Arnold and Elektra are enjoying post-prandial wine and cigarettes on the porch when who should come down the street but Steve, whom Arnold had previously taken for the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Cape May, NJ. August, 1963.
What can you do when someone just invites himself up? Say no?
We were trapped.
I started to say, “Sure, come on up,” but I hadn’t got past the “sh” sound in “sure” before Steve was already working on the gate latch, which after only about half a minute he managed to lift up.
Next thing I knew he was on the porch, bending over and giving Elektra a kiss on the cheek.
“Don’t tell me your name!” he said to her.
“Okay,” she said.
“Athena!” he cried.
“Nope,” she said.
“Okay, uh — Jocasta?”
“Am I warm?”
“Is it Medea?”
“Hmmm, let me think. Lysistrata?”
I couldn’t take it any more.
“It’s Elektra, Steve,” I said.
“Elektra! I knew it! Thank you, Arthur!”
“Arnold,” I said.
“Arnold! So what are you two up to?”
“Uh, well, uh,” I said.
“Is this where you live, Arnold?”
“Well, uh –”
My mother opened the screen door, holding a tray with cups of coffee, saucers and spoons, a little cream pitcher, a sugar bowl.
“Hello, madam,” said Steve.
“Hello,” said my mother.
“My name’s Steve. Here, let me take that tray.” He took the tray from her. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Arnold’s mother. Mrs. Schnabel.”
“Are you? Arnold’s only my best buddy, you know.”
She looked at me in puzzlement.
“What a fabulous house you have, Mrs. Schnabel,” said Steve.
“It’s my sisters’ house,” said my mother.
“Yes, but still,” said Steve.
“Can I have a cup of that coffee, Steve?” said Elektra.
“Of course, darling.”
He went over and bent down with the tray; she took a cup and saucer, and with a gentle wave of her hand indicated she didn’t want sugar or cream.
“Arnold?” said Steve.
I took a cup, black also.
“Would you like a cup, Steve?” asked my mother.
“No, thank you, I’ve just had a gallon of coffee.”
“Can I get you something else?”
“Oh, no thank you, very much, I’ve only popped up to say hi really. Don’t want to wear out my welcome.”
“You’re very welcome, Steve,” said my mother. “Any friend of Arnold’s is welcome here.”
“So kind of you to say that.”
He handed her back the tray.
Kevin came and opened the screen door.
“Hello, little man,” said Steve. “And who might you be?”
“Kevin Armstrong,” said Kevin.
“My name’s Steve.”
My Aunt Edith appeared behind Kevin. This was getting insane, and this time it wasn’t all me.
“Hello,” said Steve.
“Hello,” said Aunt Edith.
“My name’s Steve. Arnold’s friend.”
“I’m Edith. Arnold’s aunt.”
“Hello, Aunt Edith, and aren’t you just as cute as a button?”
At this Aunt Edith retreated back indoors but Kevin just stood there in the doorway.
“So!” said Steve. “I should be going. Arthur I mean Arnold, where is this VFW club I’ve heard so much about?”
“Just go right down the street here till you get to the next corner, Congress Street, then go right and it’s another block and a half or so on the right-hand side. You can’t miss it.”
“Care to come?” He looked hopefully at me, then at Elektra, then back to me again, with a sad half smile on one side of his face.
“Uh, no, Steve, thanks,” I said. “we, uh —”
“We just ate an enormous and delicious meal,” said Elektra. “I think we’re just going to sit here for a while, Steve.”
My mother still stood there, holding her tray, and Kevin remained in the doorway.
“I should probably eat something,” said Steve, wistfully. “Do they have good food at this VFW?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Go for the meatball sandwich.”
“Steve, why don’t you let me fix you a plate?” said my mother.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t, Mrs. Schnabel.”
“You wait here, I’ll bring you out a tray. Would you like a glass of wine?”
“A glass of wine? Well, that would be nice.”
“Sit down and I’ll be right out.”
“I really shouldn’t.”
He looked at me for guidance. I surrendered.
“Go ahead, Steve,” I said. “Pull up a chair.”
“I’ll only stay for a quick glass of wine. No food.”
“No,” I said, possibly with a note of firmness. “Bring him some food, Mom.”
“I’ll heat a dinner up.”
“Oh, please don’t, Mrs. Schnabel,” said Steve. “Just something cold is fine.”
“Would you like some roast beef?”
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
She went in, shooing Kevin in front of her.
“May I pull that over?” Steve said, pointing to another rocker on the other side of the doorway.
For some reason I couldn’t even answer him. And it didn’t really matter anyway.
He went over, picked the chair up, brought it over and set it down across from us, but closer to my chair than Elektra’s. The porch is not all that deep, and so his knees were only about a foot from mine.
The light that just a few minutes before had brightly colored the street had now fallen away. A silence fell, or was allowed to resume, but it was still rather windy out, so this was the silence of wet leaves hissing in the trees, of fallen leaves scudding along the street like flotsam in a river, and, from seemingly far away but only a few blocks away, the ocean endlessly crashing at the edge of the continent.
Then Steve started prattling again.
Twenty minutes later he had devoured a roast beef sandwich and downed a jelly glass of wine, all the while talking, although I’ve already forgotten about what, even though I am writing this the next afternoon. Evening had fallen, the street lamps had come on. It was just me and Elektra and Steve on the porch now.
“Well, I really should be going,” Steve said, at last.
I just couldn’t bring myself to say what I know you’re supposed to say when someone says that, which is “No, stay”, and neither did Elektra.
“Are you sure you two wouldn’t like to have a drink with me at the VFW? I’m buying.”
“Steve,” said Elektra.
She gave him a come-hither wiggle with her index finger.
Steve rose from his seat and leaned closer to Elektra, holding his cigarette up and away.
“Arnold and I want to go to bed,” she said, quietly but distinctly.
Steve’s mouth made an O, then his head snapped back and the O became a thin line.
He stood up.
“Can you ever forgive me?” he asked. At first he was facing Elektra but then he looked at me.
“Forgive me, Arnold.”
“I forgive you, Steve.”
“Okay, give me directions for that VFW place again.”
“Steve,” I said, “do you really want to get drunk all over again?”
He said nothing for a couple of moments, blinking in the twilight.
“But what else is there to do? This is my vacation.”
“You could — take a walk?”
“You could see a movie.”
“Arnold, this is my vacation. You understand, Elektra, don’t you?”
“You two are lucky. You have something to do besides drink. But who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“At the VFW?” I had to ask.
“Stranger things have happened, old boy.”
“Be careful there, Steve.”
“You mean don’t get beat up?”
“Arnold, for me getting beat up is an occupational hazard, so don’t you worry.”
He asked me again for the directions, I gave them again, and he went away, walking quickly.
“So that’s your Jesus,” said Elektra.
I hesitated, but now that she had brought the subject up I felt honor-bound to say something.
“I had a few more of those — hallucinations, today,” I said.
“You mean you saw Jesus again?”
“Or something like him.”
“Did he look like Steve?”
“A little,” I said.
She looked at me. She had been smoking a cigarette, and now she stubbed it out in the ashtray.
“How would you like to go to my place now?” she said.
“I would like that,” I said.
“I have to say good night and thank you to your family first,” she said. “You stay here.”
Steve had left his plate and wine glass on a tray on the table. Elektra filled the tray up with our cups and saucers and our empty wineglasses, and took them inside.
I sat and waited, smoking a cigarette. I could hear the theme music of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.
The street became darker, the street lamps came on.
I finished my cigarette, and after a couple of minutes I lit up another one.
I didn’t mind waiting. After forty-two years there was no hurry now.
Eventually Elektra came out. She got her purse off the table, took up her umbrella, put her arm in mine, and off we went.
We still had the whole evening ahead of us.
(Click here to see what happens next. Kindly go to the right hand side of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his classic but accessible poems.)