Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 450 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories,Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr,and LGBTQ: 33 Stories,and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories,published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
A Death in the Dining Car
By Steve Carr
Snow and sleet battered the windows of the observation car as the train slowed to a crawl along the ice-covered tracks. The men dressed in expensive tweed and sheep’s-wool traveling attire smoked cigars, drank brandy from crystal snifters, and talked of the stock market and the current price of gold, while keeping a wary eye on the drifting snow that covered the desolate landscape. It had been miles and miles since a man-made structure had been seen, a weathered, slightly leaning barn, standing alone on a hill far in the distance. Some thought it was where cattle or other livestock were kept safe from the winter elements; others claimed it was deserted, a type of decaying symbol of an era long gone. The women played Mahjong while sipping sherry and pulled their cashmere capes around their bare arms and exposed necks, fending off the chill that permeated the car despite the train attendant’s attempts to increase the heat that flowed into the compartment. With each sudden lurch of the train, the voices in the car were momentarily silenced as everyone turned their sights on the blizzard that swept across the prairie, the conversations resuming minutes later as if what was being said had been frozen in mid-speech, and then just as quickly thawed.
I thought myself to be very lucky to have been given the gift of this transcontinental train trip. My very wealthy Aunt Velda, my mother’s older sister, who surprised me with the ticket to travel with her from Montreal to Vancouver had remained in her private car for most of the trip, preferring to be alone and read than to spend time among strangers. “Have fun and make friends, my boy,” she said whenever I reluctantly left her to spend time in some other section of the train. She called me a boy, although I had reached my twenty-fourth birthday just a month prior to taking the trip. I lacked the sophistication for the crowd who congregated in the observation car, smoking car, bar, lounge and dining room designated for first class passengers. Unlike my aunt who married into a wealthy family, my mother had wed my father, a man of meager means who was satisfied with being a fireman and never aspired to anything higher. Aunt Velda, who had never had children, only took real interest in me after her husband died, leaving her in need of a traveling companion. In summer months while on break from university I traveled with her to Spain, England and France. She taught me as much as she could about how to blend in with the well-to-do, but while I managed some of the affectations of being rich, Aunt Velda frequently reminded me, “You’re very rough around the edges, my boy.”
It was while I was sitting in an overstuffed chair, a brandy snifter grasped in my hand, that the train came to a complete stop. Along with everyone else I peered out at the blinding white landscape and waited for someone else to say something.
“Is this usual for this train?” Mrs. Ballard, a widow with dark, heavy bags under her eyes asked as she pulled her cape tightly around her stocky body. Her daughter, Amanda, statuesque, brunette and gorgeous, sat across from her, swirling an ice cube around an empty glass that had been filled with a Long Island iced tea.
“It has finally stopped to let on that poor man who has been running after it since it left Winnipeg,” Parker Upton, a high-priced lawyer from New York replied, resulting in a release of relieved laughter from everyone in the car.
Tom Skittle, the porter came into the car. “We apologize for the inconvenience,” he said, “but the train is unable to make it any further through the snow drift piled on the tracks until morning. We can dig our way through it then.”
“Everyone have your galoshes and shovels ready at sunrise,” Parker said as he raised his half-filled snifter.
Dressed in the white dinner jacket Aunt Velda bought for me in Montreal, specifically to be worn for the evening meals on this trip, I stood looking through the window in the door of the last car in the first class section, and the last car on the train, I saw the purple and pink rays of twilight’s sky reflected from the snow that blanketed the ground for as far as the eye could see. The snow continued to fall; thick flakes that drifted to the ground like feathers caught in wayward breezes. Earlier in the passageway I heard mention of sightings of arctic fox and snowshoe hares, but there was no life to be seen, not even the otherwise ubiquitous hawk or crow. Out of nervous habit and with no other use for it since I didn’t smoke, I clicked up and down the lid of the silver lighter Aunt Velda had given me as one of the many college graduation gifts she had bestowed on me. At the time that I had taken it out of its black felt box I didn’t know she intended on having me travel with her across Canada. There was talk of traveling by ship to Bermuda, but not to the north – during winter. The fragrance that crept up behind me was familiar; the expensive perfume worn by Amanda. I turned.
She stood less than a foot away, her footsteps having been muted by the plush burgundy carpet that extended down the four car-lengths of first class passageway. She was lit by the soft glow of the lights encased in etched glass that hung in exact-length intervals along the walls. She was dressed in a strapless, pale pink, satin, floor-length gown that clung to her shapely body. A matching silk jacket was draped over her right arm as if it was a fashion afterthought. She was a year younger than me and had just graduated from Vassar, but years ahead of me in class. She had been bred to live a privileged life.
“Isn’t is exciting?” she said, nudging me aside enough to peer out the frost-covered window.
After several days of traveling, this was the first time when there weren’t others around. I wasn’t actually attracted to her in the romantic sense, but I found her fascinating; like observing an exotic fish through the glass of an aquarium.
“Why is it exciting?” I asked.
“Here we are, stuck on a train in a blizzard and mountains of snow out in the middle of nowhere,” she replied breathlessly, “and Lobster Newberg is on the menu for tonight’s dinner. It’s all simply poetic.”
“Is this your first cross-country train ride?” I asked.
“Yes, it is,” she replied merrily. “We usually travel on my father’s yacht, but one can’t do that crossing Canada, can one?” She flicked her head, rearranging the way her hair cascaded over her shoulders. “Are you well-traveled?” she asked.
“Thanks to my aunt I’ve traveled a little.”
She turned her head and glanced down the passageway at the doors leading into the private compartments. “I’ve seen but not had the pleasure of meeting your aunt,” she said.
She doesn’t seem to leave her compartment very often.”
“She isn’t a very social being,” I said. “She’ll be accompanying me to dinner tonight though. I’ll introduce you to her.”
“That would be simply poetic,” she replied. She glanced at her watch. “Oh my, dinner will be served in twenty minutes. I like to find seats at the table before Mr. and Mrs. Rubadeu arrive so that I can get the chair by the window. The Rubadeu’s are very kind, but very French, if you know what I mean.” She flicked her head again. “Do stop by our table and introduce your aunt to us.” She turned and rushed down the passageway, disappearing through the doors leading to the dining car.
Standing in Aunt Velda’s private compartment I stared out the window and watched the shade of night spread across the snowscape, turning white to a monochromatic gray scale and the glistening falling snowflakes to the color of ash. The wind whistled beyond the glass as if being emitted by collapsing lungs expelling their last breath. From inside her private bath Aunt Velda hummed a tune I’d not heard from her before; in fact she rarely if ever hummed. Looking at my reflection in the window pane, I straightened my black bow tie and smoothed back my hair made slick and glossy with pomade scented with something similar to the faint aroma of cinnamon. On the pomade can the label said it was from India and had a picture of the Taj Mahal on the lid. Aunt Velda had bought it for me in a shop in London. It had remained unopened in my travel bag until this trip. I glanced at my watch and turned from the window.
“They’re going to be serving dinner in a few minutes, Aunt Velda,” I called out.
She opened the door, stood in the doorway, and held her arms out wide. “How do I look, my boy?”
She was dressed entirely in white satin covered with lace with a string of black pearls that hung from her neck; the only jewelry she wore. Her gown reached down to her shoes. Her white gloves stretched to her elbows. She was both stunning and slightly comic in appearance at the same time. There was nothing about how she looked that suggested everything she wore wasn’t new, but she could easily have stepped out of the pages of a bridal magazine from another era. She was sixty-four, fourteen years older than my mother, and grew up during the 1950’s and sixties, although none of that mattered at the moment. She looked timeless, ageless.
“What are you dressed up for?” I asked, careful to not sound as shocked as I felt.
“This is for Walter,” she said. She pointed at the door leading from her compartment to the passageway. “Be the gentleman you’ve turned into and open the door.”
“Who’s Walter?” I asked as I walked across the room and opened the door.
“My first husband.” She walked out as I stared at her, mouth agape.
Following behind her questions swirled about in my brain. This was the first time I had ever heard of my aunt having two husbands. My Uncle Leonard who she had been married to for as long as I could remember had died five years before from cancer. Her grief at his passing was real although he left behind a great deal of real estate, stocks, and a large savings which made her independently wealthy. I searched my memory for some recall of an Uncle Walter ever being mentioned by my parents or anyone else, and came up blank. We entered the dining room just as the wine stewards had begun to show the evening’s wine lists to the seated passengers.
During evening meals, everyone sat at the same table – four to a table – they had been assigned to at the beginning of the trip. Breakfast, brunch and lunch you could set wherever you wanted. We shared a table with an older German couple who were amiable, but spoke very little English. They spoke in French to my aunt, who was fluent in that language, but she seldom dined in the dining car, preferring to eat alone, leaving me to sit quietly during dinner, concentrating on the expensive foods arranged on my plate. As we made our way down the aisle between the two rows of tables line up along the windows, my aunt politely nodded her head at the other passengers who stared at her and what she was wearing with a mixture of looks, from amusement to shock. At Amanda’s table we stopped while I introduced my aunt to Amanda.
“Your dress is so poetic,” Amanda said to Aunt Velda.
“What a lovely young thing you are,” my aunt replied.
We took our seats at our table. Aunt Velda conversed in French with the German couple until we ordered wine and then our meals. It took several large gulps of a Riesling white wine and for the German couple to turn their attentions to one another before I was finally able to ask Aunt Velda the question that was burning a hole through my skull. “What do you mean this Walter guy was your first husband?” I asked her in a hushed voice as if I was asking about the secret location of buried treasure.
She glanced out the window and then looked into my eyes as if seeing them for the first time. “I had just turned eighteen and was on this very train on my way to university in Vancouver, when I met an American soldier, Walter Youngston, who was on leave and taking a leisure trip across Canada before he was due to be deployed to Vietnam. It may be considered romantic fantasy, but it was love at first sight for both of us.”
The waiter placed our salads in front of us, turned and left.
She continued. “By the time the train pulled into the station in Vancouver we were engaged to marry. We got off the train, rented a car and drove to Seattle where we married. Two weeks later he went to Vietnam where he was killed in combat nine days later. We had told no one we knew that we had married and I never have, until now. I was a war widow before I had turned nineteen.”
She took a sip of her wine. “What I’m wearing is a remake of the wedding dress I bought in Seattle and wore during the ceremony at the court house.” She clutched the pearls. “These were the gift he gave me as a wedding present. Strange that being black was almost an omen of what was to come.”
I was stunned into speechless for several moments before I said anything. “So you brought me along on this trip to celebrate some kind of anniversary?”
“Yes, but I didn’t expect the train to stop near the very place where he and I first met.”
I looked out the window, at the landscape shrouded by night. “You’re not suggesting . . . ?”
“Who knows? There are mysterious forces at work in the world and maybe this is one of them, but that’s neither here or there. His death has taken on yet another meaning for me seated here in this dining car after so many years when all I had was my memories of him, ” she replied and then took another sip of wine.
In the afternoon sunlight the snow sparkled as if diamonds were scattered among the snowflakes. Amanda stood in a snowdrift holding a perfectly formed snowball in her gloved hands. The train whistle blew twice, indicating the tracks were cleared and it was prepared to continue on. The passengers who had disembarked to frolic in the snow began to board the train. Amanda’s snowball hit me squarely on the side of the head just as I looked up to see Aunt Velda watching us from her compartment window, a huge smile on her face.