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“Arnold Schnabel -- the very name itself conjures up a world so much richer than that humdrum one in which we lesser beings are condemned to live out our days.” -- Harold Bloom, in the Wall Street Journal.
I closed my eyes. I tried to ignore the pains in my forehead and in my legs. I tried to ignore myself. Somewhere in the spirit world Mr. Jones’s soul must be wandering around, probably in a drugged stupor. I tried to put myself into that world beyond our world, but the world in which I existed kept intruding itself into my brain: a Three Stooges episode I had watched with Kevin a couple of weeks before, an image of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile parked in the evening twilight in the Acme parking lot, the song “A Town Without Pity” playing on a passing car radio, my mother’s sauerbraten, a random thick glass mug freshly filled with some sort of beer, the smell of Elektra’s hair after she had been swimming, the feel of clammy sand between my toes, the sound of Ben striking a match to light a cigarette, he obviously couldn’t wait, the smell of his Sweet Caporal’s smoke, and then I realized I was in the spirit world.
I was standing outside the wrought-iron gate at the foot of the green hill on the top of which sat God’s house, that enormous old Victorian pile, all deep yellows and greens and browns, with its broad porch and ivory-colored columns, its spires, gables, and chimney pots, its widow’s walks and balconies, its slanted wine-colored roofs. And as huge as the house looked I knew that it seemed even bigger once you got inside.
They must have had a heavy rainfall here too, because the grass had gotten even more overgrown since my visit of the previous day. The sky was overcast but the grass and all the trees and bushes and flowers, all the roses and rhododendrons and geraniums, all of these living things glowed with bright color the way living things do after a good summer rain. Up the hill I saw the tiny figure of Mr. Jones, in his grey suit and his straw hat, slowly climbing up the steps to that broad columned porch. I had no time to lose. The gate was open, and I hurried through it and started jogging up that winding cobblestone path. At once my right knee started to give way, so I stopped, took a deep breath, gritted my teeth and, this time much more slowly, I resumed my way up the path. It wouldn’t do Mr. Jones any good at all if my leg gave out completely and I was immobilized down here.
For two or three rather painful minutes I ascended the path, during which I could see Mr. Jones apparently in conversation with St. Peter, one or both of them occasionally obscured by a tree or a bush as the path wound upward, Mr. Jones standing and sometimes gesticulating with his arms and hands, St. Peter sitting barely moving in his rocking chair next to his little table. I could hear their voices but couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, although of course an increasing number of words and phrases became intelligible the closer I got: “Nonsense...preposterous...you must be kidding me...I never kid...I protest…”
I made it to the foot of the porch steps. Even though for weeks I had been swimming for miles every day I was now almost completely out of breath, and, once again, pouring with sweat. I guess there were a dozen or so steps up to the porch, and I stopped for a just a moment to rest before going up. I could now plainly hear Mr. Jones and St. Peter conversing in argumentative tones.
“Fuck you, doorman, I want to speak to your boss,” said Mr. Jones.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” said St. Peter. “What you will do is get your scrawny old ass down to Hades where you belong.”
“Mr. Jones!” I called. I had started up the steps. “St. Peter!”
“Who the hell is that?” said Mr. Jones.
“Oh, it’s him,” said St. Peter.
“Just give me a minute,” I said. Taking one step at a time, pulling myself along with one hand on the wooden banister rail, I continued to make my halting way up,.
St. Peter still sat there in his rocking chair by his little table, and little Mr. Jones was standing in front of him, but he had turned to look at me.
“Mr. Schnabel,” he said. “Don’t tell you’ve shuffled off the mortal coil as well, and at such a tender age.”
“No,” I said. I was practically panting now as I finally got to the top of the steps, and sweating more than ever, although the weather here seemed very moderate, a perfect 65 degrees Fahrenheit if anything, with a light pleasant breeze.
“Listen,” I said, limping over to the other two, “I’ve come to take you back, Mr. Jones.”
“What, not even a hello, Mr. Schnabel,” said St. Peter. He was wearing his wire-framed reading glasses, and he bent his head slightly downward to look at me over the rims.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m a little -- um --”
“Nonplussed?” said St. Peter. He had picked up his meerschaum from where it lay on the table to his right, along with the big opened ledger, the ink bottle, the chipped glass ashtray and the box of kitchen matches, and now he was filling the pipe’s bowl with tobacco from his leather pouch.
“Yes,” I said. “A little nonplussed, because I didn’t expect to have to come here.”
“Oh, didn’t you?” he said.
He had on that same old yellow canvas jacket by the way. I wondered if he always wore it.
“Well, Arnold,” said Mr. Jones, “I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you must be dead or you wouldn’t be here.”
“No,” I said, “I’m not dead. At least I hope I’m not. You see, I’m trying to bring you back.”
“To do what?” he said.
“Yeah,” said St. Peter. “To do what?”
“To bring Mr. Jones back to the world of the living,” I said.
“Oh, splendid,” said Mr. Jones.
“Now wait just a minute, Mr. Schnabel,” said St. Peter. He was lighting his pipe with one of the kitchen matches. Unlike Mr. Arbuthnot’s Meerschaum, St. Peter’s was quite big, with a bowl at least three inches deep and maybe two inches wide, the curved stem perhaps six inches long. I hadn’t quite noticed it last time but a bearded man’s head was carved into the bowl of the pipe. Could this be what God the father looked like? I thought it imprudent to ask, and I waited while he got the pipe lit. Finally he did, and after dropping the match in his ashtray and slowly exhaling a cloud of fragrant smoke, he said, “You were lucky last time, Mr. Schnabel. Very, very lucky. You seem to have a friend in God’s son. But take my advice. Don’t press your luck.”
“But I just want to bring Mr. Jones back,” I said. “He’s only been gone twenty minutes or so I think. What harm can it do?”
“Yeah, where’s the harm,” said Mr. Jones.
St. Peter drew a gold watch on a chain from the pocket of the faded brown vest he was wearing under his canvas jacket. He clicked the watch open.
“I make it thirty-three, no, thirty-four minutes now.” He shut the watch and put it away. “Corruption of the corporeal host should already be setting in.”
“Are you kidding?” said Mr. Jones. “A dried up old fart like me? I’m already half-mummified.”
“You,” said St. Peter, pointing the mouthpiece of his pipe at Mr. Jones, “had better just shut up.”
“Why?” said Mr. Jones. “You’re ready to send me down to hell and I never did nobody no harm my entire eighty-three years on earth.”
St. Peter pushed back his glasses on his nose and glanced down at the ledger.
“Eighty-seven years you mean.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Jones, “so I shaved off a few years out of vanity. Sue me.”
“Vanity,” said St. Peter. “The root of all evil.”
“I thought greed was the root of all evil,” said Mr. Jones.
St. Peter just stared at Mr. Jones for a moment. Then, turning to me, he said, “How did you get here, anyway, really?” He glanced down again at the ledger. “I have no record of you dying yet.”
“Check again,” said Mr. Jones. “Maybe somebody made a clerical error. Happens all the time on earth.”
“We’re not on earth, and we don’t make errors here.”
“Maybe you think you don’t make errors,” said Mr. Jones. “But maybe you do.”
“Hey, you know what?” said St. Peter. “Before, when you first came up here, I just might -- possibly -- I might have been persuaded to get you off with just an aeon or two in the flames of purgatory --”
“Oh, thanks a lot,” said Mr. Jones.
“If you had been just the least bit humble and penitent, I might have given you a break. But now? Forget it.”
“Why should I be humble and penitent?” said Mr. Jones. “I was a stand-up Joe.”
“Why?” said St. Peter. “Why?”
“Yeah,” said Mr. Jones. “Why?
St. Peter again looked down at the great ledger, he turned back a page, running his eyes back and forth and up and down over the two densely-handwritten pages now revealed, and then he turned back several more pages, then several more. “Why?” he said again. He looked up, shaking his his whole upper body and head as if he had just suffered a chill. “I scarcely know where to begin. By my rough estimate you’ve got nine hundred thousand seven hundred-odd mortal sins on your soul. Just shy of a million. Almost a million mortal sins, just in one lifetime.”
“Well,” said Mr. Jones, “as you’ve just pointed out, I have lived a very long lifetime.”
“Yes,” said St. Peter. “But a million mortal sins?”
“Almost a million,” said Mr. Jones. “Not quite.”
“It only takes one to damn you to the everlasting agonies of hell.”
“That seems a bit harsh,” said Mr. Jones.
“I don’t make the rules,” said St. Peter. He turned to me again. “And how exactly did you get here?”
“Well,” I said, “I have this ring, see?” I held up my left little finger with the gold ring on it. “It has special powers. So I was using it to try to bring Mr. Jones back.”
“Using it how?”
“By holding my hand on his head. The hand with the ring. On his head.”
“So you’re performing miracles now.”
“Well, no,” I said, “not exactly,” although I realized as soon as I said that how foolish I sounded. “But I just thought I’d give it a try.”
“You thought you’d give it a try.”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, you know, what was the harm in trying?”
“By using a magic ring? Don’t you realize how sacrilegious that is?”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize.”
“Now if you had prayed, that would be different. But I suppose that didn’t occur to you.”
“No,” I admitted. “I mean, you know, I had the ring, and this other old fellow, Mr. Arbuthnot, he told me --”
“Wait,” said St. Peter. “Mr. who?”
“Arbuthnot,” I said.
“What’s his first name?”
“You know,” I said, “I don’t have the faintest idea. Maybe Mr. Jones knows --?”
“Nope,” said Mr. Jones. “To me he’s always been just Arbuthnot.”
“But I thought you two were good friends.”
“We’re friends,” said Mr. Jones. “I don’t know if I’d say we’re good friends.”
St. Peter was turning the pages of his ledger once more, and now he stopped, and poked his finger on the open page.
“Here we go,” he said. “Arbuthnot. Runs a junk shop in Cape May?”
“Well, it’s more of an antique store,” I said, “although he sells some newer items, like I saw a few hula hoops in there, some Slinkys --”
“A junk shop,” said St. Peter. He was running his eyes and his finger down the page, he turned the page, read a bit more. “Jesus wept,” he said. “I can’t wait till this character shows up here. He’ll be flying back down those steps so fast he won’t know what hit him.”
“Look,” I said, “couldn’t you give Mr. Jones a break? Look at it this way, if you send him back, maybe he’ll change his ways, amend his life, you know.”
“Ha,” said St. Peter.
“Oh ye of little faith,” said Mr. Jones.
“Don’t lecture me about faith,” said St. Peter.
“Mr. High and Mighty,” said Mr. Jones. “Mr. Big Shot.”
“Keep it up, little man,” said St. Peter.
“Um, excuse me, St. Peter?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Um, Josh wouldn’t be here right now, would he?”
“Josh? Who’s Josh?”
“You know -- the son?”
“You call him Josh?”
“Well, that’s his name on earth.”
“I get it. Joshua.”
“Yes. At first he was appearing to me in the form of this other fellow I know, named Steve, but lately he’s been appearing as, uh, Josh. But Josh explained to me that he is, um -- like -- in all men, and, uh --”
St. Peter just stared at me for a moment. Then he said, “Okay, what was your question again?”
“Is Josh here I wondered.”
“No. No, he’s not here. No one’s seen him.”
“Oh,” I said. “That must mean he’s still in Miss Evans’s novel.”
“I was trapped by the devil in the world of this novel written by this lady I know, Miss Evans? And Josh entered that world to find me, and I guess he might still be there. You see, we met these girls there, and, uh, we were in this bar --”
Again St. Peter just stared at me, puffing on his pipe. He turned to his big ledger and started leafing through the pages again. He stopped, pointed at some lines with the stem of his pipe, reading.
“There’s nothing about you entering the world of some novel here.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s a fictional universe, so it may not be in there.”
“I see you did have sexual intercourse with that woman Elektra again since your last visit here.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Oh my God,” he said. “In the foyer of her building?”
“Oh. Uh,” I said.
“Ha ha. Way to go, Mr. Schnabel,” said Mr. Jones.
“So that’s a definite mortal sin you’ve got on your soul,” said St. Peter.
”Hey, cut him some slack,” said Mr. Jones. ”Since when is making whoopee with a hot tomato a mortal sin anyway?”
“How about since forever, you degenerate old fool.”
“Fuck you,” said Mr. Jones. “I may be a degenerate but at least I’m not a punk. At least I didn’t stand by and let Jesus get carried off by the bulls so he could get scourged and crucified, now did I?”
“Shut up about that. You weren’t there.”
“No, I wasn’t, but I’ll tell you this, if I had been there I wouldn’t’ve let them bastards drag my buddy away. Not without putting up a fight I wouldn’t’ve.”
“You don’t know what you would have done.”
“And neither do you,” said Mr. Jones. “Okay, so maybe I committed a million mortal sins more or less. I admit it, I done a lot of things I ain’t proud of. But I never stood by and let a pal take a pinch when there was something I could do about it. So fuck you. And if that’s gonna send me to hell, then so be it.”
“Mr. Jones,” I said. “Um --”
“No,” said Mr. Jones. “I said what I meant and I meant what I said.”
St. Peter was looking away. He took a few puffs on his pipe. Then, still looking away, he said, “All right, Mr. Schnabel, get this piece of dessicated human garbage out of here.”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You heard me. Go on. Get him out of here before I change my mind.”
I looked at Mr. Jones. He shrugged, spreading out his little hands.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go, Mr. Jones.”
“Thank you, St. Peter,” I said.
“Go,” he said.
“Let’s go, Arnie,” said Mr. Jones. He touched my arm.
“Okay,” I said. We both turned and headed for the steps. We had just reached the edge of the porch when St. Peter called out.
“Yes?” I turned.
“Don’t press your luck again. Even if you are friends with the son. With ‘Josh’ as you call him. Don’t push it.”
“I won’t,” I said.
He looked away, puffing on his pipe.
Mr. Jones touched my arm again, we glanced at each other, and went down the steps, as quickly as we could, which was not very quickly, thanks to my sore legs and Mr. Jones’s eighty-seven years.
(Continued here, we have no choice in the matter.)
(Painting by Norman Saunders. Kindly look to the right hand column of this page to find what should be an up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, deemed “acceptable with grave reservations for adults” by the Catholic Standard & Times. Imprimatur, Msgr. William M. “Wild Bill” Fahey, SJ.)
Thanks to Jackie Jones for this clip from that forgotten classic, Convicts 4: