On this rainy hot night in old New York City our hero Arnold Schnabel has finally escaped from an importunately poetic cab driver to find himself here on the sidewalk in front of Bob’s Bowery Bar...
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“How curious that one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century – a work worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with the chefs-d'œuvre of Proust, Joyce, Mann, and Sternwall – should be produced by a humble former railroad brakeman named Arnold Schnabel?” – Harold Bloom; from the Introduction to his “It's Easy to Say Too Much”: The Wit and Wisdom of Arnold Schnabel, Vol. 1.
Illustrations by rhoda penmarq.
Had that mad taxi driver deliberately dropped me off, at long last, at my desired destination? Or had we only accidentally wound up here just at the moment he decided to order me from his cab? Or what if he had merely been circling the block this entire time?
Well, no matter, I was getting drenched, and so I sent a curt message from the command center of my brain down through the complex system of pneumatic tubes that was my nervous system to my legs with an urgent request to carry this amorphous blob that was me across that rain-bombarded sidewalk to the entrance of the bar, and after only a minute or so my legs received the communiqué, and, after the appropriate processing, lifted their attached feet and sent them, one after the other, in the desired direction, and, sure enough, after a few seconds that seemed like five minutes I managed to make it to the entranceway without falling.
The door of the bar was open, as it had been earlier that evening, opening outward, and inside was that same mass of drunken humanity, or a similar one, the same or similar churning clouds of tobacco smoke, and, yes, also what I had learned to recognize as marijuana smoke, all mixed in with the smells of sweaty human beings, of perfume and whiskey and beer as well as the sickly sweet smell of something I could only describe as despair.
People laughed, yelled, shouted and cried, and a jukebox played something that I supposed was jazz.
This area right in front of the doorway was sheltered under a few feet of overhang, and so at least I was out of the downpour here. But I was however in the full grip of those hashish brownies now, and even a normally routine and mundane action like walking into the bar seemed to call for careful planning – but after all, how hard could it be just to walk inside? It wasn’t as if I even had to do anything so complicated as opening the door. And I was just about to shoot another dispatch down to my legs to the effect of “Go inside, bear to the right, take me over to that booth where I last saw Josh, and Ferdinand, and Ben and Horace, and Mr. Philpot,” when a gust of wind blew the door against my left elbow.
“Excuse me,” I said, to the door, and I stepped aside.
Another gust promptly came along and blew the door completely shut, thus muffling the sounds of music and drunkenness within, and somehow increasing the volume of the crashing of the rain.
There was no getting around it now. I would have to open the door. Either that or wait for someone else to open it. But the latter course seemed silly; how difficult could it be to open a presumably unlocked door?
I certainly didn’t want to overthink the situation, but on the other hand I thought I should at the very least take stock of it before doing anything rash. The door was one of those doors with a curved tarnished brass handle and a lever for the thumb to depress: okay, it wasn’t as if I was trying to break into Fort Knox here. Just put my hand on the handle, press the lever thing down with my thumb, and then pull the door toward me. Try not to pull the door into my face and knock myself out. Pull the door open and then step inside. It really wasn’t all that difficult, hard, or complicated.
But which hand should I use? I was right-handed, I still am in fact, but if I used my right hand would that mean I would have to take some steps backward as I opened the door? What if I lost my balance and stumbled and fell? What if I hit my head on the pavement? I could kill myself, or become paralyzed, lying there on my back with the rain beating down on my face.
So maybe the left hand was better. Pull the door open, and then make a subtle sidling move around it as I did so. This maneuver would call for the utmost coöperation of my mental powers and the aforementioned pneumatic system of tubes that served as my nervous system, and of my entire body in fact, which unfortunately felt like it was made of Pillsbury dinner-roll dough.
I took a breath, and raised my left hand, preparing myself.
“Really pathetic,” said a voice from somewhere behind me and to my right, seemingly at about the height of my elbow.
I turned and saw a little old man.
Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe, or maybe by this point it’s not hard to believe at all, but it was another one all right, another tiny dried up old man.
This one was about five foot one, wearing a cloth cap and a baggy suit. Both the cap and the suit were the color of ashes in a tin ashtray that hasn’t been properly cleaned in years. He had an umbrella, which he was shaking the rain off of, opening and closing it partway, splashing rainwater on me, not that it mattered at all, I was already so soaked. The umbrella also had an ashy color, although it had probably been black forty years ago. The man was about eighty, at least he looked like he was eighty, and the flesh of his face was another, lighter shade of ash. He had a little cigar in it, it looked like one of those hard Italian-style cigars. He wore thick round wire-rimmed glasses that made his dark grey eyes seem as big as half-dollar coins.
He finished shaking out the umbrella and then furled it and buttoned it. His fingers were small and wizened but they seemed very deft. All I could think was, “I’ll bet he’ll have no problem opening the door.”
He took the cigar out of his mouth and blew some smoke up at me. Then he spoke.
“My name is Bert,” he said.
“Hi, Bert,” I said, and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to do so, unless I had only imagined it. So I thought I’d add more, just to be polite. “My name is Arnold –”
“I know who you are,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “You do?”
“No, I’m lying.”
“Ah,” I said. “Ha ha. You’re lying?”
“No, you fool, I’m not lying. I was kidding. Jeeze.”
I tried to grasp some meaning from the words that had escaped his mouth, I tried and failed.
“You were – kidding,” I said, my own words echoing through the vast dark reaches of the universe, “ – when you said you knew my name was Arnold?”
“No, I was kidding when I said I was lying when I said I knew who you were. And presumably still are. You see I’ve been sent here. I am your guardian angel.”
“Wow,” I said.
“That is your reaction? ‘Wow’?”
“Yes, well, I didn’t even know I had a guardian angel.”
“You didn’t have one, until now.”
“Think about it, Arnold: would it make sense for every human being to have their own guardian angel?”
“Well –” I paused, taking his advice and thinking it over. “I guess that would mean an awful lot of angels.”
“As many as there are human beings. Can you imagine all the angelpower that would require? Shuffling down a fresh guardian angel each time a new human is born?”
“Well,” I said, “on the other hand people are dying all the time too, right?”
“That’s very true, and guardian angels are indeed reassigned when their current human has passed on, be it to heaven, hell, purgatory or limbo, but even an angel needs some rest between cases – would you deny them that?”
“And, irregardless, there still aren’t enough angels to go around for every single human being on the planet, not nearly enough.”
“How many are there?” I asked.
“You’re not going to get all weird if I tell you, are you?”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t get weird, but I wanted to move the conversation along.
“Six hundred and sixty-six,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “That’s not a lot.”
“No, it isn’t,” he said. “But don’t you get it? Six hundred and sixty-six. Six six six.”
“The number of the beast,” he said.
“Ah,” I said.
“From the Book of Revelation? In the Bible?”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “The number of the, uh –”
“Beast,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “I think I’ve heard of that, uh.”
“Not much of a Bible reader, are you?”
“I’m a Catholic,” I said.
“Well, that explains it,” he said. “Okay, moving on, we’ve got six hundred and sixty-six guardian angels, so, needless to say, not everybody gets one.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“God doesn’t do bad things,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to point the finger,” I said.
“You shouldn’t question his infinite wisdom.”
“I try not to,” I said.
The little guy took a puff on his De Nobili or whatever it was, and blew the smoke up into my face again.
“I hope you realize how lucky you are.”
“Um, well, I hadn’t really thought about it –”
“Maybe you should think about it,” he said. “Millions of people on the planet – millions – and only six hundred and sixty-six guardian angels. And you get one of them.”
“Wow," I said. “I mean, rather, 'gee', I mean when you put it like that –”
“And I do.”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“Don’t thank me. I go where he tells me to go,” he said, glancing upward.
“Well, uh, thank God, then,” I said.
“Don’t be a wiseass,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to be,” I said.
“Okay,” he said then. “To business. What’s the sit-rep here?”
“What’s going on? I assume there’s some sort of problem or I wouldn’t have been assigned to you.”
“They didn’t tell you?”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“The, uh, bosses of the guardian angels?”
He shook his head, in a resigned-looking sort of way, maybe a disgusted way.
“Look, Arnold, all I know is I’m supposed to be your guardian angel. But from what I can see you are at the present rather shall we say three sheets to the wind? Or is it four?”
“You mean I’m drunk?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Either drunk or mentally retarded. So which is it.”
“Um,” I said, “– Bert?”
“Bert, yes, ‘Bowery Bert’ as I’m known in these parts.”
“Well, uh, pleased to, uh, meet you, uh, Bert.”
I extended a hand, my right one, but he ignored it, so I pretended I had a cramp in it and stretched out and retracted my fingers a few times.
“Bert,” I continued, after completing my little dumb-show with the hand, “I may be a little drunk, and it’s true I may even be somewhat mentally retarded, but I think that the reason I might appear to be completely drunk or retarded is that I ate some hashish brownies a little while ago, and –”
“You ate five hash brownies.”
“I see. So may I assume then that you are a drug addict?”
“No,” I said, after a pause. “I honestly wouldn’t say that.”
“Arnold,” said my new guardian angel with a sigh, “you know what ‘denial’ is?”
“Um, uh –”
“I’ll tell you what denial is not.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It is not just a river in Egypt.”
“Accepting you have a problem is the first step in solving that problem. Now I want you to repeat after me: ‘My name is Arnold, and I am a drug addict.’”
“But, honest, I’m not a drug addict.”
“Really? Mr. Hashish Brownie?”
“But that was a mistake,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “You see, I thought they were regular brownies.”
“Uh-huh. Okay. You just happened to eat five hash brownies by mistake.”
“I know it sounds –”
“It does. It also leads me to suspect that possibly your real problem is that you are a moron. But let’s move on.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Well – I’d like to go home,” I said.
“Wouldn’t we all. And if you want to go home why are you standing at the door of Bob’s Bowery Bar.”
“That’s a very long story,” I said.
“Can you sum it up in twenty-five words or less?”
“Possibly,” I said. “But the problem with that is finding the right twenty-five words, and putting them in the most effective, uh –”
“Yeah,” I said, “sequence, and then sending them through this complex system of pneumatic tubes inside me down to my mouth and my tongue.”
“In other words the immediate problem is the hashish brownies.”
“I think so,” I said. “Yes.”
“Fine. This I can work with. ‘We’ can work with, because it’s got to be a team effort, Arnold. I’m just your guardian angel. You’ve got to do some of the heavy lifting yourself.”
“So.” He tapped his De Nobili or Parodi with his finger, and the ash tumbled down to land on the instep of my left work shoe. “We deal with the hashish brownie problem and then we deal with whatever the main problem is. Which is getting you home?”
“What. You sound doubtful.”
“It’s just that now that I think about it I don’t know if that’s my real main problem.”
He paused before speaking again, as if he were counting to ten. I think I may have been trying his patience.
“And what would that be,” he said. “Your so-called main problem.”
“Being a human being?” I said.
(Continued here, for the sake not only of the present generation, but of all the generations yet unborn.)
(Kindly cast an eye down the right-hand column of this page to find a perhaps reasonably accurate listing of links to all other officially-released chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Click here to order a copy of our friend Kathleen Maher’s excellent début full-length novel Diary of a Heretic!)