Friday, December 27, 2013

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 377: mindbender

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the loquacious fly, here in the areaway outside a very strange Greenwich Village basement bar, on this rainy momentous night in August of 1957…

(Please click here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you don’t have very much else going on in your life at all you can always go here to return to the very first chapter of this 68-volume
Gold View Award
™-winning memoir.)

“So last week I was reading Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling masterwork on my new Kindle™ while taking the bus to work and I got so absorbed I wound up just riding the bus back and forth on its route for eight hours. It’s a good thing I have tenure, I’ll tell you that much!” — Harold Bloom, in the
Parade Magazine Literary Supplement.

“Well, I don’t know then,” he said, and he turned his head and looked out at the rain. 
“What don’t you know, Ben?” I said. 
“I just don’t know if I should tell you.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “Not if you’re gonna go batshit crazy on me.” 
“I probably won’t go batshit crazy,” I said. 
“Just a little crazy maybe,” said Ferdinand, with what sounded like a chuckle, if a fly can chuckle, and I think he could, as he swirled lazily around. 
“I just don’t know,” said Ben, and he had a serious expression on his face, or possibly an expression he meant to look serious. 
“Well, okay,” I said. “Look, why don’t we just forget it then –” 
He turned to look at me full face. 
“What do you mean?” he said.

His brow was furrowed. Ben was one of those guys who really did furrow his brow when he was puzzled about something. 
“I mean you don’t have to tell me,” I said. 
“What?” he said. “You don’t want to know? You don’t want to know how I got here, in this, as you say, ‘fictional’ universe, when just a little while ago I was back in your – your so-called – ‘real world’?”

He made two quotation marks in the air with his big index fingers.

“You don’t want to know? 
But here was the awkward thing for me at this juncture: now that I had had a moment to think about it, I really didn’t particularly want to know how Ben had gotten here, and to be honest I didn’t really care, either. However, even I could tell that this issue was of some importance to him, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings with a profession of my almost complete indifference. So – 
“Sure, Ben,” I said. “I would like to know. But if it’s going to make you feel uncomfortable, telling me about it –” 
“I didn’t say it was going to make me uncomfortable,” said Ben. 
“That’s right, he never said that,” said Ferdinand. 
“It ain’t about my comfort,” said Ben. He looked down to the paving underneath our feet. There was nothing of interest there. Without raising his head he looked up at me from under the bill of his yachting cap. “What it’s about is me not telling you something’s gonna make your mind explode and turn you into a gibbering subhuman idiot. That’s what it’s about, Arnie.” 
“Okay –” I said. 
“It ain’t about me,” he said, and he looked out at the rain again.  
“Uh-huh,” I said. 
He turned away from the street and the rain, and looked at me again. 
“It’s about you, Arnie.” 
“Don’t lay it on me, pal.” 
“Sorry,” I said. 
“Okay, then,” he said. 
He looked out at the street again. 
“Well,” I said, “maybe it’s really best you don’t tell me then, Ben.” 
He turned and looked at me, but he didn’t say anything.  
Ferdinand flew lazily round and about our heads, making a very slight buzzing sound amidst the clatter of the falling rain. 
Ben opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but he didn’t, and instead patted the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt. Then he took out of it an opened pack of Sweet Caporals. He gave it a shake so that a few cigarettes popped up. He held the pack out toward me. 
“No thanks,” I said, regretting the words as soon as they left my lips. 
“You ain’t gonna live forever, Arnie,” he said. 
“I know, Ben,” I said. 
“He’s a health nut,” said Ferdinand. 
“I’d offer you one, little buddy,” said Ben. “But –” 
“That’s okay,” said Ferdinand, “but I’ll share your second-hand smoke if you don’t mind.” 
“Don’t mind at all,” said Ben. 
He popped a Sweet Caporal into his scarred lips, dropped the pack back into his pocket. He took out a book of matches from the same pocket, ripped one off and lit himself up, cupping the flame and inclining his head as if he were standing not under an awning in the areaway of a Greenwich Village basement bar but on the deck of a tanker in a typhoon, bound uncertainly for some exotic port. 
In the dim light I could read the print on the matchbook: 
“Musso and Frank Grill — Oldest in Hollywood — Since 1919” 
I had a vague memory of possessing the same or a similar matchbook in a previous adventure, of giving it to Ben.  
He put the matches away as he exhaled a great pearl-grey cloud of smoke. 
“Maybe I ought to tell you,” he said. 
“Tell me what?” I said. 
“You know,” he said. “What I was afraid to tell you.” 
“Okay,” I said. 
“You ain’t afraid of going nuts?” 
“A little,” I said. 
I just think maybe you should know,” he said. 
“Okay,” I said again. I didn’t care. 
“Hey, I like this smoke,” said Ferdinand, he was hovering just a few inches above Ben’s cigarette.  “Normally I like Pall Malls, but these Sweet Caporals ain’t bad.”
“They’re a good smoke,” said Ben. “I like ‘em ‘cause they give you that nice scratchy burning catch in your throat.” 
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Ferdinand. “It’s one of the things I look for from a good smoke.” 
“That bite,” said Ben. 
“Right,” said Ferdinand. “That bite.” 
“Well, look,” I said, “what I really need to do is to find a pencil or a pen, so maybe if a cab comes by we can hail it and have him take us to an all-night drugstore –” 
“What are you talking about?” said Ben. 
“I want to get a pencil or a pen,” I said. “You see I have this blank book here –” I held up the green book, The Ace of Death, by Horace P. Sternwall. “– and I want to try writing something in it, writing a new story in which I can –” 
“Excuse me, Arnie,” said Ben. “I was about to tell you something.” 
“Oh,” I said. “Right.” 
“He’s like a dog with a bone,” said Ferdinand, meaning me. “He’s got a one track mind.” 
“I’ll say,” said Ben. 
“What they call an idée fixe,” said Ferdinand. 
“I don’t know what that is,” said Ben. 
"Means he’s got a bee in his bonnet,” said Ferdinand. 
“A bug up his ass,” said Ben. 
“Ha ha, being a bug myself I’m going to let that one pass, my friend,” said Ferdinand. 
“I meant no offense,” said Ben. 
“But, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, “I think maybe you owe Ben an apology." 
It had come to this. A fly was correcting my etiquette. 
“I apologize, Ben,” I said. “I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.” 
“Apology accepted. So, you bracing yourself?” 
As a matter of fact I was still holding onto the iron rail I had grabbed onto a few minutes before, back when I still wondered and cared how and why Ben had gotten to this world. 
“I suppose I’m as braced as I’ll ever be,” I said.

“All right then,” he said. “In that case I’m going to tell you, and I just hope to God you can handle it. Without going stark staring crazy.” 
He took another big drag on his cigarette before beginning. 
Both my right and left knees were still hurting, as was my elbow and my head in two places. I wondered if I would still have these aches and pains if I ever made it back to my own world. But then I remembered I had been in even greater pain back in my own world, so I supposed I shouldn’t complain. 
“I seen guys lose their minds,” Ben said, after first exhaling a great cloud of smoke that almost filled the areaway, and which seemed to stop at the edge of the sidewalk, not wanting to get wet, “back in the war. I seen guys go raving screaming mad, and it ain’t a pretty sight. One time when I was floating around for weeks on this rubber raft this one guy went nuts. Finally we had to toss him overboard before he drove the rest of us as crazy as he was.” 
“I’ll try not to go crazy,” I said. 
“Okay, then,” he said. “It’s like this, Arnie – 
As he went on – in a very slow voice for him, and with a lot of emphases put on certain words and phrases, and a lot of repetitions of words and phrases too, just to make sure I suppose that I understood their full import – but he did take a certain elliptical or roundabout way of getting to his point, talking about various adventures he had had in his life – as he went slowly on I gazed out at the street, at the unceasing rain crashing on the sidewalk, on the parked cars and on the slick dark paving of MacDougal Street, the falling rain sparkling in the light of the streetlamps, and I found myself becoming consciously aware of the yellow neon BAR sign in the window of the Kettle of Fish, across the street. I was thinking that neon signs looked somehow beautiful at night in a rainy street, and then I began to think of the bar that was behind that sign, a bar probably still filled with revelers, and then at last it occurred to me that someone in there was bound to have a pencil or a pen, and maybe they would lend one to me, or even sell me one. 
“And so that’s how it is, Arnie,” said Ben. 
“Wow,” said Ferdinand, “that is something.” 
“It is, ain’t it?” said Ben. 
“It is like a total mindbender,” said Ferdinand. “I mean that is like the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. And I am a talking fly, so you will understand if I am not easily impressed.” 
“But you are impressed?” said Ben. 
“I am totally impressed,” said Ferdinand. “That is like the wildest, most incredible thing I have ever heard.” 
“So, like, are you okay, Arnie?” said Ben. “You gonna be all right?” 
I had done it again.

I had gone off into my own world when someone else was talking about something important, or at least something important to them. But I wasn’t about to tell Ben that. 
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’ll be okay.” 
“You don’t need to sit down or something?” 
“No,” I said.  
“Go ahead, sit down on the steps a minute if it’ll make you feel better.” 
“Well, the steps are wet,” I said. 
“That’s true,” said Ben. “You sure you don’t want that cigarette now?” 
“No, I think I’ll be okay,” I said. 
“You’re sure?” he said. 
“It’s hard to tell with Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “He always seems a little not okay.” 
“No, I think I’ll be all right,” I said. “Hey, you know, I was wondering if you guys would mind going into that bar across the street.” 
“What,” said Ben, turning and squinting in the direction I had just pointed to. “The Kettle of Fish?” 
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been in there, it’s a pretty nice stop.” 
“Just like that, you want to go in a bar all of a sudden?” 
“Well, you know,” I said. 
“Oh, I know what it is,” said Ferdinand. 
“What’s that?” said Ben. 
“He figures if we go in there he can get a pen or a pencil off somebody.” 
“Still with the pen and pencil?” said Ben. “After me telling you something that like challenges every conception of human existence ever known to mankind –” 
“Or even to those who are not members of mankind,” said Ferdinand. 
“Right,” said Ben. “Even after me telling you the deepest and most like profound secret of existence all you can think about is getting a pen or a pencil?” 
“No,” I said, lying blatantly, but it was for Ben’s own good. 
“No?” he said. 
“No,” I said, lying also of course for my own good. “I wasn’t thinking about trying to get a pen or pencil at all. I was just thinking that after such a, such a –” 
“Such a what?” 
“After what you told me,” I said. “Your, uh, what would you call it?” 
“Revelation,” said Ferdinand. 
“Revelation,” I said. “After hearing such a, a –” 
“Disturbing revelation,” said Ferdinand. 
“Yes,” I said. “After hearing that –” 
“Mindbending,” said Ferdinand. 
“Yes,” I said. “Your revelation. After hearing it –” 
“Soul-searing,” said Ferdinand. 
“Such a soul-searing,” I said, “um –” 
“Revelation,” said Ferdinand. 
“Such a soul-searing revelation,” I said, “I really feel like I need a drink.” 
“Oh,” said Ben. “For real?” 
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, wow, that was just a real –” 
“Mindbender,” said Ben. 
“Right,” I said. 
“It was a mindbender all right,” said Ferdinand. “I know I could go for a drink after hearing that shit.” 
“Well, that’s different then,” said Ben. “And believe me, I understand. How you need a drink that it is. And you know what, buddy?” 
“No,” I said. 
He slammed me on the shoulder with that great hand of his, but I was still holding onto the iron rail, so I didn’t fall over. 
“The first round’s on me,” he said. “What you need is a nice big Planter’s Punch, with a float of ‘151’.”  
“Well, just a mug of draft beer maybe,” I said. 
“Bullshit,” he said. “Come on, pal, follow me.” 
He screwed his cap down lower over his forehead, turned, and ran up the steps and out to the sidewalk. 
Ferdinand flew into my ear. 
“Let’s go, pal,” he said. “I want to try one of these Planter’s Punches with a float of ‘151’. Sounds like a good tipple.”
I turned up the collar of my seersucker jacket and hobbled up the steps and out into the rain, and, first looking up and down the street to make sure I wouldn’t get run over, I shambled across as quickly as I could to join Ben who was already waiting, smoking his cigarette in the entrance to the Kettle of Fish, and holding the door open. 
When I got there under the shelter of the entranceway Ben waved at me to go first, and I went inside.

It felt like the ninety-ninth bar I had been in that night, and maybe it was. 

(Continued here, into the new year and no one knows how many more new years after that.)

(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page for a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold
Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, now available on your new Kindle©! Arnold’s saga now appears also in the Collingswood Patch™: “What the New Yorker is for the rest of the world.”)


Unknown said...

Did Arnold first meet Ben in a book he found at Daphne's? Or do I have my facts confused with fiction again?

Dan Leo said...

You actually have an amazing memory, Kathleen! Yes, Ben first appeared at Daphne's grandmother's house in Cape May, towards the end of this chapter: