“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.
Two evenings ago she had been dropped off at the Albany-Rensselaer train station in Rensselaer, New York, by her good friend Kevin. He had made her take a bunch of plastic gloves that he had in a box on the dash. And from a good six feet apart, they said goodbye.
“See you and Natasha in a month or so,” she bravely waved.
“You too. I’ll look after the house. Tell us all about the trip.” He paused and with his hand over his heart, he sighed, “We’ll miss you.”
She turned, and with a bit of determination and bravura, wheeled her two overnight bags into the station. It was 6 PM and there was nobody in the station except a man with a mask around his neck in the ticket booth and a man and a woman in railroad uniforms and large duffels. Daphne approached the man who quickly donned his mask.
“Can I get someone to help me with my luggage?” she smiled.
“Yes, of course. Closer to 6:30 somebody will come and help.”
Daphne turned and found a chair a good twenty feet from him and the man and woman. She gingerly sat on a chair about 20 feet away from them and took out a Wet One and wiped the armrests. A young guy with a backpack came in the door and sat a couple rows away from her. No masks on anybody so far. She had her scarf, a green paisley babushka that her sister gave her for Christmas, around her neck and was at the ready to put it over her nose and mouth. But didn’t seem necessary at the moment. This was certainly not Grand Central Station, she mused. It was not very grand for a grand adventure, but it would have to do.
At 6:30 PM, a young guy came and beckoned her to follow him. Must be the porter but he had no uniform or jaunty little round cap. Just a guy. They made their way thru the empty room that normally would be filled with people waiting in the lines to board the train. He showed her to the back of the train. The train floor was even with the platform so she really had no need for a porter although according to her research, she would need one to board the Superliner on the second leg of her trip since it was a double decker and the sleeper rooms were on the second floor. But this was to be a grand adventure on the Lake Shore Limited and then on to The Empire Builder and she wanted to start out as grandly as she could, so she tipped the guy who seemed a bit surprised. On entering the narrow hallway, she was greeted by a pleasant looking man who said his name was David and that he would be her attendant. Ah yes, she was feeling a bit more grand! He showed her to her room. She slipped him a twenty as she squeezed by him into the compartment. It was about 6 1/2 feet by 7 feet with a sofa the length of the room. A small tray table was set up by the window. Across from the sofa near the door was a sink with liquid soap, towels and a washcloth and a bit of counter. Below was a cabinet with toilet paper and more washcloths. Next to the counter was a door to the toilet and shower, similar to something you would find in a camper. There was a chair opposite the sofa, but it was folded up to make room for the two suitcases.
David said, “Here’s how you close and lock the door. You can pull these curtains closed on the door like this” as he yanked them back and forth. “After you eat dinner I will make the sofa into a bed.” Then he disappeared. Poof!
She surveyed the room and noticed the scuff marks on the sides of the cabinets. This was an old old car. Oh well. She plugged in her iPhone and iPad to the one outlet in the room which was on the door side of the sink. Obviously, the train car was designed long before cell phones as this outlet was clearly meant for a shaver. Good thing she had researched and You Tubed what to expect in a Sleeper Car. So, she had brought along her long charging cables and she needed them. She pulled out her notepads and pen and placed them on the tray table. She reached into her necessities bag and pulled out the can of disinfectant wipes and began to wipe the car down. First the tray table and the armrests, then the door and cabinets handles and the curtain pulls. She washed her hands in the sink and wiped them dry on the hand towel. She sat down with a big sigh of sadness.
“Hello, I’m Rachel,” said a voice.
Daphne emitted a slight yelp as she looked towards the door and saw a young woman in a railroad uniform standing in the narrow doorway of the narrow hallway. She reminded her of Merritt Wever, the actress in “Nurse Jackie” and “Godless.“
“Hello, I’m Daphne,” she replied as she slipped Rachel a twenty.
“I’ll be getting your dinner whenever you like,” Rachel said as she handed me a menu, “unless you want to eat in the dining room.”
She saw the look of uncertainty in Daphne’s eyes, yes uncertainty tinged with a bit of fear and grinned. “There’s only one other passenger… Robert… and he already ate in his room. So, you will have the dining car to yourself.”
“Ah, then,” Daphne grinned back, “I’ll have my dinner in the Dining Car, Rachel.”
“Very good, Mum, ” she said.
No, she didn’t say that. She said, ” Okay, see you in a bit.” Then she was gone. Poof!
Daphne perused the menu. Braised Beef, Chicken Fettuccini, Asian Noodle Bowl, Creole Shrimp…
Rachel appeared as suddenly as she had disappeared. Daphne ordered the Braised Beef with Polenta. Though she usually only drank wine, she decided she would get a bourbon on the rocks for her free drink as they had Makers Mark, the brand preferred by old school old moneyed ladies of distinction. Yes, that would be something a bit grand.
“I’ll come back and get you when it’s ready.” Then Rachel disappeared. Poof!
At 7:05 PM, on the nose, the train pulled out of Albany-Rensselaer Station with a slight lurch that had Daphne grab the doorway. She closed the door but did not pull back the curtains on the door. She sat on the sofa by the window and watched as the train left the station. As the train passed over the Hudson River, Daphne had a sudden sense of overwhelming sadness that pressed on her heart. She was surprised that her eyes were getting a bit misty. She was not one for too much sentiment and rarely cried except when watching movies. But here she was gazing out at the mighty river and on to the deserted back streets of Albany as the train picked up speed. She was feeling incredibly lonely and a bit apprehensive verging on fear. Would she ever be back here in the Empire State? Would she ever see her beautiful house again? What would happen to her friends in the City and in her little town? She dabbed at her tears with a Kleenex. Then remembered to throw it away. She got up and washed her hands again. Sadness turned to annoyance. Damn this plague. Damn it to hell.
After one stop at the Albany Airport, the train rushed its way through the suburbs and then the farmland began. As the sun began to set, Rachel appeared and told Daphne that her dinner was ready. The two of them made their way down the narrow hallway bumping from side to side as the train made its way on the bumpy tracks. They made their way past the empty bedrooms in the sleeper car and then past the empty roomettes in the roomette car. These were the smaller sleepers where two seats made up into a bed. Cramped but better than trying to sleep in a regular coach seat. She entered an old timey looking dining car and careened past two railway conductors. Rachel motioned to a booth that was the only one with a white tablecloth.
“I decided to set it up with a nice tablecloth for you as you’re the only one here,” she smiled with great pride.
She set before Daphne two plastic trays, one with salad and roll and one with the beef and polenta and some vegetables. Yes, it was the ubiquitous vegetable medley. And, apart from the white tablecloth and beautiful brass fixtures and stained glass on the booth partitions, this was far from “grand”. But Daphne thanked her for her kindness and the attempt at something fine. This was your basic café car meal with a lot of plastic. And drinking bourbon from a plastic cup wasn’t giving Daphne the rich experience she had hoped for. But, yes, it would have to do.
It was now dark and so she set up her iPad and began to watch some downloaded TV since there was nobody to talk to other than Rachel who was busy writing things down in some book. She did come over and ask how Daphne was doing and when Daphne told her that this was her first real train ride in a sleeper, she took her picture and gave her a laminated copy with “My First Train Ride 2020” printed on it.
Daphne finished her meal and ordered a cup of hot water for her Nighty Night tea she had brought along. She also ordered a glass of wine to go. After paying for the wine, she thanked Rachel.
“I’ll bring you your hot water in a minute,” she said.”
“Thanks,” Daphne said. And with that she ungracefully jerked by the conductors. She passed backed thru the empty roomette car and into the sleeper car past the empty bedrooms. As she arrived, David was fixing up the bed. He had pulled down the upper berth where the mattress, extra pillows and blanket were stored. In a flash, it was done and he edged out of the room into the hall.
“Anything else I can do?” he said.
“Can’t think of anything,” she replied as she entered her room. She turned around. But he was gone.
Then Rachel appeared with the hot water.
“See you in the morning for breakfast,” Rachel said cheerily and with a wave she was gone.
Daphne put the bag of Nighty Night tea into the hot water and washed her hands for the umpteenth time. Then she changed into a T shirt and leggings, chugged her wine, and set her tea on the folding table. She climbed into bed and drew the very thin blue blanket up around her. Sipping her tea, she settled in to watch two episodes of “Patriot”. She wished she were in Luxembourg where the characters currently were, but instead she was headed in the opposite direction. On second thought, Europe was filled with sickness too. No, it was better to head west. She began to fall asleep to the sound of the train whistle and the back and forth motion of the train as it made its way through Western New York. The rhythm of the train felt like someone was rocking her back and forth, back and forth. For the first time in days maybe weeks, she felt soothed. Mama Train was holding her. Mama Train was taking care of her. Things just might turn out all right.
As she drifted off, she whispered to herself, “Nighty Night. Nighty Night Duchess Olya.”
(To be Continued)