Just another day for our Arnold...
I looked around. We were standing on this terrace on some sort of bluff overlooking the water. It seemed to be late afternoon. On the landward side of the terrace was what appeared to be a small but smart hotel. The other people on the terrace paid us no mind. A white-bearded man and a woman with a parasol sat in chairs staring out toward this sea like green crushed velvet on which a strikingly large number of sailboats and steamships wended lazily this way and that. A younger couple stood near a trellis-work fence above what I assumed was a beach. The redolent hibiscus I had smelled blossomed deep gold along the fence with white and bright yellow chrysanthemums and some other bunchy pink and purple flowers.
The temperature I’d say was in the low 70s. You could hear people talking, but other than that everything was as muted as a dream.
“We seem to have left our beers behind,” Dick said. “Care for a libation?”
“Sure,” I said.
I figured as long as I was going to be utterly insane I might as well go ahead and have a drink.
“There must be a bar in that hotel. Let’s go up.”
We walked past a few more people strolling about or sitting at tables. I noticed that they were speaking French.
“Where are we, Dick?”
“I think it’s Normandy. Or maybe Brittany. One of those places. Here we go.”
We went up a couple of steps and through some open French doors, their glass frosted and etched in designs of various flowers and vines.
Sure enough, we were in a saloon, almost full with stylish people sitting at tables with white table-cloths and at a long mahogany bar.
“Table or bar?” asked Dick.
“Bar,” I said, resignedly.
We walked over and grabbed a couple of empty stools. The bartender came over.
“Beer?” Dick asked me.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
He spoke briefly in French with the bartender. All I could make out was bière and s’il vous plaît and merci.
Dick turned to me and said, “He says they’ve got a pretty good saison.”
“Great,” I said, not that I knew or cared what a saison was, as long as there was alcohol in its list of ingredients.
Our cigarettes were burning down. Dick slid a large glass ashtray over and we both stubbed out our butts.
“Oh, jeeze,” Dick said, “I hope we have something to pay for this.”
He patted his pockets and from inside his jacket he brought out a rather large wallet. He opened it up, revealing a healthy-looking sheaf of colorful foreign currency.
“Well, this should do,” he said, and he put the wallet back in his jacket.
“So, what do you think?” he asked. “About all this?”
“Oh, it’s all really great, Dick,” I said.
“I’m glad you like it.”
The bartender loomed up just then with two large round glasses and a big bottle like a champagne bottle, with a rounded cork and a wire hood. He showed the label to Dick, and Dick gave him the go-ahead nod.
We both kept quiet while the bartender twisted off the wire and then worked out the cork. This is one reason why I’ve never liked to order bottles of wine on those rare occasions when I’ve taken my mother out to dinner. I hate that awkward eternity when the sweating waiter is wrestling the bottle open, and then that absurd ritual of him pouring a taste into my glass. I always want to say, “Pour away, my good man, it’s all the same to me, and after all it isn’t as if I haven’t ordered the cheapest bottle on the menu anyway.”
At last the barman filled our glasses, thank God dispensing with any taste-testing ritual, and then he went away.
“Now let’s raise our glasses,” said Dick.
I raised my glass. I did have to admit that the beer looked good. It actually had a decent head for one thing, unlike the Schmidt’s or Ortlieb’s I customarily drink.
“Cheers,” said Dick.
We touched our glasses and drank, and in fact the beer was excellent, even better than the occasional German lagers I would permit myself to drink at the Schwarzwald Inn.
“Not bad, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty good,” I said.
Perhaps complete insanity was not so bad after all. I wiped a bit of foam off my nose.
Dick was leaning sideways against the bar, looking at the people at the tables. Nearly everyone was chatting away, but still the place seemed oddly quiet. Then I realized that of course there was no radio or jukebox.
I also noticed that the air smelled different from what I was used to. A seaside and flowery breeze not unlike Cape May’s wafted in from the terrace and mingled with the barroom smells of cigarettes and cigars, but under it all were hints of burning coal and just the faintest suggestion of compost.
“Oh my God,” said Dick, interrupting my olfactory reverie. “Don’t look now, but I swear that’s the young Marcel Proust over there.”
“Marcel Proust.” He spelled out the last name for me. The young moustachioed man he was referring to was sitting by himself at a small table, apparently drinking tea and reading a book. “Famous French writer. Wrote an enormous seven-volume novel called Remembrance of Things Past. I’ve been trying to read it in French for years now, and I’m still only midway through the fifth volume.”
“Oh,” I said. If he had been talking about David Goodis or Richard Stark I might have been able to add a bit more to the conversation.
“Wow,” said Dick. “He’s awfully young. That means he hasn’t started his masterwork yet. Look at him over there. He’s reading his book, but occasionally he looks up. Observing. Just taking it all in. I wonder if we should talk to him.”
Leave the guy alone I thought. But I don’t know why I thought this. Maybe because I’ve never really liked it when people try to talk to me. Except when I’m drunk of course. In which case I only dislike it later, in the cold retrospective of hangover.
“Let’s go chat with him,” said Dick.
“You go, Dick, I’ll just sit here.”
“No, I can’t go alone. He’ll think I’m gay and I’m trying to cruise him.”
I had no idea what Dick meant by this. I would think that appearing gay is an admirable quality. And I don’t know at all what he meant by “cruising”. I suppose it’s some sort of sailor’s slang.
(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. And please turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Texaco Award for Excellence in Memoiristic or Confessional Literature.)
And now a word from Jeanne Moreau: