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.
“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.)
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