are my life.
they aren’t. Even my wife Myrtle wouldn’t say that. Well, she might,
be wrong. Trains are my hobby and my passion, but my family is more
So is my job. I’m a pediatrician. Did I say that already? I can’t
was thinking about trains.
have an elaborate layout in the basement. It’s an eerily detailed
replica of a
little town and its surrounding farmlands, with train tracks
landscape. The miniature buildings are lit from within. The people have
hand-painted faces with different expressions. There’s a spotted dog
a bright red fire hydrant. Sometimes I turn out the lights in the
watch the train make its leisurely tour of the village, with the frozen
inhabitants staring in rapt admiration.
my son, has some interest in my layout. He especially likes the
crossing with the gates that come down to protect the villagers from
onrushing train. A few months ago, he suggested I make a horror movie
Super 8 camera by setting the layout on fire and filming everything as
burned and melted. I didn’t laugh. I tried to remember that Sterling
were in the final weekend of Christmas vacation and had welcomed in the
year—and the new decade—with enthusiasm and grocery-store champagne. We
on the moon this past year; how can you top that? What would President
think about a train on the moon? A moon-o-rail? Remind me not to
career in standup comedy.
and I had given Sterling an embarrassingly large collection of
for Christmas. Our daughter Eloise had no such enthusiasm for the space
and preferred more conventional gifts. Despite some stern words from my
I’d bought a doll attired in the outfit of a train engineer for Eloise.
she loved it or she deserved the Academy Award for best performance by
six-year-old. She named the doll Maddie and now carried it with her
was sitting in my burgundy leather armchair enjoying the Sunday paper
last day of vacation. I spotted a photo of an old steam engine near the
of the page. Stories about trains were uncommon enough that they always
my attention. I read the article and felt my heart surge with the
had exhibited on my first date with Myrtle many years ago.
There’s going to be an excursion trip to Birmingham in two weeks, and
will be pulled by a beautiful old steam engine!”
in Birmingham?” asked Myrtle.
of things,” I answered, “but that’s not the point.”
do you do when you get there?”
look around the station, then you get back on the train and return to
mean you just ride a train to Alabama for no particular reason?”
reason is the ride itself,” I explained patiently.
will we drive over to the mall, park in the lot for a couple of
come home? Sounds like fun.”
implacable pragmatism could be frustrating. I shifted tactics.
think it would be great if we made the trip as a family,” I said. “I
kids would love to see an old-time steam engine. They think that you
and I are
ancient and seeing something as old as that engine might make us seem a
younger in their eyes.” It was a poor argument and I sensed I’d already
day is the trip, and when would we need to leave the house?”
cleared my throat. “It’s a Saturday morning. The train leaves at 8 AM,
need to leave here about 6:30 to be safe.”
Myrtle’s expression, you’d have thought I’d suggested sacrificing our
to pagan gods.
I’d rather eat broken glass than leave the house at 6:30 on a Saturday
If you can convince Eloise and Sterling to go, the three of you can
thrilling time on your trip to nowhere. I’m going to be sound asleep
about airplane flights to places that are actually worth visiting.”
shrugged and gave up.
children were much easier to persuade. The early departure time held
horror for them than it did for their mother. I cannot honestly say
assented to the train trip with rabid enthusiasm, but they did agree
relatively little fuss.
We need to get ready to leave.”
more minutes, Dad,” my son answered, his eyes still clamped shut. He
his favorite red blanket around him tightly, like a mummy.
is already up and dressed,” I goaded him gently.
eyes opened. He unwrapped himself from the blanket and slowly worked
out of bed. Once I was convinced he wasn’t going back to sleep, I
downstairs to make breakfast.
is a fine cook. I’m not. No, that’s not strong enough. I’m not a cook
If it’s not in a package you open and dump onto a plate, it’s beyond
when I say I was “making breakfast,” I mean that I was trying to
we kept the cereal bowls.
was sitting at the kitchen table with Maddie at her side. Sterling
a theatrical yawn and took his own seat at the table.
we have eggs, Dad?” Eloise asked. “Mom always makes us scrambled eggs
Saturday morning. Maddie says an engineer needs a good breakfast before
was I supposed to argue with a doll, especially when she was right?
isn’t wrong,” I began. “But I don’t know how to cook. This morning, you
settle for Super Sugar Crisp unless you want some raw eggs in a glass.”
my dismay, Eloise began crying quietly.
don’t make me eat raw eggs. That sounds bad. Can’t we wake up Mom to
was escalating beyond my early-morning abilities. I struggled to keep
honey, that was just a joke. I don’t want you to eat raw eggs. But we
up Mom because it’s too early. She’d cook me for breakfast.” I
joke immediately and hoped that Eloise wouldn’t take it seriously.
didn’t. The storm clouds broke apart as she laughed. “That’s silly. Mom
wouldn’t cook you. And I wouldn’t eat you. I’m not a cannonball.”
wondered how Eloise had heard about cannibals, but decided not to ask
served the cereal in bowls overflowing with milk. We ate in silence.
left the house later than I had planned. My desire for precision was
frustrated, but my less-pedantic self recognized that we had plenty of
drove to Brookwood Station in the early-morning gloom. Even on busy
Road, we encountered only a few lonely cars. The kids fell asleep on
and I had to awaken them when we reached the station.
long until the train leaves?” asked Sterling. He sounded exhausted and
want him to lose interest in the adventure before it had even begun.
half an hour,” I answered. It was closer to forty-five minutes. I hated
late and made sure I never was.
was a tiny but charming old station that resembled the depot in my
home. The curvy, well-worn oak benches welcomed our tired bodies. I
not to fall asleep.
needn’t have worried. I never could have slept through the sound of
glorious engine pulling into the station. Chuffy, rhythmic snorting. An
imposing creature of iron powered by scalding steam, with a devoted
shoveling coal into its firebox.
pulled my children to their feet. We left the comfort of the station
hurried down the steps to the platform, towards that beautiful monster
tracks. The early morning sun gave the black metal of the engine a
as the train reluctantly halted.
whistle. I’d heard it so many times in movies and TV shows. It sounded
like it was supposed to. At first I thought it was a recording to
tourists. What tourists? This wasn’t an attraction at an amusement
was a piece of the past, our past. Our future, too, if the choice were
WOOO!” imitated Eloise.
surveyed the steam engine with admiration. He wasn’t yet old enough to
reflexively denigrate anything I found interesting.
is pretty cool, Dad,” he said. “I never saw one of these in person.
wheels are taller than I am.”
looked at the massive wheels with pride, as if I were somehow
their grandeur. The connecting rods bound the wheels together like
charms on a
Maddie says it’s time to get on the train,” said Eloise.
was briefly sorry that Myrtle wasn’t there to enjoy the moment, then
she wouldn’t have enjoyed it. I understood and accepted this minor
not as regrettable but simply as true. It was fine. Everything was fine
conductor dressed in old-fashioned attire asked for our tickets as we
the train. He smiled as Eloise jiggled Maddie’s arm in a simulated wave
folks can sit anywhere you like. No reserved seating today. I’ll let
engineer know there’s another engineer on the train in case he needs
tipped his hat and left us as Eloise giggled with pleasure.
found two pairs of seats facing each other and claimed them for our
sat in the fourth seat, her back perfectly straight, her eyes staring
from beneath her engineer’s cap.
tell Eloise that her doll can’t hog the seat like that,” Sterling
will probably have to move,” I said. “But she can stay there as long as
needs her seat.” This struck me as a reasonable compromise, but both of
children frowned. I looked out the window.
platform was almost empty now. The train was getting full and I wasn’t
many seats were left. 8:00 was fast approaching and the train had to
time. That was imperative, as anyone who knew railroads could tell you.
me,” said a quiet voice from the aisle.
turned to look. A wiry man in his late fifties was gazing down at us
apologetic smile. He was wearing a faded flannel shirt and well-worn
jeans. Perched atop his head was an old conductor’s hat.
sorry, but I can’t find a seat,” the man explained. “As much as it
pains me to
ask this little engineer to move, could I please sit here?”
children both smiled: Eloise with charmed delight and Sterling with
self-righteous satisfaction. Maddie moved to Eloise’s lap and the man
morning,” said the man. “My name is Micah Bundy. I used to be a
a real conductor’s hat?” Sterling asked. “I thought it was just a
hat is real, too,” said Eloise.
cause so many engineers have a head the size of an apple,” Sterling
I struggled to suppress a chuckle. Eloise looked tearful.
now, young man,” Micah said. “Maddie here is an engineer and I’m a
Let’s leave it at that.” He gave Sterling a look and my son said no
to meet you, Mr. Bundy,” I said. “I’m Barton Jacobs and these are my
Sterling and Eloise. You’ve already met Maddie.”
I have,” said our companion. “Please call me Micah or I’ll feel even
I am. May I call you Barton?”
I answered. I would normally have added “sir” to the end of that reply,
didn’t think Micah would like it.
whistle blew again. With a barely perceptible jerk, the train began to
the first few minutes, the ride became less interesting for the kids. I
given them the window seats, of course. They had been fascinated by the
departure from the station and the slow acceleration of the train, but
soon grew tired of looking at the Georgia landscape sliding by.
brought a deck of playing cards and he and Eloise began to play Crazy
looked over at Micah. He wore the contented expression of a railroad
man in his
element. I was sure that my own face bore a similarly satisfied look.
new acquaintance gazed at me and smiled. “There’s nothing like it, is
I said, with a rush of emotion that surprised me. “Why do so few people
smile broadened. “Some do. Look how many people took this excursion
There are still some of us who feel a romantic attachment to trains.”
my wife,” I said. “We couldn’t get her to come along with us. She
my God,” said Micah, shaking his head. “I always thought that if
hell, it might be riding in an airplane forever. Those small seats. The
engines. No contact with the earth and no sense of movement. You’re
the air in a crowded little tube until the torture ends and you thump
down in a
new place far from where you started.”
sir,” I agreed. “I hate planes, too. They get you places quickly, but
travel into something to be endured, not enjoyed. Those giant new 747s
around you,” Micah said. “See all the happy, nostalgic faces? We’re not
only ones who prefer trains.”
looked and was gratified. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that most
cheerful faces belonged to older people. At thirty-eight, I was one of
made the same observation. “We’re mostly an old bunch, aren’t we? It
used to be this way. When my wife Junie Mae and I traveled all over the
by train, there were plenty of riders of every age.”
wondered why Junie Mae wasn’t on the train today. Sterling had been
eavesdropping on our conversation and wondered the same thing. “Where’s
wife today, sir?” he asked bluntly.
smile froze into a rigid curve and his eyes became watery.
sorry, son. There are some subjects that are real hard for me to talk
Junie Mae is one of them.”
looked like he might ask another question. I shook my head tersely and
Eights, change it to hearts,” called Eloise triumphantly. Sterling made
exasperated sound and went back to the game.
composed himself and resumed the conversation.
days, the main time you see young people on a train is when schools
seventh-grade Safety Patrols on a trip to Washington, D.C. Too many of
stay up all night and keep the conductors busy and irritated. It never
me, though. I was always glad to see people of any age having a good
time on a
paused as if wondering whether to continue.
know, I didn’t want to retire. Fifty-five is awfully young to stop
loved my job and I wanted to continue as long as my legs were able to
aisles. My company had other ideas, though. My boss told me that
trains were dying. I nearly cried from that alone. He said the railroad
running nearly as many routes as it used to, so the number of employees
to be reduced. Older workers had to take early retirement. It was
terrible, Micah. My father’s company did the same thing to him. There
nothing he could do about it; he even talked to a lawyer. I know I’m
to be self-employed. I’m a pediatrician and I never plan to retire.”
you’re a doctor,” said Micah respectfully. “Keeping kids healthy. Good
squealed as she dropped her final card onto the pile in front of her.
card! I win! Let’s play again!”
was not a gracious loser. “No,” he fumed. “I’m going to read my Hardy
until we get to Birmingham.” He opened the book and held it firmly in
sat back in the cradle of my seat and listened to the comforting murmur
wheels. Dah-DAH, dah-DUM. Dah-DAH, dah-DUM. I closed my eyes.
excitement I felt as we pulled into Birmingham dissipated as soon as we
disembarked. Even as a certified railway fanatic, I couldn’t work up
enthusiasm for the bland little station. The kids clamored for money to
candy bars out of a shiny vending machine. I handed over some coins
trying to feign happiness about our arrival. Micah saw through my
with no effort.
do you like this brand-new station?” he asked with a wry smile.
boring, isn’t it? You should have seen the old one.”
was it like?”
a religious experience. Looked like a temple or something. It was
Terminal Station, it was called. It was one of Junie Mae’s favorites.”
happened to it?”
tore it down. The usual story: not enough passenger trains so not
When was it demolished?”
afraid so. They finished right before Christmas. Ho ho ho, says Santa.”
children returned clutching sweet treats. Before opening his chocolate
Sterling sniffed the air. The aroma of fresh paint still lingered.
so nice and new in here,” he said.
and new,” I echoed.
looked at me and shrugged.
on the train that was now rumbling home to Atlanta, the four of us made
to the dining car for lunch. I must confess that the allure of going to
restaurant on a moving train had helped convince Sterling and Eloise to
the trip with me.
were seated in a small booth with a battered Formica tabletop. The
handed us menus decorated with colorful condiment stains.
a BLT sandwich?” asked Eloise.
lettuce, and termites,” answered Sterling.
lettuce, and tomato,” I said quickly, before Eloise’s revulsion could
level of tears.
sounds good,” said Eloise. “The real one, not the boogers and termites.
too,” I said.
I’ll have one, too,” Sterling grumbled, as if being forced to order
it four,” said Micah. We placed our order with the unsmiling waiter,
away rapidly with a practiced step that countered the sway of the train.
had barely begun to make small talk when the sandwiches arrived. The
tossed our plates and our soft-drink cans in front of us and walked off
a word. Micah chuckled quietly and shook his head.
BLTs were mediocre: not enough bacon and too light on the mayonnaise.
held her sandwich up to Maddie’s face and made munching sounds.
demolished half of his food and then looked at Micah.
this what eating in a dining car was like in olden times?”
laughed. “Yes and no. It depended on which train you were riding. A lot
were about like this, where you could get a pretty good sandwich and
while enjoying the view out the window. But they didn’t serve food on
paper plates like these. That’s tacky.” He flicked the flimsy edge of
though, it was a lot better. On the last cross-country trip that Junie
I took, we splurged on the best they had. Hot, fresh food cooked in a
kitchen on the train. Tablecloths and silverware. It wasn’t at the
level of a
fancy French restaurant, but the food was plenty good and they wanted
to get it
right for you.” He smiled at the memory and I saw that his eyes were
damp again. I jumped in with the first comment that occurred to me.
changing,” I said, immediately cringing at the banality of the
always change,” Micah answered, “and change isn’t always bad. Sometimes
overdue. Just look how long it took to get rid of something as stupid
mean-spirited as segregation.”
elderly couple at the next table looked up and glared. Micah gave them
cordial smile in return and continued speaking.
get too wedded to the past, Barton. It’s leaving. It’s always leaving
not coming back.”
shouldn’t we keep things alive that matter to us?” I asked, before
Junie Mae and cringing again.
cast his eyes down.
you can’t. Sometimes you can, and you should, but don’t overdo it. Life
paused. I tried to come up with something to say that wouldn’t be
about your wife,” Micah continued. “She may not like trains, but I can
from watching your kids that you have a close-knit family. When your
nice and sweet, don’t forget to appreciate it.”
Myrtle. She couldn’t help it that she was among the unenlightened who
blind to the magnificence of trains. Maybe that mattered to me more
should. I loved Myrtle; I’d always loved her and we’d made a good life
together. Wasn’t that enough? I decided it was. Happiness doesn’t
is a great mom and I love her,” I said, surprising myself.
gross,” said Sterling. Eloise grinned, hugging her doll.
drew a long breath. He relaxed and smiled gently.
sorry for rambling on. You kids don’t need to hear all that
an old man like me.”
okay,” said Eloise. “Dad says that sometimes people need to speak their
dad is a smart fellow,” Micah answered.
hours later, the train slid into Brookwood Station and halted. I roused
children from sleep.
was a long trip, Dad,” Eloise yawned. “Maddie stayed awake the whole
we have BLT sandwiches for supper?” asked Sterling.
arose and looked down kindly.
thank you for letting me join you on this trip. It was a pleasure
with you. Barton, I can hardly say how much this day has meant to me. I
not forget it.” He tipped his head graciously.
bundled up and stepped off the train into the oddly mild winter night.
when I heard the voice.
round-faced woman in a scruffy tan overcoat ran up to my companion and
her arms around him. She stepped back and looked at him with pained
Mae! What are you doing here?” asked Micah.
wondered the same thing. I wondered it very much. Trains from beyond
didn’t usually stop at Brookwood Station.
woman did not answer. She glanced at me with puzzlement.
are my manners?” Micah said. “Junie Mae, I’d like to introduce a fellow
railroad enthusiast, Dr. Barton Jacobs, and his children, Eloise and
Barton, this is my wife, Junie Mae.”
to meet you,” I croaked, and cleared my throat.
we speak to you privately for a moment?” Micah asked.
Mae’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She gave her husband a pleading look.
gently placed his hand on her cheek. “He’s not a stranger, sweet pea.
and I have become friends today and I’d like him to hear this.”
Mae hesitated, then bobbed her head in assent.
noticed a bench a little ways down the platform. “Kids, go sit on that
where I can see you.” For once, they obeyed without argument.
missed you so much today, Micah,” said Junie Mae.
thought about you the whole trip,” Micah answered. “Probably drove
his kids a little crazy talking about you.” I smiled weakly.
turned to me. “I have cancer,” he said. “Pancreatic cancer. I’m gonna
as simple as that. They said I could do some god-awful chemotherapy to
couple of miserable months to my life. I had to decide if I was going
Mae spoke quietly. “I wanted to keep you with me as long as possible,”
said. “Any way at all.”
planned to fight as long as there was a chance, any chance,” Micah
“But once I knew that the axe was falling and there was no way to stop
had to decide how badly I wanted to cut up my hands trying to slow it
made my choice yesterday. Faster axe, less pain. Junie Mae was furious
had a terrible argument.”
were both going to take the train trip today,” Junie Mae explained,
“but I just
couldn’t do it. It felt like Micah had betrayed me and I didn’t want to
him. I let him take the trip alone, and now I’m very sorry. Please
to forgive, honeybunch. We’re together for the rest of the journey.” He
the train prepared to leave the station, its whistle blew one more
slow, warbling farewell tinged with mournfulness.
waved goodbye and grasped Junie Mae’s hand. They turned away from me
into the night.
Carl Tait is a software engineer and author of two books for older children: Tales from Valdemere Castle and Lavinia's Ghosts. He has also written a number of short stories for adults. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Eunoia Review, the Oddville Press, After Dinner Conversation, and others. Carl currently resides in New York City with his wife and twin daughters.
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