She scrambled up the stairs without a backward glance, eager to stake out a seat by the window. Squeezing down the narrow aisle with her purse and several canvas bags sprouting from her arms like crows on a power pole, a pair of vacant seats in the middle of the car beckoned. She released her burden on the aisle seat, a hopeful foil to company, and slid quickly into the window seat. Her parents, standing side by side on the platform, not quite touching, her mother’s body tilting slightly toward her cane, looked already lonely and bewildered. Dropping the window, she stuck her head out.
“…boooord!” bellowed the conductor, a final warning an instant before the door slammed shut and a violent hiss announced brakes releasing. The train jolted to life. She waved and blew kisses out the window.
“Write as soon as you get there, Patricia!” Her father’s voice was barely audible over the clanking of metal.
“I will! I promise. Bye Mother, Bye Papa!” Her parents lip read and shrank as the horizon widened to embrace New York City’s skyline. When they were too small to discern, she settled into her seat and began to pick through her flock of parcels, arranging and rearranging them. Satisfied that she hadn’t forgotten anything she sat back and let her head rest on the seat back. A deep breath, her eyes closed briefly and a smile playing at the corners of her mouth— Free! I’m free at last!
The dizzying pace of preparations had been exhausting. Papa’s suggestion that she live on a ranch in Wyoming for the summer had so shocked her that she had reined in her excitement, afraid some last-minute detail or change of heart by her father or by her hosts would upend the yearned-for fantasy. She’d tossed and turned throughout the night, repacking every item in her mind and occasionally dashing out of bed to double check that she had, in fact, tucked some little necessity into her suitcase.
The train gathered speed, carooming through soot-blackened brick tenements and industrial buildings. Smoothing her skirt across her knees, she pulled a magazine from one of her tote bags. Beginning on page one, she read every headline and every article in The Western Horseman, hoping to imprint every detail of the exotic foreign country into her being. She stared at the western tack that looks so different from the flat saddle and elegant bridles she knew. She whispered the truncated grammar of the articles and letters to the editor, trying to hone a dialect that was to always hover slightly out of reach. She stalled over the advertisements, gathering in details about western fashion.
The farther from home the train took her, the more often her eyes glanced up to inspect the passing scenery. For a while the train kept company with a river. Between the Catskills and Albany, the countryside was wild and lonely; the mists of dusk rose to shroud savage vegetation, painting it with a dreamlike unreality. With a thumb holding her place in the magazine and the gathering darkness obscuring the view, she blinked her eyes at a Mohican chief with shaved head and topknot of hair and feathers, naked to his loins, and hands gripping a bow and arrow. Her heart jolted, then she grinned at the tricks a tired brain plays.
Her mind went still. Looking across the aisle to the windows on the other side, the sun was a sinking lava-hot glow on the razor black line between land and twilight sky. When she turned back to her own window just seconds later the train had entered the surreal blackness of a storm. Lightening fractured the sky. Mist solidified into sheets slapping silently against the windows. Darkness swallowed all shape and form outside the window. Patricia’s head relaxed back into the seat cushion, her eyelids drooped and she succumbed to intermittent dozing like the other tired and bored passengers in the car.