Night Train ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Bartleby-Snopes.)
Martin Haythorne disliked riding trains. They moved too slow and made too many stops. At a routine stop a woman boarded the car carrying a sleeping child. Martin was facing the door and as he saw her coming toward him, he hoped she wouldn’t sit in the seat facing him, but she did. He uncrossed his legs and sighed and pulled himself up straighter, thinking it’s going to be a long night.
The woman fussed with getting the child fixed just right in her lap and, after she was settled in the seat across from him, she looked searchingly at Martin. He wanted to ignore her, but he somehow couldn’t keep from looking back at her and she smiled.
“It’s so crowded tonight,” she said.
He looked over his shoulder at all the empty seats and he didn’t know what she was talking about, but he smiled anyway and nodded his head.
“I think traveling at night is so lonely,” she said. “I like to find somebody I can talk to. It helps to pass the time.”
He gave her what he hoped was a discouraging look, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“This is my little girl,” she said, looking down at the child draped across her lap. “She’s three. Her name is Ivette. She always gets sick to her stomach on a train, so before we left home I gave her a little pill to help make her go to sleep. She doesn’t have any idea that she’s on a train just now. I’m sure she thinks she’s at home in her little bed.”
He looked at the child, who barely seemed to be breathing. She was tiny and pale, with scraggly blonde hair and a throbbing blue vein in her temple. She was wearing a cowboy shirt with a horse embroidered on the yoke and blue jeans and cowboy boots.
“What about you?” the woman asked him. “Do you have children?”
“No,” Martin said.
“I always thought I would have three or four children, but Ivette is my only one. So far, that is. I guess there’s always a chance for more.”
He looked at her and his mouth formed what was supposed to be a smile but was more like a grimace. He turned and looked over his shoulder again, thinking about the possibility of moving to another seat, but, instead of moving, he opened his newspaper and turned to the middle and studied a sofa ad, even though he had already looked the paper over in its entirety.
“Would you like part of my paper?” he asked the woman.
“Oh, no, thank you. It makes me sick to my stomach to read on a moving train.”
He studied the sofa ad for a while longer and then he refolded the paper and lit a cigarette. He hoped the smoke from his cigarette would make the woman want to move to a different seat, but she didn’t seem to even be aware that he was smoking. She moved the child off her lap onto the seat beside her until the child’s head was against her hip and the cowboy books were sticking out in the aisle.
“Aren’t children just the most precious things?” she said. “God’s greatest gift.” She looked fondly at the child and caressed the top of its head.
“Look,” he said, “if you don’t mind. It’s late and I would really like to just sit quietly. When I’m riding on a train at night, I like to just sit and think about things.”
“Oh, no!” she said. “You go right ahead with what you were doing. Don’t let me bother you in the least. I like to just watch the scenery go by, except you can’t see much tonight because it’s so dark. All you can see is inky blackness, unless there are lights. When you go through these little towns, you can see some lights on in houses and streetlights and things, but except for that you really can’t see much of anything.”
To discourage the woman from talking, he propped up his elbow and leaned the side of his face against his fist and closed his eyes. In five minutes he was lulled to sleep by the motion of the train.
When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, the woman was crying, sniffling into a dirty-looking handkerchief. When she saw that his eyes were opened and he was looking at her, she smiled apologetically and gave an odd little laugh.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” she said. “I try not to cry in public, but sometimes I just can’t help it.”
She began sobbing uncontrollably, with tears rolling down her pasty cheeks. She covered her eyes with the handkerchief, as though to keep from being seen.
“Are you sick?” he asked. “Do you need to get off the train?”
“No,” she said, “not way out here. I don’t even know where we are.”
She began crying even louder. He turned around to look at the other passengers to see if there was anybody who might help with the woman, but they were all either asleep, looking out the windows, or reading magazines. With the woman’s eyes covered, he thought it was the perfect time to move to another seat, but, when he started to get up, she reached out and touched his leg.
“Would you mind?” she asked. “I think I need a sip of water.”
He went into the men’s room, where there were some little cone-shaped paper cups. He took one and filled it with lukewarm tap water and took it back to the woman and handed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said.
She was holding a little bottle of pills. She unscrewed the lid and shook two of them out into her hand and took them with the water. “That’s exactly what I needed,” she said.
He looked nervously at his watch, thinking of some excuse he might tell the woman to get away from her. When he saw the conductor standing at the front of the car, he stood up and approached the man and spoke quietly in his ear.
“I’d like to move to another car,” he said. “This woman is getting on my nerves.”
The conductor looked over his shoulder and saw the back of the woman’s head. “This is the only car carrying passengers tonight,” he said. “I’m sorry. Would you like me to speak to the woman and tell her to stop bothering you?”
“No, no. Just forget it.”
He turned away and went back to his seat. He would try to sleep the rest of the way. He closed his eyes, lowered his head, and folded his arms across his chest. He imagined an impenetrable curtain falling between himself and the woman.
Just after he returned to his seat, a shrill blast from the whistle of a passing train caused the child, Ivette, to awake with a little scream. She pivoted her head on her tiny shoulders one way and then another. When she realized she was someplace other than where she expected to be, she started whimpering.
The woman picked Ivette up and set her across her lap. “Now, now, baby,” she said. “What’s the matter with mama’s little baby?”
The child fussed and cried, but the woman soothed and patted her and soon she settled down. She placed the child on the seat beside her and gave her a candy bar. She began sucking happily on the candy while making little cooing noises and looking at the ceiling.
“I’m afraid she’s awfully upset because she knows her daddy has gone away and left her,” the woman said.
He looked steadily at her for a moment, thinking about how he was going to phrase what he wanted to say.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve tried to be patient with you, but you don’t seem to be getting the message. I want to just sit quietly and not be bothered and not talk! Is that so hard to understand?”
“He has a kind of recurring amnesia, my husband does. He’s fine for a while and then he has these spells come over him where he forgets things. He forgets he has a wife and a child, and he goes away on the train or the bus, and I have to go get him and bring him back home. He seems to have it in his head that he’s escaping from something.”
“I’m sure you have your problems,” he said, “the same as everybody else, but I would prefer not to hear about them, if it’s all the same to you.”
“His doctor believes he has a kind of a tumor thing on the brain that makes him act the way he does. If we could just get him to agree to have an operation, that might make him just as normal as anybody.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to be normal.”
“Of course he does. Everybody wants to be normal and live a normal life.”
“I’m going to move now to a different seat.”
“I love my husband very much and little Ivette loves him too, and I believe that in his own peculiar way he loves us just as much. I’ll go to the ends of the earth to bring him back home as many times as it takes.”
He stood up abruptly, gathered his belongings and, without looking again at the woman, moved up the aisle to the first seat in the car. He sat next to the window and slumped down in the seat and took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face with it and then closed his eyes and went to sleep.
When the train arrived at its destination, the sun was just coming up. He exited the car quickly without looking back. He found a cab easily enough and asked the driver to take him to the Windermere Hotel. He checked into his room and, after cleaning himself up and putting on a clean shirt, went down to have breakfast in the hotel dining room.
After he was seated and had placed his order for breakfast, he lit a cigarette and closed his eyes, feeling pleasantly fatigued. He was looking forward to a day of solitude and relaxation—visiting a museum or two and possibly seeing a movie, and then returning to his hotel room for a nap before dinner.
He paid little attention to the other people in the dining room, but he couldn’t help noticing a woman across the room facing him. She seemed to be looking at him and when she thought he was looking back at her she smiled. Then he noticed she had a small child sitting to her right, whom he could barely see because of the table. The woman was giving bits of food to the child and speaking softly into its ear.
He was sure it was the woman from the train, although she looked much different. Her hair was done up in a different way and she was wearing a nurse’s uniform and her lips were painted bright red. She would have had plenty of time to change her appearance since she left the train. At that moment a nurse’s uniform was the most odious thing in the world to him.
He closed his eyes and wished the woman and the child dead, or at least someplace where he would not ever have to see them again. When he re-opened his eyes, he saw to his relief that they were no longer there. It was as though he had wished them out of existence. The muscles in his legs, which had been urging him to run, loosened with relief.
He removed his glasses so that everything across the room was just a blur, and he could not tell one person from another. Even though the woman seemed to be gone, he had no way of knowing that she would stay gone, and he did not wish to see her again if she should happen to reappear. He felt safe as long as he couldn’t see her.
He finished his breakfast, paid for it, and left the hotel dining room. As he was crossing the lobby to go to the elevator to go up to his room, he knew someone was right behind him and he had a strong suspicion it was the woman and the little girl. He would not turn around, though. The woman apparently wanted him to see her, and he would not give her the satisfaction of acknowledging that he knew she was there.
When he came to the elevator, he saw with annoyance that it was on the eighteenth floor and was just now beginning its slow descent. It would be at least four or five minutes until it came all the way down. He looked to his left and to his right for stairs that he could take so he wouldn’t have to wait, but there were none that he could see, so he just stood there looking at the door of the elevator, because that’s all he could do.
He knew there was someone standing close behind him. He could hear the faint intake of air into the person’s body and the blood flowing through the veins. He knew there were thoughts in the person’s head that involved him, although he didn’t know exactly what the thoughts were.
Finally he could stand the uncertainty no longer. He turned and looked over his right shoulder at the person standing behind him. He was not terribly surprised to see it was the woman from the train. She had discarded the nurse’s attire and had transformed herself back to the way she had looked before she left the train. When she realized she had his attention, finally, she smiled and, without speaking—she didn’t even need to speak—she gave him a look that said We are one…you can’t escape me any more than you can escape yourself.
His eyes trailed downward to the floor in a gesture of defeat. There at the woman’s feet, clutching her hand, stood the tiny, bedraggled girl child wearing her cowboy shirt with a horse embroidered on the yoke and her blue jeans and her cowboy boots. She was looking up at him expectantly. When she knew he was looking right at her, she gave him a lopsided smile of satisfaction that mirrored that of her mother’s, and he knew that he had never seen—and never would see—a more despicable child.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp