Our hero Arnold Schnabel, trapped in a fictional universe and trying to get home, has been shanghaied by the exotic Nadine Belleforest and taken to her stately Greenwich Village townhouse, ostensibly to read her poetry. There he meets her siblings Cathy and Terence, who had been watching a Dan Duryea movie on TV, and highballs are served. Cathy and Terence go to the kitchen to prepare a snack for Arnold, and Nadine goes upstairs to get her poems. Arnold is left alone with Dan Duryea and with a portrait above the mantle of Colonel Lucretius Punctilius Belleforest, who, unlike most people in paintings, has the ability to talk. Arnold decides he’s had enough, and tries to escape, but he trips over the coffee table. All of this happens on a rainy night in August of 1957...
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“I have lost count of the number of worlds, universes and dimensions Arnold Schnabel visits just in the published portions of his staggering chef-d'œuvre, but, au fond, are they not all part of one great all-encompassing universe – the crazy mixed-up world of Arnold Schnabel?” – Harold Bloom, in the Man’s Life Literary Supplement.
I tried to roll with the fall. This was something an old-timer had taught me back when I was a kid, when I first got my job as a trainee assistant-brakeman. “If you fall off the goddam train,” he had told me, “and you will, everybody falls off sometime, just try to roll with it.”
I said okay, because what did I know? Nothing. It seemed to make sense, trying to roll with the fall, rather than just falling splat on the ground face-first, or, maybe even worse, back-first. Fortunately I never did take a fall from a train. It was only after I left the railroad that I began falling down quite frequently.
And here’s the thing about falling down: the more you do it, the more likely you are to keep falling down unless you take some time to recover and to let your injuries heal. I was learning that it was all too easy to keep falling down when each time you did you damaged your knees even further. Maybe if I ever did make it back to my world it would stand me in good stead to try to stay off my feet for a month or so. But first I had to get back to my world.
Meanwhile, back in the world I was in, I fell over that sturdy marble-topped coffee table, headfirst as I think I said, hitting both my damaged knees yet again on the table as I tumbled over it, and I twisted as I fell, putting out my left forearm to break my fall, and rolling over the left side of my body while at the same time swinging my legs up and away from the table so they wouldn’t hit it again, so that I wound up on my back, my feet toward the fireplace (but fortunately for me not in the fire), and me staring up at the colonel in the painting, what was his name, who was guffawing down at me.
“Ha ha!” he said, “You clumsy oaf! Ha ha!”
It could have been worse, as my falls go. One thing that helped a lot was the fact that there was a thick rug on the floor, some sort of Persian rug. I wouldn’t have known it was a Persian rug, but the colonel pointed it out to me.
“Way to mess up that Persian rug, by the way,” he said, not laughing now.
He was referring to the highball glasses on the tray that I had knocked over. Amazingly none of the glasses had broken – as I say, it was a thick rug – but still the ice cubes and whatever liquor was still in the glasses had of course spilled out onto the rug, along with a a lot of cigarette butts and ashes from a couple of heavy glass ashtrays that I had also knocked over.
“Oh,” I said to him. This was the first time I had spoken aloud to him. In fact, to the best of my memory, this was the first time I had ever spoken to a man in a painting.
“’Oh’?” he said. “Let me tell you something, pal, ‘oh’ is not going to get those stains out of that rug. Do you know how fucking old that rug is?”
I was in pain. To tell the truth I was in great pain, mostly from my knees, but also from a half-dozen other places on my body and my head and face, and now I had a brand new pain in my left elbow, caused by me trying to break my fall just now.
“I said do you know how old that rug is,” he said, louder this time, and I’ll admit it, I lost my temper. I was lying there in pain, having just taken a hearty fall, and all this man could think about was his rug. “Answer me when I speak to you, punk! I said do you know –”
“No,” I said, daring to interrupt him. “I have no idea how old this rug is. How would I have any idea how old it is? Do I look like a rug expert?”
“Christ,” he said. “No need to get snippety. I was only asking a civil question.”
I didn’t say anything to this. I lay there on my back, panting with pain, just trying to gather my forces before attempting to get up again, and maybe this time actually make it not only out of this room but out of this house.
“I finished my drink and went out into the street,” said Dan Duryea, on the television. “I started to walk. I had to think. I had to try to think of a way out. But the more I thought the more I realized that there was no way out. I was fucked, and fucked royal. And then it started to rain. Needless to say, I didn’t have an umbrella. So I went into another bar. What the hell I thought. I might as well get one last good load on for the road, for that lonely dark road that led to one place and one place only: the electric chair!”
I could hear the sound of the rain from the movie mixing in with the sound of the rain outside this house I was in, the crackling sound of the burning logs in the fireplace, the sound of my labored breathing, and, finally, the sound of the colonel’s voice again.
“Five hundred and like thirty years,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“That’s how old that rug you’re lying on is. Approximately five hundred and thirty-odd years.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was still lying there on my back, looking up at the colonel looking down at me. “I’m sorry I accidentally fell over the coffee table and knocked the drinks and ashtrays over onto your rug.”
“Well, that’s a little better then,” he said. “Is it so hard just to say your sorry? To apologize?”
If only he knew who he was really talking to. I spent half my life apologizing. But I didn’t say that. I tried to be big about it.
“No, it’s not hard,” I said.
I got up on one elbow, my right elbow, the elbow that didn’t hurt. Well, it hurt, but not as much as the other one. I rested a moment before what I knew would be the agonizing process of getting all the way to my feet again, or trying to.
“What you want to do,” said the colonel, “is get some sponges and towels, a bucket of water, clean that shit up before it settles in the fibers.”
I looked up at the painting.
“Look, mister –” I said.
“Call me Colonel,” he said. “It’s true that I purchased my commission, and I know I was only in the army for four years, but I am perhaps foolishly proud of the title.”
“Okay,” I said. “Colonel.”
“Thank you. Were you in the military?”
“Yes,” I said.
“See any action?”
“No,” I said.
“No,” I said.
I took a breath and managed to push myself up to a sitting position.
“You know what we used to call chaps like you? The chaps who as you say saw no action?”
“Ha ha. No. Know what we used to call you?”
“Okay, Colonel –” I said.
“REMFs,” he said. “REMFs. Get it?”
I put my left arm out to grab onto the coffee table, to brace myself before trying to stand up.
“Rear echelon mother fuckers,” he said. “REMFS. Get it?”
I tried to push myself up, but my elbow gave out a spasm of pain, and I sat back down again.
“REMFs,” he said. “Ha ha. The bawdy humor of the line soldier. So, getting back to the problem of the rug, if you go into the kitchen you should be able to find some rags and cleaning products, and don’t forget a bucket too, there’s probably one under the sink –”
“Look, Colonel,” I said, “I’m sorry about the rug, I really am, but I can’t clean it up. I have to go before your, uh – what is it, grandchildren?”
“I have to get out of here before they come back.”
“Oh,” he said. “Just like that, huh?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was preparing myself to try to get up again.
“’Sorry’,” he said. “Well, a fat lot of good ‘sorry’ does. You can take your ‘sorry’ and stuff it up your narrow ass, buddy.”
“Send me the cleaning bill,” I said.
“You know you’ll never get out of here in time,” he said. “Nadine will be back any second. I’m surprised she’s not here already.”
I had my hand on the edge of the coffee table still, and once again I pushed up, gritting my teeth. I got to a half-standing position, and suddenly my right knee buckled under me, and then my left one, and I fell again. I didn’t want to land on my knees so I twisted my body to the right, and managed this time to fall on my side.
I drew both my knees towards my chest, and put my hands on my shins, breathing deeply, trying to hug and breathe the pain away.
“Wow, that really looks like it hurts,” said the colonel. “Of course I saw a lot worse than that in the war. A lot worse, plenty of times. Nadine should be back any second. If I know her she had to ‘freshen up’ her make-up. Terribly vain that girl. Why don’t you try to get up again? You look pathetic lying there.”
I looked at the TV set. Now it seemed like Dan Duryea was looking right at me.
“Why don’t you join me?” he said, Dan Duryea said, to me. “Could it be any worse than your present situation?”
He lifted a drink. It looked like a highball.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
He looked pretty drunk. But then I had been drinking a lot too, who was I to point a finger?
“Oh, I think I hear Nadine’s footsteps now,” said the colonel. “Her delicate bare feet padding down the stairs. Doubtless with an enormous sheath of her bad poetry for you to read. Boy, are you fucked, pal.”
I started dragging myself towards that big console TV set.
“What the fuck are you doing?” said the colonel.
“Yeah, come on in,” said Dan Duryea. “Join me, pal.”
I was right in front of the TV. It was a Philco. Up close like this Dan Duryea’s face was enormous, curved and distorted, like someone’s face in a funhouse mirror.
“Hey, asswipe –” said the colonel.
I was tired of listening to him. I pushed myself up onto my burning knees, and, stretching my arms out in front of me, fingers extended, I put my hands into the television screen.
“That’s it,” said Dan Duryea. “Come on in!”
I leaned closer to the TV. My arms were sunk into the screen all the way up to my elbows.
By now I knew how this sort of thing would work. All I had to do was push myself forward, to throw myself into the screen and I would be inside the television, in the world of the movie that Dan Duryea was in. Maybe he could help me. And even if he couldn’t, at least I would be escaping Nadine and her goofy siblings.
I stuck my head through the screen.
Now at least my head was in this other world. It was as if my eyes were a movie camera, and I was filming Dan Duryea’s smiling drunken face looking right at me. He was in a bar. Another bar. How many bars had I already been in this day and night? It felt like dozens.
The bar was crowded, noisy. Someone was playing a piano. It looked like fun, even to me.
“That’s it,” said Dan Duryea. “Come on over, pal. Belly up.”
I don’t know why, but something about the drunken way he said that, something about that crowded bar he was in made me think twice about entering yet another world, another world maybe even farther away from my own world, and I pulled my head out of the television screen, and then my hands.
“Aw, pal,” said Dan Duryea. “Come on back!”
I reached over and turned the television dial to OFF.
Dan Duryea’s sad drunken face flickered and disintegrated, shrinking into a fuzzy white ball that grew tinier and tinier and then disappeared, to be replaced by a blank flat grey.
“Weirdo,” said the colonel. “What’s it like to be such a weirdo?”
I didn’t answer him. I put both hands on top of the TV console and forced myself to my feet, cringing with pain of course.
“Arnold,” said Nadine’s voice. “Whatever are you doing?”
I turned. She was coming across the room, carrying a big book of some sort.
“I thought I’d turn the TV off,” I said.
“What’s up with those glasses and ashtrays on the rug?”
“My knee gave out when I was getting up,” I said. “And I fell.” Again, I had a rare opportunity to speak the truth. But then the lying started again. “I was just going to clean all that up.”
“Why are you grimacing? Are you in pain?”
“Yes,” I admitted, through bared teeth, sweat pouring down my face.
“Oh, you silly man,” she said. She was standing near the end of the sofa now. “Come sit back down at once. Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?”
I limped back over to the sofa, came around the coffee table without tripping this time, and sat down in the spot I had vacated. I sighed. It did feel better to get off my feet.
“Here,” Nadine said. She came over and held the big book out to me. “Take this while I clean this mess up.”
I took the book, and Nadine got down on her haunches and began picking up the cocktail tray and the glasses and ashtrays, also that rhinoceros-horn table lighter, putting them all back on the coffee table.
I looked at the cover of the big book. It looked like real leather, dark and shiny, and embossed on it in what looked like gold were the words
by Nadine Belleforest
“Now you’re in for it,” said the colonel in the painting. “Maybe you should have dived into that television set after all.”
Well, maybe I should have, but it was too late now.
(Continued here, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how much longer, as yet another trove of Arnold Schnabel’s neatly handwritten marble copybooks has recently been discovered, this time under a stack of The Catholic Standard & Times newspapers in an old steamer trunk in the back of the garden shed of his aunts’ former property in Cape May, NJ.)
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