Thursday, August 14, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 93: veranda

The plot thickens but does not quite congeal on this warm and humid afternoon in early August of 1963, in the old-fashioned seaside resort of Cape May, NJ...

In the previous episode of this legendary memoir (“Ulysses, À la recherche du temps perdu, and Railroad Train to Heaven -- the Big Three of 20th Century Literature -- and I’m being generous to Joyce and Proust” -- Harold Bloom), our hero Arnold Schnabel arrived sweating and late for his tea-date with Mrs. Biddle. He needn’t have rushed, because Arnold is informed by the old gent Tommy that Mrs. Biddle is probably napping. While Tommy goes to get Mrs. Biddle a young woman comes to the door. After a minute or so (and only because she tells him) he realizes that this lady is no other than Sister Mary Elizabeth. Enter Tommy, again...

“I’m here for Daphne,” she said to Tommy.

“Ah,” he said. “I’ll go get her. I think she’s napping in her room. Everyone’s napping.”
He turned to me. “Oh, I did find Mrs. Biddle, Mr. Schnabel. Sound asleep.”

“Oh, I hope you didn’t —”

“No, of course I woke her up. Tell you what, just go up to her room.”

“Her room?”

“I’ll bring you tea up there. You can have it on her veranda.”

“I — I — uh —” I said with my usual wit.

“What’s the matter? I assure you she’s dressed by now. At any rate she won’t let you in if she isn’t. Or at least I think she wouldn’t.”

“Oh! No! I — uh —”

I glanced at Sister Mary Elizabeth and she stared back at me blankly.

“Well,” said Tommy, “if you feel uncomfortable I could go up with you —”

This seemed like a great idea. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid of being alone in her room or on her veranda with Mrs. Biddle, it was just that I was afraid of somehow getting lost on the way there — or of something else perhaps even more disturbing happening.

“Well,” I said, “if you have to get up anyway, to get Daphne —”

“Oh, Miss Daphne’s room is on the first floor, in the rear, but —”

“Oh.”

“But really, it’s no problem for me to go up with you.”

“Mr. Schnabel,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, “don’t make this gentleman have to go up the stairs with you —”

“Oh, I assure you, sister,” said Tommy, “I don’t mind at all, and Lord knows I could use the exercise —”

“But really,” she said.

“It’s okay, Tommy,” I said. “I can go up alone. Just give me directions.”

“Can’t miss it, go up the stairs in the hall, first room on the right on the second floor.”

“First room —”

“On the right.”

“Do you want him to write down the directions?” asked Sister Mary Elizabeth.

Daphne walked into the room. She was wearing white shorts and a yellow polo shirt. Her hair was pinned back away from her ears with red barrettes, and she was barefoot.

“Oh, hi, everybody,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Arnold’s afraid to go to your grandmother’s room,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“As well he should be,” said Daphne. She came over and plumped down next to me on the couch. She had the look of someone just up from a nap. She leaned over, popped open the cigarette box and took out a Chesterfield.

Ever the gentleman, I hefted the heavy fat Buddha lighter and lit her cigarette. She sat, back, exhaling, and Tommy and the sister and I all watched her as if she were an endlessly fascinating movie come to life. Then she yawned and looked at me.

“What on earth are you and my grandmother going to talk about?”

“I haven’t really thought about it,” I said, which was true, but now I felt a shimmering of disquietude from a fresh new source.

Daphne said nothing, but stretched her arms, and her left arm, the one with the hand holding the lit Chesterfield, stretched behind my head and even touched it slightly; she smiled at Sister Mary Elizabeth: “You sneaked away!” she said.

“Yes,” said the sister.

Daphne reeled her long arm back in from over my head, and a fleck of ash from her cigarette tumbled down my nose.

“Won’t you get in all sorts of trouble?” she asked.

“What’s the worse they could do to me?” asked Sister Mary Elizabeth

“I don’t know!” said Daphne. “Send you to Africa?”

“I wish they would,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“I’ll leave you two young ladies,” said Tommy.

“Wait!” said Daphne. “If you’re making tea, would you bring us a cup?”

“Of course I’ll bring you a tray.”

“Ah, thank you, Tommy,” said Daphne.

And Tommy was off again.

“Arnold,” said Daphne, “don’t you have to go up to my grandmother’s room?”

“Oh, right,” I said.

I got up.

“You know which room is hers, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think so.”

“See you later,” she said.

“See ya,” I said.

“See you later, Mr. Schnabel,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“Call him Arnold,” said Daphne.

“See you, Arnold,” said the sister.

I nodded to to her, and off I went, outfitted by Krass Brothers, Robert Hall, and Thom McAn, but naked as ever to the universe.

In the hall I went up the stairs and I came to the landing with the painting of the French people by the seaside. I hesitated before the painting. Then I put my hand into it, and into the living and breathing air of this sedate seaside scene. I drew it out again. Perhaps some other time.

I went up the next flight to the second floor and knocked on the first door to the right.

“Yes?”

“Mrs. Biddle?” I called, although I don’t know who else I thought it might be.

“Darling, you’re here, do please come in.”

I opened the door and came in.

“Shut the door behind you, will you?” said Mrs. Biddle, and I did.

It may have been one thing for me consciously to choose not to go back in time again through that painting on the landing; however, as so often in this life, we cannot always choose what we will do, and thus I stepped into Mrs. Biddle’s boudoir not in 1963, but from the looks of things, 1933.

The young Mrs. Biddle sat at a dressing table, applying powder to her face with a large puff.

“Sorry, darling, just finishing my face.”

Everything was in black and white, and shades of grey, shades of black and silver.
She threw down the puff and rose from the chair. She wore a silky sort of shimmering gown like the color of moonlight. She came to me and put her hands on my arms and looked up at me.

“Kiss me,” she said.

I did, but briefly.

She drew back a bit, still holding onto my arms and looking up at me from under her lowered eyebrows, which were plucked pen-line thin.

“You’re not cross with me for over-napping, are you?”

“No,” I said. “I was napping myself.”

“Good. Shall we go out onto the veranda?”

“Okay,” I said.

She took my arm and we went across the room to the open French doors. A little breakfast table and a few matching chairs were out there, but she said, “No, darling, over here, side by side.” And she pulled my arm and led me to a small wicker sofa strewn with pillows, cushions, and scarves.

She gently sat down, drawing her legs up under her and, turning to look up at me, she patted the place next to her.

I sat down.

I looked out through the screening of the veranda, down at the grounds and buildings of the plantation, out at the jungle-covered hills and up at the enormous burnished-steel sky. A hushing and very warm breeze came down over the tops of the trees, and somewhere a parrot squawked thinly, like a human baby with the colic. The air smelled of coconuts and sugarcane, of pineapple and raw tobacco. And of Mrs. Biddle's perfume. My skin was moist under my suit.

“Cigarette, darling?”

She reached over and flicked open the top of a silver cigarette box on the long low glass-topped table in front of the sofa.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m trying to quit. Or at least I think I am.”

“Will wonders never cease?” she said. She took out a cigarette, closed the box and tapped the cigarette on its engraved lid.

There was no table-lighter on this coffee-table, so I reached into the pocket of my suit, which was now a very lightweight white linen, and I found a lighter. I lit her cigarette.

“Please relax, dear,” she said. “Jimmy’s safely down in Manila.”

At a wild guess, I supposed Jimmy to be her husband. Mr. Biddle.

“And Tommy as you might or might not know,” she said, “is the absolute soul of discretion.”

I could definitely see her resemblance to Daphne now that she was so much closer to Daphne’s age. She was shorter than Daphne, and her hair was lighter — well, I think it was dyed, to tell the truth — but her eyes, her nose and mouth, her slim but strong figure —

“Why don’t you take a picture?” she asked.

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

“Oh, please, don’t apologize, I love it, an old married lady like me?”

“You’re not so old,” I said.

“I shall never see thirty again, darling, and for a woman that is simply doddering. But enough of this stupid banter. I’m so glad you came. I’ve been thinking about you nonstop. Simply nonstop.”

“God knows what you think about,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“When you think about me,” I said. “I’m myself twenty-four hours a day, and, believe me, it’s not that fascinating.”

“That’s just one of the things I love about you, you dear man, your almost complete lack of narcissism.”

“Perhaps if I were someone else I would be more narcissistic.”

“I’ve given the servants the afternoon off by the way,” she said. “It’s only you and me and Tommy in the house. My daughter is visiting with one of her little friends. So we shouldn’t have any interruptions.”

She put her hand on mine.

“So,” I said, “what did you want to talk about?”

“Are you decent?” called a voice from within her room.

“Oh, do just come in, Tommy,” called Mrs. Biddle.

Tommy came out onto the veranda carrying a very large and ornate tray with a tea service on it. He looked very young and dapper, dressed, like me, in a white suit.
He laid the tray on the table: a teapot, two cups and saucers, a sugar bowl and a honey bowl, a little silver pitcher of milk or cream. Tiny little engraved spoons, shiny as drops of rain. There was a pile of small crustless sandwiches on a silver platter, and a couple of small china plates.

“Shall I pour?” asked Tommy.

“No, Tommy, thank you so much; Mr. Schnabel and I are just going to have a little chat for an hour or so.”

“Of course. I’ll be in the drawing room. Listening to the radio. E.M. Forster is coming on with one of his little book-chats.”

“Splendid. Keep an eye on the door, darling, and if anyone comes by, send them away. Say I have a headache.”

He smiled and withdrew.

“Now,” she said, picking up the teapot. “First things first. Tea.” She lifted the lid of the pot and smelled the brew. “Ah, strong and piping hot.” She replaced the lid. “I don’t think that Tommy’s spiked it. But we shall see.”

(Kindly go here for our next thrilling adventure. And turn to the right hand side of this page to find a complete and up-to-date listing of links to all other possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, soon to be a major motion picture starring Ronald Colman, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy; a Larry Winchester Production.)

7 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

What joy Arnold offers--and today I am so aching for it. If only I could assume some of his unflappable acceptance for a while.

And how 'bout Bette Davis? The music gets a bit lugubrious perhaps, but upon hearing she's changed with murder, she politely continues hosting the men through what is undoubtedly a several course meal.

Anonymous said...

Great plot twist!

Manny said...

I wish I was Arnold.

Manny said...

I wish I was Arnold.

Manny said...

I guess if you really wish for something it shows up twice.

Dan Leo said...

I know what you mean, Manny...

Jennifer said...

I loved this one.

I have so had the thought before that rooms could exist in different decades... and not just because the decor hadn't been updated. Oh... the room that is in shades of gray. :)