Friday, October 19, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Twenty-Seven: Arnold encounters a nun on the beach


Congress Hall, Cape May, NJ


Previously in our saga, our hero Arnold Schnabel went with his young cousin Kevin to the Cape May Library, where he unsuccessfully attempted to find some solid information on the mysteries of the female anatomy. Later that day he took Kevin to feed the ducks out at Lily Lake on Cape May Point.

But his day was not yet done.

It was a hot August day in 1963. The US, the UK, and the USSR had recently signed an historic nuclear test ban treaty, but Arnold was not aware of this...


After digesting my supper and reading some of This Sweet Sickness — an excellent book by the way; I must say I made much quicker headway in it than I’d been making in that Waste Land poem — I went for my usual evening swim.

It’s amazing how strong I’ve gotten. This time I swam down toward the lighthouse, where I saw the last of the sun sinking down over the bay. Then, just for a laugh, I swam out to the concrete ship on the other side of the point.

This is some old ship, made out of concrete during a steel shortage in the First World War, which for some reason unknown to me had finally been run aground out here. It sits there a hundred yards or so from the shore, looking forlorn.

It was very odd to swim up to it. I felt as if I were approaching a ghost ship, even though as far as I knew no one had died on the ship. I considered trying to climb up onto it, but that seemed just too creepy.

Doggy-paddling, I put my hands against the concrete hull of the ship. I felt as if I were touching something that was not meant to be touched, and I pushed myself away.

I felt oddly frightened, even though I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, it was just some old abandoned ship made out of concrete. But I turned and swam away.

I began to feel a little tired, so I headed in toward the shore, and fetched up on the beach in front of the St. Mary’s convent.

I walked up from the surf and then sat down to catch my breath, facing the waves and the gleaming dark water where the bay opens up into the ocean, the faint glow of the lights of Delaware on the far horizon.

After the scariness of the concrete ship it was soothing just to stare out at the restless water. The lighthouse was behind me and to my left, and every five seconds or so I saw the reflection of its beam out on the waves.

Then a woman’s voice gently said hello.

I turned.

It was a nun, fairly young.

“Hello,” I said.

“Are you all right, sir?”

She seemed more curious than frightened.

“Yes,” I said. “I was swimming but I got tired, so I just came in to rest.”

“Okay.”

Then I remembered. I got up.

“I’m sorry, sister. I forgot this was private property.”

“I figured you just didn’t know.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “I knew. I just got tired and I didn’t think.”

“You really shouldn’t be swimming all alone at night,” she said. Even though it was dark now the paleness of her face seemed to glow within its frame of white linen, with that great scoop of a white bib-thing on her chest, and the long black folds of her habit moving and breathing in the breeze.

“Oh, I’m a very good swimmer,” I said.

“But still. What if you got a cramp?”

This was an excellent point, and it occurred to me that maybe one of the reasons I had started swimming at night was that I was courting just such a cramp.

“You know, you’re right,” I said.

“You should walk home.”

“Well, I will, but I left my flip-flops and towel and stuff down the beach there a mile or so.” I pointed toward Cape May. “I can swim there easily now that I’m rested."

“Oh, please don’t swim there,” she said. “I’ll worry.”

It felt odd to be talking to a nun in her full habit while I was standing there wet in my swimming trunks.

“Please tell me you’ll walk.”

Her face seemed like any pleasant woman’s now.

“Okay,” I said.

“Promise me.”

She even spoke the way ordinary women spoke.

“I promise,” I said.

I noticed a couple of other nuns standing in the light of their porch up there. This was their vacation. What did they do all day? Did they swim, or play cards or Monopoly?

“Did the other sisters send you down to investigate?” I asked.

“I volunteered,” she said.

“You’re very brave, sister.”

“Are you Catholic?”

“Yes,” I said, although as soon as I said it I realized that I wasn’t a very good Catholic any more. I was in a state of mortal sin after all.

She had been holding her hands inside her habit, but now she did a funny thing. She brought out one hand to shake mine.

“I’m Sister Mary Elizabeth,” she said.

“I’m Arnold,” I said, shaking her hand. “Pleased to meet you, sister.”

Her hand was soft, and feminine, but what else would it be?

So odd, standing there on the dark beach in my wet trunks, shaking hands with a nun.

The lighthouse light flashed over our heads.

We said so long and I walked back down to the end of the fence that borders the nuns’ beach. I turned on some strange impulse to wave back at her, but she was walking back up the beach to the convent and to her friends on the lighted porch.

I went around the fence, the surf rushing against my calves, and I headed down the beach of the cove.

I walked past the massive bulk of the abandoned World War II bunker, and when I had gone far enough so that I was sure the nuns couldn’t see me I went back into the water, and I swam the rest of the way back to the Cape May end of the beach.

I had broken my promise to the nun, but what she didn’t know wouldn‘t hurt her.

I made it back to my spot without further incident, toweled off, put on my t-shirt and flip-flops and started back home.

It was nice to walk along the boardwalk, and to see people. And when I got to Perry Street it was good to see Congress Hall there to the left, all lit up, not dark and abandoned.

I crossed Beach Drive and headed up Perry Street. I hadn’t yet decided if I should go to see Elektra tonight. I wanted to, but I didn’t want to start boring her.

I wanted to try this yodeling thing, that is if it was okay with her.

According to that Steve guy, she would be delighted.

Well, we would see about that.


(Click here for our next installment. For a complete list of links to other episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of Arnold Schnabel’s fine poems, please turn to the right hand side of this page.)

11 comments:

Jennifer said...

If only the nun were Maria von Trapp, Arnold could have started yodeling practice right then and there!

Dan Leo said...

Naughty, Miss Jennifer!

red leadbetter said...

Being a catholic school boy was so hard.

The priests were the pervs instead of the nuns. Well you might argue the nuns were pervs too, but not in a good way.

kathleenmaher said...

Yodeling I can understand. "Mortal sin," too, if it's merely sexual activity. But breaking a promise to a nun!?! Deliberately creating false reassurance out of politeness and/or a hurry to get going after telling her he was Catholic, no less?
That's a sin.
Anyone else see that? Or is it another one of those social conventions everyone else accepts as normal if not commendable?

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, now Arnold's just got one more thing to tell the priest next time he goes to confession. I'm starting to feel sorry for poor Father Reilly.

Anonymous said...

Call me jaded but I have to admit, what I envisioned after Arnold turned to wave goodbye to the nun?

"We said so long and I walked back down to the end of their beach, down to their fence which went a ways into the surf. I turned on some strange impulse to wave back at her, but she was walking back up the beach to the convent and to her friends on the lighted porch."

...they all resumed their group porch yodeling session.

Dan Leo said...

Anon: so now we have the answer to Arnold's question, "What did they do all day?"

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