A Study in Contrasts by Nic McPhee, flickr
He jumped off the train and went into the station, the conductor in the gray cap. He was shriveled and hunched, like a shrimp. It didn’t seem to Julie he’d be capable of doing much more than riding up and down the rails, taking tickets, but he always had a coin for Buddy, a penny the train had squashed between Mt. Dora and Winter Park. Buddy fingered the oblong copper and put it to his lips as if it were a thick shaving of chocolate. Julie slapped his hand. The heat rising up from the pavement made her short.
On Wednesdays, she and Buddy came down to the station. They stood on the tracks and waited for the rails to vibrate with the motion of the oncoming train. It made Buddy coo to feel the shimmying metal tickle the soles of his feet and he put his face next to the track, his baby flesh on the forged steel. Julie tested herself to see how long she could wait before she pulled him off, how long she could stand it. She knew it was wrong to tempt fate this way but it felt as if the palm trees and the bushes and the sun itself held her. And then one time she saw the light of the train and she quickly, with a pounding chest, snatched him by the waist.
After the train stopped, the shrimp man came to where they were standing. He had eyes with uneven patches and he seemed to be watching her through a pool of opaque pebbles. She thought he was going to say something, but then he gave Buddy a coin and brushed his cheek with a curved finger.
Julie liked wearing clothes from the thirties and forties. She shopped online and found dresses with flouncy sleeves and slingback shoes with open toes and platforms. She liked vintage hats and wore them to the station when she brought Buddy. It was not a place she was likely to see anyone from the Country Club or anyone her husband Frank knew. Frank asked her why she didn’t go to Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s. She liked looking like ladies from old movies, she told him. Her mother died when she was thirteen. Though sometimes her husband Frank wished she were like other women, he liked the way she wore things only dead people had worn. People didn’t invite them to many parties and if they did, they kept their distance and talked about them behind their highball glasses. Her mother died in a boating accident. Her father had been driving the boat. This was what happened and this was what people knew. That and the fact that her mother was from money and had lots of it. Now her father drove all over town in a restored Model T.
Julie took Buddy to the roses when the train wasn’t due. He pricked his baby fingers on the thorns. She read the signs which told them their names: Louis Philippe, Belinda’s Dream, Old Blush, China Doll, Clotilde. Sometimes he grabbed a fistful of petals and she slapped his knuckles. An old man usually watched her from the bench. He watched the seam on the back of her hose and he smiled when she bent to slap the baby and her rear jiggled. He wanted to reach out and grab her but he knew she was too fine for him, too fine, that much he knew, though he wore his Agua Brava and a linen suit, crumpled as a napkin. She knew he watched her. She didn’t care. It was better than the college boys who whistled at her under their breath and told her what they’d like to do with her right there in front of Buddy, his pie face intent on the pink petals in his sweaty palm. She watched the boys, her eyes following them while her body stayed still. She stood in the rose garden until they were well past.
Last Wednesday Julie wore her hat that was open at the top. It showed the hair she had dyed a bright auburn. Buddy wore the coveralls with the choo choo. The suitcase was hidden in the bushes. It was vintage with straps like belt buckles. After the train pulled up, Julie scooped something into the suitcase. At that time of day, Julie had the privacy to do whatever she wanted. There was no one at the station. The train ran by the provision of the federal government. When the pebble-eyed man died, someone else would replace him, someone equally infirm. It didn’t matter who took the tickets. No one was there to buy them. There were no bags to lift or arrange in the rack over the seat, no ladies to hoist up the stairs.
Julie expected to ride that day. She had come from a different time, before Buddy, before Frank even, before modern clothes made women look like men, like whores. She wanted to take the train to Hollywood. She wanted to be in the movies. She wanted to be a star.
The shrimp man tore her ticket. “Where’s the boy?”
“Resting,” she said, as she lifted her bag into the overhead rack.
He gave her the pressed coin. She put it to her lips, blotting her lipstick. “You keep it,” she said. He turned. The back of his neck was a hollowed out place.
She closed her eyes and felt an ache in her belly. She drifted between the pain and her dreams. She was walking in a warm rain on a California beach. She stood in the shower. She would not think of the boy. She would not think of Frank.
They got her in Mt. Dora. The shrimp man had seen the first red drop fall from her bag onto her hat brim and blossom into a dark peony. He stood in the back and watched the incessant dripping of blood, like rain falling from trees. They would have to replace the seats. He called ahead to the next station to alert them as he slumped on his bench in the caboose. He felt for the paperwork for his retirement in his jacket. It was in there somewhere.
First published in Colored Chalk