Grand Island

byYDB95©

"Precisely," Mary said. "And I have known my share of Yale boys, I can tell you."

"I'm sure you have," Bill said. "Let's see, Washington Heights, I know I've been to a couple of bars there with a friend of mine. Nick O'Connor, his name was, from 181st Street if I recall correctly, and we used to go to a wonderful place on the corner of --"

"Stop!" Mary had one hand to her face and was sniffling. "Beg your pardon, Bill, but I hate to think of home now that I'll never be going back there."

"Heavens, I'm sorry, Mary."

"Thank you." But the damage was done, and Mary began pouring her heart out. "This will be my first Christmas away from home, and I have always loved Christmas in the city so very much. If there was one time of year I wouldn't be anywhere else on earth, that was it! Ice skating in Central Park, all the lovely trees in the stores, and all the girls at school so cheerful for that one time a year at least. The gingerbread cookies at the bakery..." Mary's voice trailed away and she sobbed for a moment while Bill looked on silently. He held out his hands for her to take, but she didn't. "I've known for nearly a year now that my life as I knew it is over for good, but I had hoped so very much for one last Christmas. I mean, what's two more weeks? But the nasty looks and the horrible comments from people who used to be my friends...it was all too much. Besides, my parents found a husband for me, and he wants me to arrive before Christmas. Grand Island, Nebraska. I guess I'll arrive just in time."

"Good heavens, a mail-order bride?" Bill asked. "I didn't know they did that anymore."

"People can be remarkably loyal to a tried and true way to get rid of a sullied daughter," Mary said. "Since I had my baby in September -- and yes, that means it was around Christmastime last year that I got myself in trouble -- I have learned my family was sending photographs and biographies of me to newspapers all over the West, and combing through the responses for the one they liked the best. They never asked me, of course, but then what was I but a slut anyhow?! I'm told he's a lovely young man, wealthy and responsible and attractive."

"You're told? You mean they haven't even shown you a picture of the man?"

"Oh, they gave me one." Mary held her book open over the table and an envelope slid out and plopped down just beside her soup bowl. "But I haven't opened it yet. As long as I don't know what the man looks like, there's still that sliver of a chance that it all won't happen in the end, and I can make believe I've got some other destiny than marrying a sugar farmer."

The waiter arrived at that moment with two mugs of hot apple cider, Bill having ordered one for Mary over her objections, and then asked to take their dinner orders. "I'll have the roast beef, quite rare please, and Mary? What do you want for dinner?"

"I've had my soup, thanks," she said, lifting the spoon halfheartedly out of the now cold broth.

"Nonsense, a healthy young woman doesn't live on soup alone. What else would you like?"

"It is all I can afford if my money is to last me to Nebraska."

"This dinner is on me, and I won't take no for an answer," Bill declared. "Now what would you like to eat besides the soup?"

Bill eventually prevailed upon Mary to order some chicken and potatoes; he did not need to look at the prices to know she had simply opted for the most inexpensive item on the menu.

Their conversation returned to matters more serious once they were on their own again, and Bill was bursting with curiosity about pregnancy and childbirth and what it might be like to experience it all firsthand. But he knew better than to ask Mary anything so private, and he sensed that any reminder of the baby she had given up would be devastating. So that topic was easily avoided until Mary thought to ask just where Bill was going in the middle of winter.

"San Francisco," Bill said wryly. "I've heard it's a wonderful town, but my reasons for going there are the worst imaginable ones."

"Aren't they only just beginning to rebuild?" Mary asked. "I read all about the earthquake last spring -- I was starting to show then and my mother wouldn't even let me out of our apartment, so I read the paper front to back. So much devastation!"

"Exactly," Bill said. "My father specializes in getting rich on other people's rotten luck like that. We're going out there to buy destroyed houses and rebuild and sell at a huge profit. I want nothing to do with it, I'll tell you that, but I come from the kind of family where you do what your parents tell you to do."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Mary said. "The way you say that, I take it there is something else you want to do?"

"Probably the last thing you want to hear," Bill confessed. "I want to be a doctor. Specifically a female doctor, helping women give birth and whatnot. I'm sorry if that makes you uncomfortable."

"Now, why would it?" Mary asked. "I've read about some gynecologists and how they try to help women avoid getting in trouble in the first place if they don't want a baby. It's a shame I didn't meet you a year ago, if it comes to that!"

"Indeed, stories like yours are just the type I'd like to put an end to," Bill said, his mind summoning a mercifully short round of images from the clinic and the horrors he'd witnessed back in New Haven as a result of women taking matters into their own hands. "But my mother wouldn't even hear of it."

"Your mother?" Mary asked. "Bill, you're a grown man in a man's world, and apparently a rather rich one as well. You of all people ought to be able to make your own decisions in this world!"

"You would think," Bill said. "But in my case at least, you'd be wrong. Maybe someday, but for now I am in no position to go against my mother."

"I should think in this part of the country, you could do anything you please if you set your mind to it," Mary argued. Bill smiled in quiet thought, and was still pondering her comment when the waiter arrived with their dinner.

They ate in comfortable silence as the gray faded to black outside, and Bill found he welcomed the added intimacy that implied. Once they were finished, he ordered a glass of wine for dessert and tried, but failed, to persuade Mary to join him. "How do you think I got in trouble in the first place?" she grumbled when he tried to persuade her. And Bill apologized profusely and did not raise the topic again.

Slowly and with a bit of effort, the conversation turned back to matters more comfortable. As the car was filling with young families and Mary looked wistfully at the children romping about, Bill offered up a hopeful observation. "Now that you're getting married, you'll be free to have as many of your own as you like."

Mary managed a smile. "Thank you, Bill. I suppose it is best that I try harder to look for the rainbow now that my fate is sealed."

"That's a lesson I could learn as well, I have to confess," Bill agreed. "Who knows what opportunities might come my way in San Francisco?"

"More than in Nebraska, I imagine," Mary said.

Bill was still trying to think of a suitable response when he felt a tap on his side. He turned to see a cat's-eye marble bouncing to the floor. He leaned over and picked it up, just in time to see its owner coming after it: one of the adorable kids he had seen back in Chicago. "Well hello there!" he said as the boy stood sheepishly before him.

"I'm sorry, Mister," the boy said. "We're only trying to play marbles over here, but they're bouncing everywhere because the train won't sit still!"

"I understand all too well," Bill reassured him. Handing back the marble, he went on, "You know, I used to take the train every Christmas and New Year, and there are a couple of tricks my friends and I learned. Shall I show you one?"

The boy nodded, still looking embarrassed.

"Very well, then," Bill said. "Mary, have you got a shawl or a scarf somewhere there in your luggage?"

"I certainly do," Mary said, and presently she produced a fluffy woolen wrap. Bill folded it into thick quarters, and then unfolded his handkerchief and lay it atop the wrap. Then he set the marble in the center.

"Now you see," Bill explained, "The marble won't roll quite as it's supposed to, but it also won't fly away every time the train tips or turns. Got a shooter?" The little boy handed him one, and Bill demonstrated how the marble rolled, muffled but secure, across the handkerchief.

"Ever neat!" declared the boy. "Can you show my --"

"Billy!"

Both Bill and his young friend looked up at the stern female voice -- the boy's mother, Bill quickly deduced. "I am sorry, sir," she said to Bill. "My son knows better than to harass strangers during their dinner."

"Oh, he was no trouble at all, madam," Bill said. "My friend Mary here and I were merely teaching him an old trick for playing marbles on the train." Remembering what she had seen back in Chicago, he added, "I suppose it is I who ought to apologize to you for my mother's appalling behavior back at the train station. I found nothing but joy in watching your children enjoy themselves, I assure you."

"I thought you looked familiar," the mother said with a relieved smile. "And thank you for the apology. I hope you do not have to go terribly far with your mother in that condition?"

"I'm afraid I do," Bill confessed. "All the way to San Francisco."

"Ah, you too?" came a voice behind her, and Billy's father appeared over his wife's shoulder. "We're off on our first holiday visit to Marlene's mother here. The children can't wait and, frankly, neither can I! My name's Ben, by the way. Ben Brockway."

Bill shook hands with Ben and Marlene in turn, and also introduced Mary to them. She somewhat reluctantly shook hands with them as well, though visibly concerned that her reputation had once again preceded her. She relaxed somewhat as it became clear that it had not, for once. "Please, do not feel the need to apologize for your son," Bill reassured them both. "It's been far too long since I've played with marbles. How about you, Mary?"

"Oh absolutely," Mary said. "But I ought to warn you, I used to whip my brothers at it regularly!"

"Their mother can't be beaten either," Ben said. "His name is Bill as well, as you guessed, but we usually call him Billy." Patting the toddler asleep in Marlene's arms, he added, "This is his brother, Henry. And our daughter Calandra is about somewhere as well..." he looked around to find her hiding behind her, shy as a violet.

"Hello, Calandra," Mary said. "Would you like to play marbles as well? Oh, I am sorry, unless we are holding up your dinner?"

"Not at all; we are waiting for a table," Marlene said. "Candy, do you want to play marbles?"

"Yes please," the girl whispered, her shyness belying a certain delight at being asked. In no time she was seated happily on Mary's lap, and Mary helped guide her little hand as she aimed for the marble.

As the children played, helped along by Bill and Mary, a few minutes' worth of particulars were exchanged among the adults. Bill was delighted to learn that Marlene was a nurse, and immediately but circumspectly he set about probing for information about opportunities back home. Ben was an architect, drawn to San Francisco for the same reasons why Bill was being dragged there, but he and Marlene gave every indication of being happy with the trip and especially with the chance to visit Grandma for Christmas.

"Have you got any of your own?" Marlene asked when the talk of work had reached a lull.

Bill looked at Mary, who was smiling down at Candy with the first sign of real joy all afternoon and did not return his glance, and then up at Marlene. He was still groping for a diplomatic explanation when the waiter appeared behind Ben. Bill forgot about trying to explain the situation as he watched the waiter whisper urgently in Ben's ear. He felt a calling to jump up and take charge of the situation, but Billy was snuggled up comfortably beside him, so he was left to grasp at straws from his seat. "Ben, let me explain," he began.

"No need," Ben told him, and then he leaned in and whispered in Marlene's ear.

Marlene shot a distasteful look at the waiter, and then her smile quickly returned. "Bill, Mary," she said. "How would you both like to join us for dinner? Or at least dessert if you've already eaten?"

Bill heaved a sigh of relief, and looked at Mary, who was gaping at him in disbelief.

"I would love to," Mary said slowly, as if disbelieving her ears.

"As would I," Bill said.

"Lovely," Marlene declared. "I do believe our table is ready?"

The waiter looked furious beneath his professional smile, but he nodded and pointed them to a long table halfway down the car.

Marlene and Billy led the way, Mary followed with Candy in her arms after asking if she might hold the little girl a while longer, and the men brought up the rear. "See here, Ben, I really am sorry --" Bill began.

"Don't be," Ben cut him off. "Bill, how old does Billy look to you?"

"Perhaps six?" Bill guessed.

"Exactly right. Six in October, and Marlene and I celebrate our seventh anniversary in March. Neither of us will ever again condemn a young woman for making the mistake Mary did."

"Heavens, thank you!" Bill said. "I'm sure Mary feels the same, even if she is in no position to say so out loud."

"I rather suspect she and Marlene are having the same conversation as you and I at the moment," Ben reassured him. And from the look on Mary's face when they arrived at the table, Bill suspected Ben was right.

Billy and Candy resumed their game of marbles with occasional assistance from Mary and Bill, and the adult conversation continued as best it could alongside the game. Bill was seated against the wall of the car, and as the meal progressed he observed a change in their neighbors' attitudes. Their arrival at the table had been greeted with the inevitable knowing dirty looks at Mary, and her occasional affection towards Candy had even brought about a scandalous gasp or two. But as Bill -- who knew his name and the prestige connected to it had made the rounds of the car -- and the respectable family in their presence had embarked upon a comfortable conversation, the pervasive disgust slowly but surely gave way to a begrudging acceptance. Ever so slowly but surely, Bill even began to notice the occasional endearing look at the happy party as the game of marbles slowly petered out.

Not long after the dishes were cleared, Candy fell asleep nestled adorably in Mary's arms, while Billy curled up on the bench and was also soon lost in dreams. Meanwhile the adult conversation took over. Bill and Ben compared notes on rumors that had wafted east from California since the disaster, Marlene fielded Bill's questions about hospitals and clinics in the area as best she could, and everyone scrupulously avoided the subject of Mary's destination. Bill could have remained there all night for all he cared, and only the most fleeting thoughts of his parents came and went. Ben and Marlene were polite enough not to inquire about them -- or maybe, Bill reasoned, they had seen enough back at the station to have no need to ask.

No one took any notice of the time until the train ground to a halt in Des Moines, followed by a proclamation from the conductor that they would have half an hour to stretch their legs and get some fresh air if they liked. "Heavens, that sounds just the thing!" Marlene exclaimed. "Mary, would you like to join me?"

"I'd love to," Mary said; the cigar smoke was rather thick by then. Bill privately thought a walk in the bracing winter air would be a nice antidote as well; but he sensed that the ladies would rather be on their own for the moment.

As soon as Ben and Bill were on their own with the sleeping children, Ben asked the question Bill knew he and Marlene had been dying to ask forever by then. "Where is she being sent off to?"

"Grand Island, Nebraska," Bill said. "There's a farmer waiting for her there, apparently."

"Well, that's a good solid profession, isn't it?" Ben asked. "I'll tell you what, Bill, I know that girl is going through a living hell just now, but I've got to say, starting life all over again has a certain appeal -- for Marlene and me both, if the truth be told."

"But Ben, you've got these three beautiful children..." Bill said in disbelief.

"That we do," Ben said grimly. "And we've got to feed them all, haven't we? There's a little something Marlene hasn't told you, my friend: I'm out of work. Hasn't been any work for me back in Chicago in months. My mother in law says there's probably a lot of work to be had for a guy like me out in San Francisco, and I'm sure she's right...but I've got nothing lined up. Haven't even got any money for the kids' presents, Bill. I'm only hoping Marlene's mother will be able to scrape something up. Heaven knows how, since I'm told she lost everything in the earthquake, but that's our only hope just now."

"Oh my," Bill said. "So all you said about Santa Claus finding your mother in law's house..."

"I sure hope he does find it," Ben said. "If not, well, my children have to learn someday that life isn't all sweetness and light, now haven't they?"

"Well, that just isn't right," Bill said, more to himself than to Ben, although Ben agreed heartily.

There was no food or drink service while the train was stopped. But Bill, an experienced veteran of long rail trips, had come prepared with a flask of scotch in his coat pocket. He had rather expected to need the fortification to cope with his mother's company. But that difficulty now seemed positively desirable compared to Ben's predicament, and on drawing it out of his pocket he found the offering gratefully accepted without a word. "Thank you, Bill," Ben said after swallowing the harsh liquid. "I needed that something terrible."

An idea began to hatch in Bill's mind. "You know, Ben, I have a couple of friends who went out to California last summer," he said. "They might have some work for you."

"Hasn't everyone got a friend in San Francisco?" Ben grumbled. The whiskey talking, Bill tried to rationalize. But he had only a moment to do so before Ben apologized. "I appreciate it, Bill, I'm sorry. It's only that Marlene and I both have heard so much of that since we decided we had to make this trip. I'm getting to the point where I don't want anyone to get my hopes up, to tell you the truth. It always ends the same way, with no way to make sure our children even get to eat on a regular basis, never mind Christmas presents."

The words, "I understand," formed on Bill's lips, but he stopped himself and took a swig of his own. No sense in trying to convince anyone else that he knew anything about being poor, after all.

There was time for two more rounds of drinks for each of them before the ladies returned, minutes before the jerk of the train starting up. Little Candy awoke with a start, and Marlene declared it was time to carry the children back to their car for the night. "And Mary, we shall try that dress on you in the morning," she said.

"Thank you, Marlene," Mary said.

After a round of hugs and handshakes and kisses for the children, the Brockways took their leave. Bill held out his arm for Mary to take. "May I walk you back to your car?" he asked.

"That really isn't necessary," she told him, but she offered no further resistance and did take his arm.

"Believe me, I am in no hurry to return to my parents' carriage," Bill said. As they stepped across the first vestibule, he went on. "Is Marlene giving you a dress, is that what she said?"

"She is," Mary confirmed. "While we were eyeing the sweets at the newsstand, she asked me if I had a dress for my wedding, and I said I would be wearing this one. She said that wouldn't do, and she had a lovely one she wouldn't be needing in California. Isn't that wonderful of her!"

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