The Great Northern Empire Builder carried them east of the mountains across the hi-line plains where space invites and old memories die hard between the dry and the cold.
His destination: Chicago, Illinois, for the upcoming term at the University of Chicago. Anne’s destination: Carrabelle, Florida, for the upcoming term at Florida State University in nearby Tallahassee. Anne changed trains in Chicago, taking the Seminole to Albany, Georgia, where her aunt met her in the Willys for the slow drive down to the coast and the fading double-wide with the flamingo-colored screen porch. After dropping Anne off at the IC Station, David took their cab down to 95th Street for dinner at Mickelberry’s before going back to the campus.
The 440 miles from the Rocky Mountain Front to the North Dakota border were Jayee’s realm, the whole of earth, a corridor of tracks, power lines and the pale parallel pavement of U.S. Highway 2 through the once unfettered domain of bison and sovereign nations until T-shaped railroad towns and cattle and wheat and oil and gas proved up the stolen land into the modern day, until the monuments to the new progress, grain elevators and water towers, rose up to touch the sky.
The towns, so many names—Browning, Havre, Glasgow, Wolf Point, Culbertson, Williston, Minot, Fargo, Wilmar, Minneapolis—carried lives past the wide windows of the Great Dome Coach #1326 where they were wrapped in a five-point Hudson’s Bay blanket and suspended animation, interrupted only by hurried snacks in the Ranch Car Crossley Lake with the B-Bar-N brand above the entrance and dinners in the diner where the “Mountains and Flowers” pattern on the china reminded them with each bite what they were leaving behind; and then, Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders; “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them,” but the poet’s words were inconsequential to them as they arrived at Union Station at 2 p.m.
The sunlight exploded from the center of their world outward when the Checker Marathon taxi careened up the ramp out of the depths of the station onto Clinton Street, turned east on Jackson, and raced toward the lake. They sat close in the cavernous back seat. They did not talk. Anne held David’s hand and looked past him into the glare where buildings flew. Her shoulder was pressed against his; her left hip and left leg were pressed against his right hip and right leg. But she would not let him have her eyes, not yet. The place was foreign, the town, the taxi, the moment. David didn’t know how to behave. Everything was already said and done.
South down Michigan Avenue past the green of the park, he saw the station before she did. Almost liquid in the afternoon light, the clock tower flowed westward away from the green and black Illinois Central logo toward 12th Street. The cab turned into the U-shaped drive. He ran his outstretched fingers up the back of her neck into her hair. She leaned against the flat of his hand. Before she looked up, the driver was already out of the car hauling suitcases toward an elderly Redcap with yesterday’s beard.
“We have until four forty-five,” he told her.
“I can’t draw this out,” she whispered. She pressed her hands against the front of his shirt and smiled. “Yes, you still have my ring on a silver chain around your neck. I like it there.”
“If it weren’t so small, I’d wear it on my little finger.”
Finally, he found himself within the focus of her eyes for mere instants; that was all she had.
He retrieved the silver bracelet he’d purchased for her on a day trip to Lethbridge, and she allowed him to wrap it around her right ankle. Then she slid across the seat, and exhaust fumes from a passing shuttle bus filled the cab when she opened the door and got out. She stuck her head back inside and kissed him.
“I’ll be stone cold dead before anyone removes this bracelet,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
“I have an answer to the question you asked me while we were eating hamburgers in the Ranch Car.” He saw a sparkle in her eyes and smiled.
“My answer is a no-holds-barred, unconditional, leap-of-faith ‘yes,’” she said.
“Hot damn,” shouted the cab driver.
“Okay,” she said, “it’s also a big hot damn of a ‘yes.’”
“Kiss her, stupid,” their driver suggested.