We rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here at a table on the rear terrace of Lily’s Road House, in the company of Lily herself and Laughing Lou Abernathy, as well as the noted novelist Horace P. Sternwall and Arnold’s faithful friend Ferdinand, the bibulous and garrulous fly…
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“What the great heroic epics were to our distant ancestors, such is Arnold Schnabel’s towering chef-d'œuvre to the discerning littérateur of today.” – Harold Bloom, in the Us Weekly Literary Supplement.
“What do we have?” said Laughing Lou, after just a very slight pause. “Ha ha! What do we have? Okay, how about our famous elk-and-Great White Northern Bean cassoulet? Or what about braised wild boar short ribs in Lily’s own barbecue sauce, which you can order either ‘red hot’ or ‘unbearably hot’, ha ha! Oh, or maybe you’d prefer the possum goulash, with your choice of stone-ground grits or wild rice on the side, served with parboiled field greens drizzled with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil?”
“How about just a burger?” I said.
“A burger,” said Laughing Lou, after a slightly longer pause this time.
“Yeah, just a burger,” I said. “Maybe a side of french fries.”
“A burger,” he said. “With a side of french fries.”
“Yes,” I said.
He took a puff on that big cigar of his. Somehow it was still big and long, even though he had been smoking it ever since we had first met him what seemed hours ago.
“What about a brace of pheasants then,” he said, “slow-roasted, with a huckleberry glaze, accompanied by a mélange of stir-fried garden-fresh vegetables and tiny boiled potatoes sprinkled with a garlic-infused sauce béarnaise? Ha ha?”
“Just a burger,” I said. “Maybe two burgers, depending on how big they are. I am pretty hungry.”
“Well, if you’re not crazy about pheasant let me recommend our house pot-roasted hare, served with a honey woodruff claret reduction, with peeled asparagus en hollandaise, nestled in a bed of mashed yams drizzled with freshly-churned farm-fresh butter?”
“A couple of burgers with cheese and bacon would be great,” I said. “Maybe some pickles on the side.”
“How about a plate of mountain brook eels, boiled in hock and doused in a tasty warm blueberry vinaigrette, accompanied by pickled beets and radishes, and deep fried parsnip fingers, lightly breaded in challah meal, with a spicy chicory catsup dip?”
Something came over me.
I suppose it was because of the intense hunger I was suffering, that and the general strain of all that I had been through recently and not so recently, everything I had been through since awakening so long ago in my little attic room in my aunts’ house in Cape May, all that and the deepening realization that since I was in a fictional universe I could pretty much do anything I wanted to do, no matter how uncharacteristic.
Anyway, what I did was to pick up Lily’s sparkly black purse, click it open, and take out the revolver that was in it, the revolver that Lily had taken off of Laughing Lou.
I pointed the gun at Lou. It was heavy and cool in my hand, and my finger was on the trigger.
Laughing Lou held out both his hands, palms outward, fat fingers splayed, letting his cigar drop to the table.
“Hey. Arnold,” he said. “Relax, fella.”
“I want some food,” I said. “I want at least two cheeseburgers, with American cheese. I want them cooked medium rare, with bacon, and with lettuce, tomato and raw onion. And I want a big basket of french fries.”
“And pickles,” said Ferdinand, from inside his glass of champagne.
“And pickles,” I said. “Do you want anything, Ferdinand?”
“I’ll take a small bowl of honey,” he said.
“Small bowl of honey for Ferdinand,” I said. “Horace?”
“Wow,” said Horace, “I didn’t know you were such a tough guy, Arnold.”
(He was really slurring his words now. What he said actually sounded more like, “Wow, uh din know ya were zudge a duff guy,” but I’ll go insane – or more insane – if I have to put it down as such, so I will continue to transcribe his words more or less as if he were sober.)
“Tell Lou what you want to eat, Horace,” I said.
What happened next got a little tedious, much too tedious even for me to recount in detail, with Horace asking Laughing Lou to describe all the dishes he already just had described, and several more, but finally he went for the same thing I had ordered, but with the burgers done “Pittsburgh rare” instead of medium rare.
“Okay, then!” said Laughing Lou, finally. “Ha ha. I’ll go put the order in.”
He pushed his chair back, and stood up. While he had been taking Horace’s order he had picked his cigar up off the table and put it into his ashtray. He now picked it up again and looked at it with a serious sort of expression somehow emanating from the fatness of his enormous face.
“Cigar’s gone out,” he said. “You know, you should never relight a cigar after it’s gone out. It spoils the whole experience. And it’s a shame because this was a genuine Cuban –”
I was still holding the gun pointed in his direction, although I had been resting the butt on the table. I raised the gun and aimed it at his chest.
“Okay!” he said. “Ha ha! I’m going, I’m going! Sheesh!”
And he finally did make some sort of motion as if he were going, but then he stopped himself and addressed Lily.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Lily. Would you like something? I know you like to watch your diet, so how about maybe the small lake trout en beurre, with some sautéed leeks in a light sauce béchamel, with crispy fried sourdough toast points?”
“I’ll just pick at Arnold’s fries,” she said. “If that’s okay with Arnold.” She was looking at me now. “That okay with you, Arnold?”
“Better bring an extra basket of fries then,” I said to Laughing Lou.
“Great,” he said. “So that’s three large baskets of fries, four burgers with the works –”
“Don’t forget the bacon,” said Horace.
“With bacon, ha ha,” said Laughing Lou. “And of course pickles.”
“And a small bowl of honey,” said Ferdinand.
“And a small bowl of honey,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! And that’s burgers medium rare for Arnold and Pittsburgh rare for Horace. Y’know, Arnold, maybe you should try your burgers Pittsburgh rare? That’s when you cook 'em so that – "
“Will they come out quicker if I have them that way?” I said.
“Why, yes,” he said, “in point of fact they would, but –”
“Great,” I said. “That’s how I’ll have them then.”
“Fabulous,” said Laughing Lou. “Okay, don’t anyone go away, I’ll have the chef put a rush on it, ha ha!”
Finally he lumbered off, still saying ha ha as he went through the French doors and back inside.
I sighed. I picked up Lily’s purse again, and started to put the pistol back into it.
“You might want to hold onto that Chief’s Special, honey,” she said.
Her hand was on my thigh. I think she had taken it off at least for a while there, but now it was back. I looked at her, into her eyes, something I had been avoiding doing ever since I met her not so long ago. She seemed serious, so I put the pistol into the side pocket of my seersucker jacket. It made my jacket hang down lumpily on that side, but that was the least of my worries.
There was an uncomfortable moment here, or I suppose I should say an even more uncomfortable moment than the several dozen which had preceded it.
Horace half-rose from his seat, picked up the magnum of champagne and filled his glass again, spilling some on the table.
Ferdinand was back to lapping up the champagne in his glass.
I tried not to think about Lily’s hand on my thigh, and I took a drink of my own champagne.
Soon, with any luck, I would have some food in front of me. Maybe it would even be good food. I would certainly settle for average food, as long as it did not make me sick.
All I had to do was wait, but it was awkward just sitting here in silence, with Lily caressing my thigh.
I decided to try to make conversation, just to make the time go by more quickly.
“So, Lily,” I said, “this is your place?”
I looked at her, only because it would have seemed impolite not to.
She took a drag on her cigarette before replying.
“Do you really care?” she said.
“Well, uh, sure,” I said. “It seems like a nice place. I, uh, really liked your singing, by the way.”
“You poor fool,” she said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You poor damned fool. Pardon my French.”
“I, um,” I said.
Suddenly she took her hand off my thigh, then raised it up, made a fist, and slammed the heel of her hand down hard on the table, causing her glass to fall over, as well as Ferdinand’s and the one that Laughing Lou had left on the table, but not mine and Horace’s, as we had been holding onto ours.
“Damn it!” she yelled.
“Hey!” yelled Ferdinand right back, buzzing angrily around in front of her. “Watch it, lady! You spilled all my damn champagne!”
“Bother your champagne!” she said. “Don’t you three see what you’re in for, sitting here swilling your champagne, waiting for your God damned cheeseburgers –”
“And a bowl of honey for me!” yelled Ferdinand.
“And your bowl of honey!” she yelled. “Don’t you three see?”
“Look, doll,” said Ferdinand, “all I’m seeing is that you’ve maybe had a drop too much champagne yourself, so how’s about somebody pick my glass up and give me a refill?”
“I’ll fill you up, pal,” said Horace, and after quickly swallowing what was left in his glass he got halfway out of his seat again so he could grab the bottle out of the ice bucket.
“But don’t you all see,” hollered Lily, “that this so-called ‘proposition’ of Lou’s is going to get you all killed?”
Horace was holding the bottle in his hands, ready to start pouring, but now he stopped what he was doing.
“Killed?” he said.
“You heard me,” she said. “Killed! Dead! Deader than the audience was back there in the club the night we booked a deaf-mute convention! Dead!”
“Um, how do you mean, dead exactly?” said Horace.
“I mean deader than Fatty Arbuckle’s reputation after he squashed that hooker to death.”
“Fatty got acquitted of that charge,” said Ferdinand. “It was a goddam witch-hunt –”
“Listen, fly,” said Lily, and she pointed her fingernail at him. Her fingernails were painted red, like her lips, another detail I probably forgot to mention. “Can’t you see it didn’t matter if he was innocent? The public, the newspapers, all the holier-than-thou square Johns and Janes in Dubuque had already tried and condemned him!”
“Okay,” said Horace. He had sat back down, still holding the magnum in both his hands. “Setting aside Fatty Arbuckle’s guilt or innocence for the nonce, what’s this about us getting killed?”
“Weren’t you listening to Lou’s so-called proposition?” said Lily.
“Well, uh, sort of,” said Horace.
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?” she yelled.
“Well, okay, I wasn’t really listening, I suppose,” said Horace. “I gathered he wanted us to do something or other, but –”
“But you were too busy swilling free champagne to pay attention, weren’t you?” she said.
“Well, it’s true,” said Horace, “that I very rarely have a chance to drink such fine wine, and it seemed a shame not to give it my full attention –”
“Unbelievable,” she said. “And what about you, Ferdinand, and by the way I apologize for addressing you as ‘fly’, that was very rude of me.”
“No need to apologize, Lily,” said Ferdinand, “and I’ll admit flat out I didn’t pay attention to a single word that boring fat-ass said. Why, did I miss something?”
“Oh, my God,” said Lily. She turned to me. “Thank God these two have you for a friend, Arnold. But you heard what Lou said. Didn’t it strike you as just a little too good to be true?”
“Well,” I said, “maybe just a little.” I felt embarrassed that I too had not been paying attention when a major plot point was being revealed, and so just to do something I stood Lily’s wine glass up again and then did the same for Ferdinand’s glass. “Maybe you should pour Ferdinand and Lily both a little more champagne, Horace,” I said.
“Oh, of course,” said Horace, and, half-rising again, he leaned over and poured champagne into Lily’s glass, spilling some onto the table, and then poured some into Ferdinand’s glass and onto the table near it.
“Thanks, buddy,” said Ferdinand, and once again he flew down into the glass.
Horace made as if to top off my own glass but I put my hand over it. “I’m good, thanks,” I said.
Horace refilled his own glass one more time, turned the bottle upside down and gave it a few shakes.
“Well, another dead soldier,” he said, and he put the bottle down on the table, sat himself down and picked up his glass.
I glanced at Lily. She was sitting there staring at me.
“You weren’t paying attention, either, were you, Arnold? Were you?”
I paused before answering.
“I was hungry,” I said.
She sat back in her chair.
“So none of you were paying attention. Your very lives on the line, and you just couldn’t be bothered. That is really pathetic.”
“Hey, Miss Lily,” said Horace, “when Lou gets back with the food, do you think it would be okay if we got another bottle?”
“Eat, drink, and be merry, huh?” she said. “Because tonight you all die.”
“Excuse me, Lily,” I said. “I’m sorry that none of us were paying attention to Lou’s proposition, but I gather that you think it’s not such a great idea that we accept it?”
She stared at me for a long moment, and took a drag from her cigarette before replying.
“You have the gun,” she said. “In your pocket. Take my advice, and just get the hell out of here, before Lou gets back. Just go, all three of you, now.”
“What about the burgers?” said Horace.
“You heard me,” she said. “The three of you. Scram, now. Make tracks.”
“Couldn’t we maybe just get the food wrapped up to go?” said Horace.
She ignored what he said, and looked at me. She touched my face with her hand, with its red fingernails.
“Maybe we could have had something, Arnold. In another life. In another world. Now goodbye.”
“But I really am hungry,” I said.
She took her hand away, and then brought it back, slapping me in the face, hard.
“Damn you!” she said. “Can’t you see I’m trying to save your life? Yours and the lives of your two drunken friends? Now go!”
I pushed my chair back, and stood up.
“Okay,” I said. “Horace, Ferdinand, I think we’d better go.”
Horace lifted his glass, poured its contents down his gullet, put down the glass, and then stood up, knocking his chair over, its metal clanging on the stone paving of the terrace.
“Okay, what the hell,” he said. He picked his cigar up out of the ashtray in front of him. The cigar was dead, but he didn’t care. “I’m ready to go.”
“Ferdinand?” I said. “Let’s go, pal.”
He didn’t say anything, so I picked up his glass and looked into it. He was floating silently on the surface of the champagne.
“Is he dead?” said Horace.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Just passed out.”
I stuck my finger into the champagne and carefully lifted him out. He was stirring ever so sightly, so I figured he really was okay, and would soon sleep it off. I gently placed him in my workman’s shirt breast pocket.
Lily was sitting there looking at me. I couldn’t tell if it was with longing, or sadness, or disgust.
“Well, goodbye, Lily,” I said. “And thanks for – you know – for –”
“Don’t mention it,” she said. “Now go.”
“Okay,” I said. “But, by the way, just one thing, do you have any advice on where we should go exactly?”
“Out there are the woods,” she said. “The dark woods. Around front is the road, the dark road. Take your choice.”
I hesitated. I was wondering if I should at least shake her hand, but I was thinking maybe it was best if I didn’t.
Or maybe I should give her a kiss.
But I decided I’d better not do that, either, and anyway, she wasn’t even looking at me anymore, she was just staring out at those dark woods, staring and smoking her cigarette.
“Well, okay, then,” I said. “Goodbye, Lily, and thanks again.”
She half-waved one hand, and just continued to sit there, staring out at the darkness and smoking her cigarette.
“All right, let’s go, Horace,” I said.
“Goodbye, Miss Lily,” said Horace.
She said nothing.
There were some steps going down from the middle of the terrace, and Horace and I headed over to them, Horace staggering a bit, and taking hold of my arm.
We went down the steps, Horace managed with my help not to fall, and then we stopped for a moment.
“Which way, buddy?” said Horace.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” I said.
(Continued here, and until the last neatly-handwritten marble copybook has been spell-checked and transcribed.)
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