On the westbound Chicago, Burlington & Quincy train
En Route to Sterling Illinois
New Year’s Eve, 1905
Around 5 pm.
It isn’t close to midnight, but there are New Year’s celebrations going on in the several of the cars surreptitiously — men are passing bottles and private flasks among themselves, up and down the aisle of the train; hiding their beverages in their voluminous coats and behind hats, watching carefully for when it is time for the conductor to pass through the car. The conductor isn’t stupid — I’m sure he knows that at least half of the passengers on the train are drunk already; but most of the drinkers know how to comport themselves. It is the few who give it away, with the loud laughter and occasional bawdy joke.
I’ve been offered a drink or two or three from my fellow passengers; I’ve declined, with thanks. I admit that has been hard, but I’m too anxious, too distracted to want to take the chance with a drink right now. Even though the train is moving very slowly, we’re only about an hour or so away from the Sterling depot, and Nick is supposed to meet my train. I can’t risk the chance that he would smell whiskey on me. Besides, this is my fresh start — but what a strange new beginning as I head towards a strange new place.
I’ve been four days in transit from Florida; it has been snowing heavily since I boarded the CB&Q line in Chicago — and we are in the midst of a major snowstorm.
An auspicious beginning to my brand new life and a brand new year? I’m not sure. I’m not superstitious, but it is different, though. I’ve never seen snow like this before; it is in feet, drifts. The entire world is blanketed and white, and right now, the snow is coming down slanted, almost sideways, very hard.
You can’t see out the train windows very well; the inside panes are foggy with the breath of the passengers and the body heat; and the frost has collected in the corners and on the sides of the windows. There’s actually ice on some of the inside windows of the car. I’ve wiped the glass clean a few times, but there’s nothing but whiteness outside.
“Son, that’s an exercise in futility,” my seat mate said to me with a chuckle, glancing up from his newspaper. “There’s nothing to see for miles.”
I tell him I can’t believe how much snow was out there already, and when did he think it would stop?
“You aren’t from around here, are you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m from Florida. I’ve never seen snow like this before.”
“Well,” the man said, squinting at the window I had just wiped clear, which was quickly growing cloudy again. “This will probably let up sometime in late March or April.”
I gape at him. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope,” he said, as he turns back his newspaper.
The conductor walked by at that moment, commenting to another passenger behind me that this is reportedly the worst snowstorm on record for western Illinois in a decade — the temperatures have been below zero for several days; the Rock River, which flows between the twin cities Sterling and Rock Falls has been frozen in several places. The passenger responds that he heard shipping has been suspended for several miles above and below the river.
“Good for the ice business, bad for everything else,” the conductor laughs, as he moves on down the car. He then announces to the passengers in the car to sit easy; we’re slowing down to about half speed because of the additional icing and snow up ahead.
It’s bone-chilling cold — the cold coming off the glass of the windows, and condensation on the inside. I have a new coat. It is the heaviest thing I’ve ever owned. I stand up and gather it from the overhead luggage rack and put it on over my suit. I’ve never felt this kind of cold before.
A black porter moves down the aisle with a large wooden box strapped to his shoulders, selling fruit, sandwiches and some pieces of cake wrapped in wax paper. I decline; the dining car was open, so I decide to go there.
In the dining car — I order a cup of coffee. I sit in one of the booths by myself. I cradle the coffee cup in my hands, hunkered down into my coat, trying to warm myself. I blow on the black coffee and sip it — it tastes stale, but it is hot.
I listen to some of the talk of the men around me; oddly, much of the conversation reminded me of what the menfolk back in Marianna talk about: Livestock prices; local politics. What’s different are the accents.
I turn to stare at the winter wonderland outside the window, slowly passing by. Marianna is far away. I’ve wanted with all my heart to get away from Marianna, to start fresh somewhere else. And I am about to get my wish.
I never would have imagined myself here a year ago. I gaze out the window, into the white swirling wonderland — the train slows down and stops. We are going to be here awhile, the conductor announces loudly, walking through the dining car on his way through the train. “There’s a large tree across the tracks up ahead; make yourselves comfortable.”
I sigh. I close my eyes, and leaned my head back against the seat.
I think back to my last night in Marianna — the farewell party. I don’t remember much about it. But for the first time in about a year I think about Pearl.
I take out my silver pocket watch and look at the time — 5:15 pm. I turn it over in my hand and open the slim cover — there is a small Kodak photo of Pearl behind the thin glass. It has been there in my watch ever since she gave it to me. I’ve never removed it; I’ve rarely looked at, to be honest. Sometimes I’ve forgotten it is there. But I remembered it last night, as I lay in my bed in the sleeper car.
At the farewell, party, the day before I left Marianna, I called another woman by Pearl’s name, unconsciously.
It bothers me that I unconsciously said Pearl’s name; I wonder about it. It isn’t logical; I really didn’t think about her often, if at all. I haven’t written to her in well over a year. I haven’t heard from her, either; but, I don’t expect to. I had drunk a lot that night, more so than usual, I reasoned. And Jeanet — a local girl I’ve known for years in Marianna was flirting with me that last night in Marianna, at the party — too much for her own good.
If Jeanet said something to someone, I doubt anyone would believe her. Besides, she’d never own up to the fact that we’d snuck upstairs for a quick, quiet encounter in her bedroom — no. She’d not say anything. Of course, I could always deny it.
There’s nothing between Pearl and myself anymore. Cephas made sure of that. I remember how he extracted my promise to cut off any relationship with her, as soon as possible, in exchange for the partnership at Wilson and Wilson. I really hated doing that. But I had no choice.
I remember how I felt after Cephas had given me information he’d discovered about Pearl’s family. It was almost as if I was relieved that I didn’t have to make a decision that involved my feelings about her. It was a matter of practicality and logic — no matter what had been going on between Pearl and myself — the reality was that I didn’t need to risk scandal or invite trouble when I was just getting my law practice off the ground. I didn’t want any complications. I didn’t want personal liabilities or responsibilities, either. I hated that too; but I had no choice.
No one knew I had Pearl’s photo in my watch.
Even though I understand the reason why Cephas did that, I’ve hated him for it. Keeping Pearl’s photo in my watch, secretly, has been a kind of rebellion against Cephas and his almighty, omnipotent, omnipresent force in my life. I don’t know how logical this is, to keep a photo of a woman who was important to me hidden away, as an act of defiance.
And part of me still thinks once I make it big, become more important than my Cephas, when I won’t need to worry about public opinion or publicity, there still may be a chance with Pearl. It won’t matter what Cephas or anyone else says. I will make the choice.
But do I love Pearl?
Truthfully, I don’t know.
Part of me believes that if I did love Pearl, I would have told Cephas to go to Hell when he gave me the information about Pearl’s family, and told me that any kind of relationship with Pearl was out of the question.
And, if I did love Pearl, I would have taken any job I could, made my way for both of us. I would have asked her to wait — I wouldn’t have wanted to ask, but if I wanted her that much, I’d have done anything to keep her.
The only thing I do know for certain is that I want to be on my own, making my own decisions, in charge of all aspects of my life. My ultimate goal is to become a Supreme Court Judge, as was my Grandfather. That, to me, is the pinnacle of success. I want the peace and solidity that I can find in the law. It is unemotional, logical, quiet.
Thinking about the law calms me; eases the alien emotional turmoil that I feel when I think back about Pearl.
The train starts moving again, jostling me out of my reverie. My coffee is cold.
The porter asks if I would like a fresh cup of coffee; I shake my head no. I snap my pocket watch closed.
“Sterling!” the conductor calls out, as he walks through the dining car. “Sterling next!”
I get up and go back to my seat to await arrival.
Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus