Sarah Cedeño

Orient Express

Betty has trav­eled to Kansas to reclaim her daugh­ter, who is now five min­utes late.

She goes over their meet­ing place in her head every few min­utes to be sure she remem­bers cor­rect­ly. Harry’s Diner at Fifth and Points Street. A block from Wareham Theater. This Kansas town is larg­er than Larkport, the west­ern New York col­lege town where Betty and her late hus­band, Charles, had raised Sandra.

It has been a few days since Pat Theodore, a skin­ny man with a han­dle­bar mus­tache and a turtle­neck who calls him­self a “depro­gram­mer,” was able to track down infor­ma­tion of Sandra’s where­abouts. A depro­gram­mer, as though her daugh­ter is a machine and all that needs to hap­pen is to push the right but­tons.

The Moonie lead­er­ship had to approve the meet­ing first, and though the cult thought Betty would be “harm­less,” Sandra still need­ed per­suad­ing. Even before Sandra fell to the Moonies, she stole cig­a­rettes, drank Charles’s gin, earned As, staged a peace protest against Vietnam, and was so unpre­dictable that even­tu­al­ly, Betty couldn’t be sure what con­sti­tut­ed pre­dictable behav­ior.

Mother?”

A hand falls on Betty’s shoul­der. Before all this, Sandra would have called her ‘Ma.’ Betty turns around. There she is. Her hair, short and dry, brass-blond, and unkempt, and her eyes, far-off.

Sandra!” Betty’s breath catch­es in her throat and her nose stings. She’s as unpre­pared for Sandra as she’s always been. Her instinct is to back away but Sandra grabs Betty’s arms and hugs her. When she pulls away, her daugh­ter smiles, not how she used to, restrained and close-lipped, hid­ing some big secret, but broad­ly, now, her teeth brag­ging.

Mother!” Sandra says, again, final­ly, as though beg­ging her moth­er to talk. Betty wish­es she would stop call­ing her ‘Mother.’  “So what do you think?” Sandra asks.

You’re so skin­ny,” Betty says. “And your hair.”  Betty reach­es her hand up to touch it. “Are you okay?”

Don’t I look fine?  I’m hap­py, Mother,” Sandra says.

She looks tired. Her nails and cheeks are dirty. Her clothes smell like a ham­per.

You look like you need a show­er and a meal,” Betty says, and Sandra acts as though she doesn’t hear. She runs her fin­ger­tips across her eye­brow and yawns. Before she would have flipped her moth­er the bird or told her to screw off. Perhaps the cult has worked the skep­ti­cism right out of her.

Betty opens the doors for her daugh­ter, speaks up to the host­ess first, and tries to be gen­tle.

She can’t remem­ber the last time the two went out to din­ner togeth­er, alone, though their mis­matched gazes and con­stant strug­gle of who would order first feels famil­iar.  They both order break­fast though it’s after­noon. It was some­thing Charles always did.

The canal has flood­ed in parts at home,” Betty starts.

Where?” Sandra takes a bite.

Pittsford. The lock broke. The lake is too high, the pres­sure was too much,” Betty says. “It car­ried your Uncle Robert’s house right off the foun­da­tion.”

Oh, god,” Sandra says. Betty won­ders what her daugh­ter sounds like when she prays, and were Betty lis­ten­ing, could she hear the sud­den calm come over her daugh­ter?

We’ve all been advised to get flood insur­ance,” Betty says, hold­ing this con­ver­sa­tion like a rope from a cliff, and when Sandra doesn’t respond, asks, “So what do you do these days?”

We have busy sched­ules.”

Betty knows. Scripture read­ings. Selling can­dy or peanuts. Few hours of sleep.

What do you sell?”   Betty asks.

Flowers. Sometimes cashews,” Sandra says.

What do you do with the mon­ey?”

Why do you ask?  We give it to the team leader. From there it goes to Reverend Moon,” Sandra says.

Betty dabs toast in yolk. “So, have you met any­one nice?”

They’re all nice,” Sandra says.

For God’s sake, Sandra. Tell me some­thing. Who do you stay with?  Is any­one mean to you?  Do you ever miss home?”   Betty lists these ques­tions so that Sandra might respond one after another—satisfactorily, giv­ing per­mis­sion for Betty to leave. Letting her moth­er know she will be okay.

Sandra takes a long sip of milk and Betty won­ders when she last had milk. Then Sandra clears her throat.

Betty watch­es Sandra like she did when she was just weeks old, to be sure she’d breathe through the night. Sandra folds her nap­kin and dabs her lips. She scratch­es at a crumb stuck to the out­side of the tum­bler.

Sandra.”  Betty snaps her fin­gers in front of her daughter’s face.

I stay in the com­pound, a ranch, not far from here,” Sandra said.

A com­pound?  Are you at war?” Betty slips into her old habits with Sandra, the angry cuts and quips that had always some­how eased her own pain.

Sandra’s smirk proves she knows what her moth­er is doing, and for sure, now, Betty under­stands the church is evil.

 

When Sandra was a baby, they lived in “Diaper Alley,” the bar­racks-style hous­ing between the rail­road tracks and the uni­ver­si­ty, where the roofs leaked and trains rocked the build­ing. Sandra spent weeks with night ter­rors.

In the night, when Betty would stare at Sandra’s pinched, teary face in the dim­ness com­ing through the win­dows, Charles would mut­ter some­thing about Berlin, and roll away from Sandra’s cries. Betty had plead­ed with Charles to relieve her for just one five minute walk, one moment to steal a cig­a­rette, or to have a drink with an old friend, any­thing to feel her­self again, to con­sid­er the sec­re­tary school or biol­o­gy cours­es she’d aban­doned to be a moth­er, and she’d begun to grieve the self she’d nev­er known. Charles had laughed at Betty for cry­ing over bor­rowed troubles—a trag­ic life she hadn’t lived—when there were real loss­es stored in his mind. She felt sil­ly hav­ing to jus­ti­fy her sad­ness, com­pet­ing with a war vet­er­an to feel any­thing at all. Her doc­tor had pre­scribed her Valium, which she hid in her under­wear draw­er and took on the sly.

One night, Betty woke to squeal­ing and crack­ing and the smell of some­thing burn­ing. Charles had been on the roof set­ting off fire­crack­ers, but ran up a poplar to hide. There was steam about the build­ing and the police had to coax Charles down from the tree. Sandra, in Betty’s arms, had been too young to be any­thing oth­er than hun­gry or fussy. Betty watched her hus­band fall clum­si­ly from the poplar and felt no edge of her seat or nor quick­en­ing in her gut.

Charles came home two hours lat­er in a cast, and Betty was relieved when he got into bed with­out speak­ing. All the stir­ring woke the baby, and it wasn’t long before Sandra began to cry, as Betty knew she would. She asked Charles, “Is it pos­si­ble that you’ve passed com­bat fatigue to your daugh­ter?”

 

Betty watch­es life out­side the din­er win­dow. Every town seems a repli­ca of anoth­er. Larkport might be small­er, but it has every­thing this place has—diners, the the­ater, salons, cob­blers, Moonies. Sandra didn’t have it rough. Parents die. So, Charles died belat­ed­ly in a house fire—their house, on fire. He’d always made it clear to Betty that he was on bor­rowed time he didn’t believe he deserved. The fire had just been a belat­ed end from the war that he should have died in.

Sandra, do you even remem­ber what it’s like at home?”

Mother, the house is gone. Daddy is gone. Where is home now?” Sandra asks.

Come back to Larkport, Sandra,” Betty says.

I’m hap­py here, Mother. I’m God’s sol­dier. We are all hap­py and safe.”

What a crock!” Betty moves clos­er to the din­er win­dow and the warmth of the sun, watch­ing Sandra ruf­fle her hair with her hand and the dust speck­le in a beam of light. “Why did you leave?” Betty asks.

God called me,” Sandra says, trance-like.

That just isn’t true, and you know it,” Betty says, play­ing the game the depro­gram­mer described to her: to act as though her daugh­ter is under some spell. How easy it has been for Sandra to turn to the cult with­out Charles and his mad­ness alive to make her feel nor­mal.

He calls all of us at some point,” Sandra says, grow­ing insis­tent. Betty’s remind­ed of Sandra’s teen years, when all a moth­er could do was wrong, when Sandra want­ed more and more things and less dis­cus­sion about the things she want­ed.  When Charles’ career in grue­some foren­sic pho­tog­ra­phy pro­pelled him fur­ther into post-trau­ma and Sandra took advan­tage of the emo­tion­al tur­moil. When Betty felt caught between com­pet­ing ter­rors, and act­ed as though she could wait it out.

Oh yeah?  And how did he call you?” Betty asks.

Mother.”

Did you leave because your father died?” Betty asks. Some days, when Sandra was grow­ing up, Betty had to cre­ate her own trou­ble with her daugh­ter just to feel any­thing.

You’re being ridicu­lous,” Sandra says, push­ing her plate away.

That’s it? Betty thinks. Ridiculous?

 

The sec­ond half of this reunion, this “depro­gram­ming” is, by sug­ges­tion of Mr. Theodore, some­thing neu­tral, some­thing where the two can just be in the same space togeth­er. Betty knows she’s messed up Mr.Theodore’s first step roy­al­ly. Sandra only grunts when Betty asks if she’s ready to go.

On Fifth Street, a man guides a shop­ping cart toward Betty and Sandra. He wears a sack around his waist and is odd­ly buoyant—maybe a Moonie! Betty waits for Sandra to say some­thing or react, to give a hint that this man is one of her kind, but she doesn’t engage him.

At home, the Mayor of Larkport has made a motion to block the cult mem­bers from solic­it­ing, an action tak­en to pre­vent any more col­lege stu­dents from being lured in.  The man has lost some­thing besides an incisor tooth and his hair­line, Betty thinks. His face is young for all this loss, mak­ing him look like a con­fused baby.

After he pass­es, Sandra stops and turns to watch him.

Do you know him?” Betty asks.

Who?” Sandra says, watch­ing the man wheel his cart around a cor­ner.

That man. Who was he?”

Let’s go to the movie,” Sandra says.

Are you in dan­ger, Sandra?” Betty asks. She wor­ries that if Sandra leaves the church, the con­gre­ga­tion will tor­ment and stalk her.

One Larkport Republic arti­cle report­ed that a for­mer Reverend Moon fol­low­er a town over placed his head on an Amtrak rail­way just before the train bar­reled through. Betty hasn’t been able stop her­self from read­ing reports, from watch­ing news doc­u­men­taries. Reverend Moon won a Guinness World Record for the most mar­riages in one cer­e­mo­ny. She saw it on tele­vi­sion.

 

Murder on the Orient Express” is the only movie play­ing that Betty has any desire to see.  In the still of the dark the­ater before the movie begins, Betty’s already exhaust­ed like the depro­gram­mer said she would be. He said it wouldn’t be easy, but that she has to fight for what she wants, and doesn’t she, after all, want more than any­thing, for her daugh­ter to come home? And doesn’t she? Does she?

I wish you’d come home, Sandra.”

Do you?” Sandra asks.

The film’s open­ing cred­its show news clip­pings of a kidnapping—a fic­tion about the Lindbergh baby. The scenes are spo­radic and dark and hard­ly make any sense to Betty, yet her nose burns as if she’s about to cry.

Betty stares for a moment at the flash of the screen on Sandra’s cheeks. If Betty doesn’t know any bet­ter, Sandra looks nor­mal, and to every­one seat­ed beyond their two seats, what’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing is not hap­pen­ing at all.

When Betty told Sandra how Charles died, she tried to bend the facts, the bru­tal­i­ty of it, but empha­sized that Charles had prob­a­bly died from the smoke fumes, not from the skin-melt­ing, organ-burn­ing, per­ish­ing of home. When it hap­pened, Sandra had been in class at the uni­ver­si­ty and Betty had been shop­ping for gro­ceries at Star Market. Betty imag­ined Charles sat in his large leather chair watch­ing the local news. The cig­a­rette Charles had every after­noon dipped, sud­den­ly ignit­ing against the couch or the rug. He hadn’t suf­fered at all, Betty told Sandra, though she’d known bet­ter.

I’m going to the girls’ room,” Sandra says.

A moment after Sandra leaves, Betty fol­lows her and stands out­side the stall, where inside, Sandra cries and recites scrip­ture.

May it be brought togeth­er again,” she says.

For lack of a bet­ter place, Betty looks in the mir­ror, sur­prised to see her­self as entire­ly com­posed, her sen­si­ble skirt and but­toned blouse against the smells of anti­sep­tic and toi­let, the smoke from burnt pop­corn. In the cor­ner of the mir­ror some­one has writ­ten ‘I’m Watching You’ in rasp­ber­ry-col­ored lip­stick.

Who?” Betty says out loud.

Mom?” Sandra asks. Betty imag­ines her, shiv­er­ing, on the oth­er side of the door, but doesn’t move.

Sandra?” Betty asks. She starts to ask when she’d become so sep­a­rate from her daugh­ter, but then it occurs to her that her daugh­ter has final­ly let her go.

I’m okay,” Sandra says, and con­tin­ues pray­ing. “When we are alone, we are nev­er lone­ly.” This is not a voice Betty knows.

When Charles died, the house had burnt from the inside out so quick­ly no thanks to the hoards of pho­tographs, obso­lete text­books, and the kin­dling that made up their lives. The fire depart­ment couldn’t get it under con­trol and offi­cials kept wor­ry­ing that Sandra had been inside.

I’ll wait for you out here, and then we’ll go get some water and fresh air.” Betty takes deep breaths, and grasps the pill bot­tle in her purse. A crop of gray bugs speck­le the sink counter like stealth fight­ers.

No. Let’s go fin­ish the movie,” Sandra says.

When they return to the the­ater, Betty has lost all sense of where the film left off. On the screen, the train is stalled and snow clouds the scene beyond the win­dows.

Betty watch­es Sandra’s eyes and cheeks flinch; it’s as though Sandra’s mind’s gone hay­wire. On the screen, Lauren Bacall has a cig­a­rette in a train car; her arm rests on the chair and the smoke trails upward. The thought creeps up with­out warn­ing that Betty wish­es Sandra had been home with Charles that day in the fire.

Betty grabs Sandra’s hand, warm and cal­loused, and whis­pers, “I’ll bring you back to the com­pound. I’ll give you mon­ey.”

Sandra excus­es her­self to the bath­room, and Betty counts to ten, slow­ly, giv­ing Sandra time to make up her mind to do what­ev­er awful thing she will do next. The depro­gram­mer would tell Betty she’s earned her posi­tion as a moth­er with­out a child, and by the time Betty cuts through the air of burnt but­ter and corn, Sandra slams the glass doors to the the­ater behind her and steps out onto the side­walk.  She darts like a squir­rel into traf­fic, and Betty stands behind the glass, watch­ing. Horns ring out against the build­ings. Her daugh­ter runs down an embank­ment, her head dis­ap­pear­ing beneath the hori­zon.

After the stop­light changes and traf­fic clears, Betty steps out of the the­ater, onto the street, and cross­es. Her deliv­er­ance comes in the last place she saw her daugh­ter in motion, and there is noth­ing but trees, even when she sits on the ground and looks up.

~

Sarah Cedeño’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Redactions Journal of Prose and Poetics, Literary Mama and else­where. She lives in Brockport, NY with her hus­band and two sons, and teach­es writ­ing at the College at Brockport and Rochester’s Writers & Books.