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...
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“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!”
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.”
“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.
“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.”)