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Behind Blue Eyes
The travelling salesmen at the far end of the boxcar had constructed a kind of barricade made up of attaché cases, brown-paper parcels, string-tied packages, all the random paraphernalia of their trade. Fenced off by this embrasure, in low, enthused voices, they were exchanging professional small talk.
'At a time like this, Joe, it's the duty of sales specialists like you and me to sell confidence.'
'So I says to Mr Schenectady at the depot, when you've been selling this stuff as long as I have, chump, then you can tell me how to sell it.'
'Say, did you really call him a chump?'
'Didn't I just?'
Aunt Em, stirring in her seat with faint disapproval, saw the pale chipmunk faces hunched under the flaring gaslight and, smiling, said, 'Those fellows must think they're pretty smart,' but there was no conviction in her voice. In the course of her married life, Aunt Em had spent hundreds of dollars on patent suspender fasteners, on gadgets designed to prise lids from conserve jars, on factory-made pickling machines out of the East: a great pile of junk, some of it as much as fifteen years old, which lay in the lean-to, and over which Uncle Hi occasionally shook his head.
'Oh, I don't know,' Alice said. 'I guess it must be fun to go places.'
'Now your Uncle Kyle,' Aunt Em said, her mind drawn back to the business of the day. 'Whenever one of those salesmen walked in at the gate, didn't matter how polite he was, or touched his hat as nice as nice, he'd take a pitchfork to him. Said he'd sooner throw his money in the Ohio River.'
And Alice thought about Uncle Kyle, and his wife Aunt Docia, and her two cousins, Andy and Colin, and the farm out beyond Tupelo, and wondered about them all, how they talked over the dinner table, whether they went out driving on Sundays and half a dozen other things that gestured at the new life that lay before her. The train whistle blew and she sat up with a start, burdened by the loneliness that flared in her and the silence that seemed to press against the moving train once it had gone. Outside, the flat Kansas plains receded into twilight. A speeding automobile that had kept pace with them for the past half-mile veered off into scrub. The train passed rapidly through a village, full of long, low houses and empty streets, sped past a crossing where a cattle truck waited behind the barred gate and a knot of people – country people with bags and satchels in their hands – stood incuriously by, and she wondered where they lived, and about all the hidden towns out there beyond the horizon, while the last vestiges of sunlight faded to purple across the plain and the shadows lengthened towards the distant hills, and her own face stared back at her out of the gathering night.
The conductor, hurrying through the connecting door, stopped to consider the dozen or so passengers. He was a young man, not yet habituated to the work and still fascinated by the people who came beneath his vigilant eye. He was looking at them now as he stood beside the square poster advertising the Kansas Trade Fair, adjusting the peaked cap whose brim was irritating the back of his scalp, making tiny judgments and speculating about their livelihoods and destiny. The travelling salesmen he knew instantly for what they were and took no further interest in: he would tell them to move those parcels in a moment and give himself some fun. The two men seated further down he judged to be farmers on account of their denim overalls, weather-beaten faces and the curious faraway look that comes from staring across far-distant fields in the sun: he was a farm boy himself and he knew these things. The tall, smartly dressed man in the adjoining seat he could not quite place. The middle-aged-to-elderly woman and the girl at her side he judged to be related, but not intimately so, as there was no sympathy about their looks or gestures. The girl – and he was a connoisseur of such girls, he saw a dozen of them a day, talked with them and chaffed them as far as was consistent with the company's regulations – he thought striking, but he could not quite establish why this was so, whether it was in her auburn hair, her pale and, it seemed to him, almost stricken face, or in some odd combination of the two whose significance eluded him. The train rattled beneath his feet and he reached out a hand – it fell upon the poster of the Kansas Trade Fair – to steady himself, then moved off down the car, loudly intoning in a high, sing-song voice, 'Ya ticket, sir. Thanking ya kindly ... To Roswell, ma'am? And to Bellevue, miss? ... Thanking ya ... Now, see here, fellers. This ain't a postal department. Going to haveta ask ya to remove that contraption ...' Then he was gone into the next car, taking the memory of the auburn-haired girl with him, thinking of his wife back in Independence and arranging the two of them together in a way that was somehow disagreeable and mutinous, like creek water blown back by the wind, while the white birds spiralled in the blue-black sky and the last streaks of light slid away over the dark horizon.
It was past twilight, now, and the train thundered on into darkness. The whistle blew again and Alice remembered how, even as a child, she had hidden her head beneath the pillow when she heard it, so desolate and mournful did it seem. The lights from the farms and homesteads out on the plain broke occasionally out of the shadow and she wondered how people could live as the farmers and their wives did, out in the silence of the Kansas flat, with no one but each other to talk to and the distant murmur of the freight trains in their ears. At her side, Aunt Em fiddled anxiously with the clasps of her big canvas bag, dipped into it and took out a folded square of paper, stamped with the crest of the train company, that Uncle Hi had brought home to her weeks ago. Aunt Em disliked paper. The receipts in the fat cookery book Uncle Hi had bought her one year jumped out and confounded her with their precision, and the stories in the Kansas Chronicle, with their square, solid print, had to be read to her aloud.
'Gracious, Aunt Em! As if you hadn't seen that schedule a dozen times. Why, everybody knows the next station is Silver Lake. And then after that Roswell.'
Roswell was where Aunt Em would leave the train, cross the platform and take the southern-bound express back to Kansas City.
'I declare,' Alice said, softening in her attitude to Aunt Em, who could not properly read and whose hens never laid, and whose own daughter was dead, and who would have travelled on to Bellevue with her had Uncle Hi not wanted her home, 'it's very good of you to see me all this way.'
'It's no trouble, child,' Aunt Em said, who used the word 'child' only at times of high emotion. There was something bothering her, altogether beyond the stations of the southwestern Kansas line. She considered for a moment and then said, 'Be a good place for you, with Kyle and Docia. Don't doubt you'll fret. But it's a good place. Better than with me and Hi.'
'I like it with you and Uncle Hi.'
'And we like it. That's not what I'm saying. But with Kyle and Docia, why, you could marry a farmer, teach in a school, I don't know.'
'Catch me teach in a school.'
'Your ma would have wanted it,' Aunt Em said gravely and Alice thought of her mother, dead these ten years and no more than the memory of a face above a coverlet, and of whom Uncle Hi had remarked that she had not left enough behind her to clothe a skunk.
They were passing through flat, grey country, altogether gathered up into blackness but with an arterial road snaking alongside where occasional lights moved back and forth. Kansas City to Eudora is twenty-five miles. Eudora to Lawrence is fifteen, then Lawrence to Topeka makes another twenty. Topeka to Roswell is eight miles and Roswell by St Mary's to Bellevue another twelve. Ninety miles over the Kansas plain.
Still wanting to conciliate Aunt Em, who showed signs of becoming tearful, Alice said, 'Did you ever go any place yourself, Aunt Em?'
'Well, now,' Aunt Em said. 'I once went to the World's Fair.' But there was no revelation in this. The Chicago World's Fair had been the one bright, indisputable beacon of Aunt Em's life. It was there that she had ascended a clock tower two hundred feet high, heard a man speaking the language of France, purchased and brought home a souvenir plate that, even now, eleven years later, lay undefiled on the parlour sideboard. Now, curiously, such talk was comforting to her. So Alice listened to her discuss the white exhibition rooms and the perilous climb into the heavens above Illinois and M. de Brinvillier's exposition and Uncle Hi – a younger, imperturbable Uncle Hi of boundless gallantry – while around them the life of the car grew pale and subdued, and the farmers yawned in their sleep, the salesmen stowed away their parcels in battered carrying cases and the man in the dark suit took out an eyeglass and read the Wilmington Plains Courier, and the train bored on into pitch.
Drouett watched the girl with the auburn hair out of the corner of one eye. He was on his way west, to Denver, but not indifferent to anything that the journey might throw into his path. He, too, was a salesman, though of a rather superior sort: better dressed, better spoken, less forward in drawing attention to his trade. Just now he was travelling in veneers and inlays, samples of which could be found in the leather attaché case on the seat beside him. He was a year off his thirty-fifth birthday, good-looking in a florid way, with an easy, confident air about him, one of those men whom the modern age consistently breeds up: rootless, vagrant and rather admiring himself for this rootlessness and vagrancy, pretty much at home wherever he found himself. Eavesdropping on the two women, he fancied that he understood the relation between them and wondered idly how he might make it work to his advantage. He did this not out of any particular viciousness, but because that was how his mind operated, seizing on any opportunity or half-chance, pursuing it, but not regretting its passing. The girl had blue eyes – cornflower blue, he thought – and he watched them covertly from behind his newspaper, thinking they were certainly very fine eyes and that he should certainly like to get into conversation with their owner.
The grey, vestigial landscapes beyond the window continued to flash by, but he took no notice of them; the Kansas plain, to him, was simply the Kansas plain: its mystery and its pathos scarcely occurred to him; he was not that kind of man. When the train drew into Roswell and the older of the two women collected her bag and, with various expressions of regret and farewell, made her way to the car door, waving as she did so and then standing in the doorway for a moment with what seemed to him an intensely sorrowful look, he relaxed, for he knew that his assessment of the situation was accurate. The girl now sat on her own, her eyes fixed on some remote point in the distance. He looked at his watch – it was a giant repeater that lay in the pocket of his waistcoat – and saw that a good thirty minutes had to elapse before the train reached Bellevue. Emboldened, he picked up his newspaper once more and folded it out across his lap. One of the great maxims of his life was that there was always plenty of time.
She sat on the edge of the carriage seat and watched as the train pulled out of Roswell. Aunt Em had long disappeared, gathered up into a crowd of people and gesturing railway officials and porters manoeuvring cabin trunks, but still in the distance behind her she could see the uttermost extremity of the receding platform. The figures were now reduced to an ant-like insubstantiality, and the sight impressed her far more than Aunt Em's leave-taking. She was sorry to see Aunt Em gone, but she knew that she was excited by her absence and the pleasant feeling of possibility that it brought. When Roswell was gone – the travelling salesmen and the farmers had vanished too and the car was all but empty – her thoughts turned back to herself. The life she knew was changing: that much was certain. Uncle Kyle and Aunt Docia she had met but once, seven years ago. She could remember nothing about them, conceive no plan of how her days might be lived out among them. As for marrying a farmer, or teaching in a school, that might do for some of the girls she had known in Kansas, but it would not do for her. As for what might do, she was not entirely sure.
There was a newspaper lying on the seat beside her and she stared vaguely at it, leafed through its pages and found an account of a play at a theatre in Independence and the portrait of a young lady who had acted in it, and though the names 'Shakespeare' and 'Romeo and Juliet' awoke only the faintest tremor of recognition, the report interested her and she thought she would have liked to be there. And, her mind moving on in this way, she remembered a morning at school, years ago, when she had recited 'The Ride of Paul Revere', and the teacher, Miss Etter, had praised her. She remembered sitting at her desk, with the sun streaming through the window, and Miss Etter regarding her from the slate blackboard, and children's voices sounding beyond the doorway. She was woken from this reverie by a faint movement somewhere close by and, raising her head, became aware that the red-faced man in the black cloth suit was transferring himself, by easy stages, on to the seat opposite her own. This done, he laid his travelling case across his knees, lifted his eyes and seemed to see her for the first time.
'Well, now,' he said. 'This is a nice, comfortable journey, is it not?'
She was not in the least put out by Drouett's attentions. In the course of her recent life – she was going on nineteen – she had met several other Drouetts – they stared at her from behind drugstore windows, from the flatbeds of wagons drawn up level with Uncle Hi's buggy – and she had learned, or so she thought, not to be intimidated by them. Part of her, noting Drouett's genteel suit and generally prosperous air, was merely gratified that he had selected her for his notice. There were some girls, she thought eagerly, to whom he would not have deigned to speak. But an equal part was, additionally, awed by his assumption of expertise, the talk of 'nice, comfortable journeys', all of which impressed her quite as much as the leather attaché case and the repeater watch that stuck out from his waistcoat pocket.
'Oh, I don't know,' she said humbly – not meaning to be humble, but somehow imparting to the words what to Drouett seemed a delightful air of meekness. 'It seems a very long way to me.'
'Surely not?' Drouett said genially. 'I suppose there are a good many journeys longer than this. Why, to travel from Chicago to Seattle you would have to stay a day and a night on the train.'
'Did you ever do that? Did you ever stay a day and a night on a train?'
There was a naivety in her tone that to Drouett was altogether charming. He felt like a man who has walked through dusty alleyways and trackless side streets feels when he glimpses the first green fields out beyond the city's boundary. Seeking to press home his advantage, he said, 'Well, I should say that I did. And longer, too. Why, it can take a week to get from Seattle to Rhode Island.' He held out his hand. 'I am George Drouett, by the by.'
'My name is Alice Alden.' Again there was something about her tone that captivated him. He was a womaniser in his way, but not a cynical one: his admiration for the girl was quite sincere and inwardly he cursed the fact that another fifteen or twenty minutes would see her quit the train at Bellevue.
'Delighted to meet you, Miss Alden.'
And then there occurred an act of pure chance, which for all its unexpectedness seemed calculated to work to his advantage. Drawing into St Mary's, the station on the southwestern Kansas line that separates Roswell from Bellevue, the train juddered slightly in its approach and came to a premature halt with perhaps only eight of its dozen coaches drawn up alongside the platform. The driver and the brakeman joined each other on the concourse, and a short while later the conductor came hurrying through the car to announce that a mechanical fault had been detected in one of the pistons and that the progress of the train would be delayed for perhaps an hour.
Drouett saw that the situation required him to put on an act. Accordingly he rose to his feet, stretched his arms, yawned profoundly and strode out on to the platform on the pretext of consulting the brakeman. Returning after a moment or two he said, with apparent unconcern, 'Well, this is very annoying, isn't it? Quite a little delay. I don't know if I shall get where I'm going tonight. But never mind. I never was in St Mary's but twice in my life, but I recollect there is a hotel. What do you say that we have dinner while we wait for the engineer to be called?'
Excerpted from Ask Alice by D. J. Taylor. Copyright © 2009 D. J. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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Posted November 14, 2011