Our relentless hero Arnold Schnabel has just encountered an old friend and an older nemesis, here amidst a crowd of literati dancing to jukebox rock-and-roll in that exclusive Greenwich Village basement bar called “Valhalla”, on this long hot night in August of 1957…
(Kindly go here to read our preceding chapter; potential obsessive devotés may click here to return to the faraway and all-but-forgotten beginnings of this 57-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)
“What could be a more perfect holiday gift for the dedicated bookworm than a complete set of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse™ edition of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, printed on acid-free ‘vellumesque’ paper, and bound in uniform ‘morocco-style’ covers in your choice of Livid Purple, Stygian Black, or Profound Brown? Or, if you’re too cheap for that, you can just get it on Kindle™. Whatever.” — Harold Bloom, in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Weekly Newsletter.
“My book,” I said.
The attentive imaginary reader will have noticed I have this bad habit of repeating what people have just said to me. Perhaps this memoir would read less painfully if I pretended that such is and was not the case. But it’s too late for me to alter my methods now, and so I will resume my narrative.
“Yes,” said Lucky, or Nicky, I supposed he was “Nicky” in this incarnation. He held the book up a bit higher. “This book. It was lying on the floor. Is it yours?”
“Oh,” I said. “Yes. That is mine. Thanks.”
I started to reach out to take it, but he turned it around so that the front cover was facing him.
“The Ace of Death,” he said. “By Horace P. Sternwall.” He looked at me. “Any good?”
“Hey,” said Ben, “if it’s by Horace P. Sternwall it’s got to be good.”
“Oh,” said Nicky.
He took a drag from his cigarette holder. Well, he took a drag from his cigarette, which was stuck into his cigarette holder. I feel I might be giving too much information, useless mindless information. But, again, I will stop second-guessing myself and resume my narrative.
“You’re a devoté of his work?” he said to Ben.
“A what?” said Ben, narrowing his eyes, as if he were peering off at the horizon.
“A fan,” said Nicky, Lucky, he. “Of –” He read off the words embossed on the cover of the book. “’Horace P. Sternwall’.”
“You kidding me?” said Ben.
“Oh no,” said my nemesis.
“Horace P. Sternwall?”
“I am a major fan of that guy,” said Ben.
“What? Sternwall? That guy writes like a motherfucker, man.”
“Yes 'indeed'. I gotta say I’d put old Sternwall in my top three or four favorite authors, right up there with Fredric Brown and Mickey Spillane.”
“I never heard of him,” said Nicky.
“You should check him out,” said Ben.
“Have you read this one?” said Nicky. “The, um, Ace of Death.”
“I don’t think so,” said Ben. “The ones I've read were all paperbacks, or else in magazines, you know, like Stag, or Argosy –”
“And you, Porter?” said Nicky. “Big fan of this 'Sternwall'?”
Before I could say anything Ben spoke.
“Y’know what’s a good one by Sternwall?” he said.
“No,” said Nicky.
“Bound for Bintulu.”
“Bound for –”
“'Bound for Bintulu', I’ll remember that.”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Another good one is The Boys All Called Her Lulu.”
“Yeah. Also, Return to Samarinda.”
“Samarinda you say?” said Nicky.
“Return to,” said Ben. “But basically if it’s Horace P. Sternwall you can’t go wrong. Only my opinion.”
“My name is Nicky, by the way,” said Nicky, so that was the name he was using. “Nicky Boskins.”
He transferred the book from his right hand to his left, and extended his right hand to Ben.
“Blagwell,” said Ben, and he took Nicky’s hand. “Ben Blagwell. They call me Big Ben Blagwell, on account of my size.”
“You are a large, brawny fellow, aren’t you?” said Nicky.
They were shaking hands now, but I could see that they weren’t just shaking hands but starting up one of those death-grip matches that I myself tried to so hard to avoid.
“Six-foot four,” said Ben, gritting his teeth, his cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
“What do you weigh in at, big fella,” said Nicky, smiling tightly, and showing most of his gleaming white teeth. His cigarette holder was stuck in between those teeth, and angled up at about a 45-degree angle. “I want to say two-fifty, two-sixty?”
“More like,” Ben paused, the sweat pouring off his face now almost as if someone had turned on a sprinkler under his yachting cap – “two-forty.” He paused again. “I’d like to get down like to two-twenty-five, that was my good fighting weight.” He paused again. “Back in the navy.”
“Ah, a naval chap,” said Nicky, and now he was sweating also, which I don’t recall his ever having done before. “I should have guessed by your attire.” He paused. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but his skin was normally almost white as paper, but now it began to turn pink. “Are you – still serving?”
“Not,” said Ben, and now he was breathing heavily, “since the war.” He paused again. I looked at their hands, locked together, and I wondered if it was possible for those two hands to explode as one.
“The big one?” said Nicky, and he was breathing heavily now too.
“The big one,” said Ben. “Tarawa. Peleliu. Saipan. Iwo.”
“I missed that one on account of my ship got torpedo-bombed and I got taken prisoner by a Jap sub after floating around in a rubber raft for thirty-nine days while my buddies died all around me one by one.”
“No one suggested you were a shirker,” said Nicky, and now his face was almost as red as Ben’s, which was pretty red normally but was now almost as red as a cut of roast beef before you put it in the oven.
“And no one suggested you suggested I was a shirker,” said Ben, well, shouted actually, they were both shouting what with all the aforementioned noise all around us.
“Give you a rough time did those Japs when they captured you?”
“Yeah,” said Ben. “You might say that. They had this special female Jap torture squad on that sub, and –”
“Female Jap torture squad?”
“You heard me. Female. Pretty good-looking, too. And it was hot in that sub, so all they wore was like these real short shorts –”
“Hey,” I said, “look, I hate to interrupt, but could I have my book, Nicky? I have to go.”
“Oh,” said Nicky, still grimacing and speaking, yelling through his gritted teeth, I know that sounds impossible but he and Ben both were doing just that, yelling through their gritted teeth, even though Ben had a cigarette in his and Nicky had his cigarette holder in his, don’t ask me how. “Your book,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “If you don’t mind. I mean, you guys can keep shaking hands if you want, but I would like my book.”
Nicky stared at me and then looked at Ben.
“Shall we call it a draw?”
“Call it what you like,” said Ben.
“Very well,” said Nicky. “On the count of three shall we say?”
“All right then. Who counts, you or me?”
“Don’t matter to me, brother,” said Ben.
I was tired of this.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I said. “One two three.”
Both of them looked at me, as if I were churlishly intruding, but, at last, staring into each other’s eyes, they seemed tacitly to agree on a certain moment, and they simultaneously separated their hands with a loud wet smacking sound.
They continued to stare at each other as they slowly fanned their now-misshapen right hands, and attempted to flex the fingers thereof.
“Can I have my book now?” I said to Nicky.
“Oh. Sure,” said Nicky.
He held it out.
I took it.
“Thanks,” I said. “Good night.”
“But what’s the big hurry?”
I looked at him.
He was acting as if I didn’t know he was the prince of darkness, as if I hadn’t fooled him and sent him back down to the depths of hell, and not just once but at least three times that I could remember.
“Stay,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink. Let me buy both of you a drink.”
“I wouldn’t turn down a drink,” said Ben.
“No, sorry,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”
“But the night’s still young,” said Nicky.
I didn’t feel I owed him an explanation.
I was tempted just to ignore his question, to brush past him without another word and leave.
But I hate to be rude, so I decided to answer but keep it vague.
“I just want to go home,” I said.
“Y’know, Nicky’s right, Arnie,” said Ben. “The night is still young.”
“What did you call him?” said Nicky.
“'Arnie'. I know, I know, he’s supposed to be Porter, but to me he’s Arnie. Or Arnold.”
“Very interesting,” said Nicky.
“It is kind of interesting,” said Ben.
Suddenly there was one of those sonic pauses in the place, caused by the fact that the record on the jukebox had come to its end. Everyone who had been dancing all around us stopped dancing, and all those people stood there, their arms hanging down at their sides, panting.
“Okay, I’m going,” I said, and without further ado I started limping off through the now immobile dancers.
“Hey, wait up!” called Ben behind me, and I heard his great gallumphing steps and felt the tremors they sent through the floorboards.
I was near the end of the bar when he caught up with me.
I kept moving.
“Y’know, excuse me for saying so, but that was kind of rude, Arnie,” he said, shouted in my ear, because now another rock and roll record had come on.
“You don’t understand,” I shouted back, still hobbling along. “That guy is the devil.”
“Fuck me,” said Ben. “Really?”
“Yes,” I said.
“He seemed like a nice enough guy. A little gay maybe.”
“Take my word for it, he’s not a nice guy.”
I was at the door, and I pulled it open, went through and out, and Ben came out behind me.
We stood there in that shadowed sunken areaway, looking out at the rain, which I had forgotten all about but which was still coming down, but harder now, really coming down. The door to the bar closed behind us, sucking the noise of the place back inside so that it was only a gentle distant racket, not even as loud as the clattering of the rain on the sidewalk and the street and on the awning over Mr. Philpot’s shop above us.
“Great,” said Ben. “A fucking monsoon. And us without our slickers or an umbrella between us.”
I stood there a moment, looking at the rain falling down and dancing off the sidewalk, which was just below my eye level here.
“Now what?” said Ben.
I held the book up, and looked at it.
“I need something to write with,” I said. “I don’t suppose you have a pen or a pencil on you?”
“No,” said Ben. He patted his pockets. “I don’t think so.”
He brought out what looked like a folded pocket-knife, and indeed that’s what it was. He pressed a button or a catch and a blade flipped out from the handle.
“How about a switchblade?”
“No thanks,” I said. “I just need a pen or a pencil.”
He folded the blade back in, and put the knife back into his pocket.
He stood there, smoking, looking out at the rain.
“What the fuck,” said a small voice.
“What?” said Ben.
“Where am I?” said the small voice.
“What is that?” said Ben. “You hear that, Arnie?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What is it? Who is it? It’s like some tiny voice from nowhere.”
Ferdinand flew up out of my shirt pocket and from inside my seersucker jacket and whirled around my head and then stopped and hovered shakily, apparently looking at Ben.
“Well, look who it is,” said my friend the fly. “The big galoot, himself.”
“Well, whaddaya know,” said Ben. “If it ain’t the mighty mite.”
“Bob Barkwell, right?” said Ferdinand.
“Close but no cigar, little fella. Blagwell, Ben Blagwell. They call me Big –”
“Big Ben Blagwell,” said Ferdinand.
“And you’re – Frederick, right?”
“Ferdinand,” said Ferdinand.
“Ferdinand, Ferdinand,” said Ben. “I knew that. Ferdinand.”
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”
“Ha ha, I won’t, little buddy. Arnie, why didn’t you tell me Ferdinand was with you?”
“Well, I didn’t really have a chance to, Ben,” I said.
“That’s okay, I’m not mad at you.” He addressed Ferdinand, who had come closer to his face, I think the better to breathe in the smoke from Ben’s cigarette: “What were you doin’, catchin’ a little shut-eye in Arnie’s shirt pocket?”
“Passed out, Ben,” said Ferdinand. “Binged a little on some laudanum, y’know?”
“Laudanum? Tell me about it,” said Ben. “Good stuff, but it’ll fuck you right up if you’re not careful.”
“It ain’t in my nature to be careful, Ben,” said Ferdinand.
“Me neither, buddy, me neither,” said Ben. He looked at me. “You didn’t tell me you had laudanum, Arnie.”
“I don’t,” I said. “This guy Henry who runs that place had some.”
Ben rubbed the stubble on his jaw with the stubble on the back of his hand.
“I sure wouldn’t mind me a little laudanum.”
“Ben,” I said, “if you want to go back in and ask Henry for some –”
“Really? Would you mind waiting?”
I knew I had to stand my ground.
“Yes, Ben, I’m afraid I would mind.”
He took a pause here.
Ferdinand hovered between us, looking from one to the other.
Finally Ben spoke.
“You’re really on a mission, aren’t you, pal?”
“I’m trying to stay focused on my mission, yes,” I said.
“And it ain’t exactly working out too well for you, is it?”
“No,” I said. “But I have to keep trying.”
“That’s our Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “He’s nothing if not determined.”
“And I admire that,” said Ben. “I do.”
“Occasionally he forgets to relax a little,” said Ferdinand.
“I know,” said Ben. “But that’s our Arnie.”
“Love him or leave him,” said Ferdinand.
“He’ll never change,” said Ben.
“Not as long as he’s got a hole in his ass,” said Ferdinand.
“Y’know, I’m standing right here,” I said.
“Aw, we’re just fucking with you, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, and he made a playful pass at my face, veering away just before he would have crashed into my nose.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “It just occurred to me. You two know each other.”
“Of course we do,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah, you knew that,” said Ben.
I put my hand on one of the iron rails separating this sunken areaway from the sidewalk. I felt I needed to support myself, to keep from falling down, or maybe from flying away.
“When I last saw you, Ben, I mean back in my world, we were all together at Mr. Arbuthnot’s apartment.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Ben. “I remember. When you passed out.”
“Right,” I said. “And while I was passed out I came to this world.”
“Yeah? No kidding.”
“And –” I paused, trying to gather my thoughts. It was like trying to gather the sparkles on the rain falling and crashing on the sidewalk and the street, but I tried – ”and Ferdinand, you said you came here by crawling in my ear, by entering my mind somehow?”
“That is correct, sir,” said Ferdinand.
“So –” I stared blatantly at Ben. “How did you get here, Ben?”
Ben stared just as blatantly back at me.
“I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t ask me that, Arnie.”
He took a drag on his cigarette. It was just about all the way smoked down. He looked at the butt, and then flicked it up and out to the rainy street.
“Why?” I said.
“Pardon me?” said Ben.
“Why were you hoping I wouldn’t ask you that?” I said.
“Yeah, why, big guy?” said Ferdinand. “Spill.”
“If I tell you, Arnie," said Ben, "do you promise not to go insane?”
“I’m not going to go insane,” said Ferdinand.
“I ain’t worried about you, Ferdy,” said Ben. “I’m worried about Arnie here.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said.
“So you promise you won’t go insane?”
I couldn’t promise that.
And I told him so.
(Continued here, and straight on to the dawning of a new age.)
(Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other legally-accessible of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, all contents approved by the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia, PA. Arnold’s adventures now appear also in the Collingswood Patch™: “The sole faint voice of literacy in the cultural wasteland that is South Jersey.”)