Work this cool late June day was slow and I have headed over to the station early. My phone is almost dead and with twenty minutes or so to kill, I find a plug outlet in a soon to be closed vacant food court, in an adjacent lobby by the station. Standing by the window, waiting on the charge, I see my conductor in his usual spot outside by the corner of the station having his daily routine smoke. On second glance however, today is quite different as besides him is a tall slender young brunette woman, also enjoying a smoke in her free flowing Summer blue dress. It is immediately out of place to me as they stand too close.
He has turned towards her and must have said something for she throws her head back in laughter, her right heel rising as she does so. He stands in front of a tree, so I cannot see his face, just his back; his heavy rail bag stuffed with papers, stubs and large keys sitting on the ground and of course, the exhale of smoke. She is to his right and I see just the left side of her tanned face from roughly a hundred feet.
It is twenty minutes to general boarding now but it is almost his pre-boarding time. He begins to extinguish his cigarette on the ground while turning to look down at his bag. She says something and has as quick as wind through an open door, fluidly produced another two cigarettes and moves in a step closer. Behind the tree I can just see his broad turned shoulders hesitate, check his watch and gently shrug. She leans in now, further than necessary, for him to light hers first.
A small pit has unknowingly formed in my stomach. I have ridden daily for almost a year with this conductor and know more about him than he likely suspects. Know that he rode freight for over thirty years down south and heard him offer frequent tales of that rugged and weathered life . . . little bits here and there – often only just as the train slowed into the station as he would calmly open the steel door manually with his large leather hands, speaking over the wind. Stuff like slamming into a flock of birds at great speed and choking right there, in the hot dark engine car, on their feathers: ‘cause our side windows were wide open to that oppressive Georgia humidity . . .’ Heard lore that you might find only in old books, stuff like: ‘a train really only stops when it wants to stop. . .it really only does.’ I know that he did a stint in Desert Storm where it was 110 degrees before 8am . . .I know that he has only one and a half years left before his long awaited pension. Then, it’s fishing and hiking upstate everyday with his loving wife of thirty-nine years. His kids are long grown up, moved on and ‘scattered about here and there, much like these tracks, in all different directions . . ‘ He has six adorable grandchildren, and another on the way.
Now, in the half light of the station, he and this stranger continue to puff away, he a bit faster than her. Their body language from this distance suggest modest small talk. She has turned to touch the bark of the tree behind them and seems to ask if he knows its name. He looks up to the branches in reply and I am only then able to read her impressed lips: . ’really . .?’ She reaches for her phone, indicates a call, to which he nods and checks his watch. It is almost time for general boarding . . he is 10-12 minutes late.
He too now pulls out his cell, to check missed rings or texts. Her call is quick and she has turned and gestured to him in an animated quickness. He looks her way, somewhat distracted and listens. She points to the right, across the canal and stretches from her ankles in an almost exercising excitement. He listens on and too points across the water, as if in question. He is talking now, points down to his bag and gestures to his watch. She regains the narrative and it is then that my heart sinks as I realize this is a pitch of sorts – a party across the canal, ‘just a short distance. . . my friends waiting, fun . . .there’ll be another train’ . . .or to my worry, worse. She points to a waiting cab and then to her phone, as if to suggest: ‘an Uber’ !. . .
I realize now, from my watching distance, that in the next seconds he should nod, pick up his bag and join her, the title of this unfolding story shall most definitely be:
It is now the general boarding call and I unplug the charger and begin to pack my belongings. When I look back, they are gone from the spot . . . and then I see him in brisk stride towards our train, heavy bag and all. She meanwhile has moved up the street and is on her phone, staring out to the street with her hand upon her hip, as if conveying to friends or reporting in . . to whomever has answered.
Walking with a relieved smile out to the train now myself, I make a mental note to rename the title of this Tale and more importantly, to be sure I place it at the bottom, so as to preserve for long as possible, its ending:
STRONG and STEADY as the RAIL
Sent from📞 🚂…
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