In the summer of 1963, Arnold Schnabel, a forty-two year-old bachelor brakeman and poet from the Olney section of Philadelphia, after suffering a mental breakdown the previous winter, and on a mandatory leave-of-absence from the Reading Railroad, comes with his mother to convalesce in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey.
This is his story, in his own inimitable words. Harold Bloom has called it “a noble, sprawling monument”. Noble? Perhaps. Sprawling? Absolutely.
Read it and weep:
Luckily I got to the church shortly after confessions started at ten, and hardly anyone was there.
For a moment I considered not going to Father Reilly. It’s true he was the most lenient and broad-minded priest here, but on the other hand, did he really deserve to have to deal with my nonsense two weeks in a row?
But, on another other hand, perhaps he, having been exposed to my madness in full flower last Saturday, would perforce be better able than one of his unblooded colleagues to give me spiritual guidance.
What the heck, I decided, this is what he gets paid for.
So I marched right up to his confessional and went in.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it has been one week since my —”
“Oh, no, it’s you.”
“Should I go on, Father?”
He sighed again.
“I can leave,” I offered. “I really don’t mind. I can go to Father Schwartz, or —”
“No, no,” he said. “Stay.”
I settled down. I realized I wanted a cigarette. I had denied myself my usual luxurious post-breakfast smoke. Not to mention my briskly bracing post-shower smoke. Or my walk-to-church smoke, savoring that last good drag before flicking it into the always butt-littered gutter across the sidewalk from the church steps.
“Did you hear me?” his voice said, from the other side of that black screen.
“I asked you if you would tell me your first name.”
“Oh, sorry, Father —”
“You certainly don’t have to.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. It’s Arnold. Arnold Schna-”
“Just your first name.”
“Okay,” I said. “It’s Arnold.”
“Arnold,” he said. “Good. My name’s Jim.”
“I know. Father Reilly. Hi, Father.”
“Call me Jim.”
“Okay. Father Jim.”
“Just Jim. I’m just a man. Just like you, Arnold.”
I doubted this very much. But in order to move things along I ceded the point. I did have an appointment with Larry Winchester after all. So:
“Okay, Jim,” I said.
“I remember you well from last week, Arnold. I felt bad about — about dismissing you so abruptly.”
“I didn’t mind, Father.”
As indeed I had not. I’m always happy to be dismissed, abruptly or not, it’s all the same to me, as long as I get to leave.
“Yes, but still. I feel I was shirking my duty. I apologize.”
“Okay.” I shrugged, but of course he couldn’t see that. “Should I start my confession now?”
“Okay. Go ahead.”
“Well, first off, I’m afraid I had sexual intercourse again. Outside the sacrament of marriage, that is.”
“Oh. Uh, more than once?”
“Uh, yeah, I’m afraid so. It was, what? Three times? Four? Wait. Let me see —”
“Don’t worry about the number, Arnold.”
“Okay, and also we did some other things that weren’t exactly intercourse I guess, but —”
“You touched each other impurely.”
“Uh, yeah, you could say that, you see I —”
“That’s okay. I don’t need all the details.”
“So, was this all with the same woman, Arnold?”
“Yeah. And actually that’s another thing I wanted to ask you about, Father, because she’s Jewish, and, well, not a practicing Jew, but, anyway, she doesn’t think sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a sin.”
“So I’m wondering if that makes it less of a sin for me. Since I’m not making another person commit a mortal sin.”
“Arnold, according to Church doctrine it’s a mortal sin either way. And it’s a mortal sin for her even if she doesn’t think it is.”
“Well that doesn’t seem fair. I mean, what about some — I don’t know — headhunters in the Amazon — who never knew about Christianity? It’s a sin for them too?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But they can’t even get properly married in the first place because they don’t have any priests to marry them.”
“Oh. I see your point.”
“I mean —”
“But forget about the headhunters, Arnold. The fact is, Arnold, that you, Arnold, are in a state of mortal sin.”
“Okay. So, uh, I guess I didn’t have too many other sins this week, no mortal ones anyway. Oh, I guess I masturbated a few times. That’s mortal,” I said. “Which is weird.”
“What’s weird, Arnold?”
“That you can get sent to hell for masturbating and it’s the same punishment for extra-marital intercourse.”
“Well, that’s the way it is.”
“Yeah. Okay. Uh, I got drunk two or three times.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot, the sin of doubt. I have to tell you, for this whole past week or more I’ve really had my doubts about religion. So, yeah, a lot of doubt. But what do I know?”
“Did you —”
“Last week you said Jesus had appeared to you.”
“Has he, have you, did you —”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so. He’s appeared to me, uh, several times.”
“And is he still telling you to go ahead and have extra-marital intercourse?”
“Well — uh — he’s — uh —”
“Don’t you think this Jesus could just be a figment of your imagination, Arnold?”
“Oh, yeah, definitely, but —”
“I mean who’s to say Bernadette of Lourdes wasn’t just seeing things? Or those kids at Fátima?”
“Those were certified miracles, Arnold.”
“Okay, but what if my Jesus sightings got certified? I mean, who’s to say?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Like what if I brought proof of a miracle.”
“What kind of proof?”
I was thinking of that cigarette from 1890s France. But that miracle didn’t have anything to do with Jesus. Or did it?
“Answer me this, Arnold. Has anyone else seen this Jesus of yours?”
“No. But, like, all these other saints that Jesus or Mary appeared to — Jesus or Mary always only appeared just to the saints, right? Not to everybody, but. Just. To the saints. That’s why the saints are saints. Because they’re the only ones who can see Jesus. Or Mary. Or whomever. Right?”
“So you think you’re a saint.”
“Hey, I don’t know. That’s not for me to say, Father.”
“Listen. You’re not a saint, Arnold.”
“Well, okay, if you say so.”
“But — what do I know, right?”
“Hey, that’s your opinion. You’re entitled to it, Father.”
“So —” I said.
“So,” he said.
Somebody started knocking on the wall of the booth on the other side of Father Reilly.
A muffled voice said, “Hey, Father Reilly, what’s goin’ on?”
“Wait your turn!” yelled Father Reilly.
“Kneel there and examine your conscience and I’ll be with you when I’m ready.”
“Sorry,” said the voice.
“Now,” said Father Reilly, to me, in his low, “confessional” voice, “where were we?”
“Well —” I did have that appointment with Larry, and I hate to keep people waiting — “I guess that’s about it, Father. I mean Jim. I mean, that’s about it for my sins.”
“Okay. Are you going to try not to have sexual intercourse with this woman again, Arnold? This — Jewish girl?”
“Um, I don’t know, Father. I really doubt that I’ll try not to.”
“I can’t give you absolution unless you at the very least intend to try.”
“Well, what about all those other weeks I came in and confessed to the sin of self-abuse? We both knew I was going to do it again, and you always gave me absolution for that.”
“How’s it different? They’re both mortal sins.”
There was silence. I could hear Father Reilly breathing. I almost fancied I could hear that other poor guy in the other booth breathing, or sighing.
“Is she pretty, this girl?” Father Jim asked, in a low voice.
“Uh, yes, Father. Very. Dark hair. Deep dark eyes. Smooth skin. And she smells — she smells like —” I tried to remember, but she had various smells, all of them good. “She smells like pound cake sometimes. Like, right from the oven —”
“Okay, look, I absolve you,” he said abruptly. “Ego te absolvo ab omnibus censuris, et peccatis, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”
“Oh. Thanks, Father.”
“Three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers.”
“Now go. Go now. Go and sin.”
“Go and sin?”
“As I’m sure you will.”
He slid the little shutter shut.
I got up and went out. Poor guy. And he still had Miss Evans to deal with.
I grabbed a pew, said my penance, crossed myself, and got out of there.
(Go here for our next deeply spiritual chapter. And kindly refer to the right hand side of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, a Selmur Production. Nihil Obstat: Bishop John J. "Big Jack" Graham.)