A man called Arnold Schnabel descends a staircase in a large Victorian house in Cape May New Jersey on an August night in 1963.
These are his memoirs, this is his life, this is our life...
I went past the third floor and successfully made it down to the second. There were two doorways on the front side of the hall. The door to the first was closed, but the second one was open. I walked over, and I could hear Elektra’s voice:Heard a siren from the docksBefore I could go in however, a woman appeared in the doorway. She had red hair, cut like Peter Pan’s.
Saw a train set the night on fire
“Oh, it’s you,” she said.
I couldn’t quite place her, but I felt that I’d seen her before, or at least that I had imagined seeing her before.
“Hello,” I said.
“The bathroom,” she said.
Indeed this was the woman I had surprised as she sat on the toilet smoking a cigarette.
She stuck out a hand.
“I’m Shirley,” she said.
I shook her hand.
“Oh, Arnold. I’ve heard about you.”
She held onto my hand.
She did look awfully familiar. I mean I seemed to know her from before the bathroom incident. She wore a pretty shiny green dress and she was very trim.
“I’m going down for more beer,” she said. “Would you like one?”
“Sure, thanks,” I said.
She stared at me, still holding onto my hand.
“You have an aura,” she said.
“Yes. It’s very slight, but I can see it. Around your head.”
“Like a halo?”
“Sort of. It’s like your head is giving off this shimmering glow.”
With my free left hand I touched the top of my head. It felt normal enough.
“I can tell you’re a very spiritual person,” she said.
All I could think was, Great, this is all I need: a halo.
“Oh,” she said, and she seemed saddened.
“What?” I said.
“Your aura’s fading.”
“Thank God,” I couldn’t help but say aloud.
She finally let go of my hand, but she continued to stand in the doorway, effectively blocking it. She seemed to be studying my eyes. I found this disconcerting, and looked over her head. The porch was out there. Someday I would reach it.
A harmonica had been playing but now Elektra’s voice was singing again:I'm going to make me a good sharp axeThe harmonica came back in.
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
“Your girlfriend has a lovely voice,” said Shirley. “And you have a very -- radiant soul. I feel that you’ve been touched by God.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I said.
“When I was holding your hand I felt like you could pull me along up into the sky, into the stars.”
“Oh, I doubt I could do that,” I said.
“You mean I’m not advanced enough,” she said.
“Oh no, not at all. I just mean I don’t think I could do that.”
“Have you traveled through the stars, Arnold?”
Forget about traveling though the stars, I was having a hard enough time just making it out to that porch.
Elektra started singing again:I met my love by the gas works wall
“But you’re probably in a hurry to get out to your girlfriend,” said Shirley.
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m in a hurry,” I said, just trying to be polite.
“Then help me bring the beers up,” she said.
I was doomed. That porch was my promised land, my city of gold, and I would never reach it.
Next thing I knew Shirley had my hand in hers and she was leading me back to the staircase.Dirty old townI thought of dear old Olney, the Heintz factory behind our house, the great stacks belching black smoke, the rattle of the 47 trolley, the beer smell of the taverns, the sneakers swaying from the telephone wires, the butcher shop smells of sawdust and blood, the sugary warmth of the bakeries, the wooden darkness of the confessional box...
Dirty old town
But finally I got a grip on myself. I halted, but Shirley kept walking, holding onto my hand, until both our arms were outstretched, with Shirley already on the second step down. She turned her head.
“Come on, Arnold!”
“I should go see Elektra,” I said. “She’ll be wondering where I am.”
“We’ll only be a minute.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” I said.
“Something will happen.”
“I’m not going to seduce you, Arnold.”
“I didn’t mean that,” I said. Not necessarily, anyway. “I just meant that something else would happen. That would prevent me from getting out to that porch.”
“I don’t know. Dean Martin will come in and want to hear my thoughts on Jesus and salvation.”
“You don’t know Dean.”
“I just meant that as an example.”
“You’re being silly.”
The thing is, we were still holding hands at arm’s length while all this was going on, with Shirley on the second step of the stairway. We were like a poster for some dramatic movie.
She had been smiling, but now her face turned serious, and she looked into my eyes.
“You can see the future,” she said.
“No,” I said. “But I can do what I can to ward off the possibility of certain historical trends.”
“You really do have a deep soul.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Can I have my hand back?”
“Of course, Arnold.”
She let go of my hand. Its palm was warm and sweaty.
“So,” she said. “A beer for you? Or would you prefer a cocktail? A cocktail! Would you like a Manhattan?”
I told her that would be very nice.
Shirley went down the stairs and I turned back.
I realized that Sammy was singing now, and had been singing:Oh, the train I ride on
Oh the engine shine like gold
Just like gold
(Click here to see if Arnold will catch that train. Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for listings of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven and to many of his easy-to-understand poems.)
And now a word from Mr. Howlin' Wolf: