George’s Train ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Wilde Oats.)
George Teal worked in a factory in the city. One Friday evening, when he was finished with work, he took the train to a little village forty miles out called Harbinger. He had told his mother he wouldn’t be home until Saturday evening but that he would be all right and she wasn’t to worry about him.
It was dark and had started to rain by the time the train pulled into the little station. George waited for the few other passengers to get off the train and then he stepped out onto the cold, damp platform, carrying his little valise. Eric came forward from where he had been waiting and clapped George on the shoulder.
“The train was on time for once,” Eric said.
“I didn’t think you were here to meet me,” George said. “I thought you probably forgot I was coming. I thought I would have to walk.”
“I wouldn’t make you walk that far in the rain.”
“I know. I was just making a little joke.”
“The car’s over here.”
The drive out was about three miles, on the other side of Harbinger. For the first mile or so they didn’t talk much. George wondered what Eric was thinking. He looked over at him, trying to think of something to say, but when Eric looked back at him he turned away.
“You’re looking well,” Eric said to fill the silence.
“So are you.”
“Living in the city must agree with you.”
“It doesn’t matter where you live. It’s how you live.”
Eric laughed. “Did you read that somewhere or did you make it up? It sounds like an aphorism.”
“What’s an aphorism?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I think I do.”
“You have to come out here to get a good breath of air.”
“We have air in the city.”
“Mother’s cooking a big dinner especially for you. It’s probably ready by now.”
“How is your mother?”
“You know. She’s fine and then she’s not. It’s a back and forth.”
“Yes, that’s the way women are.”
“She’s excited about seeing you, though. We don’t get many visitors.”
When they got home, Eric’s mother had just set the table and was waiting for them. She pecked George on the cheek and took his valise from him and helped him out of his coat. She led him to the sink where she had laid out a clean towel for him to wash his hands.
“How has your mother been?” she asked George as they began eating.
“She has arthritis in her hands but aside from that she’s pretty well.”
“Sometime when you come out to visit Eric, you should bring her along.”
“I think she’d like that,” George said, although he knew he would never be able to persuade his mother to come to the country. She didn’t like being away from her cats for too long at a time.
After dinner, George helped Eric’s mother wash the dishes while Eric sat at the table and smoked a cigarette—a newly acquired habit—and looked through a newspaper. Eric’s mother talked the whole time about her family and the place where she grew up in Kentucky. George listened attentively with a smile on his face, making a good show, at least, of being interested in what she was saying.
With the dishes washed and put away, they went into the front part of the house, where Eric’s mother played the piano for them. She was working on a piece by Bach from The Well-Tempered Clavier and had just about mastered it. George sat beside her on the bench while she showed him some fingering exercises, with Eric looking on.
When the clock struck nine, Eric said, “I think you’ve monopolized him long enough, mother. He’s my friend. He came to see me.”
“All right, all right,” she said. “I guess I can take a hint. I’m tired anyway, so I’ll just say good night.”
“All right, mother,” Eric said.
“Good night,” George said, “and thank you for the wonderful dinner.”
“Eric, put George in the front bed room where he’ll be more comfortable. The two of you don’t have to sleep in the same bed. Two grown men.”
When she was out of the room, the two of them had a good laugh between them that nobody else would have understood.
The rain had stopped so they took a walk down to the river. It would help them to sleep better, Eric said. He gave George a pair of boots to wear so he wouldn’t mind the wet ground.
The sky had cleared and the moon was reflected in the river. It was a scene as beautiful as anything out of a dream. They sat on an old dilapidated fence that for many years had been used for nothing but sitting. Eric put his arm around George’s shoulder.
“It’s so good to see you,” he said. “I’ve dreamed about this moment.”
George didn’t need to say anything. He only closed his eyes and leaned into Eric, breathing deeply of the fresh night air.
When they got back to the house, Eric turned off the lamp he had left on and they went upstairs quietly to Eric’s room. George took off his clothes and got into bed while Eric tended the fire for the night. Then he too shucked out of his clothes and got into the bed next to George, very close but not quite touching. After a moment he raised himself on his elbow and kissed George lightly on the lips.
“I’ve wanted to do that ever since you stepped off the train,” he said.
“Do you want me to sleep in the front bedroom for your mother’s sake?” George asked.
“No, I want you to sleep here with me.”
“She will have forgotten about it by morning.”
They kissed again, more deeply than before.
“You don’t think it’s wrong for two men to sleep together?”
“Of course not. Do you?”
“No, as long as—“
“As long as what?”
“As long as they’re free to do so.”
Eric took George’s hand in his and held it in the thick mat of hair on his chest and they were very quiet. The fire crackled and the wind shook the window in its frame.
“I have something to tell you,” George said after a while, not sure if Eric was still awake.
“I think I know what it is,” Eric said.
“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.”
“What is it then?”
“I’m thinking of getting married.”
Eric was silent for a moment. “Why would you do that?” he asked.
“I’m tired of living with my mother. I want a home of my own.”
“You have to be married for that?”
“I just think a man should be married.”
“Who is this person you’re thinking of marrying?”
“Her name is Isabel. She’s a school teacher. She lives down the street from us. I’ve known her since I was twelve years old.”
“You’ve discussed marriage with her?”
“Yes, I’ve asked her to marry me and she has accepted.”
“Does she know about you and me? Sleeping together and the rest.”
“Of course not.”
“You’re ashamed of it.”
“No. She wouldn’t understand, that’s all.”
“What would she do if you told her?”
“She’d probably never speak to me again.”
Eric laughed and put his hands behind his head. “Am I going to be invited to the wedding?”
“It’ll just be a civil ceremony at the courthouse. Nobody will be there.”
“A wedding with nobody there.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I suppose your mother is in favor of the marriage?”
“Any mother wants to see her son married and settled down.”
“She’s pushing you into it, isn’t she?”
“No. Nobody can push me into doing anything I don’t want to do.”
“After you get married, will you still come to see me?”
“I don’t think it’s right for a married man to be doing this with anybody other than his wife.”
“You won’t come to see me?”
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. This will be the last time.”
After a long silence, Eric said, “So, you’re going to spend the rest of your life denying your true nature?”
“I don’t know what it means when people say things like that. I guess I’m just stupid.”
“You and I are not the marrying kind. You know that.”
“I can be whatever I need to be to get along in the world.”
With seemingly nothing left to say, Eric turned over on his side away from George and went to sleep.
After breakfast the next morning they went for a hike up the mountain. After they had walked all morning they came to a stream that Eric knew about. They built a small fire and ate the lunch that Eric’s mother had made for them. Eric fished for trout in the stream while George lay on the bank and read a book and dozed. When Eric had enough trout for dinner, they went back down the mountain, taking their time. Neither of them brought up the subject of George’s upcoming marriage.
When they got back to the house, they rested while Eric’s mother cooked the trout. They had a pleasant dinner—talking and laughing the whole time—that lasted until it was time for Eric to drive George into Harbinger to catch the train back to the city.
There was an awkwardness between them on the way to the station. All day long they had been able to be themselves as if there was nothing wrong between them, but as the time approached for George’s train they both realized they were probably never going to see each other again.
By the time they got the station, it was still a half hour or more before George’s train. Eric turned off the engine and lit a cigarette and leaned his head back on the seat. He appeared deep in thought.
“That’s all right,” George said. “I’ll get out now. You can go on home.”
“I have something I want to tell you,” Eric said, completely without irony.
“You’re sorry for all the years we’ve known each other?”
Eric laughed. “Nothing as dramatic as all that,” he said.
“I’ve been offered a job in Alaska. I leave at the end of the month.”
George turned to look at Eric but Eric was looking down at the floor.
“How long have you known about this?” George asked.
“What difference does that make?”
“When were you going to tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“Don’t go,” George said.
“I’ve already agreed to go,” Eric said. “I can’t back out now.”
“What if I said I don’t want you to go?”
“It wouldn’t make any difference. I’m still going.”
“Will you write to me?”
“No. I think we should say our goodbyes now and make a clean break of it.”
“You thought I would be waiting here for you to change your mind, but now you know I won’t be, it’s another matter, isn’t it?”
The time came and went for George’s train, but still George didn’t get out of Eric’s car. They both sat there, looking straight ahead, Eric looking grim and George looking stricken, as with an illness. Unspoken words hung between them.
At nine o’clock, long after Eric should have returned home, his mother was beginning to get worried about him. Maybe he had an accident, she thought. Maybe his old car broke down. She wouldn’t be able to go to sleep until she knew he was all right. She would worry about him for as long as she lived, no matter how old he was. It would end at the grave and not one second before.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp