Prize-winning story (published in Storm at Galesburg and other Stories and Poems, September 2009, Cinnamon Press)
The steel-sharp Chicago wind scattered Richard’s thoughts and memories to all quarters. Cold air tore through his dark blue Aquascutum overcoat as he followed Eugene to the Oldsmobile station wagon. When Richard stroked the lines of his face he believed they had grown in number. He rubbed his hand across his cheeks and eyes in order to check his perceptions.
The car was parked a few blocks away from the Union League Club, Chicago, where Richard had been staying during the conference. The tall, quietly grand buildings reassured him about something he could not define.
‘It’s a very comfortable car,’ Eugene said and the sentence entered Richard’s consciousness in staccato bursts, as if each word had to struggle through the maelstrom.
The passenger seat was strewn with papers, cigarette packets. Dogs’ hairs stuck to the material. With a theatrical flourish Eugene tidied up, and grabbed some packages from the floor. ‘Samples,’ he explained, ‘cattle feed is a scientific business – “Try Before You Buy!” is my catchphrase – and it works most of the time. Guess I should retire soon.’ His chunky face puckered up.
Richard smiled thinly as he held his suitcase and wished he had taken the plane. But the secretary to the academic conference had arranged for Eugene, her brother, to give Richard a lift. ‘How lucky you’re going to the same place,’ she had said through her super-bright smile, and told him, with that unsullied innocence he admired in Americans, about her two children, a boy and a girl, who were both at college and doing so well.
When Eugene spoke his head moved quickly, like a boxer determined to get his punches across. His white-grey hair was in crew-cut style. I’m probably envious, Richard chastened himself, and imagined Eugene in a world of families and American football games, hot dogs and manicured lawns.
‘My cell phone’s not working,’ Eugene said, ‘got one?’
‘In England, of course…’
‘Oh well, let’s keep our fingers crossed.’
Razorblade wind cut through the iron grey sky. The car veered a little.
Richard’s spirits rallied when he thought of yesterday’s accolades after his talk. And a preppy, darkly attractive young man, a PhD student at Princeton, had said to him: ‘Professor Woodward, I so enjoyed your lecture yesterday.’ Richard recalled his smile, and the eyes that had blinked knowingly. He wished he had pursued the brief encounter.
No, life was good, if a bit lonely, but could he bear it any other way? The car’s heater thawed him out. He folded his overcoat and placed it carefully on the back seat.
‘I’m going to Galesburg on business,’ Eugene said from out of the car’s darkness, ‘glad to be of help.’
‘I’m very grateful.’
Richard felt guilty about his reservations and smiled too eagerly. This encouraged Eugene to share his views about American kids having it too easy and how it wasn’t like that for him when he was a boy in Des Plaines. As an adult, Eugene had lived all over, Cincinnati, Denver, Chicago, and now had almost retired ‘to a little place in Thedford, Nebraska, near where my wife’s family came from, Norwegians originally, cattle farmers – you got to keep moving, you know, stay young!’
‘I dare say.’
Richard locked his hands together. How big America felt, how rootless, while his own life was a sort of English B road existence, but that’s what he liked, the quiet, private connoisseurship of studying ancient things. Richard made an effort to be sociable, talked about history and identity, ‘What it was to be English’ and how ‘history has been largely forgotten’. Eugene, with American enthusiasm, embraced the idea: ‘You never said a truer word. Kids don’t understand. You say “Second World War” to them – I said to my son, “It’s you, it’s your history. Remember” – he stared at me like I was goofy.’
The rhythm of the roads soothed them and they sank into their own reflections.
‘Crackers in the glove compartment if you’re hungry,’ Eugene said.
The confident architecture gave way to areas where paint was flaking off the dingy houses. Soon they reached the suburbs: every house with a large front garden, every lawn green and trimmed.
‘Live in London, Richard?’
‘Flat near the British Museum,’ he said, but his visual recollection of his home was weak, as if he was telling a scene from a novel he didn’t much like. He pinched his hand, touched his top pocket, the handkerchief had gone, the one that Tom had given him.
‘You okay?’ Eugene asked.
‘Forgot something, not important.’ His heart raced and America felt vast and unknown, as if the car was adrift on a sheet of ice at the North Pole.
Eugene whistled, tapped the steering-wheel, fiddled with the radio, ‘it’s really crackly, the weather’s bad, but we’ll get through.’
Richard envied that American spirit, the confidence of moving forward, of getting there, but he wanted some peace now, time to think.
Eugene burbled on, about his children, both grown up: Sandie who lived in Normal, Illinois and was a teacher, she married an electrician who’s got his own business… Christ, Richard thought, I could have written the script myself, he’s going to tell me about his homemade apple pie soon. Richard yawned. Eugene’s son, Lee, was in Chicago, ran a bar, bit of a bum.
‘But Jodie, that was my wife… she died last year, cancer… together for thirty-seven years.’
He blew his nose.
‘I’m sorry.’ Richard looked distractedly out of the passenger window and his reflection dissolved into a trickle of rust over snow. He sucked hard on a mint, and tried to bring back an image of himself in the glass.
Eugene had quarrelled with both his children, but Sandie was a nice girl. ‘I want to apologise to Sandie, life’s too short.’
The long freeway opened up. Snow fell hard and giant bright trucks seared like silver ghosts across America. Where did they come from, these lithe, roaring spectres? Where were they were going? Richard patted his racing heart.
‘You married?’ Eugene asked.
‘Confirmed bachelor, I was an only child, I grew to prefer my own company.’
‘Jesus, why can’t you Brits just spit it out?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘If you’re fuckin’ gay, say so -who cares these days?’
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘I’ve no idea why you make that assumption. It’s of no interest to anyone, nor is it true.’
‘It’s true. My sister told me. Everyone in the organisation knows. No one cares. Only you.’
‘I should have gone by plane.’
‘You think I don’t know you’re treating me like some kind of low life,’ Eugene jerked his head at Richard, ‘I’m direct, that’s all.’
The car snaked into another lane.
‘Watch out!’ Richard screamed.
From under the seat Eugene drew out a revolver, held it in the air. With the other hand he straightened the car.
‘Stop!’ Richard squealed.
‘I’m direct, that’s all.’ Eugene laughed and replaced the gun beneath the seat.
They drove in silence until Eugene started crooning a Johnny Cash song, ‘On the Evening Train’, and after a while, without pausing, he told Richard about his poor Polish parents, his father, a baker, three shops, and that his mom ran one of them, as if those facts were an extension of the song’s elegy.
Richard pretended not to listen.
‘I suppose you think your rude violence has scared me? Perhaps that’s how America always wins her wars.’
‘I meant no harm. Life’s not been easy just now. I’m not always truthful with myself, and… If you just said, “Sure, I’m gay”‘
‘A moment ago you were trying to kill me.’
‘Don’t exaggerate. Pass me that Hershey’s bar from the glove compartment.’
They stopped at a diner for lunch. Snow was thick in the parking area.
Half an hour later Eugene returned excitedly from the gents, ‘We’d better push on. A trucker told me the electricity is down in Galesburg, the storm just blew it all out.’
Eugene put the heater up to high. The windscreen was almost blanked-out white as if they were alone and estranged in an igloo. All the cars headlights were on, like a thousand double spears of light probing the dark. Eugene hummed and then talked about his dead wife, Jodie, and her pink bath cap, which he found behind the shower-room door, ‘Been there over a year, never noticed it until that moment.’
‘It’s not that I’m gay, you see. I simply don’t have relations, period, as you would put it.’
‘If that’s how you want it.’
‘I live quietly. I’m a natural solitary. Strange, I know.’ And Tom probably won’t be in touch again, he thought.
‘I need people, I feel old and lonely these days.’
‘May I have a cracker?’
Richard nibbled loudly and had no wish to listen to a stranger’s confessions. He tightened the knot of his tie.
All the trucks and cars slowed. A blast of snow covered the windscreen, which intensified the hushed rumble from the world outside. A few miles on and the police were busily directing the traffic. Eugene’s eyes scanned a bigger darkness, beyond the shopping malls, McDonalds, TVs and American football. ‘Business isn’t what it was. I really must retire early, settle in Nebraska.’
Nebraska, Richard whispered, Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska…
‘Look, no more road lights. That trucker was right, the power’s gone.’
Vehicles moved forward like a long trail of settlers seeking somewhere new to start again. Ten minutes later the traffic stopped. Eugene felt beneath his seat because this was America and the lights were out.
Richard’s clammy fingers instinctively checked his top pocket, but there was no handkerchief.
‘We’ll be there soon,’ Eugene said. ‘Someone picking you up?’
‘I have to phone from the call-box on the corner of Broad Street, the dean will send someone for me.’
At the outskirts of Galesburg, the radio said that the bad weather was coming down all the way from Canada. They reached the middle of town. Eugene stopped the car but kept the engine running.
His warm eyes looked into Richard’s: ‘Some beautiful old trains in Galesburg, used to connect America, right down to Santa Fe.’ Eugene held out his thick hand. ‘Maybe the lights will come back soon. We had a disagreement. I’m sorry. Let’s move on.’
‘I’ll be fine, thank you. Very interesting drive.’
As Richard stood on the pavement he tugged his overcoat collar tight against the blizzard. The passenger door shut with a thud and Eugene set off. The tail-lights bobbed into the distance like illuminated buoys amidst the drifts of swirling snow.
Rays of light from the candlelit bars showed the name ‘Broad Street’. He could just make out a line of wood-panelled shops. At the end of the road an organ was booming from a large church. Wind chopped at him from all sides. His fingers dug into his empty top pocket. From the call-box he dialled quickly as snow covered everything.