Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his two boon companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the fly have finally embarked upon their quest on this hot and humid Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, in the quaint and slightly flooded seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Go here to read our previous episode; click here to go to the very beginning of this Gold View Award-winning 73-volume epic, now available on the installment plan from Sears & Roebucks in a lovely uniform edition with “Moroccan leatherette” covers and full-color illustrations by Conrad Kraus.)
“The other night I awoke from a dream and for a moment I thought I was in Arnold Schnabel’s world; alas, I soon realized I was, as usual, only in the so-called real world.” -- Harold Bloom in Holiday.
Ben started with a good burst and you could see his legs were as muscular as tree trunks -- no, wait, tree trunks aren’t muscular, okay, start again --
Ben twisted his head around a bit and yelled, “Hey, Arnie, this is your street up here, ain’t it? Do I turn here or what?”
“No,” I called, “go straight another block till we get to Lafayette, then hang a left.”
Ben sheered across North Street, the water now stretched from curb to curb, and I followed. It would have made just as much sense geographically to turn here as on Lafayette, but I didn’t want to take the chance of going by my aunts’ house and have something insane or annoying happen. I realized that there was always a chance of something insane or annoying happening even despite my avoiding passing by the family house, but at this point I preferred the possible insanity of the unknown to the possible insanity of the known.
Ben sped on ahead, the water in the street spraying up and away from his bike’s wheels, his legs pumping like -- like what? His legs, as thick and muscular as, as -- who had muscular legs? Wrestlers? Yes. So one might say that his legs were as muscular or more so than, say, Haystacks Calhoun’s, or Killer Kowalski’s, or --
“Arnie,” the fly whispered in my ear, in which he was sitting again.
“Yes?” I said.
“Will you cool it with the mental descriptions? Nobody cares.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “It wasn’t voluntary. And I forgot that you can hear my thoughts.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can. And I’m starting to wish I couldn’t. Can’t you just enjoy the bike ride without mentally trying to describe every damn thing you see?”
“You’re right,” I said.
“Buy a Brownie camera and take a goddam picture if you want to know what something looks like.”
“Okay,” I said.
“No one wants to hear your descriptions.”
“But the thing is,” I said, “I can’t remember if I told you this, but I’m writing my memoirs, and -- you know, I hate to write descriptions really, but sometimes you sort of have to, and --”
“So worry about it then, when you’re actually writing. Not now. Christ, you intellectuals kill me!”
“No one’s ever called me an intellectual before,” I said.
“Well I’m calling you one now and it’s not necessarily a compliment. Try this for a change: just try living life while it’s happening instead of thinking about bullshit all the time.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “But let me just ask you this.”
“Shoot,” said Ferdinand. “I am an open book.”
Ben was a few bicycle lengths ahead of me, but I spoke quietly to be sure he wouldn’t hear me.
“Okay,” I said, “how would you describe how Ben’s legs look?”
“How do his legs look?”
“Yeah, I mean, riding his bike like that.”
“How do his legs look riding his bike.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I will answer that question with another question if I may,” said Ferdinand.
“Well, okay,” I said, grudgingly.
“Do I look like a faggot to you?”
“Okay,” I said. “You know I didn’t mean it that way. I just mean, say you had to describe Ben’s legs right now, and, uh --”
“His thighs were like those of some enraged fighting bull’s, pumping furiously as the great beast chases some terrified matador across the ring to gore him in the buttocks and then with one great shake of his head to send the hapless fellow flying over the barrera as the crowd boos and guffaws.”
“Well, that’s not bad,” I said.
“Use it,” he said. “It’s yours.”
Ben had slowed down and I was now abreast of him, to his right.
“What’re you guys talking about?” he said. Once again he was panting, the sweat pouring from his face, so I slowed down.
“Well, uh,” I said, “oh, turn here, Ben.” We were approaching the corner of Lafayette.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. He made the turn and I turned with him, with Ben on the inside. The flood water was higher here, six inches or so even in the middle of the street, and no cars were out, no people walking on the flooded sidewalks. Ben was cycling very slowly through the water now, just barely faster than a walking pace, but I didn’t mind, as a jolt of pain ran up my legs with my every pump of a pedal. “So what were you guys talking about?” Ben asked.
“Um,” I said. I hated to lie, but this could get awkward if I told the truth. Ben seemed somehow both proud and yet sensitive about his enormous size.
“I was telling Arnie he needs to stop thinking so much and just enjoy life,” said the fly, thus getting me off the hook to a certain extent.
“Yeah,” said Ben. He had taken the cigarette out of his mouth, although he hadn’t thrown it away, and he was really panting again now; he really should have paced himself. “The time to think about life is late at night.” More panting. Then: “Lying in your bunk, staring up into the black hole of existence, one man, one man alone.” He huffed and puffed some more. “Staring up into that black hole. That black hole into which someday we all will disappear, every God damned God forsaken one of us, into that vast empty black hole --”
“Jesus Christ!” said the fly. “This is what you think about? The black hole of existence?”
Ben panted a bit before speaking.
“Not all the time,” he said.
“I should fucking hope not,” said the fly. We had reached Congress Street. We stopped and looked both ways, but there was no traffic. We shoved off again. “Jeeze,” said Ferdinand, “I can see why you two sunny Jims are friends.”
“Well, you know,” said Ben. “The existential like dilemma of life and all --”
“What’d you, read about it in an article in Life magazine?” asked Ferdinand.
“Well,” said Ben, slowly, in between his heavy breaths, “I did read that story in Life about the old guy and the fish, the one that guy Hemingway wrote?”
“The Old Man and the Sea,” said Ferdinand. “You read that?”
“Yeah,” said Ben. (I’m getting tired of indicating his panting and huffing and puffing through all this, so I’ll just put it in here that he kept panting and huffing and puffing, and it got worse not better.)
“You do not strike me as the literary type,” said Ferdinand.
“I read,” said Ben. He took a quick drag of his cigarette, coughed, and then finally tossed it away only half-smoked. It hissed into the water and drifted away behind us.
We had got to Perry Street. “This way, Ben,” I said, pointing to the right, and we turned up the middle of the empty street. The water was already almost a foot deep here, there were even little waves in it, coming from the direction of the ocean just a couple of blocks down the street. The air smelled slightly of sewage and dead fish, but it also smelled strongly of the clean air of the ocean, almost as if we were out on a boat a mile offshore.
“Okay, Ben,” said Ferdinand, “how does that story end then?”
“What story?” said Ben.
“The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of man’s endurance in the face of an indifferent universe.”
“What about it?” said Ben.
“How does it end?”
“Hey, what is this, a test?”
“How’s the story end?”
“Um -- it just, uh, he catches this big fish, y’know? It was, a -- uh -- a swordfish I think.”
“A marlin I think,” said the fly.
“Right, a marlin,” said Ben, “and, anyways, the old guy catches him, and, uh --”
We were coming up to Washington Street. (I had completely forgotten my plan to take the Lafayette Street route.) The sky was still a pale glowing grey, the water in the street was dark grey, and the strip of ocean you could see down at the far end of Perry Street was an even deeper grey.
“Hang a left here, Ben,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and we made the turn onto Washington Street, which was also deserted, also flooded.
“So go on, Ben,” said Ferdinand. He was still hitching a free ride in my ear by the way. “What happens next in the book?” he said.
“Well,” said Ben, “some other stuff happens --”
“Yeah, like what?”
“You know. Shit.”
“Shit,” said the fly.
“Yeah,” said Ben.
“Shit happens,” said Ferdinand.
“Right,” said Ben.
“What shit?” said Ferdinand. “What shit in particular happens?”
“I dunno --”
“Name one thing that happens after he catches the fish.”
“Oh, all right,” said Ben, “so I never finished it, okay? I mean, hey, I like to deep-sea fish as much as the next guy, but -- you know, just reading about some old spic --”
“Hey, excuse me,” said Ferdinand.
“What?” said Ben.
“Watch the derogatory nomenclature.”
“Oh. You mean spic?” said Ben.
“There you go again.”
“Wait,” said Ben. “You ain’t Spanish, are ya? Or Porto Rican?”
“That should not be the issue, you meathead.”
“Oh, see, but it’s okay for you to call me a meathead.”
“Okay, let’s move on,” said Ferdinand. “Finish what you were saying.”
“What was I saying?”
“Something about the old Spanish fisherman gentleman.”
“Oh, right, well, it’s just, like, I don’t mind going deep sea fishing myself, you know, out there on the high seas, fighting mano a mano with the big fishes and the elements and all, but, well --”
We had reached Jackson Street, and the light was red, so we stopped, even though were no cars on the street and no people on the sidewalks.
Ben seemed glad of the opportunity to stop and rest for a while, and we sat there on our bikes in the middle of the street, each with a foot on the the submerged tarmac, the water halfway up to our knees. My legs still hurt.
“So go on, Ben,” said the fly.
“I like doin’ all that shit,” said Ben, “But it’s just kinda boring reading about somebody else doin’ it.”
“I see,” said the fly.
“Now,” said Ben, “if this Hemingway guy had put a Russian nuclear submarine in there, with some Russian killer girls on it, and if they had captured this fisherman guy, and if he was a young guy instead of an old guy, and they took him prisoner and tortured him --”
“Wait,” said the fly. “Why would they kidnap and torture this fisherman guy.”
“Um,” said Ben, “because it turns out he wasn’t really a fisherman, but a, uh, this international adventurer who’s been recruited by the CIA to be a spy, yeah, a spy pretending to be a fisherman --”
“This is the book you wished Hemingway had written,” said the fly.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “So they capture this guy, and these killer Russian babes --”
“Wait,” said Ferdinand. “Why exactly are there killer babes on this submarine?”
The light had turned green, but Ben still sat there on his bike.
“Why are they there?” he said. “They’re there because they’re spies, too, no, because they’re assassins, yeah, that’s right, assassins. And the sub is gonna land them on the coast of Florida, down by Key West, where they’ll pretend to be regular babes, ‘cause they all speak perfect English, but actually they’re highly trained assassin babes sent out by the Russkis to bump off the president.”
“I see,” said the fly.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “And like they’re all gonna pose as strippers.”
“Strippers,” said Ferdinand.
“Strippers, yeah. There’s this strip club in New Orleans that’s secretly run by the commies.”
“I thought they were going to Key West.”
“Turns out they’re really going to New Orleans, ‘cause that’s a more wide-open town.”
“Hey, Ben,” I said. “The light’s green.”
“Oh, okay, let me just light a smoke first.”
And once again he went through his cigarette lighting ritual, the shaking of the pack, the lighting of the cigarette with bent head and cupped hands as if he were out on deck rounding the Cape in inclement weather conditions.
The light was red again. Ben tossed his match into Jackson Street and it floated away along with some other detritus -- an inflated swimming tube, a child’s rubber duck, a crumpled Hershey bar wrapper.
“Okay, Ben,” said the fly. “Go on. Don’t stop now.”
“So it’s up to me,” said Ben, exhaling smoke and watching it drift away.
“What’s up to you?” said Ferdinand.
“It’s up to me to escape and stop these killer babes.”
“The killer strippers.”
“You say it’s up to you?” said Ferdinand.
“I mean it’s up to the guy,” said Ben.
“The fisherman,” said the fly.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Except he’s really a spy. For the CIA.”
“Okay,” said Ferdinand. “So they’re torturing him, these killer babes, and I assume he’s what? Tied up, or --”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “He’s all chained up.”
“So how is he going to escape and stop the killer babes?”
“Well, one of the killer babes, she kind of likes this guy.”
“She likes him.”
“I mean in the physical sense.”
“Okay. Go on.”
The light was still red but Ben pushed off on his bike anyway. There wasn’t anyone around so I did too.
“Yeah,” he said, as he cycled slowly through the flood, “she gets all hot and bothered while her and the other babes are torturing the guy. So after a while she says to the other babes, ‘He’s had enough. For now. We don’t want to kill him before he talks. So you other ladies, go take a break.’”
“’Powder your noses,’” said the fly.
“Right,” said Ben. “They’re all hot and sweaty, ‘Go take a cold shower, we’ll finish torturing the guy later.’”
“So the other girls split the torture chamber, and this one babe, she --”
“Ben,” said the fly.
“Yes,” said Ben.
“Let me ask you a question.”
“Were you always a moron or did you have to work at it?”
“What do I mean? I mean that’s the most idiotic plot I’ve ever heard.”
“What’s idiotic about it?” said Ben. “You know what’s idiotic? Writing a whole goddam book about some old ‘Spanish fisherman gentleman’ catching a goddam fish, that’s what’s idiotic. What do you think, Arnie?”
“Well, I didn’t read that book,” I said. “I mean, we had that Life magazine, but, uh, I never quite --”
“I mean what did you think about my story?”
“Oh, I thought it sounded pretty good,” I said. And in fact I had read and enjoyed dozens of more implausible novels in my time.
“See, Ferdy?” said Ben.
“Ow, ow, ow,” I said.
“What, what, what?” said the fly.
“My leg is seizing up again,” I said.
“So stop already.”
We were past midway between Jackson and Decatur, there was Wally’s cigar shop on the left and the Ugly Mug up there on the right. I stopped my bike right in the middle of the street. I threw my seizing-up right leg over the frame of the bike and stood there in the water, holding the bike.
“Ow,” I said. “Ow.”
A car came up from behind us and stopped next to me.
It was the police car, with the policeman in it.
(Continued here, in accordance with my public service sentence.)
(Painting by James Avati. Kindly go to the right hand side of this page to find what is fairly often an up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©; This week’s episode sponsored in part by Schmidt’s Beer: “The regular beer for regular guys”.)