August, 1963. The Beatles are but a rumor, JFK and Jackie reign in the White House, and Arnold greets a brand new day...
I awoke with a slight hangover. That second Manhattan. Someday I’ll learn.
I lay in bed for a while, thinking it all over. Fresh warm sunlight swam through the leaves of the oak tree outside and dappled through my little casement window, casting shadows like the reflections of the ocean over my bed.
What did it mean, all these new people in my life?
After a few minutes of pondering this I saw the basic fallacy of such a question. I remembered what Elektra had told me, that all the thousands of religions of mankind had only been invented so that people could try to make some sense out of the randomness of life. But who said anything had to mean anything more than just what it was? Well, of course lots of people said just that. But what did they know? They all had conflicting theories anyway, and since they couldn’t all be right, maybe they were all of them wrong.
But on an even deeper level, why was I asking myself of all people such a question, as if I could possibly know the answer. Who was I, Bishop Sheen? Dr. Albert Schweitzer?
And so thus concluding that there was no possible way I could make any sense out of this influx of new people into my life, and I wouldn’t trust myself for one second even if I did come up with some cockamamie theory, I relaxed back into my pillow, breathed in the morning air smelling of warm wet flowers, and then at last tossed aside my sheet and swung my legs out of bed.
It did all mean something.
It meant that I now might actually have to deal with other people instead of just staying holed up as usual in my head and in my little protective family unit.
I confess I sat there in my boxer shorts and entertained some overwhelming thoughts. For instance I realized that I had managed to live forty-two years without making any close friends, and without even once reaching a first-name basis with a woman whom I was not related to by blood. When I looked at these bald facts clearly in this warm morning light I realized that I must always have been, if not completely insane, then definitely weird.
It’s not as if I had lived the life of a hermit. I had a job, I was active in parish activities. I coached the CYO boxing team. I stopped in various of the neighborhood taverns, admittedly rotating my visits so as not to be even a weekly communicant at any given one. And although it's true that Olney does seem to boast an enormous population of quiet bachelors such as myself who still live in their parents’ homes, I made no friends even with any of this celibate army. There had always been an invisible wall between me and all these other people I came up against every day. And the final proof of my weirdness was that I somehow never thought myself weird. Because in truth I never met any fellows that I really wanted to be friends with, while women seemed to me like creatures from another planet.
Perhaps my losing my mind last January was simply the ultimate efflorescence of this lifelong oddness. And could it be that my meeting Elektra and her friends, and Steve, and now Dick Ridpath and his friends, and even this Gertrude Evans – could it be that all these new people in my life were proof that I had left my old zombie life behind for something slightly more human?
If only I could stop having these visions of Jesus.
If only I would stop floating two feet off the ground at random moments.
Oh, well, you can’t have everything in this life, that much I knew.
I blinked myself out of this reverie, and the first thing I noticed was that book by Miss Evans, Ye Cannot Quench, sitting on my bedside table. I picked it up and flipped through it. I guiltily realized I hadn’t even read a line of it the night before.
I turned to the first page of the novel.
A young girl named Emily gets off a bus at the Port Authority Terminal in New York City. There is quite a bit of description of her walking out of the terminal and to Times Square. All the teeming crowds of people and the soaring tall buildings and the honking traffic. She goes into a coffee shop and orders a coffee. An old lady starts talking to her. The old lady’s name is Martha, and she’s a rag-and-bones merchant. She tells Emily that she, Emily, will find her fortune, and love, in New York City.
This last bit gave me pause. How could this old rag-and-bones woman be expected to know whether this random girl would find her fortune and love in New York or not? If she was that prescient, why was she selling rags and bones for a living? You’d think she’d at least get a job in a carnival or something.
But this silly girl Emily picks up her bags and walks back out onto the street actually wondering if it was true what the old woman said.
Oh well, maybe this was why I preferred mysteries. They were definitely less frustrating than these literary sorts of books.
I got dressed and went downstairs to get some breakfast, bringing Miss Evans’s book with me, and as usual my built-in clock was unerring; my mother was just laying out breakfast for me and Kevin.
I sat down to my pancakes.
My mother sat next to me and sipped some coffee.
My aunts were all elsewhere, doing their little duties.
Kevin was reading an old Brain Boy comic.
I opened up Ye Cannot Quench again. I had to be able to tell Miss Evans something about it when I saw her again.
“Elektra is very nice,” said my mother.
“She’s pretty,” said Kevin.
“Yeah,” I said, “she’s nice.”
My mother didn’t say anything more, although I’m sure she would have liked to. I went back to my pancakes and to Ye Cannot Quench.
Some days it would seem there is no need to go to the world, the world will come to you.
So it was this day.
After breakfast I sat out on the porch with my cup of coffee and book. Kevin of course came out as well, and we both sat and read, he his comic books, I Miss Evans’s novel.
In short order Emily finds a room in a small women's residency hotel and starts a job at a publishing company. The publisher’s son is named Julian Smythe and he seems a bit of a rake. His description made him sound to me like a dead ringer for Rock Hudson. One of the other girls in the office invites Emily to a bar after her first day of work, and they sit next to an intense looking young man writing intently in a notebook. Emily’s friend strikes up a conversation with him by asking him for a light. It turns out he’s a poet named Porter Walker. He works as a cab driver to support himself while he writes an epic poem about the city of New York. His description reminded me of the young Montgomery Clift.
I closed the book over my finger. So, who was it to be, Rock Hudson or Montgomery Clift in the end? It was hard to tell at this point.
Then Miss Gertrude Evans herself came walking around the side of the house. She carried a folded canvas beach chair, a big canvas carry-bag with towels in it and who knows what else.
She was wearing a black one-piece bathing suit, with a long sleeved white shirt like a man’s shirt over it, but the shirt wasn’t buttoned.
“Hello, Arnold,” she said, through the side railing.
Oh, she also had a big straw hat on and she wore sunglasses.
In the sunlight her hair was much lighter than it had been in the dim hallway the night before, and microscopic gold sparkles rippled through it as the warm breeze touched it.
She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were bright green in the shade of her hat.
“Is that my book?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you hate it?”
Hate is a strong word, and so I didn’t precisely have to lie.
“No,” I said.
“Good. I’m going down to the beach.”
“Have fun,” I said.
“Hello, Kevin,” she said across me.
“Hello,” said Kevin.
Apparently they’d already been introduced.
“And what are you reading, young man?”
“Is it any good?”
“Are you the Brain Boy?”
Now she did an odd thing, she reached through the side porch rails and touched my bare leg with her sunglasses. (As usual I was wearing Bermudas.)
“Don’t you go to the beach, Arnold?”
“I don’t like it during the day,” I said.
Her hand and the sunglasses retreated back across the porch floor and out of the railing.
“I hope to do some writing on the beach,” she said. “I have this strange ability to write among crowds. It’s as if I draw energy from all the humanity surrounding me.”
Here’s the awful thing. Even as she said this I felt a stirring down below. It was because she was wearing a bathing suit. I can barely hold a conversation with a fully-clothed woman. If she’s only wearing a low-cut bathing suit I can pretty much forget about sparkling repartee.
Fortunately I had her book still in my hand, so I held it open over my recalcitrant lap.
What would Porter Walker — the Montgomery Clift poet — say?
She stood there seeming to await some response.
“The energy of humanity feeds my own poems,” I said. “Just as the sun and the rain nourish my aunts’ garden here. My poems are like flowers. All I can do is to tend them, to try to let them grow in the most beautiful fashion possible.”
She stared at me, and then put her sunglasses on.
“I hope to see you later, Arnold,” she said.
She then went around the porch to the front, down the bluestone path to the gate, out through the gate and down toward Perry Street and the beach. She left the gate unlatched.
Kevin and I watched her walk away in the sunlight, carrying her chair and her big canvas bag.
When she was out of earshot Kevin said, “What was that crap about flowers all about?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry, she bought it. I’m only a kid and I could tell that. Ladies love you, Cousin Arnold.”
I ignored this last remark and went back to Miss Evans’s novel.
The Montgomery Clift poet guy asks Emily for her phone number, and she gives it to him.
(Click here to go to our next thrilling installment. Or kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Schaefer Award-winning Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)