The teakettle begins to whistle – sounding like a train in the distance announcing its pending arrival. The old man would have liked that comparison – hell he may have even mentioned it to me during one of our late night talks.
It’s around five o’clock in the morning and I am still in the same clothes that I wore yesterday – too cold in this shack to even think about changing.
The icy cold rain being blown around outside sounds like millions of hammers banging on the roof of this shack where John Joseph lived – right across from the train station they had closed down ten years earlier but for one run a week; which the old man was in charge of.
As I sit on his chair I think back to the stories he had told me – times in his life that he held on to like a security blanket – the passengers he befriended, the overnight stopovers where he learned about love, loneliness and the art of just making it to the next sunrise. His world travels searching for something that he eventually would find right within the stuff he was made of. But the memory that kept him warm in his lone space here, the memory that made it all worth it was the memory of his Corey and the love they shared.
I pour myself some hot black coffee and drink it from this old cup he would serve me in. This cup is probably older then most of this town, but like he said, “Coffee tastes better in this cup because it raises up the coffees from times past, good and bad. Just like another kick in the ass that all things must pass, good and bad.”
I keep the lights off, the sun has yet to rise and the dark seems to comfort me. I sit in his chair, I close my eyes, and I take it all in. It feels like an embrace, this old shack, an embrace, which keeps you enfolded and safe from a world that’s not so easy to live in. But he lived in it, he lived with and without – he held his woman and was held in return – he loved and was loved – he lived and he died.
Just a little bit about myself. I was born in Hopesville 26 years ago – youngest of 4 children. We were 3 girls and I, my mother and my father. My father worked at the newspaper for most of his life – starting out as a delivery boy, then a copyboy for the writers in the “beat-box” where the stories would break. The beat box had all the different sections of the paper represented, “Local, international, Sports, gossip and business” each wanting to get the lead stories – but most of the time it would go to the “Local” stories since that would sell the most papers.
While a copyboy, my father broke a story about a corrupt politician who was charging “key money” to the prospective renters of the empty stores by the railroad. This was in clear violation of the “Hopesville ethics code” enacted by the first Mayor of Hopesville, Mayor Joseph, to avoid greedy landlords from bleeding the would-be business startups. My father’s friend was trying to open a souvenir shop and was being pressured by the landlord to fork over $500.00 in key money. It turned out the landlord was the son in law of Mayor Ritter, who was known for cutting down corruption. When the story broke and my fathers name was on the by-line he was offered the job as the local court beat writer – specifically so he could cover the subsequent trial.
He worked himself up to Editor of the paper after five years and held that post until his death last year. In honor of my father the paper carried an empty op-ed page with only a picture of him below the editorial information and three words, “Lost for Words.”
The presses were shut down the morning of the funeral so the whole newspaper staff could attend. It was mentioned several times that he would have been offended by this and would have forced everyone back to their places and ordered the presses restarted.
At the memorial, my father’s best friend, Henry Fowler, walked over to me and offered me a position at the paper “as soon as I was ready.” He would be taking over the editor’s position and wanted to ensure that a “Charms” would remain on staff.
I graduated from college that same June, in August I met with Mr. Fowler and was given a job as a beat writer for the Local news section. I was happy to be getting a job so soon after school, but I was also worried it would take away from my dreams of writing the “Great American Novel.”
I was eager to write something that would substantiate my hiring – for 2 months I sat by the desk with the typewriter and waited for something to happen. All I wrote about were local events such as births, carnivals, church happenings, and other gatherings. I wondered how could the words come to me in a town where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens? I would sit there waiting for the phone to ring – some sort of scandal or news about to break that I could be the first to report. The phone never rang and the words never came.
On this one night, early November, I was sitting at my desk, surrounded by framed front pages from the newspapers past on the walls. My desk was filled with old coffee in stained cups and crumpled pages of stories started and then discarded. There is a window to the left of my typewriter, which looks out over the street, one story up. I can see the office across the street, its an accounting firm and I often disappear into an alternate reality just to avoid concentrating on my task – which is usually to write an article about some mundane occurrence in the mundane world of Hopesville. I seem to always find something else to do to distract me from actually writing – from playing basketball with the crumpled papers on my desk to staring at the pretty girl across the street in the accounting office.
I submitted my article on the Judge Barnaby funeral and called it a day. I walked out of the office and walked towards Town Hall. The giant clock said Six o’clock, the cool November chill and the dark screamed two in the morning. I sat on the bench near the statue of the first mayor of this town, watched as some kids walked by with school bags in their hands and a level of contentment that can only exist in kids.
The kids are in school all day long and have the time to daydream – these daydreams turn into goals in their lives. They raise the bar to a level they feel is attainable – only to find themselves lowering their expectations rung by rung as the years pass and reality sets in. Some dream about being ball players, astronauts, or a famous Hollywood actor. In each dream we find ourselves in control and not controlled. Then after several thousand sunrises and sunsets – they find that the dreams change. The kids find themselves women and men with jobs that seem more like nightmares then a dream. They lower the rung to help them achieve some once lofty goals and give them a sense of accomplishment that they can at least bring food to the table.
I walk towards the railroad and find myself at the bar ordering a shot of Jack Daniels. I stare at it as it sits across from me – I listen to an old man talking to the bartender who barely listens to him. That’s the old man who lives across the way at the Railroad – he must be around 400 years old or something. He seems to have the town’s history written within each wrinkle on his skin. Something about him always felt familiar, yet so foreign. I begin to listen but then I turn away and walk out the door.
I walk home and I see the first snowflake fall – it melts into my palm as I find my way down the block from the home where I grew up. I feel a strange feeling within me as if something inside has been pushed and prodded to awaken. A feeling of optimism and hope and I lay in bed that night and think about this and wonder how it came to be that the feeling of hope has become so unfamiliar to me.
One late Sunday afternoon I was home, sitting and staring towards the lake outside my window, thinking about my father – I missed listening to him tell me stories about working at the paper. How he would walk into the room with the printing press just to hear the sounds of the roaring of the news being printed. How he would gather in the newsroom each morning, with all his buddies, smoking and drinking black coffee. A steady diet that would bring on the cancer that brought him down. I walked outside and sat down on his chair.
My mother saw me sitting there and brought me a tall glass of iced tea and sat down on the chair across from me.
“Your father would sit out here sometimes and have that same look on his face.” She said, “He had some ‘great expectations’ himself you know.”
“Mom its just that this town doesn’t inspire anything in me, doesn’t do anything to bring out who I really am.” I said.
“Oh well, it’s not the town, honey. It’s the blood and guts of this town you should be looking through. The old man by the station, take a look at him and tell me a thousand thoughts don’t come to mind. The statue of the first mayor of Hopesville, the lake right in front of you, the name of the town itself, ‘Hopesville,’ and don’t forget about what’s inside of you.”
“You mean the old man who talks to himself? I saw him the other night, he was having a drink and no one seemed to pay him any mind.”
“Just because there is no one around him, it doesn’t mean he is talking to himself. That man has always lived here and his father was the judge of that courthouse downtown and his grandfather was the first mayor. He changed the name and mood of this town, he was a hero – that’s why they put a statue of his likeness in the park.”
“Its not the obvious that inspires you,” She continued, “it’s the stuff inside of people where you will find the words that can tell the story of a life. Look in their eyes, watch them as they walk or as they stare as if they are searching for a boat out at sea or a train that is late to arrive. You can see the stories of lives inside of them, bursting at the seems, you have to find a way to look deeply and understand what its like to live a thousand lives within sixty or seventy years.”
I thought about what she had said, I didn’t really understand how a “great story” was inside the man walking through town seemingly muttering to himself. I didn’t want to stay in this town, I didn’t want to have to search for the inspiration, I didn’t want to walk the streets waiting for the words to hit me one by one. But she was right, words came easy enough, it’s the substance of the words as a whole that I have to strive for. A clear understanding of each inspiration, a fallen leaf, sounds of life – children playing, an old man preaching. Its there in front of me – all for the taking and I have no idea how to reach them.
I stood up and saw my mother on the phone – she was in the kitchen putting together a meal, just as she has done my whole life.
I put the ice tea down and went back inside to get my coat. The leaves were falling; the lake across the way was reflecting the end of the day, the church bell was ringing and the sound of a train in the distance was calling out.
The next week I went back to the Tavern. John Joseph was sitting there with a drink on the bar, staring at the mirror in front of him and talking to the bartender. He was talking about the “old days” when the train station was bustling and the stores and this same tavern were always busy with people going somewhere, stopping over, or coming home.
The bartender didn’t seem to listen to John Joseph – but John kept on speaking as if there were an entire audience hanging on his every word.
“I remember one night, the Mayor, the owner of the refinery and this beautiful dancer were sitting in the corner over there.” He says pointing towards the back of the room. “All of sudden this crazy son of a bitch came in and decided to point a gun a the two men. The ‘dancer’ was his wife and he wanted her to come on back home. He was drunker then a skunk.” He begins to laugh.
“What happened?” I asked as I sat next to him and joined in on the conversation.
My question must have startled him because he jumped a bit and then squinted his eyes in my direction.
“The poor husband, he pointed his gun and started to cry. The dancer jumped on him and pushed him on the floor. The Mayor and the owner of the refinery ran out of the Tavern faster then a ‘bat out of hell.’ The morning papers wrote that the mayor, who was up for re-election the next month, was a hero and saved the dancers life.”
“Was he re-elected?” I asked.
“Yes and the dancers husband became his right hand man.” With that he let out a laugh that turned into a cough, which was doused by his drink.
I put out my hand towards him with an introduction.
“Hi, my name is Harry, Harry Charms, my father was the-.”
“Are you old Henry’s boy?” He cut me off.
“Yes sir, did you know my father?” I asked.
“Know him? Let me tell you something about your father – we would sit together over there,” he points to the corner table, “talk for hours. He was a good man, a tough son-of-a-bitch, ha! Wouldn’t take crap from anyone, Old Henry wouldn’t. Never let anyone call him ‘Hank’, it was Henry or Mr. Charms. Ha! He was the one writer who wrote that the Mayor was a hero. Ha!” With that he began to walk out of the tavern.
“Come on by kid the station kid – I got some stories to tell. Are you a writer like your old man?”
“I am trying to be-.” With that he stopped me.
“You either are, or you are not. There are no in betweens in life kid – black or white – no grays when it comes to defining just who you are. Come on by tomorrow night – we’ll talk. I got some stories about your old man.”
With that he walked out and thus began my relationship with John Joseph.
That Friday I walked towards the shack where he lived – he opened the door and offered me a coffee – I stood there and watched as he prepared our brew.
His place was not decorated – just lived in. He had a small black and white TV with a wire hanger pushed into a broken antenna, a pot to boil his water in on the stove that sat atop a oven that was never used. A small love seat with stains and tears across the pillows and a lampshade sitting on a small wooden table. There were two windows on each side of the doorway and a lone chair by the window on the left side followed by a smaller reading table stacked with newspapers, magazines, and some books. No pictures on the walls just some placed on his wooded dresser in his bedroom. His bed lay there long un-slept in, some clothes strewn across with some old books and some more magazines. He had a mirror against the door to his closet in which his lone suit and a couple of white shirts hung. Alongside them were several of his old uniforms he had worn during his train conductor days. Above them on a shelf – sat several of the conductor hats and one Stetson.
He sat down on the lone chair by the window and he said, “Come on sit down, kid, where should I begin?” I sat by the love seat and he began to speak.
John Joseph was not only a man with two first names; he was a man living a double life.
He spent the days sitting around in his shack, drinking cheap scotch, and reading any book that he would find at the library across the tracks.
He loved Yeats because he could relate to this one line. “When my arms wrap you round, I press my heart upon the loveliness that has long faded from the world.”
But he loved all things written especially F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway – he could relate to their struggles, their pains, and their humanness.
He looked forward to the Sunday nights when the one train for the week would roll in – he would shower and shave on Saturday and dress to the nines on Sunday. He would also clean up the shack and make it sparkle.
It wasn’t the excitement of the train that made John’s heart race – it was something much deeper then that – maybe something he did not share with me – or did, but I never knew it.
I sat with him many evenings, usually over coffee or tea at his shack on Friday nights. We would sit there for hours and his eyes would brighten up while discussing his life. Most times he wore his old jeans and an old sweater. He would sit on a large chair, sip at his coffee, and go back to a time and place where possibilities
John Joseph was born at his home in Hopesville, New Hampshire in year 1923. He was the first-born son of Judge Lawrence and Elizabeth Joseph.
Johns paternal grandfather was the Mayor of Bloodhound, New Hampshire – it was his idea to re-name the town Hopesville in the hopes of building up hope for the depression that had hit the town. One year earlier a fire had destroyed the main source of income for the town, the textile factory.
The Mayor watched, as the fire blazed out of control and made up his mind about the next step the town would take to recover.
“Let the damn thing burn, burn it down to the ground.” He said to no one in particular.
The fire raged and the sounds of the fire whistled and roared throughout the town – across the lake and into every home in Bloodhound.
“Mr. Mayor, the building looks like it might collapse, sir. What should we do?” One of the firemen on duty cried out.
“Tell Riley to pull back his men and let the son-of-a-bitch burn. Just make sure its contained and there is no one inside.”
The firefighters, all local volunteers, were watching their livelihood burn to the ground. They stood in a line next to the mayor, some were crying, some were praying and some of them were just standing there, watching as their past, their present and their future collapsed in flames.
The Mayor for his part spoke to the men that night, at a gathering in the church. He spoke to them as a father to his child, comforting them while at the same time instilling a sense of hope, not despair for the future.
“We, all of us, will rise again. The people of this town have in their possession, in their hearts and their souls, something that no amount of fire can ever take away – not even the God Damned Devil himself can touch them!”
With that he raised his arm and then pointed across the crowd.
“You, all of you, each and every one of you, posses a strength based on faith and honor. We will not hide in our homes, we will not move away to find another dead end job in another dead end town. This town, once known as Bloodhound, will, from this day forward and forever more into our future, this town, our town, will be called Hopesville. Our hope, our resolve are cemented into our hearts and souls by our faith and our strength. Our never-ending hopes and dreams of a better life will forever be born in this town of Hopesville. This tragedy, which has stolen from us two of our eldest citizens and four hundred and seventy two jobs, has thrust upon us a choice to either cower in the dark or to clean the soot off our clothes. I say lets get to work. Look at me now, fellow citizens of Hopesville, look at me in the eyes and tell me which future will you choose?”
All at once the people of the town let out a roar, “Work!”
The mayor struck a chord – but inside of him he had his own demons. He had been known to suffer from melancholic stretches – for some days he would be sitting at his desk imagining the worst case scenarios of his life, paralyzed by fear. His wife stood by him and helped him get through the worse of days.
While the fire was still raging he thought to himself that he would not allow his town to fall into a depression so deep that they would never recover. He had seen it happen to towns where Tanneries, Steel Mills, Textile Plants had closed down which led to once thriving towns to turn into ghost towns with no future in sight.
Hell he had seen it happen to himself – he would not have the town and the townsfolk suffer the curse of the darkness that had plagued him. This time he had a plan.
His plan was to bring about a metamorphosis to the identity of the town. First step was to rename the town to Hopesville. The second step was to rebrand the town. No more would they rely on one industry to employ the majority of the people. His plan was to build the town around a railroad station, with shops, hotels and restaurants, which would open up countless business opportunities.
He lobbied and was given a government grant to build a railroad station in Hopesville; this created jobs for the unemployed and created an opportunity for an increase in population which would in turn cause an increase in business.
He had a stretch of stores built encircling the station, including a tavern with a full restaurant, bar and 50 rooms. Businesses were opened to cater to the demand from the stores and the people.
The mayor didn’t live to see the opening of the Tavern – he had a stroke and died six months before – his son Joseph, now the Judge of Hopesville, presided over the opening. His son, John Joseph, slammed the bottle of Champaign against the back of the first train to leave Hopesville station.
Judge Joseph was not an easy man – he lived his life under the shadow of his father and suffered from the same dark periods as him as well. Judge Joseph was also not as popular as his father; he was a judge who prided himself on the ability to be unbiased. So a lot of the white people called him “the nigger lover” while a lot of the black population called him, “the Whiteman’s judge” – it just seemed he could never win.
The judge was a very strict father who presided over his home the way he presided over his courtroom – a very heavy gavel and most times, too quick to judge.
He was hard on all his kids and his wife – but mostly on John. John was the eldest and named after the Judges father – so the sin of his father became the sin of his son.
The Judge still faced comments comparing him negatively to his father. “If only your father could see how you just resolved this case – his would knock you off that pedestal.” The pedestal was the problem for the Mayors son; how can one ever measure up to unfair expectations? So he became a lawyer because he felt he should be the one to stand up for the falsely accused or to lock up the guilty. His goal all along though, was to become the Judge.
The night before the judge was sworn in, his father sat him down and confessed some pride and some regret.
“You know you are in for it now? You’ll be sitting on that raised platform, with the just the gavel and the law to protect you. They have nothing on the anger of the guilty and the falsely accused. But just know that I know you can handle it – I made a similar leap when I became the Mayor – I sold my soul to the town. Your mother suffered a lot of lonely nights and a lot of anger that was thrown my way. My children-.” With that he choked up, sniffled, stood up and kissed his son on the head. “I am proud of you son.”
The day that John Joseph christened the first train in the Hopesville Station he fell in love with the 3-car articulated train of stainless steel.
He would listen to the whistle blow across the town – greeting the morning and
Growing up the son of the local judge he was thrust into the spotlight of this small town – he acquired some fighting skills and a tough skin.
John was a big kid – 6 foot tall by the time he was 15 years old and built like a boxer.
He was a fair student but seemed to always be daydreaming. He would sit in class and find himself on the beaches of Tahiti or by the pyramids of Egypt.
He fell in love on a daily basis but never did work up the nerve to approach any of the girls. He had a couple of friends he would hang around with, usually sitting by the train tracks and racing with the boxcars that would pass on by several times a day, waving to the passengers and placing pennies on the rails.
John’s parents were opposites – Elizabeth was quiet and distant while the Judge always seemed to play the devils advocate during any conversation. Its what intrigued some friends and family but what also drew them away.
John, would lie in his bed, dream, and read about far away places – watching a bull fight in Spain, walking around the pyramids in Egypt or scaling the Great Wall of China. His favorite writers were Hemingway and Fitzgerald – he loved music especially big band, Jazz and Al Jolson. He loved baseball and rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers because his father told him they were the underdog.
The judge died one day while presiding over a case, gavel in his hand his head looking down as if he was reading some notes. Both lawyers waited several minutes before the officer went in close and called for an ambulance. The good judge was already dead by the time the ambulance was called – John Joseph came in running only to see the
The years flew on by – before he knew it he was 30 years old and working on the train as a conductor – collecting tickets and living his dream of traveling. He always tried to end his round back home so he could be with his mother.
Johns siblings were all married and some lived out of town – so it was up to him to live in the old house with her. He didn’t mind it most times – except late at night when his dreams of traveling the world would wake him up with the harsh reality of live in this small town called “Hopesville.”
His mother, Elizabeth had never remarried nor gotten over the cold-blooded murder of her husband. It wasn’t that she was missing him at all, after the bloodstains were removed from the dress she had worn when she identified the body at the hospital; she felt a sigh of relief. But life has its twists and turns – she ended up in love with the pastor of her church. Scandal broke out, since the pastor was married and the man took the midnight train, using a ticket bought from John Joseph and headed out of that town forever.
Hence his dreams of seeing Europe and the Pyramids had been stolen from him and in its stead were the stops he made on his routes. Allentown, Springfield, Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston, and other small stops along the way. He never did get much time at each stop – at most one night at a dingy motel – but it seemed to satisfy him.
He got to know the diners at each stop and the people who worked there. They would call him Mr. Conductor and he would smile.
At Springdale, he was close to this one waitress, Kathy, whose husband was in Korea at the time. They kept each other company while they each fought their own battles in their lives. One night, four hours or even a quick stop for an hour – it wasn’t love it was a way of filling the emptiness that resided within. One night stood out in his memory.
It was a week before Christmas and he was stranded in Springdale. He wasn’t quite upset because it meant more time with Kathy.
He bounded into the diner and she smiled.
“I hear your stranded.”
“Yeh that’s what they tell me.” He replied.
“Then have your coffee – wait until 9 and lets get out of here.”
They sat together in a booth; he put a dime in the jukebox and played some Nat King Cole.
“So what do you do when I am not in town?” he asked.
She looked away from him, lit her cigarette and looked down at the table.
“Lotsa waiting, waiting on tables…waiting for…something.”
“What are you waiting on?”
“Waiting on some life to begin, you know? When I was a little girl I would lay on my bed and dream up a life, you know the damsel in distress with Clark Gable coming to the rescue?”
John Joseph just smiled, a crooked smile – he thought to himself that he knew he was no Clark Gable, hell he wasn’t even Donald O’Connor.
“But these days-.” She was quiet. She tapped her cigarette on the ashtray, placed it between her lips and took a deep drag.
“These days, my Knight in shining armor is a million miles away and who knows what’s going to come of my waiting and waiting…”
He felt a kick in the stomach as the words left her; he knew he wasn’t the “knight in shining armor” anyone was looking for, knew he never would be.
“Lets just put the knight in shining armor aside for a while, doll, lets stick with someone who is willing to listen to you, to hold you and to be there to ease the pain this life brings.”
She took his hand, the snow was really piling up outside, the wind carving out hills of snow and the sky a bright purple. He saw her looking outside and squeezed her hand.
“I know I am not a knight in shining armor, hell the only armor I have are the keys in my pocket and the knife in my coat. Lets spend the night together, I don’t have to get up early, judging from the snow outside, we can just pretend for a while.”
“Oh John Joseph, you are a good man, a real gent and tonight you are my Knight.” She stood up, took his hand and they headed out into the driving snow. They walked through the six inches or so that was on the ground, he jumped into the snow and made a snow angel, she laughed and threw a snowball at him. Started to run but he caught her and they kissed in the snow. She looked at him with a smile, as if she was looking at Clark Gable himself.
“Lets go.” They walked up the two flights of stairs to her flat. She poured two shots of whiskey and they drank to the various knights and damsels who were missing in action in their lives. He kissed her, drank up her love and they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
As the morning came, the snow was still falling.
“Ya know, I am married, I don’t even know if Hal is still alive or on his way home. I don’t know-.”
He cut her off.
“Lets just live for now, we don’t know what is gonna happen one minute to the next. Right now you are my damsel and I am your knight.”
She started to speak; he put his finger to her lips.
They didn’t say goodbye that morning, he woke up and left to make his train, kissed her as she lay sleeping and wrote her a note.
“Doll, don’t worry about Knights or Supermen – they are all out fighting wars on the battlefield or in the hospitals. I’ll be back again – if you decide to say move on – just write me a note and it will be so. Sincerely, Your Knight from last night.”
A month or so later he walked into the diner and was told by the cook, that her husband had been killed in action. She had left him a note and he opened it. It was a short note, “Its time I move on.” He crumpled the letter and held it in his hand.
It wasn’t that his heart was broken; it was just another twist and turn that he was not ready for.
He simply ordered a cup of coffee and sat at that same booth they shared not so long ago. The sky was getting darker and there was a late train he could jump on. He walked towards the station and sat on the bench feeling the cold seep through him and let it in, just let it pass through him.
John lived a quiet life – never married nor had any children. He took the job as a conductor so he could travel places but also always end up home at the end of most days. He had met so many people on those runs; from writers, entertainers, politicians and most of all, he met his Corey.
Fifteen years had passed and he felt like he was in a lake full of quicksand – his years and his life being sucked away into a vacuum – with no way back.
“Life was a whirlwind – one day led to another, and then another until the years began to do the same.”
I asked him if he was bitter about the lost time and he just shrugged and said,
“Bitterness, like happiness is an illusion, a forced upon state of mind. I just was floating through time until-.”
It was early December back around 30 years ago or so – when John was collecting tickets on the Boston – Hopesville.
As he went to ask for the ticket from a passenger she looked up and their eyes met. A bell rung and he had to take a deep breath and grab a hold of the seat to stop himself from falling. Her eyes were a deep brown which were hypnotic and though he only glanced at them for a split second he could tell they had the power to pull you in and never let go.
He looked at her and simply said, “Can I have your ticket, maam?”
She looked at him, her eyes slightly squinted and she smiled, then she said.
“I can show give you my ticket, if you wouldn’t mind holding this bag for me for a second.”
She handed him her bag and took out her ticket from the inside of her jacket.
“Thank you. Are you new on this run, I haven’t seen you around.” She asked him with a curious smile on her.
“No, but usually I work the front end of the cars and Willie works the back. He is out for the next week.”
With that John walked away and finished his job of collecting tickets for the 4 hour ride back to Hopesville.
Later on he walked back to the lady and noticed her eyes were closed. He sat on the empty bench across from her.
There are moments in ones life when a bell is rung and there is no turning back.
“The train was cool, the seats were crimson and the night was dark. Lights passed by in the window from time to time, but mostly it was a dark night with no moon.” John Joseph told me. “She opened up her eyes and we started to speak.”
Once again, he knew from the time they sat down to speak that a bell had rung and his life had changed forever.
Her name was Corey; she was born and raised in a suburb outside of Boston. Her mother was part-Indian part English, her father an Irish man in full. She had soft shoulder length brown hair, light skin and dark eyes. When she smiled her eyes would squint a bit, her lips would rise and her nose would scrunch. To John Joseph she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen; to others she was just an average woman of mixed descent.
They spoke for the rest of the ride and she mentioned she was a teacher at a school for deaf children outside of Hopesville. So she took the train twice a week – Sunday to Hopesville and then on Thursday from back home to Boston.
She was engaged to a man, whom her father had picked for her. When he asked her if she loved him, she smiled and said, “Why is that an issue?”
He didn’t bring that up again – but he did get to know her as she traveled back and forth. He made sure he caught the train she would be on. When he asked her to dinner when she was in town, she just smiled and said it would be nice, but she was engaged and it would not be proper to be seen with another man.
A friendship ensued – to the point where they would both look forward to those Sundays and Thursdays. They would discuss their week with each other on the rides. But when the train would get to its destination the switch would be turned and they would go their separate ways.
One night, it was raining hard and the train was moving slowly. The train operator told him, they would have to stop over at the next town for the night. The passengers and the crew would be provided with rooming at the motel adjacent to the station.
The announcement was made – they agreed to go catch a cup of coffee instead of trying to sleep in a strange motel with strangers.
As the train rolled into the station and the passengers disembarked – Corey stayed in her seat and waited for John. He took her hand without a word and they walked towards the town. They found a diner and each ordered coffee.
They spoke, they laughed and they stared out the window in silence. If they were teenagers you would say they were in love – but since she was about to get married – you can say they were thrust into feelings they could not explain nor understand.
“So, tell me about your knight in shining armor.” John Joseph spit out.
“You mean my fiancé? He is not my Knight in shining Armor – I am not a damsel in distress and I don’t need saving. He is just someone who can provide for me – my father and his father have been friends since the old country – I trust my fathers judgment.”
“But doesn’t love come into the equation? Doesn’t it matter at all?”
“I like him very much and I will learn to love him as time passes and we share experiences in life.” She said, very unconvincingly.
He took her hand and she looked out the window.
For John Joseph this reminded him of Kathy and their time together with one major difference. With Kathy it was a relationship of convenience, with Corey – her presence was essential to his being – like oxygen, food and water.
With Corey he felt love, he felt a love that was over powering, all consuming and natural like a missing piece of a puzzle grooving into its place.
With Corey he traveled around the world by just being with her. The Ice Caps of Switzerland, the sun setting over the pyramids, the soft Parisian rain and the beaches of Hawaii were all there – in her eyes.
They sat in the diner, his hand across the table holding hers. He told her about the Judge and his mother. She told him about her deaf sister whom a car killed when she crossed the street and couldn’t hear the warnings. She told him about her dreams and her life – but never again mentioned her fiancé.
They walked slowly out of the diner, several hours and several cups of coffee later, and walked towards the train.
It was empty now – he took her hand and she nodded. A single tear fell from the side of her right eye and she embraced him.
In her arms he felt free of sorrow, free from the chains the twists and turns this life had thrown him, free from the pain that never ceased, free from the broken dreams and the places never seen. He was enfolded in her world and he felt this warmth, her heart and her love – her love.
She looked at him and smiled – they held on to each other and didn’t let go, through the passion and the hours, through the consummation of their love – they held each other.
She looked at him as the train began to slow down, “John, you must promise me to not stay in touch with me. Don’t look for me on the train – I made my decision to marry and that decision is final. Just know, that I now know what love is.”
They said goodbye as the train rolled into Boston, she embraced him and he felt enfolded in her world – a world he knew was gone forever.
When the train rolled into Hopesville he saw his brother standing there watching him. He can tell that the news wasn’t good.
“Mom is in the hospital, it doesn’t look good.”
He got there on time to kiss her forehead and say goodbye.
He spent the next couple of days with his family – the next week sealing up the books of his mother’s life. He found a picture of his parents posing on their wedding day. How young they looked, how serious they posed – “the old man was old when he was young.” He smiled to himself and then a picture of his mother cradling him a smile and a look of love in her eyes. He turned the picture over, looked out the window and then put his face in his hands and cried.
One evening while he had cleared the house of his mothers clothing and keepsakes, he found himself sitting in her chair by the window overlooking the front porch and the walkway leading to the house. He was looking at some old photographs left in a shoebox and was struck how the passage of time had stolen so much from his life. His parents, now both gone had kept this house a home – for all its good and bad times, it was a home. The pictures of his young mother with his young father caught him off guard and brought on a blanket of sadness over him.
He sat in that chair for several hours until he went outside to watch the sun go down. A lone dog went running passed him and ran across the bridge, which was built for horse carriages and was now left for pedestrians as the automobile was way too heavy for the bridge to hold. The sun, as it set, reflected on the lake and it spread like a wild fire straight into the sky. The breeze had turned chilly and the dog began to bark as leaves began to fall around him.
“I was thinking about Corey and how much I needed her. But I had to respect her wishes – I loved her too much to ignore her request.” He says.
As John Joseph related this story to me tears welled up in his eyes – he tried to stand up but thought better of it.
“In the ice box – can you get me a glass of ice-tea?” Clearing his throat he whispered, “Thanks son.” And drank half the glass and turned around to look out the window.
“That was a hard time – my first time alone, truly alone in my life. I went back to work the next week and told them I was quitting. I went back home and that’s when I took to drinking this cheap whiskey.” He points to the shelf across the way to an empty bottle laying on its side.
He traveled to Louisiana, New Orleans to be more specific. Took a job as a Sous Chef at a restaurant by the French Quarter – that’s where he met Danielle. They spent some time together but she was no replacement for Corey – neither were the evenings at the bars on the outskirts of town. So he took the last train out of town one night – ended up in San Antonio. He stayed there for a couple of weeks; he found a job hauling in the fish from Calaveras Lake for a small restaurant just outside of San Antonio. He befriended Jose, from Mexico City who said he had a cousin who had a friend who was opening a Restaurant in Cuernavaca. He tells it like this.
“We had around a hundred bucks to our name each, so we took off one night on this broken up bus to cross the border – we got to Ciudad Acuna. We stayed by one of his cousins home, sort of a shack behind Panchos Market – where we stayed for several nights while we waited for his other ‘cousin’, the sun of a bitch had a million cousins, drove down to meet us.”
The nights weren’t easy for John Joseph; he would lay awake and think about Corey – drink some tequila or whatever was around and drown in his sorrows.
“Alcohol gives one permission to sulk, permission to forget who they truly are what truly pains them. I drank and it made everything worse. It stunted me – kept me from moving on, ya know?”
“So why do you still drink?” I asked him.
“I don’t really – I nurse the drink for a long time – it’s the companionship in the bar that I crave while I wait for our Sundays to come along.”
One night as he went for a walk a pretty Mexican girl called out to him.
“Hey Mr. Juan Joseph.”
He walked towards her and she smiled.
“I am the prima of Jose – Rosa, he told me you are Trieste.”
He nodded and half-smiled.
She took his hand.
“I didn’t know how to feel – she held my hand and we sat on a bench in a small park by the bank of the river. She put her head on my shoulder and just looked at the river running by. There was a shooting star, sounds of mariachis in the background playing some Mexican standard and there was this pitcher of sangria she had prepared. The music was growing distant, the river was rolling on pass us, the night seemed to come to a halt as if I was part of a photograph, a post card picture, ya know?”
He stood up and walked towards the bank of the river – she came over and held his hand. He was thinking about his mother, the Judge, the Lake by his home and most of all – he was thinking about Corey.
“Tell me about her.” She asked him.
“Corey? Oh I would bore you.” And he laughed.
“I want to know how it feels to love someone as much as you love her.”
He kept silent but kept thinking about her embrace – “Oh how life had changed so quick and here I was by the banks of a river with a pretty Mexican girl and all I could think about was Corey, how when she held me she enfolded me in her world. You know what it means to be enfolded in ones world? When there are no obstructions, no closed doors or pretenses? How no problem, no scenario seems insurmountable – no fears exist, no sadness persists? Oh I go on…too many sad stories from me huh? As soon as Corey is here – all will be good – no more sad stories.”
With that he closed his eyes and fell asleep – I let myself out and found my way to the Tavern by the station.
I went to the bartender who was a middle-aged man and asked him about John Joseph; about Corey about the stories he was telling me.
“Old John was born here, he lived here all his life and he never had a women let alone a wife. I suspect you’ll find out as you check around that no one named Corey has ever lived in this town.”
When I confronted him about this – he smiled and said, “Son, reality is only just a word.”
When they finally got to Cuernavaca he was amazed by the beauty, the mountains, the rivers, the sounds of the marketplaces, and the mariachis at night and the sun rises.
He went out one night for some drinks with his ‘primos’ and ended up waking up with Rosa by his side. He lay there for a while staring at the ceiling – it was time to go back to his home. He was missing his siblings, he was missing the identity he had when he wore the uniform on the train and he was missing the chance to run into Corey…
He lay there for a while, listening to the birds outside the open window, the woman selling coffee from an ancient urn, the brakes from an old city bus making sounds like a Dinosaur in labor. He sat there drinking it in knowing he would be on his way home that day, when he turned he saw she was looking at him with a smile.
“She looked at me, a deep sadness in her eyes, even while she smiled. ‘Tell me about Corey again’ she asked me in Spanish. So I told her about Corey and she told me that I should go back home and find her. If it is real love, if its something as special as you describe – you must go find her.”
“You traveled all those miles and all you could think about was Corey? I don’t understand.” I asked him.
“Some things don’t have to be understood, kid, they just have to be felt.”
“But you were in Mexico, with that pretty Mexican girl. You were away from home, something you always wanted and now all you could think about was going back?”
“Hell, you can travel on ten thousand miles and still stay where you are.” He told me with a laugh, “and sometimes the dreams of being away from home are much better then the reality.”
He was silent now for a couple of minutes – then he let out a silent laugh.
“You went home then?”
“I got home and it was just an empty house – I went to the station and they had given my job away – but old Willie would be leaving come September – and they said I can have his spot.”
“What did you do for the next six months?”
“I went to Spain to watch the bull fights, drank highballs at Max’s bar in Paris, stayed in a sort of bed and breakfast for a month in Florence Italy – working for my keep – learning how to speak Italian and to make a mean cup of espresso. There were no women – I was improving myself, grooming myself for Corey. One day as my money was running out I got a one way ticket back to the States.”
I was quite surprised to find out all the places that he knew and quite impressed with his story telling. I know the townsfolk all told me he was nuts or a liar but he had a way of drawing you in. He is right; reality is only a word, a word that can be very disrespectful of ones dreams.
Then I thought about how lucky I was to have gotten to learn more about John Joseph. How the fact that this lonely man, living in an all but abandoned railroad station, is someone who has lived and loved and has a lot of stories to tell.
Sometimes we see these men walking alone down a crowded street, sitting alone on a bench in the park, drinking by the bar looking through whatever, whomever is in front of him. Looking through the people he passes, the lake and the trees and the mirror across from his stool by the bar, towards some past or some lost future he had once hoped for.
When the rain falls in the spring in Hopesville one gets a sense of rebirth. I was walking home this one day in early April and the rain just began to slowly float down from the heavens. I found myself by the lake and could smell the first aroma of spring lifting up from the moist ground below and the buds peeking through the branches on the trees and the bushes surrounding me. The homes encircling the lake, including the house I grew up in, rise up majestically as the sun says its goodnight to us all. Slowly the rays of sunlight dissipate but not before creating a holy sense of departure.
It’s been several months now since I’ve moved back to this town; the ghosts of my past and my father have begun to fade into jaded scenes of memories.
The old man has a lot to do with the lifting of this darkness that was hovering over me. His stories, his bluntness, and his sense of the beauty of this life have reminded me what I have been missing. The inner sense to look around me and see the artistry of this world – which I left somewhere on my way back home. The ducks congregating by the lake, the snow falling on those cold evenings creating a “glow in the dark” atmosphere on these streets, the sounds of children walking to and from school – laughter and empty canvases of their futures just waiting to be splashed with dreams of love and the world.
When I first arrived here I was filled with a sense that it was temporary – that coming home was a stopover on my journey through life. Now as I go through the days I can sense a feeling of permanence. Is that contentment or resignation? I guess only time will tell.
As I walked towards my home I saw several cars parked outside – I picked up my pace into a run. I burst into the house only to hear “Surprise” and a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
I had forgotten that today was my birthday – birthdays never meant much to me and I usually didn’t make a big deal of them. But standing before me on this Friday afternoon – my mother, siblings, and their spouses together with their children. Several of my friends I had grown up with but somehow neglected to keep in touch with. I looked for my father and could have sworn I saw him, young and dressed to the nines – smile on his face waving to me as he walked out the door.
“We tried getting John Joseph to come but he wasn’t home and we couldn’t find him.” My mother told me.
“Its ok – I’ll be seeing him tomorrow night anyway – we have a date.” With that I smiled and my mother told me she loved me. “Your going to be fine Harry – your father would be very proud.”
“I think he is ma, I think he is.”
That Saturday evening the cold air crept its way back into town – I walked towards the old mans place to chide him for avoiding the invitation to my party.
I knocked on the door but there was no answer. I looked in the window and I could see the fire in the fireplace was out and the place was dark. I knocked again and there was still no answer. I forced in the door and it was then that I saw that Old John Joseph would tell stories, no more.
I sat in my usual space and looked at the old man. Alone but with a smile on his face. I knew just what he was thinking before the final whistle blew.
“Corey’s coming, no more sad stories coming. My midnight moonlight morning glory is coming aren’t you girl?”
We put a notice in the paper the next day to notify anyone who might be interested in attending the burial of John Joseph.
The scene at the graveyard, just three of us where there, me and the grave digger we heard the Parsons prayer. He said “We need not grieve for this man for we know that God cares.”
I stood there alone for a couple of minutes on my own – I threw some dirt over him and turned to leave.
I noticed a beautiful woman standing there with a shawl upon her head. A single tear stood just below her right eye and a soft smile on her lips.
“If you’re a relative he had a peaceful end.” Then she smiled and said, “My name is Corey…you could say I was his friend.”
I must have had a stupid look on my face because I sat down and she went to get me water.
“I know who you are, John would speak of you often, he really liked you a lot.”
“But how can you be Corey – he said he met you when he worked the trains and that’s like, I don’t know, thirty years ago?” I said to her.
“Well, that because I am not that Corey. My name is Samantha Corey Joseph – I am John’s daughter.”
I worked at the railroad yard for a couple of months after John’s death, weekends when I would sit and just wait for the one train to roll on in. They finally closed it down this past fall – I bought the shack though and this is where I chose to write the story of Corey and John and its where the story of Samantha and Harry begins.
John was right – when she holds you, she enfolds you in her world.