Saturday, February 5, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 236: fixed

Let us return to the month of August, 1963, to a rainy Sunday forenoon in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, and to a certain ramshackle Victorian boarding house on North Street, where a certain Arnold Schnabel, 42, a poet and former railroad brakeman, is about to set off into a brand new day...

(Go here to read our previous chapter; the curious scholar may click here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 43-volume masterpiece of the autobiographical art.)

“Some mornings I just call in sick, and all I do is stay in bed, drink Fox’s U-bet hot chocolate, smoke pot, and read Arnold Schnabel all day long.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Christian Science Monitor.


Again doing my best not to limp or shuffle in pain too obviously I followed my mother down the main hallway, then through the passage to the kitchen, through the kitchen and the dining room and finally into the living room, where Kevin sat on the couch staring at Gene Autry shooting at some outlaws with his sixgun. My three aunts also sat about the room, rosaries in their hands, probably only waiting for Kevin to leave so that they could switch the channel to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

“Finally,” said Kevin, rising as if wearily from the couch.

He wore his standard little boy’s uniform of polo shirt, shorts, and Keds with no socks, which come to think of it was not markedly different from my own daily uniform.

“Take umbrellas from the porch,” my mother said.

I assured her we would, but still she stood inside the screen door after Kevin and I had gone out, just to make sure we would obey her and not idiotically march off unprotected from the pouring rain.

I picked up a black umbrella that was leaning there against the glider with four or five other black and roughly identical umbrellas. Kevin however spent a minute or so in deliberation, weighing each umbrella in turn, judging its balance and heft, even making thrusting and parrying movements as if with a sword. After testing the facility of the opening and closing mechanisms of two or three he finally chose one umbrella, leaving the abandoned other ones lying on the floor for anyone to trip over possibly to suffer a broken arm or hip. As he headed down the steps I picked up these other umbrellas and stacked them against the glider again.

I was about to follow Kevin down the steps when my mother called to me through the screen.

“Are you coming home after mass, Arnold?”

This question gave me pause.

I remembered my appointment to meet Larry Winchester today, to work on our screenplay. When had we agreed to meet?

Then it came to me, like a flashing mental snippet from a movie one has not seen for years, Larry in that booth at the Ugly Mug last night: “Ten a.m. tomorrow morning! Mrs. Biddle’s back yard! Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed! We’ll dive into that second act!” So I was already almost two hours late. But then -- but then he had been rather intoxicated the previous evening, beer and tequila and those strange mushrooms and God knows what else...perhaps he had overslept...

“Arnold?” said my mother.

“Uh, no, Mother, I just remembered, I’m supposed to meet a friend today.”

“A ‘friend’?” she said, as if I had just announced that I was going to have lunch with the Pope himself. (But to give her her due the prospect of me being meant to “meet a friend” would certainly have seemed highly improbable if not laughable up to a mere week or so ago.)

“Yes,” I said. “A ‘friend’.”

“Will you be home for dinner?”

And Elektra. I really wanted to see Elektra today. I felt as if I hadn’t seen her in many months or even years, that is unless you counted the younger version of herself I had passed some pleasant time with when I was trapped in Miss Evans’s novel.

“Arnold?”

Also I could not forget and would do well not to forget that I had somehow agreed to meet Miss Evans at Pete’s Tavern, at six-ish.

My mother stared at me through the screen. She had that look on her face I knew so well, her “worried” look. But what could I do?

“You know, Mother, I might not be able to make it home for dinner tonight.”

“But you will eat something?”

“I promise,” I said.

“Cousin Arnold!” yelled Kevin, who was standing in the middle of the pathway under his umbrella, the rain rattling down on it. He stamped his foot. “Let’s go!”


“Yes, you’d better go,” said my mother. “You’ll be late for mass.”

Behind her I heard the dulcet soothing tones of Bishop Sheen.

“Jesus wants to be our friend,” he said. “But the question we each must ask ourselves is, 'Am I worthy to be His friend?'

“C’mon, Cousin Arnold, shake a leg!” yelled Kevin.

Opening my umbrella, I hurried down the steps into the deluge.

Kevin was silent till we came to the corner of Perry Street, and there, as we waited for a slow grey Hupmobile to pass by through the torrent like a bored small whale, he looked up at me.

“Why are you limping, Cousin Arnold?”

I had gotten so distracted that I had forgotten to try to disguise my limp.

“I, uh, fell last night,” I said.

“You were drunk, weren’t you?”

I took a broad and somewhat painful stride over a turbulent small river and into North Street; Kevin blithely splashed with both feet through the same stream, what did he care?

“You were drunk!” he yelled. “Drunk as a skunk!”

“Well, okay, I was slightly drunk,” I said.

I wasn’t about to tell him that I had been flying and that I had crashed into a streetlamp pole and fallen seven or eight feet like a sack of potatoes to the pavement.

“Ha, slightly,” he said. “You’re not a good liar, Cousin Arnold.”

I said nothing, which is one good way not to lie. We walked, or rather Kevin plopped along like a miniature madman while I hobbled and limped, we went along a few more yards and then Kevin tilted his umbrella back and looked up at me.

“Why are you doing this, Cousin Arnold?”

“What, going to mass? I’m going because it’s my duty as a Catholic --”

“Cut the crap. You know what I mean. Why are you taking me to Wally’s for comic books.”

I said nothing. I knew he would see through my lies.

“Why?” he demanded again.

“Can’t I do something nice?”

“Sure, but why?”

“It’s -- it’s difficult to explain,” I said.

“Try,” he said. “And don’t lie.”

We were walking up Perry Street on the right hand side, approaching Washington. The rain fell unabated. Kevin and I both nearly had to shout to be heard.

“I’ve made friends with a fly,” I said.

“What? A fly?”

“Yes, a talking fly.”

“Flies can really talk?”

“Normally, no. But this one can. Anyway, I didn’t want him to come along into breakfast with me, because I knew the aunts and my mother would have, would have --”

“They would have murdered him.”

“Yes. So I suggested he go into your room and help himself to your leftover Baby Ruth wrappers and whatever other sweets you might’ve had lying around.”

“I know, because I’m a slob and I’m lazy.”

“I never said that.”

“Aunt Edith once told me I’m the laziest white boy she knows.”

“Well, uh --”

“I asked her how many black boys she knows, and she told me to go out and play.” He blew a short dismissive farting noise through his lips. “I should’ve just kept my trap shut.”

“Well, you really shouldn’t talk back to your elders.”

“Yeah, sure, but get back to the fly, Cousin Arnold.”

“Well, I took him to your room, or at least to the entrance to your room, and -- um, I didn’t hear her coming and my mother caught me talking to him there, near your open door --”

“The fly.”

“Yes. And I had to think up some reason why I would be -- uh --”

“Lurking around my room?”

“Looking into your room,” I said, “so I told her I wanted to ask you if you wanted me to take you to Wally’s, to get some comics.”

“Just glossing over the fact that you were talking to a fly.”

“I told her I was talking to myself.”

“Ha ha. Well, that’s a little less crazy than talking to a fly, ain’t it?”

“Ha ha. Yeah.”

“So anyway, now you were trapped in a lie, and you had to take me to Wally’s.”

“Pretty much,” I conceded.

“All because you couldn’t admit to her that you were talking to a fly about eating the leftover candy crumbs in my room.”

“Yes.”

“Because then she’d really think you were crazy.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I see,” he said. “Well, whether you’re crazy or not, I still make out, don’t I?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I suppose you do.”

We crossed Perry Street and started along Washington. Normally at this time on a Sunday in August the street would be crowded with people, but with yet another rainstorm spoiling everyone’s vacation the street was relatively quiet.

“I’ll keep your secret about the fly, Cousin Arnold.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“All I ask in return is that you keep buying me comics.”

“Well, within reason,” I said.

“Look, you say you’ve given up cigarettes,” he said.

“Yes.”

“And you smoked, what, two packs a day?”

“Oh, rarely two packs.”

“But always at least one pack.”

“Well, yeah --”

“At least.”

“Okay, at least.”

“Sometimes two packs.”

“Well, maybe on a weekend --”

“And what did you pay for a pack?”

“Um, usually thirty-five cents -- but why?”

“Cousin Arnold, I know for a fact you smoked well more than a pack a day.”

“Yeah, but not always. Since I’ve been swimming I’ve --”

“Over a pack a day. But let’s say for argument’s sake you only bought one pack. That’s thirty-five cents a day you’re no longer spending.” Kevin had stopped under the awning of Smith’s Book Shoppe. He held his hand in a salute over his eyes and bent forward to stare at the provocative covers in a display of Carter Brown paperbacks. “I -- how shall I put this,” he said, without looking up, “-- I propose -- and I think this is fair -- I propose that you spend this thirty-five cents a day you’re saving on comic books for me.”

“You’re blackmailing me,” I said.

“Don’t call it blackmail. Call it -- call it --”

“Blackmail.”

Finally he looked up from that display of comely, half-dressed women.

“I wouldn’t call it that,” he said.

“But you’ll tell my mother about the fly if I don’t buy you comics.”

“I never said that.” He took one last look at Carter Brown’s vixens arrayed in a beckoning rank of lust and mystery, and then his small solemn face looked up at me again. “I never said that, Cousin Arnold. I merely pointed out that you now have a surplus of at least -- at least, mind you -- thirty-five cents a day. All I’m suggesting is why not use this surplus to make a small lonely boy happy. Shall we continue our walk? You’ll be late for mass.”

“You’re the one who stopped,” I said.

We continued on in the rain. A miserable-looking family group passed us by, presumably a father and mother, along with several children. The woman and man carried umbrellas while the children slogged along in small yellow raincoats and rain hats, looking like a squad of dwarf traffic policemen.

“Oh, all right,” I said.

“All right what,” said Kevin.

“I’ll buy you the comics,” I said. “But only thirty-five cents’ worth a day.”

“That’s all I ask. With the money the aunts and your mother give me I’ll be pretty well fixed.”

“I guess so.”

“Do you know what this means, Cousin Arnold?”

“No, what does it mean?”

He stopped, so I did I. He looked up at me and his normally rather dull blue eyes now sparkled through the falling silvery rain.

“It means,” he said, “that I no longer have to read only used or leftover old comic books. I can buy a couple of new ones each day. Or I could buy one new regular comic and one of the big twenty-five cent annuals!”

“That’s swell.”

“And I’ll let you read them, too.”

“Thank you.”

“This will work out well for both of us.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“Plus maybe now you don’t get lung cancer.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“And also, no one has to know about the fly.”

“Yes, that’s good,” I said.

“I wonder though,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Do you think you could buy -- not for me, but for yourself -- some of those Carter Brown books that were in the window of the bookshop back there and then lend them to me.”

“Those books aren’t for little boys.”

“Just to borrow.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Not even to look at?”

“No, and that’s final.”

“Oh, all right. I suppose I should be happy about the comic books.”

“Yes,” I said, “you should be happy. And you shouldn’t be greedy.”

“Why not?”

He had me there.

We continued our walk.


(Continued here, and on and on, as longs as blood still courses in our veins.)

(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Be sure to pick up a copy of A Child’s Garden of Arnold Schnabel: Selected Verses for Young People; edited by Edmund Wilson, with an introduction by Bennett Cerf; a Dell Gold Medal Paperback Original, 35¢, sold exclusively at John's Bargain Stores, on the table in the back of the store, in between the towels and the plastic plates. )

5 comments:

kathleenmaher said...

I'm glad Arnold's acknowledged Franny, but wonder if confiding in Kevin was the best choice. Dick Ridpath, for example, comes across as more trustworthy.

Dan Leo said...

Heh heh -- I think Arnold simply realized that Kevin is one of those people whom it's very hard to lie to, and so our hero just threw in the towel and told the truth. Of course at this point all Kevin cares about is that it means more comic books for him!

kathleenmaher said...

Arnold doesn't lie easily to anyone; it's part of mystique.

Manny said...

I'm just amazed Arnold can keep track of his appointments.

Dan Leo said...

Yeah, Manny, Arnold needs a secretary!