It’s a Long Way Home (1st draft)

Nightfall, the station master locked the front door and surveyed the young couple waiting on the porch. “Well, folks looks like the train is running late, and I’ve got to close up now.” The man had brown tobacco stains down his chin. He leaned and spat a long black stream in the dirt.

Ethel winced where she sat on their steamer trunk. Ben stepped forward and expressed how thankful kind it would be if the man would leave the oil lamp burning.

The man saddled up his horse. “Just be sure to blow out the light when the train arrives. It’s the best I can do for you, folks. If I don’t get home in time for dinner, my wife will be riled up.” He turned his horse and rode off down the dusty road.

Ethel sipped from a bottle of cold drink. “Any woman who could put up with his vile habits must be a keeper,” she said. She dabbed the cold bottle against her baby’s cheeks and forehead, tried to offer a taste. “What a place. At least they have an ice closet, and this here drink. I wish this bottle would stay cold and last until the train comes, don’t you? Maybe all the way back to Arkansas if one bothers to wish at all.”

But that night, the train never did come. What’s more, in the morning, the flat dry land transformed – without a cloud in the sky – into a vast shallow lake. Ben woke Ethel.

“Come on,” he said. “There’s no telling how high this water will rise.”

Following Ben, Ethel splashed ankle-deep through tepid brown water. The baby had developed diarrhea in the night, and Ethel was still muddled about what was going on. They headed toward a small rise in the land and a shade tree. The sky was bright blue, and it was already hot. Ethel hummed softly to her whimpering baby.

Ben carried two large bags. The back of his shirt developed a long dark stain. There had not been a drop of rain during their entire month-long visit to Ben’s kin in New Mexico. Ben explained the flood must have been the Rio Grande full of snowmelt from high up in the mountains. Ethel listened and looked around. There were no mountains of snow she could see. The whole affair was surreal, and here it was better not to say a thing. It just felt portentous.

They should have stayed long enough to show her wedding dress to the ladies, had supper, and high-tailed it back to Arkansas. Better yet, they should have never come. There was something about this land that made her feel it did not want to let them leave. The child shuddered in her arms. She hummed again.

Ben’s brother should have stayed with them until the train arrived. But it was better not to say anything. The minute she opened her mouth, something would come out, and it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Ben spread a blanket under the tree. From this point, they could see the rails underwater on both sides east and west. Ethel changed the baby’s diaper while Ben went back to the station for the steamer trunk. When he got back, he looked at the red-faced, tired child and then took the diaper below the hill to wash it. He came back and laid the diaper on a bush to dry. It was not something to say, but the diaper looked worse because of the muddy water. Needful or not, she would never put that on her baby. Knowing her mind, Ben shrugged.

He sat against the tree trunk and rested his eyes. Ethel lay on her side, watching. In a little while, the baby was quiet, and Ben was asleep. Everything was still as the branches without a breeze. From the tree trunk beside Ben, a bit of bark jumped down and grabbed a moth fluttering in the dust. With several heaving gulps wings body and all were swallowed. The brown lizard climbed back up the tree right beside her husband and disappeared.

Something was bound to come out, but Ethel needed to talk. “Ben, if you’re sleeping, it’s better you just listen and not interrupt.”

“I don’t know why I think of it now,” Ethel paused. “But a year ago, you took me down to camp on the Arkansas River; I lied to you. I had never gone camping like that. You might have guessed for all the feather pillows I insisted we bring. And remember how I made you set them pillows on a great big pile of leaves? And then we woke up itching to high heaven with fleas. And I cried. You said it must have been a favorite place for wild hog or deer, but you never razzed me for picking it. We packed it up and got out of there.”

Ethel looked at Ben sleeping; he seemed so peaceful. So she carried on. “And there are many other times to speak of but most recent on this trip I insisted on bringing my wedding dress to show the ladies. It was irresponsible when we needed the room for necessities. I admit that.”

Ethel got up and opened the steamer trunk. She took out the wedding dress and held it out at arm’s length. She swished the long white fluid fabric and danced a few steps of the last waltz. Abruptly she stopped and tore the fine material down the back.

Ben was awake now. “What are you doing?”

“You should have been firm and not let me bring this thing halfway across the country. It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t smart.” She tore off the sleeve.

“But you loved that dress. And I thought you were the most beautiful woman I saw in it.”

Ethel struggled, tearing a seam.

“Please,” said Ben. He reached out.

“No,” she said, shrugging off his touch. “You should have put your foot down while we were still in Arkansas and told me to leave it. Why must you insist on always letting me have my way?”

“Because I love you,”

“Ha!” jeered Ethel.

A steam whistle sounded off on the horizon. Ben and Ethel stopped and looked to see the engine smoke billowing, then at each other. Ethel ripped another section of the dress.

“If you love me, you’ll help me tear this up. It’s a long way home, and we need the diapers.”