Needless to say I was reluctant to shake his hand. It wasn’t only that he seemed to be a supernatural creature, perhaps malevolent, but I was afraid his fingertip would still be hot from lighting his pipe.
“I, uh, should dry my hands,” I said.
“Oh, yes, of course,” he said, and he puffed on his pipe.
I went the two steps to the towel machine and gave the cloth a tug. It was one of those roller things, with one long continuous roll of towel. I tugged, but no clean cloth would come out of the machine.
“It’s the end of the roll,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Now, normally, you wouldn’t want to dry your hands on a used towel,” said the little man, “but I was the last one to use it, and I assure you there are no germs on my hands. No living germs, anyway. So go right ahead, please.”
I didn’t know what else to do, so I dried my hands on the damp portion of towel that he had used. The cloth gave off a distinct odor of sulphur.
He continued to stand there and watch me as I dried my hands, more thoroughly than I usually do.
“So I heard you went to God’s house,” he said, as if casually.
“Don’t be coy, Arnold. The house on the hill. The big place. God’s house. The word is rife among all the angels, fallen and the other kind.”
I turned and faced him, rubbing my hands for good measure on the sides of my bermuda shorts.
“My friends will be expecting me,” I said.
I took a step to my right to go past him toward the door, but he took a step to his left, blocking my path again.
“What’s it like these days? The house,” he said, cocking his head slightly and smiling.
“I really have to go.”
He took a half step toward me. He was wearing a shimmering pale blue seersucker suit by the way, white shoes, a red bow tie.
“Is it -- nice? The house?”
“Yes,” I said.
He looked like he wanted to hear more about it.
“Really nice, huh?” he asked.
To tell the truth I didn’t want to go into a whole big spiel about how empty the place had been, and about how hard it was to find a bathroom there.
“Yes, it’s a very nice house,” I said. “Now I have to go, I’m afraid.”
“Wait, wait, wait, Arnold. I want to make you an offer. A bargain.”
“So,” I said. “You’re the Devil, then.”
“Oh, I wish.”
“You mean -- you’re not the Devil?”
“I -- I work for the Devil. The ‘capital D’ Devil. I suppose it would be accurate to say I am a devil, lower case, although I much prefer the term ‘fallen angel’, but no, I am not The Devil. I make no such claim.”
“Well, that’s great, mister, but, look --”
“Jack,” he said. “Call me Jack, please.”
“Jack -- I’m not interested in anything you have to offer. Now please step out of my way.”
“And what if I don’t?” he said, smiling again.
“Then I will shove you out of the way,” I said.
“Okay -- very quick then: listen, I’m prepared to offer you eternal youth.”
“But I’m already forty-two,” I said.
“Well, eternal young middle-age.”
“Wait. Riches. How about riches?”
“I wouldn’t know what to do with riches,” I said, quite honestly.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.” I said.
“But what if your poems became famous? You could be like Robert Frost. Your poems are as good as his.”
“Ah, vanity! That’s a good first step, Arnold.”
He stuck his pipe in his mouth and puffed on it. It smelled like burning bark.
“Look, forget it,” I said.
“You could read a poem at the president’s inauguration.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“You could meet all sorts of famous people.”
“I just met Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Joey Bishop and those guys," I said. "It wasn’t that big of a deal."
“God, you’re tough.”
I tried to go around him again, but once more he stepped in my way.
“Okay, look, buddy --” I said.
“Jack. Jack Scratch. But call me Jack.”
“Jack,” I said. “Move.”
“Make me,” he said, smiling brightly. “You’re a lot bigger than I am.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said.
“Then just shove me aside.”
“All right then.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and tried to move him aside but, even though his jacket and his arm felt like seersucker and a human arm, respectively, he was as impossible to budge as a bronze statue set into a concrete pedestal.
“Didn’t know I could do that, did you?” he said. “Now, let me see.” He puffed on his pipe again. It smelled like burning compost. “Don’t care about physical immortality, don’t care about riches, couldn’t give a hoot about success and its trappings, hmm. Must be something you want. Oh, I know, dig this. How about for the rest of your life you can drink as much as you want, and you’ll still get drunk, but you won’t have the slightest hangover.”
“Not at all?”
“Get a good night’s sleep, wake up ready to sing a happy song and run a mile.”
“Well -- what is it you’re asking from me, anyway?”
He glanced away.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Not much." He turned his pipe upside down and tapped the ash out with one finger. "A trifle,” he said.
“Then what is it?” I asked.
He blew through the empty pipe, then stuck it in a side pocket.
“It’s uh, when you die -- and look, we can give you a thousand years of life if you want -- hell, make it immortality --”
“When I die -- what?”
“Um, the Devil gets your soul?”
“The main Devil.”
“Right, the capital “D” Devil.”
“Well, that doesn’t seem like such a good deal,” I said. “An eternity in flames.”
“You say that now. Think of drinking all you want tonight, every night, and every day, for the rest of your life. And not a single moment of hangover. Just think about it.”
“No thanks. I’m used to hangovers by now, anyway.”
“Wait. Wait, wait,” he said. “Let’s get back to immortality, Arnold. Think about it. Immortality -- plus, no aging beyond your present age -- and, no hangovers!”
“I don’t know --”
“Okay, how about this, Arnold? Along with the immortality: no sickness of any kind. Now that’s a deal. You can even go back to smoking cigarettes, all you want, all day long, you won’t even have a cough, forget about the Big C. And I’ll toss this in, your breath will always smell as fresh as a baby’s, no matter how many Pall Malls you smoke. The women will love that, believe me.”
He was waving his hands around, as if mere words alone couldn't express the wonderfulness he wanted to express.
“And I get to be immortal,” I said.
“Yes. Absolutely. Here --”
He took a scroll of thick paper out of his inside jacket pocket, and shook it open. It had a lot of fancy handwriting on it, in Latin. The words and letters on the paper swarmed and intermingled like tiny mad bugs.
“I’ll just need your John Hancock on this. A mere formality.”
He took a black feather-quill out of his pocket.
“And we’ll just need to poke this in your arm. It’s got to be signed in blood -- silly I know --”
“Wait,” I said.
He was holding the paper in one hand and the quill in the other.
“If I’m immortal,” I said, “that means I’ll never die, so how can the Devil get my soul?”
“Well, Arnold, when we say immortal, we mean, you know, like, till the end of the earth, and that’s not going to be for millions, probably, I don’t know, how many years -- here, just let me poke your arm --”
“So when mankind dies out, then I’ll die?”
“Well, yeah, technically, but like I say, that’s not going to be for -- you know --”
“What if atomic war broke out tomorrow?” I said. “And life on the planet got wiped out?”
“God, aren’t you Mr. Gloom and Doom.”
“Look, forget it, pal; whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying. And you can tell your boss that personally from me next time you see him.”
He lowered his arms to his sides and looked at the floor.
“Well, I’ve never actually met him,” he said, in a quiet voice.
“You’ve never met the Devil. Even though you’re a devil.”
He looked up, sheepishly, from under one crooked eyebrow.
“I’ve been to the porch of his house. On more than a few occasions I’ve been to the porch of his house, or at least to the steps leading up to the porch. One time I was even let into his foyer for half an hour, when I was waiting for a message to deliver to Adolph Hitler. But, no, I’ve never actually met him. I have not had that honor. Not yet.”
“Don’t knock it. You got to go into God’s house, and you’re only a human, not even an angel.”
“Yeah, well --”
“And now I’ve got to go back, and, you should pardon the expression, catch hell for not getting you to come to terms.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorry. Fat lot of good that does me. Typical human. All you care about is yourself.”
“Yeah, well, can I get past now, please.”
“Oh, all right.”
He stepped aside.
I started to go again, and he said:
“I like your lady friend by the way.”
I stopped. And I stared at him.
“Oh, Christ, Arnold, relax. I was only making an observation.”
“Well, all right then,” I said. “But stay away from her.”
“Or you’ll what?”
“Don’t you worry about what I’ll do,” I said, which didn’t really make much sense now that I think about it.
“Oh, I get it,” he said.
Well, at least that’s one of us, I thought.
“I get it,” he said. “You’re threatening me with your pal Jesus, are you? Well, look, don’t worry, I’m not authorized to deal with her anyway. Jews have their own devils.”
“Well, okay then,” I said.
“Immortality for the life of the earth. And then, get this, we transfer you to another planet, a planet just like earth in its prime, and you get to be immortal for the life of that planet too. And no hangovers --”
He held out the contract and the quill.
“Goodbye,” I said, and I headed for the door.
“Arnold!” he called, but I was already out of there.
(Go here for our next infernal chapter. Kindly look to the right hand side of this page for an allegedly up-to-date listing of all other possible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major mini-series event from Masterpiece Theatre, starring Daniel Craig as Arnold Schnabel and Paul Giamatti as Jack Scratch.)