Saturday, June 14, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Eighty-One: “Okay, I’m ready, let’s go...”

Once upon a time there was a man called Arnold Schnabel. Born in 1921 of humble German immigrant parents in the Swampoodle section of North Philadelphia, he was raised in the strange neighborhood known as Olney. Arnold’s father died when the lad was only 13, and young Arnold quit school to go to work and help support his mother and three younger siblings. At the age of 17, with the help of an uncle, Arnold obtained employment with the Reading Railroad, for which he worked as a brakeman for many years, interrupted only by three years’ service with the army engineers in World War II.

Starting in 1938, Arnold began creating the poems for which he has become justly if posthumously famous, publishing one of these small masterpieces each week and every week in his local newspaper, the estimable Olney Times.

In January of 1963, Arnold, who had never married and had always lived with his loving mother in their Olney rowhome, suffered a severe mental breakdown, resulting in his hospitilization for over two months at the Byberry state mental hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. As grave as Arnold’s collapse was he nevertheless continued to keep to his schedule of one finely-chiseled poem a week, and indeed many scholars consider the poems he wrote from this point on to be his “golden period”.

After his release from the hospital he attempted to go back to work on the railroad, but was soon put on an indefinite leave of absence at half-pay.

That summer his mother took him to stay with her three maiden sisters at their boarding house in the quaint Victorian resort of Cape May, New Jersey.

Sometime in June of that summer Arnold began to compose the present sprawling memoir, in small copybooks which he bought at the local Kresge’s 5&10. Unpublished until now, these memoirs have become recognized as one of the great classics of world literature.


In the course of this summer Arnold finally begins to come out of himself. Despite occasional visitations from Jesus, episodes of levitation, and travel both astral and temporal, he acquires his first-ever girlfriend, the lovely bohemian jeweler Elektra (née Betsy Ross), and several other new friends, including the noted film-maker and novelist Larry Winchester, with whom Arnold has begun work on a screenplay.

We resume Arnold’s memoir as he sits in the kitchen of the imposing Mrs. Biddle. It should be mentioned that he has just that morning decided to try to quit smoking...

After a while it occurred to me to wash up our lunch plates and glasses, and I did so.

Then I sat down again and stared at that cigarette box. There it was, just sitting there. There was an ashtray on the table too, with some of the ash from Daphne’s cigarette in it.

I picked up the ashtray, took it over to the sink, washed and dried it, put it back on the table, sat down again.

I stared at the box.

My head began to throb, and my throat went dry. Here we go again. I grabbed the box and opened it. There they were, serried in all their lung-destroying wonderfulness. Filterless, just the way I liked them. I picked one up. Chesterfield Kings. Not my brand, but a good brand, an admirable brand. I looked around for a light. A box of wooden kitchen matches sat invitingly on a shelf by the stove, not six feet away. Six feet to ecstasy. Six feet to glory. Did I want to live forever? What was so bad about cancer after all? And was it worth it, another five or ten or twenty years of life if I couldn’t even enjoy a cigarette now and then? But then I recalled that awful coughing fit this morning.

I gnawed my dry lower lip and stared at the cigarette.

Where was Jesus now?

Nowhere. It was just me, me and this Chesterfield King.

What the heck, one wouldn’t kill me.

But then I heard a sound like an approaching small cantering pony. I dropped the cigarette back into the box and closed the lid just as Daphne burst into the kitchen, wearing a one-piece shiny green bathing suit, an unbuttoned flowered shirt, sandals and a sort of sombrero, and carrying a large straw bag with shoulder straps.

“Okay, I’m ready, let’s go,” she said.

I got up and followed her out of the kitchen.

I don’t think I’ve described Daphne yet, except to say that she is beautiful. She is tall, and slim, with dark hair, not very long dark hair, with bangs. Unlike most women’s hair these days her hair seems not to have been shaped into a simulacrum of a spaceman’s helmet with sprays and glues; it’s soft, like a child's, and she keeps it out of her face with barrettes or clips. She also seems to eschew make-up except for a rather deep and red lipstick.

She exudes an aura of physical strength, and her walk reminds me strikingly of the stride of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

“We’re going swimming, Grandmom,” she said to Mrs. Biddle when we reached the living room.

“Oh are you? So you’re a swimmer, too, Mr. Schnabel?”

“He loves to swim,” said Daphne, coming around to look at Mrs. Biddle’s hand of cards.

“I used to swim,” said Tommy, “for miles. In the Philippines. One time I was attacked by a shark.”

“Did he bite you?” asked Daphne.

“No. I punched him in the nose and he swam away. After that I stopped swimming though.”

Daphne came around and peeked at Tommy’s cards.

“Who’s winning?” she asked.

There was a notepad on the table and a pencil. Tommy glanced at the pad.

“Mrs. Biddle is up by forty-seven cents.”

“Okay, ‘bye,” said Daphne.

“Mr. Schnabel,” said Mrs. Biddle.


“I’ll see you at four.”

“Four o’clock, right.”

We went out, and as we were going down the steps into the bright heat of the day Daphne said, “My grandmother likes you. And like Dick she doesn’t like a lot of people.”

“Older women always like me,” I said.

“Yes, you’re very polite. Old ladies like that.”

She strode along beside me, and I fought the urge to stare at her sideways. I didn’t entirely succeed, and as we made the turn left onto North Street I almost fell off the curb, but Daphne didn’t seem to notice.

“I dislike nearly everyone also,” she said. “My mother and father however like all sorts of people, so perhaps misanthropy skips a generation. How do you like Tommy?”

“He seems nice,” I said.

“He’s very nice. Completely addicted to his laudanum, but he wears it well. When he gets too addicted to get out of bed my grandmother sends him to a drying-out place. Then he starts right up again a week or two after he gets out.”

“I hope your grandmother isn’t —”

“Oh no. She’ll have a glass of his special iced tea in the morning, especially if she’s hungover, but she has an iron will. Like me. I’m very iron-willed.”
In no time at all we were at my aunts’ house. My young cousin Kevin was sitting on the porch, reading or re-reading his Tom Swift book.

“Oh, boy,” he said, when he saw Daphne.

“And what is your name?” said Daphne when we came up the steps.

“Kevin Armstrong,” he said, his mouth agape and all but drooling. Don’t ask me how this kid will handle it when he reaches the age of puberty. He’ll probably have to be kept on a leash.

“Okay, I’ll be right down,” I said.

I went in through the screen door, and it could have been worse, this time it was only my mother and my Aunt Edith who were in the living room, standing and staring out the window at Daphne.

“Did you have lunch, Arnold?” asked my mom.

“Yep, I had lunch at Mrs. Biddle’s.”

“That lady on Windsor Avenue?”


“What were you doing there again?”

“I’m working on a screenplay with a fellow I met.”

“What’s a screenplay?”

“It’s a movie.”

“You’re writing a movie?”

“I guess I am.”

“Who’s the chickadee?” asked Aunt Edith, loud enough for Daphne to hear her out on the porch.

“She’s Mrs. Biddle’s granddaughter. We’re going swimming.”

“How many girlfriends do you have, Arnold?” asked Aunt Edith.

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

“She’s a little young for you, isn’t she?”

“Okay, I’m gonna go up and get into my bathing suit.”

“Aren’t you going to invite her in?” asked my mother.

“Oh. Okay.”

I went back to the screen door.

Daphne was reading Kevin’s book over his shoulder, with her hand on his shoulder. He looked as if he were melting.

“Excuse me, Daphne? Would you like to meet my mother and aunt?”

“Oh, I’d love to.”

I opened the screen and she came in, with Kevin right on her heels.

I introduced her, and then headed out of there and upstairs.

On the third floor I knew I had to be very careful. It seemed to be impossible these days, or these nights as well, to go by Miss Evans’s door and not have her pop out, so I went by on tiptoes.

I made it without incident up to my little attic room. I changed into my swimming trunks, put on a clean t-shirt, slipped on my flip-flops and grabbed a towel.

I opened the drawer under my night table. Sure enough, there was a pack and a half of Pall Malls in there. I picked up the opened pack. Then I put it back and shut the drawer.

I went down the steps and once again tiptoed down the hall toward the stairs.

This time I didn’t make it.

She opened her door just as I came abreast of it.

“I thought I heard your step, Arnold. You have the lightest footstep of any man I’ve ever known. Like a dancer. Oh, you’re going swimming. So also was I going to go.”

True enough, she was wearing a bathing suit. A two-piece this time. Red and black polka dots on a white background.

“But I suppose you’re not going alone, are you?” she asked.

“Uh, no,” I said.

“No, of course not. But wait. I’ll walk to the beach with you. Come in.”

What could I do?

I came in, leaving the door open behind me.

She busied herself gathering towels, suntan oil, a book, a notebook, pens, God knows what else, all the time chattering about how nice the party was last night. She seemed to be bending over quite a bit while doing this, and I tried to look away and think about baseball.

“Oh!” she said suddenly. “I took your advice and went to that nice Father Reilly. Look what he gave me when I told him I wasn’t Catholic.”

She picked up a paperback copy of the Baltimore Catechism and showed it to me.

“And this too.”

Next up was a paperback of The Lives of The Saints.

“And this.”

She held up a nice set of shiny black rosary beads.

“He gave you all that?”

“Yes, he was so nice.”

“He had all that stuff in the confessional?”

“No, silly. He invited me to chat with him, and we met for lunch at the Cape Coffee Shoppe.”

“Oh, great,” I said.

Possibly great for me, anyway, although I wasn’t so sure how great it was for Father Reilly.

(Go here for our next exciting chapter. And please turn to the right-hand side of this page for a listing of links to all other extant episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, second-place prize-winner of the Chesterfield King-Size Award for Autobiography or Memoir.)

A great big tip of the Leo lid to Dean for sending us this one: Dusty and Martha and the Vandellas. It doesn’t get much better than this:


Anonymous said...

Perfect description--an effect I've experienced//
"like an approaching small cantering pony"

Anonymous said...

That Joan Collins really knows how to show some leg. From now on, when I imagine Daphne in "Railroad Train to Heaven", I'll think of a young Joan Collins.

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, Anon. I sure wouldn't want Daphne galloping over me. No, wait, now I'm not so sure...

Tedster, Joan Collins rules the universe. But I'm sure you already knew that.

Unknown said...

Arnold is such a gentleman. The old ladies love him, and the young ones want to ruin him.

Unknown said...

Great post, like a sweet pony ride, Dan. Father Reilly might be able relieve poor Gertrude of her neediness. And, Arnold's self-discipline with the cigarettes is starting to me make sweat. The man is already holding back magnificently with the women, all of whom "wear their hair just for him."

CHARLAX said...

"love you" and "blue"
"love you" and "blue"

love ewe and blue aer rhyming words true
there is always inflection and poor attitude
limits of knowledge above snobbish refrains
trains run on time only in the movies
movies run on time only in a small town
there is very few movies shown on trains
blue can be an attitude blue can be a heart
love you can be used to start a heart apart from you
as you watch the blue southern train depart
from the blue stunted depot with the board walk floor
the little blue conductor yelling all aboard her
as the train takes the love and makes your attitude blue
soup mix tastes so wordy so blue so true and good
with a doubly heaping helping of a love ewe attitude

Dan Leo said...

Manny and Kathleen, I'm reminded of the words of Willie Dixon, from the the song "Back Door Man":

"The men don't know,
but the little girls
they understand."

Hey, Charlax, thanks for sharing the poem!

Jennifer said...

How did I miss this?!?! I've been busy, but thought I was keeping up with Planet Schnabel.

I think I enjoy reading Arnold more in the summer. I'm not sure if it's just because it's summer right now for Arnold or what, but the present humidity and atmospheric pressure adds to the tension in the story. I always felt the same way about Rear Window as well. Watch it when it's unbearably hot.

Dan Leo said...

Jen, I know what you mean about the current weather adding a dimension to Arnold's adventures.

I wish I were in Cape May right now in one of those big old Victorians. Especially if it could be 1963...

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