Sunday Stories features original fiction every weekend by Langley writers.
Written by Ryan Uytdewilligen
Through wavering glass of the chugging train, wheat fields extended far past sight. Each head of grain was the momentary home of at least three grasshoppers. The infestation of the thumb-sized occupants saw to it that their symphony of songs screeched louder than the passing cars rubbing against their tracks. When the train blew its whistle, only then could it stand a fighting chance against the racket produced by the brood of orchestral insects.
But when it merely passed through as it so often did, the uncountable number of feasting bugs was all anybody nearby could hear. No one dared to pass through the storm of pests, soaring through the air like determined bullets. Not even farmers tended to those fields; the wheat and beans and barley were begrudgingly donated to the grasshopper’s cause to devour all in their path. Few could afford to seed their land in the first place; the ones who did hadn’t the money to harvest what managed to grow.
Inside the train was a different story; passengers—most of the passengers—wore carefully tended suits; sometimes tall hats on the men and bonnets for the women. The dirt and dust would blow in a whirling storm, coating the clothing when people waited at each platform; most would be none the wiser that the clothing had been soiled—busy hands tended to dirty clothing in the lavatories; always making sure every item looked presentable.
It was all about image of course; pockets could be empty, but as long as a well assembled outfit—a flowing skirt dangling above ankles or a pinstripe and pocket watch chain wrapped a hungry body—most eyes would be fooled. Each car had such a haze of cigar smoke, no one could quite view the proper details needed to size each other up anyway.
A corner desk in one car, once stocked with candy bars and bottled sodas, now sold only the daily news. A coffee service normally ran up and down the aisles, but the gal who did the pouring called in sick that day, eight minutes before departure if you can believe it. Another car offered sips of brandy served in fine crystal snifters. The service was technically illegal, but if you got yourself in with the right travelling salesmen, one with railway manager connections and the crafty desire to squeeze an extra buck from a wet passion, well then a whole briefcase full of spirits would open up.
For Frank O’Neil, he hadn’t a cigar to smoke or drink to sip; no pocket watch or suits worth noticing—not even a newspaper in his hand for that matter. He had a hat, though barely; its rim drooped lower than the man’s spirits. He thanked the sheer fact that everyone smoked so the dark stubble across his chin couldn’t be jeered.
All Frank actually had with him was his daughter Ellie sitting next to the window on the hard, wooden, two-person seat. Six, gleefully messy, and clutching an even filthier teddy bear without a name, that girl took in the passing wheat fields and grasshoppers like it was the most magnificent show she’d ever witnessed in all her life. And that, at least, made Frank smile.
“I’m sorry,” Frank whispered. “I’m sorry things couldn’t be better for you. I’ll get you back in school one day—that’s a promise.” He received no response. “Did you hear me Ellie? After this is all behind us, I’m going to see to it you get back into class. I know how you like to read and all, and after this job’s done…”
Ellie was in her own world; the world of wheat fields and grasshoppers and whatever mythical additions she cast into the scenery she saw. Frank gave a quick snort, blowing a burst of delighted hot air down past his smile. After some seconds passed watching Ellie blow her own breath against the window to fog it all up, Frank stuck is hand deep down past the holes of his woolly overcoat to fish out a delicate piece of print. His fingers had touched the paper so frequently; the ink was almost completely faded. Frank knew what it said; right from the beginning, the day he cut it out of the littered Gazette, he could recite the ad word for word.
Wanted: Experienced milkers, calvers, and drivers needed for work on large scale dairy operation immediately—2240 Hollis Rd—$20 a week.
Sure, Frank fretted over the fact that neither milkers nor calvers were actual words and he wondered if the zero was in fact a zero or and eight. The whole road part of the address was simply added via methods of deduction; surely no such dairy farm in this world, Frank figured, was situated on a street. Avenues were out of the question. And the advertisement had been so well worn when Frank found it, all he could do was assume.
Frank gulped often, thinking maybe that it was Hollis Drive, which was completely in the opposite direction. But he never knew there to be dairies in those neck of the woods though—Hollis Rd made the most sense given the sheer proximity to several other ranches and a sheep pasture.
Ellie’s growling stomach piled on the pressure that the address be correct. There had been no contact made—though many times attempted—so Frank was now travelling a very long way purely on faith, hope, and luck to answer the call.
“What if someone already got the job?” Ellie whimpered with her gaze still forward at the window.
“It’s 20 a week Ellie; that makes it worth a shot. And the paper is only a couple days old; it’s new,” Frank assured. “Fresh print! So fresh, the ink ain’t even dry yet—it’s all melted away from my fingers.”
“But that paper ain’t from our town, right? It’s from miles away—”
“Hundreds of miles. It’s a simple stroke of luck that we ended up with it too! And I’m sure, yeah, maybe a few came poking around for a job already. But didn’t you read what it said? Milkers? Calvers? Truck drivers? They all got s’ on the end. They’re looking for lots of hands.”
Ellie finely turned, fed up from her father’s inexcusable ignorance; the kind of hope she saw many adults utter when they spoke to her—right before they all went off crying in a corner.
“What we do if they turn you down and we have no money to get home?” the six-year-old snapped.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Frank chanted with his palms in the air. “I’m experienced in dairies. I grew up on a dairy. Ain’t no one more qualified than the many who spent the first fifteen years of his live working on one. We got lots of dough to tide us over,” he said, patting his breast pocket. “They’ll take me girl, you’ll see! You leave the worrying to me, all right?”
Ellie wasn’t convinced, although her stomach rumbling for a second time was enough to redirect her focus.
“Is someone hungry?” Frank smiled.
Ellie smiled back, glancing at the fuzzy little passenger on her lap. “Yeah… bear needs to eat!”
“Bear needs to eat? Bear does? You mean that was his belly rocking the train back and forth?” Ellie giggled as Frank licked his lips, trying to squeeze out a couple more notes of the high-pitched, playful voice he had in him. “Well what does bear like to eat? Honey? Fresh caught salmon?”
Ellie screwed up her face, thinking hard on what it was bear wanted for lunch. After some conspiring and bear getting propped to her ear to spill a secret, a decision was reached.
“Milk and cookies,” Ellie bravely announced. Frank couldn’t contain his laughter.
“Milk and cookies? Well, I don’t know that they have them for sale around here bear, but you’ll be getting all the milk you can drink soon enough.”
Ellie huffed, turning back to the window to stave off her boredom again.
“What?” Frank said, doing his best to lure his daughter’s attention back to him. “I really don’t think the train has milk and cookies darling. I can check, but for the last two years, three years even, I haven’t even seen peanuts—”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
Ellie turned to her father again. “I wish it were pigs.”
“Huh?” he mumbled, dumbfounded and quite certain if there were no cookies on the train, there were certainly no pork chops to be had either.
“The dairy. I wish it was pigs. I adore pigs so much more than I do cows.”
Bless her heart, Frank thought. Some days Ellie seemed like an evenly matched accomplice since her manners and wit appeared without boundary. But she was a child after all, and Frank knew he couldn’t let himself forget that.
“I’m sorry you had to grow up in this, kid,” he whimpered again. “I really am sorry.” After a pause and a clap of his hands, Frank turned to the aisle. “Let’s see what they got to eat around here.”
All Frank saw was the conductor towering above them, face void of expression and left hand outstretched; the right one gripped a hole punch.
“Tickets,” he said.
Frank nodded and began an odyssey of pocket diving. He re-discovered his newspaper clipping and clung tight to a small wad of bills. Every pocket contained lint and one even stored a never-before-seen button, but Frank, for the life of him, couldn’t find the tickets. Ellie watched with saucers for eyes while the conductor grunted as he looked over the long stretch of train cars still to cover.
Growing in panic, the hopefully-soon-to-be dairy worker clapped, standing up to search all of his pants pockets that he formally could not reach. Nothing in there either. Finally, the floppy hat atop his head slid down, almost as if it were waving for his attention. Frank laughed with delight as he removed the torn head topper and pulled out two tickets. The conductor must have only peered at them for one second before handing them back.
“These tickets have been forged,” he flatly announced.
“What? Is this a joke? You’re just playing around with me, aren’t you?” Frank was given no indication the comment was a ruse. “But I bought them… I bought them from this fellow…”
“I’m sure you did,” the conductor replied. “You’ll be sent off at the next stop. We’ll be there in thirteen minutes.”
“No, please! There must be something that can be done,” Frank said, clamoring after the conductor who was already on his way to the next row of seats.
“Yes there is,” he said, giving Frank reason to smile. “Get yourself two tickets.”
Frank turned, feeding off the fear found in Ellie’s stare; fear mixed with disappointment and hints of embarrassment. He wished that she would go back to watching out the window as he began filtering through his bills.
“Here. Let me buy ‘em. I’ll take two tickets please—for the last stop.”
The conductor filtered through the cash for several seconds before passing it back.
“Not enough to get you there.”
“What do you mean not enough? That’s all I have?” Frank whispered the last part, careful that Ellie wouldn’t hear. As the conductor passed back the money, Ellie’s panic caught his attention; she looked to the floor as their eyes met. As stoic as he was, the conductor was still human.
“Not even close I’m afraid.”
“Please,” Frank continued. “I spent a fortune on those tickets. I swore they were real— they came from a reputable source; a friend! Well, a former friend now. But… we won’t be a bother! We’ll stand! Or… she’s small. I can just buy one seat and she can sit on my lap. Please. I’m sure something can be done.”
The conductor turned to the trailing aisle, coughing passengers getting satisfaction from their cigarettes, but evidently dry mouths. After a swallow and a peek at his watch, he actually mustered a half-smile as an opportunity presented itself.
“Come with me.”
“Oh, thank you sir, thank you,” Frank said with a jump for joy. He and Ellie’s exchanges took a gleeful turn as she grinned and slid out of her seat to follow. “Oh, and sir,” Frank added as he stumbled after the hurried man. The conductor stopped just before entering the next car. “Do you happen to serve milk and cookies anywhere on this train?”
To be continued… The next installment of Bear by Ryan Uytdewilligen will be published by the Langley Advance Times, Sunday, Feb. 9.