Let’s rejoin our heroes Arnold Schnabel and Big Ben Blagwell in the vaulted residence of Madame Chang, here in the dockside district of old Singapore...
Ben resumes his inimitable narration...
(Kindly go here to read our previous episode; click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 67-volume epic.)
“You can have your Robert Louis Stevenson and your H. Rider Haggard, your Dumas and your Dumas — but when it comes to a good rip-snorting adventure tale, give me good old American Arnold Schnabel every time!” — Harold Bloom, in Boys’ Life.
“Oh, all right then,” said Mojo.
“Damn straight all right then,” I said. “Like I could trust you as far as I could throw you. Although, come to think of it, I suppose I could throw you pretty far.”
“I have only one request if we must climb all those stairs,” said Mojo. “Would you mind carrying me what I believe you Americans call ‘piggyback’?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” I said.
“Typical!” said Mojo. “Typical big person. Don’t care about anyone but yourself. How would you like to climb all those stairs if you were only my somewhat modest heighth?”
“Well, again, Mojo,” I said, taking out my Sweet Caporals, “a little less than somewhat modest heighth on your part I would say.”
“Just because I’m not a great hulking oaf like you, with those long legs of yours capable of bounding up three steps at a time, whilst I must struggle to achieve even one step, and through no fault of my own but through a caprice of nature!”
“Look,” said Arnie, “Mr. Mojo, you can ride piggyback on my shoulders. I just want to get this over with.”
“See?” said Mojo, to me, “some people have some consideration for those less endowed in the heighth department.”
“Oh, hell,” I said. I lit up another Caporal, tossed the match away. “Anything to shut you up, Mojo. Come on, I’ll let you ride piggyback.”
“I’m not so sure I want to now,” he said.
Madame Chang groaned again: “Argghh.”
Right on cue Futuyama moaned too: “Mwaaaa.”
Neither one was quite awake, but they both looked like they were getting there.
I exhaled some of that good Sweet Caporal smoke. Funny how when you’re getting just near the end of your second pack of the day, they really start tasting even better than ever. And that third pack I hoped to pick up after we blew this joint was going to taste better still, provided we ever did make it out of here.
“Okay, let’s cut the crap,” I said, and I squatted down. “Hop on, squirt.”
“Well, okay,” said Mojo. “No hard feelings then.”
“No hard feelings,” I said. “Now mount up and let’s get this show on the road.”
Mojo came around behind me, and deftly scrambled up my back and got his plump little legs around my neck. I straightened up. He wasn’t thin by any means, but boy he was short, so it was just like carrying a little fat kid on your shoulders, or a really small but kind of chubby dame, and for somebody like me who once had to ford the Pampanga River while piggyback-carrying a Tommy-gun-toting Filipino girl guerilla wearing not much more than a couple of web belts loaded up with ammo pouches cris-crossing between her lovely naked breasts with a company of Jap infantry hot on our trail, it felt like no big deal.
“Careful you don’t get any cigar ashes on my yachting cap,” I said.
“I promise you I shall not use it for an ashtray,” said Mojo.
“Great, let’s go then,” said Arnie, and I could tell he was getting really antsy now. Without another word he headed for the nearest of those spiral staircases, and I followed with old Mojo on my shoulders.
The staircase wasn’t too far away, fifty feet maybe, and with Arnie leading the way we were there in half a minute. Arnie started up first, and I followed, Mojo and I followed that is. It was an open, spiral staircase, made out of wrought iron, with fancy filigree work, really pretty if you go for that kind of thing. Arnie got to the first level and stepped out onto the gallery, and Mojo and I came up right behind him. The gallery was pretty tall, so I could stand straight up, all six-foor-four of me, and Mojo up there on my shoulders didn’t even have to bend over to keep his head from hitting the bottom of the next level.
Arnie was looking at the names of the authors on the spines of the books.
“Adams, Adams, Adamson,” he said. “These are all A’s.”
“What did you expect?” said Mojo, and he tapped his cigar ash so I could see it sprinkling down in front of my face. “Onward and upward, mes amis!”
Easy for him to say, getting a free ride and all, but Arnie got back on the spiral staircase and I followed.
I’ll cut the next part short, because it was pretty boring really, as well as no fun, but after about ten or maybe even twelve more levels — I’ll admit it, I lost count — we finally got up to the S’s, and by the time we did both Arnie and I were out of breath and sweating like pigs. In fact I was sweating and panting a hell of a lot more than Arnie, but he didn’t have to carry Mojo up on his shoulders all the way, either, and now that I think about it Mojo probably weighed a good ninety pounds, maybe even ninety-five, and just you try climbing twelve or maybe fourteen tall flights of stairs with a ninety-five (maybe a hundred) pound midget on your back.
“Okay,” I said to Mojo, squatting down and almost keeling over. “Off.”
Old Mojo leaped off, fresh as a daisy, and went over to the rail and looked down.
“Man, that’s a drop!” he said.
“Yeah,” I panted, thinking, I’d like to drop you, pygmy.
Still squatting there, I took what was left of the Sweet Caporal out of my trap. It was all soggy with sweat, barely-lit anyway. I flicked it over the rail. What I really wanted now was an ice cold Tiger Beer, with a back-up all beaded and cold all ready behind it. And with a Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’ right after that one…
“Oh, wow,” said Arnie. He had gone down the gallery a ways, looking at the names on the books.
“What’s up, Arnie boy,” I gasped, trying not to sound like I was having a thrombosis.
“I think I found it. Or them.”
I heaved myself back up on my feet and staggered down to where Arnie was, with Mojo skipping right along by my side.
“Look,” Arnie said, pointing to a shelf of books at about chest-height.
I took a gander. Sure enough, there was a whole row of books with his name on the spines: “Arnold Schnabel”. He pulled out the first one, it was a big fat book, with one of those brown covers made out of nubby leather, kind of like those law books you see in lawyer’s offices, the ones the lawyers keep there just so you know they’re really lawyers even though you never see a lawyer reading one. Arnie showed me the front cover.
Railroad Train to Heaven
“Railroad Train to Heaven”
by Arnold Schnabel
“The title’s a little, like, redundant, isn’t it?” I said.
“It is, I guess, a little,” he said.
“I believe,” said Mojo, standing up on his tiptoes so he could look, “that Railroad Train to Heaven is as you Americans would say, the ‘umbrella title’ for the entire multi-volume work, whereas ‘Railroad Train to Heaven’ is the title also of this first volume.”
“Oh, I get it,” I said. “Just couldn’t think of a title for the first volume, hey, Arnie?”
“I didn’t think of any titles at all,” he said.
“But you wrote the damn book,” I said.
“Multi-volume series of books, comprising one continuous grand epic,” said Mojo. He gestured to the row of books, which actually continued on to the shelf below it. There must have been sixty volumes, maybe eighty or more — to tell the truth I didn’t check because all I really wanted to do was get this over with and then get the hell back downstairs, grab up Madame Chang’s loot before she and Futuyama came to, and then head on over to the Shanghai Sally’s and get some beer and water-buffalo steak.
“Right, whatever,” I said. “So, I didn’t realize you were like a famous author, Arnie.”
“Famous is not the word,” said Mojo. “Any crowd-pleasing hack can be famous. If you had been paying the least bit of attention to what I was saying before, then you would know that Madame Chang’s library contains only the rarest and most obscure books of all. In these shelves are not your common-or-garden first editions of Mallarmé or Huysmans or de Sevigné. No, Madame Chang’s library consists only of books which have never been published at all.”
“Um, pardon me?” I said.
“All those books into which their authors sweated their life’s blood, their souls, and in many cases their sanity, only for their precious stacks of manuscript to wind up mouldering and forgotten in some cardboard box in a basement or attic until one day they are tossed into a dustbin or used for kindling. These are those books, and — not that I’m an expert in the field (rare jewels and statuettes are more my ‘bag’ as you Yanks say) — apparently Mr. — what is it again?”
“Schnabel,” said Arnie.
“Apparently Mr. Schnarpfel’s magnum opus is one of the most sought-after of the entire genre of never-published books. Even more so than such obscure tomes as Diary of a Prairie Wife by Mrs. Floyd Potkins, or The Chronicles of the Empires of the Third Galaxy, by Willie Bob Murphries, or Days and Nights of a Wisenheimer, by Barry B. Bergman. Madame Chang told me the only reason she was still holding onto Mr. Schnappel’s chef d’oeuvre was because its market price was still climbing.”
“Wow, so, you’re, like, sort-of famous then, Arnie,” I said to Arnie.
“Oh, far less than even sort-of famous,” said Mojo. “Only a few dozen collectors at most even know of his name or his magnum opus, which after all exists only and exclusively right here on these shelves. Which of course is the basis for its worth. Although apparently it does have at least some slight literary value.”
“Gee,” I said, looking at all those books, “when did you even have time to write all this, Arnie?” I said.
“Well, I didn’t really realize I was writing it,” he said. “I just, you know, jot down things in these little marble copybooks —”
“Musta been a hell of a lot of marble copybooks,” I said.
Arnie was just standing there, looking at the cover of the book. It didn’t have any picture on it. Me, I always like it when a book has a nice picture on the cover. And not just one of those sketchy drawings, but a real full-color painting, preferably with a dame, preferably with a dame with not too many clothes on. But that’s just me. I wasn’t going to say anything to Arnie about it, because I figured he probably hadn’t had any say in the matter. But maybe someday I would bring it up to him. I’m not asking much, you understand, just put a nice painting of a dame on the cover, that’s all.
“Go ahead, Mr. Schnitzel,” said Mojo. “Open it up.”
Arnie looked a little afraid to do it, but he did. He turned a couple of pages.
Moments like this are just made for smoking if you’ve got them, so I took out my Sweet Caporals and the Musso & Frank’s matches.
“There’s some sort of an introduction, by some professor,” he said.
“Just skip that,” said Mojo. “Introductions are always a waste of time. Go to the first page of the actual book.”
Arnie turned a couple of other pages, and then he just looked at the page without saying anything. In the mean time I lit up a smoke and tossed the match over the rail. I wondered what people used to do in olden times, before they had cigarettes and cigars and pipes to smoke. I guess they just stood around being bored…
“Wow,” said Arnie.
“Seem familiar?” said Mojo.
“Yes,” said Arnie, quietly. “I sort of forgot I wrote it, but it’s all coming back to me now.”
“Read it,” said Mojo.
“It’s pretty dull, really,” said Arnie.
“Just read the first sentence then,” said Mojo.
“Okay,” said Arnie. “’I hate the beach, and truth be told I’m not all that crazy about sunshine.’”
“An admirable first sentence!” said Mojo. “I always say, a good book’s got to have a good first sentence.”
“I agree with you there, Mojo,” I said. “Horace P. Sternwall? Harold P. Sternhagen? Those guys always start the book with something punchy, like, I don’t know, like, ‘She looked to me like just another dame, just another bottle-blonde floozie in just another dockside dive — but, boy, how wrong I was, dead wrong!’ Like that,” I said, and then I felt bad because, let’s face it, Arnie’s first sentence was kind of dull, really.
“Mr. Mojo,” said Arnie, closing the book on his finger. “What I don’t understand is how Madame Chang, you know, has these books.”
“Book, really,” said Mojo. “One long, multi-volume book, comprising as I said one epic masterwork.”
“Kind of like the Tarzan books?” I said. “Or Doc Savage?”
“I was thinking cher Ben,” said Mojo, “of something more along the order of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.”
“I don’t think I read that one,” I said. “Is that one of those Classics Illustrated books?”
“No, cher Ben,” said Mojo. “Not to my knowledge. What was your question again, Mr. Schnatzel?”
“I just don’t get how this — this book — came to be here.”
“Mr. Schoffel,” said Mojo, “did I not say that Madame Chang was a mistress of various oriental dark arts?”
“He did, Arnie,” I said. “I remember that part.”
“Yeah, I guess you did say something about that,” said Arnie.
“So do you really think that it would be so hard for Madame Chang to get ahold of your memoirs and arrange to have them printed in handsome uniform morocco bindings?”
“I guess not,” said Arnie. “But I’m sure I haven’t filled in this many copybooks, there must be sixty of seventy volumes here —”
“Maybe eighty,” I chimed in.
“Oh” said Mojo, “but these volumes comprise not only all the copybooks you have already filled up with your deathless prose, but also all the copybooks you have yet to fill up for the rest of your life.”
“You mean even the stuff I haven’t written yet is in here?”
“Yes, it’s all here,” said Mojo. “Your life’s work, such as it is.”
“Hey, uh, Arnie,” I said. “I don’t mean to hurry you, but we really have to worry about Madame Chang and Futuyama coming to, and also the thing is I’m starving, I really need to eat, so —”
“You’re right, I’m sorry, Ben,” said Arnie.
“I mean, take your time, you know,” I said. “Don’t rush by any means.”
“Right,” said Arnie.
“Just don’t take too much time.”
“Ben has a point, Mr. Schneuffel,” said Mojo. “Not that we want to hurry you in any way.”
“No, you’re right,” said Arnie. “So, what do I do?”
“Just open the book to where you were when you left your so-called world, and dive back in. Just don’t dive back in too soon, or too late, because then there will be the two of you in the same world and the entire fabric of your universe will disintegrate. And I don’t think you would want that to happen.”
“No,” said Arnie. “But —”
“What if all this is part of the book?” He looked around. “All of this. You and Ben and Madame Chang, and all this, and these.”
He waved his hand at the row of books. “What if these books here —”
“One long multi-volume epic book,” corrected Mojo.
“Right,” said Arnie. “What if the book is part of the book?”
Oh, Christ, I’m thinking, this is what happens with guys that think too much.
I’m sure glad I’m not like that.
(To be continued in our usual relentless fashion.)
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.