This episode of Arnold Schnabel’s memoir picks up right where the last one left off. He is still in Cape May, NJ, with his mother, on an indefinite leave of absence from the railroad following his complete mental collapse the previous winter. Enjoy. (Brought to you courtesy of the continuing benevolence of the Arnold Schnabel Society.)
It’s occurred to me that I started writing this nonsense with the idea of a memoir and yet so far I’ve only written about my present state.
It’s all the same, past, present, the future, if there is a future.
When I was a child I knew just barely more than nothing, teetering my tiny steps forward into this massive incomprehensible universe.
Now my poor brain is a universe itself, filled with absurd memories, and still I teeter willy nilly forward through time, the universe no less incomprehensible than when I was three years old.
Even sitting still I teeter forward through time, through this universe. These scribblings are my tiny evanescent footprints…
I went to meet her at the Pilot House. I was dressed in my only summer suit, from Krass Brothers, a shimmering dark grey conservative suit, suitable for a Catholic usher.
Supposedly I’ve sworn off drinking again, but I ordered a beer as I waited for her. A beer seems hardly to count as drinking.
She arrived, stepping in from the still-bright but dying summer daylight. I suppose she felt she looked radiant. Her hair was like some modernistic light fixture with a hundred-watt bulb turned on inside it. She wore a flowery dress of what looked and eventually felt like wallpaper, and she reeled towards me on high heels. I arose from my barstool, the gentleman as always. She kissed my cheek, suffusing me in a miasma of warm perfume, and I only wanted to go home, or to my aunts’ home, to get out of this suit and sit on the porch with a paperback thriller or a nice stack of my young cousin Kevin’s comic books. I felt a great boredom descending upon me already and for the ten thousandth time I thanked God (silently) for the blessing of alcohol.
After a couple of Mai-Tais (her suggestion) we walked over to the Merion Inn. I’d never been there before. I’ve never seen the point of these allegedly fancy restaurants, but it was her idea. A burger at the Pilot House or the Ugly Mug would have been fine with me, or as fine as things could be expected to be since I didn’t want to have dinner with her in the first place, but I have always been a good boy and done what was asked of me.
It could have been worse. Maybe it was the dim lighting and the desperate-looking waiters in their iridescent black vests and choking bow-ties, but there was very little of the shrieking of the previous day. Apparently she could turn that off and on.
I ordered a steak, she ordered Surf ‘n’ Turf. When the food came she suggested we drink wine, and I said okay. (We'd each had another Mai-Tai while waiting for the food). The waiter handed me a wine list. All I knew was you were supposed to drink red wine with meat and white with fish. But she had ordered lobster and meat, making the choice impossible. I settled on a bottle of Mateus rosé. She did shriek at this, declaring Mateus to be her favorite wine.
It’s all too tedious to recount so I’ll hurry to the climax and dénouement. We were sitting on a bench on the promenade, near Frank’s Playland, the pale beach and the dark living enormity of the ocean spread out before us. She snuggled against me. She told me she really liked me. I realized it was now or never. Either come up with something quick or I was going to marry this boring woman, I would become stepfather to her nameless child, she would hurry and become pregnant again with a child of mine, which would prove incontrovertibly that she was almost as mentally unstable as I.
I was a poet, albeit a mediocre one. I had written a poem a week for almost twenty-five years, somehow wresting a grouping of rhymed and at least semi-coherent words from my brain when often I had no idea for a poem at all when I sat down to write one. I could do this.
“Mona,” I said, for that was her name, and this time I remembered it. “I must tell you something. I’m in love with another woman.”
She drew her hard bristly head from my shoulder.
“You are? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because — because I thought that perhaps I could make myself forget her. You see, we — she and I — had a quarrel — that’s why I came to Cape May, to, to, to try to —”
“To forget her.”
Good, now she was helping me.
“Yes, to forget her. But I can’t. I just —”
“Yes. I tried. But I can’t. I think I’m going to have to resign myself, to the fact that that I’m just hopelessly —”
“In love with her.”
“I thought it might be something like that. Why you were so distant. What’s her name?”
“Uh, Rhonda,” I said.
“Oh,” she smiled, “that makes sense. That’s what you thought my name was.”
“Yeah. Sorry,” I said.
“So she lives back in Philadelphia?”
“Yes,” I said, in a comfortable improvisational mode now. “In my neighborhood. We — we grew up together.”
“That’s so sweet. But how come you never married.”
“She —” That was a good question. “She became a nun,” I said.
“She’s a nun?”
“You’re in love with a nun?”
“Arnold, that’s insane.”
“But she quit the convent.”
“Oh, that’s different.”
“Yes. She moved back to the neighborhood, back in with her parents. We met again, and — well —”
“What did you quarrel about?”
“Yes, you said you had a quarrel.”
“Right. It was about —”
I had no ideas, nothing.
“You wanted to marry her,” said Mona.
“Yes,” I said, almost as a question.
“But she wasn’t ready yet,” she said.
“Right,” I said, “she didn’t want to rush it.”
“But you did, because you’d waited so long.”
“Yeah,” I said. To tell the truth I was getting a little bored with it all.
“Go back to her,” she said. “Go back to her, Arnold, and tell her, you’ve waited this long for her, you can wait a little longer. But not forever.”
“Right,” I said.
So I walked her home. She gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek. She told me she was leaving Cape May the next day, which was good. That meant I wouldn’t have to hide from her.
“Y’know,” she said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I was probably going to sleep with you tonight, Arnold.”
I let that go by without comment. She went inside and the screen door made a gentle flopping sound behind her.
I headed toward the Pilot House for a nightcap.
I decided just to have a beer this time, and the bartender brought me a chilled mug of Schaefer.
“So, pal, how’d it go tonight?”
He grinned lewdly.
“Good,” I said. I exhaled Pall Mall smoke, lifted the mug and drank.
“Get your end wet?”
“A gentleman never tells,” I said.
“Ah, you bastard, ya.”
I turned on my stool. Freddy Ayres and his alleged wife Ursula were performing on the tiny stage.
“Oh, there’s a lull in my life,” sang Freddy. “It’s just a void and empty space when you are not in my embrace.”
I have to say, life in that moment was good, very good.
(Go here for Part Seven of Arnold's Railroad Train to Heaven. Check the right hand side of this page for links to many of Arnold's classic poems, and to a few of his not-quite-classic ones.)