Let’s rejoin our intrepid hero Arnold Schnabel here in a booth in the black-and-white stillness of the Little Caesar Room, with his deific friend Josh and the equally divine little man known as H.G., who, under the influence of fifty-year-old Napoleon brandy, has fallen into the embrace of the gentle arms of Morpheus...
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“Well, there I was, all set to start teaching yet another summer survey course of Shakespeare's tragedies to a classroom full of yawning louts and slatterns, when suddenly I said to myself, hey, you know what, let’s just do nine or ten volumes of Arnold Schnabel instead.” — Harold Bloom, in Harper’s Bazaar.
“So you know why he’s here, right?” said Josh, and he took a drink of his brandy.
“I don’t know for sure,” I said. “I could guess.”
“Go ahead, guess, Arnie.”
“Can’t you just tell me?”
H.G. made a mumbling noise, but he didn’t wake up. He resumed snoring.
In a lower voice Josh said, “Come on, Arnold. Guess.”
“But not so loud,” Josh said in his low voice. “Let’s not wake him up.”
“Okay,” I said, in my own low voice, but not quite a whisper, I didn’t have the energy to whisper. “He came to bring you back.”
“To my father’s house,” said Josh.
“Yes,” I said.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“Just a guess.”
“But a very astutely deductive guess,” he said. “Like, why else would he come into this particular bar. It isn’t as if there aren’t a billion or so other bars he could go to if he just wanted a drink.”
“There’s a billion bars?” I said.
“Oh, at least,” said Josh. “Probably a lot more than that, once you figure in all the various dimensions and universes and states of reality, both fictional and what you might call ’real’. No, in fact, better let’s say a trillion. A trillion or more bars in all the multitudinous universes of the universe, and good old H.G. strolls into this one. Oh, no, the chances of his coming in here being coincidental were just about a trillion to one. He came to see me all right. And we know why. Hey, you sure you don’t want a bit more of this brandy?”
He touched the bottle with the side of his fingernail.
“I’m good,” I said.
Josh took another good sip from his own snifter, but at least he left a little bit in the glass.
“Look at him there,” he said. “I’m sure he and my father talked it all over, in depth, and then decided that H.G. himself would have to come down and get me. Oh no, no angels or saints or archangels for this job, no, sir. Only H.G, only the little guy with the derby would do. And so you know they’re serious.”
He finally dropped the tiny burning nubbin of what was left of his cigarette into the ashtray, and poked it out with the tip of his index finger.
“Josh,” I said, after a slight hesitation, “does your father – ever –”
I wanted to say “come down to earth”, but then I remembered that we weren’t even on the earth.
Josh helped me out.
“Does he ever go out himself on these little missions?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” said Josh. “Not since the Old Testament days, pretty much. Not his what you may call ‘bag’ anymore. To tell the truth he doesn’t even really like to leave the house. I don’t think he’s been farther than a walk around the grounds in almost twenty centuries. But that’s okay.”
“Sure,” I said. I don’t know why, but I said it.
“You think that’s okay?” said Josh.
I was caught again, because to be honest I hadn’t thought anything about it. I improvised.
“Well, I suppose it’s good that someone is always home,” I said.
“Now that’s an interesting observation,” said Josh. “We wouldn’t want people coming to my father’s house all expectant and excited after living a good life on earth, only to find out nobody was home except for the aforementioned saints and angels and archangels.”
I remembered my own first visit to his father’s house, when I had wandered lost for what seemed like hours through a maze of uninhabited halls and corridors, trying to find a bathroom.
Josh and I both had gradually resumed talking in our normal voices again, and now H.G. made another mumbling noise, and a sort of cough, and then a snorting sound. Josh and I stayed silent, but then H.G. settled down again.
Josh leaned toward me, so close that I could feel his breath on my face. (As usual, despite all the liquor and cigarettes he had consumed, his breath smelled of fresh damp geraniums on a cool summer’s day.)
“Anyway, be all that as it may,” he whispered, but it was a loud whisper, “H.G. came here for one reason and one reason only, and that was to bring me back.”
“I see,” I said, just to say something.
“They don’t want me down here, living the life of a man. Especially since I have no intentions of redeeming the human race this time around. They think I should be back up there.”
He gestured toward the ceiling with his thumb.
“Holding my end up,” he said.
“So –” I said.
“Are you going to go back?”
“What?” said Josh. “Hell, no. I like it here.” He looked around. “I mean, not necessarily right here in this particular bar, but, you know, among humans.”
“So, uh, what are you going to do?” I said.
“Well, to be quite honest I don’t feel like getting in some great big discussion with H.G. about it. So maybe we should just quietly leave before he wakes up.”
“But,” I said, “won’t he just come after you again?”
Josh paused. He looked at the sleeping H.G. Then he turned to me again.
“You’re right,” he said. “In fact I’m certain he’ll come after me. I don’t think he’d miss it for the world, or for any number of worlds for that matter. I suppose you gathered that he’s just a wee bit envious of me.”
“I picked that up,” I said.
“With your usual perceptiveness,” said Josh. He took out his cigarettes, gave the pack a little shake, and as usual exactly one cigarette popped up exactly half an inch. And as usual he politely offered me the pack.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Still trying to quit,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He put the cigarette between his lips without using his fingers to take it out of the pack, a graceful operation I myself had never quite been able to master in over twenty years of smoking.
“Y’know,” he said, and he lit himself up with his gold-and-black enamel Ronson, “since you’re a whole other person in this universe, you might as well smoke, since there’s no way it’s going to give you cancer if you go back to being Arnold Schnabel in your old universe.”
“If?” I said.
“I mean ‘when’, sorry, when you go back to your, you know, ‘real’ world.”
“Well,” I said, “I still feel like me, even if I am in a different body and in a different world, so I just feel better not smoking.”
“Great,” he said. “Fine. And, after all, if for some reason you did stay here in this universe, it would probably be more healthy for you if you did give up the smokes.”
“Hey, Josh,” I said.
I had some serious questions I wanted to ask him, but he went off on his own tangent before I could start.
“So, first things first,” he said, “what do we do about Rip Van Winkle here. If he’s going to be trailing me through every dimension in every universe in creation it’s going to get very tiresome, very tiresome indeed. Y’know, let me tell you, Arnie, being an equal part of the Divine Trinity is all well and good as long as everyone’s on the same page. But when it’s two against one things can get just a little bit uncomfortable if you know what I mean.”
H.G. made a loud snorting sound, and both Josh and I looked at him to see if he was waking up. But after a moment the little guy harrumphed a couple of times and then resumed snoring.
Once again Josh had reverted to his normal speaking voice, which now that I mention it, was a somewhat louder voice than that of the average man, even the average railroad man, and railroad men do tend to be rather vociferous if that’s the word; maybe I should just say loud –
“Okay, he’s going to wake up soon, and if he does I’m screwed,” said Josh, back to his “low” voice, which would be a normal voice for most men. “And here I was just starting to have a good time. Met a nice girl and all. We should just make a mad dash for it.”
“But, Josh,” I said. “You just said that he would follow you.”
“And he will, too, damn his begrudging soul.”
“So what’s the use of running if he’s just going to find you?”
“Well, at least I’ll have a little bit more of freedom before I have to go back, tail between my legs. You have no idea how boring it can be in my father’s house.”
Actually I did have some idea. I hadn’t found my one visit there to be all that exciting, not in any enjoyable sense.
“Maybe you can convince him to let you stay down here,” I said.
“Ha. Fat chance. Nothing he’d like better than to spoil my fun. Just because he never has any fun.”
I thought about what Josh had just said, which is rare for me really, to think about what anyone says, but even though I had my own pressing problems I did look on Josh as my friend, and he certainly had helped me out in the past.
I looked at the little man snoring there. He seemed very sad. And if what Josh had just said was true, and after all, everything he said was by definition true, then H.G. had every reason to be sad. It’s no fun never to have any fun, something I myself knew all too well, never having had any myself until a couple of weeks ago.
I looked over at the bar.
There on their stools sat Bubbles and Blondie, still frozen there, like wax statues, with their cocktails in their hands.
“Maybe we should get Bubbles and Blondie over here,” I said.
“What?” said Josh.
“Maybe we should introduce them to H.G. Maybe we could give them the impression he’s a rich guy.”
“Arnold, he is a rich guy.”
“Right,” I said. “So we wouldn’t even be lying.”
“You’re saying distract him with Blondie and Bubbles.”
“Yes,” I said. “And, maybe –”
“Maybe he’ll be more than distracted.”
“More than – oh, my God – you mean, maybe he’ll, he’ll get it. He’ll like it.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe he’ll want to stay down here too.”
“Well,” I said, “you never know –”
“Oh my God – if you don’t mind my using that expression – you are brilliant, Arnold!”
“Well, you said he never has any fun, so –”
“Well, I don’t know how brilliant I am,” I said, “but –”
“No, you’re absolutely, staggeringly brilliant. I would never have thought of that.”
“Well, I guess it’s a human sort of thing,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “All too human. Y’know, I have so much to learn from you, Arnold.”
I was dumbfounded by this statement. Literally dumbfounded I mean. So I said nothing in reply.
“Absolutely brilliant,” he said again. “So, I guess first thing I have to do is re-start the flow of time.”
“Yes,” I said. “But, look, after we introduce the girls, we have to leave here right away.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we will,” he said. “Okay, here goes.”
“Wait, Josh,” I said. “We should go back to the bar first. The girls will think it very strange if we’re not sitting next to them when time, uh, resumes.”
“Very good point, Arnie. Come on, let's polish off our drinks and get on over there before H.G. comes to.”
So we polished off what was left of the brandy in our snifters, and I slid out of the booth, taking my empty beer mug and the brandy bottle. Josh came out right behind me with his mug, and we walked across that immobile black and white and grey barroom, in which all was silence but for our footsteps and for the sound of H.G.’s snoring.
(Continued here, because we must.)
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