Previously in Railroad Train to Heaven, our memoirist, Arnold Schnabel, having partaken of marijuana for the first time, finds himself on a second-floor rear porch with the dark-haired bohemian girl Elektra.
The year is 1963, the place, Cape May, N.J.
Her eyes, which seemed suddenly to have grown enormously, looked into mine. I felt as if I could fall into them. So here I was, precariously suspended between being thrust backward out into the stars or falling into this interior universe which seemed to me just as unknowable.
“You’re a very, very strange man,” she said.
This was the second time she had said this, now with an extra “very” attached.
I think I sighed slightly.
“Those other guys try to be strange,” she said, “but you don’t have much choice, do you?”
“No,” I said.
Now she was touching me, immodestly. What the heck, I thought. I masturbated on a daily basis: that was a mortal sin. Every week I went to confession and like clockwork I would confess to seven or more acts of willful self-abuse; the priest would usually not even bother to give me a lecture, and after all, I knew deep down inside that the priest masturbated too, if not worse, so who was he to be judgmental. But the point was, if I was going to go to hell for masturbating, why not go to hell for doing what I was imagining doing whilst masturbating? But then it occurred to me that performing sexual intercourse with another person was involving that other person in a mortal sin as well. Unless --
“Are you Catholic?” I asked.
“Oh, God, no,” she said. “My parents were Jewish, but I’m not anything.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I think all religions are nonsense. Or not so much nonsense as superstitions, myths.”
“Think about it, Arnold. There’s a thousand or more religions in the world, and every one thinks they know the score. Why should one religion be any better than another one? And why does there have to be a God? And why should we worship a God even if there is one? Is he that insecure that he needs all these little humans to worship him all the time?”
It’s true that I had imagined Jesus speaking to me once, but look where it had happened: in an insane asylum.
“Religions only came about so that people could make some sense out of the randomness of life,” she said. “This is it, Arnold. Here. Now.”
With that last phrase she pressed her hand particularly forcefully against that organ which had been such a bother to me my entire adult and adolescent life.
“So -- extramarital sex would not be a mortal sin for you,” I said.
“Not necessarily,” she said.
She took my left hand and placed it on her right breast. I caressed it. It was pleasant to do so.
“Wait,” she said.
“Yes?” I said.
“You’re not a virgin, are you?”
Well, one night in late May of ’45 I got drunk with a couple of the guys in my unit and we went to a whorehouse In Frankfurt, so, technically:
“No,” I said.
I hadn’t really wanted to go, but my buddies talked me into it. Despite my inebriated state I somehow managed to reach climax, albeit into a rubber. I felt guilty, and sorry for the German girl. It was not an experience I have ever looked back fondly on, but at least (at the age of twenty-four) it had taken care of the virginity business, so:
“No,” I said, again, hoping she wouldn’t ask for details.
(Click here to go to our next installment. For links to other episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven (“And I thought I wrote a staggering work of heartbreaking genius!” -- Dave Eggers), and to many fine poems from Olney’s “Rhyming Brakeman”, check the right hand column of this page.)