Previously in our serialization of these memoirs of Arnold Schnabel, “the Rhyming Brakeman” of Olney: Arnold has had another encounter with Jesus (now disguised as an ordinary guy) this time at the Ugly Mug, while Elektra was in the ladies’ room. As he walks Elektra to her house he sees this mundane Jesus standing in the shadows, lighting a cigarette. Elektra goes up to the man, talks to him, and comes back to tell Arnold that the man is not Jesus but some guy named Steve.
Dateline: Cape May, New Jersey, August 1963, a time when you could order two mixed drinks at a nice bar and still get some change for your five-spot.
I’ll say this for Elektra, she didn’t make a big deal out of it. She just said, “Well, come on,” and we went around to the back and then up the stairs.
Fairchild and Rocket Man and Gypsy Dave were all sitting around their little living room again, listening to an old man singing with a guitar. As usual, or as usual as it could be for me, seeing as this was only the third time I had met them, they were smoking marijuana and drinking red wine. I was still saying hello to them all when Elektra pulled me by the arm towards and into her room.
Without much further ado, we were in her bed, and soon enough I was bidding farewell to the uneasy state of grace I had enjoyed since going to confession Saturday. But then, in the midst of the sin of fornication it occurred to me that I had committed the equally un-venial sin of self-abuse several times since my confession and thus was already in a state of mortal sin. You could only be damned once after all. And so I set to it with abandon.
The afterwards part again was nice. Neither of us talked. I could hear the old man singing in the next room. I let myself look toward the windows, but there were no divine apparitions.
After a while I said I should probably go home before I got too comfortable and fell asleep. She said okay, and turned on the light, so that I could find my clothes. She lay there and watched me as I got dressed.
“I still haven’t seen any of your famous poems, Arnold.”
I forgot to mention, she pronounces my name Ahnold.
“I’ll show you some sometime,” I said. “I keep them in scrapbooks.”
I’d already told her they weren’t very good. No point in overdoing the modesty bit.
“Write a poem for me,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Just like that?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve written poems with far less provocation, believe me.”
“I look forward to it,” she said.
“It will be on your desk the first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I don’t have a desk.”
“I like it when you’re funny, Arnold.”
“So do I,” I said.
“Kiss me good night.”
I did, we did, then I left.
In the living room they were all still there, and the old man was still singing.
“Come have a toke,” said Gypsy Dave, holding out a smoking reefer.
“Okay,” I said.
We chatted. It turned out the old man was not an old man, but a sturdy looking bearded young fellow named Dave Van Ronk.
After a little while I said good night to them all and left this room also.
When I came around the house to the front I lit a cigarette and looked up and down the street. I was looking for Jesus, or for that Steve Smith guy. I had this light feeling, and it wasn’t entirely the marijuana I think.
I stood there. Elektra, the woman I had been with, lay in her bed in her room up there above my head. The windows of her room were dark, so I supposed she had gone to sleep, or perhaps she was lying awake. It occurred to me that she may well have been thinking of me. How very odd to think that someone other than my mother would spend any time thinking about me; I was always trying to think of anything else but me. Trying and usually failing, I’m afraid.
I headed home.
I realize now that I love walking home at night in Cape May, even when I’m somewhat or completely drunk. The fresh ocean air, the rustling foliage, so different from back home in Olney, especially since going home there meant basically going home to the Heintz plant across the street from us, with its stacks belching foul smoke even as the bars are letting out at two in the morning.
My mother was wise in making me come here. I hadn’t wanted to come. No, why should I leave my little bedroom in our little house across from the factory, the same bedroom I’d had when we first moved there when I was just a boy.
I had gotten better here. It’s true, I still had visions, but I felt better, and, amazingly, I had even found a young woman who liked me, for her own reasons.
I got to my aunts’ house. Still no Jesus. But then I didn’t feel like going up to my small attic room after all. What was the hurry? I wasn’t sleepy. In fact I was as wide awake as I had ever been. I turned back, went down Perry Street and then up Washington.
When I reached the entrance of the Ugly Mug I hesitated, and then for no particular reason I went around the corner and went into to the Pilot House.
The bar was still crowded with vacationers, and Freddy Ayres and Ursula were performing on the little stage. Freddy was singing “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”.
I saw that Steve Smith fellow at the bar. He was drinking what looked to be a Manhattan, smoking a cigarette, leaning with one elbow on the bar, smiling and nodding his head in Freddy and Ursula’s direction.
Of course the only empty stool in the joint was the one right next to him. I sighed and went over.
I ordered a Manhattan. I had a feeling I would need it.
“Hey,” said this “Steve Smith”, “didn’t I see you on the street earlier tonight, with that gorgeous dark-haired girl?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“She asked me my name, ‘cause she said you thought you knew me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Oh, I didn’t mind. She’s some looker.”
“Yes, she is,” I said.
“Well, sort of, I suppose,” I said.
He seemed to study me appraisingly. He was about thirty-three; slim, sandy hair, somewhat balding. He gave no indication that we had been talking together at the Ugly Mug earlier that same night.
The bartender put down my Manhattan and Steve patted a little pile of money he had on the bar.
“Please, let me,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, “thanks.”
The bartender took some money and I took a sip of the Manhattan. “Steve” continued to study my baleful countenance.
“Y’know,” he said, “I couldn’t help but wonder why you just didn’t come over and speak to me yourself?”
And I wondered what kind of game Jesus was playing with me now. I don’t know why, and I didn’t know then, but I played along.
“I’m shy,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “A shy guy.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“May I be perfectly honest?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“I was sorta kinda hoping you were cruising me there on the street,” he said. “You know, getting your lady friend to do the groundwork.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “Um, what’s your name again?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I think she said – what’s your little lady friend’s name by the way?”
“Elektra – how exotic! Anyway, I think she said your name was – Arthur?”
“No, it’s –”
“It’s Arnold,” I said.
“Arnold,” I said.
“Yes,” I said, wondering why I had sat down here, why I hadn’t just turned around and walked out when I saw him.
“I’m Steve,” said Steve, or Jesus, whoever he was, extending his hand. “Steve Smith.”
“Hi – ‘Steve’,” I said, shaking his hand, which he kept clasped to mine for an unusually long quarter of a minute.
“Very pleased to meet you, uh –”
“Arnold. So, where’s your lady friend now?”
“In bed,” I said.
“Ah ha. I’m sure you left her quite satisfied.”
See, this is why I don’t like drinking with a lot of guys. They always get crude. But on the other hand he had bought me a drink.
“I’ll bet you really swing,” he said. “Keep the ladies happy.”
“Oh, probably no more than you do, Steve,” I said.
“Oh, me, oh my goodness no, I’m hopeless with the ladies.”
I finished the rest of the drink and in an attack of madness I motioned to the bartender.
“Two more here, please,” I said, and I brandished my five dollar bill.
“Oh, thank you, Arnold, I don’t mind if I do,” said my new friend, or my old one. “So – and please don’t take this the wrong way – but may I just come right out and ask you, and slap me silly if I’m being offensive, but do you by any fantastic chance swing both ways?”
“Which ways?” I said.
“Well, you know, like AC/DC.”
“Steve,” I said, “if that’s what you would like me to call you –”
“Oh, please do!”
“Okay, look, ‘Steve’, can we stop playing this game?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” he said. “Shall we?”
“Yes,” I said. “Look, I know you were in the Ugly Mug earlier tonight. And I know you were watching us on the street.”
“And you’re very observant yourself.”
“So you can just, you know, stop the game.”
“Do you mean — you’re interested?”
He spoke very low now.
“What?” I said. “No, I’m not interested. I would like it if you would stop following me around.”
“But,” he smiled, seemingly apprehensively, “I haven’t been following you, Arthur. I did notice you at the Ugly Mug tonight, after all you two were sitting right across from me at the bar. But I left the Mug because, quite honestly I was cruising some other guy who had just left; but he didn’t give me a second glance out on the street, so I just had a cigarette, and, hey, sure, I admit I was looking at you, strolling along with the lovely Agatha, but honest to goodness my dear chap,” he was slipping into an English accent, “I have not been following you! Scout’s honor, old boy.”
The bartender had laid the fresh Manhattans down and taken his money. I picked up mine and took a drink.
“So you’re saying you didn’t talk to me earlier tonight?” I said.
“I don’t think I did,” he said. “But I’m so delighted we’re talking now.”
“Wait a minute,” I said.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “but — are you — um —”
He had just taken a sip of his drink, and he smiled again, as if hopefully.
I was wondering if he was homosexual, but I didn’t want to offend the guy, especially if it turned out he wasn’t either homosexual or Jesus.
“Sorry, I said. “Never mind.”
“A little inebriated, are you?”
“Sort of,” I said, although I wasn’t really, not by my standards.
“So, tell me about Alexandra,” he said, slipping back into an American accent.
“Your lady friend, what is it, Anoushka? No –”
“Elektra, yes, she’s quite stunning you know. Like a young Ava Gardner. What is she, Greek?”
“Well, no –”
“I knew she must be Greek, or maybe Italian –”
“Actually, she’s –”
“I’ll bet you really do satisfy her.”
“You know what I mean, old bean.” He was speaking in an English accent again now. “Strapping fine chap like you.”
“Um,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, looking me up and down. “I daresay you satisfy the young lady ever so well, don’t you?”
“I, uh, do my best –”
“And that’s what you have to do, Arthur.” He had switched back to an American accent now. “Listen. I have many women friends, tons of them, and what they all want is a man who satisfies them.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. If he was Jesus, he sure wasn’t giving away anything. But why would he pretend to be some guy named Steve? Foolish question, if he was Jesus, his ways were perforce beyond my puny comprehension.
“In the sack,” he said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“On the springs, Arthur. That’s where you need to satisfy them.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“They tell me things, my girlfriends. Do you want to know what they tell me?”
“Sure,” I said. “Fire away.”
So he told me what his girlfriends told him women wanted, and we drank our Manhattans and then had another round. Most of what he told me took me by surprise, especially this thing he called yodeling in the valley.
“I can’t believe you’ve never tried it,” he said. “Go ahead! Try it and she’ll be your slave.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will.”
What the hell, if he had all these girlfriends, he must know what he was talking about, even if he wasn’t Jesus.
“Promise me,” he said.
“Promise what?” I said.
“That you’ll go yodeling in the valley!”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I promise.”
It was after last call, Freddy and Ursula had packed up their instruments and gone, the bartender had turned the lights up, everyone was drifting out of the bar, and Steve and I did too.
Outside we shook hands.
“Sure you wouldn’t like to come up to my place for a nightcap, Arthur?” he said.
“No, thanks, uh, Steve,” I said. “I’d better hit the hay.”
“I understand. Your lady friend is waiting for you I’ll bet.”
It seemed easier just to say yeah, so I said, “Yeah.”
He was still shaking my hand.
“Do it once for me, Arthur.”
“Okay, I will,” I said, although I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about.
He let go of my hand, turned abruptly and walked off, staggering and reeling a bit.
So maybe he wasn’t Jesus after all.
I went home, drank two glasses of water with a couple of aspirin, went up to my room, and got into bed with The Waste Land.
“April is the cruelest month...”Okay, this T.S. Eliot was losing me right there. This man had obviously never experienced a January in Philadelphia.
(Click here for our next thrilling installment. For links to other episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven, kindly go to the right hand side of this page, where you will also find access to many of the classic poems of Arnold Schnabel, soon to be adapted into a major musical in the tradition of Cats and Movin’ Out, produced by the Guffman Organization.)