Let’s return to a booth in the black-and-white world of the Little Caesar Room, where all is as still and silent as a waxworks museum, all that is except for our hero Arnold Schnabel, and at least two persons of the divine Trinity…
(Please click here to read our preceding episode; if you have absolutely nothing more productive to do with your time then you may go here to return to the tentative and uncertain very beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 76-volume memoir, now available in uniform pocket-sized editions from Olney Community College Press, bound in handsome “morocco-style” leatherette, and available exclusively in the Books Department at Woolworth’s, usually found adjacent to the “notions” aisle. Collect the entire set and receive a free copy of Christmas Among the Damned: 365 Poems of Arnold Schnabel, with an Afterword by Bennet Cerf.)
“Just the other day my alarm went off, and I realized that I had stayed awake all night reading Railroad Train to Heaven, so I called in sick (and in a way I was), took a good long nap, and then spent the rest of the day obliviously and gloriously engrossed in Arnold Schnabel’s magisterial chef-d'œuvre. ” — Harold Bloom, in the Ladies’ Home Journal.
The little guy just stared at me.
I hadn’t meant to, but I had spoken out of turn.
I’ve never liked it when someone just silently stares at me (who does?) but suddenly I realized, or guessed – but I was somehow sure of my guess – anyway I realized by dint of a certain dull blankness in the little man’s ancient grey eyes that he wasn’t really seeing me, the reason being that he had imperfect vision and was not wearing his glasses. I couldn’t say for sure, but I was willing to bet that as far as he was concerned my face was just a pale (and I say pale because “Porter Walker”, the bohemian poet whose persona and corporeal form I now inhabited, was a sallow-skinned fellow who probably slept through most of the daylight hours) globule topped off with a smudge of darkness that would be my hair. Knowing that he was not peering deep into my soul came as an enormous relief to me, as did another nudging of the side of Josh’s knee against my own.
Finally the little man looked away from my face and down in the direction of his snifter. He lifted it up and took another drink, put it down. The snifter was now empty again.
“Impudence,” he said.
“Now, H.G.,” said Josh.
“Brazen impudence,” said H.G.
“Here, have another dram of this excellent brandy, old boy,” said Josh.
“I didn’t come here just to swill Napoleon brandy,” said the little guy.
“I know you didn’t,” said Josh. He was holding the bottle at an approximately 45-degree angle over H.G.’s snifter. “But have another one.”
“If you absolutely insist,” said H.G.
He took a couple of puffs on his cigar while Josh poured another four or five fingers into the glass.
“There ya go,” said Josh. “Arnie?”
He tilted the bottle towards my own snifter but again I put my hand over he glass.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Doesn’t want to drink with me, I suppose,” said H.G.
“Not at all,” said Josh. “He’s just – what?”
“I’m pacing myself,” I said.
“He’s pacing himself,” said Josh.
“Fine,” said H.G. “His loss.”
“I still have some brandy left in my glass, actually,” I said.
“I said fine,” said H.G. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I’m no one. No one of importance, anyway.”
“Now, H.G.,” said Josh, and he poured just a regular shot into his own snifter, which I now noticed had been emptied already when I wasn’t looking.
“What’s that you say?” said H.G.
“I said, ‘Now, H.G.,’” said Josh.
“Now what?” said H.G. and he picked up his snifter.
“No need to be rude to Arnold,” said Josh.
The little guy paused, holding the snifter, and looking at the pale blob that must have been Josh’s face to him. Then he put the snifter to his mouth, took a good gulp, and and then put the glass down again.
“Easy for you to say,” he said.
“And as it should be,” said Josh. “Why shouldn’t it be easy for me, or for anyone for that matter, to suggest that simple common courtesy –”
“Easy for you because everybody loves you,” said H.G. “Everybody worships you. Everybody prays to you. They wear little crosses with you on them, on chains around their necks. Laminated scapulars with your beatific mug on them. And holy cards. Oh, and paintings, and statues, let’s not forget about them. And not only in churches and cathedrals, but even in people’s homes, in their humble shacks and hovels. Show me a little old Catholic lady anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a framed rotogravure of your handsome smiling face in her foyer. Right above her little figurine of the Infant of Prague. With a glow-in-the-dark crucifix on the opposite wall, and –”
“Okay,” said Josh. “Listen –”
“Big shot,” said H.G. “Mister Messiah. Mister Savior. Of course it’s easy for you. Everything is easy for you. Easy come, easy go, that’s you.”
“Hey, H.G.,” said Josh. “Tell you what, why don’t you try getting scourged, and crowned with thorns, and then nailed to a cross someday. Then you tell me how easy that is.”
“Oh, okay,” said H.G. “Drag out all that Grand Guignol sordidness. The people up in the peanut gallery just love all that blood and guts, don’t they?””
“H.G.,” said Josh. “Look, all I was trying to say is that Arnie here meant no disrespect to you, none at all. Did you, Arnie?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“See?” said H.G. “He hesitated.”
“That’s just his way,” said Josh. “Right, Arnie?”
“See?” said H.G. “He hesitated again.”
“Um,” I said, and I cleared my throat. I had gotten horribly thirsty again, and now just as my last outbreak of cold sweat had subsided another one came bursting through my every pore. At this rate I would lose twenty pounds if we spent another ten minutes at this table. I lifted my beer mug and drank, emptying it. The Rheingold helped. For a second it helped, anyway.
“Mr. Schnapfelberg?” said H.G., very suddenly.
I knew he meant me, so I said, or croaked, “Yes?”
“You know who I am, right?”
“Yes, um, uh, yes, uh,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “Who am I?”
“The holy ghost, sir,” I said, for once not hemming and hawing.
“Right,” said the holy ghost. “Very good. Very, very good. Now. Just off the top of your head then, if I may ask you a question: when was the last time you would say that you said a prayer to me?”
“The – last time?” I said.
“H.G.,” said Josh. “Leave the poor guy alone. For Christ's sake –”
“I’m not talking to you,” said H.G. “I’m talking to Ernie here. Is it okay I call you Ernie, Ernest?”
“Yes,” I said. What did I care.
“Which do you prefer? Ernie or Ernest?”
This time Josh’s knee banged against mine so hard that it hurt.
“Ow,” I said.
“What?” said H.G. “You prefer to be called Al?”
“Al?” I said.
“Isn’t that what you just said? ‘Al’?”
“Oh. Right,” I said. “Al. I prefer to be called Al.”
“I thought your name was Ernest.”
“Albert is my middle name. I kind of prefer that.”
This was how low I had fallen. I was lying to the holy ghost.
“Albert or Al?” said H.G., because this would never end, and I would never get out of here.
“Al,” I said.
Josh started to laugh.
“What’s so funny, hot shot?” said H.G.
“Nothing. I was just remembering something – risible –”
“Well, remember it a little more quietly, if you please, because Bernard and I are trying to have a conversation here.”
“Sorry, H.G.,” said Josh. “Go on, please.”
“I shall indeed,” said H.G. “Okay, Bernie, now please, if you will, answer my question. When was the last time you prayed to me.”
“I guess it was – last January,” I said.
“Last January,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“And what month are we in now?”
“I believe it’s August," I said. “At least in my world it is, but I’m not sure about –”
“And you really prayed to me last January?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, that’s not so bad,” he said.
“You see, H.G.?” said Josh.
“I was expecting you to say never,” said H.G.
“Last January is good,” said Josh.
“January,” said H.G.
“Yes,” I said.
“And this prayer of yours,” he said, “was it shall we say satisfactorily answered?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re not saying that just to make me feel better.”
“No,” I said.
“Well, well,” he said.
“See, H.G.?” said Josh. “There ya go. You’re not entirely unappreciated.”
H.G. started to raise his snifter, but then he put it down again. He made as if to put his cigar in the ashtray, but he couldn’t seem to find the ashtray. Josh pushed it to just under the cigar, and H.G. put the cigar in it, but it rolled off onto the table. Josh picked the cigar up again and put it back into the ashtray.
Then H.G.’s head slumped forward, his chin on the knot of his tie.
His derby fell off and onto the table.
The crown of his head was completely bald.
Josh reached over and picked up the derby, put it back onto H.G.'s head.
“Sorry about all that, Arnie,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“H.G.’s just a little touchy,” he said. “And he really can’t handle the booze, either. Not that I’m any prize. I wonder if I should stub his cigar out.”
He picked up the burning cigar.
“It might be better just let it burn out by itself,” I said.
“In case he suddenly wakes up and gets offended that I took the liberty.”
“Yes,” I said.
Josh laid the cigar back in the ashtray.
I took a look into my snifter. It still had a good shot of brandy left in it. Should I just toss it down and be done with it?
“By the way, was that true what you said, Arnie?”
I looked up from the brandy to Josh.
What had I said now?
“I mean about praying to H.G last January,” he said.
He seemed genuinely curious. Proving once again the spottiness of his omniscience.
“Not that I blame you if it was a little white lie,” he said.
On second thought I decided just to drink some of the brandy in my glass but not all of it, so I raised the snifter and drank about half its contents.
I put the glass back down. I had to admit I was starting to like this fifty-year-old Napoleon brandy stuff.
Josh meanwhile smoked his cigarette, one elbow on the table, waiting apparently quite patiently for me to continue, but then, after all, time meant nothing to him.
“It was during my mental breakdown,” I said. “At one point I was at a very low ebb, and afraid that I would never regain my sanity, or, if not sanity, then at least a state not composed of utter terror. And black despair.”
“Dark night of the soul we call it,” said Josh. He tapped off his cigarette ash in that elegant way he had. “But do go on.”
“So, anyway, I was in the middle of this dark night of the –”
“Soul,” said Josh.
“Right,” I said. “Dark night. So I started to pray, and, just to cover all the bases, I – I hope you won’t be offended –”
“I doubt that,” said Josh. He took a drag of his Pall Mall, and slowly let the smoke leave his mouth as he sat there waiting for me to get to my point if I had one.
“Anyway,” I said, “I addressed my prayers not only to, uh, you, and to the almighty father, and to the blessed mother–”
“Good that you remembered her, Arnie.”
“And to all the saints in heaven,” I said. “But I also directed my prayers to all the gods and saints of any and all other religions, even ones I might never had heard of, including the pagan ones.”
“So, like, the Buddha, that sort of thing,” said Josh.
“Yes,” I said. “I probably included the Buddha.”
“Just to be on the safe side.”
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “And then I suddenly remembered the holy ghost, so I included him, too.”
Josh took another drag on his Pall Mall, he was still smoking the one he’d lit after we had sat down at the booth, and in his usual way he was smoking it almost right down to the end, holding it between his thumb and index finger.
“Y’know, Arnie,” he said, “I don’t think H.G. needs to know all that.”
“No. I agree,” I said.
“It wouldn’t do his self-esteem much good at all if he knew you only tossed him in as an afterthought.”
“No,” I said.
“Even after the Buddha,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good people, the Buddha, by the way,” said Josh. “Really good people. And, just between you and me and the wall, a little bit easier to get along with than sleeping beauty here.”
H.G. was still sitting slumped there, with his chin on his chest, his little hands on the table top.
He began to snore.
(Continued here, because someone has to do it.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand side of this page to find a rigorously current listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, a Desilu/Danny Thomas/David Susskind Co-Production. Now appearing simultaneously in the Collingswood Patch™: “South Jersey’s voice of freedom.”)