Wednesday, May 7, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 72: angel eyes

Our last installment of this sprawling memoir (available here exclusively in all its unexpurgated glory) found our hero Arnold Schnabel just returned from a brief excursion into Belle Époque France with his friend the mysterious naval officer Dick Ridpath.

And so, at least for the moment, we return to Cape May, New Jersey, on an August night in 1963...

Coming up the stairs we could hear the voices of people talking and laughing, the sounds of a guitar strumming.
When we got to the second floor I realized I had to urinate again, so I excused myself and went down the hall while Dick went through the doorway that led out to the porch. I came to the bathroom in which I had surprised Shirley on the toilet, but this time I took no chances. The door was slightly ajar, and the light was off, but I knocked anyway and called “Hello?”
Silence only responded, and so I went in, and after I clicked on the light I quickly made sure to turn the thumb-switch on the deadbolt. I really had to pee. Besides the drinks I had had on the porch and in the kitchen, and the half-bottle of Schmidt’s I carried with me, there had been that large bottle of excellent ale I had drunk with Dick in France.
I thought about it all as I urinated, the thick French cigarette still burning slowly between my lips.
Dick had said nothing about our little adventure through time and space. But then I had said nothing about it either. What if his reasons for keeping mum on the subject were the same as mine, i.e., not wishing to seem like a lunatic? Perhaps I should sound him out gently. Or, on second thought, perhaps not. If he wanted to talk about it — if indeed he had experienced it — then let him. Right then and there I just didn’t feel like exposing yet another facet of my lunacy.
I finished, zipped up, washed my hands. I looked at my face in the mirror. Yes, that was definitely a foreign cigarette hanging out of my mouth.
Basically, what little world-view I could be said to possess was crashing to the earth. But at least I was back in my own time, or at least the time I was used to being in.
But how odd that it was even 1963. Part of me always felt as if it were still the 1930s, the time of my boyhood and young manhood. Since then a world war had happened in which I was the tiniest cog, the trains had gone electric, the airplanes had become jets, television had replaced radio, oil had replaced coal in our furnaces, and the world had changed even in the way it smelled.
I had just returned from an excursion into the past but in a sense I walked around every day feeling as if I had been transported into the future, a minor character in an impossibly long and plotless episode of The Jetsons. It occurred to me that only small children lived in the present. The rest of us live in the past, our physical selves stumbling through a future that grows more unrecognizable with each passing day.
I dried my hands and went back out into the hall. I still had the not quite-finished bottle of Schmidt’s and my staunchly glowing strong French cigarette. I could hear Frank singing again now:

        Try to think that love´s not around
        But it´s uncomfortably near
        My old heart ain´t gaining no ground
        Because my angel eyes ain´t here

I went back down the hall, through the doorway into the connecting bedroom, and back out to the porch. They were all still out there: Dick of course, and Mr. MacNamara; Frank and Sammy (who was accompanying Frank on the guitar), Dean, Shirley, Larry Winchester, Miss Evans, Steve, Miss Rathbone; and Elektra, whom it seemed as if I hadn’t seen in hours, although in human time I suppose it had been less than half an hour. But this whole day seemed less like a day than a long season. And it wasn’t over yet.
Elektra got up from the glider (she had been sitting next to Miss Evans, who was eyeing me as if I were some fascinating visitor from another planet). She put both her hands on my upper arms and said, in a low voice, “Lover boy.”
“Hello,” I said, in my own quiet voice.
“You ready to blow this popsicle stand?”
“Sure.” Her eyes were dark and deep. “But let’s wait till Frank’s finished,” I whispered.
It seemed rude to leave him in mid-song. We stood near the doorway and listened as he sang and as Sammy played the guitar. I noticed that Dick, who was standing over near where Frank sat, was gazing pensively at his cigarette, now burned down almost to the end. I couldn't tell if it was one of the French ones. As casually as I could I leaned over to an overflowing ashtray on a table near the door and stubbed out my own seventy-year-old cigarette.

        Pardon me but I got to run
        The fact´s uncommonly clear
        Got to find who´s now number one
        And why my angel eyes ain't here

        Excuse me while I disappear   

There was a pause after Sammy strummed the final sad chord, then everyone clapped.
Frank, who seemed to have been staring intently into himself as he sang, now smiled, took a gold cigarette case from his Bermuda shorts pocket and said, “How’d all these people get in my room?”
Elektra and I said our goodbyes.
As I shook hands with Larry Winchester he said, “So, whaddaya say, kid?”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Um, I don’t know, Larry.”
“I can let you have a grand upfront.”
“A grand?”
Did he think I was in financial difficulties, what with being put on leave of absence by the railroad?
“Larry,” I said, “really, I couldn’t.”
“I knew you were tough. All right, two grand. But that’s for a finished treatment.”
Treatment? I looked around for help, but Elektra was saying good night to Sammy, and no one else seemed to be paying attention to us.
“Larry,” I said, as definitively as I could, “really, I just couldn’t.”
Larry was smoking a cigar, and he drew contemplatively on it now.
“I have a feeling it’s not just the money for you, is it?” he said.
“Uh, no,” I said.
“So you wanta see if we’re simpático first?”
“I don’t know what that means, Larry.”
“Like if we get along, if we click.”
“So we’ll get together and see if we click. But I can’t let you do it on spec, Arnold.”
“Look, come by tomorrow. We’ll kick around some ideas.”
“Kick around ideas?” I was grasping at straws. “You mean, like a bull session?”
“Yeah, like a bull session.”
“Well, I guess I could do that. You’re staying here?”
“I have that honor, sir.”
“Well, okay.”
“I like to start early, but the way tonight’s going, maybe we better sleep late just a little. Whaddaya say you drop by tomorrow around ten, ten-thirty.”
This seemed quite early in the day for a bull session, but what did I know?
“Well, okay, Larry, sure.”
“Great, I’ll see ya tomorrow then.”
Elektra had joined us.
“Good news, sweetheart,” said Larry. “Your boyfriend’s getting into the picture business.”
“Wow, that’s great, Arnold. So you’re gonna help Larry write his screenplay?”
“Damn straight he is,” said Larry.
It was all starting to come together now. Apparently I was agreeing – or almost agreeing – to write a movie with Larry. This didn’t bother me. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have loads of free time anyway, and two thousand dollars was nothing to sniff at.

(Go here for Arnold's next thrilling adventure. And kindly go to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to all possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, the opening portions of which are soon to be adapted into a 97-part television series presented by PBS, the BBC, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Desilu Productions in conjunction with the Arnold Schnabel Society of Philadelphia PA.)

Yeah, it’s Frank:


Anonymous said...

Oh, the picture business. I hope they make Ben Hur, or did that one exist already?
Did the Jetsons carton serie really exist in 1963?

I loved your description about the fact children only life in the present. It's so close to the truth. Experience makes us loose track of real time.

Dan Leo said...

Unfortunately Ben-Hur had already been made at this time, but I certainly wouldn't put it past Larry Winchester to make a low-budget unofficial sequel. The Return of Ben-Hur?

And, amazingly to me, Manic, the original series of The Jetsons ran for only 24 episodes, in 1962-63. It seems like it should have run for so much longer. But then there was a "new" Jetsons produced from 1985 to 1987.

I guess this is another example of the elasticity of time. When you're a kid you watch 24 epsiodes of a TV show, and the show feels like forever.

Unknown said...

The rest of us live in the past, our physical selves stumbling through a future that grows more unrecognizable with each passing day.

Arnold's description of how time flows through and against our lives suggests his voyage with Dick so aptly, and yet, describes what every adult experiences...all the time.

Is Arnold going to write about Dick and Daphne now? Casting himself six years ahead? The world has never opened up so big for me.

Jennifer said...

It occurred to me that perhaps only children lived in the present. The rest of us live in the past, our physical selves stumbling through a future that grows more unrecognizable with each passing day.

I copied this while reading it. Love it. Guess it struck a chord with more than one.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen, the mind boggles at the possibilities. Of course my mind usually boggles anyway.

Thanks, Jen. Arnold has his moments. Which have a weird way of expanding.

Unknown said...

Perfect Dan.
I was going to catch up on a few episodes, but this one was so nice I think I'll just sleep on it.

Dan Leo said...

Manny, I thank you, Arnold thanks you.