Cape May, NJ. August, 1963.
I was awakened the next morning by fat raindrops plopping onto my face from my small dormer window. I got up and looked out, the rain thrashing down and shaking the leaves of the oak, clattering on the tiles of the roof, splattering onto the window sill. I reached out and pulled the casement sash closed.
Then I lay back for a while, listening to the noise of the rain and the wind.
If this were a couple of weeks ago I would dress now and go off to early mass. But now I no longer went to daily mass. I had gone on Sunday, but that had been pro forma, something to keep my mother and my aunts unworried, or no more worried than they had to be, anyway.
It seems that I have lost my faith.
This despite the fact that I seem to have had several conversations with Jesus over the past week or so.
What was I doing all those years, on my knees at mass, mumbling words, worshipping something I couldn’t see or feel or hear or touch, what was I doing, self-importantly shoving the collection basket into pews of bored parishioners, what was I doing with my life?
Was not this all a form of madness? This worshipping, the chanting, the rituals and sacraments, the crippling guilt over my incurable habit of self-abuse, this blind fear of eternal damnation, wasn’t I actually living the life of a madman for forty-two years before I went mad?
Of course there’s madness and madness. There’s the madness of millions of people worshipping something that doesn’t exist, and then there’s the madness that sent me to Byberry.
But would I have wound up in Byberry if I hadn’t been such a good Catholic boy all those years?
I’ll never know.
I smelled scrapple cooking, even three stories below, so keen is my sense of smell. I got dressed and went down to breakfast.
There was the expected small talk from my mother and aunts on the subject of the northeaster we were in the midst of. I was merely thinking of how I would spend this rainy day. It would be nice just to spend it reading, but there was the problem of young Kevin. I didn’t relish having to listen to his absurd questions for the entire day. It might be best to buy him a new batch of comics, just to keep him occupied.
“What do you say, Arnold,” said my Aunt Elizabetta.
“About what?” I said.
“About having your lady friend over for dinner.”
“He hasn’t even been listening,” said Aunt Edith.
How observant she was!
“They want you to invite Electric over for dinner,” said Kevin.
“What kind of name is Electric, anyway?” said Edith.
“It’s not Electric, Aunt Edith,” I said. “It’s Elektra.”
“That’s a funny name,” said Aunt Greta. “What is it, Greek?”
“Sie ist ein Jude,” said Edith.
“I know she’s Jewish, but the name sounds Greek.”
“Is she Greek, Arnold?” asked Edith. “Greek Orthodox is practically Catholic.”
“Invite her for dinner, Arnold,” said my mother.
It was then that I realized that I was living in a madhouse. It’s true, these women were not raving screaming lunatics such as some of my fellow patients at Byberry had been, but they were only just a few steps away. Give them just the tiniest push and they’d be howling at the moon with the best of them.
“Arnold?” said my mother, looking worried.
“What?” I said.
“Wouldn’t you like to invite Electric over for dinner?”
“It’s Elektra,” said Kevin.
“Don’t interrupt,” said Greta.
Everyone looked at me.
“Uh, I just met her,” I said, to one and all.
“All that matters is she’s a nice girl,” said Edith. “After all, the Blessed Mother was a Jew. And she was a lovely person. Look at how she took care of the baby Jesus in that stable. Joseph, too, he was a Jew. He seemed like a really nice man.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Ask her,” said my mother.
“Okay,” I said.
I finished my breakfast quickly, wondering what it was with people always wanting to meet other people. It was really so much more pleasant usually not to meet people.
After breakfast I took Kevin through the downpour to the tobacco shop to buy him some comics. It was the only way I knew to make sure he’d stay out of my hair for at least a part of the day.
I gave him three quarters and left him in the dark store under the watchful hostile eye of the trollish proprietor.
I was tempted to take a walk in the rain, but it was just too stormy, and my umbrella kept threatening to explode.
Should I go to the jewelry store and visit my new friends? No, I didn’t want to make Elektra think I was coming on too strong, to have her and her friends think I had nothing else in my life, even though that was pretty much the case.
So I went to the Cape Coffee Shoppe, sat at the counter and ordered a cup, took out my notebook and Bic pen and began to write a rough first draft of the previous section of this memoir.
The shop was busy on this rainy day, what else was there to do for poor vacationers? Well, at least this was one day when they wouldn’t have to lie in the blistering heat of the beach, their flesh burning, their children wailing. They could drag themselves and their families into places like this and eat pie and ice cream.
I had just finished my recounting of the previous day’s adventures when someone said:
“Writing your memoirs?”
It was Steve.
“May I?” he said.
Well, there was an empty stool there and I didn’t own it. He sat down.
“So what are you writing, Arthur?”
“My memoirs,” I said.
“No, seriously,” he said.
“Seriously, I’m writing my memoirs.”
“Fascinating. I would like to write my memoirs. Coffee, darling,” he said to the counter girl. “How is the pie here?” he said to me.
“It’s not bad,” I said. “I had some peach pie here the other day.”
“I adore peach pie. I am so hungover. This has been the most drunken vacation I’ve ever had. Did I see you in the Mug last night?”
“Yes,” I said.
He took out cigarettes, Salems, and offered me the pack.
“No thanks,” I said. “I smoke Pall Malls.”
“You’re such a he-man,” he said, lighting himself up with a trembling hand after clicking his lighter about ten times. He coughed. “I’m so intensely hungover,” he said.
The waitress had brought his coffee. He added a lot of sugar and some cream.
“Steve,” I said, “do you remember the first time we talked, at the Ugly Mug. My -- lady friend was in the ladies’ room, and you came over and we talked a bit.”
“Yes, I remember distinctly.”
“That song ‘Walk Right In’ was playing on the jukebox, and you were singing along.”
“Yes, I was quite plastered if memory serves.”
“You don’t remember talking as if you were -- well, as if you were Jesus, do you?”
“You weren’t pretending to be Jesus?”
“What on earth are you talking about, Arthur?”
“Oh, never mind,” I said.
“Was I really that drunk that I was saying I was Jesus?”
He seemed to grow a bit pale at the thought.
“Well, I thought you might have said something to that effect,” I said.
He lifted his cup and saucer with both hands, the cup rattling in the saucer.
“Oh my God,” he said. “I think I need to see a psychiatrist. I truly do. Jesus.” He looked at me. “Jesus?”
Now I felt bad. My own insanity was going to contribute to Steve’s going insane.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I was probably mistaken.”
He looked at me despairingly.
“I’m hopeless,” he said.
“No you’re not,” I said.
“No, I am, Arthur. I’ve tried. I’ve truly tried. I’ve dated women. Women like me. And I adore women. But --” He put down the cup and saucer and waved his hands. “Sometimes I think I should just jump in the ocean. Just -- go out really far. Like on a fishing boat. And just leap. But knowing me I’d just get involved in some absurd conversation with the fishermen, and --” He waved his hands again, and then stopped suddenly and said, “Oh, did you try the yodeling?”
“No, tell me you didn’t, you rascal!”
“I did,” I said.
“Bravo! And did she love it?”
“Well, she didn’t complain,” I said.
“Bravo! And I’ll bet she showed you something then, didn’t she?”
He lifted his cup and slurped, all the while looking at me with wide mischievous eyes.
“Well, she fell asleep,” I said.
Steve sprayed coffee all over the counter top.
(Click here to find out what happens next, if anything. Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)