Saturday, January 29, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 235: obsequies

Let us rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel on this rainy Sunday morning in August of 1963 as he enters the kitchen of a large and ungainly Victorian boarding house in the moldering old port town of Cape May, New Jersey…

(Click here to read our immediately preceding episode; newcomers may go here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 67-volume masterwork, which Harold Bloom {in Field & Stream} has called “just the thing to have on your shelves the next time you get snowed in at your rustic cabin in the mountains for several months”.)


The whole clan was in the kitchen. My mother and my aunts Greta, Elizabetta and Edith were all standing about doing the things they do, and my young cousin Kevin sat in his usual place at the table, reading a comic book. They would all have already had their breakfasts of course: for my aunts and my mother a slice each of dry toast with a cup of black coffee and for Kevin a couple of large bowls of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes sprinkled liberally with extra sugar.

Doing my best to disguise my limp, I walked over and sat down where I always sat, at the middle of the table, to Kevin’s immediate right. My mother and aunts immediately began laying out my breakfast, scrambled eggs and potato pancakes, freshly-made weisswurst, rolls and coffee.

Kevin was reading a very worn-looking Our Army at War comic featuring Sgt. Rock and nursing probably his third or fourth tall glass of Fox’s U-bet chocolate milk of the morning. He folded the page over his finger, turned his small moonlike face only slightly towards me and gazed up at me out of the corners of his narrowed eyes.

“What’s this about you taking me to Wally’s to get some new comics.”

“Kevin,” said my Aunt Edith, “don’t be rude. At least say good morning to your cousin Arnold.”

“Good morning, Cousin Arnold.”

“Good morning, Kevin,” I said, putting my napkin on my lap and picking up my knife and fork.

“So, about Wally’s --”

“Yes,” I said. “I thought we might stop in, pick you up some --”

“I got no money.”

“Well, I was going to treat you, Kevin.”

The boy turned his head more fully towards me, staring at me with furrowed brow, probably wondering what my angle was.

“Say thank you, Kevin,” said my Aunt Elizabetta.

“Thanks, Cousin Arnold,” he said. “When can we go?”

“After I have breakfast and take a shower,” I said.

“Your cousin Arnold still has to go to mass, Kevin,” said my Aunt Greta.

“He can take me there on his way to the church,” said Kevin.

“Kevin --” said my mother.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “We’ll do that, Kevin.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“Make sure he comes right home, Arnold,” said my mother. “I don’t like him being in that place alone.”

“Open on Sunday,” said my Aunt Edith. “It’s a sin.”

“Why’s it a sin?” asked Kevin.

“People shouldn’t work on Sundays,” said Edith. “It’s the Lord’s Day.”

“Priests work on Sunday,” said Kevin.

“Kevin,” said my mother, “be still and read your comic book.”

Kevin tightened his lips and breathed in deeply through his nose, staring down at the back cover of his comic book, which had an advertisement urging young boys to sell Grit, “America's Greatest Family Newspaper", a publication I had never actually seen. He continued to breathe deeply, and quickly. He had the fever, the lust for comic books. He re-opened his Sgt. Rock comic and I could hear the rattle of a Thompson gun and the Sarge’s gruff baritone shouting out, “Let’s go, you dogfaces! You wanna live forever?”

“Yes,” I said, chewing some weisswurst, “of course I do.”

Kevin looked up.

I heard the whistle and the explosion of a mortar shell, the cry of a wounded man, someone calling for a medic.

“What?” said Kevin.

“Um,” I said, “I mean of course we’ll take you to Wally’s on my way to church.”

“I thought we had already settled that,” he said.

“Uh, yes, yes, so we did. Mother,” I addressed that good woman, who was watching both Kevin and myself warily, “is that today’s Sunday Bulletin there?” pointing with my knife at what was obviously today’s Sunday Bulletin at the other end of the table.

“Yes,” she said. She picked it up, laid it next to my place. I laid down my knife and fork and removed the funny pages from the bundle of the paper. The funnies were all I read any more, these days even the sport pages were too much for me. As usual, I turned first to Fritzi Ritz, and Fritzi and her mentally-deficient boyfriend Phil Fumble did me the favor of confining their antics to the colored ink on the paper.

I made it through breakfast without further incident. If my mother or aunts or Kevin noticed the scrapes on the heels of my hands they kept quiet about it. And after all this wouldn’t have been the first morning I had appeared at breakfast with scrapes and bruises acquired in drunken shenanigans the previous night.

After I had refused a third helping of everything my mother put an ashtray next to my place.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m guess I didn’t tell you. I’ve given up smoking.”

“You have? Since when?”

“Since yesterday morning.”

“Don’t you feel well? Let me feel your forehead.”

“No, no, I feel fine. I just decided to quit, that’s all.”

Still she made a move to feel my forehead, but I drew my head away, perhaps churlishly.

“Really, Mother, I’m fine. I just got tired of coughing in the morning.”

“You’re sure?”

There you go, inadvertently I had given her something new to worry about. But this couldn’t be helped. I polished off my fourth cup of coffee and got up.

“Let me just shower and change,” I said to Kevin, “then I’ll take you to Wally’s. On my way to church.”

“I’ll be waiting,” he said.

Once again being careful to try not to limp too much, I thanked my mother and my aunts and left the kitchen.

On the third floor I halted at the head of the stairs, listening.

I heard the sounds of opera music coming from Miss Evans’s room. This time I took no chances. I unlaced my sneakers, took them off, and tiptoed slowly down the corridor, making it successfully to my attic door…


The next stage of my campaign went according to plan (for once). The only real unpleasantness was finding that Miss Evans had not only not cleaned the tub behind her, but had forgotten even to drain the bathwater. No matter, soon enough I had very satisfactorily voided my bowels, showered and shaved, re-brushed my teeth, and returned to my attic to change.

But when I was finally back in my little garret and had hung up my bathrobe I realized something was missing, and I stood there, wondering what that could be.

I felt a lack, a lack I could not identify.

Now to be honest I have gone through life feeling a vague lack, or feeling the negative presence of all sorts of nameless and faceless lacks, but this was different, it felt like something very specific.

I stood there, naked, standing in the middle line of the room, the only section of it that I can stand up straight in, as the ceiling slopes down sharply from the roof beam on either side.

What was it?

For a moment I was afraid I might be going insane again.

And then I realized: it was the fly -- Frank, or Francis, whatever his name was.

He had said he would meet me here, but where was he?

I looked about the room, which didn’t take long, it’s a small room, but he was nowhere, nowhere to be found.

Where was he?

Quickly I dressed, putting on my grey suit from Krass Brothers, my black cordovan shoes from Thom McAn, my one narrow black and grey striped tie from God knows where, and then I dashed down my steps and out to the third floor once more.

Just as I was approaching her door Miss Evans opened it and stepped out. She was wearing her fluffy bathrobe again, but she looked considerably better than she had an hour before: her hair was damp and brushed, she wore both her slippers, she had lipstick and makeup on.

“Where’s the fire, big boy?”

“I have to go to mass,” I said.

“Oh. Mass. How quaint. If you see Father Reilly say hello for me.”

“I will.”

“The bastard. Running out on me last night. Why do men always run out on me?”

I didn’t think she wanted me to answer that honestly so I said nothing.

“Go then,” she said. “Perhaps I would go with you, but I have to get ready to go meet that Lucky chap for luncheon. But wait, you said I shouldn’t lunch with Lucky. Do you think I should I stand him up?”

“Uh, well, I don’t know --”

“I’ve never been to a Catholic mass. I could get dressed quickly and go to mass with you instead. What do you think of that?”

“Well, you know,” I said at once, “now that I think about it, if you make a date with someone I really think should keep it.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” I said, firmly. “I mean it’s only polite.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”

“I think so,” I said.

“It’s just -- oh, how shall I say? Comme il faut.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, you know --”

“Common simple politeness. And civility.”

“Right, you know, uh --”

“That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

“No, uh --”

“In this day and age.”

“Um.”

“By golly, Arnold, that’s the way I look at it too,” she said. “You would never break a date, would you?”

“No,” I said. “But then I’ve had very few dates to break. Heh heh.”

“Ha ha. Well, just don’t forget ours, big boy.” She reached out with both of her hands and straightened the knot of my tie, or at any rate she fiddled with the knot of my tie, for all I know she unstraightened it. “Phil’s Tavern,” she said. “Six-ish.”

“Pete’s Tavern,” I said.

“Phil’s, Pete’s, you know what I mean.”

“Yes.”

“Go.” She touched my cheek with her fingers. The nails were painted bright red, and they smelled of varnish. “Go to mass.”

I went.

At the first floor I quickly went down the hall to Kevin’s room. The door was still ajar. I switched the overhead light on and looked around, bent over, stepping as carefully as I could, squinting and searching. Finally I saw him, on the floor, on the inside of a Baby Ruth wrapper, lying on his back. I got down on one knee and carefully I lifted the wrapper up. He lay there, very still, no, more than very still, not moving, not moving at all. Involuntarily I gasped, and I felt a tear welling in my eye. It wasn’t fair. He had been so full of life. And he had been so joyful at the prospect of consuming Kevin’s leftover sugary treats. It just wasn’t fair. I slowly let out my breath, and this exhalation caused his tiny body gently to turn over, so that he now lay on his belly.

“Sorry, little guy,” I whispered. “I’m really sorry.”

The tear that had been in my eye ran down my cheek.

Outside Kevin’s screened window the rain continued to fall, drenching all of Cape May, drenching the trees and the houses, the streets and gardens and lawns, the rain fell continuously, giving life to the living but giving nothing at all to the dead.

What should I do with the fly’s body? It seemed wrong just to drop him in the wastebasket. Perhaps I should fold him up in the Baby Ruth wrapper and give him a decent burial somewhere. Maybe say a few words over his grave.

I stood up.

“Don’t worry, pal,” I said. “Maybe you’re in a better place now.”

Or maybe not I immediately thought.

“At least you died happy,” I said.

So one could only assume.

With my free hand I wiped the tear from my face.

“I’ll wrap you up now, buddy,” I said. “And after I send my cousin back home from the cigar shop with his comic books I’ll find you some quiet spot, I’ll dig you a little grave, and put you in it. You may have been only a fly, and, yes, you may have been a little annoying sometimes. But you were my friend. You were my friend at a time when I needed a friend.”

I took a deep breath, preparatory to folding him up in the wrapper and putting him in my pocket.

“I think this Baby Ruth wrapper will make a good coffin for you, old buddy. You said you loved Baby Ruths.”

I looked again out the window at the rain. Then I looked back at him, his tiny motionless body.

“Or would you prefer a sea burial?” I asked. “I could take you out on the rock jetty and toss you into the waves.” I looked down at him there in his wrapper, in my hand. “Would you prefer that to being buried? To be cast into the waves, to become one with the ocean.”

Suddenly the fly turned over and stood up on his hind legs.

“What the fuck are you talking about, pal? I would prefer neither to be buried nor to be tossed into the ocean.”

“Oh, my God,” I said, “I thought, I thought --”

“Look, you know I like to take a nap after I eat. That’s no reason to fucking bury me or throw me into the ocean.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “But you really looked --”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a pretty heavy sleeper. So, what’s next on the agenda? How about a beer?”

“Well, I’m supposed to be going to mass.”

“Supposed?”

“I’m not really going to go. I’m going to go see what my lady friend is up to.”

“Lady friend? Not that crazy broad who lives down the hall?”

“No, this is a different one,” I said.

“You slay me, pal. You and the frails. What’s your secret?”

“I don’t know.”

“So, this lady friend, she got a friend?”

“You mean like a --”

“Like another lady.”

“Well, yes, yes, but, uh --”

“And no skinny chicks neither. You know me, I like ‘em with some meat on their bones.”

“Well, uh --”

“What?”

“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, uh, Frank --”

“What? Take what?”

“Um --”

“Spit it out,” said the fly.

“Okay,” I said. “Listen, I’d really like to go see my lady friend alone.”

“Oh.”

“You know how it is,” I said.

“Yeah, I know how it is. You’re hoping to get your end wet.”

“Well, uh, um --”

“Hey, go. With my blessing, go, go forth and copulate, pal. Don’t worry about me. I’ll amuse myself around here.”

“Okay,” I said. “Just be careful --”

“I know, I know, the old German broads who like to kill flies.”

“Well, yes.”

“I will keep a weather eye out, believe me.”

“Good,” I said.

“Arnold?” said my mother.

I turned. She was standing in the doorway.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Oh, uh, just came in to look for Kevin, um.”

“You were talking.”

“Yes, just talking to myself.” I looked down at the wrapper. The fly had flown away. “I was just saying to myself how sloppy Kevin is. Leaving his candy wrappers lying all around.”

“He’s very untidy.”

“Yes, he, uh --”

I crumpled up the wrapper and tossed it into Kevin’s wastebasket.

“You’d better get going,” she said, “if you’re going to make the noon mass.”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, I’d better. Where’s Kevin?”

“In the living room, watching a cowboy movie.”

“Well, I’d better get him then, and get going.”

“You’ll need to take umbrellas.”

“Yes, umbrellas,” I said.

I thought I heard the fly laughing.



(Continued here. An army of Schnabelians demands it.)

(Please go 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©. This week’s episode sponsored brought to you in part by Fox’s U-bet™ chocolate syrup: “The chocolate syrup that made Brooklyn famous!”

13 comments:

Dean Rohrer said...

love it--my favorite parts of all arnold's memoirs are the descriptions of the schnabel family in and around the cape may house

Dan Leo said...

Aw, thanks, Dean -- reminiscent of the Rohrer clan?

kathleenmaher said...

Phew, for a minute there I was worried. I know Arnold's shy, but asking for privacy with (I hope Elektra) almost seems harsh. You know the line: Oh to be a fly on that wall.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, I can see how having this particular fly on the wall might possibly cause some performance anxiety...

Dean Rohrer said...

no, actually, it doesn't remind me of my family...i just like the details and the matter of fact tone...i really feel like i'm there and that i can see the characters

Dan Leo said...

Dean, it does remind me of MY family!

And you're an honorary member.

Dean Rohrer said...

thanks dan--looking forward to the freshly-made weisswurst!

kathleenmaher said...

I hadn't thought of that.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, Dean -- this Sunday, my place -- I'm making weisswurst!

Jason Gusmann said...

has anyone ever actually seen a physical edition of "grit"?

Dan Leo said...

Jason, I know I never did, although God knows I saw enough of their ads in comic books! According to Wikipedia it was a small-town thing. And, somewhat incredibly, it's also still being published in some fashion!

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