Our hero Arnold Schnabel and his two companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the talking fly have finally made it out of his aunts’ ramshackle Victorian guest-house here in the quaint seaside town of Cape May on this fateful Sunday afternoon in August of 1963...
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“How often have I not looked up from reading Arnold Schnabel’s masterwork and thought: this is Arnold’s world; how fortunate are we to live in it.” -- Harold Bloom in his “Books to Read in Between Races” column in The Racing Form.
The world was green and humid, the air seemed to drip with sweat and it smelled of vegetation both decaying and living. A great oak tree that I had never really thought about before loomed up out of the ground a few yards away, some of its branches and leaves reached out and gently stroked the side of the house. The sky flickered through the leaves, a sky the color of wet sand.
All around us you could hear the buzzing of gnats and bees and flies and God knows what else.
“My brethren,” said the fly. Gracefully he zoomed around before us as if on his own invisible roller-coaster. “The playful, anything-goes universe of the insect. You want me to introduce you to anybody?”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
“So how we gettin’ there?” asked the fly, pausing for a moment.
“To the docks?” I said.
“No, to the moon,” said the fly.
Ben made a hissing sound, a sort of hissing laugh, then he started coughing.
The fly did a quick quadruple loop-the-loop, as if in impatience, then he paused again, staring at me.
“Well,” I said, “I thought we would ride bikes.”
“Bikes?” said the fly. “What are you, ten years old?”
“Adults can ride bikes,” I said, and I started along the bluestone path to the back yard. “In Europe lots of adults ride bicycles.”
“We ain’t in Europe,” said the fly, zooming around in front of me. “This is the United States of America, pal, and we drive around in cars, the bigger and faster the better.”
“I gotta say I’m with you on that one,” said Ben. He had stopped coughing, and a couple of his giant’s strides had caught him up with me. He was so big there wasn’t really room enough for us both on the path (which is narrow, laid down a hundred years ago either for people to walk on single file, or perhaps for a race of pygmies to march side-by-side on) and so my right foot kept stepping into the wet squishy mulch of the long flowerbed that runs along the side of the house. “I mean in other countries, sure,” he said, “you see lots of people riding around on bikes.”
“In other countries,” said the fly.
“Yeah,” said Ben.
“You also see ‘em riding in fucking rickshaws,” said the fly.
“True,” said Ben, “and I’ve even ridden in them.”
“Them rickshaw drivers must’ve loved hauling your enormous ass around, pal,” said the fly.
“Hey, they were getting paid,” said Ben. “I didn’t hear any complaints.”
“Not in English you didn’t.”
“Very funny, wiseguy,” said Ben. “I can’t help it if I’m big-boned.”
“That’s what King Kong said right before they machine-gunned him off the Empire State Building.”
“Very funny, squirt.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” said Ben.
“Look,” said the fly, addressing me again, “let’s take a car, all right? Like normal Americans.”
“No,” I said. “We’re --”
“Bicycle cabs,” said Ben. “I’ve ridden in them, too.”
“Bicycle cabs,” said the fly. “Pathetic.”
“Hell,” said Ben, “I’ve ridden on water buffalos, bulls, elephants. And donkeys of course.”
“Donkeys,” said the fly.
“I’ve even gone around in fuckin’ dog carts,” said Ben.
“Dog carts,” said the fly. “What kind of cheapjack little country has dog carts?”
“Well, said Ben, “when you think about it, they use dog sleds up in Alaska, so why not dog carts, too?”
“Fuck Alaska,” said the fly, “and fuck their dog sleds. What, they never heard of cars with snow chains on the tires like normal people?"
“Well, look,” I said. “I don’t have a car, or a dog cart, so we’re going to take a couple of bikes.”
We were walking across the wet grass of the back yard now, past the cottage where Mrs. and Miss Rathbone were staying, heading toward the old green barn off to the left that serves as a garage.
“I can’t even remember the last time I rode a bike,” said Ben.
“I do, said the fly. “I was fifteen years old. Then I turned sixteen, got my license, and started driving a car like a normal American.”
“Look,” I said. “This is a resort. People ride bikes all the time.”
“People --” said the fly.
“Arnie’s got a point there,” said Ben. “People do all sorts of weird shit when they’re on vacation. Play skee-ball. Miniature golf. Walk back and forth on boardwalks and lie out in the blistering sun all day. Ride bikes.”
“So we’re gonna ride around on bicycles like some square johns on vacation,” said the fly. “Like a trio of fags.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “No one’s going to notice you, anyway.”
“Oh, there you go again. Talking down.”
“Hey, Arnie,” said the fly.
“I’m fucking with you. Relax.”
We had made it to the barn, and I pulled open one of the big wooden doors. I don’t think I’ve had occasion to describe this barn before, but it is always dark inside it, even on the brightest day, and it always smells strongly of motor oil, rotted wood, and wet leather. It always seems on the verge of collapsing all at once, and yet it stands, immovable and ageless, like a living silent creature that steadfastly refuses to die. Well, anyway, now that I have that out of the way I’ll point out that among a lot of other stuff -- stacks of old newspapers and magazines, broken furniture, disused farm equipment, an enormous gasoline powered lawnmower, sundry tools and rakes and shears and shovels and ropes and pulleys and chains -- was a red and white Edsel and an old green DeSoto. The DeSoto belonged to Miss Rathbone, and I was pretty sure the Edsel belonged to the DeVores.
“Look,” I said, addressing the fly, who was peeking into the open window of the Edsel. “Don’t even start about these cars, because they belong to my aunts’ guests.”
“Awright, awright,” said Ferdinand, I suppose I have to get used to calling him that.
“The bikes are over here,” I said.
These were the two old Schwinns with wire baskets on the handlebars, leaning up against a wall with its shelves of jars full of nails and nuts and screws as well as tomatoes and fruits and jellies. My aunts don’t have a car, but they keep these bikes for their guests. I think they bought them second-hand when they first bought the property fifteen years ago. They were old bicycles, but Charlie Coleman took care of them; they were oiled and clean, and the tires were full of air.
“Can I have the red one?” asked Ben.
“Sure,” I said. I took the other one, which was mostly orange, and we wheeled them out of the barn.
I closed the big door, and got on the orange bike.
“Who do you want to ride with?” I asked the fly.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m not getting on one of those things. I’ll just fly along, thank you very much.”
“So which way are the docks?” said Ben. Holding his bike with one hand he took out his pack of Sweet Caporals and shook one up into his lips.
“Well,” I said, “they’re out that way.” I gestured vaguely to the left of my aunts’ house. “But I don’t want to go by the house again.”
Ben put away his cigarettes, then took the book of Sid’s Tavern matches out of the same pocket.
“Why?” he asked.
“I’m afraid of running into somebody,” I said.
“Who?” he asked.
“Anybody,” I said.
Letting the bike lean against his great thighs, he lit his cigarette, again cupping the match as if he were on the bridge of a small ship in the midst of a hurricane at sea. He exhaled a great cloud of smoke, sighed, shook out the match and flicked it away.
“Damn,” he said. “You are one strange bird, Arnold.”
“He lives in fear,” said the fly.
“We’ll take this back way,” I said.
There’s a gravel driveway -- well, no, actually it’s made out of crushed seashells actually, not that it makes the least bit of difference -- but anyway, there’s this driveway made of stuff you shouldn’t walk barefoot on curving from the barn entrance around to its rear, leading to a small road called Capehart Lane which turns into Claghorne Place and then winds around into Congress Street.
“Isn’t that like the opposite of where we’re going?” said Ben.
“Yes,” I said, “sort of, but it will just be a short detour.”
“Like how short?”
“Well, maybe three, no, four blocks I guess, or --”
“Four blocks out of our way in this humidity?”
It’s true that he was sweating very profusely again, his Hawaiian shirt clung like badly applied paint to his bulging torso.
“It’s good exercise,” I said, trying to put a positive spin on my absurd plan.
“Exercise,” said Ben.
“Humor him, Ben,” said the fly.
“What the hell,” said Ben. Sticking his cigarette between his teeth he lifted his great leg over the bike and mounted the seat, gripping both rubber handles in his enormous fists. “Lead the way, captain.”
I got on my bike and shoved off on the crackly driveway, then around the side of the barn. At last we were on our way. With any luck we could be out at the docks in twenty minutes, twenty-five at the outside. Behind the barn I left the driveway and cycled down into the middle of Capehart Lane, picking up speed. It felt good finally to be making some real progress, and to feel the thick warm air rushing into my face and against and past my body. There’s a joy to be had in movement, just as there is a joy to be had in sitting still, it all depends on knowing when to move and when to sit still.
“Oh my God,” said the fly, disturbing my meditations. He was flying along right beside me. “Arnie, you gotta stop for a minute and take a look.”
“Stop? What for?”
We were on Claghorne now, and I had almost reached Congress Street.
“Just stop and look back. Please.”
I had to stop and look both ways at the corner anyway. So when I reached Congress Street I did just that.
“Please, Arnie, just look back.”
I twisted around on my bike and looked over my shoulder. Ben was wheeling along about thirty yards back, dwarfing his red bicycle with his massiveness, a very serious expression on his face, his cigarette hanging out of one side of his mouth and trailing smoke behind him as if he were an old time railroad engine.
“Look at that guy,” said the fly. “The size of that guy on a bicycle. You ever see anything so fucking funny in your whole life?”
“Okay,” I said, in a low voice. “Be quiet now. You’ll make him feel bad.”
“The size of that motherfucker. He looks like fucking Bluto on Popeye on a little kid’s bicycle.”
It was true. He did look funny. But I couldn’t do anything about that except to try not to laugh.
Ben cruised up to us. He was red faced and out of breath. Too many cigarettes.
“Okay!” he said, coming to a stop. He took his cap off and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. Then he took his cigarette out of his mouth with his other hand. “Which way?”
I thought it over for a moment. The quicker route to the docks would probably be to go left, and work our way to Washington Street, but that would increase the chance of running into someone I knew, so I decided to go right and make the turn on Park Boulevard, wending our way from there to Lafayette and down to the docks.
“This way,” I said, and I shoved off to the left and headed up the middle of Congress street.
There were no cars on the street, no pedestrians. It was mid-afternoon and everyone was already where they wanted to be, or had to be, or were forced to be, and some people perhaps fell into none of these categories, they were simply where they were because they could not be bothered to go somewhere else.
“The size of that guy on a bike,” said the fly, whispering hoarsely in my ear. “All I could do not to bust out laughing.”
“All right,” I said, in my low voice. “Just try to hold it in.”
“All right, I’ll try,” said Ferdinand.
He had said he was going to fly, but he was now actually sitting in my ear, enjoying a free ride.
“And so we’re off,” he said in my ear. “Off on our great quest.”
“Yes,” I said. “Finally.”
We cycled in silence down to Park Boulevard, where I made a smooth left turn. I glanced back and Ben was gamely keeping up, only a few bicycle lengths behind. It felt good to be moving. But then I had the odd feeling that something was wrong, and soon enough I realized that something indeed was wrong, when I saw the street sign announcing Windsor Avenue. I had made the wrong turn on Park and we were heading in the completely opposite direction from what I had intended. Oh well, no need to mention this to my companions. I made the left turn on Congress as if this were all part of my master plan.
We cycled along. There on the left up ahead Mrs. Biddle’s big house grew taller and bigger, with its spires and gables and its widow’s walks, that house I had just left not so very long ago, although it somehow felt as if it were a couple of weeks ago at least.
(Continued here, as a service to all humanity.)
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