Morning Train

By Donna Baier Stein

September, 1942

 

hree of us wait on the train platform in Hannibal, predawn. My husband Virgil stands behind me. Without turning, I know his face: the dusky circles under his eyes and the unibrow that straddles them, too often forecasting a thunderstorm of rage.

And in front of me, Daniel, my son. I clutch both his elbows and stare up at his face under the regulation square-topped cap. I lean into him, left foot angled to brace me.

When he pulls away, I lose my balance.

A snake writhes in my stomach. I swallow with difficulty, hoping the panic will go away. My stomach growls; I haven’t eaten yet, though I put two full breakfasts on the table for Virgil and Daniel: eggs from the henhouse, two cups of precious coffee, even beefsteak that took up the last of our red stamps though we are only halfway through the month.

Even now, I’ve brought a brown bag filled with the last of the tomatoes and sweet peppers.

Across the train tracks, our dust-spattered gray Ford pickup waits. Though invisible from where we stand, I know its left passenger window is shattered. The snake inside coils tightly.

“These pants need pressing,” I say, running my thumb down the slash front of Daniel’s sage-colored trousers to take my mind off what happened last night.

“Too late for that, Mom.” Daniel took a step back, signaling once again that my touch can’t keep him. Too late.

He is only seventeen years old. And six-foot-two, though neither Virgil nor I are tall.

I look again toward our truck with its vee grille, pointed hood, and fender-mounted headlights. It’s the last of its kind; earlier this year, the government ordered Ford to make only military Jeeps, aircraft engines, bombers.

The sight of the truck and what it brings to mind threatens to bring tears, and I turn my head so Danny won’t see. I look down the train tracks—hewed boards laid under two iron rails that curve toward us as they approach the station. The rails merge in the distance, and a low hill rises behind them. A thin slice of sun tops the hill, like the peel of an orange.

Virgil clears his throat loudly. Just that morning he’d called Danny a goddamn stupid idiot for knocking the sugar bowl off the table as he swung his duffel bag over his shoulder.

That canvas bag now rests on the platform between us. I helped Danny pack the supplies he’d been given at the recruiting office: undershirts and drawers dyed a dirty green. Brown cotton socks. Black wool sweaters. Pack straps. Leggings. Foot powder.

Virgil speaks. “It’s 120 miles to St. Louis. How many hours that gonna take you, son?”

Daniel looks relieved to have a concrete question to answer. “Well,” he says, scooting his cap back on his head, “I heard this new Wabash line runs up to eighty-five mph.”

Virgil lets out a long, low whistle. One pocket of his short camel-colored coat hangs loose because I have failed to mend it.

“Then I take the bus to Jefferson Barracks in Lemay.” Daniel keeps his eyes locked on Virgil’s.

“You write us soon as you get your overseas orders, you hear?”

“Yes, sir,” Danny answers. His coat is belted at the waist and reaches just above his shiny black boots.

I stare at the baby-smooth skin of his face, the curl of dark blond hair that rests on the rim of his ear.

“If I were you,” Virgil says, “I’d sure as hell hope to go where the action is.” He puffs up his chest like the rooster does each morning at our farm. “The Pacific. Solomon Islands. There’s fierce fighting going on there now. No use twiddling your thumbs in some office.”

I finger the edge of the wool scarf wrapped around my head and think of the secrets I’ve kept. What happened last night is only one of them.

I’ve held my tongue too long.

*   *   *

When the draft notice came in the mail, the Order to Report for Induction signed by President Roosevelt himself, I hoped Daniel would be rejected. Maybe for his hearing. But the test said his hearing was fine, and I realized he simply tuned Virgil and me out now whenever he wanted to.

I’d tried just once to stop him, foolish as I knew the effort was.

I tried one afternoon when Danny and I sat on low wooden stools in the victory garden we’d planted. Virgil was at Corky Brown’s drinking moonshine. He called it mountain dew.

I simply said, “Don’t go.”

“I’ve got to go, Ma.” He looked at me with that new grown-up way he had.

“No, you don’t. We’ll move somewhere, anywhere. I don’t want you killing or being killed. I won’t have it, Danny.”

He stayed silent, then bent on his knees and started picking bright green peas off their climbing vines. He rolled a pod between two fingers, then pinched off both ends and pulled down the fine string on the inside. One by one he popped four peas into his mouth, rolling each around on his tongue. I watched him, imprinting the images on my brain.

He and I had spent much of the summer canning what we could from the garden. When extra sugar was still available for jam-making, we’d made a few pots of greengage and red currant jelly to keep for Christmas. All through July and August, I had insisted on assuming Daniel would still be at home for the holidays, even as we watched his cousin Gene and his friends Benjamin Lee Bird, Will Spillman, and Junior Orman leave for overseas.

*   *   *

My disappointment at being a farmwife had rained down on Daniel since he was a little boy. In addition to teaching him to work hard, I’d taught him that real happiness always lay over there.

I’d wanted to give him so much! College, maybe even out east. How could I explain that I’d made bad choices but didn’t want him to?

I’d wanted to be a reporter like Helen Thomas and ended up a farmwife in a small town where people barely read the paper. The farm kept me busy, raising Daniel kept me busy, and tiptoeing around Virgil took its toll.

And now here was my only child, being taken away by Uncle Sam before I’d enjoyed anywhere near enough of him. The journey through life was too fast, the consequence of choices so startling.

*   *   *

I pull a tomato from the bag, offer it to Daniel.

“Sweet enough to eat now,” I say.

“No, Ma, not now. There’ll be new things to try when I travel. New foods to eat, new sights to see.”

I know, I say to myself. I once wanted to travel the world too. Food wouldn’t have kept me home either, though you did, and I am the better for it, despite all.

“My sister called,” I say out loud to Daniel.

I glance behind me, to make sure Virgil isn’t paying attention. He’s stepped away from us and is staring at a recruitment poster on the brick wall of the station: KEEP ’EM FLYING IS OUR BATTLE CRY! DO YOUR PART FOR DUTY – HONOR – COUNTRY.

I hold Danny’s arm so he has to look at me. “She heard from your cousin Gene.”

Gene had been among the first Marines to land on Guadalcanal in early August. In his letter, he described earsplitting, heartrending air raids from B-24s made by Ford, and the sight of Japanese fighter pilots.

“Yeah?” Daniel asks. “What did the doof have to say?”

He kicks the duffel bag with one of his over-the-ankle boots. He calls them boondockers.

“That boy’s done his family real proud,” Virgil interrupts. To my dismay, he’s walked up behind us. “Signing up early on like he did. Just think of the action you could’ve been in on if you’d jumped in sooner. What an adventure you’ll have!”

“Yes,” I say, “a great adventure. Hiding in foxholes near frightening jungles. Air raids from B-24s. Why, Gene wrote that one day he’d fished in a river and found a dead Japanese soldier floating there. Yes, adventure.”

*   *   *

Virgil had returned from the earlier war wearing a white Navy uniform, looking handsome and hopeful. He promised I could go back to school one day, get my degree. He promised we wouldn’t have to stay on the farm, that we could move elsewhere. He promised that he loved me.

His rages started the first month after our marriage. But by then we knew a baby was coming, and I could not leave.

*   *   *

Now Virgil’s arms are posed awkwardly out and away from his body. He leans forward toward Danny and me, balanced on his right knee. His stance looks as though he wants to take flight to join us but is too heavy to leave the ground. The fingers of each hand are spread wide, as though in fear.

I look at the large circular Seth Thomas clock hanging on the outside wall of the station: five twenty-six. The train is due in less than ten minutes.

“The letter was dated late August and it had taken weeks to get here. So Sissy doesn’t even know how Gene is now…if he…” My words trail off….

Neither my son nor husband answer me.

*   *   *

In the duffel bag I have also packed Danny’s Cardinals cap: two-tone blue and red with the team logo above a curved bill.

As if Danny reads my mind, he says to Virgil, “You’ll watch the big game for me, sir.”

Virgil smiles, a lovely smile, really, when it breaks across his face.

“You think Billy Southworth can make that team keep on with its streak? Even against the Yankees?”

I look down the tracks again; curving pink ribbons now paint the sky. A full circle of sun balances on the horizon, with a small, dark smudge inside it.

“Sure. With Whitey and Creepy and Stan, they’ll do it. You wait and see.”

Then Daniel says, “There’ll be plenty of work to keep you busy when you get back home, Mom. You’ll be OK.”

Virgil pushes his hat up and looks at me, almost softly, still happy from his own baseball memories. Then he squints at me and says, “We’re out of beer, Ruthann.” Alcohol content was down because of grain rationing, so when Virgil drank, he drank many, many bottles.

I look away from him.

“You’ll get that window on the truck fixed, right, Dad? Before cold weather sets in. What happened to it anyway?”

I look at Daniel, startled. He hadn’t seen. I need him to know what Virgil did.

Virgil shrugs and pulls a bent and wrinkled cigarette from his pocket, then turns away to light it. I look toward the truck and see the water tower rising tall behind it.

Before the war, that tower was always lit with white lights at night. A walkway circled the top. During high school, Daniel and Gene and Benjamin Lee and Junior and Will sat and drank Orange Crush and must have talked about the things boys talk about.

“I read in the paper yesterday that ‘going west’ meant going off to die.”

“Ruthann, shut up. The boy don’t need to hear that.”

Didn’t he?

The cloud of black smoke grows bigger.

I read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Kansas City Journal-Post every morning. Pick them up at Ike Gruber’s grocery after I feed Virgil and Daniel and wash the dishes and make the beds and feed the cows, chickens, and pigs, and come up with a plan for dinner. I sit at the kitchen table and read, a half cup of tea cooling at my elbow, for one hour. I know more about what is going on in the world than Virgil does and most of the other folks in town. This doesn’t make me proud; it makes me lonely.

*   *   *

 “You ever been on a train, Mom?” Daniel asks.

“You took the train to St. Louis once,” he says, answering his own question.

Yes.

“I don’t remember that,” Virgil says.

“I do,” I say. “Six years ago. You were working for Paddy Cruikshank that weekend, over in La Plata. He had a construction job. Danny was on a trip with church. So Edith and I took the train for the opening of the Jewel Box.

“The Jewel Box,” I say, again, as though the words are candy in my mouth.

We’d taken a streetcar, green with yellow lettering on its side. Number 33. We’d walked past the reflecting pool at the entrance, stared up at the fifty-foot-high glass conservatory. Inside, we’d walked around the concrete balcony, looking up and down on all the living things: hundreds of flowers, plants, and trees, all of them lit by sunshine streaming in through thousands of panes of glass set in verdigris wrought-iron supports. Hundreds of chrysanthemum in a formal Chinese design. Trees stretching toward the art deco roof. Baskets of flowering plants hanging from the ceiling. Roses growing up forest-green trellises, tall stalks of iris, even an orange tree growing like a miracle indoors.

And afterward, Edith and I had a picnic near a wooden bandstand and Moorish bridge. There were bear pits on the grounds, a herd of buffalo and one of elk, a sacred cow called a zebu. Animals from many foreign lands.

“It took my breath away,” I said softly.

Virgil’s brow wrinkles, and I give him a tight smile. “I wouldn’t have gone if you’d been home,” I say and he nods, placated. The snake inside me takes another loop through my insides.

“I wonder if you could see it before you…”

Virgil snorts, and even Danny looks embarrassed.

“He’s a man, not a boy. He’s going to save our country.”

But there are so many things worth saving.

*   *   *

Here’s what happened last night, what I want to say to Danny:

After you were asleep in your room, Virgil came home from Corky’s.

I got out of bed where I lay sleepless and went to the window overlooking the side yard. I saw Virgil get out of the pickup, stomp through the garden.

I put my hands on the window ready to push it up to tell him to stop but I couldn’t. He looked like a madman in the moonlight, his hat pulled so low I couldn’t see his eyes, his boots dancing crazily, stepping in this row of squash and that row of cabbage. Getting his foot caught in pumpkin vines and ripping the vines out of the dirt. He bent and when he stood up, he held an early pumpkin in his hand. Moonlight outlined its vertical ridges.

He turned, stumbling, then lifted his arm and moved it in circles like a pitcher on the mound. I watched the pumpkin leave his hand and fly into the window of the truck. I did not hear a thing but watched the glass fall to the ground, each piece holding a drop of fractured moonlight.

*   *   *

I look at the clock again: four minutes left. The dark smudge inside the sun has turned into something recognizable, a black train traveling swiftly toward us, its cars curving around bends like an iron snake.

Smoke billows from its stack and its melancholy whistle shouts its code: short, short, long, short.

Despite myself, I make a small noise, like an animal.

*   *   *

“I think I’m going to throw up,” I say and turn to run inside the station. I pass a tall rack of train schedules, and to the left, see an open door to the LADIES room. I run in, clutching my skirt in front of me. I avoid the mirror, just bend and suck in air to breathe.

I hear the train whistle and hurry out. Daniel stands inside the station, near the door, holding something in his hand.

I run to him, throw my arms around his neck, and hug him tight to me.

“Ma,” he says, “I love you.”

Then he pushes me back from him gently, keeping one arm on my shoulder and with his free hand, gives me the folded piece of brown paper he’s holding. It’s tall and slim, with a huge red starburst. Missouri Pacific Lines. A line drawing of a train with a single curved line behind it showing a mountain and “over there.”

It’s a train schedule to St. Louis.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.” He pulls me quickly behind him out to the platform.

*   *   *

The train has pulled up—a massive black beast of metal and smoke, belching its arrival, and deafening us with the insistent, high-pitched blares of its whistle.

The doors open. A conductor in blue shirt and pants says “All aboard” as though he doesn’t know or care if those words might change peoples’ lives forever.

The beast would take Daniel away, and then I knew the secrets that had bound us would no longer need to be hidden.

Imagine living seventeen years with secrets, I think, as I watch Daniel take a step toward Virgil and throw one arm manfully around his father’s—no, no more. Around Virgil’s shoulders.

“Dad,” Daniel says to Virgil. “Take care.” And he shakes his hand and salutes him.

A cry escapes me, hidden in the howl of the train.

“Go on now, get on board,” Virgil shouts and I push Daniel away because I have to. And he climbs up one, two, three steps into the maw between two train cars.

*   *   *

He turns to face us, his boots apart to balance himself, duffel bag in one hand.

“You forgot the bag of food!” I shout but Daniel only shakes his head.

Virgil stands to my right, lighting a cigarette, blowing its smoke up into the sky.

He has no idea though surely he has wondered how he sired this pretty-faced, tall boy. This sensitive boy.

It made no difference where Daniel’s real father was. He himself had chosen not to stand to watch his son go off to war, or learn to read or write or throw a ball.

Once more the conductor shouts, “All aboard!”

He pulls up the stairs. Daniel shifts out of view, then returns. He winks at me and smiles. Then the train wheels begin to turn slowly and pick up speed.

“Kill me a Jap!” Virgil shouts, crushing his cigarette beneath his boot.

Has some of his anger come from all I withheld? Or have I withheld because of his anger? It is really too much to think about, and I concentrate on watching Daniel’s shrinking body leaning out of the vanishing train until I can’t see him any more. As the train cars passed me, I felt their movement against my body.

“Well, there you go,” Virgil sighs. And I know I will remember the depth of that sigh and wonder about my own responsibility for it the rest of my life.

I’d been so young. The professor had invited me to his apartment, poured glasses of wine I’d never tasted. Virgil an innocent bystander, and when I met him, I hadn’t even known yet about the pregnancy and, like my new husband, assumed the child was ours. It was only as the boy grew that I understood what had happened.

I had been so eager to love Virgil. What had gone wrong? Every tantrum he threw made me pull farther away until there was nothing but that gap between us. And Daniel. And the secrets.

*   *   *

Neither of us speak as we walk to the truck. Virgil climbs into the driver’s seat and I climb into the passenger side, next to the broken window.

I sit quietly, thinking, then finally say, “Let’s stop and get you some beers, Virgil. You deserve it after a day like today.”

I know he will drink too much and the beers will put him to sleep until late tomorrow morning. I finger the train schedule in my pocket.

After I study it at home, I will go out to my garden. I will try to repair the damage Virgil and I have both done. Next year, here or somewhere else, I will plant another garden. Pumpkins, potatoes, kale. Roses and iris, perhaps even an orange tree. Everything will grow with my good care. I have years of gardens ahead of me, and food enough to fill any hunger.

____

Donna Baier Stein is an MFA graduate from John Hopkins, and was a founding editor of Bellevue Literary Review.  She is currently the publisher of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. Her story collection, Great Drawing Board of the Sky, was a finalist in the Iowa Fiction Awards; Her novel, Fortune, received the PEN New England Discovery Award and was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. She received the Raymond Sokolov Scholarship at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, and a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. Donna’s writing has received two Pushcart nominations, and she has received awards from Kansas Quarterly and Florida Review.

Her prose and poetry have appeared in Confrontation, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Florida Review, New York Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, G.W. Review, Poet Lore, Beloit Poetry Journal, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, Carolina Quarterly, Phoebe, Many Mountains Moving, and Alembic, among others. For over thirty years, Donna has also had a successful career as a direct marketing copywriter with clients including the Smithsonian, Time, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund, among others. John Barth, Caroline Leavitt, Howard Nemerov, Tim O’Brien, Hilma Wolitzer, and Peter Sacks are just a few of the wonderful authors she has studied with.


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