Three More Stories
A Christmas Story
She heard the toilet flush then he was standing by the bed looking down at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I really am.”
The man sat down on the bed and stroked her hair.
“I know you are. Maybe we should talk to someone. A doctor maybe?”
“I don’t need a doctor. It’s that out there. That’s what’s wrong. I just can’t with that out there.”
“But that’s always been there,” he said. “We’ve had that silo ever since we bought this place.”
“They haven’t always been exploding, though, have they, Will? The silos never exploded until this summer. Now we got four of them gone in this county alone. One man dead and another who will never hear again.”
The man stood up and walked towards the bedroom window. On the way he glanced into an adjoining bedroom. The room was empty except for a roll-away bed standing upright against the wall and several cardboard boxes filled with toys. He looked out the window at the silo standing, white and gleaming in the moonlight, thirty yards away. The night was very hot and without wind. He could hear crickets and other night sounds.
“I maintain that thing strictly by the book,” he said. “I had the inspectors by two weeks ago. It’s as well vented as you can get.”
“What about the Nordstrom place?” she asked. “You always said Paul Nordstrom was the best modern farmer in the county. Have you been over to the Nordstrom place and seen what’s left of it? My God, Will, they couldn’t even open his goddamn casket.”
He came back to the bed and began to dress.
It’s the dust that causes it. And this damn summer. All this heat and no rain. We ain’t had a summer like this in twenty years.”
He put his pants and shoes on and walked barechested out into the front yard. His son’s silver airplane was tilted over on one wing in the grass. It had a cockpit a small child could sit in and a handle to steer right or left like a wagon, although it was much larger than a wagon. His son had seen it in a magazine and the man had spent more than they could afford in order to buy it for him. He walked to the airplane, righted it, and sat on its back with his feet in the cockpit. He looked carefully at the silo then put one leg outside the plane and pushed away with it. The plane moved down the yard and onto the gravel driveway. He began to push down the driveway with one leg. It was hard going in the loose gravel. Several times he was tempted to get out and push but somehow he felt that would be cheating. He was sweating by the time he got the plane down the driveway and onto the paved road.
He rested for a while looking down the long road that led through the valley and into the town whose lights shimmered and glowed several miles below. When he got his breath back, he pushed off again with one leg. It was only a matter of yards before the plane began to move downhill on its own. He swung his leg back onto the seat and steered a line down the middle of the road. The plane swerved right and left several times until he learned the right touch on the steering lever. In the distance, off to his left, he could see the Nordstrom place and what was left of the barn and outbuildings. The plane was picking up speed going down the grade and the man thought back to the Christmas he had bought the plane for the boy.
You got to know how to take this story. Because of certain things I can’t tell you all of it, but you can imagine what you want. I will tell you, all this happened several years ago out in California–the northern part.
They had this old fishing pier they work hard at to keep looking old for the tourists. You know the kind. A railroad track ran right by the pier then curved through the woods and then out around the bay. You could usually see some artist out there looking back at the pier and painting it. I was there on the tracks a lot. Those were bad times.
It was foggy that morning, as usual, and she was the only person around. She had this easel set up and was half way through something that did kind of look like the pier. She was a little too close to the tracks and I told her so. I said, “It’s dangerous to be that close. Those trains have things sticking out the sides that can sweep you right off.” She thanked me for that. I just stood there. Some of the colors she was using really stood out–even on a day as foggy as that one was. When I asked her she said they were primary colors. To this day I remember that. She picked up this board with all her different paints on it and pointed each one out.
We talked a bit after that, then I sort of pulled her down the embankment to a grove of trees I knew. It had been a long time for me. I had to work a little bit to get there and then things kind of got out of hand. You got to understand all this time I could hear the train. I must have heard that train twenty miles away. That was one of the things I used when she was crying. I said, “Just listen to the train, just pretend.” It didn’t help any. Along with the train there were these bird sounds; gulls following the fishing boats, and seals barking in the harbor. I’m just trying to show you what it was like there that morning.
It was hard getting back up the embankment. I kept hearing the train getting closer while I was trying to arrange things on the track. I wanted it to be like one of those old-time black and white movies. The train sounded like it was right on top of me. I threw myself down the embankment and hid my face under my arms. I didn’t watch. The train went by and I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. The train threw little black cinders down on me from the tracks. When the last car went past, I scrambled back up to the tracks. The very first thing I noticed, which is funny when you think about what all was up there, was that her easel was gone! It had been swept right over the side like I told her. I could see it down the slope in the fog. I looked for those primary colors, but the painting had fallen face down against the rocks.
The Only Source of Light
Each motel room had a set of French doors facing the ocean and outside the doors was a wooden boardwalk painted gray. The man paid for one of these rooms for three nights in advance. He said he might stay longer and the desk clerk said that would not be a problem since the fall was a slow period for them. The clerk then warned him that six times a day a train went by just one hundred feet from the man’s back door and he hoped it would not bother him. The man just smiled and said that in fact he was very fond of trains.
The first day in his room he arranged his clothes, put his toilet articles away and began to dust. He dusted the little desk, the vanity and the mirror and then he laid down on the bed and listened to the sound of the ocean. He was half asleep when he heard the first train coming. By the time he got out the door and across the parking lot he had missed the engine but stood and watched the rest of the train go by.
The hotel had placed an old dining car in an open area near the tracks and converted it into a coffee shop. The man began having his lunch there daily. He liked to watch the trains go by while he sat in one himself. Sometimes he felt like his dining car was moving and the train going by outside was sitting still.
“Here he comes,” said one of the waitresses working in the dining car.
“It’s over a week now,” said the other. “No one ever stays here that long. There’s something funny going on with that one.”
“And did you see that jacket he wears? And the car he drives? That one’s not hurting for money.”
They were finishing the set-ups for lunch when the man walked in. He stood for a moment inside the door and read the daily specials on the chalkboard.
“Good morning, ladies,” he said.
“Just barely,” said one of the waitresses glancing at her watch.
“Say, mister,” said the other one handing him a menu. “You having a good stay here? You about the closest thing we got to a regular.”
The man ran his finger down the menu stopping at the breaded veal cutlet.
“There it is,” he said. “You ladies do that one real well. I’ll have that and a coffee. I don’t know why I’m still here. I’m thinking about writing a book.”
The waitress wrote down his order and went to get his water. When she came back she asked him, “A book. Hey, that’s all right. You write very many books before?”
“Never,” he said. “If I do, though, I’m going to personally come back here and give you an autographed copy.”
The waitress smiled and went to take care of the other customers. She came back to fill his coffee cup.
“What’s it gonna be about?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m still deciding that, but I’m going to put the trains in it and the ocean and perhaps some crazies, too!”
“Crazies are always good,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about getting the crazies right. Anything they do is all right because they’re crazy.”
“That makes some kind of sense, I guess. What else are you gonna put in that book?”
“Weather,” he said. “I figure a little weather about every ten pages.”
“That’s a nice touch,” she said. “Hell, ain’t nobody not interested in weather. It’s nice you ain’t getting too highbrow. Probably sell more copies that way.”
She left the man and went to the rear of the dining car. She made two trips with dishes to the window and slid them out onto the cart. The dishes were washed in the main restaurant. The lunch hour was nearly over and most people were in the process of settling their checks and leaving. After a while the man saw the waitress coming towards him and the other one right behind her. The first waitress looked embarrassed.
“I told her about you writing a book. She wants to ask you something.”
The other waitress looked down at her feet then out past the man to the railroad tracks outside.
“Well,” she began, “if you are still writing on that book that means you ain’t got it finished yet, right?”
The man nodded his head.
“Well, I was just wondering if you could put us in there? In that book?”
“I could do that,” he said, “but I’d have to disguise you.”
“You could sue me. Happens all the time.”
“Why’d I do that for?”
“Maybe you wouldn’t like what I said about you. You’d just pick up the phone, call a lawyer and there goes my money. No, I’ll do it, but I’ll have to disguise you.”
The two women slid into the booth across from the man. One of them opened some cigarettes and passed them around. The one that asked to be in the book blew a smoke ring and stared into it for a minute.
“Make it so we can tell though,” she said. “As long as we know, that’s enough.”
“No problem,” he said. “You’ll just be reading along, then suddenly there you’ll be, clear as day.”
One of the women went to get more coffee and filled all the cups. The man stood up. He fished some bills out of his pocket and laid them on the table.
“I’m going to miss you ladies,” he said. “Just remember I’m coming back here and give each of you an autographed copy, and that’s a promise.”
The man walked out of the diner and across the tracks to his room. They watched him until his door closed behind him.
The two women worked through the afternoon and into the evening until the diner closed for the night. It was a full moon when they left the diner and started towards the parking lot and their cars. The lights of the diner and the parking lot had been turned off and the moon was the only source of light. It shone on the surface of the twin bare metal tracks of the railroad and on the faces of the women as they walked to their cars. One of the women had tears running down her cheeks and the light of the moon shone on these also and made them glisten in the night.
“Why, honey, what’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, damn,” said the woman. “Oh, damn, damn, damn.”
The woman who was crying stopped in the parking lot and the other put her arm around her and held her close.
“I ain’t never seen you like this. What’s gotten into you? Is Henry acting up again?”
She shook her head no and began moaning.
“Oh, my Jesus,” she said. “Oh, my good sweet Jesus.”
The air was wet and moisture stood on the roofs of the cars and on the wide green leaves of the palm trees and everywhere the moisture settled the moon reflected and shone and gathered it’s light in those places.
Larry French’s pieces have appeared in Ascent, the New Orleans Review, and elsewhere, and have been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Reprinted here from Mississippi Review Online Vol 2 Number 6.