I think about getting a drink.
The doors at the end of the car open. I hear them behind me. Ms. has returned. She sits down in the empty seat without asking. I smile. She smiles back then stands up again, reaching over me to put her bag in the storage rack. She sits down again more hesitantly and stares into the seat in front of her. The train rattles forward, a wonder of industrial percussion.
I offer her the newspaper from the seat pocket in front of me.
“I never read it. It’s always bad news. I want some good news.”
“There’s an arts section there, or style.”
She waits. “Practically the gospel.”
“I think I saw a Gideon’s in the bar car.”
She giggles, taking the paper from my hand. The leisure section - she folds the rest of the paper and returns it to the pocket in front of me, leaning over and forward with unexpected familiarity. I think of Penthouse Forum. This is how it often starts, I tell myself.
“Maybe my horoscope will tell me where I’m going, or that I should have been a nun.”
“They always do... tell you that you should have been a nun, that is. Let me guess, you either need to be more assertive at work, or perhaps focus on yourself for a while and let old habits go. You are family-oriented. You like to be decisive but have a hard time making decisions. This is a positive time for romance. Be mindful of your financial situation because you’re going through some personal turmoil. Only make essential decisions.”
“That’s amazing. How did you do that?”
“I’ve been told that I have an old soul. I’m practically a walking crystal ball, if a crystal ball had legs.”
“I’d have to agree. How much do I owe you for that?”
“Oh, don’t be too impressed. I’d give you the same reading tomorrow. They’re always free.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“That we’ll see each other tomorrow, or that the reading would be the same, and free?”
“Hmmm, let me peer in again... Both. I see it all now. I’m rarely wrong.”
“I’m John, the baptist. You might have heard of me” I hold out my hand for a handshake.
She looks at my hand for a moment then raises hers and takes it in her open palm. After shaking it she flips it over and draws her finger across my palm.
“Your laugh line runs right through your fate line. I can hardly tell one from the other.” She lets my hand go but keeps looking at me.
“Nice to meet you, May. How much do I owe you for the palmistry and witchcraft?”
“Oh, it’s free, this time. We’ll call it an even trade.”
“Where are you going?”
“I thought you’d already know. What makes you think I’m going anywhere? Maybe I’m just fleeing the city. I got involved in some pretty bad dealings back there. Got mixed up with the dangerous crowd and now I’ve just got to get back to where I stashed my take from the bank holdups we did when I ran with the old heist gang. Do you know anywhere that we can sink a van?”
“Dangerous character. I see. You think it’s a good idea to tell a cop about your stash, or your past?”
“You’re no cop.”
“A detective, I swear it. How do you think I knew your fortune? It’s my job to predict the future by discerning the past. It’s a form of profiling that only detectives, insurance adjusters, and garbagemen can perform, but we’re the ones that get to cuff people. They put me on special assignment on this train, to capture gypsies on the lam and try to sell them travel insurance, as if selling gypsies anything is ever easy.”
“I’m no gypsy.”
“All fugitives are gypsies. Tell it to the judge. I’ve got a job to do here.”
“Oh yeah? Do all detectives capture their subjects just by leaving a seat open next to them on a train?”
“No, we look for the loners that arrive late and are looking to sit by themselves. You can practically smell the guilt on them.”
“I’d say about every third person on this train is a criminal then.”
“I’d say about half. It keeps us busy. We don’t really have to go searching for them, they come right to us. If I had my way I’d seal the doors to this train and arrest everybody.”
“I was just gonna go to the bar car. Would you like a cocktail?”
“I can’t let you do that. I’ll go to the bar car, but I will have to handcuff you to the seat. Regulations, etc.”
“You’re allowed to drink while on duty?”
I started to get up and she turned her legs inwards, towards our window, so that I could squeeze by. She began to get money out of her purse. I waved her away. She held out a five dollar bill. I looked down at it and smiled.
“Don’t be silly. Drinking’s practically a requirement for this detail. They have us all on expense accounts for it. What would you like?”
“I’ll have a bloody mary.”
“The obvious criminal choice... You gypsies are all alike, you know. A bloody mary is not sustenance. You can’t actually live off of celery, olives, tomato and vodka.”
“It’s worked so far. If they actually put celery and olives in the bloody mary’s on this train then I’ll give it a try. I won’t have to eat for the rest of the day.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. They wouldn’t want to cut into their potato chip profits.”
“Check and see if they have a cheese appetizer too. No salami, please.”
“I don’t have to be a vegetarian to know that that’s not really salami. But yes, I am.”
“Oh good. I was worried that they might not be able to accommodate your special diet in prison. They do quite well with vegetarians on the inside now. Times sure have changed.”
I walked into the car that seemed to be in the car behind us, as we moved forward. After three or four cars I stopped a porter and asked. Other way, he said. I turned around and walked back. I stopped at our seats. Another smile.
“I’ve had to call in reinforcements, just in case you decide to go down hard instead of easy. It’s up to you, but backup is already on its way, so think twice before jumping. They’ll have the hounds on you in no time.”
“I’ll go easy, don’t worry. I get it, I’m busted. My time is up. Top notch detective work, that’s plain for everyone to see. I’m eager to pay my debt to society. I won’t put up a fight. I promise. But I did request a final meal...”
I walked forward this time. I wondered how I looked, wondered if she had leaned to look, wanting to check. I made it to the end of the car, opened the door and went through. The very next car was the bar car. Brilliant. The queue was only about four deep. I lined up. Each person seemed to only begin to make their decision when it was time to order. They would stand there looking up at the very limited menu with amazement and confusion, ordering slowly, occasionally retracting their order, making sudden changes as if they were inexperienced gamblers, afraid to make a bad bet, as if the house was riding on it.
When it was my turn I stepped to the counter and ordered two bloody mary’s and a cheese platter. Yes, that’s what it looked like, a cheese platter. Quite exquisite, wrapped in cellophane with a plastic knife. I was surprised to see that there was an olive with the bloody mary’s. Perhaps she was right, May. She would live to grift another day. I asked for two extra olives and the bartender looked at me as if I had asked her to pay for the drinks herself. I put two dollar bills in the tip jar and thought about changing my order.
I walked back to our seats with even more difficulty, two drinks in my hands and a plastic cheese platter under my arm, sans salami.
“They didn’t want to serve me two, they wanted to see your ID. I told them it wouldn’t do any good, that you probably had hundreds of them. I had to flash my detective badge. We’re not supposed to do that, normally, blow our cover. I hope those extra olives sustain you. I should have let you put all of this on one of your many stolen credit cards.”
“I’ll get the next ones.”
“Oh, don’t risk it. I’d hate to see anybody else arrest you. It’s my collar now, as they say in the cop biz.”
“You watch too much tv.”
“All cops do. Where do you think we learn how to act?”
“I thought you all went to cop school. You know, some of you learn to play the good cop, others fall to the dark side.”
“We all fall to the dark side. It’s something nobody ever tells you. We’re the most well-funded crime syndicate in the world.”
“I’ve heard that you’ve had funding problems lately.”
“Well, it’s like anything else. They want to squeeze as much profit out of us as they can for as little as possible. It’s the way of things, simple economics, and corruption at the top.”
We held our plastic cups up for a mock toast. May took an olive out of hers and ate half of it as she took her first drink. We arranged the cheese appetizer on the pull-down tray in front of her. We each took a piece. Predictable.
“It barely qualifies as cheese.”
“It makes a better salami.”
Cheese. The land had flattened out almost completely now. A few hills rising and falling gently in the distance. The trees flashed past, barely discernible, signs and roadways arriving and receding as perpetual surprises, then forgotten places of an unknown past. I thought of taking her hand again, but then thought better of it, though thinking more of it. Her hands were thin and delicate, rings on three fingers, the telling one absent of all evidence. She sliced off another piece, clumsily with the plastic knife, and married it with a cracker. As she brought it to her mouth she smiled, I returned.