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