Saturday, February 12, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 237: forbidden

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his young cousin Kevin on a rainy noon in that momentous August of 1963 as they slosh along Washington Street in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...

(Please click here to read our previous episode; in case you’ve recently become an invalid and are facing many months lying on the couch, feel free to go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 62-volume memoir.)

“I would no sooner go a day without reading Arnold Schnabel than I would go for a day without partaking of my afternoon mug of Fox’s U-bet™ hot chocolate.” -- Harold Bloom, in

We passed Jackson Street. The rain fell unabated, and if anything it picked up a bit, as did an ocean wind which sneakily blew the rain under the protection of our umbrellas. The pains in my legs by now had become only a vaguely actual annoyance, like the annoyance of waking up and realizing again that one is oneself and not Cary Grant, or even Rory Calhoun. As we made our way along this block (near the end of which was Kevin's El Dorado, viz., Wally’s cigar store and pool room) the boy grew blatantly more excited, hopping up and down, weaving from side to side like a vastly underaged drunkard, occasionally stepping off the sidewalk entirely to splash his Keds methodically in the streaming rainwater gurgling in the gutter.

“Kevin,” I said, with all the firmness I could muster, “calm down. We’re almost there.”

I can’t calm down!” he cried, stamping his foot with even greater force into the gutter stream. “And I won’t calm down until I have those comics!

I kept my mouth shut at this. After all, what did I care that he acted like a tiny maniac? I was not his father, not even his uncle, merely his much older former mental-patient cousin.

Finally we passed the Negro dry-cleaning place, came abreast of the Savoy Bar and Liquor Store (a joint so sinister-looking that even I had never entered it), and there, under a faded tattered black and greyish-yellow awning, was that morose Indian made of wood standing guard in front of Wally’s place.

Kevin tried to get through the open doorway with his umbrella still open, but I reached down and grabbed his stick-like arm.

“Close your umbrella, Kevin,” I said.

“Oh, all right! Sheesh! Always tellin’ me what to do! What about you? Comin’ in with me?”

“Yeah, I guess I’d better,” I said.

“You don’t have to, Cousin Arnold.” We both had our umbrellas closed up and furled, and now we each dealt with the hard part, getting that little black band wrapped around and buttoned properly. “Just give me the money,” said Kevin in an off-handed manner.

“Yeah, I guess I could do that,” I said, hesitating.

“Sure,” said Kevin. He had gotten his umbrella secured first while I was still fumbling with mine. He held out his small white hand. “Just give me the money. I’ll be fine. You go on to church.”

Leaving my umbrella unfastened, I reached into my back pocket for my wallet, but then I left it there.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I’m supposed to make sure you head right back home after you get your comics.”

“I will.” He made spider-like grasping movements with his outstretched hand. “Just give me the money.”

“My mother doesn’t want you spending the whole afternoon in this place.”

“I won’t.”

The little up-raised hand opened and closed, opened and closed, like a fleshy hungry venus flytrap.

“I’d better go in with you,” I said. “And make sure you go right home.”

I returned to my fumbling with the umbrella.

“You’ll be late for mass,” said Kevin.

“Not if you hurry.”

“I don’t want to be rushed!”

“We’re wasting time talking about it.” Finally I succeeded in getting the umbrella buttoned up. “Go in,” I said.

“Oh, all right! Sheesh! You’re such a big bully, Cousin Arnold!”

He went into the dark shop, and I followed him. Without another word he scurried right over to the comic book rack.

Wally stood behind his counter, a cigar in his mouth, his thick glasses on his nose, his bald head gleaming like a cue ball in the dim light that filtered in through his smoke-colored shop window.

“You again,” he said to me, without taking the cigar out of his mouth.

“Hello,” I said.

“Pall Malls, right? Carton?”

“No thanks,” I said.

In the back part of the place four young guys were shooting pool amid barely shifting clouds of smoke. The light over the pool table was the only light on in the place. I suppose Wally likes to conserve electricity.

“How about a pack then?” said Wally.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m just accompanying Kevin there, to get some comics.”

Kevin was making a high-pitched purring humming noise as he picked through the comic books, his umbrella lying on the floor at his feet.

“For you I’ll let you have a pack for thirty cents,” said Wally, plopping a pack of Pall Malls on the glass counter. Under the counter were many open boxes of cigars, and row upon row of cigarettes, not only all the usual ones but ones with foreign names and labels.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I quit smoking.”

Wally took his cigar out of his mouth.

“You what?”

“I quit smoking, I’m afraid,” I said. “Yesterday.”

“Quit smoking?”

“Yeah -- I just got tired of coughing my lungs out every morning, and --”

“You tryin’ a put me out of business?”

“No, no, not at all, it’s just, you know -- a health thing --”

“A health thing.”

“Yeah, I mean, like yesterday was tough, I really wanted a smoke all day long, but today I woke up and I didn’t cough, and I really haven’t had a craving --”

“Get out of my shop.”

“Hey --”

“You’re gonna stand there and put me out of business, and then tell me how great you feel now that you quit smoking? What are you, a homo?”

“No, really, it was just a health decision, I mean, didn’t you hear about that surgeon general’s report --”

“Bullshit. Bunch of pussies, pansies. Let me tell you, pal, a man ain’t a man if he don’t smoke. I don’t give a shit what he smokes -- cigarettes, pipe, cigars -- me, I’m a cigar man -- in fact it’s even okay if he chews tobacco in my book -- hey, wait, yeah, how about a nice plug of chewing tobacco, buddy? I got a dozen different kinds.”

“Oh, no, no thanks, I really don’t want to replace one bad habit with --”

“Christ almighty. All right, hey -- snuff. You like snuff?” He reached into the display case and then clapped a tin canister on the counter. “Here ya go -- Wilsons. The good stuff, from England. For you -- and I’m losing money on this but I’m hoping you’ll like it and come back for more -- for you, fifty cents.”

“No,” I said. “Thanks, and I appreciate it, but I know me, I’ll get completely addicted in about two hours, and then next thing you know I’ll be going through at least a tin of that every day --”

“But that’s the whole idea!”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. Look, if it makes you feel better, I’m going to be giving my cigarette money to the kid there every day, so he’ll be buying lots of comics from you.”

“Oh. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a little deal we made.”

“Hey, you’re a good father.”

“Well, actually, Kevin is --”

“Name’s Kevin, huh?”

He jerked his thumb at the boy. Kevin was squatting down, turning the pages of a comic in the smoky half-light. He had several other comics under his arm.

“Yeah,” I said. “Kevin --”



“Kevin. Nice name. Irish?”

“Well, half-Irish.”

“Nice kid. You brought him up right.”

“Well, um, actually, he’s my cousin --”

“Yeah, whatever, look, you don’t want snuff. You don’t want chaw. You don’t want nothing to smoke.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh. So you do?”

His eyes flashed through the lenses of his glasses.

“No, I mean, yes, I do. Not want. Um --”

“You words say one thing but your demeanor says another.”

“It does?”

For a moment he just looked at me. His eyes behind their glasses were like blobs of dark protozoa seen through a badly focused microscope.

From the back part of the place came the sound of pocking billiard balls, low muttering and cursing.

Suddenly Wally reached way down below the back of the display case and I heard him opening a drawer. Then I heard a scrabbling noise and then the sound of a drawer closing.

He came up again and this time he laid another little canister on the glass counter top.

It seemed to be made of tin, it was round and dull-colored with no printing on it, it was about one quarter the size of the Wilsons snuff tin.

“Try this,” he said. “Just dip your finger in and rub a little on your gum.”

“What is it.”

“Or put a little on your knuckle and like sniff it.”

“What is it again?”

“Some people just put a little on the end of their cigarette and smoke it, or mix it with their favorite pipe tobacco.”

“Uh --”

“I take it with my coffee. You like coffee?”

“Yes,” I said.

“How you like it?”

“Oh, black usually.”

“Black, like your women, huh? Heh heh. Just kidding. Here, take it.”

He shoved the little tin towards me.

“No thanks,” I said.

“Take it.”

“Why doesn’t it have a label?”

“It’s special made for me.”


“Take it. This one’s on me. You like it, you can buy some more. I’m the only place on the Jersey coast you can get this stuff.”


“Practically only place on the East Coast.”

“Um --”

“One little shop up in Brooklyn you can get it, out by the Naval Yard there. Acquaintance of mine. But I don’t trust him. I think he cuts it with sorghum syrup or something.”

“I, uh --”

“Go ahead. On me.”

He reached over and shoved the tin all the way over toward me, practically right up to the edge of the counter. I think I stepped back just a little bit.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You gonna insult me?”

“No, no, not at all --”

Kevin came over just then with the handle of his umbrella hooked over his arm and a stack of comic book in both hands. He laid the comics on the counter, right next to the little canister.

“You didn’t bring me no comics to trade in?” said Wally to Kevin.

“No,” said Kevin. “Maybe later. I’m just buying new comics today.”

“Alla these?”

Kevin tugged on the sleeve of my jacket.

“Can I have them, Cousin Arnold? Can I?”

“That looks like more than thirty-five cents’ worth, Kevin,” I said.

“Tomorrow we can start with the thirty-five cents. Please can I have them. I promise not to tell anyone about the fly.”

“What fly?” said Wally.

“Nothing,” I said.

“’Cause we got The Fly comics. I got plenty of Fly comics. I got more in the back I think. Not one of my more popular titles, but, hey, each to his own I always say --”

“How much are these comics here?” I asked.

Wally put his cigar in his mouth, then ran his fingers over the comic book covers, and for a moment I thought I heard a whirring noise emanating from his faintly glowing bald skull. He took the cigar out of his mouth again and exhaled a cloud of smoke before answering my question.

“Eighty-four cents,” he said.

“All right, take a few away, Kevin,” I said.

No!” yelled Kevin.

“Christ, pal, give the poor kid a break,” said Wally.

“But I don’t want to spoil him.”

“No kid never got spoiled by reading. Reading expands the mind.”

“What,” I said, touching the top comic at its title, “Forbidden Worlds?” I slid the comic aside and put my finger on the title of the next comic. “House of Secrets?”

“What are you,” asked Wally, “a literary critic? Lionel Trilling?”

I wasn’t quite sure who Lionel Trilling was, but I didn’t admit this.

“Tell ya what,” said Wally. “I’ll let ya have the bunch of‘em for six bits.”

“How much is that?”

“Seventy-five cents,” said Kevin.

“A bargain,” said Wally. “And if he don’t mess ‘em up too much I’ll take ‘em back for trade-in.”

“Well --”

“Please, Cousin Arnold,” said Kevin.

“Oh, all right,” I said.

I reached for my wallet and Kevin grabbed up the comic books.

Wally put his cigar back in his mouth, took the dollar bill I gave him, rang it in on his cash register, put the bill in the drawer, took out a quarter, slammed the drawer shut and then placed the quarter on top of the little tin canister on the counter.

“Don’t forget your stuff,” he said.

(Continued here, at our author’s customary stately pace.)

(Kindly look to the right hand side of this page to find a current listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Sponsored in part by Fox’s U-bet™ chocolate syrup. “The official chocolate syrup of the Arnold Schnabel Society™!”)


DR said...

"The pains in my legs by now had become only a vaguely actual annoyance, like the annoyance of waking up and realizing again that one is oneself and not Cary Grant, or even Rory Calhoun."

bravo, arnold!

Dan Leo said...

Dean; "or even Steve Cochran..."

Unknown said...

The thrills people associate with comic books have always mystified me. Where I grew up or when or how--I only encountered comic books (a few sorry ones) at the dentist. Whatever Arnold sniffed, though, suggests I missed out on a lot more than a few mutant wars.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, I was a big fan of comics as a kid, and in fact in summers when my parents would leave me in the care of my grandmother and great aunts in Cape May I more or less was Kevin, haunting Wally's shop for my comics fix. Unfortunately I didn't have a blackmailable relative like Arnold though and I had to rely on a measly allowance for my comic book jones.

Unknown said...

I used to get one dollar every friday for my allowance and would run --not walk--to blow it all at the local drugstore on comics and candy. The comics were 12 cents, so I could buy five or six and still get a few candy bars. Heaven.

Dan Leo said...

Manny, yeah, it's funny how little it took to make a kid happy -- provided of course he was a comics addict. Like Kevin I actually did have a couple of places where I could get comics of dubious legality -- they had their titles scissored off the covers -- but what did I care, they were cheap! And Wally's in Cape May sold used comics cheap, and he even took trade-ins. Of course none of this would mean anything to a collector who wants only pristine copies, but I didn't care, I just wanted my comics fix!