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“It’s become fashionable to call Arnold Schnabel the ‘Proust of his time’; I prefer to call Proust ‘the Arnold Schnabel of his time’.” -- Harold Bloom, in Cosmopolitan.
She wore her fluffy white robe, and her eye-makeup and lipstick were smeared, making her face look out-of-focus, like in the movies when the projectionist has fallen asleep or passed out, her hair stuck out in tufts or else was matted against her skull as if with Elmer’s glue, and a bruise on the upper part of her forehead shone like a small blue light bulb. In her right hand she held an unfolded pink bath towel that dragged on the floor behind her and in her other hand she held a toothbrush and some bottles and tubes against her side. She wore only one slipper.
She approached me, saying, “Please don’t look at me.”
Obediently I looked away. My aunts had a framed portrait photograph of the actor Robert Taylor on the opposite wall, I suppose the picture had come with the frame. I looked at that. But I could hear and sense Miss Evans coming closer to me.
One of her fingers touched the side of my face, at least I could only assume it was her finger.
“No! Don’t look at me!” she said, although I was still looking straight at the picture of Robert Taylor, in fact I was concentrating on it. “I know I must look a fright,” she said. “Do I look a fright?”
This time I did start to turn to look at her, but she slapped me lightly on the cheek and said, “No! You mustn’t look. I know I look a fright. Are you through with the bathroom by the way?”
“Yes,” I said, staring at Robert Taylor, “for the time being.”
“Good. I need a long hot bath. Never have I been so hungover. Have you ever been so hungover?”
“As hungover as you are?”
“Well, no, I meant have you ever been as hungover as you are now.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Plenty of times. But then I’m not extremely hungover.”
“I am extremely hungover,” she said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
There was a pause here. She was no longer touching my face or any other part of me, but I could tell she was standing close to me. I could hear her breathing and feel the heat of her body, and I could feel my skin starting to perspire beneath my old grey bathrobe.
“Well --” I started to say.
“I don’t want you to feel guilty,” she said.
I looked at her.
“Please,” she said. She had the towel under her left arm now. She put her right hand over her face. “I asked you not to look at me.”
“Sorry,” I said, and turned again to Robert Taylor. He gazed back at me impassively.
“About last night,” she said. “That will be -- oh, let’s just say that that will be our little secret.”
She had started speaking in a sort of English accent again.
“You mean --”
“It’s okay, Miss Evans --”
“Gertrude. You were just a little drunk, that’s all. I only hope you weren’t hurt badly.”
“Yes. The bruise on your forehead.”
“I have a bruise on my forehead?”
I didn’t look, but I suppose she felt her forehead with her fingers.
“Ow. How did I get that.”
She had slipped back into her regular accent.
“Well, you -- uh --”
“Hey, wait a minute --”
“I know, I asked for it. You bold brute you.”
“But, wait --”
“No, no need to apologize. I‘m sure I was asking for it.”
“But --” I said.
“Not another word.” Her accent was getting a little more English again now. “I shall simply part my hair to the side.”
“Look, Gertrude --”
“I said ‘not another word’. Besides, my head is killing me and I have to urinate and, possibly, regurgitate. I’ll see you later.”
“Okay,” I said, knowing there was probably no way to avoid seeing her for the rest of my life, short of skipping town and changing my name, and perhaps having plastic surgery.
“What are you doing after lunch, by the way?” she asked.
“I haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
“Let me put it this way: what are you doing later this afternoon.”
I suddenly remembered. I actually had an excuse.
“I’m supposed to be working on this screenplay with Larry Winchester.”
“Oh. Then afterwards. What are your plans.”
“I don’t have any.” Then I quickly hedged: “I mean, uh, I’m getting together with Elektra I think.”
“Uh, I don’t know -- later?”
“Where can we meet.”
“That Negro bar. Phil’s?”
“Meet you at Pete’s for cocktails. Say five-ish?”
“Oh, all right, say five-thirty-ish. I very much doubt that you and Larry will be wrestling in the throes of creation that far into the day. And on the Lord’s day to boot.”
“Oh, I get it. Now that you’ve -- what’s the term -- 'had' me, you have no more interest, is that it? What am I, a Kleenex, to be used once and then dropped to the sidewalk?”
“I would never drop a Kleenex on the sidewalk.”
“Then why are you dropping me?” asked Miss Evans.
“Miss Evans, Gertrude --” (I was having trouble continuing to stare only at Robert Taylor. He really seemed to be staring back at me now.) “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh,” she said.
“So you were that drunk?”
“Last night? Well, yeah, I was a little drunk.”
But not half as drunk as you were I might have added, but because I am a gentleman I didn’t.
“A little drunk,” she repeated. She sounded sad, although I don’t think she really was sad. “Look, stud, just be there at Phil’s, say six-ish. That’ll give you plenty of time for your little hack-work session with Larry.”
“You mean Pete’s,” I said.
“Yes, I just said that. Pete’s Tavern, six-ish. Now if you will excuse me, I must bathe. I have to meet that chap Lucky for lunch at the Pilot House.”
I turned and looked at her.
“Damn it, Arnold, if you look at me one more time I’m going to give you a bruise on your forehead.”
“Sorry,” I said, turning back to the actor, who was now blatantly smirking at me. “But, Gertrude, about Lucky --”
“What about him?”
“I’m not so sure you should have lunch with him.”
“How dare you. How dare you tell me whom to have lunch with. Do I tell you not to have lunch with your little Italian, Alethia?”
“She’s not Italian. Also her name is --”
“Regardless. You have no right. You have no claims upon me. Or do you? Do you think you do, you big ape?”
She sounded genuinely curious.
“No,” I said quickly. “It’s just that I -- I think that Lucky might not be a very nice fellow.”
And that was putting it mildly.
“But he said he could get my books into the movies.”
“Well, maybe he can,” I said, “but --”
Suddenly from the corner of my eye I saw my mother’s grey head at the stairs down to my left.
“Arnold,” said my mother. “You’re never going to be able to eat your breakfast and make the eleven o’clock mass at this rate.”
“Oh, hello, Mrs. Schnabel,” said Miss Evans. “Arnold and I were just chatting. I hope I’m not keeping him from his religious duties.”
“He really should eat his breakfast after mass,” said my mother, “so he can receive communion.”
“Yes, he should, shouldn’t he?”
I was tempted to tell my mother to forget about breakfast, but I was famished, I felt as if I hadn’t eaten in days.
“Tell you what, Mom,” I said, decisively, “I’ll go to the noon mass.”
“Yes, the noon. That’ll give me plenty of time to eat.”
“Well, okay,” she said. She still sounded doubtful.
“I’ll be down in two minutes,” I said.
“Two minutes?” said my mother.
Her head was still all that was visible on the stairs.
“Three maybe,” I said.
Her head disappeared.
I looked at Miss Evans.
“You’re looking at me again,” she said.
I looked again at Robert Taylor, who now wore a broad mocking grin.
I felt fingers touching my face.
“Until six-ish then,” she said. “At Phil’s Tavern.”
“Whatever. We’ll have a civilized cocktail, maybe two, like two broad-minded modern adults and then you can run off to your Spanish girl Elvira and do whatever unspeakable things you two do together.”
The fingers left my face. I heard feet shuffling away, and now that it was safe I turned and looked. She was heading roughly in the direction of the bathroom, dragging her towel on the floor behind her.
I opened my attic door, went in, closed the door.
“Jesus Christ,” said the fly.
I went up my steps, or rather I limped up my steps.
“Jesus fucking Christ, pal,” said the fly. “You can pick ‘em all right, and that’s for sure.”
“I didn’t pick her,” I said.
“Well, you banged her.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you played hide-the-salami with her. Made the beast with two backs. Schtupped her.”
“No I didn’t.”
“I certainly did not.”
I was standing there in my attic having this conversation with the fly.
“Well, pal, she certainly thinks you did.”
The fly hovered in front of me, staring at me, as if incredulous at my thickness.
“Oh,” I said.
“Oh is right,” said the fly.
I paused. I’ve always been a little slow on the uptake.
“Well, nothing I can do about it now,” I said.
“You better get downstairs before your mother comes up again.”
“Yes, you’re right. Let me get dressed.”
“I’m not stopping you, pal.”
I hung up my towel and put my toothpaste and toothbrush back on their shelf. I gingerly took off my sweaty bathrobe and hung it on its hook, then I hobbled over to what passed for a closet in my attic, namely a wooden bar that had been fixed across one narrow end of it in front of a small dormer window.
The fly flew over and landed on the window sill; the window was open, although it had an adjustable screen in it to keep out the mosquitoes; the fly seemed to be gazing out at the rain and at the view of the old house across the way...
I had only brought one pair of long trousers to Cape May with me, those that went with my one grey summer suit.
Gritting my teeth with my various aches and pains I took the trousers off their hanger and started to pull them on.
The fly turned and looked at me.
“Them the only slacks you got?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said.
“No, I believe my mother bought them at Krass Brothers.”
“Never heard of ‘em.”
“It’s a Philadelphia shop.”
“Not exactly Brooks Brothers I take it.”
“No, not Brooks Brothers,” I said.
“Not that I’m criticizing.”
I had one long-sleeved shirt, a white one, and I took this off its hanger.
“Your mom get that shirt at Krass Brothers too?”
“I think she may have gotten it at Sears,” I said.
“Sears, the hallmark of quality in men’s wear.”
“Awright, awright, I’ll shut up.”
He turned around, looking out at the window at the rainy scene. The window made it all look like a painting, and the rain made it beautiful. I could smell the ocean in the damp air, and honeysuckle, the scents of the flowers that surrounded my aunts’ house, chrysanthemums and roses, rhododendrons...
“Y’know, pal,” said the fly, “I think I’m gonna like this town.”
(Continued here, and for no one knows how long.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, presented with the permission of the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia Pa. This week’s episode sponsored by Tastykake™: “The oven fresh goodness of all Tastykake™ products is preserved with only the finest American-made wax paper.”