Thursday, December 6, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Thirty-Eight: conversation in the King Edward Room

August, 1963.

In our previous episode of this classic memoir (now published in its entirety for the first time anywhere) our hero Arnold Schnabel and his new friend Dick managed, not without difficulty, to deposit the drunken Steve in his room in Cape May’s charming old Chalfonte Hotel.

Although Dick and Arnold had already had several drinks that night they now needed another one, and Dick suggested the Chalfonte’s own quaint King Edward Room...

This was a Cape May bar into which the gods of drunkenness had never guided me before, and it was nice, as bars go, small and dark and quiet. No jukebox, no television, just the sound of talking from a small groups of people drinking at the bar and at some dark wooden tables.

Dick and I took stools at the bar and Dick said, “Y’know, after that ordeal I think I could use a Manhattan.”

Ah, the sacred brotherhood of the Manhattan.

I knew I shouldn’t but I let Dick order one for me. He explained nicely to the bartender that he didn’t want a cherry but would the man please just cut a fresh bit of lemon peel, just the yellow part but not the white pith, and could he twist a bit of the lemon oil into the drink.

I told the bartender I’d try it that way too, even though I’d always had a cherry for a garnish the six thousand other times I had had a Manhattan.

As the bartender mixed our drinks we took out our respective coffin nails. Dick had his in an engraved metal case, of the kind that holds twenty cigarettes. He gave me a light with his lighter.

“So how long have you known old Steve?” he asked.

“Not long. I met him at the Ugly Mug a couple of nights ago," I said. "But it feels like a lot longer.”

“He seems very fond of you.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You do know he’s shall we say homosexually inclined.”

“Yeah,” I said. “My lady friend told me.”

“You couldn’t tell?”

“I’m not very quick about these things,” I said. “Or about a lot of things.”

“Ah well,” said Dick.

The bartender brought us our drinks, all deep ruby, glistening and beaded. We clicked our glasses and drank our magic potion.

Dick was silent, and so I decided to try to be a good conversationalist.

“So what do you do in the navy?” I asked.

Dick sighed. He tapped his cigarette into the ashtray, and then said, without looking at me, “I work in matériel allocation. Very boring. Shuffling papers.”

“I understand,” I said.

He looked at me.


“Sure,” I said. “It’s boring. You’ll get a more interesting job someday.”

Or not. What the heck did I know?

He looked away again. I seemed to have touched a sore spot. Oh well. Most men liked to talk about their boring jobs, but maybe Dick was different.

 “If you don’t mind my asking, Arnold,” he asked, “what was your disability?”

“My disability?”

“You mentioned you were out on a disability. From your railroad job.”


Now he had touched a sore point.

I decided not to lie. After all, anyone with eyes could tell that except for my occasional slight smoker’s cough I was physically as healthy as an ox.

So I very briefly told him about going insane, the hospital, my failed attempt to go back to work, my mother bringing me down here.

“Well,” he said. “You seem fairly recovered now.”

A couple of women burst into shrieking peals of laughter down at the other end of the bar.

“I’m better,” I said. Just saying what little I had said had worn me out, so I skipped the part about my visions of Jesus, and my occasional flights of what my doctors gently call disassociation.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to get back to work soon,” he said.

He was trying to be nice, and I should have left it alone I suppose. There’s a reason people talk almost entirely in clichés. (In fact there’s probably a whole host of reasons.)

But instead I said, “Actually, I don’t want to go back to work.”

“No? Why not?”

“Well, one reason is: what if I lose my mind again on the job? God forbid I might cause a train accident.”

“Good point.”

“And I’m also afraid that just going back to work in itself might drive me permanently insane. For years I went to work every day and just accepted it as my fate. But now, the thought of it just — I don’t know — all those years on the trains, all those hours, all those days —”

“I understand,” said Dick.

“You do?”
“Sure. It sounds boring to me.”
“It is!” I said.
“I don’t know how people do it, work these absurd jobs all their lives. Not that being a brakeman is absurd,” he hurried to add.
“No,” I said. “A brakeman serves an important function,” I murmured, halfheartedly.
“But just doing the same thing every day,” he said. "Christ!"
“Yeah,” I said. “But didn’t you say your job was boring?”
“Oh, right, I did.”
“So how do you cope?” I asked. I really wanted to know.

 Dick finished his drink and motioned to the bartender for two more.
“Arnold, I can’t lie to you. Actually my job is pretty interesting. The only thing is, it’s classified. I just tell people I’m in matériel allocation.”
“Oh. Classified.”
“Yeah. I’m not supposed to talk about it. Strictly speaking I shouldn’t even talk about how I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
I finished my own drink.
So what is Dick’s job, I wonder. Swashbuckling on the high seas. Meeting double agents in back alleys in exotic ports. Fine if you liked that sort of thing.
“So what would you like to do if you don’t go back to work for the railroad?” he asked.
“You know, Dick, I’ve lain in bed at night trying to think of jobs which I wouldn’t consider boring, which wouldn't suck the soul right out of me, and for the life of me I haven’t thought of one yet. What I’m hoping is the Reading will forget all about me but keep sending me checks.”
“I see.”
“If not, I think I’ll take my pension.” This was the first time I’d talked to anyone about all this. “I have more than twenty years in, and my mother and I live very cheaply. We own our house back in Philly, and I even have savings invested in government bonds.”
“You're awfully young just to retire, though,” said Dick.
“But my days seem very full to me now,” I said.
“Really? And how do you fill them?”
“Well, I read, and take walks. And every night I take a long swim. Plus I still write a poem every week.”
“That’s good.”
“Not that they're good poems.”
“But still.”
“Also, it’s a little embarrassing to say, but I’m writing my memoirs.”
“Really? Life on the railroad?”
“No,” I said, "And I don’t know why, but so far I’ve written practically nothing about the railroad.”
“So what do you write about?”
“I write about the things I do every day. The things I think. The things that happen to me.”
Dick just looked at me. I think he was wondering just how crazy I still was, and now that I look over what I’ve just written, I can’t say I blame him.
The bartender laid down two fresh sparkling cold ruby-red Manhattans.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said Dick. “Come on, buddy, one more and we’re gone.”
“Okay,” I said, “but I should go home after this.”
We clicked our glasses and drank again.
“So, Arnold, tell me about this lady friend of yours.”
Shamelessly I did so.
“She sounds great,” said Dick.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” I said.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“I just remembered I keep forgetting to ask her last name.”
“Well, no matter.”
“I’ve never had a girlfriend before, Dick. Don’t you think that’s odd?”
He paused, drawing his lower lip inward, then he sighed again and said, “Well, yes, technically I suppose it’s odd. But I don’t think it’s anything to beat yourself up about.”
Suddenly I realized that this couple sitting one stool away from Dick had heard what I’d just said, and Dick’s response. I felt the fool, more so than usual that is.
I think Dick also realized that the couple had overheard us, and he read the abashment on my face.
He polished off his drink and said, “Hey, drink up and let’s breeze.”

As we were leaving the bar I realized that I had let Dick pay for all the drinks. But it was too late now. We went through the lobby, and out the doors, and then I felt myself floating down the porch steps instead of walking down them.
“Oh, Christ.”
“What is it, Arnold?”
Dick was floating there beside me.
“Dick,” I said.
Our feet were about two feet off the ground.
“Do you notice anything funny right now.”
“No. Do you?”
“Yes. Can’t you see? We’re floating in the air.”
“I don’t think so, Arnold.”
“No. You’ve just had a bit too much to drink.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Take a deep breath.”
I did.
“Now let it out, slowly.”
I did this, and as I exhaled I felt my feet returning to the earth, and Dick with me.
Dick’s hand was still on my shoulder.
“Are you okay now? Feet on the ground?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Do you want to sit for a bit?”
“No,” I said. “I think I should go home.”
“You felt you were floating. In the air.”
“I’ve had that feeling. Do you want a cigarette?”
He offered me one of his, a Chesterfield. I took it because it seemed like too much effort to extricate my own.
He lit us both up with his lighter.
“Although in my case,” he said, “the floating has occurred only when I’ve taken LSD.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a drug. I first took it as part of some tests the, uh, government was conducting. I still like to take it sometimes.”
“Well, it opens up a whole other world. I see things. I see things I wouldn’t see normally, and I see them in a way I wouldn’t normally see.”
The street was quiet, except for the wind, the sound of the ocean, the hushing sound of the geraniums below the Chalfonte’s porch.
“I see Jesus,” I said. “Or rather I imagine I see him. I even thought Steve was Jesus.”
Dick looked me in the eye.
“But you’re okay now?”
The thing was I did feel okay, right then.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
We got in his Volkswagen and drove quietly back to my aunts’ house.
Before I got out Dick shook my hand and said, “Stop over at Daphne’s grandmother’s place tomorrow night. We’re having a cook-out if it doesn’t rain. Bring your lady friend.”
I almost wanted to say “Why?” As in why would he want me to come to their cook-out?
“It’s just a couple blocks down there on the corner of Windsor Avenue, big green house with a widow’s walk, and turrets and steeples. 200 Windsor.”
“I know the house,” I said. “But I usually go swimming in the evening.”
“Come after your swim. We’ll be at it all night. Do you play croquet? Mac sets up these lights and we play croquet on the back lawn.”
“Well —”
“Or badminton.”
Yep, that was two games I’d never played.
“Don’t be a stick in the mud, Arnold.”
I wanted to say I’d “try” to make it, but that seemed absurd. It wasn’t as if I had a demanding social schedule laid out for the next day without a minute’s free time.
“Tell ya what, Arnold,” he said, gently. “Stop by if you feel like it. I’d like to have you there. I so rarely meet someone I can talk to.”
I said okay and good night, got out, closed the car door, and Dick took off down the street.
And I thought I was strange.

(Click here to see if Arnold makes it upstairs okay. And check the right hand side of this page for links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.)


Anonymous said...

Swashbuckling on the high seas. Meeting double agents in back alleys in exotic ports. Fine if you like that sort of thing.

So droll and right on. No wonder Dick wants Arnold around when his friends play croquet.

With Arnold's accelerating adventures, I keep fearing he'll lose his matter-of-fact but perfect innocence, and as amazing as he is, my fear keeps mounting.

Dan Leo said...

Ah, never fear, my friend, I think Arnold's innocence may waver into imperfection on occasion, but somehow I don't think he'll ever lose it entirely.

Thanks so much for the comment.

Jennifer said...

This one just made me sad. I can almost picture Arnold's hand slowly letting go of the remaining grip he had on reality.

Dan Leo said...

Jennifer, I'm sure that if you had only been able to bake Arnold a cake every day his (relative) sanity would have been assured.

For readers who wonder what in Sam Hill I'm talking about, check out the shenanigans over here: