Saturday, July 26, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 90: the completely unsinkable Miss Gertrude Evans

Arnold Schnabel (the author of this Pall Mall Award-winning memoir) seems to have a knack for finding himself in compromising situations. But is it any fault of his that at the end of our previous chapter he awoke from a nap to find a hot-blooded female novelist gently touching his face?

“Arnold,” she said, “you were talking in your sleep. I could hear you all the way down in the hall as I was coming out of the bathroom.”

She was sitting on the side of my narrow bed.

For a moment I wondered if this was really happening. But her fingers, which were now stroking the hair on my head, felt all too real, as did the quiverings of a nascent and quite involuntary erection.

“Your door was ajar,” she said.

How foolish of me not to have shut the door and bolted it. I would try not to make that mistake again.

Let’s just be clear on the fact that, yes, I was completely naked, and because of the afternoon heat I had lain down without even a sheet over me. I now tried to reach past Miss Evans’s hip to grab the jumbled-up sheet and cover myself, but she was sitting on it.

“I was worried about you,” she said, seemingly oblivious to my tuggings on the sheet.

“Why?” I managed to say.

“I thought perhaps you were talking to God.”

“No,” I said. “Not God. Miss Evans, do you mind getting off my bed?”

“Call me Gertrude, Arnold.”

She was still stroking my head.

“Okay, Gertrude,” I said.

She didn’t get up. I tugged at the sheet again.

“Oh,” she said. “You want to cover yourself.”

“Yes.”

In an attempt at modesty I drew my right leg up, and put my left hand over my mindlessly stirring organ of putative virility.

“You needn’t be ashamed of your nakedness.” She cast her eye along my body. “Don’t be ashamed. You have a beautiful body. A strong, honest, workman’s body.”

“I’d like to cover myself, please.”

“Would it make you feel more comfortable if I removed my dress?”

She was wearing one of these sundress things I suppose they’re called. Some light material with coiling green ivy printed over a pale yellow background. The way she was leaning over me I could see a good deal of her breasts anyway, but now with the hand that wasn’t stroking my head she started to lift off one of its straps while shrugging that shoulder.

“No,” I said. “Please don’t.”

“No one has to know.”

“God will know,” I said, in my desperation.

Fortunately this stopped her before she got the strap off, although she left it dangling halfway down her arm.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s true. I suppose he knows all.”

“Yes,” I said. “Everything.”

With a sigh she got up, and she took the tangled sheet, gave it a little flap, and covered me, at last. Then she quickly sat down again on the side of the bed, effectively trapping me there. She did however lift the strap of her dress up over her shoulder again.
I could still hear the opera music from downstairs. Some woman singing in Italian in a very high voice, God knows about what.

“Arnold,” said Miss Evans, “I know.”

“Know what?”

“That you are a saint.”

“What?”

“Where are your cigarettes?”

“In the little table there, the drawer,” I said.

“May I have one?”

“Miss Evans —”

“Gertrude.”

She opened the drawer, took out my open pack of my Pall Malls. She shook one up and drew it out with her lips, like a bird drawing a worm out of a hole in the ground. She lit it with my lighter, which she’d also found in my drawer.

“Oh. Would you like one, Arnold?”

She offered me the pack.

In fact I wanted a cigarette then more than I’ve ever wanted one in my life, but even more I wanted her out of there, or me out of there, whichever came first, and sitting together smoking cigarettes probably wasn’t going to hasten either of those eventualities, so I said no thanks.

“I knew there was something special about you,” she said, exhaling smoke toward my little window.

“Miss Evans, I mean Gertrude, I’d like to get up now.”

“Don’t let me stop you, Arnold. Do you have some place to go?”

I looked at my little alarm clock. It was 3:48. I had napped for over an hour.

“Yes,” I said.

“Where? To meet your sultry dark bohemian girl?”

“No. I have to meet Mrs. Biddle.”

“Mrs. Biddle? Why?”

“To have tea with her.”

“Tea.”

“Yes. Please, let me get dressed.”

“Okay. If you insist.”

She stood up. Unlike me she was short enough to stand up straight under the inverted V of my attic ceiling.

“Could you turn around, please?” I said.

“I’ve seen naked men before, Arnold. In fact I’ve seen you naked just now.”

“Please.”

“Oh, all right,” she said, turning, but not moving more than a foot from my bed.

“Gertrude,” I said, “could you please move farther away. I have to get my clothes from the dresser.”

“Oh, let me,” she said. “I love looking through men’s dressers.”

She stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray on my night table and went over to the little-boy’s dresser which is the only sort of dresser that could fit into this small room, and she began to open and rifle through its drawers.

I sat up, keeping my now somewhat quiescent middle parts covered with the sheet.

“Boxer shorts,” she said. “I’m so glad, I detest those other kind. And ironed! Does your mother iron them for you?”

“Yes. Please toss them over.”

She did, side-armed, turning only slightly, and almost reaching the bed with them. I reached down and got them off the floor.

“Polo shirt?” she asked. “Or is this a formal tea? Suit and tie?”

I hadn’t even thought about it, but I wanted to get this over with quick so I said that a polo shirt and Bermudas would be fine.

“No,” she said. “Better wear a suit for such a formidable grande dame as Mrs. Biddle. You do have a suit?”

At this she glanced over her shoulder at me but by this time I at least had my Fruit-of-the-Looms on.

I told her I did have a suit, and that it was hanging on a peg on the wall over there.

“Good,” she said. She took both of my maternally-folded dress shirts out of the drawer, shook them out and held them up to me. “Which one?”

One is short-sleeved, the other is not. Other than that they’re pretty much identical as far as I can tell.

“The short sleeve,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I think the long.” She looked at the label. “Robert Hall.” She tossed it to me, and this time I managed to reach out and catch it before it hit the floor. “You should let me buy you a couple of good shirts,” she said.

“No thanks,” I said.

“You deserve better than Robert Hall.”

“Robert Hall’s fine for me,” I said, putting the shirt on.

She had now gone over to my suit, my dark grey summer Sunday suit, one of the two suits I own, the other one being an even darker grey winter suit now in my closet back in Philadelphia. She looked at the label inside the jacket.

“Who or what is Krass Brothers, Arnold?”

“It’s just a men’s store,” I said. “In Philadelphia.”

She tossed me the trousers.

“Brooks Brothers, Arnold. Not Krass Brothers.”

“Krass Brothers are fine with me,” I said, pulling the trousers on.

“No,” she said, coming over to the bed, holding the jacket, feeling its material and frowning. “Let me take you to Today’s Squire at least. They seem to have some nice things.”

Today’s Squire is the fancy men’s shop on Washington Street, which I’ve never actually been in.

“No thanks,” I said. I stood up, too quickly, and hit my head on the raked ceiling. “Ow,” I said.

“Sit down before you kill yourself. You need socks.”

I sat down. She handed me the jacket and she went back to my ransacked dresser. I shrugged myself into the jacket.

“All your socks are either black or white,” she said.

I did not deny this.

She tossed a rolled-up pair of the black ones in my general direction, and I nabbed them one-handed, my arm outstretched like Willie Mays catching a hard line drive.

“Someday your mother will be gone, Arnold. What will you do?”

“I’ll learn to roll my own socks,” I said, pulling them on.

“I’ve never known a man who needs a woman more than you do.”

Who was I to deny this?

“What is this?” she said, holding up my one and only necktie, with its little embroidered badge.

“It’s my Knights of Columbus tie,” I said.

“So you’re a knight?”

“Only of Columbus.”

“Yes but still. A knight.”

“Give it to me, will you?”

She brought it over, handed it to me.

“A sainted knight” she said. “Or should I say a knighted saint?”

I didn’t answer. I quickly wrapped the tie around my neck and tied it. I stood up, or at least I stood up as much as I was able to.

“Wait,” she said, coming close to me. She straightened my tie, or at least made motions as of straightening my tie. “There,” she said. “I owe you so much.”

I suppose I stared at her bug-eyed, if not agog.

“For what?” she asked. “For showing me a miracle. Don’t make that face. You were in that bathroom. I know you were. And I waited. And when you didn’t come out after my repeated knockings and halloos I was afraid perhaps you had had a heart attack, and I turned the knob and the door wasn’t locked, and I opened it and you were not in there, Arnold.”

“No.”

“You had transported yourself.”

“Um —”

“You had transported yourself through space.”

“Well —”

“A miracle.”

“Um —”

“But why? To teach me? To show me? I’m ready, Arnold. I’m ready to be taught. To be shown. Teach me. Show me.”

“I have to go to Mrs. Biddle’s now.”

“I didn’t mean right now.”

“Okay.”

My wallet was lying on my little bedside table, where I had left it; I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I turned and started to go.

“Arnold.”

“Yes.”

“You’re not wearing shoes.”

“Ah.”

I went over to the corner where my Sunday shoes were, by the wall next to the little chair by my little writing table with my little Remington portable where I type up my little poems. I sat at the chair and began to put on my shoes.

“Listen, Gertrude,” I said. “I’m really not a saint. I didn’t transport myself by a miracle. I climbed out the window.”

“Very funny, Arnold.”

She picked up her book, Ye Cannot Quench, from the night table, looked to see where my book-marker was.

“You haven’t gotten very far in my novel, Arnold.”

“I’m savoring it.”

“So you’re enjoying it?”

“Very much.”

“What do you like about it?”

“Everything.”

All these lies would have to be confessed to Father Reilly next Saturday.

“My next one will be better,” she said.

She closed the book, and put it back onto the night table.

I stood up.

She came over to me again.

She licked her finger and touched up my hair with it.

“Oh, I should comb it,” I said.

“No,” she said. “The tousled look is good for you. The poet, the knight, the saint.”

The Italian lady was still singing downstairs.


(Click here for our next pulse-pounding chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find a complete listing of links to all other published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, soon to be a major motion picture starring John Garfield as Arnold and Gene Tierney as Miss Evans, directed by Anatole Litvak.)

5 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

All right, already--now Arnold's got me panting.

Manny said...

Another side of Arnold. If this had been published when it was written, Boston would have banned it.

What a treat to see Shocking Blue in person! This song launched me into puberty. Amazingly, my mental image of the singer turns out to have been completely accurate.

Anonymous said...

I always thought the singer was a man! Funny song with the "Tommy"/Who guitar quote, "Hitchin' a Ride" rhythm guitar quote , and also the "Get Back" guitar riff quote.

Jennifer said...

Gertrude's more insane than Arnold.

I am 100% surprised by the fact that the lead singer of Shocking Blue is a woman. I've heard that song a million times and always assumed it was a man!

Is Gertrude really a woman?? Now I doubt everything.

Dan Leo said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

And, Jen, I agree with you about Gertrude being crazier than Arnold. At least Arnold knows he's not playing with a full deck.