Let’s catch up with our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friend “Josh” (occupation: son of God), in the hallway leading to the men’s room of a rather unusual subterranean bar in New York’s scenic Greenwich Village, on a sultry night in August of 1957…
(Kindly go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’ve finally gone quite mad then you may click here to go back to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 78-volume autobiography.)
“Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre may not be the greatest masterpiece in the history of literature — and after all, terms like ‘the greatest’ are utterly meaningless in the world of art — but it might very well be the longest masterpiece.” — Harold Bloom, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
As soon as we left the men’s room we could hear the noise of the band and the drunken people out in the bar, and this clamor grew progressively louder as we walked down the hallway and came to the turning into that short passage at the end of which churned the crowd of people between the bandstand and the end of the bar, the noise rolling over us in a warm wave of tobacco smoke and the smells of sweat and beer and whiskey.
“Well, I suppose a cold beer wouldn’t hurt, anyway,” said Josh, speaking almost in a shout because of all the noise. “You want to have one before we go back upstairs?”
I stopped. Josh still had his arm in mine, and he gave me a little tug.
“Hold on, Josh,” I said, or almost shouted.
“Come on,” he shouted back. “I’m buying. And if I were you I’d try one of these fine malt whiskies if they have them —”
He gave my arm another tug, but I put my free hand on his tugging arm, and gently but firmly disengaged it.
“Josh,” I said, leaning closer to him so that I wouldn’t have to shout, but speaking as firmly as I could. “You just threw up.”
“Yes?” he said.
He was still chewing his gum, and he still looked pretty bad. His straw Trilby hat was all crooked on his head, and not on purpose. His sweat-darkened hair still lay stuck in sickly-looking strands on his forehead which now seemed to have not only the color but also the texture of a week-old peeled hard-boiled egg. I instinctively wanted to push those greasy-looking locks back the way one might with a messy small child, but of course I did no such thing.
I did however speak up.
“Listen, Josh,” I said. “I know you’re not very used to all this.”
“Drinking in bars? I’m learning the ropes, I think.”
“Maybe so, but I have to tell you. Throwing up is a sign that you’ve already had way too much to drink. The last thing you want to do is start drinking again.”
“But just one beer?”
“I think you’ll regret it,” I said. “It might make you temporarily feel better, but it will only make the hangover worse.”
“I could really go for a cold beer though,” he said. “I’ve discovered I really like beer. Also fine malt whiskies. Do you like them?”
“I normally drink cheap whiskies,” I said.
“You really should try these fine malt whiskies,” said Josh. he had a very sincere-looking expression on his pale, damp face.
And then it hit me.
“Wait,” I said.
“For what?” he said.
“You’re the son of God,” I said.
“Well, yes —” he said, as if he were going to add a qualifying statement of some sort, but all he did was glance away, toward the dirty old bricks in the wall.
“So,” I said, “I would just think that, being in your position, you don’t really have to have a hangover if you don’t want one. In fact you can probably make yourself feel better right now just by willing it to be, like, so.”
“Well, you know, what you say is true, Arnold,” he said. “I suppose I could do that.” He took the gum out of his mouth again, with his thumb and index finger. “This gum has totally lost its flavor,” he said. “Now it’s getting kind of annoying.”
Like a lot of things in life, I thought. They start out okay, but then suddenly they’re not so okay, and then finally they’re downright annoying.
“That’s a depressing thought,” said Josh, putting the gum back in his mouth, and I remembered that he could hear my thoughts.
“Well, look,” I said, “if I were you I’d just, you know, make myself feel better. There’s nothing worse than being pitifully drunk, except being pitifully hungover, which is inevitable once you’re reached the pitiful drunk stage.”
“But here’s the thing, Arnold,” he said. He was still chewing the gum, but very slowly now, chewing for the sake of chewing. “I told you,” he said. “I want to be a man.”
“Even if it means getting hungover?” I said.
“Well, yes,” he said.
You might think differently tomorrow, I thought.
“Arnold,” he said. “Again, I heard that.”
“Okay,” I said. “Now listen, Josh, I’m going to say something, and if it’s disrespectful I’m sorry, and I will perform a suitable penance.”
“Forget about a penance. Believe me, Arnold, the idea of doing penance is nothing but an absurd human invention. Even my father thinks so. And don’t even mention it to the Holy Ghost, he’ll laugh in your face.”
“Okay, well, here’s the thing, Josh. If you really want to be human I think you’re going to have to stop listening to people’s thoughts.”
“Oh,” he said.
“You see what I mean, right?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I do. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Well, you have been drinking quite a bit, or so I gather.”
“Yes, that’s true. But still, I should have remembered. I won’t do it anymore,” he said.
“You don’t have to not do it on my account,” I said.
“Oh, no, of course not,” he said. He reached into his jacket pocket and took out his cigarette case again. He clicked it open, it was still empty. For a moment I wondered if he was going to perform a miracle and make the case become full of cigarettes again, but he clicked it shut and put it back into his pocket. “No,” he said, with a small smile. “You’re right. If I’m going to be an ordinary mortal then I really should restrict my powers to those a normal human being might have.”
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “I was only saying.”
Now I felt a little guilty about even bringing it up. Who was I to tell the son of God what to do?
“You shouldn’t have that attitude,” said Josh. “I value your opinion, Arnold.”
“Josh,” I said, “no offense, but you’re doing it again.”
“Listening to my thoughts.”
“Damn!” he said. “Okay, look, from here on out, that’s it, no more mind-reading.”
“You’re sure?” I said.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Besides, do you know how annoying it can be, hearing everyone’s thoughts?”
I thought about this for a moment.
To hear everyone’s thoughts, everyone on the planet, in ten thousand different languages and dialects, simultaneously — this would seem to me, who found it tedious enough listening just to one or two or maybe three voices in my head at a time — this would definitely seem to me to be a recipe for madness and a definition of a sort of hell.
“It’s not quite that bad,” said Josh. “You just sort of learn to filter stuff out, y’know? But, yes, it can be maddening if you let it become maddening. All these voices, all these millions of separate personalities, all of them usually wanting something. Primarily food, but other times water, or sex, or warmth, or coolness, or for the cessation of some pain or agony, be it physical or spiritual — all these millions of people, each of them the center of their own private universe, yes, it can be maddening if you let it become so, especially since so many of their thoughts are direct supplications to me — or to my father or to the Holy Ghost, which all amount to the same thing anyway — all these people wanting something from me, as if even I have it in my power to grant them what they really want when you get right down to it, which is happiness. And even though they never get it, they keep asking for it anyway. Happiness. Oh, and eternal life, don’t forget that, they’re all really big on this eternal life thing. So, yes, it can get a little tedious, but, as I say, I’ve gotten used to it.”
Tedious, I thought, but not as tedious as the lives all these millions of human beings were condemned to live.
“Ouch,” said Josh, “I heard that one.”
Okay, I thought, see? You’re doing it again.
“Doing what?” he said.
You’re listening to my unspoken thoughts, I thought, you’re doing it again, right now.
“What? Oh, shit,” he said.
Sorry, I thought.
“Damn!” he said, again. “No, don’t be sorry. Okay, look, from now on I’m really going to stop it.”
“Only if you want to,” I said, aloud.
“Why else would I do it except if I want to?” he said.
“Well, I didn’t want you to think you should stop doing it on my account,” I said, realizing the absurdity of what I was saying as soon as I said it.
“It’s not that absurd, Arnold,” said Josh. And then, “Shit, I did it again, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I’m really, really going to stop it now,” he said. “But if I slip, let me know.”
Okay, I thought, wondering if he heard me think this.
“Well, I did in fact hear that,” he said. “But now I’m quite serious. From this point on, Arnold, it’s the new me. Just plain old ordinary Josh, just another guy, and not the son of God. I herewith abjure and abdicate and renounce and give up now and forever all divine and supernal powers.”
And, smiling, he made a sign of the cross.
“Oh, wait,” I said.
“Wait for what?”
“Abjuring your divine powers and all,” I said.
“Because I just remembered my whole purpose in coming back to this universe.”
“And why was that?”
“To find you, Josh.”
“I’m flattered, old buddy.” He gave me a little punch on the arm. “Did you just want to hang out?”
“No,” I said. “It’s embarrassing really.”
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed in front of me. Please, just think of me as your friend Josh, and not the son of God.”
“I feel ashamed,” I said.
“Did you kill someone?”
“Did you deliberately hurt anyone?”
“Then knock off this shame nonsense.”
“Okay,” I said. “The truth is I willed myself back into this fictional universe to find you again so that you could use your divine powers to help me.”
“Oh,” he said.
“So, you see, I’m no better than all those millions of other people, all of them trying to get something from you.”
“Well, I suppose I could make one last exception just for you, Arnold.”
“No,” I said. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Since when have I ever been fair.”
“Well, I think you were pretty fair the last time you walked the earth. You know, with the Apostles and all.”
“I did try,” he said.
“I’m sure you did,” I said. “And, look, lots of people still follow your, uh, teachings.”
“That’s true,” he said. “But they’re really no better than the teachings of any other religion out there.”
“You shouldn’t be so modest,” I said.
“Well, anyway, what was it you wanted?”
“I threw my back out trying to open a window, and I was in agonizing pain. I wanted to ask you to make the pain stop.”
“That’s all it was?”
“Yeah, that was all,” I said.
“I thought it was going to be something really important.”
“It seemed important to me at the time,” I said.
“Really agonizing pain, huh?”
“Excruciating,” I said. And then I remembered reading that the word excruciating came from the same Latin root as crucifixion. Which Josh had suffered on his last sojourn on the earth.
“Yes,” he said, “that was excruciating. Quite literally.”
I really feel like a fool now, I thought.
Don’t, he thought back at me. You’re only human, Arnold.
Yes, I thought.
And I’m doing it again, he thought.
What? I thought.
Reading your thoughts. When I said I wasn’t going to do it any more.
I shrugged, not visibly, but mentally.
“Look, I’ll take care of your back for you, Arnold,” he said, aloud this time.
“No,” I said, “really —”
“Forget it,” he said. “It won’t be the first miracle I’ve performed, nor anywhere near the greatest. But first I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Me?” I said.
“You, Arnie. And that favor is — but I don’t want you to feel obliged to do it in any way — but I’m just asking —”
I guess I looked reluctant. And I was. I was afraid.
“Okay, look,” I said. “Whatever it is, if you really want me to do it, okay, but I hope it’s nothing too complicated, because I’m not sure if I’ll be able to, to —”
“Arnold,” said Josh. “I just want you to have a beer with me. That’s all I want. Just to have a beer together.”
“That’s all?” I said.
“A cold beer,” he said. “Or maybe a fine malt whiskey.”
“And a little chat,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “A chat.”
“Yes, just a brief chat. I mean if you don’t mind.”
“No,” I said.
“In fact we’ll have to keep it brief, because we don’t want to keep the girls waiting.”
“Carlotta. And Pat,” he said. “They’re in the bar upstairs, waiting. Or at least I hope they’re still waiting.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Great,” he said. He smiled and gave my arm another little punch. “Don’t you want to know what I want to chat about?”
“Um, yeah, I guess,” I said.
Maybe he was going to tell me whether I was insane or not, or whether it was just the universe that was insane.
“Well, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” he said, reading my mind, I guess it really wasn’t that easy for him to turn his divine powers off.
Then what? I thought.
Before answering he took that little grey wad of gum out of his mouth again, one last time, and he turned and stuck it into the space between two bricks in the wall, pressing it in with his thumb.
Then he turned and looked at me. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Women,” he said. “I want to talk about women.”
(Continued here, because we’re obviously just getting started.)
(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page for a rigorously updated listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Now also available in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s lone voice crying in the wilderness.”)