Wednesday, August 22, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Twelve: Elektra

Previously in our seemingly-endless serialization of the memoirs (called by no less a literary light than Jackie Collins, “One part Pepys, one part Proust, and one large part sheer unadulterated brilliance”) of Arnold Schnabel, "The People's Poet": Arnold, recovering from a mental breakdown and on a half-pay leave-of-absence from his brakeman job on the Reading Railroad, has met four “beatniks” (Rocket Man, Gypsy Dave, Elektra, and Fairchild) on the beach in Cape May. He returns to their pad (as recounted in Part Eleven) for some dinner and conversation.

Long ago and far away, on a planet called Schnabelia, in a time called 1963...

After a while the girls brought out plates and cutlery and  a big bowl of spaghetti that Fairchild or Fair Child nestled neatly into the hole in the middle of the big spool we were sitting around.     
“There’s no meat, I’m afraid,” said Elektra.     
“That’s okay,” I said. I was so hungry at this point I could have eaten the spaghetti raw and uncooked.     
They filled my plate and I confess I immediately dug in. It was the most delicious food I had ever tasted, and when I came up for air I told the girls so.     
“It’s just vegetables from our garden,” said Fairchild or Fair Child, “and garlic and olive oil.”     
What did I know about garlic and olive oil? All I knew was that the food was sublime.     
“You want some more wine, Arnold?” asked Gypsy Dave, and I said yes, thank you. We had been drinking red wine from another one of those big bottles wrapped in wicker. We drank out of Flintstones jelly glasses.
For a time we simply ate and did not talk much. A record was playing. I had asked them to put on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan because I liked the cover picture, a young chap walking arm-in-arm down a winter street with his girlfriend, something I myself had never done. After my second plate I sat back and lighted a cigarette. The others were still eating.     
“Is he a hobo?” I asked.     
“Who?” said Rocket Man. “Bobby Dillon?”     
I picked the record sleeve up off the floor. “Bob Dyelan,” I said.     
“It’s Dillon,” said Rocket Man. “He pronounces it Dillon, like Dillon Thomas.”     
“Oh, I don’t know who that is,” I said.     
“He was cool, he was a poet like you, man,” said Rocket Man.     
“Oh,” I said.     
“Bob Dylan’s a poet,” said Fairchild, Fair Child, the blonde girl.     
“A hobo poet,” I said.     
“Well, he’s not really a hobo,” said Rocket Man.     
“Arnold’s right, though, he does sound kinda like a hobo,” said Gypsy Dave.     
“When I first started on the railroad there were always lots of hobos around the train yards,” I said. “I was just a kid. Sometimes when we stopped I could hear them out there by their fires, singing. They sounded like Bob Dyelan, I mean Dillon.”     
“That’s really heavy, Arnold,” said Elektra. “How old were you, man?”  
“I was seventeen.”     
“And you’ve been on the railroad ever since?” 
“Yeah, except for a few years in the army, and in the army they had me working on railroads too.”    
Elektra looked at me. She had very dark eyes. It’s always made me shy to have someone look at me, man or woman, but I suppose because of the marijuana and the wine and the food I just didn’t care any more, and I even looked back at her.    
“So do you miss it?” she said.     
“The railroad?” I said. “No. No. I feel like I’ve wasted my whole life actually.”     
“How old are you?”     
“I’m forty-two.”     
“You still have a whole life to live,” she said.     
“I feel like I’ve lived a thousand lives,” I said. “And yet I feel like I haven’t lived even one life.”     
She pushed her plate away and reached over and picked up my pack of Pall Malls.     
“Can I have one of these?”     
“Sure,” I said. 
Gypsy Dave was to my right, and Elektra was to the right of Gypsy Dave. I reached across and gave her a light.      
She inhaled, blew out the smoke and looked at me again.     
“Let’s go out and have a smoke, Arnold.”     
“Where,” I said.     
“Out on our back porch.”     
“Okay,” I said.     
I heaved myself up, I was stiff from sitting crosslegged; Gypsy Dave grabbed my forearm and gave me a boost. Elektra for her part seemed to float up as if she were a weightless spirit. She led the way to the rear of the apartment, through the kitchen, and I followed.     
We came out onto a second-floor wooden porch, looking down on a dark garden. Trees billowed and waved and whispered in the starlight. There were a few mismatched chairs on the porch, a small wicker table. Elektra went to the rail and leaned on it. I went over next to her, but I didn’t lean on the rail, I’m a little afraid of heights – even though I've walked along the roofs of fifty-thousand hurtling train cars in my career, I'm still afraid.   
After a minute she turned and looked at me, her cigarette smoke trailing up into the night.     
“You’re a very strange man,” she said.     
“I know,” I said.     
She looked out at the moving trees. The air was clean, so much cleaner than the metallic harsh air I’d breathed all my life living right next door to the Heintz factory, and then on the trains, all those thick engine fumes, breathing them in all my life. And of course here I was smoking.     
“What are you thinking about?” she said.     
“The air,” I said.     
She paused, staring at me.     
“The air,” she said.     
“Yeah. It’s nice.”     
She turned sideways to the rail. Her dark hair swirled into her face, but she didn’t seem to mind. I could hear the ocean gently crashing beyond the sounds of the rustling trees. It occurred to me that oddly I actually liked being where I was at the present moment or series of moments, although I did rather strongly have that feeling I’d done my best to keep submerged these past months, that feeling, or knowledge, that without too much effort, or rather by surrendering all effort, I could float upward and away, saying fare-thee-well to this world I’d never understood or felt at home in.  
“Give me your cigarette,” she said.
I did as I was told, and she went over to the wicker table and stubbed out both our cigarettes in a tin ashtray. Then she came over and stood near me.      
“Come here,” she said.

(Click here to find out what happens next, if anything. And kindly go to the right hand column of this page for links to other episodes from Railroad Train to Heaven and to the poems of Arnold Schnabel.)


Unknown said...

I've always felt I was about to float up and away. If Arnold doesn't invest in some heavy shoes and start carrying stones and rocks in his pockets, he just might kiss the sky. Or the sun, either way.

Dan Leo said...

Arnold can't float away just yet, because I want to know what happens next.

By the way, fans, be sure to check out our lovely commenter Kathleen's own lovely site, "Diary of a Heretic":