Let us return to the quaint seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in August of 1963, and to our hero Arnold Schnabel, who has just encountered an old acquaintance: the languid and mysterious Magda…
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“Bursting onto the scene amidst the death-throes of post-post-modernism, the serial publication of Arnold Schnabel’s autobiography created an entirely new literary movement: ‘Arnold Schnabelism’.” -- Harold Bloom in Field & Stream.
“Where is he stopping, your friend Josh.”
“He’s at the Chalfonte,” I said, without thinking, as is so often the case with me.
“Perhaps I should go over there and pay him a visit. Put a cold compress on his forehead.”
“Oh,” I said, “well, uh, I think he just wants to, you know, sleep it off?”
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t serious. I’m not the nursing type.”
She still stood with her back against the door frame. Inside the bar Ursula was blowing a saxophone solo to “Stardust”. The tables and the bar were full of chattering people paying no attention to the music. Magda took a drag of her cigarette, staring out at the rain. Her eyes were a marbled grey.
She muttered something in a foreign language.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“I said maybe I should stick to playing my piano. ‘Cause I sure as hell stink at picking men. Junkies, bunko artists, cheap chiselers, four-flushers and crooks. And drunks like this Josh character.”
“Josh is a nice guy,” I said.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said. “You seem like a good Joe, too bad you had a mental breakdown and don’t have a job. Have you had lunch.”
“Lunch, have you eaten it.”
“No,” I said, “but I had a late breakfast.”
“Why don’t we go upstairs and blow some gage. I always keep some squirreled away for a rainy day. And as you notice it’s raining.”
“I really can’t stay, I’m afraid.”
“Dying to get away, aren’t you.”
“Well, I have some things I have to do.”
“On a Sunday.”
“Don’t let me keep you then.”
“Well, I wanted to see someone else here actually.”
“It’s a woman sitting at one of the tables. Her name is Gertrude Evans.”
“So you’re a ladies’ man.”
“No, I just wanted to have a quick word with her. About something.”
“Very mysterious. You seem somehow familiar to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I met you a long time ago. In a dream perhaps. Because you looked different then. Now I remember. It was this strange poet fellow in Greenwich Village, one night some years ago when I was jamming with Freddy and my grandmother at this dive called the Kettle of Fish. Have you ever been there.”
She of course was remembering meeting me in Miss Evans’s novel, when I was the romantic young poet Porter Walker. How odd that her real life had coincided with Miss Evans’s fictional universe. I hadn’t realized that such a thing was possible.
“The Kettle of Fish,” I said. “Um -- uh --”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Magda. “It wasn’t you, obviously. So are you coming in.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You seem perturbed somehow.”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
“So we’re both perturbed.”
“Come in then.”
“After you,” I said.
“Such a gentleman,” she said.
She started to turn and then Lucky was standing in the doorway.
“Well, well, well,” he said.
He was wearing an ash-colored suit again, although obviously a different one than the one he’d had on the previous night, which had been all in smoking rags the last time I had seen it. Otherwise he looked the same, tall, shiny black hair, a black moustache, holding a thick strong-smelling cigarette.
“Who is your lovely friend, Arnold?” he asked.
I said nothing.
“You won’t introduce me?” he said, smiling.
Again I said nothing.
Ignoring me Lucky offered his hand to Magda.
“My name is Lucky.”
She looked at his hand, but far from taking it in hers she put her cigarette holder’s stem between her lips, took a drag and slowly let the smoke out in Lucky’s face.
His smile faded and he lowered his hand.
“Magda,” I said, “would you --”
“Ah, so your name is Magda,” said Lucky to Magda. “My name is Lucky.”
“A rather puerile name for a grown man,” she said.
“Ha ha. A woman of spirit.”
“Ha ha. A man of idiocy,” she said.
“Excuse us, Magda,” I said, “Mr. Lucky and I are just going to have a word outside here.”
“Be my guest,” she said. “Anyway, Freddy wants me to sit in on the piano next number.”
“Oh, you play?” said Lucky. “I can’t wait to hear you.”
“Then hurry back and don’t forget to leave a buck in the tip jar.”
“Oh, I shall.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Mr. Schnabel,” said Magda. She walked away, I stepped back from the doorway, keeping my eye on Lucky. He came out and stood facing me at a distance of about two feet. The rain beat down on the awning over our heads.
“I can only give you a moment, old boy,” he said. “I have to get back to a lady.”
“Yes. The lovely Miss Evans.”
“I’m going to tell her who you are.”
“Do it and she’ll think you’re quite mad.”
“Why don’t you leave her alone?”
“What kind of a stupid question is that? My dear fellow, this is what I do. I tempt people and then I get them to give up their eternal souls.”
“I suppose you derive some enjoyment from that.”
“Yes, I do, actually. Oh, and don’t worry, I’ll get you too, eventually.”
“Would you mind getting out of my way, please.”
“Because I’m going in there to talk to Miss Evans.”
“It won’t do you any good.”
I made a step to go around him, but he stepped in my way.
“I could easily toss you across the street,” he said.
“That wouldn’t look good for you,” I said. “Calling attention to yourself like that.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. Perhaps on another day I wouldn’t give a damn (you should pardon the expression), but I’m so close to getting La Evans to sign on the dotted line, I’d hate to blow the deal now. So go ahead, go in. Make an ass of yourself. Ha ha. I’ll give you one minute while I stand here and finish my cigarette and stare out at the rain. Reminds me of the Great Deluge. That was back when the man upstairs really knew how to keep humans in their place. Of course nowadays men do a pretty good job of mass-murdering each other without the big guy’s help. Ha ha.”
I brushed past him and went into the place. Miss Evans was sitting by the window with her back to me. She was smoking a cigarette and looking over her shoulder in the general direction of Freddy, who was singing “Lullaby of Broadway” now, with Magda accompanying him on electric piano while Ursula stood holding her saxophone and nodding, waiting for her moment to come in.
I walked over to Miss Evans. On the table were the remains of two pieces of chocolate cake, two coffee cups, a couple of drinks in snifters, a shiny blue woman’s purse, an opened pack of Marlboros, a book of Pilot House matches.
She looked up at me and blinked, as if she weren’t quite sure who I was.
She wore a dress I didn’t remember seeing before before. It had a pattern like something you would see on a color television set after a child had been playing with the horizontal and vertical dials. She wore a small blue pillbox hat off to one side of her head, and her hair was arranged so that it hid the bruise on her forehead.
“Oh. Arnold,” she said. “How terribly nice to see you. And. How was your little mass. Did you see Father Reilly. Did you talk to him. Did he say anything about me.”
“I didn’t go to mass,” I said. “Listen, Miss Evans --”
“Why didn’t you go to mass. Won’t you go to hell now?”
“Only if I die,” I said.
“Listen, Gertrude --
“Yes. Spit it out.”
“This guy you’re with, this Lucky guy --”
“Oh, you’re not going to start on that again, are you?”
“He’s no good,” I said.
“And you know this for certain?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And how do you know this. What in hell have you got against him. Do you hate him just because he’s taken me to lunch? Are you jealous, is that it?”
“No,” I said.
“Then what is it. Because how dare you. How dare you dare to tell me with whom I may or may not lunch. How dare you --”
“He’s the Devil,” I said.
“He’s the Devil.”
“Oh, my, the Devil.”
“I’ll say this,” she said, “he’s a handsome devil.”
“You should come with me,” I said.
“Come with you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh. Then you do care.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Arnold, dear, that’s all I wanted to hear. But I can’t just get up and leave, darling. We’re talking about a contract, Lucky and I.”
“A movie contract,” said Lucky, who was suddenly by my side, rubbing his hands together. “I think Miss Evans’s books would make fabulous movies.”
“Let’s go, Gertrude,” I said.
“Well, if you insist,” she said, and she stubbed out her cigarette in her dessert dish. I don’t think she meant to be coarse. I think she was simply drunk.
“Hey,” said Lucky.
Miss Evans put her hands on the table and stood up, knocking the chair back, but I quickly grabbed it before it could fall. She stared down at the table for a moment, then picked up the pack of Marlboros and her purse, then put down the cigarettes again while she clicked open the purse. She stared into the purse.
“Where’s my cigarettes?” she asked.
I picked the Marlboros up and dropped them into the purse.
“Why thank you, Arnold.”
I put a hand under her arm, the way I had seen men do in movies if not so much in real life.
“Unbelievable,” said Lucky.
“Oh, wait,” said Miss Evans. “Where’s my umbrella?”
“It’s hanging on a hook by the door,” said Lucky.
“Oh, good. And thank you ever so much for giving me lunch, Mr. Lucky. We’ll talk again soon.”
“About contracts and things.”
“Why don’t you let me give you a lift home? I’ve got my Jag right outside.”
“No thank you, you see I simply adore walking in the rain.”
“Why don’t I draw up the papers and I’ll meet you say later this evening.”
“Oh my so soon.”
“I’d like to strike while the iron is hot.”
“It’s not as if all Hollywood is beating down my door dear boy.”
“How about I pick you up at seven say. I’ll take you to dinner.”
“Lunch and dinner in one day, oh my.”
I gave her arm a gentle tug.
“So I’ll pick you up at seven then,” said Lucky.
She shrugged her arm away from my hand and opened up her purse again, took out her cigarettes.
“Wait,” she said, looking at Lucky, “you don’t even know where I’m staying.”
“Of course I know where you’re staying,” he said.
She took out a cigarette, dropped the rest of the pack back into her purse, snapped it shut.
“Wait,” she said. “How do you know where I’m staying?”
“You told me. Heh heh.”
She put the cigarette in her lips, and -- just to annoy Lucky, who was reaching for his lighter -- I stepped in between him and Miss Evans, laid my umbrella on the table, and in one fluid motion grabbed the book of Pilot House matches off the tablecloth, tore a match off, and gave Miss Evans a light.
Exhaling smoke she touched the gold ring on my left hand as I shook out the match with my right hand.
“Where did you get this ring, Arnold?” she asked.
“Um, Mr. Arbuthnot gave it to me.”
I tossed the match into the ashtray on the table, picked up my umbrella again.
“Who the hell is Mr. Arbuthnot?” she said.
“A little old man who runs a curio shop on Washington Street.”
“Oh, bother these little old men! I’ve never seen so many little old men as in this benighted town.”
Her accent had gotten English again.
Lucky wasn’t even looking at her now. He was looking at me.
“So now you have the ring,” he said.
“Why can’t he have a ring?” said Miss Evans.
“No reason,” said Lucky. “No reason at all.”
“You know, old chap,” she said to him, “I really don’t remember telling you where I’m stopping.”
“Sure you did. You’re ‘stopping’ at Arnold’s aunts’ house.”
“Oh. So I must have told you,” she said in her normal accent, or anyway her most-normal accent.
“Let’s make it seven o’clock then,” said Lucky. “I’ll swing by in the Jag, we’ll take a run out to the Lobster House. You like lobster?”
“I adore lobster but oh no I just remembered I shall be otherwise engaged.”
“Yes, I promised Arnold here I’d meet him for drinks this evening at Phil’s Tavern.”
“Phil’s Tavern? Where’s Phil’s Tavern?”
“Pete’s Tavern,” I interpolated.
“That’s what I said,” said Miss Evans.
“Oh. Pete’s,” said Lucky. “The Negro bar.”
“Yes,” said Miss Evans. “Filled with joyous happy Negroes!”
“I don’t know what they have to be so joyous about,” said Lucky. He was quite blatantly staring at my ring now.
“No need to get all in an uproar,” said Miss Evans.
He didn’t say anything.
I gave her arm a pull, we went over to the coat rack, she found her umbrella, or at any rate she took an umbrella, all the while talking about how she was pretty sure this was her umbrella. As a gentleman should, I let her go out the door first.
I glanced back. Lucky was still standing over there, looking at me.
Ursula was playing another saxophone solo, and Freddy and Magda played along on their respective instruments, seemingly lost in their music even though no one in the crowded room seemed to be listening.
I followed Miss Evans out the doorway.
(Continued here, as is only meet and just.)
(Please look to the right hand side of this page for a listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©, the perfect thing to read on your iPhone as you grimly ride the train to and from that mind-numbing job, if you still have a job.)