Let us rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his friends that unjustly-obscure author Horace P. Sternwall and Ferdinand the talking fly, here on a wet August night in Greenwich Village, sometime in the 1950s…
(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode. Click here to return to the typically-modest and unassuming very first chapter of Arnold Schnabel’s Gold View Award™-winning memoir Railroad Train to Heaven©.)
“How well I remember the first time I encountered the inimitable prose of Arnold Schnabel, when I idly picked up that first paperback-original edition of Railroad Train to Heaven (an “Ace Double”, paired with Horace P. Sternwall’s Rummies of the Open Road), from a revolving rack in a Walgreen’s drug store in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, as I waited for my subscription for headache powder to be filled.” – Harold Bloom, in the Ladies’ Home Journal Literary Supplement.
“Boy, oh boy, oh boy,” whispered Ferdinand. “This is great. Don’t know about you guys, but I can die happily now.”
It was all so vivid, as if we were actually standing there on the sidewalk.
And then I realized: we actually were standing there on the sidewalk, here on MacDougal street, on a hot and humid night, the sidewalk and the street wet and gleaming with recently-fallen rain.
“Ferdinand, Horace –” I whispered, “we’re here!”
“Of course we’re here, buddy,” said Horace, also in a whisper.
He couldn’t take his eyes off of the two girls kissing (and, yes, vigorously groping one another) in the shadowy entranceway of that tailor shop, just a few yards away from where we stood.
“No,” I whispered, “I mean we’re really here!”
“Well, where else would we be?” he whispered back.
“We’re inside the world of your novel,” I whispered. (I know it’s tedious to keep repeating “whispered”, but I can see no way to avoid it.)
Finally he forced his gaze away from the young women in the shadows and looked up and then down the street.
“Shit,” he said, in a low voice, not quite a whisper. “This is kind of weird, isn’t it?”
“Welcome to Arnie’s world,” said Ferdinand, also not quite whispering now. “This kind of shit happens to our boy all the time.”
“Oh, well,” said Horace, still speaking in a quiet voice, and back to staring at the girls, “I guess things could be worse.”
“Lots worse,” said Ferdinand.
I looked around. It was all very familiar. It was a fictional world perhaps, but it was a world I knew. To my right on the corner was the San Remo, the scene of so many of my past adventures. Up the street to my left I could see the neon sign of the Kettle of Fish, scene of yet more adventures. In a sense I was back on home turf. I turned around and looked across the not-quite flooded street.
And there it was, above the basement entrance to the Valhalla Bar: Philpot’s Rare Book Shop – and with a light showing in the front window.
“Oh, my God,” I said.
“Arnie,” whispered Horace, nudging me. “Not so loud.” And he gestured with his cigarette at the two girls embracing in the shadows of the tailor shop.
“Yeah,” whispered Ferdinand, zooming down and hovering by my ear. “You don’t want to get them upset and spoil the show.”
“But, Ferdinand,” I whispered, “and Horace, look, across the street.”
And I pointed to Philpot’s shop.
“Oh,” said Horace. “Philpot. That fucking gonif.”
I put my hand on his arm. People were always grabbing my arm – well, now it was my turn.
“We have to go there,” I whispered.
“Why?” he whispered right back. “Last time I went in there he buried me inside a book if you’ll recall.”
“Of course I recall,” I said. “But don’t you see, I think we might have made it back to – to –”
“To the world we were in before,” said Ferdinand.
“Yes,” I said. “That other world.”
Horace took a drag on his cigarette.
“I thought we were in the world of Slaves of Sappho,” he said, and he nodded his head in the direction of the two amorous young ladies.
“Well, I suppose we are,” I said, “but I’m hoping this is also that, um, other world.”
“Oh – you mean the real world?”
“Well, real world to you,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean it’s still a fictional world to me,” I said. “But on the other hand it’s at least one world closer to my own world.”
Horace stared at me.
“Let me ask you something, Arnie,” he said at last, “if I may.”
“Sure,” I said.
“What is this supposed ‘real world’ you come from like, that is if you don’t mind my asking?”
This was not an easy question to answer, and I hesitated before attempting to do so.
“Um,” I said, by way of preface.
“I mean,” he went on, “is it like a science fiction or a fantasy world? Or, I know, maybe one of those regular guy caught in a deadly spiral of passion and despair kind of things, and the pressure drives him nuts? Just a little bit, you know, crazy?”
“Well, uh –” I said.
“How about all of the above?” said Ferdinand.
“Okay, whatever,” said Horace, obviously already losing interest, and who could blame him, when something much more interesting than my life and my problems was occurring not far away at all in the entrance to that tailor’s shop.
“Oh, man!” said Ferdinand speaking quite loudly now, “look at ‘em go! I‘m about to throw a thrombo here!”
Suddenly the taller of the two girls in the entranceway, the one wearing a Panama hat – this would be Muriel, I recalled – turned and looked at us looking at her.
“Men,” she said, with undisguised contempt, as if she were saying a dirty word. “I hope you creeps are enjoying the show!”
The shorter girl – Missy – also stared at us, but said nothing.
“I beg your pardon, ladies!” called Horace.
“Why don’t you and your pal just move along,” said Muriel. “Perverts.”
“Perverts!” said Ferdinand. “You got a lot of nerve, lady!”
“Who said that?” said Muriel.
Ferdinand flew over to her and stopped, hovering about a foot away from her.
“It was I,” he said. “Ferdinand, the talking fly, at your service, miss!”
“Oh, my God!” said Missy, clutching Muriel’s waist with both hands. “Muriel, have I lost my mind?”
“Don’t worry, doll,” said Muriel. “Must just be those bennies we took, on top of the weed we smoked, and all those Tom Collinses. And that pink champagne.”
“You girls have weed?” said Ferdinand.
“What?” said Muriel. “A pot-head talking fly?”
“I have been known to indulge in some fine Panama red on occasion, yes,” said Ferdinand.
“He’s real, Muriel!” said Missy, squeezing her friend even tighter.
“Tell me somethin’, little fella,” said Muriel. “You get your kicks scarin’ poor defenseless little girls?”
“You don’t look too defenseless to me, baby,” he said.
“I wasn’t talkin’ about me,” said Muriel.
She gently disengaged Missy’s arms from her waist, and then picked up her large brown leather bag, which, just as Horace had described it in Slaves of Sappho, did indeed look like an army officer’s map case. Stepping out of the shadows of the entranceway, she hooked the bag’s strap over her shoulder, which was bare and palely gleaming in the light from the street lamp, and then she opened the bag and fished around in it, finally bringing out a pack of cigarettes. She shook one out and put it between her lips.
Horace quickly stepped over to her, shoving his hand into his jacket pocket.
“Please permit me to ignite your cigarette,” he said, bringing out a book of matches.
Muriel allowed him to do this, and, after inhaling and then exhaling a great cloud of smoke, she said:
“You and your buddy with the talking fly?”
“We are indeed,” said Horace, waving the match out and then tossing it away for someone else to sweep up. “We are what you might call a team of adventurers, a merry band, a sort of three musketeers for this modern age if you will.”
“You two look like a couple of stumblebums and a fly to me,” she said.
Missy crept up beside her friend and tugged on her black silk blouse. “Muriel,” she whispered. “Let’s go. I’m afraid.”
“No need to be afraid, miss,” said Horace. “We are quite harmless. We are – that is, my quiet friend over there and I – we are merely carefree bohemian scribes, in the tradition of the great François Villon.”
“Scribes, huh?” said Muriel. “And what about the fly?”
“I have a name you know, doll,” said Ferdinand. “It’s Ferdinand. And, no, I am not what my friend Horace calls a scribe. I am merely a talking fly. That is my occupation, and, I daresay, my distinction.”
“And quite a distinction it is,” said Horace. “But you know, old friend, you do yourself a disservice, because you are really so much more than a talking fly. You are a wit, and a philosopher to boot. And, perhaps even more important, you are a bon vivant and a stout companion.” Horace now turned and looked at me, who was still standing in the same spot a couple of yards away on the sidewalk. “Is he not, Arnold?”
“Um,” I said.
“Oh, but I did not introduce myself,” said Horace. “My name is Sternwall, Horace P. Sternwall. And the shy fellow over there is my friend Arnold, uh, Schn-, Schn-”
“Schnabel,” I said, helping him out.
“Arnold Schnabel,” said Horace. He held out his hand to Muriel, but she ignored it.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sternwall,” she said, “and thanks for the light. And now, if you will excuse us. Pick up your purse, Missy.”
Missy obediently bent over and picked up her black plastic purse from the pavement, and as she did Ferdinand zoomed lower, I suppose to get a better look.
“Perhaps you ladies would allow us the pleasure of buying you a cocktail?” said Horace.
“No, thanks,” said Muriel. “As you probably noticed we are not out looking to get picked up by men. Or by talking flies.”
“Ouch that hurts, Muriel, ” said Ferdinand.
“Hey, how did you know my name?” she said.
“Ah ha,” said Ferdinand, “we, my friends and I, know not only your name, Muriel, but Missy’s too!”
“This is just weird,” said Missy. “Come on, Muriel.” She tugged on her friend’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“Hold on, doll,” said Muriel.
She reached into her big leather bag again, but this time she brought out a gun, a small automatic. She racked its slide and then pointed the barrel at Horace.
“All right, smart guy. Spill. Why are you tailing us?”
“But, but, but –” said Horace, holding up his hands.
“Oh, shit,” said Ferdinand.
Missy said nothing, but held both her hands, joined as if in prayer, over her mouth.
Muriel swiveled the pistol so that it was pointed towards me.
“You, Mr. Seersucker,” she said. “Come on over here, and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”
I should have expected something like this. After all, like it or not, we apparently were still in a Horace P. Sternwall novel, and possibly not even major characters.
So I did what she told me to do.
I hadn’t come this far just to be shot by a fictional lesbian femme fatale. And even if she was fictional, that gun in her hand looked all too real.
(Continued here, because Arnold still has a long way to go.)
(Kindly look to the right hand column of this page to find what one hopes to be a current listing of links to all other legally-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Take advantage of our extended Presidents Day sale and order some of our few remaining Railroad Train to Heaven© “action figures” – sorry, we all out of “Arnolds”, but we still have several “Horace P. Sternwalls” and even a few “Ferdinands”!)