STEPHEN SMITH: Train Trip: Memory of a Long-Ago Holiday Journey
When the phone rang at 10 p.m. on the first day of winter 1978, I knew it was bad news -- someone I loved was surely dead or dying.
I lifted the receiver, and my mother's voice came through: "Your grandmother has fallen and broken her hip. She's in ICU. If you want to see her alive, get up here as soon as you can."
At 5:30 the next morning, I was at the train station waiting for the northbound Amtrak. The sun hadn't risen, and the empty streets of Southern Pines were a Hopper painting, the silent shapes somber in the dusky half-light. A gray cloud line was sweeping in from the northwest and a damp chill was in the air, so I was glad to see the Amtrak diesel rumble into the station.
But the moment I stepped aboard the passenger car, I realized something was very wrong. And what was wrong was me. Walking down the aisle past 15 or 20 awakening passengers, I realized that they were all very elderly. Most of them were probably well into their 70s or 80s -- I was 32 at the time -- and as they awakened, rubbing their eyes and peering dimly about the car, they stared at me as I passed.
I found a seat in the back of the car and watched Southern Pines slip away. Homes festooned with red, green, and white Christmas lights blurred quickly into the flat countryside south of Raleigh.
By 8:30 a.m., all the passengers had wakened, and they were chatting among themselves. I reasoned they'd become friendly as they traveled north the previous day, or maybe they all lived in the same retirement community in Florida and had decided to travel north together. Anyway, they knew each other well enough to engage in noisy, animated conversation.
As we rolled into the flat farmland of southern Virginia, the gray-haired woman across the aisle took me into her confidence. Motioning to the wizened woman seated beside her, she said, "My mother's 94, you know, but she's no trouble at all. She loves to travel. And since she can't hear a thing, she doesn't wear me out with a lot of talk about -- "
Just then the train shuddered and screeched to a halt. I looked out the window, expecting to see a small-town station. But there was no town, not even a highway, only fallow, thatch-colored fields.
A few of the passengers wandered up and down the aisle, ducking their heads to search the landscape on either side of the train and asking, "What's happened? Did we hit a car or something?" We sat there for 45 minutes before an avuncular gentleman in a long wool overcoat left the train and returned with the sad news.
Standing beside my seat in the back of the car, he announced, "An old man threw himself in front of the train and was killed. He had a note pinned to his jacket saying that no one cared about him anymore and there was no use going on."
That's when I noticed that everyone was staring at me -- or so it seemed. Their pained expressions were clearly accusatory. And for a moment I felt somehow responsible for the man's suicide.
Then the train lurched forward, and we resumed our trip north. The woman across the aisle didn't speak to me again, and almost everyone in the car was quiet for the remainder of the trip.
In mid-afternoon, we pulled into Union Station. I stepped down from the car and found my father waiting on the platform. "How come you're so late?" he wanted to know. "Did something happen?"
As the train pulled away, I turned and looked up at the faces pressed against the grimy windows. They were staring at me still, and I watched as they disappeared northward to wherever they were going.
This time of year, when the days have grown short and I recall family and friends I've lost, I also remember those old faces leaving the station. That afternoon on the platform, I'd wanted to tell my father about the man who'd thrown himself in front of the train and how I was going to be more attentive to those I loved. But the story seemed too metaphoric. Too preachy. So I didn't tell him.
I wish now I had.
Contact Stephen Smith at travisses @hotmail.com.
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