Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends Ferdinand (the talkative fly) and Horace P. Sternwall (the author of such unjustly-obscure classics as My Friend the .45 and Princess of the Bowery) sitting before a roaring fire here in the cozy parlor of the Stop-Rite Inn...
(Please go here to read our preceding chapter; click here to start at the very beginning of this 72-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)
“At long last – better late than never – Arnold Schnabel and his friend Horace P. Sternwall have been rescued from obscurity and granted their rightful place in the pantheon of great American authors.” – Harold Bloom, in the Cape May Star & Wave Literary Supplement.
In fact it was so warm and so comfortable in that chair, and I was so tired, that, despite my intense hunger and the dampness of my clothes, I suddenly slipped into a doze, and then – after a moment or two of futile and not even half-hearted resistance – into a deep and oblivious sleep.
I suppose I might have been dreaming about something or other – I wonder if my brain ever really shuts down entirely – but to be honest I can’t remember what I dreamt, if anything.
All was only nothingness.
But I do remember what came next, because it roused me at least partly out of this state of complete unconsciousness:
It was a voice, a cracked and dry old man’s voice.
“He’s sleeping,” said the voice, the words sounding like the snapping of twigs, in a pitch dark forest. “Out like a light.”
“Yes, so it seems,” said a woman’s voice in this dark world. “Should we let him sleep?”
“Well, here’s the thing about Arnie,” said a third, and much smaller voice in the darkness. “With this guy, he falls asleep he don’t know where he’s gonna wake up. Could be a whole other universe he wakes up in.”
“Extraordinary!” said the old man’s voice.
“How weird,” said the woman’s voice. “I think I should find that very annoying!”
“I think Arnie does too!” said the little voice, which I now realized was the voice of Ferdinand, my friend the sentient and talking fly.
“Well, might as well let the poor guy sleep,” said a different man’s voice, a voice somehow familiar although I couldn’t put anyone’s name to it.
“I hope he doesn’t wake up someplace really dreadful,” said the old man’s voice, which I now knew was that of Mr. Peacock.
“Nothing we can do about it,” said the other man’s voice, which I now identified as Horace’s – of course...
“But what if he wakes up in Hell?” said the woman’s voice, what was her name – yes, Penelope! “That’s always been a fear of mine, to fall asleep and wake up in Hell.”
“You are so morbid, my dear!” said Mr. Peacock.
“Can’t help it,” said Penelope. “And you know what? Some fine day it just might happen!”
“Well, let him sleep,” said Horace.
I tried to wake up.
But now I knew where I was. I was standing at the edge of the world. I was standing at the edge of some enormous cliff, and it was dark all around me. My toes were almost at the very edge of this great precipice, and beyond and below me and above and before me was nothing but blackness. A wind was blowing at my back, and I felt that the wind was pushing me, pushing me to fall off the edge of this cliff.
“Yeah, let the poor guy sleep,” said Horace’s voice, from somewhere in the darkness.
“But what if he wakes up in some other universe?” said Mr. Peacock’s voice.
“Or Hell?” said Penelope’s voice.
“Nothing we can do about that,” said the voice of Horace, distant and close all at once.
“That’s something Arnie’s gonna have to deal with himself,” said Ferdinand.
But meanwhile the wind was still pushing at my back, gently but also firmly, and I now felt myself teetering over the edge of this great cliff, ready to cast off into this dark abyss.
“No!” I shouted. “No! No!”
I tried to fight the wind pushing at my back, but it was no use, and I suddenly pitched forward, face forward, into the darkness.
“No!” I shouted one more time, one last time.
And I fell, the dark air rushing past me, into oblivion, into nothingness.
But then I felt something hit first my knees and then my outstretched and open hands, and now I was not falling into that black void – no, fortunately I was on my hands and knees on the thick rug in front of the easy chair I had been sitting in, and I was staring again into the flames of the fireplace.
“Jesus Christ, Arnie!” said Ferdinand.
“No?” I said.
“Calm down, boy.”
This was Horace, and he was patting my shoulder with one hand, holding my arm with his other hand.
“No?” I said, once more, begging the universe to let this be real, and not a dream.
“It’s okay, Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “You had a nightmare.”
“I dreamt I was falling,” I said.
“Well, you were falling, pal, but only out of your chair.”
“Help him up, Horace,” said Ferdinand, whom I could now see buzzing around in front of my face in a concerned way. (I know it sounds odd to say a fly buzzed in a concerned way, but I do feel that I had begun to know my little friend fairly well by this point, as well or better than I have known anyone in my life, and so I stand by my words, for what little that may be worth.)
“Come on, buddy,” said Horace, and his hands were under my armpits, pulling me up, and then I was collapsing back into the chair.
“Oh, my God,” I said.
“Rough dream, huh?” said Horace.
“It was – it was –”
“Pretty bad, huh?” said Ferdinand.
“I was falling into an – abyss,” I said.
“We’re all falling into an abyss, sonny,” said Mr. Peacock, who was standing in front of the fire and to my left
“Popsy!” said Penelope, who stood before me and to my right. “That’s not nice.”
“May not be nice but it’s the truth,” said Mr. Peacock.
“Here, get yourself outside of this,” said Horace, who was leaning over in front of me, and he held a snifter with something pale brown in it in front of my face.
“Fifty-year-old Napoleon brandy!” cackled Mr. Peacock, and I saw that he too was holding a snifter with the brown stuff in it. In his other hand he held his pipe, which he had lit again, a gentle plume of smoke rising up out of its bowl.
I looked at the drink in my hand. It smelled good, so I took a drink of the alleged fifty-year-old brandy, although it could have been five days old for all I knew, or could know.
It went down all right, and stayed down.
“Can we get back to our reading now?” said Penelope.
“Well, I don’t see why not,” said Horace.
There was a bottle on the little table next to my chair, with French words on its yellowed old label, and next to it was another snifter with brown liquid in it. Horace picked up the glass, put it to his nose and sniffed. I guess that’s why they call these glasses snifters. Then he took a good drink, although they don’t call the glasses “gulpers”.
“Really good stuff, Mr. Peacock,” said Ferdinand, from somewhere to my left, and I saw that he was sitting on the edge of a thimble on the little table. He lowered himself into the thimble with a graceful flutter of his wings, and landed on the surface of the brown liquid inside it.
Horace picked a paperback book up from the seat of the chair he had been sitting in.
“Are you really sure you want me to read this?” he said, addressing Penelope, whom I now noticed was also holding a snifter with the brown liquid, or a similarly-colored brown liquid, in it.
“Oh, yes!” she said. “You don’t know what a thrill this is for me!”
“Well, ha ha, only if you insist!” he said, and he sat himself down in the chair.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yes,” said Penelope. “What is it, Mr. Schnabel?”
“I don’t know what’s going on.”
“That’s our Arnie,” said Ferdinand. “Always got his finger on the pulse!”
“Mr. Sternwall was just about to read for us!” said Penelope, and she floated down to a sitting position on the rug a couple of feet in front of me, with her legs folded under her in that way only women seem able to do, and with her arm resting on an old-looking brown leather hassock.
“This is how we used to amuse ourselves in the old days!” cackled Mr. Peacock. “No radios or Victrolas! Sitting in front of the fire reading Dickens or Sir Walter Scott!”
He took what looked like a good gulp of the liquid in his glass and then sat down in another easy-chair to the left and in front of Horace’s, with the chair facing away from the fire.
“Shall I start at the beginning then?” said Horace.
“Yes, please do!” said Penelope.
“Well, maybe just a page or two,” he said.
“Oh, no!” said Penelope. “I want to hear the whole book!”
“Um,” I said.
“What is it, Arnie?” said Horace. “You want another snort before I kick off?”
“No,” I said.
“Something the matter?”
What a question. I could have gone on all night and into the next day and night about what was the matter, but I stuck to the most immediate matter.
“I actually am really hungry,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Schnabel,” said Penelope. “We’re fixing you something to eat.”
“You are?” I said.
They sure didn’t look like they were fixing me something to eat.
“Cook is making Beef Wellington,” she said. “That is what you wanted, isn’t it?” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “You have a cook.”
“Of course we have a cook!” said Mr. Peacock. “This is an inn, is it not?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Relax, Arnold,” said Horace. “Everything’s under control. Take another drink of the brandy, that’ll take the edge off your appetite.”
“Low blood sugar,” said Ferdinand, taking a break from lapping up his drink. “Some people get cranky like that when they’re hungry.”
“You just relax, Mr. Schnabel,” said Penelope. “We don’t let our guests go hungry here, do we, Popsy?”
“I should say not,” said Mr. Peacock, and he knocked the bowl of his pipe into or at least near an ashtray on another little table next to his chair.
“Your supper should be ready in twenty minutes,” said Penelope, addressing me again. “Perhaps twenty-five at the most. “Do you think you can wait that long?”
“Um,” I said.
“I mean,” she said, and she reached up and over to the little table, flipped open the lid of the cigarette box and took one out, “I’ll get you some breadsticks if you’re absolutely starving –”
Horace picked up the toad-shaped table-lighter and gave Penelope a light.
“Thank you, Mr. Sternwall!” she said.
“You’re quite welcome,” said Horace. “Say, do you think I could have one of these?”
He gestured at the cigarette box.
“By all means,” she said.
Horace took one of the cigarettes and lighted himself up.
“Nice,” he said.
“Herbert Tareytons,” she said.
“Herberts are a good smoke,” he said.
“Do you mind handing me down an ashtray?” she said. “There’s another one to your left over there.”
“Of course,” said Horace. There was yet another little table on the other side of his chair, with another glass ashtray on it. He picked it up and handed it over to Penelope.
“Thanks ever so much,” she said, and she put the ashtray on the hassock she was leaning on.
“So,” said Horace, “should I start reading now?”
“Oh, yes, please do!” said Penelope, and she took a quick gulp of her brandy.
I wondered if I should bring up the subject of the breadsticks again.
“Okay!” said Horace.
He had laid the paperback on the table, but now he picked it up again. I couldn’t help but notice the cover painting, which featured two attractive young women in the process of dressing or perhaps undressing. Horace took another drink from his snifter, then put the glass down on the table. Then he took a drag on his cigarette and finally opened the book.
“Slaves of Sappho,” he said. “A novel of forbidden passion, by Hortense Paula St. Claire. That’s me, of course, ha ha!”
“I know,” said Penelope, “and I’m so excited!”
“Thank you!” said Horace. He turned the page, and cleared his throat. I could hear Ferdinand lapping up his brandy in his thimble, and Mr. Peacock in his chair was snoring softly. Outside the dark windows of the parlor the rain still fell, apparently unabated, beating against the windowpanes, and I could hear the faint rumblings of thunder.
“Chapter One,” read Horace. “A Girl Alone in the Big City.”
I decided not to mention the breadsticks, and Horace dove into the first paragraph of Slaves of Sappho.
(Continued here; Arnold’s legions of fans would have it no other way.)
(Please look down the right hand column of this page to find a strictly-updated listing of links to all other legally-available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Order now to get your Railroad Train to Heaven™ Action Figures – the perfect stocking-stuffer for this holiday season!)