“Yes, do join us,” said Ursula to Josh. She had been clenching her cigarette holder in her teeth, but now she took it out between two stick-like fingers, while still holding onto my arm with her other hand. “Frankly,” she said to Josh, “you look as if you could use a little pick-me-up, my friend.”
Josh simply blinked at her, and then he addressed me.
“Why are these people pulling on your arms, Arnold?”
“We were not pulling,” said Ursula, and putting the stem of her cigarette holder back between her teeth, she began caressing the arm she had just been pulling.
“No, not pulling at all,” said Freddy, patting my other arm affectionately. His cigarette was between his perfect dentures, and a bit of ash fell onto my bare forearm.
“And why were you fellows pushing him?” said Josh to Mr. Jones and Mr. Arbuthnot.
“Pushing?” said Jones. He too had a cigarette between his leathery old lips. He took it out. “Who’s pushing?”
“Oh, certainly not pushing,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, puffing on his Meerschaum.
“Arnold’s friend,” said Freddy brightly to Josh.
“Yes? You can call me Josh by the way.”
“Josh it is then. Listen.”
Freddy finally, and seemingly with reluctance, relinquished my arm, then took a couple of graceful steps closer to Josh.
“Listen, Josh,” he said. And getting up on his tiptoes just as he had done with me (I noticed now that he wore pointy patent leather slip-on shoes) he cupped his little hand to the side of his mouth and whispered something in the direction of Josh’s ear.
“Oh, if it’s pot you want,” said Josh, “here, I’ve got one --”
“No no no,” said Freddy, waving his hands, and looking nervously around. “You fellows are so brazen!”
“Bold as brass,” said Ursula. “I like that in a man.”
“Come on up to our apartment,” said Freddy.
“Oh, no,” said Josh.
“Look at me, I’ve just been puking my guts out.”
“Yes? And?” said Mr. Jones.
“Jonesie, be silent,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “You know, Josh,” he said, “I have just the thing for you.” He patted his breast pocket. “A few drags of this special, uh, something I have in my pocket here and you’ll be ready in no time to leap up and dance the boogie-woogie. Or whatever it is you young people dance nowadays.”
“I believe it’s the watusi’s all the rage nowadays,” said Mr. Jones.
“A bowl of my borscht is what this boy needs,” said Ursula. “A nice cold bowl of borscht with a shot of vodka in it.”
For a moment Josh looked as if he were going to be sick again.
He took his Pall Malls out of his shirt pocket.
“Look, have a nice time, everyone,” he said.
He shook up a cigarette, and put it in his mouth. Freddy was right there with his thin gold lighter, and Josh allowed him to light his cigarette. Everyone was now smoking, except for me.
“You know, Josh,” said Freddy, “you really would feel better with a bowl of Ursula’s borscht inside you.”
“And a bowl of my opiated kif,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“What I do not understand, gentleman,” said Ursula to Josh (still caressing my arm, as if it were a small dog or a cat), “is that you say you have just puked your guts out, and indeed you look as if you have puked your guts out, and yet you smell like fresh gardenias.”
Josh slowly exhaled a good lungful of smoke, and then said, “I rinsed my mouth out before leaving the men’s room. Splashed a little cold water on my face and neck.”
“Oh, did you now,” said Ursula. She removed her cigarette holder from between those scarlet old lips and smiled. “Yes, my dear, I will fix you a nice bowl of borscht.”
“Some other time,” said Josh, and he started to walk past our little group, staggering just slightly.
Ursula pushed past me, almost knocking me over (fortunately Mr. Jones and Mr. Arbuthnot steadied me), and locked the talons of her right hand onto Josh’s forearm.
“I can tell you are a gentleman,” she said, speaking without removing her cigarette holder from her teeth.
He said nothing to this.
“You are dressed somewhat raffishly, but this is a handmade shirt, of the finest Egyptian cotton.” She fingered the damp cloth. “You dropped a double sawbuck into our jar as if it were a piece of tissue paper.”
“You’re quite welcome,” said Josh.
She removed her holder from her mouth with her left hand.
“May I ask if you are married, sir?”
“No,” said Josh, prying her hand away from his arm. “I mean, yes, you may ask, and, no, I’m not married.”
“I must introduce you to my granddaughter.”
“Someday,” said Josh.
“Why not right now? She is upstairs.”
“You have a granddaughter upstairs?”
“Is that so strange?”
“Well, I suppose not.”
“Her name is Magda,” said Ursula. “Very pretty girl.”
“I’m sure she is,” said Josh.
He put a knuckle to his lips, and looked as if he were fighting off a fresh wave of nausea. For some reason I remember that a new song was playing on the jukebox now, the one about it’s being Judy’’s turn to cry.
“What’s a matter, don’t you like pretty girls?” asked Ursula.
“Oh, no,” said Josh, “I mean, yes, of course I do.”
(I would like to interpolate a confession here, if I may stop the action, such as it is, for a moment, and my confession is that inwardly at this point I breathed a great sigh of relief that once again thanks to Josh I was no longer the center of attention. Perhaps escape was a possibility after all.)
“Come then,” said Ursula. “We will introduce you.”
“No, really,” said Josh -- “Mrs. Ayres is it?”
“Call me Ursula.”
“Ursula, I think really I should just --”
“Tomorrow we may all be dead,” said Ursula. “What are you going to do? Go home? Sleep?”
“I suppose so.”
“You have the rest of your life to sleep.”
“Look at me, I’m a mess.”
“Who cares? We are all bohemians here. Now come. A bowl of borscht. Something to smoke and to drink. A pretty girl.” She caressed Josh’s arm even more sensually than she had mine. I felt a slight twinge of jealousy, or perhaps I should say envy. “This is what life is about,” she said.
“Is it?” said Josh.
“What else would it be about, you foolish boy?”
“I don’t know. Raising children, helping other people, doing good?”
“You are joking, right?”
“Well, look, let’s head up, gang,” said Freddy.
“Not without Josh,” said Ursula. She hadn’t taken her eyes away from his. “Come, my darling,” she said.
“Look,” said Mr. Jones, “if you people are gonna stand here all night I’m going to go back and get our Manhattans.”
And off he went, and pretty quickly for such an old man.
“I don’t know,” said Josh. “Are you staying, Arnold?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m going home.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re probably right. You’re probably, uh --”
Suddenly his eyes rolled up into his head, he swayed back and forth, he attempted to lift his cigarette to his lips, dropped it, and then fell forward, collapsing into my arms.
(Will this night ever end? All we can say is: continued here. Kindly look to the right hand side of this page for a presumably current listing of links to all other extant chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, absolutely free for a limited time only. Offer void in states still possessing a shred of decency.)