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!”)


Unknown said...

Fun to meet the real Horace P. Sternwall. I've lost track: Is this the first Horace P. Sternwall novel in which Arnold has "fallen?"

Dan Leo said...

That's a really good question, Kathleen, and of course I wasn't entirely sure, but, yes, two years ago (in "our" time, if not Arnold's) he fell, or escaped into, one of Horace's books titled "Say It With a .38":

Unknown said...

The link didn't work for me. Horace is and was prolific. It does worry me that Horace can make him do anything--whether the book's published or not. Another edition. An addendum, etc.

Dan Leo said...

Woops! I don't know why that link doesn't work. Anyway, it was way back in Part 300 if you want to click on it in the list of episodes in the side column! It was a book called "Say It With a .38", wherein Arnold somehow wound up in Singapore, in a tale told by one Ben Blagwell...