Wednesday, December 19, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Forty-One: the brawny embraces and a return to Frank’s

Arnold Schnabel -- brakeman, poet, and memoirist -- continues his recuperation from a mental breakdown in the sprawling Victorian boarding house of his three maiden aunts in the town of Cape May, NJ, a town which could still be reasonably called quaint and even slightly shabby in this August of 1963.

A new boarder, an attractive novelist named Gertrude Evans, has given Arnold an inscribed copy of her novel Ye Cannot Quench, and when we last left Arnold he was reading it on the porch as his young cousin Kevin reads a Brain Boy comic. The novel’s young heroine, Emily, has just moved to New York City and taken a job at a publishing company and a room at a hotel catering to young working women.

(Go here to review our previous exciting episode, or go here to return to the beginning of this Gold View Award-winnng masterwork.)

One night at her women’s residence hotel Emily gets called to the phone in the corridor. It’s Porter Walker, the poet. He asks her if she would like to go out and dig some jazz with him the next night. She says okay.
But the next day at work the young publisher Julian Smythe (the Rock Hudson guy) stops by her desk and asks her if she likes to read. She says yes, and that she was an English major back at the University of West Virginia, graduating summa cum laude, and in fact she’s had a short story published already in the West Virginia Quarterly. Good, he says, and he lays a massive typescript on her desk and asks her to read it for him and hand in a report.
The book she has to read is none other than the first volume of Porter Walker’s epic poem of New York, titled The Brawny Embraces.
I decided to take a break, and I checked the back cover of Miss Evans’s book and read the critics’ raves. “A stunning achievement.” “An important new voice.” “Not just a great new woman novelist, but a great novelist full-stop.” “A bemusing amalgam of Virginia Woolf, Dawn Powell, and Emily Brontë, with just a healthy soupçon of Edna Ferber.”
Oh well. I went back to where I had left off, and next up there was a long transcription of the opening of Porter’s poem:

    Off the docks I leapt, salty seabag in hand, and I breathed
    that sour thick greasy dirty and glorious smell
    of the City, the smell of sewage and sweat, of blood
    and despair, of longing and defeat, but also of joy
    and Seagram’s 7, of moldy paperbacks read by candlelight
    in cold water flats, and of drunken young girls
    with laughter the color of gasoline in a cobble-stoned
    gutter. Farewell to the sea! Farewell to my farting
    coarse shipmates, to your boring endless stories repeated
    endlessly and to your unfunny jokes! Hello, Metropolis!
    Accept your returning sailor to your redolent bosom
    and let him drink deep of your warm milk!

There was a page or two more of the poem, and I confess I skimmed it.
I have to confess also that if I’m honest with myself I know that most of my own poetry is just as absurd as Porter’s, except that my stuff always rhymes and my poems are always short. But what I didn’t know was whether Porter’s poem was supposed to be bad or not. Emily didn’t seem to mind it. But maybe Emily was supposed to be an idiot.
Dostoyevsky wrote a novel about an idiot {which I tried to read once but couldn’t finish — Marginal interpolation in Schnabel’s holograph. — Editor}, so this wouldn’t be the first time this sort of thing had been done.
Anyway, Porter comes and picks up Emily after she gets off work, and Emily feels an electricity from Porter’s intense eyes, and her palms inside her white gloves start to perspire, but right then who should come walking up North Street from the right but Dick and Daphne.
At first I felt shy about calling hello. I’m just not the calling hello type. But as it happened Dick saw me and waved.
“How’s it going, Arnold?”
“Okay,” I called back.
They weren’t dressed for the beach; so I noticed with my eagle eye. Nevertheless they both looked magnificent, wearing almost matching outfits of white shorts and polo shirts, a pink one on Daphne and pale blue on Dick.
“Who’s your young friend, Arnold?” asked Daphne.
“Kevin,” called Kevin.

He does seem to like the ladies. Oddly so for a ten year old, or however old he is.
“Are you Arnold’s son?” asked Daphne.
“No,” said Kevin. “He’s my cousin.”
“My name is Daphne. This big lunk is Dick.”
“Hello,” said Kevin.
“Hello, young fella,” called Dick. “Arnold, you are coming to the cook-out tonight, aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Oh, please come, Arnold,” said Daphne. “And bring Kevin.”
“I want to go to a cook-out,” said Kevin.
Sometimes it’s best just to abruptly change the subject, so I said, “Where are you two headed?”
“Dick’s taking me to Frank’s Playland.”
“I want to go!” said Kevin.
“Come with us,” said Daphne.
Kevin looked at me.
“Can I go, Cousin Arnold?”
What was I, his father? But then his parents had left him here, so I suppose I was in charge of him almost as much as my aunts or mother were. But then when I was his age I just would have gone off without asking permission of anyone. I suppose things are different now. (Or maybe he’s not quite ten years of age. Maybe he’s eight years old.)
“Sure, go,” I said.
Sotto voce he said, “I need some money.”
I reached into my pocket, dragged a dollar bill out of my wallet and put it in Kevin’s outstretched greedy little paw.
“Come with us, Arnold!” called Daphne.
“No, thanks,” I called back, feeling more awkward than usual to be having this shouting conversation back and forth from the sidewalk across the lawn and garden to the porch. I told them I still had to take a shower and shave, which was true enough, but not the real reason I didn’t want to go, which was that I had not the least desire to go to Frank’s Playland, and that if anything I had a desire not to go there. Kevin of course didn’t care less whether I came along or not, and after shoving my dollar bill into the pocket of his shorts he bolted down and joined Dick and Daphne. After a round of see-you-laters, the three of them walked away, Daphne holding Kevin’s hand.
I picked up Miss Evans’s book again, and Emily and Porter were walking down the city street, it was a warm summer evening, and her palms got even sweatier, so she takes off her gloves and puts them in her purse. She feels Porter’s male vibrations emanating from his lithe body. Then all at once I realized that I was letting my young charge go off with a couple of people I had only met the night before.
How tiresome this all was.
I could see Dick and Daphne and Kevin walking past the house down at the corner of North and Perry. I put my book down and went quickly off the porch and down to the sidewalk. I caught up with them right before the corner of Washington Street.
“Arnold,” said Dick, “I thought you were going to take a shower.”
“I changed my mind,” I said.
“He’s afraid we’ll lose young Kevin,” said Daphne.
She was was still holding his hand, or vice versa. The little lecher was in seventh heaven.
So we walked up to the boardwalk and Frank’s Playland. I hadn’t been in Frank’s in I don’t know how many years. After I had been on the railroad for a couple years and we had some money I would go with our little family to Cape May on the train for weekend getaways. As the only surviving man of the household I would take my brothers and sister to Frank’s. I remember enjoying it all: the skee-ball; the pinball machines; those glass boxes which took your money so that you could desperately try to grasp and extricate some cheap toy or doll with a horrible mechanical claw; the fortune-telling machines; the peep boxes. The counter in the back, overlooking the beach and the ocean, where you could buy cotton candy and Cokes and hot dogs.
Nothing much had changed, except there were a few newer pinball machines, and some electric rifle- and machine-gun-shooting machines I didn’t remember from the old days.
And presiding over it all was the all-powerful short and squat Frank himself, with his change dispenser and his roll of precious coupons and his wet cigar.
And here he was still, older but as formidable and as frightening as ever.
What little youth I had once had now seemed farther away than ever.
I used to find this place amusing, indeed I had looked forward to coming here.
Now I found it all rather frightening.
All these wild-eyed children yapping.
I felt like a ghost wandering through a carnival swarming with mad midgets.
I’ll say this, Daphne and Kevin seemed to be having a jolly good time. Dick on the other hand seemed to be just along for the ride, like me, although seemingly less painfully so.
Under duress, I joined in a game of skee-ball. But I felt like I was tossing handfuls of my soul away, down into that little black hole.
It all started to get to me after a while, the noise of the machines, the kids shrieking and babbling, the parents telling the kids to shut up and behave. The smells of suntan lotion and boiling grease.
At one point Frank stared straight at me. I realized that I was standing there alone, and that Dick, Daphne and Kevin were twenty or thirty feet away, gathered around a new jet fighter machine.
I decided to go outside for a smoke.
After the tempest of the previous day the sun was out in full force now, beating down on the boardwalk and the vacationers walking distractedly back and forth, blazing all over the beach and the hordes of half-naked broiling people swarming around on it. The ocean glistened and flashed, indifferent to all this madness.
I was standing there holding my unlit cigarette when all of a sudden Dick was beside me.
He gave me a light.
“You’re a good guy, Arnold.”
“Yeah. This is agonizing for you, but you’re putting up with it for Kevin’s sake.”
“It was only guilt that made me come, Dick.”
“You’re still a good guy.”

{The next five lines of Arnold’s holograph are rigorously crossed out. — Editor
Then we both ran out of things to say. We finished our cigarettes and stubbed them out into the cracks in the  boardwalk. I wondered if I should say something, but I drew a blank in that blazing sun and heat. Then it was over, Daphne and Kevin came out, they’d had their fill.
“Heading back to the house?” Dick asked me.
“Oh yes,” I said.
“We’re going back too. Big canasta game. Want to play?”
“No thanks,” I said.
We strolled back, Dick and I walking in front. Daphne and Kevin walked hand in hand behind us, chatting away about something or other. Dick and I were silent.
At our gate Dick took my hand.
“Hope to see you tonight, Arnold. Bring your girlfriend.”
“Okay, I said. “I’ll come.”
“I want to come,” said Kevin.
“No, Kevin,” I said, “I’m not going until late, after my swim.”
“You can come over some other time, Kevin,” said Daphne. “You and I can play.”
“Neat. Can we throw rocks?”
“Sure we can throw rocks.”
Sometimes I really don’t know if Kevin is abnormal or not. But who am I to judge?
Daphne kissed him on the forehead.
He made a little jump.
“Kiss me again!” he yelped.
She kissed him on the forehead again while Dick and I watched. This kid was making out like a bandit.
Dick and Daphne walked off down shady North Street, and Kevin and I went through the gate and up to the porch.
Kevin immediately sat in his usual rocker and began to read Brain Boy again.
I went upstairs at long last to take my shower and to shave.

(Click here to go to our next chapter. Or turn to the right hand side of this page for links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Schaefer Award-winning Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)


Anonymous said...

"Emily didn’t seem to mind it. But maybe Emily was supposed to be an idiot."

ha ha!

Anonymous said...

i don't even like to read fiction but i like to read this

Unknown said...

I'm not sure what ski-ball is. But I've always found "playlands" frightening.

I felt like I was tossing handfuls of my soul away, down into that little black hole.

That's it.

Dan Leo said...

Anon #1: stay tuned for more of the adventures of our working gal Emily.

Anon #2: wait, do you mean this is fiction?

Kathleen: It's nice to know that Arnold and I are not the only neurasthenics out there. And I hope the succeeding post's illustration will help you to visulaize the noble sport of ski-ball.