Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here in the stately Bleecker Street residence of his new acquaintances Nadine, Terence and Cathy, on this rainy night in August of 1957...
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you are planning to move to a desert island and want something to keep you occupied through the long lonely years ahead, then click here to go back to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 68-volume memoir.)
“Arnold Schnabel’s house – like that of the father of his friend Josh – has many mansions. And Josh only knows how many rooms those mansions contain; personally I don’t even want to think about it, to be quite honest.” – Harold Bloom, in the People Magazine Literary Supplement.
The fireplace was directly across the room from the entrance, and Nadine led me over to a sofa at an angle to the left side of it. That was vague. Let’s say the sofa was at a 75-degree angle from the fire, a big crackling fire. Over across from the sofa was the television I had heard. It was one of those massive elaborate console deals, about five feet wide and four feet high, with a radio on one side and a record player on top of it, along with a very tall and splayed aerial. A Schaefer beer commercial was on.
“Schaefer is the one beer to have,” a chorus sang, “when you’re having more than one.”
“Come sit here, Arnold,” said Nadine, and she pulled me into the space between a marble-topped coffee table and the sofa and then shoved me down in the middle of the sofa.
She kicked off her shoes and sat herself down to my left, drawing her knees up under her white skirt and facing me. The upholstery of the sofa had a sort of paisley design, with lots of reds and purples.
“Comfy?” she said.
“Sure,” I said, although I wasn’t really. I mean I was in less physical pain now that I was sitting down, and, coming in from that raging downpour outside it was soothingly dry in here and not unpleasantly warm, even with that roaring fire in the fireplace – but in the spiritual sense, if I may put it thus, I felt far from comfortable, farther still from “comfy”.
And then to make matters worse the other girl, Cathy, came and sat down to my left, facing me, sitting on the heels of her bare feet and leaning against the back of the sofa, her cigarette and drink in her right hand, her left arm draped along the rounded top of the sofa, the fingers of the hand of that arm playing with the collar of my plaid work shirt.
“Usual, Nadine?” called Terence, who was somewhere behind me.
“Usual, Terence,” said Nadine, and she reached down to the coffee table and flipped open the lid of an engraved silver or silver-like box, which was revealed to contain cigarettes. She held it out to me.
“Philip Morris, Arnold?”
I started to take one, and then stopped.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Why ever not?” she said, but before I could answer, if I chose to, Terence called out again:
“I say, Arnold, what’s your pleasure, old boy? Whiskey, tequila, vodka, gin – absinthe?”
“Anything,” I said.
“Give him a whiskey,” said Nadine. “He likes whiskey.”
“Scotch, bourbon, rye, or Canadian, old chap?” said Terence.
“He likes cheap whiskey,” said Nadine.
The other girl, Cathy, was now touching the back of my neck lightly with her fingernails.
“How about a Canadian Club?” said Terence. “I think that’s the cheapest we’ve got, actually.”
“He’ll take that,” said Nadine.
“And does he like soda or ginger ale?” called Terence.
“I think he’s a plain-soda man,” said Cathy.
“Really?” said Nadine.
“Yes,” said Cathy. She had put down her drink so that she could take a drag on her cigarette without taking the fingernails of her other hand away from my neck. She blew smoke gently in my direction. “Soda is so much more butch than faggy old ginger ale.”
“Ha ha,” said Terence. “So, soda, old bean?”
“Sure,” I said, before one of the women could answer him for me.
Meanwhile Nadine had taken a cigarette from the silver box, laid the box down, and lit her cigarette with a table lighter that was shaped like a rhinoceros horn. Come to think of it, maybe it was made out of a real rhinoceros horn, or the horn of some other great beast, how should I know?
A Philip Morris cigarette commercial came on.
“Why on earth not?” said Nadine, looking at me.
“Pardon me?” I said.
Had I blanked out again and missed something?
“Why won’t you have a cigarette?” she said.
She waved the little finger of the hand that held her cigarette in the direction of the cigarette box, which she had left open.
“Yes, I was wondering that, too,” said Cathy, still with her fingertips on my neck, but lightly, I’ll hand her that, it wasn’t as if she were digging her nails into my neck and drawing blood.
“Wondering what?” called Terence.
“Why Arnold won’t have a cigarette,” said Nadine.
“He won’t?” said Terence. “Why in heaven’s name not?”
“That’s what we were wondering,” said Cathy.
“I think I’d die if I couldn’t smoke,” said Terence from somewhere back there, making little drink-making sounds.
“What’s the point of living if you can’t smoke?” said Cathy.
“Yes,” said Nadine. “What would be the point?”
“Okay, I’ll have one,” I said.
“Well, don’t let us force you,” said Cathy, giving me a little slap in the back of my head.
“Heaven forfend,” called Terence. “Perhaps the poor chap has a medical condition.”
“Oh no,” said Nadine. “That isn’t so, is it, Arnold, dear? You don’t have some terrible disease, do you?”
“Does insanity count?” I said.
“Ha ha,” said Nadine. “No, seriously, why don’t you want a cigarette? You don’t have consumption, do you?”
“What is consumption exactly anyway?” said Cathy.
“T.B.,” said Nadine. “I think.”
“Arnold has T.B.?” said Terence.
He came around from behind us with a fancy metal tray that had drinks on it.
“That’s what we’re trying to determine,” said Nadine.
Terence laid the tray down on the coffee table. Or perhaps I should say cocktail table. Anyway, he laid the tray down, and there were four tall highball glasses on it, the kind that have little swirly painted designs on them. Each drink had a swizzle stick in it, but they weren’t the cheap plastic kind, these were metal ones, maybe even silver. They were platinum for all I knew, but they weren’t plastic.
“T.B. is a bitch,” said Terence. “But you know they can do wonders, nowadays, Arnold. Antibiotics and such. Sanitariums in the Alps. Here, C.C. and soda.”
He picked a drink up from the tray and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said. I stirred the drink with the solid silver swizzle stick.
“Pas de quoi,” he said, and then, “Help yourselves, sisters. Double absinthe and soda for you, Nadine. Another Armagnac and soda for you, Cathy.”
Cathy finished the drink she had been holding in one gulp, put it down on the tray and picked up a brown drink. Nadine picked up a pale green drink. Terence grabbed the last drink, a light-brown one, and came around and sat on the sofa on the other side of Cathy. He had been wearing rope sandals, put he slipped them off and settled back against the sofa arm, his feet drawn up on the couch. He was still smoking a cigarette, maybe a different one.
“What should we drink to?” he said.
“Let’s drink to our new friend Arnold,” said Cathy.
“To Arnold it is,” said Nadine. “To his continued success as a poet, and to his happiness not just as an artist, but as a man – a strong, virile, and may I say somewhat raffishly handsome man.”
“And, I should add,” said Terence, “to his very good health. He won’t be able to enjoy either his success in his chosen field or his happiness as a manly chap if he doesn’t also enjoy good health.”
“You know,” said Cathy, stirring her drink with her swizzle stick, “if it’s a question of money, Arnold, perhaps we can help you. Set you up with the medical care you need, that sort of thing.”
“A sojourn in the Alps at a nice sanitarium is something I wouldn’t turn my nose up at myself,” said Terence. He was stirring his drink with his swizzle stick.
“Promise me you’ll at least think about it,” said Nadine to me, touching my shoulder. “Think about letting us help you. At least go see our family doctor.”
“I don’t have T.B.,” I said.
“What’s that?” said Terence.
“He says he doesn’t have T.B. after all,” said Cathy.
“You shouldn’t joke about such things, Arnold,” said Nadine.
“I never said I had T.B.,” I said.
“But you implied it.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s okay you know, if you do have T.B.,” said Nadine.
“Yes, we don’t mind,” said Cathy.
“I shouldn’t mind,” said Terence, “unless it’s contagious of course.”
“Listen,” I said, to all and sundry, turning my head awkwardly from right to left, so that I could include all three of these crazy people in what I was about to say. “I don’t have T.B. or any other disease. I just didn’t want a cigarette because I’ve quit smoking –”
“Yes, but why –”
“Yeah, for God’s sake why –”
“Why on earth –”
“Because I was tired of waking up coughing,” I said. “And also I was afraid of getting cancer. But, really, I just don’t care anymore, so if you want me to, I’ll have a cigarette.”
“Nobody wants you to have a cigarette if you don’t really want one,” said Nadine.
“Far be it from us,” said Cathy.
“Couldn’t care less,” said Terence. “More for me, ha ha.”
“By the way, can we drink our toast now before our drinks lose their fizz?” said Cathy.
“Oh, my goodness, of course!” said Terence.
“Lift your glass, Arnold,” said Nadine, and she stirred her drink, in a very thorough-seeming way, clouding up the green liquid in the glass.
I took the swizzle stick out of my own glass and put it on the tray. I didn’t want to poke my eye out.
“And now we return to our Tree Frog Beer Award Movie,” said an announcer on the TV. “Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott, in Street of Darkness –”
I didn’t remember ever seeing that one, but I was a big fan of Dan Duryea. Or, rather, as big a fan of him as I was of any actor, which, come to think of it, was not saying much.
“Arnold,” said Nadine. “Stop looking at the television set and pay attention.”
She stuck out her tongue and licked her swizzle stick before continuing. She dropped the swizzle stick onto the the drinks tray, then raised her glass.
“Here’s to Arnold,” she said. “And whether he has T.B. or not – a moot point so it seems, at least for the nonce – here’s to his very, very good health.”
“Hear, hear,” said Terence.
“Cheers, big ears,” said Cathy.
I raised the glass, and drank. I drank half the glass. It went down very easily, truth be told, even though I could tell that Terence had made the drink very strong.
“I don’t care what Big Frank said,” Dan Duryea was saying. “I didn’t kill Billingsly, and I don’t know who did.”
Suddenly I remembered how hungry I was. I remembered it because drinking half that highball on an empty stomach (empty of food, anyway – there was a fair amount of whiskey and beer in there) was suddenly making my gorge rise.
“Why are you suddenly turning deathly pale?” said Nadine.
“Oh, God, he is ill,” said Terence.
“You poor man,” said Cathy, caressing my now sweaty neck.
“Food,” I said, or tried to say, but I believe it came out as an unintelligible retching sound.
“What did he say?” said Terence.
I put my drink down on the tray, and leaned forward, trying to will myself not to throw up.
“I need –”
“What, darling?” said Nadine.
“Need,” I said.
“Tell us, Arnold,” said Cathy. “Tell us what you need.”
“Maybe a drop of paregoric would help,” said Terence.
“Do you want some paregoric, Arnold?” said Nadine.
“No!” I said, blurted. “Need – something –”
“Oh, dear,” said Nadine.
“What is it?” said Terence. “Should I get the bottle of PG?”
“Yes, go get it, Terence,” said Cathy. “Poor chap.”
“Won’t be a mo,” said Terence, and he took a drink of his drink, one for the road I suppose, in a way suggestive of him getting up off the sofa in the next minute at least.
“No!” I said, croaked, because I was still feeling quite nauseous.
“No what, dear?” said Nadine.
“Don’t want paregoric!” I managed to blurt.
“Don’t want paregoric?” said Terence.
“Why, you poor damned fool?” said Cathy. “It will make you feel ever so much better.”
“Just need –”
“What, darling,” said Nadine, and suddenly I was distracted by the large painting on the wall above the mantlepiece, above that roaring fire. It was a painting of a vigorous-looking middle-aged man in a Civil War-era colonel's uniform, complete with a sword in its scabbard. He had a big white moustache and side whiskers, and he seemed to be staring right at me, with contempt.
“Darling,” said Nadine, “what do you –”
“Somethin’ a eat!” I blurted, almost shouted, in one tortured breath.
“What?” she said.
“What did he say?” said Terence.
“’Something with a beat’?” said Cathy.
“No!” I gasped. “Some-thing – to – eat! Food!”
“Oh, dear,” said Nadine.
“What’s that?” said Terence. “He wants food?”
“Yes!” I yelled.
“You’re hungry?” said Cathy.
“You know, he told me that,” said Nadine. “Poor fellow is starving.”
“Well, let’s get him some food, then,” said Cathy.
“I say, Arnold,” said Terence, “what would you like to eat, old man?”
“Anything,” I managed to say.
I was panting, and once again, for the thousandth time that day, I was drenched with sweat, but at least the nausea had abated, for the time being.
“How about some leftover bœuf bourguignon?” Terence said.
“Great,” I said.
I didn’t really know what bœuf bourguignon was, but I also didn’t care.
I looked up at the Civil War colonel again, above the fireplace and the fire. He was still staring at me in contempt. I quickly looked away, toward the TV, where some guys were slapping Dan Duryea around.
“Talk, wiseguy, talk!” one of the guys said.
“Fuck you,” Dan Duryea said, which seemed odd to me.
(Continued here, and straight on into worlds yet unknown.)
(Painting by James Avati. Please look to the right-hand column of this page to find a strictly up-to-date listing of all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. Arnold’s adventures may also be followed for a laughably modest fee on your Kindle™, all profits in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Appreciation Initiative, a project of the Arnold Schnabel Society.)