Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
On an icy winter’s night, nineteen-year-old Kay waits for a train. Her tall, thin figure, conservative attire, and stylish hair suggest breeding and wealth. She carries a gray suede purse, on which elaborate brass letters emblazon her name (k-a-y), as well as several magazines and, incongruously, a green western guitar. Boarding a crowded, littered train, she finds a seat facing a grotesque couple, who share childlike characteristics. The woman’s feet dangle, barely brushing the floor; on her enormous head, her dyed red hair is in “corkscrew curls.” Tipsy, she behaves erratically, by turns syrupy and then mocking, rude, and rough toward Kay. Her deaf and mute companion has thickly lashed, oddly beautiful, milk-blue eyes, and he reeks of cheap perfume, looks childlike, and wears a Mickey Mouse watch.
As Kay settles in her seat, the woman begins a conversation in which she learns that Kay has been to her uncle’s funeral, that she was willed only his green guitar, and that she is a college student. The woman disdains college education. Kay opens a magazine, but the woman prevails on her good manners to talk. As tension builds between them, inexplicably, the woman becomes increasingly able to manipulate Kay. A more emotionally fraught tension bonds the girl and the mute man.
Eventually, under the guise of a polite lie, Kay anxiously tries to flee, but the woman grabs her wrist, demanding, “Didn’t your mama ever tell you it was sinful to lie?” Kay denies the obvious, but hastily obeys a terse “Sit down, dear.” A tangible sense of history pervading their relationship increases when the woman asks Kay about her hometown. Many cities crowd the girl’s mind, but she cannot think which of them it is, then says, “New Orleans.” The woman beams, telling Kay that she once ran a lucrative fortune-telling business there. The woman then explains that she and her companion have a traveling act involving the man’s being buried alive in a star-studded casket.
As the woman talks, Kay gazes at the mute man, thinking that his face has the same unseeing look as that of her dead uncle. This gaze is not the first between them, for when she first sits down, he swings “his head sideways,” studying her; another gaze occurs when the woman briefly leaves them. During the woman’s absence, as Kay strums the guitar, the man reaches boldly and delicately to trace her cheek. Kay’s mind darts in all directions as he leans closer, and they gaze, searchingly, eye-to-eye, as “keen” pity wells up in the girl, coupling with an overpowering disgust and loathing. Here, Kay feels the first stirring of primal memory.
The story climaxes when the man extracts a peach seed from his pocket. Balancing it in his hand, he catches Kay’s eyes in another gaze, obscenely caressing the seed. The woman explains that it is a love charm that he wants Kay to buy for a dollar. Panicky, she refuses. When the woman will not make the man put it away, Kay flees with her purse to the lantern-lit observation platform. There, she clutches at the scant facts of her life, hopelessly seeking perspective. Kneeling down, she warms herself at the lantern’s glass funnel until she senses the man hovering nearby. Looking up, Kay makes a last, lucid effort to sublimate her fear in a childhood memory that always “hovered above her, like haunted limbs on a tree of night”: the memory evokes aunts, cooks, strangers spinning supernatural stories with threats of a “wizard man” who stole naughty children.
Kay follows the man back inside the compartment, where everyone is asleep—except the woman, who ignores Kay. The man merely sits with his arms folded. Kay’s anxiety rebuilds. Near panic, she says that she will buy the charm. The woman does not respond, so Kay turns to the man. His face seems to “change form and recede before her” sliding under water. Immediately, the girl relaxes, succumbing to a “warm laziness,” surrendering her purse to the woman, who gently pulls the “raincoat like a shroud above her head.”