So wrote our memoirist Arnold Schnabel a couple of episodes ago, and so his day continues, as he returns from a morning’s outing at Frank’s Playland (see our previous chapter) in the genteel seaside town of Cape May, NJ, during that sultry August of 1963...
It was now time for me to do my daily writing.
Ever since the weather started getting really hot I’ve taken to writing either on the porch or in the back yard, depending on who was around and likely most to disturb my lofty ruminations; sometimes I go to the coffee shop or to the library.
I figured Kevin was probably still on the front porch re-reading his latest batch of comics for the twentieth time. He was due to hit me up for a new supply of his lurid paper drug, and to tell the truth I wouldn’t have minded reading some new comics either.
But -- if I let him talk me into taking him to Wally's cigar shop, somehow that might turn into a big production, or at least it might seem like a big production to a nut like me. I might never get any of my precious writing done today, and I couldn’t let world literature down like that, ha ha. So I’d better go out back. Maybe I’d take him to the shop after I wrote a deathless poem or a few more pages of the sort of drivel I’m writing right now.
So I took my notebooks and my pen and went out to the back yard, leaving the house by the side entrance and managing to get by both my mother and Aunt Greta with a minimum of quotidian chitchat and veiled and unveiled references and questions re Elektra, e.g.. my mother wanting to know when we would have her over for dinner again when she’d just been here for dinner the night before, and Greta telling me she had a nice womanly body, nice hips, but Jewish women tended to have nice big hips.
So I make it out back and the coast is fairly clear, only Miss Rathbone at her easel, painting the little cottage. That is she was painting a picture of the little cottage, not painting the cottage itself.
Miss Rathbone and her mother have taken the little red cottage in the back for the month. I knew them to say hello and chat for a bit, but I’d never really talked to either of them very much.
I said hello and ensconced myself at the little metal table under the shade of the oak tree, the one the hammock’s hung on.
I still had to write this poem for Elektra.* But after staring at my poetry notebook for about five seconds I knew I wasn’t ready yet. This is the way it is for me with my poems. I can write one every week, but somehow I have little control over what I’m going to write about. So instead I had the idea to write a poem about Steve. Or Jesus. Well, about both of them, really.
And so I did.
“I’ve been watching you, Arnold.”
This was Miss Rathbone.
I’d just finished the poem, after my usual method of writing and furiously rewriting, tossing crumpled notebook pages aside so it looked like a summer snow had fallen all around me, and smoking most of a pack of Pall Malls in the hour-and-a-half I’d been working.
I turned and looked up at her, standing a few feet to my left.
“I’ve never seen anyone so concentrated on their work.”
“Yeah, well, someone’s gotta do it,” I said, closing my notebook. I have no idea why I said this, by the way.
“Were you writing one of your poems?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“May I read it?”
“Okay,” I said.
I’ve obviously never been shy about my bad poetry. In my experience most people have even worse taste than I do, and as likely as not they usually seem actually impressed by my scribblings. Miss R. proved no exception. She stood there and read the poem, and then she seemed to read it again a few times. At any rate she took quite some time doing it.
I’ve been a bad memoirist I notice. I haven’t described Miss Rathbone. The problem is, I already know what she looks like, and since no one will ever read this rubbish anyway, why do I have to describe her? But for what it’s worth, she’s very thin and distinguished looking, I guess she’s forty or so, maybe thirty-five, very well-spoken. She teaches art at some fancy school called the Shipley School. She wore a sort of smock, pink, and all decorated with tiny paint splotches. Her legs were long and bare under it, and she was barefoot. She wore a very broad pink straw hat with a red ribbon around it.
“This is really quite a beautiful poem,” she said, handing me back the book.
“Thanks, Miss Rathbone.” It occurred to me that I hadn’t stood up when she came over to me. And usually I’m so polite that way. So now I half-stood and gestured to one of the other metal chairs. “Would you like to sit?”
“Well, just for a moment. I should get back to my painting before I lose the light.”
I thought, the sun is still blazing away up there, but what did I know?
She sat down and removed her hat. She has long light brown hair, tied up in a round bun in the back. I offered her a cigarette, but she preferred her own, pastel pink Vanity Fairs. I gave her a light.
“Have you ever tried to publish your poems anywhere besides the Olney Times, Arnold?”
“No,” I said.
Come to think of it her fingernails were pink, too.
“I think you should try to get your poems published in book form.”
“No, I’m absolutely serious.”
“But most of my poems are really bad,” I said. “Even I know that.”
“I can’t believe that. Not after the poem I’ve just read.”
“Well, that one might not be too bad,” I said. “I think they did get a little better after my breakdown.”
“I see,” she said.
By the above it’s obvious that I took it for granted that she knew my whole history, even though she and I had never talked of it. And the reason for this is that my mother and my aunts, with particular emphasis on Aunt Greta, are incapable of meeting any other female and not telling them at once my entire life story. I had no doubt that this woman already knew every detail of last night’s dinner with Elektra. She probably even knew about Steve.
“This is often the case,” she said, “with a great artist. He goes through some sort of crisis or epiphanic moment like Paul on the road to Damascus, and after that his life and art are transformed.”
“So, like, maybe it’s a good thing I had a mental breakdown?”
“In a word, yes.”
“Okay,” I said. “As long as I don’t go completely nuts again.”
“As sometimes happens, I’m afraid,” she said. “May I read some more of your poems?”
“I would like that very much.”
“You’ll get them to me today?”
“Sure,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ll be going now.”
I stood up.
“I could make you something.”
“But don’t you have to paint?”
“Oh bother my painting.”
“But what about the light?”
“I could take five minutes to make you a sandwich. I should make Mother something anyway,” she said, gesturing with her head behind her. I hadn’t really noticed her before but old Mrs. Rathbone was now sitting across the yard reading at the umbrella-table in front of the cottage. The old lady must have very acute hearing, as it seems most of the women around here do, because she called across, “Nonsense, Charlotte, I’ll make Arnold a sandwich.”
All of a sudden she was up and limping with her cane across the yard toward us.
Surprisingly quickly she was abreast of me.
“What would you like to eat, Arnold?”
“I don’t think we have liverwurst.”
“How about bacon, lettuce and tomato?”
“That’ll do,” I said.
“What will you drink?”
“What about a nice Sawn Sair?”
“Well, I don’t know what that is, but sure.”
“Okay. Anything for you, Charlotte?”
“Just some Sawn Sair for me, Mother.”
“You never eat, girl.”
“And I’m not about to start now, Mother.”
“All right. One bacon, lettuce and tomato, and I’ll bring out the Sawn Sair.”
“You should eat something, Mother,” said Miss Rathbone.
“I’ll have half a strip of bacon. Sit down, Arnold, I won’t be a jiffy.”
I started to sit, but Miss Rathbone said, “Wait, don’t sit, Arnold.”
I stood straight again.
“Let the poor man sit,” said Mrs. Rathbone.
“I want him to bring me his poems, Mother.”
“Oh, well, in that case,” she said. “I’ve heard you write poetry, Arnold.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And what’s this about you squiring about this attractive young Jewish woman?”
“Mother,” said Miss Rathbone.
“What?” said Mrs. Rathbone.
“Don’t grill Arnold about his private life.”
“I wasn’t grilling him.”
“Hobble along and make his sandwich, Mother.”
“Do you see, Arnold?” said Mrs. Rathbone.
“Uh, what?” I said.
“How she treats me?”
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t mind being grilled, Mrs. Rathbone,” I lied.
“Do you see?” she said to her daughter.
“He’s only being a gentleman. Now limp along, mother.”
“Do you see, Arnold,” said the old lady. “My daughter likes you. That little Jewish girl of yours better watch her step.”
I smiled, probably pathetically, and at last Mrs. Rathbone turned and started back to the cottage.
After her mother had gotten safely through its screen door Miss Rathbone said, “Sorry about that. She’s a little bit cuckoo you might have noticed.”
“Oh, she’s nice," I said.
“She’s a great millstone round my neck and always has been, but somehow I’ve never quite been able to extricate myself from her. Not that I don't love her desperately. It’s just she’s been slightly batty since she fell down the stairs. How do you do it, living with your mother?”
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” I said. “Except when I was in the army.”
She ground out her pink Vanity Fair in the plastic ashtray that was already overflowing with my Pall Mall butts.
“My time in the WACs during the war was the happiest time of my life,” she said. “Loved every minute of it. How did you like the army?”
“Not much,” I said. “I hated it, actually.”
“Best years of my life,” she said. “Well, why don’t you go get those poems?”
“Okay,” I said.
I took my notebooks and went back to the house.
It seems that every day I realize more and more clearly that I am absolutely not the only insane person around here.
*And, the following week, Arnold did at last write this poem. -- Editor
(Click here for our next exciting chapter. And kindly look to the right hand side of this page for listings of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)