This begins the second notebook of the dozens that make up the previously unpublished memoirs of Arnold Schnabel, that poet laureate not only of Olney but of sensitive souls everywhere.
He is obviously still in the massive but decrepit Victorian boarding house of his three maiden aunts, along with his mother, his young cousin, and various unmentioned boarders and other family members who were coming and going constantly but seemingly making little impression on the poet.
This would be mid-July, 1963.
(Click here to see our previous chapter.)
It has been a week or so since my last entry in these my memoirs, but I’ve not been completely idle.
Just this morning I added the finishing touches to, and mailed off to the Olney Times, my weekly poem, on the subject of my new daily occupation of swimming.
Occasionally I do little oddjobs about the house, but there really isn’t much for me to do, what with my three aunts and Mom all looking to keep busy. But they know I’m willing and able to leap up from my comic books or paperback thrillers at a moment’s notice should some task present itself that calls for a man’s strong back or long reach.
But my aunts actually have a handyman who has worked for them for years, an ancient and somewhat incomprehensible Negro named Charlie Coleman, and I hate to take any of Charlie’s work away from him. So when this week a rain of shingles fell from the roof in a storm and my Aunt Elisabetta asked me if I would like to replace them, I declined and said it was probably a job more suited to Charlie’s talents. To be honest I think she was perhaps hoping I would do the job for free, but, too bad. Charlie needs to earn a living, and my aunts can well afford what little they pay him. They all worked the switchboards for Bell for forty or fifty years and they’ve got nice little pensions as well as what they make from their rents and various canny investments over the years.
(Not to mention that they, like my mother, never spend money on anything but the bare necessities. To my knowledge none of these good women has ever had a meal in a restaurant, nor has any of them ever had a single drop of any alcoholic beverage, nor smoked a cigarette. I don’t think any of them has ever read a book, or even a magazine or newspaper, except to look for supermarket coupons or to read obituaries.)
When Charlie and his son or grandson arrived to fix the roof I did bestir myself long enough to spot the ladder for them while they climbed up to the roof. Charlie spoke to me before I did this, but I couldn’t tell you what he said, beyond (I think) thanking me for the spot. His son or grandson said not a word.
I returned to my place on the porch where I was sitting in “my” wicker rocker reading comic books alongside my young cousin, who had not remarked, nor even glanced up, at either my departure or my return.
But the noise of Charlie and his offspring’s work distracted me, so I got up to take a walk...
These are the days of our lives.
Oh, the swimming.
I had been swimming a bit each day since coming down here, but I didn’t really enjoy it. Too many people, too much sun.
But then one day, in fact the day after my last entry, it occurred to me to take an early-evening swim along that long curving beach that sweeps from the so-called fishing jetty way on down past the abandoned World War II bunker to Cape May Point, with its white lighthouse sticking up like an accusing finger into the sky. There was no one about at all. I guess you’re not even supposed to swim there. There are no lifeguards posted there even during the day, and the currents are alleged to be treacherous. But I walked down almost half way to the Point, then took off my flipflops and worked my way down the pebbly shingle into the water. I dove in, and swam out, and it’s true, the waves and currents did feel strong, but after I got out to a depth where I could no longer touch the slimy bottom with my feet the water was calmer, and I swam about for a bit until I got tired, then headed in, exhausted and heaving for breath.
I lay on my back on the towel I’d brought with me, staring up at the greying sky. Then I had a cigarette from the pack I’d left on the towel. This was good.
The next morning my muscles were so stiff I could barely get out of bed, but that evening I went down to “my” beach again, and swam for an even longer time, and went out farther.
Now, after only a week, already I am so strong I can swim as far out as about a mile, and I like to stop after a while, and turn, keeping myself afloat with a steady movement of my arms and legs, looking back to the rocking shore.
That’s what I wrote the poem about.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a slight urge just to keep going, to swim out endlessly toward the horizon, but so far I’ve always come on back in. (Obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this.)
Suicide is a mortal sin, after all.
But I don’t think this urge is necessarily a wish for death, no, it’s just an urge to go, to go outward, away from the world I know, to escape that world and my absurd place in it.
What’s the rush, after all, that day will come, who knows when, but it will, I’ll escape the world as we all do.
I swim back, gloriously exhausted, and each day it’s later in the evening when I stagger back up the shingle to my towel and my cigarettes and lighter, my cheap wallet and my t-shirt. This evening I lay there on my back for some time, staring up at the sky which had turned deep blue during my hour-long swim, the stars twinkling by the thousands, I didn’t know their names, had no desire to know their names.
I thought I saw Jesus in the stars, but now I’m pretty sure it was just some wispy clouds, that and wishful thinking. I lit up a smoke, and headed back in to town. I stopped at Sid’s Tavern for a beer.
(Click here to go to the next stage of Arnold's journey. For links to previous installments of Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of his Oak Lane Library Award-winning poems, check out the right hand column of this page.)
The Righteous Brothers -- Little Latin Lupe Lu: