We last saw our hero Arnold Schnabel with his Godly companion “Josh” standing on the sidewalk on MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village, outside an unusual basement bar called the Valhalla, on a warm damp night in August of 1957, in a world where the fictional is real…
(Please go here to read our preceding episode; hopeless victims of a literary obsessive compulsive disorder may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 86-volume epic of confessional high literature.)
“Just when I think I should maybe take a break from the reading and re-reading of Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre, something always pulls me back in.” — Harold Bloom, in Field & Stream.
I didn’t say anything right away. I knew Josh was trying, had been trying, and would probably continue to try. What was there to say?
I had got my own self into this mess, and all because I couldn’t stand a little excruciating pain.
Josh noticed that his latest Pall Mall had burned down to a nubbin, just as he always let his cigarettes burn down to the last half-inch. He flicked it away, into MacDougal Street.
Another car drove by. This one was a Studebaker, I made it a 1952 model, I think it was a dark brown color. But it might have been a sort of beige and just looked darker because it was night time. Also, I might add, it doesn’t matter what color the car was, or what make or what year.
It must have rained again since I had gone into the Valhalla this most recent time, an hour or was it ten months ago. The street and the sidewalks looked freshly wet, and beads of rain water glistened on the metal and glass of the parked cars, one of which, a few doors away, was a red Jaguar XK120 with the canvas top up, and I figured that this was likely the car that Thurgood had traded to Mr. Philpot for an original novel to which Thurgood could claim authorship. It was hard to imagine Mr. Philpot driving the car, and I wondered if he would just sell it.
The voices and music continued to emerge from behind the closed door of the Valhalla, down there in that dim sunken areaway, lit only by the red neon Rheingold sign in the glass-brick window.
Across the street the laughing and shouting voices of Jack and Bill had faded away as they turned the corner of Bleecker and undoubtedly went into the San Remo to get even more drunk.
I wondered if Ernest Hemingway was still in the San Remo…
“I’m standing here trying to concentrate,” said Josh. “But it’s still not working, is it?”
“No,” I said.
“You’re still here.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Needless to say,” he said.
I said nothing.
“I wonder if it’s happened,” he said.
“What’s that?” I said, although I was pretty sure of what he was talking about. I suppose I said what I said just to say something. To fill up the void with a little bit of noise. As we humans are wont to do.
“I wonder if I really have become human,” said Josh.
“I guess it’s possible,” I said.
“What’s that saying you humans have, be careful what you wish for?”
“Yes, that’s a saying –”
“But?” Josh said.
“But what?” I said.
“It seemed as if you were going to say ‘but’ something.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve thought, why not also be careful about what you don’t wish for.”
“You have a point,” he said.
“Just be careful in general,” I said.
“And even if you’re careful in general there are no guarantees, are there?” he said.
“No,” I said, and I sighed.
“Okay, well, look,” he said. He began to pat the pockets of his suit jacket. “Tell me something. How exactly did you get here, anyway?”
“In this universe?”
“Yes. Precisely. Walk me through it step by step.”
“Okay,” I said. I made an effort to remember. So much had happened since then.
“Um,” I said.
Josh had found his pack of Pall Malls in his shirt pocket. He gave the pack a shake, two cigarettes popped up, one about a half-inch, one three-quarters of an inch, and he offered me the pack. I started to take one, then stopped.
“One won’t kill you, Arnold,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “But still.”
“Okay,” he said. “Maybe later.”
He popped one into his mouth, put away the pack, took out his lighter from a side jacket pocket and lit up. He really did smoke like a chimney, and it occurred to me that if he had indeed become human he might want to think about cutting down a little, or maybe at least switching to a filtered brand.
He exhaled smoke in that luxurious way of his, and he leaned back against the iron rail of the areaway, halfway sitting on it.
“You were going to walk me through it, step by step,” he said. “How you got here.”
“Right,” I said, and now it was all starting to come back to me. “Well, as I told you, I hurt my back trying to open this window in Mr. Arbuthnot’s apartment.”
“How is the old rascal, anyway?”
“Same as ever I suppose,” I said.
“What a character. Okay, go on. You hurt your back. Rather badly, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was really bad.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I know what you mean.”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, I’m sure it was much worse getting nailed to the cross and all –”
“No need to dredge all that up now,” said Josh. “Your back hurt. Badly.”
“Yes. Pretty bad.”
“Okay, so you’re in excruciating pain, lower back pain. Lower back, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “It might have been my sacroiliac, something like that.”
“Anyway, it hurt,” he said. “Then what?”
“Well,” I said, “now I remember. I passed out, and for a while there I wasn’t aware of anything, everything was just blackness, no, not even blackness, just complete lack of consciousness –”
“Well, that must have been an improvement, anyway.”
“I suppose so,” I said. “But, being unconscious, I wasn’t really able to appreciate it.”
“Yes, of course, I hadn’t thought of that. So –”
“Anyway, after who knows how long I became aware of myself again, in the midst of all this darkness, and I couldn’t feel the pain anymore –”
“Yes, but there was also another me there.”
“Yes, and we started to have this dialogue, a discussion, about what we or I should do.”
“Right. One me was saying I should ask you for help. And the other me, or I, whoever, was saying that I shouldn’t ask you for help, because lots of people were in pain all over the world, so who did I think I was?”
“Right,” said Josh, in a noncommittal sort of way, simply acknowledging what I had said I suppose. “So –”
“Well, as I remember it, it went on like this back and forth for a while, I won’t bore you with it all –”
“Oh, please, I’m not bored,” he said, but if I am to be honest he did seem like he wouldn’t mind it if I got to the point sometime before morning, and so I attempted to do that.
“But then I became aware that physical consciousness was starting to return, and with it, the excruciating, you know –”
“Pain,” said Josh, nudging me along. “Agony.”
“Right,” I said, “and so suddenly the one of my selves who had been telling me I was wrong to ask for your help changed his mind and desperately started to tell the other me to go ahead and ask for your help, and quick, before the agony returned, and suddenly just like that I was in this world, and in this body again, right here.”
“You mean right where you’re standing now.”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“Incredible,” said Josh.
“Yes,” I know,” I said.
“So somehow you willed yourself into this world, because this was the last world you’d seen me in.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Really astounding,” said Josh. “I mean, really. Well done, Arnold.”
“Thank you,” I said, again I don’t know why, I suppose it’s just in my nature or training to say these kinds of things, idiotic as they may be.
“I don’t even know of any saints who could have pulled something like that off,” said Josh.
I really didn’t know what to say to that, and so, as even I sometimes do, I said nothing rather than something meaningless.
“But this is good news,” said Josh. “Because if you could will yourself into this world you should be able to will yourself back out of it.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“I’m sensing another ‘but’ somewhere over the horizon,” he said. “As in, ‘Maybe. But.’”
“Okay,” I said. “Ow.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, it’s my leg again,” I said. “My knee.”
“It’s hurting again?”
“Yes,” I said. “A little.”
Which wasn’t true, it was hurting a lot again. I had still been making the mistake of standing in one place too long. My head still hurt, too, but not as bad, after all I wasn’t standing on my head.
“Maybe you should sit down,” said Josh.
“Yeah, that might not be a bad idea,” I said.
I hobbled the few paces over to the steps that led up to Mr. Philpot’s shop, and, holding onto the iron handrail, I carefully lowered myself down to the third step. This helped. Josh came over.
“Yes, thanks,” I said. The step I was sitting on was damp, but that was the least of my worries.
“I’d offer to do my laying on of the hands thing, but somehow I’m afraid that wouldn’t work.”
“Really, Josh, I’ll be okay if I just rest it a minute.”
“Okay.” He put one foot on the second step and the heel of his hand on the rail. He took a drag on his cigarette, and then tapped the ash to the pavement. “Now,” he said, “what was this ‘but’ of yours all about.”
“Oh,” I said. I rubbed my knee, which action at least felt like it might be making me feel better, if I didn’t think too much about the fact that it didn’t really help too much at all. “I’m afraid that if I try to will myself back into my own world that I’ll make a mistake and wind up somewhere really bad.”
“Like what if I end up in some black void. For all eternity.”
“That’s not exactly positive thinking, Arnold.”
“I know,” I said. “But I’m a coward.”
“Now, Arnold, really –”
“And that’s why I’d really prefer it if you could do it,” I blurted, all shame gone.
“I see,” he said.
He paused, took a drag of his cigarette, then he turned around; he seemed just to be looking at the street, at the parked cars, at the buildings across MacDougal, and up at the sky, which looked like the concrete floor of an old automobile repair shop. I just sat there rubbing my sore knee.
After half a minute Josh turned around again.
“Damn,” he said. “You’re still here.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And I really tried that time.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Ow.”
“Knee still hurting?”
“I just got another twinge, that’s all,” I said. Although it had been more like a dentist’s drill boring into my kneecap.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” he said. “You want me to go in and get you a good stiff shot of that private stock malt whisky stuff?”
“No,” I said.
“A beer then. Nice cold Rheingold. Something.”
“No thanks,” I said. “Well, maybe an aspirin if they have one.”
“What about some narcotics then, an opiate of some sort. You never know in a place like this. Maybe some laudanum –”
“Just an aspirin thanks.”
“Okay,” I said. “Make it two.”
“And some malt whisky.”
“No, just a couple of aspirins, thanks.”
“I’ll get you a beer, just to wash it down with.”
“Water’s okay,” I said.
“Aspirin and a beer. Don’t move.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“Be right back.”
And off he went down the steps of the areaway, and I could hear the thick wooden door of Valhalla opening with a rush of loud laughing and shouting voices and juke box music, and then the noise being sucked away again as the door closed.
I stopped rubbing my knee. It really didn’t seem to be helping, and for all I knew the rubbing was making it worse.
I wondered if Josh was going to get himself a shot of that private stock stuff, and I was pretty sure he was.
Then, on a moment’s impulse, I thought to hell with it.
I closed my eyes, concentrated my mind, took a couple of deep breaths, then held my breath and tried to will myself back to my own world.
After a few seconds I let my breath out, and opened my eyes.
And I was still where I was, my knee hurting, and the seat of my pants damp.
I now wished I had a cigarette.
I wondered what I should do.
I wondered what would happen if I walked out to the middle of one of New York’s great bridges – I believed the Williamsburg Bridge was the closest – and jumped off? By thus removing Porter Walker’s life from this world, would my own life’s essence then return to my own world? Who knew? I had tried that sort of thing once before, with my friend Dick Ridpath, when we had traveled back in time to 19th century France, and it had worked then. But that previous leap had been almost a spontaneous decision. Would I have the courage to walk all the way to the bridge and half way across it and then throw myself down to the dark water below? Right at that moment I didn’t feel as if I had the courage, and, besides, my sore leg would prevent me from walking that far. I would have to take a cab at least as far as to the bridge…
Then I felt something odd in my ear, almost as if a tiny bug were crawling out of it. Then I heard a buzzing sound, and a fly flew in front of my face and hovered.
“Hiya, buddy,” the fly said. “Long time no see.”
“Oh,” I said, to the fly. “Hello.”
“Bet you didn’t expect to see me here,” said the fly.
“No,” I said, to my old companion, Ferdinand, the talking fly.
(Continued here, there are only 3,461 marble copybooks left to transcribe. Unless some more are discovered.)
(Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page to find what should be a reasonably up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven™, soon to be a major motion picture from Republic Studios, starring Dane Clark as “Arnold Schnabel”, featuring Skip Homeier as “Josh” and the voice of Arnold Stang as “Ferdinand”. Railroad Train To Heaven© now appears also in the Collingswood Patch™: “Not only the shining beacon of light of South Jersey, but of the free world.”)