What’s a brakeman-poet who’s trying to recover from a complete mental breakdown supposed to do when he gets invited to a cook-out where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack are hangin’ cool?
What the hell, he goes already.
Our Schaefer Award-winning serialization of the unedited memoirs of Arnold Schnabel continues, on this warm August night in 1963, in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Click here for our previous adventure.)
It was all very interesting chatting with Frank Sinatra, I suppose, but to tell the truth I was getting hungry, so I was glad when Dick came over and told us he had a brand-new batch of burgers ready to go.
Elektra and I excused ourselves from Frank and went over to the charcoal grill with Dick. He gave us burgers on paper plates and suggested we sit at a wooden table nearby in front of a long gingerbread pavilion. The table was loaded down with big bowls of pickles and potato salad and coleslaw and beet salad. Little wicker baskets held silverware and paper napkins.
We sat and ate and drank our beer (Schmidt’s) and looked at all the people milling about. Filtered flood-lights had been set up, and so the yard was fairly well-lit. Some people were playing badminton (among them Dick's beloved Daphne, laughing and pouncing around like a child, but she didn't look like a child), others were playing croquet. But mostly people just stood around drinking and talking.
“So, what did you think of Frank Sinatra?” asked Elektra.
“He seemed nice,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “You should write him a song, Arnold.”
“Would that I could,” I said.
“You don’t think you could write a song lyric?”
“No,” I said. “Not one that Frank Sinatra could sing.”
“Is that really what your poems are all about,” she asked, “demons and worms and — talking to Jesus?”
“I write about what I know,” I said. “I used to write about things like Mother's Day, or the first snowfall of the year, or how good it feels to walk home from church. But that all changed with my breakdown, I’m afraid.”
“You still haven’t shown me your poems.”
“You’ll have to get in line. Miss Rathbone has them now, and Miss Evans said she wants them next.”
“So I’m sleeping with you, and I don’t get special treatment?”
“I promise to put you next on the list after Miss Evans.”
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“You mean do I feel crazy at all?”
“Well, I felt a little crazy on the porch, right before you came over. Something about the way Mr. and Mrs. DeVore were talking was just driving me around the bend.”
“They would drive me crazy.”
“But then Miss Evans noticed something was wrong with me, and she talked to me, and touched my arm. And that made me feel better.”
It occurred to me by the way she looked away that she didn’t like my mentioning Miss Evans. And I remembered what Daphne had said about extolling the virtues of one woman in front of another. I had much to learn, everything to learn.
I plunged ahead.
“But I felt really better when I saw you come walking down the street,” I said.
She turned her head to look at me.
“Really?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
We continued to eat and drink, and then Elektra said, “You know I’m probably going away at the end of the summer, don’t you, Arnold?”
“Well, I assumed you would, since the jewelry store wouldn’t do much business after the season’s over.”
“Yes. We’ll probably close up at the end of September.”
I didn’t say anything, I was concentrating on my food.
“So you’re not upset, that I would be leaving you?” she asked.
“I never expected you to stay with me,” I said. “I’m lucky you’re here with me now.”
“Will you go back to Philadelphia?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“So you’re just taking it one day at a time.”
“Yeah,” I said. I had finished eating, and I took out my trusty Pall Malls. “In the group therapy meetings at the hospital they used to talk about taking it one day at a time. Each day is the first day of the rest of your, you know, whatever.”
I lit my cigarette. Elektra took out her Marlboros and I lit her up too.
I suppose my face was giving away something, because she looked into my eyes and said, “What?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
I tried. It felt as if someone else were talking, a character in a book or a movie, but I tried.
“For quite some time before my crack-up I felt like each day could be the last day of my life. And then when I cracked up I kind of wanted each day to be the last day of my life. And then when I got a little better I didn’t care if it was the last day of my life. But now it’s different. I still feel like each day might be my last, but this feeling just makes me want to live life even more.”
She blew out some smoke and looked at me, and then she looked over my shoulder and I turned and Sammy Davis, Jr. was standing there with two full beer bottles in one hand and another one in the other.
“Arnold, man,” he said, “excuse me for eavesdropping, but I just want to say that what you said just now was deep. Very deep. I brought you two some fresh beers.”
We thanked him and invited him to sit with us.
“So Frank tells me you’re a poet, Arnold,” he said, after he sat down on the bench across from us.
Like Frank and me he wore Bermudas and a polo shirt, except he wore sandals with no socks.
I admitted that I was a poet (leaving out — as I had with Frank — the adjective "inept").
“I can see you’re a very deep cat. Listen, would you two care to blow some reefer?”
“Sure,” said Elektra immediately.
“Follow me,” he said, and he got up.
“Um, I think I’ll take a pass,” I said.
“Come with us, Arnold,” said Elektra, and she put out her cigarette in a big seashell that was serving as an ashtray.
Of course I said yes. I would follow her anywhere. Anywhere within reason. Within my definition of reason. Which left me a lot of room. I put out my own cigarette and stood up.
We took our beers and went all the way to the back of the yard, out of the glare of the floodlights, by a white-painted wooden fence that was bordered with rhododendrons and azaleas and some bushes I couldn’t give a name to. A greenhouse ran along one side of the yard back here, its glass sparkling, its windows and doors open, and inside its dimness it looked like a jungle was trying to get out.
Sammy pulled a reefer out of his shirt pocket, gave it to Elektra, and lit her up with a fancy gold or gold-plated lighter.
I was thinking how odd it was to think that I had seen this man on TV and in movies and now I was seeing him in person. For some reason I hadn’t really thought about this when I was talking to Mr. Sinatra, but now I thought about him, too, all the movies and TV shows I had seen Frank in. And now I had just seen him in person, and he was just another little middle-aged guy with a toupée. And Sammy was another even smaller guy, with very shiny black hair, horn-rimmed glasses, a glass eye, and a broken nose.
Sammy and Elektra passed the reefer back and forth and talked about jazz.
I was remembering Sammy from a TV series I had liked, called The Magic Carnival. He did a guest appearance on one episode where he played a carnival barker for this sideshow that purported to contain the secret of life. I found this episode very disturbing at the time, and in fact I still sometimes have nightmares about it.
I was about to ask him about this particular show when I’m afraid to report that my bête noir appeared once again.
Yes, it was he, Jesus, standing there smiling by my side, smoking his traditional Pall Mall.
“Yes, Arnold, it’s me again.”
I said nothing, because I didn’t want Elektra and Sammy to see and hear me talking to an apparition of Jesus.
Please go away, I thought, as loudly as I could.
“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” he said.
I don’t care, I thought. Are you trying to drive me insane?
“Wow,” he said. He looked away, smoking his cigarette. He had a new outfit on, new for me, anyway. A white long-sleeved shirt, white trousers, white shoes. He turned back to me. “You’re not being very friendly,” he said.
I’m not? I thought.
“Not really,” he said. “I mean, considering who I am –”
Okay, Mr. Jesus, I thought, if you are Jesus, what the h--l do you want?
(I may be a railroad man, but I never use language like this. This is why, even as I thought this rude sentiment, I mentally substituted dashes for the offending letters.)
“I just want you to love me, Arnold,” he said, with raised eyebrows, as if he were offended.
Okay! I thought. I love you! Fine! Now leave me alone.
“You say you love me, but you don’t act like it. You should be glad to see me.”
Well, I’m not! I yelled mentally.
“We’ve talked about this before,” he said, tapping his ash down onto a yellow rhododendron. “Most Catholics would kill to have a vision of me. You act like it’s some great hardship. Like I’m persecuting you. Oh, no. Don’t do that again. That eye-closing thing.”
I was closing my eyes tight. This had worked that one time. If I just kept my eyes tight shut for a while, then when I opened them again he would be gone. Such was my plan, anyway.
“Why can’t you just let me stick around, Arnold?” he said. “Why can’t you accept me?”
What am I supposed to do? I yelled internally, keeping my eyes shut. Fall down at your feet?
“Oh, no, I hate that sort of thing. Just, you know, accept me into your life. Believe in me. Walk with me,” he said. “Worship me.”
Do you know how egocentric that sounds? I screamed inside. Worship you? Are you that desperate for adoration?
“Well, I am the son of God, Arnold.”
So that automatically means you have to be worshipped?
I don’t know where all these ideas of mine were coming from. But anyway, after a pause he said:
“Wow, I never really thought about it that way.”
Well, think about it! I thought, again keeping my eyes shut.
I could hear Sammy and Elektra talking, about trains and miles the way these jazz buffs seem to do. Jesus was silent for a moment, so I supposed he was thinking about what I’d said.
“Arnold, now I feel like a big jerk,” he said.
Right. So now I was supposed to feel sorry for him.
“Arnold, open your eyes.”
I did, because it was Steve talking.
“Are you that high?” said Steve, who was standing right where Jesus had been. “Say, I’ll have some of that, Sammy,” he said, and Sammy nodded and passed him the reefer.
Steve took a big drag and held it in, then he took a couple of smaller drags and held them in. Then he let all the smoke out in a great whoosh, passing the reefer to Elektra.
“Anyway, Arnold,” he said, “I feel like such an enormous big jerk.”
Jesus, or my brain, had done it again. All I could do was sigh and ask Steve what the problem was.
“It’s Charlotte,” he said. “And Gertrude. Trouble. I need your help, Arnold.”
How odd, I thought.
That anyone would need my help.
(Click here for our next chapter. Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems, some of which are to be featured on a new tribute album from Ha! Karate Records, Planet Schnabelia, Vol. II, featuring original music by such artists as Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Fergie, Morrissey, Hank Williams Jr, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty.)