Tuesday, December 11, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Thirty-Nine: encounter outside the bathroom

Return with us now to the memoirs of Arnold Schnabel and to that forgotten year of 1963, when neckties were still skinny and the skies were black-and-white and women’s hair was the texture of cotton candy, to the month of August in the town of Cape May, NJ, where our brakeman poet has gone with his mother, hoping to recover from his debilitating bout with insanity the previous winter.

(Go here to review Arnold's previous adventure...)

I went right up, tiptoeing so as not to arouse family or boarders.

I did stop in the bathroom on the third floor, to pee, and to brush my teeth.

When I came out though I saw a woman standing right outside the door. She wore a long pale gown, and in the 25-watt light of the wall sconce outside the bathroom her long hair gleamed like dark gold.

My immediate thought was, “Oh, great, now it’s the Blessed Mother, this is all I need.”

And I was ready to walk right past her or through her without a word, but she said, “Hello.”

“Hello,” I said.

“You’re Arnold, aren’t you.”

“Yes,” I said, trying not to sigh.

The whole Holy Family had it in for me, or so it seemed. And where was Joseph?

“I’m Gertrude.”

This took me aback.

And then it occurred to me that this was actually an ordinary mortal woman. (Although as it turned out I was wrong in this assessment.)

“Oh, hi,” I said.

“I just took the apartment down the hall today. It looks like we share this bathroom.”

“Uh, yes," I said, the soul of wit. “Um,” I added, for good measure.

“Your aunt told me you write poetry.”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“I’d like to read some of your poems.”

“You say that now,” I said.

“I’m a writer myself.”

“Oh really.”

“Gertrude Evans?”


I confess I felt awkward. I had never spoken to a woman wearing a nightgown in a dimly lit hallway before. Excepting my mother of course.

“I thought perhaps you might have heard of me. Gertrude Evans. I’ve published two novels.”

“Unless they’re mysteries I doubt I would have heard of them, I’m afraid,” I said.

“But you’re a poet. You must read poetry.”

“Well —” I said.

“Who’s your favorite poet?”

I said the name of the first one that came to my mind, even though I’d only read a couple of pages of his poem and hadn’t understood any of it:

“T. S. Eliot.”

“I love Eliot.”

Now that I thought about it, she really didn’t look anything at all like the Blessed Mother. Not that I knew what the Blessed Mother looked like.

“Well —” I said, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to say. To tell the truth I wanted just to go up to my little attic and go to bed, but she was standing in my way in the narrow hallway.

“I’ve come here to get away and try to finish up my latest book,” she said.

“Well, good luck,” I said.

“You’re shy, aren’t you?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“You shouldn’t be. Your other aunt told me you had a nervous breakdown.”

“Uh, yeah, sort of,” I said.

“So how are you now?”

“Better, thanks.”

Especially now that I was pretty sure she wasn’t the Blessed Mother.

“I had to be hospitalized once myself. Well, not exactly hospitalized. I signed myself into a rest home for a month. It was my present to myself for finishing my second novel. I’m really hurt that you haven’t heard of me, Arnold.”

“Don’t feel bad,” I said. “I haven’t heard of practically anyone.”

“But still. And your other other aunt told me you have a lady friend?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Your mother told me she’s very pretty. Are you going to marry her?”

“I’ve only known her for about a week,” I said.

“I have to use the bathroom, but would you wait out here a minute?”

What an odd request, but I have never known how to say no to a woman, so I said okay.
She went in, and I walked the few steps down the hall to stand by the window. I lit a cigarette, exhaling the smoke through the screen out into the night air. I had no idea what this woman wanted. I suppose I should mention here that she was an attractive woman, in the physical sense.

Eventually I heard the toilet flush, with its usual cacophony of a truckload of kitchen appliances dumped down a deep dark pit, and in due course Gertrude Evans came out. She motioned to me, beckoning with her upturned index finger. I came forward.

“Wait here,” she said. “I want to give you something.”

She went down the hall to the door of the apartment on the right, opened it and went in, leaving the door open. A minute passed. My cigarette had burned down, and I went into the bathroom and dropped the butt into the toilet. I wanted to flush it, but I knew this toilet, it wouldn’t be flushable for at least another two minutes, so I left the butt there and went back out into the hallway and waited.

I did my best to stay sane as two more minutes passed, and then this Gertrude came out of her room. She had a book, a thick hardback. She handed it to me.

“Here,” she said. “This is my first novel. I inscribed it for you.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“You don’t have to read it right away. And you don’t have to say you like it if you don’t. But now you’ll have to show me your poems.”

“Right now?”


“Well, okay. But really they’re not very good. It’s just a hobby of mine.”

“But your mother told me you get your poems published.”

“Yes, but only in our neighborhood paper, the Olney Times.”

“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“With your lady friend?”

“Well, not most recently,” I said.

“You’re a very mysterious man. I like you. Good night, Arnold.”

She put out her hand like a man. I took it and we shook hands like men. Except her hand didn’t feel like a man’s. It was small and soft and to my embarrassment I felt a tingle of concupiscence in my organ of at least prospective procreation.

I mumbled good night, turned and went back down the hall and up to my attic room.
I got undressed and I knelt down by my bed, something I hadn’t bothered doing in a week. And then after crossing myself I remembered why I hadn’t been saying my prayers. If there was a God I doubted he wanted to hear my supplications and prevarications, especially after having had sinful and perhaps perverted relations with a woman only a couple of hours before. So I crossed myself again, just to cover my bases, and got into bed. I had the bedside light still on. This Gertrude woman’s book was on the night table. I examined it for the first time. It was titled Ye Cannot Quench. By Gertrude Evans. The dust jacket drawing showed a young woman in a nightdress not unlike the one Miss Evans herself had just been wearing. She lay in a bed, with one leg up, the nightdress had slid down, exposing the leg. The girl in the drawing was smoking a cigarette and looking out the window at what looked much like the Heintz factory from my own window back in Olney.

I opened up the book, and on the first page she had written, “To Arnold, mon semblable, mon frère! Best wishes, Gertrude Evans".

I skipped to the inside back cover, where there was a black and white picture of Miss Evans. She seemed to be looking right at me.

I closed the book and pulled the chain on the light.

This had been a very long day, and all I really wanted to do now was sleep, but too many thoughts were milling about inside my head. I almost wished I had one of those awful deadening sleeping pills that the doctors used to give me. But then I remembered I had something better than a sleeping pill. I picked up The Waste Land, read a dozen or so very beautiful if incomprehensible lines, and sure enough I soon was fast asleep, lulled by the whishing sound of the leaves of that old oak tree outside my window and by the enormous and never-ending shushing of the ocean.

(Click here to go to our next thrilling chapter. Meanwhile, a quick glance to the right hand side of this page will discover an up-to-date listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as well as to many of his fine poems.*)

*"Easy to hold, fun to read." -- Harold Bloom.


Unknown said...

It's so true: nothing like a hint of insanity to make a man irresistible.

Of course, we're left wondering whether Arnold was wrong about Gertrude being ordinary, wrong about her being mortal, wrong about her being a woman. Conceivably, he might have been wrong about all three.

Dan Leo said...

One thing about Arnold: for someone who doesn't really do much all day, he's never got a dull moment.

Jennifer said...

Gertrude Evans wasn't hovering 2 feet above the ground in that hallway, was she??

Jennifer said...

wrong about her being a woman

Kathleen- maybe next time Gertrude shows up, Arnold will realize she's Steve in drag.

Anonymous said...

"But then I remembered I had something better than a sleeping pill. I picked up The Waste Land,"

ha ha !

"and never-ending shushing of the ocean."

inspired! perfect--just as it does

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen and Jen, I've peeked ahead and it turns out Gertrude is a presumably mortal woman. But she's not ordinary.

Anon, I thank you, Arnold thanks you, and Arnold's mom thanks you.