Les had been rounded up by his mother the night before and made to pack a big suitcase plus his backpack. His back pack was a no brainer, the only place he stashed basics and important things. But the suitcase was filled with clothes he didn’t care about and an extra pair of shoes that made his feet hurt. There were two books to add, for English and math. He had homework to do. Les already decided he’d deal with it on the train ride back.
It was spring break. He’d travel eight hours, thirty-two minutes to reach his destination, if all went well. This was because his father, Dean, lived in Idaho but his mom and he lived in Wyoming. Dean actually lived with Les’ grandmother for the time being. That was because he was broke again and trying to get on his feet. The fact that Dean hadn’t really talked to his own mom for three years made it interesting, his mom said, but things were better now. They’d had a falling out, Les knew that. It had happened one Christmas Eve when he was nine and as a result he hadn’t gotten his new bike. Money always seemed to be the problem.
Dean was a good guy and an okay dad, if a little unreliable. He was a construction worker, and when he lived in Ohio (like they did until he was seven) he hadn’t made enough money. Out west the weather and times were better with more houses and businesses being built. Les could see that even in his town things had changed since there was a new canning plant. Workers had just started tearing up ground across the street for six new houses. They’d probably be so tightly packed you could see what cereal the next door neighbor was eating. It had been a big empty space as long as Les had lived there.
The trip had been a last-minute plan. Dean–Les called him that since he left his mom when Les was only three–had a gap between jobs.
“Come on over,” Dean said with enthusiasm. “I got a new blue truck –well, it’s used, but still looks new. Grandma is always wanting you to visit, as you know. We can hang out, see things.”
“Yeah, sounds good if mom agrees.”
“Of course–we already talked. Lara, I mean your mom, says she has to work extra hospital shifts this month so it works out. You’ll be fine by yourself on the train, right? I thought you’d like that and there was a deal. There’ll be adults to help out.”
“Sure!” The thought of riding alone gave him a charge. “Hey, should I bring my ball and bat? It’s my favorite thing, you know. We could play in the back or even the field.”
“Naw, got those waiting for you.”
Les figured Dean would run out and buy them after they hung up. The fact that he wanted to play ball with him was awesome.
Grandma Cora had always called Les once a month and sent him cards with frilly flowers and bright birds on them that said “Wishing you sunshine!” and “Missing you across the miles!” He hid them in his desk drawer so his friends wouldn’t harass him but he missed her, too, even though they only saw each other a couple times a year. She laughed a lot, had crazy stories and liked to buy him cheap but good gifts. And made really good red velvet cupcakes, among other things. Since Dean had moved in with her maybe he’d see them both more. He and his dad could go camping or riding bikes. Grandma’s house was just outside a small city but her big back yard opened onto pasture where somebody’s horses liked to graze. The Sawtooth Mountains looked like giants, sleepy and muscular against the sky.
Les leaned back, swayed a bit. Vibrations from the clackety clack and rush of wheels on steel rumbled through him. He watched the world go by and daydreamed. He did have company across from him, an older couple, close to Grandma Cora’s age. The man had caught Les’ eye and nodded. His arms were both tightly around his wife. She slept against him. He looked out the window most of the time, his face so still Les couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.
Les had been up since six and his stomach growled. There was a ham sandwich and a peanut butter peanut butter one in his backpack. He looked them over. On the ham sandwich was a sticky note in his mom’s neat, slanted printing: “#1 so it won’t spoil!” as if he didn’t know better. She had also sneaked in an envelope which he opened. Some cash, good, and a longer note. The scednt of ham and cheddar sandwich made his mouth water. He took a huge bite as he read.
“Les, you know you can call me day or night. Or Aunt Roberta. I hope this trip turns out to be what you hope. I think it’s great Cora will be there, too. If your dad gets too busy or ornery or you get bored just call any time. Call when you arrive. I LOVE YOU! Mom.”
Les got the ornery part. Dean could get impatient sometimes; he wasn’t used to having kids around. But he didn’t have a bad temper too often. When he did, Les went to his room or outdoors. That worried him a little but Grandma was there. He finished the sandwich and got his water bottle. He was ready for a walk around.
The sleeping woman stirred, her elbow jerking, her ankles uncrossing as if she was going to sit up. But instead, she mumbled something and the man smoothed her hair, patted her shoulder. Les tried not to stare.
“On your own?” the man asked. His voice was very deep but quiet. His wife didn’t move anymore, just sighed.
“I guess you’re big enough. About thirteen?”
Les shook his head; he knew he was tall, a little chubby. “Just twelve.” He took a sip of water. “Going to see my grandma and dad for a week or so.”
“That right? Good thing to do.” He looked back out the window.
“You travelling a long time, sir?”
The man nodded but kept watching thickly forested scenery whipping by, lines and squiggles of greenish brown. Les waited a minute–he didn’t want to be rude–before getting his backpack and standing up. Then the man glanced at Les, his eyes so pale they almost blended into the grey shadows. The man’s face was colorless, too. It scared Les, he didn’t know why.
“Second day on the train now. Hard on Fran here. Whole trip was hard, to tell the truth. How about you?”
Les sat down. “I’m great. Left early and will be at my grandma’s and dad’s for dinner.” He wondered if that was the wrong thing to say to someone who was having a hard trip. “Haven’t seen Dean–I mean, dad–since last July.”
“Looking forward to it?”
“Yes sir.” He wanted to leave awhile, check out the other people, get something sweet in the dining car. But he heard his mother saying, Good manners, now; treat people well. “My dad builds houses. My grandma plays organ at church. She has an old house with a huge yard, horses beyond it.”
His face flushed. Why was he telling this stranger stupid personal stuff? Encouraging the man more? But he felt he should.
The woman whimpered and her husband pulled her closer. “That’s good, son. You enjoy every single minute with them.”
He turned his face to the window again. Les could see the lined skin around his eyes squeeze a little, then his eyes go watery. He felt panic for a second. What were they doing on the train, anyway? He felt his legs about to push him off the seat. He wanted to think about baseball season, wonder over what his grandma was making for dinner. If Dean was going to pick him up for a hug like he still did last summer. Les sincerely hoped not.
The man rubbed his face with his right hand and looked back at Les. “We just buried my son. Had the cancer but his suffering is done.”
Les held his backpack close to his chest, heart beating a little too fast.
“Just so you know why my wife is so unsettled. Both of us. I’m sorry. You should have friendly people on your trip.” He sounded so tired.
“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry about your son… ”
“Thank you…we just need rest. Won’t bother you anymore.”
Les scooched forward on the worn leather seat. “I’m Les Winter.”
He halfway held out his hand. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? What should he say now? Why did he have to say so much, period? Big mouth, that’s what he was, his friends even said he talked too much. He should just play with his phone and shut up.
The man took his hand off his wife, extended a long thin arm and his palm was so empty Les had to fill it with his own slightly damp hand. The man’s was dry, chilled, firm and he gave the tiniest squeeze for a second, then let go. He tried on a half-hearted smile that faded.
“Ken Haverson. Going home to California. Yes, thank you Lord, back home again.”
Les felt the sadness creep from Ken to him but waited as the man grew sleepy. But then Ken spoke again.
“You’ve been nice, Les. I hope you always aim for happiness, then you’ll get and give lots of it.”
Les watched the two of them sleeping awhile. They looked so calm and natural, as if they’d been side by side their whole lives. Then he got up and roamed a bit. He saw the landscape turn from forest to valley to mountains, shapes and colors flashing by like a beautiful story. But right then Les couldn’t wait to get off, not becasceu of Ken and Fran and their son. He just wanted to see Dean–his dad!–and grandma in the flesh by the train tracks, waiting there with arms open just for him.