Wednesday, January 16, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Forty-Seven: Arnold Schnabel awakens into a dream

When last we met Arnold Schnabel, the author and star of this Schaefer Award-shortlisted memoir, he had just fallen asleep in the sackcloth hammock hanging in the backyard of his aunts’ shambling Victorian guest house in Cape May, New Jersey, on a hot August afternoon in that forgotten year of 1963...

I dreamt that I was walking along the roofs of an enormously long train, trying to reach the locomotive.

This is a recurrent dream, and indeed in the waking life of my brakeman career I have walked along the roofs of thousands of hurtling railroad cars. How odd that I got so used to it. To this day I am afraid of heights, but after a year or so as a brakeman I was striding back and forth along the tops of moving trains as nimbly and as naturally as a monkey.

With the new trains we don’t have to walk along the roofs any more except in certain rare circumstances. A brakeman’s job is so much easier and less dangerous nowadays.

But this dream.

The usual dream I have is that I’m trying to reach the locomotive but I’m never able to. More and more cars magically appear and prevent me from ever reaching the locomotive.

And then there’s the variant dream where I’m walking along the roof of a train and all of
a sudden a tunnel appears out of nowhere. I lay myself down on the roof of a car and the dark tunnel rushes over me, just inches above my head, and I lie there holding onto the bare metal, and the tunnel keeps rushing and swooshing darkly above me, and the tunnel keeps going on and on and on in darkness.

I’d have to say the tunnel variant is by far the more disturbing dream.

So anyway I was dreaming the first variant, marching smartly along above the train, but I couldn’t even see the locomotive it was so far away, and I kept walking along, leaping from one car to another, and then all of a sudden the second variant kicked in, and a tunnel in an enormous mountain came rushing toward me.

I decided that for once I wasn’t going to lie down and be stuck in this endless tunnel, and so I just leaped up, and the most wonderful thing happened, I kept flying up and up, up the side of this green and rocky mountain, and then I was at the top of the mountain, and I just touched down on a big rock at its peak and then pushed off and up again, flying down the other side of the mountain, and I saw the train snaking out of the tunnel on the other side, except the train was so long that I still couldn’t see its locomotive, even though I was about a mile above it, the train just went on and on over this green and rolling countryside and disappeared in the far-off hazy green hills.

I flew along, above the train. I didn't know where I was flying to. But I kept flying.

Then I woke up, and Elektra was standing there, her arm folded across her chest, smoking a cigarette.

“Hello,” she said.

For a moment I couldn’t speak, but I felt like I was still floating in the air. I flapped my arms, the hammock turned over and I fell out onto the grass.

I sat up.

She crouched down next to me.

“Dreaming?” she said, one hand steadying the swinging hammock.

“Yes,” I said.

She was wearing a flowered shirt tied at the waist, with a white bathing suit under it. She had a canvas bag slung on her shoulder with an orange towel bulging out of it, and I realized I’d never seen her in a bathing suit before.

“Do you mind me coming by?” she said.

“No, not at all.”

I looked over at the metal table. Steve and Miss Rathbone and Mrs. Rathbone were gone,

God knows where.

“Looking for someone?” she said.

“Oh. Steve was here,” I said.

“Him again? I think he’s in love with you.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said.

I stood up, went over to the table and got my cigarettes and lighter.

“I took off a little early,” she said. “I thought maybe you’d like to take a swim with me, Arnold.”

“Oh,” I said, lighting up my usual post-nap cancer stick. “But I usually go for my swim in the evening.”

“So can’t you adjust your little schedule? Or do you have writing you want to do?”

“Oh, no, I’ve already done my writing for the day.”

“Did you write me my poem?” 
“Uh, no. I’m afraid not. But I will.”

She came forward and stood close to me. I could feel the warmth of her.

“I wonder,” I said.

“Wonder what?”

She was so close to me I had to blow the smoke up over her head.

“I wonder if we can take a swim later,” I said.

“Do you want to go up to your room?”

“Oh, we couldn’t do that.”

“Oh, right. I guess your aunts and mother would never let you hear the end of it.”

“Maybe after a million years,” I said.

“All right, let’s go,” she said. “But get your bathing suit so we can take a swim afterwards.”

I said okay, and I walked her around front. Kevin was still on the porch. He was now reading some old Tom Swift book that he’d gotten from the library.

I left Elektra there and went upstairs, very quietly, and changed into my bathing trunks. I grabbed a towel and went down to the third floor, again stepping as quietly as humanly possible, but unfortunately I did have to go to the bathroom. I went in and peed as quietly as one is ever able to pee. And then I flushed, creating the usual racket of an entire cellblock of convicts attacking the bars of their cells with tin cups in protest. I brushed my teeth, then I drank some water from the tap, cupping it into my mouth with my hand as the metallic symphony slowly subsided. Then I went back out into the corridor, and, sure enough, Miss Evans popped out of her room.

“So, there you are,” she said. She wore a yellow-and-black polka dot sundress, and she seemed hot and sweaty. Well, it was a very hot afternoon.

“Hi,” I said.

“Going for a swim?”

“Uh, yeah."

She took a thick strand of her hair and wound it around her index finger.

“How was your sandwich?”

“My sandwich?”

“The sandwich Miss Rathbone made you.”

“Oh, it was her mother who made it, actually. But it was fine.”

She let go the coil of hair and it fell to her neck.

“And did Miss Rathbone like your poems?”

“I guess so,” I said, and started to walk by.

“What’s the hurry, Arnold? The ocean’s not going anywhere.”

“It’s just that my friend’s waiting,” I said.

“Oh, your lady friend?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“I want to meet this paragon. I’ll go down with you. I was just going down to read on the porch.”

And it’s true, she had a book in one hand.

I let her lead the way down the narrow stairs. “I want to read those poems when the Rathbone is finished,” she said over her shoulder.

“Sure,” I said.

“Have you read this?”

She stopped and I almost fell over her. She held up the book. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.

“No,” I said, “but I think this friend of mine was talking about that book.”


She even knew her name.

“No,” I said. “This guy Steve.”

“Steve,” she said.


“Hmmm. I’ve hardly ever met a man who likes Rand. I’d like to meet this Steve.”

Somehow it seemed inevitable that she would.

“Oh, but your friend is waiting,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

She turned and went down the stairs, and I followed her.

Normally guests will leave by one of the side entrances on the ground floor, but, since I knew that Elektra was waiting on the porch, I took Miss Evans through the front section of the house. We had to go through my aunts’ kitchen, and as bad luck would have it all three of them and my mother were in there performing various kitchen activities. I immediately knew I had made a mistake by taking Miss Evans this way.

I could never describe the complex of emotions, hidden but obvious, conversation, superficial but fraught with meaning, all of it somehow managing to be deeply boring but completely unmemorable, which ensued in the next three minutes of chatter among the old women and Miss Evans.

Miss Evans seemed to have completely forgotten that I was there, so I started to sidle out of the kitchen.

“Where are you going, Arnold?” she asked, as if I hadn’t told her just a few minutes

“Uh, swimming?” I said.

“Oh, right, your lady friend is waiting,” she said. “His lady friend is waiting outside,” she said to the ladies.

“Invite her in, Arnold,” said my mother.

“Is she coming to dinner again?” said Greta.

“We’ve got plenty of sauerbraten,” said Elizabetta.

“They’re getting serious,” said Edith.

Sometimes you just have to get tough if you don’t want a one-way ticket back to Byberry.

I held up a hand.

“Elektra won’t be coming for dinner,” I said. “In fact, don’t hold dinner for me. I’ll get something out. ‘Bye.”

I turned and headed for the front door.

Miss Evans followed on my heels.

“Wait for me, Arnold,” she said.

I crossed through the dining and living rooms and came out onto the porch. Elektra was there, leaning back against the rail, apparently chatting with Kevin.

“Well, there you are at last,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

I awkwardly held the screen door open for Miss Evans.

“So,” she said, “you must be Elektra.”

“Hello,” said Elektra.

“Elektra,” I said, “this is Miss Evans. She’s staying here.”

“Gertrude,” said Miss Evans, and she walked over and extended her hand. Elektra took it.

“You’re a very lucky girl,” said Miss Evans.

“Am I,” said Elektra.

“Such a talented handsome man. What was it first attracted you, his poetry or his physique?”

“Neither. But the physique didn’t hurt.”

“You have a lovely figure yourself.”

“I could lose some weight.”

“Not at all. Men like a girl with some meat on her bones. Well, don’t mind me, I’m just going to read my book.”

She sat down in the rocker next to Kevin, the one I usually sit in.

“And your name is Kenneth?” she said to him.

“Kevin,” he said. ”Kevin Armstrong.”

“And what are you reading?”

Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle.”

“Have a good — swim,” said Miss Evans to me.

“Okay,” I said.

“Nice meeting you, Elektra.”

“Nice meeting you, Gertrude,” said Elektra.

We went down the steps, down the bluestone path, through the gate and onto the sidewalk. We turned down North Street and crossed it at the corner.

As we reached the other side Elektra said, “Who is that madwoman? With her Ayn Rand?”

“She’s a novelist,” I said.

“Oh.” She put her arm in mine. “She wants to go to bed with you, Arnold.”

(Click here to go to our next chapter, one for all you Verdi buffs called "Sempre Libera". Kindly check the right hand column of this page for up-to-date listings of other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven as well as to many of his classic poems.)


Unknown said...

So that's what people mean when they say your dreams refer to what's going on in your day-to-day life.

Jennifer said...

Gertrude scares me.

Dan Leo said...

Just wait till you see Cate Blanchett play Gertrude in the movie version.

Jennifer said...

I so don't picture Cate Blanchett. For some reason, I keep thinking of Margaret Dumont or a woman from a Thurber cartoon... some woman who looks like her ankles have been squeezed and everything heads north...

Dan Leo said...

Oh, no, Jen, Gertrude is very attractive, in a neurotic way. And we all know that La Blanchett can play anything. I mean she did play 1966-era Bob Dylan after all.

Not to imply that Margaret Dumont was not a hotty.

By the way I intend blatantly to steal the phrase "looks like her ankles have been squeezed and everything heads north..."

Sister, you're a poet.

Jennifer said...

Steal away!

I have to reread with Blanchett in mind! And yes, she can play neurotic. I don't know why I got Madge in my mind, but I did. FYI- I never considered her a hotty. :)