The Summer Guest


N orth of Boston they followed the sea. A day in January, 1947: the carriage of their train was nearly empty. Just the three of them, the man and his wife with the little boy on her lap, and far ahead, a lone man in uniform, his head lolled forward in sleep. From the window they watched the rough-hewn coast slide by: the great slabs of ice, heaved and broken against the shoreline; the frozen, time-stilled marshlands; the rocky promontories fingering a winter sea. At intervals the conductor passed through, idly humming as he announced the names of the towns, his heavy steps sure despite the old rail-bed that made the car sway like a ferry’s deck.

While Amy and the baby dozed, Joe rose to stretch his legs. Thirty-one years old: he had been a lawyer, and then a soldier, but now was neither one. He made his way forward through the train, three cars to the engine and back, then paused at the doorway to look down the carriage. The uniformed man sat with his chin propped on one hand, a thatch of brown hair hanging loosely over his forehead as he slept. He was just a kid, Joe saw, eighteen and a day; probably he had enlisted just as the war was ending and had never seen an hour of combat. His other arm was thrown about his duffel bag, which rested on the seat beside him. Had he ever looked like that, Joe wondered, so completely at ease, untouched by life? But then the sleeping soldier turned, extending one leg into the aisle, and Joe realized, with a jolt, that he was mistaken. Between the rows of seats, the boy’s left foot rested at a strange and careless angle: a prosthesis. The long hair: he should have known. Joe had grown such hair himself, in the hospital.

He returned to his seat. Amy was still sleeping, her head resting on a folded coat against the window, but the little boy’s eyes were open and looking about. Joe lifted him from his wife’s lap and placed him on his own. The tang of urine and the thickness of the baby’s diaper told him he would soon need changing; before long he would begin to issue the first complaints, the barks and squeaks that burst forth randomly like the notes of an orchestra tuning up, a warning that would quickly gather into a wall of sound that seemed to Joe to communicate nothing less than a permanent cosmic sorrow. In any event, his wife would have to awaken soon. He jostled the little boy on his knee, singing a quiet tune under his breath, notes strung arbitrarily together from a dozen different songs. “You’ll like Maine,” he whispered into the boy’s small, sweet-smelling ear. “There’s a forest to play in, and a lake where we can swim and fish. I’ll teach you, when you’re old enough, all right?”

The train swayed and clacked; Joe watched the landscape as they passed. Miles of open coastline, and then the small towns pressed close to the water, quick glimpses of life as the train skimmed the fences that guarded the houses and yards. They passed through a railroad crossing, gates down and lights flashing; by the roadside, despite the cold, a group of children were waving from the seats of their bicycles. The world from the train window opened and closed like this, like the pages of a book. A simple pleasure, Joe thought, reserved for the living: to sit with his son on his lap, beside his sleeping wife, on a train taking them away, into a new life they could only guess at.

When the baby began to fuss, Amy awoke to change him, and when she was finished they opened up their picnic basket: sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, a thermos of coffee, cookies from the Italian bakery where they had shopped for years.

“How long did I sleep?” She yawned into her palm. “I didn’t know I was so tired.”

They had been packing for days, finalizing their arrangements, saying their good-byes. Of course she would be exhausted.

“At least an hour.” Joe shelled an egg into a napkin on his knee. “Sleep more if you want. You need your rest. It’ll be a long ride yet.”

They finished their lunch, and as they were packing it away, the conductor came through the car.

“Portland, Portland is next.” The accent of a true Mainer: not “Portland” but “Paht-land.” As a boy vacationing with his parents in Bar Harbor,