Saturday, May 14, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 250: canasta

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.”

“It is?”

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?”

“Um --”

“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 --”

“And what?”

“Um, passion?”


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.”

“Thank you.”

“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 --”

“Long story?”

“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.)


rhoda said...

death approaches fasta and fasta
but i never learned to play canasta
to the powers that be i never truckled
or learned to play backgammon or pinochle

sad to say, i must confess
to being the world's worst player at chess
poker - don't get me started
my cash and i were quickly parted

in long afternoons in the conservatory shade
with harris the butler i played old maid
bud the chauffeur with the wooden leg
taught me jacks and mumbly peg

those, to my eternal shame
were the best that i could do at games
and when the roll is called up yonder
my wretchedness i will have time to ponder

excerpt from "the game of life" by horace p sternwall

Dan Leo said...

rhoda, thanks so much for resurrecting these regrettably long-out-of-print verses from the great Sternwall!

Tim said...


I want you to know that I continue to "save up" RTH posts so that I can enjoy them in bunches. I also want to compliment you on the soiree at Sturgis Playground a couple of weeks back. That Old English Pizza brought back memories. How did you know my favorite is mushroom? Also, the Schmidt's beer in the retro, non-pop-top cans was a very nice touch. I never did like Schmidt's, I was more of an Ortlieb's man.

Dan Leo said...

Tim, you'll be pleased to know that the last time I checked (six months ago? I'm way overdue for a return visit to the hood!) Old English pizza is still in operation.