On this sticky Sunday afternoon in August of 1963 in the old and slightly shabby seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, the bold Arnold Schnabel and his two boon companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the fly have at last set off on their quest...
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“Imagine my moment of panic when, on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I thought I had forgotten to bring a volume of Arnold Schnabel’s masterwork with me. Fortunately I found it at the bottom of my carry-on bag -- one of those great old Del Rey paperbacks with the endearingly misleading Emshwiller cover paintings -- and my journey passed quite pleasantly indeed.” -- Harold Bloom in his ‘Not Just Chicks Read Books’ column in Maxim.
“Arnie,” said the fly in my ear, “I think you better slow down a little, pal. Big Ben’s really huffing and puffing back there.”
I twisted around and glanced back. Ben was indeed falling behind again.
I coasted until Ben caught up with us. His face glowed as red as a stoplight and a wake of sweat glistened behind him on the tarmac of the road. He was gasping more than breathing. Not that he would spit out the cigarette he still held between his teeth.
“Jesus Christ, Ben,” said the fly, he was flying along between us now, “you ever think of maybe cutting down just to three or four packs of them Sweet Caporals a day maybe?”
“Whaddaya -- mean?” said Ben, with a great gap before the last word of that short sentence, as he struggled to breathe in enough air to speak it.
“I mean it looks like you’re gonna throw a goddam thrombosis any second.”
“Oh,” croaked Ben. “I guess I am a little short on wind, heh heh --”
“A little?” said the fly. “Hey, I like a good smoke as much as the next guy, but -- come on --”
“I can’t help it,” said Ben, he was breathing a little easier now that we were both pedaling at only slightly faster than an old man’s walking pace. “That’s just me. I just gotta grab everything in life with both hands -- booze, broads, beer, bacon cheeseburgers --”
“All of which are good things,” said the fly, in a reasonable-sounding tone.
“And cigarettes,” said Ben.
“Cigarettes are great too,” said Ferdinand. “But we gotta observe some limits.”
“Why?” said the fly. “Because Arnie and I don’t feel like having to call for an ambulance when you keel over and make a goddam crater in the road, that’s why.”
“I ain’t gonna keel over,” said Ben, but I thought I detected a note of uncertainty in his voice for the first time in our short acquaintance.
“Y'know, Ben,” said the fly, “what you got is what the head-doctors call an impulsive personality. Nothing a few years with a good analyst couldn’t straighten out.”
“A good what?”
“Arnold!” called a girl’s voice.
I turned. It was Daphne, sitting over there on Mrs. Biddle’s porch, which we were now opposite.
I braked to a halt, and Ben did also.
Sitting beside Daphne on a porch glider was Sister Mary Elizabeth. They were both waving a hand, in a languorous way, almost as if in slow-motion, or as if they were underwater.
“Hey, who are the young broads?” asked the fly.
“Just what I was wondering,” said Ben.
Daphne and Sister Mary Elizabeth both got up from the glider and came down the porch steps. Sister Mary Elizabeth still wore her loose-fitting blue dress, and Daphne was still in her white shorts and pink polo shirt. They began leisurely to walk down the flagstone path that led from the house to the sidewalk through the springing growth and colors of gardens that were like miniature tropical islands on a sea the color of wet green grass. Each girl had a lit cigarette in one hand and a tall glass in the other. They were barefoot.
“You never cease to amaze me, pal,” said the fly.
“So the chicks really dig Arnold, huh, Ferdinand?” said Ben.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” said the fly.
“Go figure,” said Ben.
It felt odd just to be stopping there in the middle of the street, even if there wasn’t any traffic, so I walked my bike over nearer to the curb, and parallel to it, but not too close because there was a yard-wide moat of still water running along the gutter.
“Arnold,” called Daphne. “I thought you said you had to run some errands.” She and the sister were still pretty far away at this point. It’s about fifty yards from the sidewalk to Mrs. Biddle’s front steps, and the girls were walking slowly, as if they didn’t feel in the mood to get sweaty, or sweatier than they already were on this hot and humid afternoon.
“I, uh --” I mumbled, but I don’t think she even heard me, not that there was anything to hear.
“Instead,” called Daphne, “you’re riding around on bicycles with some enormous seafaring gentleman.”
“Ha ha ha,” laughed the fly. “Hey, Arnie, either one of these girls that girlfriend you were talking about?”
“Uh, no,” I whispered.
“Cool,” he said. “Hey, Ben, which one you want, the tall one or the little one?”
“I think I’ll take that tall little filly,” said Ben. He had pulled his bike up near to mine, and he was only panting mildly now.
“She’s all yours, pal,” said the fly. “I like ‘em a little rounder, myself, ya know what I mean? Gina Lollobrigida, Mamie Van Doren.”
“Diana Dors?” said Ben.
“Yeah, like that,” said Ferdinand. “You can keep them tall skinny model-types.”
“Well, the tall one is more slender,” said Ben. “I’ll give you that. But she’s got a nice --”
“All right, guys,” I said. “Cool it. These are nice girls.”
“What?” called Daphne.
“I didn’t say anything,” I called, half-heartedly.
She and Sister Mary Elizabeth certainly weren’t in any great hurry. They seemed to expect that we would wait patiently for them to reach us. And of course they were right in thinking so.
“Y’know,” said the fly, but he was speaking in a quieter voice now, “as much as these girls look good from the front I wouldn’t mind seeing what they look like from the rear, neither.”
Ben made the hissing noise that was apparently part of his repertoire of sounds that might fall under the general rubric of "laughter", and once again the hissing metamorphosed into a series of coughs.
I suddenly remembered that I was able to communicate telepathically with my two companions, so I thought as firmly as I could, “Listen, you guys, please behave, and don’t embarrass me.”
“Christ, Arnie,” thought the fly, “you act like they’re a couple of nuns.”
“As a matter of fact, one of them was a nun up until yesterday,” I thought.
“You’re shitting me,” thought the fly. “Which one?”
“The smaller one.”
“Oh, boy, now I’m really excited,” thought Ferdinand.
Ben began hissing again, and coughing, and hissing.
The girls came to the open front gate, came through, and stood there, drinking their drinks through plastic bendable straws and smoking their cigarettes and looking at us.
“So are you finished with your errands or what?” said Daphne.
“I haven’t started them yet,” I said. “Or, rather, I’ve only just started them.”
“Arnold,” said Ben, who had gotten over his latest hissing fit, “you gonna introduce me to these lovely ladies or you gonna keep me hangin’.”
He took off his sopping wet yachting cap and smiled, with his soggy-looking cigarette still hanging from the side of his mouth.
“Sorry,” I said. “Daphne and Sister Mary Elizabeth --”
“Just Mary Elizabeth,” said the sister.
“Daphne and Mary Elizabeth, this is Ben Blagwell.”
“Darn you’re big,” said Daphne.
“Six foot four,” said Ben, “and two hundred and fifty pounds.”
“Is that all?” said Daphne.
“Two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle and gristle and an unquenchable lust for adventure,” said Ben. “At your service, miss.”
“I don’t get you,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, ignoring Ben and looking at me. She took a drag of her cigarette and exhaled the smoke out of the side of her mouth. “First you’re meant to have some sort of writing session with Larry Winchester, and that didn't happen, then you sneak off without saying goodbye to anyone, ostensibly to run errands, and here you are bicycling past Mrs. Biddle’s house with a giant sailor man.”
“Oh,” I said, “well, I can explain all that,” although I wasn’t at all sure I could.
Ben began to produce his hiss-laughter again, which as usual turned into a coughing fit, albeit a mild one, which caused his cigarette to fly from his mouth to the gutter.
“How is your leg, anyway,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth to me, after what seemed like a disapproving look at Ben.
“You were limping like a cripple not half an hour ago.”
Had it only been a half hour? Was it not another day entirely?
“He was limping?” said Daphne. “Why were you limping, Arnold? I didn’t notice.”
“He fell down drunk last night,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
Ben continued to hiss and cough, and to produce also a sound that was a combination of a hiss and a cough, a sort of harsh spluttering that reminded me of the sound an automobile tire makes when it incurs a puncture on the highway and you’re driving along in heavy traffic trying to pull over to the side of the road without causing a chain reaction of lethal smash-ups.
“Are you quite all right, Mr. Bagwell,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Oh, Christ, yeah,” he wheezed.
“You shouldn’t take the name of the Lord our God in vain you know.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Whew!”
He wiped his streaming forehead with the back of his hand and put his cap back on.
“Ow,” I said.
“What?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
My one leg, I think it was my left one, had suddenly begun to hurt again, maybe because I had been sitting there for a minute or two straddling my bicycle, or come to think of it, maybe it had been hurting all along and I just had forgotten all about it until she had mentioned it, but, at any rate, I was in pain again.
“What is it, Arnold?” said Daphne.
“My leg,” I said. “Just a slight spasm.”
I stretched out the leg and wiggled it. This helped a bit, but now my other, my right leg began to hurt. I grimaced.
“You shouldn’t be out bicycling if your legs are sore,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“I’ll be okay,” I said, “as soon as I get moving again, I think.”
“Well, don’t let us keep you,” she said.
“Are you really going on errands?” said Daphne.
“Yes,” I said.
“Those drinks look really good,” said Ben. “They’re not Planter’s Punches with a float of 151, are they?”
“No, they’re a special iced tea that my grandmother’s friend Tommy makes,” said Daphne.
“They sure look good,” said Ben, licking his lips.
“Would you gentlemen like to come into the house and have some?” said Daphne. “Nothing quite like Tommy’s special iced tea.”
“Sure --” Ben started to say, but I cut him off with a “No thank you” that perhaps seemed rude, because everyone stared at me, even the fly, who was hovering a foot or so above Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“I mean,” I quickly added, “I really just want to get these errands out of the way, y’know?”
“You and your precious errands,” said Daphne.
“What are these errands, anyway?” said the sister.
I was distracted because I could tell that the fly was looking down the top of Sister Mary Elizabeth’s dress.
“He says he has to buy some seafood for some old man,” said Daphne.
“An old man?” said Ben. “What old man? I thought we were getting it for your aunts and your mother. For that little kid -- Kelvin?”
“Kevin,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “The pathetic little squirt.”
“Who’s this old man?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “This is like some whole new character.”
“Um,” I said.
“Like I missed a part of the movie ‘cause I had to go to the head,” he said.
“Must you, Mr. Bragwell?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Blagwell, actually,” said Ben.
“It’s some old man Arnold knows,” said Daphne. She took a sip of her drink through a her bendable straw. It had a sort to hinge on it. Maybe hinge is not the right word. It doesn’t matter.
“So who’s the old man?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“His name’s Mr. Arbuthnot,” said Daphne. Still sipping her iced tea through her straw she reached out with the hand that held her cigarette and she touched the ring on my little finger. “He gave Arnold that gold ring.”
“Why, in heaven’s name?” asked Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Haven’t the faintest,” said Daphne.
She seemed to be getting bored, and who could blame her.
“So what’s up with this old man?” said the sister, addressing me.
“Mr. Arbuthnot?” I said.
“Yes. I mean is he crippled, or sick or something?”
“No,” I said, slowly.
“Then why can’t he just go to the shop and buy some seafood himself?”
“Good question,” said Ben.
The fly buzzed merrily above our heads, although he always slowed down when he came over Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Well, it has to be fresh from the docks,” I said. “And the docks are kind of far away from where he lives.”
“He’s awfully picky, isn’t he?”
I should have lied, made something up, but I found it hard to lie to a nun, even if she was an ex-nun.
“It’s not him who is picky,” I said.
“It’s not he you mean.”
“It’s not he who is picky,” I said, corrected.
“Then who is it?”
“It’s his cat.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s his cat who is picky. He likes fresh seafood, right off the the boats.”
“I didn’t know cats could tell the difference.”
“This one probably can,” I said.
I didn’t think that what I had said was all that risible, but Ben suddenly began to make his hissing noise again, and then the coughing came, mixed in with the hissing, and then somehow a hiccuping became mixed up in it all. It sounded a little like the sounds a cat produces when it’s trying to cough up a hairball, but an enormous cat, maybe it was more like that of a lion on one of the veldts of Africa who has eaten a bad piece of carrion and is about to throw up. Not that I’ve ever been to Africa, or even seen a lion.
The fly seemed to be laughing too.
(Continued here, because we have a charge to keep.)
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