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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