Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Thirty-Two: preparing the betrothal feast, part two

In our previous episode of these memoirs of the poet whom Harold Bloom called “Olney’s less boring answer to Walt Whitman”, Arnold Schnabel’s new inamorata Elektra agreed to come to dinner with Arnold and his mother, his Aunts Greta, Edith and Elizabetta, and his young cousin Kevin.

August, 1963. Cape May, New Jersey.

A nor’easter rattles the windows and shakes the trees and sends the waves crashing up against the stout pilings of Frank’s Playland.

After my bath I went to bed, in my little attic room with the electric table fan blowing the warm humid air over my naked corporeal host. I switched on my table lamp in the dimness and duly read some more of The Waste Land, making scarce head or tail of it.

I did like this one part:
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
It reminded me of dear old Olney, that bridge that goes over the Heintz factory, the burnt metal smell.

The whiskey reek when you walk by the taprooms, etc.

So I put down The Waste Land and picked up This Sweet Sickness again, and that I quite enjoyed. It's about a madly obsessive young man who seems to all intents and purposes normal but who is actually insane. A good rainy day book. After a while I laid it aside and pulled the little chain on the lamp. I turned on my side away from my little window and closed my eyes, listening to the rain crackling and popping on the roof right above me, the crashing of waves of rain against the front of the house.

I fell asleep.

After an unknown amount of time I woke up and I saw Jesus sitting at my table with the desk lamp on, smoking a cigarette and reading one of the scrapbooks in which I keep cuttings of my poems.

I tried to speak but I couldn’t get any words out.

He looked up and smiled. He was wearing that pink polo shirt again, and the Madras shorts, just like Steve’s shirt and shorts. He did look a little like Steve, but then I realized he looked like a lot of people, like Alan Ladd, and Jeffrey Hunter, and even Tab Hunter, and other people I couldn’t identify.

“I know,” he said. “Man of a thousand faces!”

I think I made some sort of sound, somewhere between a groan and a sigh and a yawn. I won’t try to write it out phonetically.

“Hey,” he said, “didn’t mean to upset you, just thought I’d stop by.” He closed the scrapbook and laid it on the table. He flicked off the lamp, just an old gooseneck desk lamp. “Go back to sleep!”

I still couldn’t say anything.

Even though the light was out he still seemed illuminated in the rainy day dimness, as if his skin and clothes and his hair were phosphorescent.

“Hey, I like your poems, by the way,” he said. “They really got better after your little breakdown, didn’t they?”

I tried to talk again, but I just couldn’t. I felt like my mouth was paralyzed with Novocain.

“So look,” he said, and he stubbed out his cigarette in the butt-filled tin ashtray on my table, “I’ll go, didn’t mean to disturb your nap.”

He stood, up, stooping a little because of course my room is right under the gabled roof.

“Have fun with Elektra tonight. And don’t forget to yodel!”

He chuckled and went to the door. There was a black umbrella leaning against it, he took it, opened the door and went out, closing the door quietly behind him.

I closed my eyes.

I slept.

I woke up with a rush again.

Had I really just seen Jesus? No, I was dreaming. It’s okay to have insane visions as long as you’re dreaming.

I fell back to sleep.
When I awoke again I felt much better, very rested. The rain was still coming down, but much more lightly now, and the wind had settled too. The green of the leaves on the oak tree outside my window sparkled dully, like seaweed in clear water.

I remembered my dream vividly, if it was a dream. For some reason it didn’t scare me. To tell the truth it was beginning to feel normal to be visited by the son of God.

I got dressed and went down to the bathroom, taking my book with me. I peed, and then I brushed my teeth. I went downstairs and into the kitchen where all three of my aunts and my mother were fussing with various foodstuffs. My mouth watered. Aunt Elizabetta was rolling and cutting noodle dough. I peeked in the oven, and there was a roast beef in it. A duck simmered in a pot on the range. I went over to where my mother was stirring chocolate batter in an enormous bowl. She told me to get away and not to spoil my appetite. I said okay and got a cup of coffee from the percolator.

I went out through the dining room and into the living room, Kevin was in there watching Clutch Cargo on the TV. He said not a word to me, nor I to him, I speak of Kevin of course, not Clutch Cargo, and I went out onto the porch and sat down in my usual rocker. The afternoon’s gale had lessened into a windy steady rainfall.

Jesus stood across the street, under his black umbrella. He waved with his free hand. A blue and white Tastykake truck hissed slowly by, and, when it passed, my alleged lord and savior had disappeared, into thin air, or rather into thick rainy air.

So, there you had it.

I was still insane. Or I was sane, and Jesus was my friend.

I continued to stare out at the street and then I saw another vision in the rain, off to the left, Elektra coming down Perry Street, holding up another black umbrella, wearing a pale blue dress, carrying a paper bag of something.

When she got near the front gate I stood up, and then, realizing she wouldn’t have a free hand for the gate I ran down to get it for her.

When I closed it behind her she turned and held the umbrella over both of us.

“Hi, lover.”


“Brought you wine.”

She handed me the bag. I peeked into it, and it indeed contained a large bottle wrapped in straw, and filled apparently with liquid.

I looked up into Elektra’s face, and it was beautiful in the wet grey light, with the rain rattling on her umbrella.

“What are we eating?” she said.

“Duck soup with noodles, and roast beef,” I said. “And chocolate cake.”

“Beef and duck and cake. Let’s go, big boy.”

Over her shoulder I could see Jesus again, standing across the street under his black umbrella, waving at me. Well, at least he didn’t seem to be inviting himself to dinner. So I had that to be thankful for.

(Click here to find out more about the duck soup. And kindly turn to the right side of this page for links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of his classic poems.)


Unknown said...

This epistle carries such casual but distinct New Testament overtones. And while I didn't notice it before, it does seem as if Arnold's life runs toward the now classic but still mythic white light luring people from this world to the next: barefoot Elektra, the ghostly Steve, duck soup, Three Stoges, Amen.
PS I know Elektra's not literally barefoot but she always seems that way.

Anonymous said...

Steve is now reminding me of the evil clown in "It". Kathleen, he may be luring Arnold towards the light, but I'm guessing it's at the bottom of a storm drain.

Dan Leo said...

Yeah, but what about that cool painting? It just makes me want to take an Arnold nap. Provided of course I don't wake up and find Steve there, quietly reading.

Anonymous said...


clutch cargo always made me uncomfortable

Dan Leo said...

Yes, Anon: Clutch was definitely weird. Cowgirl Sally Starr's show, with her daily doses of the Stooges, 1930s-era Popeye and Clutch Cargo, should have just been called The Surreal Hour.

"Stooge" Larry Fine by the way was a native Philadelphian, raised at 3rd and South.

Anonymous said...

"yum yum eatum up" (stooges show dialogue)

ps--what about chief halftown? was clutch cargo from his show? dug the opening show credits with chief halftown canoeing in a shady creek, atmospheric

Dan Leo said...

Ah, Chief Halftown, another delightfully strange character, also on Channel 6, whose show ran for almost 50 years, and was reportedly the longest-running kids' show ever. I honestly can't remember if the Chief ever ran "Clutch", but he had a signature Indian phrase that went something like "Ee sa sa sassaway!" which I think was Senecan for "Let it roll!"

Dan Leo said...

PS: all you non-Philadelphians out there -- and welcome aboard, our visitor from Iran! -- please forgive the Philly trivia. I'm sure you all had similarly weird local TV shows in your young days. At least I hope you did.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if Steve was appearing in Clutch form... only the mouth moving. As a kid, Clutch gave me the creeps as well... still does.

I saw the painting, Dan. Thomas Kinkade, huh? The Master of Light. I thought Steve was the light!

Anonymous said...

Oops- Kinkade ain't the master of no one except possibly his domain. He's the "Painter of Light". Steve still reigns supreme.

Dan Leo said...

Jennifer, you've totally given Arnold an idea with the "Clutch Cargo mouth", which I've discovered was called "Syncro-Vox".

I especially like that painting by the Master of Light because it's an actual depiction of Jackson Street in Cape May; Jackson of course being where Elektra and her three wacky friends have their jewelry shop with their bohemian apartment upstairs.

Anonymous said...

The Clutch animation seems like the same technique they use on the Late Show ? with Conan O'Brien.

Dan Leo said...

Yes, Anon, I do believe that Conan's gang are basically using the same "Syncro-Vox" technique, i.e., photgraphing a live performer's lips behind a picture with the mouth cut out.