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Jack Pendarvis

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 two."


"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 head.

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 love.

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 dark.

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.

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