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Running Down the Track

A life summed up in one ride.

His ears overflowing with clacking and creaking, Al Zullo had fallen asleep in his coach car seat as the train rushed headlong into twilight on its way from Denver to Chicago. Five cars ahead of him, the train’s horn quietly screamed at every crossing, a comforting, beckoning wail. He may have dreamed, although he couldn’t say. He seldom remembered his dreams, and when he did they had no clarity, rather like his life. “Always running,” his mother had once said. “From what? You don’t remember. To what? You don’t know, or maybe even care.”

Mother had always been right, for all the good it did her. Or him, for that matter. She was gone, and he was still running.

In the wee hours under a darkened sky, the train lurched and threw Al against the window. He woke with a start, those words echoing in his brain: you don’t even care. They slapped his face and boxed his ears and washed his mouth out with soap. He sputtered, then wiped his lips with his sleeve. Eyes wide with alarm, he looked left where, beyond the window, night still reigned; then right where a young woman, a redhead, slept on in spite of the jostling, her seat reclined full back, her footrest up, her unshod feet delicately perched on its edge, a navy blue coat draped over her body. Al knew the woman’s name, or had the previous day. She introduced herself when she took her seat, said she was going home from college for spring break, but now he’d forgotten all but that. His mind always had been a sieve, except where numbers were concerned.

College. Al had left his college days far behind. More’s the pity, he thought. If he weren’t so old, she might have taken an interest in him. Yes, she might’ve. He’d been an athlete once, after all. Track. Baseball. Held his school’s record for bases stolen. The traffic accident that messed up his left leg ended all that, but he’d kept himself active. She wouldn’t have noticed that bum leg. Not in bed, anyway.

He realized too late that they weren’t alone. Another passenger shuffling down the aisle had stopped beside them, a dark skinned-fellow not much his junior. The man grinned down at him, and when Al looked up in embarrassment the other pointed at the woman and made a thumbs up gesture. Then he motioned Al to follow and moved on down the aisle toward the lounge car.

Al watched him for a moment, wondering who he was. He looked familiar, like maybe the father of someone he had once known, but, as with the woman, he couldn’t put a name to the face. The man stopped at the door and turned. Come on, man, he mouthed, then grinned at the still-sleeping woman.

Good thing she is sleeping, Al mused, or we’d both be thrown off this train.

The other man passed through the door, which banged shut behind him. Al rose, steadied himself on the headrest of the seat in front of him, and gingerly stepped across the woman’s outstretched legs. He felt sure he would either fall onto her or yank the hair from the head of the older woman sleeping in the next seat forward, but somehow he made it into the aisle without injuring himself or others. By the time Al reached the lounge car, the other man had found two empty seats and occupied one.

“You old devil, Al.” The man shook his head and smiled out the huge windows at the featureless night. Throughout the car, people had crashed in the big padded seats, some sleeping, some wrapped in blankets while reading from books or mobile gizmos.

Al chewed his lip, still unable to place the face. “Have we met?”

“Sure, a long time ago. Bob Thurston.” Bob thrust out his hand and Al shook it mechanically, not quite knowing why. Caught up in the sweep of events again, he supposed. As always. “We worked together at the bank, don’t you remember?”

The bank, the bank. Which bank? Al had worked as a teller for about ten years, right after college, for three different banks. “I’m sorry. It was a long time ago.”

“And you never did remember names, or much anything but numbers. But you still have great taste in women. How’d you catch one so young?”

Al wanted to confess that he hadn’t, that he didn’t know the redhead at all, couldn’t even remember her name — as usual — but it didn’t come out that way. “She’s got a thing for athletes.” He shrugged. The train’s horns bellowed, muffled by the distance.

Bob nudged him. “Athlete? You and that bum leg?”

“You remember that?”

“C’mon, man, you know I don’t forget.”

“Well.” No, actually Al didn’t know. Bob had vanished from his memory without a trace. But he remembered his own thoughts. “The leg thing doesn’t matter. Not in bed, anyway.”

Bob laughed quietly and just a bit wickedly. “I always guessed you were something of a ladies’ man. You went through three girlfriends at the bank, didn’t you?”

Al didn’t know the number, only that somehow all his relationships had been like riding the rails through the night, blind to what was just beyond the window, blind even to what was right beside him in the coach, while that muffled horn cried in the distance, calling him on or warning him off. He didn’t know which.

“What about you?” he said to change the subject.

“Oh, me, I got myself hitched to a real fine lady. She must be fine. She’s put up with me for twenty-six years now. Got myself two kids, a boy and a girl, and a grandchild on the way. You know how I always said I’d own the bank some day? Never made it, but got into management. Done okay for myself. Where’d you land?”

On this train, Al thought, running from the edge of nowhere smack into the middle, with the past a blur, the present a window onto night, the future . . .

The horn sounded, wrapped in cotton.

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

Exactly.

“Did okay, too,” he lied. “I have my own accounting firm now. Not big, but it’s mine.”

Bob smiled and shook his head, happy for Al. “And a trophy wife to boot. You married her, right?”

“Well.” Al suddenly realized his error. Bob would want to meet her, this ridiculous deception would unravel, and he’d be disgraced before a man who never forgot, a man who, twenty years hence, would shake his head in condemnation and wonder. Why couldn’t you admit you’re a failure, Al? Why’d you have to be a fraud, too?

“To be honest, I haven’t. Not yet, anyway.” No, only half honest. He was doomed.

“Better not wait too long. You’ll be dead and she’ll find someone else. Not necessarily in that order.” Bob laughed again and slapped his thigh. “Al, you look tired.”

Al thought terrified more likely, but he nodded.

“Go get some sleep. But bring her up here and introduce us when you’re both awake. I’ll be right here watching the scenery roll by for as long as possible.”

Al promised, then rose and returned to the coach, dreading the gymnastics necessary to reclaim his seat. When he got there, he found the woman awake. She smiled up at him, pulled back her legs, and thunked down the footrest to let him pass.

“Who was that?” she asked.

“I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“It’s okay.”

He lowered himself into his seat. “An old coworker. A chance meeting, I guess.” His eyes strayed to her slender face. She glowed in the dim light of the darkened coach. How could he possibly explain this to Bob? What could he possibly tell her?

“You okay?” she asked. “You look a little rattled.”

“Rattled. Yes.” There was no option but to get it over with. He drew a long breath. “There I was, running down the track as always, and as always I did something stupid.”

“What’s that?”

“I told Bob, my old coworker, well. He assumed you and I — “ Al waggled a finger back and forth while stewing in his own embarrassment.

The woman laughed. “And you said we were?”

“I didn’t mean to. It just spilled out that way. Now he wants to meet you.”

He expected an explosion. Searing heat. Blinding light. Shrapnel. He cringed in anticipation, but it never came. The woman covered her mouth and chortled. “Oh my gosh. Are we married?”

“Not yet.” Al hoped he hadn’t seriously reddened but decided she was too busy laughing to notice. “I’m really sorry. I guess I’m just an idiot.”

The woman righted her seat back, plucked off her coat, and stood. She extended a hand to him. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s do this.”

“You’re not angry?”

She shook her head.

Al reluctantly took her hand. Her fingers warmed him as he stood. “But why . . .” He wasn’t sure he even knew the right question.

“Well somebody’s got to rescue you. Anyway, I’ve nothing better to do until we reach Chicago. Let’s run down that track together for a while.”

The horn blared in the night. And run they did.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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