Wednesday, May 14, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 74: the end of the longest day and the beginning of a possibly even longer day...

Return with us now to that sultry August night in 1963, to the seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, and to the inimitable memoirs of that saint, that poet, that madman, Arnold Schnabel...

Suffice it to say we bade each other a fond goodnight, and I went on my way. Elektra didn’t ask me to stay the night, although I was feeling so wild these days I think I might actually have done so had she asked.
But still I must admit I preferred just going home to my little attic room. This had been by far the longest day of my life, and I was ready for some quiet solitude. Speaking of which I decided to take an indirect route home; if the battle royal was still in progress and had spread farther down Washington Street I had no desire to get involved. Let them fight on without me until they dropped one by one. Henceforth Arnold Schnabel would be the Switzerland of human beings. So I walked down to the beach and turned right on Beach Drive. The ocean crashed obliviously and darkly and, tired as I was, for two cents I would have stripped down on the other side of Frank’s Playland and gone in for a swim. But I remembered the promise I had made to Elektra, no more solitary night-time swims, and I couldn’t bring myself to go against my word to her.
As I walked past Sid’s Tavern I noticed it was still open and thriving, its front doors open and beckoning, the lights inside twinkling on a happy bar full of people, the jukebox playing a song about let’s dance, let’s dance, let’s do the twist, the stomp, the mashed potato, too.
Again I was tempted. The siren call of oblivion, how often had I obeyed its summons, marching like a zombie into how many low dives? But I walked on and turned up at Perry Street, homeward.

After climbing the side stairs as quietly as I could I stopped on the third floor and stood by Miss Evans’s door. If she was still out at the bars then that probably meant she would be all the more likely to stage an all-out assault on my room at three in the morning. If she were in and please God already asleep then maybe I wouldn’t have to nail my door shut with railroad ties.
Fortunately I heard deep female snoring. Good.
I went up to my room, but you may be sure, dear reader, that I did bolt my door, although after thinking it over a minute I decided not to prop a wooden chair against the knob.
I got undressed and into bed and picked up The Waste Land, trying to find where I left off, not that it seemed to matter a whole lot. At the end of one passage was this:   
'You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!'   
— the last two phrases of which Miss Evans had quoted when she inscribed her book to me.

I read the footnote and saw that T.S. Eliot was quoting Charles Baudelaire; yet another famous poet I suppose I’ll have to read some day. So Miss Evans might have been quoting Baudelaire directly. Or she could have been quoting Eliot quoting Baudelaire. Or both. This too did not matter; what mattered was that she was a nutcase. Contrary to what might seem logical, nut cases do not necessarily like to associate with other nut cases. I suppose I should only speak for myself, but I find my own insanity to be more than sufficient unto the day. I don’t need any help.
I put The Waste Land aside for some other time and picked up Miss Evans’s novel, Ye Cannot Quench. At least this I was able to understand. In the sense that I knew what was going on. On the other hand, after finding my place and reading about three lines I realized that although I could follow what the characters were doing I couldn’t really understand the characters themselves because they behaved and talked so oddly, which is saying something coming from me. They seemed like characters in a movie, and it occurred to me that maybe I would enjoy the book more, or at all, if I tried to imagine the characters as movie stars. So I decided that the Rock Hudson-like guy would be Rock Hudson and that the Montgomery Clift-like guy would be Clift, the younger Montgomery Clift, like from around A Place in the Sun. The girl, Emily, I had to think about for a minute. Debbie Reynolds? No, she was not quite that innocent. Definitely not Doris Day either, even if it was a Rock Hudson movie. I settled on Natalie Wood, and that seemed to work. I also made the movie black-and-white, although some of the Rock Hudson parts seemed like they should be in Technicolor.
Even after I had worked all that out I still had trouble reading more than few lines further. I was mostly just lying there thinking about what I’d already read, or what I could remember of it, as it was already rapidly disappearing from my brainscape.
The Clift guy, Porter Walker, was still making out with the Natalie Wood girl, Emily. Boy, in the old days I wouldn’t even let myself read these kinds of scenes. At least not ones that went on for so long. But then the sort of books I tended to read usually kept it to the basics. “He drew her scarlet mouth roughly to his. She did not resist. Far from it.” “She took the cigarette from my lips and flicked it out the window. I wondered if it landed on anybody. But I didn’t wonder for long.” “She turned and locked the door. She put the key in the top of her dress. I wondered if she was locking everyone else out or locking me in. I wondered but I didn’t care.” That sort of thing. But Miss Evans’s scene really went on and on. I decided to save it for later and picked up the murder story I was reading, This Sweet Sickness.

    I woke up around my usual time, eight or so, and all in all I didn’t feel too much like squeezing myself through my small window and hurling myself from the roof. Fortunately I had had only the one Manhattan. In fact if I hadn’t had that ale in 1890s France I would probably feel much better than I did. It’s always that just one more that pushes you over the borderline, even if you did have it in a different century.
My jaw ached from where the coast guard guy had socked me, but I didn't seem to have any teeth loose.
I threw my legs resignedly over the side of the bed and as usual reached for my cigarettes and lighter.
And here something genuinely unusual happened. First off, after lighting up I went into a coughing fit, but this wasn’t the unusual part. Well, maybe slightly unusual in that this fit was a bit more severe than usual, perhaps due to that powerful French stinkweed I’d smoked the night before.
What was unusual was that I finally decided that smoking was stupid unless you were planning to commit suicide in the very near future, and that I was quitting cigarettes now, after going through a minimum of a pack a day ever since I was overseas in the army. Amazingly I had never smoked before going into the service. But there I was in England going through all this boring training, everybody else smoked, I had lots of free time, so I started smoking. It was something to do. And here I was eighteen years after the war, still puffing away.
The only thing was, I was just about to stub out this last cigarette forever when I was already missing it. So I took another small drag, and this time I only coughed a little bit. Well, all right, I’d start cutting down today. I would smoke this one, but it would be my last one till after lunch. Then I’d take it from there
I finished the cigarette, only coughing a few more times, stubbed it out, got dressed and went out, taking Miss Evans’s book with me. It wouldn’t do to be seen with another novel until I managed to get through hers, if I could get through it.
I stopped again outside her door and pricked up my ears. She was no longer snoring, but at least there were no other alarming sounds, no keenings or wailings or gnashings of teeth that I could hear.

Breakfast passed pleasantly enough. My bruised jaw went unmentioned and perhaps unnoticed, possible proof that I was not the center of the universe after all. Kevin kept his nose in his Tom Swift book, and I read Ye Cannot Quench while my mother and my aunts sat and drank their coffee. They probably knew I was hungover. They were talking gardening and I remembered that I was supposed to pass on Mrs. Biddle's compliments on their garden, but I was not quite ready for such polite conversation. The ladies must have heard about Frank Sinatra being at the party I had gone to, but none of them asked me about him. If it had been Bishop Sheen or President Kennedy or Lawrence Welk or Arthur Godfrey I think they would be impressed, but I don’t think Sinatra means much to them.
Eventually Emily and Porter finished making love, and now, as Porter slept a “deep, poet’s sleep”, Emily picked up his copy of his epic poem from his night table and picked up where she had left off:
        Slam bang goes the drummer slackjawed above his traps,
        wang wang wang wails the sax man arching his back like a snake,
        bwah bwah bwah goes the trumpeter straight up
        at that smoky Heaven where churn the dreams of the damned
        and the screams of the saved propelled by the
        boomp boomp boomp of the bassman, and the
        chinkle tinkle pinkle of the piano fellow
        as I pound my beersopping table in glorious time –
        “Hearken! Hearken ye fools, and dig
        this crazy sound…”
Suddenly I remembered my appointment with Larry Winchester. I checked my watch. He had said ten or ten-thirty. I didn’t know how long he wanted to work (or whatever it was we were going to do) and I had to meet Mrs. Biddle for tea at four; so, as this was Saturday, I figured as soon as I'd had my shower I’d better head right over to church and go to confession, which seemed to be another habit I wasn’t quite ready to quit.
I managed to take my shower successfully, and I was coming down the third-floor hall after changing when, you guessed it, I ran into Miss Evans coming out of her doorway.
“Oh, Arnold,” she said.
She was wearing a bathrobe, and nothing else apparent except for rubber flip-flops.
“Hello, Miss Evans.”
“Gertrude, please, Arnold, for the last time.”
She held some bottles of unguents and lotions, and she had a towel over her arm, even though my aunts provide clean towels.
“Where are you off to, Arnold?”
“How nice.”
I didn’t really know what to say to this. I said nothing.
“I wish I were Catholic,” she said. “It would be nice to tell someone my sins and then to be cleansed. To start again. Anew.”
She reached over and touched my polo shirt.
“Are you allowed to go to confession wearing a sport shirt and Bermudas?” she asked.
“The rules are relaxed in the summer, at the seashore anyway,” I said.
“Perhaps I should go.”
“Sure, give it a try,” I said, and I started to pass.
“But what do I say? To the priest.”
“Say, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been such-and-such a time since my last confession.'”
“But I’ve never been to confession.”
“Oh, well, tell him it’s your first time then.”
“He won’t think it’s odd?”
“Priests are trained to deal with oddness.”
“I’ll tell him it’s been a year.”
“He won’t be terribly cross with me?”
“Probably not. Go to Father Reilly, he’s pretty easy-going.”
“Okay, I will. Goodbye, Arnold. Perhaps I’ll see you later in the day.”
And the way things were going she undoubtedly would see me. Unless I was kidnapped by Communist agents or creatures from outer space.
I headed downstairs and out and out into the beautiful warm day, off to the Star of the Sea. Off to see Father Reilly with my own boatload of sins. It occurred to me that his easy-goingness was surely going to be challenged today.

(Click here for our next deeply spiritual chapter. Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of links to all other legally available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major mini-series event on the Lifetime Channel, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. A Larry Winchester/Dick Powell Production.)

We give you Chris Montez:


Jennifer said...

Just how long has this day been, in blog days that is??

I love how Arnold's sanity increases depending on his company.

Unknown said...

Don't tell Arnold this, but I recently came upon a quotation by G.K. Chesterson, a Catholic writer probably before Arnold's era, but certainly post-Proust.

The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.

On second thought, maybe Arnold's in no danger. He doesn't believe in himself nearly as much as the various men I've happened to know.

Anonymous said...

I love all tht intertexuality. It's one of your strong point, you know :P
I like were this is going with Arnold and Getrude Evans. Keep it coming.

Dan Leo said...

Jen, to answer your question, Arnold's long day began on our blog on Dec. 14, 2007. So it's only taken us five months and 34 blog-posts to recount this epic day's journey.

An excellent Chesterton quote, Kathleen, and an astute obsevation on your part.

Will do, Manic.

Anonymous said...

love the switzerland concept

Unknown said...

Arnold's day makes Leopold Bloom's day look like a comic book.
(And by the way, Rock Hudson has to be in Technicolor. Always and forever.)

Dan Leo said...

Arnold thanks you, Anon.

And it's so true, Manny; it's really hard to imagine Rock in anything but glorious color, whereas Monty Clift seems very much black-and-white. Perhaps Arnold will have to imagine his mental movie combining the two, as in the Wizard of Oz.