We pick up Arnold Schnabel’s memoir Railroad Train to Heaven precisely where our last installment left off. Arnold is still in Cape May with his mother, still enjoying his mandated leave of absence from the railroad, still on the seemingly endless road of recovery from his complete mental collapse the previous winter.
Carbon-testing analysis by a crack team of scientists from the Community College of Philadelphia indicates this passage to have been indited in June (or perhaps early July), 1963...
Two days of tedious sobriety following which I found myself in the Pilot House with a Manhattan before me. The call of the wild. Outside brilliant sunshine and shimmering heat, people in their bathing suits and sandals herding by to and from the beach. But inside the Pilot House all is cool and dim, the dulcet vocalizations of Pat Boone and Perry Como exuding from the jukebox. I prepare myself for oblivion. All is well. Home (my aunts’) is a mere few blocks' staggering distance.
Or, who knows, perhaps I shall do the sensible thing, have one or two, okay three at most, four at the absolute outside and then go home.
While pondering these alternatives and still on my first drink, wondering "Why?" for the thousandth time, and answering myself, “Why? Why anything?”, and reflecting what little good attending mass that morning had done me — mirabile dictu: a woman spoke to me. She was sitting one stool away at the bar. If she had been there when I came in I had failed to notice her.
“Pardon me,” she said, holding her cigarette in that up-tilted way that women do, “Do you have a light?”
“Of course,“ I said.
Like the perfect gentleman I always am unless I am in a state of insanity or extreme drunkenness, I quickly scrabbled up my Zippo from the bar, reached across and lighted her cigarette.
She began to chat with me. She was not bad-looking I suppose, although who could be sure, what with the layers of multi-colored clown-makeup on her face. Mid-thirties, possibly early or late thirties, what did I know? With the hard forbidding blonde hair that is in style these days. She was not very interesting at all in conversation, downright boring in fact, but I listened with I hope an interested and affable expression on my face, or at least what could pass for one. After a while she suggested I sit on the stool next to her, and who was I to say no, so I did.
In due course she revealed that she was single, divorced. When she asked me if I were married I told her the truth, that I wasn’t, nor had ever been.
“You’re not one of those, are you?” she asked, pointing her cigarette towards a table of elegant men with extravagant voices, a group of fellows who reminded me disconcertingly of some of our priests and parish ushers in the latter stages of one of our Communion breakfasts at the Schwarzwald Inn after a few rounds of Old Fashioneds had been served.
“No,” I said. “I suppose I’ve just never found the right girl.”
As if it were up to me.
She looked in my eyes, for once not saying anything. In a little while she went to the ladies’ room. I gestured to the bartender to fix us two more drinks. When he laid them down he said:
“Looks like you made a conquest, buddy.”
I smiled, or at least stretched the corners of my mouth outward a bit in an imitation of a smile.
She came back. We each had several more drinks. She became very merry indeed, and after a while Freddy Ayres the singer and accordionist came on with his supposed wife Ursula the saxophonist, and they played their songs. The woman of whom I write, her name was Rhonda, insisted that I dance with her. I did, in my clumsy fashion. She smelled of perfume, she was warm and moist with sweat, her Aquanetted hair abraded my nose. Her breath smelled of whiskey and cigarettes, as no doubt did mine. On about the fourth dance she said into my ear:
“Let’s get out of here.”
Soon we were walking along Decatur Street, in the direction of the beach. Swirly whirling night had fallen.
“Take me home,” she said.
“Of course,” I said.
We came to one of the rooming houses on Hughes Street.
“Let’s go around the back way,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
Once around the back, surrounded closely by ivy-covered house-wall and enormous fragrant azaleas and rhododendrons she put her arms around my waist.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t think we should do that,” I said.
“Why not?” she said. “Don’t you like me?’
“Of course, I do” I said, which was not quite true, but it was a white lie.
“Then why don’t you want to kiss me?”
“Well, it would be a near occasion of sin,” I said.
“You’re joking, right?”
“No,” I said, “I mean, if we kissed, which in itself may not be sinful, we could very well be making it more likely for us to go a bit further, which would be a sin.”
I took out my cigarettes, offered her one, she shook her head no.
“You’re not serious,” she said.
“But I’m a good Catholic,” I said, lighting my Pall Mall.
“But — how old are you?”
I let out that first fine lungful of smoke, then told her my age, shaving off only a few years out of vanity.
“And — you won’t let yourself kiss a woman?”
“Well, I suppose if I were engaged to her — or of course if I were married —”
“But, how are you gonna know you want to marry a woman if you won’t even let yourself kiss her?”
“Well, I like to think Jesus would tell me.”
“Yes. I like to think he would somehow let me know.”
She paused a bit, then said goodnight and went into the back entrance of the house, the screen door flopping shut loudly behind her.
I started to walk home, but when I was almost there I changed my mind. I turned and headed back to the Pilot House. There seemed little point in stopping now.
And hey presto, I was there again, and ordering another Manhattan.
“So, buddy,” the bartender said. “You sure work quick.”
“Um,” I said. “Uh.”
“Always leave ‘em wantin’ more. That way they come back.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said. I always agree with bartenders, no matter what.
I took a sip of my drink, and I lit up another excellent Pall Mall. I turned on my stool and listened to Freddy Ayres sing. “Tiny bubbles,” he was singing, “in the wine, make me happy, make me feel fine. Tiny bubbles make me warm all over with a feeling that I’m gonna love you till the end of time. So here's to the golden moon, and here's to the silver sea, and mostly here's a toast to you and me..."
I might commit the nasty but venial sin of inebriation tonight but at least I would not double the offense by committing the far more vile and mortal sin of fornication.
I sipped again, took another drag of my cigarette, and let the music and the drunkenness suffuse my being. Life was, if not good, then at the very least not damnable. Or so I hoped.
(Stagger over to here for Part Five of Arnold's runaway Railroad Train to Heaven. Turn to the right hand side of this page for a listing of links to other episodes as well as to many of his legendary poems. See below for the soundtrack to today's episode.)