Tuesday, January 22, 2008
“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Forty-Nine: a gathering of eagles, Cape May, NJ, August 1963
In our last episode of these unexpurgated memoirs of the man Harold Bloom called “the John Coltrane of 20th Century American Literature” Arnold Schnabel managed once again to escape the embrace of the attractive novelist Gertrude Evans.
But the sultry evening is yet young...
I made my way out the side entrance in a successful maneuver to avoid my mother and aunts. Evening had fallen and the porch was empty except for a couple of guests, a young married couple named DeVore, sitting in rockers and reading magazines by the porch light.
I said hello and went up and over to the other side of the porch to my usual rocker. Miss Evans’s novel was still sitting on the little table, so I picked it up for something to read while waiting for Elektra.
Porter Walker takes Emily to a bar in Greenwich Village called the Kettle of Fish, and they drink beer and listen to a jazz trio.
“Can’t you hear what those cats are doing?” he asks Emily.
Emily listens for a minute and then says, yes, she can hear it.
Then the old rag-and-bones lady shows up again and comes over to the table where Porter the poet and Emily are sitting and drinking cheap beer.
“I told you you would find love,” the old lady says.
The rag-and-bones lady goes away, and then, after talking about the meaning of the universe and about himself, Porter finally asks Emily about her new job, and she wonders if she should tell him that she is reading his epic poem for her job, but she decides not to.
They hit a couple of more bars and eventually wind up at one called Bob’s Bowery Bar. It turns out Porter’s apartment is just around the corner from the bar, and Emily decides to take up Porter’s invitation to spend the night at his “pad”, but strictly on a platonic basis, supposedly.
They go up to his pad, it’s just the one room, with a narrow bed but no couch. Porter says he’ll sleep on the floor. Emily gives him a hard time about this. He says he’s used to sleeping on floors. It goes on like this, and then all of a sudden Emily kisses him. It started to get pretty hot and heavy here, and I felt embarrassed reading it on the porch.
“What are you reading?” called Mrs. DeVore.
“Um, it’s called Ye Cannot Quench,” I called back.
“Isn’t that the novel Miss Evans wrote?”
As I have said, everyone knows everyone’s business around here.
“Yes,” I said.
“You must lend it to me when you’re finished,” she said.
“Well, it’s not my book,” I said. “Miss Evans lent it to me.”
“Oh, she must like you. And what about your lady friend?”
See what I mean? How did they even know I had a lady friend?
“I hear your lady friend is a real hot ticket, Arnold,” said Mr. DeVore.
Already we were on a first-name basis, and I’d never done more than say hello to these people.
“Jewish girl, isn’t she, Arnold?” said Mrs. DeVore.
“She is a member of the Israelite tribe,” I said, and I have no idea why I said that, but it, or the way I said it, somehow seemed to take them aback and they smiled and went back to their magazines, she a Ladies’ Home Journal, he a Saturday Evening Post.
I went back to Miss Evans’s book and the steamy scene. They were now on Porter’s bed, and Emily’s bosom was heaving and she was running her hands over his slim lithe muscles and breathing in his “musk of the city and manhood”. And just when you think she’s about to — you know — she goes into a long remembrance of a date she had with a high school boy back in West Virginia, on a night “scented with honeysuckle and sweet warm sweat”. The boy, named Cletus, or “Clete”, takes her out to a remote mountain spot in his Model T —
But meanwhile I’m thinking, why is this Emily all of a sudden daydreaming about this old boyfriend of hers while she’s busy kissing and running her hands along the lithe muscles of this Porter guy?
But I kept reading anyway, thinking there was still a chance it might make some sense.
And then all of a sudden Steve was standing there, saying, “Aren’t you engrossed?”
At first I wasn’t sure if this was Steve himself, or an maybe an apparition of Steve as Jesus. He was carrying a bouquet of calla lilies, so that made me suspicious. I glanced over at the DeVores, and they were both looking at Steve, although seeming to be trying to pretend that they weren’t blatantly staring at him. So this made me think it was probably really Steve. If things have gotten to the point where other people are seeing Jesus too, well, then we’re all in big trouble.
“Hi, Steve,” I said.
“So you’re coming tonight, right?” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“To the cook-out.”
Once again I’d forgotten all about it.
“You know, he said. "The one with Frank Sinatra. And the Rat Pack. Swimming pools. Movie stars?”
“They have a swimming pool there?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he said. “But you are coming, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m waiting for Elektra.”
“When is she supposed to be here?”
I checked my watch.
“About a half hour ago,” I said.
“Primping, I’m sure," he said. “I feel so much better now myself. Had a beauty nap. How do you think I look?”
He was wearing white loose trousers and a long-sleeved white dress shirt of some very light-looking material. He also wore white shoes I noticed.
“You don’t think the white bucks are a bit de trop?” he asked.
“No, not at all,” I said.
“And the calla lilies?” he asked.
They did seem odd to me, but I didn’t say so.
“She told me she likes calla lilies,” said Steve.
“Who?” I asked.
“Who? My date! Charlotte.”
It all came back to me now.
“What do you think of her?” he asked. “May I sit?”
“Sure,” I said.
And he sat down in the rocker next to my right. He leaned over toward me and spoke lowly, as if he didn’t want the DeVores to hear him, and in fact I could see them over his shoulder, pretending to read their magazines, but straining their ears to catch our every word.
“Tell me true, what do you think of her?”
“She seems nice,” I said.
“I think she’s divine,” said Steve. “Magnificent. She reminds me of Deborah Kerr. With just a bit of Katherine Hepburn. Or Bette Davis. Just — fabulous. And her mother — isn’t her mother a scream?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“So what do you think of her and me?”
“Miss Rathbone and you?”
“Yes. I certainly didn’t mean Mrs. Rathbone and me.”
He had gotten progressively louder, but now I spoke in a very low voice.
“Do you mean — for you to — go out with her?”
“Yes! What d’ya think?”
It was full dark now, the street lamps were on, and inside the house in my aunts’ living room Route 66 was playing on the TV. The DeVores were still trying to eavesdrop.
“Steve,” I said in my lowest voice, “I was under the impression that you — didn’t like girls.”
Steve whispered, “You mean I’m queer as a three dollar bill?”
“Well, yeah,” I whispered back.
“Well, what if I am?” he asked, in a normal voice, or normal for Steve. “Does that mean I can’t go out with a woman?”
“But — why would you want to?” I asked.
“Oh, so just because I’m not interested in — in ravishing her — does that mean I can’t go out with a woman?”
“Arnold, can’t you get your mind out of the gutter for just one minute?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“There are more things to life than sex you know.”
I really couldn’t think of anything to say to this.
Steve sat back and took out his cigarettes. I felt bad, so I gave him a light.
“Thank you, Arthur,” he said. So now I was back to being Arthur again, but I didn’t have the heart to correct him.
I lit up one of my own, and we sat in silence for half a minute.
Bugs were starting to come out for their evening’s adventures. Little gnats, and probably mosquitoes soon enough.
“I’d like to get married too,” said Steve, although no one had mentioned marriage. “I don’t see why I can’t have all that, like everybody else. A nice wife. Maybe even a brat or two.”
This was all too confusing to me, to be honest. I thought homosexuals were not supposed to like women. Why would a homosexual man want to be married to a woman then?
“You think I would be living a lie?” asked Steve.
He was speaking normally again, normally for him that is, in other words not quietly, and I could see that the DeVores were hanging on his every word. Steve saw me looking at them, and he turned his head around to look at them also.
“Would you like me to speak louder for your benefit?” he asked them.
They both immediately picked up their magazines and buried their faces in them.
Steve stared at them for a few more seconds, then turned back to me, and shrugged.
“Why can’t I have my cake and eat it too?” he asked me. “I think I would make a marvelous husband.
I wouldn’t be pestering her for you-know-what all the time. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, what if she wanted to be pestered?”
Actually I wasn’t thinking that. I didn’t know what I was thinking.
“Well,” he said, “I venture to say I could rise to the occasion. You know, close my eyes and think of England.”
“Why would you think of England?” I asked.
“It’s just a saying, Arthur,” he said. “Look, you’re my best friend. Give me your blessing.”
“Okay,” I said. After all, what did I know about any of this?
“Thanks, buddy. She likes you, you know.”
“Yes. Charlotte. She’s simply mad about you. Or mad about your poems, anyway. After you fell into your deep plummetless slumber she and I sat together for a full hour while her mother snoozed too, and most of that time Charlotte spent reading your poems. I dare say she’d prefer you to me. Well, I guess I should get back there; she’s waiting for me. You are coming tonight, aren’t you?”
“Um,” I said.
“I’m as excited as a schoolgirl on prom night. I just want my slice of the pie, Arthur. My piece of the American dream. I don’t want to grow old in some fussy old parlour with some other old queen. I’d like a proper wife to go home to. And I can always have my fun on the side, can’t I?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be right, Steve,” I said, in a low voice.
“Oh, Mr. Morality! Get with it, Arthur, don’t you know how many husbands fool around on their wives? And not only just with other women?”
“That still doesn’t make it right, Steve,” I said, in my quietest voice.
He paused here, looking at his white shoes.
“You’re right,” he said. “It’s not right. That’s why if I do marry Charlotte I’ll just have to — to change my ways. That’s what I’ll do.”
“Steve,” I said, “don’t you think maybe you’re jumping the gun a little here?”
He looked at me.
“Like maybe we should go out on a first date before we register at Lit Brothers?”
Just then Miss Evans came walking around the side of the house. She stopped at the side of the porch.
“Hello, Arnold,” she said.
She was still wearing the polka dot dress, except now she carried a white pocket book, and she had a white sweater over one arm.
“Arnold!” said Steve. “And here I was calling you Arthur again! Hello,” he said to Miss Evans.
“Hello,” she said.
“My name’s Steve. My friend Arnold has such barbaric manners.”
“My name’s Gertrude. Gertrude Evans. Are you the friend who’s read The Fountainhead?”
“Yes! By Ann what’s-her-name?”
“I loved that book!”
“You have excellent taste. And I see you’re still reading my book, Arnold?”
I was still holding the book in my hand.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m —” I tried to think of a way not to lie outright. “I’m amazed,” I said. Amazed at how absurd the book was.
“Well, thank you very much, Arnold,” she said.
Steve had leaned over and looked at the cover of the book, touching it with two fingers.
“Oh my God,” he said. “You wrote this?” he asked Miss Evans.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’m so impressed. Arthur I mean Arnold you’ll have to let me read it when you’re finished. May I, Gertrude?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Where are you off to, may I ask?” he asked her.
“I’m going to the movies,” she said.
“Oh really? To that Rock Hudson show?”
“A Gathering of Eagles, yes,” she said. “I’m sure it’s terrible, but I’m a sucker for Rock Hudson.”
“Honey, I hate to tell you, but it’s very boring. It’s just Rock flying B-52 bombers all around.”
“Really; now if it was Lover Come Back, or Pillow Talk, or even The Spiral Road it would be a different story. Why don’t you come to the cook-out with us?”
“Some pals of ours are having a cook-out down the street. They told us to bring friends. Frank Sinatra’s going to be there.”
“Yes,” said Steve. He turned around to look at the DeVores again and said, loud and clear, “Frank Sinatra.”
They raised up their magazines again.
“I don’t know,” said Miss Evans.
“Wait here,” Steve said to her. He stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray and stood up. “I have to go back and get my date.”
Steve went down the steps with his calla lilies, around the porch and past Miss Evans, saying, “Go on up, darling! Wait on the porch with Arthur.”
Right then and there I finally decided that Steve was definitely not Jesus. Or at least most likely not.
(Click here for our next thrilling chapter. And check out the right hand side of this page for links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven ™, all rights reserved by the Arnold Schnabel Society.)
Nancy and Lee and summer wine: