Considering Arnold’s tender mental state, the dinner went fairly well.
Which isn’t to say that Arnold wouldn’t have preferred to skip the whole thing...
It started to rain again as we walked up Perry Street. Elektra opened up her umbrella over both of us. I was having one "first" after another these days, and in my forty-two years this was the first time I had shared an umbrella with a woman who was not my mother. I took the umbrella, it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do, walking on the street side of the pavement, as I had somewhere heard the gentleman was supposed to.
I felt as if we were in our own private world under the umbrella, with her bare arm in mine, and I found this feeling strangely exciting, in nearly every way one can imagine being excited, including sexually.
For some reason we didn’t talk as we walked; I can’t account for Elektra but for me it felt redundant and meaningless to add anything to the sound of the rain drumming on the umbrella, the murmuring of the wind.
As we turned down the stone path to the side of her house I felt overcome by the wet beauty of the rose bushes, the ivy crawling up the side of the house, the glistening grass, the caramel smell and the touch of this woman who for some reason was choosing to share my baleful broken presence, and as we turned the corner to go into the rear entrance I couldn’t control myself, and with my one free arm I embraced her and kissed her.
A minute later she said, “Whoa, tiger.”
I had dropped the umbrella. It lay upside down on the ground, filling with rainwater. We were both streaming wet.
“I can’t help it,” I said.
“I don’t want you to help it,” she said.
“Should we go up now?”
“Yeah,” she said.
Fortunately none of her friends seemed to be home, and we went right into her room.
She told me to stand still, and then she
(The next page of Arnold’s copybook has unfortunately been torn out, probably by Arnold himself in one of his occasional retrospective acts of modesty or prudence. We continue mid-sentence with the next extant page. — Editor.)
breathing heavily and slowly, and, I confess, coughing a bit. She laid her dark head in my damp armpit, and sure enough, after a minute I heard the steady childlike breathing of her sleeping.
I looked at the illuminated dial of my watch: it was after ten, which meant that we had been doing what we had been doing for approximately two hours. She seemed so sound asleep I decided to get up and go. Once again I found my clothes and put them on. They were damp, but I didn’t care.
As I was pulling my Bermudas on she woke up and said, “You’re going?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “Unless you want me to stay.”
“Your mother will worry, won’t she?”
“I doubt it. She’s probably in bed by now herself.”
“You can go, Arnold. I’m exhausted and I want to sleep.”
I felt it incumbent upon me to kiss her, so I leaned over and did so. She seemed to fall back to sleep even as I raised my face from hers.
I was lucky in leaving; her friends were still out.
I was also lucky in that the rain had stopped again, although it was still rather windy out.
I felt emptied of madness, I felt content, and wide awake. I had no idea why this woman was allowing me to make love to her. It didn’t seem to me that I was any bargain.
I walked along, breathing in the rich air smelling of water and life, feeling as if my feet were barely touching the pavement, but just as I put my hand on the front gate of my aunts’ house I thought of poor Steve at the VFW.
He wasn’t my problem, just some random lonely drunken queer fellow, but, don’t ask me why, I felt sorry for him.
I thought I’d just walk down to the VFW anyway. If he was still there maybe I could get him to go back to the Chalfonte before he got in trouble. If he wasn’t there I’d have a quiet beer and then go home and try to read some more of The Waste Land till I got sleepy, which, if that poem continued as it had been, would be after three or four lines.
The VFW is off the beaten track, and generally speaking only locals go there. I’ve stopped in there off and on over the years, although I’ve never officially joined the post. It’s not really my cup of tea. I prefer the more touristy bars like the Ugly Mug, the Pilot House, Sid’s, even the Top of the Marq. I suppose I prefer those places because I feel more anonymous in them. If I go into the VFW it’s always the same locals I’ve seen there every other time I’ve been there on my yearly vacations, and unfortunately they know who I am, because my aunts are year-round residents and everyone in town knows them because everyone in Cape May knows everyone else.
Now why does this bother me, I wonder? Shouldn’t I like it that everyone knows me? But no, I don’t like it. If I must go into a bar, and apparently sometimes I must, I prefer to slip in quietly, the unknown quiet man quietly drinking his beer or Manhattan. The last thing I need is a bar full of hearty fellows clapping me on the back and asking me how it’s going.
It took me a long time but eventually I’ve come to realize that I am not a regular guy. I can imitate one passably sometimes if I’m with casual strangers, but the more people know of me the more they know how hopelessly irregular I am.
Oh, sure, back home in Olney I would sometimes go with the other ushers to the Fern Rock Diner on Fifth Street after noon mass on Sundays, but the only ones that ever made any attempt to advance our ecclesiastical friendship tended to be even more hopeless and boring than myself. So I would drink my coffee and eat my fried mush and eggs and scrapple and go home.
Same thing in the army. Same thing on the railroad.
Same thing with the Catholic Youth Organization and the Community Service Corps, even those hotbeds of chaste Catholic bachelors: the only guys who wanted to be friendly with me were just the ones whose conversation made me (no Steve Allen or Jack Paar myself) want to run out screaming in the streets from the excruciating tedium of it all.
I digress, but after all this is my memoir and no one will ever read it anyway, probably not even its author.
I walked down the windy dark empty street, turned right at Congress, made my way up the block and crossed at Park Boulevard and came up on the lit-up small parking lot of the VFW post. It’s just a plain one-story stuccoed building, dull and brown, it’s windows made out of filmy glass bricks like ice cubes. I opened the door and went in. The first thing I heard was Steve’s distinctive tenor, singing along to a song on the jukebox called “Be My Baby”. And there he was in the middle of the crowded bar, waving a beer mug in time to the music.
Amazingly, it didn’t look like anyone wanted to beat him up, at least not yet anyway.
I thought, Okay, now I want to go, but of course Steve saw me, stopped singing, and began waving energetically at me, calling out my name. Or rather calling out the name Arthur, which I suppose is close enough.
(Click here for our next brilliant chapter. Turn to the right hand column of this page to find links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)