The Train Going Back
A man like a big egg sat down and dunked a tea bag.
"This is my tea bag," he said. "This is a tea bag I brought from
home. You think the water's free? Oh sure, the water's free. The
water's free but the cup'll cost you. That's some scam they have
going. The guy tells me the water's free but if I want a cup to put
it in, that's another story."
The young man didn't know what to say.
"I know what," the egg man said. "I should bring my own cup next
time. I ought to make a note of that."
He whipped out a pad.
"Bring… own… cup."
He snapped it shut.
"I'm a travel writer," he said. "I have two weekly columns in
________." (He named a certain city.) "A lot of these guys have been
doing it fifteen, twenty years and they can't get a column. I have
"I'm just lucky, I guess. I try to give the reader an image, you
know? Anybody can say, go here, this restaurant has good food. I try
to be a little more enticing. Last week I was in [another city] at
this place called The Coachman's Inn, and the girl gets wind I'm a
travel writer so she asks me if I'm going to mention the place. I
tell her, 'I'm not just going to mention it, I'm going to make
people want to come here.' So what do I write? The soup's good? The
Coachman's Inn has a nice selection of desserts? No, it's 'a spicy
vegetable soup with a flavor that can only be described as more,
more, more. And don't leave without trying the blackberry cobbler,
served in a rich, creamery sauce.' See?"
The young man said he saw. The travel writer seemed to feel a
warm connection, it seemed to have to do with the great book the boy
was holding. Men of literature! Men who appreciated things! Men of
the world. But he didn't say it outright. He just talked some more
about how great he was and how great it was to be a travel writer.
He talked and talked and finally he paused long enough for the boy
to excuse himself.
The boy stood in the restroom, smelling the soiled cake of air
freshener and shaking with the train. He put gray water on his face
and looked in the mirror. You can imagine what he saw.
When the boy came back, the travel writer had gone. The boy had
failed him somehow. He sat down and looked out the window again.
The things going by stung his heart. A stop sign. Deep orange
weeds, golden as oranges. Murky, opaline water in ditches.
Cherrycolored and pink and turquoise clothes blowing on a line.
Where had he gotten opaline? Probably from the supposedly great
book she had given him and commanded him to read.
Cherrycolored? Try plain old red. Some sad red rags and an old
woman's enormous yellowed bra.
Litter. Burned trees. Graveyards. Appliance stores. An abandoned
gas station. A rusted washing machine.
How about the time a moth had flown into her cleavage? That was
the day they met.
He remembered picking beans in his good shoes and pants. She
filled an old fishing hat full of water and pressed it down on his
He remembered riding on the back of her motorcycle, French bread
in a grocery bag flapping against his leg.
A baseball game on the radio.
Each thing that had happened was a little thing. It was normal
life. But everything had taken on special properties, like objects
through the window of a train. The combination of little normal
things had turned into a large unnameable thing and made him fall in
It was dinnertime and the lounge car had begun to empty. He
looked out the window.
More things went by. Power poles. Flowers. Cows in a field. The
sky turned lemony at the bottom and a painful watercolor blue at the
top. Pretty soon it was dark, and between the lit cities it was very
Jack Pendarvis is the author of a book of short stories,
The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. His work has
appeared in The Oxford American, The Believer,
McSweeney's and Paste.