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, so I took my notebook and my pen and went downstairs, out through the side door and to the back of the house, where the coast was 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. She and her mother have taken the little red cottage in the back for the month. I said hello to her and ensconced myself at the grillwork iron 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 I have little control over what I’m going to write about. So instead I had the idea to write a poem about my recent conversations with Jesus.
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 long ago gave up being shy about my bad poetry. People tend to be impressed or at least to act impressed by the mere fact that I write poems at all and publish them, even if it is only in the Olney Times. Miss Rathbone stood there and read the poem, and then she apparently read it again a few more times. In the meantime, because I don’t like to be a litterbug, I got up and picked up all my crumpled notebook pages from the grass, then I sat down again, smoothed the pages out, shoved them back into my notebook, and waited for this present social interaction to play itself out.
I have 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 a girl’s 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. I shall now resume my narrative.
“This is really quite a beautiful poem,” she said, handing me back my notebook.
“Thanks, Miss Rathbone.” It occurred to me that I hadn’t stood up when she first came over to me. And usually I’m so polite that way. So now I half-stood and gestured to one of the other grillwork 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 across from me and removed her hat. She has long light brown hair, and at this moment it was tied up in a round bun at the top of her head. I offered her a cigarette, but she preferred her own, pastel pink Vogues. I gave her a light.
“I’m told you publish your poems in your neighborhood weekly.”
“Yes,” I said. “The Olney Times.”
“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, and I remembered what my friend Jesus had said. “I think maybe they’ve gotten a little better, uh, in recent, er –”
“Since you had your breakdown.”
“Yes,” I said.
Even though she and I had barely ever spoken to each other I was not surprised that she knew about my breakdown, 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.
“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 consciously 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 standing in front of me. Another little old woman, my life was filled with them.
“What would you like to eat, Arnold?” this one said.
“I don’t think we have liverwurst.”
“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 rasher 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 Jewess?”
So they knew about Elektra, and had probably heard all about last night’s dinner.
“Um,” I said.
“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. “Uh –”
“Don’t forget the Sawn Sair, mother,” said Miss Rathbone.
“My daughter likes you, Arnold,” said the old lady. “That little Jewish wench of yours had 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 the 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 is 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, in my way. 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 Vogue in the scuffed tin 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 notebook and pen 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.)