As she did just before every Christmas, Sara Kunde searched for an empty seat on the 5:28 South Shore commuter train from downtown Chicago to her home in Michigan City, Indiana.
Actually, it was the 5:31 for Michigan City, because Sara had boarded at Van Buren Street Station instead of where the train originated at Randolph Street. That was because she had found herself at a cozy restaurant on Wabash Avenue having a luncheon with a dear from college that lasted longer than expected.
Sara’s old chum, Cynthia “Cindy” Adams, had come to Chicago the week before Christmas for a conference at the Palmer House on healthy aging. Well, Sara dimly recalled as she searched for a seat, that’s not exactly what it was called, but that was the gist of what old Cindy was on about in her new manifestation as a lively, vibrant and engaged retiree of a certain age.
The ever-girlish Cindy had happily flown up from her new digs in San Diego to attend the conference and to get together with her long-last friend and fellow college newspaper editor, Sara Kunde. They had kept in touch through the years, mainly by Christmas cards, and, with the advent of e-mail, Cindy was forever “instant messaging” Sara on the computer that her grandkids had set up for her.
They had dragged her, kicking and screaming, away from her beloved old Smith Corona manual typewriter to the very doorstep of on-line communication. And, to her great credit, Grandma had gotten with the program rather quickly, and was soon on-line more than she was off.
And so when Cindy Adams e-mailed to say she was going to be in town for her “Wisdom of the Aged” conference or whatever and would have a free afternoon for a good old-fashioned Yuletide luncheon under the tree at what used to be Marshall Field’s, why Sara accepted instantly.
But, Sara thought as she searched in vain for a seat, the best laid plans o’ mice and women gang aft agley, and if we had done as that poor woman outside the Walnut Room had suggested and taken one of those pagers, we’d still be waiting to be called for our meal under the tree.
So, despite the bitter cold, the two of them had fled what used to be Field’s and hiked south on Wabash Avenue to the cozy confines of a certain restaurant that they fondly remembered from their college days in Evanston.
Back when Evanston was dry, of course, and the two of them, after laboring to get another edition of THE WEEKLY STANDARD out, would take the North Shore Line downtown and ‘” well, hoist a few in honor of all that drying ink.
And so when the old friends were seated in the warmest table at their beloved restaurant, they decided to toast their long-awaited reunion, Christmas, world peace, and the bitter cold outside with a drink.
After all, they had so many happy memories to share, and photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to oogle over, and . . .
Well, it was a wonder that Sara was able to catch the 5:31 at Van Buren at all.
Not that she had to walk all that far, but her coordination had been slightly ‘” shall we say'”impaired.
And now that she was squeezed aboard with all the other Van Burenites, Sara was seeing that there was simply not a seat to be ‘” hiccup ‘” had.
Yes, Sara hiccupped rather loudly, and then the train’s departure catapulted her across the vestibule into the nearest set of seats where she came to rest on a young woman’s lap.
“Oh dear,” Sara exclaimed. “I am so sorry. “
Sara tried to right herself, but the train’s forward momentum had pinned her against the young woman who, now that she looked at her closely, appeared to be'”
“Beverly Fitzgerald. Remember? I remember you from last year.”
“Yes,” Sara said, hoping she wasn’t slurring her words too badly, “I had you play your violin when the extension cord broke, and the lights went out, and everybody started grumbling, and, oh dear, do listen to me go on and on.”
The stranger sharing the seat with Beverly Fitzgerald decided he had quite enough and went off to stand in the vestibule for the remainder of his ride to Hegewisch.
Sara rearranged herself so she wasn’t sitting on Beverly’s lap, hiccupped again, and sighed with deep embarrassment. “I’m afraid I might have had a little too much Christmas cheer.”
Beverly shrugged and said, “Happens to the best of us. Hey, want to know a really great cure for the hiccups?”
“Please,” Sara said. “Once I get started, I can’t seem to stop.”
Beverly got a cup of water from the nearby dispenser, handed it to Sara and said, “Okay, take a sip and then get up and hop on one foot. Works every time.”
Sara was about to demur when another hiccup came rumbling up and overcame her best efforts to suppress it.
“All right,” she said, “here goes.”
And she did exactly as Beverly had suggested, and in her present state, she didn’t really mind that others were smiling at her performance.
“That should do it,” Beverly said.
Sara sat down and waited.
“I think you’re on to something. I’m hopeless when it comes to hiccups, and I only seem to get them when ‘” well, when I’ve had a little too much wine or whatever, and, well, my old college chum Cindy Adams was in town, and we tried to have lunch under the tree at ‘” oh, I want to say Field’s, but it’s not Field’s anymore, is it?”
“I know ‘” I work there.”
Sara was shocked. “But I thought you were third violin in the orchestra.”
“What do you mean ‘” was?!?”
Beverly sighed and said: “I mean that there was a shake-up at the symphony, and I didn’t make the cut. Kind of like'”I don’t know'” professional football or something. I didn’t make the team this season, and so the day I found out I went over to Macy’s and applied for a job, and they hired me, and that’s why I was already on the train when you got on.”
“Oh, Beverly, that’s terrible. Just terrible.” Sara realized she was being a bit overly dramatic given that she had only seen this young woman but once before in her entire life and had made absolutely no effort to stay in touch with her.
“Actually, it’s not so bad,” Beverly said, “because they’ve had me playing the piano near the Walnut Room to keep everybody calm. Sure a lot better than spraying people with after shave on the first floor, which was what they had me doing when I first started.”
Sara tried to absorb all that she had just heard and found herself wanting to cry and holler for justice at the same time.
Finally, she said, “Oh you poor, poor dear. Such a talent. Such a waste. I’m going to write to the president of the symphony board; I’m going to . . .”
“It’s all right. Really. Stuff happens. It’s life. I’ve accepted it and moved on.”
Sara sighed and said: “Well, just as soon as we get to Michigan City, I’m going to take out for a good stiff drink. That’s just what you need, and it’ll be my treat.”
Beverly looked Sara in the eye and said, “Actually, I don’t drink. A day at a time that is.”
Sensing she was skating out on thin ice, Sara dug a mint out of her purse, popped it in her mouth and said, “Oh. That’s nice. I mean, well, I suppose some people'”you know'””
“Have trouble handling alcohol?”
“Yes. I ‘” well ‘” yes.”
Beverly raised her hand and said: “Well, you’re looking at one.”
Sara didn’t know what to say or do.
She was shocked into complete and utter silence.
And so Beverly filled the void by regaling her once-a-year friend with stories of what it had been like for her when she was drinking and what it was like now that she was no longer drinking. “And I do it a day at a time,” Beverly concluded as the train made its final approach to its final stop at “Shops.”
Never once had Beverly questioned Sara about her own drinking or behavior, and never once had the young woman demanded that the older woman jump up on the “water wagon” with her.
No, all she did when the train stopped was reach in her back pack and retrieve a thick book with a blue cover. She thumbed through the worn pages with a practiced eye, found the chapter she was looking for, dog-eared it and then handed the book to Sara. “Merry Christmas, Sara. With my compliments. You might want to read the story about the woman who got a late start. I marked it for you.”
“Oh,” Sara said, “I couldn’t possibly. I'””
“All right. If you insist.”
Sara sighed and said, “Say, could I ask you a small favor?”
“Sure,” Beverly said, “anything.”
“I, ah, well, I’m really not in much shape to drive home, and, well, I was wondering if you could give me a lift. I can have my grandkids come back for my car, and, well, could you?”
“Sure,” Beverly said without hesitation.
And thus began Sara Kunde’s journey of recovery.