excerpted from “ALMOST CANADA”
She moves up the aisle toward the dining car to pass the time until the train resumes its forward motion. At the narrow counter, she takes a stool beside to a dark haired man, orders a glass of ginger ale. The man is working on a burger. He shifts his eyes toward her, measuring. His hair is glossy, black as a raven feather and close-cropped above his collar. One long border of bristled hairs makes a ledge over his eyes, his nose hooking sharply over a pretty mouth.
“Gotta love ther rail, right?” he said. He hitches a smile in Antonia’s direction.
“One goddam delay en anerther,” he explains. There is a mole on his neck, just behind his left ear that moves as he chews and talks. It is the size of a grain of rice.
The man tilts over the counter toward his food, hooks his arm around his plate forming a border between his fried potatoes and Antonia. He is not a small man, or bird-like, but his movements suggest the motions of the ravens that inhabit the tree outside of her office window. Antonia watches the bubbles rise in her glass of pop, thinks about what she knows about ravens, which begin to court at an early age, and then mate for life. In part of the mating process, a male raven will demonstrate intelligence and a willingness to procure food or shiny objects. Egg laying begins in February so courting must take place in early to mid-January.
Antonia is a vegetarian more by disposition than philosophy. This is to say, she will eat meat to avoid hurting her neighbor’s feelings if invited for dinner. In a restaurant, she will select venison if the side dishes or greens are inferior. The man makes the hamburger vanish, chunks at a time, washing it down with pale beer. When he finishes, he wipes the corner of his mouth with a large, square thumb. His eyes rake her face, drop to her sweater. “Wheer ya headed? Goina Canada?”
Antonia stares at the chip bisecting his incisor, wonders what it would feel like to run her tongue over that rough surface. Her mouth forms a watery smile. Common ravens are highly opportunistic. “Almost,” she says, leaving money for the pop and spinning away. “I’m going to Almost Canada.”
She is mutable, an object of desire. She is a screen upon which projections are made: a bold maiden, a volatile spinster, the girl with the long grey skirt and the blouse with pearl buttons.
The man swipes twin circles of pickle from his plate and drops them on this tongue like holy wafers. He watches the twin moons of her rump as she moves away.
Antonia returns to her seat to find that in her absence, the pair of facing seats across the aisle has been occupied by three girls, sisters, traveling on their own. The oldest, a teenager with sleek black hair, presses out text messages on her phone, while the two younger girls share a laptop computer and review the Facebook posts of friends. They are fundamentally beautiful in the way of youth and by heritage; their ancestors inhabited these coastal meadows centuries before Europeans arrived with their fur trades and their thirst for whale oil. Antonia peers beneath her own lashes at the contrast between their dark hair and their alabaster skin, the curve of their lips above the slow arcs of their chins.
She feels a rush of gratitude for such vigorous charm, such tender virtue. As the train begins to slow for the next station, the oldest, the managing sister, switches from texting to making a call to determine at which city the trio will depart the train. The girl says It’s me. We’re coming to the station. Do we get off here or the next one? Antonia wonders how there can be confusion about the care of beautiful dark-haired girls. Mom, the girl says. Mom, please don’t yell at me. I just need to know, which station? And like that, a picture develops; the first one, the responsible child, the good girl. Antonia’s heart breaks a little for these sylph.