Tuesday, September 16, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, part 98: guilt

Previously in our exclusive serialization of the memoir critic Harold Bloom has called “perhaps the greatest work of confessional literature since Augustine, certainly since David Niven”, our hero Arnold Schnabel continued to find himself marooned in the year 1933, on a plantation in the Philippines, in a rainy world of blacks, whites and greys…

What if I had to stay in this world, for the rest of my life?

I supposed there could be worse fates. Apparently I belonged at least somewhat in this present universe. After all, young Mrs. Biddle and Tommy seemed to know me and accept me. Perhaps this indeed was my real world, and I merely suffered from a delusion that I lived in 1963. But, if that were the case, then I was apparently suffering from a severe case of amnesia regarding this present world of circa 1933, which as far as my memory served, had only begun for me perhaps an hour before.

On second thought, perhaps my real life was in that world of the 1890s that I had visited yesterday with Dick, and both this 1930s universe and my previous 1960s world were merely bizarrely realistic psychotic fugues. Psychiatrists and literary historians of whichever future this document finds itself, I forward this question over to you.

Oh well, as Tommy had said regarding leaving Jimmy in the mud and the rain, whatever my situation was, it couldn’t be helped.

Or could it?

I went over to where Tommy sat. He was now reading the book whose pages he had been cutting. I saw that the title was The King in Yellow.

“Excuse me, Tommy?”

He looked up, smiling.

“Yes, Mr. Schnabel?”

Mrs. Biddle was still talking with her daughter on the phone.

“I have to use the bathroom,” I said, in a low voice.

“Oh, go right up,” he said. “There’s one in the back of the house but the one on the second floor is much nicer. Do you know where it is?”

“I think so,” I said.

So far this house had seemed almost identical to Mrs. Biddle’s house in 1963.

He smiled again and went back to his book. I started to head for the hall but suddenly Mrs. Biddle called.

“Arnold, where are you going?”

I hesitated, and fortunately Tommy came to my rescue. He cleared his throat and pointed to the ceiling, in the direction presumably of the bathroom.

“Oh, go right ahead, Arnold, darling.”

Waving her hand at me, she went back at once to her telephone conversation.

I went out of the room and down the hall, then up those all-too-familiar stairs.

I stopped at the landing. Now that I really looked at the paintings I saw that only one of them was from 1963, the one with the French vacationers by the seaside. The other two paintings seemed to be different. Unfortunately neither one seemed to depict a house in Cape May, circa 1963.

I put out my hand to the French painting again, and, after pausing only a second I thrust it into the painting, into that fresh crisp seaside air.

After a moment or two I pulled my hand back out. Sure, I could climb on through, and perhaps I would meet that nice Monsieur Proust again, but the last thing I needed or wanted now was to go even further back in time.

I went on up to the second floor, but instead of going to the bathroom (even though I did in fact have to go), I went back to Mrs. Biddle’s door. I had closed it behind us when we left her room earlier.

I had an idea, and I had nothing to lose from trying it, even though by doing so I would be committing the rudeness of entering a woman’s bedroom on my own and uninvited.

I took the traditional deep breath and put my hand on the doorknob.

I closed my eyes and took another breath.

Then I said to myself, or to whomever, Dear Jesus, please let me come home; I promise to be a good man if you do.

“And if I don’t, then what? You’re going to be a bad man?”

I opened my eyes, and there he was, standing to my right, smoking one of his Pall Malls as usual.

He now wore a rumpled, stained, apparently once-white tropical suit (of the same sort I wore, and as did Tommy, and as had the late Jimmy). He wore a formerly-white, sweat-stained fedora, and a grey-and-black striped tie, loose at the unbuttoned collar. He had a two-or-three day’s growth of beard, and his hair, although not its traditional shoulder-length, was at least a month overdue for a cut. Nevertheless he looked somehow dashing, like a professional gambler, or gun-smuggler.

“Are you surprised to see me?” he asked.

“To be honest, no,” I thought but did not say. I didn’t want to talk aloud, for fear of possibly alarming Tommy or Mrs. Biddle, even if they were all the way downstairs.

“You haven’t answered my initial question, Arnold,” he said.

I had already forgotten what that was.

“Will you be a bad man if I don’t arrange to return you to, you know —”

I sighed. I know it’s impolite to sigh, but I couldn’t help it.

“No,” I said, silently. “I’ll at least attempt to be good, either way, I suppose. As good as I can manage. Which may not be saying much.”

He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Arnold, may I make a suggestion?”

“Sure,” I didn’t say.

“Stop asking me for favors. Despite the common superstition, I – and I think I speak for my father and for the Holy Ghost as well – I, we, are decidedly not in the business of answering prayers. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Good. Now go back to doing whatever it is you were going to do.”

“All right,” I said, this time aloud, despite myself.

I closed my eyes again. My hand was still on the doorknob.

I held my breath, opened the door and stepped through.

I opened my eyes and the room, the world, was in color. I let out my breath, and without looking back I closed the door behind me. I could hear talking out on the porch.

I walked slowly and carefully out to the French doors that opened onto the porch, and there, sitting side by side on a wicker sofa, having tea, were myself and the older Mrs. Biddle. She was telling a story, smiling, and I was listening, holding a teacup.

Beyond us I could see through the screening at the other end of the porch the sun going down over the houses and the trees, amidst pale wispy clouds, beginning its journey across the continent and over the Pacific, on to the Philippines and points beyond.

The air smelled of magnolia, of honeysuckle, of the Atlantic Ocean.

I walked over to myself and Mrs. Biddle, and then I stepped into myself.

I looked at Mrs. Biddle from my eyes.

She had changed into what I believe is called a summer frock, with little red rose petals on an orange background.

“I never saw him again after that night,” she said. “Soon afterwards he went back to work for the railroad, and they transferred him to Mindanao. He was killed in the war. Am I boring you?”

“No, not at all,” I said.

“People always think their own lives are so fascinating.”

“I’m not bored,” I said.

“Is it terrible that I was happy that my husband died?”

“No,” I said.

“I did feel guilty. I went to confession about it, and the priest absolved me.”

“Well, there you go,” I said.

“The only thing is, I didn’t really believe in the church or God or any of that, and I still don’t. I only went to confession to ease my conscience.”

“That’s why a lot of people go to confession,” I said.

“Yes but still.”

I gazed out through the screening at the breathing world all green and white, blue and orange and every other color.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Biddle,” I said, "what was that man’s name again? The guy — the man – who —”

“Who didn’t kill my husband?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Arthur,” she said. She looked away. The reflections of the failing sun lit up her face and she looked young again, or anyway younger. “Arthur Schaefer,” she said.

“Arthur Schaefer,” I repeated.

As Miss Evans would say, mon semblable, mon frère.

(Continued here. And kindly look to the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of all other possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, soon to be a major motion picture starring William Bendix, Kay Francis and Lloyd Nolan; produced, written and personally directed by Larry Winchester for Realart Pictures.)

And now, a brief word from The Caravelles…


Unknown said...

So very eerie.
If I could be anyone, I'd chose Arnold Schnabel. The saintly poet's aplomb stays true.
But as that divine raconteur Jesus (Who belongs in every woman's bedroom, be she faithless or not) so rightly reminds Arnold, we must stop pestering instead of praying.

Jennifer said...

I hope Arnold never goes to an art museum.

Dan Leo said...

Kathleen: Yeah, I always wondered if the guy upstairs ever got tired of all our whining...

Jennifer, my dear woman, you have opened up the possibility of at least a year-long plot line in our Arnold's memoirs.

Jennifer said...

the possibility of at least a year-long plot line in our Arnold's memoirs.

Oh dear... what's that in our time???

Dan Leo said...

Jen, that could really be mind-boggling. I just checked, and Arnold's current day has been going on, in "our" time, since since May 14 (Part 74) of this year; and it's still not even quite sundown!

Jennifer said...

We'll all find eternal life with Arnold.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is: How many times has Arnold gone to the bathroom during this one day? He's a freak of nature!

Dan Leo said...

A beautiful thought, Jen

Dear Anonymous: good question, and I just took one for the team and skimmed through the twenty-five chapters that chronicle Arnold's day so far, and, amazingly, he only actually mentions three instances of relieving himself, although I suspect there was one more early-morning bathroom visit that went unlogged. But it does seem like a lot more than that, I think because when Arnold does go it tends often to be a big deal in his world, unlike in most of the rest of the world's literature, where it seems people hardly ever go to the bathroom.

Unknown said...

Hey, my comment from yesterday didnt' show up. Just wanted to say (if I haven't said it before) I see Jesus played by Robert Mitchum. What do you think?

Dan Leo said...

Y'know, Manny, for some reason I keep seeing the scruffy stoner Brad Pitt from "True Romance"as the Big Guy. But I'm sure old Bob (or rather the young Bob) would have rocked this role too.