June 29, 2020

 

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point

 
 
 

Part I

I

Over there a clutch of boulders. Gone. Next an esplanade of leafy trees. Gone. The flickering green of a snaking stream. Gone.

Embedded within the chugging hiss of the relentless steam engine, Ivan confronted the disquieting sensation that his nothingness was the continent being explored. He must act, somehow act. Yet nothing was more disquieting than disembarking for a maintenance stop in a battered town or settlement ... ghastly places where others apparently had decided they couldn't go on. Act where? The first time he lay on a hotel bed covered by what they called a quilt, he felt smothered in rags held together not only by threads but also by a haze of human effluvia: body oils, hair pomades and traces of vomit scented with what they called liquor, or licker, that's what the word sounded like. "Glass of licker?" "Don't mind if I do."

One night in a place called Council Bluffs the splinters of light that penetrated the ill-made floor of his room made it easier to avail himself of the chamber pot but also reminded him that he missed the black crypt of his sleeping berth on the train. Now it was too easy to pee and tempting to do it every hour or so. He didn't have to tamp down the urge as he did on the train. Of course, he'd drunk some licker in a Council Bluffs bar and he didn't do that on the train. Wouldn't, because getting out of the bunk, making his way to the toilet, releasing the appropriate sphincter, making his way back to the berth, climbing up and resettling into plank-like stillness ... he'd never get back to sleep after all that. But here he thought he could get away with it and was wrong. Once he'd emptied his bladder into the chamber pot, he returned to bed and felt the slow drip of what he'd imbibed find its way into his blood and thence his kidneys and thence, train-like, down the track into his bladder again. The licker was bad. It fumed up into his head. Were there poisons in it? Little hobgoblins with crowbars and hammers? Council Bluffs ... he had seen the bluffs, but where was the council? He wondered if it were an Indian council. He wondered if Fenimore Cooper ever wrote about the natives of the plains. He imagined a circle, a fire, a passage of pipes, and the scent of fire-cooked buffalo meat. Then he swung his legs over the side of his bed and peed again.

II

A conductor walked through the car tapping his triangle with a wand to signal that lunch was being served.

He glanced at Valery needlessly, already knowing Valery wouldn't hesitate to follow the conductor into the dining car. They were different from everyone else on board and couldn't conceal it; they moved differently, dressed differently, seemed to have shaved differently, their faces glossy, their mustaches and small beards impeccably combed. They also were prompter in response to the tinkling summons. There'd be no stretching and yawning and looks back and forth, Valery to Ivan, Ivan to Valery, silently consulting about whether to go eat now or let others take their places and fill in behind.

So, too, as it happened, the McGraths, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas McGrath. Mr. McGrath didn't hesitate to describe himself as a quick one, nor did he have to grab hold of his belly with both hands to indicate that he liked to eat. The young Mrs. McGrath simply wanted, Ivan sensed, to be on one side of a four-person table next to her husband in time for the two Russian gentlemen, Mr. Valery and Mr. Ivan, to join them.

Ivan and Valery did exactly this because doing so obviated the necessity of repeating their story, largely true, if not as true as Mrs. McGrath's lovely face with its mobile eyebrows, fine honey-blonde hair that almost seemed to consist of light, and deference to her husband, who was not meant to notice her interest in these exotic, well-bred, articulate men.

Said story was that Valery had been designated Russian consul in San Francisco and Ivan, though more distinguished looking with his graying plumes of hair, would be his assistant. Mr. McGrath, having fought in the Civil War when he clearly was not married to this young woman, said he understood Mr. Ivan's role right away.

"You're talking about what we'd call an 'aide-de-camp,' the fellow who passes on word what the officer has in mind or needs or whatever. 1861, I was an aide-de-camp. Some of the men thought I was crazy volunteering. Crazy as a fox. Who was the colonel come 1864? Who had his own aide-de-camp?"

That had already been said, setting the terms for further discussions, which were of interest to Ivan. He knew nothing about America. Valery knew quite a bit but wasn't, in his state of shock over leaving London, ready to reconnect with what he remembered from the one year he'd spent with his father and mother in Washington as a six-year old.

"Please, please," Mr. McGrath said, waving the Russians into the chairs opposite him and Mrs. McGrath. He was a huge, red faced, yellow-haired man with yellowed teeth and yellowed eye whites, who not only had been an aide-de-camp in the Union Army but had, in 1853, made his way to America from County Clare with no money in his pocket and a suitcase, if you could call it that, full of rags ... in fact, not so full of rags ... half-empty, to tell the truth. Since then ample quantities of whiskey had ravaged his nose to the point where one would have thought it ached, but he was not, appearance aside, a dissolute man. He was a man with a missus who traveled first class and demanded attention.

Now he picked up where they had left off at breakfast. "You say your king just set your slaves free? It wasn't so easy for us. We had to do that by force of arms for every cotton-pickin' one of them."

"We call our king czar," Valery said.

"Do you like him?" Mr. McGrath asked.

"Thomas," Mrs. McGrath cautioned.

"Well, I'd like to know," Mr. McGrath said. "We had a revolution and got rid of our king. Then we fought to set those nigras free, but you've done it another way and skipped a lot of trouble. He must be all right."

All right? He didn't speak like someone from Ireland at all. He had squeezed himself into American speech whether the suit fit or not. Now he wanted to know if Nicholas Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, of Moscow, of Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod and Grand Duke of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volnyia, Podalia and Finland was all right. Ivan had decided that he was not, but he saw no reason to tell Mr. McGrath that.

"What happened to your slaves, having been freed?" he asked.

"Starved or found jobs."

"Where?"

Mr. McGrath was intelligent enough to perceive that Ivan was asking these questions in relation to some line of inquiry that wasn't casual. "Where?" he asked in reply, his eyes widening, trying to decide whether he would support or betray his adoptive country by telling the truth or delivering a sermon. He decided on the sermon. "In this country what you are is free. No one gets more than freedom. It's everything or it's nothing. You find a job, you build a business, you win, you lose, it's up to you. In my mines, I have nigras who must have been slaves, but I don't ask. They're free men now, and I wouldn't have watched untold thousands of other men die setting them free to turn them away."

"What do you mine?" Ivan asked.

"Lead. I've mined it in the Lead Belt in Missouri, where I'm coming from, and I'll be looking to do some more in Colorado, where I'm going. It's what my family did in County Clare, and what I do here. The silver might be played out in Colorado, but believe me, there will be lead, and there will be nigras in my mines if there are nigras out there that want to work."

The train rumbled along. Being in the dining car in the rear softened its vibrations, but the water in the glasses quivered as if being touched by a light breeze. Mrs. McGrath joined Mr. McGrath in staring intently at the two Russians, graying Ivan with his low forehead and balding Valery with his high forehead. Her eyes, like the water in the glasses, seemed to quiver, too.

Before Ivan could say anything to draw Mr. McGrath further into the cosmos of his egoism, Mr. McGrath soared into the starry spaces of his self on his own.

"I am a millionaire," he confided. "Do you know what that means in America, sir? It means a man can add up the value of his house, his savings, and his business, and the sum will equate to one million dollars independent of his wardrobe and perishables. I don't need slaves. Believe me, I can pay men and boys to do better what I could never get a slave to do for nothing. This is why we don't need kings in America. We divvy up, each according to his efforts, what a king would claim for his own. If I were a Russian, I'd shoot him. You'd have millionaires, too."

Ivan decided that Mr. McGrath's force was sufficient to bother opposing. "We already do." He tipped his head toward Valery. "The consul is a millionaire. When we arrived in New York, he went to a bank with a letter of credit and exchanged some of his funds in sterling for dollars. The amount happened to be more than a million dollars. Beyond that he has additional reserves in London and a house and estate in Russia."

III

Valery listened to his fortune being discussed with strangers in amazement. It galled him as well that by discussing his wealth Ivan grew in stature and interest as far as the McGraths were concerned. His blasé but defiant spirit attracted them even more than Valery's wealth. Valery would be a fool not to value this, however; he and Ivan were in whatever they were in together. Valery couldn't go back to Skotoprigonyevsk, either. He couldn't think Katerina Ivanovna would welcome him and love him, for this wasn't the plan. She had sacrificed and wanted sacrifice from everyone else. From the beginning sacrifice was always at her core and that was the knot that tied her to Ivan, not Valery, and that Valery could not sever. So why not go on? Why not watch young Mrs. McGrath fall in love with Ivan, too? His nothingness ruled; this was the paradox -- he wasn't even Ivan anymore.

When they had entered New York, Valery had paid a scamp to sneak his diplomatic passport back through the gate and give it to Ivan because they'd agonized over Ivan's forged passport (he was to have been Morris Brawley from Liverpool) while out on the Atlantic and realized it wasn't good enough; better try something else and hold Morris Brawley in reserve. The scamp had a tweed hat, torn blue sweater, knickers, a broom and a dustpan. He'd backed his way toward Ivan and said over his shoulder, "Get it out of my back pocket and tell them you forgot that bag in your hand and went back to get it, which is why your papers are already stamped and you're passing through again." This was America. Rules? What rules? Ivan did as he was told. Now there were two Valery Asimovs in New York, or a Valery Asimov and a no one, a shadow, in whose darkness Valery Asimov walked.

"Where now?" Valery had asked Ivan once they were out of the customs house.

"To a bank, I should think," Ivan said.

The Bank of New York had looked more like a temple than a bank. On both sides of the nave, the tellers were protected by gratings that gave them the look of confessors. Far in the rear, there was a low gate that led to three desks. Then there was a kind of iconostasis depicting ships and factories and bountiful fields beyond which sat the bank manager, or high priest. One more or less kneeled to the assistant manager/priests, upon which their gate was opened, and then one was led to the manager/high priest who circled his desk to bless one's ornately sealed parchment letter of credit, and in and out scurried the assistant managers with multiple fussy testaments of partnership, trust and faith, and one signed over and over again, and, voila! the Bank of England and the Bank of New York were in accord: so much to be held in bonds, so much in what were called savings, so much in a drawing account that, yes, could be telegraphically honored as far away as San Francisco.

Out on the street, they had instructed their waiting cab to take them to the new Waldorf Hotel. Did they think about simply staying in New York, just as they had simply stayed, against orders, in London? Yes. The bank manager had offered to introduce them to "business people" who might be of interest to them. There were newspapers, scads of them. It appeared that one could do everything here that they had undertaken in London, and upon which Ulyanov, whom Katerina Ivanovna now referred to as "the man called River," or simply "River" for the Lena from which Ulyanov would derive the name Lenin, insisted, i.e., making relations between Russia and the United States worse ... chipping away at Russia's autocratic immobility ... encouraging the world to hate and thwart it.

"I could go into 'business' as our bank manager friend intimated, and you could write newspaper articles right here," Valery had said.

"But then you wouldn't be consul in San Francisco. We wouldn't know the things a consul knows, as someone in the ministry."

"I would hardly call the Russian consul in San Francisco 'someone in the ministry.' It will be more like being 'someone' in Siberia, I assure you."

Ivan had smiled. He liked that. It was what he wanted; though he did not know what he would do in San Francisco. Write, but what else? There must be something else. Even if he was no longer a Karamazov in name, that spirit lingered and he had to find some way to bring everything down on his head. It was all he had left, this Karamazovian sense of the end.

IV

She got into his berth all in one motion, swift and yet substantial. He could not see her but knew it was her by the softness of her hair and her small mouth traveling over his shoulder up his neck to his own mouth and then her small hands clasping his temples, fingering their remembered grayness and then reaching down to the hem of her nightgown and pulling it up to her waist. The train's din consumed her little oh's as he penetrated her lying on top of him. They didn't have to copulate as quickly as the train rolled, but he knew she was on the verge before he touched her. Instinctively he wanted to satisfy her as much as she wanted to be satisfied and had settled on him to do it, no safer time available than a journey to the loo, perhaps waiting one's turn, then coming back, or ... ?

She never stopped kissing him or gripping his hipbones or pressing her small breasts against his chest. How old, twenty, twenty-two, twenty-five? He wasn't the best at guessing; he had been looking at her the last few days without being caught up in whatever erotic force the repetitive landscape stirred in her, in whatever fantasy she kept to herself as she looked out the window and imagined the encounter so intensely that when it happened, it propelled her down the aisle, in the opposite direction from the loo, and quick as a cat through his curtains.

She was making him hers. The balance between them had shifted. He wasn't giving enough and so she was taking more, suspending herself while she activated him, making him begin to lose control with her long sliding withdrawals, forcing him to chase after her, which he began to do, nothing mechanical, nothing like the simple forward impetus of the train ... more like the train ripped off its tracks, the train lost in the disintegrating night so that when she reached orgasm she quivered and stiffened and arched up off his chest into the few inches of clearance the berth afforded and let her spasms draw out his own, long and single, his thighs tight, his hips arched up into her arch, which then plunged back down into him and made her rest her head on his chest where she began to sob.


To be continued ...

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-01-14
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.


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