So, I am in a very laid back place right now, coming to terms with life, I guess. Writing has been very far away, far from mind the last week or so. Still, a little niggle in the back of my brain remembered this one. Notes for a story idea I wrote up years ago that I found while cleaning out my desk last week. So, whilst touching up the house, getting ready to move, I decided to work on this one when I get tired of packing boxes.
So, the Sunset Limited? What is it?
Well, she was a train near and dear to my heart, for one, so let’s do a little history before we jump into the story.
Once upon a time there was a railroad that operated, mainly, in California and the desert southwest. It was called The Southern Pacific Railroad, and her history is intimately tied to the history of California and Texas. My great-grandfather was an engineer, and by that I mean a surveyor-type engineer, not a locomotive engineer, on the Texas & Pacific, later on the SP, so there’s a little of me in that history too – if only peripherally. Anyway, I love trains. They’re in my DNA.
The Southern Pacific (SP) operated during the “old west” period, and was the driving force behind the second transcontinental railroad, the so-called southern route across the country. The SP frequently shows up in movies about this period, too, as seen in this shot from 3:10 From Yuma, along right-of-way that would eventually become a part of the storied Sunset Limited.
The SP is remembered nowadays more for the beauty of their passenger trains than just about any other thing, and with good reason. Starting in California, running between LA and the Bay Area, Southern Pacific’s Daylights have always been my favorite, and this example (below) is from a pre-WWII consist running through California’s central valley:
Pre-war trains were pulled by this beast:
And here’s another view, circa 1991, on a steam excursion train in California:
Starting in 1950, diesel replaced steam on the SP, and on the westbound Sunset Limited, you’d have boarded in New Orleans behind Alco PAs:
In El Paso, TX, the head-end would have been switched over to EMD E-units:
Later, in the early 60s, equipment was repainted to something almost monstrous:
Pulled by this beast, an EMD FP-7:
And here’s an HO scale rendition, by Athearn, from my collection:
As for timetables and menu prices, we’re looking at November, 1963 in this story, and you’ll find those items here.
Anyway, enough of that. On to the story. This first chapter is short, just ten pages or so, and you’ll see where the story is headed soon enough. Bon voyage!
The Sunset Limited
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
from The Walrus and The Carpenter, in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872, by Lewis Carroll
He sat, with his back against the whitewashed brick wall, looking at the man across the courtyard. The other man, his target, sat beyond a bricked pond, complete with a small fountain in the middle now merrily bubbling away. How serene, he thought. What a nice place for a murder.
His waiter came by and topped off his coffee, asked if he needed anything else.
“No, I’m fine now, thanks.”
“Could I bring your check, sir?”
“Yes, that’d be good.”
The waiter walked off to his station and he resumed looking at the fountain, thinking about the day ahead – and all the things that could go wrong – then he looked at the watch on his left wrist and sighed. A little after ten in the morning, he saw. Two hours to go. He’d have to make a move soon.
The waiter dropped off his bill and he glanced at it absently, stuck a twenty inside the folder – just as the man across the courtyard stood and said something to his female companion. He watched the man walk inside and go into the restroom, then he stood and walked that way.
The man was standing at a urinal when he walked in and as he passed behind he placed a silenced Walther 22 at the base of the man’s skull and pulled the trigger once. He caught the man as his knees gave way, then muscled the twitching body into a stall and locked the door behind. He wiped down the Walther and put it in the man’s right hand, then slid under the partition and brushed his clothes off, washed his hands. He walked out of the bathroom and through the restaurant, heading down Royal Street to The Royal Orleans a block and a half away, and there he went to his room and retrieved a small, tan leather suitcase. Returning to the lobby, he paid his bill then grabbed a taxi to the train station – and as the old Chevy drove through the French Quarter he noted with satisfaction there were still no sirens wailing in the morning air.
He was old enough to remember the old Louis Sullivan designed Union Station, and he looked at the new, white monstrosity on Loyola Street and groaned. Like a monument to Bauhaus efficiency, he thought, the terminal looked like a mausoleum, or perhaps, more fittingly, like a prison. He paid the taxi driver and grabbed his suitcase and walked inside, looked up at the clock and sighed again – only11:15 – he thought as he walked up to the check-in area.
“Name?” the bald-headed agent asked as he stepped up the the white marble counter.
“Carter. Ben Carter.”
“Going all the way to Los Angeles, today, Mr Carter?”
“Yessir. I should have a reservation…”
“Yes, I have it right here, sir. You’re in sleeper 2309, room seven,” the bald man said as he handed over a ticket.
“What about my bag? May I carry it on?”
“Yessir, of course. We’ll be boarding your car in five minutes, so you might want to get in that line by the double doors,” he said, pointing to his right. “Have a nice trip.”
“Thanks,” he said before he walked over to the doors, looking over the people in the queue as he approached. Mainly older couples, people taking the train more out of nostalgia – or fear of flying – than for any other good reason he could think of, then he stopped, looked around and walked away from the doors.
The ticket agent watched Carter as he walked over to the newsstand, then bent over and picked up a telephone. He dialed the number from memory.
Sara Berman looked down at her heels and shuddered. Why she’d allowed her mother to buy the things for her she’d never know, but the damn things hurt so bad right now her eyes were watering. Four inches high! Goddamn! And why? “Because you’ll look sexy, dear,” her mother said.
“Shoes make you look sexy? Are you serious?”
“Sure do,” her mother said matter-of-factly. “Remember what Marilyn Monroe said? ‘I don’t know who invented high heels, but women owe a lot to him?’”
“Yeah, Mom, and look what happened to her?”
“Bosh! If you’re ever going to get a man, you’re going to have to dress up a bit!”
“Those aren’t the kind of men I’m interested in, Mom.”
“You never know, Sara, who you’ll meet. Or when.”
Well, yes, she did know. If men were interested in her because she was wearing high heeled shoes…well, she had better things to do with her time, didn’t she?
Then an overhead loudspeaker clicked on and howled for a second: “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Southern Pacific’s train number one, The Sunset Limited, will begin boarding in a minute. Please have your tickets out and ready for the conductor as you approach door number three, and cars 2311, 2309 and 2310 will board first, so will passengers in those cars please come to Door Three now.”
Berman shoved her suitcase along with her leg, causing even more pain in her right foot, and she vowed to throw these goddamn shoes away as soon as she got in her compartment.
“Could I help you with that?”
Startled, she turned and saw a man standing beside her. “What?”
“Your bag? Could I help you with that – while you get your ticket out?”
She seemed startled and he couldn’t help but laugh, even if he did so to himself. And she seemed to be tottering on the outrageous stiletto pumps she had on, like she didn’t normally wear such things, so he didn’t wait for her to reply and picked up the grip and walked along beside her.
“Thanks,” she said. “I hope it’s not too heavy.”
“Oomph. What do you have in here? A stack of bricks, or maybe a small lending library?”
“Sort of. Some books I wanted to take with me.”
They walked up to the conductor and she handed her ticket over for inspection, then he did too, and the conductor looked them over quickly, sizing them up as husband and wife as he smiled and looked them over – before he noted the separate room numbers.
They walked through the doors and out onto the platform, and he led the way out – his shoulder sagging under the load of her suitcase. “What car are you in?” he asked.
“Me too,” he said as he came up to the car. A porter was waiting on the platform and he handed over his bag, then put her’s on the concrete.
“Room number?” the porter asked.
“I’m in seven,” he said.
“Number five,” she added quickly, and the porter looked at her, then at him.
“I see. Well, y’all head on up. I’ll be right behind you with your bags.”
He stood aside and she stepped on the yellow metal step-stool – and immediately started to fall backwards; Carter stepped over and caught her, and after he steadied her he went ahead, then turned and offered his hand.
And she took it, let him help her up the steps, then he led her through the vestibule down the corridor. “Number five, you said?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Well, here you are.”
“I guess I should thank you,” she said, and he noticed she was blushing as she spoke.
“Oh? Well, my pleasure, but one question.”
“Oh? Well sure, fire away.”
“Do you normally wear shoes like that?”
She looked down at her feet and turned crimson. “Uh, well…what a question!”
“Oh, they look nice on you,” he said, then he turned and walked to his room and disappeared inside – leaving her standing there, wondering what the hell had just happened. The porter walked up behind her just then, and he coughed a little – to let her know he was coming – and she turned, smiled, and let him carry the overloaded bag into her compartment.
“What you got in here, Ma’am?”
“Books. Lots of books.”
“Phew. Thought so. What is you? A lawyer?”
“Dagnabbit, never had a doc carry so much books before. What is you? A brain surgeon?”
She rolled her eyes and opened her purse, pulled out a five and handed it to the old man. “I’m so sorry,” she said, gushing. “I had no idea…”
“No problem, Ma’am. We’ll be serving lunch about the time we pass the Baton Rouge area, about an hour. You want me to reserve a table for you, or bring a tray down here?”
She looked at the old man and smiled conspiratorially: “Tell you what. Find out what he’s doing,” she whispered, nodding down to where her savior had just disappeared, “and try to get me at his table.”
“Yes’m,” the old man grinned. “I can do that.”
“Thanks.” She ducked into her room – and promptly fell down into her seat as the car jumped – and the power went off for a moment, the air conditioning too, then as suddenly everything flashed back on. She shut the door and pulled her shoes off, thought about pulling her penny loafers out of the bag and slipping those on as she rubbed circulation back into her toes – and then she remembered his parting words: “they look nice on you…” Why’d he say that – unless he liked the way they looked? And why now did she give a hoot?
‘Because he’s cute,’ she said to herself. ‘Real cute.’
She looked out the window and thought about her mother. All alone now, now that her father was gone. Still going downtown, to work in the same office she had for thirty years. All her father’s friends had been by the house after the funeral, many of whom had known her since she came into this life, too. She’d hated leaving her mother alone in that rambling old house this time, too, alone with all those memories. What would she do now without him? Who would she have to take care of?
Because her mother had seemingly been born to take care of a man. To feed and nourish a man’s soul – and little else had ever seemed to matter to her. ‘Maybe that’s where the high-heeled shoes comments came from,’ she thought. ‘Why else would a woman wear something like these things?’
Then…a gentle knock on the door.
“Come on in,” she said, and when the door opened just enough she saw him standing out there.
“Hey, feel like lunch?”
“Sure, but the porter said it wouldn’t be for an hour or so.”
“Yup. Their’s a lounge car, next car up from us, in case you want to get a Coke or something.”
“Doesn’t the conductor have to come by first? Check our tickets again?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, would you like to come in?”
“Sure.” He stepped inside, took the chair across from her’s. “These rooms are nice, you know? Bigger than I expected.”
“First time taking the train?”
“No, but first time in a sleeper. My parents used to take us from LA up to Oakland on the old Daylight. That train was all coach cars, maybe a few drawing rooms, but we never could afford that.”
“Are you from LA?”
“No, New Orleans, but I went to med school in LA, at USC.”
“Oh? You’re a doc?”
“Kind of. I’m doing my internship at County-SC.”
“You playing hooky? I mean, it’s November, isn’t it?”
“My dad passed last weekend. Came home for the funeral.”
He bowed his head. “Sorry. Tough losing a parent.”
“The voice of experience?”
“So, what do you do in LA?”
“I work for MGM,” he lied, “scouting locations, setting up local contacts for production companies.”
“Really? That sounds fun.”
“Fun? I never thought of it that way, but at least it’s never dull. Have you decided what kind of doc you want to be when you grow up?”
“I always thought obstetrics, but after doing my rotation in ophthalmology I’m not so sure.”
“Yeah, something about it just clicked.”
“Yes. The challenge, the precision of it all.”
“I can relate to that,” he said casually, a little too casually. “When do you have to decide?”
“Soon. I’ll have to start applying for residencies, like right after I get back.”
“Not sure yet.”
“You want to stay in California?”
“Not necessarily, but if I did I think I’d try for the Bay Area.”
“Spent much time up there?”
The train jerked, then started to pull out of the station – slowly. The train worked through a yard full of switches before turning west, and the conductor came by and collected their tickets, punching them once then handing them back.
“Well, shall we?” he asked.
“Yeah. A Coke would be good right about now.”
They walked forward and sat down just as the train started up the incline for the Huey P Long Bridge over the Mississippi, and they looked down into the coffee colored water as a barge passed under, then he walked up to the counter and asked for two Cokes.
“You sleeping car passengers?” the attendant asked.
“I’ll bring ‘em to you.”
“Thanks.” He dropped a dollar in the tip jar and walked back to their table – just as their room porter came through the car.
“I reserved you a table, the one o’clock seating,” the old man told her. “Table for two, matter of fact.”
“Thanks,” she said, blushing again.
“So,” he said, “tell me about the shoes. You don’t look comfortable walking in them.”
“To tell you the truth, this is the first time I’ve ever worn anything like these.”
“So, if you don’t mind me asking, why now?”
“My mother bought them for me.”
“She thinks they attract men.”
“Indeed. Well, I guess in a way they do.”
“She always talks about Marilyn Monroe and high heels. What do you think? Is it true – what they say?”
“What do they say?”
“That high heels make women sexier.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But sexy is something that happens inside, I think. Things like heels and lingerie are window dressing. Fun, I guess, but not the main attraction.”
“I’ve never…well, done, uh…well, I’ve never worn stuff like that.”
“Why would you? I mean, I suppose it’s fun, but…”
They stopped talking when the attendant came back with their Cokes, then he poured some in their glasses before talking again.
“So,” she said, “do you like it when women wear that sorta stuff?”
“You know,” he said, “we’re talking about some seriously intimate things, and I don’t even know your name.”
“Oh, right. Sara. Sara Berman.”
“Ben,” he said. “Carter. And yeah, I guess I do like that stuff, but to me it’s more that the girl thinks enough about me to want to get dolled up like that. Like Christmas morning, I guess. Why wrap up all those presents just to tear them open, ya know?”
She nodded understanding, but Christmas was a foreign concept to her. “I think I get that,” she said, smiling. “My question was, do you like that stuff?”
“You like my heels?”
He nodded again. “They make your legs look, well, sexy.”
“They do. Do you ever think of yourself as sexy?”
She shook her head. “Never.”
“What about your boyfriend? Doesn’t he think you’re sexy?”
“Okay. So, your last boyfriend.”
She shook her head again, looked down. “No boyfriends.”
“What? You mean, like ever?”
She nodded. “Yup.”
He stood, went to the counter again.
“Do you have any rum? Like in those little bottles?”
“We have Bacardi Silver, and 151.”
“Four 151s, please.”
“That’ll be two dollars, sir.”
He handed over the money and took the bottles, then walked back to their table and plopped them down. She looked at the bottles, then up at him.
“What gives?” she asked.
“I suddenly feel very nervous, that’s what gives.”
“Because you’re cute as hell.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“You’re cute as hell, and you’re making me nervous.”
She grinned. “I think you’re cute, too.”
“So, shall I pour you one.”
“Maybe a little. I don’t like strong drinks.”
He opened a bottle and poured a little in her glass, the rest in his. “Well, happy days!” He downed his, then turned and looked out the windows through the trees passing on the flat coastal bayou, letting the rum warm his gut – then he looked at her again…
Maybe 27 years old, black hair, gray-green eyes. Freckles, glasses – bookish. Of course, she had to be. Small breasts, great legs. Berman? With that name she was probably Jewish, so maybe that’s why she hadn’t said anything when he mentioned Christmas. He turned, caught the attendant’s eye and fingered “two” – as in two more Cokes – then he turned and looked at her, more closely this time.
“What?” she asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I don’t know. Like, maybe, you’re hungry. And not for food.”
He laughed again, a little louder this time. “You do know how to make a man nervous, don’t you?”
“I don’t know? Do I?”
The Cokes arrived and he handed the attendant a five.
“I’ll get your change, sir.”
He poured another glass – then added another bottle of rum to this one –and he sipped as he looked out the window again. Then he leaned back and shut his eyes, let slip a long sigh.
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s been a rough few days.”
“Hmm? Yeah, down near Iberia. Tabasco country.”
“Oh? What kind of movie?”
“Some Civil War drama. I don’t know much right now, and don’t usually get involved in that end of things until much later in production.”
“I see. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, and it’s been a few years, too.”
“What happened? Lose interest?”
“Work. Non-stop, all the time, for the last three years. She was too, then it was like – what’s the point? We hardly ever saw one another, and when we did we were so uptight… So, no, it’s been a while.”
“I always thought it was harder for a guy to, you know, go without?”
“It’s not easy. Or fun. But, well, there are times when work gets so overwhelming…”
“Med school was like that, but then again, so was college. If you take it seriously, I guess. My dorm was full of people who just didn’t get it. Partying all the time, academic probation, drifting off to oblivion…”
“The world needs waitresses and car mechanics too, ya know.”
“I suppose. But that’s the path for high school drop outs, or at least it used to be.”
“Too many people.”
She shook her head. “No. Too many people being under-utilized. We’re wasting lives as fast as we’re wasting resources.”
“Not my department,” he said, sighing.
“Yeah? I wonder who’s it is?”
“Ready for another Coke?”
“Yeah. More rum in this one, please. I can hardly taste it.”
“We need some lime,” he said, standing and walking to the counter. He came back with a plastic cup full of green wedges, and he squeezed one in her’s before he refilled it, then doctored his own. “There. That’s better. A real Cuba Libre.”
“That’s where I learned to make this drink.”
“Yeah. Havana. Back in the good ole days.”
“You’ve been there? All that missile stuff last year was pretty scary.”
He nodded, looked away. “Yup,” he said – quietly.
“What were you doing there? Movie scouting?” she asked – sardonically – then she tried to change the subject. “Kennedy’s going to be in Dallas tomorrow. Wonder what that’s about?”
“I don’t know,” he said as he turned and looked into her eyes. Her questions no longer seemed random, and he wondered who she really was – and if he’d have to kill her too.
This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com