The time is still August, 1963. The place is the pleasant seaside resort of Cape May, NJ, where Arnold has gone with his mother to recover from a mental breakdown the previous winter. He has been sleeping in an attic in the large shambling Victorian boarding house run by his three maiden aunts, Greta, Edith, and Elizabetta. Arnold’s young cousin Kevin is also staying there...
No surprise, I had a slight hangover when I awoke the next morning. But here’s yet another great thing about being on leave of absence (dear God, or dear Steve, whomever, may this leave of absence extend until I myself am absent from this world!): it really doesn’t matter if I’m a little hungover because I have absolutely nothing to do all day.
Back when I was working I was far too responsible ever to have more than a couple of beers on a night before a work day, for fear of endangering hundreds of innocent lives on the railroad the next day. I would only really get my load on if I knew I was off the next morning; but now I was off every day of my life, and the only one I had to worry about endangering was my own fool self.
So the hangover was no problem, but as I went downstairs for breakfast I suddenly remembered my mother. What would be the result of her seeing me with a woman for the first time after forty-two years of my existence?
But here again I have to interpolate yet another way in which my life is now better.
I remember one time a few years ago I almost fell out of the cab of an engine as we were crossing the overpass by the Oak Lane stop. It had been snowing, I lost my footing on the slippery top step and I was halfway out the door and flailing when the engineer grabbed my arm, he pulled me in, and I didn’t die, which I surely would have done if I had fallen.
It’s funny, but serving with the engineers from D-Day plus one till V-E day, eleven months in a theatre of war, I never came close to being even scratched. But this one time on the train I almost died.
And so afterwards I always tried to think of this incident, and to be glad that I was alive, or at least not dead.
But so often I failed to be glad, like, say, roughly speaking, about ninety-nine percent of the time. Until in due time I felt not glad roughly 99.99% of the time. And then I went insane.
But here’s the thing, after going completely insane for a week, and then only gradually regaining some modicum of mental health, I find now that things that might have seemed earthshaking problems to me in the old days seem piffling now.
I’ve already experienced about the worst I can imagine experiencing short of some really horrible physical illness or crippling accident or death. And so an awkward conversation with my mother, even the prospect of an infinite number of awkward conversations with her, is certainly nothing that would stand between me and my enjoyment of a hearty breakfast.
No matter how late I stay up the night before I have an unerring instinct for getting up and making it downstairs just as breakfast is being laid out.
My aunts serve breakfast for me and Kevin at nine, which is completely for our convenience, since, as I mentioned before, the aunts and Mom wake up very early. On this particular morning not only had they gone to seven o’clock mass and performed innumerable chores around the house but they had also gone to the butcher’s and bought some excellent fresh sausage.
“Ah, sausage,” I said.
“Yes,” said my Aunt Elizabetta, “and Charlie Coleman brought us some strawberries this morning, and four chickens from his yard.”
“Good old Charlie,” I said.
“And some good tomatoes and corn,” said Aunt Greta.
“And those peaches,” said Aunt Edith, “I’m gonna make some good pies.”
“Great,” I said. I sat back as my mother put a big plate of sausage and eggs and home-fries in front of me.
“Cousin Arnold’s gonna get fat if he eats all that,” said Kevin.
“Cousin Arnold is a grown man. He needs his food,” said Aunt Elizabetta.
“I want that much,” said Kevin.
“No, you’ll get sick,” said Elizabetta.
We sat and ate for a while, or Kevin and I ate. My aunts and mother tend never actually to eat a meal, per se. One of them will eat half a slice of toast, say, and then pass it on to one of her sisters. If it’s a big holiday meal, forget it, they won’t even sit down for more than a minute at a time. There’s no changing them. And yet they’re all rather solid, and strong, albeit very short. They’re almost like the remnants of some race of immortal and stoutly-built dwarves who have emerged from the darkest depths of the Schwarzwald to dwell for a time among men.
As Kevin and I dug in, my aunts and mother chatted about the things they chat about, including this latest batch of Charlie’s eggs, as they passed around a bread-plate with the scrambled equivalent of one egg on it, of which each of them took one small appraising forkful, using the same fork, so as not to have to waste water washing more forks.
But of course Kevin had to bring it up, even though I had asked him to (bribed him to) please refrain from talking about my personal affairs.
“Cousin Arnold’s girlfriend is pretty,” he said.
A moment’s silence fell, as if we were on TV and the sound had suddenly gone off because of technical difficulties.
Then the sound came on again.
“Do you want some more sausage, Arnold?” said Elizabetta.
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
“She smells good, too,” said Kevin.
“Of course she smells good!” said Greta.
“She smells really good,” said Kevin.
“Arnold wouldn’t go out with a girl who didn’t smell good,” said Edith. Edith is slightly dotty to tell the truth. “Arnold would only go out with a nice, clean girl.”
Elizabetta forked me out another nice big sausage.
“Some more eggs?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Have some more toast, Arnold,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and I grabbed another piece of buttered toast from the toast plate.
My mother, who had been hovering about, sat down to my right and picked up her own piece of toast.
“She’s a very nice girl,” she said.
“Of course she is,” said Elizabetta, and she sat down on my left, just as Greta and Edith finally sat, on either side of Kevin.
“And it doesn’t matter that she’s Jewish,” said Greta.
“Not at all,” said Edith. “We worked with some awfully nice Jewish girls at the phone company. Remember Ginger Goldberg? She always smelled nice.”
“As long as she lets the kids grow up Catholic,” said Elizabetta.
“Are you sure she’s not Italian, Arnold?” asked my mother. She passed the toast over my plate to Elizabetta. They would do their round robin with the toast now.
“She’s Jewish, Mom.”
“Well —” she said.
“Hmm,” said Elizabetta, chewing her toast.
“That only means she’ll go to limbo” said Edith. “Unless she converts, of course."
“She’s still one of God’s children,” said Greta.
“She might convert,” said Elizabetta.
“What is a Jew anyway?” said Kevin.
“It’s another religion, Kevin,” said Edith. “Jesus used to be one before he became a Catholic.”
“Oh,” said Kevin, already bored with the subject. “Who cares what religion she is. She’s pretty and she smells nice.”
I was finished with my sausage.
“Well,” I said, “that was great. I’m going to sit outside with my coffee now and have a smoke.”
I pushed my chair back.
“I’m done too,” said Kevin.
“You leave Cousin Arnold in peace,” said Elizabetta.
“I’m not going to bother him. Cousin Arnold, can I sit with you? I’ll just read my comics, I promise.”
“Sure,” I said. Why fight the inevitable?
I stood up. My mother’s fingers grazed my arm, just barely, as if a caterpillar had fallen down on me from a tree.
“Arnold, she seems very pretty and very nice. We don’t care if she’s Jewish.”
“Swell,” I said.
“If you ever want to have her over for dinner we’d be glad to have her.”
“Okay,” I said. “But you’ll have to get your meat from the kosher butcher.”
“Really?” said my mother.
“We don’t have a kosher butcher in Cape May!” said Elizabetta.
“I think there might be one in Wildwood,” said Edith, her face compacted in mental concentration.
“I’ll ask Mrs. Fuchs,” said Greta. Mrs. Fuchs has the house next door.
“There’s a kosher butcher right down on Fifth Street back home,” said my mother. “I could take the train up, and —”
She half-rose, as if ready to run off to the train station straight away.
“Mom, I was kidding,” I said. I was already heading to the door with my cup and saucer.
“But it’s really no problem,” said my mother.
“Just kidding, Mom.”
I went out the screen door and onto the porch. It was going to be another beautiful hot August day. I sat in my usual rocker, the one Elektra had sat in the night before. Kevin came out and sat in his usual rocker, next to mine. He had a stack of comics with him.
I put my cup and saucer on the little table next to my chair and lit a cigarette. I was still wearing the smoky clothes I’d worn the night before. It seemed like I could smell Elektra on them, this sort of burnt sugar smell she has.
“Cousin Arnold, you can read this one,” said Kevin.
He handed me a very old Tales From the Crypt, its pages yellowed and autumnal, but its cover still alluring: a scantily clad young woman in danger of being trampled by an elephant. I held the cover sideways, comparing the cover girl to Elektra in my mind. Elektra was definitely better-looking. Then I remembered that Steve guy and his advice about the yodeling technique. I would have to do some research; I decided that after I had read the comic and had a shower I would head over to the library and see what books they had on hand in re the subject of human biology, and specifically the female anatomy. I could also take out some new mystery novels.
(Click here for our next installment. Kindly check the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of links to other episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven -- soon to be a major 12-part series from Masterpiece Theatre, starring Ralph Fiennes as Arnold Schnabel -- as well as to many of Arnold ’s classic poems.)