Let us return to a certain rainy summer’s night in old New York City and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new guardian angel “Bowery Bert”, here outside the entrance of that fabled caravanserai Bob’s Bowery Bar...
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; click here to return to the very beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award™-winning bildungsroman.)
“Yes – brrr – December has arrived, and what better way to pass a chilly and snowy evening than to sit in one’s favorite old rocker by a roaring fire, with a thick afghan over one’s legs, a cup of steaming hot cocoa prepared with Fox’s U-bet™ chocolate syrup, and a volume of Arnold Schnabel’s magnificent chef-d'œuvre, now available for a laughably modest fee on your Kindle™.” – Harold Bloom, host of Fox’s U-bet Presents ‘The Arnold Schnabel Hour’, exclusively on the Dumont Radio Network, Sundays at 4 pm (EST).
“You have to understand that he has been through a lot,” said Bert.
“Sure,” I said.
He had been talking with his cigar in his teeth, but now he took it between his thumb and forefinger and tapped it with his middle finger, causing the ash to tumble down onto my shoes again, not that I cared, again.
“Poor fellow’s probably been through more than anyone,” he said, “anywhere, in any time.”
I glanced away, out at the rain and the street, looking away from those dark grey eyes of Bert’s, so hideously magnified by the thick lenses of his glasses.
“What?” he said.
I’ve never been good at hiding what I’m thinking, if anything. And there didn’t seem to be much that got by old Bert.
“Um,” I mumbled.
“You disagree then?” he said.
“Well, not exactly,” I said.
“Then inexactly. What.”
“Well, you’re forgetting his father,” I said. “And the holy ghost.”
“What about them?”
“Well, they must have been through a lot, too,” I said. “I mean, as much as Josh –”
“Jesus you mean.”
“Yes, sorry, I’m used to thinking of him as ‘Josh’.”
“Okay, ‘Josh’ then. But here’s the thing, Arnold, if you knew your catechism like the Roman Catholic you claim to be then you’d know that when I say ‘the son of God’ – or, ‘Josh’ as you call him –”
“He tells me to call him Josh.”
“Please don’t interrupt.”
“I hate that. You humans always think you have something to say. And you just can’t wait to say it. As if anyone cares.”
“Okay, then. Apology accepted. Now, where was I?”
“Something about Josh,” I said.
“Oh, right. When I say – okay, I guess I may as well say it if that’s what he wants to be called – when I say ‘Josh’ I also mean God the father – and the holy ghost. Because they are three indivisible persons making up one God, the holy whatever –”
“Trinity,” I said.
“Yeah, exactly, the trinity. They’re all really just one God.”
“Right,” I said. “I forgot about that.” Not that I had ever thought too much about the concept of the trinity. It had only been just one of the millions of concepts I couldn’t understand and couldn’t be bothered to try to understand.
“However,” said Bert, “irregardless, you have to be impressed by Jesus – or 'Josh' if you will – going through that awful scourging and the crown of thorns and the crucifixion and all. That couldn’t have been any picnic. You didn’t see his father getting nailed to any cross in the hot sun, nor for that matter the holy ghost.”
I suppose my face gave me away again, another furtive glance out at the downpour that continued to drench the Bowery.
“Now what?” he said.
“It’s just that I met the holy ghost tonight,” I said.
“I met the holy ghost. Except he went by the name of ‘H.G.’”
“Please don’t fuck with me, Arnold. In case you didn’t know it, I am not a good guy to fuck with. I know I’m old, I know I’m small and frail-looking, but do not fuck with me.”
“What I mean is, like, fuck with me at your peril.”
“You’ve been warned.”
“But I really did meet him,” I said.
He took a drag on his Parodi or De Nobili, blew the smoke up into my face again.
“For real?” he said.
“Well, apparently,” I said, coughing only a little bit. “I mean, Josh said he was the holy ghost, so –”
“Wow,” said Bert. “And what was he like?”
“So you never met him either?” I said.
“No. If I had ever met him then I wouldn’t have to ask you what he was like, now would I?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“If you stopped saying asinine things you wouldn’t have to say you’re sorry all the time.”
“That’s a good point.”
“So what was he like?”
To keep my guardian angel happy, or at least possibly less unpleasant, I made an effort to remember. It had only been earlier that night, but it felt like two and a half years ago.
“Well,” I said. “He was a little guy of about fifty or so –”
“Little guy – like me, huh?”
“Maybe a couple of inches taller.”
“As befits one of his divine stature.”
“He wore a derby.”
“A derby! A gentleman of the old school!”
“He was nicely dressed,” I said. “A three-piece suit.”
“Sort of like yours,” I said.
“Like mine? Battleship grey?”
“A slightly darker shade of grey I think.”
“Well, of course it wouldn’t be of exactly the same shade.”
“He had a cane.”
“I hope he was not crippled in any way.”
“No,” I said. “I think it was just a, like –”
“A walking cane. As gentlemen once were wont to carry.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, I remember, he had those old-fashioned glasses that fit over the nose, with a ribbon hanging down?”
“Yes, I think that’s what they’re called.”
“Yes, a true gentleman of the old school! How I should like one day to meet him myself. I’ll warrant he was a fine, imposing gentleman!”
Again I guess I just couldn’t disguise my thoughts and feelings.
“Now what?” he said. “You’re saying he was not a fine gentleman?”
“No, he was a very fine gentleman,” I said. “Imposing too.”
“I told you not to fuck with me.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry and say what’s on your mind.”
“Well, he was just a little grumpy,” I said.
“You’re saying I’m grumpy.”
“No, I’m saying he was grumpy.”
“But you’re implying, by subtext, that I am grumpy too. That’s why you didn’t want to say it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe you’re right. But, look, can we just go in the bar now?”
“Maybe I got a right to be grumpy.”
“Maybe,” I said, and I put my hand on the door handle, but very quickly he brought his umbrella up and whacked my hand with its ferrule, not really hard, but enough for me to take my hand away, and to commence rubbing it with my other one.
“Maybe you would be grumpy too,” said Bert, “if you had to be a guardian angel to the absolute dregs of humanity down here on the Bowery. You think my job is easy?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I said. “But I guess it can be, uh, hard –”
“Hard? Hard? How about next to impossible?”
“Okay,” I said. “I can see, that, but –”
“So just remember, maybe the holy ghost has his own very good reasons for being grumpy too.”
“I will,” I said.
I again made a move to open the door, but Bert raised his umbrella and I quickly drew my hand away.
He took a step closer to me, so that he had to tilt his head back a little to look up at me.
“Where did you meet him?” he said.
“The holy ghost?”
“Who else are we talking about?”
“I – I met him in a bar, actually,” I said.
“You met him in a bar.”
“Another bar,” he said. “You spend a lot of time in bars, don’t you.”
I knew there was no point in denying it.
“Yes,” I said. “So –”
“Wait a minute. Just what was the holy ghost doing in this bar? He just happened to stop in for a drink?”
“I didn’t think so. A person of his eminence doesn’t just happen into a bar by chance, now does he?”
“He wanted to get Josh.”
“What do you mean, ‘get Josh’?
“Bring him back to heaven. Get him to stop acting like a human being.”
“I take it he was not successful in this endeavor.”
“Not as far as I know. So –”
“Can we go in the bar now?”
“In a minute. What about you know who?”
He glanced upward.
“The other one.”
“Other one,” I repeated, being a little slow on the uptake.
“The big fellow.” He raised his umbrella again, and I flinched, but luckily for me all he did was point it upwards, with little pushing movements. “The guy upstairs,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “You mean God the father?”
“Yes.” He lowered the umbrella. “Unless you have some strange nickname for him as well.”
“No,” I said.
“Have you met him?”
“Him I haven’t met,” I said. “I was in his house, but –”
“Hold on. You were in the big house? The house on the hill?”
“I swear if you’re fucking with me –”
He paused, staring at me with those enormous eyes pressed against the lenses of his glasses like the mouths of two squids against the glass of an aquarium.
“Wow,” he said. “You’re not fucking with me. You really were in the big house? Got past St. Peter and everything. How did that happen? Because the word on the street is he is very tough, St. Peter is. Very tough. A stickler. But fair, mind you! Firm but fair. So how did you get past him?”
“Well, Josh got me in,” I said.
“No kidding? Josh himself took you in?”
“Yes,” I said. “Although at that time I still knew him as Jesus.”
“I see. Wow. So here I thought I was being assigned just another common ordinary Bowery stew bum. Tell me, Arnold, you are not by any chance a saint, are you?”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Fairly sure,” I said.
“But then you might be one and just don’t know it. Perhaps you are the patron saint of drug addicts and alcoholics.”
“I’d really like to go into the bar now,” I said.
“Let me just compose myself first,” he said. “Prepare myself. Just to think that now, at long last, after all these eons, I am about to bask in the divine presence. How do I look?”
What could I say? That he looked like a slightly shabby and not entirely hygienic little old man? No. Once again circumstances forced me to lie.
“You look fine,” I said.
“If I had only known I should have taken better care with my appearance. Perhaps have had my suit cleaned and pressed.”
“I don’t think, uh –”
“What am I saying?” he said. “Look at you, in those wet and dirty clothes, and with a black eye, and needing a shave, too, I might add.”
I was losing what little patience I still possessed.
“Right,” I said. “Look how messy I am, and Josh doesn’t seem to mind, so let’s go in.”
“But you’re his friend,” he said. “It’s different with friends. One is more shall we say indulgent with an old pal. But who am I? Just a modest guardian angel posted to one of the crummiest most disgusting slums in the world.”
“Okay,” I said, “look, Bert?”
“Yes, speak freely.”
“Josh doesn’t care how you look.”
“But how do you know that?”
“He’s my friend, remember? I know him.”
“I’m so envious. I know I shouldn’t be but I am.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s only human to be envious.”
“Ah, but there you see,” he said.
“What?” I said, resisting the urge to take him by the lapels and shake him as if he were a cocktail shaker full of Manhattans.
“I am not human,” he said. “A state for which I thank the good lord every day.”
“Well,” I said, “with any luck you’ll get the chance to thank him in person in a minute. Shall we go in now?”
“Yes,” he said. “Why don’t we?”
And without another word I turned and opened the door.
(Continued here, and onward, at our usual relentless pace.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page to find a quite possibly-current listing of links to all other accessible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Looking for the perfect holiday gift for that certain bookish someone on your holiday shopping list? If so, then click here to order a copy of the paperback edition of our colleague Kathleen Maher’s most excellent novel Diary of a Heretic!)