Let’s return to a certain fateful rainy August night in 1957 and rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel just outside the entrance of Bob’s Bowery Bar, and in the company of: the brawling seafaring adventurer Big Ben Blagwell; that purveyor of the rarest of rare books Mr. Philpot; the eminent but now sadly obscure author Horace P. Sternwell; Ferdinand the talking fly; and “Josh” – also known as the son of God…
(Please click here to read last week’s thrilling episode; if you are the unfortunate victim of an obsessive compulsive disorder and are looking for a relatively harmless new project then you may go here to start at the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 69-volume masterwork of autobiographical literature.)
“And, in the end, although of course there is no end, isn’t Arnold Schnabel’s quest that age-old one of brave Ulysses – the quest for ‘home’?” – Harold Bloom, in The South Philly Review Literary Supplement.
I waited, awkwardly.
At another time in my life, in fact just a couple of days ago, in the world I had left behind, a couple of days that felt like eight years, in that faraway time and world I would have taken out the pack of Pall Malls I was never without and I would have lit one up, and I would have been, if not happy, then at least occupied with doing something that brought me if not pleasure then at least the postponement of the displeasure of nicotine deprivation.
But I had given up smoking, or at least the smoking of tobacco, and so all I could do was stand there and wait for my companions to finish urinating into that crashing downpour of rain.
To lessen the boredom I took a personal inventory, patting my various pockets. I still had my wallet, in the back pocket of my jeans, Porter Walker’s wallet anyway. I didn’t bother taking it out and checking, but I knew there wasn’t much money in it, six dollars or so I supposed; but I took comfort in at least having a wallet, with some identification in it, even if the person identified was not really me, but this “Porter Walker”, the bohemian romantic poet, a character in a novel called Ye Cannot Quench, written by a woman named Gertrude Evans, a madwoman, but who was I to talk?
In the right pocket of my dirty and damp seersucker jacket I was slightly surprised to realize I still had the revolver given to me by that Lily woman back in the world of Horace’s novel Rummies of the Open Road, a Chief’s Special I seemed to remember her calling it. It occurred to me that I didn’t have an owner’s permit for the pistol, let alone a permit to carry it around in my pocket. Great, just what I needed, another source of anxiety and worry, and so I decided right then that I would get rid of the gun at the first opportunity.
In the inside breast pocket of my jacket I was surprised also to feel what felt like a paperback book. I took it out and held it so it caught the rain-filtered light from the streetlamp and it all came back to me – it was that Songs from a Negro Slum Tenement, by Lucius Pierrepont St. Clair III, with its cover painting of poor-looking Negroes sitting on the stoop of what must have been a slum building. Here was a book I had no interest in even opening, let alone reading, or attempting to read, but I supposed it was better than having nothing at all to read if I were stranded on a desert island, maybe. I put the book back in my inside jacket pocket.
In my shirt pocket was a ballpoint pen, yellow and green, an Eversharp, and it took me a moment to remember how I had acquired it, earlier that evening about two years ago, bought for (if I remembered correctly) thirty-two cents and a subway token from that Eddie Guest guy. I put the pen back in my work-shirt pocket. It might come in handy, I might still be able to write myself out of this world.
I next took an inventory of my physical being. I was aware of the damage done to me physically during this evening which had lasted at least four years now and showed no signs of ending soon, the sprains and scrapes and bruises on my knees and arms and hands and face and head, but that all-purpose painkiller pill that Bowery Bert had gave me seemed still to be doing its work, and I felt only the memory of pain and agony, for the time being.
I felt vaguely drunk, and vaguely under the influence of hashish brownies, not to mention laudanum and LSD and even the nectar of the gods, but – again, thanks to one of Bert’s pills, the so-called "anti-high pill" – far from debilitatingly so.
Horace, standing on the far right, was the first one to turn around, with his cigar in his mouth and wiping his hands on his dirty dark green work trousers.
“Y’know,” he said, “I once wrote a poem about pissing in the open air.”
“Oh, really?” I said, just to be polite.
“Would you like to hear it?”
“Um,” I said, “sure,” although if I was sure of anything it was that I was sure I didn’t want to hear his poem.
“I don’t want to hear it,” said Mr. Philpot, who had been standing to the immediate left of Horace, and who now also turned around. He had his corncob pipe going, and he didn’t bother wiping his hands on his clothes.
“Hear what?” said Ben, who had been standing to the far left, and was now also turning around, wiping his hands on his Hawaiian shirt, a cigarette in his mouth.
“It’s a poem I wrote about pissing in the open air,” said Horace.
“Oh,” said Ben. “Is it long?”
“Twelve cantos,” said Horace, “each canto made up of twelve verses of twelve lines each.”
“Tell you what, Horace,” said Ferdinand, buzzing merrily about, “why don’t you just give us like two lines.”
“Wow,” said Josh, turning around last, a cigarette in his lips. “That was enjoyable.”
He had apparently let the rainwater wash his hands, as had I, and he waved his hands gently before him to dry them.
“Would you like to hear my poem, Josh?” said Horace.
“Of course,” said Josh.
“I call it ‘Pissing in the Cool Night Air’,” said Horace.
“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand.
“Look, I don’t have to recite it,” said Horace.
“Good then – don’t,” said Ferdinand.
“Ha ha,” said Mr. Philpot, in a voice like old newspaper being roughly ripped.
“Heh heh,” said Ben, in a voice like a bowling ball bouncing down concrete steps.
“Shall I commence then?” said Horace.
“Please,” said Josh.
Pissing in the cool night air, in an alley behind a saloon
or in a grassy meadow, or in a field filled with wheat,
or in a ditch by the side of the road, lit by a full moon,
or if no one’s around, why not right out in the street –
“Okay, Horace,” said Ferdinand. “We’ve heard enough.”
“It gets better,” said Horace.
“I’m sure it does,” said Ferdinand. “And maybe you can give us a few more lines after we have a couple more drinks, how’s that?”
“Drinks sounds good,” said Ben.
“Let’s go,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Well, I must agree, a drink would not be amiss at this juncture,” said Horace.
“It’s that eternal cycle,” said Ben. “Piss it out. Drink some more. Then piss some more. Then drink some more. Then go piss again. Then drink some more –”
“We get it, Ben,” said Ferdinand.
Ben put his great hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, it’s great to have you back, Arnie.”
“Thank you, Ben,” I said.
“We’re gonna get loaded now, Buddy. It’s something you and I really haven’t had a chance to do yet, all this time we’ve known each other –”
“Well, uh –”
“I mean staggering, falling down drunk.”
“I mean shore patrol batting our skulls with billy clubs like it’s batting practice drunk.’
“Well, I –”
“Well, you see, Ben –”
He still had that massive hand on my shoulder, and he gave it a squeeze. Fortunately it didn’t hurt too much, I guess thanks to that pill that Bowery Bert had given me.
“Hey, don’t let me down, Arnie,” he said. “We been through too much together for you to let me down now.”
“But it’s just that –”
“What? Spit it out, pal. I can take it. You haven’t joined that Alcoholics Anonymous, have you?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet, anyway, but –”
“Then what is it, damn it, tell me, man.” He gave my shoulder a little shake, and my whole body shook like a marionette. “Don’t hold out on me, Arnie. What the hell is the problem?”
“Josh wanted to have a talk with me,” I said, as quickly as I could before Ben could interrupt me again.
“Oh,” said Ben, after a pause. He finally took his hand off my shoulder and turned to Josh. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to try to hog Arnie. But he’s my pal.”
“I understand,” said Josh.
“I’ll tell you what, Josh,” said Ben. “I’m gonna let you guys have your little ‘talk’. But afterwards, that’s when Arnie and me get roaring falling down drunk. You understand that, Josh, don’t you?”
“I think I do,” said Josh.
“And you’re welcome to get drunk with us if you want to.”
“Thank you for the offer, Ben, and I just might take you up on it.”
“Good,” said Ben. “I’m glad we got that all cleared up. So let me just ask you: how long is this little talk you want to have with Arnie going to take?”
“Oh, gee,” said Josh, “that’s hard to say –”
“Just approximate like,” said Ben.
“Well,” said Josh, “I hope not more than – oh, I don’t know – an hour?”
“An hour,” said Ben. “Okay, how about we knock that down to fifteen minutes.”
“That doesn’t seem like a very long time for an in-depth conversation,” said Josh.
“It may not be,” said Ben, “but it’s a long time for me to wait till I can get rip-roaring drunk with my best buddy.”
“I’ll try to keep it short,” said Josh.
“That’s all I’m asking,” said Ben. “I mean, I hope I’m not out of line, you being the son of the big guy and all.”
“Not at all, Ben.”
“Good. Where were you guys going to have this talk, anyway.”
“Gosh,” said Josh, “I really hadn’t given that much thought.”
“Here’s my plan, then,” said Ben. “We go back inside the bar. The rest of us – me, Horace, Ferdinand and Mr. Philpot – we go back to our booth and order up some more drinks. You and Arnie, you two go grab some space at the bar. You order a beer, maybe a shot and a beer, it don’t matter, and you have your little talk. We’ll give you fifteen minutes. No more. Then you come back to the booth, and we all get fucking roaring drunk if you’ll pardon my français.”
“All right,” said Josh.
“Now listen,” said Ben. "And again, I hope I am not out of line, but if you two ain’t back at the booth in fifteen I am coming to get you.”
“That’s fair,” said Josh.
“I wonder, though, Josh,” said Ben, “if you could lend me a little drinking money. I’ll pay you back when I get it.”
“Of course,” said Josh, and without hesitation he took his wallet out of his back pocket and opened it.
“Maybe ten bucks,” said Ben, “just so I can spring for a round or two.”
Josh was looking into his wallet.
“I only seem to have hundred-dollar bills at the moment –”
“If you give me a C-note I’ll get you some change from the waitress.”
“Well, let’s just make it I’m lending you a hundred,” said Josh.
“You’re sure?” said Ben.
“Positive,” said Josh, and he took out a hundred-dollar bill, a very new and crisp one, and handed it to Ben. I wondered how real that hundred was, but then that wasn’t my problem, at least not yet it wasn’t. Ben folded up the bill and stuck it in his dungarees pocket.
“I don’t care what they say about you, Josh,” he said. “You’re A-OK in my book.”
“Why, I’m glad to hear that, Ben,” said Josh, and he put his wallet away.
“These other holy Joes,” said Ben, “the Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Vishnu, Baal, whatever – they got nothing on you, my friend.”
“Thanks, Ben,” said Josh. “I appreciate the sentiment.”
Mr. Philpot and Horace were waiting by the open door, and Ferdinand was hovering in a lazy sort of way above them, breathing in their pipe and cigar smoke.
“Okay, fellas,” said Ben. “We’re ready.”
They all went back into the bar, except for Ferdinand, who flew over to me.
“See ya soon, Arnie,” he said. “Don’t be going off on any crazy adventures without me.”
“I’ll try not to,” I said.
Ferdinand now flew over to Josh.
“Take care of him, Josh,” he said. “I’m counting on you.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” said Josh.
Ferdinand gave me a wink, I don’t know how exactly, but it seemed like a wink, and then he flew back into the bar.
“Well, Arnold,” said Josh. “Here we are, finally. Alone together at last!”
“Yes,” I said.
The rain was still crashing down, and inside the bar the drunks continued to laugh and yell, and the band played a raucous song, the singer singing:
“Bang me, daddy-o, bang me like a drum.”
(Continued here, as Arnold continues to go where no man has gone before.)
(Painting by Norman Saunders. Please scroll down the right-hand column of this page to find what is meant to be a listing of links to all other officially-published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Coming this year: Volume One of Arnold’s saga in e-book form – and plenty more after that, the good Lord willing!)