The great thing — or I should say one of the many great things — about being unemployed is that I am never bored. Before I stopped working I had never quite realized just how boring work is. Oh, sure, I know that I performed a useful service all those many years, doing my bit in facilitating the high speed hurtling of great steel cars groaning with cargo and people safely and efficiently hither and yon all over the eastern seaboard, but, save for my pitiful two weeks’ vacation each year — vacations that themselves were a form of work, as I tried to cram a year’s worth of recreation into fourteen days and invariably achieved only an excruciating state of anxiety that was mercifully quieted only by my return to the grind of work — I had never known real, open-ended freedom.
I wonder now if it was not work itself which caused me to go insane, and not (depending on which of my doctors was speaking, and his mood of the day) repressed sexuality (either of the hetero or homo kind), or excessive religiosity, or alcoholism, or genetic pre-disposition. Perhaps it was only that eternal five-day-a-week prison sentence of honest labor that had driven me around the bend.
The boringness, the sameness, the inescapability of it all.
But then if work was the cause of my insanity, one would think that the absence of work (and an absence at half-pay, thanks to the Reading) might lead to a return to sanity.
And it is true that I do feel saner.
Except for the Jesus thing.
Let’s face it, I know what my erstwhile doctors would think if I were to tell them that Jesus has appeared to me not less than three times recently, and smoking Pall Malls no less.
So either I am still slightly nuts, or Jesus smokes Pall Malls, there can be no other explanation.
Perhaps all those years of servitude formed a sort of pustule of aggregated tedium in my brain which one day simply burst.
The pus may have drained all away by now but the hole in my brain where the boil had been remains.
Or, Jesus has indeed been visiting me in person, and therefore I am not a madman but, ipso facto, a living saint.
But would a saint have extra-marital intercourse with a Jewish beatnik girl?
Speaking of Elektra, I decided to heed her advice, and to leave her alone for a day or two.
The next day I did my usual things. I went to Sunday mass, for whatever that was worth. I read comic books on the porch with Kevin. I ate. I napped. I read my cheap paperback thriller in the afternoon, took my long swim in the evening
I didn’t go to see Elektra that day, or the next day, nor the day after that.
I wrote one poem in this period but added nothing to these memoirs, as nothing seemed particularly demanding to be added.
On the evening of the third day I went for a particularly long swim. It was quite dark when I got back home. As I walked down the street I could see that the lights were out on the ground front floor, where my aunts and mother and Kevin all live. But as I got closer I saw that apparently one of the boarders was sitting on the dark porch, smoking a cigarette. The street lamp voluptuously bathed its light in the merry garden that lapped in the breeze up against the rails of the porch — dark but for that pulsing red pinpoint. I went through the wobbly old gate, determined to get by with only a polite “good evening” to whoever it was, as I had no desire to be drawn into idle chitchat. I had bought this poem The Waste Land and I was anxious to dive into its mysteries.
“Just ‘good evening’?” she said.
I stopped at the side of the porch. There, above an expansive rhododendron, was Elektra.
I came around the front, and up the steps. She was sitting in the rocker that I usually sit in. I sat down in the other rocker, the one Kevin treats as his own. She wore a loose silky dress, white with blue cornflowers, her shoulders and arms bare except for thin white straps, her thick hair pulled back. Her fingers were touching a small white plastic purse on the table next to her.
I lit a cigarette.
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
“Really?” I said.
“Why didn’t you come visit me?” she said.
“Well, I was thinking of stopping by tomorrow, actually.”
“Why wait so long?”
“I didn’t want to bore you,” I said.
“So, you did want to see me?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
Even in these shadows she was beautiful to look at in the glow of her cigarette and the pale gleam of the street lamp, bathed in the odor of gently stirring chrysanthemums and tiger lilies, of rhododendrons and forsythia.
“I’ve never met a man who chose to forgo my company out of fear of boring me.”
“Men are very selfish,” I said.
“As are women,” she said.
She put her cigarette out in the ashtray on the little wicker table.
“I think we should go to the Ugly Mug and have a beer,” she said. “Then we should go to bed together. What do you think?”
I was thinking that Jesus was going to show up at any second, cigarette in hand, but instead the screen door opened and Kevin came out onto the porch. He was wearing a t-shirt and his BVDs.
“Hi, Cousin Arnold. Hi, lady.”
“Hello, man,” said Elektra.
“I’m not a man,” said Kevin, staring at her. “I’m a boy.”
“Cool,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Elektra.”
He came closer to her, so that he was standing right in front of her, almost touching her bare knees.
“Are you Cousin Arnold’s girlfriend?”
“No. I’m his friend.”
“Oh. I saw you kiss him.”
“Friends can kiss.”
“Kevin,” I said. “Go to bed.”
“I don’t want to go to bed. I want to talk to her.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because she’s pretty.”
“Kevin?” This was my mother’s voice, from inside the house.
“Uh-oh,” said Kevin.
My mother opened the screen door. She was in her nightgown.
“Arnold?” she said.
“This is Arnold’s girlfriend,” said Kevin. “Her name’s Electric.”
“Kevin, get in here and go to bed, or you can’t buy comic books tomorrow,” said my mother.
You can believe Kevin went in through that door double-quick.
My mother stood there in the doorway, holding the door open.
“Mom,” I said. “This is my friend Elektra.”
“Hello,” she said. “I”m Mrs. Schnabel.”
“Hi, Mrs. Schnabel.”
Elektra waved her hand.
"Well, I'll leave you two," said my mother.
"I love your garden, Mrs. Schnabel," said Elektra.
"Oh, thank you. But it's mostly my sisters' accomplishment. I do like to work in it though."
“It's lovely," said Elektra. "I want to come by and look at it in the daytime."
"Come by any time, dear."
“See, Arnold,” said Jesus, who was sitting on the porch rail, a lit cigarette in his fingers, “they’re completely hitting it off. Your mother’s not even gonna care that Elektra’s a Jew.
Hey, and ya know what, if it does bother her, the hell with her.”
I glared at him. He really was determined to drive me back to Byberry permanently. Or so it would seem.
(Click here for Arnold's next adventure. You will find a complete index of links to the other existing episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven on the right-hand side of this page. Many of Arnold Schnabel’s immortal poems may also be accessed there, completely free of charge, although donations in the name of the Arnold Schnabel Society will be gratefully appreciated.)