Let’s return to the chambers of the mysterious Madame Chang, somewhere in the dock district of old Singapore, and rejoin our adventurers Big Ben Blagwell and Arnold Schnabel, just as Mojo the Midget has asked Arnold the million-dollar question: “What’s so special about the real world?”
(Kindly go here to read our previous blood-curdling episode; click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 69-volume masterwork.)
“How sweet it is, after the meaningless shenanigans of another workday are over, to sit in my comfy old armchair, light my pipe, pour myself a cognac, and then fire up my Kindle and read Arnold Schnabel until Morpheus once again enfolds me in his dark cloak.” — Harold Bloom, on Larry King Live.
“Um, I don’t know,” said Arnie.
“And, anyway,” Mojo went on in that way he had of just trampling his way through a conversation, “how can you be so sure that your so-called real world is the real world anyway? How do you know your world isn’t fictional, and this world isn’t the real one?”
“Well,” said Arnie, “I, uh, I guess I, uh —”
“You got to admit he’s got a point, Arnie,” I said, although I kind of hated to admit it.
“Well, uh, but —” said Arnie.
“Yes, do go on,” said Mojo.
“Well — what about Madame Chang here?” said Arnie.
We all looked at Madame Chang, still lying there in the wreckage of what had once been her fancy red-and-gold easy chair.
“Argghh,” she said, softly, those pretty eyelashes fluttering like black hummingbird’s wings. If there is such a thing as a black hummingbird. Or anyway a hummingbird with black wings maybe. Maybe I’m better off just saying her eyelids fluttered and leave it at that...
“And look at Fujiyama there,” said Arnie.
“It’s Futuyama, actually, Mr. Schnerbel,” said Mojo.
“Okay, Futuyama then,” said Arnie. “And by the way, my last name is Schnabel, not Schnerbel, or Schnaffel, or Schnapfel, or Schnauzer, or Schnavell, or Schnitzel, or Schnarpfel, or Schnübel, or Schnäzzelwürz, or —”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” said Mojo. “Jeeze, somebody got out of the wrong side of his narrow cot in some cheap squalid room today.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” said Arnold. “But my name is Schnabel. Arnold Schnabel.”
“Okay,” said Mojo. “’Arnold Schnabel’. That’s your name. No need to get all pissy about it. You should hear some of the names I get called.”
“No thank you,” said Arnie. “But all I meant to say is, look at those two. People like Madame Chang and Futuyama don’t exist in the real world.”
“Oh, don’t they?” said Mojo.
“No, really,” said Arnold. “I mean, this Chinese lady with her giant servant, and her Soul Transference Chamber, and her traffic in lost souls, it’s just — it’s just —”
“Well, excuse me here, Arnie,” I said, “I don’t mean to interrupt or nothing, but I seem to remember back in your world you got flies and cats that can talk. I mean, how realistic is that?”
“But -- that’s different,” said Arnie, in kind of a half-hearted way.
“Ha,” said Mojo. “It is to laugh. Ha. Talking flies and cats in his world and he says this world is fictional. Ha. Ha, I say.”
“But —” said Arnie.
“And anyway,” said Mojo, “at least you’re not short.”
“What?” said Arnold.
“I said at least you’re tall. How would you like to be a man of modest heighth like me?”
“Mojo,” I said. “Wake up. You’re a whole lot less than short, let alone of modest heighth.”
“See?” said Mojo. He was talking to Arnie, but he was pointing at me with his stubby little thumb. “This is the kind of aggravation I got to deal with.”
“I’m just pointing out the obvious, Mojo,” I said. “You’re a midget.”
“Okay. There you go,” said Mojo, to Arnie mostly. “See? These are the type names I get called. Midget. Shrimp. Half Pint.”
Arnie took a really big sigh right here. He’d been sighing an awful lot all night, it was true, but this sigh was so big you could almost see him rising up an inch or two off the ground on the intake, and when he let the sigh out it was like the breath of a sad wind ruffling the tops of the jungle trees in Borneo on a moonlit night as you look down on them from the hills where the headhunting amazons live and the deadly man-eating clouded leopards prowl.
Then a rumbling deep humming sound came from somewhere, kind of like the sound of a subway train when it’s still another stop away, late at night at the Delancey Street station on a lonely Christmas Eve when you’re down and out with a powerful thirst but you haven’t got even one thin dime in your pocket, and you know that subway train can take you to one place only, which is where you already are, which is nowhere.
Anyway, sorry, it was Futuyama making this new noise, lying there on his back to the left of Madame Chang, and not only moaning, but also moving a little bit, those tree-trunk legs and arms moving up and down ever so slightly, like he was floating in a salt lake. He had this big bloody gash on the top of his head from where I had beaned him with that ashtray, and the blood was all matted in that long hair of his.
“Goddam bruiser,” I said. “I think he’s got even a thicker skull than I do.”
“I’m not so sure I would go that far,” said Mojo.
“Yeah, come to think of it, I guess I probably do have a thicker skull,” I said.
“I didn’t mean literally thick-skulled, cher Ben,” said Mojo. “I meant thick-skulled in the sense of obtuse.”
“Look,” I said, “if you’re gonna use all these mathematical terms just to show up my lack of a formal education, I don’t think that’s very polite of you, Mojo.”
“I didn’t use the term obtuse in its mathematical sense,” he said.
Now it was me who had to take a sigh, for one thing because I really had no goddam idea what the hell Mojo was talking about at this juncture.
“Look, Mojo,” I said, “can we all just stop this stupid arguing for a minute?”
“I’m not arguing,” he said. “Who’s arguing?”
“Okay, then,” I said, but only because I didn’t want to get into an argument with him about whether we were arguing or not. “Now. You said you could help Arnie. How are you going to do it?”
“I still say Mr. Schnabel — and see, I got it right that time, didn’t I?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Arnie.
“I still think Mr. Schnabel should not be acting so superior about claiming his world is the real world.”
“He’s not acting superior,” I said, although, come to think of it, maybe he was, just a little bit, you know, not a lot, but a little.
“It’s just a trifle — how do you Americans say?” said Mojo.
“Arrogant?” I said.
“Yes, arrogant,” said Mojo. “And not a little — insensitive. To other people’s feelings. How would you feel, Mr. Schnabel,” he put a little extra emphasis on Arnie’s name there, I think he was being a little pissy himself there, you want my opinion, “how would you feel if someone called you a fictional character?”
“At this point I wouldn’t even care,” said Arnie.
“And after all,” said Mojo — I don’t think he’d even listened to what Arnie had just said, or if he had listened he hadn’t cared — “who knows? Perhaps we’re all fictional characters?”
“Hey, speak for yourself, pal,” I said.
“I’m only stating a supposition,” said Mojo. “Don’t you start getting all touchy now.”
“Mwaaaaa,” said Futuyama, a lot louder now, and his body moved a bit more now, too, kind of vibrating a little all over like he was on one of those electrical beds they have in some of those newfangled motels.
“Argghhh,” said Madame Chang, in her higher voice. It was almost like they were singing some strange song together.
“Hey, you want my opinion,” said Mojo. “you better put a couple bullets in each of their brainpans before we do anything else. Madame Chang is not the forgiving type.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right, Mojo,” I said, and more in sorrow than in anything else I pulled Maxine’s Chief’s Special out of my waistband. It had a full load of five .38 Special rounds in it. I figured one in Madame Chang’s pretty little noggin and the other four for Futuyama, just to make sure he stayed down this time.
“Ben!” said Arnie.
“Yeah, pal?” I said, as I stepped a little closer to Madame Chang, because these little snubbies aren’t the most accurate pistols in the world, and to tell the truth I’m not the best marksman with a pistol either.
“Ben,” said Arnie. “Please, don’t shoot them.”
“I don’t know, pal,” I said. “Mojo’s got a point. What if, after she recovers, Madame Chang decides she’s going to pursue us to the ends of the earth? And then, like, capture us and chain us in a basement, and have Futuyama work us over with blowtorches and tongs, and —”
“I don’t care, Ben,” he said. “I’d rather take that chance.”
“Or maybe they’ll chain us up in like pits with rats in them,” I said. “And snakes —”
“Ben,” said Arnie. “I don’t care. Please don’t shoot them.”
“You’re serious?” I said. I had been aiming the snubnose at Madame Chang’s forehead, but now I turned around and looked at my old pal.
“I’m really serious, Ben,” he said. “Please don’t.”
“He’s a fool, cher Ben,” said Mojo. “Better let them have it.”
“Well…” I said.
“Ben,” said Arnie. “If you shoot them — then – then — I can’t be your friend anymore.”
Madame Chang and Futuyama continued to groan while I let what Arnie had said sink in for a second or two.
Arnie was my pal.
That was the thing, he was my pal, and if he didn’t want me to finish off Madame Chang and her big palooka, well, even if I did think Arnie was full of horsefeathers, what the hell and God damn it, I was just going to have to go along with him. Because that’s what pals do. Even if it does mean you’re going to have this nasty dragon lady and her boy who made Haystack Calhoun look like Mickey Mouse on our trail from here to Timbuctu and back on some crazy mixed-up oriental blood-vendetta.
I put the rod back in my pants.
“All right, then,” I said. “We’ll do it your way, Arnie. Now, Mojo, time to put up or shut up. What’ve you got for my pal Arnie?”
“I think I have a way for him to get back,” he said. “To what he most risibly calls his ‘real’ world.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
“And in return for transporting him back to his shall we say for the sake of argument ‘real’ world I will ask only for a modest emolument.”
“How I about we offer you the modest emolument of not putting a bullet between your two shifty eyes,” I said.
“If you put a bullet between my two shifty eyes,” said Mojo, “then your friend Mr. Schnatzfeld will be stuck in this ‘fictional’ world as he calls it until his dying day.”
“Okay,” I said. “So how about instead I just pummel your round little skull like Rocky Marciano pummels a speed bag?”
“I have a better suggestion,” said Mojo. “I say we turn over this joint together, grab up all of Madame Chang’s cash and precious jewels and split the take, fifty-fifty.”
“Fifty-fifty? After you pulling a double-cross on us tonight like you did?”
“That was business, Ben. You know me, I’m a businessman.”
“You’re a goddam little crook is what you are.”
“As are you a big crook, cher Ben.”
“Except I don’t double-deal my pals.”
“Make it 60-40 then, and that’s my final offer.”
“You mean like I get sixty, you get forty?”
“It pains me to say so, but yes.”
“All right,” I said, already thinking of the nice little schooner I was gonna pick up, maybe start my own little rum- or gun-running business.
“Then it’s a deal,” said Mojo.
“Yeah,” I said, “but no monkeyshines this time.”
Mojo spat in the palm of his hand and then held it out to me. I spat into the callused leather-like palm of my own big mitt and took his little one in mine, and we shook on it.
“It’s a deal,” I said, taking my paw away and rubbing it on my dungarees because I didn’t even want to know where Mojo had been. “Now let’s see about about getting Arnie back to his world, real or not.”
“Yes, of course, at once,” said Mojo.
“Thank God,” said Arnie.
“God has nothing to do with it,” said the midget, and, you know what? He was probably right.
(To be continued, in the name of truth, justice and the Schnabelian way.)
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, visithis blog, or read a synopsis of the action thus far.