Saturday, December 1, 2007

“Railroad Train To Heaven”, Part Thirty-Seven: Steve and the gang at the VFW

Cape May, NJ, August 1963:

Arnold Schnabel -- the man Harold Bloom called “the Holy Ghost of the Blessed Trinity of 20th Century American poets (the other and, to my mind, lesser two being Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot)" -- continues his memoirs exactly where our last installment left off, having just entered the VFW on Congress Street in search of his new friend Steve.

Reluctantly but resignedly I walked over to where Steve sat. A quietly stunning girl who looked vaguely familiar sat on the stool to his right, a nice looking clean-cut guy sat to his left. On that guy’s left was a local mechanic I know named Buddy Kelly, and on the other side of the girl was an older guy.

“Arthur! Come meet my friends!”

“Hi, Buddy,” I said, to Buddy.

“Hiya, Arnold.”

“Oh my God, I keep calling you Arthur,” said Steve. “And I don’t know why. Can I just keep calling you Arthur?”

“Yeah, why not,” I said.

He introduced me to the others. The girl was named Daphne and the older man was introduced as Mac, her father. The other fellow was named Dick Ridpath.

Dick asked me if I would like a drink, and I said I’d take a beer. I started to reach into my pocket, but he insisted on buying. What the heck, I let him buy me a draft.

There weren't any empty stools nearby, and so I stood there sipping my beer. I tried not to stare goggle-eyed at this Daphne girl, who seemed a little young to be in a bar, but what the heck again, she was with her father.

The man Dick was movie star handsome, as was Mac, who was a sturdy man in his late forties I suppose. Both of them were also unusually well-spoken. Buddy on the other hand is a short troll-like kind of guy, but a genial enough fellow.

“I’m so glad you came!” said Steve. “Where’s — um — Alexia?”

“Elektra,” I said.

“Where is she? You should see her!” he said to all the others, swiveling his head and practically bouncing on his stool like a six-year-old. “She’s incredibly beautiful. This lustrous dark hair, deep brown eyes, the most lovely olive complexion!”

“Steve,” said the girl. She had a rather deep voice for such a young woman, she couldn’t have been more than nineteen, and yet she seemed almost supernaturally self-possessed.

“Yes, sweetheart?” said Steve.

“Don’t you know you should absolutely never extol the beauty of one woman in front of another woman?”

Steve clapped his hand to his mouth, and said something, but it was unintelligible.

“Take your hand away from your mouth, Steve,” said Daphne, smiling slightly.

He did.

“I’m so terribly abashed,” he said.

“I forgive you.”

“But let me just say, darling Daphne, do you know how beautiful my friend Arthur’s lady friend is?”

“No, how beautiful is she, Steve?”

“She’s almost as beautiful as you are, darling Daphne.”

“Now you’re on the right track,” she said. “Dick, buy Steve another beer.”

Dick did this, and when the bartender laid the beer down Steve reached for it greedily.

The bar was packed. The storm had driven all the fishermen onto shore, and by the way they were shouting and drinking it looked like the fishing fleet wouldn’t be going out again at first light, if at all.

There was one empty table and Dick suggested we move to it so we could all be more comfortable, although he obviously meant so that I could be more comfortable, since I was the only one standing.

A couple of minutes after we moved to the table Steve laid his head on his arms and fell asleep, while the rest of us chatted.

Dick was a lieutenant commander in the navy, and he seemed to be some sort of family friend to this Mac fellow, whose last name I eventually divined was MacNamara, and whose mother-in-law owned a house not far from my aunts’ on Windsor Avenue. The girl Daphne was at Bryn Mawr College, and I slowly recognized her as a pretty but somewhat somber face I had seen around town in past summers, each year a little taller and a lot more — what’s the word? Imperious? Or even like the way the Blessed Mother looks in some old pictures, beautiful and calm but somehow somewhat bored or even miffed about something.

Let’s put it this way about my new companions: except for Buddy – and I had no idea what he was doing in such a group – these were people who not only had gone to college but who had gone to good colleges, people who read magazines like the New Yorker and Holiday, not the Olney Times or the Catholic Standard and Times or dare I say True.

But they were all friendly to me, and Dick asked me about myself.

I just didn’t feel like going into it all, but I didn’t want to lie, so I said I was on a disability leave from my brakeman job the railroad, leaving out the fact that the disability was entirely mental.

As I sat and chatted with these nice people that floating feeling I had felt on leaving Elektra slowly seeped away, and was replaced by a pleasant drowsiness.

I finished my beer and said I should be going.

I felt responsible for Steve, so I shook his arm, figuring I’d get him up and try to walk him home. At first he wouldn’t wake up, but then a new song came on the jukebox and suddenly his head popped up and he began to sing in a loud falsetto voice:
Big girls don’t cry
Big girls don’t cry
Then he fell out of his chair and onto the floor.

“Oh dear,” said Daphne.

“Well, I’d say Steve has had enough for one night,” said Mac.

“Do you know where he’s stopping, Arnold?” Dick asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “The Chalfonte.”

“Give me a hand. My car’s outside. You good people stay here and Arnold and I will get young Steve home.”

Steve was very light, he felt like a straw man as Dick and I lifted him up and threw an arm over each of our backs and then frog-marched him out the door to the guffawing cheers and hoorahs of the fishermen and dockworkers at the bar and tables. Steve even moved his legs a little bit, like a marionette handled by a drunken puppeteer, and if he didn’t exactly help us he didn’t hinder us in his removal.

I expected Dick to have some fancy sports car but it turned out to be a Volkswagen, sitting there pale blue in the light of the parking lot. We deposited Steve in the back, and I got in the passenger seat and Dick got behind the wheel. We both rolled down our windows to let in the cool salty air.

“So, where is this alleged Chalfonte?” he said.

“Turn left out of the parking lot and I’ll give you directions,” I said.

He stuck the key into the ignition but instead of turning it he took a rumpled looking cigarette out of his shirt pocket.

“You wouldn’t mind if I smoked a reefer, would you, Arnold?”

He had already brought a lighter out of his Bermuda shorts pocket.

“Uh, no,” I said.

He lit it up, took a big drag, and held it in.

Without letting out the smoke he said, in only a slightly strained voice.

“Would you like some?”

“Okay,” I said.

I took the reefer and took a drag. What the hell. Maybe it was normal nowadays for naval officers to smoke reefers. Maybe it always had been.

“I get just mildly intimidated around Mac,” he said.


Dick didn’t seem like the sort of guy who would be intimidated by anyone.

“Yeah,” he said, at last letting out the lungful of smoke. “I’m madly in love with his daughter, for one thing.”

“Daphne,” I said, exhaling my own lungful.

“Right,” he said, taking the reefer back from me.

He took another big draw, and then, handing the reefer back to me, he turned the ignition key, put the car in gear, and pulled out of the parking lot.

Dick silently drove down Congress. Neither of us said anything until we approached North Street.

“Turn left up here, Dick,” I said, and he did.

I should mention that we continued passing the reefer back and forth as Dick drove.

“Thing is,” he said, after a few more moments, and as though we had never interrupted our conversation, “I’m afraid she thinks I’m just some boring older guy, some quote unquote friend of the family.”

“I doubt that,” I said.


We were passing my aunts’ house.

“Go right this corner,” I said. “No, Dick, I think she likes you. Even I could tell that by the way she was looking at you. And I’m pretty unobservant.”

“Well, thanks, buddy.” He made the right turn on Perry. “It’s Arnold, isn’t it?”

“Right,” I said.

“So, how do you like being a brakeman?”

“Well,” I said, “go left up here, on Washington, by the way. I liked it okay, being a brakeman. It’s all I’ve ever done really, except for when I was in the army. But now I don’t feel like a brakeman any more.”

“Really? What do you feel like?”

“I don’t feel like anything,” I said. “But I kind of like not feeling like anything.”

“I think I know what you mean,” said Dick. “Like, I never really felt like ‘naval officer’ defined me. Although I don’t know what would.”

“Just human being is enough I think,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, after a pause.

As we went by the Ugly Mug we saw drunk people piling and tumbling out onto the street.

“I write poems,” I ventured.

Dick turned and looked at me.


“I know,” I said. “It’s embarrassing.”

“A brakeman poet.”

“That’s what they call me actually. Some years ago the Philadelphia Bulletin wrote an article about me, and they called me the Rhyming Brakeman. Because every week I publish a poem in the Olney Times.”

“Don’t think I’ve seen that paper.”

“It’s just my neighborhood weekly. I’ve published a poem a week in it every week since I was eighteen years old.”

Of course I was very “stoned” on the “pot” or else I never would have been making all these humiliating confessions.

“That’s great, Arnold. Y’know, I’m a lifelong Philadelphian myself, and I don’t think I’ve ever even been in Olney, except maybe to go past it on the way to somewhere else.”

“There’s not much reason for anyone ever to go into Olney.”

Dick took another pause here, knitting his brows.

“That’s not entirely true, Arnold. I have a cousin who used to go up there to go to Zapf’s music store.”

“I stand corrected,” I said. “Turn right on Howard here and it’s just a few blocks to the Chalfonte. Where did you grow up, Dick?”

“Downtown. My family has a house at 19th and Panama.”

Probably one of those nice old townhouses, with dark gables and towers and spiked black fences. But I can’t say I envied Dick, and I don’t know why.

We were quiet, and then then came the Chalfonte looming up on the left all large and white and dark-roofed.

Dick pulled up in front of the lobby entrance and turned off the motor. We had smoked the reefer down to a stub. Dick tapped it out with his fingertips, and then dropped it into his shirt pocket.

“Well, let’s do this,” he said.

“Right,” I said.

It took a while, and Dick even gently slapped him once or twice, but then all at once Steve’s eyes popped open, and he seemed very quickly to grasp the situation. I suppose he was used to this sort of situation.

“Well, here I am,” he said. “Home sweet Chalfonte.”

He managed, with our help, to get out of the car and to stand up on his own two feet.

“I can make it from here, guys, thanks.”

But when we let go of his arms he wobbled a few steps forward, then stopped, swaying, and holding his arms outstretched to right and left like a tightrope walker.

“Help,” he said, in a quiet voice.

We rushed up and each grabbed an arm.

I’ll spare myself a detailed description of the rake's progress that then ensued, but suffice it to say that Steve became intermittently resistant, with several attempted escapes, in between spells of complete collapse. Fortunately there was no one at the desk or in the lobby. It’s that kind of an old-fashioned hotel. After approximately ten grueling minutes Dick and I at long last got him up the stairs to the second floor and into his room, which looked like a gang of burglars had just ransacked it looking for hidden jewels.

We got him into his bed, pulled his shoes off but otherwise left him dressed, and then we left the room and went back downstairs. On the way through the lobby Dick pointed to the right.

“Is that a bar down there?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Let’s get a drink.”

“Okay," I said.

So we went down the hall to the King Edward Room, which fortunately was still open.

{Editor's note: for the later adventures of Dick and Daphne, see Larry Winchester's sprawling epic A Town Called Disdain.}

(Click here for our next chapter. And turn if you will to the right hand side of this page to find handy links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven as well as to many of his fine poems.)


Anonymous said...

i'm confused! arnold meets dick and daphne in his real life, noted in his journal, both his life and journal being fiction by dan, and dick and daphne are characters in a piece of fiction by fictional writer larry winchester, right? is larry basing his fictional dick and daphne characters on real people (real in arnoldworld terms) that have crossed paths as younger people with arnold in cape may? or is either larry or arnold ulimately in the other's domain, the final "real, but-ultimately-fictional-by-dan" narrator of fictional reality ?! one other thing, is the guy that lost his bathing trunks also in the vfw getting drunk?

Anonymous said...

I'm flummoxed, did Tucker Carlson's ratings go down because he's a douche, or because he tried to expand on the classic Four Season's tie?

Dan Leo said...

Ed, did Tucker's ratings ever not go down?

Anon: Wait a minute, I thought all this stuff was true!

And come to think of it, Larry Winchester even mentions himself as an offstage character in Episode 24 of "Disdain".

I'm not sure, but I think the guy who lost his bathing trunks (from "The Testament of Joey Ryan", one of the Strange Tales From the O-Zone) is not in Cape May yet. Although once he gets there he's going to be there for a long time.

I'm glad to see someone's keeping track of all this!

Anonymous said...

yes all this stuff could be true but larry's book is supposed to be fiction, right?

Dan Leo said...

That's right, Anon. Larry wrote the novel in its original form back in the late 80s when he was laid up with a broken leg from a skiing accident, although he has been making substantial changes as we serialize this "director's cut" version. The novel is based on a screenplay Larry originally wrote back in the 1960s for a production starring Michael Parks, which sadly never materialized. However, Larry claims that the novel is based on true events.

Anonymous said...

did the screenplay Larry originally wrote back in the 60's feature the Dick and Daphne characters?

Dan Leo said...

Yes, Anon, Dick and Daphne were the co-stars of the original screenplay, and we can only imagine what Larry's original choices for the roles -- Laurence Harvey and Julie Christie -- would have done with these parts.

Anonymous said...

Dan- you're not really Stevus, are you??

Dan Leo said...

Jen: I hope not!

Unknown said...

Back in the day, perhaps back when big girls didn't cry even, I think they called this meta-fiction.

Unknown said...

Like this more than ever, Arnold. Thanks for reminding me.

Dan Leo said...

Yer welcome, Kathleen!