Sunday Stories features original fiction every weekend by Langley writers.
Written by Ryan Uytdewilligen
(continued from previous publication on Sunday, Feb. 2. Read last week’s installment here)
“Excuse me ma’am, but would you care for a cup of coffee?” Frank inquired before pouring. “And yourself sir? Nice warm freshly made cup of Joe for you? Coffee, Miss?”
Frank O’Neil traversed the rickety aisles of the train, carting an even ricketier trolley with a hefty five gallon tin splashing around a piping hot batch of black brew. He had his own little system down pat by the team he reached the fourth row of seats; he’d sport a minuscule little Dixie cup and present the paper object with a smile warmer than the coffee itself.
Almost everyone agreed to a complimentary cup except for several children, a woman who had taken ill, and an elderly fellow who simply detested the beverage and insisted there should be Blue Ribbon tea.
Frank would do his best to steadily pour from a dented metallic carafe and pass the cups of coffee so that no detrimental drop ever had a chance of spilling. The next step was cream, which was poured at each passenger’s request from a small glass pitcher and needed constant refilling. Sugar came later, as it was Frank’s own notion that everything sweet should arrive at the very end.
So, trailing down the aisle, sometimes three rows behind and delaying sugar-takers first sips, came Ellie with a bowl and spoon. She lacked the etiquette and steady hand of her father, letting the sugar sift all over the floor—sometimes even laps. Precision was hindered even more so by the fact Ellie’s bear came along for the job with her, stuffed underneath the girl’s left arm.
Normally the coffee service would have been nearing the end of its first cycle at this point in the route. The gal responsible for the pouring had a more efficient method of her own, managing to make each cup with the right ingredients all in one go over the cart.
That method never dawned on Frank, as obvious as it probably should have been. The man was nervous, absolutely tickled, and evidently distracted, by the chance granted by the conductor to make up for false tickets; Frank wanted nothing more than to succeed and do a good job.
That’s why he even agreed to wear the regular gal’s pink and white apron; though it prompted some snickers, he was absolutely dedicated to following protocol.
Frank traversed, exchanging quick conversations with the other passengers—few ranging more than just coffee talk. He’d sum up in one sentence on why he was the one performing the pouring; stating nothing more than the task fell to him because the regular was sick.
He heard a lot of mumbles about the use of Dixie cups and how trains used to use fine china before the country’s fortunes took a turn. Ellie received a few more energetic thank-you’s than her Pop, but words other than “spoon of sugar” failed to leave her mouth.
“I’ll take six,” demanded a rather round nine-year-old boy in burgundy suit jacket and blue dress shirt. Ellie figured the boy needed not a grain of sugar at all, but she didn’t dare say that, instead, fixating on his pronounced lips—seemingly stuck in a puckered state.
By the time her eyes moved to his pomade slicked hair, Ellie had forgotten the request entirely. “Hey,” the boy snapped again, holding out his cup. “I said six spoonfuls.”
“Are you sure you should be drinking that,” Ellie said with concern. “Daddy says if you drink coffee too young, it stunts your growth.”
“Never mind your Dad, I said give me six.” Ellie looked at the empty seats surrounding the boy, wondering exactly where his Mom and Dad were at the moment and it they’d have a comment or two to say about his cup of painfully sweet coffee. Her dad did give him the cup after all, so she figured the request was all right. Two spoonfuls in, the boy’s spitting feminine image, wearing the same loud colours and harboring just a bit more make-up, tromped over and snatched the cup away.
“What do you think you’re doing, giving my son coffee? He’s nine.”
“But he wanted…” Ellie trailed.
“Well my boy is certainly not like you, getting every little thing he wants in life,” the mother snapped. “Keep moving.”
Ellie gulped and carried on with her duties, trying to force a smile on her face by the time she arrived at the next seat. Bear did not arrive to the next row of sugar-takers with her, falling from the clutch of Ellie’s armpit to partially underneath a train seat.
She failed to notice her travel companion’s disappearance, and made it three rows down until beginning to ponder why her job seemed to feel easier.
The boy noticed bear—flat on his back against the ground—within seconds. While his mother slurped her sons coffee, wincing at the sweetness she could barely stand to ingest, the boy collected the stuffed animal and began to maneuver it around in the air as if it were talking a stroll all on its lonesome.
“Hey, that’s mine,” Ellie shouted, stomping back towards the boy.
“No he’s not,” the boy insisted. “I found him and the rules are finders keepers.”
“That’s not true. Give him back!”
Ellie grabbed bear’s leg, only to find the boy wasn’t planning to let go of him without a fight. She knew she’d need both hands to pull off the rescue, so the girl placed the sugar bowl and spoon on an empty seat beside her, grabbing hold of exactly one arm and one leg.
“Get your hands off my bear,” the boy whined.
“Let go! You’ll break him,” Ellie warned. What did break was the sugar bowl, which hadn’t any chance of surfing atop the slick train seats. The track began to take a turn, and sure enough, the spoon fell first—followed by a quick and very loud shatter of glass.
The boy was easily startled by the noise and embarrassed by the destruction, quickly letting go of bear and sending Ellie flying backwards a few steps. The girl stayed upright, but her arms swung bear in all directions, including the seats across from her where cups of hot coffee were sent flying.
Two passengers, a husband and wife sitting across causally minding their own business and reading books, found themselves covered in piping hot stains. They shot up at the exact same time, shouting at Ellie, both in anger and in pain.
“What do you think you’re doing?” barked the boy’s mother, readying to deliver a nasty monologue chastising Ellie. Her words were cut short when the glass of the broken sugar bowl found its way into her ankle.
At that point, Frank casually turned to survey the commotion, excitedly dropping the carafe in mid pour when he discovered his daughter was the centre of all the shouting. Coffee splashed into all directions, soaking feet that were innocently wagging and tapping on the other end of the car.
As Frank ran to pull Ellie away from the commotion, the train whistle gave an elongated toot; immediately, the cars began slowing down to stop at the upcoming station.
The change in speed naturally sent the entire coffee cart soaring down the aisle on its own. When Frank turned to wrap his fingers around the handle, the whole trolley mechanism had shot itself straight for doorway into the next train car.
It missed, smashing into the frame, tipping the five gallon tin, and casting a river of freshly brewed Joe over the outfits of anyone helplessly sitting in rows one to four.
As the conductor came galloping from one end of the train to the other, Frank let out a sigh and looked Ellie in the eye. It was if there gaze had held an hour long meeting, covering such topics and disappointment, forgiveness, fear, and even humor.
“Out,” said the conductor.
“Yes,” Frank replied, busy forming a smile and scratching his chest where the newspaper advert rested in his breast pocket. “I’m afraid we are out of coffee.”
# # #
“I’m sorry—I’m sorry—I’m sorry—I’m sorry,” Ellie squawked like a parrot obsessed with its own words.
“I’m sorry,” Frank rebutted. The duo had made it about one mile down a gravel road, and all their conversation had consisted of for the entire walk was a back and forth of those two words.
“It’s just, he took bear and I didn’t know what else to do,” Ellie huffed.
“I’m sorry I put you to work and I’m sorry we still haven’t gotten a thing inside your belly,” Frank fretted.
“That’s okay Daddy—I think I had me at least five spoons of sugar on the train.”
Frank winced, stopping his stride to stoop down to Ellie’s level. “I really am sorry things couldn’t be better for you,” he said.
“You keep saying that.”
“Well I mean it. I’m sorry. But I tell you, when we get home, I’m going to look extra hard for a job. I’ll read the classifieds in every paper printed in a thousand mile radius. I’ll go back to digging that canal for Mr. Rolfstead, and I’ll—”
“Go home? What do you mean, go home?”
“Well… we’re going home muffin. We don’t got enough dough to get us anywhere but back to town.”
“What about the cows? We’re not going to the dairy anymore?”
“No… Ellie, I think you were right about the dairy. Someone else far closer than us got all the work they had. Next time though,” Frank assured, “next time we’ll be first.”
Tears flickered on the edge of Ellie’s eyes; they were there only for a second, but a quick wipe with her sleeve made it seem as though they had never glistened there at all. She sniffled, never taking her attention away from her father.
“I’m still game to try if you are.”
“They’re not letting us back on that train,” said Frank, rising back up to full height to survey the dusty, flat, and evidently empty road ahead.
“We don’t need a train,” Ellie insisted. “We can hitch a ride.”
“Easier said than done. People don’t like giving out rides so much to other folks these days.”
“It’s easier for ladies than it is men.”
Frank stifled his laughter, finding comedy and sheer terror that his child just referred to herself as a lady. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw it in a picture with Aunt Alice last Christmas—It Happened One Night with Clark Gable. Did you see that one, Pop?”
Frank kicked around a small clump of dirt, finding his mind becoming completely soothed by the sheer determination and positivity of his daughter.
“Your aunt Alice took you to the picture show? How nice. That’s nice to hear. I didn’t know that,” Frank mumbled slowly. “No, I didn’t see that one. What happens?”
“Clark Gable and his gal needed a ride and she got them one with a system all her own,” Ellie explained. It was then, both Frank and Ellie saw a cloud of dust, made only by a fast-travelling car, rise up in the distance. “Watch,” she said, skipping to the side of the road.
Frank meandered, kicking his dirt clump into a weedy ditch and moving clear out of the car’s path. He looked up to find his six-year-old lifting her skirt up to knee length, sticking her roly poly little left leg out as far as it possible would go, and swiveling it around in the air—though she lacked the stability to keep it outstretched for more than half-a-second.
As the car neared Ellie’s roadside display, Frank had to just about re-install his eyeballs as they had popped so far out of his head, their distance had to have been a record. He grabbed her arm, dragging her through midair, and putting a stop to the show before the driver got a glimpse.
“Come on,” Frank grumbled.
“Hey! That was our chance. What’d I do wrong?” Ellie whined.
“Keep your feet on the group and keep walking.”
“Where are we going?”
“The dairy,” Frank snapped. “Anything to keep your filthy mind occupied. And we’ll be using my system to get there.”
To be continued… The next installment of Bear by Ryan Uytdewilligen will be published by the Langley Advance Times, Sunday, Feb. 16.