Every evening, a freight train would stop at a bridge near where I was staying. My colleagues knew when the train would stop, and they looked forward to its arrival.
“Let’s meet the train this evening,” someone would say.
“Yes, it comes after dinner,” someone else would say.
There wasn’t much to do for entertainment where we were staying. We could walk one way on a back road between farm fields, or we could walk the other way on the same road.
Usually, only women would go to the bridge. I didn’t mind not going. I didn’t know most of my companions, anyway. We were doing our work together only for a short time.
I knew one woman, however, from years before, when we’d been at school together. I hadn’t seen her since, and I was eager to talk to her.
“Why don’t we take a walk after dinner,” I asked her, “just you and me, so we can catch up?”
“We can do that,” she said, “but not now. Sometime before you leave.”
It seemed she didn’t trust me enough to go for a walk with me. Maybe she thought I would do something crazy. I might get too excited, say or do something I shouldn’t.
One afternoon, I walked by myself to the bridge. I looked at the rails—laid straight and firm on a gravel lane. On either side of the track, trees formed a tunnel. Kudzu vines smothered their trunks and branches. Around me, cicadas whined like invaders from space. But no train came.
Again at dinner, my new friends wanted to meet the train. “We went yesterday,” one woman said.
“It was fun,” said another.
“You should go,” they said to me.
But I didn’t go. Instead, I slept on the cot in my studio that night. I wanted to be away from the shared dormitory.
As I lay there, I began to sense the train’s presence. I heard a long, low note that could have been an ambulance arriving to cart someone away, or a helicopter hovering to save a life. Then I realized it was the train’s horn blowing. The freight carrier was rolling close to my studio—as it did every night; I just hadn’t been there to hear it.
Shortly before I left the colony, I joined my colleagues on a train run. The woman I’d known at school also came along. Apparently, having other people around made her feel comfortable with me. As we walked, I asked about her life.
She said that after she’d received her graduate degree, she’d been offered three teaching jobs. She chose the one farthest from where she lived. Eventually, she received tenure there.
“You had good luck with your applications,” I said.
“You can’t apply for a teaching job,” she said. “You have to be asked. If you’re not asked, don’t bother to apply.”
As we approached the bridge, I didn’t believe the train would actually stop, but it was waiting when we arrived. The locomotive was parked below the cement railing.
The women waved to the men in the lead car. The engineers leaned out of their windows and waved back. Then the drivers got out and stood on a metal step. They were wearing the gray uniform of the railroad company.
“Hello!” they called.
“Hello!” the people with me called back.
After a short while, the trainmen got back into their cabin. The whistle blew, and the line of freight cars moved under us.
After the spotting, my former schoolmate gave an art demonstration for the residents. She stood in a corner, facing outward, and held a black marker behind her head. She moved the marker back and forth, drawing a zigzag line on the walls. As she drew, she slowly slid toward the floor. Her reach became shorter as she sank lower. Her finished drawing looked like a small tornado cloud.
That night, I slept in my studio again, thinking I might hear the train. At 2 or 3 in the morning, it came. I heard a long note from the horn, then the noise of wheels on rails. I thought it would be exciting to hop a ride. I didn’t know where we would go, but we could go anywhere the tracks led.
The sound of metal on metal lasted a long time.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the five books of prose, most recently Guess and Check. His novel Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.