I eat and sleep with the dead.
It seems quite natural, for I’ve done it for some time now. The stench of the open latrine filled with the rotting bodies and excrement of countless unknown soldiers is disgusting beyond words, but the dead do not seem to mind.
They voice no complaints.
We look like two normal guys, my buddy and me. Just two normal guys reading the papers, smoking cigarettes, and retelling raunchy jokes told a hundred times by others down the line.
I am small and lanky, my face slim and barely lined. My buddy has a heavy brow, dark eyes, and the swarthy looks of a lady killer. You know the kind. He gazes, without hesitation, into the camera and smiles. The camera is his friend, and I follow his lead. I grin, too.
Ours are deceptive smiles.
Yet, our eyes tell the true story.
The photographer has his picture. He nods his head in thanks and moves on down the trench.
A rat scampers over my muddy boot. It is huge, bloated with corruption from a feast of filthy scraps and putrid carcasses. They are everywhere, these vermin, and pester us like a plague of biblical proportion.
There is no exterminating them. Only coexistence in these godforsaken trenches.
And the lice!
Every louse is an agent of suffering. They bite and gnaw our skin. Relentlessly. I pick and squeeze them, rip them off my shirt and undershirt, rub the material until my fingertips are raw, but the ones I kill are soon replaced by hatchlings. Their birth is triggered by the warmth of my body, and their unending torture drives the sanest man to utter madness.
The skulls in the muddy walls and floors in this Alley of Hell look at me and grimace. I am in torment, and at least for now, my torments know no end.
I look up at the night sky, flashing white with mortar fire like a summer lightning storm. This war is proving to be a never-ending bloodbath, and we die, not for miles of enemy territory, but for inches. Yet, sometimes, it is better to be a war machine – reacting, unthinking, and absorbed in the tasks of killing and surviving. It hurts too much to think, to ponder, to dream.
The endless hours of waiting between battles are the greatest enemy. The quiet moments in the trenches when I read or write letters or simply sit in tedious boredom prove the hardest to endure.
I try to harness my mind, to reign in my thoughts and keep them from racing to the darkest recesses where horror lives.
I am a soldier.
I am a soldier.
I am a soldier.
If the order comes to ‘go over the top,’ I will die a soldier.
I will die. I will die. I will die. I will die.
I am dead!
He awoke panting, heart racing, and sweating like a mule tethered to a limb in the blazing heat of high noon on a summer’s day. His knuckles were white, and both fists clenched the sheet in a death grip. His bulging eyes looked out, unseeing, and his mouth twisted in a grotesque mask – a silent scream.
In a weak moment, he agreed to photograph Jewel Delancy’s wedding. But now, he’d give anything to have declined. He did not know Jewel Delancy. He had never met her. She was a stranger who was getting married.
He would never understand why so much money and time were expended on a rite that would last thirty minutes.
A simple recitation of vows would suffice, he brooded, and the money saved could be better spent on things like furniture or rent. Those matrimonial promises were just as binding, whether repeated at great expense in a cathedral and said to a crowd of thousands or voiced freely under an open sky to a handful of witnesses. Perhaps his views were marred by his time in the trenches.
But the one thing he did know, he was no authority on such matters and never would be – since the war. A German bomb fragment had seen to that.
Yet, here he was on a passenger train heading east. Why he’d agreed to Harry’s request, he still could not figure out. But even as a child, his cousin, Harry, had marked him as a sucker for a sob story. And Harry could wring tears from a turnip when he wished.
Reluctantly, Flix agreed to photograph the lady’s wedding for free. For Harry’s sake. Harry was in a jam, and it was up to Flix to get him out of it.
“It was a friendly game,” Harry said. “And up until that last hand, Lady Luck smiled on me like a Cheshire cat.”
That last statement should have warned Flix to run for the hills and avoid his cousin at all costs, but he had remained on the line. Sure enough, Flix began to feel sorry for Harry. So, to erase a family member’s gambling debt, he reluctantly agreed to Harry’s request.
“On the level, Cuz, you’re the cat’s pajamas!” Harry exclaimed. “I’ll make this up to you, Florian, I promise! If you hurry, I’ll bet you can catch the Mercury Royale before it leaves this afternoon.”
Flix hung up the phone, the voice of his younger cousin still echoing in his ear. He smiled wryly. Harry would never grow up. And Florian Flix would always have ‘chump’ painted in boxcar letters across his forehead.
At least, where Harry was concerned.
Flix rushed home, packed a few things, and headed to the station to purchase a ticket. He had to scramble, but he made it just before the Mercury Royale departed.
At least, Flix thought, burrowing deeper into the thick cushion of the comfortable seat, he was traveling in style. The porter told him dinner would be served in the forward dining car at seven.
Flix patted his stomach. He knew his sweet tooth would be satisfied tonight. Since Prohibition outlawed booze, sweets had replaced cocktails on customer menus. Perhaps a nice sundae would hit the spot.
He smiled contentedly and scanned the sports page. The Yanks were having a good year, having added the Babe to their roster for a hundred grand. Flix wondered if the ball player would prove his worth.
A hundred grand!
The fortune of Midas!
He asked himself why he kept up with the game at all, since the scandal of last year’s World Series, but he knew the answer. He could not help it. Baseball was in his blood.
“Excuse me, sir,” a young woman said, sweetly. “My name is Agnes Montreau, and I was wondering if you have a cigarette? I’m just dying for one.”
“Certainly,” he said, retrieving one from his cigarette case.
“May I?” she asked, looking at the empty chair beside him.
“Of course! Be my guest. My name, Miss Montreau, is Florian Flix.”
“You know, Mr. Flix, I believe the Mercury Royale is the only railroad that allows men and women to smoke in the same car! Quite progressive, don’t you think?”
“Umm,” he said.
I feel,” she said, “like this new decade will see many things change for the better, don’t you? For goodness sakes, women can vote!”
“You’re right,” Flix said. “Times are changing, but in the case of this rail line, I believe economy wins over progressive attitudes.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Oh, let me explain my reasoning,” he said. “You give the railroad company credit for being forward thinking and having modernists running the show, but I’m not convinced that is entirely the case.”
“How do you mean?”
“This smoking car is very luxurious, don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely,” Agnes said, daintily flicking her ashes into a crystal ashtray beside her.
“Look around you,” he said. “Exotic woods like mahogany, rosewood, and teak make up this fantastic paneling. Carpets from the Orient and chandeliers, no doubt from Europe. Furnishings fit for a king!
You would expect this type of decoration in a private car belonging to someone quite wealthy. Yet, the Mercury Royale has spared no expense and makes this car available to its average passenger, male and female. We can smoke in the opulence once reserved for sultans.
This kind of interior does not come cheap, but it does give the line many advantages over its competitors. Word of mouth, spread by overawed customers, is wonderful advertising.
Who in their right minds would not want to see this beautiful car?”
“It’s the cat’s meow,” she said.
“Consider this, Miss Montreau. How much more economical is it for the Mercury Royale to run just one smoking car fit for a czar, rather than furnish two less grandly? One for females and the other for males.
They pour all their capital into one extravagantly designed car that is the talk of the country. In the end, I feel they come out cheaper. They may tout themselves a progressive rail company, but I have a sneaking suspicion their eyes are on the bottom line.”
“Of course,” she said, “when you explain it that way, your logic makes perfect sense. But I don’t think it’s all about the bottom line. I think the company head is a genius. Mixing men and women.
What could happen?
What does happen?
Oh, it takes my breath away!
Can you imagine the scandal that can occur right in this very car?”
“Imagine,” the young lady continued, “a famous movie star and her husband are traveling on this train. Perhaps, she bumps into a man from her past at the station. Her old paramour has bought a ticket on the same day and on the same train.
Regardless, sparks fly!
Two lovers destined to meet secretly.
How can they do it clandestinely?
The famous star cannot afford suspicion. Her photograph would be on the cover of every gossip rag. That would ruin her career. So, how to appear to meet innocently and not arouse her husband’s mistrust? Why in this smoking car, of course!”
“Ha! Ha! What an imagination,” Flix said. “My explanation is as dry as salty crackers. Yours is as rich as Lobster Newburg!”
They smoked contentedly for a few moments. Agnes tilted her head, her cloche hat almost touching the shoulder of her dark dress.
“I hope you will not think me too forward, but you look like such a nice fellow. Are you traveling alone?”
“Yes,” Flix said.
“Me too,” she said, drawing hard on the cigarette, letting the curling wisps of smoke slowly escape her lungs.
“Is this your first solo excursion?” Flix asked.
“Oh, no,” Agnes said. “But I hate traveling. Not the train, you see, but the alone part. I just don’t know what to do with myself! No friends to talk to. I read until my eyes cross. I look out at the passing scenery until I’m dizzy.”
“Well, that won’t do.”
She smiled. It was a nice, beautiful smile.
“Tell me, Agnes, why is such a lovely girl alone on this train? Are you traveling home?”
“No,” she said. “Wait. Yes. I guess I am. I’m on this train because I’m going to a wedding.”
“How remarkable! So, am I.”
“You’re getting married, too?”
“Me. No,” he said. “I have nothing truly against weddings. Though perhaps, all the fuss and bother and money spent on them could be better used for other things.”
“Really?” she said. “I admit, some people go way overboard on their wedding, but why not? Have you never been guilty of throwing good money away on something you really didn’t need but simply wanted?”
“Well, Agnes, I’m frugal.”
“You’re telling me that you’re a tightwad.”
“No,” he said, “I wouldn’t say that.”
“So,” she said, “you’re penny-wise. You don’t throw money away. Yet, you have your paper.”
“I beg your pardon,” Flix said.
“Your newspaper. You spend good money for a handful of sheets of ink and paper.”
“But, I like to keep up with current events. The world changes so quickly.”
“Indeed, it does,” she said, “but do you have to have that paper? Do you have to have it to live? No, you do not. I daresay, Florian, that you buy newspapers every day. Not necessary. In this case, I could say that you were throwing away your money because today’s newspapers line tomorrow’s bird cages, don’t they?”
He remained silent.
A wedding,” she continued, “can seem like wasteful spending, I know, but to the girl who is walking down the aisle, it is a moment in time that stands for something very special.
Saying those vows marks the instant in her life when she turns her back on all she has ever known. A new chapter. A new beginning to a new life that she hopes will last until she meets her Maker. Ha, ha. Till death parts and all that.
If you’re in it for the long haul that can mean a lotta years! I think those kinds of occasions deserve a little hoopla. Even if they cost a pretty penny.”
“Agnes, you should run for President.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. They gave us the right to vote not the key to the White House!”
“Quite so, Miss Agnes. And maybe you’re right. To answer your question, I’m only attending a wedding to photograph it.”
“Oh, you must excuse me, Florian. I don’t know what is wrong!” Agnes said. “I’ve just climbed up on my soapbox to say weddings are beautiful. The ceremony is special, although it can be expensive.
But Florian, I’m going to my wedding and to be honest, the thought sets off a million butterflies in my stomach. For two cents, I’d dig a hole, jump into it, and pull a rock over myself.
I can’t help but think, ‘what have I done? Why did I say yes?’
I love Billy. I do, but am I selling myself short?
I’m so young! I feel like I haven’t even begun to live. In a couple of days, I’ll be Billy’s wife! My old life will be over. Oh, Florian! What if I disappoint Billy?”
“You are just having cold feet, Agnes. It’s natural to feel apprehensive, to have doubts, and to feel antsy and nervous. This is a big change. But you have a wonderful imagination and a good sense of humor. Those traits will carry you far.”
Agnes fell silent, looking down at her feet. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She looked into his eyes. They seemed so warm and kind. She smiled.
“Do you understand?” she asked. “Yes. I believe you do. You have such gentle eyes. I’ve been watching you.”
“What? And not the scenery?” Flix asked.
“Well, yes,” she said. “The scenery, too. But there are only so many trees and streams and cows a girl can stand. Besides, people are so much more interesting to watch.”
“Yes. They are.”
“Take that gentleman, over there,” Agnes said, pointing several seats ahead. “He will take two puffs from his pipe, hold it in his hand, and look to his left. Then, he will stroke his mustache, take another puff, and go back to his book. Just watch, and see if I am not correct!”
Sure enough, the gentleman did exactly as Agnes had predicted.
“Your powers of observation are superb!” Flix said. “I must watch myself. I shall be guilty of
some unconscious habit, and you’ll call me out on it!”
“You! Why no! All I have seen from you are impeccable manners and a gentle smile.
I’ll be honest,” she said. “I expected an explosive reaction when the porter spilled coffee on you. But, no! All I saw was a calm courtesy, in spite of having your coat stained.”
“I must admit,” he said, “I was shocked when it happened. But I have many coats, several of which I packed. I was not burned. The coffee stain came out. It was an accident.
The porter acted quickly, helping me remove my coat. He took it to another car. When he brought it back to me, the stain had miraculously disappeared. There was no harm done. It was an honest mistake. Why should I make the man feel bad for it?”
“I know,” she said. “I feel the same way. Accidents happen to everyone. But some people are such beasts!
You see that small man two seats over?
He practically spits with rage when the porter walks by him. The porter did nothing. Just his job. He has to walk up and down these aisles and make sure the passengers are comfortable.
But the way that man looks at the porter, you’d think the Negro had killed that man’s daughter. Such hatred! It is horrible to witness!” Agnes said.
“Maybe,” Flix said, “that little man is dealing with problems or has been injured by Life. I don’t
know. Or maybe, he is naturally impatient and feels at odds with the world. I only know that for me, the Golden Rule is a high standard, but I try to practice it on everyone.”
“I wonder if Hot Fuse ever heard of the Golden Rule?”
“I’m sure I can’t say,” he said. “What are you doing for dinner? It would bring me much pleasure to have you as my guest.”
“I am honored to accept your invitation. Thank you, Florian. The thought of sitting alone at that little table was enough to make me want to skip dinner.”
“Oh, but that would be a mistake. My dear lady, the dinner on a fine line like the Mercury Royale is sure to be superb! To purposefully miss it would be criminal,” Flix said, chuckling. “The food you will be served tonight rivals some of the grandest hotels and finest restaurants in the country.”
“Oh, I have no doubt. And with your company,” she said, “I am sure to enjoy my meal all the more!”
“I’ll see you at seven, Agnes. And I look forward to an excellent dinner and the pleasure of your company. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some letters I must write.”
“The pleasure’s all mine, Florian. And thank you so much for coming to the aid of a damsel in distress.”
“You’re just suffering from a case of nerves. You’ll make a good wife, Agnes. I know that much, just from our brief chat. I shall see you at seven.”
“Good day, Florian.”
As Flix left the smoking car, he made it a point to tip the porter handsomely.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “you did an excellent job on my jacket. I will be sure to commend your talents to the conductor.”
“Thank you, sir,” the porter said, softly.
The little man, two seats forward, scowled deeply but remained silent. He picked up his paper and rattled it loudly. His face disappeared behind the black and white copy. Flix passed by without acknowledging the small man’s presence.
Flix made his way to the dining car a few minutes before seven. It wasn’t long before many of his fellow passengers wandered in and took seats at tables set with sparkling china and crystal.
He noticed the small man Agnes had described sitting one table over, across the aisle. At that moment, Small Man’s eyes met Flix’s.
Flix nodded and smiled, but Small Man did not warm to his gestures. The stranger simply scowled and picked up his dinner menu. Taking out a handsome fountain pen, Small Man began writing down his choices for supper.
Flix absently looked out the window. America was such a patchwork of differing landscapes, rolling hills and distant flatlands, small farm houses, and thriving towns. All blended in a blur outside his window.
“Well, Florian,” Agnes said, “you’re lost in your own world, a thousand miles away, aren’t you?”
“I am afraid I was just letting my mind roll along with this train, Miss Agnes.”
“Easy to do,” she said, “as you stare out the window.”
“Yes, it is. And don’t you look exceptionally lovely tonight!”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Florian. But I don’t feel particularly lovely. I’m as jumpy as a grasshopper that’s leaped on the coals of a campfire.”
“Well, perhaps a good meal will do you good.”
“I hope so,” Agnes said.
Agnes was spreading her linen napkin across her lap when a large commotion started.
“What the hay? Look what you’ve done, you stupid ape!”
The small man rushed from his seat and grabbed the waiter’s arm. He twisted it so fiercely that the poor waiter yelped in pain.
Flix flew from his seat, wrenching Small Man’s hand from the waiter’s arm.
Small Man paled in shock – a white man coming to the aid of a waiter! It was preposterous!
“Now. Now. Let’s not make more out of this than need be,” Flix said in a low, menacing tone.
Small Man took a step back, shrinking somehow, like a balloon pricked with a pin.
“Who are you to stick your nose in my business? Didn’t you see what that nigger did? I’ll have his job for this! You just wait! You just wait and see!”
Small Man patted his vest, looking around the dining car.
“And where the hell is my fountain pen! You old cuffee! You pinched it! I paid over five dollars for that thing! Give it back, you hear! You stole it, didn’t you, you . . .”
Small Man lunged toward the waiter, again. Flix stood his ground, staring down into the short man’s beet-red face.
Small Man looked at Flix.
He’d have to stretch to reach five feet, Flix thought. A raging child in a grown man’s suit. Or a hot tea kettle on the verge of whistling shrilly.
The spittle bubbled at the edges of Small Man’s mouth.
“Why don’t you leave me alone,” Small Man said. “You and your floozy over there! You have nobody fooled! Huh! That’s what’s wrong with this country. Loose women. Loose morals. This country’s going to hell in a hand basket. And now, you’re gonna take up for little black Sambo. You make me sick.”
A cold and steely look came into Flix’s eyes. Small Man noticed it, instantly.
“You owe the lady and this waiter an apology,” Flix said.
“Hell will freeze over first! It will snow down there before you ever see me apologize to a . . .”
Flix balled his fists, drawing back to slug the man.
Small Man jumped back a few steps. He looked at the faces of the diners, staring at him in unbelief. Small Man’s face reddened.
“Hey, look. You’re right. You’re right,” he said. “I was just mad at that clumsy coon. I am afraid I tried to take my anger out on everyone. No offense, lady. I was just blowing off steam. I’m sorry. I was outta line.”
Small Man looked down, avoiding the searing glare from Flix’s cold eyes.
“What just happened is not the waiter’s fault,” Flix said.
“Not his fault! This handkerchief-head dropped his whole tray on my table. You saw it, plain as day.”
“Yes, he did. But he didn’t drop his tray until he stumbled over your brown shoe that slipped out into the aisle as he was passing by.”
“What!” Small Man said. “What are you saying?”
“It is no use denying the facts,” Flix said. “I saw you trip this man.”
“That’s a lie!”
“No, it’s not,” Flix said. “And as for your fountain pen, let’s see if it might not be over here.”
Flix bent down and picked up the pen from across the aisle, lodged between a chair leg and a table.
“What is your name?” Flix asked Small Man.
“Beedy,” he muttered. “John Beedy.”
“Well, Mr. John Beedy,” Flix said, “if I hear of one more instance of you causing the employees of this train any more trouble, I will report you to Neward Champion, President of the Mercury Royale Railroad Company. I am sure that after I have a chat with my buddy, Neward, you, sir, will be blacklisted from riding any train in this country!”
“But,” Small Man said, “but I’m a salesman. I travel for my job.”
“No more trouble,” Flix said. “Do I make myself clear?”
Flix stared into Mr. Beedy’s small, round eyes.
“Perfectly, sir. I think I’ll have supper in my berth.”
“A good idea, Mr. Beedy.”
Mr. Beedy exited the dining car.
“Attaboy, Florian,” Agnes whispered, as Flix seated himself back at their table. “I’m impressed. You certainly gave him the bum’s rush. And you know the Big Cheese, Neward Champion. Boy, you really do know your onions!”
“Not as much as you think. I made that up about knowing the president of the railroad. I read his name on a pamphlet advertising the Mercury Royale. It was a calculated bluff, because I believe, deep down, that Mr. Beedy is a coward. I was taking a risk by implying that I could have him blacklisted, but it worked.”
“Bravo!” said Agnes.
“This is between you and me, Agnes, but our friend, Mr. Beedy, is a troublemaker of the first degree.”
“You said it, Florian.”
“No,” Flix said. “I mean it. Beedy may well be a traveling salesman, but I believe he’s Klan. That’s why he’s so set on causing trouble for the porters and waiters on this train.”
“But how do you know?” Agnes asked.
“He’s been reading that newspaper of his like it’s the Bible.”
“So?” Agnes said. “When I met you in the smoking car, you were doing the same thing.”
“And I was,” Flix said. “That’s true. But I was reading the sports section of The Daily Chronicle. Our little instigator has read nothing but The Kyklos: Circle of the Brotherhood. It’s the leading publication of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“But,” Agnes said, “this isn’t the South!”
“No, Agnes. We aren’t in the South. But hatred knows no boundaries. The Klan is built on fear and hatred. This group is spreading its tentacles into all sections of our country. No place seems safe. I read where a man was tarred, feathered, and whipped because a lady in Yipitantha accused him of looking at her lustfully.
Nightriders that far north!
The poor man was lucky they didn’t hang him.
And I fear we’re at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the resurgence of the Klan. D. W. Griffith’s movie came out a few years ago.
The Birth of a Nation has been like a match to the fuse of a keg of dynamite. The evils espoused by that motion picture are horrible. Yet, the film is amazingly good.
Plus, you have so many who have lost their jobs or seen their wages drop since the war. These are hard days, Agnes. I can see why some would flock to join such an organization. And that is why I fear the Klan’s power will only grow in the coming years.”
“The Birth of a Nation,” Agnes said, “is the berries. In fact, it was so good, I made Billy take me to see it twice.”
“But it glorifies hateful things, Agnes.”
“Florian, your logic is too deep for me. I don’t know much of anything about anything. I’m only a girl. But I do know, I’d go see that movie again in a heartbeat.”
“I’m sure you would,” Flix said, fiddling with his fork.
“That little man,” Agnes said, “was so mad about that missing fountain pen. I thought he would either kill the waiter or lay an egg right in front of us. How did you know where to look for that pen? Did you see it sail across the aisle?” Agnes asked.
“No,” Flix said. “The waiter was blocking my view.”
“Then, how did you know where to look?”
“Oh, that was simple science, Agnes. I saw the whole incident up until that point, remember. I saw the direction the waiter fell, how he knocked into Mr. Beedy, and of course, Mr. Beedy’s foot in the aisle that caused the ruckus in the first place. Action. Reaction,” Flix said. “Simple as that.”
“Simple to you, perhaps,” she said, “but about as clear as mud to me.”
“It was nothing. I assure you. Just an educated guess. Let’s put the matter behind us, shall
we? I don’t know about you, but I have seen this menu, and it’s excellent,” he said.
“You’re right. Everything looks good. Let’s order. All of a sudden, my appetite has returned. I’m starving!”