Saturday, May 14, 2016

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 485: Ace of Death

On this fateful rainy night in a fictional August of 1957 our hero Arnold Schnabel forges his way through a drunken crowd of revelers here in Bob’s Bowery Bar, followed by his friends Big Ben Blagwell (that hearty nautical adventurer), Josh (the quondam son of God), and Ferdinand (the talking fly)…

(Kindly go here to read our immediately preceding episode; the curious student of abnormal psychology may click here to return to the misty obscure beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 59-volume memoir.)

“The time has come to recognize Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling
chef-d'œuvre as not just the greatest autobiography in the American canon, but as the greatest American work of any literary genre, tout court.” – Harold Bloom, in The Philadelphia Daily News Book Supplement.

Finally I saw the booth dead ahead, with Mr. Philpot and Horace P. Sternwall sitting in it, with a pitcher of something dark on the table, along with beer schooners and shot glasses with something brown in them, and – yes, my book, my possible salvation, my precious unwritten book or at least a simulacrum of it. I shoved brutally past the last few drunks in my way and lurched into the booth, on Horace’s side, the side closest to the entrance.

There it lay, right in front of me, with the embossed dark lettering on its green cover: The Ace of Death, a novel of despair and terror, by Horace P. Sternwall.

“Oh, thank God,” I said. I picked up the book, with my left hand, as my right hand was still throbbing with pain and partially paralyzed.

“Speaking of which,” said Horace, and he pointed with the cigar he had in his hand, “here’s his son right now! How’s it going, Josh?”

Josh was there, sliding into the place across from me, next to little Mr. Philpot.

“Oh, I’m fine, Horace,” said Josh.

And then came Ben, pushing his enormous body into my side of the booth, squashing me up against Horace, and putting his great right arm around my shoulders.

“Don’t think I’m getting fresh, Arnie,” he said. “But it’s kind of a tight squeeze.

“Oh, boy, whiskey,” said Ferdinand, who was now zigzagging around in his happy way over the table, “and a fresh pitcher of bock!”

Without further preamble he landed on the surface of the liquid in a shot glass near me and began lapping away. Ferdinand was never one to stand on ceremony.

“Hey, Ben,” said Horace, “why don’t you get in the other side? Josh and Mr. Philpot are a lot smaller combined than me and Arnold, for Christ’s sake – oh, sorry, Josh.”

“Quite all right, Horace,” said Josh, and he slid the empty schooner that Ben had given him to hold across the table top to Ben.

“Come on, Ben,” said Horace, “get over there with our lord and savior, big buddy.”

“Ah, but Horace,” said Josh, tapping his cigarette ash into a tin ashtray that was overflowing with cigarette and cigar butts and ashes, “I have news for you and Mr. Philpot – it’s official, I am merely a human being now.”

“Ha ha, you jest, my lord,” said Mr. Philpot, who was smoking a pipe, but it seemed to me to be a different pipe than the one he’d been smoking the last time I saw him – this one was a dark reddish wooden one with what looked like William Shakespeare’s head carved into the bowl. He started to pour some of the dark liquid in the pitcher into an empty schooner in front of Josh.

“No, I’m not jesting, Mr. Philpot,” said Josh, “– thanks for the pour by the way –”

“You are quite welcome, dear lord,” said Mr. Philpot, and he shoved the pitcher over towards me and Ben.

“But that’s just it, sir,” said Josh, “you needn’t call me ‘dear lord’, because I really am just an ordinary human being now.”

“Oh ho, yes, sure,” said Mr. Philpot. “Quite risible my dear lord, quite risible indeed!” He waved at the six filled shot glasses that were set out at intervals on both sides of the table. “I ordered a round of Old Forester’s along with the pitcher, so don’t anyone say old Philpot ever shirks his shout. Horace and I have been waiting for you guys, so let’s drink up.” He picked up the shot glass in front of him and he turned to Josh. “To our friend ‘Josh’,” he said. “He might say he’s just a normal human being, but to me he will always be our most dearly beloved and most merciful lord and savior. Hear, hear, gentlemen!”

Horace, Ben and Josh all picked up the shot glasses nearest to them. I wanted to start writing in the book, but with all the aches and pains emanating increasingly from various places on my body a shot seemed like a good idea at the moment. My right hand was still pulsing with hurt, and so I picked up the shot glass nearest me with my left hand, but I saw that Ferdinand was still lapping away at its contents.

“Hey, easy there, buster!” yelled Ferdinand.

“No, no, my dear chap,” said Mr. Philpot. “That is Ferdinand’s shot.” He pointed to another shot, a few inches farther to the left from where Ferdinand’s had been. “Take that other one.”

“Yeah, jeeze, Arnie,” said Ferdinand, “you already swallowed me once tonight, give me a break.”

“Sorry, Ferdinand,” I said.

I put Ferdinand’s shot glass back on the table and picked up the other one.

I drank, we all drank. The reader with a good memory might recall my claim that I rarely drink shots down at one go, but I made an exception in this case. It burned on the way down of course, but the burn was quickly replaced by a suffusion of pleasure through my entire body and brain, no, not so much pleasure, but a warm numbness that significantly lessened the various physical pains I had been suffering just a moment before, as well as the moral and psychological ones, I’m tempted almost to say the spiritual pains.

My table companions immediately resumed verbal discourse, as Ben poured black foamy liquid into a schooner in front of me, and then into another for him, but their words faded into an untranslated babble as I sighed beneath the weight of Ben’s heavy warm arm.

I took a drink of the black liquid, which I surmised tasted indeed like some sort of beer, apparently or allegedly a bock, not that I could tell for sure, I who customarily drank beers that tasted all alike in their soothing blandness, like Schmidt’s or Ortlieb’s, but this one whatever it was was a welcome change. Maybe if I ever made it back to my own world I would start ordering bocks and stouts, maybe I would even wear a beret and grow a goatee and buy a pair of bongo drums and try to learn how to play them.

I had put the book, The Ace of Death, back down on the table. There it was, my only hope of escaping this dream in which I had been caught for what felt like four years at least. 

I took out the pen from my shirt pocket, that green and yellow Eversharp ballpoint. I used my right hand, which still ached, but to which a modicum of functionality had now returned, thanks to the Old Forester and that first refreshing gulp of bock.

Before opening the book I took a moment to think about what I was going to write. I didn’t want to descend into literary hemming and hawing and false starts as I had done the last time I had tried to write in it.

The thing to do, I thought, was just to get right to the point, the point being to transmit “me”, that is my consciousness of me as Arnold Schnabel, out of the body and the world I was in and back into the body and world I had left behind, my so-called “real” world, making sure to stipulate – if possible, in the very first sentence – that I would be mysteriously but completely free of pain upon my re-entry to my version of planet Earth.

Or was that asking too much? Very well, I would allow a few minor aches and pains, but no debilitating ones. So I would need to write something like: 

Arnold Schnabel suddenly returned to his body and to the world he had grown up in and lived in for forty-two years, and much to his relief he found himself mysteriously but completely free not only of excruciating lower back pain but also of crippling pain in his knees.  

How hard could it be to write something that simple?

I uncapped the pen, put the cap on the rear end of the barrel, took a breath, and opened the book.


Where previously there had been a blank page I now saw the printed words:

The Ace of Death
a novel of despair and terror
Horace P. Sternwall

I flipped through the book and the pages were filled with print, with words and punctuation marks.

I closed the book.

“Hey,” I said.

“Okay, Ben,” said Josh, “thank you, but no.”

“What’s the matter with her?” said Ben, he was pointing at a fat drunken negro woman dancing what might have been the black bottom, possibly by herself, holding a beer bottle, and with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

“I don’t know,” said Josh. “She just seems a little, how shall I put it –”

“You’re just prejudiced is what you are, my friend,” said Ben.

“I’m not prejudiced!” said Josh.

“Hey,” I said.

“I like negro gals,” said Ferdinand, who was now sitting on the rim of his shot glass, which was half empty. “They’re real, man, no bullshit, not like these white chicks.”

“Gotta say I’m with you, Ferdy,” said Horace. “Gimme that brown sugar, man. What about you, Mr. Philpot, you like your women dark like your beer?”

“I like women anyway I can get ‘em,” said Mr. Philpot, “although at my age I’m afraid I have to pay through the nose for ‘em –”

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“What about you, Arnie,” said Ben. “You like them dusky black gals?”

“Listen,” I said. “Something has happened to my book.”

“Your book,” said Ben, “your book –”

“He’s obsessed with that book,” said Ferdinand.

“It’s a Horace P. Sternwall book,” said Horace. “Why shouldn’t he be obsessed with it? Ha ha!”

“How come there’s words in it now?” I said, tapping the cover. “This book was blank before.”

“Yes, my dear chap,” said Mr. Philpot, with what I assumed was meant to be a chuckle, a sound like an aged crow coughing, “that was rather naughty of me, selling you a blank book, ha ha. I felt guilty and so I put words in it for you. But very much words in our friend Horace’s typical style.”

“There ya go, Arnold,” said Horace, and he gave me a little punch in the arm. “You got one of my books. Enjoy.”

“But I wanted to write my own book,” I said.

“Wow,” said Horace, “that kind of makes me feel like chopped liver.”

“But it’s not even really your book, Horace,” I said. “Mr. Philpot made it somehow, with his – his magic, or voodoo –”

“Still it’s got my name on it,” said Horace. “And Mr. Philpot said it’s in my style.”

“Very much so,” said Mr. Philpot.

“But you see,” I said, “you don’t understand –”

I held up the Eversharp pen, as if this would help him understand.

“It’s like this,” said Ferdinand. He had been drinking some more of his whiskey, but now he’d flown up onto the rim of his shot glass again, and he wiped his mouth with one of his arms before continuing. “Arnold wanted to write his own book because he wanted to make it a – stop me if I misrepresent this, Arnold – he wanted to make it a novel in which he returns to his own world.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Philpot. “Well, that makes sense, but, I’m sorry, I did not know that.”

“No one’s blaming you, Mr. Philpot,” said Ferdinand.

“I’m sure Mr. Philpot meant well,” said Josh.

“I think it was a very nice gesture of Mr. Philpot,” said Horace. “Of course I’m a bit prejudiced because it is one of my books.”

“It looks like a good one, Horace,” said Ben. “The Ace of Death. Sounds pretty, like, suspenseful. I’d like to read it.”

“Thank you, Ben,” said Horace.

“Can I take a look at it, Arnie?” said Ben.

“Yeah, sure, Ben,” I said.

I shoved it over closer to him. 

Now I had no plan, none whatsoever. I was trapped in this universe. 

But then it occurred to me all at once that maybe all I had to do was find a piece of paper, anything, just something to write on. I realized that my schooner of beer was sitting on a cardboard coaster, a Rheingold beer coaster. I lifted the schooner and turned the coaster over. It was blank – yes! This could work…

“Shit,” said Ben, he was holding the book up open near his face, reading while moving his lips. “Say,” he said. “This is good! Great opening here, Horace.”

“Thank you,” said Horace.

“Just dumps you right into the action,” said Ben.

“That’s the way I like to do it,” said Horace. “Just get right to it without a lot of pussyfooting around.”

“Read it out loud, Ben,” said Ferdinand. “I’m curious.”

“Okay,” said Ben.

“No, wait,” I said.

“No, listen, Arnie,” said Ben, “this is really good.”

“No, Ben,” I said, “Jesus, please –

“Yes?” said Josh.

“Ha ha,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Go ahead, read it Ben,” said Horace. “Out loud.”

And Ben began to read out loud.

(Click here for our next thrilling episode.)

(Kindly scroll down the right hand column of this page to find a purportedly current listing of links to all other legally-released chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven©. Please click here to order our friend rhoda penmarq’s {under the pen name “horace p sternwall”} “the little cheeseburger girl, and other stories” – it’s the feel-good hit of the summer season!)


Unknown said...

I have faith in Arnold. He'll figure something out. I like the way Bert comes and goes.

Dan Leo said...

And so Arnold continues to put one foot after the other...