The Train Writer
The whistle pierced our ears as Mama spoke her goodbye. Her words of sorrow drowned by the overwhelming call.
“I will write, Mama. I promise.” Her eyes glimmered tears. We embraced again. Every feeling in my body soaked in that last moment. My journey would be long.
“Last call! All aboard!”
Finally, I obeyed the dictates of the moment, tore my arms away, picked up my carpet bag, and walked from the platform onto the train. Finding my place in the cabin, I heaved my bag into the overhead compartment. Sitting close against the window, I watched tears stream down her face as the train slowly picked up speed.
I pressed against the window staring at her small figure until the whole station was swallowed up by green trees. I stared at the familiar woods as they whisked by quickly. Leaves and branches grew closely until they parted to reveal hidden crossroads. A farmer stood by with his wagon waiting. Miles slipped by as the woods revealed brooks which led into meadows. I smoothed my dress and looked about the cabin.
Two padded benches faced each other. A distinguished gentleman sat near the doorway reading. We were the only passengers. Down the hall, rowdy children played and boisterous conversations filled the air with intellectual smoke. I was content with my quiet.
Opening my satchel, I sorted through all my close possessions for the tenth time. Journal, pen, writing pad, lap board and envelopes lay together neatly. Magda’s photo was safe in my journal. Coin purse jingled at the bottom next to my handkerchief and toiletry kit.
Sighing, I closed it again. There was no telling what lay ahead.
The distinguished gentleman got off at the next station. I stood up while the train was stopped to stretch my legs. When I sat back down again I pulled out my paper-wrapped sandwich.
A young mother with two rambunctious little ones joined me for the next leg. Kelsey and I pretended to drink tea while her younger brother Tyler was thrilled with the paper airplane I made him. He asked if I could make him a sailor hat too but I told him I didn’t know. They got off at the next stop to visit their grandma. I watched them step carefully off the train. Young Tyler walked ahead of his mother and sister protectively. I smiled thinking of who they would be when they grew up.
Evening came and the train stopped for the night. All the long traveling passengers hauled their luggage and bags off the train and rambled into the tavern nearby for a one-night stay. While we were offloading, I made eye contact with another young lady and we both smiled.
“Are you traveling a long way? “ I asked.
“Yes, I’m visiting my father,” she said. Evelyn and I sat down together for a meal and stories poured from her lips like a fountain of joy. We laughed until we cried and before dinner was over, we agreed to share a room for the night. Setting the hotel alarm carefully, we whispered thoughts in the dark like frightened children becoming brave before drifting off to sleep.
Morning came early. We splashed our faces with water and gathered our things. The train call hurried us and we paid the tavern quickly before bustling through the station and climbing on board out of breath.
We shared the same train cabin and talked nonsense until we quieted ourselves with reading. Her final stop came too quickly.
“Come meet my father!”
We shook hands cordially and he offered to let me join them for dinner.
“We can get you back here in time in the morning.” Eager to save funds from the tavern and also share more time, I rode with them to the farm. I never had such good fried chicken.
We parted at the train station the next morning.
“It was so good to meet you.” Evelyn and I embraced like old friends hoping not to be lost.
“Write me,” she said.
I smiled and nodded, unable to bear the tearing of heart.
I sat on the train that day alone and in silence. A grandmother joined me in the afternoon and sat by quietly knitting. She reminded me of Magda and my thoughts drifted. Tiring of my book, I pulled out my letter paper and wrote what little there was to Mama. My thoughts and fears poured themselves out in penmanship that stared back at me from the page. I folded my half-written letter, then looked out the window, waiting for the next stop.
From where I sat, I could see the ocean through the trees. The waves came and left with unhurried peace. I couldn’t see the shells but I wondered how they brushed against each other so loosely and then washed away separately without so much as a goodbye.
My tearful reverie was abruptly interrupted by the sudden entrance of a flustered and breathless little girl, blonde curls harried about her face.
“He’s going to tickle me if he finds me. You must help me hide!”
All my strategic skills were put to use as I hurriedly emptied my carpet bag and shoved my possessions back up on the shelf. The little girl sat in my luggage next to the window and I sat next to it, defensively. We made it by a moment.
As soon as I lifted my book, calmly directing my gaze to its printed pages, there was a second grand entrance by an equally breathless, red-faced blonde boy, who was slightly larger than the previous intruder
“Have you seen my sister?” he asked.
He studied my nonchalance while the hidden one to my left breathed noticeably harder. He scurried out of the room hastily to the increased ease of my new cabin mate.
“What’s your name?” I whispered.
“Tricia? Well that’s a fun name for a lively little girl like you. How old are you?”
“I see. And how old’s your brother?”
“He’s nine but he’s going to be ten soon. He keeps asking for a pony. I hope dad doesn’t give him one.”
I laughed. “What do you want for your birthday?” I asked.
“Oh I just had mine.”
“Yes? What did you get?”
She poked her head out of my bag, hair even more matted and sweaty.
I laughed again.
“But not like a real pony. A toy pony.” She nodded very seriously.
“So where are you traveling, Tricia?”
“I’m traveling to see my grandma.”
“Well that sounds like fun-“
Silence drifted into the train cabin. The child ducked her face closer into the bag.
“I’m sorry.” The whistle blew as we neared the station. “Will you miss her?”
The now quiet Tricia nodded. Trees slowed their running pace as together we faced the brevity. I thought of Magda. It was good to not be alone.
“Well I’m going to go find Mum now.” Tiny Tricia stood up in my carpet bag and I helped her down, carefully keeping balance as the equilibrium changed.
“Thank you for helping me hide.” She hugged me around my waist.
“You’re welcome Tricia. Anytime.” The child’s arms released me and she left without a glance. I held onto the overhead shelf as the station came in sight and the train came to a halt. I gathered the internals of my gutted carpet bag thankful for a momentary friend.
I had arrived.
Nervous, I walked off the train and into the busy station. People bustled eagerly and I walked carefully with my carpet bags, hoping I’d properly straightened my blue gingham.
I turned. A white haired lady smiled politely and extended her hand.
“I’m Mrs. Irtely, how’d you do?”
I set my bag down to accept her welcome.
“Amelia Barrett.” We shook hands in greeting.
“Come this way, Miss Barrett, the cab is waiting.”
I picked up my bag again and followed her closely through the tightly packed crowd. Businessmen bustled and city wives jabbered as people of all ages and races pushed each other towards their individual destinations.
Finally, we exited the station and got in the cab.
“Have you been to the city before Miss Barrett?”
“No ma’am.” The numbers of people left me dumbstruck. Her laugh was dry.
“Well you’ll get used to it soon enough. Once we get to the boarding house, you can leave your things and I’ll take you to the offices. You start tomorrow.”
I looked out the cab. Well-dressed ladies walked as newsboys shouted and businessmen discussed ventures intensely. Cars grumbled as horses stood in wait. The pedestrians passed and the wheeled traffic resumed its pace.
We came to the boarding house shortly. I greeted the mistress, got my key and locked my carpet bag in my room hastily as Mrs. Irtely waited with the cab.
The clack of typewriters filled the office with mechanical buzzing. Men debated over fresh ink while others dictated. The secretaries wore high buns that accentuated their straight backs while their strong fingers forced opinions into print. The sight left me overwhelmed.
Mrs. Irtely attempted to shout over the din while giving me a tour. Eventually she led me to a glassed in office. “Mr. Barker, I’d like you to meet our essay contest winner, Miss Amelia Barrett.”
A squat bald man rose from his seat but didn’t stand much taller than when he’d been sitting.
“Good to meet you Miss Barrett. Are you prepared to experience the newspaper?”
“I believe so, sir.” Handshaking, I tried to match his firm grip. Mrs. Irtely quickly shuffled us out of the office and he resumed reviewing drafts. As it was nearly four o'clock when I arrived at the offices of The Daily Gazette, Mrs. Irtely focused on getting me acquainted with the layout and function of the newspaper.
“We will set you here,” she motioned to a corner desk.
While the fast pace challenged my focus, I gradually adjusted. My evening walk home afforded me time to smell the city air and stretch the tension from my neck. My fingers gripped the doorknob of my room tired from new strength. Collapsing on my bed, the feather pillow welcomed me awaiting tears or fists as the day required. Weary from deadlines and details, I curled my legs into my grey wool petticoats. Tomorrow would bring me there again.
Sundays found me in the Presbyterian chapel near the boarding house. The parishioners were older but kind. Autumn walks from the church reminded of my school days at home. Winter came and cleaned the streets of busy people, while thin-limbed trees adorned the architecture and whispered of nature hidden beyond the sight of the tall buildings and the short perspectives of the city people.
After six months of internship, I began to understand the ways of the newspaper and the city. Then one day in mid-December, Mrs. Irtely happily announced I was welcome to stay. I visited home for two weeks that Christmas then returned to work, now a paid employee of The Daily Gazette.
I'd begun to feel comfortable enough at the boarding house and the Presbyterian parish. While it certainly didn't feel like home, it was stable and safe for a young woman pursuing a career, and in that season of life, that was all that I could ask for.
Two years later, I walked down Main Street to the cobbler’s shop. I straightened my brown wool jacket and smoothed the matching skirt which flowed easily with my confident gait. I too now wore my hair in a high bun, with head held high. The maroon hat I'd bought myself last Christmas was pinned securely.
Only two more weeks of pay would fill the itchy beige sock tucked under the corner of my mattress. I carried some in my pocket now to pay for my new boots. I wore my best shoes now, as my daily shoes had worn thin from walking between the newspaper office and my boarding house.
The Daily Gazette had shown me how to apply my work ethic to the world of words. All the same, my heart was sore and my soul was calloused from the daily poundings of typewriter keys on paper. Two weeks came and I thanked Mrs. Irtely. Mr. Baxter nodded as I walked past.
I let myself down the boarding house stairs to meet the driver at the appointed time. He heaved my bags in the cab and helped me in the door. Leaning back in my seat, I eyed the ever-busy streets with unseeing familiarity. It was a short drive to the train station. The driver unloaded my things at the curb. I tipped him along with his pay and carried my bags into the station. My new boots had a satisfying clack on the brick. I was no longer a lost little stable girl from Huntsville.
The steam engine breathed its heat upon the soon to be passengers standing at the station. The whistle called out its greeting and I resumed my place on the train.