Saturday, June 21, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Eighty-Three: great big old house up on the hill

When last we saw the saintly poet Arnold Schnabel, author of these Merck Award-nominated memoirs, he was on his way to the beach, walking arm in arm with the lovely young Daphne MacNamara, on a hot August day in Cape May, New Jersey, in that faraway world known as 1963...

When we got to Washington Street I said, “Do you mind turning down here?”

“No,” she said, and as we strolled along the pavement past the shops, I noticed people looking at us. Then I realized they were looking first at Daphne, and then at me. She was still holding my arm. So this is what it was like to walk with a beautiful woman. And I retroactively realized that the same thing had happened on the few occasions when I had walked somewhere with Elektra.

I don’t remember people looking at me much back when I walked everywhere alone (or with my mother). What was there to look at? But walk with a beautiful woman and you leave the anonymous horde and join the aristocracy of the race.

When we got to Jackson we turned right, and when we reached Elektra’s shop I asked Daphne to wait while I went inside.

Elektra was behind the counter, with Rocket Man, and they were both talking to prospective customers.

Elektra was wearing a loose dress I hadn’t seen before, pale blue, with a cloth belt, her arms and throat bare. She had most of her hair tied back somehow and she was showing some rings to two ladies. She smiled at me and gave me a nod, and I waited, looking at the jewelry in the display cases.

After a minute she left the ladies to discuss the rings between themselves and she came over to where I stood.

“Hello, lover. What brings you in here?” she said softly.

“You,” I said.

“Let me come around, big boy.”

She came out from around the counter, took my arm and led me over to the corner of the shop, by some cases that held necklaces and bracelets made with Cape May diamonds.

“What’s up, Arnold baby?”

“I just wanted you to know that I’m going swimming with Daphne. From the party last night. The badminton girl.”

“You are?”

“Yeah, she’s right outside.”

Elektra looked out the window, and there was Daphne, smoking a cigarette, and blatantly looking at us. Daphne waved, and Elektra gave her a little wave back.

“Lucky you,” said Elektra.

“I didn’t want you to think I was doing something behind your back,” I said. “But she asked me to go swimming with her.”

“Oh, Arnold. It’s okay. You are going to try not to have sex with her though, right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I was joking.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Although I wouldn’t blame you. She’s a doll.”

“Don’t worry,” I said.

“How’s your chin?” She put her hand on the spot where the coast-guardsman had socked me.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Did you hurt your leg last night? I notice you seem to be limping a bit.”

“I —” I had decided to try to be totally honest with Elektra, but in this case I just couldn’t do it. So I gave her the short version. “I took a slight fall,” I said. “But I’m okay.”

“Okay, good. Look I gotta get back to my ladies over there. Do you want to do something tonight?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good, drop by around eight, we’ll go get a beer. Now, go swim with Daphne.”

She gave me a pat on the arm and went back around the counter to deal with the ladies again. I went back out to Daphne.

We walked on up Jackson to the beach, and the nice thing about her, she didn’t ask me any nosy questions about Elektra, just as she hadn’t questioned me about why I wanted to turn onto Washington Street instead of heading straight up Perry to the beach.

She did ask me if I was reading anything interesting, and I mentioned The Waste Land, and Miss Evans’s novel.

“But I’m really more interested in this book This Sweet Sickness,” I said.

She asked me what it was about, and I told her.

“That does sound good,” she said. “I”m reading this new Salinger book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters?

“Never heard of it,” I said.

“Have you read any Salinger?”

“I don’t think so. But he sounds familiar. Does he write detective novels?”

“No, I don’t think so. This book’s made up of two long stories. The first one’s about this guy during World War II who gets a pass from the army to go to his brother’s wedding, except the brother doesn’t show up. At the wedding.”

“Mm-hm. Why?”

“Beats me. Cold feet I guess. But I’m only about halfway through it, so who the hell knows?”

“He wasn’t murdered?”

“No, I don’t think so. And then there’s another story in the same book, called 'Seymour: An Introduction'. Seymour is the missing brother, I believe.”

“Ah. Maybe that one explains why he didn’t show up at the wedding.”

“Maybe. But I’m afraid even less will happen in that one than in the first one. I kind of wish I were reading your book. Call me old-fashioned, but I like books where people get murdered.”

“Me too,” I said.

So much for literary dialogue.

She asked me if I had a beach I liked to go to, and I told her about my near-deserted beach in that long cove sweeping down toward the Point. She said that sounded swell.
By the time we got down there I had well digested my lunch, and although I was still limping from my fall I felt ready for a good swim. The sky had grown overcast, and the air was hot and heavy. We stuck our towels and stuff behind some scrub, and then we splashed out onto the pebbly sand into the surf, and after we’d strode in to waist-deep we both dove in simultaneously, just as if someone had fired off a starter’s pistol.

She wasn’t kidding about swimming like a seal. I’ve gotten pretty good, but she kept up with me all the way as I headed straight out for a couple of hundred yards or so. I stopped and turned, and she was bobbing right there beside me, barely out of breath, the water streaming down her face, her dark hair shining like the coat of a seal.
She spat a stream of water in my face.

“Which way now, Aquaman?”

“I like to swim down toward the Point.”

Without a word she flipped around and swam away, with great smooth strokes, her shiny green suit coursing through the darker green water. I took off after her.

We swam all the way without a stop to past the old beach-defense bunker, and as we came parallel to the convent with its long white walls and its burnt-umber roof, Daphne at last turned on her back and gasped, “Oh, my God, you’re relentless! Look, I have to rest, let’s go in here.”

And before I could say anything she was shooting like a torpedo in to the nuns’ beach.
I followed her in.

She staggered up out of the surf, shaking her hair, went up past the pebbly shingle and onto the sandy part of the beach, fell to her knees and then dropped onto her back just above the reach of the tide. I walked up and sat beside her.

“Look at me,” she said.

I did.

“Look at my chest absolutely heaving.”

I did, and then tried to make myself look past her, at the dark green water, at the steely sky.

Her hand reached up and picked a bit of seaweed off my knee. She sighed deeply. I looked at her again, and she turned towards me on her hip, the side of her face in her hand and her elbow in the sand.

“What would you do if I made a pass at you?” she said.

“I would run back into the ocean,” I said.

“Good. Because I’m not going to. Because you’re Dick’s friend. And because you have a perfectly nice girlfriend with Elektra.”

“Right,” I said.

The air seemed suddenly still, and even heavier than before, almost palpable.

“I’m going to close my eyes for just a bit,” she said. “But don’t let me sleep for more than five minutes.”


She lay back with her arm over her eyes.

I sat and looked out at the dark green water, here where the great bay met the ocean. A heavy mass of purplish cloud was coming up from the right, from the continent. I lay back in the sand, with my hands behind my head, and closed my eyes.

I felt something on my chest, and opened my eyes again. Daphne, sound asleep, had thrown her right arm over me, and her head, partially covered by her left arm, had snuggled next to chest.

Oh well. I closed my eyes. And fell asleep.

I dreamt I was being rained on, lying in our tiny back yard back home in Olney, but the raindrops were black from the smoke of the nearby Heintz factory. I woke up and realized I was being rained on in real life.

I threw Daphne’s arm off me, and shook her shoulder, woke her up.

“Oh, my God, it’s pouring,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Come on, let’s go up to that big house and sit under the porch.”

“Can’t we just go back into the ocean?”

“What, and be struck by lightning? Come on.”

“But that’s a convent.”

“So what?”

And she was up and off, padding quickly up the beach through the rain to the rear porch of the convent. I got up and followed her.

A great crack of thunder shook the earth, and so I broke into a trot, when suddenly all the world lit up all around me with bright white light and the earth flew away from my feet and the world went black.

I opened my eyes and Jesus was standing there. He had that eternal cigarette in his fingers. The rain had stopped, although the sky was still overcast.

“You okay, buddy?”

“Yes, I think so,” I said.

He was still in his casual seashore attire, except now he had an old denim jacket on over his faded blue t-shirt.

“Here, grab a hand,” he said.

I took his hand and he yanked me to my feet.

I looked around.

We weren’t on the beach any more.

We were at the foot of a green hill, with lots of shrubs and trees, scattered rosebushes here and there, some geraniums and rhododendrons seemingly planted at random, blotches of pink and red and pale blue against the green.

The rich dark grass was slightly overgrown.

We stood by a wrought-iron gate, beyond which a cobblestone path wound up to a very large Victorian house, dark yellow and green and brown, with a broad columned porch, and spires, gables, chimney pots, balconies, a slated roof the color of dull garnet.
I was still wearing my bathing trunks, but they were dry, and I was dry.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“That’s my father’s house,” he said.

“Am I dead?”

"That is a very good question, Arnold.”

“You don’t know?”

“If I knew for sure I’d tell you. Between you and me it doesn’t look too good, but, look, we’d better go talk to Peter and my old man. You want a cigarette?"

"I might as well have one," I said.

He patted the pockets of his wrinkled trousers and his jacket.

"Damn. I'm out." He held out the cigarette he was smoking. "Do you want to finish this one?"

"No thanks," I said.

"There should be smokes up at the house."

He opened the iron gate.

“Come on,” he said. “Sooner we go up there, sooner we know what’s up."

I went through, he shut the gate behind me. We started walking up the winding path to the house.

“By the way, Arnold, I am so sorry about that lightning bolt. Believe me, I had nothing to do with that.”

“That’s okay. I guess we all gotta go sometime.”

I didn’t want him to feel bad.

“Believe me, I wouldn’t have saved you from falling out that window if I knew that an hour later —”

“Really, it’s okay,” I said.

“Well, okay then. I must say I’m a little surprised you’re taking this so well.”

“Well, it could be worse,” I said.

“How could it be worse, Arnold? You’re probably dead.”

“True, but the thing is, it did happen pretty soon after I went to confession. So, I guess

I’m still in a state of grace, because — well —”

“Because you didn’t have time to have sex with Elektra again.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Good. So you’ve got that going for you.”

We came to the porch steps. A grey-bearded older guy wearing a plaid hunter’s cap and a worn yellow canvas jacket or short coat was apparently napping in a rocking chair by the front door. There was a small wooden table in front of him, with what looked like a big thick leather-bound ledger of some sort, a jar of ink, a black fountain pen.

“That’s Peter,” said Jesus.

We went up the steps.

“Peter!” he called. “Wake up. Company.”

The old guy opened his eyes, blinking.

(Go here for our next Chestertonian adventure. Please turn to the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of all available episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, a Rank Production.)

And now, a fab clip from the classic It’s Trad, Dad! (which seems like it should have been a Larry Winchester movie, but was in fact directed by that other Philadelphian, Richard Lester) featuring the vocal and dancing stylings of Craig Douglas and the ever-charming Miss Helen Shapiro:


Anonymous said...

Really good installment

Unknown said...

A freak accident? This can not be.

Dan Leo said...

Arnold's really got himself in a pickle this time, Kathleen and Anon. But stay tuned...

Anonymous said...

Helen Shapiro rules.

Anonymous said...

yeah she had a fucking good voice and game attitude

Dan Leo said...

We have a tribute to Helen Shapiro here.

Jennifer said...

It's been busy... I'm finally catching up on missed installments. What an installment to miss!!!

Dan Leo said...

Welcome back, Jen! We saved a nice seat for you, right near the bar car.

Jennifer said...

Bless you!