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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Strange that it's so unsettling that Penelope got Arnold's name right away. It might be a first. Of course, the handshake doesn't bode well either. But comprehending Schnabel without repeating it right after him? Chilling.
Right – and then when you consider Arnold allowing himself to fall into a cozy state of relaxation in front of the fireplace...careful, boy!
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