tagRomanceGrand Island

Grand Island


As I look into his leering,
mirror of my own face
He laughs, and sneers, and says "Of course, dear Son,
Where do you think you came from in the first place?"

-Harry Chapin, "The Mayor of Candor Lied"

It was the Brockways who gave Bill his first sweet taste of Christmas, and it came not a moment too soon. He would not know their name until after they had been on the train for some time; but that was of little consequence. An hour or two later, as the train rocketed across the desolate Illinois countryside, it would be the memory of their tender affection that drew Bill out to the dining car and changed his life forever.

He had seen the doting young parents and their three adorable children back at his beloved LaSalle Street station. That location had always been the very essence of Christmas for Bill, his every winter journey's end when returning from Exeter and then Yale. But those wonderful days were over, his plans for medical school put on indefinite if not permanent hold, and this trip was a none-too-subtle reminder of that. The Brockways' comfortable, unpretentious, and most of all loving appearance had offered a precious glimpse of the Christmas spirit that had been so utterly lacking for Bill throughout that snowless, cheerless December of 1906, not to mention a sense of familial love that he had never known. Even their appearance -- the father looking awkward in a coat and tie but no vest, his hat tossed carelessly on the bench beside him, the mother in a slightly faded scarlet dress that was a few seasons old and a matching hat with what looked like replacement feathers -- had drawn Bill to them, for they had made such a lovely contrast to his stuffy, snobby parents, who had sat flanking him in their full upper crust regalia on the opposite bench.

Bill had little doubt that the joyous noise their three children made while debating how Santa Claus would find them in San Francisco had irritated Mother to no end; and he had guessed -- correctly -- that he and Father would hear of little else once they were on the train. That, plus the adoring smiles the children's parents wore as they regarded them from the bench where they sat hand in hand, had only endeared Bill all the more to them.

"He'll come down the chimney at Grandma's house, won't he?" the older boy had asked.

"What if she doesn't have a chimney?" the girl had suggested.

"She does, doesn't she, Mommy?" asked the boy.

"Of course she does, dear," the mother had reassured them.

"But will Santa know which one is hers? She doesn't have any children living there anymore, does she?"

"Darling, of course Santa will know when to find you," their father had said, in a gentle tone Bill had never heard from his own father. "And he will also know how well you behave on the train." At this, the children had snickered a bit but were careful not to argue the point. The younger boy did not look convinced, so his mother had scooped him up in her arms and given him a comforting squeeze against the chill of the station -- the chill that had always been Christmas itself for Bill on his return from back East, but which now suggested nothing of the sort. Bill had smiled at the lovely sight and tried to imagine the joy mother and child were experiencing at that moment. He had struggled not to grow jealous of the bond they shared, and which he had never known with his very prim mother.

He was saved from that fate by the approach of a porter. To Bill's great displeasure, the young man addressed his mother rather than his father or himself. "Good afternoon, madam. The train is due; may I take your luggage?"

Bill's mother twisted her mouth into a disapproving pout and looked wordlessly across at her husband, as Bill had known she would. Father dutifully jumped up and pointed at the waiting trunks and suitcases by their side. "Yes, please," he said. "We're in car C." As the train pulled in to the platform, Mother stood and smoothed out her skirts, and walked off without a word. Once she was out of earshot, Father said to the porter, "I apologize, young man, but my wife never speaks to hired help."

"I see," grunted the porter, who up to that moment had not shown any sign of being put out; now he did look annoyed.

Once Father had also taken his leave, Bill fished a silver dollar out of his pocket and offered it to the porter. "I'm sorry for both of them, sir," he said. "Merry Christmas."

The porter looked at Bill as if he expected him to snatch the coin back. Bill didn't, and he accepted the gratuity. "Well, thank you!" he said. "Mightily generous of you."

"You can see who didn't teach me that, can't you?" Bill said, managing a chuckle.

Now, as the train rattled through the slate-gray late afternoon, Bill gazed out the window of his first-class carriage at the desolate farmland, and did his best to recall the joy he had so briefly and vicariously shared. Mother was not making that easy, for periodically she piped up again and again in outrage at how "those sewer rats" had let their children "scramble about on the floor. Honestly, Horace, have you ever seen such a disgusting display?"

"Now then, Clara," Father reassured her yet again. "They are off in second class somewhere; no need for you to concern yourself with them any longer."

"I should never have had to be subjected to it all in the first place," Mother sniffed. "And at Christmas, no less! What vulgar display do you suppose they intend to put on for children, which we will all have to endure? They should allow no children on the train at this time of year, if you ask me."

Bill gritted his teeth and searched in vain for Christmas-like scenes in the desolate farmland rushing by, and reminded himself that at least he was out of Chicago for the holiday. That was worth nearly every price, for Christmas at his childhood home had come to look more unbearable by the day before Father had announced the trip instead. Chicago had seen precious little snow in that early winter, and that had proven to be an all too fitting analogy for Bill's state of mind as he faced his first Christmas as a full-fledged adult (he would be twenty-three in January), but still stuck with his stuffy, irredeemably snobby parents.

The impending train trip to San Francisco with them had merely been the final of a long string of injustices that he had had to endure ever since graduating from Yale in June. Horace William Billingston III -- known to one and all as Bill since prep school, a coincidental short form of both his middle and last name and a reflection of his hatred for his first -- had decided on a career in medicine halfway through Yale. But Father had been moderately opposed from the first time Bill had suggested it, as he had always intended for his only son to inherit the financial management business that had made them so very rich. When Bill had made the mistake of letting it slip that he was especially interested in obstetrics and gynecology, Mother had scotched his plans once and for all. "I positively forbid it!" she had screeched loudly enough for all the servants to hear in their quarters. "No son of mine shall be poking around in ladies' bits that are no man's business, and with which there would never be anything wrong if the dear girl kept her legs crossed!"

"But Mother," Bill had retorted, "All women are entitled to good health, and they do have unique needs regardless of how chaste they may be. We learned --"

"I do not care to hear what you learned about things you have no business knowing anything about!" Mother had snapped. "Heavens, we sent you to Yale because they are supposed to be too conservative to be filling your head with such things. Horace, were they anything like that in your time?"

"Nothing," Father had sniffed. "Billy, just what has got into you?"

But Bill had never given up hope. He had kept his hard-won copy of Gray's Anatomy hidden under his bed, along with all the articles he had been able to find of Dr. Sims' work in New York and Paris; and he had continued to study them over the idle months since graduation. Mother, of course, did not know of their presence. Betsy, the maid, had discovered them a few months before. Always loyal to a fault to Mother, she had threatened to expose Bill's secret. Bill had, in a panic, offered to tell her everything he could recall reading about alleviating menstrual cramps if she would hold her tongue. His advice had evidently worked, for Betsy had kept his secret from Mother. He suspected she may have shared it with the ladies of the kitchen, though, as his desserts had been just a bit bigger over the past couple of months.

All through the autumn, Bill had felt the typical young man's longing for respite from the boring desk job that Father had set aside for him, hoping some last minute twist of fate would have him sent off to medical school after all. With that hope receding a bit each day, Bill had opted to make the best of an unpleasant situation, and had proven himself more than capable of handling the small portfolio his father had set aside for him. Perhaps he had done too well, for in late November he had found himself roped into what his father had called "an indefinite holiday in San Francisco. I've decided it should be a family trip, as heaven only knows for how long our services will be needed out there."

Three days on the train were more than bearable, for Bill loved to travel. An indefinite stay in San Francisco was not unwelcome either, as watching the city rise from the ashes of the earthquake was a unique opportunity, and in any event Bill had never been to the West Coast. But Father's reason for the trip was something else again, and Bill hadn't been shy about expressing his disapproval. "Aren't you taking advantage of people who have lost everything for your own financial gain, Father?" he had demanded.

"Boy, someone has to rebuild that city, and we have the capital to do it. Someone who, as you say, has lost everything, certainly doesn't! What else shall they do but accept our generous offer to buy their land and redevelop it?"

"It is hardly your station in life to disapprove of their poor fate either, dear," Mother had said. "Those people are heathens of the worst sort, and they got nothing they did not deserve in April."

"You'll be doing them a favor, boy," Father had added. "You of all people should know that. Recall how you came to be born into such splendor." Bill did not need to be reminded that his father had made his fortune in a similarly predatory fashion after the great Chicago fire several years before he was born; Mother rarely gave either of them any opportunity to forget that she would never have deigned to marry him if not for that success. There had been many such remarks over the years, and Bill had learned to leave the room when the topic arose; he had no desire to hear the details of just how his parents had been drawn together. It had always seemed only too natural to him that a couple of emotionless bluebloods such as themselves had found one another. He was, at least, grateful for the burning desire that had instilled in himself to never be such a snob. That, undoubtedly was what had driven him to volunteer at the clinics in the slums of New Haven where he had found his calling; and it was what enabled him to hold onto his dream even now, though he had no idea how he might realize it from a makeshift financial planner's office in San Francisco.

Mother had never been any too happy about the trip either. Weeks of snippy comments to that effect had not mellowed her to her Christmas fate, and had only further inflamed Bill's own resentment of it all. "Indeed, my only regret is that I must join you both on the trip," she was now reminding Father yet again with resignation. "But as I do not trust either of you to conduct yourselves appropriately if left to your own devices, I suppose I have no choice in the matter. Nevertheless, Horace, I could certainly have done without the mindless squeals of those little urchins!"

Something snapped in Bill, and he felt his fury overriding his fear of his mother for once as he turned to face her. "Mother! For heaven's sake, it's Christmas and they're only children! Weren't you ever a little girl?"

"Billy!" Father snapped. "How dare you address your mother like that!"

"All too typical of him lately!" Mother sniffed, before turning to Bill. "And to answer your question, of course I was. But my nurse taught me self-control and respect, and not to writhe about on the floor like a commoner! My one failure in life was in instilling the same self-respect in you, evidently. Perhaps you belong with the scum of the streets; you certainly aren't properly grateful for your station in life! But I should expect that of your father's son!"

Towards the end of her tirade, Mother began to cry. She was dabbing quietly but dramatically at both eyes when Father leaned over across her. "Son, apologize to your mother or else go join your friends in the cattle hold!"

Bill stood up fearlessly. "I believe I will."

"Ungrateful urchin! Don't come back!" Mother growled as Bill strode to the cabin door. "The door will be locked! Don't come back!"

"Merry Christmas," Bill grumbled, not looking back as he shut the door behind him.

He had ridden second class on all his trips to and from school aboard the Pennsylvania Special -- a cost-cutting measure of Father's to which Mother had always objected in vain -- and so he knew what to expect as he made his way across the two chilly vestibules, through and beyond the first class cars. The close proximity and the lack of pretension meant an awkward silence early in the trip would give way, slowly but surely, to a great spirit of camaraderie that would see the travelers through their weary journey as the train roared across the barren plains. Although the time spent with his parents in their deathly uncomfortable carriage had seemed to drag on forever, a glance at his pocketwatch revealed that not even two hours had passed since the train had steamed out of LaSalle. Ignoring what that portended for three days on the train, Bill comforted himself with the thought that he was not too late to join the lively community.

He was not disappointed: the dining car was heady and warm with the smells of dinner and the spirit of holiday travel, and the conversations were mostly muted and confined to within the various families. For a fleeting moment he was a boy again, on a wonderful adventure with his mates on the train home from New England, and he couldn't resist searching the long narrow car for the familiar face of an old friend who might also be headed west. He was disappointed, but not surprised, to find there were none.

Somewhat more surprising was the lack of any free tables. It was rather early for dinner, but the car was already quite crowded. Mostly travelers from points east, Bill mused, for he recalled all too well that the monotony of a multi-day journey inspired earlier meals simply for the change of scene.

As Bill stood surveying the hungry passengers, he was aware of a beautiful young woman sitting alone at the table nearest the door, stirring a bowl of soup absentmindedly and with her nose buried in a book. She took no notice of him, so Bill was free to admire her fiery red hair and the green eyes that focused so intently on the volume before her, and the endearingly nervous twitch of her fingers on the soup spoon. She was bareheaded -- unusual for a lady even in second class -- and wore a raggedy white dress that looked as though it had not been pressed in some time, and what of her face that he could see from the other side of the book looked as world weary as her clothes. Why, he wondered, hadn't her family joined her for dinner? Surely she wasn't traveling alone at this time of year, he mused.

"Reservation, sir?" came a male voice before Bill, and he snapped to attention.

"No, sorry," Bill said. "I should be happy to put my name on the waiting list for a table."

"Bit of a wait, I'm afraid," said the gentleman. "You are welcome to join any party that will let you share their table, but it could be two hours before we can offer you a seat of your own, Mister..."

"Billingston." Bill knew already that the name would likely shorten the wait, and from the look on the other man's face he could see he was right. As usual, he found the obsequiousness more irritating than flattering, but there was little to be done.

"Yes, well, sir! I am sure we can find an open table rather sooner than I had feared..."

"That will not be necessary!" Bill reassured him. "I am more than willing to wait my turn. Or perhaps I should like to join some others. I came in here to make some new acquaintance, after all."

"As you wish, sir. I can put your name down in any event..."

"You'd be welcome to join me, Mr. Billingston."

Bill looked down to see the young woman he had just been admiring, now smiling up at him. She looked tired but happy, eager for companionship even. Bill promptly learned just how eager she was, for the other gentleman leaned over and whispered urgently in Bill's ear.

Bill nodded acknowledgment, and hiding his irritation, he pulled out the empty chair across from his new friend. "Thank you, but I shall indeed join her; you may remove my name from the waiting list."

"As you wish, Mr. Billingston." He did not look pleased, but he did retire to the counter and return momentarily with a menu for Bill.

As soon as the waiter had retreated, Bill smiled across the table at the woman, who had set her book aside. She made a halfhearted effort at returning the smile, then raised both hands to her face and stifled a sniffle. "I'm sorry, Mr. Billingston," she said. "Now that you know what I am, if you would rather not join me, I'll understand."

"I know what you are, all right," Bill said gently. "A lovely young woman who made one mistake that is none of my business, and I should never judge you for that. Particularly not at Christmastime. No one deserves to be alone at this time of year, especially in a lonely place like this." He gestured out the window at the darkening sky and the fields that finally were showing signs of snow. Bill estimated that they were in Iowa by now. "Thank you for your invitation. I welcome your company in any event, and especially now. I did not look forward to waiting two hours for a table!"

"Please do not patronize me, sir!" the poor girl begged him. "Not after all I've been through! Whatever I may have done wrong, I am still a human being with feelings!" She held out her hands in the midst of her plea, and for an awful moment Bill saw scars on both wrists. Knowing he had seen them, she hastily pulled her arms back to her side of the table. "Leave me if you must, but please do not tell me you don't judge me unless you truly don't!"

"I truly don't," Bill said. "And my friends call me Bill. You may do so too, without fear of my judging you for anything."

Her face softened, and Bill sensed the first slender reeds of trust growing between them. "Bill," she repeated. "Bill Billingston? I'm sorry, but that is a queer name."

"Actually, it's Horace William Billingston the third," Bill told her. "So you can see why I prefer Bill!" He began to laugh, and seeing that he didn't mind, she did the same.

"Indeed I can," she said. "My name is Mary. Isn't that wonderfully ironic for this time of year!"

Bill chuckled. "No comment," he said. Guessing at her accent, he asked, "Brooklyn?"

"Originally, but my family is now in Washington Heights," she confirmed. "I take it you went to either Yale or Columbia?"

"Yale," he confirmed. "And you can tell because how else would an out-of-towner know what part of New York you're from?"

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