“I brought a friend,” said Jesus. “Arnold, this is Peter. Peter, Arnold Schnabel.”
I went over and said, “Please, sir, don’t get up,” and extended my hand. He looked at it with a slightly befuddled-looking expression, and I wondered if I had committed a faux pas. Should I have saluted instead? Or bowed?
But he took my hand and gave it a quick shake.
“Pleased to meet you, Mister — what was it?”
“Schnabel, Schnabel —”
He took out a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from somewhere within his coat, put them on his nose, and picked up the big ledger.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“How do you spell this surname — S-H-N-?”
I spelled my last name for him, and he nodded and turned through the heavy pages.
An old Meerschaum pipe lay on its side on the table, a leather tobacco pouch, a box of Ohio Blue Tip kitchen matches, a chipped heavy glass ashtray, all of which made me think of cigarettes, and the fact that I didn’t have one
“Okay, here we are,” he said. “Schnabel, Arnold. What are you, Jewish?”
“Well, uh, Catholic actually –”
“Not that it matters,” he said.
“I mean I was, you know, raised Catholic, and, uh –”
“I just said it doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
“The time for being sorry is over, pal.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m –”
I was just about to say I was sorry again, but I checked myself.
“You’re what?” he said.
“Nothing?” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Fine. Now, just let me just check this over.” He ran his finger back and forth down the page, the way I had seen speed-readers do on TV. “Okay. Good. Good. Oh, sad. Mm-hmm. Okay. Good, good. Uh-huh, good, good — uh-oh, wait, not so good — this prostitute in Germany.”
“Well, that was just the once, sir. My buddies got me drunk. I think they suspected I was a virgin. Which I was. Anyway, they got me drunk, and —”
“All right, okay. I see here you confessed it, like, the very next day.”
“That’s good. Okay, let me just skim through this. Good, good, very good, very good. All good. Good, good, good. Not bad. Hmmm. Not — too bad. Hmm.”
He continued to talk and to mumble to himself, reading the story of my life. Personally, I was getting bored just thinking about it all, but I suppose this was his job, and he was used to it.
I felt very awkward, standing there in my bathing trunks, without even my flip-flops on my feet. Also it was just a little cool out there on the porch. Oh well, I had spent much of my life standing around being bored and uncomfortable, why should my afterlife be any different?
“Whoa!” said Peter abruptly. “Mental breakdown this past year I see.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
“What did I just tell you about ‘sorry’.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right. Uh –”
“Anyway, it’s not necessarily your fault, Arnold. Lots of people have mental breakdowns.”
“Right. I’m sorry. I mean –”
“So now you’re sorry for being sorry?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“Not intentionally, sir.”
I heard Jesus chuckling.
“I fail to see the humor,” said the old guy.
“Sorry, Peter,” said Jesus.
“Don’t you start,” said Peter.
He went back to the book.
“Okay. Okay. Hmm. Sad, but okay. All right. Okay. Okay. Oh. Wait. Not okay. No, not very okay at all.”
He looked up at me over the lenses of his glasses.
“All right, what’s up with this Elektra girl, Arnold?”
“Oh. Um — uh —”
“Peter —” said Jesus. He was leaning against the porch rail, nursing the end of his cigarette.
“What?” said Peter.
“I told him it was okay.”
“You told him it was okay.”
“Yeah. The poor guy hadn’t had sex in — what? How long, Arnold? Twenty years?”
“Well, not quite twenty,” I said. “It was like — uh, eighteen years?”
“Eighteen years,” said Jesus.
“I don’t care if it was fifty years,” said Peter. “It’s still a mortal sin.”
“Oh. Like you were some saint, Peter.”
“I am a saint,” he said.
“Now you’re a saint,” said Jesus. “I knew you when you weren’t so saintly. So give the guy a break. Anyway, two things. One, he went to confession this morning and received absolution, from a Father, what, Hogan –”
“Reilly,” I said.
“Reilly,” said Jesus. “Check it in your little book there.”
Peter looked at the book again, running his finger along the words, his lips pursed, reading, and then he nodded.
“Okay, good,” he said. He looked at Jesus. “But you said two things.”
“Yeah, the other thing is, we’re not quite so sure Arnold’s dead yet.”
“Go ahead and check, skip ahead a little there –”
Peter turned to the book again, running his finger down the page, and then he nodded his head.
“Okay,” he said. “Right.”
“So I think we need to talk to my old man,” said Jesus.
“Uh-huh,” said Peter, but he was still looking at the book. Then he looked up at me again. “Okay, backing up a little bit – this meeting with ‘Elektra’ at the jewelry shop earlier today —”
“Yeah,” I said, “well, you see, I just wanted to let her know I was going swimming with, uh —”
“This — Daphne person.”
“Right. I didn’t want Elektra to think I was doing something behind her back.”
“Noble, Arnold. Really noble. But what is not so noble is what you were thinking about while you were being so honest and forthcoming with her.”
“What I was thinking about?”
“Yes. What you were thinking about. Ahem. The soft curve of her caramel-colored neck. The swelling of her breasts under the thin material of her blue dress. The way she smells like — like ‘butterscotch’, isn’t it?”
“Well, sometimes,” I said. “Other times it’s like, like this smell you get when you walk by certain bakeries really early in the morning, or —”
“Stop. You’re breaking my heart. I know what you were thinking about, Arnold, and it had nothing to do with eating some butter cake fresh from the oven.’
“Oh, come on, Peter!” said Jesus, pushing away from the rail and coming over to us.
“For Christ’s sake, the guy is only human —”
“The thought is as culpable as the deed.”
“Give me a break.”
“Look, I’m not saying this is necessarily a mortal sin. I am saying it’s a sin.”
Jesus reached across me to stub out his cigarette butt in Peter's ashtray.
“All right, fine. Look, you know what? We’re going in.”
The old guy was back to reading the book, running his finger along the page.
“Oh,” he said, “and this, here, when you’re lying next to this Daphne on the beach here —”
“But I —”
“Yeah. ‘But’. There’s always a ‘but’.”
“Let’s go, Arnold,” said Jesus, and he grabbed my arm.
“Should I go in just like this? I mean, in my bathing suit?”
“Don’t worry about it, you’re fine.” He pulled me over to the door, and opened it. “Come on.”
I glanced at Peter.
He shrugged, closed the book. “Go on,” he said. “Whatever.” He took off his glasses, put them away inside his canvas coat, and picked up his pipe and tobacco.
“Let’s go, Arnold,” said Jesus.
“Okay,” I said.
He held the door open and I went in, but not without some misgivings.
(Go here for our next soul-stirring chapter. And please turn to the right hand side of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to many other fine episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™. Guests of this blog stay at the charming Parker Hotel, in historic downtown Philadelphia, PA: “At the Parker Hotel, where the service is swell!”)