A nor’easter spurts its last gasps against the shuttered front windows of this large Victorian boarding house in Cape May, New Jersey; August, 1963...
As soon as Popeye ended, with Popeye in the passionate embrace of Olive Oyl, it hit me for the first time in my life:
“Kevin,” I said, “Did it ever occur to you that Olive Oyl’s name is a play on words?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean her name is a joke.”
“What’s so funny about it?”
“Well, her name is the same as olive oil, the oil, like cooking oil. Except it’s spelled differently.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Olive oil. You know, oil made from olives.”
“What about it?”
“Well, there’s this oil made from olives, and it’s called olive oil. And Olive Oyl on the show has the same name, except it’s spelled differently.”
“I had never realized that before now,” I said.
“Had you?” I asked.
“No. Because I had never heard of olive oil before. What do I know about olive oil?”
“Good question,” I said.
“If her name was Crisco Oyl maybe then it would mean something to me.”
“Right,” I said.
John Facenda came on with the news. We watched it for a bit. Some gang in England had robbed a train of £2.6 million.
“When I grow up I’m gonna be a train robber,” said Kevin. “No offense; I know you used to work on the railroad.”
“No offense,” I said. I had almost finished my second glass of wine, and I felt much better than I had when the glass was full.
My mother came in and called us to dinner, so I turned the TV off.
Normally we all ate in the kitchen, but because we were having company we were eating in the dining room, which is just a small inconvenient room in between the living room and kitchen, with a table that’s actually no bigger than the kitchen table.
The ladies had also brought out the good china, which I find annoying to eat off of. It’s got all this fancy gilt along its scalloped edges which when you wield your knife and fork upon it makes for an awful scraping noise like desperate mice trapped behind a chalkboard.
Kevin and I sat; for some reason he always sits immediately to my left when we eat. Or is it I who always sits to his right?
I noticed a black leather woman’s purse on the table, and I realized it was Elektra’s. I hadn’t even noticed before that she was carrying a purse.
That’s me for you in a nutshell, I amble through life noticing only things like the smell of steam coming up from a sidewalk grill, or the rainbow colors in a puddle of gasoline in a gutter, or worms in the grass on a rainy spring day, and yet I fail to notice that my inamorata is carrying a black leather purse.
There was a bit of fuss about Elektra wanting to help bring in the food, but the old women kept telling her to go on and sit down.
Finally she did sit down, to my right. And thank God she had brought the Chianti bottle in and put it well within my reach. The rain had lessened, and so my aunts had opened the windows, and turned on the oscillating black fan on the little table by the windows, but it was still hot in there from all the cooking in the kitchen next door.
Elektra put her hand on my leg. I was wearing bermuda shorts. Her hand felt very warm. I glanced into her eyes, and she smiled. I could feel the warmth of her body, and she smelled sort of like French toast with maple syrup. Embarrassingly, I started to get an erection.
Thank God, my Aunt Greta brought out the big wooden salad bowl, and Elektra took her hand off my thigh before my erection could reach its full enormity.
The salad was dished out, or at least for me and Elektra and Kevin it was dished out. My aunts and my mother did their usual business of just sharing one plate, and either not sitting down at all or sitting down and then getting right up again.
My Aunt Elizabetta asked Elektra if her family was in the jewelry business.
Oh, great, I thought, this is somehow going to lead to her Jewishness. But fortunately her father was in the scaffolding trade, so that held Edith off at the pass.
For her own reasons Elektra volunteered that she had gone to NYU and majored in English, and then had gone on to complete her master’s degree in English Literature at Columbia. All four of the old women looked at her as if she were speaking Chinese.
“I’ll probably go back for my PhD, but I felt like taking a year or two off first,” she said.
This meant nothing to them. She might as well have been explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity, not that I myself would have understood the latter either.
Aunt Greta asked her where she was from. Elektra said she was born in Brooklyn, but moved to the Upper West Side of New York City with her family when she was eight. My aunts and mother had all lived in Brooklyn when they first came to America, so this precipitated a conversation about the old Brooklyn neighborhoods. My aunts and mother had lived in Bushwick, Elektra’s family had been from Williamsburg.
I’ll say one thing, at least I was finding out some things about Elektra that I hadn’t known before.
By this time we were on the duck’s blood soup with noodles, and I have to say it was delicious.
However, I guess the hammer had to fall eventually, and so it did.
“Your neighborhood was really very clean,” said my Aunt Edith.
“Was it? It never seemed that clean to me.”
“The Jewish people are clean,” said Aunt Edith.
“Oh, yeah, I guess they are,” said Elektra.
“Not like the Irish,” said Edith.
“Uh,” said Elektra, and she put her hand on my thigh again.
“Or the Schwarzen,” said Edith.
Elektra squeezed my thigh.
“Bushwick was a very clean neighborhood,” said Elektra.
“Not any more,” said Aunt Edith. “Nothing but the Schwarzen there now.”
“Okay, Edith,” said Elizabetta, who has certain liberal tendencies, as well as sounder ideas, or ideas at all, about acceptable dinner conversation.
“What?” said Edith.
“Help me bring the roast beef in,” said Elizabetta.
“Okay,” said Edith.
I refilled my wine glass. Or rather I refilled my Flintstones glass with wine.
“Don’t forget me,” whispered Elektra and I filled her up too.
“I want some grape juice,” said Kevin.
He tried to reach for the bottle but I moved it away.
He accepted the deprivation without comment, and took to quietly singing the theme song to 77 Sunset Strip.
My Aunt Elizabetta came in with the platter of roast beef, and my Aunt Edith followed with the gravy. My mother brought in the potatoes, Greta brought in the beets.
Elektra removed her hand from my thigh, which was good as despite myself I was starting to get another erection.
We made it through the meal somehow. I felt sorry for Elektra, continuing to try to talk to my aunts and to my mother, something I never tried to do. Normally I just ate my food while they talked among themselves and I paid no attention, indeed I often brought a book to the table. It was a sore point with Kevin that he was not able to bring comic books to the dinner table, although this was allowed at lunch by some obscure loophole in familial law.
At the end of the meal there was a great discussion about letting Elektra help with the dishes, and while it was going on I went out to the porch with a full glass of wine and my cigarettes. It was almost twilight now, the rain had abated to a salty thin spray that seemed not to fall but to shimmer in the air. The air smelled of honeysuckle and gladioli, of wet dirt and the ocean. I sat down in my usual rocker, lit up a Pall Mall, and stared out at the street, covered like a forest floor with gleaming green leaves and fallen brown twigs.
Kevin was inside watching TV again. I could hear the theme song through the windows, which someone had unshuttered: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
After a few minutes Elektra came out. She had a glass of wine too, and her leather purse. She sat down in the rocker next to me, put her glass down on the little glass-topped wicker table between us, and took out her cigarettes. I gave her a light.
“Well, that was interesting,” she said, quietly, blowing the smoke out the side of her mouth.
“I’m supposed to be the one with mental problems,” I said. “And yet you volunteered for that.”
“It wasn’t so bad. You don’t understand women. We’re always submitting ourselves to absurd situations. It’s our lot in life. Besides, your aunts and mother are nice.”
“They’re prejudiced,” I said.
“I know. But they don’t know any better.”
She smoked, staring out at the street. The sky and the air had been grey all day, but now, just as the day was ending, an illumination fell across the street through the dying mist, as if floodlights mounted on the gables of our house had all at once been switched on. I stared at Elektra’s face and remembered I hadn’t written her a poem yet.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Will you look at who’s walking down the street?”
Sure enough, coming down Perry Street was Steve. He wasn’t carrying an umbrella this time, but then by this point it was hardly raining.
This was disturbing; but wasn’t it a good sign if Elektra could see him also?
He crossed the street and turned left on North, towards us. My aunts’ house is one house in from the corner.
He gave no sign of knowing we were there until he was right abreast of us, then he stopped and stared.
“Arthur!” he said. “And your lady friend! Quelle surprise! May I come up and say hello?”
Apparently I was never to be set free.
(Click here for our next wacky chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of his fine and easy-to-read poems.)