The Train You Get Lost On

For Eamon - A Story

We sit together on the back porch in comfortably battered white wicker chairs, watching a perfect sunset end a perfect day. The porch screening bellies more than a bit, its muscle tone giving out after twenty years of service but mainly it does the job. And when it doesn't, there's the wasp and hornet zapper over in the corner next to the grill. A bit early in the season for real worry on that score. We're barely into May, though it's so warm you'd swear it was July.

"Another splash?" Kieran gets up and helps himself from the wine bucket.

"Not yet." I find myself these nights trying not to drink more than I really want to. Trouble is the cold chardonnay goes down easy as lemonade, before you know it. But you certainly do know it around nine or so, after dinner, when all you want to do is sleep.

I mentioned the wine bucket. When we moved up here full time last fall, we tacitly agreed to pay greater attention to details like this: the bucket, lit candles at dinner, fresh flowers in pitchers, full deck of CD's. Sometimes I see us in sepia-tones--colonizing Brits of a world long-gone, laying out bone china tea service on starched white cloths in the bush, depending on small, imported rituals to keep us civilized, prevent our savage parts taking over altogether.

This is of course absurd. We are a bare ninety miles from Manhattan, in a place hardly unknown to us. We've spent two decades of weekends here. But weekends are not real life, merely a breather from it--or so I was brought up to believe. And that's the way I think of them: kids of various ages--mine, Kier's--sprawling, laughing, sleeping till noon; houseguests savoring bountiful dinners and aimless walks through the woods; long, lazy bathrobed days, the two of us wading through every word in the Sunday Times. It's different now. Now we live here.

"Get much done today?" he asks.

"Six pages."

"Good for you."

"I have a feeling I'm going to hate them tomorrow but at least they're there to work on."

"Spoken like a true writer. Strange it's you that wound up the writer." He massages an imaginary case of heartburn, imitating an old friend we don't see any more. "As Howard would say, 'Oy, kills me.'" I want to go over to him, give him a hug, tell him it's okay. But I know it isn't okay, not with him, and he won't like being patronized.

"It is strange," I say… and mean it. It often seems surreal to me, the fact that I write novels or that anybody prints them let alone reads them. All those stacks of pages. Kier and I both remember how I hated anything to do with writing back at the agency…how I used to palm off every release, script, memo I could manage to on someone else. He'd kid me that I got to be a boss-lady to avoid doing the real work, which is maybe more true than not. But here we are, tucked away in the country, so I can spin my flax, which has not yet turned into piles of gold.

The setting sun has staked a claim right on Kieran's forehead, which is unusually high and broad, and still looks much the way it did in his first communion photo, the one that hangs in the upstairs hall, right next to the dignified studio shots of his parents.

"The kind of stuff I write isn't... " I stop just as abruptly as I began. It may not be literature but I feel somehow disloyal trashing it. “It... isn't what you'd be writing," I finish lamely. His eyes narrow against my words or the aggressing light, maybe both--but he smiles. I hold out my glass. "I'll take that splash now, if it's still on offer."

"I'm your man for that." The moves are jaunty, convivial, assured, as he bounds up and pours. Some for himself, too. Three days ago he lost his mainstay client, leaving him with scraps, Spam-makings of business.

"It's going to be all right, Kier," I say as he hands me the drink. I love that face of his, that perfectly Irish face, all forehead and eyebrows and chin--a face where you can watch wit fight a mostly winning battle against melancholy. "It's going to be all right,I repeat, not at all sure that's true.

"Of course it is. Look, just look." His arm sweeps wide to include, not only the mountain view off the porch, but the open door framing the warm light of the dining room. "This is to be envied. This is what people work their asses off to get and we have it all here. And the money from the co-op sale 'll keep us afloat. If we're careful," he adds. I do not like to hear this last. I don't want to have to be careful. And it sticks in my craw especially to know that if I were still out there making a real living, we wouldn't have to be.

"Right," I agree, speaking from the neck up; my gut has far from made up its mind. "And, who knows, " I feel compelled to add, "maybe 'Running Fast' 'll get bought for a movie and we can have a place in the city again, too." Do I put that out just to be on record, or to hear him say what he's going to say next?

We have this conversation regularly, and our lines don't change much from one time to the next. I guess it's part of our security ritual--like the wine bucket and the candles. Kier will say that he doesn't much care for the city anymore, and I will say how it's not that I really miss it, but what about theatres and museums, and he will say it's under two hours away and we can do those things anytime we care to--even go in, make a weekend of it, and I will say you're right.

Tonight we say those things again as we empty our glasses. "I probably ought to start dinner." I make a move to get up. He stops me with a slow, ironic shake of the head.

"Why is it that after precisely one and a half glasses of wine, no matter what, you jump out of your chair and have to start dinner?" I'm instantly nettled. He's wrong, but not entirely wrong.

"I just don't want to get smashed and..."

"And what? What would be at stake?"

What would? We'd miss dinner? Have an impromptu sandwich on the porch? Go to sleep too early? My mother would disapprove? In some ways, despite the apparent insouciance of having had three husbands, of dropping a lucrative career to write as yet less than lucrative fiction, I'm still very much a thighs-tight-together Jewish girl from Queens. I sit back in my chair, which takes some effort, but not as much as you'd think, once I let myself remember all the things I hated about Queens.

I hold out my glass and let him fill it. The sun has just fallen below the far mound of hill, and is showing off from behind its cover with hectic displays of color. "There's always another client," I say.

"Maybe not. Maybe my client days are over."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're damned good at what you do. There isn't a better writer than you."

"How come you always manage to tear my stuff apart then?"

"Well, that's different. We're partners. Were partners."

"Were partners. In name. It was your agency, Char, you know that perfectly well. Anyway, I don't really care. I never should've been in the P. R. business at all, bookish gent like me. I just wandered into it by mistake, the way I've done with most things."

"Other people might see it differently," I say, not my usual response. "They might say you've led a charmed life."

He nods. "I might say that, myself. Apt word. I know how much I've gotten by on charm. Curse of the Irish."

"Envy of the Jews. Maybe that's why we're so taken with you."

"We all know why you're so taken--because you lusted after those boys from Holy Child who used to wash your face in the snow."

"Ah yes, the holy children." In my own parochial way, I'd assumed the emblem on their navy blazers signified the wearers. Big joke. At three o'clock, released from the iron discipline of the good nuns, the little monsters, bolstered by the certainty that God was on their side, exploded onto the street to mix it up with us public school kids. "Well, I fixed them all right, didn't I? I married one."

"At Saint Joan of Arc. We were much nicer." Kier grew up in Queens, too--different neighborhood, and a good few years earlier--and has far fonder memories of the borough than I. But I accuse him of a tendency to bronze his memories, the burnished finish smoothing out imperfections. "I think I learned about the value of charm when I worked for my father. He told me that if you smiled and said a few words, you got bigger tips. Those were instructional years for me."

I know they were, Kier, I agree silently, afraid if I open my mouth I'll cry or say something disrespectful of his dead father. It's not that we've never talked of these things before. We have, of course. As with all long-marrieds, most of our conversations we've had before, but each time the poignancy is fresh.

"I'm going to open another bottle," he says as he gets up, shoulders squared, expecting, I know, some flak from me. He doesn't get it, and disappears quickly into the house.

The glow in the sky has softened. I gaze at the red-orange aureole and feel a tender ache. Kieran also learned about things other than charm in the two years--e1even to thirteen--when he delivered groceries for Thomas O'Rafferty Fancy Fruits and Vegetables and watched it sink gradually into oblivion. He learned about failure. He learned about fear. He learned about despair. He's told me about the novenas he and his father would go together to make for the store's survival, so he also learned that prayers go unanswered. But he stayed a Catholic anyway until he was twenty-eight, father of four, and ready in his heart to divorce--though he didn't actually do it for years.

My husband. We know each other so well, yet forever and always a touch of the exotic. He is other: someone who can break into seminary Latin, or quote Yeats or--God help us--Henry James, or issue arcane facts like who George the First's top advisor was; someone whose timidities and recklessnesses do not in the least mirror my own; someone whose own tongue, on lubricious occasion, adopts the shadow of the brogue he grew up listening to. The idea of dinner recedes in my mind. I relish his return. He stands in the doorway now, smiling, a freshly-opened bottle in his hand.

"Madame." He tops up my glass, then his, and sits back down. "Starting to get dark." He leans toward me. "Are you really hungry?"

"I’m not. We can munch some cold cuts or something later. This is nice."

"It is." He takes a long sip, and so do I. We sit for a while not talking, just looking, hearing the sounds of the woods and its creatures at dusk. "You know, Char," he says, leaning toward me, finger on his chin, "I really am a fraud. That's where we're different, the two of us. You're brave. You put yourself out there on the line and if you get knocked down you just pick yourself up. I hedge my bets. Always. A scholar among P.R. men, a P.R. man among scholars. The scam of the short distance runner, the sprinter. Maybe I'm just plain lazy."

"You're not lazy. It's just that... " I break off. I have no idea what the next word might be.

"You should have known me in college. I had swagger then. I wrote this column for the paper, just my opinions, on literature, world events, religion, anything. Just my opinions, and I had the nerve to issue them as though they had weight, and that's the way everybody took them. Even Mike and Tony. We were the leaders, the triumvirate--destined for the glittering prizes. No one could touch us."

There is nothing to say. Mike is an FBI man in Oakland. Tony died of stomach cancer three years ago. And Kieran's swagger began its retreat well before we met. Have I hastened it along? "Why don't you give that a try now?" I make myself ask. "Write what you think about things. You have the time."

"You mean since I have no business?" His tone is wry, but not what you could call bitter.

"Yeah, I guess that's what I mean. The business 'll come, you know that. Why not grab the found time, consider it a gift?"

"You know the answer as well as I do… because, when I really think about it--and believe me, I have--I don't have an idea in the world of what I'd like to say."

"Well, maybe you don't want to write, then. So stop beating yourself up about it, finally. Not everyone who loves to read needs to write. "

"Maybe. The only thing I ever passionately loved to do was read. I had the measles when I was seven and Mrs. Downes next door brought over her son's outgrown Hardy Boys books. I was hooked. I remember years later when I was at my father's store waiting for the next delivery, I'd always have my nose in some book. This black man used to come in for a roast beef sandwich and a soda, and every time he'd look over at me and say, 'You's the readingest boy I ever did see!' I guess nothing ever changes."

"I guess not." I crane my neck enough so my lips just brush his cheek as he leans over to fill my glass.

"It's funny, you know," he says, sitting back down, "the way certain notions fix themselves in you when you're a kid. I remember once our upstairs neighbor, Mr. Dennehy, for some reason decided to take me to the beach. I'm not sure why it was just me, without Megan or Tommy, but it was. We took the subway from Roosevelt Avenue and then we had to change at Queens Plaza. Well we heard the train coming so he grabbed my hand and we ran to catch it. Only right after the doors shut, just as it was pulling out of the station, Mr. Dennehy realized it was the wrong train. I watched him look around and there was this fear in his eyes. He wore glasses, which magnified them, but it wasn't the glasses. He was definitely scared. He looked at me, and he said, 'We're lost.' And then he said it again--just kept repeating it for a minute or so. 'We're lost.' Then the train stopped at the next station and we got off, retraced our steps, found the right train and finally got to the beach with no problem, but the thing is, afterwards, every time I saw that IRT train, I mean for years, even through high school, I always thought of it as The Train You Get Lost On."

I feel my eyes sting and my nose heat up, redden, as it does with tears and alcohol. "You hungry?" I ask. The question comes out hoarse.

"No." His narrow blue eyes close for a moment.

"Feel like making love?" Because I suddenly do. Acutely. He smiles.

"I'm easy."

"Don't go away. I have to pee." I run fast to the downstairs bathroom, as though I think maybe he will go away.

When I come out, there he's standing, hand outstretched. "Let's go upstairs. I'm getting too old for living room rugs."

Afterward, we sleep. I dream of Kier…a big, oversized Kier, holding cradled in his arms a normal-sized Kier, and in his arms, a smaller one, and then a smaller one yet, like the picture on the Morton Salt box, which I used to go into a trance staring at as a kid. Infinity.

I wake to the shine of his reading light. "What time is it?" I mumble, my invariable first question.

"Twenty to three."

"Mnunnnn." I prop up on an elbow. "You're going to be dead tomorrow. Don't you have an early meeting in the city?"

"Uh huh." He gives my breast a feather-light pat. "We never did eat."

"Woman does not live by bread alone."

"I love you, Charlotte. And I am not jealous of you." He laughs--a sound I like. "Well, not mainly."

"I love you, too, Kieran. And you don't have to write unless you want to."

"Good news." He massages my neck for a second. "Would you consider making a guy a ham sandwich?"

Carol Brennan Novels

Writing As Caroline Slate


"Intelligent new thriller." New York Magazine