Once, I needed a train to stop at a lonely station on the prairies. That image was all I had of the novel I was starting but I had that much. You might say I was obsessed with the image as I am with the image with which I begin every piece of writing, the image that will not go away until I write about it. Which, of course, I must. Sometimes it takes days to work it out of my system. Sometimes years.
It is not so hard to work on an image for years, or not relatively so. What’s hard is when people tell you it is not what to you it appears to be. You must not listen to those people and you must be very stubborn in this regard.
Back to images. I don’t know where they come from and I don’t waste time worrying about it. It’s all there anyway, some place in our neurons, everything we’ve ever known or experienced. Why some images rise to the top and others don’t may seem like a mystery but isn’t. Something triggers it. The train is an easy one to figure out since I was born in an isolated prairie place where the train coming toward me, closer and closer along that inevitable track, was both mysterious and exciting, even magical, the shiver and thrill of something about to happen.
I wanted to view my train image in the real world. Then I would be better able to write about it. Or so I surmised. Thus, off I went to find the lonely station.
The story goes like this:
Once upon a time a woman needed to travel to the place where a train stopped at a lonely station on the prairies. She persuaded a man to go with her although she did not tell him the true purpose of their journey. The man and the woman routinely sought out prairie towns of interest or even ones without interest. They wanted to experience more of their particular space on this planet. So it was not difficult for the woman to suggest a certain town that perhaps could be the focal point of such an adventure. She believed that there she would meet her train.
The man and the woman arrived at their destination, a small dusty prairie town. They strolled up one side of Main Street and down the other. At the end of the street was a small dusty boarded up train station. They stood on the worn platform between the station and the railroad tracks and looked in the windows that were not boarded up. Through the grime and the weathered glass they could make out the counter where the station master would have sat busy with his telegraph and the sale of tickets. The few benches on which patrons of the past would have sat waiting for the train were still there, as was a rusted out pot bellied stove.
The man walked once around the station and was ready to go. The woman remarked about the possibility of a train coming through. The man explained in patient detail to the woman, for that was his manner and he did know about such things, that many years had passed since any new stations had been built in small prairie towns, that the rail companies who were interested only in profit had stopped running profitless passenger trains year ago. The woman listened attentively and then said that she thought she would wait for the train. The man explained again how trains no longer came through these small towns, that there had been no train here for years, that the train did not come here any more. Look how the grass had grown up around the track, the tracks themselves rusty. Still, she said, it won’t hurt to wait a while.
The man scowled and said well, if that’s the way you’re going to be. He walked back up and down the dusty street while the woman continued to wait under the hot prairie sun, for it was summer and the sun beat down mercilessly and there was no shade except for a grove of scraggly poplar across the tracks and down quite a ways.
And after a period of waiting it came, taking shape, second by second, snaking in from the horizon. A great steel presence bearing down, rumbling along the tracks, a blasting horn alerting the town, the mighty engine’s roar, then sliding to a great heaving stop. The woman walked out to meet it for the tracks were several yards distant from the station. The conductor swung down, set down his stool in the grassy rail allowance and several people alighted. From the town behind the woman three people appeared without notice, waded through the weeds and quack and got onto the train. The conductor retrieved his stool, swung himself back up and away they went, the engineer blowing his whistle.
The man likes to tell it this way: “The woman turned to the man beside her and smiled. She turned back, walked toward the coach, and climbed aboard. The man hesitated a moment. Then followed her.”
And that was the beginning.