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.
“My friends are waiting for me outside.”
“Wait, you just gonna leave me here? In this john? That’s cold, Jack. Very cold.”
“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.”)