Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Posts Tagged ‘pennies

Penny For Your Thoughts

with 4 comments

Something about our last conversation bothered me. Something in your voice – the way it trailed off – those long pauses – your vagueness. You sounded uncertain. And I need to talk to you again. I try to call, just to be sure, but now my cell is showing No Service.

The Northlander is two hours late leaving North Bay. This I know because I kept telling Siri to hit their Info Line every 10 minutes on the drive down from the lake. Your train isn’t arriving until 2:00 AM and it’s just gone past midnight. Where do you go with two hours to kill in Temagami at this ridiculous time of the morning?

A few cars and trucks are in the station lot. It looks like people are trying to get some sleep until the train arrives. Me? Im just standing here watching 18-wheelers rumbling south leaving dust, infused with the stench of diesel, swirling waist high above Highway 11. One after another they race through town with impunity. Toronto bound. So much for the speed limit. All they care about is hitting the 401 before the morning rush so they can make their destinations without penalties. The OPP could be making a fortune right now. Too early in the morning or too late at night for them, I guess.

I know the Legion stays open late on Friday nights. They’re supposed to close at 1:00 AM. But no one in this town pays much attention to things like that since the Ministry has fire-fighting crews in the county. Besides, the guys need a place to let off some steam. And the locals are not above earning some extra cash.

There’s probably a pay phone there. A landline will me get through to you. If we talked again before you get here, you might tell me what’s on your mind. Then I would be ready. I could prepare myself for whatever is coming.

I wait for a gap in traffic and race across the highway. It’s kind of like playing chicken. These big rigs don’t slow down. All these guys do is lean on their air horns and smirk as they blast pass you.

Walking down to the Legion I’m a little concerned because the building is dark. The front door is locked. I make my way around back. There are a few pickups in the parking lot so I figure they can’t be closed. One solitary light bulb is burning above the back door. Inside, on the wall, an arrow with the words Blue Room stenciled on it points me in the right direction. When I walk in the stench of cigarettes and stale beer hits me hard.

Five guys are sitting at a table next to the bar laughing and loudly talking over each other. They all need a shave. Their unkempt hair sticks out of their truckers caps. Pitchers of beer, empty chip bags, butt–filled ashtrays and crushed, empty cigarette packages tell me they’ve been here a while.

When they see me they raise their glasses and call me over. They have no idea who I am. But, single guy in a bar, late at night…kindred spirits. A newbie to buy the next pitcher and retell all their stories too. Why not. 

One guy starts to pour me a beer. I look around and spot the pay phone on the wall beside the bulletin board. I give them the universal thumb-and-baby-finger-phone-sign. They all give me that look that says, hey, right, go make your call –  join us when you’re done

I call your apartment. No answer. So you have to be on the train. You never could read on anything moving. Upsets your stomach you said. So, fine, you’re probably sleeping away a boring couple of hours on a not very comfortable seat in a run down coach. I’ve taken the Northlander before. I can accept that. 

You’re not leaving me much choice though.  You have to understand how I feel when I can’t get through. Why isn’t your cell on? Not being able to reach you is starting to bother me. If you’re not on the train, where could you be this time of night?

There was no point wasting any more quarters. It is late. There isn’t much else I can do. I can’t imagine you not coming. You and I alone on the island; the perfect place for us to talk about us, as you so mysteriously put it. That was the plan. We agreed on it yesterday. 

I sure don’t like this feeling. Strange isn’t it, what with cell phones, e-mail and texting, how we panic when we can’t reach someone? 

Maybe a few beers will calm me down. It will do me good to just sit and forget about you and this notion that is gradually moving from the back of my mind to an uncomfortable place of prominence. These guys are a welcome distraction. At least for a couple of hours. 

We talk about sports, work, women and what it is like to be out of touch and away from everything familiar. Fighting forest fires keeps these boys on crazy shifts 24/7. They’re missing their girl friends and family. They’re tired of wasting their off-time drinking in The Blue Room. When I tell them I’m meeting you at the train station they all smile that smile guys get when girls are involved…the one you hate so much. 

They are jealous. I can understand that. Each one of them wishes they were in my shoes. Little do they know. When I get up to leave they give me the kind of advice a guy about to meet his girl friend that he hasn’t seen in a while doesn’t really need. I won’t tell you what they said.

Back at the railway station people are leaving their vehicles; stretching out the kinks from sitting too long in a cramped space. Moving to the platform they arrange themselves in haphazard little clusters along the tracks. People like to try and guess where the railway car carrying the person they’re meeting will stop. Blind anticipation. It’s an emotion that keeps you from knowing whether or not you’ll be happy until the last moment. 

Tonight it is really playing with my head. 

As I walk down the tracks away from the station I turn my cell on.  Searching for Network lights up the screen. When the bars finally jump to full I hit your number and hold my breath. Still no answer. What gives with you? 

I feel kind of good that the train is only about 10 minutes out so I don’t bother trying again. A young boy is placing pennies on the track against his parents’ wishes. I remember how, as a kid, my friends and I used to do that. Once the train ran over them you ended up with pennies flatter than communion wafers. Now and then, depending on the engine’s speed, the pennies flew off in every direction. Sometimes you had to search between the railway ties and gravel to find them.

A blast of the Northlander’s horn announces your arrival. Bells clang and barriers fall across the road. A beam of light coming around a curve slashes across the station house. The sound of grinding steel on steel slowly brings the train to a halt. 

Finally. 

Anticipation is making me crazy…I’m singing to myself as I watch the conductor unfold his portable stairs. The few sleepy passengers drag their bags and themselves across the platform. Those haphazard clusters now swallow up their loved ones. Hugs all around. Smiles. Kisses. Hand shaking. Arms around shoulders. Small units of happiness making their way back to their cars.

But there is no you.

I don’t know how long I stood there after the train crept out of the station and disappeared into the darkness. You’re doing the same, aren’t you? Creeping out of my life and leaving me in darkness? 

I’m not sure if I’m angry or upset. Confused? Yes. Puzzled? Yeah. Anxious? How else should I be feeling? Really. The worst of it all is that you’ve done whatever it is you’re doing without saying a word. No explanation. Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye. I hear Leonard Cohen singing that song in my head. And you know what its like when you can’t get a song out of your head.

Damn you!

I’m barreling down Highway 11 in the slipstream of 18-wheeler hauling a full load of granite; probably for landscaping some monster home in North Toronto. Remember the truck stop just north of North Bay? That’s where I met Al the driver. He wanted to know which rig in the parking lot was mine.  I laughed. Bought him a coffee and told him my sad story.

He’s got a CB, so he knows where the O.P.P. are. We’re making good time. I’ll be in Toronto by morning.

I’ve stopped calling because I know you’re avoiding me. But, I still don’t know why. Which is the reason I’m coming into town. You owe me…something. 

Before I left I found one of those flattened pennies on the platform. The kid never came back to pick them up. His parents wouldn’t let him. Probably not really that important to him anyway.

I thought it would be a good idea to give it to you when, and if, we talk. You know. A penny for your thoughts?

This story won third prize in The Alice Monroe Literary Festival Short Story Contest in May of 2008. I earned $50.00 for it. The money wasn’t a big deal. I was happy to be among the winners of a Festival bearing Alice Munro’s name. But I realized that writing for a living wasn’t really realistic – for me. I’ve written a lot more since then and entered a lot more contests. You win some. You lose some. Enjoy.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 22, 2020 at 1:25 PM