Our hero Arnold Schnabel and his companions Big Ben Blagwell and Ferdinand the fly have only barely begun their great quest when they stop to chat with the lovely young ladies Daphne and Sister Mary Elizabeth in front of Mrs. Biddle’s (i.e., Daphne’s grandmother’s) turreted and spired house here in the lovely seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey, on this hot and fateful Sunday afternoon in August of 1963...
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“This summer I shall be taking absolutely nothing to read on my vacation in Cape May except for for the complete published works of Arnold Schnabel on my new Kindle™.” -- Harold Bloom in the Hollywood Reporter.
Right then Ferdinand buzzed a little too close to Sister Mary Elizabeth and she swatted at him, but he deftly swerved and zoomed away, still laughing.
“Arnold,” said Daphne, pointing to my left foot with her hand that held the cigarette.
I looked down. My right foot was elevated, resting on my bicycle pedal, but my left foot was submerged in streaming water.
“Oh,” I said.
“Shit,” said Ben, and he backed his bike farther into the street and out of this small but growing river. His latest laughing and coughing fit had subsided and now he was merely panting as if he’d just run a mile. Although I doubt he was capable of running a mile, or even a city block, not without collapsing to the pavement like some beached sea lion.
“It’s flooding,” said Daphne. “It must be high tide, and after the rain and all. Aren’t you going to pull your foot out of the water, Arnold?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, and I backed my bike away as well.
The stream was widening and quickening with each passing moment.
“I hope the floods don’t prevent you from performing your errands,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“We should be okay,” I said.
“Stay in the middle of the street,” she said.
“I think you’re both crazy,” said Daphne. “Going to all this trouble for some old man’s picky cat.”
“But it’s a good deed,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. “They can offer it up for the souls in purgatory.”
“Oh, that’s a lot of hogwash.”
“Do you really think so?” asked the sister. She seemed genuinely curious.
“Yes,” said Daphne. “Anyway, I don’t believe in purgatory.”
“Hogwash,” said Daphne.
“What do you think, Arnold?” said the sister.
I had pulled off the Ked from my left foot and was trying to shake some of the water out of it.
“Pardon me?” I said. I don’t know why I said that. I had heard her perfectly well.
“Do you believe in purgatory?”
“Well, I’m not sure,” I said. Now I not only had two sore legs but one completely soaked sneaker. Prodded into philosophy by my own petty discomforts I added, “I do think there’s a lot of purgatory on earth, though,”
“Stoking the furnace in the engine room of a tramp steamer,” said Ben. He took his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. “In the South China Seas.” He gave the pack an expert shake and exactly one cigarette popped up from the pack. “In August.” He snapped the cigarette into his lips and then stared off down this pleasant tree-lined street with its large comfortable houses and profuse and colorful gardens. “Now there’s purgatory for ya,” he said.
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. “I’ve often wondered why the good Lord allows so many people to live in abject misery all their lives.”
“That’s easy,” said Ben.
Having put away the pack and taken out his Sid’s Tavern matches, he lit his Sweet Caporal, cupping the light and dipping his head as usual, as if he were on the deck of a junk in the middle of a raging typhoon. Lifting his head he exhaled a great pale grey cumulus cloud of smoke, then gazed at the still-burning paper match.
“It’s because the good Lord doesn’t give a shit,” he said.
“Mr. Bangwell,” said the sister, “I can tolerate your blasphemous remarks but I will not tolerate such gutter-trash terminology.”
“Sorry,” said Ben. He waved the match out with a slow meditative series of movements, then sighed. “I am used to the rough ways and uses of seafaring men.”
“St. Peter was a seafaring man and I’m sure he got on fine without using such language.”
“You’ve got a point, sister.” He flicked his paper match into the stream and it quickly floated away.
“What you say in your engine rooms and low dockside taverns is of no concern to me,” said the sister, “but you should show respect in the presence of ladies and children and civilized people.”
“Please accept my apologies.”
“If they are sincere then I shall.”
“I assure you they’re sincere. Hey, speaking of low dockside bars, why don’t you two ladies join me and Arnie for a drink somewheres?”
“Ben,” I said --”
“What?” said Ben.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “I mean, sorry,” he glanced guiltily at Sister Mary Elizabeth, “oh, darn, I mean, the errands. Well, okay, how long you think these errands are going to take, Arnie?”
I had put my sodden left Ked back on. My legs felt like they were stiffening up. I was ready to go.
“If we get a move on now,” I said, “it shouldn’t take more than an hour. Maybe less.”
Of course as soon as I said the preceding sentence I realized how absurdly optimistic this estimate was. If I had said a year or two I would probably have been much more securely within the realms of probability.
I hadn’t noticed but apparently Ferdinand had returned for another closer look down the front of Sister Mary Elizabeth’s dress. She swatted her chest, but once again the little fellow just barely made it away in time, and I distinctly heard him chuckling again.
“Let’s go back inside,” the sister said to Daphne. “Too many bugs out here.”
“Good idea,” said Daphne. “I want to play some more canasta, anyway.”
“Hey, wait,” said Ben, “how about a little libation later then, after me and Arnold run our errands?”
“You mean Arnold and I,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Well, uh, I was hoping like maybe all of us, you know --”
“No, I mean you should say ‘Arnold and I’, not ‘me and Arnold’.”
“Oh, okay, sorry, I mean would you two ladies like to join Arnold and I for --”
“Wrong again. In that instance you should say ‘Arnold and me’.”
“Ah, jeeze,” said Ben, “all I mean is would you two ladies like to join us for a drink somewheres.”
“’Somewhere’,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Somewheres.”
“’Somewhere’,” said the sister.
“Yeah,” said Ben.
Sister Mary Elizabeth looked at Daphne. Despite the fact that I felt as if I were losing my mind again I was struck by the beauty of these two girls.
“Well, maybe later I suppose I wouldn’t mind going out for one,” said Daphne. “After Dick leaves to catch his ferry.”
“Who’s Dick,” said Ben. “Your brother, maybe?” He sounded hopeful.
“He’s her boy friend,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“He is not,” said Daphne. “He’s a friend of the family, of my father’s actually.”
“He doesn’t look at you like a friend of the family,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” said Daphne.
Standing there on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Biddle’s gardens and lawns, with the leaves of a big old elm tree just barely stirring a few feet above their heads, with the big old house looming off there behind them, with the sky behind it all seeming very low and the color of the inner shell of a clam right after you open it, the girls seemed like creatures who had always lived here and who would never grow old.
“This guy on the level?” said Ben. “You sure he’s not a cad, a fancy man?”
“He’s a very nice gentleman,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“Cads and fancy men always seem nice,” said Ben. “At first. And then when they get a beautiful nice innocent trusting young dame trapped in a web of deceit and danger it’s always up to guys like me to get them out of it. The young dames that is. Believe me, I know. One time out in Singapore --”
“He’s a very nice fellow,” said Daphne. “And he’s neither a cad nor a fancy man. He’s a decorated naval officer.”
“Oh, a swabbie? Why didn’t you say so?” said Ben.
“A what?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“A swabbie, a nautical chap, a sailor.”
“Oh,” both Daphne and Sister Mary Elizabeth said, almost simultaneously, Daphne with a rising inflection, the sister with a falling one.
“So he’s probably okay, then,” said Ben, “even if he is an officer, and I hate officers.”
“Can we go to the Negro bar again?” asked Mary Elizabeth, addressing Daphne.
“I’d love to go to the Negro bar again,” said Daphne.
“Let’s go there,” said Mary Elizabeth. “Oh, except I don’t have any money.”
“Neither do I,” said Daphne.
“Hey, ladies,” said Ben, “who do you think you’re dealin’ with here, a pair of ham-and-eggers?”
“I have no idea what you’re saying,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. She turned to Daphne. “What does he mean?”
Daphne had been taking a drag on the last of her cigarette. She exhaled smoke and then tossed the butt into the river in the street, where it hissed itself out and floated away.
“He means,” she said, “that he and Arnold are gentlemen and will buy us drinks.”
“Damn straight we will!” said Ben. “Um, wait a minute --” He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a cracked and faded and stained old brown leather wallet, looked in it.
“Hey, all I got is Cuban pesos.” He turned to me. “You got some scratch on you, right, brother?”
“Uh, yes,” I said, “but --”
He closed up his wallet and shoved it back in his pocket.
“It’s a date then, ladies, say an hour from now?”
“No,” said Daphne, slowly, and then, more quickly, “Dick’s leaving around five-thirty to catch his ferry, so let’s say six-ish.”
“Six-ish it is then,” said Ben. “Arnie and me’ll get a head start on ya, ha ha. Right, Arnie?”
“What’s this joint called?” said Ben, ignoring me.
“Pete’s Tavern,” said Daphne.
“Spade bar, huh? I love spade joints, cheaper drinks, better juke boxes, and quite often a more stand-up class of clientèle. Why, I remember one time down in Port-au-Prince I was drinking in this dive called Madame Rosette’s and all of a sudden these two big black bastards come in wavin’ a couple of Browning Hi-Powers at me. Tonton Macoutes. Y’see, as it happens I had just run a load of M-1s and Tommy guns in to some rebels, and --”
“Ben,” I said, “we’d really better hit the road --”
“Oh, sorry, Arnie, sure.” He addressed the ladies again. “I’ll finish my story later. It was all part of a little adventure I like to call Voodoo Fever, a tale of lust and violence set on the sultry island of Haiti, where the women are as deadly as they are wanton!”
“Yeah, sure,’ said Daphne. “We’d love to hear it.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“We can still play the jukebox,” said Daphne.
“Oh, that would be lovely,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.
“That fly is sitting upon your chest,” said Daphne.
True enough, Ferdinand in his boldness was sitting on a portion of Sister Mary Elizabeth’s pale flesh precisely at the place where it began to swell beneath the curved neckline of her blue dress. She swatted herself with her hand but once again he escaped just in time, zooming up and away and chuckling in what sounded an almost hysterical way.
“Well, that’s it,” said the sister. She had smoked her cigarette down to its filter. She made a face and tossed it into the river. “I’m going in.”
“Good idea,” said Daphne. “Ta for now,” she said, to Ben and me.
“Ta, ladies,” said Ben. “Pete’s Tavern at six.”
“Six-ish,” said Daphne, over her shoulder. She and the sister were already walking through the gate.
“Okay, Ben,” I said.
“No, wait, Arnie,” he said, in a hoarse whisper.
He sat there straddling his bicycle, watching as Daphne and Sister Mary Elizabeth walked back up the stone pathway through the gardens and patches of deep green lawn.
“What is it, Ben?” I said.
He sat there on his bike, smoking his cigarette, staring after the girls, who were making their way back to the house as languidly as they had come down from it.
“Ben,” I said. “Is something the matter?”
He said nothing.
The fly had reappeared and he now hovered in the air midway between me and Ben.
Some birds chirped in the big old elm tree.
“Ben,” I said, again.
He said nothing, and neither did the fly.
I wondered if Ben was perhaps having a psychotic episode or fugue of some sort. How ironic would it be if it fell my lot -- if it fell to me, of all people -- to have to take care of a madman.
“Ben, what’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing’s wrong,” said the fly.
“Then what is it?” I said. “Let’s go.”
Neither Ben nor the fly said anything for another half a minute. The only sound was that of the birds in the elm tree, I think they were blackbirds, and also maybe the faint hushing sound of the ocean a few blocks away at the end of Windsor Avenue.
Then finally Ben spoke.
“Okay,” he said. “We can go now.”
“What was it?” I said. Was it some war memory perhaps? The carnage and screaming and the gunfire on those beaches in the Pacific?
“What do you think it was?” said the fly.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It was that,” said the fly. He pointed with one of his little legs toward Mrs. Biddle’s house. Daphne and Sister Mary Elizabeth were almost at the porch steps, Daphne in her pink shirt and white shorts, the sister in her blue dress.
“What?” I said.
“Just wanted to watch ‘em walk away,” said Ben, quietly.
“Ha ha ha,” said the fly, and he did one of his little loop-the loops.
The girls disappeared into the house. The screen door closed silently behind them.
“Okay, buddies,” said Ben, and he stuck his cigarette between his teeth, “we’re wasting time here. Let’s shove off.”
And shove off he did, pedaling his bike off sluicing through the flowing stream which now had reached almost the center line of Windsor Avenue.
(Continued here, because someone’s got to do it.)
(Painting by Robert Maguire.)
(Please refer to the right hand side of this page for a rigorously up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, soon to be a 97-part miniseries on the Oprah Winfrey Network, starring Ronald Colman as Arnold Schnabel, Wallace Beery as Big Ben Blagwell, and Mickey Rooney as Ferdinand the fly.)