Return with us now to a certain hot night in August, in that forgotten year of 1963, in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May NJ, the second floor porch of a stately Victorian house.
Onstage at present:
Arnold Schnabel, brakeman, poet, whilom mental patient, the author of these memoirs.
Elektra, his bohemian lady friend.
Steve, his friend.
Charlotte Rathbone, art teacher, Steve’s date.
Gertrude Evans, novelist.
Frank Sinatra, singer and thespian.
Sammy Davis Jr, singer and thespian.
Dean Martin, singer and thespian.
Shirley, singer, thespian, dancer.
And, finally, Larry Winchester, film-maker, living legend...
I assured him I was pleased to meet him as well.
“And who is this lovely young lady sitting on your lap?”
Only then did I realize fully that Elektra was indeed sitting on my lap. The thing was that Miss Evans had squeezed onto the glider on which Elektra and I and Steve and Miss Rathbone were already sitting, and so to make room for her out of politeness, or more likely so as not to be in too close propinquity to her, Elektra had slipped onto my lap.
This was categorically the first time anyone had ever sat on my lap in my entire life. Another big first for our hero.
Caught up in these reflections I forgot to answer Larry Winchester’s question, but fortunately Elektra did.
“My name’s Elektra,” she said, and she presented her hand.
Mr. Winchester took her hand and brushed her knuckles with his somewhat scarred lips.
“Elektra,” he said. “That’s a rather freighted name. Weren’t your parents afraid that you might urge your brother to kill your mother?”
“No. Because I gave myself the name one night when I was smoking a lot of pot. I had no idea who Elektra was in Greek mythology. I just liked the way the name sounded.”
(I was lost here myself. Somewhere in my room at home I had a paperback of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology which I had bought in one of my occasional fits of autodidactic zeal, but I don’t think I ever made it to the part about Elektra. I much prefer books about hardworking young men who somehow commit murder or who become trapped in webs of betrayal.)
“You know,” said Mr. Winchester to me, “my mother is obsessed with your work.”
“Yes. She cuts out your poems from the Olney Times and Scotch-tapes them to her refrigerator.”
“Aww,” said Elektra.
“She’s going to be so impressed that I met you.”
I didn’t know what to say, which is not unusual for me of course. However, after many years of social doltishness, I’ve gradually realized that people are much more comfortable if you say something, anything other than saying a great resonant nothing, no matter how inane, so I scrabbled around on the littered floor of my brain and brought this gem up:
“So, you’re from Olney, Mr. Winchester?”
“My mother lives there,” he said. “I’ve lived out in L.A. since the war. Now I’m based in Europe. But I was just visiting in Philly, and good old Mom is still cutting out your poems every week.”
“Tell her I appreciate it,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I will.”
That was it for me, I had exhausted my supply of sparkling repartée.
Sammy was still playing his guitar through all this, although no one was singing.
Mr. Winchester gazed at me, smoking his cigar.
Fortunately Elektra rescued me again.
“What do you do, Mr. Winchester?” she asked.
“Larry,” he said. “Please call me Larry.”
“Larry,” she said.
“You too, Arnold. If I may call you Arnold.”
“Sure, ‘Larry’,” he said.
“Larry,” I said.
“I’m a movie director, darling,” said Larry in answer to Elektra’s question. “I’ve also done a lot of TV work.”
“What movies have you directed,” asked Elektra.
“Well, we just opened a picture called The Return of the 300 Spartans --”
Elektra cocked her head and twisted her lovely lips.
“And earlier this year we had a little thing called Stopover in Singapore,” tried Mr. Winchester. “With Dane Clark?”
“Umm,” hummed Elektra.
“How about Bayonets of Blood? With Rory Calhoun?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Two For Tortuga?” said Larry. “The Vacant City?”
“Um, no,” said Elektra.
“Several Lonely People? With Eddy O’Brien? Mademoiselle .38, with Mara Corday?"
“I’ve seen them all, Larry,” I said. (Basically, if it’s come to the Fern Rock Theatre on Fifth Street, I’ve seen it.)
“Well, that’s gratifying” he said. “I was beginning to think my career was for naught.”
“Oh, please don’t go by me, Larry,” said Elektra. “I just don’t see too many movies.”
“A sign of intelligence, my dear.”
“I would rather read a book, usually.”
“Who are your favorite authors?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. Proust I suppose. Henry de Montherlant.”
(In honesty I have to say that the last two names she mentioned were gibberish to me, but afterwards I asked her to repeat them and spell them out for me.)
“Beauty and brains. You’re not an actress by any chance are you?”
“A pity. I would cast you in a minute. With your looks, your presence.”
What a racket I thought. I made a mental note that if there was anything to reincarnation I would become a movie director in my next life. It had to be a better job than being a brakeman. Or a poet. Or a madman, for that matter.
(Click here for our next unforgettable chapter. And kindly go to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to all other extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Pabst Blue Ribbon Award runner-up Railroad Train to Heaven ™, soon to be a major mini-series event on the Gimbels Channel.)