Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Twenty-Six: female anatomy, ducks, and "The Waste Land"

In our previous episode of this now-published-for-the-first-time memoir of the poet whom John Updike styled “half Rimbaud, half John Keats, half Stan Laurel” (sic), Arnold Schnabel determined to do some research on the physical mysteries of the human female.

We resume our tale on the front porch of the boarding house owned and operated by his three maiden aunts in Cape May NJ, whither Arnold has gone with his saintly mother to recover from a mental breakdown he had suffered the previous January.

A hot sunny morning in August, 1963. Arnold’s interlocutor is his young cousin Kevin.

We sat reading our comics for a while and then Kevin spoke.

“Cousin Arnold.”

“Yes,” I said.

“How would you like to take me fishing?”

“Fishing? You mean in a boat?”

“No, off the rocks.”

“Oh, well, you don’t need me for that.”

“You don’t want to go fishing with me?”

“No, not really.”

Oddly enough he didn’t pursue the matter. If he had I would have explained that I didn’t fancy sitting on a rock all day in the hot sun. But he let it go. And then came up with this a couple of minutes later:

“What about going to see the ducks?”

“The ducks?”

“At that lake on Cape May Point. We could go look at the ducks.”

“You want to go look at some ducks.”

“Yeah,” he said.

And I was the one who was supposed to be mentally ill.

“Maybe,” I said.


“I don’t know.”

“Let’s go today.”

“I have to go to the library,” I said.

“I’ll go with you.”

“All right,” I said.

I finished the comic, then went up, took my shower, and changed.

Kevin was on the porch when I came down. He had a stack of library books on his lap, and I had four or five of my own under my arm.

The library is in the basement of the city hall, a ten minute’s walk.

We turned in our books at the desk, and Kevin immediately headed for the children’s section. Normally I would have gone straight for the section with books about guys caught in a deadly whirlpool of violence and sin, but I asked the librarian where the biology books were. She told me, I found the section, the whole single shelf of it, and I set to work.

Nothing. Nothing I could use. Then I had a brainwave: the encyclopedia. Fortunately the library had a complete Britannica, only a few years old. I went right to the first volume and “Anatomy”. The human body charts with the overlapping clear plastic pages were there, but they told me nothing new. I already knew where the vagina was (but at least I was finally able to see the difference between the vagina and the uterus). I checked the “C”s but there was no mention of this thing the clitoris. Same thing with the “V”s. Not even a word about the vagina, let alone a six-page article.

And this was supposed to be the world’s greatest encyclopedia? A search for an entry under cunnilingus also proved futile.

I made my way to the table with the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and, after looking all around to make sure there was no one spying on me, I looked up and at last I found those mysterious words, but all the dictionary gave me were definitions – no pictures, no instructions, no help.

I was on my own.

As I headed for the mysteries and thrillers I consoled myself with the thought that thousands of generations of men had been at least as ignorant as I on this subject. Perhaps the thing to do was just to ask Elektra. Presumably she knew where this alleged little man in the boat was, if he indeed existed and Steve had not been pulling my leg.
I found a book called This Sweet Sickness which looked good. Kevin came over, his arms full of books.

“Now can we go see the ducks?” he whispered, because we were in the library, and he had been well-trained.

“The what?” I whispered back.

“The ducks, at the lake. You said maybe we could go see them.”

I didn’t want to see the ducks, but the boy looked so pathetic standing there that I was visited by a feeling of pity.

“I’ll take you to see the ducks,” I said.

“For real?”

“Yes,” I said. “Now let’s get out of here.”

When we got home we put our books away, got two old bicycles out of the garage and headed out.

We biked in the hot salty sunlight along Sunset Boulevard with the lush woods on either side, and I had to slow down and stop occasionally until Kevin caught up. We turned left down Light House Avenue and there was the lake, Lily Lake I think it’s called, or maybe it’s Lake Lily.

We set our bikes down, and I sat in the shade of an oak tree while Kevin crept down and crouched at the edge of the lake to stare at some ducks that were floating quietly on the shimmering surface of the greenish water. The ducks looked bored, but then it was a hot day.

Insects buzzed, and one of the ducks emitted a half-hearted squawk. Yellow lily pads lay motionless on the water by the banks. I was as damp as a lily pad myself from the bike ride. No one else was around.

I got out my cigarettes and lighter and lit up a Pall Mall. I had always enjoyed a smoke in the fresh air. Not that I didn’t enjoy one indoors, either.

I had stuck The Waste Land in my back pocket. I opened it and resumed where I had left off the previous night, i.e., the first line.

The next five or six lines got better, but then came this line: “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee”, which a footnote informed me was a lake south of Munich, a city I had been stationed in, and in the summer, in 1945.

Here again Eliot was losing me. Why should summer surprise anyone? What would be surprising would be if summer did not come.

I closed the book over my finger. There was Kevin, squatting staring at the bored ducks. Then he took a wadded handkerchief out of his pocket, opened it up and began to toss bread crumbs onto the water. Sure enough two or three of the ducks skimmed over, squawking, and began poking their bills down at the floating crumbs.

The ducks were no longer bored.

The quacking word got out to all the ducks on the lake, a dozen or so of them.
Kevin slowly doled out his crumbs, one by one. He seemed to be trying to be fair, making sure all the ducks got an equal share of crumbs.

Finally the crumbs were all gone, and Kevin told the ducks this. After a few minutes they seemed to understand, and they swam away about their business, already looking bored again.

Kevin stood up, shook his handkerchief out, shoved it back into his pocket, and walked back to where I sat.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m finished. We can go now.”

The funny thing was that now I felt like watching the ducks. But I could see that Kevin had had his fill. I stubbed out the butt of my cigarette into the moist earth.

“Okay,” I said. I field-stripped the butt and flicked the little pieces of what it had been into the warm thick air. “Let’s go.”

And then we got on our bikes and headed back home.

Who says my life is not exciting.

(Click here to go to the next chapter. Kindly go to the right hand side of this page to find links to other thrilling episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of Arnold Schnabel’s classic poems, soon to be featured in the tribute album Planet Schnabelia, featuring musical adaptations by Coldplay, Amy Winehouse, Iggy Pop, Morrissey, Joni Mitchell, Kevin Bacon, LeAnn Rimes, Norah Jones, Macy Gray, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, The Pet Shop Boys, and several other players to be named later.)


Anonymous said...

"Here again Eliot was losing me. Why should summer surprise anyone? What would be surprising would be if summer did not come."


Anonymous said...

For some reason after reading today's installment, all I can think of is it's a mere 6 years before Arnold is gone... I'm guessing reading about insane people doesn't help him in the end.

Dan Leo said...

Don't despair, Jen. At the rate Arnold's taking to write his memoirs, those six years might take sixty years to serialize in all their fabulous fullness.

And I wonder if Arnold might not have lived a bit longer without the the unfiltered Pall Malls and second helpings of fresh sausage for breakfast...

Unknown said...

Perhaps Arnold's mental breakdown in fact occurred because people couldn't understand such unfaltering decency and common sense. What could be more straightforward and less anguished that just asking Elektra? While I may doubt her worthy of such an excellent poem, I certainly give her credit as someone who knows exactly what she wants and how she likes things done.

Anonymous said...

"Planet Schnabelia" !!!!

Woo-hoo! How did I miss this! I certainly hope they get at least one Steve and Eydie adaptation in there!

Dan Leo said...

Jen, the Schnabel Society is still in negotiations with Steve and Eydie, so keep your fingers crossed.