Friday, November 28, 2014

“Uncle Mike From St. Louis”

  “Uncle Mike From St. Louis” 
by Horace P. Sternwall

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Post Post Modern Literature, Olney Community College; editor of “A Girl’s Got to Do What a Girl’s Got to Do”: The Gwendolyn and Auntie Margaret Stories of Horace P. Sternwall, Vol. 1; the Olney Community College Press. 

Original Illustrations by rhoda penmarq.


Gwendolyn had rarely seen Auntie Margaret so terribly excited. 

In fact the only other time she could recall Auntie getting quite so excited was back when they were living in Paris the time her horse came in at 27-to-1 at the Hippodrome de Longchamp just the very day before they were due to move by necessity from their nice suite at the George Cinq to the slightly louche Hotel Modern on the rue Claude Bernard, which is where they always wound up when, as Auntie said, they were “low on the chips”.

“Oh, you’re going to love your Uncle Mike, darling,” said Auntie Margaret.

“I’m so looking forward to meeting him at long last,” said Gwendolyn.

Auntie was “doing her face”, smoking a cigarette, sitting at her make-up table in front of the mirror with all the little lights. She had taken this little table and mirror with them from New York to London to Paris and then to Monte Carlo and then back to Paris, then to London again, and back to Paris, then to Rome and to Berlin and back one more time to Paris and now back to New York again. She had a special padded trunk just for the table and mirror.

Serge wandered into the room, wearing his grey topcoat and hat and smoking a cigarette. Gwendolyn could see him in the mirror.

“Time to fly, dear Margaret,” he said. “Pierre’s waiting downstairs in the Hupmobile.”

“All right,” said Auntie Margaret. She turned and stared at Gwendolyn. “How do I look, darling?”

“I think you look just stunning, Auntie Margaret.”

“Thank you, darling. I needed that. I’m just all nerves.”

“Margaret, dear –” said Serge.

“All right, I’m coming.”

She took one last drag on her cigarette, then stubbed it out in the ashtray; stood up, then bent down and touched her cheek to Gwendolyn’s, but only slightly, not wanting to mess up her splendid make-up job.

“Wish I could come,” said Gwendolyn.

“Don’t worry, you’ll see your Uncle Mike later this evening after we attend to – you know –”

“That bit of business,” said Gwendolyn.

“Yes,” said Auntie Margaret. “Just a bit of grown-up business, but now we must dash or the poor man will be standing all alone on the train platform with not a soul to greet him.”

“Hurry, then,” said Gwendolyn. “And hurry back.”

“We will, darling. Soon as we attend to our, you know –”

“I know,” said Gwendolyn.

“Right,” Said Auntie. “All right, Serge, let’s blow.”

Gwendolyn hadn’t even known she had had an Uncle Mike from St. Louis until the day before yesterday, when they all sat eating dinner down in the Prince Hal Room.

“I never told you about your Uncle Mike?” Auntie Margaret said. “From St. Louis?”

“Never,” said Gwendolyn. “I’m sure I would have remembered.”

“Well, I suppose his name just never came up before,” said Auntie Gwendolyn. “But you’ll love him.”

“Do you know Uncle Mike, Pierre?” Gwendolyn asked. 

“Oh, yes, indeed,” said Pierre. “I know Mike.”

“What about you, Serge?” asked Gwendolyn.

What about me, ma p’tite,” said Serge.

“Do you know my Uncle Mike? From St. Louis.”

“Do I know your Uncle Mike?” said Serge. “Indeed I do.”

“Your Uncle Mike is a great man,” said Pierre.

“A mensch,” said Serge. “You know what mensch means, ma p’tite?

“Yes,” said Gwendolyn. “It means he’s what we Americans call ‘regular’.”

“Yes,” said Serge. “They don’t come more regular than old Mike.”

Gwendolyn had told Auntie Margaret she would stay in the suite and do her homework and then read a book, but her homework was a matter of mere minutes, and so she sneaked down the stairs and walked down the back alley to the automat and had a slice of cheesecake and a cup of hot cocoa while she studied the entertainment section of the Daily News. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast was playing up at the Adlephi, so she took the subway uptown and quite enjoyed the movie, and was back in the suite by ten reading Wuthering Heights. She fell asleep on the divan and then she was awakened by Auntie Margaret’s soft hand caressing her head.

“Darling,” said Auntie. “It’s way past your bedtime.”

Pierre and Serge were standing there behind her. Both of them were smoking cigarettes.

“Where is Uncle Mike?” said Gwendolyn.

“Uncle Mike - “ Auntie Margaret paused. She so rarely if ever paused. She had been crouching by the divan, but now she stood up. “Take my wrap, someone,” she said.

Pierre and Serge both came over, but Pierre got to the angora wrap first, removed it from Auntie’s shoulders, draped it over his arm. Pierre and Serge were both still wearing the topcoats and hats they had gone out in.

“We should go and take care of this, dear Margaret,” said Serge.

“Yes,” said Auntie Margaret. “I suppose you should.”

“Will you be all right here alone, dear Margaret?” said Pierre.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I have Gwendolyn with me.”

At this point Gwendolyn was sitting up on the divan.

“Where is Uncle Mike?” she said.

“Where are my cigarettes?” said Auntie Margaret.

“Here,” said Gwendolyn. She lifted the silver cigarette box from the end table, opened it, and offered it to her aunt.

“Thank you, darling,” said Auntie Margaret.

Serge was right there with his lighter.

“Thank you, Serge,” said Auntie Margaret. “You’d better go now, the both of you. Hurry. I don’t want to think of him – just go, please.”

“You should have a drink, dear Gwendolyn,” said Pierre. “Let me fetch one for you.”

“No, Pierre, you really must hurry. I’ll make myself a drink, thank you.”

“I’ll make you a drink, Auntie,” said Gwendolyn. “You just sit down.”

“Sit down?”

“Yes.” Gwendolyn got up, touched her aunt’s arm. “Go on, sit down, Auntie, I’ll fix you a nice drink.”

“That’s a good girl,” said Pierre. “Take care of your auntie.” He turned to Serge. “On y va?”

Ouais,” said Serge.

Auntie Margaret had sat down on the divan, staring straight ahead, with the lit cigarette still in her mouth.

“We should return in no later than one hour,” said Pierre.

Auntie Margaret said nothing, just kept staring straight ahead.

Pierre went over to the hatrack by the door and hung up Auntie’s wrap. Serge opened the door, and without another word they left.

“What would you like to drink, Auntie?” said Gwendolyn. “Auntie?”

At last Auntie Margaret took the cigarette from her lips, and she tapped it on the edge of the ashtray on the end table, even though the cigarette didn’t really need to be tapped yet.

“Auntie,” said Gwendolyn.

“Yes, darling.”

“What would you like to drink?”

“Oh. A drink,” she said. “Just a highball, dear. Bourbon, please. The Old Forester.”

“Right away,” said Gwendolyn, and she turned to go to the drinks table.

“Gwendolyn,” said Auntie Margaret.

Gwendolyn stopped and turned.

“Yes, Auntie?”

“Make it a stiff one, please, darling.”

“I was going to,” said Gwendolyn.

“You’re a dear, darling.”

Gwendolyn turned again and went over to the little table with the bottles and glasses and the siphon and the ice bucket.

She didn’t suppose she would ever meet Uncle Mike now. 

This story originally appeared in somewhat different form, and lavishly illustrated by rhoda penmarq, in Tales of the Hotel St Crispian.

(Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, Arnold Schnabel has been given the week off, but he will be back next week with an all-new chapter of
Railroad Train to Heaven!)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 419: welcome

We last saw our hero Arnold Schnabel caught in a thunderstorm and running down a dark road towards the possible shelter of a large gabled house. Running along with Arnold is the raffish Horace P. Sternwall, author of such oddly-forgotten classics as A Gal Named Elizabeth and Big Gun For a Little Lady; and riding along safely within the porch of Arnold’s ear is his boon companion Ferdinand, the talking fly...

(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you have decided to take to your bed for the winter with your opium pipe and your lashings of rich Assam tea and are looking for something to kill the time with then click here to return to the very beginning of this 74-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“How oddly right it seems that Arnold Schnabel should have encountered on his life’s journey to immortality no other than the great Horace P. Sternwall – the only other writer to give him a serious challenge for the mantle of America’s preëminent literary genius.” – Harold Bloom, in the
Hustler Literary Quarterly.

The rain poured down and the thunder cracked and boomed and shook the road as if some bored army was firing artillery at us for sport as Horace and I ran madly on, Horace shouting through the clattering of the rain and the roaring from the pitiless black heavens above us the single exclamation, over and over again: “Motherfucker!

I didn’t know what I would do when we reached that big house. I only knew I wanted to get under some sort of shelter from this lashing rain. Would we be turned away? Forced out into the torrent again? Possibly. Why not?

Would we be summarily run off the property, perhaps at the point of a shotgun, off into this deluge to fend for ourselves? Who knew?

I wondered if you could die from tramping in the pouring rain. At least it wasn’t an icy cold rain. It was more like an average, just slightly cold but still bitter rain. Maybe we would get used to it after an hour or so…

Thus were my thoughts occupied until finally Horace and I came abreast of the house.

The lightning revealed a waist-high picket fence a couple of yards in from the road, and a wooden gate; without ceremony Horace went over to the gate, lifted its latch, swung it open, and ran on through. 

I followed hard on his heels, my feet slapping along the stone walk that led up to the big house, which was set back about about twenty yards from the road. 

We reached a roofed porch, dimly lit by a lamp set above a double doorway within. Horace tramped up the four wooden steps into the shelter of this porch,  and I was right behind him.

Now at last out of the rain, Horace bent over, his hands on his knees, wheezing, and still muttering “motherfucker” repeatedly.

I must have been in better physical condition, and so although I too wheezed, I did so not as heartily and loudly as Horace. 

“Hey, look,” said Ferdinand,  and he flew out of my ear and toward the double door right in front of us. The electric light above it, in a yellow, tulip-shaped fixture, illuminated a  a wooden sign hung over the lintel, a sign made to look like a sawn piece of log with some of the bark still on it; carved into the wood and painted in black were the words


“Motherfucker,” wheezed Horace. “You were right, Arnie. It is an inn!”

“How about our, Arnie," said Ferdinand, "hey, Horace?”

“It’s not just some like secluded scary mansion,” said Horace.

“A ‘quaint country inn’,” said Ferdinand.

“I hope they have food,” I panted. Now that I was out of the storm I was starving again.

“Maybe they got a bar, too,” said Horace.

“I'm going to ring the bell,” I said.

“What a take-charge guy!” said Ferdinand.

“Don’t get in his way when he’s hungry!” said Horace.

“Oh, I won’t, believe you me!” said Ferdinand, and he made a big show of flying out of my way as I went over to the door.

There was a button to one side, and I pressed it.

I heard a sound like a gong go off inside.

“I hope we’re not waking everyone up,” I said.

“Nah,” said Horace, “it’s early still.”

“How do you know?” I said. “Neither of us has a watch."

“Point taken,” said Horace. “Press the buzzer again.”

I pressed the button again, the gong sounded from inside.

I waited, we all waited, in our soaked and dripping clothes. Well, Horace and I waited in our soaked and dripping clothes. I’m sure Ferdinand was perfectly dry.

We waited.

“One more time, Arnie,” said Horace.

“I don’t want to be obnoxious,” I said.

“Press the fucking button.”

“Let’s just wait a little bit longer,” I said.

“Okay, fine,” he said. “Let's wait. We’ll just stand here here dripping wet. I really hope I don’t get pneumonia –”

“Horace, I’m soaking wet too,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Certainly you are. Did I say –”

“Let’s just wait a little longer, in case they were upstairs, or, I don’t know –”

“In the bathroom?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Let’s just wait a minute.”

“I said let’s wait,” he said.

“Oh my God, will you just listen to you two,” said Ferdinand. “Why don’t you both get married for Christ’s sake?”

This produced one of those awkward pauses that have occurred with such great frequency in my life.

After half a minute I relented.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll ring the bell again.”

“Thank you!” said Horace.

“Jesus, Mary and –” Ferdinand started to say, and then, “hello!”

Before I could press the buzzer someone opened the door, or one of the double doors.

It was a little old man. 

Even in this world I was not free of little old men.

This one wore a red-and-purple smoking jacket, and he had a lit and smoking brown pipe in his hand. He wore a red ascot with black dots on it, tucked into a soft-collared white shirt. He was mostly bald but the hair he had on his head was silky white and rather long; he wore a monocle with a purple ribbon attached to it that dangled down into his jacket breast pocket, in which was tucked also a white handkerchief. His skin was the color of a sandy beach on a moonlit winter night. He was only about five feet tall.

He stared up at me out of the thick glass of his monocle.

“Good evening,” he said. “May I help you gentlemen?”

“We’re soaked and lost,” I said. “And very hungry. But we have money.”

“Oh, dear,” said the old man, and he seemed on the verge of shutting the door without further ado.

Wait!” cried Horace. “You see, sir, we were driving, and we got lost on the dark road and our automobile ran out of gas! As my colleague says, and as you can see, we have gotten soaked as we walked down the road looking for a gas station. Do you think we might come in just to get dry and perhaps have a drink while we wait for the storm to abate?”

“Your automobile ran out of gas?” said the old man.

“Yes!” said Horace.


“Several miles away,” said Horace. He turned to me. “Wouldn’t you say several miles, Arnold?”

“At least several,” I said.

“You won’t get a gas station man out before morning,” said the old man.

“No, I suppose not,” said Horace. “However, if you’re still serving drinks, then perhaps –”

“Would you like a room for the night?” said the old man.

“A room,” said Horace.

“Yes,” said the old man. “A room. Or two rooms if you prefer. Then you could telephone the nearest garage come morning and they’ll send a a chap out with some gasoline for your automobile.”

I know that Horace was thinking about how much a room would cost. I know I was. If it came down to a room versus food I knew I would opt for food, just as Horace would go for booze if it came down to a room versus booze.

I saw no reason to be coy under the circumstances.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Could you tell us how much a room would cost?”

“One room or two?”

“How much is one room?” I said.

“One room with a double bed will be five dollars.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m sorry if five dollars seems dear,” said the old man. “But that includes an American-style breakfast. Bacon, sausage or scrapple, with eggs any style, including omelets, as well as pancakes, waffles, mush, or home fries.”

My stomach suddenly felt as hollow and empty as the deepest dark reaches of interstellar space.

“I wonder if we could get something to eat now?” I said.

“Well,” said the old man, “you realize it wouldn’t be included in the price of the room.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. I was on the verge of grabbing him by the lapels of his smoking jacket and throwing him aside, preparatory to storming into the house and stomping madly about looking for the kitchen. “So is it too late to get something to eat? Anything at all –”

“We offer a limited but quite satisfying prix-fixe late evening menu,” he said, “at two dollars and fifty cents per guest. Not inclusive of tax.”

“Two-fifty a person?” said Horace.

“What can we get for two-fifty?” I butted in.

The old man took a puff or two of his pipe. His eyes closed. I wondered if he had fallen asleep, but then his eyes opened again and he spoke:

“We have a very tasty and savory Beef Wellington.”

“You have Beef Wellington?” said Horace.

“I should not have mentioned it if we did not.”

“For two-fifty?” said Horace

“Not including tax.”

“No of course not,” said Horace.

“It comes with Yorkshire pudding and buttered lightly-blanched peeled asparagus; dinner rolls included.”

“For two-fifty?” said Horace.

“That price does include your choice of a soup or salad course, as well as dessert. Tonight we’re serving warm peach cobbler with ice cream and a cheese soufflé with crème fraiche.”

“Okay, we’ll take that,” I said.

“The Beef Wellington dinner?” said the old man.

“Yes,” I said.

“I forgot to mention, for the weight-conscious we offer a fresh fruit plate for dessert."

“We’re not weight-conscious,” I said

“I didn’t think you were, but I felt obliged to mention the fruit plate anyway.”

“Of course,” said Horace. “But, um, what about beverages –”

“Unlimited cups of coffee,” said the man.

“Well, that sounds great,” said Horace. “But, uh –”

“You got a bar in here, pops?” said Ferdinand.

“What?” said the old man.

“A bar,” said Ferdinand, hovering a foot in front of the old guy’s face. “Do you sell alcoholic beverages. Cocktails. Beer. Wine.”

“I didn’t realize there were three of you,” said the old man.

“Yes, there are  three of us,” said Ferdinand, “but I myself obviously don’t need a whole three-course meal, at least not a human-size one. Just a small tiny little finger bowl say, maybe with some of the gravy from the beef, and a few crumbs. And I’m not picky, but I would like something decent to drink with my meal.”

“Some wine, perhaps?” said the old man.

“Wine would be great,” said Ferdinand.

“In fact we have a lovely Margaux. My grandson brought back several cases from France after his service with the American Expeditionary Force in nineteen hundred and nineteen. It’s really only just coming into its full flower now I think.”

“Sounds great,” said Ferdinand. “We’ll take a bottle.”

“Well,” said Horace, “heh heh, perhaps we should ask first how much –”

“Two dollars,” said the old fellow.

“Two dollars!” yelped Horace.

“I’m sorry if that seems dear,” said the old man.

“No,” Horace said. “Wait, hold on.” He reached in his back pocket and took out his old worn wallet. “Let’s see, you said five for the room, two-fifty each for the supper, and that’s another two bucks for the wine, totaling –”

“Nine dollars,” said the old fellow, “not inclusive of tax.”

Horace had been fingering the few bills in his wallet, but now he looked up.

“Nine?” he said.

“Wait,” said the old man. He seemed to stare out at the dark rain that was still crashing through the world just beyond the porch. “Five plus two-fifty, plus two for the bottle of Margaux –”

“What about two bottles of Margaux?” said Horace.

“Make it two bottles of the Margaux then, so that’s five plus what did I say?”

“I think you said two-fifty,” said Horace.

“Five plus two-fifty,” said the old man, “so that’s –”

“With the wine I think that’s seven-fifty altogether,” said Horace.

“Not inclusive of tax,” said the old man.

Horace stared at the man. Horace was still holding his wallet open. He glanced at me in what seemed a very meaningful way.

“Arnie, how much cash you got on you?”

I had a moment’s panic. How did I know I had any money at all in this world? Quickly I dug out my own wallet from the back pocket of my jeans.

“You see,” said Horace, addressing the old fellow, “we hadn’t expected to be stopping anywhere tonight, and so we didn’t think to bring a lot of money.”

“Yes, of course,” said the old man.

I opened my wallet and sighed quite audibly with relief when I saw I had a five and two singles in it, all very crumpled, but they looked real.

“I have seven dollars,” I said.

“Hand me five, will you?” said Horace.

I gave him the five.

“I think you said seven-fifty?” said Horace to the old fellow.

“I believe that’s what I said.”

Horace took some bills from his own wallet, mixed them in with my five, shuffled them, put a few of them back in his wallet, put his wallet away, then folded up the remaining bills in quarters and handed them to the old man.

“Here’s ten dollars, sir," said Horace,  "payment in advance. Do you think you could toss in a couple of brandies also, just to take the breath of the damp off us?"

“Oh, I don’t see why not,” said the old man.

Horace extended his right hand in the gesture of a proffered handshake.

“My name is Horace P. Sternwall by the way.”

The old man had the little square of folded bills in one hand and his pipe in the other, so he put the money in his side jacket pocket, and then gave Horace a polite but quick handshake.

“My name is Peacock,” said the old man. “Abner Dwayne Peacock.”

“Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Peacock,” said Horace. “This is my friend Arnold Schnabel.”

“How do you do, Mr. Scrabble,” said Mr. Peacock.

He didn’t offer his hand, which was okay with me.

“Just call me Ferdinand, pops,” said Ferdinand.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Mr. Peacock. “Well, I suppose you might as well all come in and get dry.”

He stood aside, holding the door open for us. The room behind him looked warm and comforting.

Horace went in, followed by Ferdinand. I put my wallet back in my jeans and went in also.

Mr. Peacock closed the door behind us, and the clattering and booming of the thunderstorm, which had so quickly and completely become part of my universe that I had become barely aware of it, now grew muffled and faraway, as if part of some other world.

(Continued here; we couldn’t possibly abandon Arnold’s tale at this juncture.)

(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find a very possibly up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©.  Arnold’s adventures are now also available for a laughably token fee your Kindle™.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 418: scary

Let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel and his companions,
viz., Ferdinand the loquacious fly and Horace P. Sternwall, the noted author of such forgotten classics as Port of Shame and The Young and the Damned…

(Kindly click here to read our immediately preceding chapter; if you neglected to get your flu shot and you need something to read for the next month while you lie upon the couch all day, go here to return to the very beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award-winning masterpiece.)

“Arnold Schnabel – this self-effacing former railroad brakeman with a history of mental illness – has now at last achieved his rightful status as the preëminent literary genius to arise from these United States of America.” – Harold Bloom, in the
Mechanics Illustrated Literary Supplement.

I turned and spoke into the darkness of the woods. For some reason I spoke in a sort of loud whisper, I don’t know why, as there certainly didn’t appear to be anyone else around:

“Hey! You guys! Come here!”

“Oh, Christ,” I heard Horace’s voice, not bothering to whisper. “Now what is it, Arnie?”

“Yeah, what is it?” said Ferdinand’s voice. “Is it like the end of the world?”

“No!” I whispered back.

“Are you quite sure?” came back Ferdinand’s voice.

I can’t be entirely sure,” I whispered in reply, “but I don’t think so.”

“Then what the fuck is it?” said Horace’s voice.

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand’s small but strangely resonant voice; “it ain’t one of them portals into another dimension is it?”

“Well,” I said, “I can’t be sure of that either, but come out here and see.”

“Just tell us it isn’t anything scary,” said the voice of Horace.

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand’s voice. “And that includes like the obliteration of the concept of time and shit.”

“Yeah, fuck that shit,” said Horace’s voice.

“Look, guys,” I said, speaking a little louder now, “just come out here and see for yourselves.”

“Arnie,” said Horace, or at least the voice of Horace; I could only assume it issued from his corporeal form. “Please. Just assure us it’s nothing horrifying.”

“It’s just a road,” I croaked.

“A road?” said Horace. “That’s all?”

“No,” I called. “Down the road a bit and on the other side there’s a house.”

“A house?” said Horace’s voice. “What kind of a house?

“Yeah, what kind of house?” said Ferdinand’s.

“I don’t know,” I hissed. Well, not exactly hissed; there’s that trashy literature I like to read showing its influence again. Anyway, I hissed some more: “It must be the source of those lights you saw, Ferdinand!”

’The source of those –’” came Ferdinand’s sarcastic reply. “Who even talks like that?”

“It’s not a haunted house, is it?” said Horace.

“Horace,” I said, and I admit I was starting to get impatient, “how would I know if it’s haunted? Will you two please come out here?”

There was a pause here during which I could hear Horace and Ferdinand whispering together.

After a minute I heard Ferdinand’s voice again:

“Okay, Arnie, we’re comin’ out.”

“Thank you!” I said.

“No need to be sarcastic, Arnold,” said Horace’s voice.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“What?” came his voice.

“I said I’m sorry,” I said, quite clearly I thought.

“All right then,” said Horace’s voice. “There just better not be any surprises.”

I could hear his footsteps on those dead needles and pine cones, and then I heard the buzzing of Ferdinand.

“Hey,” he said, suddenly, and I realized he was buzzing around my head. “It’s a road.”

“I told you it was,” I said.

“And down there, some kind of house, with lights on.”

“Again,” I said, “just as I said there was.”

Right about then Horace emerged from the woods, and almost bumped right into me.

“Wow, it is a road,” he said. “And a house of some kind down there, with lights in the windows.”

“Well, I hope you two will take me at my word in the future,” I said.

“Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah,” said Horace. “Jeeze, Arnie.”

“What?” I said.

“No need to get all high and mighty, Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah,” said Horace. “Nobody likes being talked down to, Arnie.”

I sighed.

“Nobody likes being sighed at, too, Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“I know I don’t,” said Horace.

With every milligram of will I possessed I suppressed another and even greater sigh.

“Okay,” I said. “I apologize.”

“No apology necessary,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah,” said Horace. “We’re not looking for apologies.”

Despite the almost complete lack of manmade or celestial illumination out here I could see that Horace still held the flask, and I wondered how much of the whisky he and Ferdinand had drunk in those woods.

At this point I had one of my famous brainwaves, to wit: these two were drunk, and annoyingly so. If they kept drinking they would become more drunk. If they got more drunk they would become even more annoying and unreasonable than they already were.


“By the way, Horace,” I said, trying not  to sound calculating, “I think I would like a slug of that scotch.”

“Really?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I guess I’m just a little nervous and out of sorts.”

“Well, a little whisky’ll straighten that out for ya,” said Horace.

“Now we’re talking,” said Ferdinand. “This is the Arnie I know and love. Give him the flask, Horace.” 

“Mais oui,” said Horace. “Avec plaisir!

The open flask was almost in my face.

I took it, and without even bothering to wipe off its mouth, I put it to my lips, and took a gulp, and then another, and one more.

Each gulp of whisky I took would be that much less for Horace and Ferdinand, both of whom certainly didn’t need any more.

I paused, my throat feeling as if a blowtorch had been shoved into it and turned on full blast, and then I raised the flask again and gulped again, then again, and again.

I lowered the flask and made a sound like a hot wind blowing across the desert.

Horace took the flask from my hand and shook it.

“Jeeze, Arnie, you were thirsty!”

“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand. “What’d he do, finish it?”

“Damn near,” said Horace. “Maybe a shot or two left.”

“Hey, thanks for saving us some, Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“You’re welcome,” I said, vaguely realizing that by attempting to deny Horace and Ferdinand the means to get much more drunk I had succeeded in making myself drunk.

“I think I better keep the rest of this for later,” said Horace, and he screwed the stopper back onto the flask. “Okay,” he said, and he shoved the flask back into his inside jacket pocket. “Now what?”

“I think we should go up to that house,” I said.

“Go up to the house,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Just – you know, check it out?”

“What do you mean, ‘check it out’?” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah, what exactly do you mean, Arnold,” said Horace.

“Just – I don’t know, look at it,” I said. I had an idea that if we knocked on the door that maybe someone would let us come in, and that they would give us food.

“It looks creepy,” said Horace.

“That it does,” said Ferdinand. “That it does.”

I turned to the right and looked at the house, down the road and across the road and set back a bit, and now I could even make out a few trees near it, and what looked like sheds of some sort, or maybe garages or barns, and some bushes.

It all did look creepy, even with those lights on in its windows. But I was hungry.

“Look,” I said, “we’ll just walk up and take a look. Maybe it’s an – I don’t know – an inn of some sort?”

“An inn?” said Horace.

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “An inn?”

“Well, I mean, it could be an inn,” I said.

“Right,” said Horace. “A quaint country inn.”

“Run by a kindly retired professor,” said Ferdinand. 

“And his grey-haired wife,” said Horace.

“Enjoining us to eat roast beef sandwiches, and apple pie with ice cream,” said Ferdinand.

“With warm chocolate syrup,” said Horace.

“And pouring us glasses of sherry,” said Ferdinand. “Don’t forget the sherry.”

There was a pause here, during which neither of my companions spoke, nor did I, until finally after a minute I did:

“Look,” I said. “What else are we going to do? Just keep walking, down this dark road?”

“Well –” said Horace.

“Yeah –” said Ferdinand.

“Wait,” I said. “You guys would really rather just keep walking in the darkness, rather than at least just going up to the house, and, and –”

“But it’s scary house, Arnold!” said Horace. “Wake up! A scary house! I thought you told me you liked to read cheap novels!”

“I do,” I said.

“Then don’t you know you never go up to a scary house?”

“Never,” said Ferdinand. “Absolutely never.”

“It’s suicide,” said Horace.

“Tantamount to,” said Ferdinand.

“Somebody’s going to die,” said Horace.

“If not everybody,” said Ferdinand.

“Right,” said Horace. “If not everybody.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay what?” said Horace.

“Okay we just walk past the house,” I said. “Just walk by and keep going.”

“Walk by it?” said Horace.

“Yes,” I said. “Just walk by and keep going, down the dark road.”

“Um, Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“Now what?” I said.

“’Walk by the house’,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and I admit, I might have allowed some frustration to become evident in my tone of voice. “Just walk by the house.”

You walk by the house,” said Horace.

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Please, be our guest. Go on down there and walk by the house. We’ll wait here. If we don’t hear any screams, maybe, just maybe, we’ll follow you.”

“Oh, come on,” I said.

“I say we head in the opposite direction,” said Horace.

“I second that motion,” said Ferdinand. “Let’s go.”

“Away from the house,” I said.

“Yes,” said Ferdinand. “Away from the house. That house which is so obviously, what, reeking of doom, and horror.”

“Very well put,” said Horace. “Reeking of doom and horror.”

“Thank you, Horace,” said Ferdinand. “Coming from you, that is a real compliment. Okay, we ready?”

“Been ready,” said Horace. “You ready, Arnold?”

Again I suppressed a sigh.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“In what direction, Arnie?” said Ferdinand.

“In the opposite direction from the house,” I said.

“That dark scary house of horror,” said Ferdinand.

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh, no,” said Ferdinand.

“What?” I said.

“You feel that?” he said.

I felt rain on my shoulders, my head, my face.

“Rain,” I said.

“Shit,” said Horace, and I could see and hear the raindrops splattering off of his fedora.

Then, as if some celestial stagehand had thrown a switch, a flash of lightning lit up the entire world around us – the woods, the road, the empty fields across the road, the thick dark canvas of the sky, and that big gabled and spired house a hundred yards down the road. Then the switch was pushed up and the world fell dark again just as a burst of thunder shook the ground with the sound of a thirty-car freight train tumbling down a mountainside.

The rain began to fall harder, and Ferdinand flew into my ear for shelter.

“Shit,” he said.

“Shit, fuck and damn,” said Horace.

The rain came down, hard, as if a great gash had been ripped through the dark sky and a whole ocean was pouring through it.

Without another word, both Horace and I (with Ferdinand warm and dry in the porch of my ear) set off at a run down the dark road, through the stinging and drenching rain, toward the house.

(Continued here, until that very last marble copybook has been transcribed, with all misspellings, errata, and internal inconsistencies rigorously included.)

(Please scroll down the right hand column of this page for a a quite-often current listing of links to all other available chapters of
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Friday, November 7, 2014

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 417: not nothing

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel, here in a dark evergreen forest with his friends the immortal Horace P. Sternwall (author of many revered classics, such as A Broad Named Maude and They Call Him Cad) and Ferdinand, the talking fly...

(Please go here to read our previous thrilling episode; if you’re looking for a new and harmless hobby then click here to return to the very beginning of this 57-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“Arnold Schnabel somehow managed to make of himself not only the greatest and most original author in the American literary canon, but also one of its most engaging and delightful characters.” – Harold Bloom, in the
American Journal of Medicine.

Horace took my arm. I’m never comfortable having a man walk arm in arm with me, but in this dark forest I didn’t mind so much.

“Give me another hit off that muggles, will ya, Arnie?” he said.

I had forgotten I was holding the reefer. It was still lit, a tiny red – and, yes, somehow reassuring – fleck of light in this world of vaguely shifting blackness, and so from my right hand I passed it to his left hand, and as we trudged along on those dead needles and cones Horace proceeded to puff away with vigor.

“Ha ha,” said Ferdinand, somewhere invisibly ahead of us. “I like your style, Horace P. Sternwall, I really do!”

“Hey, you know what my motto is, my little friend?” said Horace in a tightened voice, without releasing the smoke from his lungs.

“No, I don’t,” said Ferdinand. “But I think you’re gonna tell us." 

Without breaking stride Horace exhaled a great opalescent cloud of smoke, and now I could see Ferdinand buzzing happily around inside it, breathing as much of it in as he could.

“Ha ha,” said Horace. “I dig your style, too, Ferdy. But here’s my motto.”

Before going on he took another puff on the “muggle”, and, holding in the smoke all the while, he spoke:

“Don’t put off. Any pleasure. Do it. Now. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Not an hour from now. Not a minute from now.”

He finally exhaled again, and once again Ferdinand hovered and twirled and spun in the midst of the fragrant smoke.

“What about one second from now?” said Ferdinand after he had sucked in and then exhaled all the smoke his minuscule lungs could hold.

“Not even a second!” said Horace, as we tramped on between those trees that were only barely less dark than the darkness in which they implacably stood. “What if you have a heart attack? What if a goddam piano falls on your head? What if they drop the fucking A-bomb?”

“Or what if some stupid housewife swats you with a fly-swatter?” said Ferdinand. “Or even worse, sprays some of that obnoxious poison shit Flit on you? What about that?”

“Ha ha!” said Horace. He squeezed my arm. “Don’t worry, Arnie. Here.” He held the reefer in front of me. “Take another toke.”

What could I do? 

True, I could have said no. Horace and Ferdinand would have chided me of course, but I don’t think the fear of their hearty masculine raillery was the reason why I took the reefer and puffed away on it quite freely as we made our way through that dark forest, no, I think it was because it was simply easier to do so, because I myself was quite simple, in the sense of “simpleton”.

“That’s our Arnie,” said Ferdinand.

“He’s not so bad,” said Horace.

“It’s his Roman Catholic background,” said Ferdinand. “He can’t help being a square sometimes.”

Horace squeezed my arm.

“Just remember, Arnie,” he said. “This is the second that counts, the one we’re in.”

“Horace is right,” said Ferdinand. “I’m a fly. You better believe I live second to second, man!”

I suddenly realized that the marijuana was strongly affecting my brain. I almost felt that I too was a fly, or maybe a moth, buzzing around in my head, trying to get out.

“But what if a second lasted forever?” I found myself blurting out.

“What?” said Horace.

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “What?”

“What if a second wasn’t followed by another second,” I said, tramping merrily along while taking another puff on the reefer.

“What the fuck are you saying, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, after a couple of seconds in which my last sentence seemed to vibrate in the darkness all around us, among those trees that were only slightly distinguishable from the air that surrounded them and me and my friends, those trees which now seemed almost to be obligingly stepping out of our way.

“Yeah,” said Horace. “What the fuck are you trying to say, Arnie?"

“What if all of existence was just one long continuous second,” I said. “One endless moment.”

“What the fuck?” said Horace.

“Yeah, man,” said Ferdinand. “What the fuck?”

“And not only endless, but without beginning either,” I said. “Just one enormous moment, no beginning, no end. No middle either. Just one moment which exists beyond the concepts of past and future, beyond even the concept of the present.”

Horace and I tramped along arm in arm through the darkness, following the faint but unmistakable buzzing of Ferdinand leading the way.

“What the fuck, Arnold,” said Horace after a while, again.

“Yeah, what the fuck, Arnold,” said Ferdinand.

“Oh, wait,” I said. “The reefer has gone out. Horace, you want to get those matches out?”

“Tell ya what, Arnie,” said Horace. “Stick it in your shirt pocket, we’ll smoke the rest later.”

“But,” I said, “but what about this second?”

“Fuck this second,” said Horace, “because you’re giving me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Yeah, me, too, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “Seriously, just put the joint away for a while.”

“Okay,” I said, and I dropped the extinguished reefer into my workshirt pocket.

“And try not to say anything really weird, at least until we’re out of these woods,” said Horace.

“I’ll try,” said the little moth inside my head. “I’m sorry.”

“Okay, don’t worry about it,” said Horace. “How much farther you think we got, Ferdinand?”

“Can’t be too much farther,” said Ferdinand.

“Thank God!” said Horace. 

“And I goddam hope it’s not much farther,” said Ferdinand.

“Yeah, me too,” said Horace.

“I’m sorry if I upset you guys,” I said. “It’s just that I got to thinking about the whole concept of time, and if it’s possible for existence to exist outside of any notion of –

"Arnie!” said Ferdinand. “What did we just ask you not to do?”

“Um,” I said.

“Yeah, Christ, Arnie,” said Horace. “Just keep a lid on it until we get out of these goddam creepy woods, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, “but –”

“But what, man?”

“That lady Lily said there was ‘nothing’ beyond the woods. So what if there really is nothing on the other side of these woods? I mean, literally nothing? What if the world just ends there, like a cliff, looking out on nothing – nothing but, like, the vast empty reaches of outer space?”

“Oh, Jesus, Arnie,” said Horace. “You’re fucking killing me.”

“Well, I’m only repeating what she said –”

“Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “Did I not fly above the trees, and did I not see lights in the distance?”

“Yes,” I said.

“So how can there be nothing out there if I saw lights?”

“I don’t know,” I said. 

“Lights are not nothing,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said.

“So there is something out there.”

“I guess so,” I said.

“What do you mean you guess so?”

“Yeah, Arnie,” said Horace, “you’re not even being logical now.”

“But what if those are just lights in the middle of the nothingness?” I said.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Arnie,” said Horace.

“Yeah, look, Arnie, do us all a favor and stop trying to scare the shit out of us.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to. But what if maybe the lights are a portal into another universe?”

“Arnie!” said Ferdinand.

“Yes?” I said.

“Just zip it, okay? Just till we get to wherever we’re going.”

If we ever get there, I said to myself.

“What do you mean, ‘If we ever get there’?” said Ferdinand.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”

Horace squeezed my arm again, hard this time.

He put his lips close to my ear as we stumbled on, and he whispered.

“Please just shut up for a while, Arnie. Or else I swear I’m going to get hysterical. I told you I’m a coward, so please just shut up for a while."

“Okay,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“All right,” said Ferdinand. “We got that settled, now let’s keep moving and get the hell out of this nightmare.”

It’s not easy to follow a fly in a dark forest, but Horace and I did our best, following Ferdinand by the sound of his buzzing and by his voice, as he checked in with us every minute or so.

“This way, guys, keep up now. You okay, Arnie?”

“Oh, sure,” I said.

“You’re sure?” he said.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine,” I said.

“You okay there, Horace?” said Ferdinand.

“Don’t worry about me, pal,” said Horace.

“Okay, just checkin’. You guys need to take a rest you just let me know.”

“We don’t need a rest,” said Horace. “Let’s just keep going. Right, Arnie?”

“Oh, sure,” I said.

I realized that I had upset my friends with my philosophical musings, and it seemed best just to try to forget about it and move on. I tried to make my mind a blank, because I was afraid if I thought something about time and infinity and nothingness and other universes that I might forget myself and speak my thoughts aloud.

But then I also realized at once that I am incapable of making my mind go blank, at least not willfully, and so I tried to occupy myself by thinking of something nice. I thought about Elektra – her smell, her voice, her kind eyes, her soft skin the color of a black-and-white milkshake. It seemed like five and a half years since I had last seen her, although I realized in another sense that it had not even been twelve hours. Maybe someday I would see her again.


Some day, some day or night, some hour in the future, but would that future be years from now, even if it were technically this very day?

Or was I to be marooned forever in worlds that did not even exist?

Would I finally find myself alone, for all eternity, in a state of darkness and nothingness? 

Would I be nothing?

Nothing, I thought. Nothingness. Nothing more nor less than nothing.


Only nothing.


“Arnie!” yelled Ferdinand.

“Yes, Ferdinand?” I said.

“Will you please shut up?”

Thank you, Ferdinand!” said Horace.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Was I speaking aloud again?”

“Yes, you were speaking aloud!” said Ferdinand.

“Loud and clear!” said Horace.

“Jeeze, I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be sorry,” said Ferdinand, “just stop doing it!”

“I will,” I said.

“Wait,” said Horace.

“What?” said Ferdinand.

Horace stopped, and stopped me with him.

“I just remembered I have a flask on me.”

“Oh, thank God,” said Ferdinand.

“I got it out of Laughing Lou’s glove compartment,” said Horace. “You like scotch, Ferdinand?”

“Yes, I like scotch,” said Ferdinand, “but at this point I’d take a quadruple shot of grain alcohol.”

“Let me just get it out,” said Horace, and he took his arm away from mine.

My eyes had gradually gotten much more adjusted to the darkness, and so I could just make out Horace reaching into his jacket and taking out Laughing Lou’s leather-encased flask. He unscrewed the cap on its little hinge.

“Just pour me a little in the palm of your hand, Horace,” said Ferdinand, “and I’ll lap it right up.”

“Will do, partner,” said Horace, and I vaguely saw him holding the flask upside down over his left hand, apparently letting a few drops fall into his upturned palm, and I could only just sort of make out Ferdinand flying into the tiny pool of whisky.

Horace lifted the flask to his lips with his free hand, and I heard him gulping.

He brought the flask away and sighed deeply.

“You want a hit, Arnie? If you promise to stop scaring the shit out of us?”

“Oh, no, thanks, Horace,” I said. “I’m good. But you two go ahead.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we will.”

I turned away, leaving them to their bibulous pleasures.

I looked out into those dark woods.

And then I thought I saw something, a faint glow of some sort.

I took a few steps ahead.

“Hey, Arnold,” said Horace. “Don’t go wandering off.”

“Oh, I won’t,” I said.

I went a few more steps, and suddenly I realized that I had stepped out of the forest. Right there in front of me, separated from the woods by a narrow scrubby verge, was a dark paved road. Above was a thick nighttime sky, with not a star in sight. Across the road I could just make out what looked like a wooden fence. And down to the right, across the road and set back from it, maybe a hundred yards away from where I stood, was the bulk of some sort of big house or building, with turrets and gables and dormers, and lights in windows.

This was not nothing.

(Continued here, an army of Schnabelists would have it no other way.)

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