An UNDETERMINED MANNER of DEATH
(Matthias Kork series book 2 preview)
© Peter Tinits
THE RIGHT REAR TIRE on my sport utility vehicle had looked flattish in the morning. Loving the planet doesn’t preclude loving four-wheel drive and survivalist tire tread. I drove to work at the hospital on it anyway because I was late, and had just driven back home on it holding my breath. My handicap is not being handy. The Canadian Automobile Association would have to come put on the spare.
Because Friday is followed by Saturday, it could wait until tomorrow. I was going to a TGIF get-together across town. Living in Coventry, a city of 50,000 inhabitants, meant nothing was too far to be reached by bicycle. I began cycling year round to maintain my bliss when Covid closed the gyms.
Twenty minutes later, I was fastening my bike to a yield sign with the giant U-shaped kryptonite lock that I carried on the frame. It was probably safe enough at a cop retirement party. Following the sound of talking and laughing, I wandered alongside the house to the back yard.
There were 30 or 40 people standing in groups, who I judged to be either cops or neighbours. I was considering which group to attach myself to when one of the cops called, “Hey Matt.” He came over holding a beer and extending one.
“Hey Jackson. Congratulations on your retirement!” I said.
“Thanks man. I’m free for alternative employment now—I was thinking you could use a chauffeur.”
“Did you see me arrive on my bike?”
“No. I mean to drive you around on your coroner job. It would be the perfect retirement job for me.”
“There’s no budget for that. You know I only do one or two coroner calls per month, right? I’m still working as an anesthesiologist.”
Jackson looked disappointed. “Well, let me know if business picks up. Driving with lights and sirens is my only real, marketable skill.”
Detective Branko Marcovic emerged from the side of the house and approached, wearing a tie and an ethnic-looking sweater-vest. He was tall and thin with a hook nose that looked like it had been broken and left to heal.
“Hey Branko. Thanks for coming,” Jackson said.
“I’m supposed to be working, but I couldn’t very well miss your special day, could I Jackson. I see you followed my advice.”
“What was that?” I asked.
Branko coughed. “In your last week at work, don’t shoot anyone and don’t get shot.”
“They wouldn’t let me take any calls for the week before I retired,” Jackson confided.
“Hey Matt. We had a guy hanging from a tree yesterday. Couldn’t find a coroner,” Branko said.
“Yeah, they called me at work,” I said. “I couldn’t go. Is he still there?”
“No. He’d been there since midnight yesterday though. Pierce said it was a psychiatric patient who suicided.” Pierce was the other coroner in town. “We also had a good case last month of a corpse holding his severed penis in his left hand. What do you think of that, Matt?”
“I would say he was right-handed, unless his wife cut it off.”
“The wife said she didn’t do it,” Branko said, deadpan. “She was too fond of it.”
“That’s reassuring,” I said.
“She also said she couldn’t have done it because it was hard as nails,” Jackson said, “but I noticed she had a chipped tooth.”
“Did he really bleed out from that?” I asked.
“No,” Branko said. “He took a lot of pills also.”
“See, that’s two good cases you missed by being an anesthesiologist, Matt,” Jackson said. You should do coronering full time and then you would need a driver. Get yourselves beer and munchies from the picnic table. I have to circulate.” He wandered off.
“Nice sweater,” I said, looking for something to say. Branko normally wore a cheap baggy suit. Detectives need the extra fabric to conceal their guns.
“I’m wearing a nice shirt. You forgot to mention it.”
Branko smiled. “How are relations with the surgeons these days?”
“Good. We have an understanding. You know that song, ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’?”
“Yeah, it’s a good song. It doesn’t work that way in my world,” Branko said.
“Mine either, really.”
I stayed until it got dark and then went back to the curb to get my bicycle. Taking the scenic route home, I entered the park where there was a bike path that was lit up at night. As I was climbing a steep hill, the chain started slipping over the teeth of the front sprocket. The chain had rusted from winter road salt and needed to be replaced. Pushing the bike the rest of the way up the hill, I heard the sound of two men arguing.
Their voices quietened as I approached. One of the men seemed to be twice the age of the other. They were both scrawny and in need of a shower. The older one turned away from me as I passed, but one eye still saw me. His eyes were looking in divergent directions. The strabismus and his anger made him look crazy. Not wanting to provoke comments, I went by quickly.
Off in the distance, I heard, “No!”
“Why not? Let’s report seeing someone coming down a ladder.”
“Shut your word-hole and just stick to the fucking plan, fucktard.”
“Why do you always have to turn into…”
I didn’t hear the rest of it and didn’t want to. They were probably arguing over drugs or the proceeds of a drug deal. I exited the park and cycled home on sidewalks to avoid cars and sewer grates that could kill me.
My wife Katya peeked at me through half-closed eyelids as I moved around the bedroom. She had curled her five-foot-ten-inch length into a blanket-wrapped cocoon. She built up a sleep deficit during the week, marking papers and preparing lessons, that needed to be rectified. As a high school teacher, she was also stressed out from negotiating with teenagers. Her blonde-with-pink-fringes hairdo had bedhead, but she looked comfortable and happy.
“Sleeping late?” I asked.
“It’s the weekend.”
“You got over nine hours sleep last night.”
“Nine is just a number. I like to get up when I’m ready.”
“Doing anything today?”
“Returning empty wine bottles and visiting my sister.”
Katya’s twin sister Magda lived in Pickering, an hour’s drive away. They talked or texted or visited nearly every day. They communicated in Polish when they didn’t want me to understand.
“Why? Were they defective?”
“Ha. Ha.” Katya stretched all four limbs like a snow angel.
“You should say they were empty when you bought them. You used to love your glass of wine before bed.”
Katya couldn’t tolerate any alcohol now. She said it made her nauseous. This might have subliminally had something to do with feature news items about alcohol being a carcinogen. I stepped over Madame Fifi, who was twitching and growling on the floor, to get to the closet.
“Do you think she is dreaming of electric sheep?” Katya asked.
“Most replicants do.”
“What about you? What are you up to today?”
“I have to get my back tire fixed. One of my enemies slashed it.”
Katya struggled out of bed and staggered toward the bathroom. She was wearing a T-shirt and terry-cloth shorts cinched with a draw-string, variations of which she generally always slept in. Katya is a bit ungainly, as if she didn’t expect to grow as tall as she did. This little vulnerability is endearing.
“Okay hon, if you say so,” she said.
“Okay hon, I’m just going out to take care of it.” Hon was an epithet we used ironically because we were above plebeian endearments.
“Kisses, my bunny.” Katya planted a kiss in passing that half missed my mouth.
Walking around my SUV in the driveway, I noticed that the back tire was now completely flat. I pulled the plasticized CAA card from my wallet and dialled their service number on my phone. As I was waiting on hold, I got an alert that there was a call from the coroner’s answering service. They never chose to call at a convenient time. I hesitated and then swiped right.
There was a death at an apartment house in Coventry of a 58-year-old man, a Mr. Albert Yantzi, who was the lone occupant. They gave me his date of birth and the telephone number of a policeman at the scene. I called the number and heard, “Hi Doctor. We have a 58-year-old male, found dead by his landlord on the floor of his apartment. The fire department is waiting for you.”
“What do you mean ‘the fire department is waiting for me’?”
“You’ll see when you get here.”
“That’s it? Is there any evidence of trauma? Are there any pill bottles around?”
“It’s hard to know. It’s better if you see for yourself.” He gave me directions and hung up.
Searching Albert Yantzi on the Coventry Hospital computer database brought up one emergency department visit for a twisted ankle. There was no family doctor. He was either previously healthy, had received his medical care somewhere else or was a derelict who avoided doctors and hospitals. I copied down the phone number for a daughter who was next of kin.
Slinging my coroner bag over my shoulder, I cycled ten minutes to the scene. There were two fire engines and three police cars parked by the side of the road in front of a six-plex apartment house. Several firemen in brown jumpsuits and five or six policemen were milling around. Cops will often congregate and just hang out if it’s a slow day and something interesting or unusual has happened. One of the cops approached, and I handed him my business card.
"I’ve already got one, Dr. Kork”
I’m bad with names and faces. “Could I have one of yours?”
He extended a card from his wallet that bore the name Hunter Schultz, Constable, Coventry Police. “The firemen will get you suited up in a hazmat suit.”
“Why? What’s going on? Are you the investigating officer?”
“That would be Branko Marcovic. He’ll escort you in. I’m the one you spoke with on the phone. We’ve opened up all the windows, but it’s still pretty overwhelming. The firemen have to leave soon.”
“When was this guy last seen alive?”
“His girlfriend came to visit, noticed the smell and notified the superintendent. He called us and unlocked the door. The last person to see Albert alive was the same girlfriend three weeks ago.”
Hunter escorted me to a firetruck where there was a pile of equipment on the ground. The firemen fitted me into a plastic zip-up hazmat suit with a shroud covering my head. They threaded my arms through the harness of a scuba tank that sat on my back and pulled on my shoulders. I put on my own disposable gloves.
“That too heavy for you, Doc?”
“No. Is this mouthpiece clean?”
“Yeah, well, we wiped it off. Put it in your mouth to test it out. You’ve got about half a tank. Try to breathe at a slow even rate so you don’t use up the air supply too quickly. If your air is low, you’ll hear an alarm. Okay? Come this way then.”
They led me to the building entrance where Branko was speaking with another officer. He was wearing the same gear as me.
“Hi Matt. I’ve got his health card for you here—a Mr. Albert Yantzi. You can use the photo to make the identification.”
“How come so many cops are here, Branko?”
“Albert is lying beside a long gun. It doesn’t look like it’s been discharged though.”
“Yantzi is a Mennonite name. It’s weird for a Mennonite to be living in the city alone.”
“He might have been excommunicated,” Branko suggested.
“Any drugs in the apartment that he could have overdosed on?”
“Maybe. It’s a pigsty in there. We did find a few prescription drug bottles for you to look at.”
Branko put his mouthpiece in and motioned for me to do the same. We ascended a flight of stairs through sequential waves of flies in their thousands arriving at plate glass windows in the stairwell. The windows acted like magnifying glasses to concentrate the heat of the noon-day sun. As we entered the second-floor apartment, the stench of decay was nauseating despite our air tanks.
The living room was dishevelled, with scattered clothes and garbage littering the floor and every level surface. There were two cops, one of them with a camera taking pictures. A balcony door was wide open. The decedent was lying on his back with his arms at his sides and his head turned to the left on the living-room floor beside an unmade pull-out bed.
His face was a bloated, black beachball surrounded by a cloud of flies. Maggots wriggled in his right eye. His left eye seemed to be eaten away or missing. There was a circular pool of congealed blood or bloody vomit on the floor around his head. Blood propelled by gas escaping from a decomposing stomach can do this. His body was a mottled blue-green. His fingers were shrivelled to bony remnants. A rusty, vintage Winchester-style rifle was lying by his side on the floor, exactly parallel to the body.
I took my mouthpiece out long enough to say, “You don’t think he shot himself?”
Branko took his mouthpiece out long enough to say, “I don’t think it’s been fired.”
Removing my mouthpiece again, “What about his left eye?”
“That’s not an entry wound.”
Branko held the decedent’s provincial health insurance card photo beside his head for me to look at. I peered at it long and hard and then at the dead man’s face, and then back and forth. It was hard to be sure. I probed his lips with my index finger to see if he had teeth, but they were swollen shut and I didn’t want to get cut.
There was no visible bullet hole in the front of his T-shirt or jeans. I didn’t attempt to turn or undress him as his skin was slippery and lifting off in sheets. They would do that during the autopsy anyway. He was wearing socks but no shoes. I took off the left sock and forced it over the distended right one so it wouldn’t get lost. To his bare big toe, I attached the toe tag that I had completed with a Sharpie marker at home with the name that dispatch had given me.
The kitchen counter was crowded with take-out wrappers and dirty dishes encrusted with dried and decaying food. The refrigerator held a case of beer, two bottles of cola, a bowl of what might have been hamburger meat and a box of baking soda. There were two neatly stacked crates of empty beer cans in the cupboard. I went into the bathroom and it was filthy too. There was an actual layer of grime on the counter under the empty cardboard packages and vitamin bottles.
That was it—three rooms in total. They could put the Vacancy, Nice Studio Apartment sign out on the lawn. Branko had grouped prescription bottles together for me on the corner of a living-room end table where he had pushed beer cans to one side to clear a spot. The ancient labels were faded and almost illegible. There was an antihypertensive, an antidepressant and a proton pump inhibitor to decrease stomach acidity, all prescribed by a family doctor whom I knew to be retired. I didn’t see any illicit drugs or drug paraphernalia.
As I was reading the labels, my low air alarm went off. Branko heard it as well. Casting another look around the apartment, I exited past the hot swarms of flies in the stairwell as expeditiously as my dignity would allow. Branko followed in my wake.
When we got outside, Branko said, “I think you possibly inhaled some fly poop. How long do you think he’s been dead?”
“Maybe four weeks, maybe as little as two or three, depending on how hot it got in the apartment. I’ve never seen anyone that decomposed before.”
“We were leaving the rifle in place until the ident team from Toronto finished with photos and you had a chance to look at the layout. They’ll take the rifle for fingerprinting. I got the distance from the end of the barrel to the trigger at nine and a half inches.”
I got his meaning. “I’ll tell the pathologist to measure his arm length to see if he could have reached the trigger. Was that balcony door locked when they found him?”
“Closed, but not locked. The front door to the apartment was locked.”
“How did the flies get in? Could you ID him from that health card photo, Branko?”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. Who else would it be?”
“It’s strange that the rifle is lying exactly parallel to the body.”
“Like a soldier. That’s why I don’t think he used it. There was no ammunition around anywhere. There is a bracket on the wall where the rifle might have been mounted as a decoration.”
“He might have been considering using it and took some pills instead,” I said. “Did you see the beer cans in the kitchen cupboard. He was planning to return the empties for a refund.”
Branko smiled. “Ten cents each.”
“I noticed a video camera in the lobby.”
“The super thinks it’s broken. Most residential cameras only store security footage for a week or two before it’s overwritten, but we’ll look into it.”
“Were you able to find a next of kin?” Speaking with next of kin is stressed in coroners’ training. The coroners’ office is very conscious of public relations.
“He has an estranged daughter who lives out of town. She hasn’t seen him in ten years.”
“Have you spoken with her?”
Branko flipped through his notebook for her number. “We talked to her on the phone. She was pretty cold about the whole thing.”
As this was more complex than the usual case, I called the Regional Supervising Coroner on call for advice. It was Richard Tull, who also happened to be my regular supervisor. I told him my findings and, as I was wrapping up, he asked whether I was able to make a positive identification.
“Well, it’s presumptive. He is decomposed. His head is bloated and black.”
“Does he have teeth? Does he have any tattoos?”
“I don’t know about tattoos. There is skin slippage, so I couldn’t undress him without bullae lifting off in sheets. He may have some teeth left. His face is edematous and his lips are sort of sealed together.” I didn’t say I had been afraid of cutting myself by pushing my finger too far into his mouth.
“Do the police have any fingerprints on file for him?”
“I’ll find out, but I don’t think he has any fingerprints left.”
“Did you get a toothbrush or hairbrush for DNA analysis?”
“Well, you’ll have to go back and get one of those.”
I had a look over at where the firemen had parked. They were packing away the last of their equipment. A moment later, they got into their trucks and drove away.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll have another look around his bathroom.” Good soldiers can do.
I was standing beside Hunter Schultz again. I told him I needed a toothbrush or hairbrush and then walked back toward the building without waiting for him to offer. Taking a last giant lung-full of fresh air, I mounted the stairs and re-entered the apartment. The smell wasn’t so bad once you got used to it.
I waded back through the trash to the bathroom. After some digging, I found a fuzzy hairbrush and worn toothbrush on the counter and shoved them together into a plastic bag. Without further ado, I left the apartment for the second time and found Branko.
“Okay, you can call the body removal service—Christobel’s or Schade’s Funeral Home—whichever you like. I think Christobel’s might be quicker.”
Funeral homes do body removals for autopsies as a sideline. They compete with each other for the business. To avoid being accused of playing favourites, I let the police decide.
“Already done,” he replied.
“And send these with the body,” I handed him the plastic bag. “Does he have a criminal record? Are there any fingerprints on file?”
“No. Do you want us to hold the scene?”
“Not for my purposes.”
“Okay. We’ll preserve it long enough to look for spent rifle casings. Be nice to your wife so you don’t end up alone, decomposing for two to four weeks.”
“I have to call the pathologist now to tell him that I’m sending him a body,” I said. “They’re going to ask me whether you want to attend the autopsy.”
“Not really…” His face showed veiled disgust. “Okay. Tell them yes.”
The on-call forensic pathologist in Toronto was Dr. Ron Rasmussen. Forensic pathologists consider themselves higher up the food chain than coroners. I’d spoken with him a few times in the past.
I got him on the phone. “Hi. This is Dr. Matthew Kork. I’m a coroner in Coventry.”
“Yes, I know. Hi.”
“I’m sending you a badly decomposed body, a Mr. Albert Yantzi, whom I have tentatively identified. He was in his locked apartment. The superintendent called it in because of the smell. He was last seen alive by a girlfriend approximately three weeks ago. It may have been a natural death or a drug overdose. He is supine on the floor with some blood or bloody purge around his head. There is a vintage rifle by his side which doesn’t appear to have been fired.”
“How are we going to identify him?”
“I had a look at his health card photo, but I can’t be sure.”
“So, how are you going to identify him?” He wanted it to be my problem.
“I’m sending you a hair and toothbrush for DNA. There is a daughter who is next of kin, but she’s estranged. I’ll ask her if he had a dentist when I speak with her. The medical records don’t give a history of any joint implants.”
“Does he have teeth?”
“I’m not sure. His lips are swollen shut.”
“Okay. Ask her about tattoos. Do the police want to attend?”
“Tell them 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He hung up.
When I got home, I stripped down to my underwear, leaving my clothes by the door, and went directly to shower. I hadn’t decided whether to wash or burn the clothes.
An UNDETERMINED MANNER of DEATH, Matthias Kork revisited, is now available.
If you would like to be notified when book 3 in the series becomes available, please click here.
Happy Fathers' Day!
Traveling by Amtrak in the Company of my Son
an 11 day voyage, © Peter Tinits
I HAVE HAD A ROMANTIC fascination with trains since listening to their whistles at night from my bed in Toronto when I was my son’s age and younger. I sleep well on them. I have slept comfortably on corridor floors beside the toilet on crowded European trains when it was the only place to lie down. I have slept on a plank which folds out from the wall on Indian trains, with my backpack chained to my leg for safekeeping. This is not to illustrate the strength of my stomach and leg, so much as to establish my credentials as a train aficionado.
Until 2004, it was possible to take a train directly from my home in Stratford, Ontario to Chicago without getting off. Stratford, the Shakespearean theatre capital of Canada, is on the Toronto to Chicago line. I had seen Shakespeare but never Chicago. Amongst the world’s great train trips is the Chicago to San Francisco line, the California Zephyr. I could theoretically walk from my house to the train station and ride to the Pacific Ocean.
Reading down the list of stops on the itinerary was a eureka moment. They included the ski resort town of Winter Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Aspen, Reno, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. Amtrak allows stopovers at no extra charge. Amtrak Vacations offers rail-air vacation packages, which means that you can make the return trip by air without the usual inflated cost associated with one-way flights.
I had an idea this trip would be a way of promoting supplementary father-son bonding with my eleven-year-old. As it turned out, we complemented each other in several ways. My middle-aged eyes can no longer read road signs until I am level with them and already past. My son Andrew sees minute details and has a memory like video replay. I sense menace in dark streets and missed travel connections. Andrew is an uncontaminated optimist.
Andrew’s sense of direction is still developing. His instinctual choice is usually 180 degrees wrong, and I advised him to use this to our advantage by deciding a course for us, and then applying a 180-degree correction factor. Armed with his powers of observation and my knowledge of geometry, we set out.
Day One – Stratford to Chicago
I was a little leery of the reception we might receive in America. There had been news reports that in the wake of nine-eleven many Americans considered Canada a haven for terrorists and believed we were not serious allies. We boarded the Amtrak, a train of only four cars at 9 a.m. in Stratford. Our seats were beside members of an American tour group returning to Illinois after a session of gorging on Shakespeare. They regarded us with intense interest, as if we were things of beauty, as if they had been with each other night and day for a full week.
When I told the man seated behind me what we were up to, the entire population of the rail car simultaneously took notice. People rushed to offer us home made cookies and suggestions as to what we might like to see in Chicago. These elderly English teachers and retired insurance executives welcomed us into their family.
Sharon across the aisle, who was in her sixties and volunteered at the Art Institute of Chicago, was the recently widowed wife of a radiologist. She was attractive and impeccably coiffed, wore expensive-looking jewellery and warmly recommended the gallery as a must-see. She had the clean, healthy look of someone I might have known in college. I would likely have telephoned the numbers or emailed the emails on the business card she gave me if I were ten years older and single. Being a doctor as well, I would have qualified.
Another American woman who chatted with us warned us not to stare up at the giant Chicago buildings when we got off the train, as we would label ourselves as rubes and invite trouble. We should keep our money out of sight and next to our skins. She mistrusted Sharon’s wholesome looks, and recommended the Museum of Science and Industry.
We made good progress right up until we got to London, Ontario, the second stop. There, we were delayed for two hours while emergency personnel dealt with the aftermath of a car-freight train collision further down the track. When we finally got close to the border, a young lady from VIA Rail told us mournfully that on Monday and Wednesday this week U.S. customs officials had taken several hours for an extra rigorous inspection. She then wisely exited the train. This was Friday.
In Port Huron, Michigan two customs officials and two soldiers in camouflage gear stopped the train and evacuated it of all people and belongings. They spent hours searching through the train and luggage of the grey-haired Shakespeare aficionados. Our American friends seemed not to be bothered by this. They said that the soldiers were junior and fearful of missing anything. The terrorist yield must have been low that day.
Being genuine, rosy-cheeked tourists, they left our luggage completely untouched. We were the only foreigners, and the only ones to escape scrutiny. We pulled into Chicago at 11:30 p.m., six hours late. I pressed my wallet close to my skin, snuck a look up at an impressively tall building and accepted a ride from a cab driver who greeted us with “Get in!”
Day Two – Chicago
Our hotel was in a good area, only one block from the Magnificent Mile shopping district, just north of the Chicago River. My son watched cartoons while I went for a jog past gleaming superstores well stocked with luxury items for discriminating clientele. I returned to tell him what I had seen and that “mummy must never know.” Mummy was on that day in Lithuania, escorting her elderly father to an emotional reunion with relatives he had not seen since World War II. There was no immediate risk.
Suitably covered with sun block 25, we walked together to the foot of the old Chicago Water Tower, where we heard free live jazz and boarded a free tourist trolley bus. The driver was bubbling with quips and enthusiasm as he drove south on North Michigan past the Art Institute of Chicago to the museum campus on the Lake Michigan waterfront. Getting off, I hung my head because I didn’t have anything smaller than a twenty to put in his tip jar. He might have been twenty dollars good, but I was too cheap to acknowledge it.
At the museum campus, we were faced with choosing amongst the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Adler Planetarium. We enjoyed exotic fish, organized thematically by habitat at the Shedd Aquarium, which also houses the “Oceanarium.” This theatre has an impressive panoramic glass backdrop blending infinitely into the lake, and a performing dolphin show. We watched two IMAX films at the Planetarium, to do with the impossibly huge and still expanding universe. The Field Museum looked impossibly huge, so we went for a swim in Lake Michigan, as the locals seemed to be doing with impunity.
We hiked back to our hotel through grassy Grant Park and along North Michigan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. We passed a open-air modern art exhibit, but the streets had gotten significantly more creepy after dark until we reached the Chicago River. America’s muggers seemed to stay south of the river, but the beggars were out in force on both sides.
Day Three – Chicago to Omaha
In the morning, we walked to Navy Pier, a twenty-minute hike from the Magnificent Mile area. Navy Pier has the distinction of being an amusement park on a pier. There is a large Ferris wheel, but otherwise little for sophisticated thrill seekers. Surrounding it, we found more beaches with remarkably clean water and parks bedecked with floral finery.
We took a cab to Chicago’s Union Station and boarded the California Zephyr around 3 pm. The rail cars are an imposing two stories high and gleaming silver in colour. The porter showed us around our sleeper compartment. Andrew was enraptured by its seats and walls which could be magically folded into beds, tables, cubbyholes and a closet. There was even a shower down the hall. We watched the continent begin to drift past our window, although at this stage there were only deserted industrial suburbs and tired Illinois towns.
Meals, included with sleeper reservations, are served on white tablecloths in the dining car with transcontinentalist dinner companions in foursomes. We each had an excellent steak for supper and heard the first of many dinner-table life stories. People are quick to share intimate details of their lives if they sense that they will never see you again and that you have a long train trip in common. We understood that there are lots of miles of unchanging cornfields to pass through in Iowa.
Our new friend Tom suggested that we adjourn to the observation car to watch the train cross the Mississippi River. He was a computer programmer in Omaha who had almost taken a job in Vermont, and who had married the woman whom he regretted not marrying after marrying his first wife. He was lucky. It is rare in this world of tangled webs to be able to move up-weave to try a different strand.
Day Four – Fraser-Winter Park and Grand Lake, Colorado
We woke and peered eagerly out our window to see where we were. It was the wide, dry plain in Nebraska that we had entered yesterday evening. We went to the observation car to wait for the foothills of the Rockies and were met by geriatric delinquents. They were hoarding seats for their friends, their eyes looking complacently through us. Returning to our cabin, we spend the next two hours parked in the Denver train station, waiting for freight trains to clear the tracks.
Lunch was with a Vietnam War veteran living in Sacramento. He told us he detested the congestion of California and only lived there because his wife was a teacher. Having not fought in a war, I didn’t dare challenge his line of thinking. I looked closely at his wife to see if she looked guilty about not finding a teaching job in an airier state.
When he discovered we were Canadian, he remembered that American draft dodgers had found refuge there. He had been a member of the Green Berets and had been in battles with 90 per cent casualty rates. I asked him whether he had been drafted or had volunteered. He was drafted but had twice volunteered for additional training, in the sniper and then the Green Beret corps, hoping to avoid more active duty. Ultimately, when the war didn’t end, he was trapped.
I asked him whether he had survived because statistically someone had to, or because of some skill he possessed. Showing some agitation, he said that he had decided not to die in that jungle. He had reacted to every situation swiftly and decisively. He felt no remorse until he got home, where he was multiply decorated, as if in consolation. I was impressed by and felt uneasy with his fierce melancholy. When the meal was over, he and his wife told me that they didn’t share these stories with many people. I would prefer to have this man on my side when teams are being chosen for armed combat.
As we waited in the corridor with our luggage, Andrew noticed some water dripping from the ceiling. He moved my luggage out of harm’s way, and unfortunately some of the drops fell on his head. As he brought his hand from his hair to his nose, he said, “Daddy, this is not water.” I smelled his hair. It was definitely eau de toilette—overflow from a toilet reservoir upstairs. We got off in the middle of a lightning storm in Fraser-Winter Park, Colorado, three hours late.
At first, we declined, and then further down the road were convinced to accept a ride from a friendly American family in an already full minivan. They dropped us at the Fraser Hertz car rental. We cruised the pretty ski resort town of Winter Park where we sheltered until the storm subsided. A spray can labelled Fart Extinguisher in a gift shop caught my son’s eye. I decided to purchase this invention because Andrew still needed cheering up, and like my son, I was curious about the efficacy of its application to human hair.
With the lightning moving away to the south, we did an about face on Highway 34 and headed north for Grand Lake, a picturesque town on an alpine lake just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. The waitresses at dinner were Russian exchange students, a service industry phenomenon that we would see often in Colorado. They were lovely girls still emerging from Soviet indifference to the process of feeding people.
Day Five – Grand Lake to Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Since I had been dominating the agenda, I gave Andrew the choice of driving through world-famous Rocky Mountain National Park or playing mini-golf. He chose mini-golf, and so we walked into downtown Grand Lake. The golf place hadn’t opened yet. Consequently, we activated plan B and drove into the mountains along the highest paved road in North America.
Here, finally, were some very majestic peaks, comparable to the Canadian Rockies. I found myself getting vertiginous behind the wheel. A driver can look up at the peaks or into the chasms only very briefly before plunging to his death. When half the time we had allotted for the park had elapsed we executed a dangerous U-turn, snapped a photo by a stand of aspen and drove quickly back to Fraser to meet our morning train.
I harassed the Russian girl at the Hertz car return to hurry with the paperwork in order to catch the 11:40 train, which didn’t arrive until 14:40 railroad time. We were beginning to detect a pattern. After two hours on the platform, a man in a Ford truck especially equipped with train wheels cruised up to us. In a do-not-despair voice, he told us that the train was very close. Our stomachs were grumbling over missing lunch, but we didn’t dare leave. We decided we should bargain on trains being three hours late, but we should always be on time just in case. This would prove to be an unnecessary precaution.
After safely boarding, we cautiously asked the conductors about the tardiness. There was a chorus of “It’s not OUR fault! It’s the RAILROAD’S fault.” We replied “But you ARE the railroad.” “Nooooooo. We don’t own the tracks. The freight companies own the tracks and their trains get priority.” I considered telling them that this doesn’t happen in Switzerland.
We settled into the observation car with its panoramic windows for the three-hour trip to Glenwood Springs along the Colorado River canyon. This trip is beautiful, and Amtrak provides a knowledgeable guide to mingle with and inform the passengers. He informed us that the river rafters who were mooning us were indulging in a well-established form of greeting. We arrived in Glenwood Springs in a light drizzle.
After wheeling our luggage a short distance along city streets, we arrived at the Hotel Colorado. This is a once grand hotel, gone slightly to seed and was my favourite lodging of our trip. The ceilings are high and the walls festooned with pictures of dignitaries who frequented the place in its glory years. It is located across the street from the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, which bills itself as the largest spring fed swimming pool in the world. We had dinner in the fancy hotel restaurant under the watchful eyes of Teddy Roosevelt and Al Capone, hunters both. The buffalo steak was excellent.
Day Six – Aspen
We had a full agenda—Hot Springs, Fairy Caves, and Aspen. Rising early, we crossed the street to the pool. It is now privately owned but was once part of the Hotel Colorado grounds, which extended to the Colorado River.
The pool is truly huge. It is the size of two Olympic sized pools filled end to end with naturally warm, slightly sulphurous water. It is slate gray in colour because of the concrete bottom. We swam lengths, dodging the older bodies who were ingenuously absorbing mineral and vapour cures. The water was too warm for nonbelievers to find refreshing. It’s probably better in winter.
Back in street clothes, we caught the tour bus to the Fairy Caves. The tour company is located right next to Hotel Colorado. This cave complex was first commercialized a century ago by a lawyer diversifying from finding loopholes in contracts to holes in mountainsides. The property lay neglected until a decade ago when additional caverns were discovered by an intrepid new owner who squeezed through long crevices, passable only by holding an exhaled breath. This is not something I would ever consider. The caves are interesting, but more knowledgeable cave tourists informed me that there are larger stalagmites/tites to behold in Arizona.
We caught the RFTA (Roaring Fork Transportation Authority) bus to Aspen in the afternoon. The trip takes an hour and a half. It costs six dollars and leaves from in front of an ice cream parlour, a block from Hotel Colorado. Kelly sat across the aisle from us on the bus. Kelly is a single mom who recently relocated from Seattle to waitress in Aspen. She told us that like us, ex-president Clinton had been carousing in Aspen just last week.
The bus gradually filled with other Aspen waiters, mostly Spanish speaking and distinguishable by the pressed white shirts they carried on hangers. No one here could actually afford to live in Aspen. Kelly showed us where to get off the bus. She took us by the hand and showed us where the shops were, where her restaurant was and where to catch the bus back.
We set off on our own. We had tickets that evening for a performance at the Aspen Music Festival, but no other commitments. Aspen has many upscale shops. As we are not shoppers by nature, our feet quickly got tired and we needed to kill some time. I purchased a magnesium-based incendiary device for igniting campfires that my son had his eye on in an outdoorsman’s shop. Once outside, Andrew suggested that we discreetly try the magnesium.
As we looked over the restaurant menu that evening, the Russian waitress explained that she was not really a student. Her father had spent a lot of money paying the Russian firm that found her a job and organized her papers. We were honoured to be served by a genuine daughter of the Russian oligarchy, making her way in the new world.
After dinner, we hiked a fairly long way to Harris Concert Hall. In the summer, aspiring and established classical musicians mingle and give recitals under an elaborate tent. It was pastoral and congenial. It is modelled on Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where they do a similar thing a little better.
Patrons filled the concert hall to capacity. Even the stage had seating for students behind the musicians. I am a collector of experiences, but have no classical music background. They were playing Shostakovich, yet another Russian. Although it seemed technically good, the return bus to Glenwood Springs ran only hourly.
At first intermission, half the program was done, and I consulted Andrew about whether we should catch the 9:10 bus back. He searched my eyes for clues, not wanting to disappoint me. I presented the arguments for staying, which were that the best might yet be coming and that I had paid for the tickets. He reassured me that he was also in favour of leaving.
We flagged the bus down on Highway 82 and Kelly was there, having been dismissed early because business was slow. She asked about our day and showed us where to get off the bus. As we parted company, she inquired nonchalantly whether we were still really leaving tomorrow.
Day Seven – Glenwood Canyon
In the morning, I visited the weight room while Andrew watched cartoons, which he must occasionally do to maintain good karma. Because of my happy experience with the buffalo, I decided to indulge in the hotel breakfast. I had the eggs Benedict (Al Capone’s favourite breakfast menu item.) This was quite a lot like an expensive Egg McMuffin. Andrew had the raisin bread French toast, a favourite of the Roosevelt kids.
We went downstairs to Canyon Bikes in the basement of Hotel Colorado to rent bicycles. They gave us a map and we cycled to Glenwood Canyon. This was thrilling for me. The bicycle path follows the Colorado River gorge. Feeling the wind and sun beside the white water and cliffs is a big notch above seeing it from the train window. Spectators, who would have enjoyed watching Christians in the Coliseum, wait at hazardous looking stretches of rapids to view the rafters and kayakers.
An added benefit of traveling with an eleven-year-old is that he has no agenda. My son was generally happy to provide companionship while doing whatever I wanted to do. We cycled for three hours, after which Andrew’s patience had entirely run out. He was exhausted and bitter. We returned to the hotel, which we had checked out of in the morning, to get our luggage. Andrew sacked out on a bench in the change room of the gym downstairs while I snuck a free shower. We got some takeout food and headed for the 15:27 train, passing a mini-golf course, in which he showed no interest.
The 15:27 arrived three hours late. When the train did arrive, it was like coming home. We got another sleeper compartment identical to our first one, only better because it was on the second floor and closer to the free juice and coffee. The conductor, who recognized us from a few days before, came over and apologized for the pee falling on Andrew’s head. After another good steak dinner, we went back contented to our compartment to convert the seats and walls into beds. Amtrak showed a movie in the observation car after dark, but it was always the same one.
On a train, toilet facilities are down the hall. Most men my age have to get up at least once at night to urinate. I got used to sleeping with my walking shorts on. This not only avoided having to wake up to look for them in the dark, but also helped to keep the neighbours on side. My wallet slept with me in the right-hand pocket, and my camera in the left. Travel documents and reserve funds slept in a belt around my waste. Sleeping was admittedly lumpy, but I had no security concerns while making water.
Day Eight – Tahoe City
We woke up in Nevada, having traversed Utah overnight. As had become our custom, we eagerly looked out the window for strange new wonders. There were limitless expanses of giant sand formations. We stumbled down the hall for last call to breakfast and made two new friends at our “Alice Through the Looking Glass Restaurant.”
We were seated across from a man and a boy. They were on a father-son train trip to San Francisco. He was a doctor. I was a doctor. His wife was a teacher. My wife was a teacher. We were eating breakfast. They were eating breakfast. We shared impressions and wondered at it all, like monkeys looking in a mirror. If you travel far enough, you will eventually meet yourself.
Although the train was supposed to arrive in Truckee, California at 11:50 a.m., we were just pulling into Reno, Nevada then. We would be able to enjoy lunch on board. Amtrak doesn't count how many meals you eat. From the dining car window, the main street looked like a fairground full of ambling gamblers. California was only a half an hour away. I wondered whether we should have booked a stop there. The Californians seated across from us said that if beauty were a concern, it would be best to stay on the train until we got to the western (California) side of Lake Tahoe. We chugged into Truckee three hours late. This was no surprise, but it would cut into our time in Tahoe City, where we had allotted only one day.
After a phone call, the people from Enterprise Car Rental picked us up right from the train station. We drove toward the lake along the skinny little Truckee River, which was as congested as a California freeway full of bumper-to-bumper, bobbing river rafters. Squaw Valley Ski Resort, home of the 1960 winter Olympics, was on the way, so we stopped for a picture. We found our motel in Tahoe City seconds after they had cancelled us as no-shows. The proprietor behind the desk said he could have sold the room ten times over. I made a mental note to build a motel there some day.
We now had only the evening and the next morning to spend. The lake was pretty here, misty and ringed with boulders and low mountains. The roads were too jammed with traffic for touring the shore by car to be any fun. The proprietor said Lake Tahoe was too cold for most people to swim. We ventured no further than the motel pool, swimming miles much as Burt Lancaster would have done in The Swimmer.
Day Nine – Truckee, California
Andrew was still asleep. The motel guy had said that A Santé fitness club behind the Safeway supermarket was good. I left my son a note and went to make up for the coming sedentary day on the train. Call me crazy, but A Santé was another major highlight of my trip. There is a full splendid view of Lake Tahoe out the front window.
No one was swimming in the lake. The club attendant was not a swimmer, but she said that you could drive to a beach a few miles east if you wanted to see people in the water. The day was going to be very hot. The roads were extremely congested. I had come a long way. I did a mental calculation of how much time I would need.
Andrew and I conferred over how late we thought today’s train would be. Our experience to date was six, three and three hours late. He optimistically said one, but I bet three. He changed his mind to three hours, I suppose because he loves me and respects my judgement. We bought snacks for the train at the supermarket, cursing nervously because the checkout line wasn’t moving. I had to admit that California is crowded. Enterprise dropped us back at the train station in Truckee at 11:30 a.m., twenty minutes early for the train.
The station manager told us sympathetically that the train was three hours delayed, but that she could watch our bags. So, we were both right. I would have had time to go swimming in Lake Tahoe and record a new entry in my book of achievements. We bought drinks and walked around. We visited a toy store. At the the jail museum, an older, genteel couple from the historical society showed us their wares.
The local friendly barber sat with us at lunch in a trendy sandwich shop on the main street. He was so busy he was constantly turning people away. I told him to charge more and made a mental note to invest in a Truckee barbershop. We sat some more and then went back to the train station. The train would be delayed for another two hours, until 4:30 p.m.
Andrew and I played a game of chess on a bench inside the station and chatted with the manager who had watched our bags. Then I heard a frightening rumour. It would be 5:30, and someone whispered 6:30 before the train would arrive. I went back to the manager and asked if she could confirm the 5:30 time. She told us that she couldn’t keep calling, but that we could call Amtrak at an 800 number ourselves for updates. It was on this day in Truckee that I made the acquaintance of Julie from Amtrak.
Julie is a congenial “fembot” who speaks with you in full eloquent sentences. She is earnest, yet business-like. She is courteous and concerned even when provoked by an unpleasant, petulant caller. She confirmed the 6:30 p.m. time. The train station was closing and we were getting a little desperate. The station manager said that she was sorry, but she couldn’t take everyone home with her, evacuated the waiting room, locked the doors and took no one home with her.
We waited on the platform with a man and his son and nephew. He explained that it was not Amtrak’s fault. Amtrak did not own the train lines, and freight trains took precedence. This pawn of the system named Gary, reciting the party line, irritated me. We waited on an outdoor bench on the other side of the station until 6:15 before we went back to the platform.
Gary had called Julie on his cell phone again, and the revised time was 9:30 p.m. This was getting very worrying. As we walked toward the main street together, Gary’s son suggested that we have dinner together. I had lost my taste for these particular dinner companions because Gary had explained to me about Amtrak not owning the tracks. Andrew and I had to sit somewhere to consider our options. Derelicts were beginning to congregate at the train station. I didn’t want to spend the night on the street.
I bought Andrew some ice cream, planted him on a bench beside a pay phone and called Julie again. I didn’t own a cell phone. The revised projected time was still 9:30 p.m. I got through to a live person in Chicago. There would still be a bus to meet the train at its terminus in Emeryville. My third call was to our hotel in San Francisco. They would hold the room but advised not walking to the hotel after dark. The clerk gave me the numbers of two cab companies. We needed some more American cash and a backup plan.
After wheeling our luggage along the sidewalk to the historic Truckee Hotel, we approached a young male at the desk. Yes, he had one remaining room. When would we know whether we would take it? Something in our panicked, haggard demeanour made him volunteer to hold it for us free of charge until 9:30 pm. This was more than a little surprising.
He was giving us directions to the closest bank machine when a teenage girl burst into the hotel. She asked breathlessly whether there were any rooms. The clerk responded calmly that he had just sold his last one. No one spoke and I stared hard at the clerk. He met my gaze innocently. I was stunned by his kindness and allegiance. As we were leaving the hotel, Andrew said that he felt sorry for the “lady.” I walked out of the hotel looking past her and her relatives in stony silence.
We met Gary on the street and camped with his group under a streetlamp outside a bar. Now that our future was more assured, he didn’t seem so bad. Eventually, he asked what I did for a living. “Anesthesiologist. What do you do?” He paused a long time before he said stockbroker. For the past year it has been less safe to admit to this occupation.
Gary’s wife had driven home to San Francisco in their car earlier in the day. They had been staying in their vacation home in Truckee. He was returning by train for adventure. From a bench across from the train station, we watched the last-chance bus for San Francisco leave at 9:00 p.m. We all walked to the station together and waited. Nine-thirty came and went. Gary was getting openly critical of Amtrak. He was going to call their customer service department on Monday. He was going to board the train, pay by credit card and then cancel payment.
Some school kids from a camp were waiting with us on the platform. Everyone called Julie, and she opined 10:30 p.m. There was a rumour that the train would stop for five hours in Truckee while the crew had a nap. The kids started to cry. Gary went back to his vacation home. When the train arrived eleven hours late at 10:40 p.m., the conductor refused to take our tickets, implying that the ride was free.
Day Ten – San Francisco
As they wouldn’t let us change our reservation to a sleeper, we slept sitting up in coach. This was just as well because at 5 a.m. they took us off the train in Emeryville and bussed us to downtown San Francisco. The streets were deserted. It must have been a slow night. The muggers and beggars had given up. We followed the lead of another father-son team and walked the four blocks to our room at the Holiday Inn. Andrew slept until noon while I organized some activities.
I love the cool fresh air in San Francisco. I have happy associations. I remember hanging onto the back of a moving cable car in the late 70’s when I was on my way to do my medical internship in New Zealand. On this, our day ten, there was a two-block lineup to board the cable cars near Fisherman’s Wharf.
We took in most of the city’s major sights, but primarily from behind the plate glass window of a tour bus. I particularly liked how Haight-Ashbury had morphed into something more mature but still hippy-ish. Andrew liked Lombard St., the most crooked street in the world. We both liked the Botanical Gardens at Golden Gate Park, with each of its avenues dedicated to a different country’s native species.
Everyone knows that San Francisco is alive with great things to do. The bus tour was really all we had time for out of an intended two-day stay. The airport shuttle gave us a last feel of the hills the city is built on. We arrived two hours early at the airport and were told that due to security concerns, the airplane to Toronto would be delayed two hours. There were regular announcements at the airport that unattended luggage would be destroyed. We saw a corpse with paramedics pumping on its chest in an airport corridor. This seemed to attract no notice from passers-by.
I was standing in the aisle of the flight home preventing leg clots. The flight attendant poured me a cup of hot tea. The plane began shaking. The co-pilot came on the air and told us to sit down immediately, fasten our seatbelts and cross our legs beneath us. I didn’t like the way his voice cracked. I have heard the same sound in my own voice when things were not going well with an anesthetic.
Momentarily, I couldn’t think of how I could regain my seat while balancing rodeo-style a teacup, the contents of which were freely scalding my chest and splashing onto my seat. I put the cup onto my son’s tray table to sit down. The flight attendant rushed over and put it on the so-called floor.
I still like trains. I feel warmly now toward Julie from Amtrak. Sleeping sitting up in coach is at least as comfortable as sleeping first class on a plane. Considering all the new realities, it’s good to be on the ground. Terrorists and weather patterns leave you a sporting chance of survival.
Amtrak is far from perfect. They’ll pee on your head and make you wait forever, but they’ll feel bad about it. You can’t plan to be anywhere at a set time. I never met anyone who arrived on schedule. You spend a lot less time at your destination because you arrive late, and have to wait to leave late again, but they’re embarrassed.
Andrew told me he enjoyed the waiting because we spent time together. I was flattered, and so I changed my mind to liking it too. Those were the best times. They were the times to hold on to.