Cape May, NJ. August, 1963.
I was awakened the next morning by the sound of rain. I got up and looked out through the adjustable screen in my small dormer window, the rain thrashing down and shaking the leaves of the oak tree out there and clattering on the tiles of the roof, splattering onto the window screen.
Then I lay back for a while, listening to the noise of the rain and the wind, to the quiet whirring of the electric fan.
It occurred to me that if this were a couple of weeks ago I would dress now and go off to early mass. But now I no longer went to daily mass. I had gone on Sunday, but that had been pro forma, something to keep my mother and my aunts unworried, or no more worried than they had to be, anyway.
It appeared that I had lost my faith. This despite the fact that I seemed to have had several conversations with Jesus over the past week or so.
I smelled scrapple cooking, even three stories below, so keen is my sense of smell. I got dressed and went down to breakfast.
There was the expected small talk from my mother and aunts on the subject of the northeaster we were now in the midst of. I was merely thinking of how I would spend this rainy day. It would be nice just to spend it reading, but there was the problem of young Kevin. I didn’t relish having to listen to his absurd questions for the entire day. It might be best to buy him a new batch of comics, just to keep him occupied.
“What do you say, Arnold,” said my Aunt Elizabetta.
“About what?” I said.
“About having your lady friend over for dinner.”
“He hasn’t even been listening,” said Aunt Edith.
How observant she was!
“They want you to invite Electric over for dinner,” said Kevin.
“What kind of name is Electric, anyway?” said Edith.
“It’s not Electric, Aunt Edith,” I said. “It’s Elektra.”
“That’s a funny name,” said Aunt Greta. “What is it, Greek?”
“Sie ist ein Jude,” said Edith.
“I know she’s Jewish, but the name sounds Greek.”
“Is she Greek, Arnold?” asked Edith. “Greek Orthodox is practically Catholic.”
“Invite her for dinner, Arnold,” said my mother.
It occurred to me that I was again living in a madhouse. It’s true, these women were not raving screaming lunatics such as some of my fellow patients at Byberry had been, but they were only just a few steps away. Give them just the tiniest push and they’d be howling at the moon with the best of them.
“Arnold?” said my mother, looking worried.
“Yes?” I said.
“Wouldn’t you like to invite Electric over for dinner?”
“It’s Elektra,” said Kevin.
“Don’t interrupt,” said Greta.
Everyone looked at me.
“Uh, I just met her,” I said, to one and all.
“All that matters is she’s a nice girl,” said Edith. “After all, the Blessed Mother was a Jew. And she was a lovely person. Look at how she took care of the baby Jesus in that stable. Joseph, too, he was a Jew. He seemed like a really nice man.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Ask her,” said my mother.
“Okay,” I said.
I finished my breakfast quickly, wondering what it was with people always wanting to meet other people. It was so much more pleasant usually not to meet people.
After breakfast I took Kevin through the downpour to Wally’s to buy him some comics. It was the only way I knew to make sure he’d stay out of my hair for at least a part of the day.
I gave him three quarters and left him in the dark store under the watchful hostile eye of the trollish proprietor.
I was tempted to take a walk in the rain, but it was just too stormy, and my umbrella kept threatening to explode.
Should I go to the jewelry store and visit my new friends? No, I didn’t want to make Elektra think I was coming on too strong, to have her and her friends think I had nothing else in my life, even though that was pretty much the case.
So I went to the Cape Coffee Shoppe, sat at the counter and ordered a cup, took out my notebook and Bic pen and began to make notes for the previous section of this memoir.
The shop was busy on this rainy day, what else was there to do for poor vacationers? Well, at least this was one day when they wouldn’t have to lie in the blistering heat of the beach, their flesh burning, their children wailing. They could drag themselves and their families into places like this and eat pie and ice cream.
“Writing your memoirs?” someone said.
I looked up.
It was that Steve Smith guy. He was wearing what looked like the same pink polo shirt he’d worn the first time I had met him, except now it was wrinkled and stained. He hadn’t shaved, and his skin was somehow flushed and pale at the same time.
“May I?” he said.
Well, there was an empty stool there and I didn’t own it. He sat down. He had an umbrella, and he tried to lean it against the wall of the counter, but it fell over, and he left it there on the floor. He wore the same Madras Bermudas he had worn the other night, or a similar pair, but these, like his shirt, were wrinkled and stained.
“So what are you writing, Arthur?”
“My memoirs,” I said.
“No, seriously,” he said.
“Seriously, I’m making some notes for my memoirs.”
“Fascinating. I would like to write my memoirs. Coffee, darling,” he said to the counter girl. “How is the pie here?” he said to me.
“It’s not bad,” I said. “I had some peach pie here the other day.”
“I adore peach pie. I am so hungover. This has been the most drunken vacation I’ve ever had. Did I see you in the Mug last night?”
“Yes,” I said.
He took out cigarettes, Salems, and offered me the pack.
“No thanks,” I said. “I smoke Pall Malls.”
“You’re such a he-man,” he said, lighting himself up with a trembling hand after clicking his lighter about ten times. He coughed. “I am so intensely hungover,” he said.
The waitress had brought his coffee. He put his cigarette in the ashtray, then added a lot of sugar and some cream to the coffee. He lifted the cup and saucer with both hands, drank some coffee. He paused, then drank again. It was air-conditioned in here, but I noticed that he was sweating. He took another drink of coffee, then put the cup and saucer down again.
“Oh, dear God in Heaven,” he said. “I think I need to see a psychiatrist, Arthur. I truly do. Sometimes I think I should just jump in the ocean. Just — go out really far. Like on a fishing boat. And just leap. But knowing me I’d just get involved in some absurd conversation with the fishermen, and —” He waved his hands again, and then stopped suddenly and said, “Oh! Did you try the yodeling?”
“No, tell me you didn’t, you rascal!”
“I did,” I said.
“Bravo! And did she love it?”
“Well, she didn’t complain,” I said.
“Well done, old chap! And I’ll bet she showed you something then, didn’t she?”
He lifted his cup and slurped, all the while looking at me with wide mischievous eyes.
“Well, she fell asleep,” I said.
Steve sprayed coffee all over the counter top.
(Click here to find out what happens next, if anything. Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find a listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)