The Decorah Train Depot, erected in 1922, was long and high-ceilinged, with a steep roof of glass panels and windows that spanned its length.
Travelers sitting at the Cafe Depot, looking out across the Dry Run Creek that trickled beside the train tracks, could see the newly erected Dry Run Creek Park, and beyond, east on Water Street, one could glimpse the looming, skeletal forms of the capon factory and grain mill, both abandoned for decades, sitting at the bend in the road where Water Street merged into Montgomery Street.
The presence of their absence—it had been nearly two decades since residents had seen a liberated capon scampering down Water Street in search of freedom—had become familiar to most residents. Ghosts fit snugly into their haunt.
To Lee, a sophomore English major at Luther College, they were eerie—a spooky industrial shadow looming over the charm of her view from Cafe Depot this afternoon in early December.
Lee often goes to the train station, orders coffee at the small cafe, and watches the travelers, the strangers, as they arrive and depart on the coaches that come and go on the two lines.
She typically goes to the train station in the afternoons. The fog-filtered sunlight pours down through the vaulted glass roof, the soft warm light providing Lee with illumination and the temporary fantasy of living in an Impressionist painting.
It is a gift to be anonymous, to be away from campus, to be unknown, a stranger.
The trees outside the station, beyond the tracks, are shimmering and lush, and to Lee—who is already swooning from a double espresso—the entire world outside the station, illuminated with formless muted glimmers, is like a shadowless fantasy.
She marveled at the hazy sunlight streaming through the windows and the roof of glass panels.
The air in the station is sharp and clean; to Lee, it lacks the wet heavy gravity of the foggy air outside the station.
Never has she noticed air, not until three months ago when The Fog started.
In September, when The Fog began, the air, to Lee, suddenly seemed to hold a formless shape, a ghost-shape, an absence with presence.
She was proud of these descriptions, which she’d scribbled into her notebook one afternoon in autumn, and, if she was honest, a little surprised. She knew the lines were poetic, mystical, but, looking over the phrases in her notebook one evening while studying with her boyfriend Owen in her bed, she suddenly had the courageous impulse to share these thoughts with Owen.
After she shared them with him, he stared at her blankly and mm-hmmmed affirmatively.
Lee knew the phrases were too abstract for Owen, but nevertheless they meant something to her, they described something literal, but, she suspected, they also described herself, or at least part of herself.
In her notebook, she’d also scribbled: It was almost as if the air was breath. Breath issuing from a being.
Those thoughts—weird metaphors about foggy God-breath—were definitely too weird for Owen. So, after his passive reception to her descriptions of The Fog, she began to keep these odd thoughts to herself, to save him the embarrassment of not understanding her and saving her the alienation of being misunderstood. For these reasons, and many others, she remained silent on many subjects.
She was becoming increasingly quiet around Owen, and this silence was reflective of an epiphany she had two months ago: Of the small coven of nebbishy white guys she’d dated, Owen was by far the best-looking and, she now realized sitting here in the Cafe Depot, the dumbest.
Two months ago, shortly after they’d begun dating, she quickly realized he didn’t know what a metaphor was. She’d been explaining an idea she’d recently read in a theology book:
“What if, instead of reading the stories in The Bible as literal reports on actual events, instead we read those stories as metaphors? And further”—and here’s the idea that really intrigued Lee—“what if Jesus never rose from the tomb? What if The Resurrection was a metaphor to describe his followers being reborn and vindicated after his death?”
She wasn’t quite sure where she lost him in this monologue, but he was definitely adrift in the wilderness.
He couldn’t grasp that something could be described as something—and yet be something else.
“It isn’t a deal-breaker,” she said later in the afternoon to Dr. Polkinghorne, as they sat sipping tea in his used book shop on the west end of the train station, “but it really limits what we can talk about.”
Dr. Polkinghorne, a charming older gentleman who owned and operated a quaint used bookstore on the west end of the train station, was a very patient in hearing Lee’s various trials and tribulations, and during her weekly outings to the train station, the two the them had developed an affectionate friendship.
“Honey,” he said, dipping his chin, narrowing his eyes, and managing to look both inquisitive and empathetic, “do you need to date a jeopardy contestant?”
A spark of recognition lit inside her and soon she was smiling uncontrollably.
Dr. Polkinghorne took a sip of tea, but before he could take a bite of his chocolate chip walnut cookie, Lee—dumbly grinning—had jumped to her feet, leaned across his tea set, knocked over the sugar jar, and planted a smooch on his forehead. As she cleaned up the scattered sugar cubes, Lee continued to keep grinning because Dr. Polkinghorne was spot-on.
She wanted a Jeopardy contestant, she couldn’t date dumb guys, and Owen, she finally admitted to herself and Dr. Polkinghorne, was dumb.
She marveled at the wise old bookseller and envied the way Polkinghorne was able to ask her questions she didn’t have the courage to articulate herself. And she envied how he could do this with charm, a certain degree of quiet grace, and while wearing a cravat.
“So what are you going to do?” Dr. Polkinghorne asked.
She would break-up with him later tonight. But first, she told Dr. Polkinghorne, she had to be introduced to a dog, Candace, she’d be taking care of over January. Dr. Kushner in the Music department was teaching a J-term abroad and Lee, for Christmas break and January, was responsible for taking care of Candace, a snowy white Great Pyrenees, as well as the house, a Gothic manor house a couple blocks south of downtown.
And so, Lee said goodbye to Dr. Polkinghorne, exited the station and began walking south, towards the home of Dr. Samantha Kushner.
In the west, the muted sun was dipping below the bluffs.