The International Writers Magazine:Dreamscapes Life Stories
The Next-to-Last Station
Five years before, on Paul Lerner’s 75th birthday, his wife Sally had insisted on celebrating the event by having a big party in the ballroom of the Northern California retirement community where they’d lived for ten years. Paul hadn’t wanted such a big fuss made but hadn’t objected too strongly.
After all, he’d thought, he’d survived three-quarters of a century in this turbulent era and that was something of an achievement. But in the interval he’d had several health problems and felt all of his 80 years old. All he wanted to do on his 80th birthday was to spend the day restfully and peacefully. Of course, he told himself, this was too much to hope for and sure enough, his oldest son Nick had invited him and Sally to come over for the afternoon, for “just a little family party.” Paul suspected that Nick’s wife Maria had been the instigator; she liked to throw “little parties” in their large over-priced home. As it was a chance to see their ten-year old grandson Scott, they couldn’t refuse.
Nick and Maria had bought their house a few years ago, before the housing bubble had burst in Sacramento, as it had nationwide. Paul had been afraid that, like many others, they wouldn’t be able to pay the sizeable monthly mortgage. But Nick, who worked for the State of California, as Paul had done years before, had risen to a high position in his department and Maria had obtained a high-paying job in a non-profit agency. Paul thought his son, now in his early 40’s, had turned out to be a good-looking man; at six feet, he was three inches taller than his father; he was athletic (he worked out daily), outgoing and self-confident. Paul was sure that the bureaucratic inanities that had so annoyed him just rolled off Nick. He was also good at office politics, which Paul had never been. Maria was an attractive woman, also tall and self-confident, always well turned-out. The two, Paul considered, made a handsome couple.
Paul let Sally drive them to Nick and Maria’s house. The day before for some reason his right knee had stiffened up and he could hardly bend it. It was one of those things that happened with age. When they arrived, Scott was the first one at the door. “Grandad,” he said. “Happy birthday. Come look at my trains.” Scott was a tall, slender boy, with his mother’s fair hair and blue eyes. He’d gone through various stages in his enthusiasms, first with a cartoon character, Thomas Train, then with Spiderman, then Batman and now, as Paulo recalled, with some kind of Ninja super hero. But he’d also gone back to trains, only now with rather expensive trains on a track he’d set up in his room.
“Let Grandma and Grandad sit down first,” said Nick, coming into the hallway. They went into the living room, where a long table had been covered with dishes arranged buffet-style: lunch meats, cheeses, fruits, crackers and dips, Maria’s idea of a light meal, thought Paul. As usual, she greeted him with a kiss, took his coat, then sat him down in an overstuffed chair, much like a throne. She would also have brought him whatever he wanted to eat, but he joined the others in lining up and filling his plate. While he didn’t mind a little pampering, he could still get his own food. Once seated they ate and exchanged news of what they’d been doing in the month since they’d last been together. There wasn’t much news on his side, thought Paul, just a few visits to the doctor, which he didn’t see the need of telling them. On their side, they’d discovered a great new restaurant. Scott was doing well in school. They were thinking of taking him on a cruise that summer; families cruising together was becoming a popular thing to do.
While they talked, Paul thought back to when Nick was born, their first baby, three years after they’d married. Marriage, then buying a house when Sally became pregnant, then the baby. All stages in the journey of life. The last stage, he supposed, was old age. After they’d finished eating, Maria brought out a cake, his birthday cake. Fortunately, she’d put eight, not eighty, candles on it. They sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Paul hadn’t thought he’d still be hungry but the cake was good. Then Paul was given a birthday present, a gift card to a book store. Paul had told them he didn’t want any gifts but he thanked them; as he got older he was trying to read more. After all that, he felt himself getting sleepy. He told Sally that maybe they’d better be getting home.
“You have to look at my trains,” cried Scott.
“Oh, yes.” Paul stood up, his right knee causing him to wince. “Let’s have a look.”
Paul saw that Scott now had two trains, one passenger and one freight. The track was a figure-eight. Scott also had three or four stations set up, buildings, people, trees. He showed Paul how he operated the two trains at once. When the trains passed each other, each gave a loud whistle. As with his son Nick, looking at his grandson Paul saw two Scotts, the baby he’d welcomed into the world and now the ten-year old boy, before you knew it, he’d be the young man going off to college. Paul stayed as long as he could, admiring his grandson’s trains. When they left, he shook hands with Nick, then he suddenly felt impelled to give him a hug, and then he gave Scott a hug.
When they were home, Paul went to his chair, leaned back, put up his feet, and fell asleep. He had a dream. He was riding in a train. A lot of other people were on it; old people, like himself. He looked out the window. The landscape was green, the sun glinting off trees, then it became gray. The train stopped. The conductor came by. “Are we at the end of the line?” asked Paul.
“No,” said the conductor. “There’s one more stop, but you get off here. This is the next-to-last station.”
Paul abruptly awoke. Usually, he couldn’t remember his dreams but this one was still distinct in his mind. The next-to-last station. He thought he knew what this was. Old age, but it wasn’t the last stop. Of course he knew what the last stop was, the station at the end of everyone’s life journey. He was getting close to it, but he wasn’t there quite yet.
The next day the pain in Paul’s right knee went away as suddenly as it had came. At breakfast, he said to Sally, “Our anniversary is in three months. What do you say we go on a cruise?”
Sally looked up, surprised. They hadn’t done any real traveling in the last few years.
“Do you feel up to it?”
“To tell the truth, I’m not sure, but as long as I’m still here let’s take a chance. The last station will be coming up soon.”
“The last station?”
© Martin Green September 2012
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