“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.
“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?”
“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.
“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™.”)