Jim struggled to open his eyes but they would not comply. Why couldn’t he wake up? He never dreamed this way. Maybe it was all that heavy food at his wife’s wake the night before. Perhaps it was the weight of a thousand regrets and maybes laying like a pile of granite rocks on his soul.
What was that smell? At least his nose was working. With his world still black Jim concentrated on the odor: pungent, clinging, and unmistakable. It was diesel, like from a bus or perhaps a train. As though the thought of a train turn the key in some hidden lock, his ears awoke and registered the distinctive sound of a railway engine as it roared to life.
Steel wheels on steel tracks combined with whistles and clanging confirmed he indeed was dreaming something about a train. But was this a dream? He could really smell and hear these things. Why couldn’t he see? What was happening to him?
Instinctively Jim turned to the voice and the world snapped into a sudden blaze of light and images. He was at a train station and staring straight into the bushy red face of a railway engineer. Jim jumped to his feet and backed away a step from the newcomer. His clothes, hair, and great handlebar mustache were something from the 1800’s. That didn’t fit; the train was much more modern.
Laughing to himself, Jim realized what a stupid observation he had made.“I’m wondering about engineers and trains when I can’t even answer how I’m here; if I’m anywhere.”
“Hey buddy!” the burly man shouted. “Are you going to hang around on those tracks all day? Cause if you are, I’m going to have to physically remove you and I think that’s going to be none too pleasant the way I’m feeling right about now.”
None of this was right. He should be in his house in Atlanta with his daughters and mother-in-law. His wife’s sudden death must have affected his mind in ways he had never imagined. Digging deep inside himself he tried to get his analytical mind to return him back to where he belonged.
He closed his eyes tight, counted to ten, breathed what passed for a prayer or a wish, and opened his eyes again. To his dismay the red faced man was still staring at him from just a few feet away. The man looked at his Illinois Central watch and back at Jim. It was plain he was not a happy man.
Then again, Jim was in no good mood either. “What am I doing here?”
The engineer put his watch away and planted his wide calloused hands on both hips. “Well, I’ve been asking the same question for the last ten minutes. I was kind of hoping you could answer it for me but I see now that’s not going to happen,”
Jim shook his head as he dropped his eyes. All the grief and pain of the last few days welled up inside of him. No matter what world or time he was in, the pain was just as real. He was too tired to think or feel. Too tired to argue. Too tired to even care.
Sensing his condition, the engineer softened a bit. “Look mister, I can see something’s terribly wrong for you right now. I really do wish I had time to help you but I don’t.”
The man’s eyes looked toward the railway platform and Jim’s followed. Hundreds of people stood and sat on the wooden platform anxiously waiting to be given the all-aboard signal so they could enter the train. What an odd assortment of people. They were a mix of all ages, races, and sizes. There were mothers and fathers sitting with their children. There were solitary elderly people and even one lone child standing alone with a name tag around her neck.
Several things caught Jim’s attention as he looked at the passengers waiting to board the train. They all stood with the clothes on their back and nothing more. No destination tags on suitcases or trunks. No suitcases or trunks for that matter. None of them had any luggage at all. Just people waiting to board a train.
The other thing that struck Jim was the diversity of conditions these people seemed to be in. Some looked as healthy as could be while others looked like they had one foot in the grave. One older man carried an oxygen bottle; his labored breathing could almost be heard above the belching of the engine. A woman was dressed in black and appeared to have just come from a funeral.
Seeing the woman in black Jim was sure he knew what had happened. “That’s it,” he reasoned to himself. “I must have had a mental break after the funeral. I’m a doctor; if I ever saw one this it.”
Jim’s momentary euphoria faded as quickly as it came. How could he be reasoning all of this if he was suffering from a mental break? Was he rational about being delusional or delusional about being rational? No wonder his head hurt so.
“Ok, that’s it buddy!” The engineer grabbed Jim by the arm and lifted him in one easy motion off of the tracks and shoved him toward the platform. “Now go over to the ticket agent and tell him where you want to go. I haven’t time for any more of this.”
Too weary to protest, Jim shuffled in a daze toward the window plainly marked, ticket agent. He decided the best thing he could do was go along. If this was a delusion or a dream of some kind it would play itself out sooner or later. No need to fight it.
He pushed his way through the crowd and stood at the agent’s window. He was a mousy little man with a pencil stuck behind one ear. Before him sat a huge book filled propped up on stack of equally large volumes. His head was buried in the book and he seemed to have no awareness of anything else going on around him.
“Ahem,” Jim cleared his throat trying to get the man’s attention.
“Excuse me, but the engineer over there told me you could help me.”
The little gray haired man never looked up as his fingers ran up and down the pages. Jim leaned over where he could look at the book. It was filled with names, arrival and departure times, but no destinations. Now that was strange. Jim laughed at himself again for thinking anything to be unusual in this little drama he was trapped in. The whole thing was strange. None of this could be real.
As though on cue the wiry little fellow looked up and over his reading glasses and smiled. “If it ain’t real, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“How did you know what I was thinking?
“Cause everyone thinks the same thing when they step up to this window. Everyone that is, that comes from the tracks over there. Bet you don’t know how you got here or what you’re doing here either do you?”
Jim shook his head, astonished at how well the man had read his mind. Of course, if this was a mental delusion then the ticket agent and the engineer were just constructs of his own broken psyche.
“Oh boy, I see we’ve got another one.” The agent plucked the pencil from his ear and looked back at Jim. “What’s your name son?”
He stopped, realizing he couldn’t remember his last name. No amount of mental gymnastics could make the name appear to him. But that made sense. Delusional patients he had treated often lost touch with their real person. It was a defense mechanism protecting them from the realities of a life they deemed too painful. Still wrapped up in thought, Jim watched the man’s pencil as his eyes scanned the page.
Licking his finger and flipping several more pages the man at last stopped turning. His eyes moved down until they stopped. Once again he looked over his glasses and smiled. “Yes, here you are. Jim, is that right?”
“Well yes, but surely there are more Jim’s in on those pages than just mine. How do you know you have the right Jim there?”
Twenty years of private practice as a psycho therapist told him he had already fallen much too far into his own delusion. Now he was trying to reason with a phantom. None of this was real. It was all just the result of a mind that could bear no more.
The little man plopped his pencil down beside the big book and sighed. He rubbed his thinning gray hair, cracked his neck, and looked back through the narrow window. “Your types always give me the worst kind of headache.”
People were backing up behind Jim and several muttered their displeasure at the delay. Seeing the situation developing the ticket agent shut the book and placed his hand on top of Jim’s. An unusual warmth flowed from his fingers; or was it just the coldness of Jim’s that made them seem so warm?
“Look son, I know this is hard. But you types always end up right where you are. You think you have it all figured out. Even now I bet you’re diagnosing yourself; telling yourself what’s real and what’s not. What can be and can’t.”
Jim caught his breath as what could only be described as helplessness flushed across his face.
The look was not missed by the little gray haired man. “Ah, now that’s what I was looking for. Hang on a minute.”
With that the agent hung a “lunch break” sign on his window and stepped outside to where Jim was. Angry shouts rose from those held up by the delay. The agent just smiled, took Jim’s arm, and walked down the platform with him as though they were the only two people that existed.
They walked passed several low slung cinder block buildings until they came to a small courtyard. There was a beautiful fountain positioned in the middle of a number of park benches. Flowers were everywhere.
“What do you hear in this place Jim?”
Jim stopped and listened. All he could hear was the beating of his pulse and the sound of his own measured breathing. Beside his own, there was absolutely no sound at all. It wasn’t just quiet. It was as though no sound outside of him had ever existed in this place.
The agent spoke again and the volume of his voice startled Jim. “Who do you see here Jim?”
Again Jim complied by examining everything around him. There were people in the courtyard but they were more shadows than substance. Each individual moved as though he had no real awareness of others around him. Jim now knew he had truly lost his mind. As much as he tried he could not construct a way out of the madness he knew he must be trapped in.
Again the ticket agent clucked to himself and slapped a hand against his side. “Oh good gracious”, he muttered, “this is so tiresome. If you are so blasted determined to believe your own diagnosis over the truth right in front of your face then go ahead. I don’t get paid to put up with such foolishness.”
With that, the agent stomped back toward his office. On arriving he pulled down his “lunch break” sign, muttering to himself how he hadn’t even had anything to eat. Jim watched from a distance as the agent spoke with one after another in the waiting line. From time to time he would hang the sign back up and march another person back to where Jim stood at the courtyard. Each time this happened he never spoke to Jim or for that matter even acted like he saw him there.
Every time a new person was deposited at the courtyard Jim would start to go talk to them only to see them fade into the same shadowy visage as the other people there. Not one person the agent brought over said a word to Jim.
A tall man stood with an impressive silver pocket watch in his outstretched hand at the edge of the platform in front or different train than before. The people on the platform began to board the train, its engine now fully warm and ready to go. With his arm hanging out the engine window Jim could see the distinctive red mustache of the engineer that had thrown him off the tracks.
He looked from the train to the courtyard. Everything in him said to go take a seat on one of the park benches. It was so quiet and peaceful here. There was no one to ask him any more questions or offer him any more advice.
He knew something was missing in this place but he couldn’t think of what it was. Jim put his hand on the white picket gate that led into the courtyard. As he touched the gate, he was startled to hear voices from the shadowy figures within. Just one step inside that gate and he was sure he could understand them. The longer Jim’s hand rested on the gate the more real the courtyard seemed. The people were becoming more tangible. Shadows were giving way to substance
The train whistle blared again and Jim looked that way once more realizing what had surprised him. The train, its station, and the people were becoming transparent. The scene over there was beginning to look like the courtyard had first looked to him.
As the last of the passengers boarded the train Jim again noticed the woman dressed in black. Her back was to him but still she seemed strangely familiar. Was it her hair? Was it the way she walked? Just as the woman was about to enter the train the little girl holding her hand broke free began to run straight toward the courtyard.
The ticket agent bolted from his office as fast as his frail spindly legs would carry him. The woman in black never left her place seemingly frozen where she was. Just as the agent was about to catch up to the run away girl the conductor stepped in his path. He looked at his watch and held up a white gloved hand. Even from the distance Jim heard the conductor’s voice as clearly as if he were standing right beside him.
“Let her go. There’s plenty of time. After all, it’s my train and my watch.”
The ticket agent shrugged and stood watching the child as she ran toward the courtyard. She was the child with a name tag hanging around her neck. It got clearer as she came closer. The name on the tag was …
“Amy …” Jim mouthed the world silently.
Where did he know that name from? Unconsciously, he took his hand off the gate to step toward the girl. The moment his fingers lost contact with the white wood of the gate the train platform and child sprang into sharp focus. Jim turned and saw the people in the courtyard were once again vague and silent.
“Go with her Jim.”
Jim whirled to the source of the voice. The conductor stood directly behind him. Well, now in front of him. How did get he here so quickly?
“I don’t understand,” Jim almost pleaded to the tall conductor.
“Of course you don’t Jim. You can’t.”
The conductor looked at the little girl. She stood beside them now, her name tag still clearly visible.
“Amy needs you to go with her Jim. This is not where you belong. Now take her hand and get on the train.”
Jim looked from the quiet and serene courtyard to the noisy train and even noisier people inside of it. “I’m too tired and besides I don’t even know where that train is going.”
The conductor nodded and took Jim’s hand. He placed the man’s hand in the little girl’s beside him. “I know you’re tired Jim but there are more miles for you to go. I’m the conductor. It’s my train. It will be alright; I hold the watch.”
Jim smiled and looked down at the girl. “Amy, where do I know that name from?”
“The answers are all back on that train Jim,” replied the conductor.
Jim nodded and began to follow the precious girls’ leading hand back toward the train. With every step he took, he was more certain what was real was on that train and what was not was behind him.
“See ya later Jim, a lot later.” The little ticket agent grinned and checked something off in his big book slamming the cover shut when he finished.
The engineer beamed down at them from his high perch in the great engine. His mustache parted with his grin. “Welcome back Jim. We’ve still got a lot of miles ahead of us.”
Jim managed a smile. When they got to the entrance to the train he picked the little girl up. Her tiny arms wrapped around his neck and squeezed for dear life. Now that was no delusion. Jim squeezed back and a tear trickled down his cheek. Now he knew the little girl’s name. It was the same as his. He was Jim Randall and she was Amy Randall, his granddaughter.
With his granddaughter still in his arms Jim looked at the occupants of the train car. There was sickness here and sorrow; some seats were occupied by unsavory looking characters and some by people with blank stares. But all in all, the place was full of life and sound. There was still regret and sorrow here but there was life. Jim grinned and hugged Amy again.
“Did you see him Papa Jim?”
“See who Amy?”
“The conductor, Papa Jim. He said to tell you to enjoy the ride. He said there’s still time to finish the trip. After all it’s his train and his watch.”
Jim looked at his granddaughter and saw a couch slowly take the place of the train seat beneath her. He looked past the couch out the picture window of his Atlanta home and smiled. For a moment he thought he heard the faint sound of steel wheels on steel tracks. Then all was quiet and he knew he was truly home.
He hugged his granddaughter again, glad to be alive.
“Yes baby, guess he’ll tell us all when this trip is over. After all it’s his train and his watch.”
Tim lives in Pensacola, FL. He is married to his wife, Judy of 34 years and the father of two married sons, each with children of their own. He has faced the monster of depression in his own life and wants everyone there is hope in God. No one has to quit on life. God wants us to stay on this train called life and enjoy it to the fullest until He, the great conductor is ready for us to come home. After all, it’s His train and His watch!