On this rainy August night in old Greenwich Village our memoirist Arnold Schnabel has finally met up again with his friend “Josh”, otherwise known as the only son of God, who has just suggested that they go to a place called Bob’s Bowery Bar for a late-night meal and a chat...
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“Arnold Schnabel’s towering chef-d'œuvre stands not only as a towering work of literature, but, in a very real sense, as one of the greatest of religious works, on a par with the Bible (both old and new testaments), the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao-te-Ching, and the Scientology Handbook.” – Harold Bloom, in the Cape May Pennysaver Literary Supplement.
“Okay, then, sounds good,” I said, and as soon as I said that I began to have my doubts, but I was so hungry I just didn’t care.
“I wonder if I can make a cab materialize,” he said. “One would think I still had that much divine power –”
“Well, let’s hope so,” I said. “Look, Josh, you try to do that –”
“Make a cab appear?”
“Yes,” I said. “You work on that, and I’m just going to tell the guys in there where we’re going.”
“That’s very polite and thoughtful of you.”
“Well, it’s only common courtesy,” I said. “And, after all, Ferdinand and Ben are my friends.”
“What about the other chap, Hogarth?”
“Horace,” I said.
“Oh, right,” he said. “Horace. Please forgive me, but – you know how it is, so many millions of people, all of them with names –”
“I understand,” I said. “Anyway, yes, Horace is sort of my friend too, I suppose, in a way.”
“But not Mr. Philpot.”
“No,” I said. “Not Mr. Philpot really.”
“You see,” said Josh, and after one last drag he flicked the butt of his cigarette sailing out streetward into the pouring rain, “I have to learn these sorts of things if I’m really going to be a human being.”
“Right,” I said.
“Common courtesy,” he said. “The mysteries of friendship.”
“Uh, sure,” I said.
He took out a beautiful cigarette case, gold or gold-plated of course, or maybe platinum. I couldn’t remember if I had seen it before. It was monogrammed with the letters – and I’m not making this up, it’s all true – “J.C.” He clicked it open and offered its contents to me. They were Pall Malls of course, my old brand.
I started to take one, and then remembered again that I had given up smoking a couple of days ago, even if it felt like seven years ago. I wanted one, but even more I wanted to eat. If I lit up a cigarette I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway, because we would then undoubtedly stand here smoking and talking more nonsense instead of taking care of the business of getting me fed. So I pulled my hand away.
“No, thanks, Josh,” I said. “I’ve quit.”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “I should have remembered, you’ve quit. But, you know, Arnold, if I may say so, and I don’t want to make any promises, but I could possibly arrange it that you could chain-smoke for the rest of your life and still live to be a hundred. In fact if I put some effort into it I could maybe – possibly, mind you – arrange to make you immortal. I mean if that’s what you would like. I mean I’m just saying. Making the offer. Before I become completely human. Because when that happens I won’t be able to help you, as much as I might like to. I say this because I consider you my friend.”
“All I want is some food, Josh,” I said.
He made a little shrug and took out a cigarette for himself. He snapped the case shut and tapped the cigarette on its lid.
“That’s another thing I’ll have to learn, or relearn.”
“What’s that?” I said.
He put the Pall Mall in his lips.
“This whole food obsession with you mortals.”
“It’s not really an obsession,” I said.
“Not until you start getting hungry,” he said.
“Okay, I see your point,” I said.
He had slipped the cigarette case back into his jacket pocket and now he was tapping his various pockets with his fingers.
“Where’s my lighter?” he said.
I said what everybody says in these cases.
“Check all your pockets.”
“I am checking them,” he said. “Do you have a light?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, and now I began the same ritual of patting all my own pockets, even though I had given up smoking and thus presumably also given up equipping myself with a lighter or matches.
“This is really weird,” he said. “Where could I have put it?”
“Y’know, it’s probably in Mr. Philpot’s shop,” I said. “I mean, you had a lit cigarette just now. Did you remember lighting it with your lighter in there?”
“Yes, actually, I do remember that!” he said. “I must have put it down on his table.”
“There you go,” I said, and I must have sighed again, because Josh said:
“You sighed again. Why did you sigh?”
At first I didn’t know why, but then I did. I sighed again.
“There, you did it again!” he said. “What is it?”
“Do you promise not to get upset?”
“Arnold, I never get upset.”
“Sorry, okay. I sighed because I can’t believe I’m having such a mundane conversation with the son of God.”
He looked at me, and now once again I caught glimmerings of all the universe and all possible universes and all of time in his blue eyes.
“Oh, wait a minute,” I said.
“I’ve got nothing but time,” he said. “But I would still like a smoke while I’m waiting.”
“You took your wallet out earlier,” I said. “What pocket did you put it back in?”
He touched both his rear trousers pockets, and then the front ones. He tapped the right front one again.
“Oh, it’s in this pocket.”
“Check under the wallet.”
“I mean in between the wallet and the inside of your pocket.”
He reached into the pocket and then, smiling, brought out his nice slim black enamel and gold Ronson.
“Wow, I’m really impressed, Arnold. How did you know?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time being drunk in my life, Josh,” I said. “You learn these things.”
“I have so much to learn,” he said.
“Okay, well, look,” I said, “I have to go in and tell those guys where we’re going.”
He lit his cigarette.
“Go,” he said. “And I’ll try to summon that cab.”
“Good,” I said.
I turned, and opened the door. Luckily it had not locked automatically when Josh had shut it. If I had had to ring that bell again I might have gone insane, or more insane than I already was, which would be saying something...
I think I will spare the reader my usual blow-by-blow method of narration for the next few minutes of our story, for the good reason that it would be beyond my capabilities to tell it in that fashion, perhaps beyond the capabilities even of a real writer. Words must be written and read one word after the other, but what transpired after I opened the door was all too confusing to be described in words one after the other, with what seemed like at least three people (or I should say three “creatures” I suppose, since Ferdinand was a fly, albeit one with human qualities) talking at once at any given moment. It was one of those instances where motion pictures are potentially superior to the written word, and since I do not have the power to insert a movie scene here I will simply say that after perhaps three or four minutes I was heading out the door again, and Ben, Horace, and Ferdinand were all with me, with Mr. Philpot bringing up the rear. I had my book, my blank unwritten book, The Ace of Death, I had remembered to grab that, and I had even remembered my blue-and-yellow Eversharp ballpoint pen, and Josh’s umbrella, too.
“What’s all this?” said Josh, as I handed him the umbrella.
“Mr. Philpot’s gonna drive us to this bar you want to go to,” said Ben.
“I thought we were going to take a cab,” said Josh.
“Good luck finding a hansom in this torrent!” said Mr. Philpot, who was locking the door with a big black mortice key. He had put on an dull-black bowler hat, he had his pipe in his dentures, and, hooked over an arm, a very large and worn black umbrella.
“But,” said Josh, “you see, Arnold and I –”
“Who’s Arnold?” said Mr. Philpot.
He had successfully locked the door and now he was unbuttoning his umbrella.
“I’m Arnold,” I said.
“Arnold, Porter, Walker –” he opened the umbrella with a rusty thwapping sound – “how many names do you have, anyway?”
I didn’t answer him. I wasn’t sure what the answer to his question was.
“So’s that your Jag. Mr. Philpot?” said Ben, gesturing with his cigarette at the red Mark VII parked almost in front of the shop.
“It is indeed,” said Mr. Philpot. “Just acquired it tonight. A beauty isn’t it?”
“Very nice wheels,” said Ferdinand, sounding drunker than when I had last seen him just minutes ago, as did everyone except me and Josh.
“I never rode in one of those babies,” said Horace. “What can you do in that, a hundred?”
“We’ll soon find out,” said Mr. Philpot.
“I got shotgun,” said Ben.
Mr. Philpot dashed nimbly down the steps into the downpour under his umbrella, and Ben and Horace followed him. Ferdinand was hovering near my head, and he said, “Let’s go, Arnie.”
“In a second, Ferdinand,” I said; and, addressing Josh, who was standing there looking at me, “I’m sorry, Josh. They insisted. They all said they wanted something to eat, too, and, well, at least we’re getting a ride –”
“Don’t be mad at Arnold, Josh,” said Ferdinand. “He has a hard time saying no to people.”
“Well, I hope we can still have our little talk, Arnold,” said Josh.
“That’s all arranged,” said Ferdinand. “We’re gonna leave you guys alone, let you have your little chat. We won’t bother you.”
“Well,” said Josh, “okay then.”
He put his cigarette in his mouth and opened his umbrella.
“I hope you’re not mad at me, Josh,” I said.
“I don’t get mad, Arnold,” he said.
“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand.
“What?” said Josh.
“You 'don’t get mad'!”
“Well, I don’t,” he said.
“What about Sodom and Gomorrah?”
“Oh,” he said. “Yes. Well, that wasn’t me. That was, you know, my father.”
“You don’t want to fuck with the big guy, right, Josh?”
Yes, Ferdinand was definitely drunker.
“No,” said Josh. “You’re right. You really don’t want to fuck as you say with the big guy.”
Horace, Ben, and Mr. Philpot had gotten into the Jaguar. Ben was in the front passenger seat, with the door partway open, and he yelled up at us through that clattering and crashing rain.
“What’s the hold up? Let’s roll!”
Josh looked at me.
“Well, shall we?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Get under my umbrella.”
Ferdinand flew into the safety of the porch of my ear, I tucked my book under my seersucker jacket, and Josh and I dashed down the steps, Josh holding the umbrella over both our heads.
Horace was in the back seat, and he’d left the door open. Josh waved for me to go in first while he held the umbrella, and I did. He followed me in, closing the umbrella and then the door. Horace had just lit a fresh cigarette and he tossed the match down at the floor, but I suppose that was okay, as the foot space was already littered with empty beer bottles and other trash.
Mr. Philpot had already started the engine and turned the windshield wipers and the headlights on. He was so short his bowler hat barely reached above the back of the seat.
Ben turned around, with his enormous wet arm over the seat back, his dirty old yachting cap dripping rainwater, a fresh cigarette in his mouth.
“All in? Okay, let’s weigh anchor, Mr. Philpot!"
Mr. Philpot put the car in gear and pulled out into the street and the rain.
The inside of the car was hot and filling up with smoke. Everyone was smoking except for me and Ferdinand, who was only not smoking because he was a fly. The rain beat down on the roof of the car and streamed down the glass of the windows and the windshield. Mr. Philpot hung a hard left at the corner, zooming through a yellow light, and causing Josh to lean into me, and me into Horace.
“What’s that book you got there, Arnold?” said Horace. I held the book up, angling it to catch the light of the passing streetlamps:
The Ace of Death
a novel of despair and terror by
Horace P. Sternwall
“Oh, one of mine!” said Horace. “Get it from Mr. Philpot?”
“Yes,” I said.
“All the pages are blank,” I said.
“Ah ha! Like a life that hasn’t been lived yet!” he said.
“Sort of,” I said.
“A world waiting to be created, and explored, to have adventures in! To live in and die in!”
“Um,” I said, and Ben made a great whooping sound as Mr. Philpot tore through another yellow light, while Ferdinand yelled “Go, Mr. Philpot!” and buzzed around in a happy way amidst the thick warm smoke and the smell of drunken men.
(Continued here, onward into dimensions and universes yet undreamed of.)
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