Sunday, July 6, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 87: “And love is a stranger who will beckon you on...”

In the preceding episode of this second-place prize winner of the Bishop Sheen Award for Young Adult Literature, our hero Arnold Schnabel, having been cast heavenward by a bolt of lightning, receives a reprieve and wakes up on the beach in front of the St. Joseph’s by the Sea convent in Cape May Point, NJ.

The good sisters, with the aid of Arnold’s beautiful young friend Daphne, help him to a rocker on the porch...

Pretty soon the nuns brought us iced water, along with towels to dry ourselves with. (I want to go on record as saying that these towels were the coarsest I have ever encountered since I got out of the army. I wondered if indeed they were army towels.)

Daphne was less shy than I, and she asked the nuns if she could use their bathroom. One of the sisters took her inside, which left me alone in my wet bathing suit, sitting in a rocker and sipping my water, the rain still coming down, with five or six nuns standing there looking at me.

“It’s Arnold, isn’t it?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“Yes. And you’re Sister Mary,” I said with I think more urbanity than I normally pull off.

“Sister Mary Elizabeth,” she said.

“Yes, right,” I agreed.

“In our order if you just call someone Sister Mary you’ll get nowhere. I think we have a couple of dozen versions of Sister Mary Something-or-Other staying here right now. Did you keep your promise?”

“Pardon me?”

“The other night I asked you to promise not to swim alone at night any more.”

“Ah.” I had indeed broken my word to her, and on that very night, by swimming the whole length of the cove beach on my way back from the Point. But, on the other hand, yesterday I had also promised Elektra I wouldn’t swim at night, and, so far at least, I had kept that promise. So I chose the Jesuitical route: “Don’t worry, I’m not swimming at night any more.”

“Good. Is that your girlfriend? That girl.”

“Oh, no,” I said.

“She’s very young.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

“Just a friend,” she posited.


“Friend of the family?”

“Well, no —”

“Not that it’s any of my business,” she said, although she didn’t seem convinced of that.

The five or six other nuns hung silently on every word of this inquisition, their hands buried in their black habits, their faces bent forward.

“Are you married, Arnold?” asked Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“Um, no,” I said.

“That’s good. I don’t think your wife would be too happy about you taking long swims with that pretty young thing.”

“Well, I’m not married.”

“Why not? Good-looking Catholic man like you?”

“I don’t know,” I said (although I could have come up with at least hundred possible reasons right off the top of my head).

“Stop grilling the man, Sister Mary E.,” said one of the other nuns, an older, stout nun.

“I’m only having a conversation, Sister Mary M.,” said Sister Mary E. “Would you like some more water, Arnold.”

“No thanks,” I said. “We should go, really. You’ve all been very nice.”

“But it’s raining.”

“We don’t mind. We were wet anyway.”

“You’ll get struck by lightning again.”

What were the odds of that happening twice? Whatever they were I was willing to risk them.

“I think the lightning’s stopped,” I said.

“You should rest here. You’ve just had a dreadful shock. Quite literally.”

“I feel fine,” I said, but in fact I still felt slightly dazed. On the other hand I quite often feel slightly dazed even without being struck by lightning, so what was the big deal?

“You can’t go swimming in that rain,” said Sister Mary E;izabeth.

“We’ll walk,” I said. “Just down the beach. To get our things.”

“Let us drive you.”

“You have a car?”

“A station wagon. It’s the order’s.”


“I’ll drive you.”

“Well —”

“I insist.”

“Okay.” I knew it was hopeless to argue. “If you insist.”

Daphne finally came out of the house, accompanied by her guard.

“Your friend Arnold wants to abandon our hospitality,” said Sister Mary E.

“Well, I’m ready if he is,” said Daphne.

We went around to the side of the house to where, sure enough, an old yellow station wagon was parked. I think it was a Crosley, from around 1948.

A couple of nuns held umbrellas over my and Daphne’s heads as we went down to the car.

We got into the front seat with Sister Mary E., with me somehow sitting next to her.
The key was already in the ignition. The sister started up the car, put in in gear, and turned us expertly out onto the road.

“Okay, where to?” she asked.

“Just head down Sunset and we can get off when we get near Cape May.”

“Where'd you leave your things? Your — towels and such.”

“Our towels?”

“Yes. Where’d you leave them?”

“On the beach, near the end of the promenade.”

“Good, I’ll leave you off there.”

“Okay,” I said. I could tell she was going to do just what she wanted to do anyway.

She took her eyes solidly off the road to look smilingly at Daphne.

“What’s your name, dear?"

Daphne gave her correct name, but before Sister Mary E. could give her the Spanish Inquisition treatment Daphne struck first and asked her how long she had been a nun.

“I went in right after high school,” said Sister Mary E.

“Wow,” said Daphne. I glanced at her. She had turned slightly against me, looking down and picking at the damp green elastic cloth of the seat of her bathing suit. I looked away.

“Do you think I should have waited?” asked Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“Frankly?” asked Daphne.

“Oh. You do think so.”

Daphne let the seam of the bottom of her bathing suit snap back against her flesh with an almost but not quite inaudible thwapping sound.

“Yes, frankly," she said. "I mean, I’ve decided to wait to get married.”

“Why? Do you have a boy you’d like to marry?”

“He’s no boy, sister.”

“Oh my. And it’s not Arnold here?”

“Oh, Arnold only wishes.”

“I’m sure he does.”

I wanted to put my foot over the good sister’s on the gas pedal and press down hard to hasten our trip along, but I resisted the urge.

“Are you allowed to visit people, sister?” Daphne asked.

“What do you mean?” asked Sister Mary E.

“I mean, can you come out from the convent and visit a friend. Like a friend in town?”

“I don’t have any friends in town.”

“You know me,” said Daphne. “And Arnold.”

“Oh dear. I don’t think we’re supposed to do things like that.”

“Priests do. Priests visit people all the time. Especially around dinner time. Or the cocktail hour.”

“Oh, you’re very naughty, Daphne.”

“Well, it’s true! Priests are always visiting my grandmother.”


“I swear.”

“So you’re Catholic?”

“Well, I was brought up one.”

“Oh. So, you, uh, don’t —”

“Oh, please don’t be offended, sister, but, no. Not really. I don’t believe any of it.”

“But — don’t you believe in God?”

“Oh, I doubt very much that there’s a God.”


Sister Mary E. took her eyes off the road again to look across me at Daphne, who said:

“Of course I could be wrong.”

Sister Mary E. continued staring at Daphne, and it was all I could do not to grab the wheel.

“Sister?” I said.


“The road.”

I pointed at it, and, at last, she looked at it.

“Oh,” she said, turning the wheel just before we would have leapt off the asphalt and gone bumping over the dunes and down to the beach.

“How old are you, sister?” asked Daphne.

“Me? I’m twenty-four.”


“Why?” said Sister Mary Elizabeth.

“You’re still in your prime,” said Daphne.

“My prime?”

“Yes. And you’re quite pretty. Such nice skin and beautiful eyes. You could have any man.”

“I’ve given myself to Jesus.”

“True,” said Daphne. And she gazed out at the passing scenery. We were approaching
Cape May now, thank God, and Sister Mary E. was turning in toward the beach. The rain was stopping.

“Come visit me at my grandmother’s,” said Daphne. “If you can get away. Do you know where Windsor Avenue meets North Street?”

“I suppose so.”

“It’s the really big house on the corner on the side away from the beach. 200 Windsor.”

“I don’t think I could.”

“No one has to know. Come by any time.”

“Well —”

“Okay, this is good,” I said. “We can get out here.”

“Do you want me to wait,” asked the sister, “and drive you home?”

“Oh, no, don’t bother,” I said, pushing against Daphne with my elbow. “The rain’s stopped.’

“Not entirely,” said Sister Mary E.

I elbowed Daphne again, and she elbowed me back.

“It’s just a light drizzle,” I said. “It’s stopping, I think.”

“Well, if you say so,” said the sister. “Goodbye. Nice meeting you, Daphne.”

“You too,” said Daphne.

Finally she opened her door and started to get out of the car.

“Thanks, again, sister,” I said.

“You’re most very welcome. What’s your last name, by the way?”

“Schnabel. Arnold Schnabel.”

“Arnold Schnabel. I hope to see you again, Mr. Schnabel.”

“Sure. ‘Bye.”

I got out of the car behind Daphne. I closed the door and went up the steps to the promenade, but Daphne went back around and leaned over by the driver’s side and spoke to Sister Mary Elizabeth some more. Standing by the rail and looking over the roof of the car, all I could see of Daphne was the top of her sleek dark head and the perfect sweep of her back. Then I felt guilty about looking at her, and I turned toward the beach, which was now grey and empty in the diminishing drizzle.

I heard the Crosley pull out and drive away. Daphne came up the wooden steps.

“I think she likes you,” she said.

“Come on, let’s get our stuff,” I said.

We walked over to the end of the boardwalk, and down to the cove beach. I was still limping, but the pain was bearable.

Our stuff was still there in the sand, in a wet pile. My towel was soaked, but my old wallet wrapped deep inside it was only a little damp.

Daphne reached into her sopping straw bag and pulled out a gold-plated cigarette case, and then a Zippo lighter.

“Care for a cigarette?” she asked.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“You look nervous.”

“I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“Just go in the ocean,” she said. “I do it all the time. Don’t you?”

“Well, I guess so.”

“Go,” she said. “Go.”

She waved a dismissing hand at me.

So I turned around and limped back into the surf.

I waited until I was in up to my waist.

(Click here for our next exciting chapter. And kindly turn to the right side of this page for an up-to-date listing of many more heart-warming episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, soon to be serialized on the 20 Mule Team Borax Showcase, directed by Larry Winchester and starring Howard Duff as Arnold and Ida Lupino as Daphne.)

And now a word from the very fabulous Miss Nancy Sinatra:


Unknown said...

So Arnold's just come from heaven but women are bedeviling him same as ever.
Too bad his need for the bathroom distracted him from luxuriating in heaven's female-free atmosphere, which of course was probably just coincidence. Heaven didn't seem densely populated.

Anonymous said...

Hey...women, can't live with 'em, can't live with 'em!

Anonymous said...

Is it my imagination, or is there a whole lot of going to the bathroom in these ongoing stories?

Dan Leo said...

Anon, it's not your imagination. I think there's at least one good doctoral thesis in there on the subject of bathrooms, and having to go to the bathroom.

Jennifer said...

Dan- I'm trying to remember, did Arnold get electroshock therapy when he was in the bin or would the lightning blast have been his first?

Dan Leo said...

Jen, Arnold hasn't talked hardly at all about his treatment, so who knows? But in 1963, I suppose electro-shock would not have been unlikely.

But Arnold does seem a hardy soul. Falling out of third-floor windows, lightning bolts, it's all in a day's work for Mr. Schnabel.

Unknown said...

All these nuns make me nervous.
I like Arnold's Jesuitical cleverness, however.

Anonymous said...

This writing is real and the sensibility is original.

Dan Leo said...

Manny: word. And somehow I don't think Arnold's seen the last of Sister Mary Elizabeth.

Anon: Arnold thanks you.

Jennifer said...

I don't think Arnold's seen the last of Sister Mary Elizabeth.

I keep picturing Mary Tyler Moore when she was in "Change of Habit".

Dan Leo said...

Jen: with Elvis Presley in the part of Arnold?

Jennifer said...

That would be interesting. I have to admit, on any number of days, I imagine Arnold being a little more like Don Knotts. :)