Friday, March 20, 2009

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 130: “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

Return with us now to a warm night in August of that forgotten year of 1963 and to the slightly shabby seaport and resort of Cape May, New Jersey, where our saintly memoirist Arnold Schnabel has walked his new acquaintance Mr. Jones to the side entrance of that inebriated old gentleman’s boarding house...

(Go here to review our previous chapter; newcomers may go here to see the first chapter of this memoir which President Obama has called “a masterpiece we can believe in”.)

“What was that?” said Mr. Jones.

“Pardon me?” I said.

“I heard a voice. Like a girl’s.”

He spoke more quickly now, with fewer and shorter pauses.

“A slightly muffled voice,” he said, “but still --”

“Just the breeze,” I said. “In the trees.”

He looked up, around, then down.

“Can it be I’m finally losing my mind?” he asked. “At the age of eighty-three?”

There was a light on in a yellow fixture above the doorway, and I could see the consternation in the old man’s eyes behind their glasses. (I have neglected to mention he wore glasses, as do most people who reach the age of eighty-three, at least those who still want to see anything.)

Above our heads the branches and leaves of a tree made a hushing sound. The crickets continued to snicker, and from inside the house came the sound of a television set, Saturday Night at the Movies I think, they were showing Sayonara tonight. Various gnats, mosquitoes, and other insects added their respective parts to the evening’s symphony. But none of these sounds could remotely be mistaken for the small voice we had both just so clearly heard.

“Well, let’s get you up to your room, Mr. Jones,” I said, with attempted bonhomie.

“You went insane, didn’t you, Arnold?” he asked, not budging.

“Well, I did have a slight nervous breakdown last winter,” I said, shifting my weight around on my Keds. “But I’m much --”

“I heard you were hospitalized for three months.”

“Not quite three months,” I said.

“And you weren’t able to go back to work on the railroad.”

“Well, I did go back --”

“And they sent you home again, didn’t they?”

“Well, yes.”

“So did you hear voices?”

He was swaying again now, facing me, swaying back and forth on his heels, holding his cigarette at shoulder height.

“Yes,” I said. “I heard voices.”

“So I’m going mad.”

“Not necessarily,” I said.


“No,” I said, trying to put at least an ounce of conviction in my voice.

He paused, taking a drag of his Old Gold, staring off into the darkness with his filmy old eyes behind their glasses, his body swaying gently, forward and back.

“Good night’s sleep you’ll be fine,” I posited.

“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in ten years,” he said. “Fifteen years.”

I had no response to this. Now he looked straight at me, into my eyes.

“So this is how it ends,” he said. “Dementia.”

I stood there, holding the doll box. At least she was keeping quiet through this, for the time being, I thought.

But then:

“Try not getting absolutely drunk every single night of your life,” she said. “Then perhaps you won’t hear any strange disembodied voices.”

“What?” he said.

“Pardon me?” I said.

“You didn’t hear that?”

“Um --”

I struggled with a moral quandary. I could admit that I had heard the voice also, which would be admitting that I was insane, or I could deny having heard it, which would be tantamount to telling Mr. Jones that he was insane.

But then I remembered that he was drunk; chances are he would remember none of this.

“I didn’t hear anything,” I said.

“A voice just suggested I stop getting drunk every night. Or at least not absolutely drunk.”

“Oh. Well -- maybe it was, uh, just -- uh --”

“What?” he demanded.

“The voice of reason?” I offered.

He stopped swaying. He looked at his cigarette. He opened his fingers and let it drop to the old flagstone at our feet. The cigarette bounced, shooting up tiny sparks, and rolled off the slate into the grass, still lit and smoking. I stepped over, ground it out with the sole of my sneaker.

“What am I supposed to do if I don’t drink?” asked Mr. Jones, opening his arms as in supplication.

This was a question I’d asked myself often enough.

“You could read,” I suggested.

He stared at me.

“You know -- books, Mr. Jones,” said the doll.

He flinched ever so slightly.

“Yes, books,” he said, after a pause. “I used to like to read. Jack London. H.G. Wells. O. Henry. Even some of these newer authors -- Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell -- although I must say my favorites among the younger boys were Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

“You can still find their books,” I said.

“Yes. Yes, I suppose I could.”

“You could even take them out from the library. Wouldn’t cost you a dime.”

“Yes, true, true. But --”

He took one of his long pauses here.

“Get to the point!” said the doll.

“Well,” said Mr. Jones, “isn’t it a bit pathetic to spend one’s last days reading? Reading instead of living?”

“Is it any less pathetic just to get drunk every night?” (This was me, not the doll.)

Mr. Jones paused again.

I realized that a mosquito was feasting itself on the tender flesh on the reverse side of my left knee. I refrained from swatting him. I didn’t want to spoil the mood, and after all the mosquito was only doing what it had to do.

“You have a point,” said Mr. Jones.

"I do?" I asked.

“Getting plastered every night is no great accomplishment,” he said.

He then resumed his gentle swaying, back and forth, staring off into God knows what.

The mosquito continued to draw my blood.

Both the doll and I remained silent.

(Continued here. Please refer to the right hand column of this page to find a supposedly up-to-date list of links to all other recovered chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, absolutely free of charge for a limited time only.)

Skeeter Davis and Bobby Bare: let it be me --


Unknown said...

Ingenious. I must resist liking this doll, but as another supernatural entity (or event) affecting others, not just Arnold, she's...yeah, ingenious.

Unknown said...

I like the doll.

The tension is killing me. When will Arnold get back to Electra?


Dan Leo said...

Aw, go ahead, Kathleen, you know you like the doll!

And hang in there, Dianne. Just as Odysseus finally made it back to Ithaca and to Penelope, I think Arnold will eventually get back to the Ugly Mug and Elektra. It only took Odysseus, what, twenty years?

Unknown said...

Twenty years in Arnold-time - we'll all be dead by then!

It's as well Daphne didn't get the doll, because I think it would annoy her.

Jennifer said...

Of course, we all know dolls can't really talk, and they certainly can't commit murder. But to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian. Especially a doll like Talky Tina who did talk and did commit murder, in the misty region of the Twilight Zone.

Need I say more???

Jennifer said...

Excuse the "Motel Hell" avatar... that was for another blog's benefit. :)

Dan Leo said...

Dianne, I haven't peeked ahead, but, yes, I suspect that Daphne would brook little nonsense from this doll.

Jen: hmm, could Arnold's doll (or, technically, Daphne's doll, if Arnold ever gets the doll back to Dick, and if Dick ever gives it to Daphne) be related to Talky Tina? Or even to the infamous Chuckie? We can only hope not...

Unknown said...

i'm late to this one...but worth the wait