You can read the 2011 RRofihe Trophy-winning story, “A Pair of Soup,” on the web at: http://www.anderbo.com/anderbo1/anderrrofihetrophy2011.html
“Dick and Jane Meet Again,” below, was the winner of the 2013 Bacopa Literary Review Fiction Prize, and was published in that magazine. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
DICK AND JANE MEET AGAIN
Heavy, rhythmic weight, classic in her imagination, as if it’s come from a children’s book about trains, trundles up through the seat and hovers like a blender between her legs. A train’s weight is on the earth, letting the rhythm in—earth to rail to cushioned seat. A bus transfers its weight through rubber doughnuts of air; a train sets it down hard and moves it forward with power and force.
Beyond the window, she watches a man and a woman kiss in the trash behind a Sears. The woman wears a blue smock. He wears overalls and a cap. They stand under the light at the delivery entrance, pressing their bodies together the entire time it takes for the scene to drift out of view.
An airplane has no weight at all.
Dick sits on the toilet in a bathroom so small his knees touch the Amtrak vanity; it could be any time of day in the closed, rocking stall, and he lets out a long breath which feels like he’s been holding since he boarded in Baltimore. It’s a simple place to be, safe, even though he was afraid of trains as a child.
There’s something about the weight. The class of steel, the word diesel, the sound of iron wheels and iron track, traveling alone. And being with this many men over the course of the long train, bodies that have always been heavier than hers. Together, all of them make a tremendous mass.
Jane puts her coat over her lap, turns off the overhead light, and pushes the seat back. She slips her hand beneath the coat. The only thing comparable to a train, to the contact, would be if she were to ride a horse all the way to Old Saybrook.
“Pull over,” Dick had said.
“Pull over. Now!”
His wife stopped the car by the side of the road. She looked at him, waiting for an explanation.
“We’re out of gas,” he sheepishly said.
She looked at him with disgust, then pulled away, tires kicking up gravel and dust.
It might have worked when he was 17, Dick thinks back at his seat, pushing his glasses up tight to the bridge of his nose. And he’d probably have to be driving. It was the only thing he could think of to keep the ride to the station from being completed. Nevertheless, it was nice of her to pack the sandwiches and the bourbon.
The movement beneath the woman’s coat is too regular to be a child of the train’s rhythm. He adjusts his glasses and watches the rippling fabric.
Jane adjusts the coat on her lap, imagines the man can see her better because he wears glasses. He’s watching her through the round plates of glass magnifying his eyes, accommodating more sight, distorting his barely disguised glances in the darkened car. A glint from the diffuse carriage lights, and his eyes become opaque, lost in shallow white pools of anonymity hanging in the middle of his solemn face.
It’s too hot in the house. Or she’s fought with her parents. Or she had a bad dream. Jane sneaks downstairs and out through the backyard to the stable. Beka isn’t in his stall. The straw is smooth on her small feet, their soles rough from not wearing shoes all summer. The field grass is cool.
They smell each other at the same time, their eyes meeting, though they see only outlines of each other in the light of the crescent moon. They move simultaneously to a familiar spot at the fence.
She climbs the fence rails, gets on the horse, then lays down—legs apart, her stomach on his spine—facing his tail. His coat is wet with dew. Beka slowly moves off to the center of the field. She presses her cheek to his flank and lets her arms and legs hang down the sides of his massive body. Beka stops. The moisture of his wet coat slowly soaks through her thin nightshirt, warming her. He breathes steadily, his giant lungs expanding, rhythmically splaying her thin white legs. She falls in and out of sleep, one corner of her lips open and breathing hard against his short brown hair.
They slept in the same bed last night, but she wouldn’t let him touch her. Not even for old times’ sake. Why he thought she’d consent in the car on the way to the train station, Dick doesn’t know. Maybe because they’d done it before.
She falls in and out of sleep, thinking about her last affair. Five years ago, nothing since. Disease fear. She doesn’t know if her husband ever found out. But she has the feeling that he’d never let her forget.
She can’t remember the names of the men, more of them during her marriage than before. Nothing for a long time. Short legs, long arms, barrel chests, thin backs, wet and dry tongues hovering in and out of the desire for that kind of anonymous contact. Flesh on flesh, no barriers. From a stranger. Giving herself one more disappointment she won’t regret.
The woman’s hands are in the open again, folded together on top of her coat, but not still. Dick glances at the hands, then at the boy who has stopped in the aisle and hasn’t moved on. The kid sways where he stands, though the train is steady on the tracks. A fresh, clean Budweiser from the Cafe Car in his hand.
“Last week, on the ride down here we hit a guy,” the kid says. “Everybody knew about it. The whole train.”
“Must have been drunk.”
“Eleven-thirty at night. Probably couldn’t see the tracks.”
“Right outside my window when the train stopped. Could see everything. The guy was mangled.”
“We sat there for 45 minutes.”
“After a while, nothing more to see. Made us sit there almost an hour. He was dead already. Didn’t have to hold up the train that long.”
“Party up in second car. Bring a bottle if you got one.”
“I (don’t) want to thank you for telling me that story.”
No one had ever talked to him on buses.
The train moves slowly around a long curve. Standing with a cane, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a single streetlamp at the corner of the abandoned car lot beaming down on him—an old man who looks like someone’s grandfather. Sunday dinner long completed, the man doesn’t move. He seems to be appraising the abandoned cars with their smashed-out windshields. He looks like he owns the land. He looks like his family is wondering where he is. Jane knows all this because she has learned to see unprovable things.
The owner of speed refuse, she imagines, watching the scene drift across the window; a collector of movement’s trash.
He rode only buses in Baltimore, swaying through the city on overstuffed suspensions. The train is smooth but on a rougher plane. It’s a tight, forged ride. How many jobs in the last eight years? He can’t remember. She said his career was advancing in the wrong direction. He should have asked her for a better reason, but he forgot.
Eight years. Gone. And in the same day he’s taking his first train ride.
An old man in a wide-brimmed hat drifts across the window toward the back of the train, his face angry, it seems, in old age, at everything.
Dick stands up to the overhead rack and searches through his bag for the bourbon.
The exchange, she thinks, the virile risk, which, before, had very little to do with flesh. It’s been such a long time. EON SIGNS in the Delaware darkness.
He thought about jumping out of the car on the way to the station. But when he imagined it as a desperate act of last resort, she was driving much slower.
The man with the glasses stands in the aisle with the bottle of bourbon, staring at her with the two discs of opaque glass. He looks drunk.
Dick stands in the aisle with the bottle of bourbon, staring at her with his glasses tight to his face. His eyelashes skim the lenses when he blinks. He must look drunk, he thinks. But the timing in his legs feels perfect. He realizes he forgot to dress the bottle with a bag.
She looks at him and the bottle, as if asking why.
“It’s Sunday,” he explains. “I still have a little religion left in me.”
She thinks she might recognize him. But if consistency is equal to faith, then it’s only the yearning for innocence and anonymity, the way things used to be.
She pushes her plastic glass of ice and diet coke two inches across the fold-down table. The front of the train is sniffing the outer edge of three hours to Old Saybrook. Oily scraps of paper catch fire at the heels of weight, the stench of ignition.
“Coming or going?”
For Dick, the simple solution still seems like the only explanation for everything. But it seems less curious as the train has been moving either up or down the east coast for hours. He can’t remember which way. She looks at him strangely. He remembers.
“I’m going to Boston,” Dick says.
“Old Saybrook,” Jane says.
He wants to keep his destination on the table for her to see. She’d rather not see hers getting closer. They drink at the same time, and something seems funny to both of them for the few moments they’re silent. They let each other see their smiles without explaining them. He realizes he doesn’t know anything about women. And now he’s alone. She remembers that one of the men drank straight from the bottle, like this man. It was small.
“What were you doing down in Washington?” he asks. Wrong way.
“Seeing about a job.”
Meeting a man on land, a stranger, her husband said, who was supposed to look like he didn’t know how to swim.
The way she could see the man in the parking lot, unlocking his car door, and know he was afraid of the basement when he was a child. A woman in a market fondling produce who knows how to have an orgasm in only one position. The kindly old matron, accepting a hand at her elbow, who would rather kill a child than die herself. A man who looks like he doesn’t know how to swim.
That’s what her husband said her contact would look like, testing her years of bragging about her ability to see unprovable things. She had no doubt. After she got the new job, she’d finally leave.
Jane arrived on the deck of the Blue Moon Cafe on the bank of the Potomac 45 minutes early. It would be easy by the water. People walk, stand, and sit in a glow of their fears, obvious to anyone who can really see. Less so with what they don’t know. She had called to confirm their appointment.
Her stomach felt queasy as soon as she stepped off the train. By the time she’d spent five hours in the city, everyone looked invincible. So much power. Monuments and white columns and broad thick buildings that made everyone walk in the strict sense of purpose, erected by direction, chiseled clean down to their elemental parts. Every blade of grass praising them. They looked perfect.
After half a glass of wine and twenty minutes waiting at the Blue Moon, she went to the bathroom and threw up, then left. She’ll tell her husband her contact never showed.
They’ll be changing engines in New Haven, perhaps coupling to the same blunt steel that killed the man on the way down, and that’s what will take him to Boston. He’s afraid of the speed. If the train goes slow enough, he’ll have to jump.
He should have stopped the kid’s story. He makes a note—stay away from children’s stories.
He makes another note—Read more about diseases. AIDS. A nice word. Easily spelled. Newsweek.
She knows it was her husband’s doing, a man who knows her so well he can create impeccable revenge. He must have known what the city would do to her, how the haze of all that purpose would obstruct her, how the smog of power would choke her.
She should have expected it. Subtle as a fly dying somewhere in the house. It hovered and hovered, and all of a sudden there was death, as tiny as it was, in a corner. He probably knew about at least one of the affairs, if not all of them. Does he know she takes her ring off when she travels?
Bourbon stirs the man’s lips into smiles and frowns. She was wrong about him being drunk. He doesn’t look like he’d ever get drunk.
When he was a little boy he liked looking at trains in picture books. He liked coloring them. But in real life they were too big. No matter how far away from the edge of the platform he stood, he always had a feeling that he was going to fall onto the tracks. Someone would push him. A strong wind would blow him over.
At Stamford he watches the Budweiser kid stumble out onto the platform, bend forward with bags in both hands, and hug a woman, who could be his mother, with just his shoulders.
(A boy who will grow up to be frightened of something he laughs at today.)
His wife didn’t even turn around to look at him when she dropped him at the station. She carried the weight of eight years in a little purse hanging by a thin strap from her shoulder. Somewhere in that pearly sac she had the last token of their time together. The penny of waste she’d been whittling down from a debt she owed herself for staying with him that long. And the wisp of a smile, which weighed nothing, suddenly appearing because it was easy for her not to look back.
Jane can’t see the man with the glasses, what he’s afraid of, what he doesn’t know, as if he’s been scraped cleaner than the granite statues of Washington. But with a softer spoon.
“You don’t look like you’re looking forward to Boston,” Jane says.
“You don’t look like you got the job,” Dick says.
Tenderness. How much does that weigh? It wasn’t in her purse, either. It’s a want, a siding where a train going in circles never stops. A minute for each laboriously completed circuit, eight years of looking out at that soft side track.
In the presence of a familiar, well-defined union, any risk is holy, everything outside is cure. She was always popular when she was young. Everyone knew her name—she was in the constant glare of others’ awareness. It was oppressive, even as she courted the attention.
Now she wishes she didn’t even have a name. Just skin. Even if it’s only partially, briefly exposed against her own, the fear of walking out the door in the morning is reduced. There’s a citizen out there with a malicious glint in his eye, a desire at war with the common good. Only strangers carry the cure to tediousness. Anonymity makes her whole. She knows it, though it can’t be proven.
The bottle is tilting over in his hand. It stops as the neck touches the rim of her glass, pausing, filling it.
Disease has put so much more than her flesh at risk.
They’ve switched engines. The future is already filled with want. It didn’t weigh a thing when he was with her. He reads the Emergency Evacuation Instructions for the third time.
“I have to take a nap before my stop.”
Jane turns off the overhead light, then lies back in her seat and brings her coat over her lap.
Dick adjusts his glasses. Minutes go by. He sits across from the woman and drinks.
The rhythm begins, small, inside the center of the big train, not a child of the train’s movement, a lighter, circular weight. Quick coat-breaths, her shallow-breathing blouse. A subset gaining on the revolutions of the iron wheels.
He puts the bottle between his legs, holds it with his right hand, and finds the edge of her coat with the left. He follows the lining until he reaches her hand, replacing it with his own. The train goes over a bad joint in the tracks, jostling the car, starting his fingers.
No barriers except her silence, her head turned to the window, her mouth open and pressed into her shoulder, breathing the brown fabric of her blouse, dew above her lip.
Want renewed, circular in form at the end of his fingertips, a small subset with a nearing end…
Small pads of skin, a subset of the larger risk beginning to glow; risk through flesh, through the floor and into the metal wheels, metal to metal to cinder to softness…
He didn’t see why she had to drive so fast to the station, until they arrived. They walked through the terminal’s doors as his train’s departure was announced. Her body dropped off and fell behind somewhere across the shiny floor.
Her impeccable choice of place. A terminal. Too efficient for sorrow, its surfaces too smooth, too much leaving to let parting linger. A silent coup as banal as an on-time arrival.
He could do something now. Announce his indignation to the empty car. Insult the reeds in the faintly glowing marshes outside the train. Stop the woman getting off the train, call out to her, ask her a personal question, her name, crush the anonymity.
He sits in silence, his wet fingertips curled up in his lap.
Quietly, stealthily, she opens the door to the darkened kitchen of their house. She sets her bags down and takes off her shoes, then slides across the floor to the tool drawer. She pulls out a flashlight and goes out the back door to the garden.
The grass is cool on her feet, the night air sharp and thin after the stale air of the train. When she reaches the garden, she switches the flashlight on and scans the plants.
Sitting on the toilet with his pants up and the seat down, aware now that he’s going north. The bottle rolling on the floor between his feet. Too aware that there’s an end coming. It’s punched on his ticket.
The past clings to his socks, stretching the elastic down to his ankles.
He puts his fingers in his mouth, the ones that are still slick from the woman, and furiously sucks them. Hoping she had a disease. A fatal one. One that will take effect before Boston.
Her husband finds her sitting at the kitchen table.
Arm up, elbow bent, she brings the tomato to her mouth, opening wide for it, inhaling. She surrounds the thin, taut skin with her lips, bites the fruit, and sucks the fluid down her throat. She smiles at her husband’s bewilderment, enjoying the liquid, letting him see the memory in her eyes, the juices running down her chin as she digs deep into the pulp.