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The drums pounded on from the living room, accompanied now by chanting in what I assume was some African language.
She sat there, her hands on the red table top, looking at me. Her eyes were a faceted and disquieting dark blue.
I find it disturbing when a person sits at a table neither smoking nor eating. My aunts and mother do this, and I’ve never gotten used to it.
I drank some more beer.
I decided that I would finish the bottle, neither rushing it nor pacing myself, and then I would go back into the living room, and if Josh wasn’t awake yet and could not be awakened, I would leave. I hated to abandon him, but I felt that I would regret it if I remained here much longer. And after all, he was who he was, wasn’t he? Did he need my protection?
“I hope your friend is not an alcoholic,” Magda finally said.
“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” I said, glad to be conversing again instead of just sitting there with her staring at me sitting there making resolutions I probably wouldn’t keep.
“So this is not an habitual routine with him, drinking till he passes out?”
“No, I really don’t think so,” I said. “I think he’s really not much of a drinker.”
“You think so? And just how well do you know this Josh?”
“Oh, not really well,” I said. “Not -- um --”
“But you have met him before tonight?”
“I first met him, uh, this past winter,” I said.
“This past winter. Here, in Cape May?”
“No, this was in Philadelphia.”
In the Philadelphia State Mental Hospital at Byberry, to be exact.
“And then you met him again here in Cape May?”
“Yes,” I said.
She stared at me, as if to say, “We have ways of loosening your tongue, you know. We can do this the easy way or we can do it the the hard way. It is entirely up to you.”
The drums pounded, the Africans chanted.
“There’s something you are not telling me,” she said.
“There’s always something,” I said.
“Something you are deliberately not telling me. About Josh.”
“Tell me. I promise I will not blab.”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s my place,” I said, which might have been honest of me to say, but which definitely was foolish, admitting as it was that there definitely was something I was withholding.
She reached all the way across the table and put her hand on mine. She squeezed. Bent forward like that she stared up into my eyes beneath her darkened lashes.
“The beans,” she said. “Spill them.”
But how could I tell her that Josh was the son of God? Well, by simply telling her. But no, I just couldn’t. And besides, if Josh wanted everyone to know who he was, then he would probably just tell them himself. Wouldn’t he?
She squeezed my hand harder.
“Am I interrupting something?”
We both turned to the entranceway, and Magda released my hand.
It was Josh, pale and rumpled, but looking slightly better than he had a little while ago. He had a lit cigarette in one hand.
“Not interrupting at all,” said Magda. “Come join us.”
“I just wanted to get a glass of water, really,” he said, coming into the kitchen.
“I will get it for you,” said Magda, pushing her chair back.
“No, please,” said Josh, “don’t get up.”
“Nonsense.” She stood up. “I can’t believe my grandmother and Freddy are allowing you to serve yourself.”
“Oh, they’re otherwise engaged right now,” said Josh.
“Getting high, you mean.”
“Well, yes. I woke up and they were smoking away, it’s true.”
“Sit down. Here, sit across from Arnold,” she said, indicating the chair she had just vacated.
“Well, all right,” said Josh. “Miss --”
“Magda. Just call me Magda.”
“All right, Magda. I’m Josh, by the way.”
“Yes. I know.”
She put out her hand, palm downward, and Josh took it. Unlike me he did this suavely, even in his present state, bowing his head and just barely touching her fingers with his lips, then gently releasing her hand.
“Charmed I am sure,” said Magda.
He sat, and Magda moved the chair in for him, the way a waiter might.
“Perhaps you would like a nice cold beer, Mr. Josh,” said Magda, standing by his side and touching his shoulder lightly with one finger, in a way no waiter would.
“Oh, no, please,” he said. “Just water.”
“What were you drinking, you poor man?”
“Well, beer, but I think it was the bourbon that did me in. I’m not really used to it.”
“Arnold said you weren’t much of a drinker.”
Josh glanced at me.
“Well, yes, that’s true I suppose,” he said.
“Any damn fool can be a drunk,” she said. “This is no great accomplishment.”
“That’s true too,” said Josh, tapping his cigarette ash into the purple glass ashtray.
“But I am blathering on and forgetting your glass of water.”
“Oh, no rush,” said Josh.
“Perhaps you would like a bowl of my grandmother’s borscht?”
“Borscht?” said Josh, turning somewhat awkwardly in his chair to face her. She had seemed about to move toward the refrigerator, but then had remained where she was standing next to him.
“Yes,” she said. “Borscht. Quite nutritious. We like to drink it cold, with a shot of vodka on the side.”
“No, thank you,” said Josh. He suddenly seemed paler. “Just some water I think.”
“Water it is then,” she said, and she went over to the sink, a large double sink of stainless steel.
This talk of borscht reminded me that I was hungry, and I remembered the sandwich she had mentioned making for me. That didn’t look like it was going to happen now, and perhaps it was just as well.
“Sorry for passing out on you, Arnold,” said Josh, quietly.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I don’t know what came over me,” he said.
“Don’t feel bad. It comes over me all the time.”
“The yearning for oblivion,” said Magda, from the sink, where she had just filled a glass with water from the tap.
She brought the glass over to the table, and putting one hand on Josh’s shoulder again, she offered the water to him with her other hand.
“Perhaps you would like ice?”
“No, this is fine,” said Josh. “Thank you.”
He took the glass, it was decorated in red and gold paint, granular-looking leaves and flowers, and he drank, with great long gulps.
He finished the glass and she took it from his hand. Her one hand was now lightly touching the back of his shirt collar. For the first time I noticed consciously that her fingernails were painted red, bright red.
“Would you like some more water,” she said, her voice sounding like water, cool water rippling over smooth stones.
“No, thank you,” said Josh. “I think I should go, really.”
“Why must you rush off?”
“I’m a bit under the weather,” said Josh.
The Africans sang, and pounded on their drums, it sounded like a thunderstorm in human form.
“So, Josh,” I said. I pushed my chair back and stood up. “Let’s get you home, buddy.”
“Yeah, home,” he said.
“You didn’t finish your beer, Mr. Schnabel,” said Magda.
“Oh,” I said. I picked up the bottle and expertly polished it off. “Thank you very much, Magda." I put the empty bottle back down on the table, then said, “Well, Josh --”
His head sank down to his chest. His eyes were closed.
Magda took the lit cigarette from his fingers and stubbed it out in the purple glass ashtray.
“Not exactly the life of the party, is he?” she said.
(Continued here, and until every last one of those marble notebooks that fill Arnold’s old army footlocker has been faithfully transcribed. Please go to the right hand side of this page to find what might possibly be an up-to-date listing of links to all other available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. Be sure to buy your tickets now for the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Annual Summer Ball at the VFW on Chew Street. Music provided by Rockin’ Harry Hirsch and His Combo.)