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The 8:20 Train for Iowa is Leaving the Station: A Short Story

Updated on October 9, 2015
Leaving the station
Leaving the station | Source

In New Iberia We Say Goodbye

Maw-Maw wasn’t happy about it but she understood. She hugged her granddaughter, Sarah with an h, and kissed both her cheeks, telling her she loved her. A Cajun woman, age unknown, Maw-Maw had raised Sarah from the time she was five when her parents died in a car accident. Our stay on the banks of Bayou Teche had been a good one, but it was time for us to go.

The old woman turned to me. “Take care of my child, you. You might be a good man. We will see. Remember my warning, William Dale. This little girl doesn’t need more pain so you step up and be the man your mamma wanted you to be. You hear now?”

I told her I would try. What more could I do? What more can any of us do?

We walked four blocks to the bus station under a canopy of magnolias. The heat continued its oppressive ways. Sarah with an h wiped tears from her eyes and looked at me.

“Where we going, Sugar?”

“Well, I just met your family. I figure it’s only fair you meet mine. That means a train ride to Charles City, Iowa. My parents and little Sis still live there on the farm where I grew up, and my mother requested a visit from her only son. Are you up for it?”

We walked another block before she answered.

“You don’t have to introduce me, William Dale. No promises between us, right? We’re just going to enjoy each other like two intelligent adults, but there are no promises. If you don’t want me along I’ll be fine. I’m not some helpless filly who needs a man’s company to fulfill her.”

I took her hand in mine. “No promises. But the thing is, I enjoy being with you. Take that anyway you want. I’m just saying I’m comfortable with you and I’d like you to meet my parents and sister. So let’s just keep doing our thing and see where it leads us, okay?”

She kissed me as we arrived at the bus station. Our bus for New Orleans would leave in an hour. I’d called ahead and knew the train from New Orleans to Charles City left at 8:20. I bought tickets for two on that August afternoon.


Leaving the Station

All aboard the 8:20, New Orleans to Chicago, leaving on Track Number Nine. The sun was setting in the west, out beyond the levees, beyond Lafayette Cemetery, a steamy day laid to rest as storm clouds approached from the south. Heat lightning charged the air as we stepped off the platform and entered our car. A porter showed us to our cabin, barely room for two but it met our needs.

We splashed water on our faces, and as the train pulled from the station we made our way to the dining car. After we were seated we ordered and then watched the landscape fall behind us.

“Tell me about your family, Sugar,” she said when the food arrived, roast duck for her, sirloin tip for me.

“Corn farmers one and all, Sarah, except for me. I’m the black sheep, the one who figured there was more to life than tilling soil from sun up to sun down. My folks have farmed that land for thirty-five years. It’s in their blood and they love it, although they complain constantly. The weather wins the battle more often than not, and if it isn’t the weather fighting them then it’s a fluctuating market or government regulations that kick their asses. My sister Jeannie is five years younger than me, never married, lived with the folks her entire life, and she’s got the farmer gene too. She’s in charge of the livestock while my dad handles the corn business and mom takes care of the bookwork. They hire when they need to and somehow manage to stay one step ahead of foreclosure. They should be pretty busy when we get there. They’ll probably put us to work as soon as we pull into town.”

“And what happened to you? How did you escape, hon?”

“I went away to college in Oregon on a baseball scholarship. Found out there really is life outside of our two-hundred acres. I got a taste for the big world. I think I was two months into my freshman year when I decided a future as a farmer just wasn’t in the cards.”

Settling in for the Ride

It continued like that as the wheels clattered along the rails, paralleling the Mississippi heading north. We made love with reckless glee, slept the sleep of the dead, woke up and made love again. I found comfort and peaceful solace inside her, the raven-haired beauty with eyes that locked on and wouldn’t let me free. The words of her Maw-Maw rattled in my brain, this woman has been hurt before, be kind to her, treat her with respect, and I silently vowed to do my best.

Seventeen stops, nineteen hours, nine-hundred and thirty-four miles covered, ample time to further delve into each other’s psyches, checking off plus and minus boxes, finding commonalities, weighing differences according to importance, dancing a dance as old as mankind itself, the peacock with once-brilliant plumage, the hen dazzled or not, two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl while Pink Floyd sang in the background.

Memphis falls behind, as does Carbondale, Centralia and Champaign, murky brown waters with barges on one side, flat lands of checkerboard farms on the other, and then the murky brown air ahead signals the impending madness that is Chicago, three-forty-seven on a cloudy afternoon, mid-eighties, the City of New Orleans spits out passengers and Sarah with an h and I head to Track Eleven and our last leg of this particular journey, Chicago to Charles City, the familiar all aboard spoken again and another dinner in the club car as rains pound the tracks and local farmers pray for moderation.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home | Source

Home Sweet Home

Be it ever so humble. I had called ahead, so as our train arrived on the outskirts of Charles City, my mother and sister met us at the station. It had been two years since I’d seen them. My mother at one time had been a beauty, my sister still was, rugged Midwest women, solid at the core, cheeks rosy from the wind, sun-beaten and showing a few more wrinkles than the last visit.

“Billy,” my sister squealed, as she always does, and before I could drop my bag she leaped into my arms and hugged me fiercely. My mother waited her turn patiently, as she always does, beaming that smile that warmed my heart from birth to this day. When it was her turn she kissed me on the cheek then held my face in her hands. “You look thinner, William. I think you need some home cooking. And who is this lovely creature with you?”

“Mom, Jeannie, this is Sarah. We met a few weeks ago on the train and we’ve been keeping each other company ever since.”

Sarah was immediately engulfed in hugs, showered with smiles and lavished with gleaming eyes. My mother took her hand. “You are so lovely, dear. What in the world are you doing with this rascal of mine? Well, we can talk all about that later this evening. Let’s get you two home, you can meet the patriarch of this family, take a shower and then we’ll have time to learn all about each other. Come, now, dinner is waiting on us. William, I’ll need to talk to you after dinner.”

The family’s Chevy Tahoe was a short walk away. American all the way for my folks; no foreign cars would be found on their property. A Reagan for President sticker was in the rear window, the last great President according to my dad. I was curious which direction his politics were leaning with an election on the horizon and small farmers dropping like flies.

Our farm was five miles south of Charles City, just off of State Route 218. We drove through the city with Jeannie providing commentary on changes to the town. It looked pretty much the same to me. A few new buildings but mostly the brick storefronts, a few warehouses, a strip mall or two, a landscape dominated by pickup trucks and combines in the distance. Finally mom made a right turn and followed our driveway two-hundred yards to the farmhouse of my youth, a two-story with wraparound porch and shaded by three huge chestnut trees. The paint was chipped more than I remembered, the porch sagged a bit more, the whole place looking tired and worn out.

The front door opened as we got out of the Tahoe and my father, Benjamin James Dale, walked out to greet us. He had always been a big man, larger than life to me, but the man descending the steps had shrunken somehow. Skin hung from once massive arms. His clothes seemed to hang on him as if by magic. During the two years I had been gone he had been…..deleted. But his smile was as large as his reputation, and his handshake still threatened to break the bones in my hand. He slapped me on the shoulder then, in a totally unexpected show of emotion, gave me a hug.

“William Anthony Dale, you can tell me about yourself over dinner. Right now you have to tell me all about this beautiful woman who seems to be lost. How else do we explain the fact that she seems to be with you? My God, you are a lovely woman. Benjamin James Dale is my name. And you are?” And just like that, Sarah with an h was accepted and part of the family.

After Dinner

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, salad from the garden and of course, corn-on-the-cob, a meal so large it made me feel guilty for eating it but, of course, I managed to do so. Dad talked about the farm, the price of corn plummeting, the damned government not caring about the farmers, the cost of feed, the weather holding off just one more week and they might be able to pay bills this year, the John Deere needing some work done, a continual litany familiar to any farmer in any state. Mom filled us in on the local gossip, the deaths, the births, the divorces and the scandals. And it seemed that Jeannie had a boyfriend, some guy new to the area, worked in IT, went to the same church, had all his teeth and actually carried on an intelligent conversation.

They learned of my travels, learned about Sarah, hinted that we made a charming couple, and then it was time to clear the dishes and sit on the porch for a glass of wine. Mom brought a wine decanter out, poured wine for dad, Sarah and Jeannie, then asked me to help her wash dishes while the others visited.

Long story short, my dad was dying. Cancer had invaded and no Yankee stoicism could combat it. He had six months, don’t you know, and there would be no mournful weeping in that household, she just wanted me to know and yes, without being some kind of burden, they could use some help on the farm since dad wasn’t able to do as much as he once could and was too damned stubborn to admit it.

I held her then as the tears began, patted her gently on the back and rocked her as she had me many years ago. My tears met hers on the floor of that old farmhouse, forming a puddle of melancholy, and when we had cried ourselves out I told her I’d stay and do what I could to help out.

“That’s settled, then,” she said. “Let’s go join the others before they think we’re ignoring them.”

The sun sets on our story
The sun sets on our story | Source


That night I held Sarah in my arms and told her the strongest man I’d ever known was dying.

“I have to stay here and help out. He can’t do it without help, and Mom and Jeannie can’t do enough to make a difference. I know we planned on going west but this is where I need to be right now. I’m sorry!”

“Shhh, Sugar. This is where you need to be for sure.” She kissed me. “I completely understand.”

“And what about you, Sarah? I could meet you out west in a year or so. No promises, right? But if you decide you want some company down the road, I could come visit.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“What will you do, then? Go home to Maw-Maw?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think I’m going to spend some quality time right here in Charles City. Maybe find me a fella, see where that leads. Would you happen to know of any eligible fellas around here?”

“Are you serious?”

“Shut up, Sugar, and make love to me. It’s all been decided. Like most men, you’re just too damned dense to realize it.”


I hope you enjoyed this short story. Maybe one day we’ll catch up with William Dale and Sarah with an h again. I suspect things will go quite well for them. They both come from good stock, they’ve both paid their dues and I think good times are right around the corner. I like them both and I wish them well.

2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)


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