When we last saw our hero Arnold Schnabel he was just inside the entranceway of the apartment building of “Wiggly Jones, the little hippie boy”, with the three hoods “the Toad, the Rat, and the Bear” waiting just outside and prepared to do Arnold mortal harm. In desperation Arnold has opened a paperback novel that Wiggly has given him: The Jolly Six Bums, by Horace P. Sternwall...
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“Worlds within worlds, dimensions within dimensions, realities merging and separating, life blending into death and back again into life: such is the multifarious universe of Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in the AARP Literary Digest.
I quickly leafed past the front matter of the book (including a page of reviews: “Sternwall hits another one out of the park!” – John Crowe Ransom; “A rollicking picaresque!” – T.S. Eliot; “Lots of laughs, and, yes, a well-earned tear or two.” – Bishop Fulton J. Sheen; “Prose as limpid as mountain brook water.” – Edgar Guest; “A new Sternwall novel, or ‘joint’ as he likes to call them, is always welcome, and God bless him for turning them out at a rate that makes Balzac look like a lazy idle loafer!” – Anthony Powell) and went right to the first chapter, which started, if memory serves, with:
Me and the boys were walking down another hot dusty road just like a thousand other hot dusty roads, every one of them roads leading to this hot dusty road, which would lead to a thousand other hot dusty roads, or to roads that might not be hot and dusty but were cold, or rainy, or snowy, and maybe even a few, a very few, that were just plain old roads – not too hot, or too cold, or rainy or snowy or even dusty. Some of them were paved roads or highways, some were dirt roads, and some were only old paths or Indian tracks through woods or fields. But all of them roads and highways and pathways and tracks had one thing in common. All of them wound up nowhere you really wanted to be. And that’s why we kept on hitting the road, me and my five buddies – the jolly six bums we called ourselves...
Sure enough I was now walking along the side of a hot dusty road, with shimmering yellow-green fields on either side. I recognized Ferdinand the fly buzzing merrily around my head. Big Ben Blagwell was walking to my left, toward the middle of the road, smoking a cigarette as usual. In front of us was Horace P. Sternwall, a trail of cigar smoke following behind him. Looking over my shoulder I saw Josh, smoking a cigarette and walking with Mr. Philpot, who was smoking a corncob pipe. If my math was correct that made six of us, apparently the titular jolly six bums.
Everyone was dressed in the clothes I had last seen them in, except for Ferdinand of course, who as usual was naked. Ben wore his wrinkled worn dungarees and Hawaiian shirt and his old off-white nautical cap. Horace was wearing the same beat-up leather jacket, dirty grey-green work trousers and battered brown fedora. Mr. Philpot wore his dark old-fashioned three-piece suit and matching derby, and he had his wire-rim pince-nez glasses on, its thick lenses glittering in the harsh sunlight. Josh wore his blue suit and straw trilby. I seemed to be wearing the same seersucker jacket and plaid shirt, a dark grey tie, blue jeans and work shoes. Everyone’s clothes were dusty.
I was carrying a bag over my shoulder, it seemed to be an old olive drab army duffel. Ben had a bag over his great shoulder too, a great big pale grey navy seabag with his last name stenciled on it in letters faded barely visible. Horace carried a beat-up brown suitcase, of material that at least had been made to look like leather. Another glance over my shoulder assured me that Mr. Philpot carried nothing but his furled black umbrella, which he was using as a walking cane, but I assumed that the large and very old-looking black Gladstone bag that Josh carried in his right hand was Mr. Philpot’s. In Josh’s other hand was a small but expensive-looking brown and black leather suitcase, and, unlike Horace’s, I had no doubt that its leather was real. Mr. Philpot held onto Josh’s coat-sleeve with his free hand, making walking that much more awkward for Josh. Ferdinand of course traveled the lightest of all, he carried nothing, being only a fly.
A great yellow sun that looked like an enormous helium-filled balloon floating a hundred feet directly over our heads poured heat down onto us and onto the road where it continuously bounced up and merged with the fresh heat pouring down.
Except for the shuffling sound of our feet and the groans and gasping of our labored breathing, all was still and quiet, apparently the only insect abroad being our friend Ferdinand.
Sweat streamed down my face as the sun baked my hatless head and the rest of me. My work shirt was drenched with what felt like warm gritty Vaseline, and my feet hurt, but, happily, I realized that none of my other various aches and pains had made the trip into this universe. So, it’s true, things can always be worse…
Suddenly Horace burst into song:
Oh, the jolly six bums (he sang)
the jolly six bums,
the jolly six bums are we.
We ramble round
this dirty old town
as happy as can be.
The other day we met a guy
we never met before
he asked us if we wanted a job
shoveling iron ore.
We asked him what the wages was –
a buck and a half a ton!
We told him he could keep his job
‘cause we was on the bum.
Oh, shootin’ stumps and stogies,
“Excuse me, Ferdinand,” I said to my old friend the fly, as Horace continued to sing, “do you know where we’re going?”
“Headed to St. Louis,” said Ferdinand. He pronounced it St. Louie. “Weren’t you paying attention?”
“St. Louis?” I said, pronouncing it Louis.
“Good town, St. Louie,” said Ben.
Horace stopped singing and turned his head to say, “A great town. A guy can have a good time in St. Louie.”
“You know who was from St. Louie?” said Mr. Philpot. “T.S. Eliot, or ‘Tommy-boy’ as we used to call him when he was young and new in town. For all his English pretensions he was just another midwestern yokel, taking elocution lessons to lose his hayseed accent and eating his peas with a knife –”
“Ha ha,” said Josh. “By the way, how are you holding up, Mr. Philpot? Do you want to rest for a while?”
“I can out-walk all you young whippersnappers,” said Mr. Philpot. “Although I do appreciate the loan of your arm, sir, just in case this brutal sun should cause me to temporarily grow dizzy.”
“It is my pleasure, Mr. Philpot,” said Josh.
“Hey, Horace,” said Ben, “how far you think we got to go before we reach St. Louie?”
“I figure we should reach the outskirts by nightfall,” said Horace. “I figure it’s about high noon now, so – six, seven hours, maybe eight.”
“Eight hours?” said Ben.
“Eight hours if we keep moving at a steady pace,” said Horace. “Maybe nine.”
“Fuck this,” said Ben. “If I wanted to walk my legs to the bone I would’ve joined the army –”
“Maybe a farmer will come by and give us a lift,” said Josh.
“Maybe a farmer would give one of us a lift,” said Horace. “Five of us is stretching it.”
“Six of us,” said Ferdinand.
“Right, sorry, Ferdy,” said Horace. “Make that six. The thing about farmers is, they’re, how do I put this –”
“They’re cowards,” said Mr. Philpot. “They see six bums on the road, all they can think is we’re going to rob them, kill ‘em, take their truck, and ride off into the sunset.”
“Now, Mr. Philpot,” said Josh. “Not all farmers are like that. Why, I remember back in Galilee –”
“Hey,” said Horace, “look back there, fellas.”
We all turned and looked back. A truck was coming up the road, followed by a greyish-yellow cloud.
“Oh, dear God,” said Ben. “Please let him give us a ride.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Josh.
“Man, if you could,” said Ben. “Because I gotta tell you, I am not digging this walking through this fucking farmland in this heat, man, not even a tree in sight –”
“You think this is bad,” said Josh, “you should see Galilee –”
“Or Death Valley,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yeah, I know,” said Ben. “Or the fucking Sahara. I don’t give a shit.”
“All right, everybody,” said Horace, “try not to look like a band of cutthroats, and I’ll put the old thumb out.”
We all stood there by the side of the road in that dusty baking hot sunlight as Horace stepped a pace or two into the road and held out his right thumb as the truck approached.
It was an old Ford truck, I think it was a Model AA from around 1929, a dusty dark green, with unpainted wooden rails on the sides of the bed.
The truck got closer, followed by its roiling greyish-yellow cloud – we could see through the glaring greasy-looking windshield a man in the driver’s seat, he slowed the truck down and stopped just abreast of our little band. We all moved closer to the passenger side, the grey-yellow cloud descending all around us. The man in the truck leaned to his right and looked out through the window at us. He wore overalls and a straw hat and was smoking what looked like a hand-rolled cigarette. He looked to be somewhere between forty and seventy years of age, with a thin long face with skin like tight brown leather.
“Where you fellas headed?”
“St. Louis, sir,” said Horace, taking off his fedora. “But if you could take us any distance at all we would certainly appreciate it.”
“St. Louie you say?”
“Yes, sir,” said Horace. “Good old St. Louie, heh heh.”
“St. Louie is back that way,” said the man, and he jerked his thumb in the direction he had just come from.
“Oh, shit,” said Horace.
“I thought you said St. Louie was straight ahead,” said Ben, to Horace. “And that we would reach it by nightfall.”
“You ain’t gonna reach St. Louie by nightfall goin’ in that direction,” said the man.
“Shit,” said Horace.
“We’re doomed,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Excuse me,” said Josh, to the man in the truck. “How far back would you say St. Louis is?”
“Yes,” said Josh. “St. Louie, that is.”
“Sevenny mile, I’d say,” said the man. “Give or take five mile or so. Say sevenny-five mile, just to be on the safe side.”
“Seventy-five miles?” said Ben.
“Seventy-five mile to the outskirts,” said the man. “Let’s say eighty mile to get downtown.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Ben.
“It’s the truth, young fella,” said the man.
“Well, eighty miles,” said Josh. “I guess we’d better turn around and start walking then.”
“Fuck this shit,” said Ben. “We’re gonna die out here, and it’s all your fault, Horace.”
“Hey, who died and made me Old Leatherstocking?” said Horace.
“You fellas ain’t gonna make St. Louie,” said the man in the truck.
“We ain’t?” said Horace. “I mean, we’re not?”
“Nope, you ain’t,” said the man. “See them storm clouds yonder?”
He pointed a finger to the world in back of us, and we turned as one.
The sky on lower half of that side of the world was not so much cloudy as a titanic living mass of churning dark sooty grey that looked like the radioactive cloud produced by a thousand H-bombs exploding at once.
“Storm comin’,” said the man. “Prolly a twister or three, too, judgin’ by the look of that sky.”
“A twister?” said Horace. “Mebbe four-five twisters,” said the man.
“You mean twisters like in the Wizard of Oz?”
“I don’t know about no wizard,” said the man, “but I knows what a twister is, and if you fellas get caught on the road in a good one, well, let me just say I hope you’ve made your peace with your maker, because you’re gonna meet him right quick.”
“Actually,” said Josh, “the protocol is that my friends would meet St. Peter before meeting their ‘maker’ –”
“Mebbe so, son,” said the man in the truck, “mebbe so. Can’t say myself, since I ain’t never been dead. Which is what you boys all gonna be if you be out here on this road when that twister hits.”
“When it hits?” said Horace.
“Well, if it hits,” said the man. “But most likely, judging by that sky yonder I’m bound to say when that twister hits. Or twisters. Mebbe half-dozen of ‘em, each one sweepin’ up what the one before left behine it.”
“So, there you are,” said Mr. Philpot. “I told you all we were doomed.”
“Shit,” said Ben.
“Hey, guys,” said Ferdinand, “I hope you won’t take it personally if I hitch a ride with Farmer John here.”
“Who said that?” said the man in the truck.
My friends all turned to look at Ferdinand, who was still buzzing around my head.
“Oh, that was me,” I said.
“I didn’t see your lips move,” said the man.
“That’s Arnie for ya, heh heh,” said Horace. “You see, Arnie is a ventriloquist, a stage artiste temporarily unemployed, alas, as, come to think if it, are all of us, but, gee, mister, I wonder if we could ask you to give us a lift just to the next town, or –”
“Nearest town is St. Louie,” said the man. “Eighty mile away, mebbe eighty-five.”
“Fuck,” said Ben.
“We’re doomed,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Sir,” said Josh, “I know this is a horrible imposition, but would you possibly consider giving my friends and me a ride to, to anywhere where we could take some shelter –”
“Even just a barn,” said Horace, “a cow shed, even a pigsty –”
“Get in the back,” said the man.
(Continued here, and onward, until our dedicated staff has transcribed every last one of Arnold’s black-and-white marble composition books, with no editorial intrusion save the correcting of the most egregious misspellings.)