Is it a new, renewed, assertive Arnold Schnabel who has engineered a seemingly successful escape from the terminally mundane Mr. and Mrs. DeVore?
Let us rejoin our hero and his friends Daphne, Tommy, and Sister Mary Elizabeth at the corner of Perry and Washington streets, in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, NJ, on a warm early August evening in that faraway world of 1963…
We turned the corner, Tommy and Daphne right behind us, and finally we all slowed down a bit.
“That was brilliant, Arnold,” Sister Mary Elizabeth said to me. “Arnold told those people we’re going to a novena,” she said over her shoulder.
“Very well played,” said Tommy.
“Arnold’s brilliant,” said Daphne.
I saw that Tommy had divested himself of his cigarette, and that he was breathing heavily, but nevertheless he looked full of life, or as full of life as a sixty-five-year-old opium addict and heavy smoker is able look.
“Where are we going, anyway?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Let’s go to the Ugly Mug,” said Daphne. “Okay with you, Tommy?”
“Excellent,” he said.
I said the Mug was fine with me too. It was only a couple of blocks from Elektra’s place. My master plan (and only now does it seem to me that I even had a master plan) was to have one beer, maybe two, and then excuse myself and head to Elektra’s before some unforeseen calamity or crisis occurred.
To be quite honest I looked forward to -- well, never mind.
But wait, it’s my memoir, go ahead.
Okay, I looked forward to -- well, on second thought I will leave my dear reader to guess what I looked forward to, or, if he wishes, he may jump ahead to the following Saturday -- it should only be a thousand pages away at the rate I’m going -- and there he may read what I confessed to Father Reilly, provided of course I did not lie through my teeth to that good cleric, even if only by omission.
We walked along the busy sidewalk. The starkly sunlit families of the damned who had streamed by me earlier that day as I sat racked with nausea on that wooden bench in front of the church had now been replaced with mellowed, soft-voiced vacationers smelling of perfume and Old Spice after-shave, their exhausted and sunbaked children walking silently and obediently along with them, as children supposedly ought to.
We came to Smith’s Book Shoppe, in which I had bought my still unfinished paperback of The Waste Land, and in the indented window area of which I had given Jesus a light a week or so ago. Daphne, still holding Tommy’s arm and now pulling him along, glided behind us and over to the window to examine the books on display in the bestseller section. Sister Mary Elizabeth and I stopped to give Daphne time, and I became aware that the sister still held her arm in mine.
She looked up at me again.
“Do you think I’m terrible?”
“No,” I said.
“I’ll get in so much trouble if I go back to the convent,” she said. “What should I do?”
“Don’t go back,” I said, although God knows who I thought I was giving her advice.
“But then what will I do?”
Tommy had disengaged his arm from Daphne’s and he took out a gold cigarette case. He clicked it open and offered it to Daphne, but she shook her head. I think she was reading the copy on the displayed back cover of one of the best-sellers.
Sister Mary Elizabeth disengaged her arm from mine and tugged on my short sleeve; I hadn’t answered her question.
“What have you been doing?" I asked. "I mean as a nun?”
“Teaching third grade.”
“There you go,” I said. “Be a school teacher.”
“A noble profession,” said Tommy. “Cigarette, Arnold? Or are you still abstaining?”
“Still abstaining, I guess,” I said, although I practically had to grab my right hand with my left to keep it from snatching up not only one cigarette but three or four for good measure preparatory to smoking them all simultaneously.
“Sister?” offered Tommy.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’d better not.”
“The Group,” said Daphne, reading the title of one of the bestsellers. “I wonder if that’s any good?”
“Oh, no, it’s them,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, and I saw them too, turning onto Washington down the block, the dreaded DeVores. “Daphne, come on,” said Sister Mary E., “it’s those people.”
“Oh no,” said Daphne, and we all took off at speed toward the next corner, Tommy walking so fast that he didn’t even try to light the cigarette he had taken out.
“What should we do?” asked Sister Mary Elizabeth.
The Ugly Mug was right up the next block at Decatur, but if we went there now the DeVores would follow us in, as sure as night follows the day.
“Head on to the church,” I said.
“It’s our only chance,” I said.
Fortunately we just caught the green light at Jackson Street and we hurried on up the block, without looking back and without speaking, as if conserving our breath. We hesitated at Decatur Street, bouncing on our heels waiting for a red light to change, and when it did we sprinted across. At the end of this block was the church.
“Arnold,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, “this is insane.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
We reached the steps of the church and I led the way up. Down Washington Street I saw the DeVores crossing Decatur Street, steadfastly on our trail.
“Now what?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Into the church,” I said.
“Arnold!” she said. “We can’t just go into the church like this.”
“Of course we can,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Daphne. “What’s the big deal.”
Tommy merely breathed heavily.
“It’s sacrilegious,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“If you let those bores capture you again then you’ll really know the meaning of sacrilege,” said Daphne. “Now come on.”
She stepped forward, and I opened the great wooden door for her. She went in, followed by Tommy and the sister and then myself.
In the dark restful foyer with its flickering candles and its smell of cool marble and holy water we convened, looking at each other in a circle.
“What do we do now?” whispered Sister Mary E.
“Follow me,” I said.
We went into the nave. No service was in progress, and the hours of confession were over for the day. Three or four people sat or kneeled scattered in the pews, praying, or perhaps merely enjoying the shadowed silence and a respite from the hurly-burly of the world outside. We all genuflected, even Daphne, and then I led our little band down the aisle, walking quietly but not slowly. I made a right at the tabernacle, went down the side steps and through the hall, came to the side door, and opened it. I went through, holding the door for my friends, and we came out onto the sidewalk on Ocean Street.
“Well done again, Arnold,” said Tommy.
“Yeah, smooth,” said Daphne.
“Now what?” said Mary Elizabeth. “Do we double around and go back to this Ugly Mug place?”
I looked around.
“No,” I said. “It’s a popular place. They might look there.” I pointed across the Acme parking lot, to the brown tavern with the dark slate roof near the railroad terminal.
“We’ll go there,” I said. “To Pete’s.”
“Pete’s?” said Daphne. “How exciting. I’ve never been there. Isn’t it a Negro bar?”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s hurry.”
(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. Please check out the right hand side of this page for a purportedly up-to-date listing of links to many other fine episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, third-place prize-winner of the Hockey Moms of America Inspiring Memoir Award.)
Jackie Wilson, baby: work out!