Thursday, September 11, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 97: bad news

In our previous episode of this critically-acclaimed (“Were I forced to take only one book to my Saint Helena, this would be it.” -- Harold Bloom) memoir, our dauntless hero Arnold Schnabel joined Mrs. Biddle and her friend Tommy for highballs following the sudden demise of Mr. Jimmy Biddle.

We seem to be on a plantation of some sort in the Philippines, circa 1933, and everything is in black-and-white..

After a moment Tommy said a few words to someone on the telephone, and then he said to Mrs. Biddle:

“They’re getting April now. Are you sure you want to tell her? I could break it to her gently.”

Mrs. Biddle hesitated, chewing one side of her lower lip, then said, simply, “Give me the phone.”

I felt awkward. It seemed that Mrs. Biddle should have some privacy while telling her daughter that Jimmy had suddenly died.

But then it occurred to me that perhaps my presence, baleful as it often seemed to me – condemned as I was for life to put up with it – even so might make this difficult moment somehow easier for her. Besides, I learned a long time ago that I wasn’t put on this earth for the purpose of not feeling awkward. Far from it, I have felt awkward for approximately 95% of my waking life, and for a not insignificant percentage of my sleeping life. But still I thought perhaps the thing to do would be at least to get up from the couch, perhaps to go and stand at a window, gazing out at that crashing rain relentlessly attacking the outside world like an army of angry monkeys wielding stout bamboo sticks. And indeed I started to get up, but Mrs. Biddle — who had taken the phone from Jimmy and was sitting very upright, holding the receiver to her ear with her right hand while holding a cigarette in the other — whispered:

“Don’t get up. Stay.”

So I stayed. A few long moments passed into the present and then into the past.

“Hello,” she said, finally, into the phone. “April — what? No, you don’t have to come home yet. What? Well, yes of course you can stay over there tonight if you like. Of course. Yes. Oh, you won at canasta? That’s marvelous, darling. Eight dollars, golly. Yes, dear, of course you can buy anything you want with it. Yes. Nancy Drew books? Yes, lovely. But listen, April, the reason I’m calling —”

She paused, and then put her hand over the mouthpiece.

“How do I tell her?” she asked, looking from Tommy (who was still standing there) to me.

Tommy didn’t say anything.

She said to me again, “How do I tell her, Arnold?”

I could hear a young girl’s voice coming from the phone, saying, “Mother, are you there?”

“Just tell her,” I said. “There’s no easy way.”

Suddenly she handed the receiver to me, and then put her hand over her mouth.

I put the phone to my ear.

“Hello?” I said.

“Who’s this?” said the girl’s voice.

“I’m a friend of your mother’s. Arnold Schnabel.”

“Arnold what?”

“Just call me Arnold.”

“Okay. I’m April.”

“I know. Listen, April, I have some bad news. Your mother wants me to tell you because she’s —”

“Upset,” whispered Mrs. Biddle through her fingers.

“She’s upset,” I said.

“What is it?”

“I’m afraid your father has had an accident.”

“An accident? Is he dead?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Did he crash his car?”

“No, no, he, uh — he fell off the veranda on the second floor.”

“Was he drunk? He must have been drunk.”

“I think he’d been drinking, yes,” I said.

“You’re sure he’s dead.”

“Well —”

“Did you take his pulse?”

“No, no, I didn’t, but — Tommy —”

“Tommy said he was dead?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, he must be dead then.”

“Yes,” I said.

There was a pause here, but it didn’t feel awkward.

I realized that both Tommy and Mrs. Biddle were staring intently at me.

Then April spoke again:

“Can I talk to my mother now? Do you think she’s able to talk?”

“Let me ask,” I said.

“That’s a good idea,” said the little girl.

I put my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and turned to Mrs. Biddle.

“April wants to know if you’re able to talk now.”

Mrs. Biddle still had her slender fingers over her mouth, but after a moment she lowered them.

“How is she taking it?” she asked.

“Not too badly,” I said.

She hesitated again, chewing her lip, then took the receiver out of my hand.

“Hello, darling,” she said.

This time I did get up, taking my drink.

I shrugged at Tommy, he shrugged at me.

I walked over to one of the large front windows and looked out through the torrent. I could see the white blob of Jimmy’s body out there, being pummeled by thousands of gallons of rain, lying in the mud as if it were floating in a dirty lake.

Mrs. Biddle’s voice spoke softly behind me, murmuring to her daughter.

I turned away from the window. Mrs. Biddle still sat very upright on the couch, her head inclined to the telephone receiver, one long bare arm reaching out to tap her cigarette into the big glass ashtray.

Tommy had sat down in a leather easy chair, and, with a cigarette between his thin lips, he was cutting the pages of a book with a knife.

I wondered if I would ever make it back to 1963. After all, I did have a date with Elektra that night.

(Continued here. Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page to find an exhaustive listing of links to dozens of other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, soon to be a major release from First National Pictures, starring Franchot Tone, Kay Francis, and Edward Everett Horton; written and directed by Larry Winchester.)


Anonymous said...

"I could see the white blob of Tommy’s body out there, being pummeled by thousands of gallons of rain, lying in the mud as if it were floating in a dirty lake."
I can see and hear it. Good job.

Unknown said...

No matter how unpredictable Arnold's time and place, it turns out his presence is invaluable. He brings everyone to acceptance and understanding. The price for that gift--lifelong awkwardness--couldn't be more apt, or more rare.
Many among us, me included, can do nothing but watch our awkwardness seize whoever's around us.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

oddly touching.
And I hate to say, reminds me of my family...are many families this way?

Dan Leo said...

Manny, are many families not this way?

To tell the truth, now that the awful Jimmy is out of the way, this family doesn't seem quite so badly off.

Hey, thanks, Anon #1. Actually we had a typo there (Tommy for Jimmy), but after you brought my attention again to the brilliance of Arnold's sentence I went back and fixed it.

Kathleen, yeah, Arnold's kind of like a brakeman-poet Dr. Who, traveling through time and space and doing what he can to help out.

And, as Anon #2 points out, where Arnold goes, things happen.

Jennifer said...

This entry was indeed surprisingly touching.

I don't feel much for Mrs. Biddle, Jimmy or April, but feel sadness for Arnold.

Dan Leo said...

Jen: yeah, only Arnold; imagine, you've just met someone and they give you the phone, like, "Here, tell my daughter my husband just died, will you?"

Jennifer said...

Believe it or not, I've been in a similar circumstance... the person said I sounded calm so it might be better if I delivered the bad news.

I firmly declined.

Dan Leo said...

Jen, your experience proves that real life can sometimes be as strange as Arnold's memoirs.