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The International Writers Magazine:Train Journey

The Theology Student
David Francis
He had the tidiness combined with the carefully searching eyes so that I took him for a theology student.  The car a family and I boarded was full: every seat had a destination card hanging above it.  Back on the platform we found the front cars to be almost empty; the one I chose was completely so.


It seemed to me that the engineer was procrastinating, but then, a cross-country line seems late because one is anxious to get started again after the layover.  I hadn’t slept during the night journey and was afraid of falling asleep in the station, but luckily the pews in the Spanish-colonial-style lobby had no armrests.  (I wasn’t averse to lying across the seats in my empty car.)

A few harried sweaty passengers wandered uncertainly in, wheeling suitcases and heaving overnight bags, seated themselves, looked around and said aloud, was this number 4, number 3, number…. No one would know anything before the announcements, when the train was in motion.

The tall young man in rimless glasses—casually dressed in polo shirt, jeans and running shoes—showed his large close-cropped head with its dark fine eyebrows high on the sallow forehead, and gave me a quick once-over.  Then a good-looking woman in her twenties and a woman who could have been his mother reached the aisle from the steep stairs where baggage was checked, the restrooms were located, the handicapped passengers rode, and everyone boarded.  They loitered, then passed through the press-automatic doors into the next car and, presumably, made the entire length, as they returned after some time went by.  The older woman might have been reconnoitering the train for her own stamp of approval or to see if it was worthy of her son.

He had hoisted three large duffel bags above.  When they returned, they each kissed him, and the two parties separated.

.   .   .

Within an hour our car was pulling slowly by a junction in the outskirts of a large town that had grown into a small city.  There were fewer trees, the foliage thinned while the railroad stone and dust gained, but there were some smooth grassy knolls, some nice apartments and then some that warned you off.  Then a modest subdivision (I thought about the forging of the railroads and the homes that went by the way).  From one chain-link-fenced backyard a middle-aged couple on lawn chairs waved to us—I waved, then withdrew my hand, feeling sheepish that it was meant for the caboose.  It was Sunday morning.  Very soon we were crossing the river that ran through the municipality, and there were joggers on the wide gray paths.  It was not a particularly spread-out city, and with the train’s picking up speed, after a quick stop at the open-shelter-styled station, we were out of it like an unremembered dream.

.   .   .

Before five, I went into the dining car.  The black cooks and the waiters and the steward were arguing, cursing and blaming: it sounded like a maritime union hall.  You could tell he was the steward because he was abrupt, authoritative, sour, and held his head aloft.  “They’re going to announce it in a minute,” he said.  Then he caught me from returning to my car—“Have a seat.  We’ll serve you.”  The gang of pirates continued laying the blame, kvetching, seemingly hassled by—yet oblivious to—the middle-aged couples and one elderly couple that straggled in.  Suddenly a single man sat and faced me, ushered to our mutual chagrin by the unpleasant officious steward, who was as brusque and smooth as a plain-clothes detective.

.   .   .

After my dinner of lasagna, salad and a glass of milk—during which I made the irrevocable decision not to talk, which the man across from me acquiesced to or at least respected, affecting both of our digestive tracts and creating a moral dilemma out of a bread basket—evening until close to midnight was made short work of.  By then we had accumulated nearly a full car from the towns along the route: they had to be headed for Chicago, there was nowhere else, imaginatively, that could claim them.

At 11:30 when I woke, my pillow had slipped to the leg space behind me.  I grabbed it, pressed my chair erect, put my face against the window where dark masses of solid trees loomed, along with reflections of sleeping passengers taking up entire rows, some lying back on headrests, snoring faintly, one rasp so distinctive, so loud, that it impelled me to rise from my seat and search for its source.  He didn’t seem to be bothering the others; on the contrary, he was simply more at home.  I felt trapped, it was my right to use the overhead light to read but I was outnumbered.  It was like living in the oar room of a houseboat where you had to pass through an occupied bedroom to get to the bathroom or the kitchen.  I remembered the lounge.

In the back of the train, just before the first-class sleeping cars, there was life—it was dimly lit, but it seemed warm and promising.  I bought potato chips and coffee at the snack cubby-hole, turned and faced, at the far end of the lounge, the theology student.  He seemed to have made friends with a young man.  Light beer cans stood between them.  The only table available fronted theirs.  Turbulence, as if on a wilder track, shook my coffee and my sleepy heart, but those two ignored it.  It turned out that this wasn’t their virgin trip.  The theology student spoke:

“I was in Mexico City.  There’s a place there, a café, where this lady serves you these delicious pastries….That evening I went out for a walk alone.  He had walked by when I was in the café—it wasn’t outdoors but it had a porch (imagine all this gorgeous like Acapulco)—and he gave me the look.  Well…the second time he walked slowly by I put money on the table and got up; I mean, I felt…. So I followed him along these big houses with these walls, and we came to this… alley that opened to a courtyard… or a patio…. We did it right there…. Back at the hotel my wife said she wanted to go out, to see the night life.  I yawned and told her I was just so tired…ha ha ha ha!”

He had a large mouth, a horsey mouth, and a lusty easy laugh, gesticulating with his long—almost a dribbling kind of sweep they had, those arms, and his comical eyebrows that were like Alhambra arches.

The train friend said, “But I feel like such a scum.”

He was short, medium-built, with a dirty-blond shag haircut and a toothbrush moustache; scraggly and insecure in contrast to the theology student’s manicured knowingness.  Grasping the short end of the conversation, the train friend left first.  The other finished his beer in solitude, and left.

A humorous young black man pulled the gate down over the snack counter, locked up, and then sat at a table.  He and a late thirtyish woman with a jolly face under brunette bangs began to talk.  He slumped in the molded plastic chair.

“Where you going?”
“L.A.” she said.
“You from there?”
“I was born there, but I left when I was little, and this is the first time I’ve been back.  First time on a train alone.”
“Hope you have a pleasant trip.”
“Oh, yeah, it has been.”

It was after hours.  His voice was kindly, intimate.

“You got family?”
“Two kids.  One fourteen and one twenty.”

He looked at her.  “Naw.  I don’t believe that….But this is getting personal.  How…getting too personal….”

“Where do you live?” she asked him.
“New Orleans.”
“That’s a pretty wild town.”
“Yeah,” he sniggered.
“I guess you live all over, anywhere you want, with this job, huh?”
“No, no, New Orleans’s home.  You only got one home.  Where you born.  I got family, friends….”
“I was born in L.A., but I don’t consider it home.”
“No,” he maintained.  “A person got one home.  Some time in your life you gonna go back there.”

They dropped the subject.

Though it had long passed the point where I could graciously extricate myself from their company, I got up and walked through the coaches into my own.  Before I sat, I noticed no dull gleam of whiteness.  Someone had stolen my pillow.

.   .   .

The following morning, five minutes before breakfast was announced, we were stopped at a station with a particularly littered rail yard flanked by charred warehouses with a snowflake originality in smashed windows; above the debris, which rivaled the panes in variousness, stood discarded ancient billboards that might have crumbled into the shards below them.  It was the second time we had stopped for a good while.  During the first, two college freshman couples had asked me to snap them with their camera they showed me how to operate.  From the window I had watched them on the platform, hugging and kissing goodbye.  They impressed me as having met that weekend.  I couldn’t help watching them.  I supposed it was my destiny as their camera eye.  The guys boarded.  The girls started their routine.  They blew kisses.  They stood and looked wistful.  The short brunette disco-hustled.  The tall blonde was not to be upstaged.  She hiked her skirt.  She began moving to the right.  But it was us backing cautiously, steadily, backing over the bridge, the freeway under us with the same cars circling the stale view of downtown.  That was fifteen hours ago.

The air now—as, stiff-limbed and raw, I stepped down past the steward—was cold and an inland, not a coastal, gray.  I went out the station’s front doors, and found myself in a kind of urban valley; this terrain meant a steep climb to reach even the nearest skyscrapers.  Bone-chilled, not up to such a campaign, I headed back to my seat, then to the dining car.

That took care of seven to seven-thirty.  Six more hours to my destination.  And then another hour to the agreed-upon commuter station.

I tried not to glance at my wristwatch.  I forgot about the watch; I must have slept.

At noon I went to the lounge and had a slice of pizza and a Coke.  In came the theology student, the last customer I was to see, carrying a white beige-spined hardback that was probably a novel.  He sat in the last seat, across from me, as on the previous night.  Out the window were the farms and communities of identical white houses from boyhood.  Someone else’s boyhood.

No skyscrapers were yet visible.  I strained to see one on the horizon.  I saw a farmhouse standing out alone, white-washed, tall, thin, square and wooden, a few trees for its oasis, with no views but the long wide opaque plowed acres.

Forty-five minutes to destination, a highway snaked along our left and riveted every conceivable make of vehicle toward a hub.  Out of this clarity came the sharp mirage of a skyline.  Fifteen minutes to destination, smokestacks and a greenish river showed, and other trains immobile on a myriad of tracks.  The conductor announced the arrival twice.  It was a long majestic stagefrightened five minutes.  A European father and his grown son filmed with a Bolex as the axles ground through the sunlight and shadows to a final halt.

Up ahead, on the platform, the theology student was loading his duffel bags onto a rented cart.  I passed him and went directly to buy a commuter ticket.  Then I hung around the immense station, window-shopping the kiosks.  I saw him again, alone, waiting just outside the entrance.  I went back to the counter to confirm the track for my line.  Again I saw him, now with a pretty woman, a different one, they were together as if making plans.  Like a shot his laugh rang out.

© DF. October 2011

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