Let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel just where we left him, in yet another crowded smoky bar, meeting yet another mysterious and beautiful woman...
(Please go here to read our preceding thrilling episode; if you feel you’re up to the commitment then you may click here to start at the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 71-volume autobiography.)
“Just as Arnold Schnabel has bequeathed us perhaps the premier masterwork of American literature, so also has he given us one of its greatest characters, from either the soi-disant ‘real’ or ‘fictional’ realms, viz.: ‘Arnold Schnabel’.” – Harold Bloom, in the Gentlemen’s Quarterly Literary Quarterly.
“Beverly!” yelped Slick. “Howya doin’, baby?”
She gave him a look, and if I had to describe it, I would say it was a look of undisguised contempt.
“It’s great to see ya, Bev,” said Slick.
“Shut the fuck up,” she said to him, and then she looked into my eyes. She gave my arm a squeeze. My arms were sore from people grabbing and squeezing them all day. But maybe it’s better to have people care enough to grab you; for the first forty-two years of my life no one ever grabbed me, and, let me tell you, those years were nothing to write home about.
“Aw, gee, Beverly,” said Slick. “Don’t go all bein’ like that –”
“I’ll be any way I damn well want to be,” she said.
She had a dress on that might have been green or it might have been blue or red, there was no way for me to tell because everything in this particular universe was in black and white. At any rate the material was shiny like silk and it seemed to pour down and around the curves of her body like some shiny thin liquid. I know that dress material can’t pour like a liquid, but that’s what it looked like to me.
“What are you doing with this clown?” she asked me.
“Clown?” said Slick. “Hey, that hurts, baby!”
“I’m not your baby,” she said to him.
“But, doll –”
“And I’m not your doll,” she said. “I’m nobody’s doll.”
“But, but –” he said.
“There’s only one reason I don’t thrash the living shit out of you, Slick,” she said.
“Only one,” he said, “heh heh?”
“Only one,” she said. “It’s that knowing you and what a slimeball you are you just might enjoy it if I thrashed the ever-living shit out of you.”
“Well, hey, Bev,” he said, and he had his smiling face on again. “Give it a try if it’ll make you feel better. Heh heh.”
She turned back to me.
“You’d better come with me, doll.”
She squeezed my arm, harder.
“But we was just gonna have a drink,” said Slick. “Wasn’t we, Bertolt?”
“Arnold,” I said, firmly, for me, because “Bertolt” was just a bit too much even for me.
“Wasn’t we, ‘Arnold’?” he said.
“Well, you were,” I said.
“Okay, I was,” he said. “But you said you was gonna buy me a shot and a beer. You ain’t gonna go back on your word, are ya?”
“Oh my lord,” said the woman. She had a silvery sparkly purse in one hand, the one that wasn’t grabbing my arm, and she let go of my arm, opened the purse, and took out a crumpled five-dollar bill. She tossed it on the bar in front of Slick. “There. Drink up.”
“Wow,” he said, looking from the five to her and back and forth again. “A whole fin. You want some change I guess, right, Bev?”
“It’s all yours, sport,” she said, clicking the purse shut. “Go crazy.”
“Oh, man, you are too good to me, Bev! Let me kiss you!” He took a step forward, his arms spreading outward as in the opening stages of an embrace, but she raised her purse in a backhanded pre-thrashing gesture, and he stopped. “Okay!” he said, opening his palms outward in the time honored posture of human beings fearful of being dealt harm. “So forget the kiss! But, thanks, Bev, I really mean it –”
She turned back to me, put her arm in mine.
“Come with me,” she said.
Anyone who has read this far in these memoirs, if any such a one exists, will know by now that I am practically incapable of saying no to a woman, and this instance was no exception. Without either the woman or myself bothering to say another word to Slick, nor he to us, he was far too preoccupied waving and yelling at the bartender for another shot and beer, I allowed her to pull me along through the crowd across the barroom, to a door with an electric “EXIT” sign over it. When we got to the door I did the gentlemanly thing and opened it for her. Rain was crashing down outside, but there was an awning over the entranceway. She let go of my arm and went out, and I followed her, the shouting and laughter of drunken people and the ragtime music (if that’s what it was, I wouldn’t know) of the piano fading but not disappearing as the door closed itself behind us.
We stood there under the shallow awning. A few steps and a metal railing led down to a sidewalk, the rain clattering down and exploding onto it and on cars parked in a city street with what looked like closed shops and apartment buildings on the other side.
The woman turned and looked at me. A wavering watery light from a streetlamp reflected up from the sidewalk and onto her face.
“Fucking rain,” she said. “Désolée pour ma vulgarité.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“So you’re not the priggish prude you used to be?”
“Not so much,” I said.
“That’s good. Because life’s too short.” I must have betrayed something by my expression, because she said: “What. That look. What.”
“Never mind,” I said.
“Fuck that. I ask a question I’d like an answer.”
“What you said about life.”
“What about it,” she said.
“Being short,” I said.
“My life has not seemed short lately,” I said. “It’s seemed really long.”
She looked at me, but said nothing, at least not right away.
She opened her sparkly purse, took out a polished pale metal cigarette case, clicked it open and offered its contents to me. “Pall Mall?”
Once again I was tempted. I hesitated, saying neither yes or no, raising my hand halfway to the cigarettes, but letting it hover there, moving just slightly up and down, up and down.
“A yes or no answer will do,” she said.
“No thanks,” I said, even though I wanted to say yes.
She took a cigarette for herself, clicked the case shut, tapped one end of the cigarette on its lid, then dropped the case into the purse and clicked it shut.
She stared at me again, waiting.
I started checking my pockets. In the pocket of my work shirt I felt the ballpoint pen I had acquired some time ago, with no little effort and with much annoyance and frustration. In the inside breast pocket of my seersucker jacket I felt what I realized must be Lucius Pierrepont St. Cloud III’s paperback book of poetry which I had forgotten all about, what was it, Songs from a Negro Slum Tenement? No matter, I doubted I would ever read it, not if I could help it, not that I had anything against poems about Negro slum tenements, it was more that I had something against reading any poems about anything. In my right jacket pocket was the revolver that Miss Lily had given me earlier that evening, although it felt like at least a year ago. I tried my left jacket pocket and the exterior breast pocket and all my jeans pockets, not forgetting the little change pocket, but no, a pack of matches or a lighter did not miraculously appear.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t seem to have a light.”
The blonde woman had waited through all this without comment if not patiently. She knew it was a man’s job to light a lady’s cigarette. Now that I had failed in this duty she put the cigarette between her lips, opened her purse again and took out a thin polished pale metal lighter. She held it out to me. She was really following the letter of the law as far as etiquette went. I took the lighter, and after only three or four tries I got her cigarette lit.
“Thanks,” she said.
She took the lighter back and dropped it back into her purse, but right before she clicked it shut I thought I caught a glimpse of a pistol in there, a small automatic it looked like. So we were both armed. I had no idea if it was a good thing or a bad thing that she was carrying a gun, but, knowing that she was carrying one, I was glad I had one too.
She exhaled smoke out of her nostrils, into my face.
“What the fuck is the matter with you, Arnold?”
I didn’t quite know where to begin. A car drove by, making the hissing sound cars make on rainy streets. The car was a DeSoto, a maroon one, 1950 or 1951 if I wasn’t mistaken, and realizing it was maroon I realized that the world was in color again, and had been ever since we had stepped out of the bar. The woman was indeed a blonde, and her eyes I could see even in this dim light were a bright green. Her skin was pale, but at least it was not completely white. Her dress as it happened was a pale shade of blue.
“You’re not answering my question,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I got distracted. What was the question?”
“What the fuck is the matter with you? Why are you acting so strange? Is it because you killed Billingsly? Look, if you did I can help you. I hated Billingsly. I hated him and everything he stood for.”
“Can I just say something here?” I said.
“I didn’t kill Billingsly. And I have no idea who Billingsly is.”
“Was,” she said.
“I have no idea who Billingsly was,” I said, “and I’m very sorry, but you seem to have the, uh, advantage of me, because I’m afraid I don’t know who you are.”
She stared at me for a minute, taking a slow drag on her cigarette, and then allowing the smoke to stream slowly but steadily out of her nostrils and into my face, again, which to tell the truth I didn’t mind, in fact I liked it, it was almost as good as smoking a Pall Mall myself. When the minute was up she spoke.
“Two possibilities as I see it, no, make that three. Possibility one: you’re fucking with me. Are you fucking with me, Arnold?”
“I assure you, I’m not, uh –”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Despite what I had said just a little bit earlier, I was still apparently a bit of a prig.
“Okay,” she said. “Possibility number two: you’ve gone insane. Have you gone insane?”
“That is a possibility,” I said. “I admit it.”
“Right,” she said. “So we’ll set that one aside for the nonce and move on to possibility number three, which is what I’m leaning toward actually, on account of those bruises on your face and that black eye: to wit, you are suffering from amnesia, possibly as a result of what our copper friends like to call blunt force trauma. Is that it?”
“Well,” I said, “if that were the case, wouldn’t I be the wrong person to ask? Because if I had amnesia I might not be able to remember if I had amnesia.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Arnold. This is me, Beverly. Come on, honey boy, you remember me, don’t you?”
“The good times we used to have.”
She touched my face. I saw that her fingernails were painted red. It matched the color of her lipstick.
“Say my name,” she said.
“Beverly was it?”
“Yes,” she said. “See, you got it first try. Do you remember now?”
“Everything. That ride on the Ferris wheel. What you said to me. What I said to you.”
“Uh, no,” I said. “Sorry, uh –”
“Good. Say it again.”
“Great. Now without the question mark.”
“Do you think you can remember it now?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“Say it again.”
“Beverly?” I said.
“That’s swell. This is a start. Amnesia is nothing to be ashamed of, Arnold. It’s quite common. Like polio, or TB. You go to the movies. You listen to radio and TV shows. You read murder magazines and paperback novels. There is nothing more common than some poor guy or gal stricken with amnesia. And trapped in a web of betrayal. And violence.”
She paused here. She was standing very close to me. It was much less hot out here than it had been in the bar, but I could feel the warmth of her body, and, I am ashamed to admit it, I began to feel those first faint stirrings of yet another erection.
“Are you sure you didn’t kill Billingsly?” she said, suddenly.
The question bounced around inside my head, and when it stopped bouncing I spoke.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes you’re sure you didn’t kill him or yes you did kill him.”
“Yes, I’m sure I didn’t kill him.”
“So what you’re saying is that you have no recollection of having killed him.”
“Um,” I said.
“But,” she said, “if you have amnesia maybe you did kill him but you can’t remember killing him. Oh my God.”
“Maybe, just maybe, it was the psychological trauma of killing Billingsly that caused your amnesia. Did you ever think of that?”
“No,” I said.
“Of course you didn’t. Because you have blocked out everything to do with Billingsly. Just as you blocked me out. And that’s what hurts, Arnold. That you blocked me out. Billingsly, however, was scum. And he deserved to die!”
“But I didn’t kill him.”
“So you say.”
“Beverly, may I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Arnold. I imagine with amnesia you might have lots of questions.”
“Okay,” I said. “My question is just – and please don’t tell me we’re nowhere – where are we?”
“We’re here, Arnold darling. Together. You and me. And that’s all that matters.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “But what I meant was, where exactly geographically are we.”
“Standing outside Bill’s Bar, where the hell did you think we were?”
“Okay,” I said. “But what city are we in?”
“Wow, you really do have amnesia.”
“Please tell me,” I said.
“New York City!” she said. “You big weirdo.”
“Oh, thank God. Thank God,” I repeated.
“Don’t get carried away, Arnold. This town ain’t all that great. It’ll chew you up and spit you out. Then it’ll chew you up again, like a dog that eats its own vomit. Then it’ll do it all over again.”
“But still,” I said. “Can you tell me more particularly where we are, like in what neighborhood?”
“Like Greenwich Village?”
“What other village is there? We’re standing right on Bleecker Street, you nut.”
“Oh – thank Christ,” I said. I had almost said, “Thank Josh.”
“Listen,” I said, “can I ask you just one more question?”
“By all means,” she said. “I can tell this Q&A is somewhat – how shall I put it – therapeutic for you?”
“Do you happen to know of a bar called Bob’s Bowery Bar? I think it’s at –”
“Bleecker and the Bowery.”
“Yes!” I almost yelled.
“That dive, sure I know it.”
“Is it far?”
“Is it far? It’s just a few blocks away.”
I wanted to fall down on my knees and thank the heavens, thank God, and his son, and the holy ghost, thank anyone who would take my thanks, but I chose the path of dignity.
I took a deep breath.
“Do you think we could go there?” I said, trying to sound more or less not insane.
“You want to go to Bob’s Bowery Bar. Where it smells like piss and cheap whiskey and stale beer and decaying bad poets who don’t know enough to fall over when they’re dead.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You poor damned fool,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
Suddenly I had the distinct impression that I was floating, even though I could feel my feet in their wet socks in my damp work shoes pressing down against the hard concrete beneath them.
And then I remembered.
(Continued here, and down streets and alleys and worlds yet unknown.)
(Kindly look to the right-hand column of this page to find a quite possibly accurate listing of links to all other officially published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©; tickets are now available for the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Annual Fisher Park Hayride in Arnold’s old neighborhood of Olney, Philadelphia. Ticket price includes Beef ‘n’ Beer Blast afterwards at the Green Parrot Tavern, musical entertainment provided by Freddy Ayres & Ursula, featuring Magda on the Hohner electric piano and vocals!)