Saturday, September 29, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Twenty-Two: walk right in, sit right down, daddy let your mind roll on

In our previous episode of these memoirs of that man Harold Bloom called “the only 20th Century American poet to give Walt Whitman a run for his money”, Arnold Schnabel came home from his evening swim to find his new inamorata, the bohemian Elektra, waiting for him on the porch of the boarding house of his three maiden aunts in Cape May, NJ. Soon Arnold’s young cousin Kevin comes out to join them, followed by Arnold’s mother, who sends Kevin back to bed. Then, as Mrs. Schnabel chats with Elektra, Arnold’s increasingly personal lord and savior appears, sitting on the porch rail and smoking a Pall Mall.

I was not about to sit there listening to his nonsense, so I stood up. 
“Well, Mom,” I said, “Elektra and I were going to go out for a beer.” 
“In your wet bathing suit?” she said. 
“I don’t mind.” 
“Oh, Arnold, go up and change.” 
I realized if I didn’t I’d hear about it for a week, so I assented. 
“I’ll be right down,” I said to Elektra. 
“Take your time, Arnold,” she said. 
“You should take a quick shower,” said my mother. “Get that salt off.” 
I went in past her, through the dark living room to the stairs. Kevin popped out of his little room at the far end of the hallway. 
“Cousin Arnold, Cousin Arnold,” he whispered. 
“Go to bed, Kevin,” I whispered back, and headed up the stairs. 
On the second landing I stopped, because the little rascal was following me. 
“What is it?” I was still whispering, because this floor, as does the third, holds tenants’ rooms. 
He bumped into my legs. 
“She’s pretty,” said Kevin. 
“Yeah, I know.” 
“My father said you didn’t like girls.” 
To tell the truth I don’t care what Kevin’s father thought. He’s an oaf. But I couldn’t tell Kevin this. He was stuck with the oaf for a father. I didn’t think it was my place to undermine the fool in front of his son, so I said: 
“I used to not like girls. Now I do.” 
“Oh,” said Kevin. 
“Now go to bed, you’ll wake the aunts up.” 
I continued on upstairs.  
I took my mother’s advice and showered, quickly, then just as quickly changed into fresh Bermudas and a polo shirt, and headed back downstairs. As I got down to the first floor I could see my mother, still in the doorway, but she let the screen door close and came into the living room as soon as I reached the bottom step. She has the preternatural hearing of a cat. 
She stopped me in the middle of the dark living room, her hands on my chest. 
“She’s very pretty, Arnold,” she said softly. 
“Yeah,” I said. “Kevin thinks so too.” 
“It’s time you met a nice girl.”  
“And got married and settled down. Then you wouldn’t have any more nervous breakdowns.” 
“I just met her, Mom.” 
“Don’t lose her. Nice girls don’t grow on trees.” 
“Mom, she’s a Jude.” I used the German word, as she tended to use German when referring to members of what are for her the more doubtful religions and races, but this brought her pause for only about one quarter of a second. 
“I was hoping she was Italienisch,” she said. 
“She’s Jewish,” I said, hoping this would get her off her prospective-mother-in-law hobbyhorse. 
“That’s okay,” she said, indomitably. “I know lots of nice Jewish people. As long as she agrees to bring the children up Catholic.” 
“Okay, Mom,” I said, “good night.” 
“Don’t drink too much,” she whispered.

Elektra and I walked over to the Mug. Jesus had disappeared while I was upstairs, thank God. Wait, that last phrase makes no sense. Because if who I saw was Jesus, then he was God. 
At any rate we made it to the Ugly Mug without further incident. We drank beer and Elektra told me about her life. It seems that everyone has one. A family, a past, a life. Then you meet someone and this other life becomes part of your own life.

I hadn’t fully noticed the last time how funny Elektra could be, but she was, and is, and, oddly, she laughed at many of the things I said.

My whole life it seemed that whenever I said something I thought was funny I would be met by bewildered stares. Conversely, the coarse humor of my comrades in the army and on the railroad had always left me cold, and thus I knew I had a reputation as (in the regrettable parlance of the American regular guy) a tight-assed son of a bitch.

“You’re the only person who’s ever laughed at my witticisms,” I said, on about the third mug of beer.

“People are stupid, Arnold,” she said. “Don’t you know that?” 
I don’t think I mentioned before that she’s from Brooklyn, and has a moderate Brooklyn accent. On the other hand she has a Master’s Degree in English literature from Columbia. 
“Listen,” I said. “I have to tell you something.” 
“I’m not fully recovered from that breakdown I told you about.” 
“I didn’t think you were entirely. Why, are you going to get psychotic all of a sudden?” 
“No. But, well, I’ll just come right out and say it, I have these — visions.”  
“No kidding? What kind of visions?” 
“Well — Jesus appears to me.” 
“Jesus Christ.” 
“Yeah,” I said. “Him.” 
She stared at me. Then she gestured to the bartender. She asked him for a couple of shots of whiskey. He asked what kind. She asked me. I said bourbon was fine, Early Times if they had it. He asked if Old Hickory was okay and I said it was. 
“So,” said Elektra. “Jesus.” 
“Yeah,” I said. That whiskey was seeming like a good idea now. 
“And do you think it’s really him?” 
“Well,” I said, “he seems very real.” 
“What’s he look like?” 
I paused while the bartender poured our shots and then took my money. Then: 
“He looks like what you’d expect,” I said. “Good lookin’ fella. Long hair, beard, robe.” 
“Right. And what’s he sound like?” 
“Well, it’s funny, he sounds — American.” 
“And —” 
“He smokes Pall Malls,” I said, pointing to my own pack lying on the bar there next to my lighter. 
She had just swallowed her shot, and she held her hand over her mouth to keep from spitting it back out again. I took a sip of my own shot. 
“Arnold,” she said, after clearing her throat. “You’re insane. You’re absolutely nuts.” 
“Well, I guess that’s what I’m telling you,” I said. “I’m not quite right in the head yet.” 
“Yeah, but you’re lovable. All right, I gotta go to the ladies’ room. Try not to have a beatific vision while I’m gone.” 
“I’ll try,” I said, and she went off. 
The place was crowded, even though it was a Tuesday night, around midnight. It was the height of the tourist season after all. Some sort of rock and roll song played on the jukebox, and it went like: 
Walk right in, sit right down
Daddy, let your mind roll on
Jesus sat himself down in Elektra’s seat. He had a mug of beer in his hand and his eternal Pall Mall. Except now his hair was shorter, he didn’t have a beard, and he was wearing a pale pink polo shirt and Madras Bermuda shorts instead of robes. 
“So how’s it going, buddy?” he asked. 
“You’re the son of God,” I said. “You tell me.” 
“Arnold,” he said, smiling. “You crack me up. You make me glad I have the job I have.”
Suddenly he started singing along with the jukebox tune: 
Walk right in, sit right down
Baby, let your hair hang down
Walk right in, sit right down
Baby, let your hair hang down
I sighed. Soon Elektra would be back, and he would have to get out of her seat. Jesus continued to sing along with the record: 
Everybody's talkin' 'bout a new way of walkin'
Do you want to lose your mind?
Walk right in, sit right down
Baby, let your hair hang down
A guitar solo came on, and he shut up, although he continued to nod his head enthusiastically to the music, and to slap one hand in time on the bar-top. 
“Listen,” I said, whispering, with my hand over my mouth, “if you really want to help me you’ll just disappear. For good.” 
“Arnold: two things,” he said. “First, stop whispering; it looks weird. I can hear what you’re thinking, buddy. Second, if it wasn’t for me showing up now and then and giving you a little honest advice and encouragement you’d be lying at home on your narrow little army cot right now with your dick in your hand instead of waiting for that cute little number to get back from the can.” 
“But you’re driving me insane,” I said, or, rather, thought.
Walk right in, sit right down
Daddy, let your mind roll on
He was singing along again, and he slapped my shoulder. 
Walk right in, sit right down
Daddy, let your mind roll on
Everybody's talkin' 'bout a new way of walkin'
Do you want to lose your mind?
I determined to turn and stare stolidly across the bar until Elektra came back, and that’s just what I did.

(Click here to find out what happens next. Turn to the right hand side of this page for quick links to the rest of Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of Arnold Schnabel’s fine poems (“Not since Shakespeare has a poet taken the sonnet and made the form so uniquely his own.” -- W.H. Auden).


Unknown said...

Elektra told me about her life. It seems that everyone has one. A family, a past. Then you meet them, and that past, that life, somehow becomes part of your life.

I wonder if that's more or less true for saints. Most likely it's especially true for poets.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that JC is expanding his wardrobe selections.

You know... I don't know why, but this segment made me sad. There was a sad, sweetness to it. Maybe it was just my mood while reading.