The train halted to a stop, wheezing as it approached the abandoned train depot. Humid air engulfed Louise as she stepped down from the passenger car and into the arid flatland of Illinois. The oppressive heat of the sun scalded the land and Louise felt herself perspire under its gaze. The steel train tracks were stitched to the earth like a long zipper. Clouds of dust would kick up in the air by the subtle arid breezes that only made the humidity stronger such that Louise felt as though there was a hot furnace being pressed up against her skin. She was dressed demurely in a white silk gown with a taffeta slip with dyed gold sandals and a white handbag. She had made the bold choice to wear makeup, her lipstick the shade of crushed rose petals that looked soft and delicate against the ivory pallor of her skin. The heat had wilted her chignon, making her chestnut hair fall limp at the sides of cheeks. She was the only person that got off the train.
She was sure that this was the middle of nowhere; the only sounds were that of steel crying out in pain due to the heat pounding down on its flesh and irrevocably warping it. Louise raised a hand to shade her eyes and looked across the train depot to see dormant freight trains limp and waiting against a tall, cracked wooden fence. The highway ran just overhead with cars rushing past and hitting Louise’s ears like the sound of waves crashing on a distant shore. It was as if the highway above this desolate place made it forgotten by the collective imagination.
Every once in a while, an automated voice from the overhead speakers would tell of another train being delayed. As Louise crossed the tracks from the small and insignificant train kiosk, she was surprised to see a turquoise and white taxi mini-van pull up, the rubber wheels of the van’s tires grated against the gravel and halted to a stop. In the driver’s seat Louise identified a rather burly looking man with long brown hair, heavy eyebrows and a suspect looking mustache.
She watched as he tilted his mirror to the back seat. Louise crossed the tracks curiously. She was not in the mood to make friends. Her liver felt scalded by the vitriolic acid of disappointment such to the point where the bitterness that corrupted her blood began licking and seeping through the skin of her heart.
Louise watched as the woman exited the mini-van cab and withdrew a gargantuan rolling suitcase and a heaving fuchsia purse with blonde leather straps. The woman wore perfectly ironed white shorts, a billowing black silk tunic and black and white espadrilles. Her eyes were obscured by large, ovular jet black designer sunglasses and her chocolate brown hair was piled high upon her head in a tousled ponytail. Her skin was richly pigmented in a deep olive tone and her cheeks were lush, adding a childlike fullness to her face. She smiled at Louise.
Louise eschewed the woman’s kind gesture, turning in profile to gaze at the perforated orange construction fence that bordered an abandoned orange bulldozer.
She listened as the woman’s rolling suitcase kicked up the gravel, a cloud of dust billowing behind her. The closer the woman with the luggage got the less Louise wanted to interact with her. All the same, the woman was fast approaching, her face beaming in a grin. Louise snarled and contorted her features into a maudlin mask, her makeup melting fast like an aging movie star or a pathetic clown. The woman joined Louise on the asphalt strip by the standalone kiosk. Louise folded her arms across her chest. Ten minutes passed.
“Are the trains always like this?” The woman asked while peering at Louise through her Jackie Onassis sunglasses. They were the only people at the station. Louise turned to her and exhaled loudly, her body tired from waiting.
“No, not usually. If this ever happened on a daily basis Metra would be out of business.”
Twenty minutes passed and the automated voice over the speakers kept repeating the message of train delays, adding on more minutes to an already significant number that had passed.
The woman sat on her large rolling suitcase and turned on a video. Louise listened to the sound of a giggling baby and turned her head to see the woman watching a video on her phone. Had Louise’s bitterness subsided she would have asked the woman about it, but another part of her chafed at the idea the woman might have done it to inspire conversation.
Would if she was one of those proud moms who always wanted to gloat about their kids? Louise had no intention of having kids, at least not yet; she had experienced a hormonal glitch by means of the maternal gene and was constantly made to feel like an outcast by the women in her family for it. The last thing Louise wanted was to be stranded in the middle of nowhere on a hot, dusty day pretending to care about something she didn’t. The laughing baby video ended and Louise sighed a breath of relief.
When it was made clear that the train would never arrive at the station, when the steel tracks were warped like a bowl of limp noodles, Louise reneged and called her father. After three dropped calls they finally got a connection.
“I’m at Berkeley.” Louise said into the mouth of the phone. She listened to the sound of his shock on the other end of-—a sharp intake of air, an agitated retort.
“Berkeley?!” He said, aghast. “Why didn’t they let you off at Elmhurst?” Louise said nothing, preferring to let the skin of her elbow dig into the grains of wood at the standalone kiosk.
“Well, find me the address and I’ll look for you.” He said after the shock had passed. Louise wanted a martini and a sandwich so badly that she told the woman with the luggage. The woman looked at Louise through her black sunglasses and nodded in agreement.
“Oh god,” the woman with the luggage said, “Me too!”
Louise felt her phone vibrate in her white leather handbag, and unzipping it quickly, was happy to see it was her father. She answered it only to get another dropped call. He left a voicemail.
“I’m going to follow the train tracks,” He said in the message.
“So what were you going to the city for today?” The woman asked Louise. Louise, who was leaning against the kiosk, turned her gaze from the abandoned bulldozer to the woman with the luggage.
“Job interview.” She said. “It was going to be my big break. Then this train delay for forty-five minutes outside Elmhurst and they wouldn’t open the doors until we got to this godforsaken station and I just got out, I was so frustrated. I figured there’d be another train back or it’d be easy to find, but my dad’s had no luck at all.” The woman tilted her chin and turned her lips down sympathetically.
“I’m sorry.” She said. Louise shrugged her shoulders and felt tears welling up in her eyes, she was grateful she was wearing sunglasses as she always hated crying in front of strangers.
“It’s fine,” Louise said, lying. “What about you?” She asked the woman.
“I was visiting my in-laws with my husband and son in Minnesota. I landed at O’Hare and my GPS said that Berkeley was the nearest train station.”
“I bet you’re regretting that.” Louise said.
“I am!” laughed the woman.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask,” Louise said, curtailing the woman’s laughter, “My name’s Louise, what’s yours?”
“Maggie.” The woman said. The women exchanged a smile and Louise felt her bag vibrate, it was her father.
“Wow! The first call that hasn’t dropped, that’s a miracle!” Louise said into the phone.
“Don’t jinx it!” Said her father. “Now, can you look up the street name?” He asked. “Yes!” She said and walked from the asphalt strip to the gravel parkway and up to the cracked limestone sidewalk covered in oxidized and mutilated apples.
In order to get to the train station one had to go through a disarming residential neighborhood whose corroded garage doors and chipped, water-damaged houses conveyed a message of hostility to any etic if they so happened to chance upon this desolate row of houses.
The heat was especially oppressive as it weighed down upon Louise’s shoulders as she leered over the cracked sidewalk to look up at the street sign.
“It’s Park Avenue and Arthur Avenue.” Louise said into the phone. For a moment her dad did not respond. Louise worried the call had dropped. She felt her nerves corrupted once more by her agitation and the heat.
“Ok…” He responded back after a beat. Louise rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. She felt her skin becoming more taut and dry and stained with red the longer she stood under the sun. She looked down at her shadow that branded the sidewalk and then back up at Maggie. The two women smiled at each other in solidarity, two strangers becoming friends in the middle of nowhere.
“It’s so hot!” Louise said.
“Hey, at least it’s not freezing…” Maggie said, eluding to the frigid Midwestern winters.
“So where were you supposed to go?” Louise asked. Maggie looked at the wrinkles running through the palms of her hands before mooning over her manicured nails.
“Geneva.” She said, sighing. Louise perked up at the sound of rubber tires pulling against the gravel parkway billowing up clouds of white dust. She identified the car as her father’s. Sure enough in the passenger seat there he was, wearing his signature silk button down shirt and sunglasses.
“You wouldn’t find it creepy if I suggested you come with us? We’re going to Geneva.” Louise said.
“Oh my god! Not at all!” Maggie said in excitement. Louise’s father peeled himself from the driver’s seat and rushed towards Maggie’s luggage, promptly sticking it in the trunk.
“Dad, this is Maggie.” Louise said.
“Hi, Maggie!” He said in reply. Louise’s father was a short and round man with a physique similar to a bulldog and he bore a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway. His voice was like Santa Claus, an illustrious baritone. Louise smiled at hearing his voice again without it being hindered by technology. He hugged his daughter happily and Louise slipped in the back seat allowing Maggie the front seat. Both women sighed as the air conditioning blew through the vent.
“Now girls,” Louise’s father said after they’d exited the citadel, “Never get off at Berkeley!” Maggie and Louise looked at each other and laughed.
Louise and her father sat together at the patio table, serenaded by the chorus of crickets and cicadas ricocheting across the garden. The lawn was dry and blanched due to the insufferable heat. Louise’s father clipped his Amish cigar, the cardamom and tobacco scent pungent in the humid air. Louise nibbled on her cold chicken sandwich.
“Now,” He said, putting the cigar between his lips and puffing on it while lighting it with his tarnished butane lighter. “I’ve come to the conclusion had you not gotten off at Berkeley, that poor Maggie would be lying dead on the side of the road somewhere in that abysmal neighborhood like flattened out vermin.”
Louise set down her sandwich and felt the hair on her body bristle. She pushed away the dish and wiped her mouth with the napkin.
“I’m sorry,” He said, realizing he’d eviscerated Louise’s appetite.
“No, it’s fine.” Louise said, her eyes darting over to an apple red monarch butterfly that landed on an empty patio chair. She looked back at her father who eyed her with concern. He set down his cigar on his ceramic ashtray and reached for her hand.
“You didn’t miss you chance,” He told her. “I know you think you did, but you didn’t.” Louise felt her eyes begin to water and the sharp prick of sadness grasp her heart.