Let us return to the Little Caesar Room, where everything is in black-and-white and all is as silent and still as a wax museum, except that is for our narrator Arnold Schnabel, his friend Josh, and an unannounced newcomer known as “H.G.”…
(Please click here to gain access to our preceding chapter; newcomers (or old hands looking for a brush-up) may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 72-volume memoir.)
“It is now obvious that the one truly epic work of literature our country has produced is Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling chef-d'œuvre. No offense to Herman Melville, but Railroad Train to Heaven makes Moby-Dick look like a comic book.” — Harold Bloom, in Grit.
The holy ghost.
I had always wondered what he looked like in person.
“So, Arnie,” said Josh, in a more normal voice, “how about those beers, pal?”
“Oh, right, the beers,” I said.
I turned and walked, hobbling and weaving only slightly, the few feet to the beer taps. I was not too much the worse for wear after my unfortunate attempt at vaulting the bar. I had bruised my right elbow and my left forearm in the fall, but my head only ached mildly, and my bad knee was only a few degrees more painful than before. I was still holding the two empty beer mugs in one hand. I found the Rheingold tap and began to fill the mugs, holding both of them in one hand as I had seen a thousand bartenders do.
I heard a pop across the room. I looked up and I saw that the little man – I supposed I should think of him as “H.G.”, it seemed more comforting than “the holy ghost”, or, even the Holy Ghost, with capital letters beginning the adjective and the noun, yes, H.G. was better – I saw that he had successfully drawn the cork out of the brandy bottle with his pocketknife corkscrew. He stood the bottle on the table, then carefully unimpaled the cork and placed it on the table top. He folded up his corkscrew and put the knife away. Then he picked the cork up and held it under his nose, with a very serious expression on his face. Not that I had seen any other kind of expression on his face in the few minutes that I had been aware of his corporeal existence.
“Hey, Arnie,” said Josh. “You’re wasting beer, man.”
This was true, I was letting the beer foam up out of the mugs and down the drain where it couldn’t do anyone any good.
“Sorry,” I said.
I turned off the tap. Josh had lit another cigarette and put it in his lips. He came over behind me carrying in one hand two snifters upside down by their stems, a single snifter in his other hand. I felt his elbow in my side and he whispered rather loudly in my ear.
“Don’t worry, pal. He looks a little forbidding but he’s not so bad. A little old and cranky maybe, but who wouldn’t be after being one third of the Holy Trinity for an eternity but the only one that nobody prays to or worships.”
“I heard that,” the little man called from across the barroom.
“Oh, shit,” said Josh, in what he probably meant to be a low whisper, but which was still only slightly less loud than a normal speaking voice. “But, seriously, Arnie, no sweat, I can handle him.”
“I could hear that last bit too,” called the little guy. “I may be old but I’m not completely deaf you know. Not yet anyway I’m not.”
“Sorry, H.G.,” called Josh. “Just trying to put Arnold here at his ease.”
“Worst thing a human being can be is at his ease,” called H.G.
They were both almost yelling across the barroom, like two actors on opposite sides of a stage, carrying along a dialogue and making sure the people in the really cheap seats could hear them.
“That’s a little extreme, H.G.,” yelled Josh, and he gave me another little jab in the side with his elbow.
“Extreme?” yelled the little guy. “Extreme?”
“Yeah,” yelled Josh. “Everybody’s got to relax sometime.”
“Relax?” yelled the little guy. “Let me tell you something, pal. Right now at this very moment a nice American couple are on a safari in Africa. They’re relaxing, sitting around the campfire, smoking, drinking whiskey, feeling good, at ease — and any minute they’re going to be attacked by a ravenous tiger. Or a rhino. Or a rampaging elephant. Or a tribe of Mau-Maus, bent on torture, rape, and murder. That’s what relaxing will get you. That’s what being at ease will do for you. How about those snifters.”
“Right, the snifters,” said Josh. “Coming right up. Let’s go, Arnie.”
He gave me a wink and then led the way down to the end of the bar, and I followed him with the two mugs of beer.
Josh lifted up the hinged wooden flap at the end of the bar, using the hand that held only one snifter. He went through and I went after him, and the both of us walked (or in my case, limped) across that grey frozen barroom and over to the booth where H.G. sat.
H.G. had hung his cane on a hook on a post that stood between the back of his seat and the adjoining booth, but he’d kept his derby on. (I’m anticipating here, which I rarely do, but just in case I forget to mention it in the future, I’ll mention now that much later Josh told me that H.G. was sensitive about his baldness and so he rarely removed his derby. Now that I have mentioned it, I wonder why I bothered. Why shouldn’t the holy ghost be vain? Everyone else in the universe is, why should he be any different?)
Josh and I slid into the booth on the opposite side of H.G., first Josh, then me, which meant I was sitting directly across from the little guy. I found this disconcerting, but at least I didn’t have to worry about our shoes awkwardly touching under the table, his legs were far too short for that.
I put one beer mug in front of Josh without spilling any, kept the other one in front of me.
“Them snifters clean?” said H.G.
“Those snifters,” said Josh.
“Right,” said H.G. “They clean?”
“It’s these snifters,” said Josh. “Not them snifters.”
“First you said those, now it’s these,” said H.G. “Make up your mind.”
“Well, anyway,” said Josh. “Yes, they’re clean. Now let’s try this Napoleon brandy stuff.”
He put one snifter in front of H.G., one in front of me, and kept one in front of himself.
Without further badinage H.G. lifted the bottle in both his hands, he had small hands almost like a child’s, and he politely poured a healthy shot in my glass, four fingers I would say, then he did the same for Josh, and then finally for himself.
“Now wait a minute,” said H.G., putting down the bottle and looking at Josh, who had picked his glass up as soon as H.G. had poured the four fingers into it. “This is fifty-year-old Napoleon brandy. You don’t just go and swill this kind of liquor down. Take your time. Hold it under your nose and swish it around and sniff it.”
“What nonsense,” said Josh. “Even I know that spirits are for drinking, not sniffing.”
“You only get half the experience if you don’t bother to smell it first,” said H.G. “You’re also supposed to hold it up to the light and move the snifter back and forth, like this –” he picked up his snifter and demonstrated the procedure he had just described. “What you’re looking for is color, clarity or lack of, and you’re also looking for these little trails inside the glass. You call them legs.”
“Legs,” said Josh.
“Legs,” said the little man. “These little like streams.”
Josh looked at me, but I tried to keep a neutral expression on my face.
“See what I mean?” said H.G.
He was holding the snifter up to the light, tilting it first one way, the another.
“You see them legs?”
“Those legs,” said Josh.
H.G. looked at me.
“You see ‘em, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. I figured I was safe with a simple affirmative answer, although to tell the truth I was on Josh’s side of this issue.
“Pretty good legs,” said the little man. “Nice golden brown ripe long legs. Reminds me of a woman I once knew in Babylon, many, many moons ago. Legs as long as the great Silk Road, but leading at journey’s end to riches more splendid than those of all the palaces of all the moguls and all the khans combined.”
“Okay, tell you what,” said Josh. “Can’t we just drink the stuff without wasting all this time sniffing and looking at it?”
“It’s all part of the sensory Gestalt,” said H.G., and he brought the snifter down and ran it back and forth below his now narrowed and twitching nostrils.
“And what if you die of a heart attack while you’re performing this pretentious dumb-show?” said Josh.
“I’m not even going to dignify that remark with any kind of a rejoinder,” said H.G.
I don’t know what came over me, but without thinking about it I lifted up my snifter and took a drink. I didn’t drink the whole thing by any means – as I said it was a pretty big pour – but I guess I drank about a fourth of it.
It was pretty good, a little hot going down the throat, but I liked it better than that B&B stuff.
I lifted my mug and washed the brandy down with a good gulp of Rheingold.
“What are you doing?” said H.G., staring at me as if I were urinating on the front steps of a Catholic church.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“What’s your name? Harold? Harry?”
“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schna–”
“Arnold. Well listen to me, ‘Arnold’. That is not how you drink a good Napoleon brandy,” he said. “Gulping it down like it’s a Schenley’s or a Carstairs. You got to take just a small sip, and swirl it around in your mouth, and breathe air in. All that before you even think about swallowing.”
“I didn’t know,” I said.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
“Y’know, this stuff is pretty good,” said Josh, and he laid his snifter down on the table. He had drunk half of it.
“You two are incorrigible,” said the little guy. “Like dealing with a couple of children.” But then I guess he got bored too, because he brought his glass to his lips and took a good gulp without making any bones about it.
For a moment no one spoke. Which was all right with me. Come to think of it, it’s just about always all right with me if no one speaks.
There was an ashtray on the table, and Josh slid it over to in front of him and tapped his cigarette ash into it. It was another semi-opaque glass ashtray with the words Property of The Little Caesar Room painted on it in gold letters.
Meanwhile H.G. had been smelling his brandy again, or at least pretending to smell it. Then he tossed off another slug of it, and put the glass down. It was almost empty but not quite.
I raised my mug and took a drink of the Rheingold.
“They call me H.G. by the way,” said H.G.
My mouth was full of beer, so I quickly swallowed it.
“Yes,” I said, clearing my throat. “Josh told me.”
“So you know who I am.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. That saves time. Although since ‘Josh’ as you call him has completely stopped the flow of the mighty river of time I suppose it doesn’t matter whether we save it or not.”
I had nothing coherent to say to this, so instead I mumbled, “Um.”
“’Um’? What’s that? Some oriental chant? You don’t actually believe in that balderdash, do you?”
“Um, no,” I said. “I just said um because I um –”
“Hey, give the poor guy a break, H.G.,” said Josh. “He’s only human.”
Thank you, I thought.
You’re welcome, Josh thought back.
I wondered if H.G. could hear my thoughts as well, and Josh’s thought-replies to my thoughts. If so he gave no indication, but maybe he did and just didn’t care.
He reached into his suit jacket, but this time instead of taking out his glasses or a gun he brought out a hard leather cigar case. He clicked it open, and there were four or five big cigars in it. He held the case out to me.
“Cigar, Mr. Schnitzel?”
I felt Josh’s knee touch mine, and I decided on the spot not to correct H.G.’s mistake. After all, out of billions of human beings, why should he remember my name?
“Uh, no, thank you, sir,” I said. “You see, I’ve decided to give up smoking, and even though it was cigarettes that I smoked, not cigars, still –”
“Hey,” said the little man.
“Yes?” I said.
“I asked you if you wanted a cigar, not for your life story.” He selected a cigar, clicked the case shut, and put it away. “A simple no thank you would more than suffice.”
“No thank you,” I said.
“So you said, along with a lot of other verbiage that was about to put me to sleep.” He took out his wooden-handled pocket knife again, opened the blade, which must have been razor-sharp, and cut the end off the cigar without even having to hold it on the table. “Your loss, though. These are genuine Cubans. You can’t even get these things legally where you come from.”
“That’s true,” I said, although it occurred to me that since we were in the year 1957 the Cuban Revolution had not yet occurred, and therefore Cuban cigars were still legal in this country, but, again, I let it go.
He flicked the stub away, but he left the ribbon on the cigar. He put the cigar in his mouth, folded up his pocket knife and put it away. Then he looked at me.
“I know it’s true,” he said. “That’s why I said it.”
He took out a lighter from some other pocket. The funny thing was, it looked almost exactly like Josh’s black enamel and gold Ronson, except H.G.’s was a butane. It had his initials on it, too, just as Josh’s lighter was engraved with the letters “J.C.” Except H.G.’s lighter was engraved with the letters “H.G.”.
He looked at Josh now.
“What is it with these humans that they feel they have to say something when they’ve got nothing to say.”
“It’s just a form of politeness,” said Josh, who, I noticed, had already finished his own Napoleon brandy, although he hadn’t touched his beer. “Humans get nervous when they say something to another human and the other human just stares at them.”
“What a boring race,” said H.G.
“Don’t blame me,” said Josh.
“I know it wasn’t your fault.”
He clicked his lighter, and began to light his cigar, rotating the cigar, taking little puffs.
Finally he got it lit, and he blew out a great cloud of smoke more or less in my direction. I have to admit, I had to admit, it smelled good.
“It’s up to me?” he said. “Never would have happened. No Adam, no Eve. No human race.”
“Yes,” said Josh, and he reached across the table for the brandy bottle; as he did so I noticed that not only was his snifter empty, but he had finished his beer, too – ”but just think how boring things would have been then, H.G.”
“Boring?” said H.G. “Peaceful you mean.”
Josh gave me another little nudge with his knee, and then, with a very intent expression on his face, he poured himself some more brandy.
“Goddam race of lunatics,” said H.G. He looked at me. “Nothing against you personally, Mr. Schausser.”
He exhaled another great cloud of smoke.
I could see the point of what he was saying, in fact I didn’t disagree with him, but, on the other hand, if it weren’t for the human race he wouldn’t be smoking that Cuban cigar he seemed to be enjoying so much.
And he wouldn’t have that fifty-year-old Napoleon brandy that he now took a sip of.
I took another drink of the brandy from my own snifter. Then I washed it down with some Rheingold beer.
It wasn’t as if the human race hadn’t contributed anything at all worthwhile to the universe.
(Continued here, straight on until the dawning of a new age.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page for a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven© (all contents vetted and approved by the new Official Censor of the Vatican, Msgr. James “Jimmy” Murray, S.J., Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat). Now appearing also in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s brave voice of literacy in a post-literate age.”)