A rainy Sunday in August of 1963 in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, and our hero Arnold Schnabel prepares to leave Mr. Arbuthnot’s Whatnot Shoppe...
(Go here to read our preceding chapter; new students may click here to go back to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 42-volume masterwork of the memoirist’s art.)
“How often when reading Arnold Schnabel’s massive chef-d'œuvre have I not experienced that transcendent sense of timeless disincorporation which the Oriental sages speak of?” -- Harold Bloom in The Cape May Pennysaver.
“Maybe, I say just maybe,” said Mr. Arbuthnot, “you shouldn’t keep that ring stowed away so casually in your pocket.”
“What if there’s a hole in it.”
“In my pocket?”
“I didn’t mean the ring.”
“There isn’t a hole in it,” I said. “In my pocket I mean. I think.”
“Perhaps now there isn’t. But perhaps later there will be. You never notice a hole in the pocket until you lose something. Your keys. Or a ring. A most valuable and irreplaceable ring.”
“Um, would you feel better if I put it in my wallet?”
“I’m not sure that I would. Feel better.”
“But you --”
“I know, I kept it in my own wallet. But my wallet has a tiny compartment which I can keep shut tight and secured by a sturdy steel clasp. Does your wallet come so equipped?”
“No, it’s just an ordinary wallet I’m afraid.”
“One of these newfangled 'billfolds' I suppose.”
“Well, uh --”
“May I see it?”
I took it out of my back pocket.
“Worst place in the world to keep your wallet you know. Might as well hang a sign on your back saying please steal my wallet.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said.
He took the wallet from my hand, flipped it open.
“Made from the finest Naugahyde I see. Robert Hall?”
“I think my mother picked it up at the men’s department in Sears, actually.”
“You have no photographs in here, in the little plastic windows.”
“Membership in the Knights of Columbus though I see.”
“Don’t ask me why,” I said.
“And is their power as far-reaching and insidious as I have heard?”
“No, you may be thinking of the Society of Jesus,” I said.
He closed the wallet up and handed it back to me. I put it away in my back pocket.
“I would feel better if you put the ring on your finger,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
“I’m not much of a one for wearing rings,” I said.
“I see,” he said, his bulging little eyes behind his glasses turning their gaze from my empty hand to the one that held the umbrella handle. “Not even an old school ring.”
“I never finished school. Except for grade school.”
“And they don’t give out rings for being graduated from grade school.”
“I would feel much better if you wore the ring, old man.”
“Here, I’ll hold your umbrella.”
I gave him the umbrella, dug the ring back out of my pocket.
“Your fingers are quite thick, aren’t they,” said Mr. Arbuthnot.
They’d always seemed average to me, but I suppose to a man as tiny as Mr. Arbuthnot they might appear thick.
“Try the little finger,” he said.
“I assure you that is a matter of complete indifference to me and probably you and certainly to the rest of the universe, but try the left hand.”
With only moderate difficulty and bearable pain I managed to screw the thing onto my left little finger.
“How does it feel, my boy?”
“A little tight,” I said.
“You’ll get used to it.” He handed me my umbrella back. “Good luck.”
“I hope to see you again soon.”
“I’ll make it back as soon as I can,” I said.
“The sooner the better.”
“Okay then --”
“Wait. Better let me check to see if that copper’s around. Stand back.”
He opened the door and went out into the entranceway. I held the door open. Staying under his awning Mr. Arbuthnot bent forward and looked up and down the rainy street. He turned back to me, waving.
“Quickly. Here come some citizens. Just slip in behind them.”
I came out.
In an exaggeratedly hearty-sounding voice Mr. Arbuthnot said, “Thank you for dropping by, sir, and I hope you’ll stop in again soon. Better open up your umbrella now, cats and dogs out here.”
I opened the umbrella.
“Bad for our visitors, the rain,” he continued in the loud voice, “at least for those who like to lie on the sand in the blistering sun, but good for the farmers, that’s what I always say.”
He extended his right hand, and I took it. It felt less like a human body part than like something composed of vegetable matter, a small knot of dry twigs which I might easily crush if I weren’t careful.
Leaning close, Mr. Arbuthnot whispered, “Go! Go now, and god speed!”
Then, pulling on my hand and my elbow with a surprising force he threw me out into the rain behind a passing family group consisting of a husband and wife, each with an umbrella, and four small babbling children without umbrellas, one child stomping along at either side of each parent.
Hobbling with my sore legs I followed them down Washington and across Decatur, the children stamping purposefully into the water streaming in the gutters. I didn’t want to have to go by Wally’s again, so I let the family continue down the street while I waited for the light to turn and then crossed to the opposite corner of Washington. The Ugly Mug’s front door was open, I could hear midday revelry inside. The bars around here always did a roaring trade on rainy days. Lowering my umbrella to avoid the risk of being seen by some bibulous acquaintance within (and possibly being dragged inside) I hastened my stride down Decatur, past the side entrance of the Mug and down to the Pilot House next door, and there sitting inside a rain-wet window sat Miss Evans, smoking a cigarette and apparently talking to a dark-haired man facing away from me but towards her.
My first thought was probably what it now normally was whenever I saw Miss Evans, something like “Oh no” or “Oh Christ”, but my second thought was that I suddenly remembered that I had agreed to meet her for a drink at Pete’s Tavern, around six-ish, as if I didn’t already have enough on my plate for one day.
I quickly lowered my umbrella again and hurried past where she was sitting, past the entrance (from which exuded the inimitable dulcet stylings of Freddy Ayres, singing “Stardust” to the accompaniment of his accordion) and then on to the far corner of the building, where I stopped.
I stopped and stood there, holding my umbrella now directly above my head, because I had just remembered that Miss Evans had made another date, a date to meet Lucky for lunch, and that the dark-haired man she was sitting with must be he.
I stood there, the unrelenting rain clattering down so loudly on my umbrella that it felt like I was standing inside a drum being played by a thousand miniature madmen.
Right up ahead was Carpenters Lane. I only had to make a right here, walk one block to Jackson, cross the street and go down a couple of doors and I would be at Elektra’s shop. Even with my impaired stride I could be there in a minute and a half.
But I felt guilty. Guilty of what? Guilty of letting Miss Evans have lunch with Lucky? As if I could prevent her anyway? And had I not tried to warn her? I took one step, and then stopped again. No, I couldn’t go on. I would go back and go into the Pilot House. As annoying as Miss Evans was I would feel eternally guilty if I discovered that she had sold her eternal soul to Lucky without my making at least one last effort to get her to see who he really was, if she cared.
Sighing, and staring down at my wet cordovans, I turned around and walked back towards the entrance.
“Well, look who the cat dragged in from the rain.”
It was Magda, leaning against the door post, smoking a cigarette in a holder. She wore a black sleeveless dress. Her skin glowed palely in the watery grey daylight. I stepped under the awning and closed up my umbrella. I went up the couple of steps to the entrance. She had her blond hair done up in a different style from the way she had worn it the night before, although I couldn’t say how it was different.
“Mister Schnabel. I have been waiting.”
“No. Not for you. For your friend Josh.”
“Not very punctual, is he?”
“I -- um --”
“I thought you told me he was a nice guy.”
“Or words to that effect.”
“Well, he is a nice, uh, guy.”
“Then why is he standing me up? We had a luncheon date for noon. The bastard.”
How could I tell her that he must still be trapped in the universe of Miss Evans’s novel? Clearly I couldn’t. Sometimes a white lie really is the best option.
“He’s been taken ill,” I said. “He sent me to, to give his apologies, and to beg your forgiveness, and to tell you that he would be delighted to take you to dinner just as soon as he feels up to it.”
“You mean he’s hungover,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s it.”
(Continued here, if only because of certain inescapable legal obligations.)
(Kindly go to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other legally accessible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Tickets still available for the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Spring Dance at the VFW on Chew Avenue, featuring the musical stylings of Freddy Ayres and Ursula, with special guest Magda on the piano. Ticket price includes unlimited Schmidt’s beer and your choice of “kielbasa-and-sauerkraut” or “hot roast beef” sandwiches, plus a tasty assortment of cookies and cakes.)