Night Train (copyright Coberly 2004)
“Mom, why does the moon have quarters?”
“Because if it didn’t have quarters it couldn’t get full.”
“Oh.” At times Jax just needed to hear an answer. “Mom, are you mad at Dad?”
“No, Jax, we just had,” she looked away from his trusting face, “a disagreement. That’s all. Now get your stuff together. Daddy’ll be here any minute and he’s got something fun planned.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“What’s the surprise?” He looked at her, face relaxed, eyes round.
She squatted down in front of him. “Well Jax, if I told you what it was, it wouldn’t be a surprise. And it’s a good surprise. It’ll be fun.
At night the trains pass her new house. Their sound begins unnoticed, grows louder, rattles the windows, and then diminishes nearly to silence and sometimes beyond, cut off by what in longer spans might pass for sleep. The trains are relentless. There is always another, and she is awakened to her particular reality again and again in a cycle that seems to have no relief.
The whistles announce every small crossing, some with just an X beside the road – scant warning for the distracted driver. When she has no lover she counts for sleep, but when it comes the whistles penetrate and darken her dreams, more horrible and more substantial than almost anything in her waking world.
Lying in pale light she feels tonight’s lover join her. Down miles of track, another train approaches. The sounds of wheels and engine ride the flat ground over dew-wet fields of soy, corn, okra. The whistle comes trough the window and into the bedroom where she buries herself in the lover’s rhythm. She is unable not to imagine the riders, crossing county after county, at once a part of and removed from the violent passage they have joined.
Jax jumped up when he heard the car. “Daddy’s here,” he squealed and ran to the door. She picked up his bag and checked for toothbrush, pajamas, and Willy, and zipped it. When she got to the door Chris was there, but Jax was halfway to the car.
She handed the bag to Chris and said, “I told him you had a fun surprise.”
“Great, now I’ve got expectations.”
His cheekbones seemed to jut out more than she remembered and there were new wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. “Try not to disappoint.” She tried to smile, but didn’t feel it.
Before the train gets near, the lover looses concentration and his rhythm unsteadies. He convulses, stops, rolls aside and his eyes meet hers briefly in a flash of moonlight, more puzzlement than promise.
The train continues; the whistle calls, “I am coming,” not an idle threat. The vibration of steel on steel guarantees an arrival, a passage, a recession. She thinks of other riders, disembarking on a country siding, their faces gape-mouthed at the awesome destructive power of their conveyance.
She is startled. The whistle is different, wrong. It’s more insistent. She sits bolt upright. Her lover half rolls, wakened from his own sleep to look up at her from arm’s length.
She sucks in air and holds still, fists full of sheet, and begins to shake.
“What?” he asks.
“Shhhhh,” she responds softly first and then short and sharp as steam “shhh.” The beat between the whistles is too short. No time to catch her breath from one blast to the next. There is something on the track. It’s the junction of her waking nightmare – she knows the spacing of the trains on the tracks, knows the time.
She handed Chris the boy’s bag and watched as he buckled Jax into the car seat. The day had been warm for early spring. The stars were just emerging from an indigo sky. She turned her face from the car.
She thinks, ‘Don’t let it be a car stuck on the track,’ and out loud she whispers “not tonight.” But the Doppler drops and this train is now past its point of closest passage – it is not her junction this time, not her family.
“What? Are you alright?” the lover asks.
“Please leave,” she says quietly.
“What’s wrong,” he asks, false tenderness unable to cover his confusion.
“Get out,” she says, and then kicking off the sheets, “Get out of here.”
Alone again in the dark she dresses slowly, quietly, the silence between trains cut by sounds of zipper, snap and buckle. She walks outside and leans out so she can see the distant, empty track. The full moon, close to setting, illuminates a thin line flowing over soft hills, shining like silver, empty and frail. She thinks of Jax, the car pulling away, and tries to remember a smile on his face.