Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Hearts and Trains" by Jenean McBrearty

Except for the spindly woman in the yellow pant suit dragging a wheeled suitcase draped with a purse, the Santa Fe station was deserted. Occasionally, a pre-dawn San Diego Bay breeze gusted through the open doors bringing with it the faint scent of sea salt and street steam. 

Michael watched the stranger grimace, but he didn’t find the wait unpleasant. The pungent odors, the echo from the domed roof, and the red cement slab floors brought back a familiar excitement. He felt his pulse race. For a moment, it was as if he was here for the first time – December 7, 1941 – on his way home for the Christmas holiday. He was eighteen then, and eager, flirting with the daughter of a Southern family returning to Birmingham when the news of Pearl Harbor blared from the loudspeaker. Michael hadn’t even cashed in his ticket. He had run out of the train station and into the recruiting office, gaining the distinction of being the second man in the Santa Fe station to enlist in the Marines. Mark Hatch, who had been monitoring Michael’s flirtation with his sister, Lucy, was the first.

“Do you know what time the ticket office opens?” A worried voice said, interrupting his memory.

Michael’s glazed eyes looked up and focused on a pretty face framed by fawn-brown hair. “Five o’clock, I believe.”

She looked around nervously. “My boss said I could get a ticket before the train left, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around.” She was hardly a child - thirty, maybe thirty-five - but something about her made her seem vulnerable

“Don’t worry, you can buy a ticket from the conductor… and pay by check if you’re going at least twenty-five dollars away.” He smiled at her. She must have felt the concern behind his lined face and tired eyes because her mouth relaxed into a sheepish grin. 

“I guess I’m making a big deal out of this,” she said. “I always get so upset when my plans go haywire. You’d think I’d have learned to roll with the punches by now.”

“First train ride?”

“As a matter of fact, it is. I always fly. But with the terrorism thing, there’s no such thing as a last minute flight – and L.A. is fogged in – did you hear?”

“I thought it might roll over us this morning.” He knew he should stop talking, but he wanted to watch her. She smoothed her hair gracefully. “You going to L.A. on business?” he said. To his surprise, she sat down beside him.

Is she grateful to have someone to talk to? he wondered. Would she be nice to a man admiring her modern-woman polish? “You’ll like the train. Especially when it follows the coastline. Get some cocoa, and just look out at eternity,” he said.

“Business? Yes, business and it’s getting to be a crashing bore. I’m representing this medical equipment company in a negligence suit, and the home office is in L.A. Are you on business too?”

She didn’t assume he was retired. He was beginning to feel like a man again. “I’m going to a funeral.”

“I’m sorry. Someone close?”

Did she really want to know? he wondered. Or was this 21st century sensitivity? Perhaps he could share a bit of Mark with her. There were so few left who remembered. “We fought together. I guess that makes us as close as any two men can be,” he said.

“An Army buddy?”

“Marines.  Don’t ask me how we both managed to survive, but we did.” Michael hesitated, but her face was still turned toward him with expectation. She was so pretty. He felt a long forgotten tug in his groin, and smiled to himself. “We met in this station.” He saw her look up to the domed ceiling with its tiled vaulting, her upturned chin exposing a sleek neck encircled by a gold chain and tiny cross. Memories of Lucy flooded through him. “Mark was my brother-in-law.”

“Then she’s here too, in a way. Your wife, I mean.”

“Yes,” Michael said, pleased she understood. “You see that arched doorway? The one that says ‘Telephones’ above it? I left my Lucy there that December morning. She was seventeen, and I thought to myself that if she were the last pretty girl I‘d see in my life, she would be worth fighting for.” Michael laughed to himself, his face turning red from his own sentimentality.  “The young think such romantic thoughts, but I fell in love with her on the spot. She must have felt the same. Anyway, I started for the door ahead of Mark, but I ran back, grabbed her hand and pulled her into that room, and begged her for a kiss. Just one small one to keep me safe. I told her that kiss would bring me home. Here I am.”

The pretty stranger averted her gaze when he looked at her now. Michael thought he saw a single tear hit the simple gold band she twisted about her ring finger. “You did see her again.”  

“Yep. Only the next time, I had to wade through hundreds of soldiers and sailors to find her. This station was jammed. She’d come all the way from Birmingham to see me for three days. She was nineteen by then. I was two inches taller and weighed twenty pounds more, and she was even prettier than her pictures. It was impossible to get a room in Dago then, but the judge who married us had converted his garage into a bedroom like lots of folks who took in servicemen during the war. He let us stay all three nights.”

Michael dug in his pocket for a stick of Juicy Fruit gum, another holdover from yesterday. “This city was a serviceman’s town then. The sidewalks were a six-abreast stream of different uniforms and ranks – gunners, pilots, submariners – different accents – Texas, New Jersey – and different memories. But all the same desires – life and fun.”

“And peace?”
“That we wanted most of all, but were afraid to hope for. It was a tragic war. All of them are. But now that I look back on it – it had drama, romance, and you’ll think this is odd --”

“No, please go on.” The woman’s eyes were intense.

“It was a dignified war. Do people understand that word now, dignity?”

She sat pensively for a few moments. “In our own way. We’ve been deprived of many meaningful things, that’s for sure. But maybe that’s what the past has going for it. People forget how it really was. Dignity probably didn’t mean anything then either, especially to blacks in Birmingham.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Michael thought about her answer. Each generation has a battle to fight. The equality one lay ahead, and would be fought by other brave folks. We couldn’t do it all, he concluded.

“You’re a widower?” she asked.


“I thought so.”

“What’s your name?” Michael asked, hoping it wasn’t too forward.

“Katherine. You?”

“Mike. You married, Katherine?”

“For the present.”

“You’re one of those liberated movers and shakers I read so much about,” he chided, then added honestly, “I’ll bet your parents are proud of you.”

“I’ve had a good life. Thanks to people like you.”

A good life. Yes, Michael thought. Katherine’s nails were buffed and her teeth straight and white. Lucy had a chipped front tooth she got playing softball with her brothers when she was nine, and never got it capped.  Katherine was perfect. Lucy was real.

“I went to school when I came back from the war. I learned all about the political reasons I went. No one mentioned the real reason though.”

“What was that?” Katherine asked.

Mike felt like he was guarding a valuable secret. “Home of the free. No real man lets anyone destroy his home without a fight. In the first few seconds after I heard we’d been bombed, I imagined what the enemy might do to a pretty young girl and her family, and I knew these strangers were worth dying for because they weren’t strangers, they were Americans.”

The station was filling up. The ticket counter opened for business with the scratchy announcement that the train from L.A. would be delayed twenty minutes because of the fog. The message repeated in Spanish and then again in an Asian dialect Katherine didn’t recognize. A silver-haired lady in a white shirt and an Amtrack vest headed for the information booth, pulled open the shutters, and perched on a high chair so she could guard the entrances. “Tickets can now be purchased for the 5:25 train to Los Angeles,” the loudspeaker rasped. Katherine stood up, grabbed her briefcase with one hand and extended the other to Mike. It was a small, delicate hand, but the handshake was firm.

“It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I’d better get my ticket now. Maybe I’ll see you on board?” Her face now wore a business smile, confident and in-charge. Mike shook her hand and reluctantly let it go.

“I won’t be going on board.”

“But I thought--”

“I’m waiting for the L.A. train. My trip will be to Ft. Rosecrans Cemetery. I’m meeting Mark’s casket. I thought you had enough to deal with.”

“I’d better get in line.” She turned to go, then added, “I’m not as fragile as I look.”

“I know that now. Have a good trip.”

She walked quickly to the ticket counter and didn’t look back. He stared at her tall, straight bearing, her soft, brown curls. How much like a uniform her business suit seemed. A pang knifed his heart. Where did the time go? She was a beautiful woman. Her voice was strong, buoyant, as though she was repressing a laugh with every word so she would be taken seriously. If he was younger, he thought, he might have asked her to coffee. He sat down and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. How he wished he could see the first rush of wonder in a woman’s eyes, eyes that mirrored his own unabashed fondness. “I know we’re young, Lucy,” he heard himself say, “But I do love you – give me a kiss, and I’ll come home.”

Michael felt dizzy. He pounded his chest. Something was caught – air. He couldn’t get it in or out. He strained to see who was talking to his Lucy.

“You must come home,” a voice said as he stumbled through the arched doorway into the telephone room. If Lucy was there, he would find her. He struggled to walk, laying both hands on the coral stucco walls, bracing himself with each painful step.  Just when he believed he could go no farther, in the dim first light of dawn, he saw her – Lucy in her polka-dot cotton dress, white open-toed shoes, a pure-white ribbon tying back her chestnut hair. She was smiling at him, blowing him that last kiss before he went to war.

“My God,” he thought, “If she’s the last pretty girl I see, she’s worth dying for.”


Katherine saw him fall. “Call 911,” she screamed as she ran to Mike. “Heart attack,” she snapped to the ticket salesman, who ran to the counter and returned with a blanket. She wadded it up and put it behind Michael’s head. She loosened his clothing.

A tanned man in cut-off shorts and a t-shirt dropped to his knee. “You count,” he said as he straddled Mike’s chest.

 “One, Two. Three,” she said rhythmically, and the man leaned forward, applying pressure to the heart. “One. Two. Three,” till three white- coated EMTs arrived and ordered everyone out to the lobby.

Katherine missed her train. She and the blonde man sat together, silent, in the station that was empty once again. The morning rush was over. Only the station employees, talking with two Marines in dress blue uniforms about the unloaded black lacquered coffin, broke the silence. In the side room, where the EMTs labored for life, there existed another world that she could only observe, like Dorothy Gale gazing into the witch’s crystal ball.

“Are you a relative?” a deep-voiced, uniformed man said.

Katherine understood the gravity that spilled into the air. “No, but I was just talking to him a few minutes before. He was waiting for the train. Lucy’s brother’s to be buried at Rosecrans.”  She pointed to the casket, desperately trying not to cry.

“Looks like they’ll be traveling together.”  Katherine looked up to the face underneath the white hat. “That explains this.” White gloved hands handed her a wrinkled sack.

She dipped into the bag and withdrew a tightly rolled triangle of red, white, and blue cloth. She held it to her face, letting it catch involuntary tears.

“I’m Sgt. Meyers,” the Marine said to the t-shirted stranger.

“I’m just someone who tried to help -- George Sandoval. Do you know who he was?”“Michael Strong. Staff Sergeant retired. You two did all you could, you know. Try not to take it so hard. We lose a thousand of our vets every day.”

“What about his children? And Mark’s funeral? Who’ll be there?” Katherine said.

Sgt. Meyers shook his head at her question. “No one but us.”

“What’s going to happen now?” Katherine said.

 “They’ll take him to the county morgue, and then we’ll step in. Marines never leave a comrade behind.”

“Of course, but call me if there’s anything I can do.” Katherine handed Sgt. Meyers her business card.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Sgt. Meyers put the card in his wallet, and walked away.

“Wait!” Katherine said as the EMTs brought the sheet-covered body out of the telephone room.   “Wait – we can’t just let him leave the station this way. A man like Sgt. Strong should leave this place with a little dignity.” She unfolded the flag and draped it over Mike’s body. “We owe him an honor guard. Please.”

Sgt Meyers stopped, and turned to the young woman who had placed her hand on the heart of the fallen soldier. Sandoval was by her side, holding her elbow as the bewildered EMTs looked on. Meyers called the other Marine to attention and the two marched back into the station, their measured footfalls beating the drum of the dirge.

Katherine Latham walked alongside the gurney – she and Sandoval, the EMTs, and the Marines as they accompanied Michael through the train station to the front door where the ambulance waited. It was a proud procession, moving with somber steps under the domed roof, past newly varnished wooden pews, past ghosts of forgotten loves and pains, past the ghosts of two innocent hearts for whom a momentous war was just the sideshow to a lifetime of love.

When they reached the ambulance, the two Marines folded the flag. Sgt. Meyers presented it to Katherine, saying “I am proud to give you, a citizen of these United States, this remembrance of the service of your friend, Michael Strong, to a grateful nation.”

She watched the two Marines return to Marks’s waiting casket. George waited with her till the ambulance drove off, and patted her arm before moving off into the fog.

She stood there, alone, wondering how it was that she had missed so many nice conversations, and how quickly lifetime friendships developed when the lifetime could possibly be cut short. She hit the speed dial on her cell phone and a familiar voice answered.

“Stephen? It’s me…I’m at the train station downtown. I want to talk with you. Here. I’m going to buy two tickets for a ride up the coast. Just us,” she said as she walked into the station. “I’ll be inside, sitting by the sign that says ‘Telephones’. I’ll wait for you. And Stephen? I love you.”

- - -

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