Thursday, November 15, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 33: Astroboy

In our previous episode of these chronicles of the man the late Norman Mailer called "The only 20th Century writer I’d be afraid to get in the ring with; well, him and Larry Winchester...” Arnold Schnabel met his new inamorata Elektra outside the sprawling Victorian boardinghouse of his three maiden aunts Greta, Elizabetta and Edith. Elektra is to have dinner with the family for the first time. Inside the house Arnold’s mother and aunts prepare the feast. Arnold’s young cousin Kevin watches Sally Starr’s Popeye Theatre.

It is a rainy, stormy day in Cape May, New Jersey; August, 1963.

So we went up the steps and onto the porch. Elektra partly closed and then snapped open her umbrella quickly a few times to flick the water on it over the rail.

It was odd, but just watching her do something so simple as shaking the water off of her umbrella made me want to go to bed with her.

She looked at me.

“What are you thinking about, Arnold?”

I glanced across the street, but Jesus had disappeared again. Should I tell Elektra that I had just seen him? No, even I could tell this was not a good time for that, if there ever was.

“I’m just thinking I’m happy to see you,” I said, which was not a lie.

I wanted to put my arms around her, but this wasn’t the time or place for that either, and anyway I was holding the wine in the paper bag, it would have been awkward.

“So shall we go in or just stand out here all night?” she said.

“I’d rather just go back to your place.”

“Come on, Arnold.”

She touched me on the face with her fingers, which made something inside me go hollow and then fill up again.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said.

We went over to the doorway, she put her umbrella in the wicker umbrella stand, the only kind of umbrella stand that’s there, I opened the screen door for her and we went inside. Kevin was still there, sitting on the floor, watching the TV.

“Hi, Electric,” he said.

“Hi, Kelvin,” said Elektra.

“My name’s Kevin.”

“My name’s Elektra.”

“Hi, Elektra,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“Whatcha watchin’, Kevin?” she asked.


“Astroboy. I don’t think I’ve seen that.”

“It’s good. You wanta watch it with me?”

“I think I should say hi to the ladies first,” she said.

“They’re in the kitchen,” said Kevin, turning back to the show. “Cousin Arnold’ll take you.”

“Okay. See ya.”

“See ya,” he said, but he was concentrating on Astroboy again.

I took her back to the kitchen. It was hot and moist and meat-smelling, and all the women stopped what they were doing and looked at Elektra.

For a strange moment there was silence. Elektra squeezed my arm, I snapped out of it, and introduced her to my aunts and re-introduced her to my mother.

Just then Charlie Coleman came in from the side-door hallway, wearing a wet rubber slicker and a rubber hat and rubber boots. He had an armful of lettuce and other greens, and a half-gallon mason jar of what I think was cream and a plastic container of butter. I hadn’t even heard his truck pull up.

He cheerily said something I couldn't decipher, and my Aunt Elizabetta took the stuff off him, put the lettuce and greens in the sink, the jar and the container on the counter. Then my Aunt Greta dug into her apron and gave Charlie a few crumpled bills and some coins.

He thanked her, then he said something to me — I couldn’t make it out, I thought he was saying something like, “Who got the gravy.”

“He wants to know who the lady is, Arnold,” said my Aunt Edith.

“Oh, this is Elektra, Charlie,” I said. “Elektra, this is Charlie. Charlie helps my aunts out around the house.”

“Hi, Charlie,” said Elektra.

“Charlie brought us the duck earlier, too, Arnold,” said my mother.

Charlie said something else, God knows what. He went on for quite a bit.

Elektra nodded several times back at him.

Then Charlie left and the older women went back to staring at Elektra.

“Elektra brought some wine,” I said, and I took the bottle out of the bag.

All four of the older women said variations of “You shouldn’t have,” Elektra said it was nothing, the old women said again she shouldn’t have, she said it was no big deal, then they all said the same things one more time, but before they could go through it again I asked where the corkscrew was.

My mother and aunts don’t really drink, but I was ready for one. My mother found me the corkscrew, and I opened the bottle. Elektra said she wouldn’t mind one, and I could see a glance going around the old ladies, but under the glance I heard them thinking,
“She’s Jewish, they probably drink wine all the time, like Italians.”

There were no wine glasses so we drank out of a couple of my aunts’ Flintstones jelly glasses.

The old women got back to work on the food. Elektra asked if she could help with anything, but they all said no. Elektra asked again, they said no again. Then one more time around, and Elektra went over to the stove and started to engage in conversation with my Aunt Elizabetta, something to do with a gravy she was making.

I stood there like a lump by the kitchen table, drinking my wine, sweating in the kitchen heat. Elektra was speaking with the old women, the old women were speaking to her and to each other, and all of them were doing things with food and pots and pans.

My jelly glass of wine became empty. I refilled it.

Elektra came back over to me and touched my back with her fingers.

“How are you doing, Arnold?” she said in a low voice.

“Fine,” I said. To tell the truth I was feeling just a little bit crazy, but I figured I’d probably be okay after I finished this glass of wine.

“What did that man Charlie say right before he left?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“He said he brought over the best duck he had,” said my Aunt Edith. I hadn’t realized she was listening. She was holding a bowl of dark red blood. “And then he said he also raises chickens and pigs, and he has a cow, and if you ever want to buy any chickens or ducks or pigs or eggs or cream or fresh butter he would give you a good deal. Then he said you were really pretty and that it was about time Arnold married and settled down."

“Oh, okay,” said Elektra.

“Do you want to help me make the duck’s blood soup?” said Aunt Edith.

“Um, okay, sure,” said Elektra.

The old ladies had slit a living duck’s throat, but thank God I had not witnessed the execution. I had stood witness once as my aunts killed a duck and then held it upside down to let it exsanguinate into a bowl. It was not an experience I wanted ever to repeat.
Come to think of it, I didn’t particularly want to watch this next bit either, which involved some mysterious process of mixing the duck’s blood into the simmering and fragrant duck broth.

I don’t mind eating the duck’s blood soup, I just don’t want to watch any of these gruesome preliminaries.

Elektra was holding a wooden spoon and standing attentively next to my Aunt Edith who held the bowl of blood in her small but sturdy hands. Elektra only stands about five foot four or so but still she seemed to tower over tiny Aunt Edith.

I said I was going to go in to the living room and watch TV with Kevin until dinner was ready.

All of them, including Elektra, told me to go on in.

“Go on, Arnold,” she said, waving the spoon.

She didn’t have to tell me again. I topped off my glass, went on out through the dining room and into the living room and just caught the beginning of a Popeye cartoon, one of the good ones, with Bluto.

(Click here for our next thrilling chapter. Kindly go to the right hand column of this page to find links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of his brilliant poems.)

Go Astroboy!


Anonymous said...

I heard them thinking, “She’s Jewish, they probably drink wine all the time, like Italians.”

Now this isn't because Arnold's crazy. Anyone with any sense can hear women who are close relatives thinking their identical private thoughts.

The men in my family complain about women repeating themselves, too. And in unguarded moments allude to how the high pitch of feminine voices ricochet around the room. Our conversation makes them feel as if ten Yoko Onos are singing out of sync.

Dan Leo said...

"...ten Yoko Onos are singing out of sync."

Ah, brings back memories of so many Christmas dinners chez Leo...

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the aunts know there is another guest in the house. Insanity is wooing Arnold while Arnold woos Elektra.

Anonymous said...

Ich hat nicht Enten Blut Suppe probieren, aber ich denke das ist OK mit mich, wirklich.

Dan Leo said...

Kaiser Bill: Just for a laugh, here's the "Babel Fish" computerized translation of your fab comment:

I does not have ducks blood soup to try, but I think that am OK ONE with me, really.

Now that's poetry.