We left our hero Arnold Schnabel on a rainy August night in 1957, surrounded by a crowd of dancing and drunken revelers here in Bob’s Bowery Bar, along with his companions Josh, Big Ben Blagwell, and Ferdinand the talking fly…
(Kindly go here to read last week’s episode; the curious and the bewildered may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume memoir.)
“My travels have taken me to many far-flung places on this earth, but even the most exotic of those locales pale in comparison to the wondrousness of the worlds Arnold Schnabel explores in his sprawling, towering chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, in The National Geographic Literary Quarterly.
“Wow,” said Josh. “I mean, I don’t know, just – wow.”
He looked from me, to Ben, to Ferdinand, who was hovering in the plume of smoke rising up from the Pall Mall Josh held in his hand. I ask the reader to bear in mind that my companions and I comprised a small island of relative calm in the midst of this mob of dancing, thrashing, shouting and laughing drunkards, and the band was still playing as loud as ever, the singer singing:
Before I let you quit me, big daddyAnd so if I write that one of us “said” something, what I really mean to say is that we shouted or yelled. And so:
I’ll put arsenic in your finnan haddy
Before I let you walk out on me, pally
I’ll dump your dead body out in the alley
“Hey,” said or yelled or shouted Ben, “Josh.”
Ben was still holding his empty beer schooner in one hand, but he put his other hand on Josh’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Josh winced, his shoulder sagging, recoiling downward beneath the mighty grip of Ben’s hand.
“Yes?” said Josh, through gritted teeth.
“Fuck that old fart,” said Ben. “Y’know?”
“Hey,” said Ferdinand, “I still say I like that old fart. He’s got spunk.”
“Yes, true,” said Josh, “but, still, I would never have expected such a – such an extreme reaction.”
“Look, Josh,” said Ben, taking his hand off of Josh’s shoulder, and I could actually see the shoulder rise up a few inches now that it no longer had that great slab of meat, sinew and bone squeezing and pressing down on it, “if you’re gonna be human you’re gonna have to get used to this sort of thing. Here, hold this schooner for me, will ya?” Josh took Ben’s proffered empty beer schooner, and Ben took his pack of Sweet Caporals out of his Hawaiian shirt pocket. He gave the pack a shake in his expert way, so that exactly one cigarette popped up an inch from its fellows, and then he popped the cigarette into his lips.
“People acting like self-centered assholes,” he said around the cigarette, and he shoved the pack back into his pocket and then brought his book of Musso & Frank’s matches out of it.
“But he isn’t even a human,” said Josh. I noticed that he was sweating profusely, just like Ben and me; I had never seen him sweat before, so maybe he really was a human being now. “Bert’s an angel,” he said. “A guardian angel.”
“Okay, Josh, tell me something,” said Ben. He paused while he lit his cigarette in that cupped-hands way of his, as if he was standing with splayed legs on the deck of a tramp steamer out on the sea in the midst of a raging typhoon. “How long’s this old guy Bert been doing the gig?” he said, tossing the match to the floor with all the other thousands of matches and butts that were already down there.
“Doing the gig?” said Josh.
“How long’s he been a guardian angel he means,” said Ferdinand, having left Josh’s Pall Mall’s ribbon of smoke to bathe in the great cloud of Sweet Caporal smoke that Ben was exhaling.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Josh, “let’s see, when did we institute the guardian angel program?”
“You tell me, buddy,” said Ben.
“I suppose, oh, roughly, gee, let’s say a million years ago?”
“Well, there ya go,” said Ben. He had neatly closed the cover of the matchbook, and now he slid it back into his shirt pocket.
“Yeah, there ya go,” said Ferdinand.
“I’m sorry,” said Josh.
“He went native,” said Ben.
“Exactly what happened,” said Ferdinand.
“I seen it happen before,” said Ben. “Out in the South Seas, and the African trading ports, down in the Caribbean. White men go out to them places, and five years, ten years on, you couldn’t tell ‘em from the natives, chewing betel nut, spawning litters of little brown and yellow babies, wearing sarongs and smoking opium morning, noon and night, I seen it. Plenty of times. And once a white man goes native, that’s it, there’s no turning back. He might as well been born a Malay or a Chinaman or an African. Don’t ask me why it is but that’s the way it is. I seen it.”
“So you think that’s what happened to Bowery Bert?” said Josh.
“Ain’t it obvious?” said Ben.
“Yes, I supposed it is, now that I think about it,” said Josh.
“So don’t worry about it,” said Ben. “This is what people are like.”
“Self-centered,” said Ferdinand.
“Looking out for number one,” said Ben.
“And querulous about it,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah,” said Ben, “querulous,” but in a hesitant way for him, as if he wasn’t quite sure what the word meant.
“Face it, people can be assholes, Josh,” said Ferdinand. “But, hey, look who I’m talking to. You’re the guy got betrayed, scourged and crucified.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Josh, taking one of those drags on his Pall Mall that would be described as “contemplative” in the cheap novels I like to read.
“That wasn’t right, what them Romans did to you,” said Ben. “Not in my book.”
“Well, I’m afraid some of my fellow Israelites were also complicit,” said Josh.
“I didn’t want to be the one to say it,” said Ben.
“Romans, Jews, even, if I may say so,” said Ferdinand, “Christians – they can all be assholes.”
“This is why,” said Ben, and he put his great hand on Josh’s shoulder again, “this is how come good buddies got to stick together.”
He gave Josh’s shoulder a shake, and Josh’s whole body shook in sympathy.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right, Ben,” said Josh, through gritted teeth again.
“And I don’t want to cast no aspersions,” said Ben. “But it’s important – damn important – that you choose your buddies well.”
“That’s right,” said Ferdinand. “Damn important.”
“Well, of course,” said Josh, still gritting his teeth, because Ben still had his shoulder in his grip, the kind the aforementioned authors would I think justifiably call vice-like.
“Now don’t take offense, Josh,” said Ben, “but you say 'of course', but then look at them other buddies you had, way back in bible times.”
“You mean the apostles?”
Finally Ben took his hand off of Josh’s shoulder, and now he pointed the index finger of that hand in Josh’s face.
“That’s exactly who I mean,” said Ben.
“But they were good chaps,” said Josh, “I mean, except for Judas of course, and even he had his not so bad points –”
“God damn it, Josh,” said Ben, and he closed his hand up in a fist, and made a pounding gesture with it.
“Pardon me,” said Josh.
“God damn it to hell, man,” said Ben this time.
“Hey, big guy,” said Ferdinand, “go easy.”
“I can’t go easy,” said Ben. “Just, I don’t know, God damn it! And again, please pardon my language, Josh.”
“No, really,” said Josh, “it’s quite all right –”
“But God damn it all to hell, Josh,” said Ben, “them so-called apostles of yours let them Romans run you in!”
“Well, Peter tried to stick up for me –”
“He tried? Tried? A buddy don’t just ‘try’, Josh. He don’t ‘just try’.”
“He’s got a point, Josh,” said Ferdinand.
“Excuse me for saying so,” said Ben, “and I know they were your friends and all, but them apostles were pussies.”
“But,” said Josh.
“No buts,” said Ben. “They were pussies. They shoulda gone down fighting. Or maybe, if that seemed hopeless on accounta they were vastly outnumbered, they shoulda staged a breakout after you got run in.”
“Yeah, a breakout.”
“But there were so many Roman soldiers, guards around –”
“I don’t give a shit. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
“It’d been me in charge I would have busted you out when you were making them stations of the cross. Hacked our way through the guards, hustled you out through the mob, maybe had some horses standing by, chariots or whatever, to make our getaway –”
“I’m not sure how feasible that would have been, really, Ben –”
“Anything is feasible if you got a dozen or so good men who ain’t a bunch of goddam pussies,” said Ben.
“Ha ha, you kill me, Ben,” said Ferdinand.
“Well, I’m serious, Ferdy,” said Ben. “I always thought them apostles were a bunch of pussies.”
“But, Ben,” said Josh, “you see, the whole plan from the beginning was for me to be arrested, tried, scourged and crucified, so that I could redeem mankind –”
“That was your plan?”
“Well, yes,” said Josh.
“Then your plan, pardon me, stunk.”
“Heh heh,” said Ferdinand.
“I’ll tell you one thing, my friend,” said Ben. “Something like that, you getting arrested, then tried, and scourged and crucified, that ain’t ever gonna happen while you got buddies like us around. No, sir.”
“Gee,” said Josh.
“Am I right, Ferdy?” said Ben.
“No buddy of mine’s getting scourged and crucified while I got something to say about it,” said Ferdinand.
“Ain’t that right, Arnie?” said Ben.
“Well,” I said, “I’m not very brave really.”
“Don’t say that, Arnie,” said Ben.
“But I’m actually kind of cowardly,” I said.
“There ya go,” said Ben.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You say you’re cowardly. I ain’t saying I agree with you, but you say it.”
“Yes,” I said. “Because I am cowardly. I admit it.”
“But it takes a brave man to admit he’s a coward, Arnie,” said Ben.
“Ben’s got a point,” said Ferdinand. “It takes balls to admit you’re a coward.”
“Ferdy’s right,” said Ben. “It takes balls to admit you don’t have balls.”
“Well, maybe so,” I said, “but, hey, look, why are we standing here? Let’s get over to the booth and order some drinks.”
“Wow,” said Ben. “I mean now it’s time for me to say wow.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Ferdinand. “Wow.”
“What is it?” said Josh.
“It’s Arnie,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah,” said Ben, staring at me from under that dirty stained yachting cap of his. “It’s like, I don’t know.”
“Like Arnie’s finally got that poker out of his ass,” said Ferdinand.
“Yeah,” said Ben, nodding. “You finally got that poker out of your ass, Arnie.”
“Heh heh,” I said.
But little did my friends know that the poker was still firmly up my fundament, and that the real reason I wanted to get back to the booth was to get back to my book. I don’t know why I just couldn’t be honest with them. I was proving their earlier point, really, by this duplicity, their point about human beings being self-centered and always looking out for number one.
“So, okay, let’s do like Arnie says and get back to the booth and order up some drinks,” said Ben. “You ready, Josh?”
“I suppose so,” he said, glancing briefly at the empty beer schooner he was still holding.
“Listen,” said Ben, and he pointed his finger at Josh again. “You’re a human now.”
“And nobody ever said it was easy being a human.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“But this, my friend –” Ben gave a quick wave of that enormous hand of his, “this is as good as it gets.”
“Standing here in this bar you mean?” said Josh.
“Yes,” said Ben. “This is it, maybe even more so than when we’re actually sitting in the booth, and lifting them fresh drinks to our thirsty chapped lips. On accounta right now we have that moment to look forward to, that moment when that cold bock or Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’ or whatever first touches your leathery parched tongue. That’s why this moment right here is so special.”
“With your buddies,” said Ben.
“Yes, I see.”
“Buddies who care about you.”
“Who won’t let you get crucified, not if they can help it.”
“Buddies like me, and Ferdy here, and Arnie.”
“Right,” said Josh. “I think I take your point. It’s like –”
“I have a confession to make,” I said, interrupting Josh.
“What?” said Ben.
“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Now what?”
“A confession?” said Josh.
“Yes,” I said. “The only reason I want to get back to the booth is so I can get that blank book I bought off Mr. Philpot, and write in it, with this pen –” I took the green-and-yellow Eversharp ballpoint pen from my shirt pocket and held it up for all to see. “I want to try to do what it seems like I’ve been trying to do for months now, that is to write myself out of this world and back to my own world.”
My three friends were silent, although the noise and music all around us continued as before.
“And so you see,” I said, “that I still have a poker up my ass, and also I am a self-centered, selfish, self-absorbed person.”
I put the pen back in my pocket.
“Wow,” said Ben.
“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Wow.”
“That was really, like,” said Ben, “I don’t know. That took real balls to say that, Arnie.”
“Brass balls,” said Ferdinand.
“Put ‘er there, Arnie,” said Ben.
He offered his great right hand to me, and I didn’t want to take it, because I knew I was probably in for a handshake that might leave my own right hand aching for days, possibly even paralyzed for life, but I also knew I had no choice.
Sometimes you just have to make sacrifices in the name of friendship.
(Continued here, and for no one knows how much longer, as hundreds of Arnold’s marble copybooks filled with his neat Palmer Method handwriting still remain to be painstakingly transcribed, with only the most glaring misspellings silently corrected.)
(Kindly scroll down the right-hand column of this page to find a presumably current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Please loosen up those pursestrings and order at least one copy if not a dozen of our friend rhoda penmarq’s new book “fun: a tale for a rainy night”!)