Once again, as has happened so many times before, our hero Arnold Schnabel has found himself collapsing to the pavement, in this case on a hot and wet August night on MacDougal Street, in that Mecca of Bohemia known as Greenwich Village…
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode. Newcomers to the fold may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 69-volume masterpiece of the autobiographer’s art.)
“Yes, the first hopeful signs of spring have finally begun to appear, and soon it will be time to take one’s Kindle™ to the park to read one’s daily requirement of Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in the Family Circle Literary Supplement.
It’s hard to describe pain.
After a while you run out of different ways to say throbbing or burning or excruciating or unbearable or horrific, and so I think that in the present instance I won’t even try. Suffice it to say that I collapsed to both knees on the sidewalk, notably the right one, that is to say the one that was already the source of burning, excruciating, unbearable and horrific pain, and then the upper part of my body fell forward, but I was able to break this part of my fall with my forearms and hands, which was good for my face but bad for my forearms and hands.
I lay there in my exclusive little world of agony, hearing voices above me, but making no sense of the words spoken. Beyond the voices I heard music, which, I now realized through my pain, I had been hearing ever since entering this mode of reality, or irreality: it was the sound of a trumpet, playing what I had learned by now was jazz music, if only because I could discern no actually melody, although the notes played were not unpleasant.
I turned my head to one side and allowed my cheek to rest on the wet pavement, which felt hard and granular of course but pleasantly cool, one tiny small area of unpainful coolness in the midst of the many and various pains that comprised my sensory world, the greatest of which emanated from my now freshly-ravaged right knee, a pain so intense that if someone had handed me a hatchet at that point I would have gladly (no, not gladly, but desperately and without hesitation) hacked off that leg at the thigh. I tried to concentrate all my attention on this tiny island of non-pain in my cheek, tried and failed. I only wanted oblivion, but oblivion would not come, and so I availed myself of the human being’s time-honored response to extreme pain: I groaned, yelled, screamed, and sobbed.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” I heard a woman’s voice say, and then that voice was lost in a babble of other voices.
I groaned, howled, yelled, grunted words which I have rarely said in my life spent mostly as a devout and more than slightly priggish Catholic bachelor.
And then someone was pushing my shoulder, pushing me over onto my back, and I allowed myself to be pushed, despite the fresh cacophony of agonies this pushing caused, and then I noticed through my copious tears that the person doing the pushing was Muriel, the tall beautiful girl in the black blouse and the Panama hat.
She was squatting on her haunches beside me, and she put her hand under the back of my head and pulled it forward, off the pavement, and with her other hand she held a pint-sized flask to my lips. It had a cap attached to the short neck of the flask with a hinge, and the cap was unscrewed.
“Now listen, buddy,” said her voice from somewhere near and far at once. “You just take a good long pull of this stuff, it’ll be good for what ails you.”
“Ehhh,” I groaned.
“What’s that you say?” she said.
“Ahhhh. Ihhhhh. Uh!” I said.
“Can’t understand a word you’re saying, son,” she said.
“Ahhh, uhhh, ahhh,” I replied.
“What in hell?” she said.
“He’s asking what is it?” said the voice of my old friend Ferdinand, the talking fly, and I now could see him, buzzing around just above my face.
“Oh, for Pete’s, goodness’, Christ’s and every other kind of sake,” said Muriel. “It’s just bourbon, you big baby, good old-fashioned Old Forester Kentucky bourbon, so stop your goddam whining and drink it down.”
She stuck the mouth of the flask between my teeth, and I drank. It tasted very bitter, and unlike any bourbon I had ever drunk (and I had drunk a lot of bourbons in my time, albeit only cheap ones) but I figured this was only the result of my taste buds being so affected by my miseries that they too had gone to hell.
“Again,” she said, after allowing me to cough and gasp a few times.
She held the flask to my mouth, and I drank again.
“Once more,” she said, after my noises had subsided.
I drank once more, and now, amazingly and almost at once, the universe of pain that was myself transformed itself into one of intense pleasure, as if I were experiencing an orgasm in slow motion.
“Feel better?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, in English this time.
She was still holding my head up, leaning over me. I could feel the warmth of her body, and she smelled pleasantly of gin and roses, of ripe lemons and cotton candy.
“Wasn’t too bitter?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“‘Cause – guess what – what you just drank wasn’t anything but pure laudanum mixed half-and-half with Old Forester bourbon. I find the Old Forester lessens the natural bitter quality of the laudanum and makes it go down easier, don’t you think?”
“Yes?” was all I could say.
“I use it as a palliative for my lady cramps. Got a little old Jewish pharmacist over on Hester Street hooks me up. You want another shot?”
“Yes, please,” I blatantly said.
“Just a little swallow now,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
Again she put the flask to my lips, and I drank greedily, I would have finished the whole flask had she not pulled it away.
“I said just a little bit, hogatha!” she said.
“Sorry,” I said, forming this single word as if I were pushing a tennis ball out of my mouth.
“Hey, sister," said Ferdinand. “ya know somethin’? You’re all right. I thought you were a real bitch at first, but now I think I might have been mistaken.”
“I have my moments,” she said.
“By the way, mind if I have a little of that stuff?” said Ferdinand.
At this point I finally did pass out.
I dreamt I was back in my old neighborhood, back in Olney, I was walking up Fifth Street toward St. Helena’s church on a bright day, but there was no one else around. I walked past the school and the convent, and then I came to the steps of the church and started climbing them, but my legs were moving very slowly, hardly at all, and I couldn’t get past the second step. Then I wondered why I even wanted to go into the church. Was I supposed to usher at mass? What would happen if I was late, or, even worse, if I failed to show up at all? Would I be punished in some way? I had never in my life failed to show up at a mass I was scheduled to usher, nor even been late by so much as a minute, that’s how much of a goody two shoes I was, or had been. This would definitely be a black mark on my name. I would perhaps even be drummed out of the ushers’ corps, as had indeed happened several times in my experience to fellows who had showed up for mass drunk, or too hungover to properly perform their duties, one chap even throwing up ignominiously during the Consecration right in the holy water font.
I didn’t know what to do, because my legs just wouldn’t move. Fortunately I suppose I was suddenly across the street, right at the parking-lot entrance of the Acme. I successfully went inside. There was no one there. I walked up and down the brightly lit aisles. I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to buy. I came to the butcher section and, looking into the open refrigerators I saw the bodies of people killed or starved to death in the war. Then the dead bodies came alive, started to squirm and groan, so I turned and flew up the aisle, flying about six feet off the ground. I came to the glass exit door and put my arms in front of my face but luckily for me the door opened automatically and I flew out into the parking lot and out over Fifth Street and continued to fly, southward, and almost instantaneously I was at Fisher Park, so I flew into the park and down along the curved concrete walk, down the hill and then up the other side, past the playground and down the wooded hill beyond it, and I flew along through a thick forest, gliding effortlessly in between the trees, always about six feet off the ground, and I was happy to be flying, but then I came to a steep wooded hill and I flew up its side and finally came out to a railroad track, a railroad track leading to infinity both ways, a curving long track through green countryside, green rolling hills, and I flew to the left along the track until I came to a tunnel in a green mountain, and I flew into the tunnel, which was pitch black, and I kept flying and then I saw a light ahead of me, the light of an approaching locomotive, and I flew toward it, knowing that this would be my end.
But of course it wasn’t my end, or I wouldn’t be writing this.
I awoke from the dream, and entered reality once again, if a fictional world can be called reality, and even if it cannot, it was the one I found myself in, again, and as annoying and frustrating as it was, it still beat flying headlong into a speeding locomotive.
I was sitting up now, my back leaning against something cool and hard, and I saw Horace and Muriel and Missy standing in front of me, but they were ignoring me, talking to one another, smoking cigarettes, and passing Muriel’s flask around.
“Muriel,” I heard Ferdinand’s voice, “how about just another drop? Just another tiny drop on your hand there and I’ll lap it right up.”
“My, aren’t you the little hophead?” said Muriel.
“Ha ha, Ferdinand’s a fly after my own heart!” said Horace.
“Hey, Muriel,” said Missy, “I wouldn’t mind another sip either, just a little one.”
As they went on in this vein I gradually realized where I was. I was sitting up against the glass front door of the tailor shop, and Horace and the two girls and Ferdinand were standing just inside the entrance area, well, Ferdinand of course wasn’t standing, but buzzing happily around the others.
I thought that I should try to get up. I sent a message to my legs and to my arms and the rest of my body to that effect, but all my body did was shift about a bit, as if I were sitting in a great mass of foam rubber.
“Excuse me!” I called, cutting into the chatter.
They all fell silent, and looked at me.
“Yes?” said Muriel.
“I, um, uh,” I said.
“How you doing there, champ?” said Horace.
“Much better, thank you,” I said, making the words leave my mouth. “But I can’t seem to be able to get up.”
“Is he paralyzed?” asked Missy.
“Nah, not Arnie!” said Horace. “Right, buddy?”
“I hope not,” I said.
Horace was holding the flask now. He took a quick drink, wiped off its mouth with his hand, and handed it to Muriel.
“Thank you very much, Muriel,” he said. “That really hit the spot. One of you girls want to help me get Arnie up?”
“I’ll help,” said Missy.
Horace and Missy came over to me, one on each side, and Horace pulled one arm while Missy pulled on the other until I was on my feet. I couldn’t feel my feet, but I could see them down there below me on the pavement.
“How are you, Mr. Schnitzel?” said Missy, still holding onto my arm.
For only a moment I was about to correct her about my name, but then it didn’t seem worth the effort, and instead I answered her question as truthfully as I was able.
“I feel drugged,” I said.
“Well, that makes sense, Arnie,” said Horace, a cigarette wobbling from between his lips, “since that’s exactly what you are.” He was still holding onto my other arm, and with his free hand he gave me a pat on the back. “Come on, buddy, we’re heading over to the Kettle of Fish for a cocktail with these nice young ladies.”
“No, Horace,” I managed to say, “please. I can’t go in there –”
“I know, I know,” he said, nodding his head with a big smile. “Something always happens when you go into a bar. But don’t you see, that’s the beauty of it! You never know what’ll happen! You’ve got to embrace life, pal.”
“That’s what I always say,” said Muriel. “Get it while you can, ‘cause who knows what the morrow may bring.”
“Amen, sister,” said Ferdinand. “Hey, how about just one more drop out of that flask before we roll?”
“Sure, little fella,” she said, and she held the flask over the side of one hand, tilting the flask carefully so as to let just a drop ooze out onto the pale white flesh between the base of her thumb and her first thin finger-knuckle.
“Y’know, Mr. Schwartzman,” said Missy, giving my arm a gentle squeeze, “I think they’re right. I used to be like you, afraid of life. But not any more.”
She was standing very close to me, looking up at me because she was rather shorter than me, and I was tempted to say yes, let’s go to the Kettle of Fish, let’s sit and listen to the sad trumpet and drink whiskey and laudanum, maybe wash it down with some draft Rhinegold.
But then I remembered.
Mr. Philpot’s shop was right across the street and up the block a few doors.
With any luck, Josh, my friend, the son of God, would still be there – provided of course this was the same night – or even the same world for that matter – as the previous time I had been in Philpot’s shop. Maybe Josh could help me after all, even if he had failed the last time. He was the son of God, wasn’t he? He was entitled to fail now and then, but that didn’t mean he was always going to fail, did it? And, besides, there was still my book in there, my blank book, the one I had bought so long ago from Mr. Philpot. Maybe if I could just concentrate for a minute I could write my own way out of this universe.
I had to go there, to Philpot’s shop.
It was really my only hope, and I had to give it a try.
By this time Missy and Horace had frog-marched me out of the entranceway of the tailor shop and we were heading up the block.
“No, wait!” I said, and I dragged my heels, forcing Missy and Horace to come to a stop.
“Oh, now what the hell,” said Muriel. “Yeah, what gives, Arnie?” said Ferdinand.
“I have to go to Mr. Philpot’s shop,” I said.
“Bullshit on that place, Arnie,” said Horace, and then he turned to the girls. “Pardon my French, ladies, but, really –”
“Horace,” I said, “I have to go there!”
“Sure,” he said. “After we have a few cocktails. Then we’ll go over there and you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna give that old bastard Philpot a piece of my mind, that’s what!”
Other words were said, by me and the others, but somehow we continued up the street, toward the Kettle of Fish, and it began to be clear to me that I didn’t have the willpower to prevent myself from going in there, yet again, and to be honest, part of me (a very big part of me) really did feel like having a tall cold beer, and maybe a surreptitious slug or two more of what was in Muriel’s flask. Maybe I really did have a problem with alcohol and drugs.
But as it turned out I didn’t need to have the willpower to stop myself from going into the Kettle of Fish, because something else stopped me.
It was a man’s voice, a deep, cultured-sounding, commanding voice.
“Hey, Porter!” called the voice. “Porter Walker!”
That sounded familiar.
“I say, Porter old man!”
And then I remembered – Porter Walker was my name, or at least one of my names, albeit a fictional one.
I turned my head and looked across MacDougal Street.
A man stood on the sidewalk outside the Valhalla bar, right near the steps that led up to Mr. Philpot’s shop.
It was a handsome dark man in an iridescent grey suit.
It was Nicky Boskins, also known as Lucky, also known by many other names, none of them good.
“Porter baby!” he called. “Wait up, man!”
And the prince of darkness leapt gracefully over the streaming rainwater in the gutter and came striding across MacDougal Street, smiling, holding a cigarette in a holder, and not even bothering to look both ways.
(Continued here, damning the torpedoes and full speed ahead.)
(Kindly scroll down the right hand column of this page to find a strictly current listing of links to all other legally-published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. Tickets are now available to the Arnold Schnabel Society’s “Spring Fling Beef ‘n’ Beer Bash” at the Raymond T. Osmond VFW Post at Chew and Lawrence, in the scenic Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia. Live entertainment provided by the melodic stylings of Freddy Ayres & Ursula, with special guest Magda on the Hohner electric piano. All proceeds in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Arnold Schnabel Appreciation Project.)