It’s release day for the paperback anthology Strangers on a Train, which includes my novella Big Boy along with four other wonderful stories from Serena Bell, Donna Cummings, Meg Maguire, and Samantha Hunter.
Today’s excerpt is my own story, Big Boy, wherein a beleaguered single mother meets a stranger once a month at the railroad museum for a roleplaying date. As one does.
by Ruthie Knox
We met online. How else?
Lisa wants to find a life partner, and she’d talked me into thinking online dating made sense. I blame sleep deprivation. Josh was four months old then, and I hadn’t had an uninterrupted night’s rest since I took custody of him.
I moved through the days in a fog, mainlining coffee to keep from nodding off during any silence that lasted longer than twenty seconds. In my profile picture, I looked like a zombie, but the algorithm the dating service relied on kept matching me up with brainless men. After three hapless, awkward dates, I tried sifting through the profiles on my own.
That’s when I found him. Viscount Curzon. In his profile picture, he wore a cravat and a monocle.
In another one, he was Benjamin Piatt Runkle, a Civil War soldier. Under Accomplishments, he’d typed, Survived the Battle of Shiloh. His picture was tinted sepia, like a daguerreotype.
The third one, for Frank Sinatra Jr., made me laugh out loud. Dislikes: Living in father’s shadow. Likes: Loose women.
I found eight of them altogether, each with its own picture. He did a remarkable job of looking like eight different men. I mean, I could tell it was him—he had the same hazel eyes, the same sandy-brown hair in every photo. But he inhabited the disguises.
I showed Lisa, and she told me he was weird. I’d already figured that out. Still, I was surprised how much stock she put in it. His weirdness was what appealed to me. I felt so unfocused so much of the time in those days—like I wasn’t myself anymore, but I wasn’t a new person either. I was a blob with feet.
This guy knew something I didn’t. He knew how to change identities nimbly, with a gleam in his eyes that said I’m having more fun than you are.
I sent him an email. It had to go through the dating service, so he only knew me as Mandy, and I only knew him as Chet Baker. Likes: Porkpie hats, West Coast jazz, heroin. Dislikes: Rigamarole.
He told me he had rules. He didn’t want to know my last name or what I did for a living, and he didn’t want to tell me anything about himself, either. It was the very opposite of what the dating service encouraged us to do.
I accepted his boundaries and tried to engage him in chitchat about music, movies, books.
He asked me out. Sort of.
He proposed to meet me at the gate of the National Railroad Museum at eight o’clock on a Tuesday night. I had to wear something appropriate to 1957.
Lisa said he was a crackpot and I should stay away. But I liked the idea of meeting him in costume. If he could pretend to be Chet Baker or whoever, I could pretend to be the version of myself who didn’t have a four-month-old. I could be the superseded me, a competent grad student who never burst into tears at the drop of a hat.
I suppose I was betraying the new me, but I didn’t like her much.
Lisa agreed to babysit. She helped me find a boiled-wool travel suit and locate a source for heavy silk stockings. We curled my hair with rags.
When I got out of my car in the parking lot, I noticed the angle of his hat first. He wore a dark checked jacket with a pocket square, held a cigarette in his mouth that he never lit, and had a louche way of leaning against the brick side of the museum that put me at ease.
“You can be whoever you want,” he told me before he led me to the Aerotrain. “Just stay in character.”
The National Railroad Museum—a considerably less grand operation than the name implies—houses a couple dozen trains. Some are scattered around the grassy grounds, but most, including the fin-tastical 1950s Aerotrain designed by General Motors, are lined up in a huge outdoor shed that’s open on both ends to the elements.
Only the very best trains—the rarest, the well preserved—are indoors, in the Lenfestey Center. The main building also houses a few exhibits, staff offices and a gift shop. Four times a day, they offer a train ride around the tracks that circle the property.
It’s a quaint museum, neither large nor small, funded entirely with donations, grants, admissions and membership fees. Sort of medium-impressive for a city of a hundred thousand people. Very Green Bay.
I’d never been there before that night.
The Aerotrain’s engine was a sleek bullet, but inside, the cars smelled of mouse nests and spent oil, and I had trouble pretending at first. I focused on the wedge of his back moving through the car in front of me. The way his hat sat over his ears.
Lisa had cautioned me to be safe, to keep my hand on the pepper spray in my purse until I knew he was no psychopath. But as I watched him walk, he became just a guy on a train, and I wasn’t afraid of him. I was Florence from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, taking the Saturday special to visit my sick sister in Harrisburg. If I had butterflies in my stomach, they were only because I wasn’t accustomed to traveling, and because I didn’t normally have opportunities to meet such nice-looking men.
His name was Philip. He took me up the steps in the dining car to sit where it was quieter, and he bought me coffee and pastry.
It was an unimaginable relief to talk to him. For one stolen hour, I was somebody else. We swapped stories. Told jokes. We laughed a lot.
When we finished drinking coffee that didn’t really exist, he escorted me back to my seat, his hand settled at the base of my spine. I would’ve let him kiss me goodbye, but he didn’t try.
He waited another two months to kiss me.
Order Strangers on a Train
All of the Strangers on a Train stories are also available as individual ebook novellas.
You can find links to order Big Boy here.