During supper in the dining car the former Queen of the Lettuce Festival wanted to know if the world was ending.
“Now, listen,” she said. “You can tell us—we’re not the kind that panics. We just want to be ready, that’s all.” She nudged her husband beside her. “Isn’t that right?” she said, then said it again.
“Oh, yes,” said her husband. “We are calm, cool, and collected.” He had the red nose of a drinker and giggled to himself as he ate his salad.
She wasn’t talking to me. I was traveling alone and hadn’t shaved in four days. I’d learned that a young man traveling alone doesn’t get asked questions. He makes people nervous.
She was talking to the man sitting beside me, a middle-aged man in a clean blue polo shirt who had introduced himself as David. He was a geologist.
The Queen tapped a golden fingernail on the tabletop. Her nail polish was the same color as the rims of her glasses and the watch on her wrist. “Tell me,” she said, “I hear about these glaciers melting in Alaska and California. Is this true? We want to be ready, you know, when the water rises.”
The husband paused in his eating to bang down a fist on the table. “Always be prepared!” he cried. His wine glass shivered. He speared a cherry tomato on his fork and grinned at it.
The Queen turned to him. “Howard,” she said. She gave him a stern look through her gold-rimmed glasses. “We’re talking.” She turned back to David the geologist: “Excuse him,” she said. “He used to be a Boy Scout.”
“Eagle Scout,” said Howard. “Once a Scout, always a Scout.” He put down his fork and picked up the wrapper the Queen’s straw had been in. “Watch,” he said, and winked at me. “Hitch knot!” he said and twisted the wrapper into a pretzel before it tore in half. He looked disappointed. “Oh,” he said. And after a moment, “I seem to have forgotten.” I handed him mine and he thanked me.
David the geologist resettled the napkin in his lap. “Actually,” he said, “there’s a glacier on Mt. Rainier that’s growing. I was up there last month.”
“Oh, dear,” said the Queen. “What does that mean?”
“Hard to say,” he said, “but you never hear about the growing ones. They’re not sensational enough.”
“Oh, dear,” the Queen repeated. “I wonder if they’ll make us extinct someday.”
“Oh, we’ll all be extinct someday,” David the geologist said. “We’ll die off, but the earth will go on. Something else will replace us. Maybe the insects, maybe the birds. But something will.”
“Awful,” the Queen said. “What an awful thing to think about.” She sat back and looked out the window. We were passing through the wide fields of eastern Montana. It was August and they were full of alfalfa and cutter bees and the hot evening sunlight.
A waiter came by and cleared away our dirty plates as the train swung into a long curve. He swayed with it perfectly and didn’t miss a step. When he returned, Howard said he was ready for some apple pie.
“I bet it’ll be the insects,” the Queen said at last. “There’s so many of them.”
“Could be,” said David the geologist. “Wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
“Me, neither,” said the Queen. She was quiet for a moment and touched her white hair lightly with a hand. “I just hope it’s not flies,” she said. “I don’t like flies.”
The waiter brought Howard’s apple pie and we fell into a silence as we concentrated on our food and the doom of the world. I didn’t think it would be the insects. I didn’t think it would be the birds, either. I had a feeling it would be something else entirely, something worse. But I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t worth fighting over and I’d already lost one fight that week.
Two days before in Chicago, Lucy told me we weren’t working anymore. We were moving apart, she said.
“How are we doing that?” I asked. We were sitting under a black umbrella at an outdoor café. The Chicago River flowed beside us and two gulls clattered over it.
“I don’t know,” she said. She shrugged and sipped dark soda through a straw. It was hard to hear her. It was rush hour and the traffic was a loud wind that redoubled off all the buildings. I pulled my chair closer to the table.
“It’s like I’m going east,” she said, “and you’re going west.” I frowned and leaned toward her. The traffic light had changed and a horn sounded as she spoke. “We’re just going in different directions, you know?” There were cardboard coasters on the table and she pushed two of them apart with her fingertips.
“That’s not true,” I said.
“Vance,” she said. She tried to smile, but instead she tipped her head to the side and took another sip of soda. When she did, her hair slid over itself like grain. It was shorter and lighter. I’d seen this the moment I got off the train and it worried me somewhere deep.
I’d mentioned it that afternoon on the platform. After we’d kissed hello I said she’d done something to her hair. Yes, she said. She had looked at me steadily. She’d gotten it cut, she said, and lightened, too. She’d told me this on the phone, she said. Didn’t I remember? Oh right, I said, she had. She hadn’t.
She wanted to know if I liked it. I didn’t. No, I wanted to say, are you kidding me? but I was thinking instead, thinking of how it was when we were both still in Shelby and we’d put food and beer in my truck on Friday afternoons after school and drive west through Cut Bank and on up to Glacier, where we’d hike until we found a good spot near water we could swim in before dinner. We’d sit against rocks and drink the beer while the stars came out above the lodgepoles and the spruce and the katydids began to tick and clatter in the brush; sometimes we’d hear the hoot of an owl and then Lucy’d make her eyes big and put her face close to mine and hoot at me until I’d kiss her to make her stop and she’d be laughing too hard to kiss me back. Later, in the tent I’d pull her down on top of me and her hair was so long and thick that when it covered my face I couldn’t see a thing or really even breathe, but I’d hold her there like that after we’d finished, the darkness beneath her hair so complete that nothing came in at all, not the starlight or the cricketsong or the damp smell of mud curving up from Rose Creek—even our breathing seemed to have gone someplace far away where it sat and waited quietly.
It was that stillness, I decided one night after a year with her had passed, it was that stillness that people must mean when they called something love.
“I can go east,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. I already didn’t like the city. It made my stomach heavy. In my suitcase back at her apartment was my return ticket to Shelby, and that’s where I wanted to be.
“Vance,” she said again. “No, you can’t.” She reached across the table and took my hand for a moment and squeezed it.
“Then you can come back west,” I said. I felt a little desperate, a little dizzy.
“I can’t do that, either,” she said. She didn’t take my hand this time. Instead I felt the firm pressure of the world pushing back at me. “I like this city,” she said. “I like my job and I like going out at night and dancing. I like all these people and all the noise. I’m happy here.”
I sat back in my chair and asked if there was someone else. She smiled sadly at me and said no, there wasn’t, and I believed her. I believed there was no one else, but there was still the city and that was still too much.
That night I lay in the dark on Lucy’s couch and tried to fall asleep. Yellow light came in through the blinds and I could smell her perfume in the seams of the cushions. Outside there were people calling to each other and laughing and airplanes rose and landed somewhere near. I covered my eyes with one hand and tried to think of one good thing. Then I tried to think of nothing at all. In the end I sat up and waited for dawn and wondered once or twice if I might get sick and if I could be quiet about it.
When it was light enough I took a taxi to the station while Lucy still slept. I took a seat in coach, then moved to the observation car and watched the flat land and the thin rivers slide past until evening came and I started to feel hungry again. I didn’t have much money, but I decided I deserved a good meal the way a soldier deserves a good meal after a battle, so I got a ticket for the dining car where they seated me with the Queen and her husband and David the geologist.
The Queen wanted to know if David the geologist was married. He wasn’t.
“Why not?” she said. She pointed at him with a shining fingernail. “Look how smart you are. How many men know about the end of the world?”
“Oh,” said David the geologist. He held up a hand, but he was smiling. “Please,” he said.
“Any girl would be lucky to have you,” the Queen said. She looked at the neat points of his collared shirt as she said this. I saw her glance at my hands. They were folded together.
“Well, it’s not for lack of trying,” said David the geologist. “I’ve met some nice women, but they never seem to stick around.”
Howard had finished his apple pie and took up my straw wrapper. He worked feverishly at it for a few moments, looping and relooping it. “Double surgeon!” he said at last and held up his work. He gave it one last tug and it tore in half. He smiled sadly as before. “Alas,” he said, “this trout has escaped.”
“Stop it,” said the Queen. She took the wrapper from his hands. “Now, listen,” she said to David the geologist. “Howard and I met thirty-two years ago at the Lettuce Festival in Santa Cruz. I was crowned queen and he was my king. It was a wonderful place to fall in love. You never know how it will happen.”
“That’s a beautiful story,” said the geologist. “Maybe I should go to a Lettuce Festival.” He laughed a little, then stopped.
“I would very much recommend it,” the Queen said. “Wouldn’t you, dear?” She nudged Howard and he grinned.
“Yes,” he said, “go. Go!” He giggled again and gave me his rosy grin. I could see where a touch of apple still clung to a tooth.
“Maybe I will, too,” I said, and the Queen and David the geologist looked at me. I went on: “I think I might like that.”
There was a long moment and I was aware of someone in the car striking a dish too hard with a glass and then laughing. “Yes,” the Queen said finally. She looked at me through her gold-rimmed glasses and frowned a little. “It’s quite an experience.”
I felt the blood rush to my face. I picked up the pieces of Howard’s straw wrappers and rolled them into little pellets between my thumb and index finger. I arranged them like a stone circle around a crumb while the waiter brought the check.
Outside, the mountains pushed up on the horizon and the light grew long and late, making deep shadows in the dells. I held on to the edge of the table with one hand as the grade rose slowly.