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July 08, 2024

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 5

By Robert Earle

Valery Asimov and Ivan Karamazov are traveling to San Francisco, where Valery has obtained a diplomatic position after serving at the Russian embassy in London. Sent to America by Lenin to instigate ill will against czarist Russia, they meet Mr. and Mrs. McGrath on their train, and Ivan finds himself at great risk -- because the lovely Mrs. McGrath will not stay out of his bed.


Mr. McGrath wanted very hot coffee, toast that was almost burned, crisp bacon, and a single egg, sunny side up. Mrs. McGrath said she was not hungry but would welcome a glass of milk.

To break into the odd mood, not sure what had caused it, Valery asked what the opposite of an egg sunny side up would be. "Moon side up?"

Mr. McGrath enjoyed such questions. "No, sir, we say 'over easy.' There's no moon on the other side of an egg's sun. Doesn't work that way."

Ivan asked for an omelet and coffee. Valery, last to order, wondered if there was porridge. There was.

The train was bumping along slowly, as if tiring.

"Slope," Mr. McGrath explained. "We'll be in Denver late this afternoon, God willing."

"Mr. Asimov," Mrs. McGrath said, "won't you tell us more about what you will do as Russian consul in San Francisco and how you came to receive this appointment?"

Mrs. McGrath spoke in a voice that did not pose her question idly. Mr. McGrath's eyes slid in her direction, noticing her alertness. Ivan observed Valery's delight in Mrs. McGrath's pretty smile of small white teeth. He asked himself again the question that came to him the instant he awakened to the porter's tinkling triangle. Was she a prostitute? Had Mr. McGrath made her a lifelong offer that would take her off the streets, or out of a bordello, or a hotel, or wherever?

He didn't think so. The prostitutes he had known talked to amuse themselves and entertain him or went about their business more or less as though they were scrubbing potatoes. There had been girls before Grushenka who had visited his father's house to flirt with him and a few of them -- they weren't prostitutes, just overexcited girls -- let him embrace and kiss them. One had come to him several times for sexual relations in an attic, but at a certain point he simply went to Moscow without telling her. When he came back to Skotoprigonyevsk, he pretended that he didn't know her, and after one hurtful look -- a pause and a look, hands on her hips, distress in her eyes -- she pretended the same.

He'd parted from Katerina Ivanovna too, despite the fact that if he had loved any woman, it had been her in her prideful self-contradictory wholeness. But the rewarding intimacy they shared was nothing like the storm of Mrs. McGrath. That frightened him. He could put it that way -- frightened him -- and he wanted to run, exactly as he'd run before.

She hadn't really looked at him since they sat down. Her hair was its usual puff of honey glory and her dress was well-fitted to her shoulders and soft, round upper arms, and she had ordered milk, he thought, to settle her stomach, because she was nervous and then been subtly overloud in asking Valery to describe (hadn't he already been through this?) what he would do as Russian Consul in San Francisco.

But what had gotten into Valery? He was telling her almost everything. Things he shouldn't say and the McGraths couldn't understand, the both of them looking at him now as though he had fallen through the roof of the train into the dining car seat opposite them.

"You see, my father had been a Russian diplomat, but even with that, I had the sense that my friendship with Ivan was prejudicing my status as a temporary employee in London. I'm referring to the articles he was suspected of writing that were critical of Russia. So I applied for permanent status and learned about this job in San Francisco, but first I had to go to Washington and speak to the ambassador there, Count Cassini."

"Is that a Russian name, Cassini?" Mrs. McGrath asked.

"No, it's an Italian name, but I assure you the Count is a Russian."

She was looking at Valery so prettily and sipping her milk so sparingly that she was drawing a stern look from Mr. McGrath.

"He told me right off he didn't care about whatever might have occurred in London so long as I had parted ways with Ivan and left all his socialist revolutionary fantasies behind and was ready now to focus on entirely different issues. 'Great affairs of state,' he put it."

"But confound it, Mr. Ivan is to be your assistant, isn't he?" Mr. McGrath exclaimed.

Ivan wondered if Valery had heard them in the berth beneath him, and might be jealous and having his revenge, or was he succumbing to what happened on trains -- one revealed intimacies with impunity, one rattled on ... and was that what had driven Mrs. McGrath to his berth, something she simply thought she could get away with, or didn't see why she couldn't have? If so, Ivan thought, she was a spirited woman, more will than desire, almost half a head shorter than Katerina Ivanovna who never would have slipped along a darkened aisle in a train and clutched a man she barely knew to her breast, spreading her legs and pushing him into her.

Valery laughed. Mrs. McGrath laughed with him, and even Mr. McGrath laughed, imagining the Russian ambassador with the Italian name duped by the friendship between Mr. Valery and Mr. Ivan.

Valery said, "Yes, but that was Ambassador Stoltz's problem as far as Ambassador Count Cassini was concerned. He didn't want to talk about Ivan. He wanted to talk about China."

"China!" Mrs. McGrath exclaimed.

"There will be Chinamen in my operations," Mr. McGrath interjected. "With these railroads all built, what are they supposed to do? Let the nigras fend for themselves. I'll take a Chinaman over a nigra any day of the week."

Valery said, "The Count told me I would be the only one on his staff in touch with what interested him most intensely. He asked if I knew he had spent years as our minister in Peking and had drafted the Manchurian Convention. I said I knew that, and not without controversy. 'Ay, not without controversy,' he agreed. And on and on he went: 'They call the Great Game Afghanistan and Persia,' he said. 'They think it's all about Britain, but it isn't. There are two rising powers on this globe, and one of them is the czar and the other is this country, the United States, and we don't want this country meddling in our Eastern policy. Let it have Latin America and the remnants of Spain. So much the better if these poor people think the prize is worth the effort. The Philippines will be ours but all in due course, my boy, all in due course.'"

Mr. McGrath's eyes narrowed. He didn't like the sound of what Valery was saying, but Mrs. McGrath's breath was quickening.

Valery grew deadpan, as if he was an old hand at these maneuverings of states. In Washington when he'd returned to the Willard Hotel and informed Ivan about his interview with the Count, Ivan had said he would surely want to look into the China question. "There must be some way we can disturb it that would satisfy River and Katerina Ivanovna as well. Perhaps that's what I could 'do.'"

"Oh, 'do,'" Valery had muttered.

The two of them had been standing by the window, looking across the Treasury building toward bits and pieces of White House roof. The man who dwelled there, by virtue of assassination, was named Theodore.

"Gift of God," Ivan had remarked.

"When, if ever, do you think we'll hear from ...?" Valery had asked.

Ivan took a yellow telegram from his waistcoat pocket. "We are glad you are there. Stop. River now openly called Lenin and free. Continue per plan. K.I.V."

Valery had shaken his head at the recklessness of this message. "Wouldn't you think he'd hang her for sending such a message by telegram?"

Ivan recoiled at the idea of Katerina Ivanovna hanged and noted the edge of fear in Valery's thinking. "I shouldn't have sent her mine, telling her we're here."

"You miss her," Valery had said, his tone changed now.

"The deeper we go into this, the more I wonder whether it will result in some catastrophe. I mean something awful. They're dogs, all of them, including Ulyanov now calling himself Lenin and when I think ..." He hadn't finished his sentence. Couldn't. Stood there picturing Katerina Ivanovna thrilled by the belief that somehow, living her quiet life in Skotoprigonyevsk, she was helping instigate a global revolution, heiress to the mottled legacies of the Decembrists, Chaadayev, Herzen, Marx, and all the French whose blood was spilled before them.

Valery continued telling the McGraths about his assignment from Count Cassini. He was to keep watch on everything that went back and forth from East Asia to the west coast of America. He was to monitor trade, public sentiment, personalities, and illegal immigration. In Cassini's view, Asia belonged to Russia with Manchuria the first step, holding China down, and at all costs not letting Japan, backed by America, challenge the czar.

"He asked me if I didn't see how much easier it would be for us to grow strong in the east rather than have to push through Germany and France and England and thereby subjugate Europe," Valery said.

Surely Valery must have detected what occurred the night before, or else he was preternaturally aware of it ex post facto. What else could make him take this risk, going so far beyond what Ivan had done, exchanging terse telegrams with Katerina Ivanovna, his having read simply, "We've swum to one shore but now must entrain to the next one"?

Mr. McGrath appeared to be asking himself to whom he should run with what he was hearing. Mrs. McGrath seemed to regard Valery as a winged spirit, lifting himself up from where he had fallen, fluttering magically before her eyes. Ivan thought to himself that Valery couldn't believe anything was fair. First Katerina Ivanovna didn't love him, and now this adorable nymph. At a point, didn't one have a right not to be the perpetual best man? Wouldn't Valery be better for her than Ivan? What good had Ivan ever done anyone ... ever in his life!?

Mr. McGrath, fed up with whatever was happening, not prepared to be taunted and belittled by any Russian, millionaire or not, said sullenly, "I have read that you kill Jews in Russia. Is that right, sir?"

Valery asked, "Do you refer to the Kishinev pogrom?"

"What is a pogrom?" Mrs. McGrath asked.

"A Jew killing," Mr. McGrath said.

"How awful," Mrs. McGrath said.

Ivan broke his silence. "We have terrible anti-Semites in Russia. One of our famous writers, a man called Dostoevsky, was a deplorable anti-Semite. Put a man with his influence and eloquence at the front of the mob and don't be surprised at the outcome."

"You approve of Jews?" Mr. McGrath asked.

"Jesus was a Jew," Ivan said.

Mr. McGrath raised his eyebrows as if he had been punched in the abdomen. "Sir, I'm not an educated man, but I have a way of looking at things, and the way I look at Jesus, he wasn't a Jew. I wouldn't want my wife thinking that, and I wouldn't want to think it myself."

"But is there a way to not think it if it is so?" Mrs. McGrath asked.

Mr. McGrath said, "We are a free country and have begun anew and that is how Jesus was -- free and new. He wasn't any Jew! He saved us from being Jews, don't you at least know that much?"

The conversation couldn't go on. They all began to look up and down the dining car, which was emptying, and out at the woods and hills and grassy valleys of Colorado, where the train now bumped along. The McGraths excused themselves. Valery gestured for the waiter to pour him and Ivan more coffee. They sat there side by side, each in his well-tailored jacket and high collar. Ivan fingered his watch out of his waistcoat. Only 9:16. There was no London out there on the other side of the windows, no New York, no Washington or Council Bluffs or Skotoprigonyevsk.

"I apologize," Valery said, "but I have sat here watching that man crush and squeeze his wife until I couldn't bear it. And I hated Cassini and wanted to spit him out."

"You succeeded. You were wonderfully clear."

"We apparently now are in a place where every man is a czar unless he is a serf, and no one can see that American freedom is the largest prison in the world. Do you feel yourself being pulled under as I do?"

"I don't know how much I would mind, but no, I'm on the surface. Still swimming."

They rolled along another several minutes in silence ... then they rolled along several minutes more. Ivan considered saying something to try to put things right. This would entail exposing Mrs. McGrath, though, and he felt she was the foreshadowing of some kind of action, or complication, that he did not wish to forswear. When she reached Leadville with Mr. McGrath, did she want to be pregnant? Had she come to him in that heat? How could his child, a Karamazov, take its first breath in Leadville, Colorado? Would that be, inadvertently and with no credit due him, how he finally had managed to act?

He looked at the vibrating milk remaining in Mrs. McGrath's glass. He looked at the little specks and crumbles of bacon on Mr. McGrath's plate. He looked out the window and felt the weight of the land upon his chest as that fellow from Smolensk described Englishmen dead upon Englishmen and wondered why he shouldn't believe in anarchy, resistance, and disruption. The sense one made of things was always a false sense, a misleading sense. Looking at jackrabbits fleeing through the sparse grasses in flight from the terrifying train, their hind legs catapulting them forward, he could taste their panic and thought of Jenny and her Welsh rarebit and what she would make of beasts bigger than her biggest pot.

Mile by mile, the train pulled and strained toward Denver. Now seated in the passenger compartment, Ivan and Valery attempted further conversation and then abandoned it. They'd talk again, but not now. Denver, in the late afternoon, was a smudge on the windowpane and then a drawing and then a painting. It had color, depth and volume. There were browns, reds, golds, blacks and grays. There were more buildings constructed of wood than anything else. There was a debris-cluttered train yard, uncoupled freight cars and coal cars and handcars and stacks of rails and thick oaken ties.

As the train slowed, and the hissing grew less sharp, they looked ahead and saw the McGraths rise and Mr. McGrath tip his head farewell in their direction and Mrs. McGrath smile so weakly and faintly that neither of them was certain it was an act of recognition as opposed to some reflexive spasm of self-absorbed despair.

Ivan had no doubt she was a woman in misery. She turned her back to them, pinned on her hat, tugged at a lacy purple shawl and followed Mr. McGrath to the front of the car where she disappeared for a moment and then reappeared out on the platform and stood there motionless as Mr. McGrath orchestrated four different luggage handlers who were hauling their trunks and leather suitcases into the station house and presumably through it toward a carriage to be followed by a flatbed cart in the direction, as Mr. McGrath had mentioned more than once, of the Brown Palace Hotel. He had recommended Mr. Ivan and Mr. Valery get off and spend a few days there to rest before completing their journey to San Francisco. The best hotel in Colorado, he called it. Valery and Ivan didn't doubt it, but demurred.

Mr. McGrath disappeared into the station house. Mrs. McGrath followed him, but she came to a pillar upholding the platform roof and walked around it, almost swinging herself like a young girl in a playground, a gloved hand extended to grip it and then pull her back in the direction from whence she'd come. There was a surging confusion. Luggage carts. Railroad personnel. People everywhere. Mr. McGrath reappearing in the station house doorway, scanning for Mrs. McGrath, of whom both Ivan and Valery had lost sight as well. He spoke to a man in a blue suit wearing a round hat with a short brim and a flat top. This could be a policeman, but who knew what policemen looked like in Denver, Colorado? It might also be a senior conductor, or the stationmaster. The train's steamy urgency began to build, and there was that groaning whistle and the high-pitched call for all to board and a moment later the clatter of the metal stairs being pulled up and the heave of the massive train tugging itself forward and Mrs. McGrath appearing at the far end of the car, approaching them, clutching her shawl with one hand and steadying herself, seat back to seat back, with the other.

"Oh, my God," Valery whispered to Ivan.

Ivan rose to his feet and extended his hand to guide Mrs. McGrath into the one he had just vacated. Then he sat down again directly across the aisle from her.

Mrs. McGrath was weeping but smiling. She took a kerchief from her little bag and dabbed at her eyes.

She had done something, hadn't she? Wasn't this doing something? Ivan turned it over and over in his mind and asked himself if she could have any idea how humbled, almost humiliated, her action made him feel. He had to do something, too!

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-02-11
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