Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel in a bar called The Dead Man on the fog-shrouded island of lost souls, where his disembodied spirit has met up with a previous acquaintance, the trumpet-playing hipster angel Gabriel…
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“Of the great writers who lived and worked in relative obscurity during their time on earth -- Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Horace P. Sternwall -- perhaps the greatest of them all was the self-effacing and modest railroad brakeman Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in Criterion.
“You didn’t kick the bucket, did you?” said Gabriel, or rather I suppose I should say, thought Gabriel, as he was still blowing on his trumpet all the while.
“No,” I said, or, rather, so my wandering spirit communicated telepathically. “I came to the, to this -- world?”
“Call it the next world,” said Gabriel. “We could call it a lot of things, but ‘the next world’ will do.”
“Okay,” I said, silently, “I came to the, uh, next world, to try to bring back my recently-deceased acquaintance Mr. Jones over there.”
“The little old dude?”
“That’s him,” I transmitted.
“I didn’t know you had these sorts of powers,” Gabriel said, thought, communicated (let’s just keep it simple and use “said”, otherwise this could go on forever).
“Well,” I said, “I don’t think I normally do have these powers, but I had a ring that some other old guy had given me to hold, and apparently it gave me certain, uh --”
“The ring gave you powers.”
“Yes. Or -- maybe more accurately put -- I was able to, to access the powers inherent in the ring?”
“I see,” he said.
“I know it sounds odd.”
“No, no, not at all. I mean, you know, this sort of thing is not entirely unheard of.”
“Well, that’s somewhat comforting,” I said.
“Oh, hey,” said Gabriel, glancing my way as he played his horn, even though I can only assume I was invisible, “this ring -- this wasn’t the ring of the Nibelung, was it?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but something like that.”
“Or maybe the ring from, what’s that book, The Fellowship of the Ring?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The old gent who gave it to me didn’t tell me what it was called, if anything.”
“And who was this old gent?”
“Mr. Arbuthnot? He runs a shop in Cape May, called the --”
“The What Gives Shoppe,” said Gabriel.
“Well -- the Whatnot Shoppe.”
“Yes, Whatnot Shoppe, sorry,” he said. “I know the guy. He gave you his ring?”
“Um, he didn’t exactly give it to me,” I said. “I was just sort of holding it --”
“Arbuthnot let you hold the ring.”
“Yeah, you see I was supposed to try to trade it for some stuff for him --”
“Some stuff? What stuff?”
“Again, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t know what it’s called, it’s this stuff I got from this guy Wally --”
“Oh, no, not Wally from the cigar shop.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Not that stuff he sells in the little snuff tins?”
“Yeah, I think that’s it,” I said.
“Jesus Christ, Arnold, you’ve been getting involved in some heavy shit, man.”
“I know,” I said. “I didn’t mean to. All I wanted to do was buy my little cousin some comic books, but somehow things got out of hand. By the way, would you rather I wait till you’ve finished before we continue talking? I don’t want to distract you from your playing.”
“Okay,” he said, “let me just blow a few more choruses, then I’ll lay out for a bit, and we can rap.”
I hovered there and listened to the music. Over at the bar I could see that meanwhile I had been apparently conversing with Lucky, so I flew back into my brain so that I could participate.
“Well,” I was in the middle of saying, “I never went to college, but I think the rule is that if it’s the subject of the sentence it’s supposed to be ‘who’, and if it’s the object of a sentence or a phrase then it’s ‘whom’.”
“Here’s a who for you,” said Lucky. “Who gives a shit? I’ve got news for you, and for you,” he said, looking at Finch, “whatever your name is --”
“Finch,” said Finch, and once again he offered his right hand to Lucky and once again Lucky pointedly ignored it.
“I’ve got news for both of you,” said Lucky. “School’s out. And no one gives a shit about your pathetic little grammatical rules.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right, sir,” said Finch. (Once again he ostentatiously flexed the fingers of his hand, as if he had only raised it because of a recurrent stiffness or cramp, brought on by gout or by hundreds of thousands of hours of the repetitive lifting and downing glasses of alcoholic beverages.)
“I’ll tell you who gives a shit,” said Mr. Jones. “I give a shit. Sure, I myself might lapse now and then into the rough and hearty vernacular of the taproom, but nevertheless we must respect certain standards of speech, so that when the occasion demands it we may speak as educated men and women and not as base and vile guttersnipes.”
“Your point is well-taken, Mr. Jones,” said Finch, “but perhaps the gentleman has a valid point as well. After all, as long as his meaning is understood, and in a --”
“Oh, dry up, Finchie,” said Molly. “You’re only agreeing with the guy because he’s buying you drinks.”
“That’s not true,” said Finch.
“You’d take sides with Lucifer himself if he bought you a drink,” she said.
“Ha ha, that’s rich,” said Lucky. “That is really rich.”
“There’s more of that where it came from, handsome,” said Molly. “So, you got a girlfriend, a wife?”
“What?” said Lucky, “A wife? No. God forbid.”
“Oh Christ,” said Molly. “Ain’t it always the case.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean a good-looking, tall, dark-haired feller in a nice suit, well-groomed and all, lotsa money and not afraid to throw it around, don’t he always turn out to be queerer than a three-dollar bill.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Lucky.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Molly. “You can’t help it if you’re a pansy.”
“I am not a pansy.”
“Then why ain’t you got a wife or a girlfriend?”
“Why would I want one?” said Lucky.
“Ha ha,” said Mr. Jones, “well-said, my friend. Handsome young chap like you with lots of the do-re-mi to toss around, I’ll bet you get more ladies than Douglas Fairbanks.”
“Or William S. Hart,” said Finch, I think just so he could keep in the conversation somehow.
“If I wanted a lady you may rest assured I could have one,” said Lucky.
“Then why do you seem more and more like a fairy to me each second?” said Molly.
“A fairy?” said Lucky. “Did you see the way I broke the arm of that razor-wielding lout just a few minutes ago?”
“Sid the Shiv?” said Molly. “Even I could break that punk’s arm, and I’m a dame.”
“Okay,” said Lucky. “I really can’t stand any more of this. Arnold, finish your drink. You’re coming with me.”
“Hey, hold on a minute there,” said Mr. Jones. “Just who the hell do you think you are, buddy? Arnie ain’t going nowhere with you.”
“Oh?” said Lucky, “And who’s going to stop me?”
“Maybe you forgot about this?” said Mr. Jones, and he reached into his side jacket pocket, brought out Sid the Shiv’s switchblade again and flicked it open.
“And,” said Lucky, putting down his drink, which he had barely if at all sipped, “maybe you, old man, forgot about this?”
He reached into his own side jacket pocket and brought out the straight razor he had gotten from Sid the Shiv, and opened it up.
“Now, gentlemen,” said Finch.
The music continued to play, the people all around continued to laugh and shout, no one except our own little group seemed to have noticed this flashing of sharpened steel.
“Go ahead,” said Mr. Jones. “Make a move, hotshot.”
He had the burning butt of a cigarette between his dry old lips, and he still held his Manhattan in his left hand.
“You really think you stand a chance with me?” said Lucky.
“I may be old but I know how to stick a knife,” said Mr. Jones.
“Mr. Jones,” I said, finally getting back in the game, “let me handle this.”
“You want the blade, Arnie?”
“No,” I said. “I won’t need the blade.”
“Gonna take him barehanded, huh?”
“This I gotta see,” said Molly. “Get him, cabaña-boy.”
“Gentlemen, please,” said Finch.
“Shut up, you,” said Lucky.
“Yeah, put a lid on it, Finchie,” said Molly. “Just ‘cause you’re a coward.”
“Now, Molly,” said Finch, “I just believe that civilized people can resolve their differences without --”
“You,” said Lucky to Finch, “shut up.”
Finch shut up at once.
“Ha ha,” said Molly.
“Okay, let’s go, Arnold,” said Lucky. “We can do it the easy way or the hard way. Personally I think I’d actually prefer the hard way.”
“Look,” I said, stalling, “why doesn’t everyone just put away their weapons.”
“Sure,” said Lucky, and with a smile he folded the razor and put it back into his jacket pocket.
“You too, Mr. Jones,” I said.
“Only if you say so, Arnie boy.”
He put down his drink, folded the knife and put it away.
“Okay,” said Lucky. “Time to go, Arnold.”
“Hold on,” said Mr. Jones. “Just where the hell do you think you’re taking my pal?”
“Just where the hell do I think I’m taking him?” said Lucky, followed by a very mirthlesss-sounding laugh, although, who knows, it may have been mirthful, “All right, I’ll tell you exactly where I’m taking your pal, and what I’m taking him to, and what’s going to happen to him when I get him there --”
Suddenly I noticed that the trumpet wasn’t playing any more and I disincorporated and flew back to the bandstand. Gabriel had his trumpet under his arm, and he was lighting up what looked like a marijuana cigarette.
“Gabriel,” I telepathically communicated. “Can you see what’s happening over there?”
Gabriel exhaled and gazed through the smoke over to where I stood at the bar.
“You and your elderly friend are talking to that dude in a white suit. Looks like a pimp.”
“Yes,” I said, “but don’t you know who that guy is?”
“Oh,” he said. “Shit, man, that’s not --”
“Ol’ Beelzebub himself, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “But he calls himself Lucky.”
“Lucky, huh? Whatever. But what’s he doin’ here?”
“He wants me,” I said. “He wants to take me to hell.”
“Damn,” said Gabriel. “What you gonna do, man?”
“Well,” I said, “I was hoping maybe you could help me.”
“Damn, I wish I could, brother.”
“But -- you’re an angel, aren’t you?”
“Can’t you, like, uh --”
“Sorry, man,” he said. “But we’re not allowed to help humans. That’s a very common misconception.”
“Oh," I said. "Not at all?”
“Well, we can give a little advice, maybe, but that’s as far as we can go, really.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Do you want me to give you some advice?”
“Don’t give up, man. You can handle that dude. I knew that guy even before he was cast out of heaven. He was always an asshole. Go on, get back there. Show him who’s boss.”
“Give him hell.”
“I guess you couldn’t give me any more specific ideas, or hints, about how I should --”
“Sorry, man. Rules are rules.”
“Okay,” I said.
“No harm in asking,” he said.
“Well, I guess I’d better get back into my body then.”
“Yeah.” He took a big drag of his reefer, staring at the empty space where my consciousness was.
“Okay,” I said, “Thanks anyway.”
“If I could do more you know I would,” he said, holding in the smoke.
“I understand,” I said, although of course I understood nothing. “I’ll see you later.”
“I hope so, man,” he said, and he finally exhaled another great cloud of marijuana smoke.
I was about to say something else, but I let it go and flew back into my head.
Lucky had apparently been speaking, and I caught up with him in mid-sentence.
“ -- and then, after say a billion years in this pit of boiling tar I’m going to take you to what we call the big cesspool, and --”
“Arnie,” said Mr. Jones, “you don’t have to stand here and listen to this guy’s bullshit. If you don’t poke him in the nose then I will.”
“Oh, just try it, you old fart,” said Lucky.
Just that moment it occurred to me. If I could travel outside my body and communicate telepathically with Gabriel, shouldn’t I be able to do so with Lucky?
I stared into his dark cruel eyes, something happened and then I was inside his brain, looking through his eyes at myself.
It was very disconcerting.
(Continued here; we have only just begun to scratch beneath the surface.)
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