We left our hero Arnold Schnabel sitting on a sofa in the stately Belleforest townhouse on Bleecker Street, on this rainy night in August of 1957…
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; unfortunate victims of an obsessive reading disorder should click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 78-volume autobiography.)
“Join me, dear reader, on a very special journey into a world so much more interesting than this pathetic humdrum one we inhabit in our so-called real lives: the world of Arnold Schnabel!” – Harold Bloom, from his An Introduction to Arnold Schnabel's Railroad Train to Heaven: A Beginner’s Guide (the Olney Community College Press).
I realized there was no escaping now, and so I opened the book. It wasn’t a printed book, but a sort of fancy notebook or journal, with thick, slightly nubby unlined pages of an off-white color – a far cry from the cheap marble composition books that I use to write my own poetry and prose, in one of which I am writing these very words, using my usual implement, a common ordinary cheap Bic pen.
There was no sort of preamble or introduction to Nadine’s book of poetry, she just got right to it, with a poem titled “Thanks a Lot, God”. Her handwriting was very neat, and I suppose you would have to call it feminine, with little flourishes here and there, but with nice big letters, and easy to read. She had apparently used a fountain pen, or maybe even a quill for all I knew, with black ink.
The poem began this way:
Thanks a lot, big guy, for all you’ve given me:
a big house, an amusing family, and lots of money.
Thanks a lot too for that Jag parked outside;
I always wanted my own nice ride.
Thanks for giving me beauty, and a healthy body,
and thanks for the brains you gave me too, big buddy.
“Oh,” said Nadine. “You’re reading it already!” She had finished picking up the glasses and ashtrays and lighter from the rug, and now she seated herself to my left again on the sofa, facing me with her legs folded under her. I couldn’t help but notice that she had left all the cigarette butts and ashes on the rug, also the little chunks of ice from the drinks. Well, that wasn’t my problem. “What do you think?” she said.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve only just started with the first one.”
“’Thanks a lot, God’. One of my admittedly rare religious poems. What do you think?”
“Pretty good,” I lied, blatantly, but then I would want someone to lie to me if they read my own bad poems, so I was only following the golden rule.
“I put only my very best poems in this book,” she said.
“Someday I’ll put them out in a real book. So that the masses can read them, not just people I invite to the house.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said.
She reached down to the cigarette box on the coffee table, the one thing on it that I hadn’t knocked to the floor, flicked the lid open, took out a cigarette and lit it with the rhinoceros-horn lighter.
“Go on, read some more!” she said.
I did as she asked, and read these lines:
Thanks for the talent you have given me, God,
for without it this poem would sound very odd.
Oh, and thanks also for absinthe and cigarettes,
and for Radio City and for the Rockettes!
“Do you still like it?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, without shame.
“But does it breathe?”
“Yes,” I said. “I would say so.”
“Sure,” I said.
Look, dear reader, dear nonexistent reader, if I am coming across as a bit of a duplicitous swine here, in my own defense I would just like to say that I only wanted to get this poetry-reading business over with, maybe wolf down some food, and then get out of there. Also I was still in pain from my various injuries, albeit in less pain than I had been in just a few minutes before, I was famished, I was tired, and I was trapped in a strange universe. And now Nadine had her hand on my thigh again. I knew myself well enough to know what that would lead to: another embarrassing erection.
“Nadine,” I said, “may I ask you a delicate question?”
“Oh, please do!” she said.
“I wonder if you could take your hand away from my thigh,” I said.
“That’s not a question,” she said. And, far from removing her hand, she moved it farther up, and inward.
“May I ask you then to remove your hand from my thigh?” I said.
The hand came closer to my inguinal area. “Yes, darling,” she said, “of course you may ask! We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Um, yes,” I said.
“So ask! Ask anything!”
“Okay,” I said. “Would you mind taking your hand away from my thigh then?”
“Before I answer that, Arnold,” she said, and she gave my inner upper thigh a squeeze as she said it, “may I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Are you really sure?”
“Pretty sure,” I said.
“Fair enough then, old boy. So shall I go ahead and ask my question?”
“Yes, please,” I said.
“Ha ha, oh, Christ,” said the colonel, up in his painting.
“Why did you look up just then?” said Nadine.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“Nothing is never nothing, dear boy.”
“I was just – looking at the painting up there again.”
“Oh, that hideous painting. You really seem quite fascinated by it. I should be insulted that you seem to be less interested in looking at me than at that old goat up there.”
“Hey, now wait a minute!” said the colonel.
I decided to try to ignore him, as best I could.
“Anyway,” I said – I tried to remember her name, but I drew a blank again. The colonel must have seen what my problem was, because he spoke up again:
“Nadine,” he said, in a sort of stage whisper.
I silently and quickly thanked him and went on.
“So, Nadine,” I said, “you said you had a question?”
“Oh, I did, yes,” she said. “And may I ask my question now? Unless you’d rather stare at my great-grandfather’s portrait?”
“Ha ha,” said the colonel, and I couldn’t stop myself from looking up at him again, at his contemptuously grinning face.
“Well?” said Nadine.
“I’m sorry, what was the question?” I asked.
“My question,” she said, “was may I now ask my question, unless you would rather stare at Great-Grandfather Colonel Belleforest.”
“No, yes, please, no, yes, go ahead,” I said, ignoring the colonel, who was mirthlessly laughing again.
“My question to you,” said Nadine, “is may I ask you why you asked me to remove my hand from your thigh?”
I had almost forgotten that her hand was still on my thigh, but it was, and closer than ever to the danger zone. I took a moment to think before replying. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“I only asked,” I said, “because it makes me hard to concentrate on your poetry with your hand there.”
“On your thigh,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Then how about here.”
And now she went whole hog and just put her hand on my procreative organ. It’s true, there was a layer of denim material and my boxer shorts over it, but still this gesture was more than disconcerting.
“Um,” I said.
“Does that feel nice? I can feel it growing. Like some small precious animal.”
“Uh,” I said.
“I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be a man. To have this appendage. To feel it pulse and grow. It must be ever so much fun.”
“Well, um,” I said.
“It does feel nice when I do this, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “But.”
“But what, darling?”
“I don’t think I can read your poems if you do that,” I said.
“Oh, don’t be a big baby. Of course you can.”
“But your brother and sister will be back any minute.”
“But doesn’t that make it all the more exciting?”
I hated to get physical, but, holding the big book in my right hand, I used my left hand to pull her hand away.
“Ooh,” she said. “So strong. So forceful.”
“Please, Nadine,” I said. “I thought you wanted me to read your poems.”
“Oh, but I do.”
“But I – it’s just – you know –”
“Hey, wait a minute,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re not queer, are you?”
“No,” I said.
“Then what’s the big problem?”
“I just told you,” I said. “It’s hard for me to concentrate on your poems if –”
“Ha ha, oh my fucking God,” said the colonel.
“I do wish you’d stop that,” said Nadine.
“Stop what?” I said.
“Looking at my great-grandfather,” she said. “Just what is so all-fired fascinating to you about that painting?”
I gave up. Why not just tell her the truth? What did I have to lose?
“He keeps talking to me,” I said.
“Who does?” she said.
“Your what is it, great-grandfather,” I said.
“My great-grandfather is talking to you.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And what does he say to you?’
“He laughs at me. He says – rude things to me.”
“I’ve heard he was a very hard man.”
“Well, anyway,” I said.
“So you know what this means,” said Nadine.
“That I’m crazy?”
“Nonsense,” she said. “It means you have special powers. You are one of the elect.”
I looked up at the colonel, but he said nothing.
“Did he say anything just then?” said Nadine.
“No,” I said.
“Maybe later he will,” she said. “Or perhaps he feels awkward because we’re talking about him.” She turned to the painting, to the colonel. “Are we making you feel awkward, Great-Grandfather?”
He said nothing, although I thought I detected a smirk.
She turned back to me.
“Did he say anything?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“He must feel awkward then.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“No one likes to be talked about when you’re sitting right there.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Look at him up there,” she said.
I looked at him. He was definitely smirking now.
“I wonder what he thinks of us, of Terence, Cathy and me, the last of the Belleforests. The vaunted Belleforests of Bleecker Street. Did he say anything about us?”
Of course he had, but I didn’t want to be cruel, so I said:
“To think that all his hard work, all the hard work of the poor wretches who worked in his factories, all his relentless accumulation of riches, to think that it has all come down to me, and of course to Terence and Cathy too, the three of us in this old house. What does it all mean, Arnold? A man’s life? All his accomplishments? What is it all in aid of?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“You want me to ask him?” I said.
“Yes. He talks to you. Ask him what it all means.”
“What it all means,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Life. Ask him what life means.”
I looked at the painting.
“What does it all mean?” I asked him.
“Don’t mean shit,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
“Well?” said Nadine. “Did he answer?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Please tell me! Tell me what he said.”
“He said that the meaning of life is to be a good person.”
“Yes,” I lied.
“What wisdom! I should not have expected that from him.”
She turned and looked up at the colonel.
“Thank you,” she said to the painting. “Thank you, Great-Grandfather.”
He said nothing.
(Continued here, and onward, because we have gone well past the point of no return.)
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