On this rainy hot night in old New York City our hero Arnold Schnabel has just passed out (from pain be it known, not from drunkenness!) in the entranceway to Bob’s Bowery Bar, but fortunately his new guardian angel is in attendance...
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“Oh, sure, Arnold Schnabel’s towering chef-d'œuvre is inarguably ‘long’, and, as it is still in the process of being transcribed and published, indeed it gets longer all the time; but, however long Railroad Train to Heaven winds up being – who, I ask you, who among its millions of ardent fans would wish it to be even one sentence – nay, even one word – shorter?” – Harold Bloom, in his “Address” to the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Annual Jamboree at Olney Community College.
Original art by rhoda penmarq.
For once I will spare the hypothetical reader a detailed recounting of the dreams I experienced during this latest bout of unconsciousness. Rest assured though that bottomless pitch-dark wells were fallen into, black tunnels were blindly and endlessly stumbled through, numerous public appearances (in church during a high mass, on a crowded beach, in a subway car, in a courtroom, on an army parade ground) were made in the nude, and brightly-lit but unfamiliar roads were tramped along in search of a home that was never found, but finally I was slapped awake.
I was sitting on something hard and damp with my legs stretched out in front of me, and a little old man with thick round wire-rimmed glasses and a grey cloth cap on his head was doing the slapping.
“Go away!” I said, the syllables emerging from my mouth like great gobs of cotton candy. “Who are you?”
“It’s me, Arnold – Bert! Bowery Bert!”
He slapped me again, and suddenly I remembered who he was, who I was, at least for the present, and where I was – sitting on the wet pavement with my back against the wall in the recessed entrance area of Bob’s Bowery Bar, while out there to my left the unceasing downpour continued to bombard the sidewalk and street.
And I also remembered why I had passed out: because of the pain that was still pulsing from both my knees and excluding every other topic from the sodden and hashish-ridden sponge that was my brain.
“Ah, ah, ah,” I said, although to tell the truth I was putting it on just a little bit, because the pain, albeit still intense, was much less so now that I was sitting and had taken the load off my ravaged knees.
“Here,” said Bert, “I got just the thing for you.” He was crouching beside me, with his umbrella still crooked on one forearm, and extended at an angle behind him, so that the bottom half of the umbrella was protruding out of the shelter of the entranceway and was being pelted by the rain – funny the inconsequential things like that which you notice and remember, funnier still that I would waste good Bic-pen ink writing them down.
What I did not notice was where the little tarnished-metal engraved pillbox came from that this “Bowery Bert” was now holding in front of my face. He clicked it open, and I saw numerous pills in it of all shapes, sizes, and colors, each pill apparently different from all the others. The pillbox was small, but somehow there seemed to be hundreds of pills in it.
The old fellow picked out one of the pills, a little red one.
“Open up,” he said. He had that little cigar in his mouth now, and as he spoke some ash fell off of it, and onto my lap, not that I cared. “Come on,” he said. “Open wide like a good boy.”
He held the pill between his thumb and forefinger. His fingernails didn’t look very clean, but germs were not what I was afraid of.
“What is it?” I said.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Now open up.”
“It’s not LSD, is it?”
“No, it’s not LSD. Why – would you like some LSD?”
“Then open up.”
“Look, you want the pain in your knees to go away, don’t you?”
“Then open up.”
“You mean the pill will make my pain go away?”
“Angels, my dear fellow, unlike your own benighted race, are not in the habit of dissimulation.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, after a few moments, speaking not quite truthfully, because in fact I had no idea what he meant at all.
“I mean,” he said, “yes, this pill will obviate your pain.”
“Does that mean it will make the pain stop?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, yes! The pill will kill it!”
“It will? The pill?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, will you just shut up and swallow the pill?”
I closed my lips tight, because I could tell he was getting angry.
“What are you doing?” he said, and now he was almost yelling.
I opened my lips to speak.
“You told me to shut up,” I pointed out, in my defense.
“And now I’m telling you to open your mouth and swallow this fucking pill!”
I opened up, and without further ado he popped the pill into my gaping mouth.
“Now swallow it.”
I swallowed it.
And then, where previously there had been throbbing pain in both my knees was now only a not unpleasant numbness.
“Wow,” I said.
He clicked the pillbox shut, and stuck it inside his old suit coat somewhere.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you! How long will it last?”
He took the Parodi out of his mouth and gave his head a weary-looking shake.
“Christ, Arnold, can’t you just accept the moment for what it is without going into the ‘what-will-be’s? I swear you fucking humans kill me sometimes. Pardon my French. But, Jesus –”
“Sorry,” I said. “But, really, how long will the pain go away for?”
“Who do I look like?” he said. “The Mayo Brothers? Albert Schweitzer? How the hell do I know how long the pain will go away for?”
“Well, I just thought because you’re an angel and all –”
“Yes, an angel. A guardian angel. And let me tell you from the jump I am not going to be doling out pills right and left to you, so get that simple fact through your thick skull.”
“No more pills?”
“Arnold, again – what is my job-title?”
“Right. Not ‘dope pusher’.”
“But – what if my knees start hurting again?”
“What about it?”
“Can I get another pill then?”
“Okay, Arnold, I can see we are going to have to set some rules here –”
“But it seemed like you had a fair number of pills in that pillbox,” I said.
“Yes, I did, and do –”
“So maybe just one every now and then for when the pain gets too intense –”
“Okay, now this is how drug addiction starts. Right here, like this.”
“I promise not to get addicted.”
“Heard that one before.”
I looked out at the rain, still crashing down. It looked different from this angle, sitting on the pavement in this recessed entranceway. It looked nicer somehow.
“Look at the rain,” I said.
He turned his head and gave it a look.
“Yeah, still coming down.”
“It looks strangely beautiful.”
“It’s the Bowery, Arnold. A rainy night in the Bowery. Now are you going to sit there all night? Just like some typical Bowery bum?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “It is a little wet and uncomfortable. And also, I’ll be in the way if anyone tries to get in and out of the bar, so –”
“Oh, I’m sure the habitués of Bob’s Bowery Bar are used to stepping over people on the pavement to get in and out of the joint.”
“You know,” I said. “You’re probably right. So maybe if I could just sit here for a while, watching the rain explode multifariously on the sidewalk and in the street, sparkling in the silvery light of the streetlamps and crashing, clattering –”
“All right,” he said. “I really shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to give you another pill.”
He stuck the cigar in his mouth again, then reached into the inside of his suit coat and brought out that little engraved pillbox.
“Wow,” I said. Again. “Thanks!”
He clicked the little pillbox open, stirred its contents about for a bit with his finger, then picked out another pill, a bigger blue lozenge-shaped one that seemed to give off a slight bluish glow.
“This is a different kind of pill,” he said.
“Well, if it’s anything like that last one –”
“It’s not. That other one was one of the all-purpose painkiller pills that we guardian angels keep for emergencies only.”
“It worked really well, too,” I said.
“Of course it did. That’s why it’s called an ‘all-purpose painkiller pill’. This one’s different.”
I opened my mouth, wide.
“Don’t you even want to know what it is?”
I closed my mouth so that I could open it afresh and speak.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to seem – uh – presumptuous?”
“It’s an anti-high pill.”
“An anti-high pill. For when someone’s consumed something – like say, half-a-dozen hashish brownies – and they’re just a little too goddam high. Swallow this and maybe you’ll stop being so annoying.”
“Because there is nothing more annoying than a ‘high’ human being.”
“So I’ll be low?”
“You’ll be neither high nor low. You will be normal.”
I could barely remember what normal felt like, if I had ever felt it. But it seemed worth a try. So I opened my mouth wide again, and he flicked the blue pill into it.
The pill really was rather big, and I toyed with it with my tongue.
“I wish I had something to wash it down with,” I said, probably sounding more mush-mouthed than I had already been sounding, speaking as I was around this pill which sat on my tongue like a great stone.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Bert.
He reached into his suit coat again, and now he brought out a leather-encased flask. He unscrewed its cap on its hinge and held it out in front of my face.
“And before you ask, all this is is plain ordinary Windsor Canadian, so shut up and drink it and swallow that pill.”
“Shut up?” I said.
“You want me to leave you right here? Because goddammit I will. There’s plenty other stumblebums around here could use a guardian angel, pal. Plenty of them. So don’t push your luck.”
He sounded serious, so I took the flask, took a good swig into my mouth, and, yes, it tasted like Windsor Canadian all right, either that or some other cheap whiskey of the sort I usually drank, and I swallowed the gulp down with the pill.
And then, sure enough, the dank thick essence of hashish which had suffused my entire being seemed to waft out of all my pores at once and dissolve into the damp warm air.
“Wow,” I said.
“Feels good, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Sobriety is a much underrated state,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said.
Without thinking about it I took another, even bigger swig of the Windsor Canadian.
(Continued here; Arnold is only just getting warmed up.)
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