wound?”
“No,” I said. “I fell last night.”
“Drunk, huh? What’d ja, trip in a gutter?”
It occurred to me that I really had no particular reason to lie to Ben Blagwell. Anything I had to say would be no more fantastic than the fact that he was a paperback novel hero come to life.
“I was flying through the air, and I forgot to look where I was going and I crashed into a streetlamp pole.”
“Very funny,” he said. “So, Arnie, you live with your mother?”
“Yes,” I said, “and with my three aunts. Also we have a young cousin there, as well as the paying guests of course --”
“I mean, normally, you live with your mother.”
“Yes,” I said.
We crossed Congress Street. No one else was out, and there were no cars going by.
“Oh, boy,” said Ben again.
“Right up the end of this block,” I said.
Everyone was still indoors, doing whatever they’d been doing during the rainstorm, playing cards or Monopoly, or taking naps, or drinking.
“Boy oh boy oh boy,” Ben said, after we had gone a few more yards.
Soon the people would start drifting out to walk up and down on the damp boards of the promenade and maybe even to stroll shoeless on the wet grey sand on the beach.
We continued walking, and then Ben said:
“Don’t you want to know why I’m saying ‘boy oh boy oh boy’?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to seem intrusive.”
“Arnie, don’t you see? Don’t you see why you cracked up?”
“Because I was crazy?”
“Yes, but don’t you see what drove you crazy?”
“Well, I have my suspicions.”
“It’s because you wouldn’t let yourself live!”
“Yeah, maybe so,” I said.
“I mean, tell me something, have you ever even had a girlfriend?”
It was a good thing he wasn’t asking me this a couple of weeks ago. As it was I was able to say to him in all honesty:
“Believe it or not, I have a lady friend.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Like, a real girl?”
“And is she -- you don’t have to answer this -- but is she -- you know, good-looking?”
“Yes. Very much so.”
“Yes, really,” I said.
“Well, I’ll be damned. So I figured you wrong once again. Hey, wait.” He stopped and put his enormous hand on my arm, stopping me. “Just tell me that this -- uh -- relationship is not a, shall we say, Platonic one. You know what that means? Platonic?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So it’s Platonic between you two, right?”
“No,” I said. “I mean not exclusively Platonic.”
“What I mean is that you two -- you know --”
He let go of my arm but then gave it what I think he might have thought a tap with his fist, but which knocked me a full step to the side.
“Ow,” I said, rubbing my arm.
“Sorry, pal. All I mean is you and this babe are actually making it, right? Please tell me you are.”
“Listen, Ben, I prefer not to talk about these things.”
“A gentleman. That’s cool. I like that.”
He patted me on the arm, but lightly enough that it hardly hurt, and we continued our walk.
We approached my aunts’ house. Kevin was sitting on the porch, reading a comic. So much for getting into the house unseen.
(Continued here, and for no one knows how long; yet another trove of Arnold Schnabel’s marble copybooks -- all of them filled to capacity with his neat Palmer Method handwriting -- has just been unearthed in a large cardboard box (which once housed a 1953 Philco television/hi-fi console) under a pile of dozens of yellowed back issues of the Catholic Standard & Times in the garage of his mother’s modest rowhome at B and Nedro in the historic Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia.)
(Photograph by Vivian Maier. Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page for a listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Be sure to stop by the “Arnold Schnabel” booth at the upcoming St. Helena’s Parish Carnival and pick up some of Arnold’s books as well as a tin or two of “Mrs. Schnabel’s Old-Time Homemade Zwieback”. All proceeds in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia, PA.)