In a dubious bar near the docks in the exotic port of Singapore our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend “Big” Ben Blagwell have been approached by the lovely and exotic chanteuse Maxine Parraquette…
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“Beyond modernism and post-modernism there is only Arnold Schnabel. You should know that, Carson.” -- Harold Bloom, on Last Call With Carson Daly.
She clicked the purse open, but she did it in a funny kind of way, keeping it sideways on the bar and just opening it a little bit, just enough for her to slip her lighter into it. She clicked the purse shut and then the hand that had held the lighter slid across the bar top toward my right hand, which was just lying there holding my Sweet Caporal and minding its own business.
Her red-nailed fingers touched my hand. (Did I mention her fingernails were red? Well, they were, blood-red, the color of blood when it first oozes or bursts or sprays out of punctured or lacerated flesh. Maybe not exactly the same color, but pretty damned close.)
So, I thought, this one’s in the bag, at least as long as she wasn’t charging more than six bucks and some loose change, anyway, and if it came to that I could always try to toss in my old Hamilton navy watch; but then she did a strange thing, or rather her hand did a strange thing: it sort of burrowed under my own enormous meat-hook (I’m not bragging, just stating a fact of public record, but I have huge hands, roughly the size and shape of a big little-leaguer’s infielder’s glove), just like a little animal, but before I could give it one of those reassuring manly squeezes the little critter slid right out again and back to the purse, which it picked up, just as the babe the hand belonged to said:
“Catch you on the flip-fop, fellas. I got to go powder my schnoz.”
And off she went before we could say a word, through the crowd and the smoke, and every man-jack at that bar suddenly got quiet and turned to watch as she passed by, and some of the dames, too, I guess they were lesbians.
“Damn,” I said, “that is one hell of a woman. Hey. What’s this?”
“What’s what?” Arnie said.
I had lifted up my hand to take a drag of my cigarette, the hand that her hand had just burrowed under. There were two pills sitting there on the bar top. Two big pink pills.
Two very big pink pills.
“Hey, that was nice of Maxine,” I said. “One for both of us.”
I picked one up.
“Go ahead, Arnie,” I said. “The other one’s for you.”
“What are they?” he said.
“Hell, I don’t know,” I said right back. “Pills. Pink pills.”
I held my pill up, giving it the old eyeball, turning it around from one side to the other.
“Really big pink pills,” I said.
“Oh, my God,” said Arnie.
“What?” I said. “What’s the matter, pal?”
“I just remembered,” he said. “A couple of hours ago I took an LSD pill. At least I think it was a couple of hours ago. It might’ve been less, actually, although it feels like, I don’t know, six months --”
“LSD, huh? I was reading about that stuff in some magazine, Man’s Adventure I think it was, or maybe it was Man’s Life. Who gave it to ya, one of these beatnik orgy babes?”
“No,” he said. “It was an old man. Mr. Jones.”
“Wait,” I said, “not Mr. Jones! Little old guy, the one who was dead and you brought him back to life? Mr. Jones?”
“Yes,” he said. "Mr. Jones."
“He gave you LSD?”
“Yes,” said Arnie. “You see, I hurt my leg, when we were in the, uh, next world --”
He sighed again.
“The next world,” he said. “The afterworld.”
He seemed a little upset. And I don’t know, a little bored maybe.
“Now excuse me if I’m asking too many questions,” I said, “but is this afterworld you’re talking about different from these, uh, fictional worlds you were talking about?”
Again he sighed. He was sighing a lot.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s a different world.”
“A non-fictional world?”
“You could say that,” he said.
“And you took LSD while you were there? That doesn’t sound like the Arnie I know. Not that I’m saying the Arnie I know is a wet blanket or nothing, but it’s just I don’t see him as the LSD-taking type.”
“He’s not,” he said. “Or rather I’m not. But I hurt my leg when I was there, or rather I aggravated an existing injury, but, anyway, I was in great pain, and Mr. Jones offered me this pill. I thought it was an aspirin or something --”
“Arnie, Arnie, Arnie,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
“What am I gonna do with you?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“So how is it, anyway?”
“How is what?”
“This LSD stuff. Pretty good?”
He paused before answering. Or at least I think he was pausing, trying to organize his thoughts, trying to think of the right words to answer my question, if there were any, but then again, maybe he had no answer, or just didn’t want to answer, or maybe his brain was so scrambled by the drug that he couldn’t answer. At any rate after a minute I got tired of waiting and pushed the one pink pill closer to him.
“Well, look, here,” I said, “take your pink pill. I’m sure it’ll make you feel better.”
He looked at me like I was the one with a history of mental illness.
“Just wash it down with your Tiger Beer,” I said.
“Ben,” said Arnie.
And then he didn’t say anything.
He just kept looking at me.
I knew that look.
It was the same look I used to get from old Reverend Wilson at the God Is Your Pal Mission over on the Bowery near Bleecker, when the bulls brought me over again for stealing apples or for scrapping with the other guttersnipes or for stealing the church candlesticks that one time over at St. Augustine’s. The Reverend knew it wasn’t my fault that my mom was a drunken whore and my dad was an even more drunken seaman who had fallen off a tramp steamer and drowned in the Bay of Bengal when I was only five. He knew it wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t stop him from getting the cops to hold me down while he whacked my ass raw with the rubber sole of an old Wellington boot. Hell, I didn’t mind, it beat getting sent to reform school again…
“What is it, Arnie?” I said. “You can level with me, pal.”
I lifted my drink and sucked on the straw. I’d been so busy chinwagging that I had been forgetting to drink.
“Okay, Ben,” said Arnie, after what must have been his seventy-ninth sigh in the past ten minutes, “first off, you don’t know what those pills are.”
I just kept sucking slowly on the straw. I didn’t want to interrupt my old pal, and to be honest I didn’t want to interrupt my drinking either, now that I was finally approaching the halfway point of tying a decent load on.
“Second of all, who knows what kind of germs are on them.”
I stopped sipping right there.
“Look, Arnie,” I said. “My hands are clean. I took a piss not a half hour ago, and I washed ‘em afterwards. They were out of soap but I rinsed them pretty good in the tepid water. I would have used hot water except they don’t have hot water in the men’s head here. But I rinsed them real good.”
“You don’t know what kind of germs those pills had on them before you touched them, Ben.”
“You’re saying Maxine has germs?”
“Everyone has germs, Ben. And besides, they were sitting on the bar top there.”
He had a point. They had been sitting on the mahogany bar top, which was sticky, and grimy, and kind of slimy, too.
I still held the one pill between my big thumb and my slightly less big index finger.
“It don’t look too dirty,” I said.
“Ben,” said Arnie, “would you eat off this bar top?”
“No,” I said, “of course not. What do I look like, a goddam coolie?”
“Then why would you swallow a pill you just picked up off the bar top.”
“But it’s just a pill,” I said. “I mean, kind of a big pill, sure, but how many germs can it have?”
“I don’t know, Ben,” said Arnie. “A million? Ten million?”
“Maybe more,” he said.
“S**t,” I said.
I put the pill on the bar, then I reached over to where I had pushed the other pill, picked it up, and put it right next to the first pill.
I took another good suck on the straw and finished my Planter’s. This time I didn’t get a dead fly stuck in the other end of the straw. Maybe the joint was running low on dead flies.
“Hey, Benny!” I yelled.
“Why you yell. I right in front of you,” said Benny.
Which he was, it was true, I just hadn’t noticed.
“Sorry, Benny,” I said, in a more normal voice, although I’ve been told more than once, more than a thousand times probably, that my normal speaking voice is somewhere between a bellow and a lusty shout, “listen, pal --”
“I know, I know, Planter’s Punch with float of '151', you like a broken record.”
For some reason Benny’s accent was getting stronger and his English was getting more broken, maybe he was hitting the juice back there, God knows I would if I had his job.
“No, listen, Benny,” I said. “I will take a Planter’s with a float of '151', plus another Tiger Beer for my father here, but first gimme two good shots of straight '151'.”
“Ben,” said Arnie.
“No, it’s okay, Arnie, I’m buyin’ this time. Two shots, Benny, '151', straight from the bottle. You don’t have to chill them, but do me a favor, put ‘em in rocks glasses.”
“You want lox?”
“Lox? Why would I want lox?”
“He means rocks, Ben,” said Arnie. “Ice.”
“Yeah,” said Benny. “Lox.”
“No,” I said, “no lox, I mean rocks. Just a good shot but in a rocks glass.”
“You hope I give you more if it in lox glass.”
“Benny, please,” I said. “Just a shot in a lox glass. I mean rocks glass. Two shots, in two separate lox glasses. See, you got me saying it now.”
Right then I couldn’t help but notice that Arnie lowered his face and put it in his hands.
“Hurry, Benny,” I said.
Benny stood there for half a minute, he didn’t like anybody telling him to hurry, then he went and got two rocks glasses and a bottle of '151', put the glasses down and poured out two shots. I wouldn’t say they were really good shots, but they were decent shots.
“Thanks, Benny,” I said.
“One dolla,” he said.
“Look,” I said, “mix me another of my usuals, bring me father another cold Tiger Beer, and I’ll pay you for the whole round then.”
He stood and stared at me.
“Please,” I said.
After only a fifteen-second pause he went away, presumably to make my drink and get Arnie’s beer.
Arnie still had his face in his hands.
“Arnie,” I said. “Pal.”
He lifted his face away from his hands and looked at me.
“What, Ben,” he said.
“Look, pal,” I said, and I picked up the two pink pills, one in each hand. “Watch,” I said.
I dropped one pill into each glass of '151'.
Arnie looked at the glasses and then looked at me.
“See, pal?” I said. “Hundred and fifty-one proof rum. Any germs that were on those pills are dead as doornails now. So now is it okay if we swallow ‘em?”
Arnie didn’t say anything. He just looked at me.
“We can just toss ‘em down with the shots, Arnie,” I said. “Whaddya say, pal?”
Arnie turned away, but this time he didn’t put his face in both his hands. He just kind of lowered his face over one hand, so his hand was over just the lower part of his face. His shoulders shook a little, like he was laughing. Or crying.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Mr. Blagwell. Big Ben Blagwell.”
It was a high-pitched voice with a funny accent, kind of Oriental, but kind of British too, with maybe a sort of Hungarian inflection. But the thing is there wasn’t anybody right there except me and Arnie. I looked to my left but the guy sitting there was turned the other way, chatting with one of the B-girls.
“Big Ben himself,” said the voice. “Tell me, Ben, do moths still come flying out of your wallet on those very rare occasions when you open it?”
I turned back to Arnie. He was still sitting there, kind of hunched forward, with his hand over his face, and his shoulders shaking a little.
I was getting it now. Arnie had finally gotten the poker out of his ass and was joining the party and having a little fun.
“Arnie,” I said, “how’d you learn to throw your voice like that? That’s pretty good, I gotta say. You could probably make money as a ventriloquist if you could learn to do it without your hand over your yap like that.”
Arnie turned to me, taking his hand away. His eyes were moist, I figured from laughing to himself like that.
“What?” he said. “What are you talking about now?”
Then I felt a tug on my Hawaiian-shirt tail. (Did I mention I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt? Well, that’s just me, if I’m not onboard a ship, I’m usually wearing a Hawaiian shirt, if I’m wearing a shirt.)
“Ben, down here you big ape.”
I looked down. Talk about a bad penny always turning up. It was Mojo. Mojo the Midget they called him. He claimed he was just short, but that’s what everyone called him. Mojo the Midget.
“Lift me up, Ben. I have a proposition for you.”
I held my arm down, he grasped it in both of his arms, and I hefted him up and onto my lap. Nothing queer about it, you understand, it’s just the guy is so small that’s the only way you can have a conversation with him when you’re sitting on a barstool.
(Continued here, and at this rate for at least twenty-five more years, God willing.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand side of this page for what is very often an up-to-date listing of links to all other authorized chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil obstat, The Most Reverend John J. “The Big Man” Graham, D.D.)