So, off we go, a little deeper into the night. A short read…enjoy.
Carter looked at the menu and decided the cheeseburger looked like the least deadly option, but after the heavy breakfast he’d just eaten in the Quarter even the idea of a hamburger felt oppressive. And just now, after slamming down three rums in a half hour, he felt a little light-headed when he’d walked into the swaying dining car – though of course Berman seemed unaffected by the splash of rum she’d not quite finished.
He’d walked behind her, looking at her legs as she made her way forward, then up at her hips and back, and there was something about her that just seemed a little too well put together. She looked too strong, he observed, and that bothered him. For someone who’d allegedly spent years studying, he thought something was “off” if a girl like this was too strong. His mind worked through the problem as he watched her walk, because in his worldview when something was “off” the situation soon devolved into a “kill or be killed” situation.
He had no problem killing, of course. That was part of his job description after all, and he’d killed more than a few women over the years, too. Even a few children, he thought, if you considered the airliners he’d brought down. No, he just didn’t have any desire to kill anyone he didn’t absolutely have to kill. The thing was, however, he wasn’t sure about this girl – yet.
And she was cute.
He hated killing cute.
So he’d taken the seat across from her’s, his mind full of contradictory warning klaxons, his eyes searching for clues…
“What are you going to have?” she asked.
“You,” he said, then he shook his head. “Excuse me. I meant – a cheeseburger.”
“Me? You want me for lunch?”
“I’m sorry. I think that was the run talking.”
“Really? Remind me to drink rum more often, would you?”
He laughed – a little laugh that seemed to come from someplace far away, then he looked out the window into the black-water swamp just a few yards from the tracks. “It looks dangerous out there,” he said, and he watched her reflection in the glass, watched her head turn and look out too – but their eyes seemed to meet inside that moment. Meet, and lock-on, inside the glass.
“Everything that moves out there can kill you.”
“Have you spent a lot of time in swamps?”
“Scouting for movies?”
He turned and looked into her eyes, yet he saw nothing to fear – and again, that troubled him. She was either what she said she was, or she was something much more dangerous. “That’s right,” he said, looking her in the eye – trying to decide.
“So, you’ve spent time in swamps and you’d like to eat me for lunch. I guess that makes you, what? An alligator?”
“If you could choose to be any other animal, anything other than human, what would you choose?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea.”
“Oh, come on. Pick one.”
He looked out the window again, tried to ignore the question – but he couldn’t. His mind filled with the image of an eagle screaming down out of the clouds and snatching a snake – a snake coiled a large, flat rock. ‘And who am I?’ he thought. ‘The eagle, or the snake?’
“I think a bird of some sort. Maybe an eagle, or a falcon.”
“A predator, then?”
“Odd. Not what I’d have picked for you.”
A waiter came up to their table. “What can I get you folks this afternoon?” he asked.
She looked up. “Cup of soup and a grilled cheese, please.”
“Do you have iced tea?”
“Yes’m. And you, sir?”
“Cheeseburger and a Coke, I guess.”
“Potato chips okay?”
“Fine,” he said, and he watched the waiter walk off before he turned to her again. “So, what do you think I’d be?”
“A horse. Steady and dependable.”
“Really. Interesting. A beast of burden. And who do you on my back?”
She smiled. “I’m not sure. Yet.”
“What’s it like…to dissect another human being?”
“Didn’t you take anatomy your first year?”
“I heard you. I’m just trying to make the jump from talking about horses to cutting up a cadaver…”
“I can’t imagine what that must feel like. Another human being…”
“Why would you want to imagine that? It’s hard enough doing it, but you can intellectualize the exercise, I guess, when you understand the objective of the class, when that’s what you’re studying.”
“So, how’d you do?”
“The first lab session, when we were assigned cadavers and a cadaver buddy? I remember the smell most of all, then we were given an info sheet. You know, who the person was, what they did, how they lived and how they died. The idea being they wanted us to realize we were not just cutting up some piece of meat…but that was a person, a person with a life, with hopes and dreams…”
“What kind of person did you have?”
“A middle aged woman,” Berman said, a hard edge in her voice. “She’d had breast cancer and passed after fighting it for two years. She had a husband and three boys. She’d been a nurse most her life, and wanted her body donated to the medical school.”
“What color was her hair?”
“Red,” Berman said, not missing a beat.
“What could you tell about her, just by looking at her?”
“That she fought her cancer until she couldn’t take one more breath.”
He nodded, shook his head at the reflection in the glass. “Sounds like my mom.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. I don’t like talking about this stuff, okay?”
“Yeah. What was your favorite class, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Anatomy. My least favorite was my fourth year rotation through psychiatry. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.”
“Yup. With older inpatient psychiatric patients, well, it’s like looking at people locked within in an endless cycle of despair, and their’s no real treatment. It’s like stuffing broken people into a warehouse. They sit on a shelf until the rest of their body wears out and dies. I’ve never been as depressed as I was for those six weeks. Like I said…helpless. I hated that feeling.”
“Maybe that’s why you want to be a surgeon? To work on eyes?”
She nodded. “I know. I want to fix things, help people. Tell me about your mother.”
“She was a nurse, but my dad died when I was still a, well, when I was young. She raised us, me and my brothers.”
“How long ago did she die?”
He sighed, looked down at the table. “Fifteen years, I guess,” he said softly.
“Do you miss her?”
“I can’t believe my dad’s gone. It’s only been a week but I still feel numb inside.”
He watched her eyes fill with tears – and reached across the table and took her hand. “I know,” he sighed. “It never really goes away.”
He shook his head, picked up his glass. “Rum helps. Sometimes. What did he do?”
“He was a lawyer, but he’s been a judge for a long time. Mom still works there, in the court clerk’s office.”
“You had no interest in the law?”
“No, not really. That and politics. No interest at all.”
“You like Kennedy?”
“I guess. He seems more honest about the problems facing the world, and less likely to start another war.”
“Yeah, but like I said, I don’t keep up with politics, all that stuff. Pointless.”
“Yeah. I mean, everybody likes to grouse about how politicians are nothing but con-men, then they turn around and root for their team, for their con-man, because – supposedly – their con-man is better than the other sides con-man. All we end up with, one way or another, is a bunch of con-men deciding our destiny.”
“Sounds like a cynical worldview.”
“Maybe, but I’m not a cynic.”
“What about him?”
“What if he was to disappear, like…tomorrow. Would that be a good thing?”
“Disappear? How do you mean?”
“Oh, just hypothetically. Someone waved a magic wand and presto – poof – he was gone. Would that be a good thing for the country?”
She shrugged. “That’s not reality, the way this world works, is it? I don’t see the point of the question.”
“Oh, you’re correct. There’s no point.”
“What do you think about Kennedy?”
His face a mask, he shrugged, looked away. “Camelot. I liked the metaphor,” he said wistfully.
“Like. They’re very photogenic people.”
“The missiles last year. Khrushchev, all that stuff. What did you think of that?”
He had tried not to, for more than a year now, but he couldn’t let go of the memory, of how close the world had come to annihilation. “It worked out well, in the end, I suppose.”
“We’re still here.”
“Do you think the country would be better off? Without Kennedy, I mean?”
“You’d like him to just disappear, then?”
He nodded his head. “Yes. I would.”
And when she looked into his eyes, when he said those three words, she saw into a space of infinite darkness – waiting, a hollow hatred that left her feeling more bereft than she had when she’d learned of her father’s passing. “I see,” she said.
“Of course, as you said, that’s not the world we live in.”
“The world is what we make of it, don’t you think?”
“As opposed to?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The idea that, perhaps, God takes care of everything.”
“Maybe He does.”
“Do you believe that?”
“It’s either that or there’s no purpose to all this.”
“Some meaning to it all.”
“What about the notion of a life well-lived. The Good Life, things like that?”
He shrugged. “The Good Life?”
“Aristotle. The idea that goodness is it’s own reward, that leading a good life, a life dedicated to producing good in the world, is the best a man can do.”
“Where does that leave women?”
“No heaven? No hell?”
She shrugged. “Just working to achieve good, here, in this life.”
“What’s the point?”
“Without the idea of salvation, of a life beyond this one, what’s the point of living at all?”
“Without salvation, without forgiveness, what is there left out there – but a jungle?”
Her soup came, a steaming bowl of chicken and rice, and she looked at it, suddenly not sure she could eat. “So, the only reason to act with virtue is because God is watching? And that He’ll forgive you if you sin?”
“But what if you sin, and He doesn’t. What if some sins are so bad He either can not, or will not, forgive them.”
“That’s why there’s Hell.”
“So, you can act without virtue all your life, work to create harm all your life, then at the last minute recant and ask for forgiveness?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. I think that’s God’s purview, though. Not mine.”
“Interesting,” she sighed. “What about your mother? Did she believe that?”
He shook his head again. “No.”
“But you do?”
He nodded. “Yes, I do.”
“What about the notion of leading a good life?”
“Sometimes a man’s got to do what he’s got to. He may not like it, but he just has to.”
“Say killing people, in a war. He may not want to, but he has to.”
“Yes. If he’s a man.”
“How’s your soup.”
“Too hot. What about high heels? What do you think God has to say about those?”
“What do you mean?”
“Aren’t high heels sinful?”
“Sinful? How so?”
“Don’t they promote impure thoughts?”
“I’m not a priest.”
“Only priests can have impure thoughts?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“What about stockings? Lingerie, and all that stuff?”
“What about it?”
“I listened to a psychiatrist talk about the Christian symbolism of those things, like a woman taking off her stockings is analogous to a snake shedding it’s skin, the snake analogy referring to original sin, Adam and Eve in the Garden.”
“Really. A lot of the things we encounter in daily life are symbols for some of the things we struggle with on a metaphysical plane.”
“And sometimes a snake is just a snake.”
She laughed. “I suppose so.”
“You walk out there in that swamp for five minutes, then talk to me about the metaphorical meaning of snakes.”
“Okay, but what about the man who chooses to go out and walk through that swamp, to walk among the snakes?”
“That man is a fool.”
“Really? Maybe he’s just a man who has faith?”
They walked back to their sleeping car after lunch, and while she half expected him to follow to her room, he ducked into his own and shut the door. More amused than disappointed, after their conversation she was more convinced than ever that ‘Ben Carter’ was anything but a ‘movie location scout.’ She had, on the other hand, no idea what he did or who he worked for, but she did have the very certain feeling she didn’t want to know those things. He was, she thought, attractive – in a way – but there was a hard undercurrent of danger behind his eyes – something evasive and, yes, she had to admit – predatory.
She sat, looking out the window as the train slowed and stopped in New Iberia. She admired the red brick station, a long, low, one story affair with broad, sheltering overhangs that looked vaguely like it belonged in New England, and she saw three men standing almost directly beneath her window, looking at the vestibule and the exit from her car – when she saw Ben walk up to the men and shake hands with one of the men. When that man leaned forward a bit his jacket swung open, and she saw a badge clipped to the man’s belt, as well as a pistol dangling inside a barely concealed shoulder holster – and she leaned back in her seat when it looked like Ben might turn his head her way. She wished the windows opened, wanted to hear what was being said, but she remained still – and out of sight – until she heard the train’s horn blast once. Moments later the car jerked ever so slightly and began moving again, and she leaned forward, looked out the window and saw only one of the men walking to a car in the lot adjacent to the station – and she watched him until the station slid from view.
She heard people walking outside her door and wondered if he’d stop and talk, but no, a minute passed, then another, and nothing – so she decided to go forward to the lounge car and get another Coke, or maybe some coffee. She felt sleepy, like she needed a nap, and maybe, she thought, caffeine would help keep her awake. She yawned, wiped errant water from her eyes while she stood, then she slipped on her heels and reached for the door.
Ah, talking to the porter – about dinner reservations.
Then…a knock on her door. She opened it and the porter was standing there expectantly.
“I’m coming by, taking dinner reservations, and this man,” he said, nodding to Carter with his head, “wanted to know if you’d care to join him at seven?”
“Yes, that’d be fine,” she said, looking at Carter – who was staring at her legs again.
The porter wrote something on his notepad, said “Very good,” then walked on to the next room in the car.
“I was going to go get a Coke,” she said to Carter then, and he looked up, grinned, then nodded his head.
“Me too. Want some company?”
“Sure. But no more rum. I’m about to pass out as is.”
“I know. It’s all I can do to keep my eyes open right now.”
“I was thinking of coffee,” she said as they walked forward, squeezing past the porter in the narrow corridor, “but it smelled stale.”
“I’m sticking with Coke.”
“You don’t like Dr Pepper?”
“Too sweet. Makes my teeth ache.”
Their same table was still open so she sat while he trundled up to the counter, and he came back a moment later – empty handed – and sat. The attendant brought glasses and bottles of Coke – and another cup full of lime quarters – then laid the things out on the little table for them.
Carter poured both glasses and she watched his movements – fluid, sure of himself – then looked at his eyes. More unsettled now, unsettled – but full of resolve. She could see his carotid, see his pulse and she began a short count: resting – 110, and she noted the fine bead of perspiration on his upper lip and in his hair-line. Something had changed, and he was doing his level best to hide it, too.
“Interesting station,” she said.
“That last station. Interesting architecture. Kind of rococo. All the arched doors and windows, the overhangs.”
If this was her way, he thought, of telling him she’d seen him on the platform, she was certainly being coy about it. He took a wedge of lime and squeezed it, watched the juice run off his fingers into the deep brown cola in his glass, then he looked up at her. “Rococo?”
“Italianate. Kind of popular in the late 19th-century.”
He shrugged, bunched his lips a little. “Not my thing, I guess.”
“Oh? I’d have thought a location scout would have to be attuned to such things.”
“Looked like cops on the platform, too. Guns and badges all tucked away out of sight. Kind of interesting, I think.” She watched him stiffen ever so slightly, made another carotid count – 120 now, his blood pressure going up too – then she just grinned at him. “It’s funny how things are never quite as simple as they seem, isn’t it?”
“Funny?” he asked, his voice catching, the word coming out more like a frog’s croak.
Her grin widened to a broad smile, and she could tell that unsettled him even more. “Why don’t you relax – before you have a stroke.”
“Who the fuck are you?” he growled softly, his voice now full of menace, like a predator who’d suddenly been forced back into an unexpected corner.
“Sara Berman, M.D.,” she said casually, “intern and wannabe eye-doc. Who the fuck are you?”
“You don’t want to know, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, now focusing intently on his twitching lip, “if you say so. But could I ask you one thing?”
He shrugged. “Go ahead.”
“Why do you keep staring at my legs?”
The question seemed to startle him, jerk him back from wherever it was he’d gone. “Stare? Do I? I wasn’t aware…”
“You do. It’s kinda cute, too.”
She nodded her head, grinned again. “Yup. I like it, like that you like them.”
“I do, you know. You said you’ve never been with a man before?”
“That’s true? I mean, you’re not BS-ing me?”
“No. No BS.”
“You, like, holding out for your wedding night?”
She laughed at that, a little, attractive laugh – honest, not evasive. “No-o-o,” she said, drawing out the word in a way that dripped with latent meaning. “Why do you ask?”
“Because…if I don’t make love to you, soon, I may lose it.”
“Make love? Don’t you mean…fuck?”
“No. I mean make love. To every inch of you.”
“Starting with my legs?”
“If you’d like that, yes.”
She felt the change in her thighs almost immediately, and the warmth spread to her belly as he spoke. “Yes. I think I’d like that.” She finished her Coke and stood, and he stood too, then he followed her to the sleeping car – his eyes never leaving her legs.
This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com