The Cook – an excerpt from “Train Story“
by TL Murphy
“Yes, Sir, the quiche is excellent this morning. I also recommend the crèpes, sir. We have fresh blueberries from Prince Edward Island… Alright, crèpes it is, sir. And I’ve just put on a fresh pot of Dark Sumatran, if you’re interested… Certainly, right away, sir.”
Larry headed into the kitchen as another couple sat down in the dining car. Bob, the day-cook, hunched over the grill with a cigarette in his mouth. Bob weighed four hundred pounds and the sweat was already pouring down his face.
“Get that damn coffee going, Larry!”
“It’s almost ready, Bob.”
“Well, bring me a cup then. Christ! I got a hangover that would kill a rhinoceros! And where’s my goddamn prep cook, Larry? Little shrimp-bucket. If he took another sick day…”
“Coffee’s almost ready, Bob. I need bené and a plate of crèpes.”
“Yeah, Yeah! Jesus! Just bring me a fucking beer, Larry!”
Bob stubbed his cigarette out on the grill and spread the batter with a practiced wave of the ladle. He cracked two eggs and leaned to one side as the train took a curve. God, he felt like hell. Lighting another cigarette, he thought how his doctor had told him to quit smoking five years ago and lose a hundred pounds or he wouldn’t see forty-five. What did that guy know? Forty-six and still kicking.”
Bob flipped the crèpes, dropped an English muffin in the toaster and threw a handful of bacon on the grill.
Larry burst in again. “Couple on six wants a blueberry-stack and two-lookin’-at-ya’. Old guy on four needs scrambled-n-ham. I got five and two sitting down. Here’s your beer.”
Larry exited. Bob popped the beer and took a long pull. He cracked two more eggs on the grill and threw down a slice of ham, grabbed a mixing bowl and poured some milk in it, cracked two more eggs, muttering… “fuck’n little shrimp-bucket, useless piece of shit.” He scooped hash browns off the grill into a steel pan and salted them, put the shaker down,stuffed a handful of the potatoes in his mouth and took slug of beer.
Good genes, Bob thought. Strong constitution. Grampa smoked ‘til he was ninety… Oh man, what a hangover! Then he threw up on the grill. Vomit exploded into the air. An iron claw grabbed his chest. His left arm went into spasm. He slumped as the grill came up fast. His hands landed on the hot surface but he felt nothing.
Vern looked out the window at the extraordinary morning light. He loved the train’s peace and the elegance of the dining car. He’d had better coffee in France, but still, this was an excellent blend. He took another sip, savouring the aroma and the subtle acids and listened closely to the background music.
Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, he mused. Second movement, Andante. Written in Cöthen, of course, regardless of what the buffoon, Wolff says. Vern focused on the ostinato bass pattern behind the melody’s variations. The train’s clicking wheels melded perfectly with the bass and his mind wandered to the lecture he would soon give at The College of Physicians in Toronto on his latest bypass technique.
He was rudely shaken from his thoughts by the waiter rushing out of the kitchen, “Doctor in the house! Is there a doctor here?”
Vern watched passively as the waiter looked around in panic and rushed back into the kitchen. Vern set his cup on the table cloth with a sigh, stood and dabbed his lips and followed the waiter into the kitchen.
The stench of vomit and burnt flesh filled the room. Vern pulled his collar over his mouth. A huge man lay on the floor. The waiter was giving him CPR. Vomit covered the wall and the floor. It looked like his breakfast was ruined.
“Mouth-to-mouth,” said Vern through his shirt.
The waiter looked up. “Are you a doctor?”
“Surgeon. He’s turning blue. Give him air. You’ll have to clear his mouth, first.”
The waiter stuck his fingers in the big man’s mouth and swiped at the vomit.
“Turn his head to clear the vomit.”
The waiter gave the big man a few breaths and went back to CPR. “Can you help me?”
“You’re doing fine,” said Vern.
“Fucking help me!” the waiter shouted.
Vern sighed and kneeled down, still holding his shirt up with one hand. He felt for a pulse through folds of fat. Then he lifted one eyelid.
“This man’s dead,” he said.
The train roared into Truro Station where Bobby McAllister stood on the platform holding his grandfather’s hand. The train was huge and rumbled like a thunderstorm and it was as shiny as a new nickel. The brakes screamed when the train slowed down.It stopped with a loud hiss and steam spilled out onto the platform. It was a little scary but Grampa was there so everything was okay.
Bobby was on his way to his grandparent’s farm to spend the summer but this was the first time he’d go on a train. His grandfather looked down at him and smiled. Bobby’s eyes were as big as moons. There were people everywhere and then two men in uniforms came running up, pushing a big bed on wheels. The train door opened and the two men folded the wheels up and took the bed onto the train and another man in a uniform told everybody to wait.
Bobby’s grandfather picked him up and held him high and then he said to Bobby, “Goodness, boy, you’re getting too big for me to pick up,” and he put Bobby down again just as the door opened again and four men lifted the bed down the steps onto the platform.
There was a big sheet over the bed and something huge under the sheet. Bobby thought it might be a bear under there because he had seen bears in the zoo and they were really big. But it probably wasn’t an elephant because he didn’t think four men could carry an elephant, not even a baby one.
As the wheels hit the ground, one corner of the sheet slid sideways and Bobby could see that there was a man sleeping under the sheet. Bobby wondered how anyone could sleep with all this racket going on and all these people. But this man must have been from somewhere else because he didn’t look like regular people. Bobby turned his head sideways to get a better look. The man’s face was the colour of oatmeal or maybe a cod fish and he had a head as big as a beach ball. The men in uniforms were breathing hard and grunting. Bobby thought they must be very nice men to carry this heavy guy without waking him up. One of them put the sheet back over the cod fish man’s face. Bobby thought that was a nice thing to do, too, so the man wouldn’t get the sun in his eyes. He figured this man must be the King because he had seen pictures of kings and they were fat and people carried them around. That must be one tired king, Bobby thought, to sleep through all this noise.
Brad drummed his fingers on the white tablecloth. He couldn’t understand what was taking so long. He gazed out the window at the crowd gathered on the platform. This was terrible. Why wasn’t the train moving? There must be something wrong. The waiter had forgotten all about them. He hadn’t even seen the waiter for ten minutes. This was terrible! People were leaving the dining car! Judy was getting anxious. Her small hands were fidgeting.
Everything was supposed to be perfect. He flashed a quick smile at his new bride. She was so beautiful, the line of her shawl draped over the curve of her pink breast, leaving the top revealed. He wanted her so badly he ached. Maybe they should just forget breakfast and he could take her back to the sleeper car and undress her slowly.
Ah, here comes the waiter. But he doesn’t have our food.
The waiter arrived at the table. “I am so sorry, folks. There has been an accident in the kitchen. Breakfast will be delayed.”
Brad looked at Judy in shock. She was beginning to cry. Oh, this was terrible! Now she was upset!
“B-B-B-But,” Brad stuttered, “But this is our honeymoon!”
Now Judy was really crying. Brad reached across the table and caressed her hand.
“I am terribly sorry for the inconvenience, sir,” said the waiter. “We will have the kitchen back in order shortly. But for the moment, I suggest you return to your seat. Come back in an hour and your breakfast will be on the house.”
Now the kitchen door opened again and the other man came out – the old doctor. He was white as a ghost and staggered to his table, holding his shirt over his mouth.
Brad looked at the waiter and his eyes narrowed. “I think not!” he said, indignantly. “We are staying right here. Aren’t we dear?” He squeezed Judy’s hand. “We are staying right here until our breakfast is ready.”
Judy began to bawl.
Art Stanton held on to his grandson’s hand and they boarded the train quickly. He had to get away from the body. He had seen too many dead bodies. The faces still haunted him, both American and Vietnamese. Ten years ago, at the suggestion of his doctor, he and his wife had gone to Vietnam in the hope that returning to the rebuilt country might help him end the hallucinations. But, if anything, they had gotten worse and after, he hadn’t slept for months.
On the farm, he could forget sometimes. He found that working with the cows was best. He never had visions when he was with the cows. And since Bobby had been born, it had gotten better. Spending time with Bobby helped and he looked forward to the boy’s visits. It had been a hard decision to make this trip but he wanted to do it and he had thought that being with Bobby would make it alright.
His hands trembled as he climbed the steps. He fought down the terror. Once on the train, he swept over the faces. They were all Asian. Some were missing limbs. Others slumped, dead in their seats. Blood ran down the aisle. Art turned his back to the passengers and picked Bobby up again. He searched his grandson’s face for signs of fear. The boy’s eyes darted in all directions and he said, “Grampa, can I sit by a window?”
“Do you see an empty window seat, Bobby?”
“Yeah, there’s one over there,” and he pointed.
With his eyes still fixed on the boy’s face, Art spoke slowly and deliberately, “Is there an empty seat beside it for me?”
“Sure there is. It’s right there.” Bobby pointed again.
“Okay, lead on, buddy” said Art. He put his grandson down and followed him, keeping his eyes on the floor. They passed a severed foot and an arm. Bobby stopped at a row of seats in the middle of the car and Art looked at the young man sitting by the aisle. The man was alive and there was no blood on him.
“May we join you?” Art asked.
“Of course,” said the young man.
Art kept his eyes on the young man’s face who smiled back. “In you go there, sonny.”
Bobby scrambled to the window and Art eased himself into the middle seat. “Name’s Art,” he said to the young man and held out his hand.
“Martin,” said the other. “What’s going on out there?”
“Oh,” said Art, “just some dead guy.”
She approached the gurney, not running, more floating in short leaps like a ballet dancer might cross a stage. She was barefoot and wore a skirt of many scarves stitched together, the hem, uneven and trailing like a kite tail. Her blouse was made from the same material with sleeves that fluttered off her elbows like small wings. Her hair also trailed in long, wind-tossed strands that had not seen a comb in months.
The EMT,whose name tag said “Terry”, stopped pushing the gurney as she approached. Her face was strikingly beautiful, dirty but fair, with piercing blue eyes and brilliant white teeth that radiated from her immense smile. She carried only a blanket roll slung over her right shoulder and tied at the hip.
Suddenly, she was beside the gurney. Both EMTs watched in amazement. She raised her delicate hands and placed them on top of the sheeted heap that had been Bob Jackson. She closed her eyes and raised her head to the sky and drew in a deep breath. Her head came slowly down as she held her hands in place, until it hung between her shoulders and she exhaled in a long flow of gentle wind.
“All aboard!” shouted the conductor.
Terry and the other EMT, whose name tag said “John”, stared at each other across the inert body. The young woman hovered for what seemed like a minute as the train slowly move off. She breathed in again and exhaled audibly. Then she raised her head and took her hands from the body and smiled at Terry who gazed back in wonder at the angelic face. She reached out and touched him on the arm, then, in one move like some forest nymph, turned and floated toward the moving train. Her blouse fluttered. She reached up and took the handle, drifting onto the step. She turned her head with one last look at the EMT and disappeared within.
Terry and John stood on the platform and gazed at the train as it moved off. “What the hell was that?” John said.
“I don’t know, man. Some kind of angel.”
John stared at Terry and then he looked at the sheet with the enormous heap underneath it. His face registered a quizzical look. He stepped to the head and pulled back the sheet. Terry held his breath as John reached into the folds of fat and felt for the jugular.
“Well?” said Terry.
John looked up. “Dead as a door nail, dude.”
About the author:
T.L. Murphy is a retired carpenter, a published poet, and an avid skier. He grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A. and emigrated to Canada in 1978. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, on the east side of the Canadian Rocky Mountains about 20 miles from the Continental Divide. Tim is a performance poet, has shared the stage with many prominent Canadian poets and was recently appointed Poet Laureate of Canmore, a position he will hold for one year. His poems, fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies and have been translated into Greek and Chinese.