Our hero Arnold Schnabel has traveled into the world of a now-sadly-obscure novel called Ye Cannot Quench (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961) by the once mildly popular author Gertrude Evans, and from there he has fallen into the world of an even more obscure novel -- Two Weeks in a One Horse Town (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957) by the utterly forgotten Theophilus P. Thurgood, in which world he has picked up a copy of the estimable Horace P. Sternwall’s Say it With a .38 (Gold Medal, 1955), turned to the first page, and begun to read…
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“What do I have on my Kindle? Just Arnold Schnabel, that’s all, just Arnold Schnabel. A new chapter comes out -- boom, I download it, read it and reread it, and then go back to reading the old stuff while I’m waiting for the next episode to come out. I’m nuts.” -- Harold Bloom, on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
(Continued here, in this world or some other world.)
“Two little ladies,” I said, “and three little crabs. Normally I like my ladies without those little critters, but these I’ll take, and I thank you, gentlemen, I was getting a little worried there.”
And I was reaching both hands forward to scoop up that beautiful pile of green when the Chinaman said, “Not so fast, Bragwell.”
“Blagwell,” I said.
“That’s what I said,” he said. “Bragwell.”
And very slowly he fanned his cards out on the table.
A couple of cowboys, and then one – two – make that three – three little bullets.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Damn,” I said, and I watched him as he gathered all that wonderful cabbage into a nice little pile right in front of him.
“Whose deal?” said the Turk.
“It’s mines,” said the little Mick.
“New deck,” said the the Limey, the one everyone called “the Jew”.
“Count me out,” I said, and I sighed, and stubbed out my Sweet Caporal. You can’t win them all, but let’s face it, it’s always tough to blow your entire pay in a half-hour after an eight-week voyage from New York to Singapore in an oil tanker in the height of summer.
“So soon, Mista Bragwell?” said the Chinaman, as I stood up.
“Yeah,” I said. “So soon.”
I had six bucks and change left on me. Getting laid was probably out of the question, but I still wanted to get drunk that night.
“I give you five bucks for you listwatch,” said the Chinaman. “You play anotha hand. Maybe you win.”
I looked at the watch on my “list”, my navy-issue Hamilton that I’d worn from Guadalcanal to Tarawa to Saipan to Peleliu to Iwo to Okinawa to Tokyo Bay, through two sinkings and half-a-dozen beach assaults and more kamikaze and submarine attacks than I cared to remember; I had come to look on that scuffed and battered timepiece as a sort of good-luck charm. But on the other hand five bucks was not a bad price for a second-hand service watch, so I was just about to unbuckle the damn thing, take the Chinaman’s fin, and sit down for another hand when someone tapped me on my shoulder.
“Excuse me, Ben?”
I turned and looked at the guy. He was a rough-looking bird with a broken nose, in a wrinkled tan suit and with a brown fedora on his head; he stood a few inches shorter than me, but not quite as shorter than me as most guys stand; he looked pretty well-built, not as well-built as me by a long shot, but then again also not too many guys are.
I knew I knew him from somewhere but I just couldn’t place him.
“It’s me,” he said. “Arnold. Arnold Schnabel.”
“Arnold Schnabel,” he said. “’Arnie’.”
Sure, I knew an "Arnold Schnabel", great guy, even if he was a little strange, but this wasn’t him. The Arnie Schnabel I knew back in the day looked completely different from this character. And he didn’t have a broken nose back then either.
“You can’t be Arnie Schnabel,” I said. “You look nothing like the Arnie Schnabel I know.”
“Okay,” said the guy. “Remember Cape May?”
“Cape May,” I said.
“Cape May, New Jersey. Remember that strange little shop with that old man named Mr. Arbuthnot, and that other old guy named Mr. Jones?”
“Mr. Jones,” I said.
“Yeah, Mr. Jones, the one who was dead?”
“Yeah, but then he came back to life?”
“Mr. Jones,” I said, again.
“Remember the fly?”
“The fly,” I said.
“Ferdinand,” said the guy. “The fly.”
“Holy s**t,” I said. “But you don’t look like Arnie.”
“I know I don’t,” said the guy, “but I’m Arnold. Or ‘Arnie’. Arnold Schnabel. I can explain.”
“Well, hell, Arnie,” I said, and what the hell I figured, maybe he had had plastic surgery or something, gotten contact lenses too, because this guy had brown eyes and I seemed to remember my old pal Arnie as having blue eyes, but after all, this wouldn’t be the first time someone had found it necessary to change their appearance to get out of a jam of some kind, “good to see you again, pal.”
And we shook hands, his rough big hand in my rougher and bigger hand.
“Hey, Blagwell,” said the Mick, “are ya feckin’ in or out, man?”
“Hold on a second, Mick.”
I released “Arnie”’s hand, and unlike your average guy he didn’t start waving it around in agony. He had a pretty manly grip himself.
“Hey, Arnie, I was just gonna sell my watch to my little slant-eyed friend here and have another go-round with the devil’s picture book. You wanta sit in, or –?”
“Ben, I wonder if we could talk,” said this guy who said he was my old pal Arnie.
“Sure, we can talk,” I said. “Let’s just play a hand or two while we’re catching up. Ya see, I kinda blew my roll, and –”
“In or out?” said the Mick.
The Limey Jew muttered something in Yiddish, a lingo I know pretty well from growing up on the streets of the Lower East Side, but the only word I could make out was Schmuck.
“Hey, now, wait a minute, pal,” I said.
“I give you five bucks for you navy watch,” said the Chinaman. “Good plice.”
The Turk said something in Turkish, another lingo I speak pretty good on account of a six-month jolt I did in the Istanbul pen one time for wrecking a belly-dance emporium one night when I had a drop too much partaken, but this guy talked with some weird accent or dialect, so I didn’t quite catch what he was saying.
“What was that, Turhan Bey?” I said. (That wasn’t really his name, I just called him that.)
“I said it is time to bugger the sheep or step aside for another shepherd-boy.”
“Hey, now hold on just a damn second,” I said.
“Ben,” said the guy who said he was Arnie, “I wonder if we could talk in private for a bit, and maybe play cards later.”
I looked at the table, and at that lovely big pile of moolah which included a couple of months of my life in a stinking sweltering hellhole of an engine room.
“I give you five bucks for you listwatch,” said the Chinaman. “You put money on wood, make betting good.”
I looked again at my old watch. On second thoughts it did seem a shame to let it go for a lousy half-a-sawbuck after all we’d been through together.
“Feckin’ in or feckin’ out, Ben,” said the Mick.
“I’m out,” I said, and I patted Arnie on the shoulder. “Let’s get a drink, pal,” I said.
We went over to the bar, which was crowded with seamen anxious to blow their pay and little broads in silk dresses helping them to blow it, but we found a couple of empty stools near the bandstand.
Benny the little Flip barman came right over.
“Usual, Mista Blagwell?”
“The usual, Benny,” I said, “and whatever my father here is drinking.”
“What are you drinking, Ben?” Arnie asked me.
“You don’t remember my usual, Arnie?”
“No, I‘m afraid not.”
“Planter’s Punch, with a float of ‘151’.”
“I’ll just have a beer,” he said.
Normally in this kind of situation I’d twist the guy’s arm until he at least had a shot of rum with his beer, but considering the emaciated state of my wallet at the moment, I let it ride.
“Give my father one of your coldest bottles of Tiger Beer then, Benny,” I said, “but I’ll still take my usual.”
Benny went away and I took my pack of Caporals out of my Hawaiian-shirt pocket.
“No, thanks, Ben, I’m trying to quit I think.”
“Suit yourself, old buddy.”
I stuck a coffin nail into my mug and started patting my pockets. Don’t ask me why it is, but for someone who burns through three packs a day I sure have trouble keeping matches on me, and I had lost or hocked more lighters than I could count.
Arnie saw me patting my pockets and took a book of matches out of his suit-jacket pocket. He ripped one off, struck it, gave me a light. I noticed his knuckles were scarred, and a little bent out of shape, like a boxer’s, or like somebody who’s had a drawer slammed shut on his mitts because he was late on a shylock payment.
“Keep them,” he said, and he handed me the matches.
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“Hollywood?” I said. And I held the matchbook cover up so he could see it. “That where you’re coming from?”
“Well,” he said, “that’s what I want to talk to you about, Ben. “Where I’m coming from.”
I dropped the matchbook into my Hawaiian-shirt pocket. Who knew, maybe I wouldn’t lose them before I fired up my next cancer stick.
Arnie was looking at me. Looking worried.
“You seem worried, pal,” I said.
“I am, a little,” he said.
Now, come to think of it, old Arnie always had struck me as a worried kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong, he was a good guy, a hundred percent regular all the way, but he was a worrier if you know what I mean. Always kind of had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I knew he had had a breakdown of some sort some time in his past, and that he’d even done a stretch in the looney bin, but even though he seemed not too crazy by the time I first got to know him, still, nevertheless, and how can I put this gently, let’s just say he wasn’t what you would call a good-time Charlie; not a bring-down, you understand, and he had a really good kind of dry sense of humor, but, what can I say, he tended to carry around his own one-man dark cloud if you know what I mean.
Me on the other hand, nothing much bothers me, long as I got a Sweet Caporal in one hand and a Planter’s Punch with a float of “151” in the other hand and a little babe who don’t speak too much English sitting on my lap, I got no beef with the world. But that’s just me.
Speaking of me, maybe I should introduce myself. Blagwell’s my name, Ben Blagwell. “Big Ben” Blagwell they call me, on account of my size, and you might say I’m an adventuring seafaring man, a brawling, blustering, no-holds-barred –
“So, Ben,” said Arnie, “I know this seems odd.”
“What?” I said.
I had gone off on my own little mental trip, I do that sometimes, I admit, maybe a few too many roundhouses to the jaw, a few too many concussions from Jap torpedoes and –
“Me just showing up out of the blue,” said Arnie. “And looking like someone else.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “Ah, great, here’s our drinks. Hey, Benny, didja have to go all the way to Jamaica for that rum?”
“You funny man,” said Benny.
He put that big beaded red-and-orange explosion of deliciousness and ecstasy in front of me, with its little multi-colored paper umbrella and its cherry-and-lime slice and its straw, and he slid a bottle of Tiger Beer in front of Arnie.
“You want grass?” said Benny, to Arnie.
“Grass?” said Arnie. “You mean, to smoke?”
“Ha ha,” I said. “Same old Arnie. He don’t mean grass, Arnie. He means glass.”
“Oh,” said Arnie, “no thank you,” he said to Benny. Arnie always was a polite son of a bitch. “I’ll just drink it out of the bottle,” he said, “thank you.”
(Which, believe me, was the safer choice in this joint, and if they served a Planter’s Punches with a float of “151” straight out of a bottle that’s the way I would drink them too. Many’s the time I’ve drained a Planter’s in that joint and found something dead in the bottom of the glass, sometimes something that wasn’t even dead.)
“Two dollar,” said Benny.
“Two bucks?” I said. “Christ, at this rate I’ll never get drunk.”
I started to reach into my dungarees, but Arnie put his hand on my arm.
“That’s okay, Ben,” he said, “let me get it.”
He took out his wallet and opened it up. I couldn’t help but notice he only had what looked like six singles in it. So he was in the same boat as me, pecuniarily-speaking. He took out three of those clams and laid them on the bar.
“Keep the change,” he said.
This was the Arnie I remembered. Down to his last six simoleons, but still ready to cough up for a round and to leave a very generous tip to boot.
“Thanks, mista,” said Benny, and he took his ill-gotten gains and went off to slip some idiot a Mickey Finn.
“So,” I said, lifting my glass, “to old times, pal.”
“Yeah, sure, Ben,” said Arnie.
Arnie took a little drink of his Tiger Beer while I went to work on the Planter’s, pulling out the little umbrella and the cherry-and-lime slice with the little plastic arrow stuck through them, and sucking that liquid joy-juice through the straw until the glass was two-thirds empty.
“Damn, I needed that,” I said. “Here’s my plan, Arnie. I got six bucks and change left, and I couldn’t help but noticing you still got four bills in your poke there, so here’s what I say we do. You front me that four bucks and I take my six and get back in that game and try to parlay that sawbuck into a couple or three C-notes, and you and me split the take, even-Steven. Then we pick out about four of the juiciest little oriental babes in this clip joint, and --”
“Ben,” said Arnie. “Can we talk?”
“We are talking, pal.”
“There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Besides poker you mean. And getting laid.”
“Yeah,” said Arnie.
Now he looked really serious, and I could tell, my old pal was in trouble. He was in trouble and he needed help. Well, the type guy I am, I don’t let any pal down when he’s in trouble, that’s just me.
“You’re in trouble, aren’t you, Arnie?”
“Yes, Ben, I think you could say that.”
“Tell me about it. We can talk about gambling and broads later. Now what’s your problem, pal? You know me. Anything I can do, I’ll do.”
“It’s a pretty fantastic story,” he said.
“I am all ears, my friend.”
And so he began to tell me, something about him hurting his back and winding up in some bar in Greenwich Village and some broad chasing him into some bookshop, something about some books, to tell the truth it was hard to pay attention because the canary they had singing in that place had stepped up to the mike again and was singing soft and low with the little band they had there. Maxine her name was, Maxine Parraquette, what a babe…
“So, that’s my story, Ben,” said Arnie. “I’m trapped here, and I need to find a way to get back. Ben?”
I was still looking at Maxine, she really had the whole package. Maybe not the greatest singer in the world, let’s face it, if she was really good she wouldn’t be --
“So I was wondering if maybe you could help me,” said Arnie.
“Sure I’ll help you, Arnie. Just what is it you want to do exactly?”
“Well, I want to get back.”
“Oh, right, you just said that.”
“Yeah,” he said. And if it wasn’t Arnie talking I might’ve thought he was just a little bit annoyed, but this was Arnie, nicest guy you’d ever want to meet.
He took a drink from his bottle of Tiger.
“So, Arnie,” I said, “where you want to get back to?”
He put down the bottle, and looked at me as if he hadn’t quite heard what I had just said.
“Pardon me, Ben?”
“I said where you want to get back to?”
He paused before he spoke.
“Haven’t you even been listening?”
“Sure I’ve been listening, Arnie. But, like, I just want to know where it is you, you know, you want to get back to –”
“I want to get back to my world, Ben.”
“Like – where was it, Cape Hatteras?”
“Cape May,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “That’s what I meant to say. So you want to go back to Cape Hatteras, I mean Cape May?”
“Yeah,” he said, and he sighed, I guess he really was worried. “It would be nice to get back to Cape May.”
“Singapore to Cape May, that’s a long haul,” I said.
“We’re in Singapore?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Where the hell did you think we were? Poughkeepsie?”
“Singapore,” he said, again, in a low kind of voice, as if the word meant World of S**t, or the Black Hole of Calcutta maybe.
And he slumped forward a bit on his barstool, staring at his beer bottle.
“Hey, cheer up, pal,” I said. “This ain’t such a bad burg.”
I put my arm around his waist and gave him a little hug – you know, nothing queer, just a manly-type hug – and as I did I felt the pistol he had there under his suit jacket.
“Hey, pal,” I said, leaning a little closer to him and speaking in a lower voice than my customary hearty bellow. “What’s with the hardware?”
“Oh, that,” he said. “It’s a Luger.”
“A Luger?” I said. “Damn, you are in trouble, aren’t you, Arnie?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Ben.”
“You just leave it to me, pal. Trouble is my middle name.”
He turned his head and looked at me, but I couldn’t help but look past him, over to the stage, at that canary, Maxine, who was looking through the swirling clouds of smoke right at me as she sang.
“I cover the waterfront,” she was singing. “I’m watching the sea. Will the one I love be coming back to me?”
And she was staring right at me while she sang.
(Continued here, in this world or some other world.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page for an up-to-the-minute listing of links to all other “street-legal” chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode brought to you in part by Tiger Beer© -- “The Liquid Breakfast of Champions!”)