Call Me McGuffin

The blonde man appeared in the doorway of the dining car. I'd been on the train for almost two days, and I hadn't seen him until that moment. He wore gray flannel trousers and a white shirt with round silver cufflinks. As he entered the car, he checked his pocket watch.

"Good evening, Mr. Pilbourne," the waiter addressed him ."I can give you a nice seat in the front, if you'll come with me."

Pilbourne strode lightly among the tables, which vibrated erratically as the train rushed through the almost deserted countryside. He took his seat at the booth next to mine, and turned his head so that I could see his profile. A high forehead, just enough nose to be distinctive, and a strong chin. He was clean-shaven, with clear blue eyes, and his blonde hair was combed back to make him look like a 1940's movie star, maybe Alan Ladd, only taller.

The waiter reappeared with a bottle of whiskey and poured Pilbourne a drink, then the blonde stranger ordered dinner. He drank his whiskey and looked out the window at the pink-streaked sky. An orange sun played hide-and-seek with the green-tinted clouds, and though it was a beautiful sunset, I felt the small despair of impending death that I always feel during dusk.

"Sunrises are so much more cheerful, but you have to get up too early to see them."

He was talking directly to me, and smiling just enough to show me tiny eye wrinkles and a cleft chin.

"I don't care for dusk," I told him, thinking he already knew this about me.

At the booth across the aisle, four travelers were arguing about the relevance of re-making classic films. The car had become quiet, except for the rattling of silverware, the hypnotic rhythm of train against track, and the lively film conversation.

"Cape Fear, si; D.O.A., no," Pilbourne said, then finished his drink.

"Will you still speak to me if I tell you I like the remake of Postman? "

He laughed out loud this time. "There is no such thing as too much Jessica Lange"

The people at the next booth stopped arguing long enough to turn around and eye me with disgust, then returned to their deconstruction of Body Heat.

"You are a shameful Philistine, and I will have to protect you from the Art Police," Pilbourne said loudly. "Won't you join me?"

I moved into his booth, and our dinners came. The waiter smoothly went about setting them down, without any mention of the seating arrangement. Pilbourne had ordered a bottle of Vouvray, and he poured me a glass.

"I haven't seen you in here before," I told him.

"I usually take my meals in my car, but I was feeling a bit claustrophobic tonight. Where are you going?"

"New York. But only for a day or two. Then Vermont, to visit my sister. You?"

"Nowhere in particular. I'm roaming across America, trying to make my book deadline. I thought I'd be less distracted on a train. Silly of me."

I couldn't tell if his remark was personal, so I let it go. I thought maybe I wanted it to be personal.

"What kind of book?"

"Oh, a boring one, really. American History."

"Do you teach?"

"No, just write."

Train food isn't dreadful like airplane food, but it also isn't anything to write reviews about. Still, I had a decent piece of grilled salmon, and the potatoes were baked to a tasty crisp. Pilbourne was eating a shrimp-stuffed crab. The Vouvray was seeping through my muscles and shortening the distance between my brain and my mouth.

"I'll eat dessert if you will."

"I'll eat it whether you do or not."

We ordered bread pudding, and the waiter brought us some coffee. Pilbourne insisted on putting the entire thing on his bill, then offered to walk me back to my car.

"Unless, of course, you'd care to come to my car for a brandy." He looked at me without smiling.

I went to Pilbourne's car and skipped the brandy. I was fifteen months divorced, floating in Vouvray, and I would never have to see the blonde stranger again. I wondered if he would go so far as to wear silk boxer shorts, and -- to my relief -- he didn't. They were good oxford cloth, though, and Pilbourne looked like he hadn't skipped many days at the gym. Men in silver cufflinks aren't usually my type, but Pilbourne wasn't as pretty as he might have been -- no silk drawers, no salon manicure, no perfect pants crease. As these things go, he was like finding a ruby in a Crackerjack box, and lately, I hadn't even been able to find the toy.

I left Pilbourne's car early the next morning. He took his breakfast there and invited me to stay, but I went to the dining car and ate French toast and drank a whole carafe of coffee. There are no celebrations quite like private ones. While I was on my second cup, two of the men in the film argument of the night before stumbled in and waved, apparently having forgiven me for my pedestrian taste. I wondered if I should go back to Pilbourne's car and ask him if he was still hungry, but without the Vouvray, I didn't have the nerve.

We arrived at Grand Central just before noon. As I was checking the schedule, I saw three or four dark-suited men walk briskly toward the turnstile. When Pilbourne emerged, they approached him, picked up his hand luggage and walked him into a room near the information desk. Later that day, I saw a TV news story about the arrest of one Clyde Pennington, for selling U.S. military secrets to Iran. They showed a full-length picture of him.

It was Pilbourne, wearing a dark blue three-piece suit and a red and blue paisley tie.

Three days later, I arrived at my sister Janet's farmhouse.

"You poor thing!" she said. "That long train ride. What did you do?"

"Not much. Caught up on American history and film noir."

"How odd. I didn't know you cared for either."

"They are more interesting than you might think."

Janet brought out crystal glasses, poured some wine, and we toasted my arrival. She turned on the television, and there was Pennington again, staring at us with his icy blues.

"My goodness, who is that gorgeous specimen?"

"Just a man who knew way too much," I told her.

About the author:

Diane E. Dees is a pscyhotherapist and writer in Covington, Louisiana. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in many publications, including The Raven Chronicles, The Dead Mule, Thema, and Palo Alto Review. She is a columnist for Moondance and also writes political commentary for several ezines. Diane and her husband, Orvin, are the webmasters of, the world's only virtual rock and roll restaurant. Diane's blog is at