Previously in this Parade Magazine Award-nominated memoir, our hero Arnold and his fellow adventurers Dick Ridpath and Mr. Arbuthnot (and through the mystic means of that old gentleman’s Book of Time) stepped outside the Whatnot Shoppe into a world where time has come to a halt at exactly 10:08:14 PM (EST), on the 10th of August, 1963, in the quaint and somewhat careworn seaside town of Cape May, NJ...
It was as if all the world had become a wax museum.
“Jesus Christ,” said Dick, and he flicked his cigarette into the gutter. I watched it roll into the street a few feet, the only moving thing in the universe, and when it came to a stop a thin stream of smoke rose up from it in the bright still glare of the headlights of a frozen red Corvette convertible driven by a somewhat wild-eyed man whose own cigarette trailed a tendril of unmoving smoke off to one side of his head; the woman next to him seemed to be staring at me, or through me, with indifference if not boredom.
“Why don’t we take a stroll now?” said Mr. Arbuthnot, smiling as if proudly, cradling the bowl of his little Meerschaum in his little bony fist. “We can take as long as we want.”
“I’m not quite sure I can deal with this, to be honest,” said Dick. “I feel as if I’m in a dream. And I’m not sure how pleasant a dream it is.”
“It can be quite pleasant,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Sometimes I wander around for a whole day. Poking about. Looking at things. Touching things. Sometimes I’ll stop time in the middle of a fair day and take a stroll along the beach in my Panama hat. I’ll find some young beauty sunbathing on a towel and sit down next to her. Touch her velvety skin --”
“Okay, I get it, Mr. Arbuthnot,” said Dick. He took his cigarette case out of his pocket.
“Sometimes I’ll even put my hand on a young lovely’s warm breast,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“That’s weird, Mr. Arbuthnot,” said Dick. He clicked open the cigarette case. “Not to mention presumptuous.”
“But the young lovelies are never aware of my caresses. Or my kisses. Or my -- well, let’s only say I’m sure that I leave no evidence of my pleasures. I’m sure that the young ladies are only aware of the slightest odd fleeting sensation, a sensation perhaps not completely unpleasant.”
Dick had taken out a cigarette during this last little speech, but now he put it back, shut the case and dropped it back in his trouser pocket.
“You are one disturbing old gentleman, Mr. Arbuthnot,” said Dick.
“I don’t know why you say that. No harm done.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Someday you’ll be old and celibate.”
“If I live long enough,” said Dick. He was looking around at this paralyzed nighttime world. He sighed, and looked at me. “What do you think, Arnold?”
To tell the honest truth I was getting used to this sort of experience. Once in the hospital I remember looking at the radium dial of my watch as the second hand went round and in the space of one terrestrial minute I could have sworn I lived a century, and a very tedious century it was. And another time, again at Byberry, I remember distinctly a whole week flashed by in the time it took to watch an episode of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.
Yes, stepping outside of my body, flying high above myself, chatting with Jesus, visiting God’s house in Heaven or enormous flying saucers in space, it was all in a day’s work for me, but I realized that the present situation was probably very unusual to say the least for Dick. He probably didn’t even remember that we had visited 1890s France the previous evening.
“I suppose I could take a short stroll,” I said. “But only if you’re in the mood.”
“It’s creepy,” said Dick.
“Normal life is creepy,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“This is really creepy.”
“You’ll get used to it!” said Mr. Arbuthnot. He had become quite animated now. He turned away from Dick, facing the street, his arms outstretched. “The world! The world is ours!”
Dick looked at me. Like, “What a wacko.”
So we walked around a bit, through the frozen town.
We went down to the boardwalk. Since it was well into the evening Mr. Arbuthnot couldn’t troll the beach looking for bathing beauties to caress, but he seemed quite happy with the many trapped-in-amber girls we passed in their summer dresses and shorts. He refrained from touching them, perhaps out of deference to Dick and me.
We came to Frank’s Playland.
“Want to go in?” asked Mr. Arbuthnot. “A game of ski-ball perhaps? What I do is, I go over to Frank and just pop a handful of quarters out of his coin-change machine; one day I played ski-ball for four hours absolutely free!”
“I’ll take a pass,” said Dick.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. I found Frank’s Playland unnerving enough even under normal circumstances.
“There’s the miniature golf course up ahead. A quick round on the house?”
“Maybe some other time,” said Dick.
I concurred. Miniature golf is one of the many amusements that for some reason not only fail to amuse me but indeed tend to induce deep despair.
We strolled on up the boardwalk.
There was the movie theatre, still showing A Gathering of Eagles, with Rock Hudson.
And I wouldn’t have minded losing myself in a movie for a couple of hours, or at least until the mushrooms wore off a bit.
“Sorry, Arnold,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, reading my mind, “that’s one thing we can’t do. We could go in of course but all we’d see is one frame, frozen like a snapshot. Very dull.”
“Okay,” I said.
We walked up the boardwalk towards the new Convention Hall, which extends out over the beach and the usually crashing but now silent surf. We walked past the gift shops, the fudge store, the store that makes the salt water taffy, the hot dog place.
“Bite to eat?” asked Mr. Arbuthnot. “It’s all free.”
“No, thanks,” said Dick. He’d finally broken down and lit another cigarette.
“Arnold?” said Mr. Arbuthnot. Somehow we’d gotten to a first name basis, at least on his part.
“I don’t want to spoil my appetite,” I said. “I’m supposed to have a burger some time tonight.”
“Ah, yes. With Alexandra,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “Let’s go look at the ocean.”
“Okey dokey,” said Dick.
So we walked around the side of Convention Hall, out to the pier that extends out over the ocean when it’s at high tide, which it now was.
Waxwork people stood there, looking out at the frozen waves, the women’s hair suspended in the air in soft strands behind their heads.
One attractive girl of twenty or so was bent forward looking into one of those coin-operated binoculars as her boyfriend looked admiringly at her. I wondered what she was looking at. Was she hoping to spy a porpoise? It seemed a waste of a dime to me. The three of us joined the living statues leaning on the rail. Unlike them though we looked at an ocean that was not moving and surging, but absolutely quiet and still, like an ocean that had given up and died.
The day’s rain had left the night sky free of clouds, and thousands of cold unblinking stars were sprinkled across the darkness above us.
Then suddenly the world trembled and an enormous cat’s paw descended from above and tapped the ocean perhaps a mile from the shore. The earth shook, and we could see a surge of large waves rushing toward us as if a herd of giant maddened whales were invading us from underwater.
“Oh no!” cried Mr. Arbuthnot, gripping the rail. “It’s Shnooby!”
“Who?” said Dick.
“My cat! Shnooby! He’s attacking the Book of Time! We must get back before he destroys the entire universe!”
And looking up I saw the titanic cat, looking down at us, raising his paw again, trying to decide where to strike next.
“F--king hell,” said Dick.
(Continued here, that is if our heroes can make it back to Mr. Arbuthnot’s in time. Please look down on the right hand side of this page to find a purportedly up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™; this project made possible by a generous grant from the Uneeda Cracker Foundation on the Arts.)