Tuesday, March 31, 2009

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 132: falling

Our previous episode of this Kresge’s 5 & 10 Award-nominated memoir left our hero Arnold Schnabel walking hand in hand with the disturbingly animated Victorian doll Clarissa, on this eventful August evening in 1963, on quiet and leafy Lyle Lane, in the slightly decrepit seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...

Her hand was soft and warm but she had a strong grip. Every few steps or so she would lift her feet off the pavement and let me carry her along.

“Just like flying!” she said, holding up her free arm. “I’m not too heavy, am I?”

“No,” I said.

She added her right hand to the left one that was already holding my right hand, and she did a chin-up, turning to look up at me.

“You seem awfully calm about my antics, Arnold. Most men would toss me into the nearest bush and run screaming. Why are you so nonchalant?”

“It’s all in a day’s work for me,” I said.

“I knew it! You’re special!”

“That’s one way of putting it,” I said.

“Can you lift me higher?”

I lifted her up a bit more, so that her face was almost at a level with mine.

“Lift me higher, Arnold!”

I stretched my arm all the way up.

She swung back and forth, kicking her legs.

“Higher!” she said.

“That’s as high as I can go,” I said.

“Oh, we can go much higher!” Keeping a grip on my hand with her left hand, she let go with her other hand and stretched her arm up into the air. “Hold tight now!”

And all at once it was not me lifting her but she lifting me, pulling me up off the pavement, swerving out over the street and up past the thick leaves of an old elm tree, beyond the dappled pools of light from the street lamps and up perhaps a hundred feet or so.

“Which direction shall we go in, Arnold?”

“Your choice,” I said. (Perhaps I should mention here that I still held her grey cardboard box under my left arm.) “But let’s make it quick. I really have to get back to my friends.”

“To the ocean then?”

“Okay, a quick run to the ocean, then right back.”


We flew over the rooftops, past Washington Street, Carpenter’s Lane, Hughes Street, no one looked up, and so no one noticed man and small child flying above their heads, and on we sailed past Columbia Avenue and Beach Avenue and over the promenade flowing with strolling people, over the slivery beach and the ebbing and flowing surf and on about a hundred yards or so out over the gently undulating dark and gleaming ocean.

Clarissa then zoomed straight up for a couple of minutes until we were perhaps three or four hundred yards above the sea. Her dark curls floated around her head as if she were underwater. She continued to hold me up by my right arm, gripping my hand in her small but powerful fist.

“Right, now kick your feet, Arnold,” she said, “as if you were treading water. Like this.”

By the thrashing of the folds of her dress I could see she was rhythmically working her small legs, almost as if she were riding a tricycle. I did the same, and now we were holding our height at a steady level, looking down at the glowing and sparkling town.

“It looks very beautiful from up here, doesn’t it, Arnold?”

“Yes, it does,” I admitted. The air was cool and fresh up here, smelling faintly of the ocean. “Can we go back now?”

“In a minute. I want you to try letting go of my hand. Don’t worry, I’ll catch you if you fall.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been afraid. Hadn’t I just flown into outer space an hour or so ago? Or had that only been a dream?

Perhaps this was a dream also.

If this were indeed a fantasy, then I had no reason to fear falling.

On the other hand, if this were real, then why not let go of her hand? What was the worse that could happen?

“All right,” I said. “I’ll give it a try.”

“Oh good, now, when I let go, just sort of wave your arms up and down, just as if you were doggy-paddling in the ocean, like so.” She demonstrated with her free right arm.”

“You forget I’m holding this box.”

“Just wave with your one arm then. It’s only to keep you steady in one place.”


“And keep kicking your legs. That’s key.”


“Legs up and down, and sort of steady yourself with your right arm, in a paddling motion.”

“Got it,” I said.

“All right. Leave go now.”

I let go of her hand, she let go of my hand, I continued to kick my feet, I started to wave my arms downwards, and I dropped like a stone, straight down toward the ocean like a sack of potatoes.

In the next few seconds as I plummeted I experienced that which I hadn’t had time to experience in my two earlier near-death experiences that day* (or was it three?**), namely a vision of my entire absurd life from my earliest memories to the present moment, all of it, the grey childhood, the boring and sometimes dangerous (but somehow boringly dangerous) work on the railroad, the tedium and ennui of the army, the return to home and work, all the hours wasted in church, the innumerable evenings spent quietly obliviating myself in taverns, the hundreds of hours of dull conversations with my fellow humans, not forgetting the private world of my poems, my poems so dogged in their endless mediocrity, and then my insanity, and my alleged partial recovery, my grudging hejira to Cape May and my meeting Elektra and finally starting to live at the age of forty-two, my new friends, Jesus, my travels into other times and other lives, all of it now about to end thanks to this dubious doll and my own naiveté.

All in all at least I was able to say to myself now what I could not truly have said before this summer, to wit, it was worth it, my life that is, and I was sad to be leaving it, which was another thing I could not truly have said before this summer.

For some reason I still held onto that cardboard box, don’t ask me why.

But then just as I was about to crash into the water back-first the doll Clarissa swooped me up in her arms and carried me skimming along the crests of the waves and then up high into the dark air again. I couldn’t believe her strength, but there it was.

“Well, Arnold, I suppose you’re not so special after all,” she said into my ear.

And I supposed she was right.


*See Episodes 82 and 83.

** See Episode 126.

(Continued here. Please refer to the right hand side of this page to find a purportedly up-to-date index of links to all other recovered chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™; imprimi potest, Msgr. Francis X. “Frank” Fahey, S.J., Censor Librorum.)


Anonymous said...


Jennifer said...

How many mushrooms did Arnold eat??

Unknown said...

Beautiful episode. Terrible doll. If Arnold isn't special, who does she think she's fooling?

Unknown said...

I think the doll succeeded in pushing Arnold to admit what he otherwise so doggedly avoids: that life is worth it.

DR said...

I'm proud to say, this part actually made we weep a bit.
The cardboard box line is genius.

"All in all at least I was able to say to myself now what I could not truly have said before this summer, to wit, it was worth it, my life that is, and I was sad to be leaving it, which was another thing I could not truly have said before this summer.

For some reason I still held onto that cardboard box, don’t ask me why.

Dan Leo said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

But I just wanta know why everyone's hatin' on the doll!

DR said...

i don't hate the doll

DR said...

i like the doll

Unknown said...

I think the doll is teaching Arnold how to have fun. Electra started that process, but a sexual relationship is adult and carries responsibilities - the doll can awaken the child in Arnold. BUT...what else will she awaken?

Unknown said...

I think people are suspicious of the doll because of horror movies.

Dan Leo said...

It's so true, Dianne, dolls have a somewhat spooky history in the cinema. And it's also true that Arnold didn't have much of a childhood. As he put it way back in Chapter 7:

"My earliest years were poor but bearable, but then came the Depression."

Unknown said...

Don't take it personally. Didn't I tell you I dislike all dolls? My sister loved them and every time people gave us gifts, I got a doll and she got a boat or a building kit.

DR said...

i cherish the doll

DR said...

i need a doll

Dan Leo said...

Stay tuned, another Clarissa episode coming up this weekend!