by Alec Clayton
– Published in This is Me, Debbi, David
Janet and Brad could not have picked a better time for a train trip to San Francisco. Record heat was predicted for the usually balmy Pacific Northwest, while down in the Bay Area early August temps were predicted in the high seventies and lower eighties—ideal for lounging around Janet’s sister’s pool.
On the night before departure their neighbors Ralph and Margie stopped by to have a beer with Brad, as they often did, India Pale Ale for Ralph and Janet and for Brad a Dick Danger Ale, a rich dark beer brewed by a local craft brewery in the nearby town of Centralia. They watched Rachel Maddow, and Ralph and Margie talked through most of the show as they usually did. Their chatter irritated the hell out of Brad, but he didn’t complain.
Janet, the constant organizer, waited until a commercial break to ask, “What time are we leaving in the morning?”
“Leaving for where?” Margie asked.
“The train station. Remember? You’re taking us to the train station.”
“Shit. Is that tomorrow?”
“Yes. We’ve been talking about it for a week.”
Margie said, “Oh gosh, I forgot all about it.”
“Me too,” from Ralph. “What time does your train leave?”
“Ah heck. All right, I’m gonna have to get you there a little early. I’m playing golf with Jerry, and we gotta get there and get in nine holes before the heat hits. It’s supposed to be up in the nineties. I’ll have to drop you off no later than nine.”
Way to go, asshole, Brad thought.
Continuing to bitch about their neighbors after they went home, Brad said, “Now we’ll have to wait two freaking hours in the train station.”
“Oh well, we’ll have books to read on the train, and we can get some coffee. It won’t be so bad.”
Brad grumbled, “We should be given distinguished service medals for putting up with them. Why do we do it?”
“Because they’re our neighbors and we’re nice people?”
“Yeah. Geez. I hate the way they chatter away while we’re trying to watch TV.”
“So why don’t you ask them to be quiet while you’re trying to watch the show?”
“I know I should. But . . .”
“You don’t have to be so damn polite to them. After all, it’s our house and your beer.”
Brad had been re-reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but he decided to bring something lighter, something mindless and escapist. He didn’t want to have to think on his vacation. He picked from his bookshelf a copy of Twilight, the vampire story set not far from where they lived. It had been Margie’s Christmas present to him six years ago when it first came out. He had never read it. Had never seen any of the dumb movies either.
Up at seven the next morning, they were coffeed, breakfasted, packed and ready to go when Ralph banged on their door at eight-thirty. They tossed their suitcases in the back of Ralph’s Rav 4 next to his golf bags. “Hurry up,” Ralph said. He was anxious to get to the golf course.
Not a hundred feet from their house, they almost had a collision when Ralph turned right onto twenty-sixth without looking both ways. An oncoming vehicle almost hit them. Ralph never even noticed. He blithely accelerated while the car behind them braked. Not a good start, Brad thought.
Two miles farther on Ralph slammed on his brakes at a four-way intersection, shouting, “Damn! There’s a stop sign. I almost didn’t see it.”
This does not bode well for this trip, Brad thought. It crossed his mind that they might not even get to the damn train station in one piece. But they did.
Ralph wheeled his Rav into the sparsely filled parking lot at the Centennial Amtrak station in Lacey at precisely 9 a.m. It was already getting hot. A few people were waiting outside by the tracks and a few more were standing by the door waiting to get in. Brad and Janet lugged their baggage up to the door where they saw a sign stating that the station opens at 8 a.m. “Damn,” Brad said. The station attendant was an hour late, and Brad’s blood was boiling.
Half an hour later someone showed up to open the doors. He was a bustling little man with a handlebar mustache who profusely apologized. “This is only the second time in the twenty-four years this station has been open that an attendant has failed to show up to open on time. Luckily, city bus driver called me.”
For the waiting passengers who were now finding seats inside, he gave a brief history of the station, which was built by local volunteers and had been staffed by volunteers for all those years. The bantam rooster of a station master was right proud. “I was on the team that built this station. I installed these lights my own self.”
Brad wanted to hear the porter shout “All aboard!” But the porter, a tall, handsome Black man with gleaming white teeth, did not shout out the time-honored phrase. He took their bags and helped them into the car. He introduced himself as Stanley, and—what with his uniform and solicitous manner—made Brad think they had stepped back in time to the heyday of Pullman trains. All that was missing was a big gold watch on a long watch fob. “Welcome to the Coast Starlight,” he said, and took Janet’s hand to help her in.
Stanley led them forward as far as the car went, opened the door to their sleeping compartment and set their luggage down. “You have a twelve-fifteen lunch reservation. You’ll be called when it’s time. Take the stairs to the upper cars and go back three cars. If you want drinks before lunch, you can stop off in the lounge. Call me when you’re ready for bed tonight and I’ll let down the beds.”
They settled in and watched an elderly couple across the way get situated in their seats and then close the curtain. The man’s hands shook as he lowered himself to his seat. His wife wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. In Brad and Janet’s sleeping compartment, two cushioned seats faced each other with a pull-down bunk above. “Comfortable seats,” Brad said.
“Uh huh. This is nice.”
They watched out the window as the train pulled out of the station and gathered speed. Soon they heard an announcement: “Eleven-thirty lunch reservations may now come to the dining car.” A door opened to a room in front of their car and a family stepped out. Mother, father and teenaged son. All three were tall and thin, elegantly dressed in mostly black clothing. The father had a shock of blond hair. The mother’s hair was long and black with a silver streak—natural or dyed, Brad could not tell. She looked too young to be going gray. The son was wearing an Oakland Raiders cap. All three carried themselves stiffly erect and looked straight ahead. Brad said, “Hey there, neighbors,” but they ignored him.
Snooty, he thought. He felt chilled. And something dawned on him that he had not thought about at first. He parsed it out bit by bit. First, the neighboring room had to be bigger than theirs in order for three people to sleep in it. Second, their room had to be in the very front of the train because the passageway ran right to their door and stopped, but that was impossible because he clearly remembered they had walked toward the rear of the train to get to their car, and he had seen many cars in front. So how could you get in front of them? Would you have to go to the upper level and walk past them and back down? That seemed very, very odd.
Soon the train slowed down as it pulled into the station in Centralia, home of Dick’s Brewery, the town’s one claim to fame other than labor wars sixty years ago. He wondered if they served Dick’s beer in the dining car. The station was on the opposite side of their compartment, so all Brad and Janet could see through their window was what looked to be the back of a warehouse and a raggedy yard inside a chain-link fence with two antique cars parked in the grass, neither of which looked like they could be driven. It didn’t even look like they were being restored, but had been parked there and left to rust as grass grew all around.
“I kind of forgot that trains always go through the most rundown parts of town,” Brad said. “I guess we can forget about a scenic route.”
But they soon did see some beautiful scenery from the lounge car where Brad was able to order a beer almost as good as Dick’s. Janet had a lemonade. They sped past mountainous terrain on the left and rivers and streams on the right, past the towns of Longview and Kelso. They hoped to catch sight of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, but were not able to see either. What they did catch sight of was the vampire family, which was what Brad had started thinking of them as. They were in the dining car ahead. From where Brad and Janet were seated, they appeared to be not speaking to one another and not particularly enjoying their meal. When they finished eating and passed by going back to their room, Brad once again tried to greet them, and once again they walked by without so much as a nod.
The twelve-fifteen reservations were called, and they were escorted to their table. The waiter explained to them that it was Coast Starlight tradition to seat diners with different table mates at each meal to encourage them to get to know each other—where are you from, where are you going—it made the trip more enjoyable for everyone. Brad and Janet were introduced to their table mates, June and Rod Barefoot, a Muckleshoot Indian couple on their way to Las Vegas for a bookseller’s convention. The Barefoots owned a small, independent bookstore in Seattle.
“I imagine you sell a lot of Sherman Alexie’s books,” Brad said.
“Yeah, we do,” Rod Barefoot said. “But don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not like we cater to Native American readers.”
“Oh no, I wasn’t thinking that.”
“Actually,” June put in, “that book you got in your hand is one of our best sellers. The whole series.”
June said, “You know that’s based on an actual event, don’t you? A series of events, in fact.”
“No, I didn’t know that.” Of course it wasn’t, but he decided it wasn’t worth arguing. He listened politely as she told how there had been a series of disappearances in and around the town of Forks on the Olympia Peninsula. “It was kids who came up with the fantasy that there were vampires in the woods. It became a fun thing to spread the rumors, and I guess people believed some of the missing people had been turned into vampires. It was pretty brilliant of the writer, if you ask me, to turn the legends into a whole series of novels.”
“Damn crazy Indians,” Brad said to Janet after they were back in their compartment.
“They were putting us on.”
“Yeah. Damn crazy fun Indians.”
After a stop in Portland there was an announcement that the train had to limit its speed to fifty miles per hour due to excessive heat. It was over a hundred degrees outside. “I wonder what the heat’s got to do with the speed,” Brad said.
“I don’t know,” Janet said. “Maybe when it’s hot and dry they’re afraid sparks from the rails will start a fire.”
Brad was reading the vampire novel. Periodically he stopped reading and spent long minutes looking out the window. It was amazing to see how fast things zipped past even though the train had slowed down, much faster, it seemed, than when the landscape rushed past when driving a car on the highway at even higher speeds. He figured that was because they were much closer to cliffs and trees than when on the highway. Sometimes the sheer faces of hills or mountains were so close that if he could open the window he could reach out and touch them. He couldn’t imagine what that would be like. It would probably ri
p his arm and hands to shreds. When another train passed by on another track it seemed the trains were going a hundred miles an hour or faster. When they crossed a bridge the empty drop-off was right at the edge of the tracks. A rock on the tracks could sling them off into the abyss. It was as thrilling and terrifying as a roller coaster ride.
At dinner that evening that were seated at a table with Ronnie and Jimbo, a gay couple from Portland heading to Los Angeles. Brad and Janet ordered the grilled Norwegian salmon with wild rice and green beans, Ronnie had the roasted chicken breast and Jimbo—a bear of a man if there ever was one—ordered the vegetarian pasta.
“We’re going to Hollywood,” Ronnie said. “We’re going to break into the movie business or die trying.”
“The latter is the most likely,” Brad said.
Janet said, “Now Brad.”
Jimbo said, “We’ve both done some acting, and Ronnie has written a screen play. We know it mig
ht be a pipe dream, but we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get a foot in the door. Fetching coffee for the crew. Whatever.”
Brad said, “You want a . . . what do they call it . . . a project that’s surefire. Vampires and trains. Vampires are hot. And look around you. There’s such a rich cast of characters right here on this train. We had lunch we a couple of Indians. American Indians, not from India. There’s rich and poor, a potpourri of fascinating characters. Look at that family over there, tall, proud, aloof. Who do you imagine they are? They could be your vampires. And that fat dude all by himself in the lounge wearing a Seahawks jersey? He could be your first victim. The pitch could be Dracula meets The Orient Express in modern day California.”
Ronnie laughed. “Hell, you oughta go to Hollywood. You could have those studio execs eating right out of your hand.”
Janet rolled her eyes and said nothing.
Brad said, “Speaking of vampires, those Indians we had lunch with told us the most fascinating story. You know the Twilight series? Did you know it was inspired by a series of real-life events?” an
d he proceeded to elaborate on the tale and make it sound convincingly true.
Both couples retired to the lounge after dinner but there were not available seats for them to sit together. “God, I think they believed me about the Twilight series,” Brad said. “Crazy gay dudes. Going to make it big in Hollywood. Shee-ish.”
Janet said, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
They watched the sun set in the west, and then retired to their compartment, and Brad sought out Stanley the porter and asked him to turn their beds down. The facing seats pulled together to make the lower bed, Janet’s, and Stanley pulled down a shelf with a thin mattress for the top bunk, Brad’s. Brad tipped him five-dollars. He noticed an odd glint to Stanley’s eyes from the way the light struck him.
Brad turned out the light. There was plenty enough light oozing in from the passageway.
Uncomfortably lying down on the bunk, he could see only the top few feet of the passageway on one side and out the slice of window only a few lights that flickered by like fireflies as the train sped through the night. Suddenly it became pitch black as the train went into a tunnel. Goddamn long tunnel, Brad thought. They rode through the blackness for minutes and minutes and minutes, and when they finally came out he saw movement through the top part of the door. The old man from across the aisle opened his door and stepped out. Brad could see him only from his shoulders upwards. He stood a moment, and then turned, then turned again as if disoriented. Maybe he was sleepwalking. Then the man from the front room stepped out, his blo
nd hair like a puffy white cloud. The two men circled each other as if each were saying to the other, “You g
o first.” And then the tall, elegant, blond man pounced on the frail elderly man and sunk his teeth into his neck and slung his arm around his shoulder and quickly dragged him into his room.
Brad must have been dreaming. Ten minutes later the old woman stepped out, searching perhaps for her missing husband. And swiftly as the lights flashing past the train the vampire stepped out and whisked her into their room as well.
The next morning Brad said to Janet, “I had the strangest damn dream last night. I
t was really disturbing, and seemed so real.”
“Probably that salmon we ate. It was super rich.”
Greeting the new day and in preparation for coming into a major destination, San Francisco, people were in and out of their compartments, a constant shuffling in the aisle, Stanley was busy converting passenger’s beds back into seats. The family that had been so formal and aloof the day before stepped out into the aisle with bright smiles. “Good morning,” the father said. “It’s going to be a great day.”
In the aisle and up the stairs and in the dining car, Brad and Janet saw what must have been every person on their end of the train, but they never saw the old couple from the compartment across from theirs. “There might have been some stops during the night that we slept through,” Janet said. “They probably got off.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Later, stopped at the station and while dragging their luggage out into the passageway, Brad noticed what looked like a spot of blood on the floor. “Let’s go,” he said, and they stepped off onto the platform. He left his book on the seat in their compartment.