Let’s rejoin our memoirist Arnold Schnabel, in a 1946 Buick Estate station wagon driven by Sister Mary Elizabeth, on this rainy Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, in the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey...
(Go here to read our previous episode; those willing to become obsessed may click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 61-volume masterpiece.)
“Discovering Arnold Schnabel was for me like taking that first hit of good Owsley acid. Suddenly a whole new world was born.” -- Harold Bloom, in Criterion.
“Just make a right up there at the next street,” I said.
“Righto,” she said. “I suppose you’re going home?”
“To my aunts’ house? No, actually I was headed over to Mrs. Biddle’s.”
“What a lovely coincidence,” she said. “Like a novel.”
“Turn here,” I said.
“I know,” she said, and she did so.
“So just go straight ahead and the liquor store’s right up there on the left."
“Okay. So why are you going to Mrs. Biddle’s if I may be so bold as to ask.”
“Well, it’s kind of embarrassing, but I was supposed to have met with this guy Larry Winchester -- have you met Larry?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve met Larry.”
“I was supposed to meet with him over three hours ago to work on a screenplay.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about having missed your appointment with Larry. He only got out of bed about a half hour ago.”
“Oh, well, that’s a load off my mind,” I said. “Here’s the store.”
“I see it.”
She pulled in front of the store, opened her purse, took out a folded ten, handed it to me.
“Here, they gave me a ten, so get this much beer I guess.”
“Did they say what kind?”
“I don’t think they much care.”
I took the money, jumped out, went in and got four six-packs of Schmidt’s pint cans and lugged them to the counter. I’d been in there plenty of times before but I had always previously only bought one six-pack at a time. So of course the cashier had to say something.
“Going to a party?”
“Yes,” I said. And as I said that it occurred to me that my life rather had turned into one long party.
I came back out, got in, put one paper bag of beer on the seat and another in the floor space, and Sister Mary Elizabeth pulled out.
“How much did the beer come to?” she asked.
“It came to eleven bucks, so I threw in a dollar.”
“That means you get to drink some.”
“Just bear to the left up ahead there,” I said.
“I know how to get back,” she said.
“So, you’re probably wondering about me,” she said.
“Well, a little,” I said, although to be honest I really hadn’t been. I can be very self-absorbed.
“I’ve decided to leave the order,” she said. “Daphne invited me to stay at her grandmother’s, so I think I’ll just spend the rest of the summer here while I decide what I want to do next.”
She glanced at me.
“What do you think of that?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you think I’m making a good decision?”
I hesitated. Who was I to say? But then after all she was asking me.
“Spit it out,” she said.
“I think you’re making a good decision,” I said.
She said nothing to this. We had got to Perry Street, and she looked both ways before making the left turn.
“What was it like when you got hit by lightning yesterday?” she asked.
I hate to lie to people. I really do. But I just didn’t feel like going into the whole story of my meeting Jesus and going up to his father’s house with him, and all that had transpired there. So instead I said:
“I really got knocked for a loop.”
“Oh,” she said. “So you didn’t see God or anything.”
“Um?” She turned and glanced at me again.
“Uh, no,” I said, finally.
“Too bad,” she said. And after all, strictly speaking, I had only seen Jesus, the son of God, so I wasn’t completely lying.
She made the right at Perry, we drove in silence by my aunts’ house and down past Congress, and at Windsor she turned right, went past the entranceway of Mrs. Biddle’s house and then turned down a narrow gravel drive which curved through thick trees and shrubs and then up to an old-looking green barn, with both its big doors open. Three other cars were already parked in there, including what looked like Dick Ridpath’s blue Volkswagen. Sister Mary Elizabeth pulled in and parked. She killed the engine, left the keys in the ignition and picked up her little purse. I got the two bags of beer, and we got out of the car.
She closed the driver’s door, and I shut my door with my knee. The barn was dim, it smelled of gasoline and motor oil and old wood.
“Follow me,” she said. “I know how we can get back to the house and not get soaked.”
She led me over to an open side door. She went through, I followed, and we were in a partially roofed-over shower shed made out of wood colored with blistered green paint. The roofing was like a tent, and dim daylight came in above the four shower stalls that ran along the left and above and through a thin latticework wall to the right. Everything was covered with the old peeling and bubbled green paint except for the walkway, which was made out of bare and soft-looking wood planks. Now the smell was of wet old wood, but without the gasoline and oil smells.
“Pretty slick, huh?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She led the way along the passageway, it was about twenty feet long I suppose. At the end she turned to me.
“This part we have to run, but it’s only about ten feet. Are you okay to run?”
“I’ll hobble as quickly as I can,” I said, and it was true that my leg pains had returned, although not as severely as when I had been standing miserably outside the Cavalier Shop.
“Would you like me to carry one of those bags?”
“No, thank you,” I said, with my usual absurd gallantry. “They balance one another out.”
“Fair enough,” she said and she bolted out into the rain along a flagstone path set in the bright green grass and off and into a greenhouse which I barely remembered noticing when I had first visited here two nights before, or was it three years before.
I hobbled after her through the rain and jumped inside. The door to the greenhouse had been open, and we left it open.
“Nice, isn’t it,” she said, and it was. The rain clattered down on the glass panes above us. The long room was filled with wildly growing flowers and plants and their smells, the leaves and flowers seeming to push against the cloudy glass panes streaming with rain.
“Do you like flowers?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
She went over to an enormous bright red nasturtium blossom, bent forward and put her nose to within an inch of it, and breathed in.
She turned to me.
“I love the way nasturtiums smell. Did you ever eat one?”
“I don’t think so.”
She plucked off a petal and brought it to my lips. I’d never eaten a flower before. I opened my lips and she shoved the petal in. I tentatively pressed it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue. It had a spicy, bright, pleasant taste.
“What do you think?” she said.
“Not bad,” I said, and I began slowly to chew.
“You see these?” she said.
She touched one of a spray of large white daffodils.
“Narcissus,” she said. “Don’t eat them. Highly poisonous.”
“I won’t,” I said, still chewing the nasturtium.
“Are those bags heavy?”
“Not extremely so,” I said.
“They look awkward.”
“They are, a little.”
The nasturtium really did have a very refreshing taste.
“Listen,” said the sister, and she moved a step closer to me.
I finally swallowed the petal.
“May I ask you a question?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
I would have to remember about nasturtiums, in case I ever became an indigent bum looking for a free but nutritious meal.
“What’s the deal with you and this Elektra girl?”
“Are you in love with her?”
“I -- I --”
Suddenly I felt very hot, standing there in this greenhouse in my Sunday suit.
“Daphne says she’s very pretty,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I think she’s, uh --”
“Let me ask you this, then,” she said. “And mind you, I’m not being judgmental.”
The sweat was now flowing freely from my every pore. It was very hot and humid in that greenhouse. I noticed that Sister Mary Elizabeth had broken out in a mild sweat as well, but she didn’t look uncomfortable at all.
“Are you having relations with her?” she asked.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes you know what I mean?”
“Or yes you’re having relations with her.”
“That too,” I said.
“You’re really perspiring quite profusely,” she said.
“It’s very warm in here. And I’m wearing a suit.”
“I used to die of the heat wearing my nun’s habit. Of course if you’re a nun you just offer it all up. Any sort of discomfort, pain, agony, distress, offer it up to God. To the souls in purgatory. Let me ask you another question. Aren’t you afraid you’ll go to hell?”
“Hell. For the mortal sin of fornication. Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“You’re not? Why not?”
“I have it on good authority that you don’t go to hell for that.”
“Oh really. On whose authority may I ask.”
She turned her head and looked out at the blurry wet green world outside the greenhouse. The skin of her face in the thick rainy daylight looked as pale as the flesh of the daffodils. I could feel the six-packs under my arms growing warm. She turned to look at me again.
“So are you in love with her?”
“Elektra. Your girlfriend. Are you in love with her.”
“Um,” I said, “yes. I guess so.”
“Yes. I don’t have much to go on.”
“You mean experience?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You and me both. I don’t even know how to kiss a man. And I’m twenty-four. May I kiss you?”
“You say ‘what’ a lot.”
“So may I?”
“May you, uh --”
“You heard me.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I just want to try it,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. “Your girlfriend doesn’t have to know.”
“Now listen, sister --”
“Oh, be still. This will only take a minute.”
I held tight onto the six-packs, she stepped up to me, grabbed my arms by the biceps, lifted up on her toes and kissed me. I stepped back, but she stepped with me, and I backed into a wooden table and could go no further.
Finally she drew her face away, although she kept her hold on my arms.
“Well, she said, “I got that out of the way. But aren’t you supposed to open your lips a little?”
“Normally, yes, I think, but I was trying not to.”
“Well, you’re not much help. It’s too bad you have a girlfriend. I could use a nice man to sort of break me in, you know? Teach me the ropes.”
“I’m probably not a good one to do that for you anyway.”
“From that first time I saw you on the beach by the convent, coming in out of the ocean at night. From that moment everything started to change for me somehow. And then when you showed up again on our beach with Daphne yesterday, and you got struck by lightning, I wondered, is this a sign from God? And when I gave you artificial respiration I felt something, something very queer. Something very queer indeed. But I liked it. Do you know you’re really absolutely streaming with perspiration?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I suppose we’d better go in, then.”
She let go of my arms at last. I could still feel her grip on my biceps muscles.
“Yes, too bad about the girlfriend,” she said.
She turned and started through the narrow pathway that led through all those luxuriant blooming flowers and plants. I followed her, hobbled further by the fact that I now suffered an erection.
(Continued here; and there still remain to be transcribed approximately 650 marble copybooks filled with Arnold’s neat Palmer Method handwriting.)
(Kindly go to the right hand column of this page to find a listing of links to all other available chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode brought to you again by Uneeda Crackers™, official sponsor of the Arnold Schnabel Society’s Spring Dance at the VFW on Chew Avenue this Saturday night; all proceeds in aid of the proposed Arnold Schnabel Museum, to be set up in Arnold’s mother’s old house at B and Nedro.)