As we turned around the corner to the porch I remembered my escapade with Miss Evans earlier that afternoon. What had I been thinking? And perhaps more to the point, what had I not been thinking? She had undoubtedly turned the whole house upside down when I had not replied to her inevitable knockings on the bathroom door, nor to her salutations and queries and quite possibly screams when she finally opened the unlocked door and found no one there, least of all me.
But as so often in life, as so often period because it’s probably the same in death, there is nothing to be done but to face the music, or, as the case may be, the cacophony.
Kevin was sitting quietly enough on the porch in his usual rocking chair, reading a Sgt. Rock comic, but he folded it over his finger as we came to the porch steps.
“Hello, Kevin,” said Mrs. Rathbone, holding my arm as we hobbled together up the steps.
“Hi,” said Kevin. “You’re in trouble, Cousin Arnold.”
“What did Arnold do?” asked Mrs. Rathbone.
“He disappeared from the bathroom.”
Once again I’ll do a kindness for that ideal reader who is no other than myself and I shall not recount word by word the next couple of minutes of conversation, to which I listened but did not take a vocal part in, with Mrs. Rathbone all the while hanging as tightly to my forearm as if we stood on the deck of a small ship in a raging sea.
But I suppose I got bored just standing there, so I went over to my usual rocker and sat down. Kevin’s usual pile of comic books lay on the little table to my right, and I was just about to look through them to see if there were any I hadn’t read yet when I couldn’t help but notice that my own corporeal host was still standing there next to Mrs. Rathbone, with an only slightly resigned look on my face.
I wondered what would happen if I got up from the rocker, walked around myself and Mrs. Rathbone, went down the steps and started wandering invisibly around town. But the thing was I really wanted a nap, so I heaved myself up from the chair, walked back to my body and slipped back into it just as Mrs. Rathbone was saying:
“And where is Miss Evans now?”
“I think she’s still laying down.”
“Lying down,” said Mrs. Rathbone.
“Yeah,” said Kevin. “That’s what I just said.”
“She’s lying down, Kevin, not laying down.”
Kevin gave her one of those looks he so often gives me, the “you really are insane” look.
I could see through the screen door the ghostly figures of my mother and all three of my aunts, standing listening and watching.
“Shall we go inside, Mrs. Rathbone?” I said, as suavely as if she and Kevin had been discussing the weather and not my latest madman’s caper.
She stared up at me.
“Arnold, how did you get out of that bathroom?”
“I climbed out the window and down the drainpipe.” I spoke clearly and distinctly so that my mother and aunts could hear and I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.
“Wow,” said Kevin. “Did you, Cousin Arnold?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But why?” asked Mrs. Rathbone.
“I was trying to escape from Miss Evans.”
“So you climbed out a third-floor window?”
My gentle mother now came out onto the porch.
“Arnold,” she said, “you didn’t really, did you?”
In a flash it occurred to me that this sort of admission might well lead to another and perhaps even longer and more tedious stay at Byberry, so I backtracked, and let the jesuitisms flow:
“That depends on how you looked at it, Mom.”
After all, if one hadn’t been looking at that side of the house one couldn’t know for sure that I had climbed out of the window.
“Then how did you get out of that bathroom?”
“I — just left.”
This in its literal sense was not a lie.
“But Miss Evans said she never saw you leave.”
I shrugged. This also is not a lie, merely to shrug.
“Oh, Mom,” I said, “look, Mrs. Rathbone has come for a visit.”
I lifted Mrs. Rathbone’s hand from my arm.
“Hello, Mrs. Rathbone,” said my mother.
“Hello, Mrs. Schnabel,” said Mrs. Rathbone.
One trick with women I’ve learned in my humble experience is to get them to talk among themselves, and then in the ensuing confusion you can make your getaway.
“Mrs. Rathbone was telling me that my friend Steve wants to marry Miss Rathbone.”
“Is Steve that man who was talking to Miss Rathbone in the back yard all yesterday afternoon?”
Now my Aunt Edith came out through the screen door.
“The one who took her out last night,” said Edith.
“That’s the one,” said Mrs. Rathbone.
“He really upset that DeVore couple, I’ll tell you that much,” said my Aunt Greta, holding open the screen door.
“Mrs. Rathbone,” said my mother, “wouldn’t you like to come in and have some refreshment?”
“I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine,” said Mrs. Rathbone.
“We still have leftover wine,” called out my Aunt Elizabetta, from just inside the doorway.
“From Arnold’s girl,” said Edith.
Soon enough our little assemblage was moving itself into the living room amidst a whirlpool of feminine verbiage, everyone except for Kevin that is, who stayed on the porch with Sgt. Rock, and who could blame him?
“Good day, Mrs. Rathbone,” I interpolated, and headed for the hall.
“Where are you going, Arnold?” asked my mother.
“Taking a nap,” I said.
Her little “oh” tumbled beneath the waves of the other ladies’ chatter, and I turned up the stairs.
So far so good. Now I only had to make it past Miss Evans’s room and I was home free.
At the third floor stairhead I could hear opera music coming from her room.
I was glad that I was wearing flip-flops. If I had been wearing shoes I’m sure I would have removed them before tiptoeing past her door.
I made it safely to the doorway and the short flight of steps leading to my attic room, and soon I was lying in my little bed, naked to the soft warm breeze wafting in from the window.
I fell asleep and at once I was back in God’s house.
I came to the door that opened into that office with the man who had given me directions to the bathroom.
“Ah. You again,” he said, looking up from some papers.
“Yes,” I said. “Arnold. Arnold Schnabel.”
He looked at me impassively, his finger holding his place on the paper he’d been reading.
“May I ask, sir,” I said, “what is your name?”
He said something but it made no sense to me, it was a combination of sounds that wouldn’t stay in my brain. I didn’t want to be a pest though, so I didn’t ask him to say it again.
“May I help you in some way?” he asked.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Don’t we all,” he said. He sighed, and shuffled through a stack of papers off to one side of his desk. With a fountain pen he scrawled something on a few of them and then said,
“Here, take these.”
He held up a sheath of about ten or twelve official-looking documents.
I came over and took them from him, and it was then that I realized that I was as naked as I had been lying in bed.
“Oh,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, capping his fountain pen. He seemed pre-occupied, and maybe a little bored. He picked up a pipe from a holder on his desk, and began to fill it with tobacco from a zippered leather pouch.
I glanced at the papers. It was all some sort of incomprehensible legal mumbo jumbo.
“Take those to the front, show them to Peter, you should be fine.”
“Um,” I said.
“Yes?” He tamped down the tobacco with his index finger
“Well — can I get some clothes?”
He didn’t answer right away, because he was lighting his pipe with a wooden match. I waited, while he drew and puffed, getting it going. At last he said, “What was that?”
“Can I get some clothes?”
He sighed, more deeply this time. He opened a couple of drawers, fingered through whatever was in them, then brought out another document. He uncapped his fountain pen again, filled in a couple of blanks on the form, and then scrawled what I presumed was his signature.
He handed me the paper with an air of finality.
“Down the hall, to the right this time. Then turn to the left, go three doors down and on the right hand side knock and give the lady this form. She’ll give you some clothes.”
Puffing on his pipe, he picked up another batch of papers. He wrote something on one of them.
I stood there.
He looked up. Did I mention he was wearing glasses, horn-rim glasses? He sort of peered over the tops of the glasses.
“Anything else?” he said.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Good day, then.”
“Good day,” I said. “Thank you.”
He was already back to reading his papers, but he gave a little wave with his pipe.
I left the office, closing the door quietly behind me.
I stood in the hall. Let’s see, go right? I went right. Then left? I went left. Three doors down? One, two, three. The door on the right. So far so good, but I wondered if I was going to have to go through all this rigamarole of wandering around God’s house every time I fell asleep or passed out, for the rest of my life. One thing for sure, if this was heaven then it was overrated.
I knocked on the door.
“Arnold?” said a woman’s voice.
“Yes,” I said, wearily. I was not looking forward to facing some strange woman while I was stark naked, but unless I wanted to spend eternity walking these halls in my birthday suit I supposed I had to go through with a little embarrassment. “I’m here for my, to get my, to get some, uh —”
“Arnold,” she said again, louder and closer to the door, and I woke up to see Miss Evans’s face leaning over mine.
From downstairs I could hear the opera music.
Miss Evans put her hand on my face.
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