Wyatt put his plastic glass down and nodded to the bartender who opened a one-ounce bottle of gin, emptied it over the ice and topped it with a squirt of soda water.
“You want a fresh slice of lime?”
Wyatt shook his head. “I’m good.” He raised the glass and drank.
“So, the key is to get in early before the flies gather. Like Palm Springs before Bob Hope bought land out there. Just desert. Buy low and sell high. Like I did for the California bullet-train right of way.”
“I bet there were a lot of sweetheart deals there.”
“Everyone wanted in on that feeding frenzy. Almost everyone lost their shirts. I did great.”
The bartender nodded, that being part of the job. He sensed a change in the train’s motion. The rhythmic cadence of iron wheels on steel rails slowed. This wasn’t a scheduled stop.
Wyatt looked out the bar car window. A distant water tower appeared to float by. They were slowing.
The bartender glanced at the far end of the car. Wyatt followed his gaze to see Jessica walking toward them.
She said, “There you are.”
Wyatt turned to the bartender. “Here she comes.” The bartender watched impassively.
Wyatt asked, “Where did you expect me to be?”
“Considering how you lie, you could be almost anywhere. But not where you said you’d be.”
“I’m not a liar, Jess.”
“See? You did it again.”
Wyatt turned back to the bar.
Jessica continued. “This isn’t new, Wyatt. How can I trust you any more than… him?” She pointed to the bartender.
The bartender stepped back. “Hey, now…”
“I don’t mean you,” she said. “I don’t know you. But I know he’s lying, so, with any stranger, I’ve got improved odds over him.”
Wyatt downed his drink and asked for a refill.
The train stopped. Air brakes hissed.
Jessica turned to leave. “I’ve gotta go.”
This got Wyatt’s attention. Keeping his cup of ice, he followed her. “Wait a minute, Babe. You’re not getting off here. This isn’t our stop.”
“It is mine, though. See you ‘round.”
Wyatt ducked and looked out the window for the name of the town. He started to laugh. “This town is so small, it doesn’t have a name. Can’t find it on a map.”
“All the better to lose you. Buh-bye…” She stepped through the door into the gangway and made her way down to the shaded platform.
Wyatt followed her out but stayed on the train. He leaned out against a handrail. His sleeve fluttered in the hot wind.
“Really, Jessica?” Wyatt flicked his wrist. Ice from his glass scattered like gravel onto the platform.
Jessica didn’t answer. He waved his arm. “Here?”
She looked up at him. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, Wyatt. Watch yourself.”
“You’re an idiot.”
Jessica laughed. “But I’m not a liar.” She turned away. Wyatt shook his head and stepped back into the car.
Jessica’s hair floated crazily about and she wished she’d worn a hat. She saw the string of small dark spots where Wyatt’s ice had landed.
A plastic cup danced and clattered past her down the platform.
A porter approached Jessica pulling a baggage cart behind him. He stopped and gestured to the luggage on the cart. At Jessica’s nod, he respectfully placed her suitcases onto the platform.
Jessica gave the porter a folded bill. He smiled and said, “Thank you, Ma’am,” as he backed away with the empty cart.
Children’s faces watched through the windows.
The porter gestured to the Conductor who signaled ahead to the Engineer. Air brakes hissed. The train began to move slowly and then gained speed. The syncopated ‘clack-clack’ of the wheels on rails punctuated the buffeting wind.
The porter walked with the train. He grabbed a handhold, vaulted up the steps into the gangway and disappeared.
Jessica heard the breeze straining through the tall weeds on the far side of the tracks. There were no trees.
It took a long time for the train to disappear. The rails shown like white ribbons. Broken bottles glistened between the tracks.
Jessica looked about her. An old man sat on a bench at the far end of the otherwise empty platform. A ‘closed’ sign hung behind the ticket window.
Jessica dragged her luggage to a bench and sat. She put her face in her hands and wept. When she looked up again, nothing had changed. “I am an idiot. What am I going to do now?”
Leaving her suitcases, Jessica walked to the ticket window and peered in. The next train would arrive tomorrow morning.
She approached the bench where the old man sat. “Excuse me, sir? Do you know…?”
Without speaking, he pointed off to his right.
Across the street from the station, Jessica saw a Victorian-style house. Over the door hung a weather-beaten sign reading, ‘Room and Board’.
Jessica said, “Thank you.” The man did not respond.
She retrieved her luggage and made her way across the street to the old hotel. Her bags weren’t too heavy and she got them up the steps in one trip. A bell rang as she opened the door and pulled the suitcases into the foyer.
Jessica saw a woman stand behind the front desk and approached the counter.
“How much is a room for a night?” she asked.
“Fifty dollars,” the woman said.
“Take it or leave it.”
“Are there any other hotels in town?”
Jessica looked around. The lobby, an adapted living room, appeared clean. “Are the rooms nice?”
“Best hotel in a hundred miles.”
“Right. Well… I guess I’ll take a room. Is there any place to get food?” She pulled her wallet out of her purse.
The woman put a file card and pen on the counter.
“I’m Charlene. No cooking in the rooms. And no smoking. We serve a light dinner at five. The common bath is at the end of the hall.”
“Of course.” Jessica filled in the blanks.
“Jerry’s might have sandwiches. People mainly go there to drink.”
“Where is Jerry’s?”
The woman pointed to her left. “A block that way.”
Jessica had to ask. “What do people do? It seems pretty quiet.”
“Not much anymore. There used to be a farmer’s market on Saturdays. The undertaker is the only one thriving.”
“Oh, what time does the ticket office open for the train?”
“Ben opens the place around nine. The train pulls in about nine-thirty. You work for a developer?”
“No. I needed to get off and...”
“Every once in a while, someone comes sniffing around with big plans to build a retirement spa or something. Like the circus is coming to town. Whoopie!”
“Nothing ever comes of it. Always falls through. People think they’re going to strike it rich. Bunch of fools. They’re all tired of the hype and getting left empty-handed.”
“Smoke and mirrors. Lots of excitement and then a big letdown. Jerry says the next one will pay.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t quote me, but he said he’s going to shoot the next lying S.O.B. planning to kill it buying this town on the cheap. Pardon my French.”
“That’s okay. I don’t need a translator.”
The woman smiled grimly. “Just a fair warning. If you are one, don’t tell Jerry. He’s a good shot. And he’s not alone.”
Jessica got her key and escaped to her room which felt more comfortable than she had hoped. She watched out the window and concluded the dust devils were the main population of this ghost town. Not one car crossed her field of vision.
She checked her phone and saw several apologetic texts from Wyatt. She didn’t respond.
At dusk, Jessica walked up to Jerry’s Tavern. More than anything, she needed a drink.
The next morning, Jessica showered and dressed for the train. She thanked Charlene and made her way to the train station.
When the ticket office opened, Ben told her the ticket she had was valid. She checked her bags for the trip.
While waiting, Jessica found a bench and checked her phone. She called Wyatt.
“Jessica! I’m so sorry!”
“Forget it. It’s time to move on. I hope you and Tipsy will be happy together.”
“Right, what I said.”
“I thought you’d want to know something …”
“This donkey squat town I’m in may have what you need.”
“You didn’t hear any of this from me. There’s a lot of chatter about a retirement development moving in. Remember Palm Springs thirty years ago?”
“Tell me more.”
“They have water. Not far from the I-10. Let’s see… I forget the name of the developer. You know them. One of the biggies. Nothing public yet. Everyone wants to line up their ducks before it hits the news. You might want to check it out.”
“Wow, Jess! This sounds hot. Thanks for the tip. Sorry about the misunderstanding.”
“Just business, as they say.”
The train pulled into the station. Air brakes hissed. A couple of people disembarked and one got on.
“I’ll drive out today. You going to be there? You have a name for me?”
Jessica walked as she talked. “I’ve got to go. Maybe look up Jerry, at Jerry’s Tavern. He might have something for you. Good luck with that.”
Jessica disconnected. She showed her ticket to the Conductor who helped her step up and into the train.
Once onboard, she found a comfy seat with a nice view of the countryside and settled in for the ride.
Jessica heard the air brakes release and the train began the glide out of the station. She rested her head back, closed her eyes and smiled.