Thursday, November 20, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 111: flight

Our previous episode of this Sunoco Award-nominated memoir found our hero Arnold Schnabel -- relentlessly pursued by the passionate novelist Gertrude Evans and the profoundly boring Mr. and Mrs. DeVore -- finally safe in the boudoir of his inamorata, the bohemian Elektra.

Place: the second floor of a charming Victorian house on Jackson Street, in the seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey.

Time: a warm August evening on a faraway planet called 1963.

“I think I’m going to have to shut my eyes for just five minutes, lover. Okay? But don’t let me sleep too long.”

“Sure,” I said.

She lay on her side, facing me. The lights were all off in the room but I could see by the pale glow from the streetlamp outside that her eyes were closed, her mouth slightly open, her loosely clenched hand touching her chin. She smelled like hot cocoa with whipped cream. I laid my head back with my right arm outspread over the top of her head with its cloud of dark hair.

I closed my eyes, feeling completely at ease with myself and the universe, sinking deep into a state of utter relaxation, feeling as if all the cares and terrors of my forty-two years were melting away from me, and then I felt myself rising up and out of my body.

I was now an invisible sprite the size of a child’s marble, looking down at myself and Elektra, the both of us with our eyes closed and, apparently, not breathing. Understandably alarmed, I flew closer, to just about a foot over our faces. I held very still, and then I saw and felt that we both were indeed breathing but at a vastly decelerated rate.

I flew up and over to one of Elektra’s two windows that look out over Jackson Street. I saw that the translucent white curtains billowed inward, still and unmoving as if in a photograph, but by hovering closer and concentrating my vision I saw that indeed the curtains were moving, but ever so gradually, as in a slow-motion movie scene. I flew to the middle of the window and looked down through the branches of the elm tree outside to the street and the sidewalks below.

People walked on the pavements, cars drove in the street, but they all stood almost but not quite absolutely still -- alive, moving, but at perhaps one one-hundredth of normal speed.

And instead of the normal Saturday night cacophony of voices and music and automobile engines there was only a slow quiet rolling humming, like the sound of a long railroad train going around a mountainside ten miles away across rolling countryside.

The air felt neither warm nor cool, and instead of the rich warm evening smell of the ocean and the trees and gardens I smelled only something like that of white bread baking in a far kitchen of a house.

I glanced back once at myself and Elektra, then flew out the window and up into the evening sky. I turned and looked down as I continued to fly up, watching the town and its lights and its people shrink smaller and smaller. Finally I could see the whole cape, and glancing northward I saw the entire Jersey coast sparkling along the dark breast of the ocean.

It occurred to me that God had now granted me something like immortality. I was outside time and yet still within it; outside of my body but free to go anywhere I liked.

Just for the heck of it I flew higher and higher, watching New Jersey’s tiny cropped tail grow smaller and smaller till finally it was merely a smudge on the edge of the darkening continent of North America, and then at last I could see the entire globe in all its rich colors and darknesses, and I looked upward, saw the Moon up there and decided I’d head out into space.

Now the Moon grew rapidly larger and larger as I hurled forward at thousands of miles an hour through empty space, and I suddenly felt very odd, or odder, and then I saw this vast flying saucer up ahead, with the great cratered and shining Moon looming up beyond it.

Well, at this point nothing was going to surprise me, I needn’t tell you.

I slowed down as I approached the spaceship, which I would say was about a mile in diameter, perhaps a bit more. There were portholes placed at regular intervals around the upper rim of the saucer, so I flew up to one. I looked through the window, and I saw what looked like a big nightclub room. At a large round table near the stage (a singer and band were performing) I could just make out Frank Sinatra, Joey, Dean Martin, Sammy, some other men who seemed familiar if unnameable.

For some reason none of this surprised me either.

So far I hadn’t attempted to fly through any solid objects, but this seemed like a good time and place to give it a go. What was the worse that could happen?

I flew directly at the window, and fortunately (I suppose) I was able to pass right through it without shattering either the glass or my own sprite-self.

I coasted down next to the table and suddenly everyone turned and looked at me.

“What the f--k!” said Frank.

I looked down at myself. I was in my body again. Fortunately I was dressed. I don’t know how that worked, but I was wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing before undressing.

“Well what do you know?” said Dean, who was sitting to Frank’s right.

“I didn’t think he could do it,” said Joey.

I should mention that all these guys were wearing stylish shiny suits, with thin ties and flashing cufflinks. I felt awkward in my bermudas, polo shirt, and Keds with no socks.

Frank stood up, and offered his hand.

I shook it. It felt like a normal hand, albeit a with a stronger than average clasp.

“I’m really glad you could make it, Arnold,” he said.

“Well, I’m not so sure I’m glad,” I said, or found myself saying. Normally I’m not so honest.

“I can see how you might find this all a little -- perturbing?”

“Yeah,” I said.

I’ll say this for this group: they were very polite; the whole table had stood up.

“Hello, Arnold,” said this one familiar guy. He had what sounded like an English accent. “Glad you could make it. I’ve heard so much about you. My name’s Peter, by the way.”

Right, Peter Lawford.

“Well, don’t believe everything, Mr. Lawford,” I said, lamely.

“Peter,” he said. “Call me Peter, Arnold. We’re practically the same age. In human years.”

“Come sit down, Arnold,” said Frank.

“Well, I don’t know,” I said.

“Like you got somewhere to go?” he said. “Come on, have a drink.” He waved to a passing waiter, who looked like Wally Cox or Arnold Stang, one of those guys. “Wally, bring Mr. Schnabel a chair. A chair and a Manhattan, make it a double -- on the double, ha.”

I held up my hand.

“Wait, Mr. Sinatra,” I said, “I really appreciate it, but I have to be honest with you. I think I’d rather go back to the Earth right now.”

“You can go back later,” he said.

I’ll admit I hesitated.

“Well --”

The singer, who I believe was Johnny Ray, started singing that song about walking in the rain.

“Come on,” said Frank.

Wally was already there with a chair, sliding it in between where Joey and this other guy had been sitting, I think it was Richard Conte.

But I don't know, sometimes you just have to say no.

“Sorry, Mr. Sinatra --” I said.

“Frank,” he said.

“Sorry, Frank, but I really think I want to go back now.”

Something about this set-up bugged me. And besides, already I was missing the world. My world. My little world, with its humble sights and smells. And I missed the smell and warmth of Elektra.

“Wait, Arnold --” said Frank.

“Sorry,” I said again.

And up I went, up through the porthole and out into space, but this time towards planet Earth, which very quickly grew from the size of a beachball into an enormous swirling and living world, suddenly the odd feeling I'd gotten on the way up slipped away from me like a comet's tail and down I went, down and down, to the now darker eastern seaboard of North America, down to the southern tip of New Jersey, down to Cape May, the streets and the houses growing bigger, the lights growing brighter, I found Jackson Street below me there and zeroed in on Elektra’s house, came down to the window I had just flown out of, flew back in, over to myself and Elektra, and back into me.

I opened my eyes.

Jazz music floated in from the other room, and through the open windows came the sounds of people’s voices, the thrumming of their automobiles.

The air was warm and humid. Elektra’s body was warm, and slightly moist. She smelled like warm marshmallows.

“Mmmm,” she said. “Did you sleep?”

“Yes,” I said.

(Go here for our next, very special installment. And please look to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to all other possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, as featured on The Heinz Playhouse, starring Ralph Meeker and Carolyn Jones.)

Barbara: Dis quand reviendras-tu?


Unknown said...

Miracle upon miracle!

What a glorious flight. No doubt, Elektra deserves some credit for it.

Jennifer said...


I kept thinking this day of Arnold's has been like his 40 years of wandering in the desert and he finally found his promised land in Elektra.

Dan Leo said...

Yeah, Kath, Elektra definitely gives Arnold something to come home for.

And what a poetic thought, Jen -- it reflects back nicely on Arnold's recent conversation with Father Reilly in the church office, with its "stained-glass casement window depicting Jesus during one of his forty days in the desert".

Jennifer said...

I had forgotten about that! Heck, sometimes I forget it's the same day.

I'd like to see a stained glass window of the Rat Pack and the spaceship. :)

Anonymous said...


Dan Leo said...

Awright, Jen, you're hired for that stained-glass commission. I hope you work cheap.

Anon: aw, thanks, bud.

Unknown said...

Arnold has quite an imagination. But sometimes I have dreams like that, when I'm not quite asleep, not quite awake.
Or was it a dream...?

Dan Leo said...

Manny -- wait, that was a dream Arnold had?

Anonymous said...

I had that same experience or dream except no spaceship

Dan Leo said...

Anon: you're lucky!

Unknown said...

Can't help putting in a word for Manny here: he's a great maker of stained glass. Before I pushed him into college as a marital condition, he made stained glass windows for what he then called his living.

I don't remember a Rat Pack window; he specialized in stained glass visions of big, vivid mugs overflowing with beer. He was a master at foaming heads.