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.
It had been 9:30 AM Central Time on April 5, 2020 when Daphne trudged down the cold platform. She had wondered what lay in store for her ahead at Union Station. She had heard it was grand; almost as grand as “Grand Central Station” in New York. “Almost” was a word often attached to the former second city of the nation, Chicago. Almost as big as New York; almost as important. But sometimes it got higher than New York; it had a busier airport than New York; more Polish people, better pizzas or at least of a different kind than in New York. And more bars than New York, per capita, that is. But not more than Montana where she was headed. Montana had the most bars per capita than any state except for North Dakota which she would be passing through tomorrow morning. Montana had what Jack Kerouac called the quintessential bar in Butte; “The Mint”. But all those bars were closed, she heard. The governors of all the states had closed all those watering holes down because of the terrible plague that had crawled in on silent clawed paws into the cities and towns and even desolate out of the way places in the countryside.
She made her way down a long corridor and followed the signs for the “Metropolitan Lounge”. “Metropolitan” sounded much more grand than “City”, she mused. But there had been a warning when she booked her ticket that the lounge would not be staffed. But she hoped there would be snacks at least to get her through the long four hour layover before her train departed at 2:15 that afternoon.
It seemed like forever walking through the almost deserted hallways, but she finally went up a ramp and into a waiting room of sorts. There were about 5 people sitting in wooden benches. It looked like a family. To the left was a sign for the Metropolitan Lounge. Beyond the family was the grand hall, but it was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape, so all she could do was peer in and see the famous vaulted glass ceiling that was over 200 feet long. Even on this dreary cloudy day, the room was bathed in light and it looked like heaven. But she wasn’t allowed to enter. Instead, she headed towards what would turn out to be Purgatory.
She entered and approached a woman with a mask on.
“Ticket?” said the woman.
Daphne showed it to her.
“There is the lounge to your left. You can store your luggage to the right in that room. If you want to take a shower, I can give you a towel and it’s down that hall,” as she pointed left.
Daphne smiled to the woman, but thought, “No way I’m going to shower in this weird place.” She wheeled her way through automatic doors and passed empty counters where it looked like food snacks would have been. Behind the counters were empty jugs and dispensers where the water, coffee and soft drinks would have been. Would have been, but weren’t there now.
“Woulda, coulda, shoulda,” she chanted to herself.
She entered a lounge area and saw a woman or a man in some kind of Indian getup (the sari kind not the buckskin kind.) She steered a good ten feet away and kept going into another room with a TV that had some kind of Sunday religious service going on. It said it was the “Meditation Room”. She kept going through that room and into a room where Wolf Blitzer was yapping away on another big TV. There were two men sitting watching it, one man sitting by himself, and a woman sleeping on a sofa in the corner. They had masks around their necks, but nobody had them on their faces. They were all six feet apart. She pulled up to a table with outlets for her iPad and iPhone and put a surgical mask around her neck in case she needed it in addition to her neck scarf. Then she settled in for the very long four-hour layover.
“Oh dear,” she thought, “this was going to be unpleasant.”
More accurately, it was tedious. The TV droned on and on with people complaining about this plague and how everybody should have done something sooner or maybe later or they were doing too much or too little. Then the two men started yapping too. One man wondered if this had all been a conspiracy to rid the earth of old and poor people. He had been robbed while sitting on a bench in Los Angeles. Had his wallet stolen, but he had one piece of I.D. so he managed to make it here to Chicago. And now he was just trying to get home to Ohio. The man, who was all by himself, injected himself into their conversation. He said he was going to Michigan to pick up a truck. He was a trucker. He was very busy so this train trip was a nice break. The woman, at some point woke up, and joined the men to yap about the injustice of it all. She was headed to Iowa and had been on a train from D.C., the source of a good deal of all this craziness, in her opinion. Daphne yearned for some conversation with live humans, having been self-quarantined for three weeks, but this didn’t seem to be the group chat that she should join for her first attempt at being social.
And so the four hours went by at turtle speed. She went to the bathroom a couple of times. Washed her hands a lot. Washed her mask and dried it with the hand dryer. At one point Daphne got up and asked if there was any place to get some water. The Purgatory attendant smiled and went behind a door and gave her two bottles of water.
“We just can’t keep them out here. We have to hand them to you,” she said which didn’t make any sense at all. But Daphne was very grateful for the water and to test whether she still had a voice.
Finally it looked like her time in the lounge might be done as somebody over a loud speaker said something about “The Empire Builder; Train 27” being ready for boarding. Daphne thanked the attendant and gave her some cash that the attendant took with gloved hands and smiled sadly. Outside the lounge, there was a young man who didn’t have a uniform but must be the porter. He took Daphne’s bags and jumped into his seat on a large golf cart as Daphne crawled in the seat in front of him.
As they whisked through the dark halls, Daphne asked how his day was going. The porter said that he was happy to hear that he still had a job but that he would only be working one week and then off one week, but with pay. Daphne said that sounded perfect. The guy wasn’t too sure but it might be a good thing, if there could be a good thing in all of this.
“At least the skiers don’t seem to take trains,” she blurted out. “Skiers with the runny noses and coughs take planes.”
The porter didn’t seem to know what to say. And Daphne wondered what made her say that as a cold blast of air came off the Chicago River and whacked her silly.
They arrived at the very end of the train. But this time they had to climb up a winding staircase to the second floor. They were greeted by a lovely looking lady with light brown skin and wavy dark hair. She had a jaunty cap and a crisp blue uniform and a light blue mask.
“Hello, my name is Marilyn and I’ll be your attendant, “ she said as the porter put the bags in the sleeping car. As he left the car, Daphne slipped him a tip and thanked him. Then he was gone.
Marilyn went through the same explanations of how the sleeping car was set up as David had except this room was the mirror image of the Viewliner room and was a bit bigger and newer with not so many scuffs on the walls. And it had a big box of Kleenex!
“You were supposed to be in E, but I moved you to C. I think it’s nicer,” she stated.
“Well, it certainly smells…” Daphne hesitated, “… really nice.”
“We spent a good deal of time scrubbing and spraying,” Marilyn added.
“Yes, very clean,” Daphne also added.
“Well I’ll let you settle in. I usually suggest dinner at 7 or 7:30 PM and I like to make up your bed around 8:30. But you can change that, if you like. You are in the back end of the train. The train splits into two in Spokane where this end picks up its engine and heads west to Portland. The dining car is up at the front of the train; the Seattle part. So I would suggest taking your dinner in your room instead of making a reservation in the dining car since dinner will have to be staggered there due to the virus.
Daphne nodded and remarked to herself that the smell of air freshener was rather strong.
Marilyn continued, “There are about 23 people in the front cars. You are the only one in the sleeper rooms and roomettes in the Portland end of the train. You are my only passenger. Would you like coffee?
“I only like coffee in the morning, so I won’t need any today,” Daphne said. “I would like tea at night.”
“Hmmm?” Marilyn puzzled. “I’ll have to go all the way to the dining car for hot water. But, let me see? If you are the only passenger then I can just put in the water but not the coffee and plug it in.
She was very pleased with that idea. Daphne was pleased too. And pleased there were just the two of them. She could do a little pretending that this was her private car.
“My husband says I have to wear this mask for my own good, but it’s very annoying,” Marilyn said.
Daphne who only had her scarf around her nose at the moment sighed, “Yes, I guess we will have to try to do the mask thing,” as she pointed to the one around her neck. “I think I’m pretty healthy though, just so you know. I’ve been quarantined for three weeks back in New York. But in upstate New York. The virus has hardly made a dent.”
Marilyn smiled and said, “Well then, I’ll be back once we get going. She turned and disappeared down the hall.
Daphne sighed another deep sigh and then took a deep breath.
“Yes, the room smells clean,” she said to no one in particular, “very clean.”