Here’s Waiting for a Train by Mississippi John Hurt.
Story and recipe after the jump.
Waiting for a Train
Five days a week, Frank walks to the train station. Whatever the weather, winter or summer. He wakes at 6:15. The dog sits up at the foot of his bed and yawns a nervous song, anxious that she might not get her breakfast, though she’s had it at exactly the same time every morning for the eight years of her life. He walks down stairs and she dances around him, and it’s a wonder they haven’t both tripped and fallen to their doom in a tangled mass. In the winter, it’s pitch black in the hallway, because Frank doesn’t like to turn on the light and wake everybody in the house. In the summer, he can already feel how hot the day will be, in the pale bleak light that streams into the hallway and bakes the dust out of the floors and carpets.
He always makes a pot of coffee, standing stupidly for a few minutes to watch it drip, because he can’t do much else till he’s had a cup. He makes a piece of toast and he fries himself an egg. He likes his egg just so—soft and golden with a thin pale film over the yolk, and a crispy lace forming in the butter. He washes his dishes, even the pan, which needs scrubbing every time. He piles them neatly in the dish drainer, and wipes the counter clean.
He checks himself in the small mirror by the coat rack just behind the front door. He’s dressed himself in the dark, so he wouldn’t wake anybody, but he likes to look neat. He has to look sharp, in his line of business, so that people will trust him.
In the winter, in the freezing rain or stinging snow, when the dark is unrelenting and his feet get wet and he knows they will stay that way all day, he sometimes wonders why he bothers. In the summer, though, he likes to hear the birds busy about their work, and smell all the flowers, which will never be so fragrant all day long as they are at this early hour. He’s glad to be awake and about so early, with somewhere to go.
People amble and meander in the sleepy neighborhoods and side streets, but when he gets closer to the station the sun climbs higher in the sky and everybody is in a hurry, they’re all on their way somewhere. By the time he reaches the station it’s full bright morning and the world of employed, productive people is buzzing and vibrant.
People are always busy by the train station, at any time of day. They come and go with purpose, they have somewhere to be. And the people who work in the station: cleaning, guarding, selling sandwiches or newspapers or tickets, they’re busy, too, they’re always hard at work, and he likes to hear them cheerful, calling to each other, making the same jokes every day.
Frank likes the light in the train station, soft and golden like the gloaming. No matter the time of day, it always has a twilight glow. And he likes the smells. The station always smells like rain, and breakfast cooking, and people, and trains, of course. He loves the smell of trains.
By the time he reaches the station, Frank is hungry again, and he buys a Danish. Always the same Danish—raspberry and almond, with a sticky sort of glaze on top. On Tuesday, it’s soft and fresh, but by Thursday, it’s stale as cardboard, and on Friday they sometimes don’t have them at all, and he begins to suspect that they’re not baked on premises.
“Hello, Louie, how’s business,” He’ll say to the man who sells the pastries.
“Can’t complain,” Louis will reply, “Can’t complain.”
“And how are your lovely children?” Frank will ask.
“Somebody is spoiling them rotten and I think it might be me.’ Louis will say.
“Isn’t that always the way?” Frank will say with a chuckle. And then he sits on a bench and eats his Danish, and watches the people go by. He likes how the crowd swells by like a wave and then thins out, how people crowd by him in a rush at rush hour, and then subside, until there’s only a few people, on their way somewhere, pretending not to look at one another.
Sometimes he buys a magazine, but he doesn’t like the advertisements, they hold too many memories. Sometimes he buys a newspaper for the crossword, because he believes it keeps him sharp, keeps his brain lively. But mostly he sits and listens and watches. He likes to hear little parts of other people’s conversations. He likes to make a patchwork quilt of odd phrases. People are so strange, everybody is so crazy, yet so endearing. It feels so rare to be a person, just like them.
Sometimes he stands on the platform, where the feeling of waiting is something thick and solid. Anxious anticipation is palpable. And then comes the flurry of activity when the train pulls up, everyone grabs their things as they’re drawn to the train by some mysterious force, shuffling along beside it as it slows and stops. And then it’s gone, and Frank is alone on the platform again.
For the last 22 years, Frank has walked to the station, but it’s only in the last two years, three months and 14 days that he hasn’t bought a ticket. He stops at the ticket booth, any way, to say hello to Russell, who sells the tickets, and to ask after his lovely wife. Imagine Frank’s surprise, one day, to find not Russell in the booth, but a girl. He stops walking. He nearly stops breathing. He’s always been bewildered by change.
“Where to?” She’s young, not much older than his daughter. She has dark shiny bobbed hair and pale translucent skin. He can see her blue veins. She has small dark eyes, and she looks at him without a trace of recognition or concern. He laughs apologetically. He’s not going anywhere, but he doesn’t know how to explain that. He’s never had to explain that. And then her face changes. She knows who he is. She frowns at him, he laughs again and walks past, heart racing. He has to sit on his favorite bench at the very end of the platform to collect his thoughts. He avoids the ticket booth for the rest of the day. He walks home in the evening lost in thought. He’s never had trouble sleeping in his life, except for two weeks in his twenties when he first met his wife. But now he lies awake, “where to?” going round and round in his head. Where to where to where to where to where to where to where to where to where to? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know.
In the morning he lies in bed for a full five minutes after the alarm goes off, and it’s only the dog’s anxious face that gets him up. He burns his toast, and his egg is only half-cooked, but he eats it anyway. His usual route takes him by the ticket booth, so he alters his course, and spends the morning outside, climbing from platform to platform, until it gets too hot.
He takes his lunch break at a sandwich shop in town. They’re always glad to see him because he’s kind and he tips well. He gets roast beef on white bread, with mayonnaise and tomatoes. He likes salt and pepper on the tomatoes, and they always put it on without having to ask. They give him celery and olives on the side, because he likes those, too, and they give him his coffee (milk and two sugars) in a paper cup, so he can walk back to the station with it. After lunch he sits in the shade in the station sipping his coffee, watching a young mother soothe a crying baby, rocking it against her body, back and forth, back and forth, and tickling its soft fat legs. The crying makes Frank anxious as if it was one of his own children, and when it finally stops he smiles at the mother, and she sighs and smiles, and walks off, still rocking from side to side.
And suddenly the girl is beside him on the bench. He wants to jump up, he wants to leave, but he knows that would be wrong, he needs to stay, he needs to be friendly.
“Hey,” she says. And he thinks, why do the kids say “hey?” His children do it, too. When he was young, it would not be okay to say, “hey.”
“Hey. I want to talk to you.” She has a sandwich, but she’s not eating it. She’s tearing it apart with thin pale fingers. She peels off the crust all the way around, and then she tears the sandwich into small pieces, and crumbles them into a ball. “My mom makes me sandwiches,” She says, looking up to him with defiant confiding eyes. “But I can’t eat them. I’m slimming. Don’t you think I need to?”
He tries not to look at her, at her straight skinny bruised calves, at her bony wrists, at her heart-breaking ankles.
“Well. I heard about you. They told me about you.” She says.
He smiles and nods, but he’s dying inside.
“I don’t want to take tickets in some lousy train station my whole life. You know?” She won’t let him alone.
“Yes? No. No, I think that’s a very fine job. Taking tickets. The best….”
“Naw. Naw. You know that’s not true. Why would you say that?” She glares at him. “Thing is…” she says it all in a rush, with a furrowed frown, like a foolish child. “Thing is, I want to be a model, and I know you work…worked in the business, they told me that about you…and I know you must know some people I should know, and I’m going to do it, no matter what my mom says so don’t try to stop me, but maybe you could help me out a little.”
He laughs apologetically. “I don’t do that anymore. I don’t work in the city, anymore, in that…business. I work here now. This is my job.”
“Naw. Naw, I know you don’t believe that. You work here? Naw. That’s dumb.” He knows she isn’t trying to be cruel. She frowns at him again. “I just… I just… I want… I just. Don’t you see?”
“Well, I do, I think I do see, but I’d say you’re fine here. At the station. It’s a fine job. A noble job.”
She turns her whole body towards him, and raises her face, wrinkled and distorted and near tears, she raises her face to him. She’s calm by the time she speaks again, and her face is pale and perfect. “Don’t you think I’m pretty enough? Is that what you’re trying to say?” He tries not to look at her beautiful crooked nose, and her freckles, and her bright uneven eyes. He tries not to look at her pretty chapped lips.
“No.” He says. “No, you’re not. You’re not pretty enough.”
She’s more angry than sad, he’s relieved to see that. She stands and looks at him like she might kill him, and turns and walks away. She’s left her sandwich, torn to pieces in its waxed paper wrapping, lying on the bench beside him. He balls it up in his hands, and walks slowly to the trashcan.
1/2 cup salted pistachio kernels
1 cup flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 cup powdered sugar
2 t vanilla
5 T melted butter (or very soft butter)
2 cups cherries, pitted and roughly chopped
1 peach, sliced in 1/2 inch slices, each slice cut in half
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
3 T brown sugar
3 T butter
1/2 cup pistachios
2 T flour
Preheat the oven to 375. Lightly butter and flour a large cake pan.
In a food processor combine 1/2 cup pistachios, flour, baking powder and baking soda. Process until the pistachios are finely ground and the mixture is completely smooth.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until light and frothy and lemon colored. Beat in the sugar, vanilla and melted butter. Beat until smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Spread the cherries and chocolate chips in the middle, leaving a border of one or two inches, and arrange the peach slices in a pretty pattern on the edge.
In the food processor, combine the brown sugar, butter, pistachios and 2 T flour and process until coarse and crumbly. Sprinkle this mixture over the top of the cake.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. The length of time will depend on the size and depth of your cake pan. When it’s done it will be puffed and firm to the touch.
Let cool slightly, and serve with cream, custard, or ice cream.
BROWN SUGAR VANILLA CUSTARD
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 t vanilla
1 t flour or cornstarch
1/2 t salt
1 cup heavy cream
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the milk and vanilla.
In a medium-sized bowl whisk the eggs, sugar, cornstarch and salt until frothy.
Whisking all the while, pour the milk into the eggs in a thin stream. Return the mixture to the medium-sized saucepan over low heat. Warm, stirring constantly, until it thickens enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon. Five or ten minutes, I think.
Pour into a bowl, stirring constantly. Put the bowl in a pan of cold water, whisking all the while, to cool the mixture down. Cover and chill in the fridge 5 hours to overnight.
Stir in one cup of heavy cream, and serve. (Or freeze according to your ice cream maker’s directions.)