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 work has appeared in Ascent, the New Orleans Review, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. This piece is reprinted from April 2010 NWW.