Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel, last seen entering through the back door of a low dockside bar in Singapore, ready as he’ll ever be to face the music…
(Please click here to read our previous chapter.)
“Arnold Schnabel’s masterpiece is not just the story of one extraordinary man’s life, nay, rather say it is the story of all mankind.” -- Harold Bloom, “The Only Book You’ll Need on Your Summer Vacation”, Reader’s Digest.
The bar if anything had gotten more crowded, more noisy and more hot, more smoky and redolent of sweat and of perfume and Old Spice, of Brylcreem and Aqua Net, and above and through the shouting and the laughter of the patrons the music of the band crashed along heedlessly as if the musicians were furiously attacking their instruments while tumbling down the side of a steep rocky cliff to their doom; however, as I shoved through the crowd I consoled myself with the thought that this after all was a fictional universe -- how much longer could it go on? A couple of hundred pages, tops, and probably less as this was only the world of a cheap paperback novel. It could be worse, this could be one of those really long books like Gone With the Wind or Raintree County, or the Bible. I should be happy that I had not been exiled into Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, or the Philadelphia White Pages...
But then it occurred to me that even in the shortest of novels, even in short stories and fairy tales, it was not unheard of that very long periods of time might pass in the space of a sentence or a few words. All the writer had to do was type something like,“And so he spent the next twenty years in Sing Sing.”
And now I felt not consoled at all.
No, I had to escape. I had done it before. I would just have to buck up and figure out how to do it again.
Mojo the midget was still at the bar, but now, instead of sitting right on top of the bar with his little legs dangling off of it, he sat like a child on the barstool that Ben had vacated. The peacock feather in his white straw hat just barely reached the level of the counter, and he had to keep his arm extended to its full length above his head just to keep his hand around what looked like a brand new pousse-café on the bar top. He was still smoking his enormous cigar, which somehow had not grown any less enormous, and he was turning his head to the right and left constantly, as if he didn’t want to miss a thing. So he saw me coming.
“Ah, Monsieur Schtürkel, everything come out all right I pray?”
I really dislike it when people say this sort of thing. Especially when they’re referring to masturbation. You might think that working on the railroad all those years, plus my three years in the army, might have inured me to such raillery, but I’ve never gotten used to it.
“Mission accomplished,” I said.
“Asseyez-vous, mon ami, look, your drink is all ready for you -- Planter’s Punch, with a float of ‘151’.”
“Yeah, great,” I said. “Thanks.”
I sat down on the same stool I had sat in before. The drink was sitting there, all deep red and swirly and beaded, with its little multi-colored paper umbrella and a big black plastic straw and with a cherry and a slice of lime impaled together by a little yellow plastic arrow.
“Just a word to the wisenheimer as you Yanks say,” said Mojo. “I wouldn’t eat the lime and the cherry. Fruit flies you know.”
“Thanks,” I said. I removed the cherry and lime and arrow and laid them on the bar.
“Just throw them down into the spit gutter,” said Mojo. “That’s what it’s there for.”
I picked up the arrow and lime and cherry and dropped them down to the spit gutter.
“Bien,” said Mojo. “Just remove the umbrella as well. It’s purely decorative, and, though I suppose some might consider it a wasteful use of paper and dye and wood, think of the poor wretched coolies who make a good living manufacturing them by hand so that we can toss them into the spit gutter at our feet.”
I took out the umbrella and placed it on the bar. Mojo stretched out his little arm, almost falling off his stool, grabbed the umbrella and tossed it down to the spit gutter at my feet.
“It’s a tradition,” he said. “You toss it down into the spit gutter.”
“What difference does it make?” I said.
“I said what difference does it make?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Yes,” I said.
“May I climb onto your lap?”
“What?” I said.
“May I sit on your lap? It’s so hard to talk like this, because you’re so very tall, I can barely hear you.”
“You’re not missing anything,” I said.
“Never mind,” I said.
“Let me sit on your lap. Benjamin always lets me sit on his lap when we’re at a bar together.”
“I don’t think I would like that,” I said.
“No one’s going to think you’re queer. I am Mojo, Mojo the Midget, I sit on all my tall friends’ laps, even the ladies’. Especially the ladies’.”
“Why can’t you just sit on the top of the bar again?”
“Yes I suppose I could. But I am hurt.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“If I were some attractive little Oriental trollop in a tight red silk dress I suppose you would re-think the matter.”
“Even then I would probably decline,” I said.
“I shall never understand you Americans.”
“I don’t understand us either,” I said.
“So you are quite adamant,”
“Yes,” I said. “Anyway, it’s too hot.”
“Hot? You call this hot?”
“Yes,” I said.
“This isn’t hot.”
“It must be a hundred degrees in here,” I said.
“I don’t call that hot.”
“You’re insane,” I said. (I realized this wasn’t the way I normally talked to anyone, even the most annoying person, but, after all, this was a fictional world, and I figured I could give myself some leeway.) “I’m sweating buckets. Even you’re sweating buckets.”
“I am not here to argue with you, Herr Schteüben. But if you insist on being so priggish will you at least lift me up onto the bar top?”
“Okay,” I said, and I reached over, grabbed him with both hands at his waist and lifted him up and onto the edge of the bar, with his little legs hanging over.
“Ah,” he said, “this is better, isn’t it?” He picked up his drink with his right hand. His cigar was in his left. “Although I would be more comfortable in your lap.”
“No,” I said.
“I mean, this is okay sitting here,” he said. “But I really would be so much more comfortable in your lap.”
“But I would be very uncomfortable,” I said.
“I should think, Monsieur Strudel, you might take pity on someone not so gifted as you in the height department.”
“I do take pity on you,” I said. “But not enough to let you sit on my lap.”
“No need to get nasty, old chap.”
“I don’t mean to be nasty,” I said.
“Perhaps you are being nasty without meaning to be.”
“Look,” I said, “tell me about this lady you were talking about. This one who might be able to help me.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re not drinking your drink. Drink, and we will talk.”
“Okay,” I said. I took the straw out of the drink and dropped it down to the spit gutter.
“You’re really supposed to drink it through the straw, mon ami.”
I ignored this remark, lifted the drink up and took a good gulp. To be quite honest, it tasted delicious. I took a breath and then took another good gulp.
“What do you think?” said Mojo. “Good, eh?”
“Yes,” I said. “It really is.”
“Finish it up, then, and we’ll go.”
“To Madame Chang’s, of course.”
“But I thought you said I would need three or four thousand dollars to get her to help me.”
“Yes, at least that, possibly even as much as five thousand dollars.”
“I don’t even have five dollars.”
“We’ll work something out.”
“I’m not pulling any capers,” I said.
“Perhaps just a little caper.”
“Very little. A tiny caper. We can do it on the way to Madame Chang’s. Come on, drink up, she only lives right down the road a piece.”
“And you’re saying I can pull off some caper on the way over that will get me five thousand dollars?”
“Oh, at least that.”
“A little while ago you said we would make only three or four thousand off this caper.”
“I was being conservative in my estimate.”
“What about Ben? I thought you wanted him for the job too.”
“Ben is otherwise engaged. Making the beast with two backs with Maxine.”
“I think they’re finished by now,” I said.
“How can you know?”
I could have told him that when I was outside in the back courtyard I had heard their cries and shouts of ecstasy reach a crescendo and then die away, but there are some things which although I may scribble them down in my marble copybooks I could still never bring myself to say aloud.
“They’ve had plenty of time,” I mumbled. I suddenly realized that I was starting to feel drunk. It must have been that float of “151” on top of the drink.
“Look,” said Mojo, “do you want to go back to what you imagine to be your own world or not?”
“Yes,” I said, although I realized it sounded a little like “yesh”.
“Then let’s stop dithering, Herr Stockhausen. Finish your drink and let’s go.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m not doing anything --”
I paused, because I had forgotten what I was going to say.
“Speak freely,” said Mojo.
“What was I shaying. Saying.”
“Something about your not doing anything.”
“Oh, right,” I said. It came back to me now, bobbing to the surface like a boring and inedible fish. “I’m not doing anything --”
It had slipped beneath the surface again.
“Yes?” said Mojo. “In your own words.”
“I’m not doing anything --”
Again I was drawing a blank, as well as losing interest.
“Perhaps illegal is the word you are searching for,” said Mojo.
“Right,” I said. “Legal.”
“I think you mean illegal.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not doing anything legal.”
“Of course not,” said Mojo. “Now let’s drink up and blow this joint.”
He put the straw of his pousse-café between his lips and emptied the nearly-full glass in one long, drawn-out slurp. It sounded like the death-rattle of a small dog.
I lifted my glass and drank the rest of my own drink down in two or three gulps. It really did taste good. I looked down into the glass, but there was nothing in it but ice and a dead moth. At least the moth appeared to be dead. Maybe it was only sleeping. I put the glass down.
“Lift me please if you will, Monsieur Stuka,” said Mojo.
I got off my stool, grabbed Mojo by the waist again, and lifted him down from the bar.
“Chouette,” he said. “Now let’s split what you Americans call this popsicle stand.”
“Lead the way,” I said. My words felt like chewing gum that I had been chewing too long.
“Évidemment,” said Mojo, way down there, the French syllables rising slowly up like bubbles and bouncing off my face.
He took off, and I followed him through the crowd. We went out through the front entrance. The street outside was utterly unfamiliar to me, as of course it would be since I had made my first appearance in this novel back in the bar we had just left.
The street was fairly busy, people walking around, some cars and trucks going back and forth, and I found this activity somewhat reassuring. The air, although it was still very hot and muggy, was much less close than inside the bar, and nowhere near as foul as in that courtyard behind the bar, let alone that wretched outhouse in which I had only minutes ago spilled my seed. I turned and looked at the bar. A red neon sign said Club Tiki-Tiki Bar & Grill & Cocktails. Okay. Good to know, in case I wanted to come back here for some reason. A smaller, hand-painted sign to the side of the doorway read “Now playing: the Spike Fontaine Combo, featuring the lovely Maxine Parraquette”. There was a photograph of Maxine tacked to the sign. She looked angry.
“Come, mon ami, it is not far,” said Mojo.
He started off down the sidewalk, and I went along.
The street looked very foreign, which stood to reason, since we apparently were in Singapore. Of course we could have been anywhere for all I knew, as long as that anywhere was hot and muggy and had a lot of Oriental people all around.
I guess I was lagging a bit behind, because Mojo turned and made a gesture with his hand as if he were fanning himself.
“Allons-y, mon ami. We must move swiftly.”
I had only heard people talk like that in movies or in books, but I put this thought out of my head.
“Wudza rush,” I said.
“You want to get back to your own universe, don’t you?”
“Well,” I thought about it, “yeah,” I said.
“Then shake, as you Americans say, a foot.”
“We don’t say that,” said this voice that was mine.
“What do you say.”
“We say shake a leg.”
“Then shake it.”
We walked along at a good pace. He was pretty quick for such a little guy, I’ll hand him that.
“By the way,” he said. “The gat.”
It was hard to concentrate because my feet felt as if they were on someone else’s legs.
“That Luger you got stuck in your pants. It is fully charged I hope.”
“You mean -- loaded?”
“Yes, please don’t quibble, this is serious.”
“Yeah, it’s loaded, I guess,” I said. My voice sounded far away.
“A full magazine?” said Mojo’s voice.
“Beats me,” I said. And then, “Why?”
“I’m not going to shoot anyone,” I said, some voice said.
“Then why are you carrying it?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” the voice said. I think it was George Sanders for some reason.
“You Americans,” said Mojo. “Always with the humor.”
Another one of those sentences you only heard in movies and cheap paperbacks, but then again that figured.
“Okay, down this alleyway,” said Mojo, waving his big cigar.
“Wha?” I said.
All of a sudden we had come to the entrance of a perfectly dark narrow alley. I could see a few feet of cobblestone paving, and then only darkness.
“It’s okay,” said Mojo. “What are you afraid of?”
I thought about it.
“Everything,” I said.
“Ah ha ha, you Amegigans. Zujge dry humor. You are brobably a beeg fan of Meezdair Zhairy Lewee.”
“Wha?” I said.
I felt as if I were floating in the humid hot air. Oh, good, I thought, maybe I’m about to fly back to my own world.
“Or Danny Kaye, yay, yay, yay,” said Mojo. “Yay.”
Suddenly his face had grown to the size of a basketball.
“Danny,” I said. “Kaye, yay, yay, yay. Yay?”
Now his head had turned into a beach ball, and it was floating above me.
I was sitting against a wall, at least I thought I was sitting, but I couldn’t feel my backside. Maybe I had become part of the wall. Maybe my head was mounted on the wall, like the head of a moose someone had shot. But, no, I wasn’t mounted on the wall, because now I was looking at a brick, a damp, warm enormous brick, it was pressed against my nose. I turned my head so that my nose wouldn’t press against the brick. Now my cheek pressed against the brick, except the brick turned into warm wet mud, and I sank into the mud, and everything was dark.
(To be continued until the last cow comes home, and then some more.)
Railroad Train to Heaven is the living work of fiction writer Dan Leo, who's been working on its more than 300 weekly installments for the better part of five years. To catch up on previous episodes, visit his blog, or read a synopsis of the action thus far.