|*** Mrs. Keene|
Blue sky eyes her dad had proudly called them back when she lived on the farm and that had pleased her well enough. And her eyes had pleased Mr. Keene who owned the store well enough too.
But after they had been married awhile they no longer pleased him so well. He would ring up a sale and after the customers had left the store, he would turn to her and want to know why she was looking at him that way, and after she didn’t reply, he would say, “I didn’t cheat them.” She hadn’t thought he had, but still she didn’t say anything.But it turned out that he had, or at any rate that came to be what people in the town believed, and they stopped coming into the store.
And he had cheated on her too. He told her so. “What do you think of that?” he had asked her.
She didn’t ask for a lot of money in the court after he sold the store, just a nice little round number and a little more, just the exact amount of the train fare.
When they laid the tracks down, many years ago, there weren’t so many cities and there was a lot of empty space between the stations. In the lowlands they built the tracks up and in the highlands they gouged them under, to keep the rails as level as possible, so that trains would not have to waste fuel going up and tear up their brakes going down. Once the tracks were down new cities grew up on either side of them.
This was a lowland city and so the tracks were raised like a rib bone across its chest, so that she had to climb up past tall weeds to get to where the train sliced the city, to where the train had sliced him, and had it been something she said?
The note had not made any sense, not really. She didn’t blame herself, not really. But every now and then she climbed the slope to look south to where the train had come from, and then north the way it had continued.
She swept into the station with a rose in her hair and a green apple in her hand, her pale yellow dress swishing about her ankles. At the ticket counter she asked, “Which way are the trains going today?”
The ticket agent had never that question before, not phrased that way. It took him back a little but once he got set he answered, “North and south, like always.”
“I see,” she said as if this cleared up something and then, leaning her elbows on the counter, seeking further clarification, she asked, “North to where? South to where?”
Now he was on solid ground. “Why north to Chicago and south to Memphis, and then down to New Orleans. Don’t you know that?”
“If I knew that would I be asking?” She looked down at her apple, as if she was thinking of taking a bite, “Which is better?”
This was something else he had never been asked before, but looking at her, at the smooth unbroken skin of the apple, he felt like he knew what she was asking. “Chicago is closer, so it’s cheaper, but New Orleans is farther away.”
“All right then.” She set down the apple and began digging into her purse.
|*** Mary Ann
After harvest when all the corn was gone, she loved to walk through the brittle fallen stalks and feel the dry prairie air against her face, the wind lifting her hair behind her like tides lifting seaweed. Looking about, she felt that she could see to the ends of the Earth.
Between the ends of the Earth was the farm where she had everything she would ever need.And then they laid down the tracks, at the edge of the fields, and continuing on past the ends of the Earth. Later the trains came through, trailing a tiny wisp of smoke behind. Too far away to see them were people going from somewhere to somewhere else.
And before and after, there was the whistle.
Nothing was easy for Adelita, but fortunately she was tough as nuts. When the train came she got on it, and when it stopped she got off. If her man was there she joined him. If he wasn’t she found someone else.
The train was late and the station was cold. It hadn’t seemed so cold when she first came in, ticket in hand, at the last minute. She had run past the counter out to the tracks, and looked up northward for a departing train, and southward for an arriving train, but there was neither. She stood out there for a few minutes catching her breath and then she walked back down to the station and approached the man behind the counter. “The 6:35?”
“Late,” he said, not looking up from some papers.
At least she hadn’t missed it. It would probably be along in a half hour or so. She sat down on the hard wooden bench, the only passenger in the station. How many people traveled on Christmas Eve? Obviously nobody. She should have brought along a book, but she had been running late and she hadn’t planned to be reading on the train anyway. She liked to look out the window past the flat white fields of winter to the isolated farmhouses so far away and lonely, but with a lit window or two where she could imagine people were sitting cozy and warm.
The station was neither. She had been warm from the rushing about coming in, but now that she had been sitting still for a half hour the cold was beginning to creep into her winter clothes. She walked up to the man behind the counter who was staring down at the same papers. Just as she was beginning to clear her throat he looked up suddenly.
“Still late,” he said and looked back down again.
“How long?” she asked. “Don’t know,” he replied.
She pulled a blanket out of one of her bags. She had taken it along to pull it up to her breast as she watched the lonely warm farmhouses beckon and fade. She pulled it around her now, nestled into it on the hard cold bench and bowed her head.
On Saturday afternoons the family came to town. She was still in her teens but, they would let her go wherever she wanted.
Main Street was busy. There was the ice cream parlor with its wide selection of dainty treats, and there was The Nouveau Salon with its wardrobes of the latest styles from New York City, and if one were so inclined there was the library with its walls of books, all the knowledge of the world.
It wasn’t as if the town didn’t have plenty to offer. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t plenty there. It was just that after a little stroll down Main Street she always found her way down to the railroad station, and sat on the hard bench on the platform next to the sooty tracks amid the drummers and the drifters.
When they asked her why she went there she just shrugged, because she didn’t think they would understand. It was because when she stepped down from the platform and lifted her dress a little to cross the rails and looked in either direction, she could see as far away as she could imagine.
She was a comely lass and she knew how to tilt her head just so. She had a pleasant smile and was well-liked by everybody, but especially by the men, young and old.
But only the old stationmaster was there the day she got on the train. He helped her with her luggage up the little flight of stairs into the car, and then watched her through the windows as she walked down the aisle to an empty seat, flounced, and looking out the window, tilted her head just so., looking back at the town
And then the train pulled out in a cloud of smoke and steam, and nobody in the town ever saw her again.
Off to the side of the careful lawn of the churchyard, the path gave way to weeds and scrub and then the old abandoned spur line with its rails rusted and its ties sunk deep into the mud, untouched, unloved, the thought had come to her strangely . Just after the tracks she was caught in an Easter morning thunderstorm, and as it was dying she had reached the edge of the lily field that bordered the yard.
At her feet the lilies were beaten and bowed and muddy, all but the one which she plucked.
She shook it dry in a sparkle of raindrops, just as the sun broke out, just as the train came up the spur line pulling a line of silver cars the last of them casting a beam from the sun, and gone as quick as it came.
Selling the tickets was just going to be a summer job, before she went off to college. But then her father died and then her mother, and there was no more money. It wasn’t such a bad job. People were nice enough, and she always knew who was coming to and leaving the town, but mostly it was the tickets that she liked. She liked the names on the cities on the tickets. Memphis was sultry against the broad Mississippi in the summertime, and Chicago’s skyscrapers stretching up for the snow in the winter.
Someday she would by her own ticket and stroll by the river, and walk through the canyons of stone. In the meantime she sat in the dusty office and sold tickets.
When she was a little girl her daddy was the engineer of the coal train which was the longest, fastest, train on the line. It came through town not far from her house at 7:33 P M every evening, and in the summer she would walk out to a hill the train passed right by and wave to him, and he would wave back.
But in the winter the sun set too early, and he could never see her in the dark. But one winter night she thought she would surprise him. She took an old railroad lantern from the garage, climbed the hill, and hid the lantern behind a rock. When the train came through she waved it high above her head. She looked for her dad’s returning wave but it didn’t come, instead there was a sudden screech of the wheels and then the train had passed. And then past the hill, there was the roar.
She ran down the hill, down the tracks. It was darker than any night she had ever seen because the sky was full of soot. She never made it to the engine, but later they told her there wasn’t much left of her father anyway.
At the inquiry, sitting in the tall chair, her feet dangled above the floor. She told them about the screech, but she never mentioned the lantern.
Evening Devotion was fine, all the right words were spoken, the songs were pretty, and she left at peace. But she always left a little early. She hoped nobody noticed. She hoped nobody said anything. But she wanted to get to the tracks before the freight came through.
At first there was the time of silence, and then there was the time of uncertainty, when she thought she heard it coming, but she couldn’t be sure. Then there was the time of certainty when she could hear it clearly.She closed her eyes then to be alone with the sound, and she leaned in just a bit, so that she could feel its hot steam breath as it passed. Her ears were filled with the roar, and her knees, slightly bent, trembled with the shudder in the ground. And then it was past and the sound grew softer and softer as it ran into the distance.
And then there was another time of uncertainty, followed by a time of silence and certainty. She would open her eyes then. It was time to go home.
|*** The Trains|
They have no stories. They run like the wind and roar like the beast, and then they are shuttled onto their last siding with nothing ahead for them but the wind, the rain, and rust.