In a dimly-lighted hallway off a dark alleyway near the docks of Singapore, Big Ben Blagwell has discovered our hero Arnold Schnabel, unconscious and being dragged by his feet by the increasingly-dubious Mojo the Midget…
(Kindly to read our previous thrilling episode; in case you need your head examined, go here to return to the far-off beginnings of this Gold View Award©-winning 46-volume post-post-modernist masterpiece.)
“The other day at the beach I got so absorbed in reading Arnold Schnabel on my Kindle that I lost track of time and incurred a very nasty sunburn. Oh well, all in a good cause.” -- Harold Bloom, in The New Statesman.
Mojo looked up, saw me, dropped Arnie’s feet, and his right hand reached under his suit jacket and came out with a gun.
It was a Luger.
What did I know?
All Lugers look alike.
This Luger was pointed at me.
“Mon cher Benjamin,” said Mojo. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Really? Why is that, Mojo?” I asked.
“Because your friend is rather heavy and I was getting tired of dragging him. Now you can do it for me. Come closer, but, how do you Americans say, slow and easy-like?”
“Yeah, that’s what we say,” I said.
“Then, slow and easy-like, s’il vous plaît, approchez.”
I approached, slow and easy-like.
Mojo backed up a couple of steps toward a closed door a few feet behind him, and he kept the Luger pointed at me.
“What’s that you’ve got in your hand?” he said.
“Arnie’s hat,” I said. “And some broiled grasshoppers on a skewer. From that guy down the corner.”
“Oh, his grasshoppers are not bad.”
“Would you like one?” I said.
“Not right now. Perhaps later. How did you find us?”
“Mojo,” I said. “You’re a midget. With a white man. In Singapore.”
“So you simply asked people if they had seen a midget with a white man.”
“Bingo,” I said.
“I don’t like being called a midget, I’ve told you that.”
“But that’s what everyone calls you. Mojo the Midget.”
“I prefer to be called a man of modest heighth.”
“Mojo the Man of Modest Heighth don’t have quite the same ring,” I said.
“How would you like it if people called you Ben the Great Big Ape?”
“I say if the shoe fits wear it.”
“Come around here, cher Ben, but make it slow, slow and --”
“I know,” I said, “slow and easy-like.”
Slow and easy-like I walked past Arnie’s prostrate body, and Mojo backed up closer to the door, which had a big pebbled glass pane with some Chinese writing on it -- some obscure dialect I couldn't make head or tail of -- and under that the words, in English:
“Is Arnie dead?” I said, looking down at him.
“No,” said Mojo. “Merely resting. It seems someone put what you Yanks call a ‘Mickey Finn’ in his drink.”
“What’s the gag, Mojo?” I said. “I thought you had a caper for us to pull off.”
“This is the caper,” said Mojo.
Keeping that Luger on me, he reached behind him with his left hand, turned the doorknob, and pushed the door open. Behind him was what looked like another dimly-lit corridor.
“You didn’t ring the buzzer,” I said.
“I don’t have to ring the buzzer,” said Mojo. “Now throw down that hat and those grasshoppers so you can drag your friend into Madame Chang’s chambers.”
“I don’t mind dropping the hat, Mojo,” I said. “But I’d hate to waste the grasshoppers. I’m starving, man.”
I let the hat drop to the floor but I held onto the grasshoppers. I really didn’t want to waste them. I hadn’t had even a single one yet.
“Mon cher Benjamin,” said Mojo, “if you don’t drop the grasshoppers you may never eat another grasshopper again.”
I didn’t like the looks of this. I didn’t like the looks of it at all. I was holding the skewer in my left hand.
“Look, Mojo,” I said, “just hold the grasshoppers for me, will you, buddy?”
I held out the skewer, and Mojo, I guess just to shut me up, reached out to grab it with his left hand, but right before his stubby little fingers could reach the skewer I gave it a flick and four or five broiled grasshoppers flew off it and into Mojo’s face. I slammed his gun hand with the back of my left hand and then I stepped in and gave the sneaky little man of modest heighth a quick sharp right-hook to the jaw. He fell back hard in the corner between the doorway and the left-hand wall, slid down and crumpled over on his side, out cold.
I hate to hit a little guy, but sometimes you just got to do it.
I hunkered down and pried the Luger out of Mojo’s paw, then straightened up again. The safety was off. I clicked it on, and stuck the gun into the waistband of my dungarees on the right side of my gut, because I still had Maxine’s little Chief’s Special shoved into the left side. I looked down at Arnie. I gave his foot a little kick with my deck shoe.
“Yo, Arnie,” I said, “wake up, pal.”
I picked one of the remaining grasshoppers off of the skewer and tossed it in my yap. It was good, just the way I like it, crunchy, with the special spicy sauce cooked in and not just splashed on it the way some street vendors do it.
“Uh,” said Arnie.
Okay, so at least Mojo hadn’t lied about Arnie being dead. I gave his foot another little nudge with my deck shoe.
“Come on, pal,” I said. “Rise and shine.”
“Uh?” he said, and now his eyes opened.
I popped another grasshopper into my mouth.
“Come on, buddy,” I said. “Look, I got your hat.” I bent down, picked up his fedora, and dropped it on his chest.
“Arggh?” he said, still lying there, but with his eyes staying mostly open now.
I picked off another grasshopper. They really were good.
“Mojo slipped you a Mickey,” I said. “Why, I don’t know. But here’s what I think we should do. We’ll roll Mojo, take his fat wad of bills, then go get some hot java in you. Then, after you wake up a bit more, we grab a cab or a rickshaw and head over to Shanghai Sally’s and get some water-buffalo steaks.”
“Wa buffa?” said Arnie.
“Right,” I said, chewing another grasshopper. “Water buffalo. It might sound weird, but trust me, they’re delicious, especially the way Sally makes ‘em. What she does is, she marinates the steaks in bourbon, then she sprinkles ‘em with Kosher salt and cracked pepper, then --”
“Wa buffa?” said Arnie.
“Yeah,” I said. “Water buffalo. So, like I said, you got your bourbon-marinated steaks, and they’re liberally sprinkled with the kosher salt and the cracked pepper, and then what she does --”
“Beh,” said Arnie.
“Beh?” I said. I popped another grasshopper in my trap.
“Beh, Ben,” said Arnie. “Ben.”
“Right, that’s my name, pal. Ben. Can you say your name?”
“Ar,” he said.
“Go on,” I said, crunching another grasshopper. “You’re almost there.”
“Nold,” he said.
“Good,” I said, and I gobbled up another grasshopper. Like I said, I was hungry. “’Arnold’. Say the whole word now.”
“Arnold,” he said. And this time he even raised his right arm, and sort of pointed his limp fingers at me. “Beh, Ben,” he said.
“Right,” I said, tossing the last grasshopper into my maw. “You’re Arnold, or Arnie as I call you, and I’m Ben.”
See, I’ve had to deal with a lot of delirious guys in my time, and this is what you got to do, you got to keep them talking. At this critical juncture you got to keep them yapping away even if they don’t feel like it, otherwise their sanity might slip away for good and they become a drooling idiot or worse, like this one time I was shipwrecked on a rubber raft with this one guy for three or four days with no water and this guy kept getting more and more morose and all quiet like, while me, I just kept talking the whole time, telling stories, trying to keep the old brain lively, you know, and then I guess it was in the middle of the fourth day with no water and I’m right in the middle of one of my stories, and this guy who hadn’t said a word in a couple of days all of a sudden he lets out a scream and dives into the ocean. I jumped in and tried to save him, I really did, even as exhausted and dehydrated as I was, but, I don’t know, it was like he really wanted to croak, because he just sank like a bag of rocks, so I gave up, swam back to the raft, hauled myself in, and just went back to telling myself stories. And next day, wouldn’t you know it, one of our planes spotted me, and pretty soon I got picked up by a seaplane. So that’s all I’m saying. Keep them talking, and if they won’t talk then keep talking to them. And then if they jump off the raft and drown themselves, well, at least nobody can say it’s your fault.
“Beh, Ben,” said Arnie again, and this time he even raised his head a little bit, and he lifted his arm a little higher, and it seemed like the poor guy was trying to point his finger at me.
Well, I was done eating the grasshoppers, so I tossed the skewer to the floor.
“Yeah, that’s right, Arnie,” I said. I took my pack of Sweet Caporals out of my Hawaiian shirt pocket, gave it a shake, and got one between my lips. “I’m Ben, pal, and you’re Arnie.”
I took out the book of Musso and Frank’s matches that Arnie had loaned me and gave myself a light.
“Musso and Frank’s,” I said, looking at the book. “That place all right? They broil up a good steak there?”
“Ben,” said Arnie, and this time he almost yelled it. He was still pointing at me with his finger.
“That’s my name, Arnie-boy -- don’t wear it out.”
I tossed the match to the floor and dropped the matches back in my shirt pocket.
“Ben!” said Arnie, and I guess I should say, “yelled Arnie”, because he really did yell this time, and he even lifted himself up a little on one elbow, while still pointing at me.
“Right, Arnie,” I said. “’Ben’. Now don’t get too excited, and, tell you what, just you rest there a second more while I roll Mojo for his gelt, and then I’ll help you up and we’ll stagger the hell out of this joint. Tell ya the truth, it kind of gives me the creeps.”
So I turned around to roll Mojo and what do I see but this knockout Chinese broad, in one of those silk flowery dresses Chinese broads like to wear, her face all painted up like a little China doll, and her hair all sleeked back in some kind of complicated hairstyle.
Oh, and also, she had a gun in her hand, a little automatic, and it was pointed at yours truly.
It was getting like I couldn’t even turn around without somebody being there holding a gat on me. It was just one of those kinds of nights.
“Hello,” I said.
I mean, what else am I going to say?
“Hello,” she said, right back at me. “I am Madame Chang.”
(To be continued for who knows how long now, as a whole new batch of Arnold Schnabel’s marble copybooks has just been discovered in an army footlocker in the attic of his aunts’ house on North Street, in Cape May, NJ.)
(Coming soon from PBS in conjunction with BBC One and Canal+: The Rhyming Brakeman: Arnold Schnabel, a new 12-part documentary from Ken Burns, introduced by Alistair Cook and narrated by Orson Welles, featuring Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough, Harold Bloom, and a host of stars of stage and screen; original music by Flatt & Scruggs.)
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