Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


Passing Trains

The place; Grand Central Station.  The time; 2:59 a.m..

“They’re like ghosts,” said the pretty girl on the platform.
“They always leave on track 109,” she added.
“I don’t understand, there must be five thousand people.”
“Oh, don’t worry; there’ll be plenty of seats.”
“Look at all the luggage; are they going to the moon?”
“Maybe, or a bit farther,” the pretty girl replied.

If this seems strange, it was.  I was taking the night’s last train to Pelham, on the New Haven local, yet the conductor called all destinations via the Hudson River line, “Pelham Hudson River Express, now departing,” he yelled.

Something about late night travel, its mysterious adjustments of clocks, those few hours tucked in between solitude and twilight, traveling short suspensions over spans of transient time. 

I expected to be squeezed in like a sardine, but the car was empty – except for the girl.  So, with a hundred empty seats, why did I sit right next to her?   I’m not so forward, even close to a pretty girl, but for some unrevealed reason the only seat available was the seat revealed next to her.  Then, as I sat down, the car was full – with men bundled up, women holding babies, old people, young people, husbands and wives, grandparents and grandchildren – and baggage, packages, pieces of furniture, worldly memories and family treasures, even sacred, gold-leaf texts. 

I thought to ask, but sat quite.  The doors closed, two whistles, and the Express pulled out on track 109.  Underground, through the unlit tunnel we moved, not rocking to the rhythm of track-ity-track, but smooth as glass, onward, riding on air.  The conductor walked though our crowded car, stopping only once – punching only one ticket; “Pelham, next stop” he said.     

“Forgive me, but where are all these people going in the middle of the night?”
“Home” the pretty girl replied.
“They all live in Pelham?”
“Oh, no, but it’s on the way.”
“Do you know where they came from?”
“Delancey Street.”
“Delancey Street, in New York?”
“Yes, that’s right.”

Very odd, I thought, yet normal as night and moonlight dancing on the river, the express following the Hudson toward and away from Pelham.  No use wrestling with track or destination, since strange trains have carried me late before.  Only last week, I passed Helsinki riding the subway system, specifically, the Lexington Avenue local.  Now I’m traveling to Pelham, 27 minutes by the schedule – via the Hudson River Line.  But this night, hardly a moment to gaze out the windows while in the company of joyous strangers led, apparently, by a pretty girl.

“Most people don’t notice, but this happens all the time.”
“Tell me, why are they dressed as if from another era, like people from the 1920’s or 30’s?”
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“No, not exactly, no, not at all.”
“I can’t tell you everything, but everyone on this train is – except for you and me – from an old neighborhood, together again and finally departing after years apart.”
“Well, where are they going, if not Pelham?”
“Home, and home is a long way from Pelham.”

I had been on a similar train before, but without her voice, or any voice.  That train was also filled to capacity, leaving the station with standing room only.  It too was late at night, but the trip seemed less undeniable, but not less memorable.  I had asked several of the travelers where they were going, and why so late at night, yet no one seemed quite able to hear.  That time, when we emerged from the long Grand Central tunnel, it was daylight, so bright I thought us riding the equator.  And, for moments the silence turned to excitement and exclamation, in the Spanish I couldn’t understand.  Most astounding, everyone –except me- got off in Havana, yet the train never stopped.  I saw the station sign as if we were standing still, but I swear we never even slowed down.  No conductor announced “Havana”, but after I read the sign, the train was suddenly empty –  empty but for me.

"Your stop," the pretty girl announced.

I stepped down onto the Pelham platform, and without a sound, the Express was gone like a train into August-thin air.  The Roman clock on the bank read 3:27, and Pelham was as asleep as sleep gets.  Nothing at all unusual, but for this;  I’m sure it was January when we left Grand Central, but I arrived in Pelham 27 minutes later in the ardor of summer.  Also, across the tracks on the dimly lit Grand Central side, was the pretty girl, the same pretty girl, waiting for the downtown local.

© 2002 David Baker (D.M. Molloy)


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