Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!



Time seems to sort things out. Wait a year, maybe ten, there’s hardly an answer you won’t find.  Richmond, a place along the way, a town, a city, a heartbeat or lifetime from where the world began. 

Then, it was a beautiful fall morning. Soft and easy by mid-afternoon, life filled the autumn air. Nature seemed to lift the streets up into the clear November sky.  Yet, to look at the sad and confused faces, you knew something was wrong.  Men and women walked along Broad Street carrying bags and packages, but their heads leaned mostly down.  Being a man, the men especially, their hands reaching down into pockets for something that was no longer there.  When eyes met, they looked past and beyond, like ghosts pulled into the sunlight. 

In circles, I paused in front of the department store, Miller & Rhodes.  Purple cloth, black drapes, memorials instead of snazzy dresses and dapper mohair suits.  The windows, now glass-encased memorials, displayed pictures framed in gold, each depicting a yesterday when he was alive and confident and smiling. 

A black woman stopped to ask the time, but recanted, the hour or minute just didn’t seem to matter.  What could I say, a visitor, a person passing through incidentally taking note.  Come back, it’s four o’clock.  Come back, take my hand.  But she walked away dragging the weight of the world behind. 

Fifty-five cents an hour, that’s what the man said; “If you want to wash dishes, the pay is 55-cents an hour.” 

Let’s see, if I take the job and work forty hours, that will come to – 40 times 50-cents, uhhmm…  two-three, eight-ten, twenty dollars, plus the nickels, uh… add two more dollars. Combined, yup, that’s a grand total of 2,200 cents per week.  Where am I, Bolivia?

“No, you’re in the historic Richmond Hotel.”  Well, let’s say I was to do something else, say, something not specifically involving dishes?  “What else can you do?”  Anything.  “Alright, we need a night steward, starting pay is $65 per week, plus meals.”  That sounds good, I’ll take it.  “You say on your application here that you’re twenty-one years old, but frankly, you look younger.”  Does it matter?  “Not to me, but you must be at least eighteen for the position.”  Here’s my driver’s license.  “Good, you start tomorrow, four o’clock.”

When, near sunset, I walked out onto Grace Street, I was still wondering who in their right mind would work for 55-cents an hour.  The red western sky didn’t wipe out my thinking about how anyone could live on 2,200 pennies a week , even in Richmond during the year 1963.  Had I traveled that far from New York, a hundred years back, to 1863, exiting the time machine right in the middle of that uncivil war?  In a word, apparently.  Yet, there’s more to this, like black, and slavery, and my first encounter with freedom.

As the sun traveled further west, I considered what, exactly, does a “night steward” do?  It must be some kind of manager, I thought, like a boss of dishwashers.  I imagined standing around, flank over the dish-boys, the busboys, the slaves.  I was getting the picture, but not precisely.  I mean, what do you do, exactly, how do you behave, “Hey, you-boy, yes, YOU-boy, get over here’an mop up this damn floor!”  For a dime?  I’d rather mop it myself, and not to save the hotel ten pennies.  How does a man, “even” a black man survive on twenty two dollars a week?  The last time I washed dishes I was paid $1.25 per hour, and then I was barely sixteen.  On twenty-two dollars a week, I couldn’t afford a library card.    

Welcome to the deep south, welcome to the land of cotton, tobacco, and singing Negroes.  The head chef was a Negro.  I was the night steward, his boss.  Hey, wait another minute, “I” was his boss?  That’s right, I was his boss.  Made sense, too, I’m the white and he’s the Negro.  Even if he did know a world more and was thirty years my senior, I was his boss, I, the former dishwasher.

His name was Samuel, Chef Samuel, and for the most part, self-taught in that very same kitchen beginning when he was fourteen.  His chef’s salary was under a hundred dollars per week, and now that I know what I know, with one hand tied behind his back he could have run the kitchen at the Hotel St. Moritz.  In Richmond, however, ninety two dollars a week, that’s what he got, and no thanks, which was only slightly more than the rate in Angola.

In whispers, Chef Sam advised me not to fraternize with the help, the Negro help.  During the evenings, I was the only white employee in the kitchen, the banquet rooms, the hotel restaurant, and the hotel coffee shop.  At night, I stood out like - a boss.

A week earlier I had been hitchhiking, riding south on U.S. Highway One in a white man’s Dodge bound for Florida.  He turned right on Broad Street, the edge of downtown Richmond, that’s where I got out.  Until that moment, I’d never given a thought to Richmond.  Maybe in a history lesson, but surely, in no other willing way. Who thinks about Richmond, what’s in Richmond, except Negroes and bosses. 

I stood for a moment on the corner of US #301 and Broad Street.  It was 3:30 in the afternoon, I was hungry, thirsty, and had twelve dollars in my pocket.  But there was something else, something pulling me off the road.  I thought it was the red Coke sign, or the call of a hamburger. I’d hitchhiked 300-odd miles since daybreak, listened to a few stories, and made up a few of my own as we went along.  People who pick up hitchhikers, and hitchhikers themselves, usually tell stories.  Like this one guy, running away from his “crazy” wife.  And the young couple who picked me up in Delaware; they we’re looking for a bank to rob, wanted me to drive the getaway car.  No kiddin’, they we’re bank robbers, driving an Oldsmobile with a hot-rod engine.  And that last guy, the one driving the Dodge, he talked us all the way back to his first love in Nova Scotia, “What a beauty,” he said.  She must have been, still thinking about her twenty seven years later.  I should talk, already one full day beyond the love I left behind.

Florida was a long way from New York, more than a thousand miles.  If I had to walk back to New York from Miami, it would take months.  That’s what crossed my mind while sitting there in a luncheonette eating a 25-cent hamburger and sipping a 10-cent Coke.  Between crossings, I read a leftover Richmond newspaper, the help-wanted ads. 

“Where’s the Richmond Hotel,” I asked the counterman.  “Oh, ‘bout eight blocks yonder.”


Look what I’ve done to the good reputation of Richmond.  Push me beyond this black and white, and I’ll tell you about the spirit and sound, the heart, and my Grace Street room.  There, for example, on certain late nights, you’d hear a Russian folk song called Kalinka, this rousing rendition having jumped ship with Sergi and his duffel-bag. On occasion, around two-fingers past midnight, our rooming house was transformed into the Caucuses, the Steps at harvest time. Shirtless and pantless Sergi would burst from his room in dance, singing Kalinka at the top of his Russian lungs.  If not for the raw hour and indelicate manner, it was operatic, his voice equal to any Red Army tenor.  But, his energy and talent were no match for our folk-lady and resident landlord, a soprano with depth and power three flights below; “Sergi, shut the hell up, get the hell back in your room an’ go the hell to sleep!”

Miss Moore, the landlady, grew up picking cotton.  She was in the cotton fields long before Sergi-the-tenor was born.  She carried the bales on her man-sized back, breathed the lint-filled air into her lungs, and never gave in.  Thinking of her brings a freight-train to mind, the diesel pulling the rooming-house from sun-up to sun-down.  But when evening came, she repaired to her rocker on the front porch where she told her stories, gently, or read her bible, nodding.  Mr. Moore, her husband, had died from “the tobacco” not long after they’d invested their life savings in this first and last house.  Since then, it was known as “Miss Moore’s Rooming House”.  It had been built board-on-board before the Civil War, before indoor fixtures but after gas-pipe lighting.  Since the years of square nails and railroad rooms, the house had retained the character and feel reminiscent of a momentous era.  If you listened, especially at night, you could hear the voices and conversations, the plots against Lincoln and the Union, and the heavy price they paid.                

But now for the other part, my part, her part, the love I left behind.  We met young, married young, and divorced young.  We shared the times, our youthful lives, the fault.  She was the most beautiful girl who ever fell to earth, and when she landed, her Romeo was waiting.  You’ve been in love, you know how true this is, that never was a better match  made in heaven.  You know how we awaken from the mundane sleep to every sight and sound more alive than humanely possible.  We’re angels, embraced, inseparable, walking on earth, together brighter than the moon and stars.  Even now, after all the others, I tell you, she was the most beautiful girl on earth.

When finally my heart hit the ground, I hit the road.  This is precisely how and why I arrived in Richmond.  I didn’t pick the when, or the place, just the road. I was on a highway away from the pain of seeing her, feeling her.  I could’ve gone north or west or sailed east, but the where didn’t matter – as long as I wouldn’t see her.  You know what I’m talking about, how our knees give way and the heart pounds like a Liberty bell, how totally vacant the world becomes when she turns and walks away.  Put me to the rack and gouge my eyes out, it pales in relief.  Only the road, a hundred or ten thousand miles will do us parting.  I prayed not to see her, but no use, not when the moon rises to call her back to earth, my earth. 

In the dark she appeared everywhere, on Broad Street, in the hotel, walking the rooming house halls.  She’d sit on my bed, read my letters, offer to do the laundry.  Every night, in sleep, she’d press her shoulders back, posing, tempting me, the flame unto my soul.  We made love, all night, we made love.  And more than anything, being with her was the only place I belonged.  If you see her, you can tell her, too.  She’s out there, somewhere, the journeys of road haven’t changed a thing. 

Yet, make no error, the fates must never pass unchallenged.  All loves undertake a small and big thing to defy such fateful opposition.  For my part, my sword and love is my pen.  Here, I can tell the truth, I can defend or attack, retreat or advance.  And so it was, when I took up my pen on the fateful night I met - him.


I hadn’t arrived a particular Poe fan, and discovered Edgar’s Richmond residence by blindly wandering up to his run down, boarded up front door.  I had paused during a nightly walk to light a full-flavored Richmond cigarette, and barely noticed the small weather-beaten plaque – bleak in its announcement of the poet once in.   

The tiny, blackened brick structure sat silent not six feet from the Broad Street curb, in a neighborhood considerably more ‘hood then neighborly.  I didn’t hear any complaints though, from Edgar or the nearby dead-enders.

I was struck by the cadence of my discovery, late October, when certain spirits are known to carouse in anticipation of their annual hell-raising night.  Of all writers, I think, Poe was most in league with these ghosts of passing autumn, each and all hell-bent on maintaining Edgar’s unique graveside manner.  So, for a time I stood facing the tarnished brass plaque, imagining Poe’s quill, he, tormented by love, the darkness within fermenting the pall of his soul’s deepening pit.

Me, I was merely mortal, peering through an urban-stained window, fancying his voice in lament, “Oh, what will the gods write, to her?!”   The answer, I thought, was all around, even above where a red-eyed crow patrolled the roof-line - oblivious to the bricks falling from the walls, or the lantern swinging as a pendulum marking dead time. 

My smoke nearly done, I knocked, and knocked again.  No answer, not a peep. So, burnt tobacco turned under foot, I walked back through the late October night to my cottage, one more humble than Poe’s.  It was a room of the most rented sort, again, dated before thoughts of indoor plumbing.  Edison’s amazing electricity had since been added, evidenced by a single, 32-watt bulb dangling above this occupant’s head. The modern amenity lent movement to an otherwise stagnant space, and character to the seemingly monstrous creatures crawling in devilish directions across the cracked and dangling paper walls.

There I sat, after Poe, the room monsters crisscrossing by marginalized light.  What to write, what do I know worth saying – to her?  My tablet, written empty already, and empty it seemed destined to remain, its pencil as sharp as school-day at Woolworth’s.  Even with Edgar’s voice crowding my ear, my pencil had no letters to say.  So, I just sat there looking down from my three-up window at the night-scene below.  A lone street lamp peered from under branches of fall leaves, their long limbs mapping an old-south tenement.  Sounds on the wind could be heard, my bulb moving to and fro, faintly tapping a roomer’s wall.

When the hour was right and the heart weak, as Edgar sat quiet and the leaves died down, inspiration slipped in between the walls and blank paper.  So obvious, too, when it finally came, like instructions for repairing a bleeding heart by word and sentence until the letters were stitched and sewn to go on their way.  Yes, I’ll remove her thrust and lay it down, and not since Shelly or Shakespeare bury it so deeply into Sir Woolworth’s paper.

With creatures keeping good company, I pressed the point down again and again,  sheet after sheet, until the words made love. I re-read the lines a hundred times, and a hundred more, until from the near shadow Edgar finally spoke up;

“You’ve touched heart to paper like none before, every word in love till the end!  If only I could have penned such a letter, life would have lived so different!”

It’s not every night I heard such critic’s words, or witnessed crawlers hesitating to peek over my shoulder.  The letter was ready, and if she reads my words standing up, the first line will sit her right down.  Yet, fear stalks the writer’s room, and more than a voice that my written words will drown in the coming flood of daylight.  No wonder my friend journeys the darkness as man into madness, and no but time to say he’s risen to earth from hell.

I was hardly alone, and before the stalker had me fast by the throat, Edgar shouted; “Send it now, go, don’t delay or doubt, soon she’ll see what you’ve done!”

With that I was out the door, air-stamp in place, now vividly recalling the sound of summer’s leaves under foot.  Passed crumbling pine houses and long-standing stone buildings, the greatest love letter ever written searched for a mailbox. Richmond was asleep, every curtain drawn, only old street lamps and distant stars lifted the night. The blocks not counted, I arrived at  a dark corner, a post box open all hours.  The metal screeched open, and welcome, happy to keep my letter safe until the carriage returned to carry my words north. 

My mind turned room-ward until I stood again within its dilapidated walls, and there the creatures preparing for their coming grave-robbing business.  I noticed the abandoned shadow, too,  Sir Poe having repaired to his cottage in the ‘hood.  For a moment I sat in a roomer’s old chair, noting the used tablets scattered about the worn, wooden floor, my pencil on the small table in need of sharpening.  Finally, I laid in the room’s sunken bed, one shoe on, one shoe off, not thinking to fall sound asleep.  A last thought of words, and letters, of ships in the night, of love won, and lost.  The sun was coming and the night was over, gone as easily as distant dreams and yesterday’s lunch.

The following week ran in a blur, except the night annual sinners leapt from their skins, accompanied by rent-a-room creatures chasing about Richmond’s moonless streets like starving undertakers.  Just as well, to pass the time, while the entire week moved its days until I had good reason to float down Broad Street again. 

“Edgar, open the door!” I spoke loud to the window, holding up a letter addressed to me.  “She answered” I called out, the hour on midnight.  I could barely see the dark figure sitting at his table, feather busily in hand; “Edgar, she loves me!”  Yet, the good news did not move his chair, or him, although it did move his neighbors in the ‘hood.  As I was preparing to take higher ground, Edgar finally spoke up; “I’m writing, come back in the spring, and if I’m alive, we’ll celebrate then!”

Well, not too much to ask for all given, so at his table I left him – to write in life, come death before spring…


Beyond Poe, beyond his chamber of fear-filled fiction, come back to the rooming house and sit on the old raised porch facing Grace Street.  Sergi, the dancer, the Russian, is sitting there alone.  It’s late, everyone’s in their dollar-a-night bed dredging up things past, things taken or left along the road.  Sergi had had at least some of it, once; a wife and two boys, a mother and father, grandparents, a younger sister in Novasibrisk, a brother in southern Georgia.  But somewhere along the way he had lost them all.  Two went to the Gulag, others simply disappeared.  I never looked on a man so lonely, he had no place to go back to, to hope about, not a living person to welcome him home.

What ironies, life.  Sergi was a big, physically powerful man, sometimes stumbling, other times walking away mightily from the past.  When he jumped ship in Norfolk, the captain let him go without a whistle.  What’s the use, the captain thought, Sergi will only come back and kill me.  Sergi hadn’t “jumped”, he had walked out a cargo door after telling the captain he’d kill’em, if.  He said so in heavy Russian, mad Russian, not the English broken by his foreign ear.  He told this story piece-meal, a little last night, a little last Friday night. Like me, Sergi also went for walks during the late hours, but unlike me, he walked alone.  I walked to remember, he walked to forget.  Yet, you know how this is, how the past follows right along bleeding in our ear. 

To tell the truth, I don’t like thinking about Sergi.  I’d rather be back there on the porch listening to his voice speaking nearly unintelligible English.  Sergi, heart open, also listened to me in nearly understandable English.  In the matters of certain men, there are the rare times when minds meet away from words, it’s a sense, a connection, a trust.  Words talk through the eyes, and manner, the gestured accounts opened for no passing stranger.  Brothers of the blood, passing like ships, anchoring as friends.  Maybe it’s spiritual, sky-travelers sailing the earth, meeting at rooming houses and then continuing on their way.   He’s still out there.  When you meet him, say I said hello.  Tell him everything worked out, that I’ll see him on the next porch.  Tell him I’ve put on a little weight, but I’m still up all hours, the landlady still complains.  Otherwise, everything worked out.         


Not long after, I left Richmond and never returned. But I want to end this where we began, on Broad Street.  You will recall, it was a spectacular fall day, yet the people seemed  distracted, upset, almost surreal.  I remember the date, too, November 22, 1963.

The final, all-encompassing memory of Richmond was when I stepped into Miller & Rhodes.  Mannequins stood motionless behind counters, mannequins stood motionless in the isles.  There were no words, no exchanges, only people suspended in animation.  Not a sound to be heard, not in front, not in back, not a bell, not a register. Why had I entered, having never entered before.  It seemed more a church during that clear, waning November afternoon, a mournful, inescapable procession silently drifting in from Broad Street, and the world.  The news had been all too much that day, the president had been assassinated, the president was dead.  From sea to sad, shining sea, a lone pipe called the sun to go away.


© 2003/2016 by David M. Molloy


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