originally published in The Long Story, No. 15.
Yesterday morning, before she left home, Rita’s hand slipped while she was ironing her blue cotton skirt. The iron pressed against her forearm, skin sticking to the metal like white wax. The first moment of clear and painless shock repeats itself and she feels nausea afterward each time. To keep her mind occupied, she lists objective facts, things removed from the memory, over and over. The seats are red vinyl. It is 1964. Her finger marks page ninety-six in Tender is the Night. She is sixteen years old, vice-president of the East Aurora High School Latin Club. President Kennedy is dead. She is on a train full of other Chicago students heading for a summer conference in Bozeman, Montana. The flesh underneath the gauze bandage itches and throbs–she had convinced her mother the burn was not as painful as it looked–and as she watches the darkening Minnesota landscape slide by in the train window, she thinks of how she would die for a bathroom with running water, soap and clean bandages.
They have been on the train for a day and a half, picking up a carload of students in Milwaukee and another in Minneapolis. Her traveling companion, the only other person she knows on the train, is the Latin Club’s president, Jim Stevens. Jim is a straight-A student, a track star in the long-jump, seventeen and destined–Rita will find out years later–for Princeton, then Johns Hopkins. He is thin, long-boned, six-foot-three and black. He sits across the aisle from Rita, playing cards with two older black men who are traveling west from Detroit. They play silently, shuffling the cards between their wide, pink-nailed hands, sliding them across the long, flat case balanced on their laps. Occasionally one of the men says something to Jim in a low drawl that sounds more foreign than any foreign language she has ever heard, and Jim answers “yes, sir” or “no, sir” in his soft, precise voice.
Rita is in love with Jim’s voice. Not Jim himself, but the way words sound coming from his mouth in class: supero superus superat supermus supertis superent. It is a sound she tries to imitate in the bathroom while she showers, but the same words coming from her mouth sound nasal and rough-edged, as if she were missing a bone in her face important for making Latin sound delicately ornate instead of difficult. She figures she’s getting by on her strong memory and penmanship.
One of the old men nods toward her and asks Jim something. “Rita Yearby,” Jim says, and, hearing her name, she lifts her head. Both of the men smile politely and dip their high, dark foreheads.
“Miss Yibby,” one says. Jim smirks at her and rolls his right eyeball without moving his left, a trick he uses instead of winking. Rita stifles a giggle and says hello softly, then turns back to the book in her lap. Dick Diver is trying to put Abe North on a boat for the United States, but she can’t hold onto the plot; the train car is getting dark, her arm’s itching has evolved into light stinging, and she can’t get out of her head the sight of the two old men’s red-banded fedoras lying on the seat beyond Jim’s legs. She wonders if they’d have tipped their hats to her had they been wearing them, something she’s never seen in real life.
A porter enters the front of the car, a pudgy black man in a rumpled uniform and pillbox hat. He straightens his coat, lifts his chin into the air and announces, “The dining car is now prepared for dinner.” He moves his dull gaze over the seats, resting at the end on Jim and the two men, and he gives them a shallow nod.
In unison, everyone around Rita stands and stretches. The students in her car have long lost their enthusiasm for visiting the students from other cities in other cars, the novelty dampened by the narrowness of the space in which to play. Since lunch, they’ve settled in to read, nap and watch the different states roll by. They slip into the aisle and file toward the front. The two old men with Jim slide the case off their laps and prop it up in the seat by the window. Each reaches for his fedora and stands; one rises slowly, never straightening completely. They set their hats squarely over their eyes. Jim stands back to let them out before him.
He looks down toward her. “Aren’t you hungry?”
She slides her book from her lap onto the empty seat beside her. Though she’s eaten in front of Jim before, the idea of eating in front of the men makes her uncomfortable. She’s afraid she’ll see food in one of their mouths, or that she’ll order something and then not eat it. “No,” she says. “I don’t feel like eating. You go ahead.”
The queue to the dining car has thinned out. One of the old men waits at the door for Jim. “You eatin?” he says.
Jim nods his head quickly. “I’ll be right there.” He turns back to Rita. “How’s your arm?”
She lifts it into the air, turns the bandaged side upward. “It’s not bad,” she says. “I’ll get some ice for it later, maybe. I’ll take an aspirin.”
“You’re sure?” Jim says. “Okay. I’m gonna eat. Caveat fry-cook.” He rolls his eye in a crazy figure-eight.
“Oh, stop it,” she says, and Jim walks out of the car with the waiting old man.
The train car suddenly feels deserted without Jim and the men. All of the other students have left for dinner and there is no longer the watery murmur of teenage voices and magazine pages turning, only the train’s incessant steel rumble. Just two other people have stayed behind: a red-headed, fortyish woman in the frontmost seats, asleep with her head against the window, and the thin young man in the seat behind Rita, who got on the train yesterday only a minute before it left the Aurora station, without luggage or even a newspaper to read. His hair is slicked back like hard plastic and the cigarettes he smokes make her eyes burn.
She presses her cheek against the window. The sun is setting on the other side of the train and the car’s shadow floods out into the green, flat fields. The deep violet-blue sky reminds her, through its difference, of the sky above Aurora, which never really gets completely dark because of the streetlamps, and she feels a bit homesick. So far this summer she’s been on trips to Washington, D.C. with her youth group and Nashville with her Aunt Marge, and she hasn’t stayed at home for more than two weeks in a row since school let out. Her father calls her “Miss World Traveler,” but the romantic allure of train travel she felt in the spring has long since evaporated. She worries, half-heartedly, that she’s missing important times with her sister Brenda who is preparing for her September wedding. She misses her friend Janet, whose family is Catholic and burdened by the expense of eight children so that they cannot afford to send them away for the summer. Rita imagines Janet wading in the waterfall in Brook’s Park this evening, probably with big Donny Pulaski and his bookish cousin Milt Steifbold, their sneakers lined up on the stone wall next to the radio tuned to WLS. She fixes her eyes on two tall silos on the horizon, painted orange by the sunset.
“Anyone sitting here?”
Rita starts and says, “Hm? No,” before she sees who asked. The young man with the cigarettes slouches in the aisle. His face is thin and his eyes are heavy-lidded. He picks the book up off the seat and hands it to her, then slides down next to her. The rough odor of hair gel and tobacco gusts from under him, making her blink rapidly.
“I’m Clayton,” the man says. “What’s your name?”
She watches Clayton’s hands fondle a silver lighter, rubbing it against his palm with his thumb. She thinks to say “Janet” but the lie scares her. “Rita,” she says. “Yearby.”
“Hello, Rita,” Clayton says. He slips his lighter into the breast pocket of his suit coat. “So. What’s put you on this train? Visiting relatives for the summer?”
“No,” she says. “I’m going to Bozeman for a… Latin conference.” The car is getting darker, the sun halfway under the horizon, deep red in the windows on the other side of the car, behind Clayton’s head. The air has cooled with everyone gone.
Clayton looks to the front of the car at the sleeping woman. “Traveling by yourself, then?”
“No,” she says. She nods toward the seats across the aisle, where the long, flat case leans against the cushions. “I’m… I’m here with a friend. With Jim.”
Clayton looks sideways at the aisle. His suit is a sickly shade of brown that makes Rita’s arm ache. “The nigger?” he says.
“Jim,” she nods. She presses her hand to her bandages.
Clayton moves his jaw like he’s picking his back teeth with his tongue. “You from Aurora? I saw you in the station. You must be from… what do they call that school over on the east side. Yeah. Little Africa.” He smiles, a thin-lipped grimace toward his feet. “You go to Little Africa, Rita Yearby?”
“East Aurora,” she says. She tries to make her voice cold. Something rattles between the seat in front of her and the wall. She reaches forward and presses on the seat, but the rattle continues.
Clayton sits up a bit. In the last light of the sunset, his sleepy face has a slick, yellow pallor. “Traveling alone with a nigger,” he says. He puts his hand on her thigh, just above her knee. “That’s pretty gutsy.”
Rita stands up quickly, hiccups “Excuse me,” and crosses over Clayton, stumbling against his legs. She hurries past the sleeping woman, out of the car. In the next car, passengers are settling down after dinner while the car’s lights flicker on. She hurries through to the bright dining car, stands at the entrance for a moment, and watches a black waiter staring blankly while a girl speaks to him in a loud Chicago voice. Then Rita sees Jim’s thin face at the far end of the car. She sits down across from him without invitation.
“Hey,” Jim says. “Aliquone vis visci?” The older of the two men grunts.
“I’m a little… thirsty,” she says. “Just that.”
The other old man snags the waiter. “Get this girl a glass of water,” he says.
“Yessir,” the waiter says, and in a second his white-sleeved arm sets a tumbler of water in front of Rita.
“Rita,” Jim says. “You okay?”
She nods and picks up the tumbler. Jim and the two old men are motionless over their plates, watching her. She stares at the gray wall behind Jim’s head as she drinks. The clatter of dishes and students’ voices works its way into her until she breaks her stare. She feels as if she’s just started breathing again.
She looks at Jim. “No, I’m fine.”
The old man next to Jim says, “You looked spooked there, Miss Yibby.” Rita smiles faintly. She looks to the window next to their table. It is completely dark outside and all she sees in the window is her own pale, indistinct reflection surrounded by Jim, the two old men and the waiter. Jim smirks and rolls his eye in a wild circle.
The train station in Bozeman, after almost three days in the sticky, gray claustrophobia of the train, feels as open as a pasture. Students move into the station with their luggage like swarms of bees, following young men and women from Montana State College across the platform, to be taken to the school’s dormitories in waiting schoolbuses. The air rings with hundreds of young voices. The guides’ arms raise, pointing toward doors. Stationary in the crowd, boarding passengers stand, waiting for the train to empty. One woman on a bench seems to be trying to hide behind the suitcase in her lap, looking pale, puffy and old in the confusion.
Rita stands beside a brick wall with her luggage at her feet, along with Jim and a handful of other students from their car, where they’ve been shepherded by a young man. He wears a white shirt and dark corduroys, and his salt-and-pepper bangs hang down near the tops of his glasses. He bounces on his toes nervously, standing in front of them, looking over the crowd for something, a person or signal to let them know when they can work their way across the platform. The young man introduced himself as Mark when he boarded the train to meet them, his voice so deep it didn’t seem to fit his slight body. Rita wonders if Mark, with his perpetual motion and air of uncomfortable authority, is the kind of man her sister means when she describes people as “intense.”
Mark throws his arm up, waving a large hand. “Professor Kane! Professor Kane!”
Professor Kane is red-cheeked, his wide smile fringed by a dark blonde beard. His hair is curly, the same dirty color, and sits on his head like tight springs. His glasses reflect, two white circles above his cheeks. He reminds Rita of Mr. Libman from down the block at home who says he is a poet, but has been labeled by her father as a dope fiend whom she is to avoid.
Kane shakes Mark’s hand and they speak, Mark’s white shirt and Kane’s mossy-green suit leaning together for a moment. Then they step up to Rita and Jim. “Jim Stevens,” Kane says. He takes Jim’s hand and shakes it once, looking up at Jim’s surprised face. “I’m so very glad to meet you.”
Jim shifts his eyes between Kane and Mark several times, once glancing down at Rita. She shrugs. She doesn’t know who this man is, either. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” Jim says.
Professor Kane stands with his hands clasped, smiling at nothing. Mark looks off to the side with his hands in his pockets. For a moment, it feels as if the entire station has stopped. Rita thinks of glue hardening, waiting for Jim or Kane to give the signal to breathe again. She feels her suitcase against her calf and fights the urge to bend down and pick it up. She knocks it with her heel and it shifts an inch. She imagines the air moving around the case, pulling in waves around the platform, twisting around her ankles, slipping up Jim’s sleeves, diving behind Kane’s glasses.
“Well,” Kane lifts his hands. “Let’s get you all settled in. Mark, there should be a bus here by now.” In unison, they stoop and pick up their bags. Mark suddenly appears animated, takes a couple of wandering steps away from them, stretching his neck.
The air outside the station is cooler and much cleaner smelling, sharp in Rita’s nose, as if fall has arrived early or just stayed year-round in Bozeman. Mark leads the group down a crowded sidewalk to a pair of idling Bluebird schoolbuses, each half-full of students. A dozen pale faces look down at them curiously from the window seats. Rita understands–it looks strange to her, too, Professor Kane speaking rapidly, his hands jerking and sweeping the air in front of him, all the while looking up at Jim’s sullen, politely nodding face. Mark steps up into the first bus, speaks with the driver for a moment, then steps out and gestures for them to get on. Slowly, the line moves forward, suitcases thumping against the bus’s steps.
Inside the bus, Rita finds a seat near the front, next to a thin, red-haired girl who sits with her feet in the aisle. They jostle their luggage until it fits beneath the seat in front of them, then the girl smiles and turns again to whisper with the students in the next seat back. Rita leans toward the water-spotted window and blinks a few times. Outside, Mark is standing by the bus, staring up the sidewalk toward the station. She taps on the window, wanting to give him a wave because he’s intense, but he strides away, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pants.
The bus driver twists the crank by his side and the door closes with a squeak. The bus pulls away from the sidewalk, growling and rocking, and Rita reaches in her purse for her book in case the campus is a long drive from the station. The other girl in the seat slides to face forward. She watches the mirror above the driver’s seat, chewing gum with her mouth open. For three blocks the girl sits, staring dumbly up, as if she cannot speak while the bus is in motion. The repeating smack of her gum distracts Rita from the story every few seconds, like a dripping faucet. Rita is glad she’s not a friend of this girl, and then a thought hits her with a cold wave of panic: Jim did not get on the bus.
She twists around, her jacket rustling against the seat, and scans the faces behind her. Each is palely familiar, much like the faces she sees on her block in Aurora, much like her own face, none of them Jim’s.
“Oh…,” she says.
The girl next to her stops chewing her gum and turns to Rita. “What’s the matter?” she says. “You’re not going to puke, are you?” She seems horrified of her own question, wide-eyed and warily leaning away.
“No, I’m fine,” Rita says. “The guy I came here with isn’t on the bus. I don’t know where he is.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
Rita feels something jump in her throat, her face flush. “No. Just a guy from school,” she says. This strange girl’s interest makes her uncomfortable.
“Well, there was another bus. Maybe they put him on that one.” The girl stares up at the driver’s mirror, then says, “If you’re going to puke, warn me, okay?”
Rita nods, then stares down at her book. She repeats the word boyfriend in her head, until it ceases to sound like English, until it sounds like something the old men on the train would say after they dealt the cards.
The bus stops in front of a four-story brick building that reminds Rita of the hotel she and her aunt stayed in when they visited Nashville, though this building has at least a grass strip around the front, rather than a cracked sidewalk, and is sharp at its edges. The hotel in Nashville had silverfish crawling in the bathroom sink. The bus door opens and a young woman who looks freshly-pressed steps on and asks the young men to stay in their seats, all the girls to get their luggage and come with her. This is Langford Hall, she tells them, where they will be staying for the next couple of days. The boys will be staying in the men’s dormitory down the street. “Trust me, girls. You got the better deal,” the young woman says. She grins at her own quip.
The rest of the afternoon, from setting foot on the sidewalk outside Langford Hall to the welcome meeting that night in the dorm’s cafeteria, is a blur for Rita that slows down only once. As they check in, each of them is handed a slim, blue folder with the Montana State College seal stamped above their handwritten names, and the conference’s motto, “Communitas Per Communem Linguam,” which Rita can’t quite translate. She will ask Jim for help later, she decides.
Her roommate, Sally, is a mousy girl from Milwaukee who carries a sodden handkerchief in her hand at all times and talks in a voice that would be too quiet to hear even without her cold. She has brought with her a stack of thick textbooks that threatens to fold the mattress of her bed in half with their weight. She will be giving a presentation on the future perfect indicative verb forms. Rita checks her folder when Sally leaves the room and assures herself that no, she is not signed up to attend that presentation.
Dinner is quick and bland. Rita and Sally listen the entire time to two girls from Los Angeles talk about the other camps and conferences they’ve been to this summer, how they think they recognize people from other places. Their voices sound like television, and Rita leaves the table without finishing her meal, thinking of Clayton and his slicked hair, something in the food that smelled of grease, the stainless steel spoons polished like a cigarette lighter. Sally follows her back to their room, a sniffing shadow.
In the bathroom, Rita notices the bandage on her forearm, as if it were a scrap of paper stuck to her, and she remembers that the burn itches, her skin suddenly crying out for cleaning. She peels the smudged tape away, wincing as it pulls the flesh too close to the burn. The cold air stings against her exposed forearm and Rita hisses through her teeth. She drops the bandage in the trash the way she would rotten fruit. The burn is almost purple; Rita stares closely at the rounded triangle area where the iron touched and it seems to her to get lighter and darker with her pulse. The skin looks slick, as if she would etch a fingerprint in her own arm if she were to touch it. There will be a scar, she thinks, that will stay forever and that she will show her daughters someday as a warning.
Carefully, she cleans her arm, her eyes watering, and applies the salve and bandages as Dr. Susmano showed her. The salve smells something like gasoline and cough syrup, but the stinging is dulled.
She goes back to her room, where Sally is copying lines from one of her volumes, and lies down. I’m not having fun, she thinks, and reaches for the book in her purse.
“Bonusne ille liber est?” Sally asks.
“Not now,” Rita says. “Please.”
At seven o’clock, the students file into the Langford Hall cafeteria, the girls coming down from upstairs, the boys from outside, wearing jackets. Rita and Sally sit at a long table with the other girls from their floor. The room fills with low, echoing voices, everyone staying slightly quiet, as if something mysteriously important were about to take place. Only occasionally does Rita hear Latin spoken, and then usually in a nasal voice that sounds like it’s showing off. She looks over the crowd, trying to find Jim.
He arrives with Professor Kane, walking a bit behind him and looking almost lost to Rita, or disappointed. She lifts her hand to wave at him and he sees her, grins quickly and rolls his eye. He sits down at an empty table across the room and stares blankly toward the podium where Kane stands.
“Dominae et viri,” Kane says. “Salvete ad Montana Collegii annum septentrionalem Americanam in ludos latini colloquium.“
Oh, please, Rita thinks, peeved, but Kane begins to speak in English. Rita tunes him out; she watches Jim through the entire meeting. His face is cold, his jaw set square and his eyes unmoving. She thinks he could be carved from one piece of dark marble or polished wood. He’s wearing the face he wore in the train station. Rita tries to guess its composition–disapproval? resignation? She can’t pick it out. She would like to be alone with him and ask him to explain that look. She thinks that if she knew what froze Jim that way, she would know something important, something that neither her sister nor her mother nor her friends understand. As Professor Kane finishes speaking, Rita looks away and blinks, a light purple silhouette of Jim floating in her vision.
The students have been dismissed and they rise to return to their rooms for the evening, or to meet in the common yard between the dormitories. Rita slips away from her table and threads through the crowd to where Jim is seated, sketching small men in the margins of a notebook with a fountain pen.
“Hello, Rita,” Jim says. He closes his notebook and leans back in his chair. “Are you enjoying it here?”
“Where have you been?” She sits down next to him. His hands lie on the table like calm animals. She believes their skin would feel cool. She folds her own hands in her lap.
“I’m staying with Professor Kane and his wife,” Jim says. “They’re giving me my board fees back, too.”
“I don’t get it. Why aren’t you staying in the boy’s dorm?”
Jim purses his lips and looks at her. “We’re a long way from Aurora,” he says. He scratches his cheek slowly with two fingers.
Jim should not be this somber, Rita thinks. He should be rolling his eye and making jokes, laughing.
“Let’s go walk in the yard,” she says.
Outside, students cluster on the dormitory steps and under the two street lamps between the men’s and women’s buildings. Jim walks next to Rita, guiding her toward an empty stone bench set improbably in the middle of the courtyard, away from the sidewalks. They pass two boys sitting with two girls and Rita can feel them watching, their attention like elastic bands stretching. Jim kicks a rock, which skips into the grass.
“Hey!” one of the boys calls after them. “Don’t go kicking rocks into the grass. They gotta mow there, you know.”
“Jeez Louise,” the other boy hisses. “Stupid jig.”
Rita falters for a step, but Jim keeps walking toward the bench. She gives the boys the sharpest look she can muster, then sits down next to Jim. He is looking up at the stars.
“I hear that kind of language every day,” Jim says.
“I wasn’t going to say anything. They’re jerks.”
Jim looks sidelong at her and lifts his eyebrow, making his face a question mark.
“Okay. So maybe I wanted to. Is that wrong?”
Jim grins and shakes his head.
“Maybe we should all just go back to speaking Latin or something,” Rita says. She jabs Jim lightly in the ribs with her elbow.
Jim laughs. “That wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “Then I’d just be a nigger in a half-dozen declensions.” He rolls his eye clockwise, then opposite, then laughs. Rita looks down at her feet.
That afternoon in the station, Jim had stood with his hands behind his back, taller by six inches than anyone else in the group of students, watching the chaos of the station with a calmness in his face that Rita wasn’t certain was true calm. Since shaking hands with the two old men, who were taking another train farther west, Jim had put on the same guarded seriousness he used whenever she saw him in the open public, away from the halls of East Aurora High. He scanned the crowd, studying each face quickly and thoroughly. Sometimes his lips twitched and he would stare at the man he was studying a few seconds longer, reading closely. One man squinted back, and Jim held the man’s stare until he raised his newspaper in front of his face.
“Jim, are you trying to start a fight or something? Quit giving that evil eye of yours,” she said.
Jim shifted his feet. “We’re not in Aurora anymore,” he said, his voice unnaturally deep.
“Well thank you,” she said. He was making her feel conspicuous–creepy almost–and she’d had enough creepy for one trip. Clayton was no longer in the seat behind her when she’d woken up; he’d gotten off the train sometime in the night.
Rita bounces her heels against the stone bench. “I didn’t notice until now.”
“Yes,” Jim says. “The only Negro at the North American High School Latin Conference.”
“Do they think someone’s going to make trouble?” Rita imagines one of the rare hallway fights at East Aurora, two boys shoving each other against the lockers, yanking each other’s books and jackets, the crowd forming a pen around them. Jim shrugs.
They sit quietly for several minutes, then Jim stands up. “Oops,” he says. “There’s Kane. I’d better catch a ride home.”
“Oh… I’ll see you later?” Rita looks up to see Jim walking toward the cars parked along the street. He turns around, jogging backwards.
“Te cras videbo, Miss Yibby,” he says.
Rita waves, and her arm suddenly stings. Jim jogs across the grass and gets into a low, green Ford, which drives off. She thinks again of Mr. Libman, the man who lives down the street in Aurora, and how she’s ignored her father’s warnings. She has stopped to talk to Mr. Libman as he works in his side yard garden on a dozen afternoons; he recommends books to check out of the library and albums to buy, and once in the fall he had loaned her a slim volume of his poetry, which she lost at school but never told him about. He has never asked her about it.
A bell somewhere on campus tolls eight o’clock. Time to go in, Rita decides.
Walking back to the dorm, she sees Sally talking with the two girls who had been with the boys. She stops.
“Hi, Sally,” she says.
The two girls stop talking, look at Rita the way the girl on the bus had fearing vomit, wave a quick goodbye to Sally, then move away. Sally turns her head from Rita to the girls, who have stopped a few yards down the sidewalk and are glancing over their shoulders, then back to Rita.
“Well,” Rita says. She is beginning to know what to expect, and this makes her want to cry or scream or hide. She tries on Jim’s stare; she’ll never be able to roll her eye the way he does, but she would focus her rage into a spot on Sally’s face, pin the girl in place with the black needles of her gaze. Don’t, she thinks. Don’t don’t don’t I dare you.
Sally stares at her, her long, round face blank except for two small reddish eyes. She lifts her handkerchief to her nose, sniffs, then joins the other two girls. Rita does not turn to look at them.
The next two days move slowly.
From the start, the train home is quieter than the train to Bozeman. The students boarded early in the morning, and for some reason the eastbound cars feel smaller, more constrictive and less exciting than the cars that took them away from home. In the late morning of the trip’s second day, most are still content to sit and read, play cards or quietly talk about Bozeman, students from other parts of the country whom they flirted with, and the events waiting at home.
Rita is sitting between Jim and the window, her thumb between the pages of her book, squinting through the glass into the bright sun. She is on the other side of the aisle than on the trip out, and she realizes she’s looking at the same side of the tracks as before, the same fields, hills and halves of towns. She thinks of wealthy cruise-ship passengers who switch rooms to stay on the shady side of the boat and wonders if posh really stands for port out, starboard home like she’d been told by her Aunt Marge. She wonders if the rule also applies to trains.
“Jim, are we port or starboard?”
Jim is shuffling a deck of cards against his leg, practicing the riffling and deck-splitting the old men taught him. The cards have photographs of the Rocky Mountains on their backs. When Jim pulled the deck from his jacket the previous evening, Rita had asked where he got them and he flatly explained he had taken them from a desk in Professor Kane’s house. She had looked at him in mock amazement, her hands over her mouth, but she did feel some fear of them, stolen goods. She squinted at the back of one of the Jokers, trying to tell if the mountains were painted or photographed, but never decided which. They played War silently until they were ready to sleep.
“Um…,” Jim says. He lifts his hands, as if weighing the cards in his left hand against the air in his right. “Port, I guess.”
“You don’t know.”
“Nope. Why?” He riffles the cards on his knee.
“It’s nothing,” she says. She opens her book and tries to read about Dick Diver’s last day on the Riviera.
An hour later, the book is finished and Rita stares out the window, forcing herself to think about the story. She feels guilty if she doesn’t give some reflection on the things she’s read, as if it would be wasting a book to put it away the second after she finishes the last page. She holds the book in her lap and watches the grassy landscape stream by. Her arm itches. The bandage probably needs changing, she figures, since she hasn’t looked at it since yesterday morning. She presses her fingers lightly on the gauze. Beneath, her arm is numb and the skin feels scabby, hardened over.
Jim pulls the deck of cards out of his jacket and shuffles them in his lap, making a rude noise in the stuffy, rumbling quiet of the car. Rita closes her eyes and decides she’ll need to read the book again sometime when there are no distractions, when she’s not on a train.
The train slows down, slips onto a siding track and pulls into a station. “Opal, South Dakota,” Jim reads through the windows across the aisle. “We’re in South Dakota. It was nighttime when we passed through here on the way out.”
“Gee, and we missed all this?” Rita peers past Jim to look out the other windows at the station. Out her own window is just a view of more plains. The station is small, clapboard and white brick. She imagines a dusty ghost-town behind it, with a boarded-up saloon, dry horse troughs and hitching posts, though she tells herself they’re probably too far north for that sort of thing.
“Multe ridiculus,” Jim says.
Rita sees a brief movement of brown on the station platform and she sits back, pushing herself against the seat. Clayton could have gotten off the train here that night. She feels the dry rasp of his palm on her leg. He could be getting on right now. There is an empty seat across the aisle, a row in front of them. She turns toward her window, watches the grass bend in slow, green waves, watches a family of white clouds move across the patch of empty, perfectly blue sky she can see, until the train jerks and rolls away from the station. Then she exhales. The seat in front of them is still empty, a folded newspaper sticking out from behind its armrest.
“I think I need the washroom,” she says. Jim stands to let her out and she slides past him. She turns around in the aisle and pulls her straw-sided valise from the rack above. “I’ll be right back,” she says.
“Okay,” Jim says.
The toilet in their car is occupied, so she goes into the next car. Though the next car is identical to her own, it feels different: the sunlight coming through the windows falls on brighter colors, the air is cooler, the passengers are more awake, fresher. A young woman looks up and smiles at Rita as she walks toward the back of the car.
The toilet is cramped and smells of cheap perfume and cigar smoke. Rita opens her valise and takes out her tube of salve, her gauze and medical tape. Crumpled in the bottom of the case is the blue skirt Rita was ironing when she burnt herself. She had worn it during her last day in Bozeman and crammed it in the valise as she packed to leave, rather than reopen her stuffed suitcase. She sets her supplies on a narrow shelf, shakes out the skirt and smoothes it against her stomach with her hands.
She and Jim have barely spoken since the night outside in Bozeman, and it feels to her as if a thin, clear sheet of glass has slid between them. When they boarded the train, Jim shook Professor Kane’s hand goodbye, then stared at him as he walked away. “That man doesn’t know a damn thing,” Jim had said. He had been mostly quiet since then, shuffling his cards morosely, writing furiously in his notebook, eating silently in the dining car. He’d fallen asleep soon after sundown on the first day of the trip back.
She had sat up awake, angry at Kane’s ignorance. Nothing would have happened, she told herself over and over. Jim was a nice guy. People might have treated him rudely, but nothing bad would have happened. It was a Latin conference. They were just students and teachers. Nothing bad would have happened.
She folds the skirt and packs it in the valise. Then she holds out her arm and peels the old bandage away from her burn, drops it in the wastecan at her feet. She glances at the blistered skin for only a second, wipes it with a wad of stiff tissue paper, then lets her arm hang for a moment before covering the burn loosely with fresh gauze. Then she opens the toilet door and walks back through the two cars to her seat. Jim has put his cards away and is reading his notebook.
“That’s better,” she says. She leans toward Jim and looks into the notebook in his lap. Listed down the page are short Latin sentences in blue cursive. She can make out only “I will not” at the beginning of each line.
“Grammar exercises?” she says.
Jim shakes his head. “Promises to myself.”
She scans the list again. The numbers are up to forty-three. “That’s a lot of promises,” she says. “Jim’s Commandments. Read me one.”
“I will not listen to men whose wives call them Proffy.”
Rita giggles. “No. In Latin.”
Jim rolls both of his eyes.
She jumps up from her seat. She left her valise in the other car’s washroom. She steps over Jim’s legs and rushes from one car to the next, slamming the doors between them. She squeezes past a large black woman in the aisle, mumbling “Excuse me” and bumping her knee.
She pulls open the door to the washroom. Empty.
“Damn it!” she says. “Damn it! Damn it!” She turns around and sees the large woman she bumped aside slide something into the rack above her seat and tuck a red felt coat around it.
Rita stands facing the woman’s seat, her knees shaking. She’s been robbed in broad daylight. She lifts her arm to point to the woman, can feel the shout, Thief! Thief! rise inside her, but there is something in the coarse black curls under the woman’s hat, something in her broad shoulders and thick, dark calves that holds Rita to her spot.
She turns her head, sees the porter’s blue cap, his hand lifted as if to help her back to her seat. She runs down the aisle, her shoes slapping against the floor. By the time she throws herself into her seat, she can barely see. She presses her face against the window, making choking noises.
“Rita. Rita, what’s wrong?” Jim says. She flaps her hands at the back of the car. Jim puts his hand on her arm. “What is it? Calm down.”
A man sitting behind them leans forward. “Miss? Is there a problem?”
Rita shakes her head. Between gulps of air she tells Jim about the valise. “She’s wearing a red hat,” she finishes.
Jim stands. “I’ll go see,” he says. The man behind them sits down.
Rita turns to the window. The glass is smeared where she had pressed her face against it. She can feel the people around her, staring at her. She wishes they would stop, that the train was completely empty. She wishes she wasn’t on the train at all, that she was on the front steps of her house on North Avenue listening to the radio with Janet, or sleeping in her own bed in her own bedroom where she can smell the lilac bush outside the window, or doing anything else in the world other than sitting on this train crying into her hand.
Jim comes back, slides her valise into the luggage rack, and sits down. He opens his notebook and begins to write. He has his hard face on, glaring at the paper, jabbing at it with his pen.
“Thank you, Jim,” Rita says.
Jim stops writing. “She didn’t have it,” he says into his notebook.
To Rita, it is as if the train has become perfectly silent and the car has emptied. “What?” she says.
“The lady didn’t have your bag. She had given it to the porter, though.” He begins to write again.
Rita’s eyes burn and her arm throbs. She can think of nothing to say. “Thank you, Jim,” she says. She slides closer to the window and closes her eyes.
The next morning they are in Milwaukee. Jim is getting off the train early to visit relatives there. Outside the train the weather is gray and low-clouded, but still dry. Rita watches him pull his single suitcase from the rack. He tucks his notebook under his arm and looks down at her.
“So tell me, Miss Yibby,” he says. “_Quid dende itinerem facis?-”
“Pardon?” she says.
“Where are you headed next?”
She shakes her head. “Nowhere,” she says.
She turns her face to the window and studies the curves of her own faint reflection in the glass. “I think I’m done traveling for a while.”