The Midnight Train
“Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole…”
It was an anonymous night. Not a single shining thing could be made out in the darkness, only the lights from the cars of the train, and beneath them, the faces of the passengers in their seats.
As the train made its way down the track each car rocked and swayed, and like infants in their cradles, the passengers, too, rocked and swayed with it. Among them you could find every kind of colored eyes. All sorts of shapes and sizes of nose and ears. There were grins of perfect and crooked teeth. There were frowns of solemnity. There were fits of soft laughter and murmurings. Simple nods and gestures. Heads bobbed. Eyes blinked. Somewhere a baby could be heard making new bubbling noises. An elderly man coughed. And the train rolled on into the night.
“Where are you headed?” a girl was asked by the man sitting next to her.
She gave him a curious look.
“That’s none of your business.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I was just making conversation.”
“Why don’t you just leave me alone and make conversation with somebody else.”
The girl turned and stared out the window. She could see in the reflection the man shake his head, smirk, reach into his bag at his feet, pull out a book, flip it open and begin to read with a smirk still on his face.
If only the moon would come out, she thought. It’s too dark out there.
In another part of the train a mother gazed lovingly at her baby swaddled in her arms. She made certain observations about the child’s features: His face was certainly resemblant of his father, there was no doubt about it, but his eyes and lips were hers. The baby then gave a look that reminded her of her uncle who had long since passed, a man she recognized as admirable.
How strange, she thought. How did he know to make that face? He’s only two months old and he knows so much.
She teased him and the baby began to laugh. An elderly man sitting across the aisle watched and smiled too.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than the laughter of a child,” he commented to the mother.
She looked up at him and nodded in agreement, then went back to playing with her baby.
He will be a man, she thought. A good man full of love and laughter.
The old man stared admiringly at the mother and her baby for sometime before falling into a deep and rueful contemplation. He looked at his hands, how the carvings of time had had their way with them. Each scar had a story to tell. He ran his right hand over where the tip of his left pinky used to be. Then in the same instant he shook himself free of the thought by readjusting his position in his seat and let his eyes wander vacantly around the train car.
The act of movement, going from one place to another when the body is at rest, is a meditation. It can send the mind whirling through colorful and impressionable visions without effort. In that space there is an infinite amount of time to extract and mull over the things one wishes they could change, they could do, make or see. Memories play out like movie reels as the flashing of landscape rolls passed, as the vessel transports through the vestibule of experience. Passive thoughts of worry and doubt dissipate like clouds and become scenes of fantasy and fiction. Inward laughter at the silly and ridiculousness of it all brings a subtle smile to the face, as if not to mock, but agree. And the beauty, too, dangles impermanently before the passenger, as simple as can be, without the anxieties of loss and external pressures.
“I love to travel!” a woman said to the man next to her. “It’s so exciting. You never know what’s going to happen, who you’ll meet, where you’ll end up. The adventures and possibilities are endless.”
“I can’t stand it,” the man said. “If I could stay put for the rest of my life I would. There are too many people. Too many strange and disgusting smells. Ugh. I’m getting sick thinking about it.”
“What are you doing on this train then?”
“My father died last week and my mother is all alone now, so there’s no one to take care of her. I’m going to bring her home with me . . . I tell you, if I didn’t have to go, I wouldn’t!”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Ha! Don’t be silly. My father was an asshole. The world is better off without him.”
“Oh. I’m sure he couldn’t have been all that bad.”
“Believe you me, the man was awful.”
“Even still, there has to be some memory of him that is worth holding onto. Most of the time we remember things how we want them to be, not how they always were.”
“No, I’m sure of it. Nothing good came from that man.”
After he said it, he looked away from the woman and fell to thinking. Had there been something he forgot? Was there any light from the past? What was it that made his father so repugnant towards him? Wasn’t his father, too, a man of circumstances like him? Isn’t character produced by such things?
The train rolled on.
Many of the passengers had fell asleep by this time. Others shifted in discomfort and found it difficult to find a way to relax. They looked on enviously at those who could sleep effortlessly and wished they, too, were in a deep slumber and would awake upon arrival at their destination. Some of the passengers sat pensively, their minds lost in reverie. Others stared out the window looking for a new possibility, some dream that might’ve escaped them, some notion that could be found, right there, in perfect peace, with nothing and no one to rattle or waver it beyond its inception. But it is no easy task to grasp at phantoms, and as soon as the idea comes it goes without effort, and they are left with some new thought or idea and the mind moves on, working in its own way.
“Look, I didn’t mean to pry. I’ve obviously upset you. I didn’t mean to.”
The girl turned and faced the man. She stared at him a while.
“What are you reading?” She finally asked.
“It’s a book of limericks.”
“That’s an odd book to be reading. Why are you reading limericks?”
“I’m a teacher, and I’m always looking for new ways to share some insight with my students. They are young and impressionable. I’ve found it’s best to give them a new perspective on things. A limerick is just the sort of thing to make you laugh, or think”
“Any good ones in there?”
“Oh yes. There’s plenty of them.”
“Would you mind sharing one with me?”
The man fanned the pages of the book and found one marked.
“This is one of my favorites:
In History’s mysteries vast,
the present’s as strange as the past,
but before you condemn,
remember — pro tem —
You also are one of the cast.”
The girl sat for some time, thinking. Then smiled.
“I’m headed for a fresh start,” she said at last. “I guess you could say I’m looking for a new perspective on things.”
The night is like a stranger, and the mystery of it unfolds with every passing second. There was the sound of grunting and loud snarls from some of the sleepers, there were syncopated wheezing breaths and sniffling in between that played in the ears of those awake. Whispers were barely audible, only the sound could be discerned. A man sat impatiently, checking the time ever few minutes. A woman rubbed her temples. Another man tapped his foot, the wood soles of his shoes gave an echoing clap and began to annoy the man sitting next to him. Someone sneezed. Someone blessed them out of habit. And the train rolled on.
“I never had any children of my own,” the old man said to the woman with the baby. “I always wanted one or two but never got around to it. Life tends to move faster than you want.”
The woman gave a slight smile.
“Would you mind if I held him?”
The woman hesitated at first, then, remembering she wanted her son to be a man among people, handed him to the old man.
“Of course,” she replied.
The old man took the baby in his arms and rocked him back and forth.
“He’s certainly a happy baby.”
“Oh yes. I’m very fortunate.”
“Seems like he doesn’t fuss much, either.”
“Only when he’s hungry.”
They both laughed. The baby laughed with them.
“Don’t we all,” the old man said, looking on at the little thing.
“He’s warm too.”
The mother nodded with pride.
“Kind of like a little radiating ball of light.”
The old man placed his right hand on the child’s chest and felt the beating of his heart. There was life in there. Pulsating. The baby, with his tiny hands, clasped on to the old man’s wrinkled thumb, held it tight and smiled with unbridled joy. Tears formed in the old man’s eyes.
“What’s his name?” The old man asked.
The old man looked at the mother. Then back at the child.
“Well now, Paul. You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
And the train rolled on.