Scene: the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey.
Time: 10:28 AM, The first Saturday of August, 1963...
When I came to Jackson Street I felt a longing in my heart. Right up the block was the pretty little jewelry shop in which Elektra worked with her charming Bohemian friends. I paused at the crossing, letting the sundazed vacationers walk all around me. How nice it would be to go visit her there, where she would be working either behind the counter or in that cool back room, twisting her metals and setting her soothing cool Cape May diamonds.
I wouldn’t mind smoking a reefer now in that pleasant back room smelling of warm solder. And perhaps Elektra and I could —
But duty called. I crossed Jackson, headed down to Perry Street and then up Perry to North. When I came abreast of my aunts’ house I halted again. Should I go in and get my cigarettes?
“I would if I were you."
It was him again. Or Him, as the case may be, leaning against a streetlight pole and smoking a cigarette in the hot sun.
“I really am trying to quit,” I said.
“I know that. I’d quit too if I were human.”
He was dressed very casually, in unpressed khaki trousers, a faded blue t-shirt, sandals. He needed a shave.
“I can probably bum a couple from Larry,” I said.
“What if he only smokes cigars?”
“Tell ya what, take a couple of mine,” he said.
He reached into his pocket and took out an open pack of Pall Malls. He gave them a shake and held them out to me, one cigarette protruding.
I took the cigarette.
He gave the pack another slight shake and two more Pall Malls poked out of the pack.
“Let’s be real, Arnold. You’re gonna need more than one to get you through the afternoon.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll just take this one for after lunch. If I take two the second one will only drive me crazy thinking about it.”
“That makes absolutely no sense,” he said, “but, hey, suit yourself.”
I stuck the cigarette behind my ear.
“Mind if I walk with you?” he said.
“I’d prefer you didn’t.”
“Lighten up, Arnold.”
“All right,” I sighed. And we walked off down the street together.
“So how’d it go with Father Reilly?” he asked.
“You don’t know?”
“Arnold, I may be the Son of God, but even I have my limitations.”
“That’s not what I was taught.”
“Church doctrine has changed continuously ever since they pulled me down from that cross a couple of thousand years ago, Arnold. It’s changed constantly and it will continue to change and it will also be, until the end of time, more or less full of baloney.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so. So how’d it go with Reilly?”
“I think I bugged him.”
“I’m sure you did. He give you absolution?”
“Yeah,” I said, “but he was a little grudging about it.”
“He’s just doing his job.”
“I know. but I’ll tell ya, Arnold, it’s not easy getting good priests these days.” We walked a few more paces and then he added, “But then it never has been easy.”
“Oh,” I said, “while I have you here. A question.”
“Fire away, my friend.”
“Something Father Reilly and I were talking about, regarding these visits I have from you –”
“Please, go on.”
“Am I — and I know this sounds egotistic, but I’m just curious —”
“Am I a saint?”
“That’s entirely up to you, Arnold.”
“Okay, here we are, pal.”
We were at the sidewalk gate to Mrs. Biddle’s house on Windsor Avenue.
“You’re not coming in, are you?” I asked him.
“No.” He smiled again. “Why? Do you want me to?”
I looked at him, then gave him a little wave and opened the gate.
I went up the flagstone path to the porch and up the steps.
At the front door I looked back down the path. He was gone.
I touched my ear. The cigarette was there. Could this be adduced as proof of a divine visitation? I took the cigarette and looked at it. Just an ordinary Pall Mall. It wouldn’t even get me through the front door of the Vatican. I stuck it back behind my ear and pressed the doorbell button.
After half a minute the old fellow whom I had seen in the dining room last night — the one who looked like Edward Everett Horton — opened the inner door and looked at me through the screen door.
“Oh! Mr. Schnabel! You’re here bright and early.” He pushed open the screen door. “Do come in. I’ll fetch Mrs. Biddle.”
“No, please don’t bother her,” I said, coming in. “I’m having tea with her later today, but I’m here now to meet Mr. Winchester.”
“Larry! Lovely fellow.”
The old guy was wearing an off-white suit, with white buck shoes and a blue-and-red paisley tie. He was smoking a strong fragrant cigarette, and his skin looked like old paper. His eyes seemed ancient, like pale amethysts, but his hair was a shiny dark brown. I think it might have been dyed. He led me from the foyer into the living room.
The room was cool, both sunlit and soothingly dark at the same time. No one else was around.
“Larry’s out back I think. Shall I tell him you’re here?”
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I’ll just go back there myself if I may.”
“Of course. I’m Tommy by the way, how rude of me.”
He extended a slender and blue-veined hand.
“Hi, Tommy,” I said.
“I’m a friend of Mrs. Biddle’s.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Arnold — may I call you Arnold?”
“Sure,” I said.
“May I say you don’t look very well.”
“I don’t feel very well,” I said.
“You look like you’ve been ridden quite hard and put up wet.”
“Too much partaken last night?”
“A little,” I said. “But the real problem is I’ve decided to give up smoking.”
“Then what’s that cigarette doing behind your ear?”
“I told myself I wouldn’t smoke it till after lunch.”
“Good God, smoke it, man.”
“I’d rather wait.”
He took a drag of his own cigarette, seeming to appraise me through the smoke.
“Wait here,” he said. “Sit down. I’m going to get you something that will help.”
He went away, the soles of his shoes seeming barely to touch the floor.
I sat down on the couch. On the end table was an ashtray with four or five butts in it, and a large bowl containing an inch or so of tan liquid. There was a book lying open face-down on the coffee table. Had Tommy just been reading it?
I picked up the book. It was an enormous volume, Remembrance of Things Past, Volume One. By that Marcel Proust guy. Tommy seemed to be about four-fifths of the way through it, which a cursory perusal convinced me was about four-fifths further than I would ever get. I put the book back down the way I had found it.
Tommy came back into the room, carrying a very tall glass of something dark and icy on an engraved metal tray. He sat down weightlessly next to me and put the tray on the coffee table.
He picked up the beaded glass and proffered it to me.
“Put yourself outside of that,” he said. “I guarantee you’ll feel better.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I took the glass and drank a little. It was iced tea of some sort, but with a peculiar bitter and thick taste to it.
“Drink some more,” he said.
I took a good gulp this time and felt it go down, seeming to wash a metropolitan sewage-drain full of nastiness into my capillaries and out through the pores of my skin. I had started to sweat again during my walk over here, but now it felt as if all the accumulated toxins and tars of twenty years were oozing out of me and seeping down into the brocaded wool of the couch.
“Go on,” he said.
I did so, and with each gulp I felt fresh life coursing through me, fresh life and pleasure and wisdom.
“Go ahead, finish it now, Arnold.”
I did, and put the empty glass back down on the tray.
“Feel better?” he asked.
“Yes. Thank you very much,” I said. Almost at once the sweating stopped. “What was in that?”
“Just strong black Assam tea, with honey, ginger and lemon juice. And ginseng root. And just the tiniest modicum of laudanum.”
“Tincture of opium.”
I picked up the glass and rattled the cubes, took one last sip of what was left.
“Want some more?” he asked.
“Isn’t this addictive?”
“I’d better not then. No point replacing one habit with another one.”
“No, I suppose not.”
He took a gold cigarette case from his jacket pocket. I hadn’t noticed that his previous cigarette had disappeared. He took one out, put it in his mouth, lighted himself up with a gold lighter from his other jacket pocket, exhaled dreamily.
I passed the ashtray over to in front of him, and he nodded.
“Oh, hope you don’t mind,” he said. “If I smoke.”
“Not at all.”
“I doubt I’ll ever quit.”
I sat there. I thought that perhaps he was was going to say more, but all he did was stare into space, or into his memories. After a while he sighed and tapped his ash into the tray.
In my life I’ve found that if you are left alone with any human being for more than two minutes they start telling you their entire life story in excruciating detail. But apparently Tommy wasn’t like most people. Who was he? Why was he here?
I’m afraid I was rather blatantly staring at him. He turned his head slightly my way, and smiled.
“Oh, but you wanted to see Larry.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“It’s probably easier just to go out the front again and circle round the house. You’ll see him back there.”
“Okay,” I said. I stood up. I felt an inch or two taller than normal.
“I’ll see you out,” he said.
He floated up and we walked out of the room, back to the foyer and to the door.
I turned and extended my hand.
“Thanks for the iced tea, Tommy.”
His wizened bird-boned hand wafted into mine.
“Just come back in if you want more,” he said. “I have plenty. And I can always make more of the tea.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, and I went out the door.
I felt as if my body were floating inside of me.
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