The torrential rains have finally ceased on this Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, as our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new acquaintance Big Ben Blagwell approach Arnold’s aunts’ guest house here in the genteelly shabby seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey...
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“The discovery and ongoing publication of Arnold Schnabel’s memoirs surely ranks as the greatest literary event of the 21st century. And we still have eighty-nine years to go.” -- Harold Bloom, in Reader’s Digest.
“This is my aunts’ house up here,” I said.
“Quaint,” said Ben. “I’m gonna say circa 1865. Perhaps it was built by a ship’s captain, to house his growing brood. Or then again it might have belonged to some rich Philadelphia banker or textiles baron as a summer ‘cottage’.”
“It just belongs to my three maiden aunts now,” I said. “They bought it when they retired from Bell Telephone.”
“Bel Tel, another good outfit. Who’s the squirt on the porch?”
“That’s my little cousin Kevin.”
“Is he gonna be trouble?”
“As long as you give him comic books he leaves you alone,” I said. “But he can be annoying when he runs out of them.
“Thanks for the tip. Anything else I need to know about the set-up?”
“Well, if we run into my aunts or my mother just try not to curse. They’re very old-fashioned and religious.”
“Don’t worry about me, Arnie. I know how to handle these old broads,’ he said. “Schnabel. 'Schnabel.' You Jewish?”
“No, we’re Roman Catholic.”
“Then I’ll be Catholic too. What the hell, one time out in Siam I had to make like I was a Buddhist monk to get out of a jam. Seems I got on the wrong side of this warlord named Kong. 'King' Kong they called him -- heh heh -- well, anyways --”
“Excuse me, listen, Ben?”
We had come to the crooked wooden front gate.
“I think it would be best if we just went in the side way, quietly,” I said, in a low voice.
“Side way, front way, don’t matter to me, pal.”
I lifted the latch, and we went through. Kevin finally raised his eyes from his comic and looked at us, but he said nothing.
Ben and I walked up the cracked bluestone path together, with Kevin staring at us as if I had shown up accompanied by one of his comic book super heroes, The Thing, or perhaps The Hulk.
I saw that I would not be able to avoid at least a cursory conversation with the boy, but I hoped against hope I could keep it short.
This was not to be.
He tossed his comic to the pile of its fellows on the floor and got up from his rocker and came to the head of the porch steps.
“Cousin Arnold,” he said.
“Hello, Kevin,” I said.
“Who is the man.”
“Kevin,” I said, “this is my friend, Mr. Blagwell.”
Kevin almost fell down the steps and ran up to Ben.
“Are you a pirate?” he asked.
“Well, sonny boy,” said Ben, and he patted the top of Kevin’s small bulbous head, with its dull thin hair like something you would find glued onto the skull of a ventriloquist’s puppet in a third-rate carnival, “as a matter of fact I’m more by way of being a nautical gentleman of fortune, although I have on occasion done a bit of smuggling.”
“Oh, wow, a smuggler. How tall are you?”
“Six foot four, my lad, and two hundred and fifty pounds of sinew and muscle.”
“Will you take me on your ship?”
“You ever been on a ship?”
“No, but I want to ship out. I could be your cabin boy.”
“You’ll have to ask your parents.”
“They’ll only say no. My parents are boring.”
“Oh, I doubt that, Kevin.” Ben wiped the hand he’d been patting Kevin’s head with on the side of his denims. Kevin’s hair often seems to have jelly or butter or some other sticky substance in it. “What’s your old man do, Kevin?”
“He’s a certified public accountant, and my mom’s a secretary for the archdiocese.”
“Hmm, maybe they are boring after all.”
“Take me with you.”
Something told me I’d better nip this in the bud.
“Okay, Kevin,” I butted in, “we’re going to go in now. This way, Ben.”
“What happened to your umbrella, Cousin Arnold?”
“Oh, I, uh, left it somewhere.”
“You mean you lost it?”
“That lady was looking for you.”
“A lady was looking for Arnold?” asked Ben.
“Yes,” said Kevin.
“Would this be his lady friend?”
“The weird lady,” said Kevin.
“Aren’t they all weird?” said Ben.
“Yes,” said Kevin, “but this one is extra weird.”
The front screen door opened, and my mother was standing there.
“Arnold?” she said, as if I had finally returned after being gone for twenty years, presumed lost at sea.
I am afraid that I must here omit my recounting of the immediately subsequent conversation, because at that moment, as I had on occasion done before, I floated out of my body, my consciousness rising up out of the top of my head to the height of the lower branches of that big oak tree in the front yard. I alighted in the crook of a branch and waited for the three human beings below to finish talking about whatever it was they were talking about. I could hear the voices but they carried no more meaning to me than the rustling of the leaves and the whistling and screeching of a few blackbirds who sat on some higher branches, in fact even less sense than the birds, as I was able to pick up some snippets of their conversation, something about whether there would be more insects to eat either in the garden directly below or over on the Perry Street side of the house where the chrysanthemums and rhododendrons were particularly luxurious.
I waited. I could tell that I was nervously speaking as few words as possible to my mother, who was apparently remaining in her place at the open door. She often does this, carries on conversations half in and half out of the house. I saw that Ben had politely doffed his cap, and then I heard the low but somehow reassuring rumble of his voice, as if someone were playing a placatory tuba solo in the distance. Kevin continued to gaze up at Ben in what I suppose was a mixture of wonder and admiration if not adoration. All this went on for perhaps several minutes -- I can’t be sure, time means nothing to birds and insects and children and even less to disembodied spirits -- with Ben apparently doing most of the talking, although I could hear the occasional bird-like utterance from my mother’s direction, interspersed now and then with a chirp or two from Kevin. Ben patted Kevin’s head a couple of times (but not hard enough to send the boy sprawling to the ground) and once he scratched the crown of his own head with its close-cropped ginger-colored hair.
Finally I heard the faint but unmistakeable whinging sound of the screen door closing, and Ben replaced his yachting cap. I said something or other sounding dull, flat and unprofitable, and Kevin responded with his own unique keening noise, but then he turned and plopped his slump-shouldered way up the wooden steps.
Ben and I started on the path around to the left of the house, and I thought it would now be best for me to return to my corporeal host.
I flew down and re-entered my brains in the middle of a dialogue between myself and Ben.
“...you ask her just to get me some matches?”
“What?” I said.
“God, you really do phase out, don’t you, pal?”
“I said why didn’t you just ask your old lady to get me some matches?”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, she doesn’t smoke, and neither do my aunts. She would have had to go into the kitchen and get the box of kitchen matches.”
“Ladies like that love to get matches. Hell, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they weren’t waiting on men hand and foot.”
“I know,” I said, “but then my aunts would have gotten involved somehow, and, I don’t know --”
“I know, I know, you gotta do these important errands of yours.”
“Yes,” I said. “And -- I don’t know --”
It was true, I didn’t know.
“Man,” said Ben, “for a guy who has no job, living off a pension, you sure seem to lead a complicated life.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Not that I’m being critical, y’unnerstand. Say, you ain’t got any rum up in your room, do ya?”
“No,” I said, “I’m afraid not.”
“No, sorry, I don’t keep alcohol in my room.”
“What’re you, a goddam tea-totaler?”
“No, far from it. But if I kept liquor in my room I’d just drink it.”
“That’s the whole point.”
“Well, there’s plenty of bars in town, Ben.”
“Okay, don’t get sore.”
“I’m not sore,” I said, although I must confess I was beginning to become a little annoyed. It occurred to me that perhaps it hadn’t been such a bad idea my not having any real friends all those years before this summer.
“Y’know, not that I want to pry into your family business or nothing,” said Ben, strengthening the postulation I had just been mulling, “I mean I know all families have their proprietary mysteries and sui generis customs and arcane laws and taboos, but how come your mom didn’t seem to think it a little strange that we should go in through the side way instead of through the front door as might seem expected in any other household in the world be it of the western or oriental civilizations or indeed any culture anywhere that has dwellings with both side and front portals?”
“In a word, Ben,” I said, “she’s used to me going in the side door practically all the time for the very reason that she knows that I do my best to keep my interactions with her and her sisters and Kevin to the polite minimum.”
“She knows you’re a weirdo.”
“Yes, she’s well aware of that fact. Here’s the side door.”
“I can see that. Where’s your room?”
“Up in the attic,” I said, opening the screen door and gesturing for Ben to go first.
“The attic? You’re kidding me, right?”
“No,” I said.
He came in, and so did I, the screen door flapping shut behind us.
Ben looked around, at the narrow hallway, the stairs, the floral wallpaper which had possibly been colorful when it was first hung back in the roaring twenties, the framed rotogravures of Pope John XXIII and President Kennedy and Bishop Sheen, the small table covered with yellow lace with the seashell ashtray and the little painted statue of the Immaculate Conception.
“Smells funny in here, don’t it?” he said.
“It’s an old house,” I said.
“Smells like -- y’know when you were a kid, and you visited your grandmother, and you went down in the basement and you found these stacks of old National Geographics that somehow your grandmother couldn’t bring herself to throw out, or burn? It smells like that.”
“Well, we’d better go up,” I said.
“Not that it’s a bad smell,” he said, and he drew a deep breath, which caused a rasping, slightly rattling sound to come from his nose. He exhaled slowly, and now the noise was a deep wheeze, like the sound a bassoonist might produce when blowing tentatively into his instrument as the strings are tuning up. “It’s a somehow reassuring smell,” he said. “But okay, let’s go up.”
“Follow me,” I said, and I started up the stairs, with Ben following, his heavy footsteps causing the entire staircase to tremble.
“Reminds me of a little joint I used to stop at in Frisco,” he said. “Mad Mabel’s Seaman’s Lodge, down by the wharf there on Pacific Avenue. What a dame ol’ Mabel was. Anything goes was her motto, long as you took care of your nightly bill in advance, paid for any broken furniture and got rid of any dead bodies before the cops found ‘em. Get you anything a good seafaring man might want, too, for a price, but a fair price. Nice clean girl, or boy? Half-ounce of pure-grade opium with a half-gallon of good scotch to cut the phlegm? No problem for Mad Mabel, long as you had the gelt. Just don’t try to screw her over, boy. Saw her take an empty fifth of aquavit to a big Swede stoker one time who got crazy mean drunk one night and beat the living daylights out of one of Mabel’s best rent boys. After Mabel got through with that Swede a hangover was the least of his worries.”
The last several sentences had been spoken with increasingly frequent and longer pauses and huffings and puffings. Ben seemed to be in pretty good shape, but apparently he smoked a lot of cigarettes.
“Mad Mabel’s,” said Ben. “Last time I stopped there was the time I got into the middle of this fracas with the Sydney Ducks and Chang the slave trader --”
“Listen, Ben,” I said.
“Yeah, Arnie?” said Ben, huffing and puffing.
I stopped, and turned to look down at him. I spoke in a very low voice.
“We’re coming to the third floor now, and the entrance to my attic is down the hall.”
“There’s this woman who’s staying on this floor. She might be in her room --”
“This the weird lady the squirt was talking about?”
“Arnie, Arnie, Arnie,” he said, smiling, and shaking his head back and forth.
“Anyway,” I went on, “I’d prefer that she didn’t know I’m here, so would you mind being quiet, just till we get up to my room?”
“Sure, Arnie. Arnie, Arnie --”
“I will not make a peep, my friend. I’ll also try not to tread the floorboards too thunderously, or as little as my massiveness permits.”
We got to the third floor, and, turning again, I jabbed my finger in the direction of Miss Evans’s door. No sound came from her room, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t in there, or even standing with her ear pressed to the door, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.
Ben nodded. He was sweating from the climb, but he seemed to be doing his best not to pant too heavily.
We walked slowly down the corridor to the door to the attic. I glanced back, but there was still no sound from Miss Evans’s room.
“Close the door behind us,” I whispered to Ben.
Carefully I opened my door and started up the steps to my room. Ben followed, and, as I had asked him to, he closed the door behind us, quietly.
At the top of the steps I turned as he came up.
“Careful of your head, Ben,” I said, in a more normal voice now. “The ceiling’s very low.”
“Yeah, I see that,” he said. He came up the steps and, even though he stood under the main beam, under the highest line of the ceiling, he had to hunch over.
“Cozy,” he said, looking around the little room, with its few furnishings and my few possessions.
“Hey, pal,” said the fly, buzzing over to hover by my nose, “who’s the gorilla?”
(Continued here, and until Hell freezes over, melts, and then fires up all over again.)
(Please turn 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©. The Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia wishes to thank everyone who stopped by their booth at last weekend’s Saint Helena’s Parish Carnival, and we apologize to the many people who were unable to purchase a tin of “Mrs. Schnabel’s Old-Time Homemade Zwieback”, but the entire stock sold out the first evening. The ladies of the society are busy as bees baking and packaging a fresh batch, which will be available either by mail order or at the society’s weekly high tea at the VFW on Chew Avenue.)