THE QUIET CAR

“Ma’am? You may have to leave.”

The deep Godlike voice from the train’s loudspeaker, only live. Anne stiffens in her seat in the Quiet Car.

“Me?” She gazes up at the conductor in his policeman-blue uniform. His shaven jowls quiver with the train’s ratchety motion.

“We got a report of a, a disruption here,” he informs her in his announcer voice. God with a chowder-thick Boston accent. “You’re aware, Ma’am, of the Quiet Car rules?—”

She started it, Anne wants to blurt out childishly. But the girl has vanished; the one who’d begun the (what was Anne’s mother’s old-fashioned word?) altercation.

“Ma’am?” The conductor takes half a step back, expertly steady on his feet. Meeting Anne’s stunned gaze with his sorrowful blue-green Irish Sea eyes.

She releases her grip on her fold-down tray, feeling that, as her mother would say, her jig is up.

He reaches out as if to help her up. Instead he grips her empty plastic tray. With a single brutal motion, he forces it into its upright position. Locks it.

The seatback in front of her shudders: the now-emptied seat of that glossy shopaholic Mother, who had vamoosed (another of Anne’s mother’s old words) to the Cafe Car. Who had actually reported Anne?

Shakily, Anne makes herself rise. The train lurches, but Anne edges out of her seat. Because if she does not move, this man might make her.

 

Only an hour—or a third of the ride—before, Anne began her trip as she had begun many. She stepped onto the Quiet Car quietly as ever, an extra-stilled waiting silence in her mind. Though she walked as briskly as ever. Relieved to have made it before the train rolled forward into her favorite haven.

Anne Marie Malloy always felt happy—or as close as she came, since hitting fifty—on the Quiet Car. But she wondered as she made her wobbly way down its aisle if maybe she should change her plan. Her non-plan, for not checking her messages. Her old-fashioned purse-shaped purse bounced on her hip. She passed mini screen after mini screen, most headphoned passengers already plugged in. Staring at celebrities Anne was secretly proud not to recognize. Anne followed all Quiet Car rules religiously. Her cell phone was already on Mute.

So if the call she was awaiting today came, the ring would occur unheard. Her day’s voicemail remained unopened. The cell itself was tucked away in her purse, neatly closed up. Waiting too. Anne intended to keep it that way, for the three-hour ride. For her test result report, whatever it might be.

Anne halted, mid-aisle. “Let me,” she murmured like an automatic prayer. And she helped a stoic older lady with her old-fashioned suitcase. The thin-lipped lady offered a shy Quiet Car smile of thanks. Then Anne stepped forward toward her reward. One blessed doubly vacant seat. Her heart gave a familiar little leap. She reached the mid-car seat with held breath. As she edged in, she exhaled.

A window seat, all to herself. Heaven. Maybe, Anne thought, it was here, safely ensconced on the Quiet Car, that she should slip out her cell and make herself listen. To the message likely left already in the final afternoon hours when she’d been teaching her semester’s final Intro to Lit class. Possibly her Farewell to Intro to Lit. Or maybe the message was left while Anne was rushing to catch her train, then racing the last underground lap to outpace fellow plodding mid-afternoon commuters and gain (Second cah to the rea-ah, the conductor called after her) the Quiet Car.

Luckily, Anne was never pulled aside for a “Random Security Check.”’ Fifty years old, five foot two, her graying reddish hair bluntly cut, her fiercely blue eyes lowered so not to alarm, Anne always sailed past Security.

Though she felt now—it hit Anne with fresh force, as she set her purse on the vacant seat beside her—caught. Yes, she felt sure her shut-off phone did hold, by now, a message from Dr. Gordon. The message due by today, Friday. Anne’s gentle soon-to-retire gynecologist—plus the nurse who’d held her hand through the in-office “procedure,” urging Anne to let out her moans—had assured Anne the results of the “scraping” would come within the week. By today.

Here in the Quiet Car, maybe more than inside the emptier quiet of her Friday-night apartment, she could surely bear to listen. To the good doctor’s voice, which—if the worst was true—would probably not give the diagnosis via phone but instead instruct her to come to the office in person, post haste.

Right? Wouldn’t that quaint tradition of telling the worst face-to-face still be followed? It had been for Mother the week Anne had accompanied her first to her CTSCAN and days later to her longtime physician. I’m afraid, Mrs. Malloy, your CTSCAN did reveal, as we had feared, what we call a “nodule” on your left lung…

Luckily, if there was any “luckily,” Mother’s diagnosis came down in the days before Google. So Mother never visited the circles of Virtual Hell that these days precede an actual diagnosis. Late-night Googling: Anne’s timid fingers tapping in OVARIAN CANCER, pressing SEARCH only to find herself unable even to open the link whose first chopped-off line was revealed to be: What makes ovarian cancer so particularly deadly…

But open it she did, next night. Among the all-capped…RISK FACTORS for OVARIAN CANCER were NEVER HAVING GIVEN BIRTH. And—listed as a whole separate risk factor, just to rub it in, NEVER HAVING NURSED A BABY.

The train jerked and rattled into life. At first it seemed the darkness was moving, but no, it was the train itself. Trundling through the dank, permanently dirty Penn Station tunnel. Anne shut her eyes for this part, to avoid glimpsing on the rails the skittering rats. The seat beside her remained empty. May it stay that way, please. That’s all she dared to ask God or whatever she sometimes talked to. Whoever it was she thanked, now, for this empty seat. On the right hand side of the train (left side, leaving Boston).

That way, she could see the ocean, come Connecticut.

 

“God,” Anne finds herself saying, facing the conductor in the windy, zigzagging, accordion-floored chaos of the between-car passageway. The non-quiet non-car. With his sad canny gaze fixed on her, he does look in the shaky sunlight like a God her fearfully Catholic mother might somehow have concocted.

“Sir. I—you see, the, the altercation in the Quiet Car—Yes, it happened but I didn’t start it; I wasn’t the one shout-ing—” Though Anne practically is shouting now, amidst amplified Amtrak clatter and a damp rush of wind. The conductor shakes his head (again Anne hears her mother’s voice), more in sorrow than in anger.

Jane Eyre? No: Hamlet? Anne blinks back fresh tears, tries to focus on the conductor’s ruddy face. Is he really berating her, Professor Anne Marie Malloy?

“—should know from my announcement earlier that there is no shouting, by anyone, at any time in the Quiet Car. Now, there is no call to get upset. I am not puttin’ you off the train, dear—”

Dear; like she is already her mother’s age. Anne presses her lips tight and swallows. Mother dying at 70 and now Anne may not even reach 51. Ratchet ratchet ratchet; the miles clipping by. 48, 49, 50. The conductor’s deep loudspeaker-worthy voice continues, his delivery as deadpan as his jowly face. Jiggling flesh lit by jittery sun. “—So maybe they were shouting too, that lady who reported all this and her daughter? That’s what you’re sayin’, Miss? OK, but they de-trained—at Greenwich. Ya see.”

Does he wink? Greenwich; rich bitch. That’s what the conductor’s comradely gaze tells Anne. So he’ll let her go back? But his voice plods on, his “are” an “ah.” “… And ya see, Miss, there are plenty of seats in Coach—”

No,” Anne leans closer to this conductor though his gaze goes stony gray again. “No, please. Don’t send me to Coach. I just got some upsetting news—I was just hearing the message, the first part of it, when that girl—”

“Bob—” a young-conductor voice calls from the Coach Car behind the older conductor. “BOB, need ya in Cafe Car; got a Code Two dispute; need ya NOW—”

“COMIN’—” Bob bellows over his big blue shoulder. Then he turns back to Anne. His “don’t mess with me” wanna-be-Cop stare. Rowdy laughter behind him in Coach. “I’ll find ya a nice new seat, dear—”

“But I—can I at least go back and get my purse?”

“Yo, BOB—” the younger voice calls, closer. Conductor Bob gives one curt nod. Then he is pivoting neatly again on the heel of his shined shoes (he must get them done at Penn Station). He is shouldering past the stinky open-doored bathroom into the louder car marked COACH.

Anne pivots too. Emboldened, she faces the closed labeled QUIET CAR door. Deep breath, count to five, exhale. Mother’s old formula to calm her high-strung girl in the years after Anne’s aging Dad died in his sleep. Young Anne prone to fits of anxiety, late-night reading binges, fear of sleep itself. Anne Marie hiding out for hours in the library at Waltham High, then walking to the redbrick Public Library. Opening books and (as Anne’s one serious semester-long love put it so well) “falling through the page.”

Into—what? Other worlds, other lives.

Anne blinks back yet more tears. Mustn’t cry or draw attention. Must walk into the Quiet Car and listen to the complete message. Those last words that the shouting ‘Samantha’ had cut short. What more did Dr. Gordon’s aide have to say besides telling Anne she must meet with the doctor tomorrow? Not ‘at your convenience’ or ‘next week’ but tomorrow, Saturday. Had the missing words told Anne to bring a ‘significant other’ with her? Not that she has any to bring. Unless you count her colleague Cara, the women’s studies professor whom Anne had somewhat awkwardly accompanied to Cara’s colonoscopy. Anne draws in another deep breath. Yes, chubby overly chummy Cara. Cara owes her. But would she even want Cara with her to hear her own worst? Wouldn’t Anne rather be, always rather be, alone?

In the Quiet Car, even if someone sat beside you, you were alone. Alone with your own thoughts, in the quiet of your own mind. Anne’s favorite place, Heaven help her.

Anne takes a last lurching step on the unsteady floor. Determined to slip back into the Quiet Car, invisible as a Ghost Girl. She cracks a half smile. GHOST GIRL had been the title of her well-received essay collection. Published back when collections were ‘received’ at all. GHOST GIRL: CATHY/CATHERINE IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS AND OTHER ROMANTIC REINCARNATIONS.

Back then busy young Assistant Professor Anne Marie Malloy would sometimes pause in her jam-packed days of teaching and reading to think how lucky she was. To have found a niche in this noisy world where she could be her quiet self. Independent, intelligent, intense. Or intense on the inside. While luck of the bigger variety deserted Anne in her later years. With her tenure bid denied and her mother so painfully dying, small scale states of grace remained.

Or anyway, no one stops Anne as she punches her small bony-knuckled fist onto the square button of the door. She steps into the Quiet Car as if she owns it.

I get so much reading done on the train, she’d told the NYU colleague, not quite a friend, who’d gotten her this latest fill-in job. I get so much work done. But she didn’t, really. Unless you counted staring intently out the window work. Anne half-smiles again as she edges back into her seat. Yes, hers. She settles in as if at the start of today’s ride. Before the non-ghost girl and her mother disrupted everything.

Absently, Anne reaches beside her on the seat. Pats that seat. Then looks beside her, stunned, at the empty second seat. Blinks her eyes hard though no tears are left. Her purse—God, it’s gone.

 

God as Omniscient Narrator, Anne the eternal English Major imagined when she imagined anything of the sort. An all-seeing Narrator who somehow still watched Anne and judged her even though no one left alive now did. Her own life hardly the stuff of stories. Surely this Narrator did not really exist, outside her mind.

But at least she did have her mind. Plus a window seat to herself. At least for another three hours, Anne had told herself at 2:10 p.m. as the Northeast Regional train rattled its way out of the Penn Station tunnel into May afternoon sunlight. Something no one could take away, today.

Or so Anne believed as she faced her window hungrily. The train whizzing past, first, New York City’s extravagant railside trash. Look! An entire exploded mattress and its violent rusty-springed history retreated along the tracks. Yes; she’d wait till they cleared the cityscape in all its graffiti-decked grandeur.

OBAMA IS A SUIT. OBAMA IS A SELLOUT. Then in a seemingly different angry red scrawl, on the same soot-charred concrete wall, the hopefully unrelated sentiment, ‘DEATH TO-—’ followed by an unintelligible word. Or name. Gone in a garish flash.

Writ as if in giant grainy lipstick. The waxy overbright kind Anne’s mother wore even in her coffin. Making her face look—in death just as in life—worse, not better.

Death won’t be so bad, Anne tried telling herself as the last of Manhattan barreled by. A thought that had first started sneaking into her head ten years ago. After the year of her last lover. In Mother’s version of Heaven, another better life did exist. If not, Anne dared to think now, at least Death would share the biggest benefit Anne savored in this, her favorite earthly perch. No one can interrupt you.

But of course there is no “you.” You yourself have been interrupted.

            SHOSHANNA I XX U!!!!

            THE DEVIL WEARS SUNBLOCK

            OBAMA = BUSH

Anne leaned closer to her window. Starting her spring semester’s final New York to Boston run. The train was ratcheting rapidly past the flat yet antic rooftops—the crammed-in gardens and above-ground pools—of Queens. Then the stark brown-brick projects, so many anonymous windows uncurtained. Some flashing colors, mini-flags of defiant brightness.

“If you can hear my voice,” the deep-voiced Boston-accented conductor announced over the crackly intercom, “you ah on the Am-trak Qui-et Car.”

He let those words, their significance, sink in. Anne nodded like a parishioner in a pew.

“In the Quiet Car, a li-brar-y like atmosphere is maintained. Turn off all cell phones and all sound-emitting devices. Keep con-ver-sation to a minimum on the Quiet Car…”

Anne gave another reverent nod. Heaven could not be much better than this. Anne patted her purse on the seat beside her, like a mini watchdog. So later down the line, strangers filing on would be less likely to ask the dread question, Is this seat taken?

“—If you have boarded the Quiet Car in er-ror, please move forward and there are plenty of seats in the Coach Class cars of this train…”

Thank you Amtrak Gods, Anne thought as the announcement ended there. No additional warning this afternoon of a ‘full train,’ no specific request that passengers keep the seats beside them clear. This could be Anne’s last ride, for a long while. But it would be—Anne vowed to herself—perfect.

And it was, at first. The city retreating, the leafy suburban trees emerging in spring afternoon sun. Anne watching, her tired mind a sun-dappled haze, till the train trundled into New Rochelle. A tidy commuter station; Anne stiffened as if at a battlefield. A fresh crop of passengers straggled aboard and haltingly advanced down the aisle. Anne made her curved back rigid as a turtle’s shell.

She focused on the train window reflection when shadowy threatening figures behind her hesitated, then inched forward. Anne exhaled in tentative relief. She pictured Mother clutching her metal-clasped purse, clenching shut her Irish mouth. And Anne loosened her own tightened lips, her creeping Mother Mouth.

Though she missed and mourned her mother—and felt every day the lack of someone watching over her, even disapprovingly—Anne found it a relief not to have to deal with their phone calls. Not to have to actually talk to Mother, reporting on what Anne herself wryly deemed the ‘pale excitements’ of her academic life. Fielding the sighs and tight-lipped silences as Mother the Martyr would ‘not even ask’ (she’d point out if Anne indelicately brought it up) about the lack of a man in Anne’s life.

The affairs Anne had had—such as they were; her spring semester of love with a Visiting Professor of Comp Lit; her various wine-fueled flings at MLA conferences—she rarely reported to Mother. Most of her romantic life few people knew about. Years later, it felt almost like it had happened only in her own head. Which was exactly where Anne wanted it, right?

Exactly my point, Anne had once said with undue satisfaction to her then-lover, the Visiting Professor, who liked being right almost as much as she did.

And that ‘exactly,’ he’d opined, gimlet-eyed, dissecting her the way he dissected various unfortunate characters in world literature, is exactly why you are so unlikable.

How that still stung, all these years later, that ‘unlikable.’ Not even ‘unlovable.’ It had not even gone that far, with him. That was their last full conversation, his final jibe. The week that spring semester, 2003, ended. Only weeks after her tenure bid had been officially denied. The two rejections unrelated, though they had felt connected at the time, in the sweltering summer quiet of her apartment. A one-two punch that had weakened her. That summer, Anne had first felt the sinful sneaky lure of leaving life. This life, anyway.

The train lumbered on forward at its Northeast Regional slow-fast speed. Anne began to relax, when two late-coming strangers, burdened with crackly overstuffed shopping bags, appeared. Intruding in Anne’s window reflection. Worse: audibly talking. Worse still, one of them was a child. Or a teen. Halting beside the just-emptied seat in front of Anne’s own.

Please don’t sit there, Anne silently begged. The younger stranger nodded up at the discreet Quiet Car ceiling sign. “‘Quiet’ car, Mom, like: Really? Real-ly??”

This delivered in a parody of a whisper. The second ‘really’ drawn out, sitcom style. Anne stiffened her spine again; not like a turtle’s this time but like a cat’s, its territory threatened.

“Shush, Samantha.”

The mother sounded pleased to have an excuse to tell Samantha to shush. ‘Samantha’; how Anne had tired over the years, teaching each generation of trendy names.

“Sit,” the mother commanded as if to an unruly poodle, her massive bag crackling louder. Bowing her head of blonde-highlighted hair so her chin doubled, Mommy Dearest started edging into the seat in front of Anne.

“At least lemme have the WIN-dow,” Samantha whined in her stage whisper.

Clumsily, like two people not used to moving in close quarters, the mother and daughter shifted places. Buxom Samantha plunked down into the window seat. Through the sunny reflection, Anne saw Samantha fumble with wires, eager to plug herself into her iPhone or (as Anne’s most annoying students said) whatever.

Exhaling at last, Anne unclenched her jaw. Relaxed her creeping Mother-mouth. Silly to worry that a teenage stranger would—of all lost arts—talk on a train. Especially not to the Mom she clearly hated; the Mom who’d already jolted her seat into the furthest-back, rudest sleeping position.

As the train clattered forward, deeper into the greener pricier Bedroom Communities (Mother would say, as if it were still the 1950s), Anne decided it was time to hear her damned voicemail. Now, because the ride was disrupted anyway. Its perfection marred. If only, Anne wished, it could start all over.

New ride, new life. Was that so much to ask? The faint tinny beat of the whatever-girl’s music, too loud on her earbuds, had entered Anne’s sensitive ears. Its insistent drumtrack buzzing in her brain like a bug. What in Heaven’s name was Anne waiting for? That sharp annoying buzz in her brain; that dull annoying pain in her heart. The same old pain she’d felt in varying degrees for years whenever she glimpsed mother-daughter duos. Laughing or quarreling like she and her mother would never do; like she and the Ghost Girls who could’ve been her daughters never got to do.

In another life, Anne thought automatically to comfort herself as she slipped her hand in her purse. She flipped her phone open, shaky fingered. The cell lit up. DR GORDON; the top name on VOICEMAIL glowed green. 1:35PM. No more foolish hesitation. With a jab like a spasm, Anne’s littlest finger pressed PLAY.

A young-woman’s voice; not Dr. G. herself. Anne pressed her cellphone hard against her ear so it would not ‘emit’ sound. She listened intently to the words she’d dreaded so much she felt she’d already heard them.

—a message for, for Anne Malloy from Dr. Gordon’s office. Ms. Malloy, Dr. Gordon requests that you meet with her tomorrow so she can—explain the results of your initial uterine lining tests—I repeat; Dr. Gordon does need you to come in, in person, tomorrow—you can call the office at eight and—

A pause in the message, a silent roar in Anne’s head. She’d known it, really, as soon as she’d seen in the Faculty Restroom’s glaring light the first flash of red, of post-menopausal bleeding. Requiring the in-office ‘test.’ Anne could barely hear the next words as the untroubled young voice on the phone went on.

—and when you come to the meeting, Ms. Malloy, Dr. Gordon wants you to, to—

Samantha’s live full-throated voice interrupted.

“NO—Mo-om, come ON! I need YOUR phone cause MINE ran out of BAT-teries. You pick this car where all the LOSERS sit—”

Jerkily, Anne yanked her cell from her ear, the message still talking in its tiny unhearable voice.

“—DRAG me along and won’t even LET ME CHECK MY EMAILS, it’s like, like—”

“Shut up, Samantha,” the mother cut in. A stagey hoarse whisper. Anne stuffed her phone into her purse. She zipped the purse in fury, her face going hot with years’ worth of rage.

“Ya know what, MOM?” Samantha fired back. “YOU shut up!”

Anne stood shakily on the shaky floor so her head poked above the seat-top. Anne was so short she did not have to stoop. The blonde pink-faced daughter stood too, twisting awkwardly to face her seated mother. Samantha’s earbuds still in, cord bouncing on her shoulder. Her voice the strident whine of every lazy loudmouthed student Anne had ever tried to teach.

“—I MEAN IT, MOM! I am so freaking SICK of you telling ME—”

“Shut up, Samantha,” Anne Marie Malloy cut in, quietly. It felt good to say it aloud—say it as if to every Samantha and Heather and Britney.

“Who the Hell are YOU?” Samantha demanded, her blue-lined blue eyes popping. Her mother twisted round to glare up at Anne, from under her hairsprayed bangs. Other heads turned in other seats.

“I am—we are—passengers on the QUIET CAR.” At her own Teacher Voiced pronouncement, Anne felt other riders craning to see her, appalled. She could feel the others thinking she was a part of this commotion, not the one trying to control it. But so what? She was dying and she damn well didn’t care.

“You hear me, young lady? This is the—” Anne pointed at the sign above the central aisle, jabbing her finger at its words. “QUI-et CAR! Can’t you—any of you—read?

With this final foolish question—of course the young people could read but they didn’t want to; no one wanted to read anymore—Anne collapsed back into her seat.

“Is she CRAZY?” a still-loud but abashed-sounding Samantha asked her mother.

“You don’t talk to my daughter that way,” the mother rallied to reply, rising in a bag-crackling hairspray-smelling flurry. “Come ON, Samantha. We don’t have to put up with this—

Finally silenced, Samantha followed her mother. Or Anne assumed Samantha followed; Anne did not dare look up for fear she’d see some concerned or annoyed or concerned-and-annoyed face staring back. Anne’s own face felt numb as if freshly slapped. Not that her mother had been the slapping kind. Or the shouting kind.

Tears Anne hadn’t realized were already there spilled down her cheeks. Dr. Gordon requests that you meet with her tomorrow. Meet tomorrow. A Saturday, to boot. Sometimes, Anne’s mother had said of church friends who died before her, they sock you into the hospital right away. Hadn’t one of mother’s oldest St. Mary’s pals gone dutifully to a face-to-face with her doctor then been shipped to the hospital that same day for a mastectomy? Then died, horribly, anyway?

“Greenwich, Greenwich. Next train stop is Greenwich, Conn-ecticut…” Boston-accented God on the loudspeaker announced with his low no-nonsense voice.

A blur of sprinkler-fed landscaper-trimmed greenery and McMansion-type homes was unrolling in the window, in the corner of Anne’s eye. But she kept her head bowed as she used to do in St. Mary’s church beside Mother. Please, Anne thought, but she felt no answer. She couldn’t even bring herself to reach into her purse, lift her phone, hear the damn words all over again, to the end. The train stopped, then started. Familiar train clatter filled her paralyzed mind. Until she heard it above her, a few minutes and miles past Greenwich.

The voice of the Amtrak Announcer, only live. Ma’am?

 

Where in Hell is he? God—no, Bob. Anne pats the seat beside her again, frantically; with both hands now, as if she is blind. Her purse-shaped purse must be there, after all. Hidden somehow in the fading sunlight flashing through the window. Where is Conductor-Cop Bob now that she needs him?

Anne bends over, squeezing her head low, breathing stale below-seat air, groping on the gritty rubber-matted floor. Under Samantha’s seat. Everything I have is in here, Mom in her quavering old-lady way used to say of her purse. As Anne straightens in her seat, her hair mussed, she feels she’s lost everything now too.

Not only her credit cards and library card and University ID and cellphone but the Health Card that her longtime yet untenured teaching gig in Boston provides, stingily. Will it be sufficient to cover cancer costs? The train is blasting past the bombed-out buildings that herald Anne’s least favorite stop.

“Bridgeport,” Conductor Bob’s voice intones over the loudspeaker, perhaps a note of warning in his words. “Next stop is Bridgeport; BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut.”

One stretch of so-called scenery Anne usually avoids studying. She squints down hopelessly at the empty darkened floor below the seat beside her. Too tired to bend and twist again. She turns instead to the window. She faces from afar those giant abandoned factory buildings, shells of buildings, on the outskirts of Bridgeport. Mammoth sinister structures that seem only to exist so women can be raped and murdered within.

God, Anne thinks or maybe prays as she slumps in purseless defeat. Facing the trash-strewn streets of Bridgeport; deserted, post-apocalyptic. Even the train clatter seems to grow louder and uglier passing Bridgeport. Anne feels the added vibration in her gut, her tensed empty stomach. God, will she wind up losing her cozy Back Bay apartment to health care costs? Wind up living out the rest of her cancer-ridden days in streets of a Hell on Earth like Bridgeport, C-T?

Eyes shut, wishing she can just fall asleep—just die and get it over with—Anne pictures herself breaking under such a fate. Like the Edith Wharton heroine of Anne’s favorite novel, The House of Mirth. Dying alone in her rented room. Abandoned the way Anne had felt all during the long hot hollow summer of 2003. Hurt less by the lover she’d known would never last than by the college she’d been convinced would be her home. Her prospects in work and love shrinking so drastically that summer, when she’d first begun—with an illicit Catholic girl thrill—to think that death wouldn’t be so bad. That maybe some other better life did await her.

“Excuse me?” Voice of an angel this time, not God. Polite, kind, shy.

Anne startles. She turns from her window, smoothing her mussed bangs. Gazing at a young woman with smooth black hair and clear black eyes and wire-framed glasses. Her light brown face calmly concerned. “Are you looking for this? It must’ve fallen—under the seat in front of me—Under the seat behind you, that is.” The young woman holds it out to Anne by its straps: Anne’s purse, miraculously zipped and intact. “There you go,” she adds like a gently coaxing mother.

“Thank you,” Anne chokes out. She snatches it back, her tightly packed purse. An audible catch in her throat as she tells the studious-looking girl—the type of student she always wanted, the type of daughter—“Oh thank you. Thank you so much. I can’t tell you…”

Perhaps taken aback by Anne’s near-tearful delivery, the young woman nods stiffly. Yet she keeps shyly smiling. Dressed in a modest rose-pink spring raincoat, the kind of coat Anne would pick out.

“It’s OK, it was nothing, really…” The girl slips back into her seat behind Anne. Hidden, but there. Just as Anne’s purse is here, once more.

“Bridgeport, train now approaching BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT.”

Protectively, Anne clutches her purse and watches the aisle, hoping that sweet-faced young woman behind her won’t be de-training here. Half wanting to shove her own wallet in the girl’s hands if she starts to get off at Bridgeport. Here, take everything I have. Find yourself a decent place to live.

A few passengers Not-Her file by, chatting cheerfully enough. The train heaves to a halt. The Bridgeport station, softened in late sunlight, looks like any other station along the line. Bustling at this rush hour, everyone but Anne eager to get home. Anne loosens her hold on her purse as the train pulls away again. The young lady is still there; Anne can feel her. Something to be thankful for.

And they are heading toward the most picturesque part of the journey. Coastal Connecticut; the ocean Anne loves to see any time she can. How has she lived in Boston all these years and so seldom visited actual nearby beaches? One of many regrets Anne feels gathering in her mind as she creeps with her purse down the Quiet Car aisle, visits the bathroom, returns to her seat. Drained, dazed. Who knows how many miles pass? The cloud-streaked sky is beginning to flush with a spring sunset. Dense darkly green trees rush by.

A pulse in Anne’s throat flutters. The Connecticut stops and then Providence, Rhode Island. After Providence: the Boston stops, the end of the line. No, Anne tells her spaced-out self. She can’t listen to the full Doctor Gordon message all alone in her apartment. At least here in the Quiet Car there are kindred souls around her. Heads bent over computer screens and magazines. Even a few brave books. No one noticing Anne at all now. The earlier disturbance forgotten if not forgiven.

The Irish never forgive and never forget, Mother used to say as if that were something to be proud of. Hasn’t Anne wasted way too much energy not forgiving? Envying her tenured colleagues the way the students she’d secretly scorned—and maybe that was why she’d been denied tenure—envied shiny celebrity lives. What had made Anne think, all these years, she is any better, really?

Anne unzips her purse, slips out her phone. She fixes on the deep green trees, their outer leaves glinting with sun. Leaves blowing excitedly in the ocean breeze Anne can see but not feel or smell. She pictures the sterile white CTSCAN tunnel her mother was fed into for her own diagnosis of lung cancer.

Mother laid out at the mouth of the tunnel, looking frail, wearing her ladylike street clothes because the CTSCAN radiation was so strong, the nurse had cheerily explained, it could zap through anything. Anne had been allowed to stand with Mother as they’d prepped her, taping an IV to her inner arm. The nurse explaining that the injected ‘dye’ would cause Mother to feel a rush of heat down her spine but that was ‘normal.’

Nothing for Mother was ever normal again after that day, that test. Anne pokes the teeny phone icon, VOICEMAIL. She re-presses Dr. Gordon’s number.

Hears first what she heard all too clearly before: the doctor’s aide informing her she must make an appointment tomorrow. Then with her breath held, with the first jagged grey rocks of the Atlantic shoreline thrusting themselves into sight, Anne hears the last words of the message.

…and Dr. Gordon wants you to—to know that the results she will discuss with you are preliminary. It will require an outpatient surgery procedure for complete diagnosis. Dr. Gordon will explain it all to you tomorrow but wants you to understand that these are preliminary findings with no final diagnosis, as of yet. Have a nice day, Ms. Malloy, and we will see you tomorrow…

Anne lowers her cell without clicking it off. Processing this new news. Or non-news. Yet it feels like, maybe, a reprieve. Not yet the big-C. Not yet the ‘final diagnosis.’ The tightness in Anne’s chest loosens, ever so slightly. Even just knowing there might be days more of normal life, perhaps weeks.

Anne startles as the phone in her hand beeps, message complete. END, she presses, but maybe it’s not; not yet. Hadn’t Dr. Gordon warned before the in-office ‘uterine lining scrape’ that sometimes the samples obtained this way are too small? Sometimes a full D&C was ‘indicated’? But Anne quiets her specific further worries, just as she’s quieted her phone. Which she slips back in her purse, before anyone can complain about its tiny noise.

She re-faces her window, knowing Conductor Bob may yet come back and make her move. And Doctor Gordon may yet tell her that whatever she finds in Anne’s next test turns out to be cancerous. Then again maybe not, Anne dares to think, narrowing her eyes in golden late sun. Trees thinning out in the rockier sandier soil. Maybe I’ll get away this time. Maybe I’ll get Watchful Waiting.

A new catchphrase Anne has found online, or new to her. The diagnosis many doctors these days allow patients who want to ‘wait and see’ before having their breasts or other bodily parts chopped off.

Watchful waiting; one thing she’s learned. Hasn’t Anne perfected watchful waiting, if nothing else, all her life? In ghostly window reflection, in his blue uniform, Conductor Bob strides into view. Anne freezes, invisibly. But he passes right by Anne’s seat without pause. As if he doesn’t see her, or sees her but has forgotten her. Anne allows herself a brief half smile, in her reflection.

No one watching—maybe no Omniscient Narrator God watching, either—and that feels good. So what if it is only her own self, watching? At least Anne still has a window seat from which to watch. There is—Anne feels as lavish white-shingled beach houses flash into view—much to be thankful for, this moment. Even within her own rickety Quiet Car of a life. A narrow life, to anyone looking in. But Anne feels quite expansively happy in her way, her heart opening up. The first stretch of Atlantic appears, darkly sparkling.

Anne breathes in as if she can smell the sea air outside. She wishes she could open her sealed Amtrak window. She should take the T-train to the beach at Marblehead. Why hasn’t she done that more often, in her years in Boston? Loving ocean air as she does?

Along this pristine curved cove of Connecticut beach, a few hearty walkers stride the sands in the late May sun. Anne scans past the couples and the dog owners. To her, the single solitary walker—swinging her arms, letting wind whip her short white hair—looks happiest. No talking, quarreling. No leash to slow her down. Just walking and watching, waiting out the day’s light.

Next stop Groton. Groton, Connecticut—

Behind her, Anne hears a stirring. In Anne’s reflection, the neatly dressed young lady who’d found her purse steps into view. There you go, this Ghost Girl had said to Anne.

There she goes, Anne thinks. Not turning her head to nod. Her make-believe daughter is stepping forward toward the front of the car, the EXIT. Taking her place by the doors early, as Anne herself will do soon. Anne unlatches her plastic tray, just to have something to hold on to. The train is still ratcheting forward relentlessly, not yet slowing for Groton. Anne pictures in the subtly darkening seaside sky the black Boston tunnel yet to come. She pictures too, again, the shiny-white CTSCAN tunnel.

The nurse raising Mother’s stiffened arms, advising pale Mother, ‘Hold on.’ To the rounded overarching mouth of the CTSCAN tunnel, the nurse meant. Hold on, Anne had thought as she’d been hustled out of the chamber so the radioactive zapping could begin. Hold on, Mom, or you’ll be sucked into the tunnel of death.

The Northeast Regional train ratchets more slowly now, jerkily. Anne holds onto her plastic tray. Once the Groton stop comes, minutes away, she hopes to catch a glimpse of her Ghost Girl daughter, de-training. Never to be seen again. Maybe in another life, Anne starts to think, squinting at the final stretches of shoreline. But no. Anne grips her tray harder, correcting herself firmly, the way she’s corrected her students all these years.

No, she tells herself as the train passes the last sunset-lit waves. There is no other life.

3 Responses to “THE QUIET CAR”

  1. Richard Cambridge

    Stories don’t often get me viscerally, but this one did: a quiet car with a woman silently screaming.

  2. John Hodgkinson

    Ah, the quiet car, like a library with teeth. Searle masterfully captures the mixture of dread and solace. Great read!

  3. Barbara Searle

    A finely crafted “slice of life” story about an everyday experience with skillful descriptions of the train’s journey through a beautiful New England area. The underlying anxiety Anne is dealing with is made less painful in this quiet place. Searle’s amazing skill writing short stories just gets better and better. I read her first one in “Redbook” in 1982, but this is the first I’ve read on-line

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