Saturday, June 4, 2011

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 253: Caporal

Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new acquaintance “Big” Ben Blagwell on this fateful Sunday afternoon in August of 1963 in the reading room of Mrs. Biddle’s grand old house in Cape May, New Jersey, upon which quaint seaside town the torrential rains have finally ceased falling...

(Go here to read our preceding episode; newly-matriculated students may go here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award©-winning 37-volume masterpiece.)

“Pound for pound the greatest writer in the pantheon of American literature, Arnold Schnabel stands alone in a one-man front rank, with Horace P. Sternwall, Larry Winchester and Fredric Brown humbly holding their caps a few steps behind him, while behind them fart and roister all the rest of the writerly rabble in an unruly and not very pleasant-smelling mob.” -- Harold Bloom, in Boxing Illustrated.

He shook the pack so that a few of the cigarettes protruded, and offered them to me.

I started to take one and then stopped.

“I keep forgetting,” I said. “I quit yesterday.”

Ben looked at me, still holding the pack in the offering gesture.

“You what?”

“I, uh, quit smoking.”

“Why, in God’s name?”

He gave the pack another shake, and moving it and his mouth simultaneously together, he drew out a Sweet Caporal with his lips, which I noticed now were slightly chapped.

“Well,” I said, “you know, the Surgeon General’s Report --”

“Fuck the Surgeon General.” He shoved the pack back into his shirt pocket, then patted that pocket. “These Surgeon Generals wanta take away one of the few pleasures a working man can count on.”

He thrust his hands searchingly into his denims pockets, both front and back.

“But the risk of cancer,” I said. “And, you know, heart attacks --”

He stopped searching his pockets and stared at me again, the unlit cigarette still hanging on his lips.

“And, um,” I went on, “emphysema?”

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and then said:

“What do you want to do, live to be ninety?”

“Well, uh,” I said.

“Old, feeble, decrepit, boring. You call that living?”

“Well, not a very high standard of living, I suppose.”

“Or do you want to live your life to the full like a man, not only eating and drinking and fucking like a man, but smoking like a goddam man, and then, sure, croaking like a man at the age of fifty of cancer or a heart attack, the way a man who’s lived croaks, with no whining, no tears, and no regrets, because you’ll know that in your fifty years you have lived your life, like a man, and not just passed through it like a ghost.”

“Well, now that you put it that way --”

“Hey, I don’t suppose you have a light on ya, do you, Arnie?”

“Uh, no,” I said, going through the motions of checking all my own pockets, “no, I don’t think so --”

“You see any matches around here?”

He began looking around the room for matches, and, just to be sociable -- after all, it was my fault that he had been transported here out of what looked like a pretty interesting adventure in Cuba -- I looked around also.

“You find anything, Arnie?”

“No, sorry, Ben, I don’t see any matches around.”

“Do me a favor, go in and ask one of your friends in there for a book of matches.”

“Look,” I said, “I hate to say this, but I’m really trying to get away from here.”

“It’ll take you half a minute to go in and get me some matches.”

“But I’m afraid something will happen that will -- that will -- prevent me -- from -- from --”

“I know, from doing these precious ‘errands’ of yours.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I’d go in,” he said, “but I don’t even know these people.”

“Yes,” I said, “that would look strange. Look, tell you what, my house, or rather my aunts’ house, which is where I’m staying, is only a block from here. If you come with me I’ll get you a light.”

“A block away?”


“Well, okay, I guess I can wait that long.” He stuck the cigarette behind his ear. “We walking?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“I hope it’s not going to take you out of your way or anything.”

“No, it’s on my way, and, anyway, I want to change out of this suit.”

“Your Sunday suit. Looks kinda rumpled, and damp. Like you’ve just been chased by a pack of oriental thugs through a warren of dockside alleys in Hong Kong.”


“So you’re sure I wouldn’t be inconveniencing you.”


“Well then, let’s get goin’, pal.”

He waved his hand toward the doorway.

“Okay,” I said.

I was still holding Maria’s umbrella, so I went over and hung it back on its peg by the doorway. I opened the screen door, remembered my politeness and gestured for Ben to go first, but he said, “Lead the way, my friend, because I don’t have the faintest idea where we’re going.”

“Okay,” I said again, and I went down the steps, and Ben followed me down.

The world was gleaming wet and green. The sky was still overcast like an enormous circus tent of grey canvas stretched over the world, but the colors of everything around me seemed even richer than on a sunny day, and the air smelled like flowers and wet soil.

“You gonna admire the scenery, or are we gonna bust a move,” said Ben.

“Sorry. Well, I think the quickest way is just to go around the side of the house here and then out the front way.”

“Lead the way my friend.”

We walked side by side to the right, and around the corner of the house, then onto the wet flagstone path that ran long about six feet from the house between banks of bushes and flowers.

“Nice crib old Mrs. Biddle’s got here,” said Ben, looking up at the gables and dormers and the faded white-painted walls and the windows with their open dark green shutters. “She a good friend of yours?”

“Well, I only met her --” I was about to say “recently”, but then I remembered that I had met her in another life, thirty years before and in a foreign tropical country. So instead I said, “Well, yeah, come to think of it, we have known each other for a, uh, while.”

“So what’s your story, Arnie? Let me guess. I’m pretty good at these things, sizing a guy up. I’m going to say you’re the scion of a wealthy old Philadelphia family. Philadelphia lawyers? Yes, an old and respected family law firm. You were a good boy, went to Harvard Law -- no, Penn -- U. of P. for you, you kept close to home, and if you didn’t finish at the absolute top of your class you were in the top, say, five percent, and then you joined the family firm, and you were a good and honest lawyer, and a member in good standing of the Union League and the Racquet Club as well as the both the Merion Cricket and Golf Clubs. But you always felt that something was missing from your life, you always felt that the law was not quite your cup of tea. That you were not quite -- fulfilled. So you decided to -- to take the summer off, perhaps to take a year off. You also decided that you no longer loved your wife --”

“Wait a minute, Ben,” I said. We had turned the corner to the front of the house. Fortunately no one was on the porch. “I’m sorry, but I’m just a railroad brakeman. I had a -- I had a nervous breakdown, and --”

“Just a nervous breakdown?”

“Well, okay, a complete mental breakdown, and anyway, when I got out of the mental hospital --”

“How long were you in for?”

“About three months.”

“Only three months.”

“Well, a little more --”

“Okay, so go on.”

We turned left and started down the front path to the sidewalk.

“Well, I tried to go back to work, but that didn’t work out --”

“Uh-huh,” said Ben.

“So, anyway, the railroad --”

“Which railroad?”

“The Reading.”

“Good outfit.”

“Yeah --”

“Okay, go on.”

“Well, the, uh, railroad put me on a half-pay disability, a leave of absence --”

“Right,” said Ben. “And?”

“And so my mother brought me here to Cape May, to -- to recuperate for the summer at my aunts’ guest house. And that’s all there is to it, really.”

“Okay, don’t get upset.”

“I’m not upset.”


We had reached the front gate, which was open, and we went through to the Windsor Avenue sidewalk.

“We just go around the corner here,” I said. “And my aunts’ house is a couple blocks away.”
We turned the corner at North Street, walking in silence for a bit, but then Ben spoke:

“I still get the feeling you’re leaving something out, Arnie.”

“There’s always something left out, Ben.”

“Yeah, like the truth.”

“Okay,” I said. “I write poems. I’ve been publishing a poem a week in my local neighborhood paper in Philly since I was eighteen.”

“Poems, huh? Any good, these poems?”

“Oh, no,” I said.

“But I guess it’s kind of a nice outlet for ya.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“It’s good to have a hobby,” said Ben. “Especially when you don’t have much else in the way of a life.”

I said nothing to this.

“By the way,” he said, “I notice you’re limping. War wound?”

“No,” I said. “I fell last night.”

“Drunk, huh? What’d ja, trip in a gutter?”

It occurred to me that I really had no particular reason to lie to Ben Blagwell. Anything I had to say would be no more fantastic than the fact that he was a paperback novel hero come to life.

“I was flying through the air, and I forgot to look where I was going and I crashed into a streetlamp pole.”

“Very funny,” he said. “So, Arnie, you live with your mother?”

“Yes,” I said, “and with my three aunts. Also we have a young cousin there, as well as the paying guests of course --”

“I mean, normally, you live with your mother.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh, boy.”

We crossed Congress Street. No one else was out, and there were no cars going by.

“Oh, boy,” said Ben again.

“Right up the end of this block,” I said.

Everyone was still indoors, doing whatever they’d been doing during the rainstorm, playing cards or Monopoly, or taking naps, or drinking.

“Boy oh boy oh boy,” Ben said, after we had gone a few more yards.

Soon the people would start drifting out to walk up and down on the damp boards of the promenade and maybe even to stroll shoeless on the wet grey sand on the beach.

We continued walking, and then Ben said:

“Don’t you want to know why I’m saying ‘boy oh boy oh boy’?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to seem intrusive.”

“Arnie, don’t you see? Don’t you see why you cracked up?”

“Because I was crazy?”

“Yes, but don’t you see what drove you crazy?”

“Well, I have my suspicions.”

“It’s because you wouldn’t let yourself live!”

“Yeah, maybe so,” I said.

“I mean, tell me something, have you ever even had a girlfriend?”

It was a good thing he wasn’t asking me this a couple of weeks ago. As it was I was able to say to him in all honesty:

“Believe it or not, I have a lady friend.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Like, a real girl?”


“And is she -- you don’t have to answer this -- but is she -- you know, good-looking?”

“Yes. Very much so.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really,” I said.

“Well, I’ll be damned. So I figured you wrong once again. Hey, wait.” He stopped and put his enormous hand on my arm, stopping me. “Just tell me that this -- uh -- relationship is not a, shall we say, Platonic one. You know what that means? Platonic?”

“Yes,” I said.

“So it’s Platonic between you two, right?”

“No,” I said. “I mean not exclusively Platonic.”

“What I mean is that you two -- you know --”

He let go of my arm but then gave it what I think he might have thought a tap with his fist, but which knocked me a full step to the side.

“Ow,” I said, rubbing my arm.

“Sorry, pal. All I mean is you and this babe are actually making it, right? Please tell me you are.”

“Listen, Ben, I prefer not to talk about these things.”

“A gentleman. That’s cool. I like that.”

He patted me on the arm, but lightly enough that it hardly hurt, and we continued our walk.

We approached my aunts’ house. Kevin was sitting on the porch, reading a comic. So much for getting into the house unseen.

(Continued here, and for no one knows how long; yet another trove of Arnold Schnabel’s marble copybooks -- all of them filled to capacity with his neat Palmer Method handwriting -- has just been unearthed in a large cardboard box (which once housed a 1953 Philco television/hi-fi console) under a pile of dozens of yellowed back issues of the Catholic Standard & Times in the garage of his mother’s modest rowhome at B and Nedro in the historic Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia.)

(Photograph by Vivian Maier. Kindly turn to the right hand column of this page for a listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Be sure to stop by the “Arnold Schnabel” booth at the upcoming St. Helena’s Parish Carnival and pick up some of Arnold’s books as well as a tin or two of “Mrs. Schnabel’s Old-Time Homemade Zwieback”. All proceeds in aid of the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia, PA.)


Unknown said...

Ben Blagwell of all Arnold's many aquaintances seems like Arnold's counterpart or even Arnold himself could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

DR said...

great installment--i dig the new character and the paperback character come-to-life angle...i like the repeating theme in the saga of writing and writers w/
gertrude, larry, the visit to france, nyc int eh 50's in gertrude's book, the valhalla scene, etc....

Dan Leo said...

Aww, thanks, guys...I mean Arnold thanks you!

Unknown said...

It does seem like Blagwell is bringing out the best in Arnold....Arnold's letting down his guard. Great episode.

Dan Leo said...

Just what Arnold needs: a friend straight out of Horace P. Sternwall's "Havana Hellcats"!