The Train

Jeff Howe

© Copyright 2007 by Jeff Howe

Photo of subway train.

Jason stood on the train platform in the lazy light of early evening. Here in the suburbs, the train was above ground, four stretched silverish boxes playing follow-the-leader for all to see and hear. When it approached the city, it would plunge underground to race through tubes of tile and concrete rumbling the sidewalks above.

The platform was darkened from the footsteps of thousands of commuters passing through this station daily. Dingy white concrete pillars which supported the rigid overhead cover were chipped and marked with names and odd symbols in dark brown spray paint.

The Green Hill Station was deserted except for Jason. The evening was windy warm, pleasant, wafting an odd mix of luscious scents from a nearby restaurant and the familiar subway sourness. He stood at the edge of the platform, for he heard the ringing of the tracks below indicating an approaching train. It was a metallic shearing sound that happened well before the train actually pulled into station.

This was Jason’s last trip on the subway. He would be moving away in two days, leaving the city for the wider, open vistas of the arid southwest. He was trading in his straight, perfect canyons of glass, concrete and steel for those of sandstone, rivercut and windblown into dreamish shapes. He wanted to see the city again, to walk the streets again amid the honks and toots of traffic winding its way between silent towers whose inner lights create a Mondrianesque pattern against dark skies.

The rails were loudly ringing now. Jason could look up the track, see the headlights of a rolling behemoth cresting a small hill on its approach to the station. Trains fascinated Jason. Powerful and dense, mighty and fast, they were slow to start, and even slower to stop. They made a lot of noise, even these electrically-powered trains of civilization. They exuded an impressive amount of noise, for it is impossible to move this much mass silently. For all their bluster and bravado, however, trains are limited to a narrow corridor of influence. They must obey their equidistant boundaries. If they don’t, they die, usually with spectacular and wrenching results.

The train rolled into the station with a squealish bumble. It stopped beside the platform, heaved a loud sigh and opened its doors. Jason walked onto the vibrating floor inside the train and found a seat near the back end of the car. Air was blowing from the vents that was noncommittal - neither warm nor cold. Its freshness was dubious as well.

There were a few other people in the car. They were scattered among the seats individually. There were no couples or groups, just one here, one there, another over yonder. No one spoke to anyone else, and, as far as Jason could tell, no one even looked at anyone else. Trains or buses can be very much like elevators. Elbows and hips may bump, bodies may inadvertently touch, but minds refuse to connect.

There was another loud sigh. The train made noises as if it grew impatient with waiting. Jason felt a familiar, subtle change in the ubiquitous vibration indicating that preparations were being made to leave this station for the next. The doors began sliding shut when there rose a cacophony of shouts from outside. Jason looked toward the door. A hand appeared in the narrow opening that remained between the closing doors.

The doors sprang open. In leaped an elderly gentleman who looked like he was jumping over a gaping ravine. His hair was mostly white, cropped closely to his head. He sported a large white mustache sprinkled with darker strands giving it a dichromatic appearance. His clothes were worn and faded, but neat. He walked toward the back of the car and sat down in the seat across the aisle from Jason. Jason nodded as the man looked at him while settling in.

The doors closed quickly then, and the train pulled away from the station. It moved sluggishly at first, but soon was rolling on its shiny, smooth tracks at a speed that was both exhilarating and comfortable.

Jason turned to look at the elderly man in the seat next to him. He looked away quickly when he saw the man staring at him. None of the other riders looked his way, so he ignored the man and slumped down into his seat, while leaning against the side of the train.

Jason stared absently out the window, not so much lost in thought as he was mired in momentary observations of the passing landscape. It made him think of hallucinatory experiences with a world rushing by frantically, but one’s own sense of captured time standing still inside this pocket of a train car. In the rush, colored lights became drawn out tendrils of neon glow. Buildings next to the track became a blur, yet the rhythmic sway of the train muted any active consideration of such. Jason could feel his desire to think, his will to be soften, melt down into a gelatinous ooze.

Suddenly Jason sat up with a start!

The train was no longer plowing its way through the lazy air of suburbia. It had entered a tunnel. All the sounds of the train were compacted into the relatively small space of the tunnel and hammered at Jason’s eardrums.

The train was descending - going downhill at a rapid rate that increased with every minute. He couldn’t see ahead, but he knew the feeling. It was like the beginning of the descent down the large first drop of a tall roller coaster.

Jason had ridden this train for years, and he couldn’t remember any place in the system where there was a long downward slope.

Maybe the transportation authority was working on the regular tunnels?

Maybe this train had been diverted to a different track due to some incident?

Whatever the reason, the train was rocking wildly back and forth now and going faster faster faster. Jason held on to the seat in front of him to keep from getting thrown onto the floor. Another lurch and Jason felt his stomach rise up into his throat.

The train was no longer on the tracks.

It was free flying through the dark vapors of this subterranean chasm, turning and tumbling about. Jason could sense bottom coming closer, closer, reaching up through the void to grab the train. To smash it against itself. The air was growing warmer, stuffier. Jason wanted to get out of the train car desperately, but the bottom was out there, somewhere, chuckling mercilessly until....

You don’t support the war, do you?”

Suddenly Jason sat up with a start! He opened his eyes, blinked them several times.

You don’t support the war, do you?”

Huh?” he replied, groggy from dozing.

The elderly man still stared at him. Or maybe he was staring again. He said nothing. Jason felt dislocated, out of phase.

Support the war?” Jason mumbled a bit irritably. “What are you saying? Why are you asking me this?”

The elderly man sat back in his seat and gazed forward, finally breaking connection.

You are young. You have not yet seen the likes of what I know.” He turned back to Jason. “There are many things in this world that are questionable, but we can’t think of the right questions. There are few things th at are answerable, but everyone thinks they already know all the answers.”

So, what of it, mister?” Jason continued to grump.

Do you know that if you take an action, you will never know the results of not taking that action?” the elderly man smiled. “Your actions put into motion things that may or may not have been better left still. Be careful, young man, where you place your foot as you take your next step. Ahhh, looks like my station is upon us.”

Have a good rest of your trip,” he said, standing as the train approached the Falls Crossing Station. “And make sure you keep your eyes open.”

The train slowed and sidled up to the platform, which looked much like the station from which they had left. It came to a stop with a jerk. The elderly man nearly fell over, but his gnarled hands gripped the overhead rail as he shuffled to the door. It opened with a sound of exasperation, and the man disappeared into the evening. Jason watched him disembark with puzzlement. It was an odd way to start a conversation.

Support the war. Support the troops. Jason shook his head.

He didn’t even know what those statements meant. He could just as easily say that he supported the Rocky Mountains. It would have had as much meaning. War seemed like an inexorable thing
to Jason. It was something that would be studied by college history classes a long time in the future. They would be able to look back and determine if it was a good thing or bad. But for now, there were two sides to it, and each side seemed intent on stirring up as much opposition to the other side as possible.

Right, wrong, left, right, liberal, conservative.

Jason had a hard time understanding what politics had to do with it all. You either had to send your Army against another army or you didn’t. It should be as simple as that. Shouldn’t it?

He suspected that if the politicians were all put on the front lines with a rifle, most of them would turn tail and run away. They talk big in front of TV cameras and at cocktail parties, no doubt.

They wouldn’t make good foxhole mates, though, and that says something profound.

Yet, the ongoing mantra, support for the war, support the troops. And there were those who said, rather goofily, Jason thought, that they supported the troops, but not the war. It was like saying you support Major League Baseball, but they better not schedule any games. Let’s just watch them working out in their uniforms during Spring Training while we drink beer and dream of summer.

His question to them, if he ever met ‘them’, would be “what do you do to support the troops?” After all, support is a verb. It implies action. Do these people send care packages to the soldiers? Offer financial or emotional support to the families of the deployed? Jason suspected the answer would be “no” to both questions. Most people just talked a lot these days. They didn’t really walk.

Jason sighed. The doors closed, and the train pulled away from the station.


Jason was startled by the young, blond head that popped over the seat back in front of him. But he smiled and replied,

Hi, yourself!”

I’m Andrew! What’s your name?”

Hi, Andrew, I’m Jason. Did you get on at the last station?”

My Daddy’s a Army man!” Andrew announced. His eyes sparkled.

That’s great, Andrew,” Jason replied peering around, a frown forming on his face. “Are you on the train by yourself?”

You look like a bad man. Why is your face mad?” Andrew asked, his eyes wide.

Andrew, where is your mommy?” Jason asked a little harshly.

Andrew looked down at the floor. He mumbled, “Mommy’s at the next station.”

Jason softened his voice. “Hey, that’s not far. Why don’t you just stay in your seat, or you can sit next to me. That way we’ll be sure you get off the train where you should. OK?” He made himself smile the biggest smile he could.

Andrew looked up at Jason and returned the smile. “OK, mister Jasey!”

That’s Jason, Andrew, not Jasey.”

With an impish look Andrew said, “OK, mister Jasey!” With that he turned around and sat in his seat.

Jason blew quietly and shook his head. A child on the train by himself. Where had he come from? Jason didn’t see Andrew when he got on the train, didn’t see Andrew get on the train. All he could conclude was that somehow he missed Andrew, overlooked him. It was entirely possible that he had been sitting at the far end of the car and moved his way down to Jason’s end when he was distracted.

That seemed the most likely answer.

But the fact that a young child was riding the train alone was disturbing. Jason had no children. He had never been married, didn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. He didn’t even know any children personally. Yet, he felt a cloak of protectiveness fall upon him as he watched the small tow head in front of him bobbing up and down to some nameless tune Andrew was singing.

Jason smiled. Andrew’s childlike trust of him was both warming and frightening at the same time. It was far too easy to see how predators would use that trust to their advantage. He shivered at the thought and made a surveillance scan around the train car. Except for a few human forms huddled near the front of the car, there was no one else around.

Jason relaxed. He watched the passing landscape as he listened to Andrew’s little concert. More and more lights twinkled on as the remaining vestiges of sunlight shriveled into the distant horizon. A line from the Band’s song “Twilight” formed in Jason’s mind. “Don’t leave me alone in the twilight, ‘cause twilight is the loneliest time of day.

Jason had no idea what the Band meant by that lyric, but he agreed with it wholeheartedly. There’s something about that transitional time when the day grudgingly gives up its light.

It’s a bittersweet time that hints at omens and whispers of portents. It’s alive with a spirit of urgency for all things temporal; a longing for just a little more day to accomplish, to finish before the big finish. It’s a primal feeling. Jason wondered if prehistoric man viewed twilight the same way - as the time to pull all activity back into the cave before the nocturnal predators began slinking about.

Jason’s musings of twilight were cut short as the train plunged into the tunnel that began its underground journey below the city. The heart of the city was about 4-6 stops down the line; any stations before then were for the more dense but still residential or industrial areas that fringed the city.

They were only seconds now from the Winter Street Station, which is where Andrew said his mother would be waiting. Jason had never disembarked at this station, so he didn’t know where to look for the woman. He hoped that Andrew was right and would be able to beeline it to his mother. Then Jason could hop back on the train and head off to his destination.

The train sailed into the station, groaned to a stop, its long aluminum torso lined up neatly with the platform. Jason peered through the windows into the brightly lit, tiled cavern, but he couldn’t see anyone waiting on the concrete. With its characteristic sigh, the doors opened to allow passengers to spill out.

Jason stood and tousled Andrew’s hair. “Come on, mate, we’ve a mother to find.”

Andrew climbed out of his seat and took Jason’s offered hand. He seemed quite small to Jason who estimated him to be about 5 years old. Jason shook his head again. They walked out of the train onto the platform.

There was no one waiting anywhere on the platform. In fact, the entire station seemed empty. Jason and Andrew had only walked about ten feet, when the train heaved a loud breath and the doors closed. Jason spun around only to see it pull away from the platform.

Hey! Wait!” he yelled, waving his left hand. He stepped toward the train, but it was starting to pick up speed as it dove into the tunnel leading away from the station.

S’matter, mister Jasey?” Andrew asked.

Oh, nothing,” said Jason glumly. “I was going to hand you over to your mother and get back on the train. Now I’ll have to wait for the next one to come through.”

Hey! Hey!” A woman’s voice echoed through the station. Jason turned to look where the voice was coming from. On the platform along the eastbound train tracks stood a woman who appeared to be about Jason’s age. She was wearing patched jeans and a loose-fitting blue t-shirt. Her blond hair was cut short. She looked vaguely familiar to Jason; he didn’t know why. He was sure he’d never seen her before, but a feeling of disquiet came over him. Maybe it was simply impatience. Maybe....

Hi there!” Jason yelled back. “Is this guy yours?” He held Andrew up. Andrew squirmed and giggled while he waved.

Yes, he’s mine! Andrew, where have you been?” Her voice sounded piqued.

Mommy, mommy! Mister Jasey brought me home,” squealed Andrew.

Look, ma’am. I can’t get over there from here. I’ll bring Andrew upstairs. We’ll meet you there,” said Jason.

OK,” she said. Then she disappeared down a corridor that led to the stairs on her side of the station.

Jason lowered Andrew, took his hand, “C’mon kid. You got a date with your mom.” He walked swiftly toward the stairs that led up to the world, up to fresh air. Andrew ran alongside him whimpering. Jason ignored him and kept walking.

Andrew tripped and fell, forcing Jason to let go of his hand. He started crying. Jason knelt down beside him.

I’m sorry, little dude. I was in a hurry. Here, do you want me to carry you?” He held out his arms.

Andrew just nodded. He leaned between Jason’s arms. Jason picked him up, then climbed the stairs to ground level. There, still holding Andrew, he ripped through the turnstile. He found himself outside the station standing on the sidewalk.

Jason had never been to this part of the city before, so he didn’t know what to expect when he came up from below. He lowered Andrew and looked around. It was mostly dark now.

The sky must have been overcast, for he could see no stars, just a lamp black void. There were a few streetlights on the street, but their glow seemed ineffectual, merely pooling in small spots on the sidewalk beneath the lights.

The buildings surrounding the subway entrance didn’t look like apartment buildings or even business-type buildings. They all looked more like warehouses, dark and solemn. There were no cars parked along the side of the street. Jason couldn’t see any parking meters either. He turned around and around, but all he saw were the warehouses. They looked like they went on for blocks.

Still looking around, Jason absently said, “Where’s your mother, Andrew?” There was no answer.

Jason looked down. Andrew was not where he had set him. He spun around; saw no sign of Andrew anywhere.

He ran back into the subway entrance.

Andrew!” he called down the stairs. There was no sound but the echo of his voice. He glanced back out at the sidewalk and then fumbled in his pocket for a subway token. Thrusting it into the turnstile, he pushed through the triple-armed monopod. It ratcheted slowly at first, then threw him out on the other side.

Jason dashed down the stairs to the platform below.

On the platform, Jason slowed up. “Andrew!” he yelled again. The word bounced around the tiled walls and dissipated down the tunnels. Jason, heart racing with worry, contemplated the empty station. He heard the familiar sound of the tracks ringing ahead of an approaching train.

He walked to the edge of the platform, peered down the tunnel. There was a long straight section, and Jason could see the headlight of the train about a half mile away. It was an inbound train, going west to the city.

Jason was tempted to forget about Andrew and just get on the train. He could ride it to the Park Station go into the city hit his favorite pizzeria take a walk through the park maybe go into some stores and reminisce about the years he lived here in this culture of urbanity and theaters and good restaurants and colleges with all the co-ed women he met and….


But you know how parents are these days, very lax and liberal in their child management, leaving them behind in day care all day while they power-brokered their lives squeezed behind the steering wheels of their BMWs, talking into their hands-free phones as they sip Starbucks and fast forward Sheryl Crow… Andrew probably knew his way home from this station…


All talk, no walk. Jason looked at his feet. He looked at the train now pulling into the station. Somewhere, there was a 5 year old boy wandering by himself… he should be with his mom or dad. His dad - what did he say about his dad? Something about the Army. The war? Did Andrew say something about that? No, that was the elderly fellow. Andrew shouldn’t be alone; his mother was…


The train was resting at the platform now, its doors open wide. Jason could see inside. It looked full of people - so strange that the other train had been mostly empty. Jason started pacing back and forth beside the open doors. What were they waiting for? No one was getting on or off.

Then Jason noticed that the commuters were all dressed in some kind of uniform. It looked so very familiar, like those guys who were in the parade riding in their big desert sand-colored vehicles wide and rugged and loaded with danger. As he then remembered looking down on children by the road waving, running for the tiny pieces of candy he threw, there was light, sound, an earthquake and numbness…



Jason ran back up the stairs. His heart felt like it would burst out of his chest. He was panting to the point of hyperventilation.

Andrew!!” He leaped over the turnstile this time, not even bothering to push through it.

Jason skidded onto the sidewalk. It was as deep a night as he had ever seen. The hulking dark warehouses seemed even more ominous than before. They had crept a bit closer to the subway entrance, towered menacingly. Their dull windows revealed a vacancy behind their facade that raised the hair on Jason’s neck.


Jason breathed deeply trying to calm his racing heart. He forced himself to become quiet and listen. Nothing.

Cupping his hands around his mouth he yelled louder.


Where the subway station echoed, his voice seemed to fall flat among the warehouses.

Then he heard it. Very faint, off to the left somewhere. A small giggle or squeal, he wasn’t sure. It was at the edge of his hearing range, almost more imagined than real. But Jason jumped in that direction. He ran for three blocks in a heated craze, coming to a breathless stop when he realized that he had no idea which way to go. He called for Andrew again.

Mister Jasey, help!” The voice rang out, startlingly clear behind Jason.

He whirled around. There was no one behind him.

Andrew! Where are you?” he called.

Jason waited. And waited. No response.

He walked back to the last intersection and looked to the left and right. All he could see were more rows of warehouses in either direction, their ill-defined shapes backlit only by a very slightly lighter sky. The streetlights at each corner of the intersection didn’t provide much light. Instead, they made him feel exposed more than anything else, so he stood in the shadows away from their meager influence.

Suddenly, Jason saw a movement with his peripheral vision. It was off to the right, there by that car parked at the side of the street. He immediately, instinctively moved around the lamp post to the middle of the intersection and began walking softy in the direction of the movement.

He was troubled by the car parked halfway down the block. In an area of the city where he hadn’t yet seen any cars, either driving by or parked, he was suspicious. It was a strange feeling, he knew. Cars are as much a part of the city landscape as pigeons are, but he couldn’t ignore a blossoming sense of unease about it.

Mister Jasey, help me!” The voice leaped out of the darkness ahead of him this time. Beyond the car, the next block down. Jason stiffened.

A high, child-like, blood-curdling scream followed the plea for help. The warehouse silhouettes crowded closer to the streets. Jason stared at the car, paralyzed with fear. He had to go to Andrew, but there was something not right about that car. The night turned gooey and liquid. The air and the buildings seemed to warp, to stretch around Jason’s concrete legs.

Another scream.

Jason felt a white-hot anger rise within him. It exploded his paralysis with molten energy flowing through his muscles.

Stop it, you bastards! He’s just a kid!” Jason screeched at the top of his lungs. His legs drove into the asphalt like pneumatic hammers as he sprang ahead with the force of vengeance. Within seconds he was parallel to the car. His arm went up reflexively to the side of his head as if to shield it.

At the same time, the car exploded, lighting up the night and throwing the warehouses into a brief stark relief that revealed them as merely buildings of brick and wood. Empty, perhaps, but nothing more.

Jason was blown off his feet. He landed on his left shoulder and tumbled to the other side of the street. He expected to hear bones snap, or to feel ragged shreds of metal rip into his body, but
none of these happened. He lay in the gutter taking inventory of his physical condition.

Across the street, the car burned. Jason raised his head to look. Standing in the aura of light from the flames was Andrew. He had a big grin on his face as he waved energetically at Jason.

Andrew?” Jason whispered. He sat up, leaning on one arm.

Andrew skipped over to Jason and flung his arms around Jason’s neck. His grip was tight, almost a stranglehold. Jason put his arms around Andrew, sniffed his little boy hair. He held Andrew for years, it seemed, reluctant to let go.

I love you, Andrew.” Jason stunned, didn’t know why he said that, it just seemed appropriate.


Love you too, Mister Jasey,” said Andrew, letting go and stepping back. He smiled, gave a little wave and said, “Goodbye.”

Then he started skipping down the street, singing a nameless tune. Andrew disappeared into the darkness, his singing still reaching Jason’s ears for a while after.

Then there was nothing.

Goodbye, Andrew,” said Jason. He felt strangely peaceful. He felt as if he had satisfied a spirit of urgency to finish something before the big finish.

Jason stood up, brushed some dirt from his pants and walked back to the intersection. He could see a figure standing under the closest streetlight on the right. The figure seemed to be waiting for him. As Jason drew closer, he recognized the elderly man that had spoken with him on the train earlier.

Jason was first to speak. “Sir, how are you? What are you doing here?”

The elderly man chuckled. “You weren’t supposed to get off that train.”

Jason shook his head. “Huh?”

You weren’t supposed to get off that train.”

I was looking for a lost little kid. I needed to find him, to protect him,” he said with an edge to his voice. “His mother was missing; I didn’t know where his father was.”

I know,” said the elderly man sympathetically. “It’s time for you to go back.”

Jason didn’t move. He stood still thinking about Andrew; wondering why he didn’t scoop him up and try again to find his mother.

The elderly man was silent for a moment as he looked at Jason, then softly he said, “I will tell you this. Andrew is doing just fine. He is happy and playing and growing. He is a good, young man, free to choose his life’s path. His memories will not make him bitter. His mother is also doing well now. She has moved on, but she won’t ever forget you.”

Forget me? Why would she even remember me in the first place?” Jason asked. An uncomfortable feeling began forming in his stomach. He seemed on the verge of a realization that threatened to shatter his reality, to make the trip unbearable, if not impossible.

Jason thrust down the feeling vehemently. He swallowed, then said, “Maybe I’d better go back to the train.”

The elderly man smiled and nodded.

Jason turned from him and walked back to the station. He arrived at the entrance and took one last look before descending the stairs.

The dark warehouses no longer loomed ominous. They were just barren shells in orderly rows, sad and somehow natural, inevitable.

The sky was still starless. There was no moon to brighten up this silent area. Jason walked into the subway entrance, through the turnstile and down the stairs.

The train had not moved from the platform. It sat in the same spot humming not quietly, but not loudly either. The doors were still wide open, just as they were when it first pulled into the station. Jason approached the train. A man in uniform stepped out onto the platform and stood in front of Jason.

Sergeant Christianson,” he stated formally. Then, with a wink, he said, “J.C.”

Jason recognized the man as a comrade. As a walker who did very little talking.

 Yes, Captain.” Jason saluted.

Come back aboard, J.C. We still have a trip to make,” he said returning the salute. “And, by the way, you don’t have to salute anymore. We’re all equals now, just like we always were.”

He held out his hand.

Jason smiled, took the Captain’s hand, and gave it a firm shake. Then they boarded the train. The doors closed with a sigh.

The train slowly pulled away from the station and disappeared into the tunnel.

Like most everyone I was born to a woman and was quite young when doing so. This was in Maine where the signs say, "The Way Life Should Be."

After my inauspicious entrance, I tarried for about 18 years before leaving for college and, after that, a stint in the Army. It was in the Army that I met the woman I would marry and we have been together ever since.

When we returned to Maine I brought back many years of subject matter which I keep trying to untangle and write about in a coherent manner. The last fifteen years have produced 30 short stories, over 1100 poems, about 300 essays and a novel that remains unfinished to this day.

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