Quarantaintment—Pandemic Diversions for the Homebound

 

FICTION

The Lakeshore Limited

By C. J. Kereta

 

At half past ten in the evening, still two hours before the last train of the day was due to depart, there was but a single passenger seated in the waiting area of the Buffalo Amtrak station. This figure, a sandy haired, pyjama-clad woman of late middle-age, hunched over a cellphone, did not look up as a taxi pulled in front of the station’s entrance and a second passenger emerged. Her eyes remained downcast even as this newcomer—a tall young man wearing a jaggedly narrow face and tortoise-shell glasses—elbowed the swinging doors open and entered the wanly lit room.

He stood still for a moment, gazing about, adjusting to the surroundings, and then walked to the plexiglass window where the porters’ station was protected. The attendants were not at their posts, but a signboard affixed to the wall behind their empty seats informed the man that the train, the Lakeshore Limited, bound for Chicago, was on time. He nodded just slightly to himself and rolled over to a row of plastic seats, pointedly picking one facing away from the television that was playing news of the spread of a virus across America. Pulling a paperback from his coat pocket, he stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankles, and stared at the pages.

Muffled voices came from the hallway where the washrooms were. An elderly couple, each pushing their own four-wheeled suitcase in front of them, creaked into the waiting area. Drips of water fell on the tops of the cases from their hands, which they held uncertainly in front of them when they came to a halt.

“I can’t believe there were no paper towels,” the woman said. “Don’t they know that air-dryers are incubators for disease?” Her husband shook his head sadly, concurring with his spouse’s epidemiological expertise. They sat down silently, and looked up at the television.

After a pause, the husband shook his head.

“The same news as before,” he said, annoyed, and stood up again. He walked over to the plexiglass and rapped it with his knuckles. An attendant peered out from behind a doorway inside the office, her long hair tied off to the side.

“Can I get the remote to change the channel?” the man called. “I’ll bring it right back. The channel keeps playing the same thing over and over.”

The attendant moved forward towards the desk and fished around in a drawer, found the remote, and pushed it through a slot in the glass. The man walked a closer to the television and, without hesitating, poked an arthritic finger into the remote. The channel flipped to a cable news station, the blue-and-red logo blaring in the bottom right of the screen. The host’s face, as ruddy as the logo, ballooned to fill most of the remaining space, his yelling mercifully quiet through the speakers, the closed-captioning a moment behind real time. The man returned the remote and sat back down, contented.

Minutes passed. The sandy-haired woman stared at her phone, the elderly couple at the television, and the reedy man at his paperback. A vending machine hummed in the corner. A digital clock on the wall sent its second hand silently forward in precise ticks. This tableau was interrupted by the station’s doors swinging open again. Two more passengers—a man thick around the middle from decades of ample eating, clad in work clothes, his boots and canvas pants covered in plaster dust; and a woman, petite, younger, wearing faux-fur coat. There was a single suitcase between them, his, a battered Sears model from the mid-’70s, with a brand new garment bag draped over it. The couple approached the plexiglass, and the man gave the bell a single ding.

The same attendant as before looked around the same doorframe as she had for the remote request. She looked sleepy.

“Yes?” she said, rubbing her face.

“I need my ticket changed,” the man announced. “I’ve bought the wrong day. I wanted to leave on Thursday night, so I bought one for that day. But I didn’t see that the train leaves after midnight, so the ticket I bought was for last night. I didn’t see ‘til I looked at it in the car just now.”

The attendant sighed. She had grown so accustomed to this mistake that she had resolved to stop following protocol and just scribble a note for the conductor. But she dutifully looked at the man’s ticket.

“I have to give you a refund on this one, and then you have to pay for tonight’s ticket,” the attendant said.

“Why can’t you just give me a ticket for today? It’s the same price, ain’t it?” the man replied.

“Well, no, because we’re closer to the train leaving now,” said the attendant.

“Aw, sh—. Shoot,” the man said. “I’ve spent so much by now, I just may well have taken the plane. I bought a bus ticket for today and then they cancelled the buses this week. The damn virus. And they wouldn’t give me my money back either—said to read the rules and see that there’s no refunds for cancellations. So then I had to buy the train. And now I gotta pay more? I’m a senior, at least give the senior price. You wanna see my ID?” He pulled a driver’s license from his wallet. “I’m sixty-two years old,” he said. The attendant glanced at the card in his hand.

“Senior age is sixty-five,” she said. “The balance is only five more dollars.”

“Shit,” the man said, not bothering this time with any pretense to politeness. He put the license back in his wallet and took out a five. New ticket in hand, he found a seat, his companion following him but remaining on her feet. The attendant retreated into the back room.

The plaster-covered man reached into his coat pocket and retrieved a small bottle of hand sanitizer, squeezed a spurt on his hands, and then offered it to the woman with him.

“I rubbed my hands so much they turning white. And I ain’t white!” he said, to no one in particular. The reedy man looked up from his book and smiled. Suddenly aware of having an audience, the plaster man grinned. “That’s right,” he continued. “The whole world turned around and black people turning white. You know something’s wrong then.”

“Well, my hands just turn red,” the reedy man offered. “Red and chapped.”

The plaster man’s companion laughed quietly and turned to him. “You’re all right, Daddy,” she said, and the plaster man smiled again and turned to rummaging around in his suitcase. His daughter looked up at the television, where the same howling host was now interviewing a doctor with an English accent.

“They’re all so damned stupid,” she said under her breath. The reedy man said nothing, but made eye contact to show that he had heard her. She went on. “They knew this was coming. They knew years ago,” she said. The reedy man pushed up his glasses and raised an eyebrow.

“Where’d you learn that?” he said.

She pulled out her phone and swiped a few times before holding it up. “Here.” It was a tweet, with a picture of a book.

“dean koontz predicts the virus in 1981!!!” read the message. A passage in the book was underlined in the photo.

“They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside the city of Wuhan.”

“And there’s this,” said the woman, swiping again. Another tweet.

“Sylvia knew!!!” read this one, with a photographed page featuring yellow highlighting drawn with imprecise urgency.

“In around [sic] 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” The reedy man read it aloud in one breath.

“Spooky,” he agreed, inhaling, cautiously.

“Ah, I can’t find my glasses!” The plaster man interrupted their conspiracy.

“Oh daddy,” the woman said. “You must have left them in the car. I’ll be right back.” She left. The plaster man shook his head and was quiet for a minute.

The doors to the station banged open. A girl with two bags and a guitar case hanging off her walked in, a skateboard wedged in the crook of an arm. The reedy man watched as she sat down across from him, blocking his view of the plaster man. The girl, who the reedy man guessed was about twenty, was dressed all in denim. Her hair, black at its roots, moved through a spectrum of swamp shades until arriving at neon green at the ends. As she reached down to arrange her bags, her sleeve rode up and exposed a wrist, where BIRD was tattooed in jagged capital letters. This matched the BIRD emblazoned across the top of her skateboard.

“Are you called Bird?” the reedy man asked her. When she straightened up and looked at him he saw that one of her eyelids was closed.

“That’s my nickname,” Bird said, clearly taken aback at being spoken to so soon. “My name is Adelaide, like the city in Australia. And my parents wanted my middle name to be Rennes, like the city in France. But their friends told them they couldn’t name me after two cities, so they changed Rennes the city to Wren the bird.”

“Are you at UB?” the plaster man jumped in. Bird turned and nodded.

“Well, I was. They’ve cancelled classes now…and I’m not going back,” she said. “You build things?” she asked, nodding at his pants.

“Aw, yeah,” he said. “I build everything. Bathrooms, porches, attics. I was doing tile today. That’s why I got all this here mud on me.” He pulled out a cell phone. “Come here,” he said. “I’ll show you my stuff.” Bird switched seats to be closer.

“Don’t cough though,” he said.

The reedy man remained seated, but piped up to ask where they were both going.

“Chicago,” said Bird. “I’m going to play gigs with my friends there. All the big shows are cancelled…so we’re supposed to do little ones in bars. Then I’m going back to stay with my parents in New York. But I don’t even know if I’ll be able to get in the city.”

“Are you from the city?” asked the reedy man.

“Yeah. My parents have a place way up in Manhattan, almost in the Bronx.” Her closed eyelid flickered half-open, then shut again, as if it were lead and the effort needed to keep it open was too much. The reedy man looked at her suspiciously, reconciling her hair and skateboard and her parents’ place in Manhattan.

“I’m going to Detroit,” blurted the plaster man. “My cousin’s funeral. That’s why I got my new suit here.” He gestured at the hanging bag. “And my hat.”

He pulled a black porkpie from a plastic bag.

“And I got new gators.”

He reached into his suitcase and pulled out a single black shoe, imitation alligator, holding it up proudly. Both Bird and the reedy man made appreciative noises.

A blaring news flash from the previously quiet television turned their heads. Another man had entered the station without their noticing, wearing a Stetson and square-toed cowboy boots. He stood sullenly by the plexiglass and watched the screen. The elderly couple had not looked away the whole time, and even the sandy-haired woman put away her phone and was watching attentively.

“The President has announced new measures,” declared the news anchor. “We can only hope that all of America listens to him.” The shot cut to the text of a press briefing, and the anchor began to read. “All non-essential travel is to be stopped,” he said, the words highlighted in red as he spoke. “All people should stay in their homes unless they are buying supplies or seeking medical care. I am urging all Americans to not go outside without a mask.”

While they watched, the Amtrak attendant came out of the office and leaned halfway out the door. She looked bored, standing there, waiting for the anchor to finish so that she could make her own announcement.

“The Lakeshore Limited is twenty minutes behind at Rochester. We expect it in forty-five minutes,” she said, and immediately closed the door behind her.

Bird had moved to sit next to the reedy man so she had a better view of the television. He could smell something sweet (patchouli?) emanating from her. She turned toward him, both eyelids now fully open, her eyes bright blue.

“And where are you going,” she asked.

An excellent question, he thought. After he dropped out of grad school in January, his parents were keen to know the same thing. In fact, he had come to the station every evening for the last month, just to sit, to wait for a train he never took. He wasn’t sure why he was doing it. On some level he sensed that he was waiting for something else, and that this was the place to wait for it. No one had ever asked why he didn’t have—

“And why don’t you have a suitcase,” Bird asked.

The reedy man decided that it wasn’t patchouli, but a combination of marijuana and skin lotion. Bird’s arms were astonishingly smooth, even for a twenty-year-old.

The plaster man’s daughter returned with his lost glasses, asking if she’d missed anything.

“Train’s late,” he replied.

“I’m Alex,” the reedy man said, pointing his elbow Bird’s way for a bump.

“Like Alexander the Great?” said Bird.

More like Alexander the unmoored, he thought to himself. But he knew the time had come to stop waiting. He had enough cash on him to buy the ticket.

“Chicago,” he answered Bird. “Let’s go to Chicago.”