Eric D. Goodman
The morning sun lit up the cars of the train as Franklin walked through them. A few passengers still snoozed in their seats, but most of them were wide awake, ready to enter the new day in a new city. They were only minutes from Chicago, the Cardinal’s final destination. For the sake of the sleepers, he made the announcement—just a part of his job as the conductor.
“We’ll be blowing into the Windy City momentarily, folks. Please make sure you collect all your belongings. Don’t want you leaving anything behind.”
Rustling, muttering, some stretches and yawns; Franklin was used to the sounds of dawn on the train.
He saw Christi, the thirty-something businesswoman, sitting impatiently in her seat and raring to go make a splash in a new place. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to get off this train, after she’d tried to save a fellow passenger’s life and failed. That’s two men she lost. She looked anxious, excited—but a tinge of sadness remained in her eyes, as though a piece of her remained in Baltimore. She left everything behind for this.
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Best of luck to you at your new job. Why, I remember when I was fresh on the train. Whole life ahead of me. You may be a little unsure now going in, but there’s nothing like the excitement of starting a new job and going to new places.”
She looked up and smiled. “Thanks. I’m sure I’ll do fine at work. It’s finding people that might be a challenge.”
“People are everywhere,” Franklin said with a wink. “Pretty girl like you? Won’t have any trouble finding friends in Chicago.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze, and walked on. He believed what he said. She was a bright woman and would fit in well. But he knew what she was feeling. It was nothing unusual in this day and age to be surrounded by millions of people and still be the loneliest person in the world.
The young lovers directly behind Christi twittered with excitement, like hummingbirds who’d found a new feeder filled with syrup. The boy’s book had been stashed away and the two of them giggled and pointed out the window at the urban landscape passing by.
“First visit to Chicago,” Franklin said, more an observation than a question. The youngsters looked at him with wound-up grins.
“First time anywhere this far from home,” Tina said. Malcolm put his arm around her and squeezed.
“You’ll have a lot of fun in the Windy City,” Franklin said.
Tina took a deep breath. “There’s so much to do. Our friends are going to show us around. The Field Museum, art museum, planetarium, Magnificent Mile, Navy Pier, Grant Park…”
Malcolm interjected. “Ed Debevic’s for lunch today, Hard Rock for dinner, Michael Jordan’s place for lunch tomorrow—and the Bulls and the Bears…”
Franklin interrupted them with his laughter. “Don’t you kids try to get too much in on your first visit. Might wear yourselves out!”
“We’ve got it all planned,” Tina said.
“Well, you two have a fun time, and hop back on the train sometime.” He smiled and left them to their excited planning, walking on and remembering when he was just a kid full of dreams and excitement. He’d fulfilled his dream on the train, always meeting new people and having interesting conversations, but never being forced to get too intimate. On again and off again, none of them latched on for a lifetime.
Mr. Silver Hair was back in general seating, his briefcase in his lap. Franklin wondered what was in the case that was so important. Silver Hair and Leather Jacket were really having it out, not more than half an hour ago. He’d expected a full-out fight, and was afraid he was going to have to break it up as best he could. Seemed it all had something to do with that briefcase. Franklin imagined the case to be filled with money or drugs or jewelry. After spotting them in the hall, he saw this silver-haired guy come to pick up the case in the lounge car moments later, but he hadn’t spotted the tough guy again. The trouble maker was probably sneaking a cigarette in one of the bathrooms.
The two men and that silver briefcase made Franklin suspicious. Almost suspicious enough to call the cops. But the last time he’d let his suspicion get the best of him, the one who’d been taken to the station was him.
“What’s a man like you doing getting involved with a little girl like that?” the cop had asked before escorting him to the cruiser and taking him to the station to “answer a few questions.”
The fact was, he’d been looking out for the little girl. Hilary had been her name, and the girl had come to the lounge car to escape the grown man she traveled with.
“I hate him,” Hilary had said.
“That’s a pretty strong statement,” Franklin had said to try and calm her. “Especially to say about your daddy.”
“Daddy dearest, maybe,” she’d responded. Then she proceeded to show the bruises on her twelve-year-old legs and arms. “He’s so inappropriate.” Franklin didn’t know that they were the sort of bruises most kids her age wore as badges of play.
“Does he hurt you?” Franklin asked, getting more involved than he felt he should.
“Every chance the perv gets,” she said with a snort. Franklin got the girl a soda and the two talked for more than an hour. She was a cute little girl, but seemed to know more than a girl her age should about certain things. Franklin began to doubt the guy was even her father,
remembering that Lolita movie he’d seen years ago.
The father stormed into the lounge car just as the little girl was starting to fall asleep in the booth beside Franklin. “There you are, you little brat,” he yelled. “What the hell’s going on here?” he demanded of the conductor. Franklin didn’t know what to say. Before they arrived at the train’s destination, Franklin called the police, wanting to save the abused girl. But when the passenger’s story checked out—he was her father and he was on his way to take Hilary back to her mother after a summer visit—the father told the police about finding her sleeping with the conductor.
Franklin liked people and he enjoyed helping them. But he’d learned the hard way that sometimes you had to leave people to their own problems and not get involved. He didn’t know what was going to happen between Silver Hair and Leather Jacket. But it was none of his business, and he didn’t want it to be. Aside from a little small talk, it was best to leave people alone.
The lounge was practically empty now—most people had returned to their seats or compartments, getting their things ready to leave the train. Fritz and Mary stood from their seats. Fritz had traded yesterday’s beer for a morning cup of hot tea. The couple finished their drinks and walked toward the exit.
“You gonna hit that German restaurant today?” Franklin asked them.
“Probably tomorrow,” Fritz said. “I expect our family will have lunch waiting for us at their place today.”
“The Berghoff is just a couple blocks from the Art Institute,” Franklin reminded them. “Adams and Quincy.”
“Thanks,” Mary and Fritz both said.
“Enjoy your visit,” said Franklin. He watched them exit the lounge and wondered what it was like to be so effortlessly in love with someone for so many years. It was a marvel, really, two people joined together as one for the majority of a lifetime. To still have that much to say to one another. He’d never been able to last more than a few years. The only way to make a relationship last, he figured, was to keep everything on the surface.
Still in the lounge, Helen awoke in her seat, looking around in confusion. For a moment, panic overtook her, but she quickly realized where she was and regained her composure. She spotted Franklin, stood, and approached him. “Hi there,” she said
“Good morning,” he greeted.
“No offense, but it’s going to be a relief to get off this train.”
“So we still haven’t won you over with our superior service?”
Helen frowned and smiled at the same time. “Nothing’s ever going to make me like a train. Not even your sweet talk.” She began to leave the lounge car for her seat, but turned back. “I’m looking forward to lunch. I’ll look for you on the way off. We can share that cab.”
“Now I don’t want to be any trouble. Maybe I could just buy you a cup of coffee at the station.”
“No trouble at all,” Helen insisted. “I promised to give you a taste of homemade perogies and Polish potato vodka, and that’s what I have my heart set on. You’re not going to break an old woman’s heart, now, are you?
“Last thing in the world I’d want to do, ma’am,” he said. He’d enjoyed talking with her on the train. Lunch would be nice.
The truth was, Franklin was more of a coffee break kind of guy. Getting a cup of coffee was the safest date you could make, because it could be cut off easily. If the conversation was flowing and living in the air around them, they could have a refill, a piece of pie, a pastry. If the conversation was really sparking, they could move on to lunch or dinner or a walk in the park. But if the conversation began to grow stilted or forced or awkward, a cup of coffee could be consumed quickly, and the date could be discarded. Not that this was a date by any stretch of the imagination. She was at least ten years his senior, barely capable of taking the train on her own. But the sort of conversational intercourse they were having was the most exciting type of intercourse there was, when you really got down to it. Conversation, when it was good, was as good as it got. But the escape route of a potentially short coffee break was vital to making it relaxed, keeping it unforced.
Long lunches were more likely to go bad. You never knew where lunch was going to go or how it was going to end. Especially a lunch at someone’s home, a hostess preparing and serving the meal herself. When placed in a situation like that, a person had to expect to devote hours to one conversation. Idle chatter was obliged to evolve into something more, into meaningful, soul-deep discourse. That could be unpleasant.
The last time Franklin had gone to lunch with a passenger from the train, it hadn’t ended so well. Unlike Helen, the woman had been nearly twenty years his junior, and he had an interest in getting to know her inside and out. Jamie was a hippie, and her conversational riffs seemed to ride on the waves of an ocean—which was where she kept saying she wanted to settle down and become a beach bum. Looking back, Franklin realized she reminded him a little of the tattoo lady on the train now, only from what Jamie had told him, her tattoo was in a place only a lucky few were allowed to glimpse, not shouting from the open skin of her back for the world to see.
Jamie’s dizzy conversation topics on the train should have been Franklin’s first warning, and the drug paraphernalia in her messy studio apartment was the second hint that Jamie was not your typical nine-to-five working girl. She had a job as a waitress at a diner and used her tip money for drugs first, basic needs second. After a late lunch of hot dogs and canned beans, she lit up the main course.
Franklin hadn’t gotten high since he was a kid—sometime in his twenties—and he didn’t exactly remember it doing much for him then. But the prospect of Jamie doing something for him made the joint that much more enticing. He drew on the hand-rolled cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs.
What had started on the train and on the bus and in her apartment as a vivid and energetic conversation about everything from politics and music to UFOs and life in distant galaxies, began to slow as the remains of the joint smoldered in the fish-shaped ashtray on the floor before them. Usually so full of words, he couldn’t think of anything witty to say. When he did think of something, he ran the phrase through his head backwards and forwards, examining it under a microscope until he knew he had it right. Then when he said it, the words came out all wrong. When Jamie laughed at something he said, he didn’t know whether she was laughing at his clever witticisms, or at him for saying something so stupid. Everything he said seemed ridiculous and irrelevant. He became so paranoid, he wondered who he was, what he was all about. He remembered Latoya, his old girlfriend, who had first put the idea in his head—an idea that still haunted him to this day: “You gonna keep talking, you’ve gotta have something to say.”
Sitting on the dirty plaid couch with Jamie, Franklin didn’t know what to say. So under the influence of paranoia, he stopped talking altogether. He was silent when he slipped away from her, leaving her on the couch alone. He was quiet as he made his way out of her apartment, onto the bus, and back to the station. He didn’t say another word until he was on the train and surrounded by a new round of passengers. By then, his paranoia had worn off, and he was hungry for small talk again.
Franklin spotted the tough guy, an unlit cigarette between his lips. He stood at the back of the car, his only carry-on a Zippo lighter, which he flicked and closed, flicked and closed, as though he were ready to jump off and smoke himself silly the moment the train came to a stop. “I’ll have to ask you not to light that until you’re off the train,” Franklin said.
“Relax, old man,” he said, although he must have been close to retirement age himself. “It’s unlit. See?” He pointed to the cigarette in his mouth.
“I mean the lighter,” Franklin said. “Please save your flame for outside.”
“You’re lucky we’re almost there,” the man said in a gravelly voice. “I’ve just about had my fill of you.”
“Here we are,” Franklin said as the train slowly began to pull into Union Station. He had no doubt this guy would meet up with Mr. Silver Hair outside and work out his frustration. He just hoped it didn’t get too violent. In his opinion, most matters could be solved without violence or anger or hatred, if people would only try to see from the other guy’s passenger seat.
The train hadn’t even come to a complete stop, but passengers were already out of their seats and crowding into the aisle, in a hurry to file off the train. There was a subtle, unspoken language being communicated here, the push and pull of people out of their places and into the aisle, away from the person behind them and into the person before them. Franklin would never pretend to know anything about science or theology, but he imagined the passengers who made up the soul of a train were much like the cells of a person. Every single one had a place in making up the whole, but every one was an individual. And when they all left this train, they would go off to form other matter. The soul bringing life to this train would never live again. Franklin peered out the window.
Outside, people waited for the doors to open and release their visitors. Some bored and impatient, others excited and already jumping and waving to the train as though the cars themselves were the ones being welcomed. Franklin liked that idea.
He spotted Murdock inside the train, a heavy suitcase in one hand and an oversized briefcase in the other. Both of them pulled him down, hunching him over. He’d readjusted the red tie around his neck and it looked too snug for comfort. Not that this miserable man had ever looked comfortable, even when he’d been drunk. It didn’t seem to be the luggage alone that weighed him down.
The doors opened. Franklin bid farewell to the passengers as they got off the train. He smiled at the sight of people reuniting outside. The army kid was embracing his mother and father, the parents obviously proud of their son and relieved to see him back from harm’s way. Hubert, the mentally impaired guy, and his Uncle Ned were having their own pleasant reunion with a charming woman, all hugs and smiles.
The woman with the tattoo stood in front of Franklin, waiting in line to get off the train, her expression troubled and relieved. “Have a nice day,” Franklin said to her, not knowing what else to say.
The beautiful woman smiled. “The train’s like Vegas, right?”
“What happens on the train stays on the train?”
Franklin nodded. “If that’s the way you’d like it, that’s the way it can be.” When she got off the train, she embraced a balding, middle-aged man. The man held her tightly, lovingly, and then began chattering away at her about his busy schedule and limited vacation window. For a moment, Franklin found himself longing for someone to be waiting for him at the station.
“You coming?” It was Helen, standing directly next to him.
“Oh,” Franklin said, at a loss. “Well, I have to finish up on the train. It’ll probably be another hour or two.”
“I can wait,” Helen said. “No reason to take two cabs when we can share one.”
“Tell you what. I have some errands to run in the city,” he said. “Maybe I should just take the address down and I’ll come when I get done.”
“You’re not skipping out on me?” She took a pen and a used envelope from her purse and began writing.
“No siree,” he assured her. “You’ve got my mouth watering for some perogies.”
“The potato vodka’s nothing to sneeze at either,” Helen said, ripping off the back flap of the envelope and handing it to the conductor.
“Not to mention the savory conversation,” he added with a wink. He took the flap of envelope, the glue on its back still a little sticky, and put it in the pocket of his Amtrak jacket.
“Does two or three sound good? It’ll be a late lunch.”
“Three sounds just fine,” he said. “I can’t wait.” She took his hand to shake it and they embraced as though they were good friends saying goodbye forever.
“I still hate trains,” she said as she stepped down to the platform.
“And I still love them,” he called to her. He couldn’t help but laugh as she waved him away like an annoying horsefly. She walked off, alone, but she looked happier than she had when he first met her.
Many of the passengers got off the train alone and had no one waiting for them at the station. Colin was one of them. The poet had a spring in his step, a notebook in one hand, a backpack over his shoulder, and that little yellow joke of a pencil, bite marks and all, resting behind his ear. He looked like a man on a mission with somewhere he needed to be. The guy was putting himself there, wherever it was.
As people continued to file off the train, Franklin thought back to other passengers who had gotten off early. That sad woman with the black purse and overcoat who had been sitting next to the poet. She looked like she had been in mourning as she got off the train in Cincinnati, clutching a page of parchment in her hand. He remembered noticing her outside the window, on the platform, as she put the folded paper in her purse and discovered a piece of the Amtrak stationery he’d given Colin. As far as Franklin had seen, Colin and this girl hadn’t said more than two words to one another on the train. He doubted they’d ever see each other again as long as they lived. But the sight of her finding that poem in her purse made him smile.
Franklin could write a poem or two—probably a book or two—about the people he’d met on trains. All of them alike, but none of them the same. Each person with his own story, each story complicated and exciting, with as many ups and downs as any story you’d find on the TV or in a movie theater. More exciting than the life he’d led himself. But then, that’s why he marveled at the passengers on the train. What better entertainment was there than the drama of those around him every day as he engaged in idle chatter? Maybe he’d never actually write them down—he knew he was better at talking than at writing—but he certainly had a book or two in his head about all these rides.
“Tell us a train story,” his great nephews and nieces back home would ask him next time he visited. That would be Thanksgiving. He was thankful that he had his train stories to tell them.
Some stories were sadder than others. He remembered the nice old man with the calendar book, his nose stuck in it for the better part of his ride. Poor guy had suffered a heart attack right on the train. Christi had tried to save him with her CPR, but there was no saving the guy, being it was his time to go. Now that wasn’t a sight you saw every day, even with all of the people filing on and off the train day in and day out. Franklin had noticed the wedding ring and imagined the guy’s widow waiting back home, pictured her receiving the news. What things had been planned in that leather-bound book of his, left undone? He imagined getting the kind of news that this guy’s wife must have woken to this morning—that the person you lived for no longer lived for you. Just another reason it was better to go through life surrounded by people to chat with and go home alone.
Franklin was practically alone now. The train was empty. There were other workers aboard, but none of the noise and energy that filled a train when the passengers were on board. The soul had dispossessed the train, just as it always did at the end of a line. Outside, he caught a glimpse of the silver briefcase, but the man carrying it moved so swiftly out of view that Franklin couldn’t tell whether it was Silver Hair or Leather Jacket. Truth be told, it didn’t matter much.
There was plenty to keep Franklin busy in Chicago, but he really had nothing to do. He imagined lunch with Helen, a pleasant afternoon of homemade cuisine. And better still, the lovely conversation they could continue. On the surface, they’d had a wonderful time chatting on the train. Now he had the opportunity to deepen their friendship, to have a meaningful relationship with someone whose company he enjoyed.
He’d learned long ago that surface relationships were the best kind. People put their best foot forward, in many cases, because the other foot had something wrong with it. A person put up a good front, presented the better side for a photograph. That’s why everyone was a pleasure to know when you were just getting to know them. It was only when you scratched that shiny surface that you began to notice the tarnished innards. The deeper you dug, the more rot you would find there. The more you scrutinized, the more damage became apparent. Deep, meaningful conversation could be a drag. Small talk was almost always a pleasure.
Franklin took the envelope flap from his pocket and read the address in its blue ink script. The still-sticky glue clung to his finger. Lunch and conversation in the suburbs wasn’t going to kill him, he told himself. Maybe he would take the plunge and go. He didn’t want to disappoint her after putting her through all the work of making lunch from scratch. That last late lunch had been years ago, and it was with an aimless loser. Helen didn’t seem like the type who would judge him or put him in an uncomfortable situation. She was a reasonable woman, someone he could really talk with.
The conductor had come to the end of another line. He put the paper back in the pocket of his blue uniform jacket. All of the passengers were long gone, nowhere to be seen. It was time to get off the train, remove his uniform, and get ready for a late lunch. But already, he found himself longing to put the uniform back on, wondering what sort of soul would greet him on the train back to Baltimore.
©2011 by Eric D. Goodman