Saturday, January 9, 2010

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 181: cracked

Our intrepid memoirist Arnold Schnabel has awoken one rainy morning to find that he has become a character in Gertrude Evans’s Ye Cannot Quench, a now sadly out-of-print novel of love and lust in the literary and bohemian milieux of 1950s New York...

(Click here to go to our previous thrilling episode, or start off the new year right and go here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 32-volume masterpiece.)

She jumped up from her seat, and thrust her cigarette out at me. I took it. I noticed she wore a wide-skirted dress with a belt, the dress was white with blue cross-hatchings.

“Okay, first things first,” she said, cocking her head. “Where is your coffee?”

A percolator did sit on the stove, but I had no certain idea where the coffee was if I had coffee, but on the other hand there were a couple of cabinets on the wall above the stove and the sink, so I took a wild guess.

“Try in those cabinets over there.”

She skipped over in the direction I had indicated.

For two seconds I considered smoking the remainder of her cigarette but instead I stubbed it out (in an ashtray on which were painted the words “At the Prince George Hotel -- where the service is swell!”) and I set about trying to get more completely dressed.

I walked the six feet to the dresser, opened the top drawer and found a clean pair of sweat socks, a clean pair of boxer shorts.

“Oh, Porter?”

She sounded like a wife on television. I was tempted to say “Yes dear” but I desisted and said only “Yes?”

“You have absolutely nothing edible or potable in these cabinets -- nothing but books and papers, notebooks and such.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

“And a mousetrap,” she said. “Fortunately with no mouse in it.”

I was looking at a door that I hoped opened onto a bathroom, or -- since the tub was out here next to the refrigerator -- at least to a toilet and maybe a sink.

Meanwhile Emily had opened the little refrigerator and was bending over peering inside.

“And nothing in this ice box except some cans of Rheingold beer,” she observed.

Not unlike her creator at times, she had subtly assumed a slightly English-sounding accent, even if she was from West Virginia.

“I guess I’m not much of a cook,” I said, my hand on the wobbly cut-glass door knob.

“Golly, I’ll say you’re not. And how, dear man, was I supposed to make breakfast?”

“Foolish of me,” I said, hoping to sound debonair, or at least like a fellow who couldn’t be expected to pay attention to such trivialities as the contents of his larder or refrigerator.

I opened the door, and revealed a room like a coffin stood on end, but equipped with a toilet bowl, a tiny sink, and even a cracked mirror.

“Get yourself freshened up and we’ll go out to eat,” she said.

“Good idea,” I said.

I went in, pulled the string on the overhead light, closed the door, and then got another shock.

I’ve never had a clear idea of what I look like. Of course I look at myself in the mirror every day when I brush my teeth and shave, but my face has always seemed so indistinct to me that its image seems to lose any memorability it might possess as soon as it passes through my eyes and into my brain. I know I have white skin and brown hair and blue eyes, but beyond that I could tell you nothing.

But this face was different.

It was the face of a sensitive and romantically handsome young poet, or, rather, the face of a sensitive and romantically handsome young actor playing a sensitive and romantically handsome young, well, you get the idea, a poet. In fact it was very much like the face of the younger Montgomery Clift, say from around the time of A Place In The Sun.

I needed a shave, and fortunately there was a safety razor on the sink, and a tube of shaving cream.

I took off my shirt, shaved, brushed my teeth.

I urinated, as quietly as one is able to urinate, and I thanked God or Josh that I had no need to do other than urinate.

I pulled the overhead chain and the toilet flushed, with the sound of a torpedo slamming into the boiler room of a battle ship.

As the aftershocks of the flush reverberated all around me I removed my blue jeans awkwardly in that confined space and pulled on the boxer shorts and the socks, then got back into the jeans and the plaid work shirt.

I opened the door and she was standing right outside. She held a little zippered pink rubber bag, a toiletries case I suppose. She touched my face.

“I’m not so sure I like you clean-shaven, Porter. I liked your stubble. Perhaps you should grow a beard. May I use your facilities?”

“Of course,” I said, and I made to get out of her way, her hand sliding down my face, along my chest and down my arm all the way to the tips of my fingers.

“I won’t be a mo,” she said.

She went in and shut the door behind her.

I saw a pair of work shoes by the bed, sat down and put them on. I realized that the night table had a drawer, it was only partly closed, I pulled it out farther by its little metal ring.

A sprinkling of small change and a few Transit Authority tokens; a pocket knife; scraps of note-paper and paper bar-napkins scrawled with observations philosophical, observational, poetic.

I also found a battered brown wallet. Not much help there. A New York chauffeur’s license for Porter Walker, a merchant seaman’s union card, a New York Public Library card, more of the scraps of paper with scraps of poetry and insight, four dollar bills, and that was about it. Not much to start a whole new existence on. But on the other hand I looked like Montgomery Clift.

The rain had continued to fall outside. I got up and walked to the other end of the room and looked through an open window with an adjustable screen in it. Outside about two or three stories down was a city street in the rain, not too much traffic. If my memory of Miss Evans’s novel served, then this would be a Saturday, sometime in the summer, sometime in the mid-1950s, somewhere in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood I only knew about from the Johnny Staccato TV show..

I wondered if somewhere else on this planet lived a railroad brakeman named Arnold Schnabel, a quiet bachelor who ushered at his church and lived with his mother and who wrote one bad poem every week like clockwork and which his neighborhood paper duly printed each week.

I wondered what would happen if I took the train down to Philadelphia, switched at the Reading Terminal, took the local to the Fern Rock station and walked to B and Nedro and knocked on my mother’s door. What if I myself opened the door? Would I, Arnold Schnabel, recognize myself in the handsome young man on the front steps? For that matter, would I, Porter Walker, recognize Arnold Schnabel in the fellow holding open the door?

I heard the toilet flush. From out here by the window it sounded far less cacophonous than it had inside the water closet, more like the sound of a milk truck crashing end over end down a rocky hill in the near distance.

I went back to the table, with its portable typewriter and its pile of typescript. So this was my epic poem. Without sitting down I picked up the top page, turned it over and read this:

Her body moist, young, ripe as a summer’s peach,
But, unlike a peach, shaped like a woman,
A woman bucking like a small and ardent
Bronco and emitting brief high yelps of pleasure
And digging her scarlet nails into my
Pale back, her eyes closed -- what is
She thinking in this moment, nay,
Multiple moments of ecstasy?

Having read at least as far as last night in Miss Evans’s novel, I could answer that question, she was thinking about some old boyfriend back in West Virginia.

The toilet door opened and I quickly put the sheet of paper back on its stack, face down.

“Well, are we ready?” she said.

The room was so small it only took her about two seconds to be a foot away from me.

She had done something with her hair, I couldn’t say what exactly, and she had applied dark lipstick, I assume it was red but I couldn’t say for sure because everything was still in black-and-white.

(Continued here, and possibly ad infinitum.)

(Please look to the right hand column of this page to find an ostensibly complete listing of links to all other previously broadcast chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©.)

“Every January I retire to my bed for a month and do nothing but read Schnabel all day and every day. On February the first I emerge from my room revivified, whistling a happy tune, swinging my walking-stick, and ready for anything and everything the world throws my way.” -- Harold Bloom, on Oprah.

5 comments:

Dean Rohrer said...

"Her body moist, young, ripe as a summer’s peach,
But, unlike a peach, shaped like a woman,"

ha ha ha -- classic

kathleenmaher said...

I love everything about this post: Porter/Arnold; the poem (Dean's right!); the duality; and the details.

"a room like a coffin stood on end".

My opinion is rarely mainstream but Arnold might wanna know when in doubt, I say, go with "dear." It's kind, not sticky, and reminds me of when I was a child and an adult me treated fondly.

Jennifer said...

I'm with Dean, that one caught my attention as well and elicited a little snort.

Curious, if Harold Bloom does not see his shadow upon arising from his Harold seclusion, does it mean 6 more weeks of reading?

Dan- glad you're still hear. I'll explain later. I think Lucky was messing with more than Arnold's sleep.

Jennifer said...

Or... how about here... I shouldn't post before 6AM.

Dan Leo said...

You and me, both, Jen! I so often rely on Kathleen and Dean to catch typos from chapters I post in the wee hours after not having gone to bed...