Tuesday, September 18, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Nineteen: Elektra and Arnold Schnabel -- a torrid love affair

In our previous episode of his sprawling memoirs, Arnold Schnabel, that rhyming brakeman, “The Wordsworth of Olney”, (and recovering mental case) has left his young cousin Kevin at a Cape May cigar shop with a dollar bribe to buy some comic books. He makes his way through the broiling heat of a seashore summer’s day to the jewelry shop of his four new beatnik friends.

The night before he has slept with Elektra, one of the two female beatniks. Judging only from the internal evidence of Schnabel’s memoir, it seems quite possible that this was Arnold’s first successfully-completed sexual encounter with a woman in eighteen years, since his deflowering by means of a prostitute in Frankfurt, Germany, in late May of 1945.

I opened the door of the shop, and Gypsy Dave was behind the counter, talking to a middle-aged couple in bright clothes. Jazz music was playing from a hi-fi behind the counter. The store was very nicely air-conditioned.

Gypsy Dave waved at me and I waved back. He was showing the couple some rings. 
“Very lovely,” said the lady. She had a flat sort of accent. Like mid-Pennsylvania, Stroudsberg or Intercourse. “And you make these all yourselves?” she asked. 
“Yes, ma’am,” said Gypsy Dave. 
“I think that’s just wonderful. Don’t you, Clyde?” 
“Yep,” said Clyde. “Real clever.” 
“Maybe we’ll stop in later and pick up something for our daughter.” 
“Great,” said Gypsy Dave. “But I’ll tell you what, you people are so nice, just go on and take that ring for your daughter. Our compliments.” 
“Oh no we couldn’t,” said the lady. 
“Go ahead,” said Gypsy Dave. He took her pudgy hand and pressed the ring into the folds of her palm, like a baker pressing a currant into a wad of pastry dough. 
“We just couldn’t,” said the lady. 
“I insist,” said Gypsy Dave. Even his accent had now become gallant, he sounded a little like Errol Flynn. 
“Are you serious?” said Clyde. 
“Absolutely. It’s not every day I meet such nice people in here.” 
“Well, okay, then,” said Clyde. 
“My pleasure,” said Gypsy Dave. “Tell your daughter to wear it in good health. ‘Bye now. Hi, Arnold!” he said to me. 
“Hi,” I said. 
“Come on over, buddy.” 
I walked over toward the counter. The middle-aged couple were still standing there. The lady was tugging on her husband’s orange short sleeve, and she whispered something in his ear. 
“So, how ya like our shop, Arnold?” said Gypsy Dave, smiling. 
“It’s very nice,” I said. I was having trouble addressing him as “Gypsy Dave”, so I just skipped an appellation entirely. 
The middle-aged man took out his wallet, took a ten dollar bill out of it. 
“Here, sir,” he said to Gypsy Dave. “I’d like you to take this.” 
“Oh, please, of course not,” said Gypsy Dave, “now you two people have a great day, and I hope your daughter likes the ring. Bye, now!” He turned again to me: “So, Arnold, I’m so glad you stopped by. Here, let me show you our stuff.” 
He proceeded to show me the wares in the display cases: rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches. It was all very pretty. 
The couple had a whispered confabulation together while Gypsy Dave was showing me the stuff. Then they left the store, like a tiny herd of two, each of them throwing a little wave. Dave waved back and so, slightly, did I. 
He walked back down toward where they had been standing near the glass counter. He picked up a ten dollar bill and showed it to me. 
“And that, my friend,” he said, “is salesmanship.” 
He banged on the cash-register and deposited the ten. 
“Was that a good price for the ring, Dave?” 
Somehow I felt on safe ground just addressing him as “Dave”. 
“Oh, sure,” he said. “The stone was a Cape May Diamond we found on the beach along with about a thousand others. The metal was scrap metal. If the four of us work together we can turn out ten of those babies in an hour from scratch. Come on, I’ll show you the operation.” 
He lifted a wooden flap between two of the glass cases and I followed him through a door into a back room. It was a workroom, and Fairchild, Rocket Man and Elektra all sat at a big table, making jewelry. They had little saws and lathes, vises and soldering guns and various other tools, piles of metal and pebbles and seashells and what not.
Along with the smells of solder and cigarette smoke I could smell marijuana in the cool air. On the walls were paintings, drawings and posters, and through two big windows a world of light tumbled and sparkled in from the flowery back yard. 
Everyone said hello to me and I said hello back. 
“Well look who the cat dragged in,” said Elektra. 
She had a many-colored bandanna on her head, holding all that wild black hair away from her busy fingers. 
They invited me to sit and watch them work. We smoked cigarettes, and a reefer was passed around as well. I did not decline it when it came my turn. 
“Hey, shouldn’t someone be in the shop?” I said, always the good German boy. 
“Don’t sweat it,” Rocket Man said. “A bell goes off if someone comes in the front door.” 
So we sat and talked. Every so often the bell did sound and one or the other of them would go out into the shop. 
Once when Rocket Man was in the shop I asked Gypsy Dave about this one colorful pagan poster on the wall, and he told me all about the Buddha and the Bodhi tree. It was quite interesting. But I couldn’t quite help thinking that all these years of wandering, and of asking questions of wise men, and of sitting under the tree, that even all that was probably not enough, not nearly enough in fact. I thought of all these millions and millions of Buddhists over the centuries, wasting their precious time seeking enlightenment when they might have been spending their time more profitably learning a foreign language or how to play the flute or simply talking nonsense with their friends. {See Arnold’s poem “Escaping the Heat” in the list of his poems in the right hand column of this blog.— Editor.}  
I guess I’d been there an hour or more, and suddenly Elektra said to me, “Arnold, let’s step out and get a cup of coffee.” 
“It’s awfully hot out there,” I said. To tell the truth I was pretty engrossed despite my doubts in what Dave was telling me about Buddhism. 
“The coffee shop is air-conditioned," she said. "Come on, you can buy me a piece of pie.” 
“Well, okay,” I said, but reluctantly. 
She led the way out the back way. Out the same door I had crept from the night before. The back yard was filled with greenery, with brilliant zinnia and azaleas and sunflowers. 
“Wow, what a nice garden,” I said. 
She shook her bandanna off her head, her dark shining hair blossomed in the sun. She tied the bandanna around her neck. 
“Come on, big boy,” she said. 
We walked over toward the Cape Coffee Shoppe on Washington. She was even prettier in this harsh sunlight. Somewhat smaller than I remembered her, her skin gleaming like honey, wearing a sleeveless dress with yellow and blue designs like a kitchen table on it, and rope sandals. 
The coffee shop wasn’t far. It was busy, but we found adjacent stools at the counter. I could feel her moist warmth. The coarse sunburnt hairs of my arm brushed the silky golden down on hers, and an electric shock jolted between us. 
“Wow,” I said, “Did you feel that?” 
She just looked at me. 
We each ordered coffee, and she ordered the peach pie, which is pretty good there. Although not as good as my mom’s. 
She had a bite or two and then she said, “Look, Arnold, I like you, but I want you to know I don’t want to be your girlfriend.” 
“Oh, of course not,” I said. 
“Of course not?” 
“Well, why should you?” 
“Well, I don’t know. You seem like a nice guy. Why shouldn’t I?” 
“Well, I’m recovering from a breakdown, for starters,” I said. 
“That’s true,” she said. 
“And also, a pretty girl like you, you could do far better than me.” 
“Well, the thing is, Arnold, I don’t really want a man, anyway.” 
“Oh, I see,” I said. 
“You do?” 
“Well, why should you want a man?” I asked. 
“I don’t know. To have kids with?” 
“But, do you want to have kids?” I asked. 
“Not yet,” she said. 
“Well, there you go,” I said. 
“Yeah, I guess so,” she said. 
“It’s like that Buddha guy,” I said. 
“Like the Buddha?” 
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, when he was wandering all over seeking enlightenment, and sitting under the Bodhi tree and all, he wasn’t worrying about getting a girlfriend, was he?” 
“No, I guess not,” she said. 
“Or having kids,” I said. 
“That’s true,” she said. 
She looked at me. She had such beautiful brown eyes. And such a nice body under that dress. I wondered if not being her boyfriend would preclude me from having sex with her again. After all, she was a beatnik. 
“I’ve said it before,” she said, eating her pie. “You are one strange man.” 
“I know,” I said. 
I considered telling her about my recent visits from Jesus. 
But I decided not to.

(Click here to go to our next installment. Please go to the right hand side of this page for links to other episodes in our ongoing serialization of Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of the fine poems of Arnold Schnabel, now available in the CD box set "Moonlight Over Olney: The Schnabel Years" from the Arnold Schnabel Society.)


Anonymous said...

Somehow Arnold is sounding more sane, more grounded, the more he slides into insanity. Is a person at their sanest just moments before going fully round the bend?

Dan Leo said...

Hmm, the calm-before-the-storm theory of mental collapse. Beats me, Jen. Like all of Arnold's fans, I'm just hoping he's able to keep a grip. It must be difficult though, with Jesus showing up at odd moments. I know that I would find that disconcerting, only speaking for myself, of course.

Anonymous said...

I also have to wonder if at some point Jesus is telling Paul, "You know, this Arnold guy keeps showing up at odd moments...".

Dan Leo said...

I wonder if it's like on "The Sopranos", and Paul goes, "You want me to go down, talk to this guy?"

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Jesus called him Paulie. :)

Dan Leo said...

Oh, no, next thing you know Paulie's going to be addressing the big guy as "J.C."!