Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel is speeding along a dark country road in a stolen pink 1955 Cadillac “60 Special” driven by his friend the celebrated author Horace P. Sternwall, when suddenly they hear the awful sound of a siren, and, peering into the rearview mirror, they see the approaching flashing lights of a police car...
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“Until the day I die I will not cease to expound the glory of the most profound American writer since Horace P. Sternwall: no other than a humble former railroad brakeman named Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in the National Geographic Literary Digest.
“The Twelfth of Never” came to its end, Horace reached over and switched off the radio, and now the police siren sounded much louder.
So this was it.
We were going to get arrested.
We would be sent to jail.
So, not only would I still be trapped in the universe of a paperback novel titled Rummies of the Open Road, but I would be in jail in that novel. What was the sentence for stealing a Cadillac? A year? Two years? But then after all it was my first offense…but – wait – what if it was my third offense in this world? Could I get life in prison?
The above thoughts flashed through my brain in the space of two seconds, and they probably would have continued in that depressing strain indefinitely had not Horace interrupted their flow by speaking:
“We’re just gonna have to outrun them,” he said, and he stepped on the gas.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Horace, you’re going to get us killed.”
“We can’t die,” he said, glancing at me. “The novel we’re in ain’t even half over.”
“You think so?” I said, putting both my hands on the dashboard and pushing against it, as if to push away violent death.
“Yeah,” he said, or shouted actually. We were both shouting by this point, over the roar of the Cadillac’s motor, the rushing of the night air through the windows, the keening of the police siren. “I figure we’re only like thirty-eight thousand words in,” he yelled, glancing at me again. “We need at least thirty more thousand words, maybe more, even for a paperback original, y’know?”
“The cop car is getting closer, Horace,” I said.
I was looking into the rear view mirror. The flashing red hood-light of the police car was getting bigger and brighter by the second, the siren screaming louder, more loudly, progressively more loudly? It was loud.
“Oh, wait,” said Horace, shouted Horace. “I just thought of something.”
“What’s that?” I said, whined.
“One of us has to live, but maybe the other one will die. I mean there’s no guarantee that both our characters have to live through the book. Or – I know – maybe the one character gets horribly crippled, even paralyzed maybe?”
“Horace,” I said, “you really have to slow down. I don’t want to be the one to die or get paralyzed.”
“Neither do I,” he said. “Jeeze, Arnold, you really can be self-centered.”
“Horace, just slow down. In fact, slow down and stop the car.”
“Stop the car?” he said. “What? You want to go to jail?”
“No,” I said.
“Because this could wind up being a prison novel, pal. Very easily. There’s no guarantees in the paperback-original novel business.”
“I have an idea,” I said, although I really didn’t have one.
“You do?” he said.
“Yes!” I said, and then all at once I actually did have an idea.
“What is it?” he said.
“You stop the car as quick as you can, before the cop car gets any closer. Then we run into the woods and try to escape.”
“That’s your plan?”
“Do you have a better one?” I said.
“Nope,” he said, and abruptly he yanked the gear shift, slammed on the brakes, and brought the scar screeching to a halt on the left side of the road.
He doused the headlights, turned off the motor and pulled out the ignition key, which was still attached to his big ring of a few dozen odd keys which no doubt worked for just as many foreign and domestic motor vehicles.
Then he turned to me.
“Let’s cheese it, pal!”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I jumped out my side, slammed the door shut and ran around the front of the car to follow Horace, who was already running into the darkness of those thick woods.
The woods were almost pitch black, the trees crowded close together, their foliage blocking out any glimmer of light from the nighttime sky. Our feet crunched in dead stuff on the ground.
Horace was just a dark thrashing shape in the darkness in front of me, but I followed him by the sound of his gasping and panting, by the heavy crunching of the soles of his work shoes on the forest floor, by the tinkling of that ring of car-thievery keys in his pocket.
We ran into the darkness.
I could hear the wail of the siren growing louder behind us, but then as Horace and I blindly trampled on through the dark woods the sound of the siren suddenly spiraled down into silence behind us, doubtless as the policeman left their parked cruiser and cautiously approached Laughing Lou’s abandoned pink Cadillac, their revolvers drawn and cocked.
We ran on, Horace panting and wheezing ahead of me, and me just trying to stay behind him. I figured if I did that then at least I wouldn’t crash into a tree. I’m not sure how Horace didn’t crash into a tree, he was probably running with his arms stretched out straight in front of him, or maybe it was just a drunken man’s good luck.
But then after a minute I heard Horace’s pace slowing, the thudding of his shoes growing heavier, his gasping growing louder and more strangled, and finally I banged right into him, and we both went crashing to the ground.
We lay there in the dead pine needles and cones, side by side, and I stared up into those dark leaves above us, if pines can be said to have leaves, if these were indeed pines and not some other species of evergreen, or even a fictional one, what did I know?
I stared up into the dark stuff growing out from the trees, which may have been pines.
Horace wheezed and panted. I wheezed and panted. The darkness seemed to vibrate above us. I was covered with sweat, presumably Horace was too.
After a couple of minutes, maybe more – while the darkness churned above me like a universe of nothingness that seemed to be drawing me into it, and the only thing keeping me from it was the last ounce of willpower I still possessed – Horace spoke, whispered hoarsely.
“Arnie? Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” I said, whispered, rasped.
“That’s just it,” he said. “There is nothing – no noise, not a sound.”
He sat up, I could hear him doing this, but now, as my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could see him also, just barely, especially the wet shiny flesh of his face.
I pushed my own corporeal self into a sitting position.
“I don’t hear anything either,” I whispered.
“They must have driven on,” Horace said, still in a low voice if not quite a whisper. “What the hell, they got Lou’s car back. They don’t pay those cops enough for them to go chasing through woods at night after a couple of two-bit drifters like us.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“For all they know we’re coldblooded itinerant murderers. Why should they take a chance?”
“That sounds – reasonable,” I said.
I suddenly realized I was still holding between my thumb and forefinger the reefer I had been smoking in the car.
“That’s really odd,” I said.
“What’s really odd?” said Horace.
“I’m still holding that reefer,” I said.
“Oh, good,” he said. “I think I have some matches.”
“Horace!” I croaked.
“What?” he said. “What is it?”
“Horace,” I said, “we can’t smoke this reefer now.”
“Why not?” he said.
“Because, because –” I knew there must be a reason.
“Yes, go on,” said Horace. “I’m waiting. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Because we’re lost in some dark woods,” I said. “We don’t know where we are. And the police are after us!”
“I’m still waiting for a reason why we shouldn’t fire up that doobie,” said Horace, and a flame burst flinchingly into being before my eyes and his smiling sweaty face became visible as he held up the paper match he had just struck.
“Oh, jeeze,” I said.
“C’mon,” he said, “stick that joint in your phiz before the match goes out.”
Without really thinking about it, just as I have done about 99.99% of everything I’ve done in my life, I put the reefer between my lips, and even partially cupped it with one hand as Horace gave me a light.
“There,” he said, shaking out the match as I held in the smoke. “Doesn’t that feel better?”
After holding the smoke in for half a minute I slowly exhaled. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly, I did feel better.
“Huh?” he said. “Right?”
“Yes,” I admitted, quietly, and I let out with a small but not entirely unpleasant cough.
“Hey, where the hell am I?” said a familiar if slightly muffled voice. “Why’s it so dark?”
“Ferdinand!” I cried.
“Ha ha,” said Horace.
“What the fuck?” said Ferdinand’s voice. “Arnie?”
“Ferdinand,” I said, pulling the left breast of my seersucker jacket away from the front of my sweaty work shirt. “You’re in my shirt pocket.”
“I am? How’d I get here. And is that reefer I smell?”
“Yes,” I said, my chin to my chest as I addressed my pocket. “Are you able to fly out?”
“I feel crappy,” he said.
“You drank too much champagne,” I said. “Do you want to rest in there for a while?”
“No, I’m comin’ out,” he said, and I heard him more than saw him buzz up out of my pocket to hover between me and Horace.
“Are you okay, Ferdinand?” I said.
“I’ll tell you what would make me feel a whole lot better,” he said.
“Hit me, Jack.”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Come on, brother,” he said. “Shotgun.”
“Um?” I said.
“Ha ha,” said Horace. “He means the reefer, Arnie.”
“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Give me a toke of that joint you’re bogarting, Arnold.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
I took another drag on the reefer, held it in for a long moment and then slowly blew it out, and in the plume of pale smoke I could see the tiny hovering dark spot of Ferdinand, breathing it in.
“Ah,” he said, after the smoke had dissipated. “Now I feel better!”
“Good man!” said Horace. “Okay, Arnold, pass it over.”
I passed him the reefer.
“So what’s been happening?” said Ferdinand. “Did I miss anything exciting?”
“Clue him in, Arnie,” said Horace, and I heard him sucking on the reefer.
“Well, you passed out from too much champagne, Ferdinand,” I said, trying not to sound judgmental. “And, while Laughing Lou was supposedly getting us some cheeseburgers, that lady Lily told us that Laughing Lou was going to do us no good, and that we should run away. So we did, and Horace stole a Cadillac that apparently was Laughing Lou’s, but then, just as we were about to take off in the Cadillac, Lou came out into the parking lot and he started shooting a pistol, so Horace pulled out and headed down this dark road, and we found a couple of reefers in the glove compartment, and Horace lit one up, and we were smoking it, but then a police car started chasing us, so Horace pulled up at the side of the road and we ran off into the woods until we finally collapsed here.”
“So not too much has been happening?” said Ferdinand.
“No,” I said. “I guess not. Except we don’t know where we are or what we should do or where we should go.”
I heard the mighty sound of Horace exhaling, and I felt and smelled the smoke, and I heard Ferdinand sighing as he breathed it in.
“You got to learn to accentuate the positive, Arnie,” said Horace.
“Tell me about it,” said Ferdinand. “Arnie’s a cool guy and all, but he can really be a downer sometimes.”
“But, but –” I said.
“Lookit, give me a second or two,” said Ferdinand.
“Okay,” I said. What else could I say?
I heard him buzzing upward.
“Cute little guy,” said Horace. “I really like him. But he’s right, Arnie. You shouldn’t be such a doom-and-gloomer.”
“I know,” I said.
“Here.” I saw the glowing red tip of the reefer coming closer to my face. “Take another hit,” he said. “Maybe it’ll loosen up that railroad spike you got stuck up in your ass.”
“But, but –” I said.
“No buts,” he said. “Now take it.”
I took it, managing not to burn my fingers. And I took a good drag, and held it in. I have very little self-control, as the attentive reader will have noticed long before now.
I heard a sound like the descent of the world’s tiniest buzz bomb and then Ferdinand’s voice:
“Good news,” he said. “I see lights, and they don’t look too far away.”
“What kind of lights, little buddy?” said Horace.
“Like a house or something.”
“Maybe it’s a diner!” said Horace.
“Maybe,” said Ferdinand. “Couldn’t really tell.”
“Hear that, Arnie?” said Horace. “It could be a diner! We can get some chow, maybe find a way out. Who knows? We’re saved!”
I exhaled the smoke. I wasn’t so sure we were saved, but we couldn’t sit here all night.
“Feel better now, Arnie?” said Ferdinand.
“Sure he feels better,” said Horace. He clapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, Arnie!”
I struggled to my feet. I sensed that Horace was having difficulty getting up, so I reached down, found his arm, and pulled him to his feet.
“Thanks, pal,” said Horace. “So, Ferdinand, which way?”
“Follow me, boys,” said my friend the fly, and he seemed to buzz off in the direction we had been running when we collided and fell.
We followed him into the darkness.
(Continued here, and onward unremittingly.)
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