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Coming of Age Historical Fiction American

Aunt Lizzie sent money to Western Union. That’s how I ended up on the train. 

I didn’t want to be late, so I ran from the Western Union to the station with my coin purse jangling inside my traveling case. There wasn’t much else in the case. The old dress from Mama’s closet, her hat.

Now, the view outside passes by quickly, but I’m not worried about the view. I’m thinking about the caramel cream the conductor, Mr. Thomas, snuck me, like a piece of stolen gold, getting soft in my palm. 

I lay the caramel cream on the table in front of me, and cup my hands around it so it won’t fall off.

I readjust myself on the cushion and watch people in the seats nearby. There’s an old man with a hat pulled down over his eyes. A gurgling sound is coming from his wide open mouth. There’s a woman with a long wooden needle and a pile of pink yarn in her lap, though she stares out the window and not at her knitting.

Leaving wasn’t hard. Mama died years ago, and Papa was long sick. My parents were already old by the time I was born. Not that it made saying goodbye to them any easier, but that seems like what I was destined for anyhow. My brothers were both grown when they left for the war. Even though Papa never told me so, I know the war has been over for a year, and they’re probably not coming back. Good thing I already said goodbye to them, too.

If not for Aunt Lizzie, I would have been on my own in that small white house, shutters flapping on stormy nights as I kept my eye out for tornadoes. I never saw one, but the stories I overheard Papa telling Freddy and Jimmy made me always keep a sharp eye. I wonder if they have to watch out for tornadoes in San Francisco, too. 

I say it to myself again. San Francisco. I still can’t get used to how delicate it is on my tongue. San Francisco. It’s almost as delicate as the caramel cream, which, I’m happy to note, has hardened up a little bit now that it’s out of my sweaty grip. 

When I purchased my ticket, I mumbled the city’s name, afraid I was saying it wrong. But there was only one real destination on the Overland Flyer. Mr. Thomas told me so as he chuckled and reached out his white-gloved hand to shake mine.

Mr. Thomas stops now as he passes by my seat, his flat-top hat tilted slightly to the side. “Everything alright, Miss Hemley?”

I am treated nicer than I ever have been before on this train. So nice, I don’t even know what to say. These grownups act like I’m one of them. No one calls me kid. No one shoos me away or even looks over my head as if I was some pesky dog. That’s what happens when you have money, I suppose. People see you. I give Mr. Thomas a grin to keep in his good graces, and, I can’t believe my luck, he slips me another caramel. 

Yellow-white fields whiz past my window. Omaha was cold and gray when I left. Dirt and snow mixed together. I regret it now—not looking around more. I had never been to the city, but if I missed the train, I didn’t even know what would happen to me. 

Back at the creek, I was alone most of the time, but I could take care of myself. I could go out in the middle of the night if I wanted to. I never did, but I knew I could. I didn’t even have to go to school everyday. It didn’t much matter to Papa.

Toward the end, I spent my days doing the washing inside for him and tending to the hens. I still went to school, but only because Mrs. Jenson made us soup at lunchtime. Once a week I’d make the trek into town, pulling my cart of eggs behind me, stopping only to wipe the sweat from my forehead. When Papa’s sickness was so bad that even I couldn’t keep up with the washing, and the smell overwhelmed the little white house, he asked me to bring a letter to the post office in town. He told me not to read it, but I can’t read so it didn’t matter. Maybe Aunt Lizzie could help me, I think, glancing at the woman next to me, newspaper folded in her lap.

Remembering back to life at the creek makes me ache for the feel of wet mud between my toes in the summertime. I wiggle them, forgetting myself for a minute. But then, when I see my little toe poke out through the frayed hole in the side, I remember where I am and tuck my feet up under my dress. 

I wake up later to a violent rocking, which makes me nearly fall out of my seat. I grab hold of the table. My caramels. And I duck my head underneath in a panic. There they are. I better put them in my case if I want them to make it all the way to San Francisco. I look around at the other passengers as the train settles back to its normal rhythm. The snoring man is gone. In fact, most people are gone, and I realize it’s supper time. My stomach responds as anyone’s would. I stand, count the change in my coin purse. I know how to count money because of the eggs I sold in town. I used to get swindled by old Mrs. Aldridge, but then I asked Papa and he taught me as best he could, and I made Mrs. Aldridge give me every last penny the next time I saw her.

I had to go tell the pastor at the church when Papa didn’t wake up. It was a Tuesday, and raining pretty hard, but I walked into town just like he told me to. A few days later, I found Mama’s old shoes and put them on for the funeral. My toe dangled out then too, but I didn’t mind that day.

I didn’t tell anyone about the money Aunt Lizzie was sending me. Papa told me not to. Said people would get greedy. I wasn’t sure though, seems to me that when people realize you have money to spend, they treat you pretty good. At least, they do when you’re on the train to San Francisco.

“Welcome to the dining car, Miss Hemley.” Another man in white gloves greets me at the door. I flash him a nervous grin, and clutch my coin purse tightly at my side. 

“I’m not permitted to take verbal orders, Miss,” he says as he hands me a small piece of paper. But then, I think he sees the panic on my face. “But, maybe I can suggest some things and write them here for you?”

He suggests the casserole with spring lamb, and I don’t know what a casserole is, but it sounds expensive. I see the man who was snoring hours before. He’s sitting with the knitting lady, and they’re hovering over their wine glasses, smiling at one another. I wonder who’s waiting for them in San Francisco. Maybe a friend or a son. Lots of sons ended up in California after the war, I heard.

I’ve never met Aunt Lizzie, and I only remember one story about her. She was born when Papa was already grown, and he had to help take care of her since his own Mama died when Aunt Lizzie was born. As a baby, she was pink and ugly and wailed like a ghoul. “Put me off children for a long time,” he told me. 

That’s what I’m thinking about when the man with the white gloves brings me my supper as gently as if it’s a freshly-hatched chick. Casserole is delicious, I decide, and don’t stop eating until my plate is empty and my stomach is rolling. After I’m done, I grab my fork and my plate and start to walk back in the direction I saw the man coming from before. I sneak a glance at the couple with the wine. They look shocked about something, but I’m not sure what.

The next day, I get the hang of things a little more. I learn how to write “cocoa” and “toast” on the little piece of paper the white gloved man leaves on the breakfast table. He brings me eggs too, and rushes over to me before I’m done, just to save me the embarrassment of carrying my own dishes again.

Later, I hear the other passengers making lots of appreciative noises, so I look out my window. There are huge mountains in the distance, and they’re growing closer. They’re covered in white snow like I’ve never seen, and I can’t stop staring at them.

“Once we get to the other side of those peaks, we’ll be just two days from San Francisco,” Mr. Thomas tells me. It’s hard to believe there’s anything on the other side of mountains like that. I am not very good at imagining things, though, so I just watch and wait. 

And Mr. Thomas ends up being right. We get to the other side of the mountains, and the mood on the train is almost giddy. When I’m hungry for lunch, I make my way to the dining car and ask for the white gloved man to write down “jellied vegetable soup” for me, which is soon set down right in front of my face, and it’s just the right temperature. I place my napkin in my lap, and watch the couple next to me—they’re drinking a different color wine this time—and I see how I should hold my spoon. It takes me a few tries, but eventually I get it, and I’m carefully spooning it into my mouth like a lady who has paid good money to sit on a train and have a man in white gloves bring her soup.

“Sacramento!” I hear Mr. Thomas call the next morning. My stomach starts to do knots because I know what stop is next. I feel like I’ve finally gotten used to life on this train, and now I have to leave. Everyone else seems excited. They’re peering out of windows, sliding dominoes pieces back into their wooden boxes, replacing hats and postures that have gone crooked from the bumps and jostles of the train.

And then, we’re slowing down. I can feel the pressure underneath me. It’s as if my body is moving forward. The train is leaning me, and I can’t get a good enough grip with my shoes on the floor, so I teeter on the edge of my seat until we fully stop. There are women with cases striding in groups outside my window. There are children running ahead of baby carriages and a man selling a pile of newspapers to men who pass by. 

My own case is light, and I can get it down easily, but Mr. Thomas insists on helping me. He tells me goodbye, and I tell him thank you for the caramels. He seems surprised that I haven’t eaten them yet, but of course I haven’t. I’m waiting for the perfect moment. 

I realize when my feet touch earth that I have no idea what Aunt Lizzie looks like, so I just scan the crowd for someone who’s tall and narrow, like Papa. No one I see matches that description.

And then, there’s a woman running toward me, fur coat blowing behind her, silver chain bouncing off her chest. 

“Evie! Evie!”

I look around to see if anyone is going to react to her outburst, but no one does.

“Oh, Evelyn,” she says, sweeping me up in her arms. I cling to my traveling case, which goes crashing around her. “You look just like your father. How was the train? I hear it’s dreary for the first two days, and only after the Rockies are the views even worth it. You must have cabin fever, anyhow. Here, let me take your case. Oh, it’s just divine that you’re here. ”

Aunt Lizzie drives a motor car.

I can’t believe it. I’ve never even been in one, and here she is, sitting behind the wheel, dodging people on the street, taking me through San Francisco. She’s chattering away, which I realize now she’s prone to do, but the city around us looks divine (a word she used about a hundred times as she loaded me into my seat), but I can’t hear anything over the rattle of the motor. The buildings cast a shadow down on us as we cruise Market Street, and every once in a while, the last of the day’s sideways light blinds me as we pass the cross streets.

“Do you have a swim dress?” she asks me as we make our way onto a quieter street. “We have a couple more hours of sunlight. Oh, horsefeathers, what am I saying? They’ll have them for us. But I do have a swim cap for you.” She turns toward me, her teeth like a row of fresh chicken eggs. It’s the first time I get a good look at her, and I see some of Papa in the bridge of her nose and her deep brown eyes.

That small bit of home hits me hard, and I’m suddenly dizzy and just want to sit still for a while. 

But we don’t go to Aunt Lizzie’s house, and we don’t sit still. Instead, we go to the baths, as she calls them. As I said, I am not great at imagining things, so she explains them to me, but I just wait and watch the city go by. 

When we get there, I can barely move. In front of us is a large white building with rows of glass windows. 

“Let’s blouse,” says Aunt Lizzie. “We can change inside.”

I step out of the motor car and onto the street. 

“Isn’t it divine?” she asks me, following my gaze.

The building is enormous, bigger than any I’ve ever seen, but it might as well be the little white house next to the creek, compared to what’s behind it. 

The sea, wild and blue, expands so far out, I can’t even see the end of it. It meets the sky somewhere in the distance, I know, but I can’t see where, so it’s just a massive blue sea-sky in front of me.

My arms drop, and my case clunks to the ground. I have no strength to hold this view and the case at the same time.

“Oh, don’t be afraid. We’re not going in the ocean. We’re going inside. Swimming in the baths is duck soup.” She winks at me and prances toward the building.

“Wait,” I call out, and I don’t look to see if she does. Instead, I flip open my case and dig frantically under Mama’s woolen dress. There they are. I grip them both tightly in my palm, heat softening them already, I know.

Then, staring out across the endless sea, I tear open the wrap and pop them both into my mouth at once. I close my eyes, letting the sugar fill me, and then I get to the creamy center. What could be better than this, I think.

Aunt Lizzie seems to be drifting farther from me, but she’s waving like mad. Swallowing, I grab my things and run after her, as fast as I can, letting the fresh sea breeze carry me away.

April 21, 2021 16:27

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1 comment

Erik Iversen
00:45 May 07, 2021

Tasted Carmel through the whole story.


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