Let’s rejoin our bold adventurer Arnold Schnabel here on the rear terrace of a certain roadhouse somewhere in the world of a supremely obscure “paperback original” novel titled called Rummies of the Open Road…
(Kindly go here to read our preceding chapter; if you’ve finally gone quite hopelessly mad then you might as well click here to go back to the very beginning of this 59-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“Finally the first cool breath of fall in the air: a retrospective time, a time to spend one’s evenings revisiting favorite passages from Arnold Schnabel’s towering and massive chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, in The People Magazine Literary Supplement.
“Nothing?” said Horace.
He sounded frightened, and who could blame him?
“That’s right,” she said. “Nothing.”
I would have been frightened too, but a great weariness had come over me, a weariness even stronger than the fear of nothingness.
“Miss, uh, Lily,” said Horace, “if I might be so bold as to ask –”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Horace,” she said, “just say what you have to say.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“And don’t be sorry. Spit it out.”
“Very well, then!” he said. “No more hemming or hawing, or beating as it were about the bush, heh heh –”
She raised that black sparkly purse of hers, now made heavier by Laughing Lou’s revolver inside it, raised it up to shoulder level and the first stage of a good face-smacking.
Horace put up both his hands palms outward in a defensive gesture and then quickly blurted out:
“Please don’t hit me Miss Lily I just wanted to say – or ask – when you said ‘nothing’ –”
She drew the purse back farther over her shoulder and Horace even more quickly babbled:
“When you said ‘nothing’ – did you – did you speak in the sense of ‘nothing of interest’, as in, oh, I don’t know, more woods, or perhaps a dull town or suburb, or –”
“I spoke in the sense of nothing,” she said. “As in: nothing. You want me to spell it out for you, Horace?”
“Nothing?” said Horace, again.
“Hey, don’t make the lady repeat herself, Horace,” said Ferdinand, who had flown out of my ear and was now hovering in front of Lily’s bosom again. “It ain’t polite.”
“Yes, but –” Horace turned and looked out again across that empty graveled lot, at those dark woods, at the dark starry night above them. Then he turned back again, to Lily, who had finally lowered her purse – “you must admit that the concept of nothing at all out there – it’s rather – disconcerting?”
Lily took a drag on her cigarette, then looked at me.
“Handsome boy doesn’t look too disconcerted.”
What could I say? A short time before all I had wanted was to get out of this universe and to return to my own world. But now all I wanted was to lie down somewhere halfway comfortable and take a good long nap.
“Well?” said Lily.
I think I opened my mouth, as if preparatory to speaking, but I had nothing to say. I was too tired, too sleepy to speak. For two cents I would have gone over to that cushioned porch glider against the wall, laid myself down on it, turned my back away from that dark world out there, and passed out.
Then suddenly Laughing Lou was thumping through the open French windows and joining us. He had an ice bucket under one arm, it was chrome-plated, or at least made to look like it was chrome-plated, and there was a magnum of champagne with a white napkin wrapped around it shoved into the ice that almost filled the bucket. In his right hand he held four tulip glasses by their bases, and he still had that big cigar in his mouth.
“Ha ha!” he said. “Champagne! Ha ha!”
He was back in his jovial mood, or at least in his “jovial” mood.
He went right over to the patio table and laid the ice bucket down.
“Come on, everybody, grab a seat, ha ha!” he said, and he laid the glasses around the table.
Horace and Lily headed for the table, and after a moment I did too, walking as if I were moving through air composed of invisible maple syrup.
Laughing Lou pulled out a chair for Lily, the one closest to the roadhouse, and she sat down facing outward to the empty lot and the dark woods beyond. He patted her bare arm, and she slapped his hand.
“Stop petting me, and open the damn champagne,” she said.
She turned to me, then gestured to the chair to her left.
“Come, sit, Mr. Schnabel. You, Mr. Sternwall, sit across from me where I can keep my eye on you. Lou, sit down there.” She gave a contemptuous sort of flick with her cigarette at the chair to her right. “But keep your hamlike paws to yourself unless you want a cigarette stubbed out in them.”
We all obediently took our assigned seats.
“What about me, Miss Lily?” said Ferdinand.
“You can stick near me,” she said. “I like you, Ferdy. May I call you Ferdy?”
“You can call me anything you like, Miss Lily,” said Ferdinand. “Including 'lover boy'.”
“Ha ha!” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! 'Lover boy!' Ha –”
Lily shot him a look and he shut up just as quickly as if he had been shot between the eyes.
Lily turned back to Ferdinand, who was hovering a foot or so away from her bosom.
“And you, Ferdy, you must call me Lily. No need for the ‘Miss’.”
“Lily it is then!” said Ferdinand.
“And I shall call you Ferdy,” she said.
Meanwhile Laughing Lou had reached over and picked up the champagne in its napkin – the champagne looked indeed to be the real French kind, although what did I know? I thought I saw some French writing on the part of the label not covered by the napkin. If this had been a James Bond novel maybe I could give you some details, but it wasn’t, I’m sorry. The reader, if there ever is a reader, will just have to use his or her imagination. Anyway, Laughing Lou set to work opening the big bottle, with his trusty big cigar in his mouth, tearing off foil and untwisting wire, but as he did this I felt something on my right thigh. I looked down, and it was Lily’s hand. This woke me right up. I raised my eyes, but she was just sitting there, smoking her cigarette, seemingly staring out at those dark woods and the stars and the deep dark starry night.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing.
Her hand caressed my thigh, kneading it gently.
I didn’t know why she had chosen me. I didn’t want to be chosen. All I wanted was to go home, to my own world, or, failing that, at least to a small room somewhere where I could sleep, but, as is so often the case in life, in whatever life we happen to be in, what we want is not what we get.
Horace was silent, watching Laughing Lou deal with the bottle. Horace may have been afraid, in fact I was sure he was afraid – after all, had he not already told me he was a coward? – but he was after all also an alcoholic, or at the very least a man who loved his drink, and he watched Laughing Lou and the bottle with eagerness all too apparent in his expression, even to the point of licking his lips.
As has been noted before, Ferdinand also had a love of distilled and fermented beverages, and a taste for the finer ones, and he – leaving the proximity of Lily’s bosom for the moment – buzzed in jittery figure-eights above the bottle of champagne.
Lily continued to stare out into the night, continuing to caress my thigh with her left hand while she smoked using her right hand, tapping her ash into one of the three ashtrays on the table, clear glass ashtrays, the heavy kind, with black printing on them. I could read the printing on the one she was using, and it read “LILY’S ROADHOUSE COCKTAILS MUSIC FOOD”. I stared at it for a moment and then suddenly, as if I were watching a brief flashback in a movie I remembered the neon sign out front, which had read L S ROADHOUSE. So, mustering what few deductive abilities I was able to under the circumstances, I concluded that this place was not called the L S Roadhouse, but that the neon sign was broken and it was in fact called Lily’s Roadhouse, which deduction led me to the further assumption that the Lily who sat to my right smoking a cigarette and fondling my thigh was not just the singer with the band but the owner of this place. Or maybe not, maybe Lou or someone else owned it, and it was merely her name on the ashtrays and on the sign. Or maybe it was some other Lily who owned the roadhouse. I didn’t know, and, to be honest, I didn’t care.
But still I wondered why she was caressing my thigh. I supposed I was good-looking. I had no idea what I looked like in this world, but I did know that the main characters in these cheap paperback novels did tend to be good-looking. Horace wasn’t very good-looking, so perforce that must mean that I was the main character, the protagonist. I also knew that in these sorts of books the protagonist invariably met up with attractive women who found him attractive, and so in a sense everything was going along according to plan, or at least according to a plan common to cheap novels of the sort one buys in train stations or drug stores.
I knew also that in this type of novel the woman who found the hero attractive was as often as not what my mother and aunts would call “a Jane”, or if they were muttering in their native language, “eine Schlampe”.
In other words: trouble.
The sort of trouble which sent the protagonist swirling helplessly downward in a deadly whirlpool of violence and despair.
A loud pop brought me out of my revery.
“Ha ha!” said Laughing Lou, holding up the magnum swathed in its napkin in both his big hands, white foam oozing from the bottle’s mouth, Horace holding up a glass and croaking hoarsely, “Don’t waste it!”
Soon enough four glasses were filled to the brim, one for each of us, not forgetting Ferdinand, whose glass was placed between mine and Lily’s.
“Now, ha ha!” said Laughing Lou. “And now let’s forget the previous unpleasantness, and drink! Let’s drink to – what shall we drink to?”
“How about we just drink,” said Lily, “without making a goddam federal case out of it.”
“Ha ha?” said Laughing Lou.
And so we drank. It tasted good, like cold liquid laughter, and its crisp bubbly goodness seemed to flush away the last of my sleepiness, but as soon as the champagne entered my stomach I realized something else – a brand new problem:
I was hungry.
I was extremely hungry, so hungry that for a moment I thought I was going to throw the champagne right back up.
I pressed my lips tight, made gulping movements in my throat, and managed to keep the wine down.
I was starving.
Well, okay, that’s an exaggeration, I wasn’t starving. I had seen starving Germans in the war, and this wasn’t that, but nonetheless I was very hungry. When had I last eaten? It seemed like years ago. In fact it had been at breakfast at my aunts’ house, which in one sense was probably today, but in another sense was months, years in the past.
People had been talking while I was undergoing this new sea change in my internal world, and now, as I tried to ignore this deep craving for food I heard words, Laughing Lou’s words.
“And now,” he said, “I think it’s time to make our little proposition to our new friends. Ha ha!”
He looked at Lily.
“I mean if it’s okay with you, Lily. I’m afraid I’ll have to do a little explaining first, and I know how you feel about explanations. However, my dear, if this proposition works out it could be to the benefit of all of us, not just to Horace and Arnold –”
“And me?” said Ferdinand, from the surface of the champagne in his glass.
“Yes, to you, too, Ferdinand, of course, ha ha!” said Laughing Lou. “But also to us, Lily – to –”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Lily, “get on with it, Lou! Get on with your explanations, your propositions, your boring expository passages! But just tell me this, chubbikins, how many people are gonna die this time, huh, Lou? How many?”
Horace had been drinking of course, but now he put his glass down. It was empty anyway.
“Die?” he said.
Lily had never stopped caressing my thigh, but now suddenly she squeezed it, hard.
“Yes, Horace,” she said. “You heard me right. Die. As in dead. Stiff. Snuffed out. Croaked.”
“Now, Lily,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! You’re going to scare these fellows! Ha ha!”
“As well they should be scared,” she said. “Scared to death.”
“Ha ha!” said Laughing Lou. “No need for anyone to be scared! No need for anyone to be scared at all! And certainly not for three stout fellows like our friends here!”
“Jeeze, I don’t know, Lou,” said Horace. He had put his cigar in an ashtray, and now he picked it up. It had gone out. “I just don’t know, you know, if I want to get involved in anything, you know –”
“Look, Horace,” said Laughing Lou. “You want to get back to your own world, right?”
“Well, yeah, sure, Lou, but –”
“He’s scared,” said Ferdinand, who was still floating on the surface of his champagne, lapping it up.
“Well, yeah,” said Horace, “I mean, after what Miss Lily said –”
“I ain’t scared,” said Ferdinand, in between lappings.
“You’re really not scared, are you, Ferdy?” said Lily.
“Nope,” said Ferdy. “Bring it on! Arnie’s not scared either, are you, Arnie?”
“Um,” I said.
“Nah, Arnie ain’t scared,” said Ferdinand.
“Here, let me freshen up everyone’s glass,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha!”
“Me and Arnie ain’t scared,” said Ferdinand. I could tell he was getting drunk again. “You ain’t worried, are you, Arnie?”
“Um,” was all I said, again, all I could manage to say.
“Arnie ain’t worried,” said Ferdinand.
The thing was, I knew I should have been worried, but my problem was I just couldn’t stop thinking about food.
Lily’s hand continued to caress my thigh, as if it had a mind of its own.
I wondered if it would be rude to ask if I could get something to eat.
Lou leaned his great body over the table with the magnum of champagne in his hands and he poured champagne into my glass.
In the background I could hear that Mantovani album from inside, or maybe it was a different one.
“Arnie ain’t fuckin’ worried,” said Ferdinand.
But, on second thought, yes, I was worried.
(Continued here, and onward, as a service to discerning littérateurs everywhere.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other officially published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, released through the kind indulgence of the Arnold Schnabel Society™ of Philadelphia PA. Tickets are now available for the annual Arnold Schnabel Oktoberfest Dinner Dance at the Schwarzwald Inn at Second and Olney, with our special guest speaker and M.C., Horace P. Sternwall, author of My Pal Arnie: An Uncensored Memoir.)