Thursday, December 4, 2008

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 113: multitudes

When last we saw Arnold Schnabel, he was attempting to avoid answering Elektra’s questions concerning his friend Jesus, when -- luckily for him -- he is hailed by Larry Winchester, the noted film-maker, novelist, and bon vivant.

The time: 8:48 on a warm evening on the 10th of August, 1963, in the quaint and slightly run-down seaside resort and fishing town of Cape May, New Jersey.

(Go here for our previous chapter or here to go back to the beginning of this critically-lauded memoir, soon to be serialized on The Lux Video Theatre, starring Sidney Falco and Susan Hunsecker.)

Larry came up and shook my hand. He held a fat cigar in his other hand.

“Hello, Larry,” I said.

“And Artemis,” said Larry, beaming at Elektra and dropping my hand like a dead fish.

“Elektra,” she said.

“Elektra. You look more ravishing than ever.”

“Thank you, Larry, but you only met me last night.”

“I heard some very rave notices of your singing.”

“Really?” said Elektra.

“Oh, yes,” said Larry. “Have you ever sung professionally?”

“Oh no.”

“And you play guitar?”

“A little.”

Larry gazed at her for a long moment, as if he were one of the shepherd children at Fátima gazing at the apparition of the Blessed Mother. Suddenly he turned to me.
"How come you're limping?"
"I was trying to climb down a drainpipe from a third-floor bathroom window so that I could escape Miss Evans, and I fell. Fortunately, Jesus appeared and turned me right side up, so I only sprained my leg falling into the rhododendrons."

“Very funny. So, we’re still on for tomorrow morning, right?”


Larry was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, and people streamed by us in both directions. He seemed somehow like the captain of a sea ship standing on deck, and all the rest of us were crew members or passengers.

He turned again to Elektra.

“Did Arnie tell you we’re writing a screenplay together?”

“Yes,” she said.

“He’s brilliant. Easiest guy I ever worked with. Can’t believe he’s been working on the railroad all these years. Writing his poems for the -- The Olney Times.”

“What’s wrong with that?” said Elektra.

Larry paused, his mouth slightly open.

“You are a very profound woman,” he finally said, and he drew on his fat cigar, which I noticed was very wet on the unlit end.

“And you are high,” she said.

He smiled.

“You are very profound,” he said. “And where are you two crazy kids going?”

“Up to the Mug for burgers and beer,” said Elektra.

“Burgers and beer,” said Larry, as if she had mentioned free and unlimited champagne and caviar for life, and perhaps even into the afterlife. “Ah yes. Burgers. And beer.”

“Are you inviting yourself to join us, Larry?” said Elektra.

“I wouldn’t want to intrude. But perhaps just for one libation. I have a proposition for Arnie. And I also have a proposition for you, Ari-, Ere-, Elektra.”

“A proposition?” she said. “You work fast, Larry.”

“Not that kind of proposition, my dear. And why are we standing here?”

“I have no idea,” said Elektra.

“We must move swiftly,” said Larry. “Arnie, take Elektra’s streetside arm, and I shall take the other.”

Soon we were marching along the sidewalk up Carpenter's Lane three abreast.

“Look at all these fools,” said Larry suddenly, speaking in a voice loud enough so that the people on the opposite sidewalk could hear him, as well as anyone who wasn’t stone deaf fifty feet ahead of us and behind us.

“Why do they live?” asked Larry. “Why do they bother? Look how boring they all look.”

He stopped to point with his cigar at a representative couple approaching us -- the woman looked frightened, hanging onto the arm of the man, who looked worried -- but Elektra pulled Larry’s arm, and we continued on, passing the couple, Larry turning his head to glare at them.

“Larry!” said Elektra.

“What, sweetheart?”

“It’s rude to point and stare at people.”

“But how can they bear to live and be so boring?”

“How do you know they’re boring?”

“Did you see them?” asked Larry.

“Of course I did,” said Elektra.

“They were horribly boring.”

“Those people buy the tickets for your movies.”

Larry stopped again, staring at Elektra.

“Those people pay your wages,” she said.

“You’re right,” said Larry. “You’re absolutely right. Arnold, this girl is as profound as she is beautiful.”

“You’re just high, Larry,” said Elektra.

“I know. Mushrooms. Got them from Dick. Government issue.”

“That Dick guy?” Elektra pulled Larry into motion. She had let go of my arm, I think so that she could concentrate on keeping Larry moving. “Isn’t he in the navy?”

“The military gets all the best drugs,” said Larry. “But, still, how do they do it?”

“How do who do what?” asked Elektra.

“These people.” Larry stopped again, and with his free hand he swept his cigar in an undulant gesture indicating all these human beings passing to and fro. “How do they go to their little jobs, come home to their little families? How did you do it, Arnold?”

“What, Larry?”

“Work for the railroad all those years? Wasn’t it boring?”

“Well -- sure,” I said.

“How could you do it?”

“I had to earn a living,” I said, although this immediately seemed to me an inadequate answer.

“Larry,” said Elektra, tugging on his arm, “everybody can’t be a movie director. Somebody has to work all these other millions of jobs.”

Larry opened his mouth, but before he could say anything Elektra gave his arm another tug, and we started walking again, or rather Larry and Elektra started walking again, and I did a little hop and a skip to catch up.

I put my arm in Elektra’s, although I suppose it’s more proper for the female to put her arm in the man’s.

I had to admit that Larry had a point with all this. I had spent my life in a boring job, helping to make possible the transportation by rail of millions of people to and from their own boring jobs, along with various goods and foods whose purpose was to make possible and more bearable the lives of all these millions.

How often I had stood hanging onto the end of a railroad car, smoking a cigarette and looking at men and women and children getting on or off the train, their faces for the most part serious, each face the center of a universe, and there was I, the center of my own universe, a steel handrail under one hand and a Pall Mall in the other, and in my brain a lifetime of moments culminating in this moment already receding into all the rest. No wonder I went to daily mass for many years. I needed something to assure me that all these mysterious universes were not in aid of only their own brief continuance. No wonder I finally went insane.

Looking at all these people passing to and fro, as much as I hate to admit it now, they did look pretty boring for the most part, and the older they were the more bored and boring they looked.
Larry and Elektra were talking, I don't know what about, their words seemed far away.

And suddenly I saw not only the people who were there all around us, but all the people who had been there, the streets and sidewalks teeming with men dressed in top hats and with ladies in enormous hats decorated with plumes and stuffed birds, I even saw some colonial people, the men in tri-corner hats, the women in bonnets, and even some Indians, dressed in buckskin and carrying bows, with quivers full of arrows on their backs, while Model T Fords jockeyed along the street amidst carriages and wagons and men on horseback dressed in the uniforms of the Civil War. Just about the only thing I didn’t see was cavemen or people from the future, although perhaps they would have showed up too if I had looked long enough.

I closed my eyes and let myself be guided along by Elektra’s arm, as if I were a blind person.

When I opened my eyes after a few seconds we were almost at the side entrance of the Ugly Mug, off Decatur, and the people passing by were all 1963 people. Their ancestors had receded back into the past, or, if not into the past, then into invisibility.

Some people burst out of the door from the Mug, laughing uproariously as they rejoined the multitudes all around us.

(Continued here, and ad infinitum. Kindly turn to the right hand side of this page for a complete listing of links to all other published episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™; this project made possible by a grant from the Reed Richards Foundation for the Humanities.)

Rufus Thomas: walking the dog --


Unknown said...

Possibly the most arresting Arnold episode yet. I've missed Elektra, who looks as saintly as Arnold here.

And the three paragraphs before the end induce the same contemplation Arnold's describing.

Anonymous said...

"Larry was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, and people streamed by us in both directions. He seemed somehow like the captain of a sea ship standing on deck, and all the rest of us were crew members or passengers."


Anonymous said...

"And suddenly I saw not only the people who were there all around us, but all the people who had been there, the streets and sidewalks teeming with men dressed in top hats and with ladies in enormous hats decorated with plumes and stuffed birds, I even saw some colonial...."

This paragraph is inspired.

Jennifer said...

Since time is really just one big present, I've always wondered if the people of the past are all around us, but we just don't see them because of our limited view.

Maybe Arnold is onto something... or maybe he's just insane.

Dan Leo said...

Hey, wait just a minute, Jen -- Arnold's no more insane than I am!

Jennifer said...

... or me...

Unknown said...

Larry and Arnold exist on two completely different planes--even when Larry is high.