“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 274: the crossing
Come with us to that world beyond this world, where our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companion that ancient reprobate Mr. Jones make their way along a narrow brick road through a thick forest beneath a steel-grey sky…
(Go here to review our previous thrilling episode; those who are not afraid of the challenge may click here to start at the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 61-volume masterpiece of autobiography.)
“The other day I woke up from my afternoon nap thinking that I was a character in Arnold Schnabel’s magical universe; then the cobwebs disappeared and I realized I had been cast yet again into my own all-too-mundane world. Quickly I picked up the volume of Railroad Train to Heaven that always lies by my bedside, and soon I rectified the appalling situation.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Maury Povich Show.
We proceeded in silence for a couple of minutes. What was there to say. There was nothing to say. My legs pained me, but I didn’t complain. After all, Mr. Jones was eighty-seven years old, in fact he was technically dead, and he wasn’t complaining. It’s a funny thing, though – well, not really funny, but remarkable, no, not really remarkable, but, having started, I will complete my thought, especially since it doesn’t matter anyway as no one will ever read this – it’s a slightly remarkable fact that although it doesn’t feel awkward to walk alone without speaking, it does feel awkward to walk with someone else without saying anything. And so:
“I hope it’s not too much farther,” I said.
Mr. Jones deigned not to reply, nor even to look at me.
He continued to shuffle, I continued to limp. After another two minutes I spoke again.
“I hope you’re not too tired, Mr. Jones. Would you like me to carry you piggyback for a while?”
This time he did deign to answer me.
“At my age I’m always tired. But I’ll drag myself along under my own steam for a ways. How are your legs?”
“Well, they do hurt a bit,” I said.
“It could be worse,” he said.
“That’s true,” I said.
“That’s always been my motto. It could be worse. Of course sometimes that motto means nothing. Sometimes things could not be worse.”
“That’s true, too,” I said.
“And, when those times come, there’s little you can do.”
“True,” I said.
“Except to weep, and wail, and gnash your teeth.”
“Yes,” I said.
“If you have teeth to gnash.”
“What could be more humiliating than gnashing one’s dentures?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Try gnashing your toothless gums.”
The awkwardness of silence was now being replaced as it so often is with the awkwardness of the spoken word.
“Well, uh,” I said after a half a minute, “it shouldn’t be long now.”
“And what basis have you for saying that?” said Mr. Jones.
I limped a couple of painful paces before replying.
“None,” I said.
“I’ve been saying that for twenty years,” said Mr. Jones.
“No. ‘It shouldn’t be long now.’”
“Ah,” I said. “So –” I tried to think of a new topic of conversation. Suddenly I remembered an almost universally popular subject, at least in male company. “Um, who do you think will make it to the World Series this year?”
“I have no idea,” said Mr. Jones. “Nor do I care. I have not followed that noble pastime since the days when Ty Cobb used to sharpen his spikes before each game with a whetstone, the better to lacerate the calves of opposing infielders, those halcyon days when Babe Ruth would devour a dozen hotdogs and quaff a pitcher of lager before taking the field and slamming a couple or three out of the park; no, it’s a matter of complete indifference to me who reaches the World Series. Next question.”
“Um – I suppose football is –”
“Damn it, man, we’re in the next world, the world of eternity, and you’re asking me about sports!”
“Ask me something with some depth.”
“Okay,” I said. I limped along, waiting for something to rise up, and after a minute something did. “Saint Peter gave you another chance.”
“Barely,” he said. “And begrudgingly.”
“Yes, that’s true, but now that you have this second chance, at, at –”
“Yes,” I said. “Do you think you’ll try to, to –”
“Change my ways?”
“Change my ways after eighty-seven years of living for my own pleasure?”
“Even when those selfsame pleasures are so often succeeded by the miseries of the damned?”
“Yes,” I said. “After all –”
“It’s true I grant you that the pleasures available to me at the age of eighty-seven are few. Not like in the good old days when I had a house account at Salt Chunk Mary’s establishment out in Pocatello, in the spanking new state of Idaho, and believe you me I took advantage of my signing privileges, with sometimes one girl in the morning, another after lunch, and yet another one at bedtime. Nowadays unfortunately my shriveled old johnson is good only for urination, and even that act is far from as enjoyable as it was forty or even thirty years ago.”
Mr. Jones paused, as if to give me opportunity for comment, but I said nothing. He continued after a moment.
“All I have left for vices now I’m afraid are liquor and beer and tobacco. Muggles when I can get it, and, yes, the occasional bowl of hop. Am I to deny myself these paltry pleasures for the few months of life I have left?”
“I don’t think they count as mortal sins,” I said. “You’ll probably get off with some time in purgatory.”
“There’s still however the little problem of those million mortal sins that are already on my account, as friend Saint Peter was so good to point out.”
“Well, I think he said it was a bit less than nine hundred and seventy thousand.”
“That still seems like a lot, even to me.”
“You can go to confession and have them all absolved.”
“It’s that easy?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Isn’t it embarrassing though?”
“They say that priests have heard it all, so you shouldn’t be shy. Especially since, well, considering –”
“The stakes involved.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Very well, then. I’ve never been a religious son-of-a-bitch, but what the hell, if that’s all it takes, I’ll swallow my pride. Do you know a good priest I could go to?”
“Yes,” I said. “There’s Father Reilly at the Our Lady Star of the Sea church in Cape May. He’s pretty understanding.”
“Not one to blanch when I stroll in and confess a million mortal sins?”
“Probably not,” I said. “He usually lets me off with a few Hail Marys and an Our Father for my penance.”
“And what sort of sins do you confess to him?”
“I’d prefer not to say.”
“Yes,” I said. “And –”
“Go on, we’re all friends here.”
“The sin of self-abuse.”
“What the hell is that?”
“Masturbation,” I said.
“You call that self-abuse?”
“The Church does.”
“I call it strangling the worm. But I would hardly call it a sin. Is it mortal?”
“That makes no sense. Might as well bang your babe on the beach if they’re going to send you away just for milking your willy.”
“Well, um, uh –”
“I know, you don’t make the rules. Do I need to make an appointment?”
“No, for the dentist.”
“Heh heh. Well, ordinarily they hear confessions on Saturday afternoons.”
“Today’s Sunday. What if I drop dead before Saturday.”
“Well, I guess you could go by the rectory and request a special confession.”
“Considering my advanced years.”
“I’ll make a point of it then. But tell me, surely I’m not expected to enumerate every single one of these nine hundred and seventy thousand mortal sins.”
“Probably not,” I said. “It would take too long, anyway. He’ll probably just ask you to, to –”
“Give him the general outlines.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Rough it out in broad strokes.”
“No need to go into every sordid detail, even if I could remember them all.”
“He’ll ask questions if he wants to know more,” I said.
“He’s a trained professional,” said Mr. Jones.
“Yes,” I said.
By now Mr. Jones was shuffling so slowly as to be only barely moving. It was all I could do to limp slowly enough not to leave him behind, and to tell the truth I was getting impatient.
“Mr. Jones,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant, “how about that piggyback ride now?”
“Am I going too slow for you?”
“Well, uh –”
“That anxious to get back to the earth and make whoopee with your lady friend?”
“Just kidding, to tell the truth I am getting rather pooped. Bend down a bit and flex your knees so I can climb up.”
I did as he asked, and soon I felt his childishly thin arms around my shoulders, his small torso on my back. I hooked my arms under his legs, stood up straight, and proceeded again to limp forward. I felt his old breath on my neck. I limped on down that red brick road, I say down because the road did seem to be inclining downward now.
The road, which had been going straight on, now curved gently to the right, and as we turned the bend I saw that the bricks came to an end at an opening in the woods directly ahead.
“Now what,” said Mr. Jones, in my ear, almost like a voice in my head.
“Well, wait a minute,” I said.
“I got nowhere else to go, pal.”
I kept going, on into the opening in the woods. The ground, which was covered with patchy grass and fallen leaves and pine cones, continued to slope downwards. I kept going. There seemed to be a fog down below and ahead. Then I saw beneath and through the fog what looked to be a river or lake, and finally I made out a small boat on the water near the bank. The opposite side of the river or lake was obscured by the fog. Then through the mist I saw what looked at first like a tree stump on the bank near the boat, but as I got closer I saw it was a man sitting in a canvas and wood folding chair, facing the river, and reading a book. Still carrying Mr. Jones on my back I made my way toward him.
“Excuse me,” I said, when I was about six feet away.
I saw the man’s shoulders flinch, he jumped up and turned. He was a fat man of about fifty, wearing a faded denim jacket and dungarees, a cloth cap, work boots, a plaid flannel shirt. He had a cigar in one hand and a paperback book in the other. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and he needed a shave.
“What the hell,” he said. He had a raspy, high voice.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to alarm you.”
“Who are you and what is that on your back?”
I bent my knees and leaned forward so that Mr. Jones could slide down off me, which he did.
“My name is Arnold Schnabel,” I said, after I straightened up. “This is Mr. Jones.”
“We come in peace,” said Mr. Jones.
“Who sent you here?”
“Saint Peter,” I said.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re not a couple of these runaways.”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“We’re bonafide,” said Mr. Jones.
“Well, you look okay.” He had been holding his paperback open with one finger, but now he folded over the upper corner of one of the open pages and closed the book up. I caught a glimpse of the cover. Backstreets of Bangkok by Horace P. Sternwall. He shoved the book into his jacket pocket and said, “I guess you gents want to go across, huh?”
“Well,” I said, “we’re trying to get back to the, uh –”
“To the land of the living,” said Mr. Jones.
“You want to go across,” said the man.
“Yes,” said Mr. Jones. “Are you by any chance the ferryman?”
“That I am, mister.”
“Great,” said Mr. Jones. “Let’s go then.”
“Hold on,” said the man. “You got the fare?”
“Oh, Christ,” said Mr. Jones. “Here we go again.”
“You shouldn’t take Jesus’s name in vain like that,” said the man. “Especially not on this side of the river.”
“Sorry,” said Mr. Jones. “What’s the fare cost?”
“Yes, for the both of us.”
“We hope, yes.”
“So one way.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Jones. “Two, one way.”
“Fifty cents apiece. One dollar, total. Payment in advance. No checks or promissory notes.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones. “Arnold, you got a buck?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Take care of this and I’ll pay you back my share later. That little Chinee kid cleaned me out.”
“It’s on me,” I said, taking out my wallet.
“Great. Give him a dollar and let’s get the hell out of here.”
I opened my wallet, took out a single, held it out to the man.
He put his cigar in his mouth, took the bill, held it up with both hands to the pale grey light that filtered down through the trees, then, apparently satisfied, he shoved it into his dungarees pocket.
“All right,” he said.
He took off his glasses, folded them up and put them in his shirt pocket. I suppose they were reading glasses.
“My name’s Harry, by the way. Get in the boat, gentlemen, and I hope you enjoy the crossing."
(Continued here, indefatigably.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all legally-sanctioned chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, free, gratis and for nothing, although contributions will be accepted in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Society’s proposed Arnold Schnabel Museum, in the building where Fink’s Bakery used to be, over on Spencer Street. Illustration by Mort Künstler. A big tip of the Leo lid to Bob Deis at Men's Pulp Mags for the above and many other illustrations I have so blatantly borrowed.)