Saturday, May 5, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 300: stranger


We left our hero Arnold Schnabel in the rare-books shop of Mr. Philpot, in Greenwich Village, on a hot wet night in August of 1957, where Arnold has been asked to read aloud from the brand-new epic from Theophilus P. Thurgood,
Two Weeks in a One Horse Town...

(Click here to read our immediately preceding episode; potential recruits may go here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning 81-volume memoir.)

“As much as I enjoy reading my custom-bound morocco-leather volumes of Arnold Schnabel’s masterwork, I have to admit that the Kindle is the way to go if you want to read him on the subway.” -- Harold Bloom, in his “Book Chat” column in Us Weekly.


I gave the pack of Old Golds a shake, and put one in my mouth.

I put the pack back into my inside jacket pocket and I looked around.

A diner.

Ma’s Diner.

Right.

Next door was a pool hall, and next door on the other side was what looked like a bar: The Fall Rite Inn.

Across the street was a big cube of grey bricks with a hand-painted sign over the main entrance that read City Hall. On either front corner of the big cube was a smaller sign with an arrow pointing around to the sides of the building: Library and Post Office.

Up and down the street on both sides were small shops -- a general store, a drug store, a shoe store, a haberdashery, a dress shop, a millinery. Back at the far end of the block was a filling station.

Everything a small town needed.

I wondered if the burg even had a hotel or a motel, or even a boarding house.

Nobody was out on the street. Some old cars and older trucks were parked along the curbing, but there was no traffic at all.

I reached into my front pocket and took out a book of matches.

“Musso and Frank Grill -- Oldest in Hollywood -- Since 1919”

Then I remembered: I had quit smoking, just yesterday morning I had quit, although it felt like four years ago, so much had happened since then.

Then it hit me, just as plain as this match book, just as plain as this dull-looking town that I was standing in the middle of.

I was stuck here, that is to say, I, “Arnold Schnabel” was stuck here, in yet another fictional world.

Unless of course everything I had experienced in my life prior to this moment was a hallucination, a dream.

But if that were the case, then who was I?

Who was the man who had just gotten off that bus?

Who was this man who was now I?


I hit on the brilliant idea of looking for some identification on my person.
I put the matchbook back in my front pocket, reached under my suit jacket and patted my right back pocket. Yes, sure enough, there seemed to be a wallet in there. With the unlit cigarette still in my mouth I took out the wallet, which was old, cracked and brown, made of leather, but of the cheapest kind of leather. I opened it up.

Pay dirt.

A driver’s license, New York State.

An honorable discharge card, U.S. Army, dated 30 Nov ‘45, Fort Dix, New Jersey.

A social security card.

A library card, for Los Angeles, a city I had never visited.

All of them with the same name.

Jacob B. Schmidt.

Birth date: Oct. 27, 1921.

So, whoever I was, I was roughly the same age as “I” was, if “I” existed, and apparently also of a German background.

The rest of the wallet was not much help.

In the cash pocket were some S&H Green stamps, a movie ticket stub (The Wayward Bus) six crumpled one-dollar bills, and -- hello -- a few black-and-white snapshots of a girl, a pretty blond girl, and a folded strip of four pictures from one of those photo booths they have in penny arcades, and in each one the same pretty blond girl from the snapshots was smiling and posing with a dark-haired guy with a broken nose like a boxer.

I wondered if the guy was me.

He didn’t look too bad. Except for the broken nose he was kind of good-looking, in a John Garfield kind of way. I was thinking of going over to the diner window and trying to see if I could see my own reflection in it, but then I noticed some smeary handwriting on the back of the strip of photos, written with some sort of thick pencil, maybe a woman’s eyebrow pencil.

Betty and Jake
two love birds
smooches,
tough guy!
love,
Betty

Okay, so at least I had a girl friend. Or at one time I had had a girl friend.

I stuck the photo strip back into the wallet, put the wallet back into my back pocket.

A truck came down the road, a loudly squawking truck, and as it got closer I saw why it was squawking: it was a pig truck, the poor pigs sticking their snouts through the wooden slats of their rolling pen. The truck smelled awful, the pigs were sad and doomed, and they knew it. I held my breath, picked up my cardboard suitcase and went across the sidewalk to the diner, opened the door and went in.

I hadn’t seen anyone out on the street, not counting the pigs, but the diner was pretty full. It wasn’t a big place, maybe half a dozen booths, a dozen stools at the counter, but the tables and most of the stools were filled. Music was playing on a jukebox, some hillbilly singing about a lost highway, and under it was a low babble of voices. The babble stopped as I stood there with the door closing behind me, and everyone in the joint turned and looked at me. Then, exactly fifteen seconds later everybody stopped looking at me and the babble picked up where it had left off. I saw an empty stool down near the right end, and I went over to it, put my bag down, sat myself down.

A waitress came right over to me and looked at me. She was blond, and short, but her hair was high.

“Just got off the bus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Hardly anyone ever gets off that bus.”

I had nothing to say to this, let alone anything clever. I just sat there.

“You need a light for that cigarette, mister?”

I realized that I still had the cigarette in my mouth. I took it out. It really seemed a shame to start smoking again now, on only my second day of abstinence, even if I was someone else. And besides, I really preferred Pall Malls. I put the cigarette into a tin ashtray that was there on the counter.

“Maybe later,” I said.

“You wanta see a menu, handsome?”

“Okay,” I said. “And a cup of coffee.”

“One java, coming up,” she said.

She reminded me of someone, Eve Arden maybe, or maybe I’m thinking of Jan Sterling. She was pretty good-looking, anyway.

“Some hot tomato, huh, pal?” said a little old man sitting to my right, near the end of the counter.

Yet another little old man. This one wore a denim work jacket and a billed corduroy cap. He was smoking, he didn’t care about quitting. He had lived this long without dying. He had a grey stubble of beard and no apparent teeth. He wore very thick glasses, they made his eyes look like grey jellyfish pressing up against the glass wall of an aquarium. They were disturbing, so I looked away.

“Just tryin’ to be friendly,” said the old man. He put his old hands around his coffee up, but he didn’t pick it up.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve had a long trip. I’m a little tired.”

I could feel the old guy brightening right up.

“See, that’s the thing about long bus trips,” he said, and I could tell he was just getting started. “You’re sittin’ on your behind the whole time and yet it still tires you out. Now me, I can remember riding in stage coaches. Them things were tiring, believe you me. Yes, sir. Believe you me...”

He rambled on about stage coaches. I still couldn’t take looking at him straight on, so instead I looked at him intermittently as he spoke, for brief quick moments out of the corner of my eye, just enough not to seem completely rude, maybe just a bit shy, and not what I was, which was horrified by his magnified bleary eyes, which now seemed less like jellyfish and more like protozoa seen through a microscope -- not to say I had ever even looked through a microscope, but I had seen movies and televisions shows depicting scientists studying diseases and traces of creatures from outer space.

“...the Tihachapi-to-Fort Worth stage line, now that was the worst, let me tell you. Absolute worst. A livin’ hell, ‘specially crossin’ Death Valley, I’ll tell ya --”


“Gramps,” said the waitress, she was standing there with a cup of coffee on a saucer, “stop bothering this man. He don’t want to hear your stories.”

“I ain’t botherin’ him.”

“Drink your coffee, mister,” said the waitress, to me.

She put a spoon on the saucer and laid it down in front of me, pushed a metal cream pitcher closer to me, and a glass sugar dispenser. Then she laid a greasy piece of cardboard next to the saucer. “Ma’s Diner,” said the cardboard. “Where the élite meet to eat.” This was the menu. I looked at the coffee in the cup. I wasn’t sure how I took my coffee. But then it occurred to me that there was nutrition in cream, so I added some to the coffee and stirred it in with the spoon. I took a sip. The coffee was strong, even with the cream, and bitter. I poured some sugar into it and stirred it around.

The waitress went away. I realized that a new song was playing on the jukebox, I think it was Johnnie Ray. “The Little White Cloud That Cried”.

I sipped the coffee. It was neither good nor bad.

“So, stranger, what brings you to Walter’s Hole?” said the old man.

I couldn’t very well say I was on the run, that I had a Luger under my suit jacket, that possibly I had killed a man. I also couldn’t tell him that I came from an entirely different universe twice removed from my own. But I remembered that I only had six dollars and change on me.

“I’m looking for work,” I said.

“Work?” said the old man. “Work? You’re lookin’ for work in Walter’s Hole? Boy, folks don’t come to Walter’s Hole to look for work. They leave Walter’s Hole to look for work. Heh heh, that’s what they do. They leave Walter’s Hole to find work. They don’t come to Walter’s Hole to look for work.”

I suddenly realized I had to urinate, badly. Some things never changed, no matter who you were or in what universe.

“This place have a men’s room?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, sir,” said the man. “Place is fully equipped in that regard. No need to step out to the back and go against the rear wall.”

“Great,” I said. “Where is it?”

“Just go down to your left there, around the end of the counter, past the cash register and the jukebox and the paperback-book stand, and down a short passageway. You’ll see the sign. Can’t miss it. Setters and Pointers. Best use the one says Pointers.”

“Okay,” I said. “I will.”

“Want me to watch your satchel?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Thanks.”

“Nothing valuable in it, is they?”

“I doubt it,” I said.

“No proceeds from a bank robbery or a kidnapping maybe?”

“No,” I said.

“Armored-car job, or a payroll heist?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But I could be wrong.”

I got up, followed the directions for once in my life, or lives, and in less than a minute I was standing in the men’s room, which consisted of a toilet, a sink and a mirror, a wall-mounted soap dispenser, a paper-towel roller, an overflowing tin wastebasket. There was a small louvered window in one wall, cranked partly open. It was set fairly high up in the wall, but I was tall enough to look out of it. I could see some woods, and behind them a river, a broad, blue-grey river, or maybe it was a lake. The far shore was barely visible. It looked like there was a factory over there in the distance, its stacks smearing streaks of dark smoke up into the grey sky.

I urinated, being careful not to drop the Luger that was still stuck in my waistband, then I pulled the chain. I washed my hands. The face in the mirror was the guy with the broken nose in the photo-booth strip. He had curly hair, whereas my hair is straight, and his was darker than mine. I looked younger, that is the man in the mirror looked younger, and I wondered what year this was. I tore some brown paper off the roller, dried my hands, crumpled up the paper, and dropped it into the wastebasket. It rolled off the mound of trash that was already in there and fell to the floor. I left it there.

I took the Luger out of my waistband and looked at it. The front part of the extractor was sticking up above the breech, with the word “GELADEN” engraved on the left side of the extractor; even I with my faulty German and poor knowledge of guns knew that this meant there was a round in the chamber. The safety catch seemed to be on, and I left it that way. I sniffed the muzzle, just because I had seen policemen do this in movies. I couldn’t smell anything, but that didn’t mean anything.

A man came into the little room, a skinny, tall, balding man, about forty or so. He wore overalls and a plaid work jacket.

“Oh, sorry,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. It was a very small restroom, there was barely room in there for both of us.

“You ain’t gonna shoot youself, are ya?” said the man.

“No,” I said.

“You ain’t gonna rob the place, are ya?”

“No,” I said.

“And you ain’t gonna shoot me?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Mind if I take a whiz?”

“Sure, I was finished anyway,” I said.

I put the pistol back into my waistband, and I buttoned my suit jacket.

“I don’t ask no questions, mister.”

“Good,” I said.

“I figger you don’t ask no questions then you don’t get no answers you don’t want to hear.”

“That’s true,” I said.

He didn’t move, so I stepped around him, sideways.

“You ain’t got to leave.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could be friends.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“I ain’t queer.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Just ‘cause I like men don’t make me queer. I got a wife and six kids. I ain’t no queer.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Sure you don’t want to stay and get friendly?”

“My coffee’s getting cold.”

“Oh, okay, go drink your precious coffee, then.”

“All right.”

“Nice gun you got in your britches there by the way.”

“Thanks.”

“Luger?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s that shoot, one of them Lugers?”

“Pretty good, I guess.”

“I guess if it weren’t no good them Nazis wouldn’t’ve used ‘em.”

“No,” I said.

“Them Nazis weren’t dumb.”

“No,” I said.

“But answer me this, how’s one of them Lugers stack up against the service .45?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I guess they both got their good points.”

“That’s probably true,” I said.

“Was you in the service?”

“Well, look, I’ll see ya,” I said.

“I was in the navy myself. Join the navy and see the world. I didn’t see too much of the world though, down in the engine room. But I didn’t mind. I liked them long sea voyages. The smell of men, livin’ with other men. Doin’ men’s jobs. Out on the high seas. In them close quarters.”

I couldn’t help but notice that he had unbuttoned his fly and taken his penis out and that he was stroking it with one hand while he was talking to me.

“Okay, well, see ya,” I said.

I went out, the door closed behind me.

As I got to the end of the passageway I saw the old man down at the other end of the counter, talking to a fat man in a broad-brimmed hat and wearing a policeman’s or a sheriff’s uniform. The old man was pointing down to where I had left my cardboard suitcase.

Great, a cop.

A sheriff, whatever.

What if I was a wanted man? Let’s face it, I probably was a wanted man. What if there was stolen money in the cardboard suitcase? No, that made no sense. Why would I be traveling by bus if I had a suitcase full of money? Unless -- unless the money was too “hot” to spend? I stepped back away from the counter’s end, back into the passageway where the rest rooms were. I didn’t know what to do. If I made a break for the front door then I might be gunned down in the back as a wanted fugitive. But there didn’t seem to be an exit on this side of the diner. There was a carousel of paperback books opposite the counter, near the side wall, next to a jukebox. I went over to the book carousel, just to stall for time.

Fictional universe or not, I didn’t want to be arrested for some crime I had no knowledge of. What if this turned out to be novel of prison life? What if I were given a life sentence? Or even a death sentence?

Nervously I scanned the titles of the books. I knew I was postponing the inevitable, but I just didn’t know what else to do.

It was the usual sort of selection of paperbacks you would find on display in a drug store or bus station. A lot of books no one had ever heard of, mixed in with a few best sellers like No Time For Sergeants and A Stone for Danny Fisher, How To Win Friends and Influence People. One title caught my eye. Say It With a .38, By Horace P. Sternwall.

Say It With a .38.

Horace P. Sternwall.

And there, on the cover, which was a painting of a man with a pistol and a girl in a bikini, in smaller print, were the words:

“Big Ben Blagwell knew the blonde was trouble -- he knew it and he didn’t care!” 


I had nothing to lose. No, that was wrong, I had everything to lose. I turned and looked back toward the counter. The fat policeman -- or the sheriff, or whoever he was -- was walking toward me, slowly, with his right arm bent as if he were holding a pistol butt in a holster on his hip.

I turned back to the book.

“You like to read? I like to read books too.”

It was that tall skinny guy from the men’s room, standing right next to me.

“You ever read The Fountainhead, by that lady what’s her name? Sally Rand? That’s a motherfucker of a book, I’ll tell you what. I could tell you was no dummy, yes sir.”

I looked back over my left shoulder. The cop was getting closer now, still walking very slowly, and now I could see he definitely had his right hand on the butt of a pistol in a belt holster.

I opened up Say It With a .38 to the first page and began to read.


(Continued here, inexplicably.)

(Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page to find a quite possibly current listing of links to all other cybernetically-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode sponsored in part by Sandoz Laboratories™.)

2 comments:

Kathleen Maher said...

So far anyway, Jacob hasn't complained about his knee or back.

Dan Leo said...

An excellent point, Kathleen! Things could be worse...