Thursday, November 13, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven,”, Part 110: not wasted

Let us now rejoin Arnold Schnabel as, following a colloquy with the conflicted Father Reilly, our hero warily leaves the sacristy of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church (R.C.) in Cape May, New Jersey, on a sultry evening in early August, 1963:

My very next decision would have to be: side door or front? I immediately decided against the Ocean Street side door, because that doorway was mutually visible to the entrance of Pete’s Tavern across the Acme parking lot. It would only be my luck to come out of the church just as the dreaded DeVores were leaving or being forcibly ejected from Pete’s. I turned back up the steps to the nave, and started to head for the front entrance when suddenly I remembered that there was an exit on the other side of the church, letting out onto a small garden and to the rectory, with quiet pathways leading either to Washington Street to the south or Jefferson to the north or around the rectory and to the west behind some shops to Decatur Street. Whichever of these routes I might choose, they would all be unlikely to expose me to an encounter or ambush by the DeVores or Miss Evans, or, horrible dictu, but not unimaginable the way this day was going, the three of them in a gang.

I crossed in front of the tabernacle, genuflecting quickly just to be on the safe side (and grunting in pain while doing so, having spent far too much time on my injured leg this day), went down the westward steps and out the door into this garden shadowed by old oak trees with flickers of a purple sky whisking through their leaves.

It was very quiet back here and almost dark but for the swaying blue illumination from the sky and some pale yellow light from two or three windows in the apparently electrically frugal rectory. I supposed Fathers Schwartz and Fahey were in there, doing whatever priests do on a Saturday evening. I wondered if they wondered what Father Reilly was doing? Or did priests observe a code of silence regarding their colleagues’ private activities?

I struck out around the rear of the rectory, deciding to take the dark path to Decatur Street. I was only a little more than two blocks from Elektra’s place. I needed only to move swiftly but most of all carefully.

But then I stopped again in that cobbled alleyway to the rear of the shops. I think I was behind the notions shop where my mother and aunts buy the material and thread for the utilitarian print dresses they wear, made from worn and brittle patterns passed down from their great-great grandmothers.

I thought (one of those flashes of sanity that strike me now and then): why was I skulking and creeping in the shadows trying to avoid these people? Was I not a grown free man? Could I not walk calmly and proudly and at my own pace on the well-lit sidewalk, and if I were accosted or waylaid by one or all of these fellow maniacs, could I not simply say I was going to visit my lady friend, and, no, I did not want anyone to accompany us on our date, nor did I feel like meeting up for a drink later, or possibly ever.

Why couldn’t I just say that? I started walking again on that mossy cobbled pathway in the shadows behind the shops, but walking with my shoulders back and at a normal speed.

Debouching a minute or so later out of the alleyway behind Dellas's 5 & 10, I calmly made a left down Decatur toward Washington. If only I hadn’t quit smoking that morning, this would have been a perfect moment to light one up. I limped along, like a returning wounded veteran, afraid of nothing and no one because he has already seen and survived hell and all its demons. And, now that I thought about it, that’s just what I was.

Washington Street was swarming with vacationers now, walking all shiny and sunburnt in their colorful attire in the bright light from the streetlamps and the shop windows. The traffic signal was green across Washington and I crossed and waited on the opposite corner.

Across the street was the good old Ugly Mug, and next to it on Decatur over there was the Pilot House, where I had met that woman Rhonda or Bertha or whatever her name was, those were dark times.

And there, at a table by the window of the Pilot House, I saw Steve and Miss Rathbone sitting together and looking at each other. Steve was smiling, and talking, Miss Rathbone was smiling and listening to him. They were both smoking, and they looked happy.

On the stage beyond them I saw through the smoke Freddy Ayres, playing his accordion, while his wife Ursula played the saxophone. I could faintly hear Freddy singing “On the Way to Cape May”.

I proceeded down Washington and turned on Jackson, crossed Carpenter’s Lane, and finally came up to the jewelry shop. It was still open, height of the season, I could see Fairchild and Rocket man in there, talking to potential customers. I went down the side of the house, past the fragrant ivy, the azaleas and rhododendrons, the glistening honeysuckle. I came to the back door. It was ajar, and I could hear music from up above, it was that young fellow who sounded like a hobo, Bobby Dylan. I pushed the door in and called hello. No response. I called louder.


“Yes,” I said calling up the stairs.

“Come up, man.” It was Gypsy Dave’s voice.

I went up the steps and into the living room. Gypsy Dave was sitting in the spring-blown easy chair, smoking a reefer in the dim light from a table lamp with a reddish scarf thrown over its shade.

“My man,” he said.

“Hi, Dave,” I said.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, I just had a fall,” I sighed. I definitely wouldn’t be climbing out of any more third-floor windows; it just wasn’t worth all the questions you had to answer.

“Baby’s in her boudoir,” said Gypsy Dave. “Just go on in, man. She’s waiting for you. Oh, but wait, you want a hit off this?”

He held out the reefer.

It did seem tempting, but --

“I decided to quit smoking this morning,” I said.

“What? Pot?”

“Well, no. Cigarettes,” I said.

“Cigarettes, Arnold. Cigarettes -- bad. Reefer,” he held it up between his thumb and index finger, “reefer -- good.”

He had a point, a dubious point, but a point. After all, it wasn’t as if I was going to start smoking a pack of reefers a day. At least I hoped not.

I went over and took the proffered reefer and took a couple of drags, as Bobby the hobo boy sang.

“Well, thanks, Dave,” I said.

“You’re welcome, man,” he said, and he sank back in the chair, listening to the song, which was about a hard rain that was going to fall.

I went down the short hall to Elektra’s room. This door was ajar also, but I knocked.


“Yes,” I said.

“Come in.”

I did. She was standing in front of her dresser mirror, fixing her hair in some complicated lovely way. She wore a dress I hadn’t seen before, embroidered with ivy and tropical flowers, with puffy short sleeves, and a scoop in the back. It looked Mexican, not that I’ve ever been to Mexico, but I’ve seen movies. The skin of her back and of her arms was the color of melted caramel.

I came over to her, and here again I’m afraid I must elide over the next twenty minutes or so, partially out of an ingrained sense of modesty, partly out of a laziness stemming perhaps from ineptitude, but I think mostly out of a desire not to bring on a coronary thrombosis within the sainted heart of my mother were she one day, out of boredom or curiosity, to peruse these memoirs. Suffice it to say that I found myself unwilling even to try to exercise physical restraint, and Elektra didn’t seem to mind.

Afterwards we lay there with the lights out, and she said, finally, “You don’t know how much time I spent on my hair.”

“It wasn’t wasted time,” I ventured.

"I know," she said.

Bobby sang softly in the other room.

(Continued here et ad vitam aeternam. Kindly go to the right hand side of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all possible episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, as featured on The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.)

The hobo boy:


Unknown said...

This is just what I've been waiting for: Steve, Miss Rathbone, Fair child, Rocket man, Gypsy Dave and especially, really more than anyone, Elektra!

"Debouching a minute...
I must look debouching up. It always pleases me to learn a new word.

Jennifer said...


Unknown said...

It seemed almost like his life was flashing before his eyes as he went to meet her.

Anonymous said...

"swaying blue illumination"
Veddy well put, by Jove!

Dan Leo said...

Manny and Kathleen: yeah, Arnold almost gives us a "greatest hits" retrospective here.

Glad you like the word "debouching", Kathleen; after reading your comment I was moved to look it up just to make sure of its meaning myself.

Jen: and yay for your latest avatar!

Anon: yeah, Arnold has his poetic moments...