The Train of Small Mercies

by David Rowell

Hardcover, 258 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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The Train of Small Mercies
Author
David Rowell

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Book Summary

While a young black porter struggles with first-day duties on board the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train, a woman sneaks away from her disapproving husband to pay respects to the assassinated senator, and a wounded soldier awaits a reputation-restoring interview.

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Excerpt: The Train of Small Mercies

Chapter 1: Maryland

Every morning Ellie West listened to her son get out of bed. With her husband, Joe, not yet awake, she tuned in so intently to the sounds two rooms down that she could feel some part of her leaving their bed and drifting down the hall. First she heard Jamie push his covers off and turn his body to the edge of his mat- tress. Then she followed as he reached for his crutches, which were propped against his wall, and she could even make out the pff sound of the foam padding coming off the surface. She heard the rubbery thud of his crutches push into the wooden floor; then she heard the same thud three times until there was a pause, so that he could stop, lean over, and turn the doorknob. When he moved down the hall to the bathroom, Ellie listened to the crutches creak under the weight of him. With one crutch he pushed the bathroom door until it swung lightly against the doorjamb, and then he let one crutch rest against the wall while he stood over the toilet to pee. When he was done, she could hear him linger in front of the bathroom sink — sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for a minute or more — but he was not washing his hands or brushing his teeth or anything else she could think of. And then most mornings he bounded back down the hallway to his room and closed the door. The crutches connected with the floor three more times before he was back on the bed; there would be no other sound from his room for at least an hour or more.

Jamie's two years of being in the army had erased any ability to sleep late, which had taken Ellie by surprise; she had imagined the strict structure and routine of his days would have had the opposite effect.

"Won't it be good for him to just catch up on all the sleep he's missed," she said to Joe two days before they met him at the airport, just outside of Baltimore. "He's still just a boy. He can sleep all he wants to. I want him to do whatever he wants for as long as he wants."

Four months earlier, east of the village Than Khe, the morning mist was just beginning to evaporate. For several days Jamie and Alpha Company had waited for orders while falling into soggy boredom, and now the slate sky was a kaleidoscope of mortar fire. The air hissed all around, and Jamie, with one arm thrown over his helmet, scrambled toward the foxhole he and "Bulb" Landreaux had dug the previous night when he caught sight of Landreaux covered in flames — still on his feet, but wavering like a tower of blocks. As Jamie barreled toward him, a missile landed a few meters away, knocking Jamie so high into the air that he had time to wonder how he would land — and sending shards of shrapnel as big as bottles into his leg. Two days later, he woke up on a cot in a nearby aid station.

When he opened his eyes there was an army nurse standing over him with thick curls as soft-looking as anything he had ever seen; she smiled at him in wild surprise, as if he were very mischievous for waking up only after the doctor had left. He understood then that nothing about his life would be the same.

Ellie was frying bacon when she remembered to reach over and turn the radio on. The funeral service for Bobby Kennedy would be on in a few hours, but she wanted to listen to the commentary beforehand. The radio was next to the toaster, and she moved the dial past "Stranger on the Shore," which she would have otherwise liked to have listened to, to the one station that ordinarily broadcast classical music. Then she heard the announcer say, "As we said at the top of the broadcast, Senator Kennedy's body is scheduled to be taken to New York's Penn Station and put on a train around eleven thirty, and from there it will begin its historic journey down through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and on to Arlington National Cemetery, where the senator will be buried next to his brother, President John F. Kennedy. And I remind listeners — "She could smell the bacon burning and moved to lift the pan off the stove. "Are they talking about the funeral?" asked Miriam, who lately had stopped saying good morning in favor of asking a question right off or making some bold proclamation. Miriam had turned seventeen the week before, and she had been following every development since the senator was shot in the early minutes of Wednesday morning in Los Angeles. The train would follow tracks used by the C&O system, the newspaper had reported, and those tracks were just forty yards from the Wests' back door. Ellie knew Miriam planned to watch the service on TV, and didn't know about Joe or Jamie, but all of them planned to watch the train pass by.

Miriam considered a long thread hanging from the arm of her pajama sleeve and said, "And that reporter is still coming today to interview Jamie?"

"They haven't said otherwise," Ellie said, and she could hear the fatigue in her voice. She hadn't slept well that week and wondered if Miriam had noticed the puffiness in her face. While working her shift as a highway tollbooth operator a few days earlier, she had dozed off in a rare lull between cars, until the owner of an aqua-marine Chrysler honked his horn. "They still have a newspaper to put out. I'm sure not all of the reporters are going to be covering Bobby Kennedy."

A week ago, the editor of The Gazette, Avery Tate, had called the Wests, whom he knew, like most everyone else in town, from PTA meetings and being at the Friday night football games in the fall, from waiting in line at the Piggly Wiggly and seeing most everyone in town at church at least on Easter Sunday and the Christmas Eve service. He asked Joe and Ellie about the paper possibly doing a piece on Jamie — what he had gone through in Vietnam, the challenges he faced now, after losing his leg. He told them they wanted to do a profile of Jamie and make it "a portrait in courage." That phrase rang in Ellie's head off and on all hours of the day. When she first asked Jamie about the idea, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, his long foot sweeping over a stack of Hot Rod magazines that had been saved for him. He took a full minute before he shrugged his shoulders.

"They must be short on story ideas these days," he said.

Avery Tate had planned to send his best features writer to do the piece, but when Senator Kennedy was shot, he wanted her covering the funeral train. In fact, three City reporters would be following the Kennedy funeral or be camped out with a group of mourners who were standing by the tracks for a glimpse of the senator's coffin. But having made the arrangements with Ellie, he was concerned that rescheduling might send the wrong message to the young man, who was already struggling. That was what he had heard, anyhow, or rather, what his wife had heard. Instead, he assigned the story to Roy Murphy, who had just completed his junior year at the University of Maryland and was, as a journalism major, interning with the paper.

What Avery Tate had forgotten to ask — and in the last year, he had been forgetting more than usual — was whether Roy knew Jamie, since they had gone to the same high school. Roy wouldn't be studying ethics in journalism until the fall semester, and in the days before beginning his reporting and interviewing, it never occurred to him that he was the wrong man for the job.

The Wests knew to look for the reporter at one that Saturday. Beyond that, not having ever been interviewed before, they didn't much know what to expect.

Reprinted from The Train of Small Mercies by David by David Rowell with permission from G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2011 by David Rowell.