On the Rails



af Jonathan Matthew Schwartz


He could see they were rusty, just two of them parallel until they hit the horizon between the scrubby trees. Probably poplars.

Waiting for the train, shifting the cardboard suitcase from one hand to another instead of letting it down on the cinders. His shoes crunched the cinders. Slag from the furnaces shoveled out from coal cars and raked out beside the tracks. It had rained. The cinders seemed clean and shining.

When he heard the train coming, he put the suitcase down for the first time and searched for his ticket. Which pocket? Pants, shirt, jacket. Five pockets. It was the shirt.

First the diesel smoke, then the diesel sound, then shrill brakes on every wheel. Some sparks as well.

The final squeal and then a lurching stop. He had heard this before. The groaning of the engine and the smell of burning oil. The bloodlike taste of rust. Ferric, ferric oxide. Or ferric sulfate. High school chemistry.

The conductor wore glasses, stepped down onto the cinders and looked at his feet before he noticed the only new passenger standing there, suitcase in left hand, ticket  held out in the right. “I’ll see it later,” the conductor said.

The nearly empty car smelled like the others he had ridden in. The only three passengers sat up front.  A young couple sat close together on the left side of the aisle, their seats facing forward. An old man sat on the right side dozing, his head against the window, slipping backwards, as the conductor blew his whistle and the train jerked forward more abruptly than expected.

Where should he sit? Ride forwards or backwards? He ruled out sitting alone as he passed by the rows of empty seats.  He would leave the old man to his sleep and sit on the right side behind the old man so that he could see the young couple enjoying themselves.

The girl was about twenty. Her smile showed  the gaps in her teeth. Her ear rings shook with the train’s acceleration. So did her breasts.  Both turned towards him as he finally chose his seat. She nodded to him and watched him lifting the bag onto the overhead rack, which was barely wide enough to hold it.  He thought he looked like a basketball player shooting the ball. It was a good choice for a place to sit. Sociable but not pushy. College sociology.

Her boy friend looked over at him and also nodded. Said “Hi there” and turned back to his girlfriend. He resumed lifting from her knee the hem of her blue cotton skirt and explored the warm, smooth inside of her thigh with his little finger.

the soul is the weariest part of the body
Jonathan Schwartz, February 13, 2010      Helsingør, DK


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