Train En Route to Halloween

Photo by Michael Putnam
Photo by Michael Putnam

Five days before Halloween I got on the train at Eighteenth Street station, arms full of packages. My feet were relieved as I sat two seats in front of him without a thought. There didn’t seem to be anything to notice about him. He was asleep. I, too, felt bone tired.

It had been a day of spending money for Lauren, her fortieth birthday mega-spree, but she encouraged me to shop as well, so I said, “Why not? A little only. For old times’ sake.” We played this out on a smaller scale each year during her birthday week. But that day Lauren refused to let me pay. It was humiliating at first–who could not pay for a pair of leggings and a comfortable sweater? I was more willing to accept her generosity after I bought our usual Irish coffees, accomanied this time by Dutch apple pie.

I tucked her into a cab before scrambling for the train. She went her way; I went mine. I can’t recall a time when we last visited each other’s homes. Well, two years ago, during holiday season we carolled with the almost-defunct book club where we’d met. We started the revelry at her place. I’d stood in front of her new house, utterly diminished. It was so big it ate up the sky, which you normally could see out there. Afterwards I had trouble savoring cookies and coffee we were served. I was too busy gaping at the glittering, tasteful decorations. Tamping down envy that hadn’t netted me in a while.

When we first met, things were not just different. They were entirely another chapter from a story that is lost to me now. I had a roomy, renovated two-story brick townhouse and a husband and twin daughters soon to attend college. I worked because I wanted to. Yet despite my change in circumstance, Lauren remained a good friend, close, even, if you count bi-weekly phone calls a sign of valued friendship. I tend to do so, anymore. That line of communication has been a tether to what was once a good life, what is still decent and safe. But, too, it’s often felt as if we were allowing quick glimpses into each other’s lives. Without risking any significant intimacy, any surprises. Or damage. There had been so much before and gradually Lauren came to prefer things without unseemliness. I guess I provided her with more rough edges than anyone might appreciate.

I piled the packages onto the empty seat beside me. The train car was only a third full. Distracting sounds frayed me further: metal wheels on tracks, a man coughing and repeatedly blowing his nose in the back, three children shrieking and laughing as their mother read a newspaper and various muffled conversations between companions scattered about. I pivoted in my seat, hoping to throw a warning glance at the rowdy kids but they were blithely unaware.

Behind me, the sleeping man I had first laid eyes on stirred. I couldn’t see his eyes. His gentlemanly hat was atop a strong-boned and lightly five-o’clock-whiskered face. He had been snoring until then. He raised his shoulders and repositioned himself, hand rubbing his chin. It was then a ring on his finger winked at me. I leaned over the seat to see it better.

It appeared to be white gold or platinum, unlikely sterling silver but I couldn’t be sure even though I knew something of fine jewelry. The simple band was mounted with a respectable diamond. Two small rubies on either side. The ring shone fiercely, dramatic in the gravelly afternoon light.

I whipped back around, fingers pressed against my mouth. My head felt like it had once on a speed boat, inundated with dizziness. I braced myself, both hands grasping the edge of the seat.

It had been a long time, yes, nearly seven years, but one cannot forget such things. The ring I had just observed was just like Rolf’s ring. The one never recovered, along with contents of two jewelry boxes, buffet drawers, china cabinet, a small safe and so on. The list was almost obscene to contemplate, yet inconsequential when compared to the far, far graver costs.

But that one piece… it was a ring we had bought together to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. Not ostentatious, but commanding attention. He had joked about it.

“I need a far better job title to match this signal of success! But it’s our marriage we celebrate and, anyway, it covers our fifteenth, too. I think rubies are due for that, so two-for-one.” He laughed, a sound that brought me contentment.

“How do you know such things? It’s alright–we’ll come up with another great idea. Maybe ruby-colored slippers?”

“That’s a picture, our fancy feet stretched out by a fire!’ He sighed. “By then maybe we’ll have a down payment on a small lake house…you always wanted that…” he’d said and kissed me well and fully, like a promise. The jeweler turned away to afford us privacy.

As the train gained speed I touched my neck, then bit back tears. The diamond necklace he gave me was elegant, delicate, with two small tear-shaped gems on each length of white gold leading to the matching, larger stone that nestled below the base of my throat. It was so beautiful that Grace, my barely older twin, suggested I wear it across my forehead when we went to the symphony or opera, like someone far more daring. Like an important woman would, she added, elbowing me.

I did not, though I tried it once when in my room preparing for a night out with friends a couple of years later. I liked to look at it even if I didn’t wear it. In the mirror I observed a pleasant, plain wife of the department head of Interdependent Anthropological Studies place it just so on the high forehead. It looked absurd at first, then the romance of it grew on me. Rolf was emerging from his shower with towel around his waist. He walked over and put damp hands on my chilly shoulders, their radiant heat warming me. Making me smile. He grinned at the woman, lucky me, in the mirror. I thought randomly: “Sweet skin and diamonds, love and lust.”

I suddenly recalled all this as if it was that night again. My heart threatened to usurp my breath. Just as it had the night of the burglary. That ending of everything as I knew it to be.

Seven years ago I was chatting on the phone when we arrived home, first with Estelle then Grace at NYU, when he yelled at me from the second floor railing.

“Anne! Call police!”

I lowered the phone as the hair on my arms rose up. “What?”

“Our house–our things–someone has broken in!”

In panic I headed to him, passed the dining room, took in my home’s disfigurment, such disarray. I never knew what it meant to say one’s blood ran cold but every bit of the glow of a happy evening–no, life–left me, then my insides were ice, my mind immobilized until Rolf swore from the blind end of the hallway, yelled at me again, his voice thundering down on me.

“Leave now, Anne! Leave! Go outside–call 911!”

His face was the color of the ivory walls, his thick hair still sleek, his deep-set eyes dark with outrage and fear. He pointed to the door we had just entered; I ran down the stairway I had just ascended. Opened it. Turned to see Rolf’s trousered leg and large foot disappear down the shadowy hallway. I wanted to race up and grab him, drag him down the stairs with me but felt disoriented. Nauseous and strange, as if I wasn’t really there, as if I was wearing someone else’s body. I heard something, a rush of jumbled sounds–hands and feet scrambling? something–our possessions?–being dragged along the wall?–and yet obeyed my husband and called for help.

The sky let loose rain hard as stones. I stood there in my silky dress coat and high heels. Told the dispatcher all in ten words or less. And through the cold veil of wet I heard far worse, red-hot pops of sound, small enough to be softened by rainfall but big enough to invade my ears and attach themselves to my insides.

I could not breathe. Move. I tried to see through darkness and downpour but–nothing. It was quieter now. Except for me.

“Rolf!” I screamed, throat torn by the sound of his name “Rolf! Rolf Jacob Eberling! Rolf, my love, my love!”

Can a person drown in tears, inside rain? I vacated my known life as rain sliced the air and me in ten directions.

Others shouting then. Sirens and wild lights. Sitting on the sidewalk with head to lap, hands over ears, rocking, rocking. Hands grabbing.

Eventually he came out to me in the flesh. Bleeding into the watery world. On a gurney. But his spirit had been ransacked. Emptied of his essence. I was robbed of him. It was as if I’d died, too, and all this time I had been crawling back to the land of the living. Surveying the world from a corner of the blanket of grief. Because my daughters asked itof me. Begged.

Now here I sat on the seat on a workaday train, weeping. No one noticed when I got up and bent over the sleeping man. He looked so ordinary in his nice woolen coat and hat. A rumpled middle-class businessman on his way home.

I pummeled his meaty shoulder and his head jerked back, knocking his hat off. He grabbed my wrists.

“Lady, what are you doing?”

“Take it off! Take off Rolf’s ring!”

He unfolded himself, a foot taller than I, stopped me at arm’s length. He kept me there with one broad hand clamped on my rain coat.

“What? What ring do you mean now?”

He held up his hand and examined the terrible thing on his finger. The same finger that should have had a ring on it when Rolf was wheeled away from me into oblivion.

“This ring? My ruby and diamond ring? Right!” He frowned at me and shook his head, then reached into the aisle and grabbed his rolling hat. When he was righted he blinked. “You’re not well, lady. Sit down. Now.”

I planted myself on the seat across from him and he sat with forearms resting on his legs, tense, at the ready should I wale away at him again. The train shifted from one track to another. I could see that ring gleam in flickering overhead lights. I held his gaze even though I shook. His eyes were grey, heavy-lidded, skittish then still. I slowed my breathing and leaned forward. Mimicked his stance.

“Mister, tell me where you got that ring. I need to know!”

He cupped his ringed hand with the other. “Why do you ask?”

“Someone lost one just like it–” my throat wanted to close but I kept on, stronger–“someone who lost his life over that ring…our whole life lost…”

I watched him closely. His face shuttered, or so it seemed to me, as he lowered his head.

“Uh, sorry, ma’am.”

He looked up again. His eyes seemed wrong, calm but harder at the same time. I couldn’t see beyond black pupils but I noted uneven teeth and a gold crown inside his half-open mouth. Tried to memorize him. Dark blond hair. Torso solid, rectangular against the seat, alert for defensive action even as he appeared at ease. This man on a train was hit by a crazed woman who ranted and accused him. Yet he was unperturbed. We swayed as the train slowed and rounded a corner.

“How did you get it? Did you dare take it off him? Did you shoot him? Kill him in fact because he caught you? Your very incompetence brought my husband death!”

My voice had somehow deepened and strengthened, an anvil held aloft in the car. I got to my feet and stood above him for a moment, ready to call for help, fists ready, too. I was inhabited by something I should not let loose. People looked at me now, alarmed or at least annoyed. The man rose, straightened his coat, the ring sparking at me.

“You’re very upset, that’s the truth. But I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. I got it at a pawn shop downtown. Years ago.” He rubbed his forehead then snugged his hat closer, forefinger fingers ficking its rim, a period to his statement.

Brakes ground against wheels. We fell forward a half-inch. I knew my stop was coming up. Perspiration broke over my forehead, chest, back. The man slipped past me, lithe and quiet, as if he didn’t want to leave any trace of himself. I followed after but others got up and clogged the aisle. As if they all lived in my part of the city, had to leave. Maybe they were hiding him! But no, they were likely trying to escape me.

The train came to a halt. I pushed my way out, got my cell phone, pressed Lauren’s “favorite contacts” number. I could see the back of the ring bearer’s head.

That thief, that murderer! No escaping me again. I would finish it for Rolf.

Did I say these things aloud? Everyone looked at me as we clamored off the train. They scattered into the dusk, left me to my own devices. I searched the platform and held the phone to my ear.

“Anne? Is that you? Hello? Anne, are you okay?”

I spotted him. On the other side. An attractive woman in black boots, long bright hair, an arm about his waist. He spoke to, then kissed her. She glanced toward me, shook her lioness head. I began to cry and hung up on Lauren as I realized my bags of fine clothing and accessories were still on the train. Goods for someone else. How that disturbed me in the midst of it. I stumbled toward the walkway as the train sounded its warning, started to move.

Then I imprinted on every memory cell exactly how he looked, stood, walked, talked. And the woman, his cohort. In case I got the nerve to call the police. Made a report of a stranger with a ring….how foolish. The illusory, maddening world threatened to upend me once more. I breathed with practiced precision, stood up straight.

And then, slowly, just so, the stranger turned and peered back at me, delivered to me his unwavering, laser-sharp stare, and he held up a hand, the one with the rubies-and-diamond-studded ring. He gave it a cheery, pageant-style wave that sent lightning chills crashing up my spine then down to my furious, forlorn core.

Train to Happiness

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

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.

“Yeah.”

“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.