Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his comrades Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the talking fly, dashing through a torrential downpour here on Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Street on this fateful August night in 1957...
(Please go here to read our preceding thrilling episode; click here to return to that only barely remembered first chapter of this 58-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“Yes, this winter has been oppressive, and I for one gave up even the thought of leaving my comfortable old Victorian house for this entire past month, which I have passed for the most part sitting in my easy chair by a roaring fire, smoking my pipe and reading volume after volume of Arnold Schnabel’s mammoth and mammothly absorbing chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, in the Mechanics Illustrated Literary Quarterly.
The rain beat down on my head and shoulders like a million pebbles being dumped from a sack by some perverse giant, but I kept going in a hobbled gallop, and yet – thank God or Josh for that ambrosia-infused bock beer I had drunk – still in no great pain, despite the various physical misfortunes I had suffered this night.
In a matter of seconds I made it across the street and up the steps to the entrance to Mr. Philpot’s book shop, over the doorway of which there was a small dark canvas awning, just big enough to cover both myself and Ben, who got there half a second after I did.
“Jesus Christ what a downpour!” he yelled, and for once his yelling was called for, the rain made so much noise, especially rattling as it did on the awning above us. “Ya know what this reminds me of, Arnie?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither,” said Ferdinand, who flew out of my ear and zoomed around just above our heads. “But I think you’re going to tell us.”
“Okay,” said Ben. “Don’t mind if I do. It was back during the war, and my ship got torpedoed out in the Sulu Sea, and after I jumped off I floated around in my Mae West while I watched that damn Jap sub surface and start machine-gunning my buddies right where they were floating in the water. And I’m thinking, shit, it’s only a matter of time till they get to me, y’know? So I’m paddling away like hell trying to get clear of there, and I can hear that damn Jap sub getting closer, closer, all the time, its machine guns rata-tat-tatting and my buddies screaming and crying –”
“Um, look, Ben,” I said. “I want to hear your story, I really do, but, look, I’m going to ring the buzzer, okay? Because I think Mr. Philpot might still be in there, since there’s a light on, and –”
“Hold on a second, Arnie, don’t you want to know how I escaped the Jap sub?”
“Well, sure,” I said. “But –”
“Ring the bell, Arnie,” said Ferdinand.
“Okay,” I said.
I pressed the button to the side of the door.
I heard a chiming inside.
“See, what happened was,” said Ben, “all of a sudden this goddam monsoon blows up, just like that, just like this kind of downpour we’re having right now, except like ten times worse –”
“Really?” I said. “Maybe twenty times worse,” said Ben.
“Press the button, again, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “If there’s a light on he’s probably in there.”
I pressed the button again. The bell chimed within again.
“So what happened was,” said Ben, “on account of this goddam vicious monsoon the Jap sub submerges, like. You know, like ‘ooga ooga’ that siren sound? Like ‘Crash dive!’ You’ve seen that in movies, right?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Give it another buzz, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “He might be hard of hearing.”
I pressed the button again. The bell chimed. “So, anyway –” said Ben.
Suddenly the door opened and there was Mr. Philpot.
“Jesus Christ!” he said. “I’m not hard of hearing you know. One ring of the doorbell would have been quite sufficient!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Mr. Philpot hadn’t changed in appearance since I had last seen him this evening, or seventeen months ago: the old-fashioned dark suit, the shirt with a wing collar, the pince-nez glasses, with a black ribbon dangling down and tied to a collar button. He held a lit pipe, and this one had some sort of gargoyle carved on the bowl.
“So, you see, Arnie,” said Ben, “it was a monsoon just like this motherfucker right here that saved my ass from that Jap sub. Except that monsoon out in the Sulu Sea was probably thirty times worse than this downpour, if you can imagine that.”
“What?” said Mr. Philpot. “What are you talking about?”
“I was just telling Arnie here a story about this time my ship got sunk by this Jap sub out in the Sulu Sea –”
“This fellow with you?” said Mr. Philpot to me.
“Yes,” I said. “He’s my friend. Ben, this is Mr. Philpot. Mr. Philpot, this is my friend, Ben Blagwell.”
“They call me Big Ben,” said Ben. “For obvious reasons.”
“Yes, I can see why they would,” said Mr. Philpot. He had his pipe in his right hand, and he left it there, even though Ben had extended his own massive right hand.
“Don’t forget me, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, bobbing up and down to one side of my head. “I am not exactly chopped liver you know.”
“Oh,” I said. “Mr. Philpot, this is my other friend. His name is Ferdinand.”
“This ‘fly’,” said Mr. Philpot, pointing at Ferdinand with the stem of his pipe.
“Yes,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Ferdinand.
“You’re friends with a talking fly,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yes,” I said.
“You don’t have to talk about me in the third person like that, sir,” said Ferdinand. “I may only be a fly, but I got feelings, too.”
“So,” said Mr. Philpot, addressing me. “You left my door a bit earlier tonight, allegedly in search of your friend the ‘son of God’. And now you return, soaking wet and filthy, with a black eye, and accompanied by a giant oaf in a Hawaiian shirt and a sailing cap, and – oh – a talking fly.”
“I have a black eye?” I said.
“Yeah, you got the beginnings of a beautiful shiner there, Arnie,” said Ben.
“More like a bruise, really,” said Ferdinand, “going from the corner of your eye and down your cheekbone.”
“It’s getting swole up, too,” said Ben.
I touched the left side of my face. It did feel tender and swollen, but, again, thanks to the nectar of the gods I had drunk, I was not in any great pain. Not yet, anyway.
“I take it it has been an eventful evening for you, Mr. Walker?” said Mr. Philpot.
“Sort of,” I said. “Listen, Mr. Philpot, I was wondering if my friends and I could come into your shop just for a little while.”
“You wish to buy another book?”
“Well, no,” I said. I still had The Ace of Death inside my jacket, under my left arm. I took the book out. “See, I still have the book you sold me.”
“I hope you’re not expecting to exchange it.”
“Well, no –”
“I couldn’t possibly take it back from you for less than, oh, say – oh, let’s make it an even hundred dollars.”
“A hundred bucks?” said Ben. “Arnie, quick, take the hundred bucks for the damn book and lets go get laid, brother.”
“Hold on, my nautical friend,” said Mr. Philpot. “I wasn’t proposing to ‘buy’ the book back from Arnie as you call him – to me you see I like to think of him as Porter, Porter Walker –”
“Whatever,” said Ben. “Arnold, Porter, call him what you like, just don’t call him late for chow, right, Arnie?”
“What I was proposing,” said Mr. Philpot, “is that for a remuneration of one hundred dollars I would be glad to take the book off Porter’s hands.”
“Hold on.” said Ben. “You want him to give you a hundred bucks, to take the book off him.”
“Believe me,” said Mr. Philpot, “that is my rock-bottom price.”
“He’s crazy, Arnie,” said Ben.
“Like a fox,” said Ferdinand.
“Listen, Mr. Philpot,” I said. “I don’t want to sell the book back to you.”
“Oh, all right, give me seventy-five and I’ll take it back, but only because I like your style, you remind me of when I was a young scamp, rolling bones with Monk Eastman’s gang and birddogging the society dames traipsing along under their parasols up on Fifth Avenue – and didn’t those tarts love it!”
“Look, Mr. Philpot –” I said.
“Ever make it with one of those rich broads in the back of a hansom cab on a fine spring evening?”
“Listen, Mr. Philpot,” I said. “I don’t have seventy-five dollars and I don’t want you to take the book off me. I just want to come into your shop and sit down for a little while.”
“There will be no idle loitering in my shop, my good fellow,” said Mr. Philpot. “I’m running a business you know, not a free clubhouse for young rapscallions.”
“I have a little money,” I said. “I could let you have it.”
“How much money?”
“I think six or seven dollars,” I said.
“So you want to shall we say, pay a rental for the privilege of sitting in my shop.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you had better run along and try to win some more dough in a faro game,” he said, “Because seven clams ain’t going to, in your parlance, ‘cut the mustard’, my boy.”
“Wow,” said Ben.
“Wow?” said Mr. Philpot. “Are you a wild Indian? ‘Wow’?”
“Okay,” said Ferdinand. “First off, ‘wow’ is not a wild Indian term. You are thinking I believe of the expression ‘how’ which if I am not mistaken is Cherokee or maybe Comanche for ‘hello’.”
“Oh, so you’re an expert in savage Indian dialects as well as being a talkative fly, are you?”
“Second of all –” said Ferdinand.
“What else do you speak?” said Mr. Philpot. “Chinese? Ancient Etruscan? Venusian perhaps?”
“Second of all,” said Ferdinand, in a louder and very emphatic voice.
“Second of all what?” said Mr. Philpot.
“Second of all,” said Ferdinand, “or come to think of it, maybe first of all –”
“Get to the point,” said Mr. Philpot.
“First of all and second of all,” said Ferdinand, “you are a mean and greedy cheap old bastard of a chiseler.”
“How dare you. I am an honest businessman.”
“Oh yeah? Arnie, show him your book.”
“My book?” I said.
“I mean open it up and show him.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. I raised the book up, facing Mr. Philpot, and riffled through the pages.
“What do you see, Mr. Philpot?” said Ferdinand.
“A book,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yes, a ‘book’,” said Ferdinand. “And what is in this ‘book’?”
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Philpot. “Pages. Why are you grilling me like this?”
“And what is on those pages?” said Ferdinand, buzzing right up to Mr. Philpot’s face, almost bouncing off his little round glasses.
“Nothing, all right?” said Mr. Philpot. “Nothing is on those pages! They’re all blank! Okay? Is that what you want to hear, you importunate insect?”
“In other words, you bilked my buddy.”
“What did he want for five dollars?”
“Maybe a book with some actual words printed in it?”
“Caveat emptor,” said Mr. Philpot. “I don’t recall ever precisely saying the book would have words printed in it.”
“We can report you to the Better Business Bureau,” said Ferdinand.
“You wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”
“I don’t need legs, gramps. I got wings. And we will close this little clip joint of yours down so fast your bald little head will spin like a cue-ball that Willie Mosconi put the English on.”
“I assure you I don’t even know what any of that means.”
“You’ll be lucky to be selling rags and bones out of a pushcart on the Bowery after our lawyer gets through with you.”
“Lawyer?” said Mr. Philpot. “I see no need to involve lawyers in this matter.”
“Then play ball,” said Ferdinand.
“Oh, hell,” said Mr. Philpot. “Look, do you want your lousy five bucks back, Mr. Walker? Is that what this is all about?”
“No,” I said. “I just want to come into your shop out of the rain, for just a little while.”
“Only if you consider buying something.”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’ll consider it.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place? My shop is always open to late-night prospective customers. Won’t you please all come in, gentlemen?”
“Jesus Christ,” said Ferdinand.
“What’s that, my wingèd friend?” said Mr. Philpot.
“Nothing, pops. Let’s go into your shop. I’d like to see this place.”
“Yes, of course.”
Mr. Philpot stepped back and waved his little pudgy hand, and I stepped through, Ferdinand flying in with me, and Ben following.
Mr. Philpot closed the door, and the clattering noise of the downpour immediately became muffled.
“Please be seated, gentlemen,” he said. “And perhaps you would like to join me in a glass of Amontillado. And, yes,” he looked at Ferdinand, who was lazily looping around, looking things over, “I offer this refreshment free, gratis, and for nothing.”
“Sure, pops, I could go for a little Amontillado,” said Ferdinand.
“Splendid,” said Mr. Philpot.
“What’s Amontillado?” said Ben.
“Sherry, big guy,” said Ferdinand. “Good sherry. We’re not talking Harvey’s Bristol Cream.”
“Sherry,” said Ben. “Say, Mr. Philpot, you wouldn’t have any rum in stock, would you?”
“Rum,” said Mr. Philpot. “Yes, in point of fact I do have some rum. British Royal Navy issue, cask-aged since the Napoleonic wars. Would you like some?”
“Bring it on,” said Ben. “So, anyway, you guys were probably wondering how I survived floating around in my Mae West in the middle of a monsoon in the Sulu Sea –”
“Oh Christ,” said Ferdinand.
“No, this is a good one,” said Ben. “This was how I wound up becoming the sex-slave of the Filipina lace-panty harlot commandos of Zamboanga.”
“Oh, my fucking God,” said Ferdinand. “Mr. Philpot, tell ya what, I think I’ll skip the Amontillado and take some of that rum, too, please, and thank you very much.”
(Continued here; we have several large cardboard boxes filled with Arnold’s marble copybooks which we haven’t even opened yet.)
(Kindly look to the right hand column of this page for a rigorously up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, now available for your convenience on your Kindle©.)