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Facing away from the beach I pulled down the front of my bathing trunks, and soon part of what had once been me, if only for a brief time — this distillation of my morning Chock Full o’ Nuts, and of opiated iced tea, of Schmidt’s beer and Old Crow whiskey — oh so pleasurably became part of the great ocean, forever, more or less, or at least until the death of the planet.(Click here for our next thrilling chapter. And please refer to the right hand side of this page for an allegedly complete listing of links to all other extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be an American International picture starring John Cassavetes and Anjanette Comer, directed by Larry Winchester. A Roger Corman Production.)
I waded back in, and Daphne and I gathered up our sodden things and walked, or rather I limped and she walked, back through the misty drizzle into town.
“What was it like, by the way,” she asked, “being struck by lightning?”
“Well, I wasn’t really aware of it except I saw this bright light, and then it was like I was falling, and I was, uh, passed out.”
“What was it like when you were passed out?”
Here it occurred to me that women ask a lot of questions. But now I wonder: is that true?
I shall force myself to ponder this question for approximately one minute...
The minute is up and I think the answer is yes, women do ask a lot of questions, especially if they find their interlocutor interesting, or possibly interesting. Men on the other hand seem happy to go through life not asking questions. I know I myself rarely ask a question. In fact it’s more than I can do even to bring myself to ask myself why I don’t ask questions. Just the thought of it makes me sleepy.
“Well?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” I stalled, because she was forcing me to ask myself (yet again) what to tell someone who has asked me, knowingly or unknowingly, about one of my psychotic episodes. I decided to tell her about what transpired during my black-out, but to tell it as a dream, which after all it most likely had been. I proceeded thus to give her a digest account of my heavenly escapade, leaving out none of the salient plot turnings, no matter how embarrassing. Because, after all, we can’t be blamed for our dreams, can we?
However, the first thing Daphne said after I finished, just as we approached the gate to her grandmother’s house, was:
“How do you know it was all a dream?”
Of course I didn’t know.
“But who ever heard of such a heaven?” was the idiotic response I came up with.
“Who ever heard of any sort of heaven? I mean, who really knows?” she asked. “What did you expect? Billowy clouds and angels with wings, wearing white robes and playing golden harps?”
“I guess so,” I said.
She was standing so close to me in her shiny green bathing suit that she almost bumped me off the curb.
“I’d like to know who started up all this wings and harps business,” she said. “I doubt very much that it was anyone who’d ever actually been anywhere remotely near heaven.”
“You told Sister Mary Elizabeth you don’t believe in any of it,” I said, with one foot in the gutter.
“Then it couldn’t be true that I was in heaven, could it?”
“Why not? What do I know?” she asked. “Why are you standing in the street?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Come up on the sidewalk, you weirdo.”
“Oh,” she said, “don’t forget your tea date with my grandmother.”
“I won’t,” I said.
The rain had stopped completely by now, the sky was grey, the air thick and rich with the wet colors and the scents of the geraniums and box-elder hedges running along the front of Mrs. Biddle’s property, and Daphne looked more beautiful in this shadowless light than I had ever seen her before in our acquaintance, which although brief in countable minutes already felt long. And I remember thinking — well, never mind what I was thinking, but I was glad I wasn’t dead.
Daphne had put her hand on the white-painted gate.
“See you, then,” she said.
“See you,” I said.
But she suddenly came closer and kissed me, on the lips but briefly. She paused for a moment, looking at me, then turned, opened the gate, and tripped up the slate path to the house.
I limped home.
I went around to the back of the house, near which my aunts have a little wooden shower shack, its boards covered with a rippled sun-bleached green paint that almost seems and feels and smells like something living, like moss or the skin of some strange fruit.
I put my damp wallet on a ledge and showered myself off, keeping my swimming trunks on, and I rinsed off my sandy flip-flops under the shower head.
I got my wallet and walked dripping wet to a clothesline and hung up my sodden and sandy towel. My aunts or mother would perform their magic, and sometime tomorrow this towel, or one much like it, would appear, neatly folded, in my drawer.
Across the yard old Mrs. Rathbone opened the door of her cottage and started hobbling my way, this time without her cane, but moving quickly like a slightly damaged but determined little ship of war. It was too late to escape, so I waited; then, realizing it was rude just to stand there and let this old woman limp to me, I limped toward her, and we met near the middle of the yard.
“Hello, Mrs. Rath-”
“Gone swimming?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“In the rain?”
“Um,” I said.
“What do you think of this Steve?”
“Oh, Steve, he, uh, seems nice.”
“I thought he was your friend?”
“He is,” I said, “but I only recently met him.”
What had he done now?
“He wants to marry Charlotte,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“If I tell you something will you promise not to blab it all over town?”
“Charlotte spent the night with him last night. At his hotel.”
“I’m no prude, Arnold. And Charlotte’s a grown woman. But the thing is that this is the first time she has ever done anything like this.”
“At least that I know about. She was in the WACs during the war after all. I have no idea what shenanigans she was getting up to in those WACs, especially overseas. Come to think of it she has always spoken fondly of her time in the service. Perhaps that’s why. The shenanigans. Would you care for some wine?”
“No thank you. I need a nap.”
“A nap? What are you? A child? An old man?”
“I combine the most boring qualities of both,” I said.
“She’s with him now. Having lunch allegedly. At the Merion Inn. I hope he’s not after her money.”
“Steve has a good job, I think.”
“Yes. So he says,” she said. Of course for all I knew he was an international confidence man or a jewel thief. “One more question,” she went on. “He invited me to go to lunch with them. Don’t you find that odd?”
“He wants to win your favor,” I said.
“He doesn’t need my favor.”
“He’s being a gentleman.”
“He’s being very strange. I know I practically threw them together, but it all seems to be happening so quickly. And answer me this. Don’t you find him shall we say a bit light in the slippers?”
“A little as if sprinkled with fairy dust?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I dissembled.
“Well, what does it matter, really? Let me tell you something. You wouldn’t know, you’re a confirmed bachelor, but believe me, physical relations are by far the least important element in a successful marriage. By far. Which is okay. Get a kid or two out of the way and be done with it, I say. Believe me, after my husband and I had been married five years the last thing either of us wanted to do was — at least with each other — oh, but perhaps I speak too much.”
“You’re dying to take your nap. I think I’ll visit with your aunts and mother. Take my arm.”
I did as I was told, and together we walked, or I should say limped, around to the side of the house.