Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Whistle Stop

First: an apology - it's been almost a year since I've added to this blog and I'm sorry. Busy, blogspot did a change-over, lazy, forgetful - most of the usual excuses.

Anyway - here's an old short story of mine. It was published in the
Toronto Star on Monday August 22, 1994 as a "Judge's choice" from that newspaper's short story contest.

Whistle Stop

Bobby Alton lived alone in a two-bedroom house on the western edge of the Town of Sinclair. His house was, like the town, small and sparse - containing what was needed to live but little else. A stone's throw from the house was an old unused train station that was rumoured to be an historic landmark but had fallen into such disrepair as to become an eyesore.

Trains still ran on the tracks that lay beside the old station but they no longer stopped there. Day and night the trains rolled passed, slowing to accommodate the bend in the tracks, then whistled a salute before crossing the road as they continued to more worthy destinations. On the peeling paint and splintered timber of his front porch Bobby would sit and watch the trains, feeling like they were teasing in the way they slowed without intending to stop then whistled a laugh as they sped away.

Bobby was only middle-aged but looked as old as the disused train station. He was thin and had an ashen pallor. His greying hair straggled across his widening scalp as if it had lost sight of some goal. The clothes he wore, though clean and reasonably well cared for, hung on his body like they wanted to be somewhere else.

The town-folk thought of Bobby as eccentric, a harmless aging bachelor living out his days on a disability pension and a small inheritance from his deceased mother, but in truth his mind was clear and he lived as he did simply because it had never occurred to him to live any other way. He wasn't dull-witted just not very creative.

He kept his house clean, did repairs when he absolutely had to, and tended a vegetable garden that grew in the back yard. At night he would either watch television or sit on his porch, sip beer and listen to the taunting whistles of the passing trains.

Every few days, Bobby drove his battered old Dodge to the two-block area that locals referred to as 'downtown'. He went to the Post Office to pick up whatever mail had straggled in, he did whatever banking or shopping needed doing, he talked about the weather with the old men who sat on a bench in front of Ray's Barber Shop.

In short, Bobby led a life that, if not exciting, was at least orderly and predictable. Predictable, that is, until the night the train stopped.

It happened on one of those rare moonless nights when the air is so clear and still that the stars seem to wrap around you like a blanket. Bobby was sitting on his porch trying to figure out the names of the constellations blinking over his head when the train pulled around the bend and stopped, big as life, in front of the station. So intent was Bobby on his star-gazing that he didn't even notice at first. Only gradually did it occur to him that the usual sequence of sound had broken and he looked over and saw the train.

It actually shimmered in the night.

The idling locomotive puffed and snorted like a bull pawing earth before the charge. The train was, quite simply, beautiful. It was sleek, ornate, and clean. Behind the engine was a coal-car followed by three coaches appointed in such luxury that they had to be private cars and, finally, a red caboose. Bobby hadn't seen a red caboose in longer than he could remember. In fact, the whole train was like something from the past. Bobby stared at it like you might stare at a living breathing Brontosaurus that just wandered into your front yard to munch on the rhododendrons.

As Bobby stepped from his porch towards the apparition, he heard a clear voice shout: "All Aboard!" then the sound of the steel wheels turning against the iron rails. He jogged towards the station but could not close the gap as the train rolled forward, picking up speed. Bobby stood on the empty tracks and stared after the train, the sound of the steam whistle ringing in his ears, as he watched the caboose disappear across the road. He felt water droplets form on his hands and face as the mist from the locomotive blew back and enveloped him. Then there was silence.

In the morning, Bobby called every official he could think of to try and learn more about the mysterious train. Where had it come from and why did it stop? Who was on board and where were they going?

He didn't learn a thing.

Actually, that's not accurate. He learned a great number of things, none of which was helpful. He learned that no one had any knowledge of a train matching the description of the one that he saw. He learned that no train was supposed to have made a stop - scheduled or otherwise - at the defunct Sinclair Station. He learned that not only were no old-style steam locomotives in service but that none of the officials were even aware that any existed outside of museums. He learned that he couldn't have seen what he saw.

Bobby decided to talk to Old Malcolm.

Old Malcolm was a fixture in Sinclair. No one knew for sure exactly how old Old Malcolm was but it was generally accepted that he used to baby-sit Methuselah. Old Malcolm had been an iceman back when they still delivered ice, had been a mailman back when they still delivered mail, and had been a milkman back when they still delivered milk. He was now retired because nobody delivered anything anymore except opinions and Old Malcolm delivered those daily from the bench in front of Ray's Barber Shop.

Bobby found Old Malcolm holding court at his appointed place. It had been a good morning for Malcolm. He'd already explained what was wrong with the government (there was too much of it), the problem with the economy (the government should print more money), and why the Sox wouldn't win the pennant (the players had too much money and they weren't being governed enough). Malcolm was just putting the finishing touches on his plan to end terrorism as Bobby sat and waited for his chance to steer the conversation to the subject of trains.

"And that's all there is to it, you see" said Malcolm, "with all'a these terrorists in jail with suspended death sentences their buddies wouldn't dare take no hostages or blow up no buildings. 'Cause they'd know that we'd lift the suspensions for some'a their buddies and take 'em out and execute 'em. Why, they'd be stopped cold in their tracks."

"Speaking of tracks" Bobby jumped in, pleased to have the opportunity so early, "how come the railroad doesn't use that station up by my place any more?"

The old men on the bench looked at Bobby like they'd just caught him picking his nose.

"Who's that?" asked Malcolm, "Who's asking that?"

"That's Bobby" said one of the old men, "Maggie Alton's boy."

"Bobby. Of course, Bobby. Well son," Malcolm prepared to answer "that station was designed for passengers. It's too small and out of the way for freight. And the railway don't use this line for passengers no more. People want to come to Sinclair they come by car, not train. 'S only freight moved on that line now."

"But people used to ride the train here" Bobby prompted.

"Yes they did. 'Course they did. 'Ats why they built that station" Malcolm explained, "Used to all kinds'a people'd ride the train here. Had three or four trains a day."

"What were those trains like?" Bobby asked.

"Like? Like? Well, they weren't like no trains you ever seen - Bobby Alton - steam trains. Ran on steam. Not like the diesel trains today." Malcolm began to reminisce, "beautiful they were. Black and shiny. They made a chugging noise when they ran. Diesels today just make a clickety-clack sound on the rails. Steam trains would do that too and they'd chug. It was a wonderful sound."

Bobby lay in bed that night and strained to hear the chug-chug-chug of the old-fashioned steam train. Each time a train approached he jumped out of bed and ran outside only to be disappointed as another ordinary freight train slipped passed the station. He finally fell asleep sometime in the early morning hours.

He didn't hear the train arrive so much as sense its presence. Maybe an hour had passed since Bobby fell asleep when he became certain that the train was waiting at the station. He found himself walking beside it. Through the thick windows he could just make out the shapes of people moving inside the luxurious passenger cars. As Bobby approached the front of the lead car, the Conductor swung down to the platform.

The Conductor was a tall man, meticulously groomed. His close-cropped beard framed a handsome, friendly face. "Good morning, sir” he said, "Ticket please."

"I'm sorry” Bobby managed, "I don't have a ticket. Could I maybe buy one on the train?"

The Conductor smiled sadly and shook his head. "No sir, I'm sorry but we couldn't do that. Rules, sir. I'm sure you understand." The Conductor took a watch from his vest pocket and looked at it. "Perhaps when you have a ticket we could be of service,” he concluded.

"Yes but where do I get..." was all Bobby got out before the Conductor cut him off.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I do have a schedule to keep." And with that the big man stepped back up on the coach. "All aboard!" he called and the train began to pull away.

Bobby jogged along beside the train. "Wait! Wait!" he called out but the Conductor was gone from sight. Soon the train moved too quickly for Bobby to keep pace and he fell behind, watching it disappear across the road.

The next morning Bobby was the first person on the bench in front of Ray's Barber Shop. He had hoped to catch Old Malcolm alone, before his entourage showed up, and didn't have long to wait before he saw the old man shuffling up the street. Malcolm had a gait that was maybe as painful to watch as it was to walk.

As he neared the bench, Malcolm pulled a newspaper out from under his left arm and waved it at Bobby like he wanted him to fetch it. "What'd I say 'bout them Cubans?" he demanded, "Didn't I say they'd pull something like this?"

"Yes, yes, I'm sure you're right," Bobby blurted without a clue as to what Malcolm was talking about. "Listen Malcolm, I wanted to talk to you about the trains."

"Damned shame" Malcolm continued, "and it used to be such a beautiful island, too. What trains?" Malcolm looked at Bobby for the first time, "Bobby? Bobby Alton? You still going on 'bout them trains?"

"Yeah Malcolm, I wanted to know - did they ever have private coaches running on this line? You know the kind I mean, the fancy ones?"

"Pullman cars? Why, yes. Sinclair used to be quite the spot for rich people to come. Why, John Pendleton had three Pullman cars himself. Used to hire locomotives to take him and his friends all over the region. Had themselves one big traveling party in those cars."

Malcolm didn't have to explain who John Pendleton was. Like everyone from Sinclair, Bobby knew that the Pendleton family owned the mills that brought Sinclair into existence. It was John Pendleton who first started the mills.

"What ever happened to them? Pendleton's cars, I mean."

"Wrecked." Malcolm answered. "Train took the bend leading out of town way too fast and it derailed. Four or five people got killed, including Pendleton himself. He was up in the front car, dressed like a conductor. Used to like to do that. He'd get dressed up as a conductor and take tickets from his friends for riding on his train. Had a full conductor's uniform with a pocket watch and everything."

Bobby paused to take in what he'd just heard. "Pendleton" he asked, "was he a tall man with a beard?"

"Sure was." Old Malcolm nodded. "Great big good-looking guy. Had brains, looks, and money but got killed playing with trains like a little boy."

Bobby was confused. Not so much by what was happening although he didn't understand how. But it didn't surprise Bobby that a man as powerful as John Pendleton had been in life would also be powerful in death. Powerful enough to come back from death and bring a train with him.

No, what confused Bobby was why. Why had John Pendleton come back and why was Bobby the only one to see him? Bobby could think of no connection between himself and the dead millionaire. Pendleton had been rich, Bobby was poor. Pendleton lived an exciting life, Bobby's life was simple and boring. Pendleton had been powerful and good-looking, Bobby had no power. And looks - well, heads did not turn when Bobby Alton walked into a room.

Was that it? Was this some sort of other-worldly case of opposites attract? Had John Pendleton come back to Sinclair to find the resident least like himself? Or was Bobby not really a factor at all, just coincidentally at the right place at the right time to witness a miracle to which he had no connection? Perhaps Bobby's presence had neither caused nor been significant enough to prevent the miracle happening. Bobby was inclined toward this latter explanation.

Still, Pendleton had spoken to him, hadn't he? What was it he'd said - "Perhaps when you have a ticket we could be of service." So Bobby wasn't just a by-stander, he had a role in this mystery - or could have if he could get a ticket.

"Malcolm, what did you mean when you said Pendleton took tickets from his friends for riding on the train?"

Old Malcolm looked up from reading about the Cubans or whatever it was that held his interest now. "What'd I mean? Whadda you mean -what'd I mean- I mean he was a grown man playin' at bein' a train conductor. That's what I mean."

"No...Yes...I mean, I got that. But what about the tickets? Were they real tickets or what?"

"No, they weren't real tickets. Wasn't a real railroad. What Pendleton'd do was when he'd send out the invitations he'd send along these cards, see? And everybody was supposed to write a little poem on their card. Pendleton'd collect the cards like tickets and then read 'em out on the train while they were all galavantin' around the countryside."

One week later, Bobby was at last ready for the train. He dressed in a suit jacket and slacks, the finest clothes he owned, and waited on his front porch for the train's return. As before, it came when he wasn't looking for it. He had grown bored with the waiting and had removed the small card from his inside pocket to re-read it. He was wondering whether he should have said: "life" instead of "time" in the fifth line when he became aware that the train was standing in the old station.

Once again, Bobby found himself walking beside the train. The glass in the windows seemed less thick as he could clearly see that inside were people dressed in finery, talking and drinking and laughing together. Bobby approached the front of the lead car and, as before, the Conductor - John Pendleton - swung down to the platform.

Pendleton was just as well groomed and just as handsome as Bobby remembered him. He smiled, nodded, and said: "Good morning, sir. Ticket please."

Bobby handed over the small card. Pendleton squinted at it, perched a pair of glasses on his nose and began to read aloud:

"The days of yore are gone, my love,
They never will return.
If days before were long, my love,
We only had to learn:
That time is just a passing thing,
Too short to pay it mind.
The days of yore are gone, my love,
And that, my love, is fine."

Bobby held his breath and looked to Pendleton for some sort of reaction. Was his poem any good? Was it good enough to get on the train? Pendleton's eyes gave nothing away.

"How long did it take you to write this?" Pendleton asked as he slipped his glasses back in a pocket.

"A week." Bobby answered, "most of a week. I guess it isn't very good for all the time it took."

"I wouldn't say that" Pendleton replied, "No, I wouldn't say that at all. Many people couldn't write a poem this good in a lifetime." He handed the card back to Bobby. "Thank you for showing it to me."

"But...but...you said it was good" Bobby stammered, "Can't I come on the train?"

"The train, Bobby? Let me tell you about the people on the train." Pendleton paused then continued. "They're people like me. People who, through having too much money or not enough sense, squandered their lives and wasted their resources on idle play and meaningless activities. People whose lives were so empty that some of them don't even realize that they're dead."

"That's not you, Bobby Alton. That's not you at all. Oh, it could've been. If you had stayed on your porch just listening to the trains going by much longer you could have slipped into eternity doing just that. But you can think, Bobby, and you can write. You've proved it. And if you keep on thinking and keep on writing your life won't be empty and your time won't be wasted."

Pendleton climbed back up on the coach. "I will spend eternity riding this train to nowhere" he said, "because, with all the gifts I had, it was how I chose to spend my life. It's up to you, Bobby. You can ride this train or you can use your gifts to fill a lifetime. It's up to you."

Bobby Alton stood on the empty tracks and, for the last time, watched the red caboose disappear across the road.

Copyright (c) 1994 by Bill Clarke. All rights reserved.