Ghost Train

At the Spokane stop I leave the coach to move around a bit—the trip to Seattle is fifty hours total, and is taking its toll. Only a few others bother to, since there is a biting downpour. The concrete station isn’t greatly improved by the weather, but it provides a roof over the landing platform. I hold my jacket closed as the wind whips my hair into my face. When I can see again I notice a man standing out in the open. He stands there and stares into the sky as the rain soaks him. It seems all the rain in the sky is intent on pouring into this weary vessel.

I look away, I saw that pose of abandonment all too recently, and I’m trying not to think about it. I walk over to a newspaper stand, and find it isn’t stocked. I don’t find the empty green benches to be very good company, so I cover my head and dart back into the train. My coach is empty. There were very few passengers in there to begin with, and they must have all gone to the diner. I while away my time reading Atonement underneath my wool blanket. Finally, as the train pulls away, someone pushes the compartment doors open. He must have been the man I saw outside, because he is dripping wet. He is also the man sitting across the aisle from me, I now realized. He walks down the aisle in a sullen daze, but that doesn’t discourage me.

“Hey, you,” I say as he nears.

“Hi. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Well, actually, I was thinking nearly the opposite. You’re completely wet.”

He looks down, and then up at me again. “So it would seem.”

“Take off that coat and hang it somewhere, ‘kay?”

It takes him a moment, but he gets his coat stowed away.

“Great, now take this,” I say, and hand him my blanket. “And sit down.”

He sits down and hunches up with the blanket. “Thanks,” he says, and looks down.

I did what I could, so I leave him to his misery and return to my book. The countryside slides by, but it is dark, so all I can see is my reflection, cast in an eerie green by the old fluorescent lighting, and behind that, the man sitting slouched behind me. Some people file back in. After a hundred pages or so I fall asleep with the book still open. I awake briefly to see the man gain a resolute look, and then drift away again.

I wake up with a sore neck. Drowsily I roll my head around a bit to try to reduce the ache.

“I don’t mean to interrupt—” the man says.

“Oh.” I jerk my head, momentarily embarrassed. “No problem, really.” I look around quickly. At some point he had changed, and was now dressed in a fresh pair of khakis and button down shirt. My book is sitting on top of my folded blanket and has a bookmark in it. “Hey, thank you.” I gesture towards the seat.

“You’re welcome. But thank you, I was feeling pretty shitty until you came along.”

“You looked like you were still feeling pretty shitty after I came along.”

He bows his head slightly. “That I was. But regardless, I owe you. Are you hungry?”

“Starved, you?”

“Famished. Great, let’s get to the diner before it closes.”

“Sure, one sec.”

I follow him into the diner, which is aging if tastefully decorated. We take ours seats in an isolated booth. After we settle in a waiter takes our orders. The man says he will pay, which normally I would have argued, but he seems genuine about wanting to repay the favor. He also has an air of money about him that I recognize from my parents’ associates.

I sit there uncomfortably for a while, trying not to be too absorbed in my own thoughts. He breaks the silence finally.

“As much as I enjoy the company of pretty women, I manage to enjoy their conversation even better.”

“Oh, sorry.” I blush. “I’ve had a long day.”

“I noticed. You read what, three books?”

“Two and half, more like.”

“That’s a breakneck pace. So, what do you do…?”

“Aliza. I work as a clerk in a second-hand bookstore, and I’ve recently started writing again.”

“That seems awfully fitting.”

“I suppose so. How about you? You aren’t employed as a rain caller, are you?”

“No, although it seems an awful waste to throw away all that talent, doesn’t it?”

“Seriously, though?”

“I’m a writer. You’ve probably never heard of me though. I don’t suppose you’ve read The Modern Fiction Digest?”

“Yeah, actually I have. What’s your name?”

“Take a guess.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“I do.”

“I just hope you aren’t Richard Stockholme,” I say, noting his start, “because his writing just makes him seem so full of himself, like he can’t stand not to hear his own voice for even a moment.”

He clears his throat. “Well, you are in luck. I’m Gabriel van der Waal.”

“No, you aren’t. You’re Richard Stockholme. I recognized you as soon as you mentioned the Digest.” I grin at him.

“Oh. Yeah, I am.” He twiddles with his utensils for a bit. “Then that stuff you were saying…” he trails off.

“I was just teasing.”

“Of course, I knew that. It’s Thomas Beckridge that’s in love with his style. God, you should see the way he goes on.”

“Oh, but I have.”

“No, I mean, even in person he’s just like that. He could never quit talking about what a great swing he took. The man is pathological in his verbosity. Then you have van der Waal, who is such a minimalist. I think one day he might stop using nouns, because they don’t convey enough action. I mean, he’s used maybe five adjectives in the past three years. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah-huh.”

“It’s like the way you have Faulkner, who was too in love with his voice to write a good story, and you have Hemingway, who was too journalistic, and only in the happy median do you have F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

“Careful there, you wouldn’t want to make it seem like you are drawing an implicit comparison between yourself and Fitzgerald.”

“No, I wouldn’t. But you just did,” he says, and cocks a grin. “I’m flattered, really.”

I must have unintentionally rolled my eyes.

He looks startled. “Jesus Christ, I’m such a dick, aren’t I? God damn, that must be why she left. I couldn’t stand to spend that much time with myself, not without punching something.”

I feel terrible. Why is it I always do this? “Hey, look, don’t be so hard on yourself. You were stressed out, I understand, and you were just trying to be funny.”

“Trying to be funny is about right.” He picks up his fork, then notices his plate is still empty. Agitated, he puts down his fork again. “And how this must look. My wife leaves me, and here I am, buying you dinner. God, I feel like such a cad.”

“Maybe I should go. I have a bag of pretzels I can eat, so I’ll just leave you alone.” I stand up from the table.

“No you don’t. I, you’ve got to understand, I ate the pretzels while you were sleeping,” he said.

I look at him and can’t help giggling.

“What’s so funny?”

“You look so guilty.”

“Oh. I’m really sorry. Please don’t leave,” he says.

I wince inwardly. Connor had said that, and I still left him standing in the dark. But I still sit down. “Don’t worry about it. You know, maybe while we’re here you could give me some writing tips. It’d be something to talk about.”

“What do you want tips on?”

“I don’t know, I just feel like my writing is missing something. I can’t put my finger on it, though.”

“It’d be impossible for me to diagnose the problem without seeing some piece of your writing.”

“Hold on.” I rummage through my bag and pull out a wrinkled typed manuscript. “This is weird. Everyone always tries to get their manuscripts read, but you don’t actually mind?”

“I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know if I mind.”

“Ha,” I laugh nervously. “Oh, and don’t pay any attention to my notes in the margins, they are, well, they are there.” I slide the manuscript across the table.

“This might take a while,” he says levelly. He folds the stapled corner neatly and starts reading. Apparently I have nothing better to do than watch him read. Every time he pauses on a word and narrows his eyes, every time the corner of his mouth twitches into a smile, every time he lifts his brow I make a note in my pocket notebook.

Finally he sets it down. “You were right, there is something missing.”

“What is it?”

“Hmm. Passion, fire, fervor, whatever you want to call it. The rest of the story is all there, but it’s missing that.”

“So. Well, I might need another explanation, sorry?”

“It’s like your story is a perfect simulacrum, but it doesn’t move. It just stands there, looking like a person. You’ve got to give it that inner heat to get it moving.”

“Oh, Stockholme, you and your steampunk.”

“Can’t help it, that’s what I write. But does that clarify it?”

“I think so, but then what do I need to do?”

He takes a deep breath and clears his throat. I might be getting more than I bargained for.

“As a reader I want to be touched by a story. As a writer, then, you should want to punch me in the gut with your story. The effect of an event is diminished through text. That’s why people who care the most about strife in Rwanda have actually been there, and people who care the most about prostate cancer have had it. As writers we wonder how we can get people to feel with that terrible diminishing effect in action.

“To get me to feel an event even through the dampening medium of text you have to punch with as much force as you can. Trust me, I’m not going to feel the full force of the blow.

“Your sentences should be punchy. If you are writing a sad sentence make it the saddest freaking sentence ever. Hit them with that sadness where it hurts. Try to kill them with words alone. It’s hard to imagine anyone killing themselves over a short story, but if someone had I’d want to read that story too—it’d be the best goddamn story I’ll ever read.

“Even if you don’t manage to kick my ass I’ll notice the effort. I’ll feel you flailing your arms against the text, kicking and screaming bloody murder. And I’ll appreciate your text and your exertion. I’ll think to myself, ‘Hot damn, she’s sweating blood to get me to care, I’d better pay some attention.’

“You know what readers like to taste more than anything else? An author’s tears. We’re such cunts that unless we can taste your frustration and anger at our apathy in your words we won’t even digest what you are saying.”

“So, you practice that speech much?” I say.

“Nope. Okay, maybe a few times. I might have been giving a speech like that for the past three months. But only in empty university lecture halls. Filled with people.”

“I’m sure it’s useful advice, even if you didn’t make that up on the spot. It’s probably better, after all the preparation you put in.”

“But it still feels insincere,” he says. “Let me try this. Write like you are stranded on a sinking ship, and you are screaming for someone, anyone, to hear you before the sea swallows you. Write like you are buried underneath an avalanche, and you need someone to pull you out before the pressing cold suffocates you. Do you get the idea?”

“Write like you were abducted by aliens, and unless you can convince a single person of it then you will be driven mad by the secret of Centauri Psi.”

He grins. “Write like you need a liver transplant, and if your tear filled pleas can’t get a single person to donate a lobe of their very own liver, you die.”

“Write like you are the soothsayer and you must warn Caesar to beware the ides of march.”

Someone clears his throat, loudly. We turn and see our waiter standing in front of our table, arms loaded with dishes, brows contorted in concentration. “Ooh, ooh, let me try. Write like you are a middle aged man who up to this point has never made a human connection, and this train ride is apparently your last chance ever,” he says with long lilting tones of annoyance. “No, better! Write like you are a waiter who doesn’t wish to interrupt, but will spill arm loads of soup everywhere if you can’t get either self-absorbed person to notice you.”

We look around uncomfortably for a while, avoiding eye contact. The waiter looks stricken suddenly, and rapidly sets all the dishes with exceeding dexterity.

“I’m terribly, terribly sorry,” the waiter says.

“Don’t worry about it. I thought it was inspired.” I look at Richard.

Richard nods, and the waiter scuttles away.

“Poor guy. I hope he isn’t too scared about losing his job. That was really brave in a way, you know?”

“I know what you mean. I’m conflicted between tipping him more so he feels better and tipping him less so I feel better.”

For a while neither of us talks, and instead we pretend to be deeply interested in our food. I comb through my spaghetti like an archaeologist at a fossil dig.

Finally, after having cut his steak into a thousand small cubes, Richard says, “What you wrote in your story is—it is none of my business—is true, isn’t it?”

“It is.” There is a sinkhole in my stomach that my spaghetti can’t fill.

“So he’s still out there, hoping you’ll come back. But instead you are on this train.”

Here I am, caught in the act of running away. “Yeah. Was it that obvious?”

“Yes. The story isn’t resolved yet, because you haven’t resolved it. I don’t mean to tell you how to live your life, but I have to say this, for his sake. My wife just left me, and the numbness is incredible. If I were at home I’d probably be lying in a stupor. You’ve got to go back to him, find him. It’s not fair, being left like that. It is cruel, but unfortunately not unusual.”

I’m suddenly interested in my cheese cake. It is New York style, with strawberries on top and a delectably thin crust. “You are right. I should go back and find him, somehow. I don’t have the slightest idea where he lives, but maybe he still goes to our usual spot and waits.”

Richard smiles sadly. “That’s good. I hope he has a happy ending. You are writing the story, you realize.”

The rest of the meal passes in silence. When we bid each other farewell I ask him, “What’ll you do now?” He tells me he’s going to write like hell to get his wife back.

I’m on the train towards Minneapolis. I look out the window. It’s dark, but I can see the counterpart of this train, going the other way, rushing past. For some reason, its visage is focused rather than blurred, like a still life, as though it is running in place with my train backwards. My reflection looks at me from across the divide, riding by on the other train. Behind me, a man sits slouched.