Previously in our CVS Award-winning serialization of these memoirs of the man Harold Bloom called “the poet laureate of the forgotten man”, our hero Arnold Schnabel made the acquaintance of another giant of modern literature (not to mention film and TV), Larry Winchester.
August 5th or 6th, 1963. A happening get-together on the second-floor porch of the Biddle house, Cape May, New Jersey...
I had another one of those fade-outs I sometimes have around people, and which I’ve always had, even before my breakdown.
By fade-out I mean I go into my own little world as people around me chatter merrily away.
Occasionally I’ve gotten into a little trouble or embarrassment because of this proclivity.
One time I was sitting around with some other railroad guys on our lunch break at Oscar’s Tavern down on Sansom and they all started saying “All right! Let’s go then!” And they clapped me on the back and said, “Let’s go, Arnold!” And I, having no idea what they were talking about said, “Okay!” And followed them out the bar and down the street to a recruiting station where we all joined the army. This was 1942, and millions of people all over the country were going into the service. But the thing was, as railroad men we were exempt from the draft, and all we had to do was keep working for the railroad and we wouldn’t have to go to war. Which was fine with me. I wanted us to win the war, but I was horrified of the possibility of actually having to shoot at someone. Not to mention being shot at myself. And here I was signing up, just because I hadn’t been paying attention. (Luckily for me and undoubtedly luckily for the army they put me in the engineers, in which no one ever shot at me, and in which it’s true that I was partially responsible for killing people, but at least I didn’t have to shoot them while I was doing it.)
I lost my virginity that way, too. I was sitting with some of my buddies in our billet in Frankfurt, a few weeks after V-E Day, dreaming of God knows what, dreaming of being in any place but in the army and in this bombed-out and reeking city, when they said, “You up for it, Arnold?” And I said, “Sure.” Next thing I knew we were in a café drinking peppermint schnapps, and pretty soon after that I was being frog-marched into a brothel, gibbering with fright as if I were being dragged to the gibbet. And as terrified as I was going in I was even more terrified an hour later when I shuffled out, expecting a lightning bolt to strike me down at any moment and cast my wretched unshriven soul screaming hellward.
This daydreaming was also how I joined the Democratic Party, why I came to be the boxing coach of St. Helena’s Parish CYO, and why I often found myself volunteering for extra shifts on the railroad or for extra masses as an usher. It’s only by sheer luck that I have never been sitting obliviously woolgathering with some guys at a bar while they all agree that we should tear off our clothes as one and run screaming out into the street naked or pull an armed robbery of the PSFS Bank or jump off the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
So I knew that Larry and Elektra were chatting, I just had no idea what they were chatting about. Until Elektra tweaked my cheek and said, “Arnold, answer Larry.”
“Um --” here we go again, I thought, desperately trying to tread water until I could figure out what the heck was going on.
“If you don’t want to say,” said Larry, “I understand.”
“Oh, no, I don’t mind,” I said, thus throwing away the out he had just handed me.
“So?” he said.
“Well, I’d have to say --” might as well be affirmative -- “I’d have to say yes.”
“Ah,” he said. “So tell me about it.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I mean if you’d like to.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Aren’t you working on a memoir?” said Elektra.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what this had to do with anything.
“So tell Larry about it.”
“Well,” I said, finally realizing that he must have been asking me if I was working on anything special in the literary realm, “it’s -- it’s just about my life, really.”
“So you’re writing your autobiography?”
“Well, I thought it was going to be like that at first, but mostly it’s more like a sort of diary, I suppose. Just the little things I do all day.”
“Like Jack Kerouac,” said Larry.
“Uh, maybe,” I said. I remembered seeing Jack Kerouac on Steve Allen, although I’d never read any of his books because they didn’t have scantily-clad women with guns on the covers -- “but Jack Kerouac probably actually does things. All I do is -- well --” read comic books, talk to Jesus, levitate -- “not much really.”
“Do you have a publisher yet?”
“Oh, no, no one would ever publish this stuff, Larry. I’m only writing it to --”
I stopped in my verbal tracks.
“To what, Arnold?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You’re a true artist, Arnold," said Larry. "I’ll be honest with you, I used to think your poems were -- well, what do I know?”
“Oh, no,” I said, “They were.”
“Bad?” I said.
“I wasn’t going to say bad exactly.”
“Well, the point is, I looked at some of your most recent poems on my mother’s Frigidaire, and I think they were quite good.”
“Arnold, I think you and I might be able to work together.”
“Sure. Why not? I like to work with other guys. Somebody to kick around ideas with. Bang the typweriter keys when my fingers get tired.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Oh, I get it. You feel you have to concentrate on your memoir. And your poems.”
“Well, no, not really.”
“Then what’s the problem? There could be a few bucks in it for ya, kiddo.”
“Sure. I don’t write anything on spec. I get the contract, then I write the goddamn script, and not one second before.”
Scripts, specs, contracts, it all seemed somehow so tedious to me.
“It’s like I gotta shoot a picture in Paris next month, Arnold. I got the cast and a budget, but the script they want me to do stinks.”
“Well, I don’t know, Larry,” I said. "Is there a murder in it?"
"Yeah, a GI on leave in Paris gets mixed up with a dame and a killing."
"I don't know."
“You’re tough, Arnold. You’re very tough.”
“Arnold’s tough all right,” said Elektra, and she moved in my lap.
It was then that I realized that I had an erection.
(Turn here for our next thrilling chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find listings of links to all other extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major TV series from Desilu Productions starring Ralph Meeker, Barbara Steele, Ellen Ankers, Marie Windsor, Roddy McDowell, and Brad Dexter.)