Once again our hero Arnold Schnabel has triumphed over his old nemesis the prince of darkness, here on this hot wet night in old Greenwich Village...
(Kindly click here to read our preceding chapter; curious newcomers with lots of free time on their hands may go here to start at the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 69-volume masterpiece.)
“Arnold Schnabel has been called ‘the American Proust’, ‘the workingman’s James Joyce’, ‘the less-neurotic Kafka’, even ‘the kindler, gentler Samuel Beckett’, but I think it is enough to say that he was quite simply, quite complicatedly, and quite magnificently: Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in the Olney Community College Literary Quarterly.
“Wow,” said Ferdinand, the first one to speak. “That was intense.”
“I’ll say,” said Horace.
“Have I really gone mad?” said Missy.
“Well, honey,” said Muriel, “if you’ve gone cuckoo then I have too.”
“But –” said Missy, “was that man who I think he was?”
“It was him,” said Muriel. “Old Jack Scratch himself.”
“Actually,” I said, unable as most men are to resist an opportunity to show off, “Jack Scratch is one of his sort of subordinate demons. But this was –” I waved a hand at the space that Nicky had occupied on the pavement – ”the prince of darkness himself.”
“An old friend of yours?” said Muriel.
“We’ve had quite a few encounters I’m afraid,” I said, not meaning to brag, but it was only the truth.
“Wow, Arnie,” said Horace, “I’m really impressed. This is a whole new side of you.”
“I've said it before, I'll say it again," said Ferdinand. "Arnie is in no way, shape, or form a ham-and-egger.”
“Obviously not,” said Horace.
“You’re smart, you know what you should do, Horace?” said Ferdinand
“Well, I’m not very smart, heh heh,” he said. “But what should I do, Ferdy?”
“You oughta make Arnie the hero of your next book.”
“Y’know, that’s not a bad idea,” said Horace, after just a very slight hesitation. He had thrown away his latest cigarette sometime in the past several minutes, and now he reached into his side jacket pocket and produced a fresh one. I’m not sure, but I think these were Herbert Tareytons that he had stolen from the cigarette box in the parlour of the Stop-Rite Inn, in that other fictional universe we had somehow escaped from, into this one. “Maybe not a bad idea at all,” he said, tapping the cigarette on the base of his thumb. “Maybe even make him the hero of a series, like you know, John Carter of Mars. Or Doc Savage.”
“Big money in those kinds of books,” said Ferdinand.
“I could even write you in there, Ferdinand,” said Horace, with a smile. He lit his cigarette with a paper match from a Lily’s Road House book of matches. “Arnold’s faithful wisecracking sidekick.”
“Just spell my name right,” said Ferdinand.
While the above nonsense was being spoken I had noticed something strange on the sidewalk near my feet, something narrow and black and tapered, and I realized it was Nicky’s cigarette holder, still with a burning butt of a cigarette in it. I didn’t know why, and I still don’t, but I bent over to pick it up. Performing this simple act felt like I was reaching down into another universe, yet another one, but at last my fingers reached the holder and picked it up, and my torso began its slow ascent into what felt like the stratosphere, or perhaps the ionosphere, not that I know what those words mean, but suffice it to say that the upper part of my body was rising way, way, up, even though my hips and legs and feet remained anchored to the sidewalk, and as I stared down at the miles of empty space expanding between my eyes and the concrete paving below I became overcome by vertigo, which caused me to stumble forward as if I had been given a good hard kick in the backside, but Horace grabbed me by the arm to keep me from falling.
“Easy there, champ,” he said.
“I think I need to sit down,” I said, the words seeming to float up into the humid lamplit air, drifting up into the dark sky above.
“Sure, pal,” said Horace. “We’ll just get you over to the Kettle, sit you right down, get a shot and a beer inside you, you’ll be fine.”
He tugged on my arm, but I was busy staring at Nicky’s cigarette holder, holding it between my thumb and finger in front of my face. With my other hand I picked the lit butt out of it. It was a Pall Mall, my old brand. I flicked the butt into the gutter, it hissed and died in the rainwater and then floated away.
“You gonna keep that holder?” Arnie, said Horace. I was still staring at it. It was made out of some highly polished gleaming black substance. Ebony? What was ebony, anyway? “It is a nice piece,” said Horace. “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”
“You would put that thing in your mouth,” said Muriel, “after the devil himself been smoking it?”
“Well,” said Horace, “now that you put it that way –”
I noticed that Muriel and Missy were now also smoking fresh cigarettes. I envied them, just as I envied all the smokers in the world. Sure, cigarettes caused cancer and emphysema, but they also gave you something relaxing to do in awkward moments like this, after the living personification of all evil has been vanquished.
“So, uh, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, buzzing around near my ear, “what do you say, pal? Kettle of Fish? Whiskey and beer?”
I was holding the holder closer to my eyes, trying to get it into the light from the nearest streetlamp. I know this is sounding weird but I was fascinated by its gleaming blackness, which seemed not to reflect the streetlight, but, rather, into which the light from the streetlamp fell, into yet another universe, a universe of darkness contained in this narrow shiny tapered black cylinder.
“Arnie,” said Horace, tugging on my arm again. “What do you say, pal?”
“He’s transfixed,” said Muriel.
“By the devil’s cigarette holder,” said Missy.
“The Devil’s Cigarette Holder,” said Horace. “I like that. Do you mind if I steal it for a title for a story or novel?”
“I don’t mind,” said Missy.
“Hey, Horace," said Ferdinand, "maybe you can make that the title of the first novel of your Arnold saga, The Devil’s Cigarette Holder?”
“It’s got a ring to it, that’s for sure,” said Horace.
I was barely paying attention to any of this, and I’m surprised I even remember it, I was so busy being, as Missy had said, transfixed, by this cigarette holder, and the dark universe somehow contained in it, or visible through it, I couldn’t be quite sure which at this point.
“Arnie,” said Ferdinand, right in my ear. “Let’s go, buddy. You’re being weird.”
“But it’s a whole other universe,” I said. “You can see it in the cigarette holder.”
“Great, Arnie,” he said. “Another universe. Just what we need. Now throw that thing away.”
“No, really,” I said. “Look at it, Ferdinand. Just look at this holder and tell me if you don’t see another universe in it.”
“Okay, fine,” he said. “Hold it still.”
“Okay,” I said, and I did, holding it horizontally a few inches from my eyes.
Ferdinand flew over to the holder and landed on it.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m looking. All I see is the shiny black surface of a nice cigarette lighter, bakelite probably.”
“Not ebony?” I said.
He bent his little head down, and I think he actually licked the surface of the lighter.
“Bakelite,” he said. “Good quality, but still.”
“And you don’t see another universe?”
“Arnie,” he said.
“Yes?” I said.
“You have just consumed a fair amount of laudanum. Am I right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Laudanum mixed with Old Forester? Kentucky bourbon?”
“True,” I said.
“Plus you were already drinking a lot earlier tonight.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“A fair amount,” he said. “Not that I am throwing stones, God forbid, I like to drink myself, as you well know. But you have been drinking.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“A fair amount.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, and also, not so long ago, if I recall correctly you drank down a mug of bock laced with ambrosia, the fabled nectar of the gods.”
“Right,” I said, “I almost forgot about that.”
“Oh, and plus, my friend, you have been smoking reefer quite recently.”
“That’s true, too,” I said, deciding not to mention the LSD I had unwittingly taken earlier that day.
“Wait,” said Muriel, “you fellas have some reefer?”
“Arnie,” said Horace, “you still have that joint from earlier?”
“Joint?” I said.
“Yes, joint, reefer,” he said. “Check your pockets.”
Suddenly it all came back to me. I shifted the devil’s cigarette holder from my right hand to my left, and then thrust my fingers into my shirt pocket. Sure enough, I brought out a half-smoked reefer, the one Horace had stolen from the glove compartment of Big Lou’s pink Cadillac earlier this evening or a couple of months ago.
“Cool!” said Horace. “Hand it over, buddy!”
I handed him the reefer.
“Fire that baby up, big guy,” said Ferdinand, flying up off the cigarette holder and buzzing merrily around.
“What do you say, ladies?” said Horace.
“What the hell,” said Muriel.
“Gee,” said Missy, “right out here on the sidewalk?”
“Ain’t no one around, honey,” said Muriel. “Like the little guy says, Horace: fire it up.”
“You first, dear lady,” said Horace, and he gallantly handed the reefer to Muriel.
Meanwhile, back in my own little world, I was still fascinated by Nicky’s cigarette holder, even if it had seemed nothing unusual to Ferdinand. I had one of my little brainwaves, and decided to look into its mouthpiece, just to see what I might see inside it, or through it. And so I held the holder’s thinner end up near my eye, tilted up toward the streetlight, and I peered into that tiny flared opening.
I could see the earth in it, or through it, and this didn’t surprise me at all.
I closed my one eye and squinted the other one, concentrating, and I saw the earth growing larger and larger, as if I were looking out of the front window of a space capsule falling to the earth. I saw the Atlantic ocean and deliberately tried to veer to the left, and within a matter of a half a second I saw peeking through a mass of clouds the coast of New Jersey, and I angled south, diving below a thick blanket of grey clouds, and within another half-second I was over Cape May on a rainy day and then right above Jackson Street and slowing down and gliding through an open second-floor window, and there, lying in that disordered bed in that comfortably messy room, was Elektra, lying on her side under just a white sheet, her tanned smooth shoulder bare, her dark thick hair covering most of her face, but not her mouth, which was slightly open, or her eyes, which were closed. I stayed there like that for a moment, just looking at her. It was not dark out, so she must have been taking a nap after work on this hot rainy day. It had been so long, so long in my time if not hers, since I had been with her. I could smell the warmth of her body, it reminded me of the smell inside the saltwater taffy place on the boardwalk, and I could hear the sound of the rain outside and the swishing sound the tires of a passing car made in the street, and just barely I could hear Elektra’s breathing, or I imagined I could. I wished I could be in this room with her, in this bed, but unfortunately I was in another universe, as I was reminded of definitively by Ferdinand’s voice saying:
“Arnie, snap the fuck out of it.”
And I was back in the – I was almost about to say “real world” – well, it was real enough at the moment.
Horace was holding the lit reefer out to me, and Ferdinand was hovering above it, in its little wavy plume of smoke.
I lowered the holder and dropped it into the inside pocket of my seersucker jacket, I don’t know why I did this instead of just throwing it away, but that’s what I did.
“Come on, Arnie,” said Horace. “You’re letting good weed go up in smoke.”
“Sorry,” I said.
I took the reefer, put it to my lips, and (as my beatnik friends termed it) “took a toke”, or several tokes, and as I held in the smoke I realized this was probably if not the last thing I should be doing, then at least not something I should be doing, but it was too late, the smoke was already in my lungs.
“Shotgun me, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, and after taking a few seconds to remember what he meant by this, I gently exhaled the smoke into the tiny lungs of my friend the fly, who was hovering only inches from my mouth.
“Okay,” said Horace, and he picked the reefer, now considerably smaller, out of my hand. “One more round from this baby, and we’ll head into the Kettle.”
He took a good long “toke”, then handed the “roach” to Muriel.
“Oh, listen –” I said.
“What?” said Horace, holding in the smoke. He still held the lit Herbert Tareyton in one hand. He certainly was out for the gusto.
“Listen,” I said, “I really can’t go into the – what’s it called?”
“Kettle of Fish,” said Ferdinand, hovering in front of Horace’s face, waiting for him to exhale.
“Kettle of Fish,” I said. “I can’t go in because I have to try to get back to my, uh, world.”
“Your ‘world’?” said Muriel, also holding in her breath, and passing the truncated reefer to Missy.
“Yes,” I said.
Finally Horace exhaled the smoke in his lungs, and Ferdinand danced happily around in it.
“What world are you from?” said Missy, toking on the reefer, as Muriel exhaled her lungful of smoke, with Ferdinand quickly diving over to catch as much of it as he could.
I considered Missy’s question before answering it. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, even if they were fictional characters.
“I just like to think if it as ‘my world’,” I said.
(Continued here, boldly going where no former railroad brakeman has dared go before.)
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