Friday, October 31, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 416: escape

Our memoirist Arnold Schnabel is speeding along a dark country road in a stolen pink 1955 Cadillac “60 Special” driven by his friend the celebrated author Horace P. Sternwall, when suddenly they hear the awful sound of a siren, and, peering into the rearview mirror, they see the approaching flashing lights of a police car...

(Kindly click here to read our preceding chapter; if you have decided to retire from worldly intercourse and are looking for something really long to read then you may go here to return to the far-off and all-but-forgotten beginnings of this 63-volume Gold View Award™-winning autobiography.)

“Until the day I die I will not cease to expound the glory of the most profound American writer since Horace P. Sternwall: no other than a humble former railroad brakeman named Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in the
National Geographic Literary Digest.

“The Twelfth of Never” came to its end, Horace reached over and switched off the radio, and now the police siren sounded much louder.

So this was it.

We were going to get arrested. 

We would be sent to jail. 

So, not only would I still be trapped in the universe of  a paperback novel titled Rummies of the Open Road, but I would be in jail in that novel. What was the sentence for stealing a Cadillac? A year? Two years? But then after all it was my first offense…but – wait – what if it was my third offense in this world? Could I get life in prison?

The above thoughts flashed through my brain in the space of two seconds, and they probably would have continued in that depressing strain indefinitely had not Horace interrupted their flow by speaking:

“We’re just gonna have to outrun them,” he said, and he stepped on the gas.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Horace, you’re going to get us killed.”

“We can’t die,” he said, glancing at me. “The novel we’re in ain’t even half over.”

“You think so?” I said, putting both my hands on the dashboard and pushing against it, as if to push away violent death.

“Yeah,” he said, or shouted actually. We were both shouting by this point, over the roar of the Cadillac’s motor, the rushing of the night air through the windows, the keening of the police siren. “I figure we’re only like thirty-eight thousand words in,” he yelled, glancing at me again. “We need at least thirty more thousand words, maybe more, even for a paperback original, y’know?”

“The cop car is getting closer, Horace,” I said.

I was looking into the rear view mirror. The flashing red hood-light of the police car was getting bigger and brighter by the second, the siren screaming louder, more loudly, progressively more loudly? It was loud.

“Oh, wait,” said Horace, shouted Horace. “I just thought of something.”

“What’s that?” I said, whined.

One of us has to live, but maybe the other one will die. I mean there’s no guarantee that both our characters have to live through the book. Or – I know – maybe the one character gets horribly crippled, even paralyzed maybe?”

“Horace,” I said, “you really have to slow down. I don’t want to be the one to die or get paralyzed.”

“Neither do I,” he said. “Jeeze, Arnold, you really can be self-centered.”

“Horace, just slow down. In fact, slow down and stop the car.”

“Stop the car?” he said. “What? You want to go to jail?”

“No,” I said.

“Because this could wind up being a prison novel, pal. Very easily. There’s no guarantees in the paperback-original novel business.”

“I have an idea,” I said, although I really didn’t have one.

“You do?” he said.

“Yes!” I said, and then all at once I actually did have an idea.

“What is it?” he said.

“You stop the car as quick as you can, before the cop car gets any closer. Then we run into the woods and try to escape.”

That’s your plan?”

“Do you have a better one?” I said.

“Nope,” he said, and abruptly he yanked the gear shift, slammed on the brakes, and brought the scar screeching to a halt on the left side of the road.

He doused the headlights, turned off the motor and pulled out the ignition key, which was still attached to his big ring of a few dozen odd keys which no doubt worked for just as many foreign and domestic motor vehicles.

Then he turned to me.

“Let’s cheese it, pal!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I jumped out my side, slammed the door shut and ran around the front of the car to follow Horace, who was already running into the darkness of those thick woods.

The woods were almost pitch black, the trees crowded close together, their foliage blocking out any glimmer of light from the nighttime sky. Our feet crunched in dead stuff on the ground.

Horace was just a dark thrashing shape in the darkness in front of me, but I followed him by the sound of his gasping and panting, by the heavy crunching of the soles of his work shoes on the forest floor, by the tinkling of that ring of car-thievery keys in his pocket.

We ran into the darkness.

I could hear the wail of the siren growing louder behind us, but then as Horace and I blindly trampled on through the dark woods the sound of the siren suddenly spiraled down into silence behind us, doubtless as the policeman left their parked cruiser and cautiously approached Laughing Lou’s abandoned pink Cadillac, their revolvers drawn and cocked.

We ran on, Horace panting and wheezing ahead of me, and me just trying to stay behind him. I figured if I did that then at least I wouldn’t crash into a tree. I’m not sure how Horace didn’t crash into a tree, he was probably running with his arms stretched out straight in front of him, or maybe it was just a drunken man’s good luck.

But then after a minute I heard Horace’s pace slowing, the thudding of his shoes growing heavier, his gasping growing louder and more strangled, and finally I banged right into him, and we both went crashing to the ground.

We lay there in the dead pine needles and cones, side by side, and I stared up into those dark leaves above us, if pines can be said to have leaves, if these were indeed pines and not some other species of evergreen, or even a fictional one, what did I know? 

I stared up into the dark stuff growing out from the trees, which may have been pines.

Horace wheezed and panted. I wheezed and panted. The darkness seemed to vibrate above us. I was covered with sweat, presumably Horace was too.

After a couple of minutes, maybe more – while the darkness churned above me like a universe of nothingness that seemed to be drawing me into it, and the only thing keeping me from it was the last ounce of willpower I still possessed – Horace spoke, whispered hoarsely.

“Arnie? Do you hear that?”

Hear what?” I said, whispered, rasped.

“That’s just it,” he said. “There is nothing – no noise, not a sound.”

He sat up, I could hear him doing this, but now, as my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could see him also, just barely, especially the wet shiny flesh of his face.

I pushed my own corporeal self into a sitting position.

I don’t hear anything either,” I whispered.

“They must have driven on,” Horace said, still in a low voice if not quite a whisper. “What the hell, they got Lou’s car back. They don’t pay those cops enough for them to go chasing through woods at night after a couple of two-bit drifters like us.”

“I guess not,” I said.

“For all they know we’re coldblooded itinerant murderers. Why should they take a chance?”

“That sounds – reasonable,” I said.

I suddenly realized I was still holding between my thumb and forefinger the reefer I had been smoking in the car.

“That’s really odd,” I said.

“What’s really odd?” said Horace.

“I’m still holding that reefer,” I said.

“Oh, good,” he said. “I think I have some matches.”

“Horace!” I croaked.

“What?” he said. “What is it?”

“Horace,” I said, “we can’t smoke this reefer now.”

“Why not?” he said.

“Because, because –” I knew there must be a reason.

“Yes, go on,” said Horace. “I’m waiting. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Because we’re lost in some dark woods,” I said. “We don’t know where we are. And the police are after us!”

“I’m still waiting for a reason why we shouldn’t fire up that doobie,” said Horace, and a flame burst flinchingly into being before my eyes and his smiling sweaty face became visible as he held up the paper match he had just struck.

“Oh, jeeze,” I said.

“C’mon,” he said, “stick that joint in your phiz before the match goes out.”

Without really thinking about it, just as I have done about 99.99% of everything I’ve done in my life, I put the reefer between my lips, and even partially cupped it with one hand as Horace gave me a light.

“There,” he said, shaking out the match as I held in the smoke. “Doesn’t that feel better?”

After holding the smoke in for half a minute I slowly exhaled. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly, I did feel better.

“Huh?” he said. “Right?”

“Yes,” I admitted, quietly, and I let out with a small but not entirely unpleasant cough.

“Hey, where the hell am I?” said a familiar if slightly muffled voice. “Why’s it so dark?”

“Ferdinand!” I cried.

“Ha ha,” said Horace.

“What the fuck?” said Ferdinand’s voice. “Arnie?”

“Ferdinand,” I said, pulling the left breast of my seersucker jacket away from the front of my sweaty work shirt. “You’re in my shirt pocket.”

“I am? How’d I get here. And is that reefer I smell?”

“Yes,” I said, my chin to my chest as I addressed my pocket. “Are you able to fly out?”

“I feel crappy,” he said.

“You drank too much champagne,” I said. “Do you want to rest in there for a while?”

“No, I’m comin’ out,” he said, and I heard him more than saw him buzz up out of my pocket to hover between me and Horace.

“Are you okay, Ferdinand?” I said.

“I’ll tell you what would make me feel a whole lot better,” he said.


“Hit me, Jack.”

“Pardon me?” I said.

“Come on, brother,” he said. “Shotgun.”

“Um?” I said.

“Ha ha,” said Horace. “He means the reefer, Arnie.”

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Give me a toke of that joint you’re bogarting, Arnold.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

I took another drag on the reefer, held it in for a long moment and then slowly blew it out, and in the plume of pale smoke I could see the tiny hovering dark spot of Ferdinand, breathing it in.

“Ah,” he said, after the smoke had dissipated. “Now I feel better!”

“Good man!” said Horace. “Okay, Arnold, pass it over.”

I passed him the reefer.

“So what’s been happening?” said Ferdinand. “Did I miss anything exciting?”

“Clue him in, Arnie,” said Horace, and I heard him sucking on the reefer.

“Well, you passed out from too much champagne, Ferdinand,” I said, trying not to sound judgmental. “And, while Laughing Lou was supposedly getting us some cheeseburgers, that lady Lily told us that Laughing Lou was going to do us no good, and that we should run away. So we did, and Horace stole a Cadillac that apparently was Laughing Lou’s, but then, just as we were about to take off in the Cadillac, Lou came out into the parking lot and he started shooting a pistol, so Horace pulled out and headed down this dark road, and we found a couple of reefers in the glove compartment, and Horace lit one up, and we were smoking it, but then a police car started chasing us, so Horace pulled up at the side of the road and we ran off into the woods until we finally collapsed here.”

“So not too much has been happening?” said Ferdinand.

“No,” I said. “I guess not. Except we don’t know where we are or what we should do or where we should go.”

I heard the mighty sound of Horace exhaling, and I felt and smelled the smoke, and I heard Ferdinand sighing as he breathed it in.

“You got to learn to accentuate the positive, Arnie,” said Horace.

“Tell me about it,” said Ferdinand. “Arnie’s a cool guy and all, but he can really be a downer sometimes.”

“But, but –” I said.

“Lookit, give me a second or two,” said Ferdinand.

“Okay,” I said. What else could I say?

I heard him buzzing upward.

“Cute little guy,” said Horace. “I really like him. But he’s right, Arnie. You shouldn’t be such a doom-and-gloomer.”

“I know,” I said.

“Here.” I saw the glowing red tip of the reefer coming closer to my face. “Take another hit,” he said. “Maybe it’ll loosen up that railroad spike you got stuck up in your ass.”

“But, but –” I said.

“No buts,” he said. “Now take it.”

I took it, managing not to burn my fingers. And I took a good drag, and held it in. I have very little self-control, as the attentive reader will have noticed long before now.  
I heard a sound like the descent of the world’s tiniest buzz bomb and then Ferdinand’s voice:

“Good news,” he said. “I see lights, and they don’t look too far away.”

“What kind of lights, little buddy?” said Horace.

“Like a house or something.”

“Maybe it’s a diner!” said Horace.

“Maybe,” said Ferdinand. “Couldn’t really tell.”

“Hear that, Arnie?” said Horace. “It could be a diner! We can get some chow, maybe find a way out. Who knows? We’re saved!”

I exhaled the smoke. I wasn’t so sure we were saved, but we couldn’t sit here all night.

“Feel better now, Arnie?” said Ferdinand.

“Sure he feels better,” said Horace. He clapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, Arnie!”

I struggled to my feet. I sensed that Horace was having difficulty getting up, so I reached down, found his arm, and pulled him to his feet.

“Thanks, pal,” said Horace. “So, Ferdinand, which way?”

“Follow me, boys,” said my friend the fly, and he seemed to buzz off in the direction we had been running when we collided and fell.

We followed him into the darkness.

(Continued here, and onward unremittingly.)

(Painting by Mel Crair. Please refer to the right hand column of this page for a rigorously up-to-date listing of links to all other available chapters of
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Friday, October 24, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 415: Cadillac

We left our hero Arnold Schnabel just as he was getting into a pink 1955 Cadillac “60 Special”, stolen by his friend the noted author Horace P. Sternwall

(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you have way more idle time on your hands than you know what to do with you may click here to return to the very first chapter of this 73-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“The question is not if Arnold Schnabel deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Melville, with James, or even with Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or Proust; the real question is, do the aforementioned worthies deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Arnold Schnabel?” – Harold Bloom, in the
Boys’ Life Literary Quarterly.

I pulled the door shut and sank back with a strange resignation into the passenger seat, which felt soothing, soft, and rich.

Horace slapped my thigh.

“That’s my Arnie boy,” he said, his face glowing in the electric lights of the car’s dashboard. ”What do ya think of this baby?”

“It’s nice, Horace,” I said.

“Just look at this upholstery, man! This is genuine leather, not that plastic shit. Feel it!”

I put my hand on the ribbed leather of the seat, which was pink, but a paler pink than the pink of the outside of the car, and bordered by a pink which was a darker pink than that of the outside of the car.

“What’s it feel like?” said Horace.

“It feels like the way an angel’s skin must feel,” I said. “Cool, and very soft, yet firm and strong, and – yes – sacred.”

I didn’t know where all that came from, but it just came out.

Horace stared at me. He took a puff on his cigar, and then said:

“Can I use that line too, in one of my stories or novels?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Because you really are a fucking poet, Arnold. We should stop somewhere, I can pick up a little notebook and a pencil and start writing down all this brilliant shit you say. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, not at all, Horace.”

“Try to keep ‘em comin’,” he said.

“I’ll do my best,” I said.

“Great,” he said. “Hey, check the glove compartment, will ya?”

“The glove compartment?”

“Yeah, see what he’s got in there.”

The dashboard was the same dark pink as the leather trim of the seats, except for the parts which were gleaming polished chrome or glass, and I pressed the little button on the lid of the glove compartment; it opened silently.

Horace didn’t wait for me but reached over, stuck his hand in, and felt around in there.

Bingo,” he said, and he brought out a brown leather-encased whiskey flask. He shook it. “Feels full too.” 

He laid the flask next to him on the seat, and put his hand into the compartment again, rummaged through some papers and maps, and this time brought out a couple of enormous cigars. He looked at the labels.

Montecristos. Cubans! Yeah, these are Laughing Lou’s wheels all right. Big fat duplicitous slob.”

He put the cigars in his shirt pocket, then reached his hand into the glove compartment one more time, as the Cadillac’s engine hummed quietly.

“Come, on Laughing Lou,” said Horace. “Work with me, fat man! Give me something. Oh, wait, here we go.”

He brought out a fat hand-rolled cigarette, twisted at its ends. He showed it to me, then ran it under his nose, smiled and nodded.

“Thank you, Laughing Lou!” he said. He held the reefer out to me. “We smoke it now or later?”

“Well,” I said, “considering we’re in the process of stealing someone’s car, it might be better to save it for later.”

“Ha!” he said. “Another classic Arnie bon mot!”

He stuck the reefer into his shirt pocket, then shut the glove compartment and clapped me on the thigh again.

“Okay,” he said. He took a puff of that old cigar of his, and gunned the engine, and then he pointed to two pink and black plush dice which were hanging from the rear view mirror. He flicked one with his finger. “Fuzzy dice. You just know this is old Lou’s Caddy!”

But then he pointed to an apparently magnetized pink and white statuette of the Blessed Mother on top of dashboard.

“But that’s weird,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken Lou for a religious man. Would you, Arnie?”

“Maybe he just likes to cover as many bases as possible,” I said.

Horace stared at me.

“There you go again,” he said. “I really gotta get a copybook, notebook or something, I can write all this shit down.”

He paused for a moment, then remembered the flask on the seat next to him. He picked it up, unscrewed its hinged cap, and took a sniff.

“Scotch,” he said. “I’m a bourbon man myself, but any port in a storm. You want a snort, Arnie?”

“No thanks, Horace, but, listen, do you think it’s a good idea for you to drink anymore if you’re driving?”

“One little snort, pal,” he said, and he lifted the flask and took a few gulps. “Ah,” he said, finally. “That’s some good shit, even if it is scotch.”

He screwed the cap back onto the flask, and shoved the flask inside his jacket.

“Okay, Arnie,” he said. “You be the navigator. Which way.”

“I was thinking to the left,” I said.

“The left,” he said. He gunned the engine again. “Okay, left it is!” He put his cigar in his mouth and put his hand on the gear shift. “Oh, shit,” he said. He was looking into the rear view mirror. “Look who’s coming,” he said.

I turned around and looked back.

Laughing Lou had just lumbered around the corner of the road house. 

He had a pistol in his hand.

“Motherfuckers!” he yelled across the yard. “I’ll fucking kill you both!”

Still lumbering, he extended his arm with the pistol in his fat hand, and the pistol seemed to be pointing straight at me. I ducked my head behind the seat-back, and I heard what was either a gunshot or a car’s backfire but which was undoubtedly the former, and then the Cadillac’s motor roared and I fell back against the dashboard as Horace yelled something like the war cry of a proud young Comanche warrior. I was thrust back against the seat again as the car lurched to the left and two more loud shots rang out in the night amidst the roaring of the car’s engine and the screeching of its tires and then one more shot, less loud, and after thirty seconds of no shots and no more screeching of tires but just the strong solid hum of the motor I sat up into the cool air streaming through the open windows, and then the sound of Horace shouting, “Ha ha! I knew that fat bastard wouldn’t shoot at his own car! I knew it! He’s too fucking cheap to shoot at his own car!”

He drove on, smiling broadly, then he turned to me, suddenly looking serious, or at least not smiling.

“You’re okay, right, Arnie boy? He didn’t get you, did he?”

For an awful moment I thought maybe I had been shot but hadn’t noticed it, but a quick glance down at my seersucker jacket and plaid work shirt and grey tie allayed my anxiety.

“No, I’m okay I think,” I said.

“Knew it,” he said. “But there ya go, y’know, Arnold? That just proves he was up to no good. Why else did he come back out packing a .45, you tell me? Huh? Why was that?”

“Maybe he was afraid we’d try to steal his car?” I said.

“’Maybe he –’” Horace stopped what he saying and looked at me. “See, there ya go, Arnie, coming out with all these good lines! I really gotta get a notebook, copybook, something –”

“Horace,” I said, “please keep your eyes on the road.”

“What? Oh. Okay,” he said, and he turned his face back to the road just in time to twist the wheel so we wouldn't run off at a curve to crash into the bordering dark thick woods.

He gave out with another young Comanche’s war cry, and stared away at the road ahead, the headlights illuminating only the dark asphalt and those thick woods whipping past us on either side. It was a two lane road, or at least there was room for two cars to drive abreast just barely, but there was no white line painted down the middle, and there were no lights at the sides of the road, just those dark thick woods that grew to just a yard or so of the road on each side.

“Hey, y’know what this looks like?” said Horace.

“Hell?” I said. 

He shook his head, smiling.

“No, not Hell, Arnie. Try again.”

“The road to Hell?” I said.

He nodded his head, still smiling.

“Definitely gotta get that notebook, write down all these good lines of yours. No, Arnie, ya know what this looks like? Ya know what it looks like?”

He turned and looked at me again.

“Please keep your eyes on the road, Horace,” I said. “And tell me what it looks like.”

He put his eyes back on the road, then made a gesture with his right hand.

“It looks like the Pine Barrens,” he said. “The Jersey Pine Barrens. See. Those are pine trees.”

I looked out the windscreen to the trees zipping by in the headlights. True, they were some sort of evergreen trees.

“You think so?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “That means we’re in the state of New Jersey. And that’s something we can work with, Arnie.”

I admit I felt an sudden intimation of hope.

Horace took one last puff on that wet ragged stub of his cigar, the same cigar he had been smoking ever since I met him, and then he flicked it out his window. 

“Just look at that dashboard, Arnold,” said Horace. “A thing of beauty.”

This was true, the lights and dials and the chromium and the shiny switches and the deep pink leather – this was a form of beauty. Horace turned the radio switch on and fiddled with the dials until he came to “The Twelfth of Never” by Johnny Mathis, and he left that on. Then he punched in the knob of the automatic cigarette lighter. Then he took the reefer out of his pocket and ran it under his nose again.

“Another thing New Jersey means,” he said, although he hadn’t mentioned anything that it meant, per se. He turned and looked at me again. “You know what New Jersey means, don’t you, Arnie?”

I pondered before answering.

“It means it’s not the old Jersey?” I said.

“No, Arnie,” he said, and he smiled, and to my relief he at least glanced back to the road before continuing, “but that’s another good one. No, my friend, New Jersey means,” and now he was staring straight at me again, “diners.”


Diners. Best diners in the country, and all-night diners too. How does that sound, Arnie boy?”

“It sounds good, Horace,” I said. “But if you don’t keep your eyes on the road we’ll crash and we’ll never make it to a diner, unless they have diners in hell.”

“Diners in hell!” he cried. And then more softly. “Diners in hell. You kill me, Arnie. You slay me.”

He put the reefer into his mouth.

The knob of the automatic lighter popped out of the dashboard.

Horace pulled out the lighter, and put its glowing red end to the end of his reefer, and lit it, taking in the smoke deeply with several deep sucking breaths.

Then he proffered the lit reefer to me.

Keeping the smoke in his lungs, he said, in a constricted voice:

“Here you mad bastard. Take a hit.”

I took the reefer.

I felt I had nothing to lose by doing so.

I took a drag, a deep one, held it in as the dark pine trees (if that’s what they were) in the Cadillac’s headlights streamed past us on either side and as we soared ahead into the darkness ahead.

The marijuana almost immediately suffused me with a feeling of relaxation. 

My stomach seemed to call to me from a distance, reminding me that it wanted to be fed.
I took another drag and held the smoke in. 

Relax,” I told my stomach; at the rate Horace was driving we were bound to be out of these woods before long, which meant we must reach a diner before I starved to death.

I exhaled the smoke, and felt even more relaxed.

Maybe some creamed chipped beef on toast,
I thought, or perhaps a western omelette, with hash browns, and ham with red eye gravy?

“Until the twelfth of never,” sang Johnny Mathis, “and that’s a long, long time…”

Then I heard a siren, the unmistakeable sound of a police siren. 

And I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the flashing red lights of a police car.

“Oh, shit,” said Horace.

(Continued here; only roughly ten thousand more of Arnold’s marble copybooks left to transcribe.)

(Kindly look down the right hand column of this page to find a sometimes up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, now also available for a very modest sum on your Kindle™. All proceeds will be administered by the author of this website, in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Appreciation Society™ of Philadelphia, PA.) 

Friday, October 17, 2014

“Steel Trap”

"Steel Trap"

by Horace P. Sternwall  

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Remedial English Composition, Olney Community College; author of Sternwall: The Forgotten Giant; A Biography for Younger Readers; the Olney Community College Press.

Original illustrations by rhoda penmarq.

“Come in,” said the army doctor. “Sit down, uh, Mortimer –”

“That’s me, sir. Mortimer. How ya doin’?”

“Um, I’m fine, Mortimer. How are you?”

“Never better, sir. Never better. Fit as a fiddle.”

“Well, the results of your physical seem to show that you’re in pretty good shape. A trifle underweight maybe.”

“I don’t really like to eat too much, Doc. You know why?”

“No, Mortimer. Why?”

“’Cause I got to keep my edge.”

“Your edge?”

“That’s right, Doc. My edge. I got to stay sharp in my line of work. That’s why I don’t drink nor smoke, neither. I got to stay sharp.”

“And your line of work is –”

“Elevator operator, sir. Hotel St Crispian. You ever stop there?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”

“I didn’t think you ever did, Doc. Ya know why?”

Mortimer waited patiently for the doctor to reply, and after a half a minute the doctor did reply.

“No, Mortimer. Why?”

“‘Cause I woulda remembered you, Doc,” said Mortimer. “That’s why. Because like a steel trap my mind is. I remember every person ever stepped into my elevator.”

“Every one?”

“Every goddam one, sir, doctor, captain – what you want me to call you?”

“You can call me Captain Katz, Mortimer.”

“Captain then. Steel trap my mind is. Now – for all I know you might’ve checked into the St Crispian when I was off duty, checked out when I was off-duty. Gone up and down the elevator while you was staying at the hotel and always when I was off-duty. It’s possible. It ain’t probable but it’s possible.”

“I’ve never stayed at the St Crispian, Mortimer.”

“That’s what I figured, Doc. Captain. Sir. There ain’t many people get in and out of that hotel I don’t know about. I ain’t saying there ain’t been nobody but I am saying they been few and far between. And I ain’t just blowing my own horn here. You ask anybody. You ask Raoul, you ask Roland, you ask Mr. Bernstein, you ask Mr. Nolan.”

“And who are all these –”

“You ask Mr. Brown. You ask Miss Charlton. Go ahead, ask them, I got nothing to hide.”

“Okay. Well. If I may ask you a few questions, Mortimer.”

“Ask away, Doc. I mean Captain. I got nothing to hide. An open book am I.”

“Well, it says here that you’re requested a deferment from the draft.”

“That is correct, your honor.”


“That is correct, Captain.”

“And the reason you give is ‘war work’?”

“That is also correct, Captain, sir.”

“But – your work is operating a hotel elevator?”

“I can see you have been paying attention, sir. Taking notes. That’s good.”

“Well, okay. May I just ask you this, Mortimer: how is it that you consider operating a hotel elevator to be ‘war work’?”

“You really want to know, Doc?”

“Yes. I would, Mortimer.”

“This is just between you and me and the walls of this office, right?”

“This is confidential, yes, Mortimer.”

“It’s the fivers, sir, Doc, your honor.”

“The what?”

“The fivers.”

“The fivers?”

“That’s right, sir. Fivers. Fifth columnists.”

“Oh. Fifth columnists.”

“That’s right, sir. Them fifth columnists. They come in sometimes. You can’t keep ‘em out. It ain’t the hotel’s fault. They look like anybody else. Like you. Like me. Well, maybe not like me, but some of ‘em look like you. Some of them.”

“Fifth columnists?”

“That is right, your honor. You know what a fifth columnist is, right?”

“Well, a fifth columnist is someone who is secretly working for one of our country’s enemies.”

“That is correct, sir. Bingo. I see you have done your homework.”

“But, Mortimer, I still don’t quite see what your ‘war work’ consists of.”

“My job, sir, is to keep an eye out for these fivers.”

“Keep an eye out.”

“That is correct, your honor. I keep an eye out for the fivers, and when I spy them I make a mental note of it.”

“A mental note.”

“I don’t write nothing down, Captain, sir. It’s all in here.” Mortimer tapped the side of his skull. “In here. The steel trap.”

“So what you’re saying is – and, please, correct me if I’m wrong, Mortimer – is that in your work as a hotel elevator operator you’re able to, shall we say, spy on our country’s enemies? And that this is your ‘war work’?”

“That is correct, sir. This is why I need you to give me an exemption from the draft. Hey, I am more than willing to go into the army. More than willing. But answer me this, your honor: I goes into the army, then who’s gonna keep an eye out for fivers what check into the St Crispian? Who? Jackson? Jackson wouldn’t know a fiver from a fruitcake. Julius? Hey, don’t get me wrong, Julius is a good man, he taught me everything I know about operating an elevator, but, all due respect, Julius is getting old. Thirty-five years he’s been on the job, and you ask me he’s lost his edge. So. Let me ask you something, your honor. I ask you this: I go in the army, who they gonna get to replace me? Some kid what don’t know nothing, or else some old guy don’t even know that much? Who they gonna get to spot the fivers?”

Again Mortimer paused, waiting for an answer. When the doctor said nothing Mortimer asked his question again.

“Who they gonna get, Doc?”

“I don’t know, Mortimer,” said the doctor, quickly.

“They gonna get nobody, that’s who, your honor. And then next thing you know that hotel is a hotbed of fivers.”

“Like – German agents?”


“Yes. Nazis.”

“Possibly, sir. Possibly Germans and Nazis. But they ain’t what I’m worried about.”


“No, sir. It ain’t the Nazis that we got to worry about.”


“No, sir. It ain’t the Nazis and it ain’t the Japs. It ain’t the Eyeties and it ain’t the Bulgarians neither.”


“It’s the people from out there.”

“Out there?”

“It’s them people who fly in from the other dimension. Dimension X.”

“Dimension X?”

“That is correct, your honor. I first read about Dimension X in a magazine in this article written by a personal friend of mine lives at the hotel, fella name of Fred Flynn. You ever hear of him?”

“Fred – “

“Flynn. Fred Flynn. He wrote this magazine article, left it on one of them coffee tables in the lobby. ‘Invaders from Dimension X’ was the name of the article. And it was all about these fivers from this other dimension come to New York to take over.”

“I see.”

“My job, your honor, the way I see it, is keep an eye out for these fivers, from Dimension X.”

“Keep an eye out for them.”

“Keep an eye out for ‘em, keep an eye on ‘em. And if I hear they’re up to something I will report it to the proper authorities. In my case I guess that would be Mr. Nolan.”

“And who is Mr. Nolan?”

“He’s the house dick.”

Captain Katz said nothing for a long moment. There was a packet of Old Golds on his desk. He picked up the cigarettes, took one out, tapped it several times on the desk, and then lit it with the Zippo lighter that had been sitting on the desk next to the cigarettes.

“Well,” said Mr. Brown, “I hear you had an appointment at the draft board today, Mortimer.”

“That is correct, Mr. Brown.”

Mortimer pulled his lever that closed the cast-iron grillwork doors of the elevator.

“And so how did it go? Are we to lose you to the army, my boy?”

“No, sir, thank God that will not be the case, on account of I got a deferment, sir.”

“Oh, really, Mortimer? What is it? Flat feet? Heart murmur?”

“No, Mr. Brown, my feet ain’t flat and my heart don’t murmur.”

“So why the deferment?”

“War work, Mr. Brown.”

“War work?”

“War work, Mr. Brown. More than that I ain’t at liberty to say. Usual floor, sir?”

“Uh, yes, usual floor, Mortimer. Thank you.”

Mortimer pulled the lever that started the car, with its usual sudden lurch.

They rode in silence up to Mr. Brown’s floor, the seventh, and Mortimer opened the elevator doors.

“War work, Mr. Brown,” he said. “War work.”

Mr. Brown stepped out of the car.

“By the way, Mr. Brown?”

“Yes, Mortimer?”

“You see anything unusual around the hotel, anything at all, especially if I ain’t on duty at the time, I want you to feel free to tell me about it.”

“Anything unusual?”

“Anything at all, Mr. Brown. Feel free to come to me.”

Mr. Brown had nothing to say to this, or at least nothing he could say at the moment.

Mortimer pulled the big lever that closed the elevator’s doors.


(This is a slightly revised version of a story originally published in a more luxuriously-illustrated form in New Tales of the Hotel St Crispian. We will return next week with an all-new and thrilling chapter of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™!)

Friday, October 10, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 414: fools

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends the noted author Horace P. Sternwall and (currently sleeping it off in Arnold’s shirt pocket) Ferdinand the talking fly, as Arnold once again must make a life or death decision…

(Kindly go here to read our preceding chapter; if you think you might have what it takes to become an Arnold Schnabel completist then click here to go back to the very beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award™-winning masterwork.)

“Arnold Schnabel has been called the American Proust, the American Kafka, the American Samuel Beckett, and even the American Homer; but I think it suffices to say (and it says more than enough) that he was – and remains, in all his inimitable glory – ‘the American Arnold Schnabel’.” – Harold Bloom, in the
U.S. News & World Report Literary Supplement.

I stared out at those dark woods beyond the graveled lot, those woods beyond which Lily had said lay nothing.

Perhaps the road out front led also to nothing, but at least it was a road.

Perhaps it led to somewhere, maybe even to a roadside diner where we could get some food. This didn’t seem to be asking too much.

“Okay, I vote for the road,” I said.

“Arnie,” said Horace, a little too loudly, because after all he was pretty drunk, “You’re a man after my own heart! The road it is! The great open road! The great and glorious American open –”

“Okay,” I said. 

“Road,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“I’m with you, pal!” he yelled.

I started to go to the right, but Horace, who was still holding onto my arm, started to go left, and so both of us were pulled up short.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“Nothing, I was just trying to go that way,” I said, and I pointed my free thumb to the right.

“Why that way?” he said.

“No reason,” I said.

Now he spoke lower:

“No reason? Are you sure?”

“Horace,” I said, “I don’t care. What difference does it make?”

“How do I know?” he said. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want to go the other way?” I said.

“I don’t know.” He turned and looked the other way. It looked pretty much exactly like the way I had been headed. “What do you think?” he said.

“I think we should just choose a way to go, and go,” I said.

“Wow,” he said, after a pause.

“What,” I said.

“That was really kind of, I don’t know, profound,” he said. “I’d like to use that line in one of my stories or novels sometime. I mean if that’s okay.”

“Sure, Horace,” I said. “Be my guest.”

“Thanks, Arnold. You know what? You’re okay. I’m sorry about what I said about you earlier.”

“That’s okay, Horace,” I said.

“I mean about you being a little, you know, self-absorbed and all.”

“Really, it’s all right.”

“Self-obsessed,” he said. “Narcissistic.”

“Forget it,” I said.

“Solipsistic,” he said.

“Um,” I said.

“You’re not like that, Arnie.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“I mean, you know, all of us are a little self-absorbed really, don’t you think?”

“Sure,” I said.

“You’re no worse than the next guy.”

“Right,” I said.

“No worse than the next guy.”

“Yes, you said that already, Horace, now –”

“No worse than the next guy and better than some I’ve met I’ll tell ya that much, buddy.”

“Thanks, Horace.”

“I don’t care what they say about you, Arnie. You’re okay in my book.”

“Good, Horace,” I said. “I appreciate it. Now let’s go.”

I gave his arm a tug, it was his right arm, but he disengaged it and patted his jacket pocket.

“What are you doing, Horace?” I said.

“Just want to light my cigar. You got a match?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Oh, wait,” he said. He stuck his hand into the pocket of his work trousers, and brought out a book of matches, showed them to me.


“Great,” I said.

And I waited while he stuck his dead cigar in his mouth and relit it. It took him at least three of the paper matches, but finally he got it lit.

“Okay,” he said. He put his arm in mine again, and I couldn’t help but think that we were setting a terrible precedent, with him so casually taking my arm this way. But then I supposed this was better than having him fall to the ground every third step. “I’m ready now,” he said.

“Great,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“But which way?” he said.

I sighed.

Hey you two!” hissed Lily from her chair on the terrace. Well, she didn’t exactly hiss, I suppose that’s something I picked up from the trashy novels I read. Let’s say she called out in a sort of very loud whisper. Anyway, “What’s keeping you guys?” she hissed. I turned to look at her. She was leaning forward over the table, staring at us as if she couldn’t quite believe the idiocy she was witnessing. “I told you two to scram! How stupid are you?”

“Sorry, Lily!” I called, or hissed, or whispered loudly.

Don’t be sorry, just go, before it’s too late! Unless you both want to die a horrible death!

“We’re going!” I called again, and I pulled on Horace’s arm, leading us to the right.

Why are you going that way?” she yelled.

I stopped and turned again.

“I don’t know,” I said, croaked, almost cried. “Does it matter?”

“It might be safer to go to the left,” she said, in almost a normal voice.

“See, I told you,” said Horace, and he pulled on my arm, and we went a couple of steps that way.

No! Stop!” said Lily.

Of course we stopped, bumping into each other.

Lily held up a hand.

“What is it?” I said.

Quick, go the other way,” she called. “I think I heard Lou turning the key in the door back there.

“Oh, Christ,” I admit I said, but I pulled on Horace’s arm, and started us back the way I had originally meant to go, to the right.

Wait!” she called again.

We stopped again. I looked back at her. She still had one hand raised, and her head was cocked in the direction of the French windows that led back inside.

“Now what?” said Horace.

“Never mind,” she called. She paused. “No! I heard the door open! Go! Go! Damn your eyes, you crazy fools, go!

“Goodbye, Miss Lily!” called Horace. “And thanks for everything!”

I had had enough of this. I gripped Horace’s arm tightly in mine and pulled him quickly along, down the length of the terrace, and around the building to the right.

I felt better once we had turned the corner.

This side of the building was just bare grey brick, with some windows on the second floor. There were a couple of dumpsters there against the wall. To the left, beyond a graveled driveway, were those dark woods, and ahead I could see the brightly lit graveled lot with its parked cars and trucks, with the dark highway beyond, and more dark woods beyond that. 

“Come on, Horace,” I said, and I pulled him along.

We came upon a black cat, standing near one of the dumpsters.

The cat meowed, and I was just glad that it didn’t speak.

“Hi, kitty,” said Horace, and he went over to try to pet the cat, dragging me along with him.

The cat ran under one of the dumpsters.

“Kitty?” said Horace.

I had no time for this, or, rather, I had all the time in the world, but I chose not to spend it in this fashion, and I pulled Horace forcibly along, and then we were out in the brightly lit parking lot.

“Hey, y’know what we should do, Arnie?” said Horace, when we were about halfway to the road. He pulled me to a stop. “Y’know what we should do?”

“What, Horace?” I said.

“Y’know what we should do?”

“Why don’t you just tell me,” I said.

“You want me to?”

“I want to get out of here,” I said.

“Well, so do I, Arnie. That’s what I’m talking about.”

“Okay,” I said. “What is it?”

“What is it we should do?”

“Yes,” I said.

All this time he was hanging onto my left arm, and he really was too close to me. I turned my head away because his breath smelled of cheap cigars, of beer and whiskey and fine champagne. Even with the fine champagne it was a bad combination.

But he moved even closer to me, bringing his mouth closer to my ear.

We should take one of these cars,” he said.

I turned my head and looked at him, even though I didn’t want to.

“Steal a car?” I said.

“If you want to call it that, sure,” he said. “But why not let’s just say we’re going to borrow one. Just till we get to wherever  it is we’re going to.”

“Look, Horace,” I said. “Even if I were to steal a car, which I would never do, I don’t know how to steal a car.”

“Oh,” he said, smiling. “Really?”

Yes,” I said. “I mean, don’t you have to, you know, know how to hot-wire it or something? And how do you break in to one? Don’t you need a coat hanger, or –”

All Horace did was smile and shake his head, as if he were talking to someone unbelievably naïve. Then he put his cigar in his mouth and stuck his left hand into his jacket pocket, bringing out a steel ring on which were a couple of dozen keys. He held the keys up and jangled them.

“Oh,” I said. “Look, Horace, I really don’t think I could –”

He let go of my arm, then took the cigar out of his mouth, and looked at me.

“Arnie,” he said.

“Yes?” I said.

“Maybe you couldn’t. And by ‘you’ I mean the old Arnie Schnabel. But now you’re the new improved Arnie Schnabel. A rummy of the open road! And this Arnie Schnabel is gonna take a little joy ride! You see that pink Cadillac over there?” He pointed with his cigar at a pink Cadillac, parked right near the front entrance of the road house. “’55 Cadillac 60 Special. Who d’ya think owns it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Elvis Presley?”

“Wrong!” he said. “I’m gonna lay you eight-to-five that fine heap o’ Detroit steel belongs to none other than that fat bastard that was gonna get us killed!”

“Laughing Lou?” I said, keeping up my end of the conversation.

“Yes,” said Horace, “you got it right on the first guess! That’s just the sort of car an asshole like him would drive!”

“But you can’t know that for sure,” I said. “Look, let’s just –”

But I was wasting my breath because he was already headed quickly over to the Cadillac, weaving only slightly.

I stood where I was. I had always been a law-abiding citizen, unless of course the occasional bout of public drunkenness is to be held against me. I turned away and looked out at the road. Once we got out there, if we ever did, we had to make yet another choice: to the right, or to the left. Both ways seemed to lead to nothing but darkness. Something told me we should go left, I didn’t know why, but for some reason left seemed a little less scary than right. Maybe after a while we would reach a diner, and we could get some food. I was pretty sure I had some money on me, but not completely sure.

Behind me I heard a car start up. I didn’t turn around. As long as I didn’t turn around it was possible that someone had come out of the road house and had got into their car, and started it.

I heard car wheels on the gravel behind me, and then a car pulled up to my left and stopped. It was the pink Cadillac. I bent down and looked into the front side window, which was being cranked down by Horace, who was leaning over from the driver’s seat. He waved his hand at me.

“Come on, Arnie, get in!”

I opened the car door and got in.

(Continued here, and at this rate possibly well into the latter half of this century.)

(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a possibly reasonably up-to-date of listing of links to all other officially-released chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©, now also available for a mere pittance on your Kindle™. Nihil obstat: Bishop John J. “Big John” Graham.) 

Friday, October 3, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 413: go, now

We rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here at a table on the rear terrace of Lily’s Road House, in the company of Lily herself and Laughing Lou Abernathy, as well as the noted novelist Horace P. Sternwall and Arnold’s faithful friend Ferdinand, the bibulous and garrulous fly…

(Please click here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you are an unfortunate sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Syndrome and are looking for a harmless new project you may go here to return to the very beginning of this 72-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“What the great heroic epics were to our distant ancestors, such is Arnold Schnabel’s towering
chef-d'œuvre to the discerning littérateur of today.” – Harold Bloom, in the Us Weekly Literary Supplement.

“What do we have?” said Laughing Lou, after just a very slight pause. “Ha ha! What do we have? Okay, how about our famous elk-and-Great White Northern Bean cassoulet? Or what about braised wild boar short ribs in Lily’s own barbecue sauce, which you can order either ‘red hot’ or ‘unbearably hot’, ha ha! Oh, or maybe you’d prefer the possum goulash, with your choice of stone-ground grits or wild rice on the side, served with parboiled field greens drizzled with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil?”

“How about just a burger?” I said.

“A burger,” said Laughing Lou, after a slightly longer pause this time.

“Yeah, just a burger,” I said. “Maybe a side of french fries.”

“A burger,” he said. “With a side of french fries.”

“Yes,” I said.

He took a puff on that big cigar of his. Somehow it was still big and long, even though he had been smoking it ever since we had first met him what seemed hours ago.

“What about a brace of pheasants then,” he said, “slow-roasted, with a huckleberry glaze, accompanied by a mélange of stir-fried garden-fresh vegetables and tiny boiled potatoes sprinkled with a garlic-infused sauce béarnaise? Ha ha?”

“Just a burger,” I said. “Maybe two burgers, depending on how big they are. I am pretty hungry.”

“Well, if you’re not crazy about pheasant let me recommend our house pot-roasted hare, served with a honey woodruff claret reduction, with peeled asparagus en hollandaise, nestled in a bed of mashed yams drizzled with freshly-churned farm-fresh butter?”

“A couple of burgers with cheese and bacon would be great,” I said. “Maybe some pickles on the side.”

“How about a plate of mountain brook eels, boiled in hock and doused in a tasty warm blueberry vinaigrette, accompanied by pickled beets and radishes, and deep fried parsnip fingers, lightly breaded in challah meal, with a spicy chicory catsup dip?”

Something came over me.

I suppose it was because of the intense hunger I was suffering, that and the general strain of all that I had been through recently and not so recently, everything I had been through since awakening so long ago in my little attic room in my aunts’ house in Cape May, all that and the deepening realization that since I was in a fictional universe I could pretty much do anything I wanted to do, no matter how uncharacteristic.

Anyway, what I did was to pick up Lily’s sparkly black purse, click it open, and take out the revolver that was in it, the revolver that Lily had taken off of Laughing Lou.

I pointed the gun at Lou. It was heavy and cool in my hand, and my finger was on the trigger.

Laughing Lou held out both his hands, palms outward, fat fingers splayed, letting his cigar drop to the table.

“Hey. Arnold,” he said. “Relax, fella.”

“I want some food,” I said. “I want at least two cheeseburgers, with American cheese. I want them cooked medium rare, with bacon, and with lettuce, tomato and raw onion. And I want a big basket of french fries.”

“And pickles,” said Ferdinand, from inside his glass of champagne.

“And pickles,” I said. “Do you want anything, Ferdinand?”

“I’ll take a small bowl of honey,” he said.

“Small bowl of honey for Ferdinand,” I said. “Horace?”

“Wow,” said Horace, “I didn’t know you were such a tough guy, Arnold.”

(He was really slurring his words now. What he said actually sounded more like, “Wow, uh din know ya were zudge a duff guy,” but I’ll go insane – or more insane – if I have to put it down as such, so I will continue to transcribe his words more or less as if he were sober.)

“Tell Lou what you want to eat, Horace,” I said.

What happened next got a little tedious, much too tedious even for me to recount in detail, with Horace asking Laughing Lou to describe all the dishes he already just had described, and several more, but finally he went for the same thing I had ordered, but with the burgers done “Pittsburgh rare” instead of medium rare.

“Okay, then!” said Laughing Lou, finally. “Ha ha. I’ll go put the order in.”

He pushed his chair back, and stood up. While he had been taking Horace’s order he had picked his cigar up off the table and put it into his ashtray. He now picked it up again and looked at it with a serious sort of expression somehow emanating from the fatness of his enormous face.

“Cigar’s gone out,” he said. “You know, you should never relight a cigar after it’s gone out. It spoils the whole experience. And it’s a shame because this was a genuine Cuban –”

I was still holding the gun pointed in his direction, although I had been resting the butt on the table. I raised the gun and aimed it at his chest.

“Okay!” he said. “Ha ha! I’m going, I’m going! Sheesh!”

And he finally did make some sort of motion as if he were going, but then he stopped himself and addressed Lily.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Lily. Would you like something? I know you like to watch your diet, so how about maybe the small lake trout en beurre, with some sautéed leeks in a light sauce béchamel, with crispy fried sourdough toast points?”

“I’ll just pick at Arnold’s fries,” she said. “If that’s okay with Arnold.” She was looking  at me now. “That okay with you, Arnold?”

“Better bring an extra basket of fries then,” I said to Laughing Lou.

“Great,” he said. “So that’s three large baskets of fries, four burgers with the works –”

“Don’t forget the bacon,” said Horace.

“With bacon, ha ha,” said Laughing Lou. “And of course pickles.”

“And a small bowl of honey,” said Ferdinand.

“And a small bowl of honey,” said Laughing Lou. “Ha ha! And that’s burgers medium rare for Arnold and Pittsburgh rare for Horace. Y’know, Arnold, maybe you should try your burgers Pittsburgh rare? That’s when you cook 'em so that –


“Will they come out quicker if I have them that way?” I said.

“Why, yes,” he said, “in point of fact they would, but –”

“Great,” I said. “That’s how I’ll have them then.”

“Fabulous,” said Laughing Lou. “Okay, don’t anyone go away, I’ll have the chef put a rush on it, ha ha!”

Finally he lumbered off, still saying ha ha as he went through the French doors and back inside.

I sighed. I picked up Lily’s purse again, and started to put the pistol back into it.

“You might want to hold onto that Chief’s Special, honey,” she said.

Her hand was on my thigh. I think she had taken it off at least for a while there, but now it was back. 

I looked at her, into her eyes, something I had been avoiding doing ever since I met her not so long ago. She seemed serious, so I put the pistol into the side pocket of my seersucker jacket. It made my jacket hang down lumpily on that side, but that was the least of my worries.

There was an uncomfortable moment here, or I suppose I should say an even more uncomfortable moment than the several dozen which had preceded it.

Horace half-rose from his seat, picked up the magnum of champagne and filled his glass again, spilling some on the table.

Ferdinand was back to lapping up the champagne in his glass.

I tried not to think about Lily’s hand on my thigh, and I took a drink of my own champagne.

Soon, with any luck, I would have some food in front of me. Maybe it would even be good food. I would certainly settle for average food, as long as it did not make me sick.

All I had to do was wait, but it was awkward just sitting here in silence, with Lily caressing my thigh.

I decided to try to make conversation, just to make the time go by more quickly.

“So, Lily,” I said, “this is your place?”

I looked at her, only because it would have seemed impolite not to.

She took a drag on her cigarette before replying.

“Do you really care?” she said.

“Well, uh, sure,” I said. “It seems like a nice place. I, uh, really liked your singing, by the way.”

“You poor fool,” she said.

“Pardon me?” I said.

“You poor damned fool. Pardon my French.”

“I, um,” I said.

Suddenly she took her hand off my thigh, then raised it up, made a fist, and slammed the heel of her hand down hard on the table, causing her glass to fall over, as well as Ferdinand’s and the one that Laughing Lou had left on the table, but not mine and Horace’s, as we had been holding onto ours.

Damn it!” she yelled.

“Hey!” yelled Ferdinand right back, buzzing angrily around in front of her. “Watch it, lady! You spilled all my damn champagne!”

“Bother your champagne!” she said. “Don’t you three see what you’re in for, sitting here swilling your champagne, waiting for your God damned cheeseburgers –”

“And a bowl of honey for me!” yelled Ferdinand.

“And your bowl of honey!” she yelled. “Don’t you three see?”

“Look, doll,” said Ferdinand, “all I’m seeing is that you’ve maybe had a drop too much champagne yourself, so how’s about somebody pick my glass up and give me a refill?”

“I’ll fill you up, pal,” said Horace, and after quickly swallowing what was left in his glass he got halfway out of his seat again so he could grab the bottle out of the ice bucket.

“But don’t you all see,” hollered Lily, “that this so-called ‘proposition’ of Lou’s is going to get you all killed?”

Horace was holding the bottle in his hands, ready to start pouring, but now he stopped what he was doing.

“Killed?” he said.

“You heard me,” she said. “Killed! Dead! Deader than the audience was back there in the club the night we booked a deaf-mute convention! Dead!”

“Um, how do you mean, dead exactly?” said Horace. 

“I mean deader than Fatty Arbuckle’s reputation after he squashed that hooker to death.”

“Fatty got acquitted of that charge,” said Ferdinand. “It was a goddam witch-hunt –”

“Listen, fly,” said Lily, and she pointed her fingernail at him. Her fingernails were painted red, like her lips, another detail I probably forgot to mention. “Can’t you see it didn’t matter if he was innocent? The public, the newspapers, all the holier-than-thou square Johns and Janes in Dubuque had already tried and condemned him!”

“Okay,” said Horace. He had sat back down, still holding the magnum in both his hands. “Setting aside Fatty Arbuckle’s guilt or innocence for the nonce, what’s this about us getting killed?”

“Weren’t you listening to Lou’s so-called proposition?” said Lily.

“Well, uh, sort of,” said Horace.

“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?” she yelled.

“Well, okay, I wasn’t really listening, I suppose,” said Horace. “I gathered he wanted us to do something or other, but –”

“But you were too busy swilling free champagne to pay attention, weren’t you?” she said.

“Well, it’s true,” said Horace, “that I very rarely have a chance to drink such fine wine, and it seemed a shame not to give it my full attention –”

“Unbelievable,” she said. “And what about you, Ferdinand, and by the way I apologize for addressing you as ‘fly’, that was very rude of me.”

“No need to apologize, Lily,” said Ferdinand, “and I’ll admit flat out I didn’t pay attention to a single word that boring fat-ass said. Why, did I miss something?”

“Oh, my God,” said Lily. She turned to me. “Thank God these two have you for a friend, Arnold. But you heard what Lou said. Didn’t it strike you as just a little too good to be true?”

“Well,” I said, “maybe just a little.” I felt embarrassed that I too had not been paying attention when a major plot point was being revealed, and so just to do something I stood Lily’s wine glass up again and then did the same for Ferdinand’s glass. “Maybe you should pour Ferdinand and Lily both a little more champagne, Horace,” I said.

“Oh, of course,” said Horace, and, half-rising again, he leaned over and poured champagne into Lily’s glass, spilling some onto the table, and then poured some into Ferdinand’s glass and onto the table near it.

“Thanks, buddy,” said Ferdinand, and once again he flew down into the glass.

Horace made as if to top off my own glass but I put my hand over it. “I’m good, thanks,” I said. 

Horace refilled his own glass one more time, turned the bottle upside down and gave it a few shakes.

“Well, another dead soldier,” he said, and he put the bottle down on the table, sat himself down and picked up his glass.

I glanced at Lily. She was sitting there staring at me.

“You weren’t paying attention, either, were you, Arnold? Were you?”

I paused before answering.

“I was hungry,” I said.

She sat back in her chair.

“So none of you were paying attention. Your very lives on the line, and you just couldn’t be bothered. That is really pathetic.”

“Hey, Miss Lily,” said Horace, “when Lou gets back with the food, do you think it would be okay if we got another bottle?”

“Eat, drink, and be merry, huh?” she said. “Because tonight you all die.”

“Excuse me, Lily,” I said. “I’m sorry that none of us were paying attention to Lou’s proposition, but I gather that you think it’s not such a great idea that we accept it?”

She stared at me for a long moment, and took a drag from her cigarette before replying.

“You have the gun,” she said. “In your pocket. Take my advice, and just get the hell out of here, before Lou gets back. Just go, all three of you, now.”

“What about the burgers?” said Horace.

“You heard me,” she said. “The three of you. Scram, now. Make tracks.”

“Couldn’t we maybe just get the food wrapped up to go?” said Horace.

She ignored what he said, and looked at me. She touched my face with her hand, with its red fingernails.

“Maybe we could have had something, Arnold. In another life. In another world. Now goodbye.”

“But I really am hungry,” I said.

She took her hand away, and then brought it back, slapping me in the face, hard.

“Damn you!” she said. “Can’t you see I’m trying to save your life? Yours and the lives of your two drunken friends? Now go!”

I pushed my chair back, and stood up.

“Okay,” I said. “Horace, Ferdinand, I think we’d better go.”

Horace lifted his glass, poured its contents down his gullet, put down the glass, and then stood up, knocking his chair over, its metal clanging on the stone paving of the terrace.

“Okay, what the hell,” he said. He picked his cigar up out of the ashtray in front of him. The cigar was dead, but he didn’t care. “I’m ready to go.”

“Ferdinand?” I said. “Let’s go, pal.”

He didn’t say anything, so I picked up his glass and looked into it. He was floating silently on the surface of the champagne.

“Is he dead?” said Horace.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Just passed out.”

I stuck my finger into the champagne and carefully lifted him out. He was stirring ever so sightly, so I figured he really was okay, and would soon sleep it off. I gently placed him in my workman’s shirt breast pocket.

Lily was sitting there looking at me. I couldn’t tell if it was with longing, or sadness, or disgust.

“Well, goodbye, Lily,” I said. “And thanks for – you know – for –”

“Don’t mention it,” she said. “Now go.”

“Okay,” I said. “But, by the way, just one thing, do you have any advice on where we should go exactly?”

“Out there are the woods,” she said. “The dark woods. Around front is the road, the dark road. Take your choice.”

I hesitated. I was wondering if I should at least shake her hand, but I was thinking maybe it was best if I didn’t.

Or maybe I should give her a kiss.

But I decided I’d better not do that, either, and anyway, she wasn’t even looking at me anymore, she was just staring out at those dark woods, staring and smoking her cigarette.

“Well, okay, then,” I said. “Goodbye, Lily, and thanks again.”

She half-waved one hand, and just continued to sit there, staring out at the darkness and smoking her cigarette.

“All right, let’s go, Horace,” I said.

“Goodbye, Miss Lily,” said Horace.

She said nothing.

There were some steps going down from the middle of the terrace, and Horace and I headed over to them, Horace staggering a bit, and taking hold of my arm.

We went down the steps, Horace managed with my help not to fall, and then we stopped for a moment.

“Which way, buddy?” said Horace.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” I said.

(Continued here, and until the last neatly-handwritten marble copybook has been spell-checked and transcribed.)

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