Tuesday, April 15, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 67: the landing

When last we saw Arnold Schnabel, author of these (“gripping, stunning” -- Harold Bloom) memoirs, he was drinking Schmidt’s beer with the mysterious naval officer Dick Ridpath in the kitchen of the stately Biddle residence in the quaint Victorian resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a hot August night in that fateful year of 1963...

“Where is everybody, anyway?” asked Dick.

“Well, there’s a bunch of them up on the second-floor porch,” I said.

“Ah. Do you want to go up?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Your girlfriend’s up there? What’s her name, Eurydice?”

“Elektra,” I said.

“Oh, right, Elektra. Real pretty girl, Arnold. I’m impressed.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not worthy.”

He smiled at me.

“Let’s go up.”

“Okay. Uh, where’s Daphne?” I asked as we headed out of the kitchen.

“Still playing badminton probably. Oh. Hello, Mrs. Biddle.”

She was coming down the hall our way, moving quickly along with determined cracks of her walking stick. It hadn’t registered with me before, but she was wearing a light-colored dress with winged collars and buttons down the front that somehow made me think she should be on a rubber plantation in Malaya or the Philippines.

“You two,” she said. “What are you up to?”

“Heading upstairs,” said Dick.

“To smoke reefer with Sammy, no doubt.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Dick. “Why don’t you join us?”

“My goodness,” she said. “I haven’t blown gage as we used to call it since the thirties.”

“Come on up.”

“No, I should stay down here with those living corpses in there. Besides, I’m winning at canasta. You, Arnold,” she said to me.


I successfully fought the impulse to click my heels and stand to attention.

“Don’t forget to come see me,” she said.

“All right.”

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

Same thing I did everyday. Which was:


“Good. Stop by around four. We’ll have tea. You do drink tea.”

“Copiously,” I lied.

“I’ll feed you. Come hungry.”

“I’m always hungry,” I said.

“All right, begone. I’m just going in to get some more ice and whisky.”

And she brushed past us and into the kitchen, leaving a fugitive fragrance of dried roses and Scotch.

Dick and I headed up the stairs.

At the landing Dick stopped and looked at a painting on the wall. An actual real painting, and not a reproduction of one, or a photograph of the Pope or Bishop Sheen or Jackie Kennedy such as one would find in our own little house back in Olney. It was a sun-dappled picture of a bunch of people in top hats and bonnets and with parasols standing around near some lake.

I waited patiently while Dick stared at the picture; I’ve come to realize that when it comes to odd behavior I am in no position to be critical. And then suddenly Dick turned and said, “What do you think of the concept of the vision quest?”

“Um, I really don’t know much about it.”

“It’s this sort of deliberately difficult journey that American Indian boys go on. To become a man and learn to appreciate nature. And the spiritual world. And this helps him decide in what direction to go in life.”

“Ah,” I said.

“A lot of cultures have this sort of thing. Some sort of rite of passage.” He turned to me.

“Do you think we miss something in our culture by not having that?”

“Beats me.”

Dick was now looking at another painting on the adjacent wall of the landing. More of the old-fashioned people, staring out at an ocean or sea with a lot of boats sailing around on it.

“The navy has me studying all this sort of thing,” he said. "I just got back from almost a year in Japan, checking out Buddhism. And I might go to Tibet.”

“That sounds interesting,” I said.


There was a little wooden table in the corner, with a cut glass vase with some geraniums in it. Dick put his beer bottle on the table, then took out his cigarettes and offered me one. I shook my head no and took out my own. What the hell, it had been well over a minute since I’d finished my last one.

Dick lit us up with a battered old Ronson with the letters U.S.N. on it. He clicked the lighter shut and dropped it in a pocket.

“Daphne just told me that you’ve had visitations from Jesus,” he said.

“Well, if you want to call it that.”

“So what does he say?”

“Well, he gives me advice.”

“Really? Good advice?”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure.”

He took a drag of his cigarette. I suppose it was the kind of drag the authors I like to read would call contemplative.

“A lot of people would kill to be in your shoes, Arnold.”

“Overall, it’s pretty disconcerting, Dick,” I said. “I could do without it.”

He paused, then said, “So what do you think of all this Rat Pack business? Frank and Dean, and Sammy. Joey.”

“They seem like nice guys,” I said.

“So you don’t think it’s odd they’re here. In Cape May.”

“Now that you mention it.”

“They’re friends of Mac’s. Daphne’s father.”

“Ah,” I said.

“He seems to know everyone. But you don’t really care, do you?”

“They’re all just people.”

“That’s true,” said Dick. “They wipe their asses just like the rest of us.” He paused, staring at the floor. Then, “But look,” he said, looking up, “you want to see something neat? Watch this.”

He turned to the painting of the people on the beach front, put his cigarette between his lips and then pulled himself up and climbed down into the painting.

I saw him in there with all the other people.

He was waving at me and calling for me to come on in.

What the hell, I did as he had done. I put my beer bottle on the little table, grabbed the sides of the frame, and climbed up and down into the picture just as if I was climbing out of a window and into the outside world.

Except now I was standing on this sunny beach front and Dick was standing there before me with a broad smile on his face. He wore an old-fashioned blue sport-jacket over a white shirt and white trousers. He had a bright red cravat around his neck with a diamond stick-pin, and he wore a straw boater.

The seaside air was bright and warm and the breeze smelled of hibiscus and lemon.

“So, what do you think?” asked Dick. “Pretty neat, hey, Arnold?”

I looked down and saw that I was similarly attired in 19th century gentleman's fashion. I even had suede spats on over my two-toned shoes. Looking up I saw the shadowed underside of the brim of a straw hat.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty neat.”

(Go here for our next thrilling chapter. And kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all other extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Parade Magazine Award third-place winner, Railroad Train to Heaven™.)

And now, Miss June Christy:


Unknown said...

Ordinarily, I don't mention this, but sometimes I believe it's almost happening to me. An abstract painting in a gallery on Water St. has particularly called out to me lately.
Of course, most of the time I agree with the majority: entering a painting is preposterous.
Maybe I just need to meet someone with the right background, and like Arnold, I'll get a free, complete pass.
It's the McNamara's painting. I wonder how often they get into it.

Anonymous said...

The Grassroots "Let's Live For Today" 1967

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen -- hey, be careful of that picture!

And, Anon, special hat-tip to you for picking up on the Grassroots reference. As a special bonus here are all the words to "Live For Today" in all their glory (what we'll never know is how Arnold was able to quote them four years before the song came out):

When I think of all the worries people seem to find
And how they're in a hurry to complicate their mind
By chasing after money and dreams that can't come true
I'm glad that we are different, we've better things to do
May others plan their future, I'm busy lovin' you (one, two, three, four)
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
Live for today
We were never meant to worry the way that people do
And I don't need to hurry as long as I'm with you
We'll take it nice and easy and use my simple plan
You'll be my lovin' woman, I'll be your lovin' man
We'll take the most from living, have pleasure while we can (two, three, four)
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
Live for today
Baby, I need to feel you inside of me
I got to feel you deep inside of me
Baby please come close to me
I got to have you now, please, please, please
Gimme some-a lovin', gimme some-a lovin'
Gimme some-a lovin', gimme some-a lovin'
Baby gimme some-a lovin'
Gimme some-a lovin, I need all your lovin'
Gimme some-a lovin, I need all your lovin'
Give me some love, now
I need all your lovin'
Sha la la la la la
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

maybe that's the song that arnold ends up writing for sinatra, but sinatra's too square to record it

Anonymous said...

This was fun. I sometimes wished I could do that. Somehow people in paintings always seem much at ease than people looking at them. Maybe sitting still for hours and hours has that effect on a person. Maybe it clears your entire mind.

Dan Leo said...

Anon # 1: ah, those were the days.I just listened to "Midnight Confessions" too...

Anon #2: damn, I forgot about Frank's songwriting offer; let's hope that Arnold's able to knock off a lyric for the Chairman one of these days, if he can fit it into his busy schedule.

Manic: "Somehow people in paintings always seem much more at ease than people looking at them." This is an observation worthy of the great Arnold himself.

Jennifer said...

Arnold's a walking vision quest. Will the title of guru be in his future?

Dan Leo said...

I somehow think that Arnold would be a most reluctant guru...