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|Publisher:||The Permanent Press (ORD)|
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Night Train Blues
By Edward Hower
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1996 Edward Hower
All rights reserved.
I picture an ocean liner floating beneath a black and silver sky. Carnival lights outline the tall smokestacks, pastel paper lanterns sway along the railings, and the portholes gleam like rows of gold buttons. The moon drifts on the wake of the ship, slipping up and down the waves.
I hear dance music splashing onto the decks from the ballroom, where a 1920s theme party is in full swing. Cutouts of flappers and Stutz Bearcats are hung at crazy angles on the walls. Over the dance floor a revolving mirrored globe releases swarms of sparkling butterflies. Men in white dinner jackets dip and glide; women in ball gowns throw their heads back and click their heels on the parquet.
I picture myself as the band leader in a smart blue uniform and a cap with a shiny black bill. When I croon into the microphone, Yes sir, that's my baby, waves of gaiety wash back and forth across the floor.
The dance contest is beginning. Smiling, I step down off the bandstand and dart among the couples. Whenever I tap a man's shoulder with my baton, the couple has to stop dancing and leave the floor. The young ones go first. Then I search out the middle-aged men who have kept themselves trim with lifetimes of polo and golf, and women whose breakfasts of mare's milk or whatever they drink has kept them willowy. These couples I cut down with flourishes of my wand, bringing it to rest on the backs of necks like the tip of a sword blade.
The captain has given me strict orders about which couple is to win: a beaming bald tycoon and a young blonde woman with a face like painted china. I have other ideas.
Only one other couple remains on the floor now. They're good, especially him, a tall, hawk-nosed man with a shock of gray hair rising from his forehead. The woman, fortyish, slender, bespectacled, seems to be fueled by champagne and a kind of ecstacy. What can be getting into her tonight?
It must be the cruise: finally being here among the sort of elegant people she could only have dreamed of during her grim childhood. Even her best friend from the 1920s, a woman who writes to her about holidays on exotic islands and nights at the opera — even she would envy her now.
As the band goes into a final Charleston, I strut around the dance floor, my baton bobbing in the air before me. All eyes follow me. Ladies squeal behind gloved fingers; men stomp their feet like a crowd at a public execution.
Who is to be slashed and who spared? I half-shut my eyes, spin in place, and bring my baton down on the nearest shoulder.
Did fate decide? No, that spin was just to please the audience and to deceive the captain, who glowers at me now like God in epaulets from the shadows behind the bandstand.
The deadly wand has touched the tycoon. Holding his drooping partner, he shuffles to a halt and bows briefly toward the winners.
The lucky couple freezes for the camera. Its flash turns them incandescent — hands touching at arm's length, knees bent, heads back. The man looks as smug as I knew he would. But the woman's face amazes me with its beauty. I snatch up the tall winner's cup and run with it across the floor, pumping it high into the air to make the applause flutter down like cascades of silver leaves.
Later, I roam the decks watching the phosphorescent waves roll past the ship. The captain, undeceived by my act, has fired me, and now my baton floats somewhere on the ship's wake.
I hear voices nearby and duck behind a funnel. The winners pass by. The woman holds her husband's arm and hums something in a high, small voice. A champagne bottle swings in her free hand. She raises her face, bathing it in the glow from the paper lanterns that bob on strings overhead. The deck tilts gently; snatches of dance music fly on the breeze with the scent of salt spray. She pulls the tall cup from under her husband's arm and gazes at it. Though it is only tin — I've given away dozens of the things — it seems to gleam like a grail. Now she sloshes champagne into it, raises it to his lips, then to hers.
They stagger off down a corridor. I perch precariously on a railing as they rush into their stateroom. The porthole's round glass turns them into contorted, enchanted figures in a fish-eye camera lens. They fall onto the bunk, and the whole ship seems to rock with the impact. My stomach tilts; I clutch the railing to keep from tumbling off. One lantern remains stationary as the others sway around it: the moon.
The woman in the lens turns onto her back, her gown and petticoats rising above her white thighs. She spreads her knees as if to absorb moonbeams into her womb. The man kneels over her, his suspenders fallen. He raises the bottle. Champagne splashes over her. She screams, laughs, the bubbles sizzling on her bare skin.
I turn away quickly — I lose my balance on the railing — I tilt backwards — and plunge toward the waves. The spray rises fast. As the phosphorescence closes around me, I hear a woman's voice singing: "Yes, sir, that's my baby, that's my baby now."
The next morning, my parents go for a walk on deck, feeling sheepish, blurry, amazed. When couples from the dance nod at them, they smile back, shivering with the thrill of their social success. Someone raises a camera and click! they're frozen in a strange lock-stepped stroll.
Do they know that what they have done the night before will keep them locked to each other for another twenty years? No, no. In the brilliant sunlight of a cloudless day on the open sea, the notion that a child might have been conceived on moonbeams and champagne cannot have occurred to them.
Years later, fascinated by old photos I found in the attic, I began to make up stories about the people in them. I pictured myself among them, and we all took on lives of our own.
Some of the photos I remember most vividly may never have existed; what I'm recalling are sepia-toned scenes I made up out of scraps of information that fell my way. Notes found scribbled on envelopes, old postcards, ends of overheard conversations, snatches of songs that stuck in my mind — they all helped me to fill in the blank pages in my family's life, past and present.
I jumped into those gaps, too, picturing myself in important roles. I think I wanted to do more than fill in the dark, empty places in my family's life; I wanted to change it. Of course I didn't succeed.
But anything is better than a blank page.
I remember looking for photos of my arrival in Connecticut as a new-born baby. Miss Gilly, the English nanny my mother had hired in a panic a week before my birth, told me that I rode home in a laundry basket in the back of a station wagon. The basket was packed with soft towels to keep me cushioned from the bumps in the road. She said that when the car stopped in front of the big white house, my mother, sitting beside the driver, opened her eyes slowly and squinted around the yard as if she expected my father to rush out to meet her from behind a tree or a rock. "He's not even here," she said, finally. "I need a drink."
Years later, at a cocktail party, I heard my mother say to a woman in a white fur stole, "Of course, when Jerrett arrived home, his father was there with his camera."
I found no photos of this event. But I could picture Robert, my nine-year-old brother, waiting all day for me to arrive from the hospital in New York. Now he lifted the back of the station wagon and found me lying in my basket. The bill of his blue baseball cap shaded me from the pale winter sun. Giving off a scent of soap flakes, I smiled up peacefully at him.
My mother leaned against the car door, looking exhausted. Well-to-do women of her age — 42 — didn't have babies; she'd never dreamed anything like this could happen to her. Her cheeks were caved in; tangled hair made a blur in front of her glasses. When she saw my brother thrusting an orangish-colored teddy bear into my face, she cried, "No, Robert! I just got him quiet!"
"I won't hurt him!" Robert blinked fast, his facial tic acting up. He saw me waving my arms as if to reach out for his present, and the worried look on his round face turned into a grin.
My mother tried to push the bear away. I groped for it and started to screech.
Then Miss Gilly intervened. She lifted me expertly from the basket and squashed me against her soft chest. I rose to what must have seemed like a great height, though she was actually short and squat. She smelled of peppermints. I liked the soft hair on her forearms; her white uniform felt like tissue paper against my face. With her smiling poppy eyes, she looked like a red-cheeked frog.
Dropping the orange bear, Robert rushed away. He ran past the house and into the woods at the bottom of the hill. I stared after him as he vanished among the trees.
My mother walked slowly through the front door. Her footsteps echoed on the stairs. Her bedroom door shut behind her with a thud. She stayed in her room for a month. Miss Gilly had to bring her meals, cigarettes, and ice cubes three times a day.
"When you arrived, that woman handed over the house to me," Miss Gilly told me years later. "I might have known that one day she'd want it back."
"Where did Robert go?" I asked Miss Gilly, as we watched cocktail party guests arrive from behind my window. I was intrigued that I was now nearly the same age my brother had been when I was born.
Miss Gilly shook her head. My brother's movements were as much a mystery to her as to everyone else.
We were having our afternoon tea in the little room off the kitchen where, with Miss Gilly in the room next to mine, I'd spent the first eight years of my life. I loved the cluttered, barricaded feeling of our rooms, which had once been the servants' quarters. Remembering a story Miss Gilly had read me, I'd pictured our wing of the house as a thatched peasant cottage tucked under the high battlements of a haunted castle. At night, the castle filled with muffled reverberations, as if my parents were stamping around, bumping into furniture and each other.
More cars rolled up the driveway. My mother's preparations for this particular party had been even more elaborate than usual. Caterers and butlers were hired. The piano was polished until it glowed. The grass was mowed so that the lawn was laid out in formal green stripes from the terrace down to the edge of the woods. Along the driveway, petals were raked from around the flowering dogwood trees that shone in the sun like red and purple parasols.
The cars that passed my window were boxy four-door sedans, no convertibles, no flashy colors. They parked side by side on the lawn. Out of them stepped men in light summer slacks and sports jackets to open women's doors. The women walked precariously in long dresses and high-heeled shoes across the grass. My parents greeted them at the front door. My mother laughed determinedly. My father smiled, holding a man's elbow to steer him inside.
I sipped my tea as slowly as possible. On my table a miniature turtle floated in a glass bowl, its legs and head motionless in the water. Miss Gilly had recently given it to me. Each week after her day off, she brought home small gifts to make up for having left me "alone in the house." On the turtle's back was a painting of a boat, some sort of river barge. My mother said that the turtle was going to suffocate because of the painting. Miss Gilly promised me, though, that the picture wouldn't hurt it — why else were they called "painted turtles"? I worried about this, though, and often poked it with my finger to make sure that it could still move.
Sitting at the window beside me in a lumpy old housecoat, Miss Gilly sipped her tea slowly, too. The clicking of her knitting needles kept a steady, quiet rhythm. She was making me a sweater; her chins quivered as she moved her lips to count stitches. Suddenly she heard my mother's voice in the kitchen next door, and dropped a stitch.
"You'd better go change now, Jerry," she sighed, and glanced at my dungarees. I'd been picking dried mud from them under the table.
"I haven't finished my tea." I pushed my tongue deep inside the cup to get at the melted sugar at the bottom. "Why do I always have to go meet the guests? Robert doesn't have to!" A few moments ago, I'd seen my brother headed out toward the toolshed, pounding a tennis ball into his baseball glove. He played games of catch with himself against the side of the shed for hours at a time.
"Listen, dear, d'you think I like going out there with all those people? I have to stand there until your mother comes and takes you away." Miss Gilly pressed her lips together. "Right, and then I'm supposed to come creeping back to the scullery. Like I was a servant!"
"Aren't you a servant?"
"Certainly not!" Her cheeks went dark pink. "A nanny isn't a servant! When I was in Europe with the embassy family, they invited me to meet the guests at their parties. I mingled, I did. I went on trips with them too." She filled her mouth with a party canapé and chewed it slowly. "In Egypt, we drove out to look at the pyramids in a car with the British ambassador himself. That car had cut-glass vases next to the windows, with real flowers in them."
"Is that where you went up in a balloon?"
"No, dear. That was Paris, France."
"I want to go to those places."
"I dare say you will, one day." She sighed.
"What else did you see in Egypt?" I asked, hoping to hear the story about her trip down the Nile.
"You're stalling, Jerry."
I glanced outdoors, then suddenly leaned forward, my forehead touching the window. "What's that?"
A cream-colored whale was heading up the driveway toward the house. I'd never seen such a huge car. Its windows were so dark that whoever was inside was hidden from view. The silver spokes of the wheels blurred like pinwheels. The huge gleaming tail-fins were studded in back with lights that glowed and tinted the air red.
The car stopped. A man in a uniform and black-billed cap walked quickly around the nose of the car. He pulled open the back door, gazing straight ahead as if forbidden to look upon whoever might emerge. I wanted to wear a uniform and drive a car like that.
A small, plump, ordinary-looking man stepped out.
Then a woman emerged in a blur of colors. She wore a silky green dress with a white fur stole over her shoulders. Her hair, which she shook away from her face with a toss of her head, was as red as the car's taillights. She put a cigarette in an ivory holder between her lips. The man reached up — the woman was taller than he was — and produced a flame right out of his fist like a magician. Her head tilted back. She exhaled a thin stream of smoke. I waited to see what she would do next. Her face broke into a wide red-lipped smile as she saw my father coming down the walk toward her.
"Fancy her being here," Miss Gilly said from behind me.
"Why shouldn't she be?" I asked.
Miss Gilly rolled her eyes: another secret. The house was full of secrets. They collected along the clean white ceilings of the rooms like cobwebs which everyone pretended not to notice and which I was too small to reach.
I watched my mother take my father's arm. Then she did something even more unusual — she suddenly embraced the woman. Her eyes were closed tight on the woman's shoulder as if she were about to cry. Then for a moment they stood staring at each other. As the woman glided through the front door, I pushed my forehead against the glass. Miss Gilly yanked me back by my shirt collar.
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Laura Miller ... the husband used to be a business partner of your father's in New York. That was years ago, before your parents moved out here." Miss Gilly narrowed her eyes. "The four of them used to be thick as thieves, the way I heard it."
"Don't you like her?" I asked.
"It's nothing to do with me, I'm sure." Miss Gilly steered me toward the door, her hand warm on my neck. "Go on upstairs, now. You can bring your turtle with you," she said. "Don't let your mother see you in those filthy trousers. We don't want a row this evening."
Walking stiffly in her too-tight beige suit, Miss Gilly led me onto the terrace. I wore my white pants and blue Sunday school blazer. My combed wet hair dripped under my collar.
Excerpted from Night Train Blues by Edward Hower. Copyright © 1996 Edward Hower. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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