In our previous episode of this critically acclaimed (“If the Bible weren’t already my Bible, this book would be my Bible.” -- George Will) memoir, our intrepid hero Arnold Schnabel managed, after an astral flight into space, to return safely to his own body and to the boudoir of his inamorata Elektra, on the second floor of a charming Victorian house on Jackson Street, in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on an August evening in 1963...
“So how was your day?” she asked me, touching my chest.
Well, not counting the previous twenty-five minutes, which Elektra already knew about, so far today I had quit smoking, gone to confession and confessed that which I had just done again, almost collapsed from tobacco deprivation, walked and talked with Jesus, started work on a screenplay with Larry Winchester, fallen from a second-floor window while trying to escape Miss Evans but had been saved through the intercession of my friend Jesus, I had gone swimming with Daphne and been struck by lightning, I had then visited God’s mansion in the company of His son my friend, I had tea with Mrs. Biddle on a plantation in the Philippines in 1932 and had at least indirectly contributed to the sudden death of her husband, I had returned to the present to find myself pursued relentlessly by Miss Evans and Mr. and Mrs. Devore, I had had a somber colloquy with my disgraced confessor Father Reilly, during which Jesus made yet another appearance, and I had flown to an enormous flying saucer between the Earth and the Moon where I had only barely managed to resist the blandishments of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
“It was an interesting day,” I said.
“Do you want a cigarette?”
She had turned on her back and was reaching for her Marlboros on the night table.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ve decided to quit.”
“You’re kidding me.”
I told her I wasn’t, and hadn’t had a cigarette since that monumental one first thing that morning which had instigated my abstinential decision. I must pause for a moment now as I admire what is perhaps the worst sentence I have ever committed to paper. And now, onward:
Holding the pack of cigarettes, she stared at me for a moment, as if to make sure I was serious. Then she sat up, holding the sheet chastely to her bosom with one hand, and tossed the cigarettes into a waste basket on the other side of the night table.
“Good,” she said. “A stupid habit, and I’m quitting too. Now let’s go down to the Mug and get a couple of burgers before I have a nicotine fit.”
“Okay. But listen --”
“We might be -- accosted.”
“Accosted? Who by?”
“By that crazy Evans woman?”
“Yes. But also by that couple the DeVores, the ones who were on my aunts’ porch last night?”
“What, they’re obsessed with you too?”
“So it seems.”
“Well, thanks for the warning. Now let’s get dressed, I’m starving.”
And all the miracles I had experienced that day paled in comparison to that of her rolling out of bed in the glow from the streetlight and reaching down to find her underwear on the rug.
She put the Mexican-seeming dress back on, and she allowed her hair to fall freely down around her shoulders.
When we came out to the living room Elektra asked Gypsy Dave if he wanted to come with us, and he said he might join us later, but right now he was just digging the music, which was jazz music that sounded like walking through dark city streets at night but not being afraid and not caring if the morning ever came.
We went down the back stairs and around the front, and Elektra said she wanted to go into the shop to get some money out of the register. I told her she didn’t need any money, but she pointed out that I wasn’t working, and went on in, leaving me on the pavement. The shop had five or six browsing vacationers in it now as well as Rocket Man and Fairchild. When Elektra got back behind the counter a large lady with a small man in tow asked her a question, and Elektra took a tray of bracelets out and laid them on the counter top.
I put my hands in my shorts pockets and turned away from the window, gazing down Jackson toward the beach and the just visible dark line of the ocean. Normally this would be another ideal time for a cigarette, a waiting time. And how often, in the early days of my addiction, had I stood or sat around doing absolutely nothing and getting paid for it by the U.S. Army while I filled the time with the burning and inhaling of those lovely tubes of cancerous dried weed while talking nonsense with my fellow GIs. In retrospect I wonder how we won the war when we seemed to spend the vast majority of our time smoking and chatting. Maybe the only reason we won was simply because there were more of us than there were of the Germans.
“Or maybe God really was on your side,” he said.
He had apparently just crossed the corner of Carpenter's Lane and come up the pavement behind me. Of course he was smoking. And why shouldn’t he, I thought, he didn’t have to worry about cancer or emphysema.
“Was He?” I asked.
“My father doesn’t choose sides, Arnold. That wouldn’t be fair.”
“So men have to fight it out all on their own,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m afraid so. You’d think that men would have learned by now that praying for God’s assistance or blessing in their battles doesn’t have any effect whatsoever either way.”
“Well, I think it makes them feel better, though, even if the evidence doesn’t back up the uh --”
“The efficacy of prayer?”
“Yes,” I said.
He gazed into the shop window.
“She’s really lovely,” he said.
Elektra was holding a necklace up to her neck, showing it to the lady, the necklace glittering against her tan skin.
“Yes, sir,” he said, his arms folded, staring in at the window, tapping his cigarette with one finger.
“Yeah,” I said. Then, I think wanting to forestall him from making any more comments about Elektra, I said, “How did it go with Father Reilly?”
“Oh. Him. I’m afraid he has a long way to go, Arnold. A long way.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“What? No. No, he’s not ready for that, if he ever will be. No.”
“So you just sat there?”
“Just sat there, yes.”
“Is he okay?”
He looked at me.
“Is he ‘okay’?” he repeated.
“Yeah, I mean --”
“Oh, he’ll be all right. Or he won’t be.”
“Well, still --”
“I know, I know, I’m being cold. But, Arnold, there’s a couple of billion people on this planet, okay? Most of them would love to have Father Reilly’s problems.”
“Well, still --”
“Right,” he said. “Look, Saint Arnold, while you’ve been lying in bed having a high old time with her --” he pointed his cigarette at Elektra, who was handing a necklace to Rocket Man, “I’ve been sitting watching our good Father Reilly gnashing his teeth and pulling his hair and generally acting as boring as humanly possible, which is saying a lot, so get off your high horse. All right, it looks like Elektra has made her sale, so excuse me but I’m going to make like a leaf and blow. Good luck, buddy, and don’t drink so much tonight.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
He sauntered up Jackson in the direction of the beach, merging with the other pedestrians coming and going into and out of the tree-dappled light of the streetlamps.
Elektra came out of the shop and put her arm in mine.
“Who was that guy?” she said, as we started down the sidewalk.
“That guy you were talking to. That beach bum-looking guy.”
“Kind of long hair, needs a shave?” I said.
“Were you talking to any other guy, you nut?”
“Um, no,” I said.
We were crossing Carpenter's Lane. Another small block to the Ugly Mug.
“Friend of yours?”
“Um, just from around town,” I said.
I was trying not to lie blatantly, while still somehow not actually telling her that I had just been chatting with my friend the son of God.
“So what’s his name?”
“Arnie!” bellowed a commanding voice behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my Keds.
I turned, and there was Larry Winchester coming up Jackson Street.
He looked magnificent in khakis and a white short-sleeved sport-shirt and sandals, and I thanked Jesus for allowing him to appear just then, that is if Jesus had had anything to do with it.
(Go here for our next heroic adventure. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other recovered episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major Broadway musical starring Dick Powell and Tallulah Bankhead, book by John O'Hara, songs by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, choreography by Gene Kelly, produced and personally directed by Larry Winchester.)
Rod the Mod --