Our hero Arnold Schnabel has been transported into the world of a cheap paperback novel – The Jolly Six Bums, by Horace P. Sternwall – and specifically to a hot dusty road stretching through unpopulated farmland some eighty miles from St. Louis, MO. Once again Arnold is accompanied by his old crew: that nautical adventurer Big Ben Blagwell; Josh (aka the Son of God); the ancient Mr. Philpot; Horace P. Sternwall himself; and, of course, Ferdinand, the talking fly. A frightening storm approaches from the horizon, but a man in an old Ford Model AA truck has stopped and offered our friends a ride...
(Please go here to read last week’s episode. If you would like to begin at the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 72-volume memoir you may click here to buy Railroad Train to Heaven: Volume One of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel.)
“Surely the greatest literary event of the 21st century is the publication of the greatest work of the 20th century, Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling but magnificent chef-d'œuvre.” – Harold Bloom, in the Cosmopolitan Literary Supplement.
“All of us?” said Horace.
“Yep, alla ya,” said the man. “And ya better be quick about it if’n we’re gonna outrun that there storm.”
He didn’t have to tell us twice, and as one we hustled to the back of the truck. Ben, the tallest and strongest of our little band, hauled his great body up over the rear gate first and pulled the rest of us up one by one, except for Ferdinand of course, who needed no help to fly up.
Ben had no sooner yanked up and set gently down the last of us – old Mr. Philpot, and as easily as a normally strong man would have lifted up a rag doll – when the truck lurched into gear and roared off, causing us all to stagger and fall back against the wooden rails on the sides of the truck and to slide or fall down to its flooring.
The jolting truck bed, composed of ribbed iron baked searing hot by the sun, banged like some exotic form of torture against my buttocks and the base of my spinal cord, but just as I was resigning myself to this new source of pain I observed that my human or humanoid companions had all wisely shifted their luggage under their backsides by way of seat-cushions, and so I pulled my duffel bag under my own rear end before even a partial paralysis could be incurred. No doubt I had much to learn about the ways of being a bum.
“You see,” said Josh, “not all farmers are bad.”
He sat to my left on his expensive-looking but dusty suitcase (which I noticed was monogrammed with the initials JC). Mr. Philpot sat to Josh’s left on the old Gladstone bag, Horace and Ben sat across from us on seabag and cardboard grip, and I could feel Ferdinand safely ensconced in the porch of my left ear.
“I want to thank you, Josh,” said Horace, blowing on the ash-end of his cigar to get the burn up again. “You came through like a true son of the big man upstairs, sir!”
“I really don’t think it was my doing,” said Josh, he was leaning over to relight Mr. Philpot’s pipe with his golden Ronson. “Or my father’s. I think that we have simply found a good man.”
“Not all men are scum,” said Ben. He must have tossed away the cigarette he had been smoking, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice when exactly, and now he took a crumpled pack of Sweet Caporals out of his shirt pocket. Come to think of it, the only kind of cigarette packet I had ever seen him pull out of a pocket was the crumpled and already opened kind; perhaps he bought them that way? He gave the pack his usual expert shake, so that exactly one cigarette poked up from its fellows, and he stuck it in his lips. “A lot of ‘em are scum, but not all of ‘em. I’m gonna say seven percent of men are not outright scum.”
Mr. Philpot drew on his pipe a few times and coughed before putting in his two cents.
“I think you’re being a mite generous there, sailor boy,” he said.
“Well, I think we can safely say we’ve found one man who’s not scum,” said Horace.
“Who?” said Ben. He had taken a book of matches out of his shirt pocket, and even from across the truck I could see that they were Musso and Frank’s matches.
“Why, the farmer who picked us up,” said Horace.
“Oh,” said Ben. “Him.” He lowered his face into his cupped hands the way he must have done a hundred thousand times on the decks of storm-tossed ships and lighted his cigarette. Raising his head he let out a great lungful of smoke that was sucked away into the yellow-grey cloud billowing in the wake of the truck, and he flicked the match after it. “He’s okay, I guess.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Mr. Philpot.
“What do you mean, Mr. Philpot?” said Josh.
“I mean we’ll see if this farmer is on the level or not,” said Mr. Philpot, puffing away on his corncob pipe.
“You fellows don’t seem very trusting,” said Josh. He too had apparently gotten rid of the cigarette he had been smoking, all sorts of things must have been happening that I hadn’t noticed, and now he was removing a cigarette from his usual engraved gold cigarette case, which as usual was exactly full of cigarettes.
“I beg your pardon, your highness –” said Mr. Philpot.
“’Josh’,” said Josh. “Please, Mr. Philpot, just call me Josh. I am a man now, just like you good fellows. We’re all friends here, so, please. ‘Josh’.”
“Very well, ‘Josh’, said Mr. Philpot. “What was I saying?”
“You were begging my pardon,” said Josh.
“And what did you say before that?”
“I said –” Josh hesitated, rolling the tape back in his mind, “oh, now I remember, I said you chaps don’t seem very trusting.”
He lighted up his cigarette with his Ronson, but less dramatically than the way Ben had ignited his Sweet Caporal. Maybe his was a special deific lighter, resistant to high winds and the jolting of an old truck roaring along a dusty country road.
“You say that, friend Josh,” said Mr. Philpot, “but look what happened to you when you trusted that punk Judas.”
Josh exhaled his own lungful of smoke. He put the lighter back in his suit-coat pocket before speaking.
“Okay. Point taken,” he said.
“Hey, Arnold,” said Ferdinand, in my ear, speaking only loud enough for me to hear, “do you have the feeling something awful is going to happen?”
“Yes,” I said, “but then I usually do.”
“What’s that, Arnie?” yelled Ben.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“I said,” yelled Ferdinand, from inside my ear, loud enough for the others to hear over the roaring and rattling of the truck, “don’t you have the feeling something bad’s about to happen?”
“There, you see, Ferdinand,” said Horace, “you’re one of these glass half-full guys.”
“Maybe you would be too if you were a fly,” said Ferdinand.
“He’s got a point, Horace,” said, yelled Ben. Let’s just say everyone was yelling now, as long as we were in the truck anyway, “a fly’s life must not be an easy one.”
“That depends,” said Mr. Philpot.
“On what?” said Ben. “On how much shit they get to eat?”
“Precisely,” said Mr. Philpot. “You take a fly born and raised in a nice dung heap, one who lives his whole life in that dung heap. That fly, I should warrant, has lived a happy life. What say you, Mr. Ferdinand?”
“I have to say I agree with you, Mr. Philpot,” said Ferdinand. “Some flies are just born lucky. But, man, will you look at that storm.”
We all turned and looked back. That great churning dark grey tidal wave of a storm had crossed the road behind us, and it stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the road as it now boiled and roiled and rolled in all its enormity at visible high speed right toward us and this open Model AA Ford truck we sat in.
“Holy shit,” said Ben. “I seen plenty of hurricanes and typhoons and nor’easters in my time, but I ain’t never seen nothing like that storm.”
“We’re doomed,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Maybe we’ll outrun it,” said Horace.
“It sure don’t look like we’re gonna outrun it,” said Ferdinand, “not at the rate this old heap is goin’.”
“Yeah, I gotta say he’s probably only doing about forty-five right now,” said Horace.
“Forty-five knots?” said Ben. “That don’t sound right.”
“No, Ben,” said Horace. “I meant miles per hour. If we had been in a boat I would perhaps have said knots. But we’re not, we’re in a truck in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Sure,” said Ben, “I knew that. But y’see, an old sea dog like me thinks in terms of knots. That’s just the way I am. I use nautical terms and slang all the time. Hey, love me or leave me. I mean, I accept you the way you are. I wish you would just accept me for the way I am.”
“You sound like a faggot,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Hey,” said Ben, “just because I’m a big strong brawling seafaring man don’t mean I ain’t got feelings, Mr. Philpot.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Ferdinand. “I mean, Jesus Christ.”
“Yes?” said Josh.
“I mean,” said Ferdinand, “you know what I can’t believe?”
“What’s that, Ferdinand?” said Josh.
“Okay, you know what I believe but I find it hard to accept?”
“I admit I have no idea,” said Josh.
“What I just cannot accept but it looks like I’m gonna have to?”
“Okay, we’ll all bite, little guy,” said Horace. “What are you just going to have to accept.”
“Just spit it out, pal,” said Ben. “Like Josh says, we’re all friends here. Even Mr. Philpot.”
“Ha,” said Mr. Philpot.
“What I cannot accept,” said Ferdinand, “but it looks like I am going to have to accept is the fact that I am going to be listening to you knuckleheads talking complete and utter bullshit at the exact moment of my death. That is what I cannot accept. But I guess I’m going to have to accept it. So, please, do not let me stop you. Continue talking rank and utter bullshit. Right up to your dying breath. And to mine. Unfortunately.”
“Wow,” said Horace.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Like, wow.”
“Ha ha,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Gee,” said Josh.
I realize now that I have been remiss in that I have neglected to describe the back of the truck we rode in. For all the reader knows we sat on a bare ribbed iron flooring, but in fact there were all sorts of things in the truck bed: coils of rope, an unsecured truck tire that appeared to be empty of only the minimal amount of air, milk crates filled with metal objects and tools, cardboard and wooden boxes filled with more metal objects and wires and coils and chains and more ropes and other unknown and unseen things, and, to my right, a cardboard box filled with used-looking paperback books.
A silence had fallen among us. No, not a silence, because the truck still rattled and roared beneath us, and now there was a new ambient sound, behind us, the roaring of the approaching storm, as if all the universe were roaring with rage.
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, the victim of one of my sudden brainwaves, “how long have we all been in this world?”
“What?” said Horace.
“Yeah, what the fuck?” said Ben
“Have you gone mad, sir?” said Mr. Philpot.
“What the fuck are you on about,” said Ferdinand.
“Are you okay, Arnold?” said Josh.
“But don’t you all remember when we were last together?” I said. “Less than an hour ago we were all sitting around a booth in Bob’s Bowery Bar. And Ben started to read aloud from this book. The Ace of Death it was called, written by Horace here, supposedly, although really it was, what, created by Mr. Philpot. Don’t you all remember?”
“Calm down, buddy,” said Ferdinand.
“He must have gone loco from the heat,” said Mr. Philpot.
“I seen it happen,” said Ben. “One time when my ship got torpedoed and me and my shipmates drifted in a lifeboat for weeks in the middle of the boiling hot South Pacific, I seen them guys go nuts one by one, and all we could do was bash ‘em on the head with an oar. Did ‘em a favor, really.”
“Take a few deep breaths, Arnie,” said Horace. “I’d offer you a drink of water if we had any water. Or whiskey if we had any whiskey.”
“Josh,” I said. “Don’t you remember? I was just sitting across from you at the bar –”
“Sure, Arnold,” he said. “I suppose in some universe, in some hypothetical time-space continuum, it could be said that we were just, as you say, sitting in a booth at this Bill’s Bowery Bar –”
“Bob’s Bowery Bar,” I said.
“Sure,” said Josh. “Bob’s Bowery Bar.”
“You don’t remember,” I said. “You think I’m dreaming it.”
“But isn’t all life a dream?” he said.
I decided to say no more, at least for the present.
I looked back over the tailgate of the truck. The storm roared closer, as if all the chaos of the universe was about to swallow us whole.
(To be continued, barring a nuclear holocaust or similar unpleasantness.)