Saturday, September 20, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 99: April...

In our previous chapter of this third-place prize-winner of the Lehman Brothers Award for Confessional Literature, Arnold Schnabel*, having traveled back in time to 1933 and across the world to a plantation somewhere in the Philippines, now finds himself safely back in 1963, on the second floor porch of a charming and massive Victorian house in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, NJ, sharing tea with his new friend Mrs. Biddle...

* “...not only one of the greatest writers of his century, but also, by all accounts, a really nice guy.” -- Harold Bloom.

She sighed, looking away toward that setting sun spilling streaks of liquid red and orange and yellow across the sky, its watery light filtered by the porch screening turning the skin of her face into the color and seeming texture of a ripened peach.

For some reason — perhaps for many reasons, or perhaps for the single reason that I am not quite right in the head — I touched her face, if only briefly, running my finger down her cheek.

Needless to say she turned and looked at me, her eyebrows raised quizzically. But far from getting angry and slapping me, she said only:

“Have another cookie.”

I took one. They were the same butter cookies she had given me back in 1933.

“I love to see a man eat,” she said.

I chewed and swallowed.

I became aware that this was the same porch I had been sitting on last night, but a different part of the porch, and that the room I had just walked through, Mrs. Biddle’s room, was the one in which I had only barely escaped the advances of Miss Evans.  All of that seemed so long ago, certainly much further distant in time than my more recent visit here, in 1933.

“Did you ever re-marry?” I asked.

“No. Once bitten,” she said. “Why have you never married?”

I’ve been asked this question so many times in my life, and I’ve always responded with something stupid, or inadequate, or both.

This time I told the truth:

“I don’t know, really.”

“You remind me of him,” said Mrs. Biddle.

She didn’t say his name, but I knew who she meant: my double.

“He was a regional manager for the railroad,” she said. “One day they found him naked, walking along the rails, headed into the mountains.”

This sounded like something I would do.

“They hospitalized him in Manila for a month. He was convalescing with some neighbors of mine when I met him one day. He —”

Mrs. Biddle looked up, over my shoulder. I turned. A woman of about my age had come out onto the porch.

“Hello, mother,” this lady said. “Introduce me to your friend.”

I stood, swallowing the last of my cookie and wiping my hands on my trousers.

“This is Mr. Schnabel, April,” said Mrs. Biddle. “Arnold, this is my daughter, April.”

April held out her hand and I took it.

She wore pleated tan slacks, sandals, a white blouse like a man’s sport shirt, tucked in under a wide black belt. She had dark blond hair brushed back from her forehead and fastened somehow behind her ears.

She wore a single strand of white pearls, and a diamond glittered on each of her ears.

“My daughter has told me all about you, Mr. Schnabel,” she said, holding onto my hand.

“I hope you don’t intend to relieve her of her virtue.”

“Absolutely not,” I said.

She still held onto my hand.

“You seem oddly familiar,” she said.

I could have set these ladies’ minds at rest, and told them it had been me with Mrs.
Biddle that rainy day thirty years before, that it had been I who had broken the sad news to young April on the telephone. But, not particularly wanting to be hustled onto the next ambulance back to Byberry, I said nothing.

April relinquished my hand.

“So you’re writing a screenplay with Larry?” she asked.

I had almost forgotten about that.

“Yes,” I said.

“I love Larry’s movies. They’re so lurid. I hope there’s a murder.”

“Oh, yes,” I said.

“Good.”

She was a beautiful woman, taller than Mrs. Biddle although not so tall as Daphne. When I had spoken to her on the phone I had had a mental image of a childish version of Daphne, with blond ringlets, and now the womanly April stood before me, an older version of Daphne, a younger version of her mother.

“You don’t say much, do you?” she said.

“I think it’s best I don’t,” I said.

“Are you staying long, April?” asked her mother.

“No. I have a flight for Africa the day after tomorrow.”

“Always traveling,” said Mrs. Biddle.

“Never a dull moment,” said April, reaching past me to take one of those butter cookies.

She smelled like fresh butter.

“You and Mac,” said her mother.

“Busy as bees,” said April. She bit into the cookie.

“April’s a journalist, Arnold,” said Mrs. Biddle.

“Oh,” I said, as usual not challenging Oscar Wilde as one of history’s great wits.

“He’s not impressed,” said April, chewing her cookie. “Sit down, Arnold, please.”

I resumed my seat.

“Just wanted to say hi,” said April. She put the remainder of the cookie back onto the plate. “I’ll leave you two. Oh.”

Daphne had just come out onto the porch, with a red-headed girl in a light-blue dress covered with little metallic black cross-hatchings.

“Hi, mother,” said Daphne to April. She kissed her mother’s cheek. “This is my friend Mary Elizabeth.”

“Hello, Mary Elizabeth.”

“Very pleased to meet you,” said the girl, young woman rather.

“And that’s my grandmother there,” said Daphne. “Everyone calls her Mrs. Biddle.”

“Hello, Mrs. Biddle,” said Daphne’s friend.

“Hello, dear,” said Mrs. Biddle.

Being an inveterate gentleman, I had risen from my seat again, and there I stood.

“Arnold, how do you like Mary Elizabeth’s make-over?”

I had no idea what she was talking about; so of course I do what I usually do when this sort of thing happens, I faked it.

“Excellent,” I said.

“I dyed her hair 'fiery auburn’. It’s the new her.”

“Do I look stupid?” asked the girl, addressing me, and it wasn’t till then that I realized that this was Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“No,” I said.

In my defense I’ll say that she was also wearing red lipstick, and eye make-up.

“A man of few words,” said April.

“Few spoken words,” said Mrs. Biddle.

True to my description, I said nothing, instead of what was on my mind, namely that I felt as if I were floating in this shimmering filtered red and gold light in a great pool of time, the past and the present flowing through me like light through a stained glass window, into a future which would soon enough be the past, if it wasn’t already.

Somewhere a blackbird cackled, and the trees in the yard shook their leaves in a gust of wind from the ocean.

I became aware that a few seconds had gone by. As so often in my life, by keeping quiet I had disquieted my fellow human beings. I scrambled through my brain, if not for a witticism, at least for an acceptable banality.

I came up with nothing.

“Q.E.D.,” said April.


(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. To be continued till the end of days. In the meanwhile, feel free to consult the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of all other available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major motion picture starring Jeremy Irons, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Kate Beckinsale, and Dame Judi Dench; a Larry Winchester Production.)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"the past and the present flowing through me like light through a stained glass window"

Great

kathleenmaher said...

"I felt as if I were floating in this shimmering filtered red and gold light in a great pool of time, the past and the present flowing through me like light through a stained glass window, into a future which would soon enough be the past, if it wasn’t already."

Such a beautiful and perfect summation of being a human being.

Manny said...

I'd certainly be at a loss for words if I were Arnold.
Thank heaven he was such an eloquent memoirist.

Jennifer said...

This entry left me frustrated that I could not turn the page and continue reading.

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, everybody, I'm sure Arnold appreciates the kind words.

And hang in there, Jen, we should have a new Arnold installment in two or three days. You can't rush old Arnold...