Novel Excerpt: Journey West

Lynn Pruett ’82 is the author of the novel RUBY RIVER and numerous short stories and essays. She has received fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and enjoyed a residency at Yaddo. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University and divides her time between Lexington, Kentucky, and Four Hills Farm in Salvisa, Kentucky. Read her blog at “Journey West” is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, which won the Nob Hill Penwomen’s Novel award this year.

July 1898

Emmy Dunning chose the last row of the passenger car. She placed her bag on one seat and sank into the other. As the train moved across the Pennsylvania farmland, she observed the green hills, the small farmhouses, the white and black cows, motionless but for their mouths and tails. A frieze of middle America right now, she thought. Miles away from a war in the warm waters of the Caribbean. How peaceful the cows are as their udders replenish, how content.

She leaned against the cushion, grateful for the extra space. The double across from her was empty. Could this luck of privacy continue across the whole continent? She wished so. After a while she took out her pen and journal and wrote of her time in Delaware, and her dreams for a future that seemed lovely. She had been running away for such a long time that running toward something required new patterns of thought. She would certainly find John’s alleged mistress. She would start with Laura Cannonero, whose letters suggested knowledge of the affair. If Laura’s claims were true about John being a co-respondent in another? divorce case, that was the evidence she’d need to divorce him. She’d have to check records, find a lawyer as soon as she got back to San Francisco.

She remembered the nights John barely made it home to their apartment on California Street. The bay window with velvet cushions where she sat and watched for his return, anxious thoughts keeping her awake. His bicycle careening up the street, his voice loud and off-key, Sweet Caroline, my Divine, her horror at what the neighbors thought. He had a little bell on the bike that he rang to announce his arrival, despite the late hour.

“Must everyone on the block know you have come home after midnight?” she said.

“A newspaper man’s hours are not those of the hoi polloi,” he slurred.

Some mornings she’d find him snoring over copy. The telegraphed news on the table, and his foul breath curling the paper he wrote on. Many times she had finished the article for him, then nudged him awake with a fresh cup of tea. Pushed and prodded him into his clothes and out the door, paper in hand. Other times she had gathered Clara up and carried her to the trolley stop, ridden down to the AP building on Montgomery, delivered the copy to Mr. Railey, he, of the sagging basset hound face, whose wrinkles had undulated as he thanked her, and pointed to the large blank rectangle they had held for Mr. Dunning’s piece. She and Clara would go on to the Golden Gate Park for the morning. Emmy’d buy a bun at Breuss’s Coffee Parlor and feed Clara bits as if she was a little bird. They’d watch the seagulls and the ships. Then depending on her strength or coin, they’d take the trolley or walk the twenty blocks back to their pleasant, high-ceilinged apartment.

The last time she had dropped off copy Mr. Railey had complimented the choice of the word “scroll” in reference to the railing on a ship and given her a wink. He must have known she was writing the articles.

She had not written a word in Delaware. There wasn’t time or peace enough. Her life on the Square had not been her own. Writing required solitude and permission to do it. She was happy in this space of a traveling week with idyllic America passing her window.

My plan, she wrote. 1. Figure out my money 2. Establish a residence near the bay with a livery close by for Bastille. 3. Visit Laura Cannonero and discover what she knows about John’s mistress. 4. Visit John’s mistress.

Her heart quickened for in the words was a freedom she had claimed in speech, but not yet in truth. Seeing the two words linked by the little bridge of an apostrophe kept her eye clear and her heart strings snapping. The final cord was stubborn, for there was a residual sadness over the failure of two decently bright people to make a worthy partnership. It was hard work to break up a marriage, very hard, and even harder was to think of herself as herself, without John, without her parents, without . . . Clara.

Her heart seized and a lump grew solid in her throat. Duty did define her after all. She was Clara’s mother, even though she was herself. No denying that. She imagined Clara right now playing with her rabbit Joe Cotton, or shadowing her cousin Lydia, or writing her own letters for the first time, her small earnest face glowing above the pen in her grip, the disappointing blots of ink that would splash out, the frown of despair mixed with surprise that handling an ink pen was not easy. Emmy remembered how she had seen things in the ink blots—spiders—she had added legs and antennae and ever after was happy when a little spider showed up on her written pages. (Even though her teacher, Miss Wallbusser, rapped her knuckles for her mistakes.) Would Clara feel the same joy in the little back shapes? Maybe not, given how tidy the girl kept her possessions. Would Miss Buchanan be kinder than Miss Wallbusser had? Miss Buchanan ought to be on the forgiving side, Emmy thought. It is just as well that Mother is there to balance the too-free Miss Buchanan.

The train slowed as it climbed into the darker shades of Pittsburgh, the woods on the denuded mountain tops like the ruff of hair connecting a bald man’s ears. She wrote a quick description of the landscape but Clara wouldn’t be interested in recalling the ride on the train. Only after she attended to Clara in her mind did she allow herself to think of William. She was glad no one saw the sudden smile she could not help. Her body felt alive, her skin aprickle. She opened the window and let in the smell of grass, the hot late grass of summer, and that seemed just right for how she felt all over. Warm, sweet, unrelenting, incapable of being vanquished.

As the train eased toward Chicago, Emmy stood and stretched. She needed some exercise and she needed to check on Bastille. She pushed through the door onto the small platform and into the next car, which turned out to be a veritable barnyard, with its tepid odor of animal waste. The livestock car! A donkey nosed the hay on the floor at the far end. Two hefty brown calves were squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder between wooden panels. Chickens bobbed everywhere, ranging freely. They tossed up the hay in small dervishes of excitement, chortling over scampering bugs. A few dutiful hens glared with beady disapproving eyes from nesting boxes.

Bastille was lying down in his stall. Emmy called, “Hey, fella. Hey.”

He lurched up, a massive disorder of muscle before solidifying into a landscape of burnt umber rises and hollows. Emmy touched his quivering haunch. The hair was thick, almost woolly, and quite warm. His hooves moved back and forth to steady his body against the swaying motion. He peed, releasing a sudden sharp smell of pure fear. Emmy walked along the plank wall, patting him and cooing soft calm sounds, until she reached his neck. She climbed over the planks and slipped into the stall, and felt his hot snort on top of her head.

Perhaps he needed water. His bucket was turned on its side. She picked it up and dropped it over the wall. Where would she get water?

She did not know how to care for her own horse.

A wave of shame rose in her stomach. There’d always been help, before William, there was Zev, after William, Truman. William knew how to take care of Bastille. He would know what this horse needed. Food, water, how much, and what. Did Bastille need to be groomed? He was dusty and confined. The soft prickly lips nuzzled her, sniffing her hands and bodice, likely seeking a carrot or a sugar lump.

Could he eat the hay? The calves and the donkey were munching the yellow straws at their feet. Was Bastille starved? He’d peed, a good sign, she guessed. A clump of brown rounds lay near his back feet and a dried smear marred on his belly. Who would clean the stall?

The train took a curve. The horse stutter-stepped. Emmy felt his hooves stomping near her feet. One of his legs pressed against her knee. His bulky torso leaned her into the plank wall. Slowly her chest was compressed, her air squeezed out. She pushed his shoulder but his weight and the train’s tilt were much more powerful. Soon the train would straighten. Soon it would. It had to. She was trapped but not yet worried. She sucked in the dusty scent of his dry hair, wiggled her arms up and put them in front of her face, her elbows like a shelf against his head should it swing toward her.

She was no longer a woman who owned a horse. She was a woman owned by a horse. The pressure increased. She wondered if she’d pass out. “Move, please, Bastille, please move away.” She understood the gap she had fallen into. It was one thing to be nice to people who did the physical work of life. It was another to be one. “Get off.” She pushed against his brawny shoulder. She bumped her head against him. “Get off.”

His leg lifted away from her knee. Sweat trickled down her neck in the elongated moments as she waited for the hoof to come down. “God in Heaven,” she gasped. “See me in this time of need.” The train straightened out and Bastille stepped away. Emmy turned and clung to the top plank as if she was a shipwreck survivor. When she felt strong enough, she climbed over the wall, then reached back to stroke his blaze. “I know now,” she said. “I know now what you need and what it means.” She picked up the bucket and exalted in the swift air between platforms.

After she had convinced the waiter in the parlour car to fill the bucket with water and she had slopped it back to Bastille and held it for him to greedily slurp up in less than a minute, she returned to her seat, intent on writing down her discovery of the privilege she had abandoned. Her father had known she’d discover this problem. He had deliberately made this journey harder, by pushing her into difficulty with Bastille’s care, and yet, her mother kept her tethered with Clara. Were they in cahoots? Very very likely.

She sketched the pointy face of a devil and Xd it out. She’d have to board Bastille at unknown expense. No wonder John had scoffed at her thoroughbred as a pretentious symbol. She had thought of Bastille as her giant pet, her great striding companion, beautiful and charged, a soulmate of a special kind. It was ironic that when she shed John, she’d likely have to shed Bastille . . . unless she had William Ross, a soulmate with a different specialty. After lingering on those qualities, she picked up her pen and drove down to the hard kernel of financial truth: though she had been cash-strapped with John, she was entering a new territory where her security was not guaranteed.

After lunch, a man stopped at her seat and harrumphed. He had on a porkpie hat and a checkered shirt and a small bowtie that was better sized for a floral arrangement than neck attire. “Is that seat taken?”

Emmy was situated at the window. The other cushion was obviously unoccupied.

“I’m afraid that seat is taken. I am seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” she said, shrugging, as if she could not help it. “He is my Constant.”

The man’s round lower lip pushed out so far it brushed his walnut-shell chin. “Good day, to you both, then.” He touched his hat and stepped through the door toward the livestock car. In a few minutes, he returned but did not stop until he had found a more generous passenger.

Emmy’s pen moved along the page, sliding left and right and sometimes up and down, making cruikshanks, as she called them, depending on the train’s path. When Mr. Porkpie sank from sight, Emmy noted that the use of language as a weapon was a privilege that would stay with her no matter her station.

In the night, she awoke with moonlight full in her face. She had been sleeping under a cotton sheet, cramped on her side in the double seat, her legs bent. Modesty was a privilege, as was the money to have a private car. She had settled into sleep, somewhat protected by her blanket, and the solitude of her small area. The bright moon sat low in the sky. Her legs kicked out, then jerked back. The seat across was occupied by the man in the porkpie hat. The light was blue and wet across his lower lip. His hand was pumping in his lap. Emmy closed her eyes and did not move. If she closed her eyes, he would disappear. Loathing was a word she felt as choked rage wrapped in disgust. Tense, alert was her body in the singsong murmur of the train. Not resting, but eventually tiring, and softening because she did not have enough stamina to be diligent, she slept until the conductor called out “Chicago! Chicago!” and the sun rubbed out the nasty sight as if she had imagined it.

Off the train, her legs liked the feel of solid ground. She bought apples, cheese, carrots and chocolate, oats from a man selling grains, and a penny post card she mailed to Clara, exclaiming how much she missed the girl, and promising a good place in San Francisco for them soon. She skimmed the Chronicle and the World to see if there was news of or by John.

Back in her seat, she made a small celebratory feast of her purchases. A family of three had settled in across from her. They were pale people with reddish skin and alarmingly invisible eyebrows. The mother had another pale life incubating beneath her faded blue dress. They nodded at Emmy and she nodded back. She had purchased several wrapped Hershey chocolates. One was shaped like a rose, one a bicycle, one a cigar. She could feel the little boy’s eyes on her fingers as the wrapping crinkled but she did not offer him candy. If I was me on my journey east, I could have been generous, handing out candies and treasures to the less fortunate, but now I must eat it all myself. She popped the rose into her mouth and closed her eyes, waiting for the rich flavor to awaken her taste buds. Well, it was chocolate and it was good, but it wasn’t as rich or as deep as the Ghirardelli she craved. By the time the form has become a dollop on her tongue, she changed her mind, and gobbled the cigar-shaped sweet. The train rocked out of the station. She eyed her apples and the carrots. Nope. It had to be the remaining chocolate. She did not care about the disapproving looks she imagined came from the parents across the twenty-four inches separating their knees from hers. She peeled open the bicycle and bit off its front wheel. What a bad model she must be for the fussing child. A sudden wave of sadness accompanied the melting candy. For Clara. If she had Clara there, she would be a good role model, but without her, why, she might do anything.

Emmy toyed with this idea as she ate the last of her chocolate. Without Clara, she had been prudent in buying inexpensive chocolate in a small amount, prudent to purchase fruit. She did not need the girl to act as ballast though sometimes the girl felt just like that. In the near future, when Emmy could not hire help, Clara would be her timetable, her limit of activities, her horse in the home. What a different life Clara’s other parent lived, unencumbered, off to war. Emmy’s father still expected John to outgrow journalism and settle down as the attorney he’d trained to become, and with Emmy’s moral guidance, develop into a stable family man.

The pale mother opened a colorful book of ABC’s. The child sat in his father’s lap as the mound on the mother’s thighs was the size of a watermelon. The boy and his father, fingers interlaced, traced the letters while the mother read the simple words. Night Watchman. Oiler. Pin-Coupler.

Emmy looked out the window. Would she ever have a family like that? She felt mocked by their circle of love. Headstrong and superior, she had been raised. Yet they sat in their threadbare clothes, not wanting much, except to make more tender life. One child had been her limit. She knew that. The requirement of self-sacrifice a successful marriage needed was beyond her. She stole a glance at the contented woman. Why, Emmy wondered, why do I have so much spit and other woman have kisses? Her own kisses were deep and purple and vivid, not soft and pale as she imagined this woman’s to be, pale as wheat and light, just the perfect touch, like a brief cooling rain or the quick wetting that released the earth’s musk.

The train stopped in Iowa. Emmy had been thinking to herself, we’ve already passed this before, we are going in circles, shrilled as if she had spiritually transported Clara there next to her. Clara felt like a residual limb. How strange this was and yet pleasant, too, because she could decide what Clara said or wanted, instead of dealing with the girl’s own outrages and needs. The devoted family had opened a lunch box and shared it among themselves, big solid chunks of corncake and slices of ham they had eaten with their fingers. The father broke his cookie in two pieces and gave the larger part to his wife. The child licked the sugar glaze until his eyes were as shiny as the coating.

The door to the car opened and passengers threaded by. Emmy rearranged her blanket to suggest someone was returning to the seat. No one inquired as to its availability. She might offer it to the child or the mother, she realized. A flush ran up her face because she had not thought of that way back at the beginning of Iowa. Instead she had been intent on ignoring the censorious faces across the way and doing as she pleased, which was so new it felt both delightful and excruciating: to claim her journal and her ideas on paper as valid, her desire to eat chocolate at ten AM and not share it. Honestly, what had she been taught? To deny every instinct for personal expression? What a conundrum! Raised to be privileged enough to be above the care of her own expensive pleasures, and taught not to put herself ahead of others. Maybe she should have been raised to cook her own food, or do something that allowed for both personal responsibility and self-expression.

The child began to shriek and writhe.

Ah ha, Emmy thought.

The mother held him at arms’ length as he tried to burrow onto her lap. The father barked a few sharp words. He hugged the boy to his shoulder and strode down the aisle. The woman heaved herself up and gathered their few things and, red-faced, gasping, lunged after them. The book was left on the floor. Emmy picked it up and noticed an Indian group standing near.

They claimed the vacated seats. It was another family, a father, mother, girl and boy. They fit into the double seat comfortably. Again, the father had the window seat. He said, “Hello.”

“Hello.” Emmy smiled.

Arrayed in sensible lightweight traveling clothes, they were cleaner than any of the train’s residents and regarded Emmy with a wary politeness.

If her mother was there, her mother would have apologized for the flight of the pale family but Emmy decided not to align herself with them. She said she was going to San Francisco and asked where the family were off to.

The father answered. They had been given tickets to travel to Omaha to participate in the Trans-Mississippi International Expo. Every North American Indian tribe had been invited to set up a small village, demonstrate their arts, and show how they had traditionally lived. The point was to invite communication with visitors and to aim the country toward peace. He laughed as he said that. It had only been ten years since the Battle of Wounded Knee. The current US war had drawn away sixty percent of the promised federal funding for the Expo. “So are the US a peaceful country? You tell me.”

“We are not,” Emmy said. “My husband is in Cuba right now.”

“May he rest in peace,” the man said.

“May he indeed,” Emmy said, unsure if the man had intentionally wished for John to die or if he had merely misused the phrase.

The man liked to talk and so he did while his wife closed her eyes. The children leaned into her and dozed. The family was of the Cherokee remnant. They had never been to Omaha and were looking forward to meeting other tribes they’d only heard of, the southwestern groups were of particular interest to him. He had never been a warrior. His people had lost everything in Georgia a long time ago.

Soon the sonorous monologue made Emmy’s eyes shut. When she next woke, she watched the family outside moving into a sheet of dust driven by a prairie wind. She was sorry their clean clothes would be streaked, their moccasins the receptacles of grainy sand, their combed hair twisted as maypole ribbons.

The conductor announced the stop would last one hour. He suggested everyone detrain and use the facilities while the engines were switched. It was too bad the stop was short because Emmy would have liked to go to the Expo. Instead, she stood in a queue for most of the hour, glad to be out of the peppery wind.

Refreshed, Emmy twirled in the breeze and flapped her skirt to air it out. She was eager to be in San Francisco, on solid land again, propelled by her own motion. She took long steps as she walked all the way around the lavatory building. She came around a corner and found herself face to face with the man in the porkpie hat.

“You,” he said. “I seen you last night with your ass on God.”

Emmy was so stunned by the comment that she stopped.

“Ass in His lap, so to speak.” He smirked. “Some women wear wedding rings that is fake.”

Emmy twisted the band on her finger. “And some women wear wedding rings because they are a bride of Christ.”

The man blanched and crossed himself. “Jesus. Blessed Mary, forgive me.” His squatty body jogged to a watering trough and he dunked his head in, hat and all.

“And forgive me,” Emmy muttered, “for telling a truth.”

There was a crowd outside the train. No one was boarding . A circle of people three and four deep surrounded a spectacle. Emmy stopped a dozen feet behind the darker haired of two combatants.

A blond white man faced an Indian man, each with a pistol drawn. The Indian held his gun out from his body, pointing straight at the white man’s burly chest. The white man cradled his gun in his left elbow and it seemed he was gathering courage to raise it to his eye before pulling the trigger. But that would cost him valuable time and who knew how well either man could shoot?

It is interesting Emmy thought in that startling slow-motion set the mind creates to frame great drama, heightening senses so that she could hear the pock pock of the blown dust against the gunstocks, smell the strange ancient dryness of the wind, feel the sandpaper scratch of it on her cheek, sense the large mobile mass and taste the communal fear in her saliva …and yet think, We are, in this moment, at perfect peace.

If we all held still then turned and walked away there is no fight, no death, no blood. The threat of it is keeping us, in this moment, entirely peaceful.

A rumble and bump at her shoulder as a solid cloud of body odor strode forth, lumbering but oddly fast, the wisped bun of a graying head moved toward the Indian, from his blindside. The stout weary-faced woman striking his wrist with one hand and snatching the gun with the other and turning, while the crowd stuck as if made of poured concrete, turning toward the white man and squeezing off a shot that hit his right boot in the toe.

“Oww, oww, Matilda, why’d you go and do that?” the man asked, hopping on one foot.

“Our grandbaby’s coming in San Francisco and we got to get there. Now’s you’s going to be laid up with a bad leg, you can watch the baby and me and Edith’ll go see the sights.” The woman had not slowed her pace to the steps leading to the train. She climbed on board, with the Indian’s gun in her possession.

A conductor suddenly appeared and yelled, “All aboard.” The crowd fanned out into those getting on and those staying put. Emmy was swept along toward the cars, in a whirl of thoughts, prickly indignation, the leading force.

To calm herself she picked up the child’s book. She was glad Clara had not seen the gunfight. This book about trains would make a good present and might keep the association of travel and writing together in the girl’s head all her life.

The Railroad Picture Book for Children had color illustrations. Emmy paused at M for Mailbag. The picture showed a wooden post hung with a leather sack. Leaning out the window of a passing train was a postman with a long hook about to grab the mailbag. Emmy wondered how often the postman missed and what happened to letters strewn along the track. This picture reminded her of the pesky postman from her trip east and his ability to lean far out the window. Obviously he had practiced that maneuver.

There was Oiler with his oil can oiling the wheels and Night with the conductor carrying a clock in the dark, Vestibule View, a woman dressed like Emmy peering off the back of the train, a little too close to her own experience looking at the desert at night, Parlour car with wicker chairs, people drinking tea as if their cups never rattled or jounced off the table, Yellowstone Park. I was Indians. On horseback, with feathers and spears, hostile and fearsome. Then W, Indian Train Wreckers, hiding behind big boulders, with bows and arrows. No wonder the pale child had screamed when he saw the Indian family on the train. He’d just been read their murderous intent. Emmy checked the publication date: 1898. The Indian wars had ended ten years ago and yet this New York house, McLoughlin, was creating a false fear in a new generation.

She opened her window and threw the book out. The Indian Congress would be a bust. There would be no peace when publishers were more invested in conflict than in peace. Was every publication infected? Were men like John and Pulitzer and Hearst going to run the world with their hysterical uncorroborated lies?

What could she do and why did she feel so strongly about it? Nothing? She liked to see and experience life she had told Isely Donerail, and Isely had chided her. Make a mark. Show what you see. She could write this down, she decided. She had published words under John’s byline. She was a published author. Yes, she was. She opened her journal and picked up her pen and began an article, Eyewitness to Outrages Against Indians. One traveler observes on the way to the Indian Congress and lies spewed by New York book.

She wrote until it was too dark to see. Tomorrow she would edit and then when they got to Truckee she would put her article in the mailbag for the express train to San Francisco. She’d send her article to Mr. Railey. She ate an apple and a bit of cheese and decided to feed Bastille. When she pushed open the door to the livestock car, she shrieked. The car was filled with white woolly sheep, their eyes glowing green in the dark like a demon herd.

She woke to a landscape of muted neutrals, yellows, brown scrubs, dark olive rises in the distance.

“Madame, excuse me, I must confess an indiscretion.” A lanky man with a small brown beard squared off an inch below his chin addressed her. He was in his twenties, or perhaps early thirties.

“Please don’t confess,” she said. Was it not enough what men did in secret?

“I have taken your photograph while you were asleep.” His voice became high-pitched and his right hand fluttered in the air.

“Well, certainly that is some sort of violation.” Emmy said. “I shall call the porter and report you.”

He seemed thrilled. “Oh, you will like the arrangement. Your eyes were closed and your head at the tightest angle, almost as if your neck was broken, and yet you must have been having sweet dreams for you were smiling.”

Emmy almost blushed for she had been having sweet dreams, though, actually not exactly dreams for she was imagining William again, and the sea, and the sand and all else.

She saw the man had a wooden box on his lap. A dark eye peered at her from its center.

“I suppose the photograph belongs to me. Let me have it.”

He chortled. “Madame, that is not the way photography works.”

“I would assume that the subject has the right to pictures of herself and that no man is allowed to sneak up and take photographs of an innocent woman. I would wager that my photograph would show that I had no knowledge that I was being taken.” She let the last word hang there. Taken, her image had been taken. “What is your name?”

“Prentiss Earley.” He lifted an imaginary hat and bowed his head.

“What is it on your lap? Is that the picture-making device?”

“It’s the new Kodak rollholder breast camera,” he stated.

Emmy turned to look out the window. Breast! Could the name be true? What he held was a square box with an eye. If two were placed next to each other they might form two square breasts. Men must have named these!

“Right now.” He ducked his head. “I look through the view finder here on top of the box.” He had one eye closed and was squinting, “And I move the scene to catch the best arrangement of you—“

“Me!” She pressed her hands over her face.

“How funny. Keep posing!” He pushed a button.

“Mr. Earley, how many pictures can you take?”

“The roll has one hundred frames.”

“Let me take your picture, then,” she cried through her hands. “Don’t you want proof that you were here on the train, too?”

This thought seemed to appeal to him, she saw through a slit between her fingers. He stood and stepped across the space. He sat next to her and pulled the strap over his head.

“Look through here,” he pointed at the peephole on the top of the camera. “What do you see?”

“The cushion.”

“Good. Now I will go sit there. When I am prepared, here is that you do.” He cranked the little key to advance the frame and dandled the button.

Back in his seat, he seesawed his hand across his stiff little beard, then looked directly at her, and pinched his lips very tight.

“You aren’t smiling.”

“I am a professional,” he said. “A proper portrait does not show emotion. Only form.”

“Okay,” Emmy said, thinking this was a rather dumb notion. She pressed the button. “That’s it? That’s all there is to it? I thought it would be something more than a click. What kind of profession is this?” Isely Donerail spent hours getting her paintings right and she was considered a dabbler, or a hobbyist, doing unimportant work.

Emmy clicked off another. Mr. Earley rose and reached for his machine. As she clicked, the train zigged and she lost her balance. “I might have taken a photo of the ceiling.”

“Give it back,” he said. “You were not advancing the film. All the photos of me will be stacked into one frame. I’ll be a three-headed creature.”

Emmy handed him the box. “Let’s go to the dining car. We can put the camera on the table and that will steady it. I will clean up and you will have a much better portrait of me,” she said. “And I can take a more realistic picture of you.”

She stopped in the lavatory and fluffed up her hair. She splashed her cheeks and brow with water, and practiced freezing her face then smiling in a split second.

In the dining car, they ordered breakfast. Mr. Earley was going to Wyoming to photograph Yellowstone Park and its great gusher. As he spoke, he gushed with excitement about the new machine and its possibilities. The Kodak Company would pay him for his photographs and use them in their ads. Though he had just bought the camera eight days ago, he was supremely confident he would succeed. Emmy was amazed at this confidence based on little but self-worth. She felt jealous.

He punctuated his sentences with a bite of food, a sip of coffee, then he was off into the next imagined venture, photos of an aspect of each of the United States printed on postcards, a great business opportunity. Clearly the wan taste of the biscuit and the rubbery eggs mattered not to Mr. Earley. Nor did the bitter coffee. Emmy’s stomach turned a bit. She pushed the lump of jiggly eggs around her plate. What a photograph the remains of her breakfast would be. She thought of other things she would photograph on the train: the wall-to-wall sheep with their white whorls of wool, the rising and setting sun—how she would love a photograph of those colorful gradations—“Would you take a photo of the setting sun?”

Mr. Earley laughed. “There are two problems with that notion. First, the train is in motion and the picture would be all blur.”

Emmy imagined a small print of the colors of the sun streaking across the card and thought she would indeed like to hold that in her hand. “I would like the blur and blending.”

“Second,” he said, as if she had not spoken. “There is no color in a photograph.”

“Oh. So this new camera isn’t really capturing life, then, or pictures of life. It’s really a colorless drawing.”

“But more precise than drawing and faster, and, not delicate at all. A cameraman must be strong and steady when he shoots.”

Shoots. Takes. Captures. The words not of art, but of war. Would the conflict with Spain taint every quarter of life? Even something as new as a camera was draped in the language of aggression. Emmy decided Isely Donerail’s passion for painting was safe.

“I suppose the camera will put illustrators out of work,” she said. The veracity of a photograph would prevent wildly false illustrations such as those of Mrs. Cisneros naked and the depiction of all women in America as beauty queens. Perhaps a camera would bring newspapers back to truth. “How do you get the photographs out of that box?”

“I will send the camera back to the factory. They will develop the roll, make the prints, and mail it all back to me, with a new roll of film inside.”

“Have you got any photographs already?”

“Not yet. This is my first roll.”

“Yet you are going to Yellowstone on a professional assignment!”

“Well, yes, I am.”

“How much does a Kodak cost?” If equipment was all that was necessary, she could take photographs. She’d already done it. She’d like to see the ones she shot.

“Twenty-five dollars.”

Her plan immediately deflated. So much money.

The waiter removed their breakfast plates. Mr. Earley placed the camera on the table. He peered into it and snapped a picture. Emmy sat still and watched for the moment when the tip of his index finger moved. She quick-flashed a smile. He took several without objecting to the mad distortions she made with her lips: tongue stuck out, bottom lip rolled forward and down as if she’d suffered a stroke, nose pinched back as if Mr. Earley had emitted a great stink.

“My turn,” she said.

He slid the camera toward her. She looked into it and saw his shirt filling the frame. That scag! She’d been right. He had only taken photos of her chest.

“Surely you can smile,” she said. “Wait.” She went over to him and tilted his head forward. “There.” She noticed a coffee splotch on his shirt and a frayed button. She moved the camera slightly. Click. “What about in profile, like a Roman conqueror?” He turned sideways. She saw his soiled handkerchief, nasty and dotted. Click.

“That’s all. I need to save the rest for Yellowstone,” Mr. Earley said.

“Would you send me some photos? I’d like to share them with my mother. You can send them to this address in San Francisco.” She pulled a blank sheet of paper from her purse. “I’d like the ones you took of me and especially the ones I took of you, too.” She smiled. Since she had no address in San Francisco yet, she wrote “Mrs. Dunning, c/o Laura Cannonero, Hotel St. Nicholas . . . .”

“Ah, ha, Laura!” he said.

Emmy did not correct him.

“I must get back to my car and prepare to de-train.”

“Au revoir,” she said. She ate a pebble of chocolate that had been flattened in her stationery and thought of Clara and how she’d like to photograph the little girl. If Clara was along, Mr. Earley would not have spoken with her. He might have taken Clara’s picture instead but, Emmy thought, likely not. He was not troubled by domestic concerns and would go, without training, into the west with his camera, and because of freedom and means, make a living and a name for himself.

Back in her seat, she thoughtfully re-read her article, made some changes, and then copied it over. She had heard a name she liked called out by the conductor, Sheridan, Wyoming. She signed her article Sheridan Ross. If John could earn a living as a journalist, why couldn’t she?

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in New York's glorious Hudson Valley with her husband and the two of the world's most playful cats.