Saturday, August 9, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 92: tea time

Previously in our complete and unexpurgated serialization of the autobiography Harold Bloom has called “a supreme triumph of art over madness”, Arnold Schnabel finally escaped the tender clutches of that hot-blooded novelist Gertrude Evans and double-timed it down the block to the sprawling house of Mrs. Biddle, late for his tea-date with that imposing lady on this warm afternoon in August of 1963, in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...

No one answered my knocking.

I stood there sweating in my Krass Brothers suit. The heavy wooden door behind the screen door was wide open, and I could see clearly enough past the foyer into that big living room which looked as if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were about to enter it singing a love song.

I called hello.

My leg was hurting again, or rather it had never stopped hurting; I simply now became aware of it again.

I realized there was a door buzzer on the jamb, and I pressed it, but it must have been broken, I heard nothing.

I waited, then knocked a few more times. I called hello again once or twice.

I wondered if perhaps I was somehow mistaken. Had I merely dreamt or imagined that Mrs. Biddle had invited me to tea this afternoon? Or perhaps she had invited me but I had somehow missed a day. Perhaps today was really tomorrow. Perhaps I was dreaming now. Perhaps...

“Hello,” I called again, my voice breaking, and I was just turning to slink off when I heard a voice say:

“Oh! Sorry! One moment!”

Forty-seven seconds later Tommy appeared on the other side of the screen:

“Mr. Schnabel! What a pleasant surprise! Please come in!”

He opened the door and I came through.

Tommy seemed to be wearing the same cream-colored suit he’d been wearing earlier, now slightly rumpled, and with his striped tie loosened and the top button of his shirt undone.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I fell asleep in the chair. Dreaming. Of the old days.” He extended his hand and I took it. It was very slender and dry, slightly cool, but his clasp felt surprisingly strong.

I followed him through the foyer and into the living room. He waved a hand at the larger of the two couches in there and said, “To what do we owe the honor?”

“Mrs. Biddle invited me to tea,” I said, tentatively, and sitting where I had been beckoned to sit.

“Oh! Of course! I should rouse her!”

“Oh, is she sleeping?”

“I’m not sure. Wait here.”

“Okay.”

“Fix yourself a drink if you like. If she is sleeping this may take a while.”

“Oh. Don’t wake her.”

I half-rose, half-heartedly.

“Are you kidding?” he said, already on his way out of the room. “She would murder me!
Make yourself a drink, or go in the kitchen and fetch yourself a cold beer.”

He was gone.

I sat there, the sweat on my back cooling and drying. The room was not air-conditioned, but the ceiling was very high, as were the open windows, and a few well-placed electric fans stirred the temperate air gently.

An engraved wooden cigarette box sat on the coffee table before me, it looked like the same one that Daphne had asked Larry to bring into the kitchen a dozen years ago or possibly just earlier that afternoon.

I opened the box, and there they were, all those glorious Chesterfield Kings, a couple of dozen white little tubes of ecstasy. There was also a table-lighter in the shape of a fat smiling Oriental man, the Buddha I think, I suppose he had relaxed and put on weight after achieving enlightenment; this lighter was big and stout, suitable for burning down whole villages or bashing in the skulls of unwary burglars.

I sighed, and closed the box without taking a cigarette, only the Buddha knows why.
A couple of New Yorker magazines lay on the table also, and I picked one up. To tell the truth I’ve never been a fan of this publication, although I’ve liked some of the cartoons.

I started to read what I pretty soon realized must be a short story.

A man named Brad comes home from the commuter train and his wife Gillian takes his briefcase and asks him if he would like a cocktail. He says yes, a scotch on the rocks would be nice. A little girl with golden hair comes running into the the room, crying,

“Daddy! Daddy!”

I closed the magazine and put it down. Suddenly a scotch on the rocks or even without rocks sounded like a good idea.

I was getting up to go over to the liquor cabinet when someone knocked on the screen door frame.

No one else was there to answer the knock, so I went over to the door. A young woman stood on the other side of the screen.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” I said.

“Arnold,” she said.

“Hello?”

I had no idea who she was.

“May I come in?” she said.

I opened the door and let her in.

She had very short light brown hair, and she wore a simple, almost girlish dress with a pattern of sunflowers on a white background. She carried a rather larger canvas bag, like something a woman would carry to the beach or to a picnic. She wore leather sandals and no socks.

“It’s me,” she said.

This happens to me a lot. I suppose I really am wrapped up in my own little universe, because my whole life people have been coming up to me and knowing who I am and everything that there is to know about me when I haven’t the slightest idea who they are. But I was not to remain ignorant for long.

“Don’t you recognize me?” she asked.

“Well —” I stalled.

I did sense something familiar about her. Had I met her at the party the night before?

“Sister Mary Elizabeth,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. And then, the veil falling at last, I said again: “Oh.”

“Do I look that different?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. “Are you staying here too?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just here for tea.”

“For tea.”

“Yes, with Mrs. Biddle.” She cocked her head slightly, furrowing her brow. “Daphne’s grandmother,” I added.

“Oh. Is Daphne here?”

“I really don’t know.”

“Is anyone here?”

“Well, I know for sure that this man Tommy is here. He’s a friend of Mrs. Biddle’s.”

“And where is he?”

“Going to find Mrs. Biddle.”

“Ah. What a beautiful house. Do you think it would be okay if I sat?”

“I think so,” I said.

She went and sat down in a plush arm-chair near the sofa I had been sitting on, putting her big bag on the floor beside her, and I sat back down on the sofa.

“You look quite nice in your suit,” she said. “I’ve only ever seen you in your bathing suit. But still I recognized you. You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.”

I thought it politic to hold my peace.

“Daphne invited me to visit her,” she said. “When she and I were talking by the car while you waited on the promenade. So I decided to sneak away while the other sisters were saying their private devotions in their rooms. I went out the window, changed my clothes in the old Crosley, and walked into town. My habit is in here,” she said, indicating her canvas bag. “What do you think of that?”

Fortunately for me Tommy came into the room just then.

“Oh,” he said. “Another visitor.”

“Hello,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

He came over to her and offered his hand.

“I’m Tommy,” he said.

She looked at his hand momentarily, then gave him her own hand. I thought he maybe was going to kiss it, nothing would surprise me at this point, but instead he only gave her hand a gentle shake.

“I’m Sister Mary Elizabeth,” she said.

“Charmed,” he said.

I’ll hand this to old Tommy, he didn’t bat an eyelash.


(Click here for our next thrilling chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for a listing of links to all possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place winner of the Moveable Feast Award for Creative Memoir. Be sure to check out our listings of the Poems of Arnold Schnabel™ also, suitable for declamation at roasts, weddings, and retirement parties.)

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Inspired installment. The pace of this writing encourages the reader to slow down. A good thing these days.

kathleenmaher said...

I want to read about this world and these people until I die. Arnold, Sister Mary Elizabeth, and Tommy: I can hardly dream of such friends, and they're but a fraction of this world.

Manny said...

An exquisite respite.
I hope when I go to sleep tonight, or any night, I dream that I'm in this place you're creating.

Dan Leo said...

Hey, thanks, dudes.

And, Manny, if you find yourself in Mrs. Biddle's house when you fall asleep tonight, be sure to try some of Tommy's special iced tea...

Manny said...

I'm counting on it, Dan.

Adorable Girlfriend said...

Is Schnabel related to Julian? If so, AG knows someone related to Julian...

Dan Leo said...

Thanks for stopping by, AG!

And, as far as I know, Arnold is not related to the estimable artist and film-maker, Julian.

Jennifer said...

I agree with Kathleen!!

Dan Leo said...

Aww...