Saturday, November 12, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 276: land ho

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companion that ancient scamp Mr. Jones on a boat on the River Styx, rowed by the singing ferryman Harry...

(Click here to read our previous thrilling episode; those who are not afraid to venture where eagles dare may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 52-volume masterpiece of autobiography and philosophical reflection.)

“Perhaps the only memoirist who might possibly be in the same league with Arnold Schnabel would be St. Augustine of Hippo, and, to be quite honest, that’s giving Augustine a lot of credit, maybe more than he deserves.” -- Harold Bloom, on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

On he sang and on he rowed, into that thick fog on the dark water, through that air which reeked increasingly with the odors of dead cigars and coal bins, of automobile graveyards in the rain, of men’s rooms in low waterfront taverns.

Yes, I’m just a hearty boatman,
a stout boatman is what I am.
It might not seem like a big deal to you,
and, frankly, it doesn’t to anyone.
But what the hell, what can you do?
Who ever said that a job should be fun?
I sit all day in my folding canvas chair
and I read a good book while I wait for a fare.
It could be worse, I don’t complain;
Instead I sing this sad refrain:
Yes, I am a boatman on the River Styx,
and rowing this boat’s how I get my kicks.
Row, Harry, row.
Bring on them dead souls.
Row, Harry, row.
Yes, that’s how ol’ Harry rolls…

“If we don’t get to where we’re goin’ soon I’m gonna roll this guy right over the fuckin’ side,” muttered Mr. Jones.

“Hey,” said Harry, breaking off his song and his rowing, and turning back to us again, “you guys wanta sing along with me? Help out on the choruses? It’s like, I’ll go, “Row, row, row,” and then you guys sing, “Row, Harry, row. Row, Harry, row --”

“That’s okay,” said Mr. Jones.

“What, you don’t wanta sing?”

“No. We just want to get to the other side, and, look, pal, I don’t want to tell you your job, but the boat is veering to the left again.”

“It is? Oh, sorry.”

He did something with the oars, but then he turned to us once more.

“What about you, Mr. Schneider?”

“Schnabel,” I said.


“My name is Schnabel actually, Arnold Schnabel.”

“Yeah, listen, maybe you’d like to sing --”

“No,” I said quickly. “Sorry, I don’t sing.”

“You don’t sing.”


“Ever. Not even like at a novena, or a May procession, or midnight mass at Christmas?”

“I always just move my lips,” I said.

“Okay, well, I guess I’m working solo, then.”

He turned and resumed rowing, and singing.

Yes I’ll sing my boatman’s song,
all the damned day long
and all night long too.
what else am I going to do
to lessen the tedium of my existence?
Am I simply to row in stoic silence?
Hell, no, I say, this is my song
and I’ll sing it right or wrong --

Right then Harry stopped singing, shifted his weight to one side, and stopped rowing.

“Hey, Harry, what gives, man?” said Mr. Jones.

“Nothing,” said Harry, not turning round.

“Why’d you stop rowing?” asked Mr. Jones.

“No reason,” said Harry.

“Well, whaddya say, pal, me and Arnie, we got places to go and people to meet.”

“Okay,” said Harry.

“So let’s get a move on,” said Mr. Jones.

“Okay,” said Harry again, but instead of continuing to row he leaned even farther to one side, shifting all his weight to his enormous right buttock, well, to the only right buttock he had, which happened to be enormous.

It was then that he farted, very loudly, and lengthily, it sounded like the peal of a foghorn, and if there were any other boats about in this fog within the distance of half a mile I’m sure their crew and passengers heard it clearly, unless their hearing was impaired, but even if that were so then they probably would soon enough have smelled the vile gas which accompanied this awful sound.

“Oh, Jesus Christ!” cried Mr. Jones, putting his hand over his face and turning completely around. I too turned about, hand over my nose and mouth, gagging.

“Sorry, fellas,” called Harry. “I had beans for breakfast this morning. I’ll row as quickly as I can, to try to leave the afflatus in our wake. Just hold your breath for as long as you possibly can.”

We were already holding our breath of course. To breathe at that point would have been tantamount to suicide, if suicide were possible in this world. After a minute I couldn’t hold it in any more, exhaled, and, gasping, breathed in the thick foggy air, and I didn’t die. Mr. Jones was twisted around on his seat, almost doubled over. He didn’t appear to be breathing. I patted his back, and a thin retching sound emerged from his mouth.

“Mr. Jones?” I said.

“Oh, my God,” he said.

I put my hands on his shoulders, and gently raised his torso, setting him straight on his seat again.

“It’s okay, Mr. Jones,” I said. “You can breathe now.”

He was panting, as if he had just been running, although it was hard to imagine him running, or even walking at a brisk pace.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m alive,” he said, after a pause. “Just barely, but I’m alive.”

“Well, ya know,” said Harry, over his shoulder, “strictly speaking, you’re not alive, not till you get to the other side that is. Not to be pedantic or anything.”

“Listen, pal,” said Mr. Jones, “just row, okay? And try not to fucking fart.”

“Hey, I said I was sorry,” said Harry, who was now in fact rowing quite vigorously. “Jeeze.”

“Fuck you,” said Mr. Jones.

“That’s not nice,” said Harry, in a voice barely audible.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so disgusted in my life,” said Mr. Jones. “And I’m eighty-seven years old, so that’s saying something.”

“It’s them beans I ate,” said Harry. “They always give me gas.”

“Then why do you eat them?” said Mr. Jones.

“I like them, what can I say? And it’s not like I have ‘em for breakfast every day. I mean, you know, not every single day. Some mornings for instance I like some scrambled eggs and fried sardines, or maybe, hey, ya know what’s good?” He had stopped rowing again, and was turned around in his seat. “I said you know what else is good?”

“What?” said Mr. Jones. “What else is good?”

“Kidneys and scrambled eggs. With fried bread. And sorghum syrup.”

“Harry,” said Mr. Jones.

“Some hot Bosco?” said Harry. “Maybe some groat cakes on the side, with some thistleberry jam, and clotted cream? You know what you got then?”

“What?” said Mr. Jones.

“I said, you know what you got then?”

“Yeah, I heard you,” said Mr. Jones. “And I said what.”

“You know what you got then?”

“Fucking hell,” said Mr. Jones.

“You got yourself a meal right there,” said Harry.

“Really?” said Mr. Jones.

“Yeah,” said Harry. “That‘s what you got right there. A meal. ‘Cause you know, you know what breakfast is, doncha?”

“Let me guess,” said Mr. Jones.

“Okay, guess.”

“Most important meal of the day?”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “Most important meal of the day.”

“Harry,” said Mr. Jones.


“You seem like a nice guy.”

“Thank you. I like to think I’m a nice guy --”

“But do us a favor,” said Mr. Jones.


“Will you turn around and fucking row this fucking boat?”


“Oh, and by the way, while you’ve been busy talking idiotic shite this boat has been turning to the left again, sorry, to port, so how about just concentrating on your job for a change.”

Harry said nothing for a moment. Then he looked over at the water.

“Just a little bit off course, I think.”

“Row,” said Mr. Jones. “Please. Just row.”

“There ya go,” said Harry. “You said please. That didn’t hurt, did it? A little politeness. That’s all I ask.”

“Please row the fucking boat,” said Mr. Jones.

“Well, you didn’t have to say the F-word,” said Harry. “See, that ruins the whole effect of the ‘please’.”

“Oh, my fucking God,” said Mr. Jones.

“Okay, there ya go again,” said Harry. “A nice old gentleman like you, you shouldn’t --”

Suddenly there was a great shuddering thump from the bow of the boat, and Harry almost fell off his seat, managing to stay on it only by hanging onto his oars.

“What the fuck,” said Mr. Jones. He had almost fallen off his seat as well, but I had caught him by the arm.

“Well, what do ya know,” said Harry. “Looks like we’re here.”

I could now distinguish what looked like a dark grey wall in front of the boat.

“Thank fucking Christ,” said Mr. Jones.

“Looks a little different,” said Harry.

“What do you mean, different?” said Mr. Jones.

“This wall here,” said Harry. “I guess we did get a little off course.”

“But we’re here, right?” said Mr. Jones. “We’re on the other side.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, “I mean, sure.”

He had turned the boat to the left, okay, to port, and now he rowed it closer to the wall, which I could now see through the mist was built of smooth, greyish, stained blocks of stone. I couldn’t see the top of the wall through the fog.

“You’re sure this is it,” said Mr. Jones.

“Yeah, sure,” said Harry. “We just gotta find some kind of landing or ladder or something so you guys can, you know --”

“Right, find a landing or a ladder or something,” said Mr. Jones.

“So you guys can get ashore,” said Harry.

“That would be nice,” said Mr. Jones.

“Gotta be something along here,” said Harry.

Suddenly there was another jolting bump from the bow of the boat, accompanied by a sort of metallic twanging.

“What the fuck,” said Harry.

“Yeah, what the fuck,” said Mr. Jones, who had almost fallen off his seat again.

“Oh, I hit a handrail,” said Harry.

“A what?”

“A handrail. Look.”

Sure enough, I could now see that the bow of the boat was nosing against a metal handrail going up the wall. Another handrail ran up parallel to it a couple of feet away, and in between the rails were what looked to be steps.

Harry worked his oars again, backing up and away from the rail, and then bringing the bow of the boat slowly past the ladder, pulling in his right-hand oar to the side of the boat so it wouldn’t hit the rails.

“See, I told you guys I’d get you here.”

“Yeah, great, thanks,” said Mr. Jones.

“Old Harry knows what he’s doing. Let me just bring yez right abeam of this old ladder here.”

He managed to do this, more or less, and then held the boat stationary, more or less, using his left-hand oar.

“Careful now, gents.”

“So, Harry,” I said, “we just climb up here, right?”

“Climb right on up.”

“And then we’re back in the world of the living.”

“Yessiree. And listen, don’t forget what I said. When you guys come back, help a brother out and bring me some books.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Or magazines. I like them men’s adventure magazines.”

“Okay, sure,” I said.

I was standing up in the boat now. I reached out and held one of the metal rails with my left hand, and with the other I helped Mr. Jones step up out of the boat and onto the ladder.

“Careful,” said Harry. “Might be slippery in this damp fog.”

Mr. Jones had both his hands on the rails, and now he’d got both his feet onto a rung of the ladder, it was more like a step really, a perforated rusted iron step, and he started to climb up. I kept my hand on the small of his back for the first couple of steps.

“There ya go, old-timer,” said Harry. “Climbing that ladder just like a spry little rhesus monkey.”

After Mr. Jones had gone up past the level of my head I pulled myself onto the ladder, feeling the boat push away from the wall as I stepped away.

I started to climb up. The railings were wet and cool, the steps were wet too, and I went slowly.

“Hey, buddy, Mr. Schneider!” called Harry.

I stopped, looked down at him, at his enormous body in the middle of the rowboat, the fog was already beginning to obscure his facial features.

“Yes?” I said.

“You ain’t mad at me, are ya?”

“No,” I said.

“Good! Now don’t forget them books!” With his right-hand oar he pushed away from the wall. “See ya, fellas!”

“See ya,” I said, but I don’t suppose he heard me, he was already disappearing into the fog.

I resumed climbing up the ladder. All I saw above me was fog.

“Or magazines!” I heard Harry’s voice yell, muffled now. “Men’s… adventure…magazines…” His voice fading away. “Or Sternwall… Horace…P…Sternwall…”

Then only silence, except for the soft sound of the dark water lapping against the wet stones.

(Continued here, and until flights of angels sing us to our rest.)

(Kindly refer to the right-hand column of this page to find a current listing of links to all other officially-released chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, soon to be a major motion picture starring Jack Webb as Arnold, featuring Barry Fitzgerald as Mr. Jones, with special guest star Orson Welles as Harry the boatman. Directed and produced by Larry Winchester.)


DR said...

really good

Unknown said...

Does Arnold ever get angry? Compared to everyone else, including those guarding heaven and hell, he's a saint. (I would never, however, go so far as to compare him to Jesus Christ.)

Dan Leo said...

Aw, go on and compare him, Kathleen...