In the black-and-white stillness of the Little Caesar Room, our hero Arnold Schnabel has hit on a plan to prevent his divine friend Josh from being dragged back to his father’s house by that irascible third person of the Trinity known as H.G…
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“Enter the world of Arnold Schnabel and enter into a world containing multifarious and many worlds, worlds beyond time, worlds beyond worlds.” — Harold Bloom, in Boys’ Life.
Josh and I got back to the bar, with Blondie and Bubbles still sitting there like two wax statues on either side of our two empty stools.
“We’ll have to put the Napoleon brandy back up on that shelf," I said.
“How about if we have a couple of shots first?” said Josh.
I looked at him.
But I didn’t say anything.
“Boy, you don’t fool around once you get serious, do you?” said Josh.
“I’ll go around and put the bottle back up on the shelf,” I said.
“Oh, heck, give it here, I’ll do it,” he said.
I looked at him without saying anything again.
“Seriously,” he said. “Hand it over.”
I handed it over. Who was I to say no to the son of God?
But then he performed another one of those small miracles he did every now and then, the kind of miracles you don’t really hear about in the Lives of the Saints or in Sunday sermons. He flicked the bottle up with a backhand motion, it turned end over end two or three times in an arc and then landed upright in the exact same spot on the upper shelf where it had stood before.
The bottle wobbled ever so slightly and then stood there silent and still in its place on the shelf, with its label facing forward.
“See?” said Josh. “Done.”
“Great,” I said. “Thanks, Josh.”
And so we took our seats on our barstools, arranging ourselves as best we could into the positions we had been in at the moment Josh had abruptly halted the flow of the river of time. Blondie’s hand was once again touching my neck, and Bubbles’s arm was once more draped over Josh’s shoulder.
“Hey, I just thought of something,” said Josh, and he tapped his cigarette ash into his ashtray in a thoughtful-looking way.
“Yes?” I said.
“Don’t you think Blondie and Bubbles will notice that our beer mugs and shot glasses have become instantaneously empty? Perhaps we should at least pour some more beer into our mugs?”
“Josh,” I said. “They’re not going to notice anything. Now let’s get the show on the road. We want to do this before H.G. wakes up, remember?”
“Oh, right. Well, can’t blame a guy for trying. You ready?”
I adjusted Blondie’s fingers on my neck. I took a breath.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”
“All right,” said Josh. “Let’s let it rip.”
I waited, but nothing happened. That is, literally nothing happened, because time was still frozen.
I looked at Josh. For once he seemed perplexed.
“What’s the hold-up?” I said.
“It’s not working,” he said. “Oh, no,” I said.
“Now, don’t get excited. Give me a second here.”
I waited, staring at him, but all was still, all was silent but for the sound of my breathing and Josh’s, and, from across the barroom, H.G.’s snoring.
H.G. suddenly made a harrumphing noise, and then he mumbled something unintelligible.
“Josh,” I said.
“Arnold, I’m trying,” he said. “You know what? It must be the effect of that Napoleon brandy I drank. Well, that and all the other drinks I had tonight, I guess. Gee.”
“Keep trying,” I said.
H.G. had been silent for a few seconds but now he began mumbling again.
“Listen to him,” said Josh. “He’s probably dreaming about giving somebody a hard time.”
“He’s going to wake up,” I said.
“Okay, I’m really going to concentrate now,” said Josh.
He took a drag on his cigarette, exhaled, took a deep breath, let it out, and then shook his shoulders. He pressed his lips together and breathed in through his nose and held his breath.
Nothing continued to happen.
Josh let his breath out, and then took a look around.
Everyone in the bar remained as motionless as mannequins in a department store window, and as silent, except for H.G., who was snoring again.
“I hope I’m not losing my touch,” said Josh. “That would be awkward.”
“Try again,” I said.
“What if I’ve succeeded in becoming human? What if I no longer have divine powers?”
“No normal human could have tossed that brandy bottle up onto that shelf that way,” I said. “Not without breaking the bottle.”
“A mere parlour trick,” said Josh. “Restarting the flow of time, though, that’s serious.”
“Try closing your eyes this time,” I said.
“It won’t hurt to try,” I said.
“Well, okay,” he said.
He took another drag on his Pall Mall, and then closed his eyes.
I wondered if time was stopped everywhere, and not just here, but in every world and every dimension and universe.
I wondered if time had stopped also in the next world, the afterworld, the world where Josh’s father and H.G. lived with all the saints and the angels, and in limbo and in purgatory and hell, and on the island of lost souls.
I wondered what it would be like to live for all eternity in a universe where nothing moved or breathed or made a sound. Except for me and Josh, of course, and H.G., who was now alternating between mumbling and snoring.
At least we would still be able to drink. How many millions of years would it take us to drink up all the booze and all the beer in all the bars in this completely paralyzed universe, and what would we do when we had drunk dry the last bar, the last tavern, the last taproom and the very last cocktail lounge?
But then time returned in a gentle explosion, and Josh opened his eyes, and smiled, and Blondie and Bubbles resumed their chatter where they had left off, Alan Hale the bartender continued walking to the beer taps, conversations struck up again all around the room accompanied by the music of the piano player, I think he was playing “As Time Goes By” oddly enough.
And I’ll hand it to Josh, he was indefatigable.
“Hey, Arnie, or Porter,” he said to me first thing, “how about another round? I’m buying.”
I knew I had to take matters in hand.
I turned and looked back at the booth where we had just left the sleeping H.G.
“Oh, hey,” I said, ignoring what Josh had just said, “look, it’s our old friend H.G. in that booth over there.”
“Oh,” said Josh. “Yeah. H.G.”
“Friend of you guys?” said Bubbles.
“Um,” said Josh.
“A very old friend,” I said.
“He looks weird.”
“He’s actually a very wealthy guy,” I said. “Just a little eccentric.”
“Very wealthy?” said Blondie. “Him?”
“Very, very wealthy,” I said. “Multi-millionaire.”
“That true, Josh?” said Bubbles.
“Yeah,” said Josh. “He’s about as wealthy as they come, I suppose.”
“Never even noticed him before just now,” said Blondie. “Is he asleep?”
“I think he’s probably just resting his eyes,” I said. “You know, you girls should meet him.”
“We should, should we?” Blondie said. But not in a sarcastic way. She knew what I meant.
For once I won’t submit the nonexistent reader to a second-by-grueling-second account of what happened in the next few minutes or so. Perhaps if I were a real writer I would, if I could, but I’m not, and I can’t, not with any more than a slight degree of verisimilitude, because it was all rather confusing, with what seemed at least three people always talking at once, and because I was more than halfway drunk, and because my leg was hurting a bit, as was my head, and because I was bored, and thinking about other things, who knows what.
To summarize then.
After some palaver about what a nice old guy H.G. was, and about how really fantastically rich he was, and after the girls quickly polished off their current cocktails, Josh and I and Blondie and Bubbles went over to the booth where H.G. was sleeping, and we woke him up and introduced him to the girls. Like a gentleman he started to try to stand up, which would have meant getting out of the booth, but Blondie gave him a little shove on the shoulder and got into the booth next to him. Bubbles slid in on the other side. Josh and I remained standing, though, and Josh raised his hand politely to a blond-haired waitress who was nearby collecting some empty glasses from another table and putting them on a tray. She came over.
“What’ll it be, sport?”
Josh already had his wallet out, and he took out another of those new crisp hundred-dollar bills of his and handed it to the waitress. I think she was Jean Arthur.
She held the bill up to an overhead light.
“Take care of my friends,” said Josh. “Bring the gentleman a quadruple Napoleon brandy and the ladies a couple of B&B-and-seltzers, and keep ‘em coming. But keep out fifty for yourself.”
“Big spender,” she said. “And what about you and your pal?”
“We have to go,” I said.
I took Josh’s arm.
“Yeah, I guess we have to go,” he said.
The waitress went off. On second thought I don’t think she was Jean Arthur. I think she might have been Carole Lombard.
H.G. wasn’t even paying attention. Blondie had taken off her white beret and replaced it with H.G.’s derby, and she was caressing H.G.’s bald pate.
Blondie was leaning over the table in a way that revealed most of her bosom, and she held H.G.’s little hand palm-upward in her left hand while she ran the index finger of her right hand in his palm.
“I see a long life for you, H.G.,” said Bubbles. “And I see good times in your very near future.”
“Good times you say,” said H.G.
“Uh, look,” said Josh, “we just have to go meet some friends of ours upstairs.”
“What?” said H.G.
“We have some friends waiting for us upstairs,” said Josh. “But –”
“What else does my palm tell you?” H.G. said to Blondie.
“We’ll probably be right back,” said Josh.
“Don’t hurry back on my account,” said H.G.
“Ya know what this is?” said Bubbles to H.G., and she ran her long dark fingernail along some random line in H.G.’s soft little palm. “It’s your pleasure line.”
“My pleasure line?” said H.G.
“You got such a cute head, H.G.,” said Blondie. And she rubbed her knuckles on his bald head.
“Well, we’d better take off then, Josh,” I said. “Our, uh, friends will be wondering where we are.”
“Oh, do hurry back,” said Blondie.
“I see untold pleasures in your near future,” said Bubbles, to H.G.
“Untold you say?” he said.
I gave Josh’s arm a pull and without another word we headed for the entrance.
The big bouncer Maxie was still there. He was standing in our way, right in front of the door.
“Leaving so soon, gentlemen?” he said.
“We have to meet some friends,” said Josh.
“Who’s that little bald guy in that booth there?” said Maxie. “With Bubbles and Blondie. I don’t remember him comin’ in.”
“How very odd,” said Josh.
“It’s really odd,” said Maxie. “I’m wonderin’, am I finally goin’ punch drunk? Is this the end of Maxie?”
“No of course not,” said Josh. “I’m sure it’s just been a busy night and you just, you know –”
Josh glanced at me.
“Forgot,” I said.
“Yes, forgot,” said Josh.
“It ain’t like me to forget,” said Maxie. “And it ain’t been that busy. The boss don’t like it to get too busy.”
“Well, uh,” said Josh.
“Well, we really have to go,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”
“It ain’t like me,” said Maxie, and he remained standing there, between us and the door. He was a really big guy.
Josh put his cigarette in his mouth, took out his wallet again, took out another hundred-dollar bill, handed it to Maxie. He put his wallet away, then took the cigarette out of his mouth.
“Thanks so much,” he said.
“For what?” said Maxie.
Again Josh looked at me for help.
“Thanks for being so welcoming,” I said.
“Welcoming,” said Maxie.
“Yeah,” said Josh. “Well, I guess we’ll be going now.”
“Oh,” said Maxie. “Right.”
He reached over, turned the knob, opened the door. Josh stepped through and I followed. The hall outside was still dark, that hadn’t changed.
I glanced back over my shoulder. Maxie was holding Josh’s hundred-dollar bill up to the light. Then he closed the door, and Josh and I were out there in the hall, in not quite total darkness, there was a very faint and fuzzy pale yellow smudge way down the hall, from that one and only lightbulb hanging from the ceiling somewhere back around that far-off curve of the passageway, and there was also Josh’s cigarette, he took another drag from it, and its lit red end cast a soft pink glow on his face. So we had left the world of black and white.
“Well, that went smoother than I expected,” said Josh.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
“Shall we go then?”
“Yes,” I said.
And slowly we started walking down that dark hall, towards the light.
(Continued here, because there’s no turning back now.)
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I can't decide if untold pleasures are one you cannot or wish not to tell. Or--if they're pleasures beyond what anyone has yet to relish.
Let's hope old H.G. finds out the answer to this question!
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