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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>Waiting At The Railway Station by Randall Teal (Spring 2000)

 

 

Waiting at the Railway Station

by

Randall Teal

 

 

    Twilight came up and darkened the edges of the jungle that surrounded the village and still the train had not pulled into the railway station. It came through the village from the East every Tuesday and Saturday morning, 
stopping for ten minutes at the small depot then pushing on west, in the general direction of the capital. Today was Tuesday and it was also August and the oncoming night was sticky and heavy with tropical heat. The monsoon clouds had opened earlier in the afternoon and dumped rain for hours. There had been reports that the river cutting through the jungle had spilled over its banks and the train had been trapped on the other side of the stone bridge, waiting for the rising water to recede. No one knew for sure. The only sure thing was that the train had not come. 
     Drake sat on a hard bench with his dry travel bag by his side. He'd been waiting for the train all day, and now he watched the rain drip down from the corrugated awning into puddles that had collected between the wide gauge rails running next to the concrete platform. Drake watched the puddles for a long time. 
     Each year the monsoon arrived and each year the river rose above the bridge, and he wondered how many years it had happened that way. He tried to picture the river muddy and swollen and full of debris but he could only remember his first train trip through the bush to the capital, before the rains had started, when the river was shallow and still. The tracks follow the river for some time after crossing at the stone bridge and he remembered looking down from the train at the clear water and the thick shade of the Banyan trees and the branches that hung over the banks of the river and the spider monkeys that jumped and hid in them when the train came by. 
     That had been some trip to the capital, the best trip, really, when the weather was right and the train made good time. It was still early in the dry season when the sun felt pleasant on his skin and Drake had sat next to an open window during the day and let the sunlight warm his face and let the air rush in to ventilate the
compartment. He remembered the coarse, bumping rhythm of the skipping boxcars and the grinding metal and the steam locomotive that sputtered and screeched. It was a sharp, jolting rhythm that pained him at first, but when he learned to relax and let his body move with the train, and not against it, it felt much better. 
     Against advice from other expatriates, Drake had purchased a ticket for a 3rd class, non-AC compartment. It was far cheaper than the 1st class air-conditioned compartments and the windows came down and you could smoke freely, without leaving your seat. The compartment was full of other travelers, some traveling alone, some with their families, all toting copious bundles and boxes on board. Before departure, the compartment was a chaotic fervor of passengers trying to claim space in the coveted overhead racks. Their boxes and bundles were shoved and stuffed to fit overhead where they would be safe and out of the way. Late arrivals had no choice but to stuff their things underneath seats and the rest was left sitting in the aisle. 
     The train had pulled out of the station only five minutes behind the posted schedule. Immediately, things settled down, and before the first stop, most of the travelers dozed listlessly on the bunks that had been lowered. Others stared blankly out the windows at the passing farmers in their irrigated rice fields and the tiny insignificant mud villages. 
     The compartment had been hitched far enough back that Drake, leaning slightly out the open window, could see the sun glinting harshly off the black locomotive and the steam trailing from the smoke stacks when the tracks curved inward. 
     Then, that night when darkness had engulfed the countryside and the air became too cool, he brought down the shutter to cover the window and moved up to a top bunk to stretch out and escape the draft. He paid a few extra rupees to the conductor who maneuvered over the bundles that sat in the aisle and brought a thin wool blanket that Drake spread out and slept on top of, using it to pad the hard bunk. 
     Loose on its wide gauge rails, the train ran noisily through the night and Drake laid on the bunk listening to the other travelers ready themselves for bed. His body swayed with the sharp, jerking motion of the boxcar and in his torpid slumber he became faintly aware of why he liked the country and why he had not left. The train stopped more frequently during the night and the lack of movement and metallic grinding woke Drake the first few times. He soundlessly opened the shutter to look out the window and see where the train had stopped. The first time it stopped in the middle of nowhere far from any village or lit station, and it was pitch black and the stars were incredibly bright. Drake had gone out to smoke a cigarette and enjoy the lonely night sky. He wanted to know why the train had stopped here but no one else came out for him to ask.
     The rest of the night stops were at railway stations along the way. A few random passengers boarded and a few got off, but most slept hard, knowing the train was still hours away from the capital. 
     Late in the night the train pulled into a city with a large railway station. Drake, half-asleep, rolled over toward the window just in time to find his small travel bag hovering in midair. He thought at first it was part of a dream, then he realized the train had stopped and voices could be heard outside. Earlier, at a smaller station, Drake, trying not to wake those sleeping around him, had opened and closed the shutter to the window very quietly. So quiet that he had not locked it back securely. The unlocked shutter had been raised just enough so that a thief could peek into the compartment and prod around with a thin tree branch. Drake's bag had been carefully lifted with the branch and was close to disappearing out the window. Reacting quickly, he jumped from his bunk and ran out of the compartment onto the platform of the railway station. It was dark and the station was poorly lit but Drake could see the outline of the thief. He shouted and the figure came to life. The thief dropped the branch and started to run but Drake was already there. He reached out and grabbed the soiled shirt of a little boy. The boy suddenly fell to the ground and curled up in a tense ball. Anger flashed through Drake and he raised his fist against the boy. Then, in an instant, the anger left him. He knew the boy had been forced, out of loneliness and hunger, to resort to petty theft in order to survive.
     He thought about taking the boy to the police, then he remembered what they did to robbers and thieves in this country, beating the offenders senseless and dragging them through the streets as a public spectacle. Drake had little choice but to let the boy go. He didn't want to beat him or have him beaten, and besides, he had caught him before he had taken the bag and that's what really mattered. He loosened his grip and the boy shot off and was under the tracks and on the other side of the train before Drake had time to move. He wanted to run after him, but let it go. Instead, he walked back into the compartment to make sure his bag was still there. He found it next to the window unopened and he strapped it on and went back out to the station. 
     With the excitement Drake hadn't noticed that at this late hour the station was still littered with people. There were whole families grouped together and sleeping on top of their belongings under the bare bulbs that dangled down from the station ceiling. Maimed and disfigured, beggars leaned against the station walls and lacked the energy to be aggressive. Their arms were propped up on their knees and their hands were cupped together like a bowl. The sick and emaciated moaned and mumbled on the floor. There was one man whose body was so thin that Drake could clearly see his hip bones protruding out. The man wallowed on the concrete platform in a pool of his own runny excrement. 
     There were mangy hairless dogs that scavenged over the tracks for human feces to eat. Transients sat on the benches and fingered through The India Times. Pilgrims, on their way to Varanasi, guarded their ragged bundles and bedrolls. The creaking rusted wheels of a vendor's cart rolled by. The cart was laden with cigarettes and magazines and tea and cookies and candy and bagged food. 
     The depravity was unmistakable, and greater than anything Drake had ever seen before. He was suddenly glad he let the little boy go. He had been in the country only a short time and hadn't been fully exposed to the harsh reality of impoverished India. He thought then that there would never be a time when this late night apocalyptic scene would fade from memory or lose its harrowing affect.

     But time changes everything and everything was different now. It had been over a year since that train trip and the novelty of the country had worn off. After months of being surrounded by the poverty and pain, Drake had become hardened and callous to it. There had been no other way to survive than to build a wall around the misery of India, and unconsciously that's what Drake did, and now it was seen as a nuisance like everything else in the godforsaken place.
     There was still plenty to see and do but he didn't care to do it because all his time was spent waiting. Waiting in train stations and waiting in bus stations and waiting for the rain to stop and waiting for letters from home that never came. 
     In the first year, the letters did come and Drake tore into them and read them quickly, hoping for exciting news from home. Then, at the end of a letter he'd go back and read it again, slowly and meticulously this time, 
deliberately spreading it out to make it last and to make sure he hadn't missed anything. They nearly all wrote about the weather or work and the plans they had for the weekends. All bland news Drake had known before he left. Still, some of the letters read better than others and those he'd read out loud. 
     He took great care in writing back and his correspondence was always long and detailed and full of the things that he had seen and experienced - the exotic animals and the heat and the market places and the spicy food and the people he met. But these were things that were out of reach to those that couldn't experience them and weren't affected by them. The sense of wonder and discovery that he became part of was lost in writing, and instead of excitement or admiration or even a bit of curiosity, responses were only about weather and work and the familiar grind of home. Gradually, Drake quit writing letters and gradually, the letters from home quit coming.
     Now, sitting on the bench with dusk fast approaching and no sign of the train, Drake thought about writing again. The geckos had skittered up and collected around the bare bulbs that dangled above the train platform. He pulled away from the rain puddles he'd been staring at for so long and followed the geckos for a while. They would spend the night clinging upside down on the ceiling, lunging at moths and mosquitoes that the naked light brought in. Maybe he had written too much too quickly and hadn't focused on one thing, anything, that could easily be related to or imagined. He tried to remember if he had written home about the boy who had been driven to steal out of hunger. He knew he had written about the train trip and the scenery and the beggars that were awake and leaning against the walls of that station. Had he written about the boy, though? Surely he had, but he couldn't remember exactly, and now he felt an urgent need to write about it in a letter home.  It was a good story and one that would invoke an absolute truth about the poverty here. Sitting on the bench, he was suddenly alert and motivated. He would start the letter as soon as the train arrived and he got settled in. 

  

The End

 

  2000, Randall Teal

 

 

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