The time: 11:02 p.m., August 10, 1963.
The place: near the corner of Jackson Street and Carpenters Lane, in the pleasant Victorian resort of Cape May, NJ.
(Go here for our previous chapter or here for the barely remembered beginning of this Gold View Award-winning masterpiece.)
“I really was intending just to go home,” I said.
“And what about me?” she asked. “Do you know how long I’ve been sitting in that dusty shop?”
“I have no idea.”
“Since nineteen hundred and ten.”
“Oh, well, that is a long time,” I said.
“Indeed it is.”
“Well, all right then,” I said.
I let her take my arm, and we started down the sidewalk towards the ocean.
A man and a woman were strolling towards us from the opposite direction.
“I love your dress!” said the woman to Clarissa.
“Oh, thank you.”
“Are you a tour guide?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“A -- you know -- a Victorian tour guide.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the woman. “It’s just --”
“Is it just that I am not walking about displaying my lower limbs for all the world to see like some wild aborigine?”
“Hmmph! Come, Arnold,” said Clarissa, and she pulled me along the sidewalk and away from the flabbergasted man and woman.
“Tour guide,” she said.
“Well, you can’t blame her, Clarissa,” I said.
“Because I’m not dressed like some Hottentot?”
“Well, it’s just that your dress is a little -- outdated.”
She stopped, and looked down at her outfit. Then she looked down the street and across the street, obviously observing the attire of some other passing women and girls.
“All right, I’ll concede that you have a point," she said. "Listen, you can get rid of that box now.”
She referred to her grey cardboard doll box, which I still dutifully carried under one arm.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes, we won’t be needing it any more.”
“Well, okay. The next trash can I see.”
“Oh, bother. Give it to me.”
I did as she asked, and she unceremoniously tossed it over a fence and onto someone’s lawn.
“Now,” she said. “I’ll need some new togs. Do you know of a good dress shop?”
“No, I wouldn’t, but --”
“No, of course you wouldn’t. What’s that up there?”
She referred to a store called the Mitzi Shoppe, up ahead and across the street.
“It’s a -- um -- ladies’ shop,” I mumbled. “But it’s probably closed.”
“Let’s have a look.”
A few seconds later we were standing outside the shop, which indeed was closed, although the display window was still lit.
“There are some pretty things here,” said Clarissa.
“We can come back tomorrow,” I said.
“Cover for me,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Keep an eye on the street.”
“Don’t ask so many questions.”
She took a quick glance up and down the street, then took a pin out of her hair.
She went up to the door, and, pretending to be looking in at the wares inside, she began picking the lock.
“Clarissa!” I whispered. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh, be still,” she said. “Some knight in shining armor you are.”
“I never claimed to be a knight in shining armor!”
“Hold on. I think I’ve got it.”
Sure enough, the lock clicked, she turned the knob, and opened the door.
She looked back over her shoulder at me.
“Well, are you coming in?”
“Coward. Stay outside then. Let me know if a policeman comes. Just rap on the window.”
But she was already in the store, closing the door behind her.
I felt horribly exposed. I quickly walked across the street to the opposite sidewalk. What I should do, I thought, was just go home. She didn’t know where I lived. I owed her nothing, and, after all, she was breaking the law. In fact, what I should do, I thought, as a good citizen, what I should really do is walk to the nearest phone booth and call the police. But then I thought, wait, she’s been sitting in a dusty antique shop for more than fifty years. Perhaps I should not judge her. Perhaps --
I realized that I must look suspicious, just standing there on the pavement, so I started walking back up Jackson in the direction we had come from.
Then I felt guilty. I was abandoning her. Where would she go? Back to Mr. Arbuthnot’s shop? I stopped, hesitated, then jaywalked across the street again. I hesitated once more. I turned and looked down the block, toward the shop. I found myself wishing she would just hurry. I started walking again, towards the shop, but very slowly, trying to seem casual.
I came to the shop, looked in. There in the shadows I could see Clarissa, holding a dress up at arm’s length. Anyone passing by and looking in could just as easily have seen her.
I fidgeted. I looked back down the street toward town, but no one was coming on this side of the street, thank God. I turned and looked up towards the beach, and the coast was clear on that front also. I went to the shop door, turned the knob. She had left the door unlocked. I opened it and went inside.
“What do you think of this one?” she asked, holding out the dress.
“It’s very nice,” I said. “Now hurry. Anyone can see us in here.”
“You really think it’s nice?”
“Yes, it’s -- it’s -- beautiful.”
“Well, if you say so. Let me try it on. There’s a changing room back there I believe.”
She went through the dark shop to its rear and opened another door. I went and crouched behind a mannequin, keeping a look-out on the street. People passed by, some of them even gazed into the display windows, but they all continued on. My body had cooled off after my escapade with Elektra in her foyer, but now I began to sweat again in this un-airconditioned dim shop.
Finally I heard the door open behind me, and I turned.
“How do I look, she asked?”
It was a yellow dress of seersucker, with a blue cloth belt and a full skirt, with a brighter blue ribbon at the bodice, short puffy sleeves. She did look good.
“Swell,” I said. “Now let’s go.”
“I need shoes!”
I looked down and saw that she had taken off the lace-up Victorian boots she had been wearing before.
“Okay, but please hurry,” I said.
Fortunately the shop only stocked a small assortment of shoes, and she soon settled on a yellow pair because they matched her dress.
I looked away as she bent over and put them on.
“Well, how do I look?” she asked.
I turned and looked. For all the world she looked like a smart young woman of the present day, at least as far as I could tell.
“Great,” I said. “Now let’s go.”
“I need a handbag.”
I assumed my crouching position behind the mannequin again, and finally she tapped me on the shoulder. She had found a shiny white leather purse, a small one with a long thin gold lamé strap.
“Nice?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s small, but then I don’t have anything to put in it. Not yet, anyway.”
“Right," I said. "So, shall we go then?”
I went to the door. I couldn’t see anyone outside.
“Okay, let’s beat it,” I said.
I opened the door, she slipped out past me, I closed the door. She took my arm, we left the entrance and headed down toward the beach.
“Don’t walk so fast, Arnold,” she said.
I slowed down.
What I would do, tomorrow -- no, tomorrow was Sunday, but Monday -- first thing Monday morning, I would buy a money order -- would fifty dollars cover it? -- and then I would mail it to the shop, anonymously. That would make it okay. That would sort of make it okay.
But what would the shopkeeper make of the Victorian dress and boots Clarissa had left in the dressing room?
Well, I couldn’t worry about that now.
(Continued here, and until someone or some thing stops us. Feel free to look to the right hand side of this page for what one hopes to be an up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. “Not just a memoir, but a roadmap for the soul.” -- Harold Bloom.)
"Your mojo don't work on your baby like mine." -- Tina Turner