Friday, December 26, 2014

“Farmer” Brown, the Artist

“Farmer” Brown, the Artist

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo*

*Ass’t Professor of Classics and Religious Studies, Olney Community College; editor of Days of Despair, Nights of Ecstasy: The Memoirs of Horace P. Sternwall, Vol. 2.

Original illustrations by rhoda penmarq.

Mr Phineas “Farmer” Brown had come to the city well over thirty years ago when he was a young man, ostensibly to seek his fortune. He had moved into his current rooms at the St Crispian during that first year, back when he still at least made a pretense of seeking his fortune or indeed any sort of paid employment at all. His monthly bills at the hotel were paid by his family’s banker back home in Peru, Indiana. The banker also remitted to the hotel the sum of three hundred dollars per month for Mr Brown’s “personal” expenses, with strict instructions that he was to receive no more than ten dollars of it on any given day. Mr Brown laughingly referred to this daily remittance as his “salary”, and he picked it up, in the form of ten crisp one-dollar bills, at the front desk every morning at eleven-thirty on his way to the coffee shop for his breakfast.

Although he was fond of the ladies, Mr Brown had never married. When people asked why, and they did – people are very nosey – he would chuckle and say that marriage seemed “too much like work”.

Yes, the days when he had even pretended to seek employment were long gone, as were the days when he “had a few irons in the fire”, when “he had a couple-three deals working”, when he was “looking into some business opportunities down in Costa Rica, lots of money to be made down there”; gone the time when he had bought a smock and some paints and brushes and taken classes at the Art League, or when he was supposedly “working on a musical based on Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (retitled, simply, Maggie!)”, all those days were gone.

Now he never pretended to be anything but what he was, a lazy idle loafer, living off a tiny trickle from the enormous fortune his hardworking grandfather had made in the hog business.

“This is my fortune,” he would say, waving his hand in a gesture that seemed to take in not just the rigorously quaint lobby of the St Crispian, but even the great world beyond it, even though he had not traveled farther than six blocks in any direction from the hotel in perhaps twenty years.

“This is my life.”

Smiling in his genial way.

“This, all this -- this is my art.”

And who are we, dear readers, to say that he was wrong? 


This story originally appeared in somewhat different form, and lavishly illustrated by rhoda penmarq, in Tales of the Hotel St Crispian.


(Because of the Christmas festivities,
Arnold Schnabel has taken the week off, but he will be back next week with an all-new and thrilling episode of Railroad Train to Heaven!)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Christmas Among the Damned"

As a special holiday treat for the fans of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, we present again a poem by Schnabel that was only discovered a couple of years ago in a cardboard box under a stack of copies of The Catholic Standard and Times in the basement of the house formerly owned by Arnold’s mother at B and Nedro, in the Olney section of Philadelphia, right across the street from where the Heintz metalworks factory used to be before it was demolished and turned into a shopping mall. This is one of the very few poems of Schnabel’s to exist only in his holograph — written, as was his custom, with a Bic pen in a black-and-white marble copybook. The poem is undated, but carbon dating of the paper indicates that the poem was probably written sometime during his stay at the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry in early 1963, following his complete mental collapse in January of that year. The poem is probably unfinished, lacking as it does the formal perfection of the great bulk of poems that Schnabel published on a weekly basis for some thirty years in his neighborhood paper, The Olney Times, but nonetheless we feel it worthy of sharing with his many readers, even if he chose — undoubtedly for his own good reasons — not to submit it for publication.

“Christmas Among the Damned”

Their eyes blear,
their voices coarse,
they wander from tavern to bar,
full of fear
and cheap remorse;
they know death is not far,
and that the Lord on high
will not come for them;
He would rather drop
a bomb on them;

He does not heed their grumbling,
He does not hear their curses,
He does not hear them mumbling
as they scrabble through their purses
and their wallets made of plastic
for the price of a glass of Ortlieb’s
or, tripping the dark fantastic,
perhaps also a shot of Schenley’s.

These are the damned, these
who seek but know not pleasure,
damned once,
damned twice,
damned thrice,
and damned once again for good measure.

Their eyes bloodshot,
their noses bulbous and red,
their flesh carbuncular,
where it is not the color
of the belly of a week-dead
these are my friends.

I see them at Pat’s,
at the Huddle,
and at the Green Parrot;
I see them at the VFW,
and at the Knights of Columbus;

some of them even have wives
or husbands as the case may be;
many of them have children,
even grandchildren
(unlike bachelor me);
they all have homes of some sort
a rowhome, apartment, or rented room,
most have jobs of some kind,
working at the Heintz factory
or at Philco or Tastykake,
but this is their real job,
sitting in a bar, staring at
the TV playing I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster,
sitting silently,
or talking petulantly,
this is their calling
and their place,
in the legions of the damned.

Yes, some sit silently on their stools
but most will talk at the slightest
provocation, or even if there is none,
even if they have nothing to say
which is nearly always,
because the hell they carry within
loves to overflow into the hell
outside them.

At last the bartender, last call
long called, stands in his coat by
the door. “This is not a hotel,”
he yells. “You don’t have to go
home, but you can’t stay here.”

One by one they shuffle through the
door and out into the cold,
into the night, from one hell
into another, and off they stumble,
to rowhome, apartment or rented room.

Gay colored lights are strung 
outside the windows of the modest homes,
and along the shops on Fifth Street,
for it is Christmastime,
the anniversary of the birth
of the Savior, of someone’s savior,
but not theirs, not these,
who are beyond saving;
It’s Christmas on the streets of Olney,
and a gentle snow begins to fall,
on these the damned who have
nothing to look forward to
but another hangover.

It’s the eve of Christmas Eve,
the cold wind licks their faces,
the snowflakes find their way into
the collars of necks whose scarves
have been left in the sawdust of the
barroom floor.
A shortcut is taken through Fisher Park,
but the scrubby grass is slick and wet;
a fall is taken down Dead Man’s Hill
where the children love to sled
on their Flexible Flyers:
down, down he tumbles, down and down,
until finally he lands at the bottom,
in the slush and jagged ice,
where, in pain,
which means at least not dead,
not yet, he lies on his back,
howling at the universe,
the snow rushing down
heedlessly into his face,
and somewhere among the rowhomes
on Nedro Avenue, a dog replies,
howling also, and then another on
Sixth Street, and yet another on Spencer,
and soon a whole chorus of dogs join in,
drowning out the screams of the human,
or of what once was human.
Yes, it’s Christmas,
for God and man and dog,
for those who are heaven bound
and for those forever banned
from paradise.
This is Christmas,
Christmas among the damned.

(Kindly scroll down the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to many other classic poems by Arnold Schnabel.

Friday, December 19, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 422: the edge

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends Ferdinand (the talkative fly) and Horace P. Sternwall (the author of such unjustly-obscure classics as My Friend the .45 and Princess of the Bowery) sitting before a roaring fire here in the cozy parlor of the Stop-Rite Inn...

(Please go here to read our preceding chapter; click here to start at the very beginning of this 72-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“At long last – better late than never – Arnold Schnabel and his friend Horace P. Sternwall have been rescued from obscurity and granted their rightful place in the pantheon of great American authors.” – Harold Bloom, in the
Cape May Star & Wave Literary Supplement.

In fact it was so warm and so comfortable in that chair, and I was so tired, that, despite my intense hunger and the dampness of my clothes, I suddenly slipped into a doze, and then – after a moment or two of futile and not even half-hearted resistance – into a deep and oblivious sleep.

I suppose I might have been dreaming about something or other – I wonder if my brain ever really shuts down entirely – but to be honest I can’t remember what I dreamt, if anything. 

All was only nothingness.

But I do remember what came next, because it roused me at least partly out of this state of complete unconsciousness:

It was a voice, a cracked and dry old man’s voice.

“He’s sleeping,” said the voice, the words sounding like the snapping of twigs, in a pitch dark forest. “Out like a light.”

“Yes, so it seems,” said a woman’s voice in this dark world. “Should we let him sleep?”

“Well, here’s the thing about Arnie,” said a third, and much smaller voice in the darkness. “With this guy, he falls asleep he don’t know where he’s gonna wake up. Could be a whole other universe he wakes up in.”

“Extraordinary!” said the old man’s voice.

“How weird,” said the woman’s voice. “I think I should find that very annoying!”

“I think Arnie does too!” said the little voice, which I now realized was the voice of Ferdinand, my friend the sentient and talking fly.

“Well, might as well let the poor guy sleep,” said a different man’s voice, a voice somehow familiar although I couldn’t put anyone’s name to it.

“I hope he doesn’t wake up someplace really dreadful,” said the old man’s voice, which I now knew was that of Mr. Peacock.

“Nothing we can do about it,” said the other man’s voice, which I now identified as Horace’s – of course...

“But what if he wakes up in Hell?” said the woman’s voice, what was her name – yes, Penelope! “That’s always been a fear of mine, to fall asleep and wake up in Hell.”

“You are so morbid, my dear!” said Mr. Peacock.

“Can’t help it,” said Penelope. “And you know what? Some fine day it just might happen!”

“Well, let him sleep,” said Horace.

I tried to wake up.

But now I knew where I was. 

I was standing at the edge of the world. 

I was standing at the edge of some enormous cliff, and it was dark all around me. My toes were almost at the very edge of this great precipice, and beyond and below me and above and before me was nothing but blackness. A wind was blowing at my back, and I felt that the wind was pushing me, pushing me to fall off the edge of this cliff.

“Yeah, let the poor guy sleep,” said Horace’s voice, from somewhere in the darkness.

“But what if he wakes up in some other universe?” said Mr. Peacock’s voice.

“Or Hell?” said Penelope’s voice.

“Nothing we can do about that,” said the voice of Horace, distant and close all at once.

“That’s something Arnie’s gonna have to deal with himself,” said Ferdinand.

But meanwhile the wind was still pushing at my back, gently but also firmly, and I now felt myself teetering over the edge of this great cliff, ready to cast off into this dark abyss.

“No!” I shouted. “No! No!”

I tried to fight the wind pushing at my back, but it was no use, and I suddenly pitched forward, face forward, into the darkness.

“No!” I shouted one more time, one last time.

And I fell, the dark air rushing past me, into oblivion, into nothingness.

But then I felt something hit first my knees and then my outstretched and open hands, and now I was not falling into that black void – no, fortunately I was on my hands and knees on the thick rug in front of the easy chair I had been sitting in, and I was staring again into the flames of the fireplace.

“Jesus Christ, Arnie!” said Ferdinand.

“No?” I said.

“Calm down, boy.”

This was Horace, and he was patting my shoulder with one hand, holding my arm with his other hand.

“No?” I said, once more, begging the universe to let this be real, and not a dream.

“It’s okay, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “You had a nightmare.”

“I dreamt I was falling,” I said.

“Well, you were falling, pal, but only out of your chair.”

“Help him up, Horace,” said Ferdinand, whom I could now see buzzing around in front of my face in a concerned way. (I know it sounds odd to say a fly buzzed in a concerned way, but I do feel that I had begun to know my little friend fairly well by this point, as well or better than I have known anyone in my life, and so I stand by my words, for what little that may be worth.)

“Come on, buddy,” said Horace, and his hands were under my armpits, pulling me up, and then I was collapsing back into the chair.

“Oh, my God,” I said.

“Rough dream, huh?” said Horace.

“It was – it was –”

“Pretty bad, huh?” said Ferdinand.

“I was falling into an – abyss,” I said.

“We’re all falling into an abyss, sonny,” said Mr. Peacock, who was standing in front of the fire and to my left

“Popsy!” said Penelope, who stood before me and to my right. “That’s not nice.”

“May not be nice but it’s the truth,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Here, get yourself outside of this,” said Horace, who was leaning over in front of me, and he held a snifter with something pale brown in it in front of my face.

“Fifty-year-old Napoleon brandy!” cackled Mr. Peacock, and I saw that he too was holding a snifter with the brown stuff in it. In his other hand he held his pipe, which he had lit again, a gentle plume of smoke rising up out of its bowl.

I looked at the drink in my hand. It smelled good, so I took a drink of the alleged fifty-year-old brandy, although it could have been five days old for all I knew, or could know.

It went down all right, and stayed down.

“Can we get back to our reading now?” said Penelope.


“Well, I don’t see why not,” said Horace. 

There was a bottle on the little table next to my chair, with French words on its yellowed old label, and next to it was another snifter with brown liquid in it. Horace picked up the glass, put it to his nose and sniffed. I guess that’s why they call these glasses snifters. Then he took a good drink, although they don’t call the glasses “gulpers”.

“Really good stuff, Mr. Peacock,” said Ferdinand, from somewhere to my left, and I saw that he was sitting on the edge of a thimble on the little table. He lowered himself into the thimble with a graceful flutter of his wings, and landed on the surface of the brown liquid inside it.

Horace picked a paperback book up from the seat of the chair he had been sitting in.

“Are you really sure you want me to read this?” he said, addressing Penelope, whom I now noticed was also holding a snifter with the brown liquid, or a similarly-colored brown liquid, in it.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “You don’t know what a thrill this is for me!”

“Well, ha ha, only if you insist!” he said, and he sat himself down in the chair.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Yes,” said Penelope. “What is it, Mr. Schnabel?”

“I don’t know what’s going on.”

“That’s our Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “Always got his finger on the pulse!”

“Mr. Sternwall was just about to read for us!” said Penelope, and she floated down to a sitting position on the rug a couple of feet in front of me, with her legs folded under her in that way only women seem able to do, and with her arm resting on an old-looking brown leather hassock.

“This is how we used to amuse ourselves in the old days!” cackled Mr. Peacock. “No radios or Victrolas! Sitting in front of the fire reading Dickens or Sir Walter Scott!”

He took what looked like a good gulp of the liquid in his glass and then sat down in another easy-chair to the left and in front of Horace’s, with the chair facing away from the fire.

“Shall I start at the beginning then?” said Horace.

“Yes, please do!” said Penelope.

“Well, maybe just a page or two,” he said.

“Oh, no!” said Penelope. “I want to hear the whole book!”

“Um,” I said.

“What is it, Arnie?” said Horace. “You want another snort before I kick off?”

“No,” I said.

“Something the matter?”

What a question. I could have gone on all night and into the next day and night about what was the matter, but I stuck to the most immediate matter.

“I actually am really hungry,” I said.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Schnabel,” said Penelope. “We’re fixing you something to eat.”

“You are?” I said.

They sure didn’t look like they were fixing me something to eat.

“Cook is making Beef Wellington,” she said. “That is what you wanted, isn’t it?” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “You have a cook.”

“Of course we have a cook!” said Mr. Peacock. “This is an inn, is it not?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“Relax, Arnold,” said Horace. “Everything’s under control. Take another drink of the brandy, that’ll take the edge off your appetite.”

“Low blood sugar,” said Ferdinand, taking a break from lapping up his drink. “Some people get cranky like that when they’re hungry.”

“You just relax, Mr. Schnabel,” said Penelope. “We don’t let our guests go hungry here, do we, Popsy?”

“I should say not,” said Mr. Peacock, and he knocked the bowl of his pipe into or at least near an ashtray on another little table next to his chair.  

“Your supper should be ready in twenty minutes,” said Penelope, addressing me again. “Perhaps twenty-five at the most. “Do you think you can wait that long?”

“Um,” I said.

“I mean,” she said, and she reached up and over to the little table, flipped open the lid of the cigarette box and took one out, “I’ll get you some breadsticks if you’re absolutely starving –”

Horace picked up the toad-shaped table-lighter and gave Penelope a light.

“Thank you, Mr. Sternwall!” she said.

“You’re quite welcome,” said Horace. “Say, do you think I could have one of these?”

He gestured at the cigarette box.

“By all means,” she said.

Horace took one of the cigarettes and lighted himself up.

“Nice,” he said.

“Herbert Tareytons,” she said.

“Herberts are a good smoke,” he said.

“Do you mind handing me down an ashtray?” she said. “There’s another one to your left over there.”

“Of course,” said Horace. There was yet another little table on the other side of his chair, with another glass ashtray on it. He picked it up and handed it over to Penelope.

“Thanks ever so much,” she said, and she put the ashtray on the hassock she was leaning on.

“So,” said Horace, “should I start reading now?”

“Oh, yes, please do!” said Penelope, and she took a quick gulp of her brandy.

I wondered if I should bring up the subject of the breadsticks again.

“Okay!” said Horace. 

He had laid the paperback on the table, but now he picked it up again. I couldn’t help but notice the cover painting, which featured two attractive young women in the process of dressing or perhaps undressing. Horace took another drink from his snifter, then put the glass down on the table. Then he took a drag on his cigarette and finally opened the book.

Slaves of Sappho,” he said. “A novel of forbidden passion, by Hortense Paula St. Claire. That’s me, of course, ha ha!”

“I know,” said Penelope, “and I’m so excited!”

“Thank you!” said Horace. He turned the page, and cleared his throat. I could hear Ferdinand lapping up his brandy in his thimble, and Mr. Peacock in his chair was snoring softly. Outside the dark windows of the parlor the rain still fell, apparently unabated, beating against the windowpanes, and I could hear the faint rumblings of thunder.

Chapter One,” read Horace. “A Girl Alone in the Big City.” 

I decided not to mention the breadsticks, and Horace dove into the first paragraph of Slaves of Sappho.

(Continued here; Arnold’s legions of fans would have it no other way.)

(Please look down the right hand column of this page to find a strictly-updated listing of links to all other legally-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Order now to get your
Railroad Train to Heaven™ Action Figures – the perfect stocking-stuffer for this holiday season!)

Friday, December 12, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 421: Penelope

We left our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his friends Ferdinand (the loquacious fly) and Horace P. Sternwall (the famed author of dozens of crowd-pleasing novels such as
The Martian Invasion Caper and They Called Her Clementine) here in the foyer of a country caravanserai called the “Stop-Rite Inn”...

(Kindly click here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’re looking for a really long project to distract you from the awareness of your own mortality then by all means go here to go the very first chapter of this 54-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)

“I find that all my really ‘with-it’, ‘hip’ students are ‘totally into’ Arnold Schnabel – why, some of them even sport Arnold Schnabel t-shirts and baseball caps!” – Harold Bloom, in the
Olney Times Literary Supplement.

“Thank you! Thank you, thank you, miss!” Horace babbled, again.

“You’re quite welcome,” she said, “Mr. –”

“Sternwall!” said Horace, “Horace P. Sternwall! Perhaps you’ve read some of my books?”

“Hmm,” she said. “What sort of books do you write?”

“Primarily searing tales of men caught in savage whirlpools of deceit and murder.”

“Oh,” she said, not seeming too impressed.

“Although,” said Horace, moving right along without missing a beat, “I have also published widely in the realms of both western and historical fiction, as well as science fiction, and fantasy, and, and –”

“Don’t stop now,” she said.

“I am also,” said Horace, in a more confidential tone, “quite well known for novels of beautiful young women caught in the webs of forbidden passions.”

“You mean like lesbian novels?”

“To put it bluntly, yes. Although these have all been published under various of my noms de plume, such as Hannah P. Steinway, Helena Peters Strong, or Hortense Paula St. Claire.”

“Wait a minute,” said the redhead. “Did you say Hortense Paula St. Claire?”

“Yes,” said Horace.

“Hortense Paula St. Claire, who wrote Slaves of Sappho?”

“That was I,” said Horace, smiling as if modestly.

“I love that book!” yelped the redhead.

“Oh, my,” said Horace, “thank you!”

“Goddam adore that book,” she said.

“What’s going on, my dear?” said Mr. Peacock, who was still standing behind us.

“I’ve read this gentleman’s book, Popsy,” she said.

“What book?” said the old man.

Slaves of Sappho, by Hortense Paula St. Claire.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Peacock. “Never heard of it.”

“That’s because the last new book you read was The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. By the way,” she said, “give me that stupid gun before you kill someone.”

She held out her hand, and Horace and I stepped to either side as the old fellow came forward and, not without difficulty turning the pistol end to end, and almost dropping it, he handed it to the redhead, butt first.

“We don’t need any more killings here,” she said, and she pulled open a drawer under a small table with a cracked vase sitting on it, with dried pussy willows sticking out of the vase.

“Sometimes killing is necessary, my dear,” said the old man.

“Yes,” she said, “but I think that in the case of these good gentlemen killing will not prove necessary.”

She put the big revolver in the drawer, and shut it.

I sighed with relief, as did Horace.

“I didn’t get your name, mister,” the young woman said to me.

“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel.”

“Doesn’t sound familiar. Is your work published?”

At this question it occurred to me that for once I didn’t have to lie in response to a personal question.

“Yes,” I said. “For quite a few years now I have published a poem every week.”

“Every week?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Just one every week though.”

“And where are these poems published?”

“Well – The Olney Times,” I said.

“I am not familiar with that publication.”

“No one is, I’m afraid,” I said, “except people who live in Olney.”

“And where is Olney?”

“It’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia that no one knows about except for people in Philadelphia, and not even a lot of them.”

“So this Olney Times sounds like a rather obscure publication,” she said.

“I think that’s safe to say,” I said. 

“Arnold does himself injustice!” blurted Horace, who apparently was an impulsive if not a compulsive liar. “The Olney Times is considered one of the foremost regional literary journals of our nation, and indeed, in the entire world!”

“Oh,” she said. “Really?” She turned her gaze suddenly to Ferdinand, who was hovering just slightly above her bust line and about six inches away from it. “And you, Mr. Fly, have you a name?”

“I do indeed, miss!” said Ferdinand, making a smart little up-and-down figure-eight and stopping on an invisible dime to hover directly in front of the redhead’s face. “Ferdinand, the talking fly, at your service!”

“Cute,” she said.

“And may we know your name, dear miss?” said Horace.

“I am Penelope,” she said. “Penelope Peacock.”

She held her hand out to Horace, and he took it in both of his.

“We are very pleased to make your acquaintance!” said Horace.

“That goes double for me, sis,” said Ferdinand.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” she said. She disengaged her hand from Horace’s grasp, and then held it out to me. “Mr. –” she paused for just a moment, but then plunged on, “Schnabel,” she said, amazingly getting my name right on the first try.

I looked at her extended right hand, it was slender and very pale with long and sharp-looking red-painted nails. I have never felt comfortable shaking a woman’s hand. I know that the attentive reader – if I were to have one – will have noticed already my expressions of distaste for shaking hands with men; I suppose I must now admit that I don’t like to shake hands with women as well, or, for that matter, children of either gender. But I took her hand anyway, in just one of mine, as I hate to seem impolite even more than I hate shaking people’s hands.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss –”

I drew a blank on her last name. I was hungry, tired, out of sorts, and also fairly drunk now that I think about it. I thought of quickly substituting her first name, but I couldn’t remember that, either.

“Peacock,” she said.

“Oh, right, Peacock!” I said, idiotically, and now I got even more flustered, because I was trying to pull my hand away from hers, but she wouldn’t let go of mine, digging her nails into my palm.

“But please just call me Penelope,” she said, staring into my eyes, with her eyes, which were blue, and – I was going to write “piercing” but then I realized that that is just another adjective I’ve picked up from all the trashy novels I’ve read. So instead I’ll simply say that her eyes seemed to be the pale blue tunnels through which peered two tiny round windows opening into some other dark universe, perhaps a universe even more frightening than the one I was currently marooned in.

“Um,” I said, and I gave my hand another pull.

She dug her nails into my flesh one last time, still staring at me from that dark other universe, and then finally opened her fingers.

I quickly drew my hand away, and caressed its tortured palm with the fingers of my other hand.

“Now that introductions are out of the way,” said Penelope, “let us go into the parlor.”

“At last,” I thought, but didn’t say.

She turned and headed into the next room, and Horace and Ferdinand followed her, as did I, with Mr. Peacock bringing up the rear.

We were now in this large, cluttered, comfortable-looking old-fashioned living room. There was a big stone fireplace, with a big fire lit in it, and in front of the fireplace were some cozy-looking stuffed chairs with little doily-covered tables among them.

“Warmth!” exclaimed Horace, rubbing his hands together. “A roaring fire! Do you always keep the fire so merry?”

“Not always,” said Penelope. “But with this damnable rainstorm it seemed a good idea. Keep the damp out you know. Why don’t you gentlemen seat yourselves near the fire, at least until your clothes dry?”

“They didn’t bring any luggage with them!” chirped Mr. Peacock. He had picked up his pipe again and he jabbed its mouthpiece in the direction of Horace and me.

“Of course they didn’t, Popsy,” she said. 

“Yes, you see,” said Horace, “we got lost on the dark roads, and ran out of gas, and didn’t intend to stop over anywhere –”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” said Penelope.

“So, you know,” said Horace, “we didn’t bring any luggage, or –”

“Yes, quite,” she said. “Do sit down, take those two easy chairs closest to the fire – your clothes will be dry in no time, and please do not be too shy to remove your shoes and socks if you so wish. We are quite informal here.”

“Gee, thanks, Penelope,” said Horace.

She had herded us gently over towards the fire, and Horace sat himself down in one of the two chairs she had indicated, taking the one farther away. I sat in the other one, separated from Horace’s chair by a small table, covered with a lace doily, with a large glass ashtray on it, with ash in it but no actual butts either of cigars or cigarettes. Next to the ashtray was a table-lighter in the shape of a toad, made of bronze or of something that looked like bronze, and there was also what looked like a cigarette box on the table, made of silver or some other silver-like metal.

I sat back, and I stared into the flames of the fire, and felt its heat bathing over me. 

Penelope stood to my right, and a little in front of me.

“Is that better?”

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Take your shoes off.”

“I think I’ll just keep them on for the time being,” I said, with my usual modesty.

“Yeah, me, too,” said Horace. I don’t think he was being modest. I think he just didn’t want anyone to see the holes in his socks. I didn’t blame him.

“Perhaps you gentleman would like a nice hot pot of tea,” said Penelope.

“Tea?” said Horace.

“Yes,” said Penelope. “Assam, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong?”

“Oh, gee,” said Horace, “I don’t know. Tea would keep me up all night.”

“What about some chamomile,” she said.

“Chamomile,” said Horace. “Well, uh, ahem –”

“Or St. John’s wort,” she said.

“St. John’s wort,” said Horace, with a vague expression on his face. “Hmm –”

“I think what Horace is getting at,” said Ferdinand, who I now saw was still managing to hover not far from Penelope’s bosom, “is how about something a bit stiffer?”

“Oh!” she said. “Perhaps some sherry, or port?”

“Mr. Peacock had made some mention of brandy I think?” said Horace, twisting around to look at the old man, who was lurking behind our chairs.

“Why yes!” said the dotard. “Brandy, that’s the ticket for a wet night! In fact, it’s already been paid for!”

“What do you mean, Popsy,” said Penelope.

“I mean these chaps have already paid in advance for the prix-fixe late supper, as well as a room with double bed.”

“And I think a couple of bottles of Margaux were included in the bargain,” said Horace, “if I’m not terribly mistaken.”

“A brace of Margaux indeed!” said the old man. 

“And brandy, too?” said Penelope.

“Why yes, brandy, too!” said Mr. Peacock.

“And how much did you charge these gentlemen for all this magnificence, Popsy?”

“Why, I believe it was fifty dollars, wasn’t it, Mr. Sternwallader?”

“In that range I believe, yes,” said Horace.

“Oh, that’s highway robbery!” said Penelope. “Popsy, give the gentlemen at least half of that back.”

“What’s that make it, twenty-five?”

“Yes,” she said. “We are not out to gouge these poor men –”

“And a fly,” said Ferdinand.

“And a fly,” said Penelope. “Caught out lost in the rain. Fork it back over now, Popsy.”

“Well, you know,” said Mr. Peacock, “at my age, figures start to dance the Charleston in the decaying tawdry ballroom of my brain. Heh heh.”

He reached into his pocket and brought out a wallet that looked like a rat run over on the road and left out to dry. He pried it open.

“All I got’s a couple of twenties,” he said. “You fellows got any change on you?”

“Tell you what, Mr. Peacock,” said Horace. “Just give us the twenty, and maybe you can toss in a couple more brandies.”

“That hardly seems fair to you and your companions, Mr. Sternwall,” said Penelope.

“What about if I break out the good stuff?” said Mr. Peacock. “How about if we make it a bottle of fifty-year old Napoleon brandy?”

“Done and done!” said Horace. “Bring it on, my good sir! But you and Miss Penelope must join us in a glass or two.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the old fellow, and he tottered over and held out the two twenty-dollar bills to Horace, who hesitated just long enough to see that Penelope had turned away and was walking to the other side of the room. Then he swiftly took the bills and shoved them into his pocket.

“You catching all this, Arnie,” whispered Ferdinand in my ear.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” I telepathically communicated back to him. 

“He already took a fifty-dollar refund from the old goat, after supposedly giving him ten bucks, but you know what? I was watching him, and actually he only gave the old idiot seven. And now he just got another forty out of him.”

“Maybe I should say something,”
I said, mentally.

“Nix!” said my friend the fly. “You want to get us tossed out in the rain?”

“No,” I said, or thought.

“So just relax for once in your life, Arnie.”

“I feel bad,”
I said. 
“You’ll feel a lot worse walking down that dark road in the thunder and rain, with an empty stomach.”

He had a point, and, as the warmth of the fire transformed the rainwater in my clothes into a steamy mist that rose up gently from the weavings of the cloth, I decided to hold my tongue, at least for the time being.

It was so warm and comfortable in that chair, and I was – and have remained – weak.

(Continued here, as a free service to Arnold’s millions of loyal fans.)

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Friday, December 5, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 420: red head

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends Ferdinand (the loquacious fly) and the renowned Horace P. Sternwall
(author of such forgotten classics as Three Gals from Poughkeepsie and Mathilda, My Second Cousin, Twice-Removed) as they seek shelter from the storm at a certain secluded hostelry called the “Stop-Rite Inn”...

(Please go here to read our preceding chapter; if your reading of the entirety of Proust in the original has left you looking for a really ambitious new literary project then click here to go back to the beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)

“One is tempted to say that Arnold, Ferdinand and Horace are the Three Musketeers of American literature, but to call them such would serve only to limit the depth and richness of Arnold and his friends quite unfairly, IMHO.” – Harold Bloom, in the
Boys’ Life Literary Supplement.

We were in a shallow narrow foyer, with an open doorway at the other end of it, beyond which I could see what looked like a cozy living room from a time before I was born, even older-looking than that of my aunts’ living room back in Cape May, and I knew for a fact that all of their furniture was at least second-hand, picked up at bargain prices at estate auctions and lawn sales.

Horace and I stood there awkwardly (or at least I stood there awkwardly, who am I to speak for Horace’s state of mind?) as Mr. Peacock, with his pipe in his teeth, turned a big old mortice key which had already been in the door lock. He then shot a steel barrel bolt the size of a policeman’s nightstick through its hasp, and finally secured the knob of a security chain the links of which were made of three-inch lengths of steel as thick as my index finger.

The above-mentioned process was performed slowly, with three or four repetitions of each separate step, and occasional pauses between them, but I was used to old people taking a long time to do things, and I tried to be patient, dripping soaking wet and starving as I was.

Mr. Peacock now put his hand on the doorknob, which looked like a child’s pale aggie marble except that it was the size of a baseball and webbed with a thousand tiny cracks. After turning and pulling at it several times the old fellow finally gave up and turned to me and my companions. He took the pipe from his mouth before he spoke.

“I expect you gentlemen would like to dry those wet things before you dine.”

“I’m fine the way I am, pops,” said Ferdinand, who was hovering midway between my head and Horace’s.

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Peacock. “I suppose after all there are certain advantages to being a fly, are there not?”

“Wardrobe is not one of my big concerns, I will grant you that,” said Ferdinand. “But allow me to ask you a question if I may.”

“A question?” said Mr. Peacock, staring with one wide eye through his monocle while his other eye squinted. 

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “A question. If I may.”

“You’re not going to ask about –”

The old man paused, his old mouth hanging open. Then after five or six seconds that felt like ten minutes his lower jaw slowly raised up to meet, almost, his upper, and he abruptly started a completely new sentence:

“I hope you’re not going to ask about, about –”

Again, he paused, but this time with his thin old lips pressed together, which was less horrifying than his mouth hanging open, but still not pleasant to look at.

“Look, pops,” said Ferdinand, after the pause had passed the one-minute mark, “all I was gonna ask was, what’s with all the heavy locks? You got more security on that door than they got on the big vault down at Fort Knox.”

“Oh!” said Mr. Peacock. “The door. The locks. Well, you see as you have probably noticed we are quite isolated out here. One never knows if some travelling marauders, brigands, highwayman might try to force their way in and wreak havoc.”

Horace elbowed me in the side, but I tried to keep a straight face.

“Well, that makes sense, sir,” he said. “Doesn’t it, Arnold?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Don’t want those brigands breaking in!” Horace added.

“No,” said Mr. Peacock. “As for my own life, what little might be left of it, I care not a fig. But I am not alone in this house. I should hate for anyone else to be brutally murdered, or raped. Or both.”

“Oh, of course!” said Horace. “I mean of course not. Um –”

“Hey, I got another question though, pops,” said Ferdinand. He was still hovering there, between me and Horace.

“Yes?” said Mr. Peacock.

“How did you know me and my friends weren’t brigands?”

“Well, I suppose I couldn’t be entirely sure,” said Mr. Peacock. “However, speaking only of the two human members of your little band – I should say you two gentlemen struck me as – oh, how shall I put it?”

“Innocent?” said Horace.

“No, that’s not quite the word I was searching for,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Harmless?” said Ferdinand.

“’Harmless’,” said Mr. Peacock. “That’s as well may be, but again not quite the word I am seeking.”

“Take your time,” said Ferdinand.

Mr. Peacock seemed to take Ferdinand’s admonition literally. He put his pipe in his mouth and puffed.

I stifled, or tried to stifle, a sigh, and then hard on its heels a yawn, and, trying not to think of Beef Wellington, I looked at the wall, which was covered with faded and warped paper in shades of brown and black, showing little men on horses chasing foxes. A waist-high bookcase had a lot of old-looking hardbound books in it, as well as some newer-looking paperbacks, and three or four stacks of old National Geographic magazines, the real old kind from before the time when they started putting pictures on the covers. I resisted the urge to pick one up and read an article about the headhunters of the Amazon. On top of the bookcase were various dusty knick-knacks that looked like they were actually very old as opposed to knick-knacks that were imitations of what old knick-knacks might have looked like, including a heavy brown-glass ashtray, cracked and chipped, and with a dozen or more butts of cigarettes and cigars and a few handfuls of ash in it. There were some framed pictures on the walls, maybe even real paintings as opposed to reproductions of paintings, but they were so dark that they all looked like renditions of the same shadowy cluttered basement.

Finally Mr. Peacock spoke again.

Feckless,” he said.

“What?” said Horace.

“Feckless,” said Mr. Peacock. “You and your friend Mr. Schnozzle seemed quite feckless to me. I hope you are not offended.”

“Not at all,” said Horace.

“And besides you see, had you indeed proved to be brigands I was prepared.”

And with that he suddenly put his pipe in his mouth and then reached inside his smoking-jacket and brought out a large revolver with a long barrel, and pointed toward the space in the air midway between my right lung and Horace’s heart.

“Hey!” yelped Horace, and he held out both his hands, palms outward. “Easy with that thing, Mr. Peacock!”

“What?” said Mr. Peacock. “With this?” The pistol was so big I wondered how this little old man could even hold it straight, but even as I thought this he put his pipe into the ashtray on the bookcase and then brought his left hand up under his right to support his grip on the pistol. Nevertheless the barrel still wobbled a little. “This ‘thing’?”

He pointed the gun toward Horace (and I have to confess I was glad of this, coward that I was, and am).

“Yes!” said Horace. “Jesus Christ, Mr. Peacock, quit horsing around, will ya?”

“You’re not brigands, are you?” said the old man, and with that I finally realized: he was mad, insane, or at the very least in an advanced state of senility.

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” I said. “We’re just two lost men.”

“And a fly,” said Ferdinand, who sounded amused.

“And a fly,” I said. “All we wanted was some shelter from the rain, and something to eat –” 
“And to drink!” added Ferdinand.

“But how do I know you are not all secret brigands,” said Mr. Peacock, now moving the pistol shakily back and forth to cover both me and Horace, “planning to bide your time until the house is asleep, only to burst from your room and wreak havoc and bloody murder?”

“But, but –” said Horace, “you yourself just said we looked – and I quote you, sir – ‘feckless’!”

“Perhaps you were only pretending to seem feckless,” observed the old man, after a short pause, and in a way that someone just arriving on the scene might have thought sounded thoughtful.

“Oh, boy,” said Ferdinand. 
“Look, please, Mr. Peacock," said Horace,  "will you please lower that pistol? It’s very – disconcerting.”

“Lower my pistol so that you two hooligans can pounce upon me?”

“But we’re not going to pounce!” said Horace, with a distinct whine in his voice.

“So you say,” said Mr. Peacock. “Perhaps I should call the police.”

“What for?” said Horace. “We’re innocent! As my friend Arnold says, we only came here looking for some shelter, for some –”

“Then why are you afraid of me calling the police?”

“I’m not afraid!” said Horace. “We’re not afraid!”

“You look afraid.”

“That’s because you’re pointing a gun at me!”

“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand.

“I think I may just have to telephone the police,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” said Horace, “please, just let us go, we beg you, and you’ll never see us again! Please!”

“Don’t snivel, Horace,” said Ferdinand.

“I’m sorry!” said Horace. “I’m like that. I snivel when somebody points a gun at me. Excuse me for being human!”

“Hey!” said Ferdinand. “I resemble that remark!”

I thought I’d better try to step in here before things got really out of hand.

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” I said. “Maybe it really is better that we just leave –”

“What? So that you can lurk about outside and then break in and wreak havoc and bloody murder in the dark watches of the night?”

“No,” I said, “so that we can just walk away down that dark road in the rain.”

Smartypants,” he said. “A clever jackanapes!”

“Hardly,” I said. “Now if you’ll just unlock the door –”

“There’s only one reason I don’t plug both you scoundrels right now,” said Mr. Peacock.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s a very good reason!” said Horace. “A very good reason indeed, what ever it may be, and again I just want to say –”

“Don’t you want to know what the reason is?” said Mr. Peacock.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s an excellent reason!” babbled Horace.

“How do you know?” said the crazy old man.

“Oh,” said Horace, “well, just because I can tell that you are a very intelligent gentleman, and, and, a scholar, and, and –”

“The reason is have you ever seen what a .45 calibre bullet can do to a man’s brains at this distance?”

“Um, well, not personally,” said Horace, “you see I wanted to fight in the last war, but–”

“Splatter your brains all over my sitting room rug!” said Mr. Peacock. “Be a dickens of a job to clean it up! That’s why I don’t plug the both of you right here!”

“Look, Mr. Peacock,” I said, “all we want to do is leave.”

“I thought you said you were hungry!”

“I am,” I said, “but we seem to have upset you in some way, and so if you’ll just unlock the door and let us go –”

“And I suppose you want your money back, too!” he croaked.

“No!” yelped Horace. “Not at all! You can keep the money!”

“Oh, brother!” said Ferdinand.

“I don’t want your money!” said Mr. Peacock. “I spit on your money! What did you give me?”

“Um,” said Horace, “uh, I think it was –”

“Twenty was it?” said Mr. Peacock. 

“Uh,” said Horace, “um, uh –”

“You think I want your twenty dollars?”

“Well,” said Horace, “uh –”

“Very well, then. Hands up!” said the old madman. “The both of you! Raise ‘em high and turn around!”

“Aw, gee,” said Horace, but he was already raising his arms.

“What about me?” said Ferdinand. “You want me to put my hands up?’

“Don’t get wise with me, you infernal creature!” said Mr. Peacock. “You just turn your little body around and keep hovering there, and don’t think I can’t plug you with this pistol, tiny as you are.”

“Oh, I’m quaking,” said Ferdinand, but he did seem to turn around as he hovered in the air, although it’s hard to say, with a fly.

“You, too, Mr. Schadenfreude,” said Mr. Peacock, pointing the actually-quaking barrel of the pistol at me.

“It’s Schnabel, actually,” I said.

“Whatever damn name you’re going by! Raise your hands and turn round!”

I sighed, but did as he bade me.

I felt Ferdinand land in my ear.

“You believe this old bastard?” he whispered.

I said nothing, but I thought something, and Ferdinand heard my thoughts.

“I know you don’t want to get him upset,” he said.

Look, I thought, knowing Ferdinand could hear my unspoken words, let’s just do what he says, and then maybe he’ll let us go.

“Out into that torrential downpour,”
he said in my ear. “To walk down a dark road to God knows where.”

Look, Ferdinand – I started to telepathically communicate, but then I heard Mr. Peacock’s voice again.

“All right,” he said. “You can all turn around now.”

We turned around.

The wobbling gun was now held only by his ancient bony right hand, and in his left he was holding out a crumpled fifty-dollar bill.

“Here,” he said. “Mr. Schopenhauer.”

He was waving the fifty at Horace, who said: “Who me?”

“Yeah, you. Take your twenty back.”

“My – twenty?”

“You want it or don’t you?”

“Well, I - uh – may I put my hands down?”

“Yes! Both of you! Hands down!”

We lowered our hands, or at least Horace and I lowered our hands. 

“Take your blood money!” said Mr. Peacock, to Horace.

“Only if you insist, sir,” said Horace, and he took the fifty-dollar bill and quickly shoved it into his trousers pocket.

Popsy,” said a woman’s voice, from behind me and Horace. “What on earth is going on?”

Horace and I both turned, to see a beautiful young red-haired woman, wearing a pale purple dress.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello to you!” said Horace.

Hubba hubba!” said Ferdinand.

“What did you say?” said the young woman, looking at me.

“Nothing,” I said.

“It sounded as if you said ‘hubba hubba’, but I didn’t see your lips move.”

“That was me, miss,” said Ferdinand, making a graceful dip in front of her, perhaps this was his version of a gallant bow. “Ferdinand is my name, and, yes, I am indeed a talking fly.”

“Most extraordinary,” she said. “I don’t believe I’ve met a talking fly before.”

“Very few people have,” said Ferdinand.

“What an extraordinary privilege for me,” she said. “Popsy, why are you holding that gun?”

“What, this gun?” said Mr. Peacock.

“I see no other gun in your hands,” she said.

“I was merely demonstrating to these gentlemen my readiness and ableness to deal with brigands.”

“Please put it away. Unless of course these gentlemen are indeed brigands.”

“We’re not!” said Horace. “I assure you we’re not. As we have explained to your – grandfather?”

“Great-great-grandfather as it happens,” she said.

“Great-great-grandfather –” said Horace.

“Too much of a mouthful to address him as such each time I must address him,” she said.

“I can appreciate that,” said Horace.

“Therefore I address him as Popsy.”

“As we were saying, anyway,” said Horace, “our car ran out of gas, and so –”

“Ah ha, the old car ran out of gas on a rainy night scenario,” she said.

“Oh, but it really happened,” said Horace.

“You look rather shabby,” she said. “The pair of you.”

“But that’s only because we are writers,” said Horace. “Creative chaps. You might say of a slightly raffish, bohemian bent.”

“Well, that’s different then,” she said. “Unless of course you’re lying.” She looked at me. “Is he lying? Are you really a pair of bohemian writers?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s true that I write poems.”

“Recite me a poem you’ve written.”

“I’m not sure I can remember one,” I said.

“I want to hear a poem. You’re a poet. Recite a poem.”

“Okay,” I said. In desperation I made up a short poem right there on the spot:

“I went downstairs and made some tea;
yesterday stared back at me,
a new day dawning to take its place –
with what new pain, what new disgrace?”

A pause ensued.

I waited for a slap in my face, bullet in my back, but neither came.

“Won’t you come in and get dry, gentlemen?” she said, at last.

(Continued here; such is our duty and our privilege.)

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