He paused and thought about the idea for a long, long time.
The sounds from the freight train sped past throwing his charcoaled gray hair into a twirl, but he bare noticed. A group of boisterous teenagers dressed in various states of disarray passed by him on the old wooden depot platform, they registered only a slight annoyance as he was lost in thought.
He continue to ponder. There was no hurry. This was important.
"The Old Man & The Train" by Steven C. Gardner
He paused with a frightful thought. A glorious, beguiling thought, that pierced his very core. It fell deep upon his thoughts, sinking into the hallows of his mind like fresh tar on exposed flesh. It felt rough at first, sticky, oozing through his awakened imagination. Yet as he pondered upon this tremendously enlightening affliction, it gave way to pure ecstasy, echoing across his imagination with a cry, a halleluiah of joy, which overtook the thick blanket of despair, that had so bellowed at his everyday humdrum existence.
With a shout, it skipped through his consciousness with a fierce wind, a thunderous glee, an orchestration of pure delight. As the thought grew, it fed upon itself, making him flinch with embarrassment, as all around must surely see the shining light that so radiated across his soul.
He paused, with this enlightened glow, this awakening, that so thrust itself upon his aged face.
He thought hard about this revelation for a long, long time.
The clanging tweets from a whistling freight train sped past, throwing his charcoaled-gray hair into a jumbled twirl. Yet, he barely noticed. A gaggle of boisterous youths chattered like peacocks nearby. He heard not a peep from their glee. The orchestration of life spun around him, swaying this way then that with a purposeful chaos. To him, it was only a far-in-the-distant distraction. Life clamored all about, yet was a barely perceptible fray of humanity. Like gliding ghosts, the throng of apparitions drifted as shimmering wisps, that his mind only saw as faded shadows.
He stood paralyzed upon the old wooden depot’s platform, continuing to ponder. There was no hurry. This was important.
“It might be,” he whispered to himself. “It could be. It ought to be. Could it be?”
A gaunt look of annoyance spread across his wrinkled face as a feeble twitch shook his weathering left hand. His legs quivered slightly beneath the scratchy cotton blend fabric slacks he wore so poorly. He shuddered, though not from his aged condition, but from this sudden, spectacular, miraculous, annoying feeling that filled his imagination. How could he have missed it after all these years?
Slowly, he picked up the worn brown leather briefcase he had dropped. Determination swelled through his tired skin as he made his way through the evening crowd, all waiting to board the rustic commuter train home to their various destinations. This bustling throng was all too commonplace to the old man, his life having sustained itself through these long, daily rituals. It was a repetition that filled his lungs with drawn tradition, while quelling his dreams and frustrating any thought of variation in the choices he so dreadfully lived by—a routine that had infected his every thought since the passing of his beloved Deloris.
Now he began to gain a sense of renewed purpose as he trudged along the old worn, familiar wooden platform.
"Can you believe this place," a young male voice spoke offhandedly to his side.
“So old fashioned,” his female companion chuckled.
Continuing to look forward, the old man cringed his way past them. The young couple burst out in laughter. He heard the young man rudely whisper, as though no one else existed on the platform besides themselves. “And there goes the wagon master!”
A distant muffled whistle drifted through the air. The old man’s wrinkled skin shivered in anticipation as the 5:40 commuter train could be heard making its way slowly toward the platform. Several children rushed forward, gawking along the walkways edge hoping to catch a glimpse of the oncoming train, hurriedly followed by worried adults who quickly shooed their flocks back to a safe distance.
The idea was always there before him, he thought once more, but somehow unattainable, intangible, as a mystery waiting to be solved. An untold story with heart-filled beginnings, the old man thought, wrenched by unfulfilled hopes, dashed conquests, with the ending unaccomplished, waiting to be written.
The idea began to glow even brighter.
He found his place near the front of the platform between a middle-aged woman with long finely kept auburn hair in a woolen turquoise sweater intently reading the latest gossip magazine, and a sullen looking teenager in knee-waist pants and a dark colored pullover jacket. The boy sported a rattled, unkempt bundle of black hair dripping down from a dingy blue and black ball cap.
“Rain,” the young man stated holding out a tan-stained hand as though to catch an imaginary drop. “Looks like it’ll rain.”
“Might,” responded the old man offhandedly, staring thoughtfully ahead.
The young man unconsciously hiked up his pants and kicked a small pebble off the platform, “Don’t care much to get soaked if it does.”
Looking instinctively up at the dull overcast clouds, a slight smell of moisture drifted past the older man’s senses as his thoughts continued to wonder. His heart sped with a meager bit of anticipation from the possibilities of his revelation. For the formulation of his idea grew as the tiniest sprout drifting toward the light—growing, spreading, and implementing itself from a vague idea to the possibility of encouraged action.
“Can’t seem to understand why so many of the locals still ride this thing,” the younger boy sniffled, glancing about, pointing down the platform, “There’s Mrs. Benson, her three spoiled brats in tow. She owns a Catty, yet here she is riding the cattle cars.”
The older gentlemen followed the younger boy’s attention, and couldn’t help but agree. Why would the Benson's bother themselves with such inconveniences?
“And there,” the young man sneered, “Near the drinking fountain. That’s the Mayors brother, Jared Montfree. A bit of a dope if you’re ask me. He needn’t join the everyday-class of us who hop this ferry.”
With a discerning glance, the older gentlemen snorted a silent sneer at the thought of the Mayor, Emmet Montfree, a man-of-the-many, so his mayor-torial campaign slogan so emphatically embellished. Emmet had married Deloris’ very younger sister, yet even after all these years the Montfree’s had scarcely acknowledged his existence. He felt like a fog in the memories of those about him.
The auburn-haired women suddenly exclaimed, “What a tart,” and continued to be engrossed in the magazine, oblivious to all that was transpiring around her.
The red and black train breached the forming mist and slowly screeched its way along the platform, stopping with a sudden clang! The tangled sounds of shifting metal rattled the air in non-harmonic tones. The wooden doors creaked open allowing those who wished to exit to rapidly step down from the train as the engine continued to idle in a boisterous, pulsating, and irritating mixture of deep rattles and pops, accompanied by a pale hiss whose sound emanated from the heated engine.
“All aboard!” shouted the conductor from a distance far down the trains’ collection of cars. The older man slowly slid his way aboard and found his usual seat, stiff and worn, at the very front of the train, and sat with his back facing the engine. He preferred to watch the passing landscape, usually ignoring what lay ahead.
The young boy sat silently across from him, while the auburn-haired woman slid beside the old man, still intently scanning the gossip filled magazine.
Within minutes the train lurched and began to slowly move.
“My mother use to ride this train,” offhandedly spoke the young boy as he stared out the window.
“What,” the older man muddled, his own thoughts distracting him.
The softened overhead lights cast a pasty shadow over the young boy’s youthful countenance. A melancholy presence settled about him like a morning frost—cold, subdued, remembering. A lifetime of wisdom seemed to radiate from this youth, thought the old man, dully shining while slowly emerging as a painful awakening memory seemed to possess him.
From his uncomfortably familiar seat, the old man saw a pinch of himself in this young boy’s demeanor. A reflection of a long distant memory when choices stretched before him like a field of wild poppies, swaying gently in an early morning spring day, choices that made a difference and added purpose to one’s soul. But those were yesterday’s memories.
“I see her on occasion,” the young man pondered sadly. “In my mind I see her beside me, humming a quiet song. She loved to sing.”
“Where is she,” asked the older man.
“She died. Three years ago. Walking home after work.”
“I am sorry.”
“It was a day much like this one,” he waved his hand about the car. “After leaving this train she often stopped at the small bakery ‘round the corner from the station to buy day-old bread. It’s what we could afford,” the young man paused. “The owner, Mr. Parkins, kept it special for us.”
The old man’s thoughts drifted towards the story being told, wondering where this was going to lead.
Tilting his eyes momentarily, the older man saw a deep chasm of pain settle within the younger boy’s thoughts, yet a calm presence had overtaken his exterior, resting on him like a comfortable shirt, familiar and well fitted.
“I remember hearing the whistle from this train that night,” he continued, as the train clattered its way along the familiar tracks. The evening sky slowly dimmed, spreading shadows through the car. “My Mom had me young, when she was but seventeen. Never told me who my dad was, but everyone around me knew. You could tell since those we would meet often blurted things like, ‘you have your father’s build,’ or ‘the hair, just like his father’s,’ and stuff like that. Mom would politely stop them from saying more, often tellin’ them it was her wish. Most would shake their heads quietly and mutter polite, irritating words before drifting away.”
The car shifted and noisily rattled from a street crossing as it continued toward its next stop.
The old man couldn’t help but be entranced by the story. The young boy’s thoughts became his thoughts, the vision of the Mother became his mother as he rode the tale within his own mind. His vision was clouded with perceptions of a young woman, a mother, caring for a fatherless child, whose obvious love encapsulated his being.
The young man continued as though nothing else mattered. As though telling the story for the first time and hoping the telling would ease some hidden pain.
“After stopping at the bakery, she was on her way home. It was dark, the street a bit damp from the rain that had drifted by earlier that evening. No sidewalks along the road to our house. Lived in a small, drafty old house, just off the county road, right outta town about a miles walk from the train station.”
Lights flickered through the window as the train rushed past a loading platform filled with crates of assorted sizes, while a few workers leaned against several pillars or sat lazily upon the cargo. The sound of the train changed momentarily, from a broad clanging echo, to a sudden confined rhapsody as it whisked past the dock, then returned to its familiar rackety-tact momentum as it fled back into the darkening evening.
“I remember her smell mostly,” sniffled the young man as he stared out at the passing night. “A bit of cinnamon, sweet and familiar. As she was walking,” the young boy continued after a thoughtful pause, “along the dark road a car came around the bend. A well-to-do silver Porsche, a rich man’s toy. Was told it slid on the damp road.”
The old man sat silently, absorbed by this tragic tale.
The train’s whistle blurted as a splash of rain began to streak along the car‘s darkened windows.
“Nothing could be done they said later. Was fourteen at the time, had been home alone after school. Took care of myself mostly, while my mom worked, which was a lot. They said the car probably hit one of the ruts in the road. Wasn’t maintained very well, the road, full of mismatched patches of asphalt, all clumped together like melted candles. The car had flipped and settled on the roadside among the damp dirt and sticky crab grass. Wasn’t noticed until early the next morning. I had gone to sleep thinking mom had to work late. I had school the next day, and we didn’t have a phone. She worked late a lot.”
A slight chill drifted through the car, settling upon the three passengers as though attempting to smother their thoughts and engulf them with a dull, fore-boarding spirit of despair. The older man felt the loss as personable as he did his beloved wife of fifty-three years, whose passing had paled his heart.
“The funeral was small, done at the town cemetery. A few people from mom’s work, the baker, and the preacher from some Protestant church were there. The preacher spoke a few words, but I heard none of it. No relatives came, never met any of them anyway. She was buried next to her little brother; he had died from pneumonia when he was three. Mom’s parents had scorned her when I was born, ‘the bastard-child is no kin of ours’ it was said of them. I only knew them from a few well-guarded photos that my Mom kept.”
The young man raised his eyes slightly and appeared to look straight into the old man’s eyes, catching his soul with his words.
“No one claimed me since then. No one seemed to care, no one noticed that I was alone.”
The splatter from the rain grew louder as it pelted the wooden planks overhead and dripped down the sides along the panes of glass like beaded tears, all rushing diagonally against the darkened landscape outside. The dull light of the box car cast long yellow shadows that shifted as an occasional light sped past.
“When the funeral had ended I drifted through the cemetery. Another group of people had gathered a distance from my mom’s grave, another funeral, but well attended. No one noticed as I approached and stood quietly behind them, listening to their whispers.”
The car jolted a bit to one side. The old man instinctively thrust a hand upon the imitation leather seat, bracing himself. He continued to watch the young man, who was now staring out of the darkened window at memories only he could envision.
“’He lived a good, long life,’ someone quietly spoke, and ‘a loving man, good to his family,” reverently whispered another, and things like that. As I glanced about, there were many sorrowful faces—some stood with arms clasped, red eyes full of tears, others with quivering lips, and many more with blank, meaningless faces. Across the way, beyond the flowers, the caskets, and the crowd of mourners, sat an old lady, quietly sobbing under a protective umbrella and being comforted by those around her. I can still smell the early spring flowers that lined the coffin. My Mom loved the spring flowers, ‘full of life’ she said.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. The echo of the rain and the ringing from the metal wheels scraping along the tracks filled the air.
The older man’s mind wondered, pierced by memories of his own. Like the time he met his lovely wife Deloris as she rode astride the pitch-black Stallion along the country lane not far from his folk’s ranch. She looked so young, so curious, so innocent, and the horse so big for such a small, delicate girl. Yet her confidence yielded an air of strength that overpowered such a huge, encompassing animal. He instantly fell in love.
They had married two years later with the expectations and joyfulness of any newlyweds. They lived in bliss in an old, worn down, farmhouse owned by his parents, where the roof leaked, and the floor slanted slightly to the south. Yet, with all its problems, their lives were full of joy and contentment.
“What purpose do we have,” his wife Deloris asked him one day as they sat among the hay stacks eating freshly picked red apples, their bare feet dangling in unrestrained playfulness. “Why do you love me so?”
“Because your nose scrunches when you laugh,” he replied, mimicking the rapid snickers that she makes and feigning shyness. She punched him in the arm.
“Not,” she playfully mocked. ‘No, really, I am serious, what purpose do we have here, in this life?”
“Well,” he coughed momentarily, stalling for time. “I guess, it is to be true to ourselves, to be kind and honest to others, and to love those whom we love.”
She smiled slightly, and looked down at her dangling feet. For what seemed an eternity she remained in thoughtful silence.
“My feet are small,” she whispered after a few moments as she slowly wiggled her toes. ‘When I walk it takes twice as many of my steps to match one of yours.”
He had noticed a wondering look in her eyes, as a distant air seemed to absorb her, spreading about as though wishing to possess her.
“I look about us and see the land stretching for miles, with only our small home in view,” she continued, as if painting a picture that she so desperately wished for him to see, yet was too priceless for him to own. “The tall grass sway by the unseen winds. The blue skies above us are vast and expand forever upward. We sit here, small and tiny, as the earth spins rapidly around the sun, as the planets bob about our galaxy, dwarfed by an ever expanding somethingness that dwells between us and our closest neighbors.”
She paused, a strange melancholy settling on her normally enthusiastic spirit.
He had no answer.
“What purpose do we have here,” she seemed to quietly plead while a hopeful smile rested upon her. Eight months later the birth of their first and only child, a daughter with sandy red hair, graced their lives.
She had a small laugh that made their house a home, with the curiosity and determined playfulness that stretched far beyond the boundaries of her small, delicate body. With enlightened blue eyes, just like her mothers, and with the spirit of newness, their little daughter bounced upon life as though all things had value, purpose, and meaning.
Joy and contentment drifted through his life then, spoiled by the brightness of the women that graced his presence, filling his family with purpose and love. The sparseness of their lives was filled with meaning.
Yet all too soon the spark drifted to despair. Their daughter became ill. She was sullen and quiet, weak and tired, drained of the familiar active spirit that had engulfed her very being.
She passed away when she was only eleven, complications from a weak heart they were told. Then soon after, his wife withdrew within herself, sullen and distant, never again the strong, headstrong girl that rode upon the large tall black stallion.
For thirty-eight more years he cared for her, sat quietly beside her, covered his lovely wife with all the tenderness he could, only to watch her wisp slowly away from his grasp. She passed away one evening as they sat together on the old, worn blue sofa, as he silently read a book, one arm comfortably wrapped around her tired body, her head resting gently on his shoulder.
He pictured himself at the cemetery, sitting in a chair surrounded by a few consoling mourners, just like the young man had described in his recollection.
“What can one do when no one notices,” the young man spoke, continuing his tale. “Most live in ignorance of those around them. Rushing around with their own problems and concerns. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.”
The train’s whistle announced the approach of their first stop. The older man unconsciously looked out of the darkened window, waiting to glimpse the first signs of the dully lit station that would soon approach.
“The old lady at the funeral had looked up, and by some chance seemed to peer straight at me,” the young man continued, captivating his audience once again. “Her face instantly changed from sorrow to spitting anger. ‘It’s your fault!’ she yelled out. ‘You did this!’ All eyes turned toward me, some shocked, others confused. That is when I recognized her, from the photos my Mom had cared for so reverently. She was my Grandmother.”
With a screeching jerk the train hissed to a stop at the platform. The old man had been too absorbed by this revelation that he failed to notice the approach to the station.
The tired commotion from those departing and the few who boarded the train cars further down hardly breached the attention of the three occupants. After a few minutes a distant shout of “All-Aboard” pierced the evening air and the train once again commenced on its journey.
As they departed the station, a barrage of fierce rain splattered the streaked windows, shortly followed by a brisk, hallowing wind that seemed to penetrate the poorly sealed wooden train car’s door, sending a chill through the dimly lit compartment.
The clatter from the train and the briskness of the weather fed the sullen atmosphere within the car. Finally, after a long, thoughtful pause, the young man continued.
“Found out later that my Grandfather had died after getting the news of my Mother’s death. Collapsed right on the spot I was told.”
Silence filled the compartment. The rain seemed to fade as the train’s rattle vanished and only stillness remained.
“I’ve thought about things for a long time after that,” the young man stated looking down at his worn tanned sneakers, slightly fidgeting with his hands. “Don’t think I’ll ever want to treat others that way. I mean, don’t want to separate those who you are supposed to love from each other. My Mom taught me that, ‘be kind,’ she would say, ‘be forgiving.’” He paused, then with a slight quiver in his voice whispered, “I do miss her.”
After several quiet minutes the train stopped at the next platform. The young man stood up, unconsciously hiked up his pants and opened the door to the compartment. As he was exiting he turned and looked once again straight into the older man’s eyes.
“Never did meet my father,” he said, “but did find out he was the driver of the silver Porsche.”
The door closed, and the two remaining occupants sat in silence for a long time. The woman in the auburn hair began to silently sob. “So sad,” she muttered, wiping her nose with a tan handkerchief, “Oh, so terribly sad.”
It would be a long time before the idea the old man had would drift back into his thoughts, and then he would realize how minute’, insignificant, and self-serving the thought was.
There was much more to life. A greater purpose.
The old man looked up quietly, the air seemed suddenly still and calm as the train whispered forward toward it's destination.
The old man dug down into his weathered, cotton pants and pulled out a well-worn yellowed piece of paper. He had found it tucked away in his wife’s dresser after her passing. Slowly he opened it and stared at the neatly cursive writing, penned so reverently by his loving Deloris.
"To be true to ourselves, to be kind and honest to others, and to love those whom we love.”
He thought for a moment, smiled, and tucked the precious memory back into his pocket, as a vision of a young petite girl astride a tall-black Stallion drifted happily across his mind.