It was now turning twilight and Daphne was bursting with cabin fever. So, she donned her fur hat, jumped in the car, and drove through the softly falling snow. It was dark by the time she arrived at the Best of Both Worlds Bar and Grill. The neon light sputtered on and off as she climbed out of the car and into a foot of snow. She tramped up to the door and entered. This bar was where literary devices and characters hung out like the space creatures in Star Wars. She loved this place.
A strange old coot who was all ears was sitting in his usual spot by the wood burning stove, rocking back and forth. In a booth in the back a prairie dog was scribbling away like usual. He was busy working on his masterpiece *“Notes from Underground”. There was a two-headed creature sipping a drink at the end of the bar. Or was that a tow-headed woman? Daphne’s glassed had fogged over. Yes, of course, it was her friend Lara who seemed to have leapt straight out of the pages of Dr. Zhivago. She was dressed all in white fur and looked like a vanilla éclair. Daphne stomped her snow coated boots together to get the large clumps off as she walked into the room. She slid on to the bar stool next to Lara.
“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm,” Colette
Malta, Montana got its name from the spin of a globe and a finger that landed on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, or so they say. Daphne and Clay swung south out of town on to Route 191. If they had kept going west on Route 2, they would continue on what is called the Hi-Line. It pretty much follows the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad across northern Montana just south of the Canadian border. Daphne thought it might be nice someday to drive the Hi-Line west of here to Glacier National Park; but not today. This was not a road trip. They weren’t sightseeing. This was a hauling-ass-back-to-the-ranch-to-outrun-the-virus kind of trip.
Clay had filled up at the one gas station open in Malta so they could make it back with ease. But was she at ease? Was Clay? There were still a lot of unknowns. Could she be carrying the virus and give it to Clay. Highly unlikely, but she did come in contact with some people along the way. But they all looked pretty healthy, weren’t old, didn’t cough or sneeze once, and didn’t shout or whisper both of which would have spewed flu. And Clay had been quarantined for three weeks on the ranch; just him and the cows and the cat. He just went to the grocery store and didn’t see any strangers except for the gas station guy in Malta and the cashier at the Truck Stop where he got the sandwiches and water. Nobody coughed or sneezed or even spoke a word. No spew. No flu.
Early that morning at Devils Lake, Daphne had definitely felt like she was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. “Imagine you are on a road somewhere between science and superstition; things and ideas; reality and fantasy. Unlock this door to another dimension with the key of imagination…Nee, nee, nee, nee; nee, nee, nee, nee…”
But as they had pulled out of the rail station that afternoon, Daphne had thought about the last shot of “The Graduate“. And now another movie crept into Daphne’s malleable mind. Was she running away like Hoffman in “Marathon Man“? “Is it safe?” said the evil Nazi character played by Larry Olivier. “Would it really be safe here in Montana from the virus?” she worried. Montana, the fourth largest state in the Union with around a million people, had the fewest cases in the country and Phillips County, that they were leaving, had none and Sweet Grass County, where they were headed, had none. (For perspective, Sweet Grass County is about the size of Rhode Island and has about 3700 people and not one stoplight.) Yes, it was as safe a bet as one could make nowadays where every day felt like every other day and every night brought nightmares. Where a cough filled her with anxiety. Every sniffle brought fear. “It’s all in your head,” Clay would say if he knew she was ricocheting between fear and the thrill of freedom.
Fro…to and fro…and… Daphne slowly opened her eyes. She felt for her phone. It was 6:05 AM. She turned over and opened the curtains. The train had stopped at a station. It was still night but she could make out some one story buildings and little houses in a row. The houses were covered in ice and the ground with snow. Siberia? No, the sign read “Devils Lake, ND” with no apostrophe. Cold place for devils, she thought. Bet they leave for the winter and head south.
She laid back down and decided to wait until sunrise to get up and at ‘em. She had slept well and felt good. She took a deep breath and the air smelled… fresh. She remembered being sick the day before, but feeling better when she went to sleep. She remembered waking up around 10 PM and peering out at a city that must have been Minneapolis. She had tried to stay awake long enough to say a silent “Hello” to all her relatives both alive and buried there. Almost all her father’s family had lived, worked, and died in the Twin Cities. All except Aunt Hannah. And many summers were spent at the lakes north of the city with these aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. It’s where she learned to fish and to water ski a bit. She remembers the leeches that attached to her legs and her uncle burning them off with a cigarette lighter. That was when everybody carried a cigarette lighter. They ate a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They got lots of mosquito bites.
I will be posting the final chapter of my/Daphne’s train ride from Albany, NY to Malta, Montana in a few. I’ve gone back and made some adjustments in the timeline so as to make this diary a bit less confusing. I’ve never really written this way before; in installments and especially using multiple personalities in installments. Made it much harder to keep track of who was talking or who was in my head from one day to the next. But I also realized that except for my essays, I have never completed anything in my life. And discovering that I am an ENTP and that psychological type, indeed, does not complete much, I am relieved that there is some sort of explanation. But still, a bit unrewarding. So my goal was to get this thing done and out of the way before I forgot it. Although the surreal aspect of being alone on a train is not easy to forget. The details are. So it isn’t perfect because I hurried. But it did get done.
Daphne fumbled around in her bag and pulled out her iPhone and IPad and was pleased that this newer car had an electric outlet near the door and across from the sink with it’s own little shelf.
Just then, Marilyn’s head appeared from around the corner and handed her a menu, “You’re getting off in Montana, right?
“Yes, Daphne smiled, “My husband’s picking me up in Havre. He’s got a long drive from the ranch. About 4 hours.”
“I heard from the crew coming from Seattle that the Montana National Guard is checking people’s temperatures at the station when they get off the train,” she said with a shrug.
“Ah, smart of them. The governor seems pretty serious about this flu. But, as I said, I’ve been self quarantined for 3 weeks, so I should be Okay.” Daphne said with as much confidence as she could muster with this bit of news. And then I’m just going to the ranch and self-quarantining again. So should work out just fine.”
Marilyn nodded and smiled and disappeared back around the corner.
Olya awoke as she heard a whistle blow. Ah, yes, as her eyes opened, she was on a train heading north. She furrowed her brow as she looked out the window of the train. It was not quite night. It was the time of day called “twilight” when the trees starting looking like large beasts with long arms and sharp nails; and cows became bears; and silos became turrets on castles. It was a time of day when things that had been quite real were now looking not so real. She felt quite groggy. Where was she? She suddenly realized that nobody even knew she was on a train except for her sister Irina who was safely ensconced in her home in the far north with the Ice Queen and her loyal dog Fred.
“Fred?” she queried.
“No, Sugar, it’s Marilyn,” said the beautiful dark woman standing in the doorway of the room. “Checking to see if there was anything else you need tonight.”
Daphne shook herself further awake and sighed. That’s right. She must have nodded off. And time to stop daydreaming that she was a Grand Duchess living in reduced circumstances. She was not the Grand Duchess Olya. She was not in Russia. She was not time traveling back to 1917. She was in the year 2020 and she was on “The Empire Builder” headed to Montana to hunker down on a cattle ranch until this whole thing blew over.
“A cup of hot water would be grand, I’m mean great,” she said with a bit of strained cheeriness.
“I’ll be right back. The pot is still hot!” said the woman and disappeared. Poof!
When the woman returned with the hot water moments later, Daphne sighed again, “Very kind. Thank you.”
“You have a good sleep,” said the woman and then she also let out a long sigh and was gone.
“I must write down some thoughts before bed,” Daphne said to herself as she dunked the tea bag into the hot water and plumped the pillows on her bed. It had been another strange day. And a bit foggy, but she would try to recall the highlights.
Bump…Bump…Sway and Bump…Rumble…Bump! That last bump was a doozy, Daphne thought. It made her open her eyes. She was in the dark, but she could feel a blanket wrapped around her neck and upper body. Her stocking feet were sticking out of the sheets. She was in a box. No, as she lifted her head. It’s a small room. Ah, she was starting to remember. She was pretty sure that she was on a train. Yes, I’m not dreaming, she said to herself. I’m on my way home! Home? It always surprised her to say that word. What and where is home really?
Enough of that and she shook her head to clear out the thoughts. She disentangled herself from the blanket and sheets; then yanked open the window curtains only to see nothing but dark shapes. The day too was pulling back the night’s shades but at a more leisurely pace more like gauze than the thick blue folded train curtains. She had slept okay. She remembers getting up at 12:40 am because the connecting door to the next room was rattling again. Sounded like a crazed woodpecker. Before going to bed, she had folded the Welcome to Amtrak safety brochure and stuck it in the door and the rattling had stopped. She felt very can-do gal at the time. Very proud of herself. But it had fallen to the ground, so she folded it once more and wedged it back in. She had woken up again at 2:40 am. But, by and large, it had been a good sleep albeit a rough one. The only thing that went “bump in the night” were the actual bumps of the rails on the tracks. If there were any ghosts, they must have been the friendly kind.
“We’ve stopped,” she thought to herself. “And I’m on a train.” “Yes, I’m sleeping in a sleeper car on a train. On a train that’s been rushing through the darkness of night. But now we’ve stopped. But where are we?”
The Grand Duchess Olya Kampinskaya propped herself up on her elbows then turned around in the narrow bed to pull aside the curtains. Actually, though her good friend Tim called her Grand Duchess Olya, the family had come to such reduced circumstances that there wasn’t much “grand” left except for a pair of diamond cuff links, a string of pearls and a signed copy of Prince Peter Kropotkin’s “The Conquest of Bread.” “To my good friend, Olya, Kisses and Hugs, Peter.”
She stared out into the darkness and saw some plain wooden structures covered in ice and snow. So, was she really on her way to her dacha in Siberia? She reached for her glasses and put them on. She read the sign. The sign was in English and it said “Devils Lake, North Dakota” without an apostrophe. Hmmmm? So, there was more than one devil at this stop and they had a lake. And she was not in Siberia but somewhere in North America.
Daphne sighed as the train pulled away from the deserted railway platform. It had been fun to pretend that she was a Russian aristocrat running away from Moscow that, at the time, was filled with Bolsheviks and a terrible flu. But she wasn’t Russian or an aristocrat. It wasn’t 1917, and her friend Peter was in Palm Springs. No, it was April 6, 2020 and she was running away from New York and a terrible flu. That was the truth. She was fleeing to the safety, she hoped, not of a dacha in Siberia but her ranch in Montana where her husband, Clay, was busy birthing calves. He was not a Grand Duke nor was he a cattle baron although Daphne often referred to herself, as “The Baroness du Boeuf” or like Barbara Stanwyck, “The Cattle Queen of Montana.” By now you must have figured out that Daphne had a rather vivid imagination and a tendency to make shit up. She’d been doing this all her life.
Some have called the Covid-19 virus “The Honey Badger Virus” cuz Honey Badger Don’t Care. But I wont give it that title or that power. How about we call our fearless first responders, docs, nurses, truckers, and custodians in NYC and other hot spots, the “Honey Badgers of this Crisis” title instead and not give the title to this g.d. virus. And some more advice from the Tao of Cow; don’t be a mopey dopey cuz Cows Don’t Mope. So eat some grass (grassfed burger or a salad, if you are a human); drink some water (or a good Bordeaux or even some cheap shit, if you are a human.). And just get on with it and keep moo-ving forward.
Note: Evie Taloney has some advice too. You know who else don’t mope? The beekeeper in the great documentary “Honeyland”. Highly recommended for quarantine watching. I won’t give it away, but try to guess what she buys when she goes to the city to sell her honey. It’s something I’m thinking about a lot.
(In 2014 I wrote this essay on my family of runaways. In light of many of us being at “home” and my friends Bruce and Joanna returning from Ecuador to Italy and being glad to be “home” even if they are quarantined, I thought I’d resurrect this piece that I don’t think I actually published in this form. I’m not sure what a nomad really sees as home. But that may be another essay. )
My great grandfather on my mother’s side, David Lance Short had one of the largest women’s hair products’ companies in the world. He had factories in China that manufactured the silk hairnets that women wore on their coiffures. It was named the West Electric Hair Curler Company after Augustus Albert West who actually invented the “bobbing pin” and who married my great grandfather’s sister, Great Aunt Ethel. They lived with David and his wife Sadie in a mansion in Germantown, PA with a chauffeur and a couple maids according to the 1920 census. David had a one hundred seventy-five foot yacht and was Commodore of the LuLu Yacht Club in Ocean City. Just before the stock market crashed in 1929 his business started to have problems. My father said he had made bad investments a la Bernie Madoff or perhaps the real Charles Ponzi. Soon after that, my great grandfather fell off his yacht, caught pneumonia, and died. So did he fall off drunk or did he jump? The business puttered along, but no one could replace his unique combination of sales and management genius, certainly not my dandy grandfather who had never done much but sit in a office. And so the fortune was slowly lost. Or so it goes. Nothing much left but some diamond cuff links and an old steamer trunk filled with Twenties era clothes that I would play with in the basement of our small drab raised ranch house in Illinois.
Then there were my sister’s stepsisters who were anything but evil. Before the crash they were flappers and went to parties like the ones in the Great Gatsby. Aunt Madeline was married to the composer of “Manhattan Serenade”. And just like in “Some Like It Hot”, both she and Aunt Dorothy took boats from Miami to Havana to party there. Or so the story goes. Also the story goes that Aunt Dorothy was a Miss Atlantic City contestant and won the talent contest for her toe tapping and that got her a Hollywood studio contract. She and older sister Madeline ran off to Hollywood. Her first movie in 1934 “Call of the Savage” was with Noah Beery, Jr. Aunt Madeline had one line in “The Raven” and that’s all I’ve been able to find.
Aunt Dorothy met another contract player, a handsome former stunt man, Dave “Tex” O’Brien aka Dave Barclay. They appeared in Westerns, musicals and serials. She co-starred in 1936 with him in “Reefer Madness”, the marijuana movie that became a cult classic in the 1960’s in which he uttered the memorable lines “Play it faster! Play it faster!” She also co-starred in his serial “Captain Midnight” where every week her character, Joyce Edwards, the hapless daughter of a scientist, managed to get kidnapped and every week he had to rescue her. What’s not to like about any of those stories true or exaggerated? I listened to my mother talk about her older sisters and her former life and I would day dream of living in luxury with birthday parties with huge ice sculptures and a train set that covered half the basement. I would day dream of being kissed on the forehead by my aunts and their dates, dressed in sequined gowns and fox furs. Those were my dreams, but they were my mother’s real memories.
On the other hand, we had the Depression era tales of my father’s family as they struggled in Dearborn, Michigan. Not very glamorous, but boy could my Dad tell a tale. And as responsible as he was now, he was also more than a bit of a bad boy back then. He was a “Little Rascal”; a Bowery Boy in Detroit. My sisters and I lived for dinners when my Dad would regal us with stories of how he and his brother Tom would find discarded bits of tobacco and roll them into cigarettes and sell them to the auto workers on their way to the factories. He would laugh heartily and tell us how he and Tom got into trouble for trying to sell kisses from their sister, Aunt Fran.
In Dad’s college yearbook, there is a picture of his roommate and himself with the caption “the bad boys of the dorm.” His roommate Marion Snapper and he defied the authorities every week it seemed. There was the time that “Snapper” dressed in a Tarzan suit and swung across the chapel. There was the time that they varnished the seats of the same chapel. And they were pre-seminary students!
When the U.S. entered World War II, Dad and Marion joined the Naval Reserves and were sent to Columbia University and Princeton Theological Seminary respectively. They were assigned to a base in New Jersey. Dad said it was very confining to be stuck on that base after going to classes at the Universities. So they convinced the commanding officer that they were seasoned Thespians and it would do the Navy men a world of good if they could see a play. Of course, they needed a car to get the props, costumes, and lumber for the sets. I guess they had a great time touring around New Jersey. And eventually they did put on the play, “George Washington Slept Here”. Or so the story goes.
Needless to say, neither of them became ministers, but did become educators and inspiring ones at that. Snapper actually was one of my college education professors. My father became a pioneer in special education in the 1950s. In the post war year,s with the rise in manufacturing and the rise of the company man, he bucked the tide and firmly believed that “children should be custom made and not mass-produced.” He taught the children history but also how to harvest hay, raise a steer, and build a wooden jeep that actually ran.
Yes, I was a creature of two very different worlds; the Dutch world of discipline and study on my Dad’s side. The other was the world of high-flying business types, fancy parties, and show business that was my mother’s side of the family. The first one I was raised in and the second one I could only imagine. The first one was quite real. And could be quite scary. Each week the Calvinist minister told us all about the consequences of disobedience and sin. But despite the specter of eternal damnation, I somehow got myself into some sort of trouble now and then for questioning the rules. The other world of flappers and furs I could only run to only in my imagination. It provided some escape from the drab and straight-laced world of the Chicago Dutch.
It was only much much later that I saw how much the two worlds were alike with inventors on both sides, businessmen on both sides and gypsies and runaways on both sides. All of them coping or trying to be creative in the buttoned up cage called adulthood.
So how could I not turn out to be a little rascal who couldn’t quite stick to the script with these kinds of people in my constellation? Must be how I ended up on a cattle ranch in Montana by falling in love with a cowboy. Or so the story goes.