Waiting For The Train

Howard Waldman

Every minute I look around for possible witnesses. What would they think of an aging well-dressed clearly respectable man—that’s how everybody has always seen me—acting like a thirteen-year-old up to no good, squatting next to rails in the middle of nowhere in mid-winter with night coming on, waiting with pennies for a train he’ll never board? It’s no crime but clearly abnormal. Isn’t abnormality a crime in a way, though? That was always my father’s view.

This time, driving back from the tire retread plant, I finally gave in to the abnormal idea about rails and pennies, and maybe more, that’s been gnawing at me for the past month. I turned off the main road, something I’d never done before. It’s a route so familiar from twenty-five years of back and forth from plant to home that it hardly registers anymore. I’ve covered plenty of ground in my life. Five eighty-mile round-trips a week, multiplied by 25 years, gives you 740,500 miles, twenty-nine times the circumference of the earth, a better trip than the real one, I imagine. Toward the end you’d probably get tired of equatorial temples and tigers too but not as fast as billboards and used-car lots.

So I turned off. The small road shook off landfills and junk heaps and started running in empty country alongside the railroad embankment. I pulled over and automatically pocketed the car keys. Halfway to the rails, I stopped. I went back to the Mercedes, left the keys on the driver’s seat and then walked back to the embankment with a fistful of dull pennies.

*

I can’t get rails and pennies out of my head ever since the doctor gently explained what’s the matter with me. The gentleness was the really bad part. That was a month ago. Now I start thinking of rails whenever I see the faces around me, dull as unimproved pennies, the worst of the faces the one staring back at me in the bathroom mirror every morning. Maybe the illness has spread to my brain too.

Rails and pennies go back to when I was thirteen, already a secret sinner, standing at the bottom of the embankment, looking around for possible witnesses and then up at Allan. The wind blows his red hair into flames as he repositions the penny on the rail again. The penny is his idea. He has all the ideas and I go along with them, even the dangerous ones, because he’s my only friend. I don’t want to lose him. I’ve never told my parents about him because his father drinks, is an atheist, and has socialistic ideas or even worse. Everybody knows that in our small town.

Allan’s up there without me not just because I don’t dare soil my shiny Sunday shoes. Mainly because I’m scared of what that coin on the rail can lead to. I’ve heard that mutilating American currency is a Federal offence. Worse, suppose my father found out?

I think I can hear the train coming. I always liked trains. Before I studied geography, I used to dream about boarding one for China disguised as a Chinaman. But this train is different.

“Won’t it derail?” I say, tense for flight and not mentioning the crime of mutilating Lincoln.

“So what?” he says and speaks about fat wallets scattered in the wreckage and what we’d be able to buy with the money. But he joins me as I start running away.

That evening the radio announces a train wreck: 200 victims. I’m devastated till I hear: India. Maybe kids there had been fooling around with rupees on the rails. My father tells mother and me to kneel with him and pray for the souls of those dead people. We do that all the time. There are lots of accidents and wars on the radio and my kneecaps hurt from them. But I always think of other things when I kneel alongside him, like being in China, for instance. This time I think about elephants and tigers in India.

The next day Allan and I recover the penny, miraculously transformed. Allan had placed it drab on the rail. Now after the train, it’s unique, with a burnished true copper color, but green against the light, like, once, a sunset over our grey prairie town. It doesn't go round and round in a boring circle anymore. Lincoln’s marvellously stretched out. I collect things like that. I have tropical seashells with the sound of those seas in them. I have cocoons with the hope of butterflies. I have old maps of spice islands in Asia. I have silk masks, lots of other things.

A kid at school offers us five drab round pennies for the marvel. I want to keep it. But Allan, already a shrewd schemer, is in command. It’s just the start, he explains. Those five pennies, transformed by the train, will be good for twenty-five more pennies. Twenty-five multiplied by five amounts to 125. Three more such operations amount to 78,125 cents. He’s quick at multiplication and sees the round money rolling in, 25% of it for me.

But we don't even get as far as the second operation. A railroad employee catches us recovering the five transformed pennies. He has silver hair, no lips and silver-framed glasses that magnify his pale blue eyes. Holding us by the scruff of the neck he says we deserve to be jailed for mutilating American currency and the name of God. He calls us Communists and kicks us hard in the behind, 78,125 times it seems. Of course he confiscates the transformed pennies. Then he takes our names. When I blubber mine he looks at me hard and says, “Hey, you’re the minister’s son.” I should have denied it. But it’s sinful to lie. I should have anyhow.

He reports us to our families. The next day Allan says his father just laughed. Allan’s lucky. Not that my father ever beats me. He doesn’t believe in physical violence, he always says. He confiscates. I learned the word from him very early. The last time it was all my Devil’s Eye aggies and delicate bird skulls, because of cards on Sunday. This time he confiscates the tropical shells and the old maps and the cocoons and the masks. He also prays to God on my behalf. My soul’s at stake, I understand. My mother weeps. I wish he’d beaten me.

That night I dream that Abraham Lincoln, terribly mutilated and wearing silver-framed glasses, sentences me to worse than jail. They are tying me to the rails in hell when I wake up sweating and weeping. I resolve to reform, be a good American, stop the secret sin, stop seeing Allan, respect my nation’s currency and the name of God and never do anything that might turn me into a Communist.

My father died six years later. I was in business school by then, his idea, not mine. One day I poked around in his study, something I’d never dared to do when he was alive, and found in a deep drawer the aggies, the bird skulls, the cocoons (still just cocoons), the maps, the tropical seashells, the masks, and all the other confiscated things. They were dusty. I dumped them in the ashcan.

*

That business with the pennies was forty-six years ago. Since then I’ve been a reasonably good American. I've been married for thirty years, although it seems much longer, run my own tire-retread business in this same town, am a regular church-goer and try desperately to believe in transfiguration after death, contribute to charities, bowl on Friday evenings when my wife has her ladies’ meeting, have sent three children through college and see them on Christmas most of the time.

I am generally regarded as dull but solid. Nobody knows how ill I am, not even my wife, although it’s beginning to show. Probably it’s like the main road with me: I’m so familiar to her I don’t register any more. Nobody knows about that ill me, not at all solid. Nobody knows how I’ve been tempted to seek out rails in the open country as I’ve finally done and how I think of dull pennies transformed by the train’s wheels into copies of rare sunsets over our town.

So here I am, midwinter, night falling, middle of nowhere, staring at rails, waiting with pennies for a train I’ll never board. The way I did long ago, I look around for possible witnesses even though it’s not for the same thing now. All I see in the twilight are muddy fields, bare trees, a grey sky and a distant farmhouse with lights already on at the end of the day.

I notice I’ve scuffed my new shoes struggling up the embankment. It doesn’t matter this time.

I wish there were a way to retread souls like tires.

I think I can hear the train coming.


About the Author

Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French University. His short stories have appeared in Verbsap, Gold Dust, Global Inner Visions, Lowestoft Chronicle, and other publications. He has published four novels, all available on Amazon: Back ThereTime TravailThe Seventh Candidate, and Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die.