Saturday, March 19, 2016

Strange Girl on the Train, Fred Feldman

Aboard the Silentio
by Frederick W Feldman

 The express train called the Silentio sluiced through the night. Through the rolling hills of Maryland it flew, the sleek train over the old and patched-up rails. Through the falling blankets of fields and a solitary tree and past the lonely barn atop the hill. Quickly, quickly through the night.
 Inside, a gentle back-and-forth swaying motion was the only sign of the train’s speed, thanks to the thoroughly modern stabilizing technology. Mallory curled up on the soft bench set below the window in the observation car. The observation car was sparse but comfortable. The carpeting was blue and fluorescent lights gave the car an abstracted and dreamy atmosphere. She could see herself reflected in the glass pane. Her pink hair contrasted ghost-like against the dark outside, and the texture of the glass made her features indistinct and stretched out like a Francis Bacon painting. 
 The observation car was empty except for her. The night was huge, let in through all the windows. It was late, and she supposed not many people were traveling from Pennsylvania to Florida during this nondescript week in January. All the chairs lined around the car sat empty. And she was pleased. She slid down and snuggled against the window at her back, pulled out the book she had brought with her, put in pumping earbuds, and continued reading. She was soon lost again in the deep waters of plot.

 The man wandered into the lounge car. All the blinds were drawn and it was quiet. There was one other person in the car: a middle-aged woman with a steno pad in her lap and a headset on. She’d press some buttons on the device she held, wait, press another button, scribble something on the steno pad, and then she would press play again, or she would press a button and talk loudly and clearly into the mic.
 She looked up at him and shot a brief smile. He grunted a hello. The bar was closed, i.e. there was no bartender serving drinks, so the man squeezed behind the polished wood and began to poke around. He pulled out a bottle of bourbon and hunted until he found a glass and some ice. To his happy surprise, he was able to scrounge together an orange slice and a maraschino cherry, but could not for the life of him find any sugar, which, he decided, was as healthful a dilemma as he could want.
 “Thursday the seventh.”
 “What?” He looked over to the woman, who briefly smiled at him again. 
 “Mm,” he responded.
 He took his drink over to the side of the car. None of the magazines interested him. He moved to take a seat.
 “Copy presentation materials.”
 He looked over at the woman again, and she again gave a weak smile. He reconsidered taking a seat. He would not find peace and quiet here.

 The man entered the observation car. Mallory looked up from her book, unhappy to have company. The man silently greeted her and walked past to one of the great, gaping windows and stared at the darkened landscape passing by. With a rush, the train entered a tunnel, and the man watched the tunnel lights dot and dot and dot in a snaking line behind them, trailing off like habit, pulled into the river.
 He eased himself into one of the chairs. He swirled his glass and the ice cubes clinked against the sides. Whiskey zoomed up his nose and warmed his belly.
 Mallory tried extra hard to focus on the page, but she found herself reading the same sentence over again. She wasn’t pleased to have this man in the car with her, and she was having trouble concentrating. She glanced up at him as he sat down across from her. He was well into his middle years and was wearing dark, pebbly tweed with red pinstripes. He didn’t look like someone she’d get along with. Not someone who’d ‘get it.’
 The girl across from him looked didn’t look comfortable. She had her book pulled up around her, but she kept rolling her shoulder up towards her chin as if it was stiff. He squinted, trying to catch the title on the front cover. His eyesight was still pretty good and saw that the book was The Holy Terrors.
 He rose and walked towards the girl, his ice cubes clinking with each step.
 “Is that Jean Cocteau you are reading?” he asked.
 She made a face at him, but said “Yeah.”
 “I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s hard to find such adventurous readers. Do you like it?”
 The girl straightened up and rested on her hands. “Yeah, I really like it. It’s really good.”
 “He was a true poet. Not all poets are true poets, but Cocteau is one of them. More poets ought to write novels – we would have better novels. From a true poet, that is. The false poets’ novels would be insufferable, I’m sure of that. I tend to think I have had the misfortune of reading some of their work.
Do you read a lot?”
“Yeah, I like to read. I’m not, like, a huge bookworm, but I like a good read.”
“What brings you aboard the Silentio?”
“Visiting family. In Florida. Aunts and uncles and cousins.” 
She made a face again.
“That sounds nice. Are you looking forward to that?”
“…”
“Ah! I see.”
Silence. He took a sip.
“Php!” She made a popping sound with her mouth, which startled the man.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing, sorry.
I have Tourette’s.”
“Ahh, I see. What is that like?”
“Not great. I hate having to tic. I just wish it would stop. But it won’t.”
“What is your name?”
“Mallory.”
“That is a nice name. It fits you. What do you like to do?”
“Whaddaya mean?”
“I know you like to read, but I gather that is not your greatest passion.”
She took her hands from beneath her and began to gesture along with her speech.
“Well, I bring my guitar everywhere. I play it a lot. I’ll sing, too. When I’m concentrating on playing, I don’t tic.”
“What kind of songs do you play?”
“I like rock n roll. I play a…a lot of punk rock.”
“Music is wonderful. It might be the purest form of art. I’m not sure.”
“It’s meant a lot to me.”
“Some of my favorite dreams are when I dream of music. I’ve never heard music in the world to match it. It is so beautiful. I once dreamt – ”
She ticced.
 “ – that I was playing the piano. And because in dreams there are no physical limits, the music came straight of my subconscious, and was not diluted through the inability of my hands or my conscious mind. It was beautiful. Of course, I can’t remember the tune. I wonder if it even exists.”
 Her hands jerked and twisted in a frenzy.
“I like the style, but also, guitar feedback really calms me down,” she said. “Just, like, the noise of it. The humming and stuff. And I don’t tic hardly at all.”
“That is interesting. Well, all music is noise. I suppose the reverse is true as well.”
 “What about you,” she asked. “Where are you going?”
 “I am trying to get into the antique business. I have a contact who supposedly has several items of value that I can buy and resell. Interesting old items. I have been – “
 “Phhp!”
 “ – selling out of my home, but I have found a storefront that I will open as soon as I have enough merchandise. In fact, here is my card. Please visit sometime, if you can.”
 She took the card.
 “This is only about forty-five minutes away from me,” she said. “I’ll have to stop by.”
 The man knew that meant he would never see her again. “It would be nice to see you there,” he said.
 “Do you like antiques? I mean, you like them a lot?”
 “Yes, I do. I suppose that comes from sifting through my parent’s basement as a child, turning up old relics from ancestors more mythical than remembered. It is always an interesting, mm, counterpoint to the current age.”
 “Is it hard selling ‘em? If I had a…guitar store or a record store or something, I don’t think I’d be able to sell anything. I’d want to to keep it all.”
 “No. I do collect, but…the things I collect are different.”
 Mallory’s parents entered the quiet observation car.
 “Mallory! What are you doing in here?” asked her mother.
 “Reading,” she said, holding up her book for all to see.
 “You just wandered off!” said her father.
 In response, Mallory just shrugged. Then ticced.
 “And who is – ”
 “Hello, you must be Mallory’s parents. Your daughter is a wonderful conversationalist,’ the man introduced himself, as the daughter ticced.
 “Oh, thanks! Nice to meet you,” said the father. He glanced warily at the glass in the man’s hand. 
The man saw him looking. “Good for the heart,” he said defensively, and sipped.
“So what line of work are you in?”
Phhp!
“I am going into antiques. I am, in fact, travelling for that purpose – to see a buyer in sunny Florida.”
“Sounds great. I bet there’s good money in that, huh?”
Phhp!
“Mmm.”
“I mean, I’m watching these shows like Antique Roadshow, and the prices on those things…”
“Those tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule, but, yes, it happens. It all depends on whether there is a market for a thing or not. But as much as I can, I buy the things I would want to sell, rather than the things I think would sell. I’m old and idealistic. But of course we all would like the big sale.”
Phhp! Phhp! Phhp!
“Sure! Haha. Sure!”
Remember what the therapist said, Mal.
“Well, listen,” continued the father, “we’ll leave you alone now. It’s nice meeting you.”
“Not at all. You, too.”
The mother and father moved towards the door. Mallory still sat where she was.
“Hey, come on back to the room, Mallory. I don’t want you sitting out here alone so late.”
Mallory wordlessly obeyed, slowly pulling herself up from the bench, her shoulder ticcing as she did. “Phhp!” She grabbed her book and exited.
“Goodnight, Mallory,” said the man. “It was a pleasure speaking with you.”
“Goodnight,” she said.

The next morning, the man rose early. He rarely did this if he didn’t have to, but he wanted to be able to roam the train in the morning’s solitude. He was also finding that, as he was getting older, it was easier and easier for him to wake up in the morning, even going so far as to occasionally wake along with the waxing sun for no reason at all.
He dressed, brushed his teeth, rubbed his eyes and ambled out through the passenger car and into the lounge car. There was no steno lady anymore, and the room looked downright cheery in the sunlight. The bartender was present this time, casually polishing and re-polishing a glass. The man asked him if he had any coffee, and he said he did. He filled for him a mug of steaming brew and the man thanked him. He sipped it without moving from the counter, leaning on it and watching the flat Florida grasslands pass by in the sharp morning light.
The man was feeling suitably awake now – at least, that sort of wakefulness that is still one part dreamy such as which thrives only in the combination of very early sun along with solitude or at least fittingly quiet and unobtrusive company. He asked the bartender what the time was, and he told him. It was still early.
The light came through the window and the man saw it light up on the glasses, the wood surfaces, and on the bartender’s forehead. He had time to finish his coffee, which was halfway empty, but if he was going to be concerned about time, he would be unable to take much pleasure in its taste, and there was no point in finishing it if that was the case. This was his only complaint against mornings: sometimes the day’s weight rested too heavily upon it.
He told the bartender that he was finished, and the bartender nodded and took the mug without saying a word. The man thought he had found the greatest barista in the world, with his calm and easy manner, but of course he did not say so, as, at this hour, it surely would have been taken as a curse. He tipped as generously as he could, and left.
He walked back through the passenger cars and towards the front of the train. He slipped through the dining car, where some early birds had begun to flock with a hum and a rattle for breakfast, and into the next one. Here was his destination: the library car. 
 The library car had bookshelves running down the center of the car. Their backs were to each other, so one could peruse books on either side. On the right side the shelf ran all the way down, and one could either go through the door into the next car, or take a left turn and find more books. On the left, three-quarters of the way through the car, another shelf was wedged perpendicular to the center one, effectively creating a nook. A reading chair was in this nook, sitting next to a window with the binds pulled back.
 The man went into this nook and sat down. He sat there for a while. He looked at the many titles and got lost in thought. He was waiting.
 Eventually, someone entered the car. He looked over and it was, as he had hoped, Mallory. She had the Cocteau in her hand. She saw him.
 “My stop is coming up,” she said. “Gotta put the book back.”
 She went around the other side, out of his field of vision. He could hear her stooping down, the books rustling and bumping as she displaced them and returned the book to its place, as well as the occasional vocal tic. She came back around where he could again see her.
 “It was very nice to meet you, Mallory.”
 “Hey, you too.”
 And she exited into the next car.
 The man rose from his seat and walked around to the other side. He stooped down, and thumbed the books until he came to The Holy Terrors. He picked it up and looked inside. There was a bookplate stuck on the front endpaper that read Property of the Silentio Library. He flipped through the pages, then closed it, and left the library car with the book tucked under his arm.

 About an hour later, the Silentio was pulling into its last stop. He waited by the door until the train rolled to a halt. The door opened and passengers filed out. The man waited until he was the last to disembark. As he exited, he stopped and turned furtively to the attendant. He showed him the Cocteau book. “I am taking this book with me,” he said.
 “Sir, you can’t do that.”
 “It is very important to me that I have this book.” He took out two fifty-dollar bills and shoved them into the attendant’s hand. “Here.”
 The attendant looked down in surprise at the money. He took the book from the man, flipped through it, then closed it and handed it back.
“Very well, sir.”
 “Thank you.”

 The man exited the train and walked away. 

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