TITLE: All Aboard
By Tim George
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Jim rubbed his aching head and tried 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. Maybe it was the weight of a thousand regrets and maybes laying like a stack of granite rocks on his soul.
“That smell,” he said to himself. “At least my nose is still working even if my eyes aren’t.”
What was that smell?
With his world still black Jim concentrated on the odor and finally was able to determine what it was. Diesel, like from a bus or perhaps a train. No sooner had the thought of a train gone through his mind than his ears awoke and registered the distinctive sound of a railway engine as it roared
Steel wheels on steel tracks combined with whistles and clanging confirmed that there indeed was a train somewhere nearby. But this was no 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 suddenly blazed into a cacophony of light and images. He was at a train station of some kind and looking straight into the red bushy face of a railway engineer.
Jim jumped to his feet and backed away a step from the newcomer. What made the vision of the man even more startling was that he was obviously from a long past era. His clothes, hair, and great handlebar mustache pointed to the late 1800’s. But how could an engineer from the 1800’s be standing in front of a train from a much later period?
Laughing to himself, Jim realized what a stupid question that was. “I’m wondering about engineers and trains when I can’t even answer how I’m here; if I am really anywhere except trapped in some kind of a dream or delusion.
“Hey buddy!” the burly man shouted. “Are you going to sit 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.”
By now Jim was fully alert. And he wished he wasn’t.
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 deposit him back 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.
“What am I doing here?”
The engineer put his watch away and planted his wide hands on both hips.
“Well, I’ve been asking the same question for the last ten minutes. But somehow you don’t seem to know do you?”
Jim shook his head and 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. 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.
Jim followed the engineer’s eyes toward the platform. 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 a 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 suddenly determined 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; I know what a paranoid schizophrenic episode looks like. If I ever saw one this it.”
Just as quickly as the thought came Jim knew how foolish it was. How could he be reasoning all of this if he was suffering from a mental break? Maybe he was delusional about being reasonable. No wonder his head hurt so.
“Ok, that’s it!”
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.”
Jim stood up, brushed himself off, and walked 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 was a huge book filled with names. 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 that engineer over there told me you could help me.”
The little gray haired man never looked up. His fingers ran up and down the pages from the name of one person to another. 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 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 that 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 that 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 all those names 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 the unreasonable. 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.
“You types always give me the worst kind of headache.”
“What type is that?” Jim shot back angrily. Oh great, now he was getting mad at his own imaginations.
People were backing up behind Jim and several muttered their displeasure at the delay. Seeing the situation that was developing the ticket agent shut the book and placed his hand on top of Jim’s. There was unusual warmth that 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.”
Jim caught his breath and for the first time looked as though he wanted someone else to tell him what was going on. 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 he couldn’t even hear the roe behind them.
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 himself 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 than the truth that is 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. They too acted as though he was barely there.
A tall man stood with an impressive silver pocket watch in his outstretched hand at the edge of the platform. Even from this distance it was obvious he was the conductor. 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 were no problems 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. The words made no sense but at least there was sound here.
A train whistle blew, long and loud. Jim looked back toward the train with his hand still resting on the gate.
“What in the world?” he mused out loud.
Now that was an ironic thing to say. This couldn’t be the world. This couldn’t be real. But the longer Jim’s hand rested on that 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 were boarding 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 her grip and began to run straight toward the courtyard. The ticket agent was the first to notice and he 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 and platform became clear again as did the child.
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 was standing directly behind him. Well no 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 on that train. 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 that 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.”
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