Thursday, October 2, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 102: novena

Catholic youths loitering near St. Helena's Church upon completing the "Christian Maturity Novena"; Philadelphia; August, 1963

Return with us now to that alternate universe we call the past, in this case a warm early evening in August of 1963, to a ramshackle Victorian boarding house in Cape May, NJ, and into the fine mind of Arnold Schnabel, the author and star of this memoir which has been hailed by Gov. Sarah Palin as “our great patriotic epic”.

(Click here if you’ve already forgotten what happened in our previous chapter; go to the very first episode if you have been assigned this masterpiece for mid-terms and still haven’t started it.)

The living room had been emptied of humanity, but out on the porch and front steps an impromptu cocktail party was in full force, minus alas the cocktails.

Tommy, up on the porch, languidly smoked a cigarette and chatted with my Aunts Elizabetta and Greta about geraniums.

Kevin squirmed against Daphne who sat in Kevin’s usual rocker as they read together one of his Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos comics.

Down near the foot of the steps Mr. DeVore talked loudly about Frank Sinatra to Sister Mary Elizabeth, who didn’t talk at all but grinned a tight-lipped smile, as if she suffered a severe gastro-intestinal distress and wanted to rush off to a bathroom but couldn’t think of a suitable escape line.

Mrs. DeVore cast her little puppyish eyes back and forth from her husband to the sister, all the while bouncing up and down on the heels of her shoes.

My mother and my Aunt Edith were muttering softly to each other on the porch, but they turned to face me as I let the screen door whine gently closed behind me..

“I don’t know how you do it, Arnold,” said Edith. “All these girls.”

“Where are you going?” asked my mother.

“Just out for a beer.”

“Don’t have too many,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.

“If you get hungry later there’s still sauerbraten in the pot.”

“I’m going to have a burger or something with Elektra.”

“You’re going out with her too?” asked Aunt Edith.

I considered responding in some informative and polite way, but somehow I just couldn’t gather the strength.

As my Aunt Edith and my mother launched into a discussion about who my girlfriend was, or who my girlfriends were, and whose business it was, and as this conversation somehow swerved back to the behavior and character of my late father, and of my Uncle Albert, and my grandfathers on both sides -- while Tommy spoke of flowers with Elizabetta and Greta, and as Daphne allowed Kevin to rub feverishly against her as they read and commented on the adventures of Sgt. Fury and his men, while Mr. DeVore launched upon a disquisition on Frank Sinatra’s latest movie as his wife made small peeping noises and Sister Mary Elizabeth gradually ceased smiling and her previously reddish complexion grew pale as a lily and even the sheen of her dress turned from light blue to ashen before my eyes -- as all this went on I realized I had fallen into one of those nightmarish stalemates in social life, and that, unless someone took a really firm hand, and soon, then these people and I would stay on this porch and on and around these steps until we collapsed with exhaustion or until a tidal wave washed in from the beach and swept us all away.

I thought the best thing to do to effect our escape would be to lead the way, so, without saying a word to my mother or aunt I went down the steps and right up to Sister Mary Elizabeth. I put my hand on her pale but muscular upper arm.

She looked up at me; I hadn’t realized it before, but she was on the short side. But in her eyes was that deep sorrow which can only come from that most insidious of all tortures: enforced extreme boredom.

Mr. DeVore was now inexplicably talking about the neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia where he and his wife lived, an area where there were lots of nice homes, and of the increasing value of their particular home, but I just butted right in.

“We should really go,” I said to the sister.

“We should?” she asked, with a hint of tears glistening in her blue eyes.

“Yes. We’ll be late,” I said.

“Where are you going, Arnold?” said Mr. DeVore. His wife was nodding her head as if someone were pushing it from behind. “Maybe the better half and I can tag along,” he suggested.

“We’re --” Suddenly I recalled something Aunt Edith had said. That the DeVores were protestants, but that they seemed to be nice people anyway. “We’re going to church,” I said.

“To church?” asked Mr. DeVore.

“Yes,” I said.

“On a Saturday night?”

“It’s a novena,” I said.

“A novena,” he said.

“It’s a type of Catholic service,” his wife said. “Like a prayer service, right Mr. Schnabel?”

“Exactly,” I said. “A long prayer service."

“And you go in bermuda shorts?” asked Mr. DeVore.

“It’s an informal service,” I said.

“Informal?” asked Mr. DeVore, his ruddy brow furrowing at the concept.

“It’s a folk novena,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“A folk novena?” said Mr. DeVore.

“Yes,” said the sister. “We sing and play guitars. And tambourines.”

“Like a hootenanny,” offered Mrs. DeVore.

“Sort of,” said Sister Mary E. “Except it’s all hymns.”

“These shindigs are long, huh?” said Mr. DeVore.

“Yes,” said the sister. “It runs about two hours usually.”

“Wow,” he said.

“Jeepers,” said Mrs. DeVore.

I looked at my watch, my trusty railwayman’s Ball watch, given to me to commemorate twenty years on the Reading. I could see where this might be headed: with the DeVores trailing along with us to Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, ready enough to convert to Romanism if that’s what it took. I had to act quickly and firmly.

“We really have to run,” I said. “The novena starts in two minutes.”

“Right, let’s go,” said the sister. She took my arm and, pulling on it, yelled in a carrying schoolteacher’s contralto that silenced all the other conversations then current:

“Let’s go, Tommy and Daphne! We have to leave now!”

And, yanking me along with a strength that belied her small stature, she set off down our slate path to the crooked gate.

We breasted the sidewalk and jaywalked across North Street, quickly reaching Perry Street and turning the corner just as a great warm breath of air rolled up from the ocean smelling of cotton candy and salt water taffy, and the setting sun hurled our hurrying shadows in front of us as we strode swiftly along. My leg still hurt of course, and I was limping slightly, but I didn't care.

Tommy and Daphne, also arm in arm, caught up with us by the time we reached Washington Street.

(Go here for our next thrill-packed chapter. Feel free to check out the right hand side of this page for a listing of links to all other currently available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, a Working Class Production. Nihil Obstat: Cardinal Dennis J. "Denny" Dougherty, S.J.; Imprimatur: Archbishop Joe E. Ryan, S.J.)

Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, baby:


Unknown said...

Arnold is such a sublime writer (as well as funny) that I sometimes stop noticing the writing. Which I have a habit of noticing, always.

"We breasted the sidewalk and jaywalked across North Street, quickly reaching Perry Street and turning the corner just as a great warm breath of air rolled up from the ocean smelling of cotton candy and salt water taffy, and the setting sun hurled our hurrying shadows in front of us as we strode swiftly along."


Anonymous said...

“It’s a folk novena,”


Jennifer said...

nightmarish stalemates in social life

Ahh... those are hell.

Unknown said...

Just loverly. And nice to see Arnold take decisive action for once!
Will Sister Mary Elizabeth turn into a devil with a blue dress on?