a rhoda penmarq production
Saturday, May 28, 2011
On a rainy Sunday afternoon in August of 1963 our hero Arnold Schnabel has made a new acquaintance in the “reading room” at the rear of Mrs. Biddle’s rambling Victorian house in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Click here to see our previous chapter; those who think they are ready to accept the challenge may go here to read the beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 81-volume memoir.) “When the roll call of the great American writers is read -- Larry Winchester, Horace P. Sternwall, Fredric Brown, David Goodis, et al. -- pride of place must surely be given to Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in Boys’ Life.
He offered me his hand, which was nearly the size of a baseball infielder’s glove, with lumpy scarred knuckles and bulging veins under a matting of wiry sandy hair, and I took it, or rather it swallowed up my own hand in a grip that might fairly be described as vise-like.
“Ow,” I said.
“Oh, sorry, Arnie.”
He released my throbbing extremity, which I at once brought to chest-height and started flapping in the hopes that the blood would return before gangrene set in.
“Occasionally I forget the strength of this hand,” he said, admiring its palmar aspect with its mighty callused fingers splayed, fingers as thick and almost as brown as cigars. “Tempered to the strength of coiled steel in hundreds of barroom arm-wrestling matches from Borneo to Boston, from Port Arthur, Manchuria to Port Arthur, Texas.”
“I guess you haven’t lost too many of those,” I said, continuing to waggle my own hand, trying to whip some life into the thing.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Ben. He took another drag of his cigarette, looking around the room. He had the flattened nose of a boxer, or at any rate of a man who had gotten hit on the nose a lot; possibly as a result of this nasal damage his deep voice had a thick, gluey quality to it, sort of like that of a foghorn on a foggy night, or like that of a large Alsatian dog talking in its sleep.
“Someday I’ll stop winning,” he said, after a pause. “I’ll grow old. A pathetic character in some dockside dive. Someday some punk kid will snap this now-massive arm like a twig. Then I’ll not only be a pathetic character, I’ll be a pathetic cripple. Alone, unloved, pitied if not despised. They’ll find me dead in the gutter one fine morning, overdosed on canned heat.”
I finally stopped wagging my hand; the pain had subsided into only a throbbing numbness.
Big Ben Blagwell was now looking me square in the eye. His eyes were blue under the bill of his cap, and he was squinting, as if he were staring into bright daylight.
“Do ya know what it’s like when you can’t even afford grain alcohol?”
“No,” I said.
He took a drag off his cigarette -- I guess it goes without saying that it was an unfiltered cigarette -- and he looked around again.
“Where the hell are we, anyway?”
“Mrs. Biddle’s house.”
“And where is that?”
“Cape May, New Jersey.”
Ben scratched his beard-stubble with one of those thick gnarled fingers.
“Seemed like a minute ago I was down in Cuba, trying to smuggle out a schooner-load of Romeo y Julietas when I got hi-jacked by a pack of lesbian pirates. Damn, I musta really tied one on this time.”
I was still holding Havana Hellcats in my left hand. I laid it face down on the seat of the rocking chair where I had found it.
“Book any good?” he asked.
“I only read the first page. But it seemed pretty good.”
“I like to read,” said Ben. “Man’s Adventure. Man’s Life. Man’s Story. Men Today. New Man. Real Men. True Men. Man’s Book. Man’s Action. Man’s Epic. Man’s Magazine. Male. Man. You ever read any of them books?”
“Well, I’ve seen them on the magazine racks."
I opened and closed my right hand a couple of times. The feeling had come back.
“You want me to leave you alone if you want to read?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I really have to go, actually.”
“Things to do, huh?”
“Don’t let me keep you.”
I walked over to the screened door. Then stopped.
“Hey, Arnie -- it is Arnie, right?”
“Yes.” I half turned. “Or Arnold.”
“Arnie, you gonna go out there in that monsoon with no umbrella?”
“Um, no; no, I suppose not.”
“You got an umbrella?”
“Um, no,” I said. “Not with me.”
Just then a young woman in a black maid’s uniform and carrying a black umbrella came up the steps outside, and I opened the screen door for her. She seemed slightly familiar. She kept the umbrella’s cover outside until she had closed it up, and then she came in.
“Tank you,” she said. “You’re a gentleman, you are, sir.”
She spoke with an Irish accent. Her hair was black, and curly, tied back behind her head. She carried a black plastic purse.
I closed the door behind her, and she buttoned up her umbrella and hung it on a wooden peg near the door.
“And who are you, sweetheart?” asked Ben.
“I’m Maria. Mrs. Biddle’s maid.”
She was wearing galoshes, and she folded one leg up and pulled one off. The galosh that is, not her leg.
“The mysterious Mrs. Biddle,” said Ben.
“She’s not so mysterious once you get to know her,” said the maid. She dropped the one galosh to the side of the doorway and then pulled off the other one. She had plain little black shoes on. She looked at me. “You’re Mr. Schnabel, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You don’t remember me.” She put the one galosh down neatly side by side with the other one, then straightened up and looked at me, her head slightly cocked to one side. “Do ya now?” she said
“I was workin’ the night of the party the evenin’ before last.”
“Oh,” I said. Even though she was only talking she sounded somehow as if she were singing. “Now I remember,” I said.
And I did, if only barely.
“Mrs. Biddle was quite taken with you she was,” she said.
I said nothing to this.
She turned to Ben.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Blagwell’s the name, Ben Blagwell.”
“But please, call me Ben.”
“Mr. Ben then.”
“Just Ben then it is.”
“Come in to do a little work?” said Ben.
“Just a half day on account of it’s the Sabbath.” She turned to me again. “I’ve seen you at mass at the Star of the Sea. I didn’t see you at church today though, Mr. Schnabel.”
“Oh. I, uh, I went to the twelve today.”
“Sure I was at the twelve and I didn’t see ya.”
“I was in the back?”
“Arnie,” said Ben, “just own up to the fact that you missed mass today.”
“I missed mass today,” I admitted.
“Well, you’d better just hope you don’t get run over by a fire engine and crushed to death before you can make it to confession, Mr. Schnabel.”
“Ha ha,” laughed Ben.
“Honestly, Mr. Ben,” said Maria, “I for the life of me can’t understand how a man would trade an hour’s time in church of a Sunday for an eternity burning in the everlasting fires of hell, can you now?”
“Never could understand it,” said Ben. “Now or ever.”
“Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me,” said Maria, “I’ve work to do.”
“Nice meeting you, Maria,” said Ben, with a slight bow and a finger to his cap.
“Nice meeting you, Mr. Ben,” said Maria. She turned to me.
“Do be careful in the coming week, Mr. Schnabel.”
“I’ll try to be,” I said.
“If I was you I’d go straight away to that nice young Father Reilly and ask him to hear your confession privately.”
“I might do that,” I lied.
“Well, just be careful until you do,” she said. “An eternity is a long time.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Screamin’ in agony, a long time it is to be roasting in fire, with no hope of surcease until the end of time and beyant.”
“It is,” I said.
“Ta,” she said, and she walked out of the room and down the hallway.
Ben gave out a low, two-noted whistle. It sounded like the call of a demented macaw in the distance.
“Now that is one sick twisted little colleen,” he said. “But I think I’m in love. You think she liked me?”
“I think maybe she liked you better than she did me,” I said.
“You should have asked her for an umbrella.”
“Damn,” I said. “I forgot.”
“Run after her.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“Why, for Christ’s sake?”
“I’m trying to get away from the people in there.”
“You go in, you ask for an umbrella, they give you one, you thank them, you leave. Is that so complicated?”
“Christ. You want me to go ask for ya?”
I thought about it for about half a minute; Ben stood there patiently smoking his cigarette as I did so; but then I said, “But they don’t even know who you are.”
“Yes, but --”
“So, okay, take her umbrella.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that.”
He sighed, exhaling a great cloud of smoke. He stared at the inch-long stub that was left of his cigarette, then walked over to a standing ashtray.
“How long are these errands going to take you, Arnie?”
“Well, I guess I could get them done in an hour if I hurry.”
“So Maria will still be here in an hour.” He stubbed out the cigarette, then pointed at Maria’s black umbrella hanging by the door. “Just take the damn umbrella and bring it back. She won’t even notice it’s gone.”
He strode over to the doorway, took the umbrella off the peg, and brought it over to me.
“Here. Take it.”
I took it.
“Maybe I should just go in and ask someone to lend me an umbrella,” I said.
“It’s one or the other,” said Ben Blagwell. “Take Maureen O’Sullivan’s umbrella without asking, or go in and ask her or someone else if you can borrow an umbrella. There’s no third way.”
Nervously, with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand I fiddled with the gold ring on the little finger of my left hand, the hand that held Maria’s umbrella.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that there’s often a third way, even when there doesn’t appear to be one at first.”
“Oh really? And what would be your, uh, third way in say this situation?”
“Well,” I said, “for instance, I don’t know, I could just continue to stand, or sit, or both, alternately, in here until the rain stops.”
“And what if the rain don’t stop?”
“It has to stop eventually.”
“Granted,” said Ben. “But what about your errands.”
“Yes,” I said. “Then the errands wouldn’t get done.”
“And also someone’s bound to wander back here and wonder why you’ve been hanging around this room all day instead of just asking to borrow an umbrella and then doing your errands like a sane human being. What are you, slap happy?”
“Wait,” I said.
“What? What now?”
“Listen,” I said, holding up one finger.
Ben cocked his head to one side, paused for a moment.
“I don’t hear nothing,” he said.
“That’s just it,” I said. “Look.” With my normal-sized finger I pointed out at the world on the other side of one of the big screened windows.
Ben turned and looked out at the back yard. Even through the screen the grass of the lawn glowed a rich deep emerald, like the felt of a pool table.
“The rain’s stopped,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
He took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his Hawaiian-shirt pocket. Sweet Caporals.
“I guess there is a third way,” he said.
(Continued here, and at least until the next Rapture.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other “street legal” chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Nihil Obstat: Archbishop John J. “The Big Man” Graham.)
Friday, May 27, 2011
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Let’s rejoin our bold hero Arnold Schnabel and his friends in the rambling old Biddle house, here in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a fateful rainy afternoon in August of 1963...
(Go here to read our previous episode; the morbidly curious may click here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning 49-volume memoir.)
“I fully intend to spend my summer vacation doing little else but lying in a hammock drinking mint iced tea and re-reading Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
“So what do you know about this Sister Mary Elizabeth?”
“Not much,” I said. “Just that up until yesterday she was a nun, but she’s decided to quit the convent.”
Larry leaned to one side a bit, toward the dining room, and peeked around the corner of the hallway. The dining room was still a babble of chatter.
He straightened up, returned his gaze to me.
“She’s really digging Ulysses,” he said.
“So she told me,” I said.
He sighed, then said, “So, Arnie, what are you gonna do with yourself this lovely afternoon?”
“Well, I have a couple of errands I should run,” I said, doing my best to sound casually normal.
Thank God, Larry seemed to have no interest in asking me what my errands might be. After a pause, he said, in a thoughtful-looking way, “I think I need a nap." Then, "So. Shall we say ten o’clock tomorrow morning?”
“Sure,” I said.
“With any luck we’ll have a decent script in a week. All right, pal.” He arranged his beer can and his cigar into his left hand, and offered me his right hand. I shook it.
“What the hell, maybe we’ll run into each other tonight,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said.
Having let go of my hand, Larry was wiping the palm of his right hand on his trousers. I suppose I was still sweating fairly profusely.
With his right hand he took his cigar from the hand that held his beer can.
“A rainy August Sunday in a small town at the seashore. Who knows what adventures await?” He puffed on the cigar, looking away. Then he looked at me again with his bloodshot eyes. “All right, buddy. I’m off to my room now.”
“See you later, Larry.”
Without bothering to say anything to the others in the dining room, he went down the hall with his cigar and his beer can, and started up the stairs.
I now found myself in another awkward situation. Who am I kidding, my entire life since I first became aware of myself has just been one long enormous awkward situation containing a succession of millions of somewhat smaller awkward situations. But the present awkwardness had to do with the fact that I no longer had any particular reason to be here in Mrs. Biddle’s house, whereas I had promised to fetch Mr. Arbuthnot’s cat some fresh seafood and also to try to get Mr. Arbuthnot some of that “stuff” from Wally in exchange for the gold ring that Arbuthnot had given me. Two absurd tasks, undoubtedly, but I had promised, and so such was my fate.
The easiest thing to do would be simply not to say anything to anyone but to go back down the hall the way Larry had gone, and keep going all the way to the rear entrance. I had started to do this when a second later Daphne called, suddenly and firmly:
“Arnold! Where are you going?”
After flinching involuntarily, as if I had been shot in the back with a BB rifle, I stopped, in mid-step, and turned.
She came right up to me with a can of Schmidt’s in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her head slightly cocked to one side.
“I have to, uh, do a couple of little errands,” I said.
“Oh. For your aunts and your mother?”
“Well, no, actually they’re for this old man I know.”
“An old man.”
“Yes, there’s this old man, and, uh, I told him I’d run some errands for him.”
She yawned, putting the back of her cigarette-holding hand to her mouth.
“Oh, sorry!” she said. “Not that it isn’t all fascinating about the errands and the old man. Not to mention so very nice of you. Helping out old people and all.”
She stifled another yawn, and I took a drink from my can of beer, a good drink. Still yawning, Daphne put out her forefinger and touched the ring on the little finger of the hand that held my beer.
“What’s up with this ring?” she asked.
“Oh, the ring.”
“That’s new, isn’t it?”
“I think it might be pretty old,” I said.
“I mean new for you.”
Dick came over to us.
“What’s going on?”
“Arnold’s wearing a new ring,” said Daphne.
She touched the ring again.
“Well,” said Dick. “Where’d you get the ring, Arnold?”
“From Mr. Arbuthnot.”
“Arbuthnot? That crazy old man?”
“Yes,” I said.
Suddenly Dick clapped his forehead with the hand that held his Chesterfield. Ash fell from the cigarette.
“What is it, Dick?” said Daphne.
“I just remembered something.”
“Darling, may I have a brief word alone with Arnold?”
“Sure,” she said, and she walked away.
“I think she agreed a little too readily to give us a moment alone,” said Dick, in a low voice. “Anyway, let’s go in to the kitchen.”
He touched my arm, and we went down the hall, and into the kitchen. Dick turned and stood with his back to one of the chairs at the red-topped table.
“Arnold, I totally forgot about that doll.”
“That creepy Victorian doll that Mr. Arbuthnot gave me to give to Daphne. Didn’t I accidentally leave it with you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Outside the Ugly Mug, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “You gave it to me to hold while you lit a cigarette, and then you walked away. By the time I realized that I was still holding it --”
“I was long gone.”
“I understand. Do you still have it?”
I think I looked away, perhaps gnawing my lower lip while doing so. I felt funny just standing there, so I walked over a few feet to the kitchen counter near the sink, turned and stood with the small of my back against it.
“Dick, I’m afraid I don’t have the doll any more.”
“You lost it?”
“Honestly,” said Dick, “it’s not all that important to me.”
“And there really was something -- disquieting about that doll anyway. Don’t you think?”
“Uh, yes,” I said.
“Yes, I would have to agree.”
“So what happened to it?”
“That’s a -- a long story,” I said.
“You seem reluctant to tell it.”
“Well, it’s just kind of long and involved.”
“Really? Now I’m intrigued. Can’t you just give me a brief rundown?”
I took a drink from my can of beer. Dick took a swig from his. He took a drag on his cigarette, then slowly exhaled. The window behind the sink was open, and the rain was still pouring outside, rattling against the side of the house and on the plants and the leaves of the trees.
“The doll came alive,” I said.
“Yes. It was a girl who had been trapped in the form of the doll. Since 1910.”
“So -- briefly if you will -- what happened with this doll after she came to life?”
“Well, a lot of stuff happened --”
“Good stuff or bad stuff?”
“Ah. So where is she now?”
“I wound up taking her back in time to 1910.”
“You took her back in time.”
“So you have this -- power.”
“I’m not sure how much control I have over it,” I said.
He turned around, saw an ashtray on the table, reached over and tapped the ash of his cigarette into it. He turned back, took another drink from his can of beer.
“She must have been -- very grateful,” he said
“I think she was, in her way.”
“Well,” said Dick, “I’m glad I never mentioned her to Daphne then.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s for for the best I think.”
“So do you have these sorts of -- adventures -- frequently?” asked Dick.
“I’m afraid I do,” I said. “At least of late I do. The last week or so. Although it seems much longer.”
There was an opened box of Uneeda Biscuits on the counter. I picked the box up and stared at the picture of the little boy in the yellow slicker and rainhat, carrying his box of Uneeda Biscuits.
“The time seems -- longer,” said Dick.
“Yes,” I said.
You couldn’t see it but the little box the boy was carrying must have had a picture of this same little boy on it, carrying an even smaller box.
“Like how much longer?” asked Dick.
“Well, a day will seem like a year or more.”
And the boy on that tinier box carried a tinier box with a tinier boy. And so on.
“Are you hungry?” asked Dick. “Have a cracker.”
“No,” I said.
I put the box back down on the counter.
“So,” said Dick.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, you know, Arnold, in a way, it’s quite a relief for me to hear all this. I was afraid it was just me. Too much of that government-issue LSD, you know? So what do you think? Is it just this town?”
“Possibly,” I said. “Or possibly we’re both insane.”
“Well, insanity’s always a possibility, isn’t it? I mean, what’s more insane than -- than all this?”
He waved the hand that held the Chesterfield.
“You don’t mean this kitchen,” I said.
“No, I mean all of it. Existence. It’s all like a madman’s dream. Oh, well. You want another beer?”
“No, I really should go,” I said. “I have to get some fresh seafood for Mr. Arbuthnot’s cat.”
“His cat? Scooby was it.”
“Shnooby,” I said.
“That damned cat.”
“Yes,” I said.
“So, wait, you told that old troll you’d get fresh seafood for his cat? Shnooby?”
“Where are you going for it? The Acme?”
“No,” I said. “It has to be fresh, from the docks.”
“Oh, of course. And what about the ring?”
I held up the hand, my left hand, on the little finger of which was the gold ring.
“That’s no ordinary ring, is it?”
“Something to do with Arbuthnot?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I told him I’d try to do something else for him today. And the ring, well, the ring has to do with that.”
Dick paused for a moment, looking at me.
“Arnold,” he said, “do you need some help?”
“No,” I said. “I think I’ll be okay.”
“Because if you need someone to back you up --”
“I think I can handle it,” I said.
“You don’t sound entirely sure.”
“I’m never entirely sure.”
“I’d better come with you.”
“No, really, Dick, I know you’d rather spend the afternoon with Daphne.”
“Well, that’s true. I mean all we’re doing is playing Canasta. But she’s mad for Canasta that girl. And, well, I do have to catch the six o’clock ferry this evening, so I can be back to work at the Pentagon tomorrow morning, bright and early --”
“I’ll be fine, Dick.”
“If you say so. But, look, if you need help, just ring me up here. You probably don’t have Mrs. Biddle’s phone humber, do you?”
“Okay, how’s your memory?”
“Like a steel trap.”
“Her number is --” He spoke a Cape May phone number. “Got that?”
“Sure,” I said.
He said the number again.
“Got it,” I said. I’d already forgotten it, but I figured if I could find a public telephone and if I had a dime then there was a good chance the phone booth would have a directory, and if not I could call information.
“Good,” said Dick. He said the number again, and again it went right in one of my ears and out the other without meeting the least resistance. “Got it?” he asked, again.
“Got it,” I said.
“Maybe I should find a pad and pencil and write it down.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
“Good, because it’s not listed.”
Oh well. I felt too embarrassed to ask him to repeat the number one more time, so I let it go.
I took another drink of beer, finishing the can. I put the can on the counter, near the Uneeda crackers.
“Well, I think I’ll just slip out quietly the back way,” I said.
“I understand,” said Dick. “I’ll tell everyone you had -- errands.”
We went out of the kitchen, shook hands, said a few more manly words of farewell, and I went towards the rear and Dick the other way.
When I got to the back room I realized that it was still raining and that I still had no umbrella. Any normal man would have gone back and asked to borrow an umbrella. But somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.
I went to the screen door, opened it. The rain continued unabated.
Perhaps if I stood here the rain would stop in the next five seconds.
I waited five seconds, but the rain continued, the same as before.
I closed the screen door and thought about it, looking out at the rainy green scene through the screen.
My aunts’ house was only a block away. But still, walking even that one block in this downpour would be more than enough to completely drench me, and possibly ruin my cordovans.
So, really it was no big deal, I should just go back and ask to borrow an umbrella.
But then this would lead to more conversation. And to who only knew what else.
I turned away from the door and looked at the shelves of books, as if the solution to my dilemma might lie somewhere in the pages of these volumes.
My eye was caught by the lurid colors of Havana Hellcats, still sitting over there on the seat of a rocking chair. I walked over, picked the book up. I turned it over and looked at the back cover.
“Trapped in a tropical paradise that turns into a burning inferno of passion and betrayal, Yank soldier-of-fortune Ben Blagwell goes up against a harem of lesbian murderesses whose only motto is ‘More!’”
“By Horace P. Sternwall, author of Say It With a .38, Two Ways to Tuesday, and The Magic Pen Wiper.”
“’I couldn’t put this book down, and neither will you!’ -- Bennett Cerf”
“’Not for nothing has Sternwall been compared with Maugham and Conrad.’ -- Bernard DeVoto
“Sternwall’s Big Ben Blagwell deserves a place in the pantheon of the great heroes of literature, right up there with Leatherstocking, Ivanhoe, D'Artagnan, and Humphrey Clinker.” -- Lionel Trilling
I opened the book to the first page of the novel. I brought the opened book to my nose and breathed in the reassuring smell of the pulpy paper. Then I lowered the book and read the opening lines.
“Your name Ben Blagwell?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I’d like to buy you a drink if you’re Ben Blagwell.”
“I only drink with my friends,” said Big Ben Blagwell.
“And what’s a chap got to do to become your friend?”
“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you.”
“Innkeeper!” called the fat man in the wrinkled white suit. “Another drink for my friend here. What’re you drinking, Ben?”
“Planter’s Punch, with a float of ‘151’.”
“Two Planter’s Punches,” said the fat man.
“With a float of ‘151’,” Ben reminded him.
“And a float of ‘151’,” said the fat man.
“Sit down, my friend,” said Big Ben Blagwell.
I closed the book. Ben Blagwell wouldn’t be afraid to go back and ask for an umbrella. Far from it. Why couldn’t I be more like Big Ben Blagwell?
“All right, buddy,” said someone behind me, in a deep, gruff voice.
I turned. It was a big muscular, sun-bronzed guy with four or five days’ growth of a ginger beard, a crushed and dingy white yachting cap, a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt, equally wrinkled denim trousers, dirty white deck shoes. He had a tattoo of an anchor on one forearm, and there was some sort of a bird on the other.
He took a drag from a cigarette.
“What gives?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said. “I was just looking at this book here. I was on my way out, and, uh --”
“Who are you, anyway?”
“Arnold,” I said. “Arnold Schnabel. I’m a friend of Mrs. Biddle’s, sort of.”
“Yes,” I said. “Um, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Blagwell’s my name. Ben Blagwell.”
(Continued here; a worldwide army of Schnabelians demands it.)
(Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other cybernetically-accessible chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, all of them available free, gratis and for nothing. This project sponsored in part by a generous grant from the Uneeda Biscuits™ Endowment for the Memoiristic Arts.)
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Saturday, May 14, 2011
We left our hero Arnold Schnabel slightly incapacitated after being involuntarily kissed by Sister Mary Elizabeth in the greenhouse in back of Mrs. Biddle’s large and rambling Victorian house in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, N.J., on this fateful rainy Sunday afternoon in August of 1963...
(Click here to go to our previous chapter; puzzled scholars of the future may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 61-volume masterwork of the confessional art.)
“You can keep your Ben Franklin and your Mark Twain, keep your Henry Adams and your Helen Keller, too. By now every discerning littérateur knows that the great masterpiece of American autobiography was written by a humble and unknown former railroad brakeman by the name of Arnold Schnabel.” -- Harold Bloom, in the Saturday Evening Post.
When I reached the opposite doorway Sister Mary Elizabeth was already trotting across the grass the ten feet or so to a sort of pavilion which, like the greenhouse, I only vaguely remembered from the party I had gone to here only two nights before, even if that party felt now as though it had happened in another lifetime, or in a dream, or in someone else’s dream of another lifetime. The pavilion was about twenty feet long and six feet wide, open all along the side facing the lawn and with a white-painted wooden trellis along the other side. It had a green-and-white roof trimmed with gingerbread, and unmatched garden furniture was ranged haphazardly under its shelter on patchy grass. When she was under the roof Sister Mary Elizabeth turned and called, “What’s keeping you, slowpoke?”
“Um, it’s just my sore legs,” I yelled through the rain, hoping she would be unworldly enough and unobservant enough not to notice the protuberance she had engendered in my trousers.
I hobbled through the open space, my shoes squishing in the wet grass.
“You poor thing,” said Sister Elizabeth when I reached the other side. She had her hands on her hips. “But it’s your own foolish fault.”
I was tempted to point out that it was she who had insisted on kissing me and not vice versa.
“Yes,” she said, “for getting so foolishly drunk that you fell down and hurt your knees.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s what you meant.”
“What did you think I meant?”
Wisps of her hair clung wetly to her forehead, and the skin of her face was beaded with rainwater.
“I’m not sure what I meant,” I lied.
Tiny drops and rivulets of water lay also on the flesh above the scooped neck of her dress, the thin blue material of which the rain had also mottled, causing it to adhere in places to the bare skin beneath it. I looked away.
“I believe you are prevaricating,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Well, uh,” I said, “we should probably take this beer into the house, don’t you think?”
Then, I don’t know why, maybe it was because I was looking anywhere in the world but down to the middle and front region of my physical being, but Sister Mary Elizabeth looked down there herself. I wasn’t aware that she was doing so at first, but I heard her emit a short sharp gasp.
I looked at her. She had her hand over her mouth and she was staring down at my recalcitrant organ of supposed masculinity.
“Oh my,” she said. “Is that what I think it is?”
“It’s not my fault,” I said.
She took her hand away from her mouth and finally stopped looking at the thing.
“Maybe we better had go into the house,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She turned and walked quickly past the wicker chairs and tables and an old white-painted glider with a striped beach towel thrown over one arm of it. The rear corner of Mrs. Biddle’s house was only a couple of yards from the end of the pavilion, and without stopping Sister Mary Elizabeth dashed through the rain again and bounded up the steps of the closest of the two rear entrances. She opened the screen door and went in, then turned and held the door open partway, waiting for me.
When I finally made it up the steps and through the door, more wet from sweat than from the rain, she glanced down and then said:
“It’s not so noticeable now. Do you want to wait a minute though, before we go in to the others?”
“Or would my physical propinquity only prolong the tumescence?”
“I think if you only don’t kiss me then I’ll be okay in a minute,” I said.
“Well, I won’t kiss you, then.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Try to think about something else.”
“Believe me, I’m trying,” I said. “Really, I think I’ll just need a few moments.”
“Maybe it would be better if I went ahead. Left you alone to compose yourself.”
“Well, okay --”
“But, no, that might seem strange to the others.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Why don’t you look at the books,” she said. “This is a sort of reading room I gather.”
This room looked like an extension built on to the back of the house, maybe back in the boom years of the 1920s. It was a nice-sized, airy sort of room, almost but not quite a porch, with broad screened windows and shelves of books all along the walls, with comfortable-looking cushioned wicker chairs and some small tables and standing ash trays. Books and magazines and papers lay here and there on the chairs and tables. On one table was what looked like the typewriter that Larry Winchester had used the day before, with a pile of paper on either side of it. There were no pictures on the walls in here, but there was a display case with oriental-looking little sculptures.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s a good idea. I’ll just look at the books for a minute.”
Still holding my four six-packs in their wet paper sacks, I went across the room to a tall and wide bookcase.
“Do you like to read?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Yes,” I said. “But I really prefer trash, I’m afraid.”
“But Dick told me you were a brilliant poet.”
“Dick was being kind,” I said.
“I’m quite looking forward to reading some novels now that I’m out of the convent. What do you think of James Joyce?”
“Well, I’m not too familiar with his work,” I confessed.
“The first thing I did when I got up this morning besides not go to mass for the first time in my life was to ask Mrs. Biddle if she had a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. And she did.”
Unfortunately the bookcase I was looking at had mostly hardbound books. I looked around for some of the paperback kind, the kind that have covers with paintings of women with guns or knives.
“I found the book fascinating,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, “and spent the morning leafing quite avidly through it. Perhaps it’s my Irish blood. I found some of the book’s poetic prose to be -- how shall I put it? Stirring. What are you looking for, any genre in particular?”
“Well, I like books where the hero is caught in a whirlpool of violence, and betrayal, and, uh --”
I saw a paperback book on the seat of a rocking chair that looked likely. The cover had several women with both knives and guns. I had to twist my head around to read the title. Havana Hellcats by Horace P. Sternwall. Above the title were the words “Big Ben Blagwell always thought he could handle the dames -- until he met the...” “First publication anywhere!” was printed along the bottom.
“Perfume of embraces all him assailed,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. “With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.”
“Pardon me?” I turned and looked at her. She had followed me across the room and was standing about two feet away from me. It didn’t help that the front of her dress was even wetter now.
“Perfume of embraces,” she said again, “all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.”
“I think I’m ready to go in now,” I said.
“That’s from Ulysses what I just said,” she said. “Don’t you find those words oddly -- stirring?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I’m trying not to be stirred.”
“Oh. Yes. I see.” She looked away for a moment, then turned back to me. “So you think you’re all right now.”
“Yes, I think so,” I said.
“I don’t want to look, and make you self-conscious.”
“Right. Follow me then.”
We went through an open doorway and down a hall. The hallway had a lot of paintings on the walls, none of them of Popes or Presidents. We came through the kitchen I had sat in with Dick a couple of nights before, we went past the staircase and further down the hall -- it was all coming back to me now -- and then into the dining room where a group of familiar people sat playing cards at the table.
They all looked up as we came in. Sitting around the table with cards in their hands were Mrs. Biddle, and Daphne’s parents Mr. and Mrs. MacNamara, and Dick and Daphne, and Mrs. Biddle’s friend Tommy. Larry Winchester sat in an armchair near the Victrola, reading a newspaper.
“Oh, good, the beer’s here,” said Mr. MacNamara. He was smoking a cigar.
“And Mr. Schnabel,” said Mrs. Biddle. She was smoking a cigarette in her jet-black holder.
“Hello, Mrs. Biddle,” I said.
Everyone there was smoking something, and several oscillating fans placed near the windows on either side of the big room sent the smoke swirling back and forth and back again.
“You look like a drowned rat,” said Mrs. Biddle.
And then everyone began talking at once. Well, everyone but me, even though it seemed that most of what was being said was directed at me.
While this babble transpired Dick got up and took the two bags of beer from my arms and put them on a side table. He took two of the six-packs out of their bag, and, taking a ring of keys out of his pocket, he asked who wanted a beer. He had a church key attached to his keys, and he began opening cans and passing them around as everyone chattered away. Before I could say no he had opened a can and passed it to me.
“So, what happened to you, last night, buddy?”
He took a slug out of his can of Schmidt’s.
“Well, I, uh --”
“Uh, sort of --”
Sister Mary Elizabeth didn’t take a beer but went and sat on a chair on the other side of the Victrola from where Larry had been sitting. She picked up a book, Ulysses. Larry now stood near me with his left hand holding a beer and a cigar and his right hand offered to mine. We shook hands. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Good to see you, Arnie. And I just remembered we were supposed to work today. What time did I say?”
“I think you said ten.”
“Oh, well you’re only, what three-and-a-half hours late? I guess you had an eventful night too, huh?”
“Yeah, sort of --”
“It was those mushrooms that did me in. I ended up doing another whole handful after you left the Ugly Mug with your lady.”
I had totally forgotten about the mushrooms.
“I’ll tell ya,” continued Larry, “I was hallucinating like hell there for a while. That ever happen with you, Dick?”
“Oh, sure,” said Dick. “Try some of that government-issue LSD if you ever want to hallucinate, I’ll tell ya.” He put down his can of beer and took a pack of Chesterfields out of his shirt pocket. He started to offer them to me but then said, “Oh, wait, are you still trying to quit, Arnold?”
“I think so,” I said, even though I had been on the verge of taking one.
“Smart man,” he said. He shook out a cigarette for himself.
Daphne was now standing in our little group, and she put her hand on my arm. She wore white shorts and a pink polo shirt.
“Arnold,” she said. “Do you play canasta?”
“No,” I said.
“Arnold doesn’t play cards,” called out Mrs. Biddle in a loud commanding voice. “Or any games at all.”
“Where’s Elektra?” said Daphne, without missing a beat.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Who’s Elektra?” said her mother, she had been facing away, but now she was turned around with her arm over the back of her chair.
“It’s his lady friend,” said Daphne.
“Damned good-looking, too,” said Mr. MacNamara. Both Daphne and her mother looked at him with furrowed brows and he quickly added, “But not as good-looking as my wife, or my daughter.”
“Ha ha,” said Mrs. Biddle.
“For my money Mrs. Biddle is the loveliest woman in this town,” said Tommy. “Perhaps in all of New Jersey.”
“Ha ha,” said Mrs. Biddle again. “I can always count on you, Tommy.”
“That you can, Mrs. Biddle,” he said.
It went on like this. People asked questions of me, and I answered the questions (or at least started to answer before I was interrupted with another question) in ways that didn’t bring up the Devil or Jesus or time travel or living dolls or talkative flies and cats or any other supernatural phenomena.
After a few minutes of this Larry took my arm and guided me back into the hallway.
“I have a funny feeling we’re not going to get any work done today,” he said. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“How about if we get back on it tomorrow, bright and early and not hungover and feeling like warmed-over cowshit.”
“Good.” He patted me on the arm. “I don’t know what I was thinking, saying we would work on a Sunday. A man needs his day of rest, don’t you agree, Arnie?”
“Oh, yes,” I said.
I chose not to remind him that all my days were days of rest.
(Continued here; these past two-hundred-and-fifty chapters have only begun to scratch the surface.)
(Please turn to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. To commemorate this 250th chapter a “Beer ‘n’ Wurst” party will be held for all card-carrying members of the Arnold Schnabel Society and guests on the athletic field at Cardinal Dougherty High School this Saturday evening starting at 7:00 PM. Tickets $10 for unlimited quantities of Schmidt’s beer and grilled wursts, plus your choice of sauerkraut, potato salad, or pickled beets while they last. Cheesecake courtesy of Fink’s Bakery. Musical entertainment provided by Freddy Ayres and Ursula, featuring special guests the Moyle Siblings.)