Friday, June 27, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 400: roadhouse

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel, who has found himself transported into the world of a paperback novel called Rummies of the Open Road, written by none other than perhaps the world’s greatest unknown author (besides Arnold): Horace P. Sternwall

(Kindly go here to read our preceding episode; in case you’ve somehow missed the previous 399 chapters you may click here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 79-volume masterpiece.)

“Has it really been only 400 chapters so far of this towering
chef-d'œuvre? Somehow it seem like a hell of a lot more than that, but then, after all, who packs more pounds per literary punch than Arnold Schnabel?” – Harold Bloom, in The Boxing Illustrated Literary Quarterly.

“What do you mean?” I said, although I knew what he meant. I only said what I said for something to say, to say something against this awful feeling that I was trapped and trapped for good this time.

“I mean,” he said, and for some reason he seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the serious-looking expression he was making with his face (which I suppose I should mention had not been shaved in two or three days, I would have mentioned this detail earlier if I were a real writer), “what if all this –”

He made another great, outward wave with his arm, the one that ended in that big soft hand whose fingers held the cigar, a great sweeping wave indicating the dark road beyond this graveled lot, and the universe beyond that road.

“What if all of this is already written?”

“Yes,” I said. “You said that.”

“In the pages of a paperback novel,” he said. “All down on the printed page in black-and-white.”

“Even this?” I said, and I made the smallest wave possible with my own hand. “Me being here. Talking to you about being here.”

“Precisely,” he said. “Already written.”

“And me listening to you say that this is already written: this too is all already written.”

“Right,” he said. “And the very words that you have just spoken: already written.”

“And the words you’ve spoken just now,” I said.

“Written,” he said.

“What about the words we haven’t spoken yet,” I said.

“Also written,” he said.

“What about what I don’t speak,” I said. ”What about what I’m thinking right now.”

“That’s all written too,” he said, and he tapped his cigar ash off again, even though there wasn’t much ash to tap. But I guess he wanted to make a suitable gesture underlying the profundity of his thought. “Interior monologue,” he went on. “I do that kinda stuff all the time in my novels and stories. It’s even what you might call a sort of a recurrent motif in my work. Wait. Maybe motif isn’t the right word; let’s say a recurring narrative device or mode –”

“So,” I said.

“Yes?” he said. “I daresay your line is next.”

“So you’re saying,” I said, “that you are the one who has written all this.”

“Well, not to blow my own horn, but my name was on the book, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Your name was.”

My name,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Your name was on the cover.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” he said, but with what I felt was a cowardly taint in his intonation.

I just looked at him for a moment.

Then I decided to spell it out for him, even if what I had to say already was written, if not by him then by somebody or something.

“Look, Horace,” I said. “I know Mr. Philpot, and I know what sort of trade he specializes in. He sells people books that haven’t been written yet.”

“Not until we buy them,” he said. “And pay a good price for them, too!”

“Yes,” I said. “I saw him transact just such a deal with another writer, so that he could put his name on the book and say it was his.”

“Who was it?”

I had to think for a second.

“Oh, I remember,” I said. “His name is Thurgood.”

“Thurgood! That hack! No, he’s worse than a hack, he’s a so-called ‘serious’ writer who writes these oh-so-serious literary novels, but they stink! No one wants to read those kinds of books!”

“Well, you’re probably right about that,” I said.

“I know I’m right! People like to read books about guys caught in a dangerous web of passion and betrayal!”

“I know,” I said.

“Books where at least somebody gets bumped off!”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Or, like, books about rocket ships in outer space. And monsters!”

“True,” I said.

“Books about pirates.”

“I know,” I said.

“And cowboys. Everybody likes a good cowboy yarn. Blazing six guns!”

“That’s true,” I said.

“But no matter what the genre, there’s just one thing you need to make a good book even better.”

“What’s that, Horace?” I said, because I knew he was going to say it anyway, so why not get it over with.

“Lots of scenes of passionate love-making, preferably illicit.”

This time I said nothing.

“Oh,” he said. “What? You don’t go for passionate illicit sex? You’re not a homo, are you?”

I said nothing again, if one can be said to say nothing, again.

“But wait,” he said, “homos dig passionate love-making too. They just like homo passionate love-making. So, what is it, you’re just a tight-ass? A prude?”

A few seconds ticked by, the seconds of this particular universe I was in.

“You know something, Horace,” I finally said.

“What? Is this the moment when you secretly announce to me that you had your balls blown off in the war by a land mine? So now I’ll have to feel all guilty and shit, just because I never saw action and stayed well behind the lines writing for the Stars and Stripes?”

Again I had to pause, just to take all that in.

“I wanted to serve,” said Horace. “I wanted to fight for my country. Was it my fault I had a high school diploma and a couple of semesters’ worth of City College courses under my belt, and could type a hundred words a minute? My fault that it took me six months to get through basic training and that I barely qualified with the M-1? My fault they kept me stuck in an office typing up press releases instead of losing my balls on the battlefield like brave Joes like you? You think this shame hasn’t eaten away at my guts all these years? Eaten away, eaten away like a goddam cancer? Like a goddam starving rabid weasel in my gut?”

He was actually crying now, and he took a dirty-looking red-and-white checked handkerchief out of his work trousers and dabbed his face with it.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I said, and I’m sorry about you losing your balls. I’m sorry about the whole damn thing.”

He let out a few gasping sobs. They seemed almost as if they might be authentic.

“It’s okay, Horace,” I said. “I didn’t lose my balls.”

He snuffled, and looked at me, his head cocked to one side.

“You didn’t?”

“No,” I said. “And it’s true I was in the army, but I never saw combat either.”


“Not only that,” I said. “But I was glad not to see combat. I was a coward.”

“You – you were?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Like me,” he said.

“Maybe,” I said. “Were you really a coward?”

“Oh, absolutely!” he said.

“There you go,” I said. “So we were both cowards.”

He finished wiping his face, and he stuffed that dirty handkerchief – it looked like a restaurant napkin actually – back into his pocket.

“So then,” he said, “this means our narrative will take a different trajectory. It will be not just one, but two cowards – each trying separately and together to attain some sort of, oh, how shall I put it – redemption. But which one of us, if either, shall attain it? You, or I? Or both? Unfortunately, usually in this sort of tale you see one character has to die; but perhaps the dead man will reach that moment of redemption just before, or just at, the moment of death. I hate to say it, my friend, but all the signals point to you being the doomed character. But please be strong, for who knows how long this novel may be?”

“It only looked like about a hundred-and-seventy-five pages,” I said.

“Yes, but still you can pack a lot into a hundred-and-seventy-five pages. Years, decades, whole lifetimes if you want –”

“Listen, Horace,” I said.


“I’m not worried about any of that.”

“What? You’re not worried about dying?”

“Well –”

“You should be worried about dying since it’s already been written, pal.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I said.

“Oh, and why?”

“Because I can’t believe that anything so stupid as the conversation we’ve just had could possibly have been written ahead of time.”

Now it was Horace’s turn to pause.

He took a drag of his cigar before speaking again.

“So you think all this has been stupid?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I do. And I have read a lot of stupid novels in my time. But none of them has ever been as stupid as everything we’ve been doing and saying since we met.”

He stared at me for a long moment before he spoke. 

And then he said:

“That’s really cold, Arnold.”

“It’s the truth,” I said.

“You do realize I’m the author of this book,” he said.

“No, Horace,” I said. “You’re not the author. At first I thought you were, possibly, in some way, but now I think differently.”

“Oh, you do, do you? Smart guy –”

“You see, Horace,” I said, interrupting his interruption, “you paid Mr. Philpot for a book that you could put your name on, but that’s not the same as actually writing the book.”

“But I told him what sort of book I wanted it to be – a bold new direction for me, something with a little less savage violence and a whole lot more boozing and passionate, savage sex – in fact I distinctly remember telling him to make it a picaresque tale of two rascally gentlemen of the road –”

“Horace,” I said.


“Coming up with an idea for a book is not the same as writing it.”

“But I even came up with the title!” he yelled.

“Well, that’s something,” I said. “But making up a title is still a long way away from sitting down and really writing the book.”

He looked at me. He raised his cigar as if to take another drag, but then he stopped and pointed the lit end of the cigar at me.

“You are really a hard ass, aren’t you?” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t.

He paused again, then took a drag on his cigar. He was pretty good at using that cigar as punctuation, I had to hand him that much.

“Okay, fine,” he said. “I’m not saying I agree with you, but let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re right and I’m not the author. So who is the author then? Huh? Smart guy? You, I suppose?”

I thought it over for no more than two seconds. Then:

“No,” I said.

So who is the goddam author?” said Horace.

This was a fair question. I looked at him. And then I looked around, at the place we had just left, a plain rectangular stuccoed building with a neon sign reading L   S ROADHOUSE, along with a few other electric beer signs in the brick-glass windows, and I looked out beyond the graveled lot to the dark trees, and beyond the lot to the dark road and the dark woods beyond the road, and up above to the purple nighttime sky dusted with a million stars.

“There is no author,” I said.

“No author?” he said. “How can a book not have an author? You’re weirding me out, man.”

“It’s like life,” I said. “There is no author.”

“So you’re saying shit just happens. Randomly.”

“Yes,” I said. “Shit happens.”

“That’s depressing,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “But on the other hand –”

I paused. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say, if anything. But then again, perhaps what I was going to say really was already written.

“What?” said Horace. “Out with it, man, because you’re really giving me the heebie-jeebies.”

“I think we have the power to make choices,” I said.

“We do?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What kind of choices?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’re making choices right now.”

“We are? What choices?”

I paused, but only for one second this time.

“We’re choosing to speak nonsense,” I said.

“That’s true, isn’t it?” said Horace, after a slight pause of his own. “And if what you say is true then it is in our power to make another and I think a much more important choice.”

“What’s that, Horace?” I said, although I knew what he was going to say, just as surely as if I were reading it in a book.

“We can,” he said, “choose to go back in that barroom and get a rip-roaring load on – that’s what we can damn well choose!”

He stared at me. I could tell he thought he’d said something very clever.

I looked away from him, out at the road. The road was dark and so were the woods beyond it.

I looked back at Horace.

“Come on, Arnold,” he said. He put his hand on my arm. He gave it a squeeze. Even though it was a soft hand, it felt strong. “Live a little,” he said. “What could go wrong?”

(Continued here, thanks in large part to the generous sponsorship of Bob’s Bowery Bar™, at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “Leave your worries at the door when you come in here. No one wants to hear them anyway. Try Bob’s ‘basement-brewed’ house bock, two bits a mug.”)

(Please look to the right hand column of this page to find what on a good week is an up-to-date listing of links to all other legally-released chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, presented free, gratis and for nothing as a public service; also published in the Collingswood Patch™: “All the tedious local news, plus Railroad Train to Heaven™.”)

Friday, June 20, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 399: body & soul

Our hero Arnold Schnabel has found himself transported into the world of a paperback novel titled Rummies of the Open Road, by one “Horace P. Sternwall”, who also happens to be a character in this world...

(Please click here to read our previous chapter; those of a mind may go here to venture all the way back to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 61-volume memoir.)

“What better way to escape the heat of a summer’s day than to stay indoors, crank up the A/C, settle into one’s favorite easy chair, and lose oneself in the magical world (or, rather, ‘worlds’) of Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in The
Air-Conditioning Monthly Literary Supplement.

He had turned his head to gaze out at the dark open road and now he turned back to me, smiling, in a way that seemed to indicate that I was supposed to be impressed.

He put his cigar in his mouth and dragged on it, then slowly let the smoke out of his mouth to rise up into the light from the streetlamp. 

“So!” he said, with a sudden exclamation point. “You wanted to have a chat about something?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Fire away then, my friend!”

I paused.

How to begin. 

He stood there smiling, his head cocked slightly to one side, as if he had no idea what I wanted to talk about, but was still nevertheless curious – or at least pretending to be curious – about what I had to say.

I plunged into it.

“You were a voice trapped in a book,” I said.

“Not even a voice, to be honest,” he said, still smiling. “A disembodied consciousness. Remember, I was communicating with you telepathically.”

“Right,” I said. “I stand corrected. You were a disembodied consciousness –”

“Unable to see, to hear, to smell, to feel – can you imagine the tediousness of such a situation?”

“You were trapped – imprisoned – in the pages of a paperback novel –”

“Yes, Rummies of the Open Road, in fact,” he said. “By no other than yours truly, Horace P. Sternwall, at your service, sir!”

“Trapped in a book under a stack of Tom Swift books –”

“Arrant formulaic crap those books! But they sell, they do sell –”

“You were imprisoned in this book under a stack of other books in the storage room of a book shop –”

“Yes,” he said. “Philpot’s Rare Book Shop. That mean stingy money-grubbing, spiteful –”

“You were trapped in that book –”

“Yes, trapped, imprisoned, by that old bastard Philpot! And all because I was short a hundred and fifty bucks! I was gonna pay him! He didn’t have to do that. Did he? How sadistic was that?”

“And,” I said, “if I may continue –”

“Yes, of course, sorry,” he said.

“So,” I said, “you asked me, a total stranger, to open the book, to free you –”

“And I thank you for this! Did I thank you? If not let me please thank you now, sir –”

“You got me to open the book –”

“And again, thank you so much for that –”

“But,” I said.

But?” he said, as if I had said some incomprehensible word from the Zulu or Hottentot languages.

“But,” I said, “you didn’t tell me that this was going to happen.”

“’This’,” he said. “’This’ – could you be more specific?”

“This,” I said, waving my hand at the universe, this present universe. “All this. Just what I told you I was afraid was going to happen.”

“Oh. That,” he said. He waved his own hand, but in a perfunctory-looking away. “This,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You didn’t tell me I would myself become trapped once again in some stupid fictional universe.”

“You don’t know that it’s stupid. You’ve only been here for –”

“It’s stupid,” I said. “And it’s all your fault that I’m stuck here.”

“How is it my fault? I didn’t force you to open the book, my friend.”

“You begged and pleaded with me.”

“Well, that may be so, but –”

“When all along you knew what was going to happen to me.”

“Hey, the whole world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.”

“I don’t even know what you mean by that,” I said.

“Well, it’s just that – look, buddy – all I wanted was to be human again – to be able to see and feel and touch, to move around, to feel a woman’s warm and soft flesh! To drink a cold beer. What – am I to be condemned for this?”

“You tricked me.”

“I tricked you? How did I trick you?”

“By getting me to open that stupid book, when you knew what would happen to me.”

“I didn’t ‘know’,” he said.

“Ha,” I said.

“I swear I didn’t, sir!” he said. “How am I to know how Philpot’s infernal spells work? You must believe me!”

I looked away.

He put his hand on my arm.

“Herbert,” he said. “You must believe me. I didn’t know. I just wanted to be – to be –”

I looked at him.

“My name is Arnold,” I said. “If it matters.”

“Arnold! of course! Arnold! Arnold, uh, Schubert, right?”

“Schnabel,” I said.

“Sorry! Schnabel! Arnold Schnabel! You must believe me, Arnold! If I had known that your opening the book would – would –”

“Exile me into yet another stupid fictional world,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Had I known that that was going to happen I should never have asked you to, you know –”

“Open the book,” I said.

“Yes! I should have said, ‘Fare thee well, my friend, go – go and enjoy your life in, in –’”

“In some other fictional world,” I said.

“Or even your ‘own’ world,” he said. “Whatever. 'Go. Be happy. Get drunk,’ I should have said. ‘Go get laid. Find a nice clean willing lassie and –’”

“All right, stop,” I said.

“’Put it in once for me,’ I should have said,” he said. “’Just one good thrust for old Horace’s sake –’”

“I said stop it,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said. “But it’s true. I should never have, you know –”

“So you’re really saying,” I said, “that you would have voluntarily remained just a disembodied consciousness, trapped in the pages of a paperback novel.”

“Well, uh –”

“For all eternity,” I said.

He took another drag of his cigar and again let the smoke slowly stream out of his lips and up into the cool clean night air of the country.

He looked at the lit end of the cigar, tapped the cigar with the index finger of the hand that held it, and the ash fell down to the gravel at our feet.

He looked at me.

“Okay,” he said. “If I had known that you would be transported to this – this universe if I had known, which again, I most assuredly did not know, not for certain, anyway – well, yes, I should still have asked you to open the book. I’m sorry. But, listen, you try being a disembodied consciousness for who knows how long. You try that and see how boring it is, without even the hope of death. Go on, try it sometime!”

I looked away.

He put his hand on my arm, my left arm.

“Am I to be despised for saying what I’ve just said? For admitting what I have just admitted?”

I sighed. This might have been my ten thousandth sigh of the day, I had lost count.

I put my right hand on his wrist and pulled his hand away from my arm.

“No, you’re not to be despised,” I said. “I suppose I would have done the same.”

“None of us is without fault,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said.

“Very few people are capable of self-sacrifice.”

“I know,” I said.

“So you’re not mad at me?”

“I’m a little mad,” I said. “But not at you.”

“If you’re going to be mad at anyone, be mad at Philpot.”

“What difference does it make who I’m mad at?” I said.

“Well, now you’re waxing philosophical. I cannot speak philosophically without a drink in my hand. Shall we return to the bar? Our beers will be getting warm, and flat.”

He put his hand on on my arm again but I stood firm, and once again I removed his hand from my arm.

“Listen,” I said. “Howard is it?”

“Horace,” he said. “Horace P. Sternwall.”

I knew that. I had only called him Howard because in fact I was mad at him, unjustifiably perhaps, but such was the case.

“Okay – Horace,” I said. “Look, I have to get out of here.”

“Get out of here? But we have drinks waiting for us in there. I asked Trixie to order us a couple of beers and whiskies, remember?”

“I mean I want to get out of all of this –” I said, waving my hand again, as if I were swatting at a mosquito that wouldn’t go away, “this, this universe.”

Now Horace paused, staring at me. After a few seconds he spoke:

“Well, good luck with that, my friend,” he said. “And if you find a way, do please let me know! Now, let’s go get those drinks!”

Once again he put his hand on my arm, and gave it a tug. 

I noticed his shirt for the first time. It was a white shirt, but wrinkled and faded, and with what looked like coffee stains on it. He wore a wide tie, knotted loosely, and I noticed that the top button on his shirt was missing. The tie was decorated with little palm trees, brown and green on a blue background. The tie had stains on it also.

Horace P. Sternwall gave my arm another tug.

“Listen, Arnie,” he said, in a softer voice. “Maybe – just maybe – we can even get our ends wet tonight. Trixie already offered to find a girl for you, didn’t she? How much dough do you have on ya? I figure one of these girls in there shouldn’t run a fellow more than a sawbuck a pop, maybe a few drinks on top of it. Whaddaya say, pal? Maybe we’ll even get a warm flop for the night. Beats sleeping out in the woods –”

Another tug on my arm, but I didn’t budge.

“Hold on,” I said, and once again I removed his hand from my arm.

“Now what?” he said.

“I have an idea,” I said.

“Well, that’s just great, Arnie. And what’s your –”

“Look,” I said, “you’re supposedly the author of this book we’re in, right?”

“Well, yes, technically that’s true I suppose,” he said. “I mean my name is on the cover –”

“So if you’re the author,” I said, “that means you can decide what will happen in the book.”

“Uh-huh –”

“Yes,” I said. “So – so – um –”

I was struggling. Sometimes I’m not so good with words.

“So what you’re saying,” said Horace P. Sternwall, “is that I can possibly change the narrative of the novel we’re in to one wherein you – indeed perhaps both of us – return to our own worlds?”

“Or at least to the world we were in before,” I said.

“Brilliant idea,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“But what if –”

Now it was he who paused. He took another few puffs on his cigar, the kind writers call “contemplative puffs” I suppose.

“What if what?” I said.

“What if –”


“What if –”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I said.

“Well, aren’t we impatient!” he said.

I really wanted to punch him, something I have only rarely done in my life, in any of my lives, but I held off, thinking that punching the author of the universe I was in might not be such a great idea.

I waited.

“What if,” he said.

Now I lost patience all over again.

“Please just say it, Horace,” I said.

“I’m not so sure you’ll like it after I say it.”

“I don’t care.”

“So you want me to say it.”

“Yes,” I said. “Please say it.”

“What if this book we’re in –” he gestured with his hand, and as he did he gazed up to the left, to the right, and then back at me – ”all this –”

“Yes,” I said. “Please go on.”

“This book – this, as you say, fictional universe –”

“Right,” I said.

He looked at me, and now he wasn’t smiling.

“What if the book has already been written?”

(Continued here, and onward, thanks in part to the generous sponsorship of Bob’s Bowery Bar™, at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “No shoes or shirt, no service. Even Bob’s has its standards.”)

(Illustration by James Avati. Please look to the right hand column of this page for an often-current listing of links to all other published chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©; Arnold’s adventures are also available in the Collingswood Patch™: “An oasis of culture and civility amidst the cultural wasteland of South Jersey.”)

Friday, June 13, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 398: open road

We left our memoirist Arnold Schnabel “falling, falling forward into those printed words” on the first page of a cheap paperback novel titled Rummies of the Open Road  (by one “Horace P. Sternwall”) here  in the lavatory in the back of Philpot’s Rare Book Shop in old Greenwich Village, on this rainy night in August of 1957...

(Kindly go here to read our preceding chapter; those who are willing to go where eagles dare may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 69-volume memoir.)

“Arnold Schnabel: the master of the poetic curveball, the stylistic change-up, the plot-line screwball, and – just when you least expect it – the high inside hard one of an
aperçu that sends you sprawling in the dirt with your ears ringing and wondering just what the fuck it was that just shattered your brand new batter’s helmet.” – Harold Bloom, in the Sports Illustrated Literary Quarterly.

I closed my eyes tight, in panic, and then I opened them and – no big surprise, not really, not at this point in my soul’s journey – I was in a noisy, crowded barroom, with a jukebox blaring rock and roll music. Standing in front of me leaning back against the bar was the man on the cover of Rummies of the Open Road, the man with the brown leather jacket and the dark grey fedora and with a cigar in his smiling face.

He had his arm around a blonde in a low-cut blue blouse sitting on a barstool, the same blonde girl who had also been on the cover of that paperback.

“Wow,” said the man with the fedora. “You did it, pal.”

“Did what?” I said.

“You brought me to life. Thanks a lot, buddy, I owe you one.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Horace?” said the blonde.

“Nothing, sweetheart, nothing,” said the man.

He took his arm away from the blonde and offered me his hand.

“Sternwall’s the name, by the way,” he said. “Horace P. Sternwall. But call me Horace.”

I don’t know why, but I took his hand. He didn’t give me one of those death-grip handshakes, but he did hold onto it after the initial shake. He even put his other hand over mine.

“And what do they call you, my friend?”

“Arnold,” I said. I don’t know why I gave him my real name. I could have called myself Porter Walker or Jacob Schmidt or Joe Blow, what did it matter?

Arnold,” said the man, Horace P. Sternwall, if that was really his name. “And what is your surname if I may be so bold?”

“Schnabel,” I said.

Schnabel,” he said. “Would you mind spelling that out for me?”

I minded, but I did as he asked.

“Ah,” he said. “Schnabel. With an ‘S-C-H’.”

“Right,” I said.


“That’s correct,” I said.

Arnold Schnabel,” he said. “A good name. A good strong German name. Do you know what Schnabel means in German?”

“Yes,” I said, wearily, as I had been asked this same question hundreds of times, even by my fellow workers on the railroad, semi-literate as most of them were.

“It means ‘beak’,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“Good, an educated man,” said this Horace P. Sternwall, and he gave my hand another squeeze with both his hands. "Let me guess – Harvard? No, Yale. I can always tell a Yale man. It's that certain reserved panache."

“Actually,” I said, “I didn't even finish high school, let alone go to college.”

“Ernie Hemingway never went to college.”

“Really?” I said.

“I went to the occasional class myself,” he said, still holding onto my hand with both of his; they were big hands, but soft and uncallused, moist and a little sticky, “Never took a degree though. But, y’know, it’s not in college that you learn about life, but in places like this. Don’t you agree?”

“It depends on what you mean by life,” I said.

“A discerning point, and a true one,” he said. “By the way, may I call you Arnold? Or 'Arnie' perhaps?”

“Call him Arnie,” piped up the blonde, who had been sipping a multi-colored drink through a straw all during this. “Arnie’s a cute name.”

“Arnie it is then,” said Horace P. Sternwall. “Welcome, Arnie.”

He gave my hand another shake, with both his hands.

“Thank you,” I said, hoping he would now let go of my hand.

He didn’t let go of my hand though. He shook it one more time in both of his hands, those big damp soft but slightly sticky hands.

“Welcome, Arnie,” he said, with a big smile on his face, his cigar wagging in his teeth. “Welcome to my world.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Now can I have my hand back?”

“Oh, but of course,” he said, and he did let go of my hand after one last good squeeze.

I flexed the hand a couple of times. It was slimy with sweat now. I rubbed it on the side of my jeans, both the palm and the back of it.

“You’re probably wondering where we are exactly,” said the man.

“Does it matter?” I said.

He laughed in a way that writers always call “hearty,” and clapped me on the shoulder, all the while keeping that cigar in his mouth. This guy was a pro all right. A pro at being just like one of the characters in all those cheap paperbacks I used to read on layovers when I was on the railroad, all those novels I would read and then just leave on an empty passenger seat on the train or on a bench in the station, leaving it there waiting for the next bored person who came along and who wanted to escape his own reality at least until the train came to his stop. 

But then I realized all at once that this man was actually something more than a character in a cheap novel.

“What did you say your name was again?” I said.

“Sternwall, pal. Horace P. Sternwall, at your service, sir.”

He doffed his hat and made a little bow. 

“Aw,” said the girl, “you’re such a card, Horace.”

“That’s me, baby,” said Horace P. Sternwall. “The life of the party!”

I stared at him.

So he was the author of this new book I was trapped in. That was a new wrinkle.

“Oh, but I have been rude!” said Horace suddenly, putting his hat back on. “Arnie, may I introduce Trixie?”

“Hiya, Arnie,” said Trixie, and she offered her hand in that weird way some women do, palm down, fingers dangling.

I took her limp hand briefly, and gave it a curt shake. I tried not to look at her bosom, roughly half of which was visible, along with much of a lacy white brassiere.

“Pleased to meet you, Trixie,” I said.

“Won’t you join me and Horace for a drink, Arnie?”

“Yeah, join us for a drink, Arnie,” said Horace.

He reached into a side pocket of his trousers – they were plain greyish-green pants of the sort a foreman of a small machine shop might wear, or the manager of a filling station, and they looked like they hadn’t seen an iron or a washing machine in a month or so – and he took out a worn cracked tan leather wallet, opened it up and peered into it, thumbing the four or five bills that were in there.

“I still got a few bucks to spend,” he said. “Let’s get our load on.”

“Hey, Arnie,” said Trixie, “you want I should find you a nice girl?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“You ain’t a homo, are you?” she said. “Good-looking strapping fella like you?”

“Excuse me,” I said, choosing not to answer her question. “Horace, can we talk alone for just a minute?”

Horace turned to Trixie with a concerned-looking look on his face.

“Do you mind, Trixie?” he said.

“No, you boys go right ahead and have a little pow-wow. I know how it is with men. Sometimes you got to talk about man things. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Thank you for being so understanding, Trixie,” said Horace.

“Just give me some money for another Pousse Café,” she said.

“Sure, baby,” said Horace.

He still had his wallet in his hand. He took out a five and handed it to her. She took it, shoved it under the top part of her blouse and into her brassiere, and then held out her hand again, palm up.

Horace sighed, took out another five, and handed it to her.

“Do me a favor, Trixie, order me and Arnie a couple beers, too – two cold bottles of Tree Frog Ale. And two shots of Heaven Sent bourbon.”

“And another Pousse Café pour moi,” she said.

“Yes, and another Pousse Café pour toi, ma petite,” said Horace.

He put his wallet away, then patted me on the shoulder again.

“Come with me, Arnie. We’ll step outside and talk where it’s quiet.”

He took me by the arm and led me through this crowded noisy barroom, which felt like the one-hundredth crowded noisy barroom I had been in the past twenty-four hours.

I noticed that I was not walking with a limp, and that I was not in pain from any of my recent injuries. So at least I had that going for me.

We came to a door, Horace opened it and then with one hand gently herded me through.

I came out onto a graveled open lot, with twenty or more cars and trucks parked all around. There was a streetlight on a pole off to the right, so the yard was fairly well lit, but beyond was only a dark road, with trees on the other side. To the right and left beyond the lot were more trees in the darkness. Up above was a nighttime sky, filled with stars that you only see outside of a city.

Horace came out behind me, and closed the door. With the door shut it was much more quiet out here than it had been in the barroom, although you could still hear the muffled sound of the jukebox and people’s faint laughing and shouting voices. The leaves in the trees made a rustling sound, and the air was cool, and clean-smelling.

A car zoomed by, at high speed. Its sound drifted away and then was lost in the murmuring of the wind in the trees

Finally Horace took that cigar out of his mouth, and he pointed out at the road with the lit end of the cigar.

“There it is,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“The road,” he said. “The titular ‘open road’.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

“And you and me, my friend, you know what we are, don’t you?”

“Damned?” I said.

“Ha ha!” laughed Horace. That is, he actually said “Ha ha”, although come to think of it, he didn’t really laugh, just smiled. “That well might be,” he said. “Yes, that well might be! But that’s not what I meant. No, my friend – do you know who we are?”

“I have an idea,” I said.

“You want me to tell you?”

“I neither want nor don’t want you to,” I said, because I was finally starting not to worry about offending people.

“Ha ha,” he said again, and again not laughing, and barely smiling, “you crack me up, Arnie. I think I’m gonna like you. But seriously, you know who we are?”

“Tell me,” I said, just to get it over with as quickly as possible.

“We are the rummies,” he said. “We are the rummies of the open road.”

(Click here for our next thrilling chapter. I would like to thank my colleague the illustrious rhoda penmarq, who first introduced the world to the previously forgotten literary giant Horace P. Sternwall. This chapter marks the beginning of a whole new volume of Arnold's adventures, to be continued relentllessly, thanks in no small part to a generous grant from Bob’s Bowery Bar™, on the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “Try Bob’s famous ‘basement-brewed’ House Bock: it won’t kill your hangover but it will make you forget you have one.”)

(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a usually up-to-date listing of links to all other published  chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©; Arnold’s adventures also appear in the Collingswood Patch: “Come to read the latest installment of Railroad Train to Heaven©, stay for the gardening tips and local news!”)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 397: open it

On this rainy night in August of 1957 we left our hero Arnold Schnabel in the small water closet in the rear of Philpot’s Rare Book Shop in Greenwich Village, with his new acquaintance: a garrulous cheap paperback novel… 

(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; potential completists may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 69-volume memoir.)

“I divide my life as a
littérateur into two sections or epochs: the first part, in which I made do with the works of Joyce, of Shakespeare, of Horace P. Sternwall and all the other giants of the so-called canon; and the second part, which began that fateful day when I stumbled upon the towering chef-d'œuvre of Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in The Hustler Literary Supplement.

I was relieved not only in the physical sense but also because the prince of darkness’s head did not appear in the toilet bowl.

It took a while, and I felt an odd tingling in my organ of micturition. I reasoned that this must be the effect of the remains of the ambrosia-infused bock I was now voiding from my bladder, and I fancied also that I could feel the effect of the ambrosia draining from my corporeal form. Ever since drinking that mug of bock I had been free of my various pains - in my legs and knees, my forearms and elbows and hands, my head and face – but now I felt them subtly returning with each ounce of liquid I sent streaming into the bowl.

At last I finished my business, put that most problematic of all bodily organs away, zipped up, and pulled the chain.

A mighty crashing cacophony now reverberated from within the plumbing, as if a ton of ball bearings had been poured into the pipes from a funnel on the roof of the building and were now working their mad and heedless way down to the bowels of the underworld.

I closed the lid of the toilet. I had lived most of my life with my mother and I had been trained well in the protocols of the lavatory.

I now turned to the sink. There was a small piece of soap on a dish with a faded floral design. I turned on the taps and began to wash my hands, and no, I don’t know why I’m recounting all this. Perhaps I never should have discontinued those pills the doctors prescribed for my madness, who knows?

“So,” said the book, “feel better now?”

I flinched – as if I had been slapped on the back unexpectedly, or shot in the back with a BB gun, or, more exactly, as if I had forgotten I had brought a talking book into the rest room with me.

“Um, yes,” I said, after composing myself for a moment. “Thank you.”

“Good,” said the book. “I’m glad. Of all life’s little pleasures, really, what can compare to taking a good piss when you really got to go?”

“Not much,” I said, hoping he or it would change the subject. I tried not to look at that garish paperback, but after all, there it was right in front of me on the shelf below the mirror. There was one guy in that barroom scene on the cover, a fellow of about forty or so, wearing what looked like a brown leather jacket and a dark grey fedora, with a cigar in his mouth and his arm around the waist of a good-looking blonde girl who was sitting on a bar stool. The guy was smiling broadly as the girl touched his chin, and the disconcerting thing was he seemed to be looking right at me.

“The simple pleasures,” said the guy in the painting on the cover. “A good piss. A good shit –”

“Okay,” I said.

“What? I offend you?” said the man.

“Look –” I said. I had washed and rinsed my hands and turned off the taps, and now I looked for something to dry my hands with with.

“What are you, a prude?” said the man with the dark grey fedora.

I realized that there was a hand towel hanging on a hook on the door. It didn’t look very clean, but I grabbed it anyway.

“You don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to,” said the guy.

It was strange, his lips were moving but everything else in the picture was frozen and immobile, even the cigar held between his teeth.

“I only asked a civil question,” he said.

“What was the question?” I said, slowly drying my hands. I didn’t know why I was so slowly drying them, and I don’t know now, but it was if my hands were working in slow motion, as if I had thrust them into in a barrel stuffed tightly full of cotton balls.

“I asked if you were a prude,” said the guy, those lips moving the way Clutch Cargo’s did in that TV cartoon. “Perhaps it was rude of me even to ask.”

“Oh,” I said, my hands still working slowly with the towel as if the air were made of invisible Jell-O. “Yes, I suppose I am a bit of a prude. But I just prefer not to talk about – about –”

“About pissing and shitting.”

“Yes,” I said.

“So I guess any talk of fucking – or masturbation even – is strictly out of the question?”

“These are subjects I prefer not to speak of, yes,” I said.

“These acts are all essential components of life, you know.”

“I realize that,” I said. 

“So you’re a prude,” said the guy. “Well, that’s your choice.”

“It’s not a choice,” I said.

“It’s who you are then,” he said.

“It’s part of who I am,” I said. “But look –”

My hands were more or less dry now, and I slowly began the process of hanging the towel back up on its hook, very slowly, my hand moving at the rate of maybe an inch a second.

“Me,” said the man on the cover, “I’m what I suppose you would call a free spirit. Nothing is off limits for me as far as conversation goes, and as far as living my life – well, let me put it this way: life is meant to be lived. What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to hang the hand towel back up,” I said. “But I seem to be moving in slow motion.”

“It could be worse,” said the man.

“Everything could always be worse,” I said.

“It’s this damn shop,” said the man. “This damn shop and that Philpot. It’s like the laws of nature don’t apply here.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I said.

“You know what I think?” said the man.

I had finally got the towel on its hook, and now my hand was slowly making its way back.

“I said you know what I think?” said the man.

“No,” I said.

“So you’re not a mind reader?”

“I can barely read my own mind, let alone someone else’s,” I said. “Let alone –”

“Let alone a talking book?”

I said nothing. 

“Anyway,” said the moving lips in that smiling face on the book cover, “I think he’s made a deal with the devil. Philpot has. That’s what I think.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said.

“Or maybe he’s in league with God,” said the man. “After all, what evidence do we have that God is such a nice guy?”

“I have to go now,” I said.

“Where to?”

“My friends are waiting for me outside.”

“Wait, you just gonna leave me here? In this john? That’s cold, Jack. Very cold.”

I paused.

“What would you rather I do?” I said.

“Open up the book. Let me out.”

“You want me to open the book.”

“What did I just say?”

“Um,” I said.

“Just open it up. No big deal. Open it up and let me outa here. Go ahead, pick the book up,” said those little moving lips.

Slowly I reached over and picked the book up.

“Very good,” said the man. “Now, with your other hand just take the edge of the cover and turn it.”

I started to do this, but as soon as my thumb touched the lower edge of the cover I stopped.

What,” said the man in the fedora. “Why did you stop?”

“May I ask you a question first?” I said.

“Sure,” said the voice, although he sounded impatient. “Ask away. I would say I am an open book, but alas I am not. What is your question?”

“How did you get in this book?” I said.

“How did I get in the – what do you think?”

I thought for a few seconds. I tried to think, although my brain cells were embedded in Jell-O.

“I think Mr. Philpot put you in there,” I said.

“Bingo!” said the man with the moving lips. “And you know why?”

“No,” I said.

“Take a guess.”

“You owed him money?”

“He claimed I owed him money.”

“Oh,” I said.

“And – okay – I did owe him money, technically speaking. I made a deal with him. Five hundred bucks for this book you now hold in your hand.”

“Five hundred dollars?”

The price printed on the upper left corner of the cover was only twenty-five cents.

“I know that seems steep,” said the man. “But it was to be my book, custom-made. One of Philpot’s specialities. I’m sure you’re familiar.”

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“And you know what a hardnose that old bastard is. He’ll get every penny out of you he can, and then send you out to mug an old lady to get some more.”

I remembered poor Thurgood, trading Philpot a Jaguar XK120 for his book. I was lucky in retrospect that Mr. Philpot had only charged me five dollars for my own book, even if all the pages did turn out to be blank, empty and void.

“So anyway,” said the voice, “I’ll admit it. I only had like three hundred fifty on me. So sue me. I was gonna get him the other yard-and-a-half. I’m no piker. Do I look like a piker?”

I didn’t want to answer that. The man on the cover did look like a piker.

“Okay,” said the moving lips with the unmoving cigar sticking out of them. “Don’t answer that. But let me ask you another question. Even if I was a hundred-fifty short, is that reason enough to condemn me for like perpetuity to be trapped in the pages of a paperback novel?”

“No,” I said, after only a slight hesitation.

“Don’t you think that’s a little shall we say harsh?”

“Yes,” I said.

“So open up the book and let me the hell out of here.”

“I’m afraid to,” I said.

“Afraid,” said the voice. “Afraid he says.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Afraid of what? It’s a fucking book for Christ’s sake. Pardon my French. What the hell are you afraid of?”

A,” I said. “I’m already trapped in a fictional universe.

“What?” said those moving lips.

“It’s a long story,” I said, “but all of this, this whole world we’re in, including myself, and you, it’s all fictional.”

“Okay,” said the voice. “I can accept that. Or at least I can accept that this is what you believe to be true.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Sure, fine,” said the voice. “But you said that was A – what’s B?”

B is that the last time I opened up someone else’s book in this world I got lost in yet another fictional world. And from that world I wound up in yet another fictional world within that world.”

“So you’re saying you were trapped in a fictional world inside a fictional world inside another fictional world.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“But you managed to get out of at least a couple of those worlds, obviously, or else you wouldn’t be here, right?”

“That’s true,” I said. “But it wasn’t easy.”

“Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t,” said the man. “So, we have something in common. We’re both stuck in a novel we don’t want to be in.”

“I guess so,” I said. “So, look –”

I started to lay the book back down again, but now the invisible Jell-O in which I existed was even thicker.

“One big difference though,” said the man. “If I may say so. Big difference being – hey, are you trying to lay this book down?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, do me a favor and stop it. Hear me out. Don’t be an asshole.”

“Sorry,” I said, apologizing to a cheap paperback novel.

“Difference between you and me being,” he said, “you have a body. You can walk around. You can take a pardon my saying so a piss. Even if this piss is in a fictional world. Am I right?”

“Yes,” I said, just wanting to get it over with.

“Well, good for you, pal,” said the man in the cover of the book. “But how about me? I’m just stuck here, a like disembodied consciousness in the pages of a cheap paperback novel.”

“You can talk though,” I said.

“I got news for you, pal. I am not really talking. I am communicating telepathically.”

“But – how can you can hear me?”

“I am reading your thoughts, my friend. Just as I am sensing your physical presence or as we say your corporeal host which contains your own consciousness. Get it?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“Imagine my life. Seeing nothing, feeling nothing. Does that sound like fun to you?”

“No,” I said.

“Then open up the fucking book and let me the hell out of here.”

“Do you really think my opening the book will help?” I said.

“How the hell do I know? But I do know it’s worth a shot. Now be a mensch and open the goddam book.”

“Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt just to open it,” I said. “A little, anyway –”

“Fine, great, now open it up, pal.”

In the end I was moved by pity.

I couldn’t say no.

I opened the book, slowly, because of the Jell-O all around me.

There was the title page.

Rummies of the Open Road

a novel by

Horace P. Sternwall

Under that were some words.

This is the story of a rummy,
I read. The story of a couple of rummies, actually. It’s not a pretty story but I feel that it’s a story that must be told…

I felt myself falling, falling forward into those printed words.

(Continued here, and down that long road that leads to no one knows where.)

(Kindly look to the right hand column of this page to find a purportedly up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©; published simultaneously in the Collingswood Patch: “All the news that’s fit to print, and Railroad Train to Heaven, too.”)