May 22, 2024

Book Excerpt: “The Last Train to Chicago” by Michael Gray

Book Excerpt: “The Last Train to Chicago” by Michael Gray

*Featured image courtesy of Mado El Khouly on Unsplash*

Michael Gray has given us the honor of publishing an excerpt from one of his upcoming pieces. Check it out and tell us what you think in the comments below.

I’m just back from the dumpster, the Chicago train’s horn blaring its warning, as Hundley waltzes in with his load on and orders the blue plate special. It’s getting late and we only stay open until ten now because there’s not enough traffic. The blue plate is all we’ve got left, a mishmash of creamed corn or potatoes. Sometimes fries if there’s any in the fryer that haven’t drowned in oil.

He’s not picky, Hundley. What drunk is? He stops by to soak up the alcohol with whatever we put in front of him. And of course, to chat up Lois, a waitress pushing fifty willing to work late because she needs the money. She’s eager to beat feet out of this burg. She has Chicago desires, and her ears pick up every time the train horn whines and calls out to her.

Hundley’s been working on her for a few weeks now and I’d venture to guess she’s leaning toward it. Bending like a sapling in a stiff wind. I know what goes on in my diner. I catch her glances at him, how she lingers when he gives her a lopsided grin. She fusses over him, and I tell her to just be careful what you wish for, darlin,’ but she laughs, tosses her head back, and says it’s only horseplay.

But I know where all that horseplay can go: hard feelings and broken hearts. Unhappiness and disillusionment. There’s a few country songs about all that on the jukebox. Sometimes I play one when Hundley saunters in all cockeyed and Lois will give me her old evil eye, arms crossed over her chest.

Tonight there’s a few fries left that haven’t hardened like stones and Lois fetches a ketchup bottle so Hundley can drown them some more. She touches his shoulder lightly and slides the bottle in front of him. He slaps the bottom of the bottle too hard and ketchup sprays the plate and counter.

“Whoopseedaisy,” he says, grinning.

“That’s okay – no harm done, honey,” Lois says, quick to grab a rag from her uniform pocket to mop the counter. She grabs a ketchup bottle from a booth, gives it a good shake to loosen it up, and sets it next to Hundley’s plate.

“Where would you be without her, Hank?” he says to me.

“Well, now, I don’t rightly know, Hundley. Give me a minute to think on it.”

Lois gives me the evil eye.

“He just don’t know a gem when he sees it,” she says, again touching Hundley’s shoulder, and then his elbow, too, but Hundley’s too drunk to pick up on it. He shovels the food in and then wipes his mouth. After a sigh, he places his elbows on the counter.

“How about some pie, honey?” Lois says. “Or some cobbler?”

“Do you still have some of that chocolate pie?” Hundley says, eager like a kid.

“We sure do, honey,” she says. “And Cool-Whip, too, just as you like it.”

“I like me some Cool-Whip just fine,” he says, nodding eagerly.

“Well, then you’re in luck,” she says.

“Don’t I know it.” He winks at her as he pats his belly. “I reckon I’ve got just enough room for some of your pie, Lois.”

He makes it sound a little dirty, of course, and Lois blushes slightly, again touching his shoulder, all touchy-feely. Hundley winks at me and I shrug, smirk, and go to the kitchen.

While I wash dishes, I hear Hundley laugh and I glance out the little window on the kitchen door: Lois has roosted on a stool next to his and he has a meaty paw on her knee. She smiles and lets it linger just long enough to send the message and then she brushes it away, delicately. She whispers in his ear. He laughs again as she makes her way to the kitchen as I go back to washing dishes.

“No good will come of it,” I say after a moment, while she’s washing her hands.

“Mind your own business, Hank Spencer.”

She dries her hands on a towel and I get the old evil eye again. I dry a dish and plop it in a rack and wipe my hands on my apron.

“What goes on in my diner is my business, Lois.”

“Maybe so. But I’m off the clock now.”

“But not off the hook.”

“You’re not my daddy,” she says, tapping a foot the way she does when she’s agitated.

“Well, I should say not, Lois. I’m only a couple years older than you.”

“Five years older,” she says. “And you’re taking that tone.”

“And just what tone is that?”

“That daddy tone. Like you know what’s best.”

“Well, I know what’s right.”

“Do you?”

“Well, I like to think so, anyway.”

She rummages through her pockets for a cigarette but she’s all out. I give her one of mine and light it for her and she exhales the blue smoke slowly, a cloud between us, lingering.

“Hundley’s going to walk me home,” she finally says after a moment.

“Uh-huh. I see.”

“Do you, Hank?”

I shrug.

“He drinks too much, Lois.”

“Don’t we all?” she says, attempting to smile but not managing it. She exhales more smoke and looks at her shoes. “What else is there to do in this town?”

“Fair enough, I suppose.”

She takes a long pull on the cigarette, its tip glowing red, and exhales.

“That’s not all, Hank. I need me a couple days. Clara can fill in okay, but I want those days. I’ve worked hard for them.”

“I never said you didn’t. You work hard.”

“Damn right I do.”

“You’re the best waitress I’ve ever had.”

“For what that’s worth.”

“Well, honest work isn’t anything to sneer at, Lois.”


“No maybes about it.”

“Listen,” she says. “Hundley and I are going to Chicago. Tonight, Hank. We’re taking the last train, the midnight one.

“I see.”

“So, now you know.”

I nod and glance at my watch.

“We’ll just swing by my place and get what I need,” she says. “Sorry for the short notice.”

I know I should just keep my mouth shut, but I can’t.

“Be sure about things and not be sorry about things, Lois. That’s all I’m saying.”

“There’s that tone again, Hank Spencer.”

“Sorry. You’re a big girl.”

“Yeah, I am. And I’m not a girl anymore – I’m a grown woman.”

“Yes, you are.”

“And making grown woman decisions,” she adds firmly.

I pull a few cigarettes from my pack and give them to her.

“For the road, Lois. Until you can get more.”

“Hundley has money,” she says abruptly, too loud, and she looks awfully self-conscious.

“He does okay in that department, I know.”

“He’ll sleep it off on the train and then we’ll have a fine time down there,” she says. “In Chicago.”

“That toddlin’ town.”

“I don’t know what that means, Hank.”

“Well, never mind.”

She’s tapping her foot again. I think she’s already worried how it will go, but she’s also past the point of no return. She’s going. If not for anything else, to see what it might take to stay there. I think to reach into the bag holding the evening take and I give her some bills, more than she has coming to her.

“Call it an advance, Lois. For when you get back. Or if you need another ticket.”

She looks up at me sharply.

“Hundley’s got that covered.”

“Well, you never know about things, Lois. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Of course,” she says, looking at the bills in her hand before slipping them into a pocket. She has trouble keeping eye contact.

“Go on, now, Lois. Go have a fine time of it. The Windy City and all that.”

“The Windy City,” she says, nodding. “I’ve never seen it.”

“Well, now you will. You’ll see it all.”

I’m thinking she may see more than she cares to, but that’s on her now. There’s no stopping her. It’s not my place to do so. I said my peace. She goes out the door, head down and then she and Hundley, arm in arm, plunge out into the summer night. I watch them from the window until they reach the corner, where they pause a moment under a streetlight with moths batting themselves against the glass, and then they disappear.

I lock the front door behind me and fetch an Old Milwaukee from the cooler. I sit at the counter of my diner and sip beer and glance at my watch: still time to call Clara and let her know I’ve got full-time work for her. A burst of motivation finds me and I mop the floors and dust and arrange silverware. I put chairs and tables in proper order. I wipe down the long counter and then I’m exhausted. I drink a second Old

Milwaukee, sitting at a table with a view of the darkened street. The town has gone to bed.

Soon I hear the horn from the last train to Chicago.

Michael Gray is the author of six published novels. His novel The Armageddon Two-Step, winner of a Book Excellence Award, was released in December 2019. His novel Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize and his novel Not Famous Anymore garnered a support grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2009. His novel Exile on Kalamazoo Street was released in 2013 and he has co-authored the stage version. His novel The Canary, which reveals the final days of Amelia Earhart, was released in 2011. King Biscuit, his Young Adult novel, was released in 2012. He was the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction.

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