Thursday, April 10, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 66: male bonding

Previously in this Texaco Award-nominated sprawling memoir, our hero Arnold Schnabel managed, at least for the nonce, to escape the advances of the amorous novelist Gertrude Evans. What new adventures lie in store?

Our scene: a second-floor corridor of the imposing Biddle residence in Cape May, New Jersey, on this seemingly endless sultry August evening in 1963...

I moved quickly. I certainly wouldn’t have put it past Miss Evans to come running out after me and grabbing me again, perhaps to throw me down on the hall carpet with a deft jiu-jitsu maneuver.
I headed for the staircase and descended the stairs two steps at a time, glancing up at the turning of the first flight just to make sure she wasn’t following me.
Almost falling down the ground-floor flight I practically slammed into Daphne’s father, Mr. MacNamara.
“Whoa,” he said, holding one hand against my chest and hanging onto the bannister with his other hand.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.
“What’s the rush, Arnold?”
“I, um —”
I suppose I looked like a lunatic. Which I suppose is what I should have looked like, since I was acting like a lunatic.
He removed his hand from my chest, then took another step up so that we stood at the same level, facing each other. He looked into my eyes.
He’s in his late or middle forties, tall and solidly built, the sort of man that the writers of the paperback novels I like to read would call “ruggedly handsome”. He wore a madras sport shirt and tan shorts. His nose appeared to have been broken at one time, and his eyes were somewhat hooded, almost sleepy-looking, and yet somehow very watchful. He seemed to be looking into me, but for some reason I found this calming instead of disconcerting.
“Where you headed, Arnold?”
His voice was deep, and I found this reassuring also.
“I was going to get a drink of water,” I said.
“Running like you had a hellhound on your trail?”
“There was — um — there was —”
“A woman,” he said.
“Yeah,” I exhaled.
He took out a pack of Chesterfields, gave them a shake and offered them to me.
I had my own Pall Malls of course, but I took one of his Chesterfields. He shook another one up and put it in his lips. Getting a hold of myself I took out my lighter and lit us both up.
For some reason it didn’t seem strange to be standing smoking in this narrow staircase with this man.
“I guess you’ve seen a lot,” he said.
“No more than the average person,” I said.
“I’m not talking about things you’ve seen in the physical world. Anyone can see that shit. I’ve seen that shit. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“But you know what, Arnold?”
“There’s even more to see.”
“And I don’t mean in the physical world.”
That was what I thought he meant.
“Well,” he said, “you’d better get that drink of water.”
“Yeah,” I said.
He patted my shoulder and continued up the stairs, and I went down them.
At the foot of the stairs I could hear the gentle, crackling-leaf voices of the old people in the dining room, playing their canasta or shooting craps or whatever it was they were doing. I turned right, down the hall and into the kitchen. I found a glass on a drainboard and at long last I filled it with cold water from the tap, and I drank, in great continuous gulps. This felt so good I repeated the operation, drinking another full glassful. I sighed, and stood there, staring at the steel sink. Putting my cigarette between my lips I rinsed out the glass and put it back in the dish rack.
I was ready now, or as ready as I could expect to be.
The kitchen was empty of other human beings, but I felt life all around me, as if even the walls of this house were alive.
Dick Ridpath walked into the kitchen.
“Oh, Arnold,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay, Dick,” I said.
“Having a good time?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Ready for another beer?”
“I don’t know if I should,” I said.
“Why not?”
“I’m afraid of being hungover.”
“How many have you had?”
“Um —” I tried to remember. Two beers in the yard? One with Daphne in the kitchen. A Manhattan on the porch. “I think I’ve had about about three beers and one Manhattan,” I said.
“Oh, Christ, have a beer.” He went to the enormous double-doored Frigidaire and took out two brown bottles. “It’s only Schmidt’s,” he said.
He popped them open on the wall-opener and handed me one.
“Cheers, Arnold.”
We drank. I had to admit it tasted good. And after all, what was a slight hangover in the great course of things? It wasn’t as if I had anything to do the next day. Or any day.
“Daphne told me she had a chat with you,” he said.
“Did she say anything about me?”
“She said she’s madly in love with you.”
He stared at the linoleum tiles on the floor.
After half a minute he looked up, at me.
“Should I ask her to marry me then?”
“I think you should wait a few years,” I said. “She’s still young.”
“Right,” he said. “Right.”
He was looking at the floor again.
“She’ll wait for you,” I said.
He looked up.
“She will?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think so.”
“Right,” he said. “Don’t rush things.”
There was an ashtray on the kitchen table. I went over and put out my cigarette.
“You can’t change the things you’ve done, can you, Arnold?”
I turned and looked at him.
“No,” I said.
“But we do have some say about the things we do now.”
“Yes,” I said, after thinking it over for half a minute.
“Right," he said.
He turned his head slightly, seeming to gaze out the kitchen window. I had no idea what was on his mind, or on his conscience. Sometimes it's hard to say enough, and sometimes I think it's easy to say too much. I've come to realize that some men's souls are like bombed-out cities. But even the most bombed-out city can be rebuilt, in time. I held my peace.
For some moments it was as if he had forgotten I was there. I could hear the leaves of some dark bush brushing against the window screen, the strumming of guitar strings and low voices from upstairs on the porch, and as if from another house I heard the ancient murmuring from down the hall in the dining room.
Then Dick turned to me.
“Why are we being so serious?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Shall we go rejoin the party?”
“Sure,” I said.

(Click here to go to our next thrilling installment. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for listings of links to many other fine episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, in some of which something actually even happens.)

Today’s soundtrack provided by the Hollies:


Jennifer said...

gentle, crackling-leaf voices of the old people

Very nice.

I'm still laughing at the thought of rabid Gertrude "Hellhound" Evans running after him and doing a jiu-jitsu maneuver!

Anonymous said...

"It wasn’t as if I had anything to do the next day. Or any day."

ain't it de troot

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to get into your style. It's very fluent and very nice to read. I'll be back.

Dan Leo said...

Manic, be sure to bring some of those bières belges with you. (Hint: I am partial to Duvel.)

Unknown said...

I've come to realize that some men's souls are like bombed-out cities.

Is Arnold referring to "most men" as in mankind? Or men's souls compared to womens'?
He certainly comes across as a seer here and Dick and even Daphne's father(!) recognize that.
And Gertrude? She must be drunk.

Dan Leo said...

I suspect that Arnold means "men's souls" in the old-fashioned sense of "the souls of human beings." Although I also suspect that the males of the species have a higher proportion of bombed-out souls than the females do.

Maybe Gertrude is drunk on love! (Or lust, maybe...)