by A.E. WEISGERBER
The train was running late to Union Station, and Claude worried. It was Holy Week. On top of the delay, there’d be cherry blossom tourists and protesters jamming the station. Even with medicine, Claude felt queer enough to book a roomette.
Skies were overcast, and as he lay there facing the window with the world slurring by, he could adjust his gaze so that sometimes he looked at his own face, and then pushed his gaze through the glass and saw the mounds of kudzu, the streaming whip of landscape animating the shadowed caves of his face.
After a while Claude got up to do some carving. He addressed the foggy mirror over the sink, “God gave you a good day now. You take it.”
The sunny side of a slow sickness was having time enough to say goodbye to friends. Claude enlisted in the early 80s with his boyhood friend Faro, both with enough engine sense and experience to qualify as Airman from the get-go. They got A1C promotions about four years later. No one leaves the Air Force, so their ranks rose slowly, and Claude topped out as Master Sergeant after 15 years. Faro clocked a bunch of hours flying the RC-135, that spook aircraft with the same frame as a 707. With a growing family, Faro left the Force to fly commercial. While Claude still flew materiel and enlisteds to the Gulf, Faro kept saving lives. Remember that 707 that landed in the Iowan cornfield? Survivors still sent Faro holiday cards, and organized a fundraiser when his grandbaby needed help. It’s a shame his mind slipped.
Claude smiled to see that gal Diana Johnson running the snack bar. She didn’t approve of granola bars and sealed cups of yogurt. She’d worked the Crescent since old times. She knew. Claude asked for a cup of ice chips.
She nodded. “You know eating ice is a sign of anemia?”
“I just like it.” His hand lay on his Bible on the counter.
Business at the snack bar was slow. “What’s the good word?”
“I thought something from Isaiah. How’s this: ‘Your sun will never set, and your moon will wane no more…'”
Diana closed her eyes a moment, tapped her lip, then pointed skyward to punctuate her response, “‘…The Lord will be your everlasting light,'” she smiled into Claude’s eyes, “‘and your days of sorrow will end!'”
They laughed together. Diana was a beauty. Her face was luminous as sunlight through a satin-smooth eggshell. Sunlight aglow on the shockwaves of her heart.
“I’ll never trip you up,” Claude said.
“What’s going on in the book today?”
“Can you keep a secret?” He swiveled it toward her.
Diana raised an eyebrow. “You know I can.”
Claude popped the book’s button strap, and opened the cover to show a figure nestled with his tool kit. She tilted her head at it, then laughed.
“You’re like a kid.” She was delighted.
“So’s it. Look here.”
Diana pulled the book closer. She marveled over the set every time. The gouge was snub and short, keenly sharp, straight-edged, and hard-cornered, its low inner bevel directed the pushing force into the blade. A little slip-stone wrapped in chamois and a tin Singer box to keep an oil cloth and a small, rolled strop. She lifted her chin to ask if it was all right. Claude nodded yes.
“Oh, that’s fine.” She held a carved wooden goat in her palm. “Mr. Faro’s going to want him.”
“Sweet ain’t she.”
“It’s sure something.”
A customer came up and asked Diana for a coffee and a wrap sandwich. She rang it up, put the coffee in a double-cup. The customer kept his eyes on his screen, and a knocking noise hissed from his earbuds. He wandered back to his seat with his change and meal.
Diana returned her attention to the figure. “That walnut?”
They had developed this comforting routine conversation over the years. The goat was intended for a creche Claude started years ago. He was donating it to the hospital’s little artifacts museum. This one had pretty little knees buckled under, resting. The horns were roughed out to a little curl.
“Some sorrow is never meant to end,” Diana nodded respectfully.
The whole set was being carved from blocks of the tree Claude Junior’s car smashed into.
“Phantom son syndrome.”
“He’s no ghost.”
“So they say. How’s yours?” Claude asked.
“The same. I’ll be seeing those grandbabies soon. He might move to Atlanta before summer is up.”
“You won’t be able to keep them from the mountains. You know what with city life.”
“I sure do love that little goat.” Diana smiled. “Did you want anything besides ice?”
Claude tidied things. “No. That’ll do.”
“You all right?”
“I’ll walk by on break to see how things are going.”
Diana leaned on the counter to share a confidence, while pointing with a glance to a quiet girl in a suit jacket at the end of the car. She held an empty cup and looked out the window with her eyes closed.
“That girl’s had trouble this morning. That was the delay. She’s trying for a new start in the District. When I go on break I might tell her to visit with you if you don’t mind taking her under your wing.”
Claude played it cool. He whispered, “That’s fine.”
As he and Diana finished, he said, “I’ll be coming back home after Easter this trip. I’ll find you then.” He touched his right brow with his right fingertips, smiled, and left with his kit and cup of ice.
Claude picked his way down the aisle of the club car, leaning on seatbacks between steps. He still did prechecks wherever he went, making sure things looked loaded and balanced, equipped as though people’s lives depended on it. He sat on the less full side, where a copy of Smithsonian Air and Space lay within reach. He thought that if he saw an advertisement for the memorial in New Orleans, he wanted to put Faro’s name on a brick. Maybe even his own.
Faro’s uncle Ricky owned the Gaspenny Scenic Railroad when Claude was a boy. Those old engines were a work of art. They had no faring, no sheath like these diesels. The GSR was a trucks and gear train; a helical gear ran jack shafts out to two or three trucks. Not pretty, but nothing else beat those inclines. Good traction, slow speed.
Claude chose a table, his back to the window to prevent queasiness. He set out a cloth and then his kit, the little goat, and patted his breast pocket to retrieve reading glasses. He settled into the meditation of work.
At some point, Claude sensed someone near. The girl introduced herself. Her name was Canese Halbemond. “Diana said you wouldn’t mind company. May I share your table?”
“Sure you can,” Claude said, rolling up his cloth. “Happy you’re here.”
She sat and sighed. She said she was from Richmond, and lay a small claim to a wedge of table space. She placed with precision her tablet, phone, and empty cup. Then she pretended to steady herself to give her shaking hands some cover. Her phone lit up, but the caller ID said DO NOT ANSWER.
Claude asked, “On your way to New York, or Washington?”
She looked up, eyes pooling.
“Washington,” Canese answered. “I have an interview.”
Claude offered a paper napkin. They both saw the warning repeat on her phone.
“That so?” Claude smiled. “Who’s the lucky outfit?”
She answered, “The clerk’s office,” then turned her phone screen-down. “At the Senate.”
“Lots of fine folk there.”
Her attention strained.
Claude squared up his tools, mirroring Canese’s, then clutched his elbows to his sides, arms tucked in and close. He waited a moment for the stabby feeling to pass. “What kind of job?”
He let Canese talk, then resumed his carving, unrolled the cloth again, hands steadily forming ridged horns with short, sure turns of the knife. It kept his mind off his pains, and gave Canese an excuse to share or not.
The light of another notification spilled from under Canese’s phone. “I’m sorry my mind is such a mess.” Her hand stayed gripping he edge of the table. “He’s in the District 1 office. I mean, the job.”
Claude thought for a moment. “Harrison’s?”
“I hope so.”
“He’d be glad to have you.” Claude talked about the world he knew. “I’ve spent plenty of time talking with both Harrison and Mr. Hybl about railroad trivia, if you wind up working thataway. They’re both on the transportation committees. Too late for folks like me, but you have a whole world and future to look out for, specially over in Norfolk.”
The idea of a future, Claude thought, that’s what she needs. He continued to chat about the Navy base in Norfolk, where coal, still hauled out of the mines, pottered over to Norfolk and got loaded into bulk ships for export. The coal breathed. The train breathed.
Claude shifted. “Canese, I don’t like to pry, but can I help you?”
She kept her eyes on her phone. “I really need this job.” She looked at Claude. “I can’t go home.”
“I think you’ll be all right,” he said.
Claude’s old-time patter was calming. He talked trains. He mused on the Gaspenny tracks being dismantled, how there is an art and a science to managing mineral deposits in boilers. They were sensitive and dangerous, and each locomotive was an individual creature. Every part was machined. Nothing was standard from model to model, so parts that got worn out or broke were milled by the fellas in machine shops. Now, with diesel engines, it’s more like a car.
“Wherever there’s a crane can lift thirty-forty ton, there’s a shed can swap in a new engine. Know what those skilled machinists do now? Haul inner tubes back and forth for weekend float trips.” Claude looked around at the half-empty car. “And seats on the Crescent sell for less and less.”
“I suppose they do.” Canese studied Claude’s decorations. “May I ask why you’re in uniform? I get a little spooked.”
Claude’s still fit, but hung loose about the shoulders. His weight had stabilized until long-term wasting began. He’d made do with pecking some new holes in his dress belt, but after a while gave up pretending and bought some trim elastic-waist pants.
“This dog don’t bite.”
“Diana told me your name and I forgot.”
“I’m Claude. My mama said she was overawed with the Lawd when she had me.”
Canese smiled. “I can’t forget you now.”
“Most of my friends call me Chief. You’re welcome to it.”
“Everybody who ever was a Crew Chief is Chief.”
“Well, I don’t know any Claudes.”
“Yes m’am.” He nodded. He relaxed his arms a bit, moving an elbow onto the table.
“Why a uniform today?”
“I’m visiting a friend at Walter Reed and the uniform brings him back.”
“Is he ill?”
“He got the dementia.” Claude picked up the little goat and held it, then stood it square on the table. “Too many crashes. He recognizes me more than not when I look like old times.”
Canese fished for something in her bag and stopped. She looked at Claude square on. “I finally walked out on my fiancé this morning and he’s not happy. The police had to get involved, but they say until something happens, their hands are tied.” She closed her bag.
“He in custody?”
“He was when the train pulled away, not that it matters. He said his brother and he would be waiting for me at Union Station with a shotgun and a Bowie knife.”
“He said that? Well, what did the police do?”
“His brother’s the police.”
“By God.” Claude said, “We get to Union Station, you stick with me.” Claude shifted his body to wrestle a pain.
Canese studied Claude’s face for the first time. “You’re not well.”
“I’m all right.”
It was the back pains that finally brought Claude to the doctor, horrible pains like the old days when he’d have to ride in the jump seat on a long haul, sitting and standing and hunching over. In hindsight, it was a combined dislike of doctors, hospitals, and needles that killed him. Plus losing his son, Claude Junior, and then his wife Marcy.
Canese thought for the first time in months about someone else’s troubles beside her own. Claude said his medicine dose kept pain at bay for eight hours last week, but now he clock-watched come six. He’d hoped to take the next dose while visiting Faro, where he could lay down a while in some cool darkness.
“His nurse Ginny is kind,” Claude added. “She looks like you.”
Diana walked through to her break. She paused to whisper an encouragement to Canese, then passed a warm smile to Claude, and continued on her way to the crew car.
Claude fished an ice sliver from his sodden paper cup. He remembered when china and flatware were standard. The Southern Line was the last holdout against Amtrak. The Crescent’s death blow was airplanes. Delta got in the kitchen with Dinah; that was that.
Claude finished the little goat’s horns and told Canese he’d like to go put his feet up if she’d promise to wait for him at Union Station. She said okay. Claude packed his kit, but he liked the feel of that little goat in his hand and tucked it into his jacket pocket.
By the time the Crescent arrived to Washington, Claude managed no rest. He had to wait an hour before his next pill, right about when he’d see Faro. He felt sheeny cold. His first sight on the platform was an officer in riot gear, led by a German shepherd, as they disappeared behind a false plywood wall.
He stepped off and crossed the platform, looking for Canese, and was about to push through the heavy glass-paneled door into the station when he heard her call his name.
Canese swept toward him on the platform, her raincape flowing behind. She asked if Claude knew the taxi-stand was relocated for construction. She had gotten the intel from Diane.
Canese said, “Let’s walk together there. There’s a protest brewing this weekend and the main hall might be crazy.”
“I’ll see you to a taxi. I usually take the bus.”
Canese looked at their shoes. “I wanted to thank you for listening to me. You have enough trouble without mine butting in.”
“You got a lot going on.”
He nodded. “Blue skies ahead. Let’s walk.”
Canese checked the time on her screen. “Buses still run on the half and the hour?”
She showed the time: 10:02. “You’ll have a little wait. We could share a car?”
“I’m set in my ways,” he said as he touched his fingertips to his right brow.
They walked a bit, then Canese excused herself to respond to a text, she mouthed to Claude that it was her mother. She raised her index finger to indicate she’d need a minute.
A pain in Claude’s gut sunk his face. He breathed deep and concentrated on his surroundings. The Main Terminal was packed with noisy crowds. He fiddled absentmindedly with the carving in his pocket. The hall was nine stories high, sounds caromed around up there and came back down sounding dizzy. The Headhouse centurions were perched high and watching from their marble clappers, ancient guests unable to decode the modern melee before them. The ticket counters, large as any airport check-in, were quiet, most of the ticket dispensing now done on screens.
Claude remembered how Union Station percolated with the hubbub, a constant skein of travelers and rails crossing paths. When the station got landmarked, the rail head transformed into three stories of retail. Used to be people dined on the train. Now, rather than benefit from the momentum at arrival, travelers rested and ate in the terminal, when they weren’t protesting. Anywhere he looked in the Great Hall, janitors, students, children and parents each held a screen at eyeball’s length, the way grunts at mail call used to, mentally cordoned off like the red tape around the RC-135s he and Faro flew, everyone together and separate.
Claude hadn’t realized Canese was done with her call. He felt her watch him hanging onto the railing.
“You look pale. May I?” She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. Canese pointed out the entrance to an elevator, tucked behind a cutout in a false chickenwire-and-plywood wall. They took it down a flight.
Busy as the main hall was, things were quiet in the basement level food court. Not a lot of people want ice cream or Chinese suppers at 10AM. On past trips, Claude might grab a shake in a can or an ice cream, but now even those were ill-advised. Claude stood near the bottom of the wood and iron curved staircase; his precheck eyes scanned the pink marble floor of the food court, and up to the mezzanine’s edge of shops.
“Wait here if you don’t mind and we’ll walk to the taxi stand together. I need to powder my nose.”
Claude could see the entrance to the lounges along the far wall.
“They’re never crowded.” Canese looked at Claude more closely. “I don’t like leaving you alone. Chief?”
Claude gripped the dining area railing, concentrated on a movie poster. He remembered watching old Sunday television matinees. His favorites were The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Flying Leathernecks, Abbot and Costello in Keep ’em Flying. That time in Iwo Jima when Forrest Tucker left the boys and went back behind the lines to resupply the ammo, and while he stops for a cup of coffee, the Japs bayonet his buddies? That made an impression.When Claude joined the service, it was during that post-Viet Nam, Jimmy Carter malaise. After Carter, there were ten years of all-volunteer troops. Thanks to that and a head filled with Victory at Sea, Claude and Faro were some of the quality new enlistees in what became a military dead ball era.
Claude asked an odd question. “What kinds of pictures did you enjoy as a kid?”
He grimaced and nodded.
“I don’t know. I like The Office. Riverdale. Whatever is streaming.”
“What are those all about?”
“An office, a school.” She shrugged.
“You go ahead.” He kept his hand on the railing, knuckles a little pale. “Don’t be late to a date with your new boss.”
Her shoulders relaxed. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll keep an eye peeled.”
“Sic semper Tyrannis, Virginia.”
She laughed. “Stay free, Mountaineer.”
He watched her rain cape billow as it threaded food-court tables toward the ladies-room door. Claude set down his travel bag at his feet and looked upward to the main hall. He marveled at the newly gilded coffers. Up in the five bays of its dapper arches, lemon-lit curtains of light shone down through the dome. One circle quailed on a wall, making a kind of natural movement, like seeing branches sway when there’s no breeze. Undercurrents were lively.
He thought of circles and light. There was one time he watched a clarity-measuring disk get lowered into a Lake. It didn’t disappear until 150 feet. The water surface dazzled above depth, like the stratosphere he’d glimpse as Crew Chief, and contemplate the deep dome of heaven’s blue firmament on early morning runs to Al-Bakr. The sky at times was an eternal pool of deepest blue, ground in the deep black of time and space. Claude would consciously push his sight through his flight visor, the windscreen, the thin air. He’d like to fly again.
“Got any spare change?” Someone said close-by.
Claude remembered he wore his dress uniform. Best to be a peace maker. Claude gave the man a five.
“Look for those blue skies, son.”
What did Faro used to say? For five dollars you get to watch a monkey screw a coconut. Claude thought he might ask Canese to call Ginny, the nurse at Walter Reed, to let her know he’d be late to Faro.
The beggar shambled off.
Claude thought Canese reminded him of Ginny. It was more than their shared galaxy of freckles. Ginny left the Colorado Springs Academy to finish at Vanderbilt with a degree in nursing. She was quiet, a deep pool. He tried cheering her up one morning when she was especially blue. She was lonesome being the listening ears in the Alzheimer’s wing. Her eyes limpid and glassy, Ginny looked at her feet. She said, Claude, just that once I was walking alone. It took a moment for her truth to dawn on him. He told her he was sorry and wished he’d been there to walk alongside. Having a wasting cancer was obvious, and sympathy flowed easily to Claude. It wasn’t fair other’s hurts were hid.
No, Claude wouldn’t be going anywhere until he was sure Canese was okay. Faro would be waiting. The goat would pep him up.
Claude’s back throbbed, a little pain clawed at his navel, so he leaned on the cool railing. His skin was dry and he was feeling light.
It was then another character, Claude had noted him resting in the shadows by the currency exchange kiosk, walked slowly in the direction of the men’s room. Casually, Claude kept his eyes on the figure. He passed Hangar One Steaks. Wincing, Claude pushed upright from the railing, and picked up a discarded brochure from the National Gallery on the near table to look busy. It advertised an Italian exhibition, and its cover depicted a tree growing out of a reclining King David’s stomach; the faces of his children and their children were in circles like fruits of the tree all growing upward to a clouded God. Claude wondered if the hot mulch of his intestines held pictures of the dead and wounded he flew medivac out of Beirut. Those dreams sometimes returned when he visited Faro, but lately Claude’s dreams were full of frantic radio calls, soft cockpit alarms, dust falling through adrenaline. Claude snapped out of his reverie as the figure zagged toward the ladies room.
His gut tight, Claude slid his bag to his shoulder and set down the pamphlet.
People could be like steam engines and C-130s, drawing energy out of the natural world. The energy here shifted to overcast. toward that boy who slipped inside the ladies room.
Below the clatter and chatter of the main hall, Claude’s heard radio static. He looked for aid. Scissor-gates were locked down. The sandwich shop was changing over from breakfast service to lunch, and a cook poured boiling water on the grill, the Norfolk tidewater flats. They’d hose down the coal to keep it from catching fire. He signaled to get the cook’s attention. No go. No police uniform in sight.
Claude went to check on Canese.
He listened hard at the door. One after another came the click-roar of a hand dryer. As it cycled off, he could hear growling or crying. Claude’s head-up display was pinging. He thought of Ginny’s assault, of Forrest Tucker, and bayonets.
He counted two and pushed and things were in bad kilter. The boy pressed Canese’s neck hard to the wall. Her coat was slit and hanging limp, phone and wallet spilled across the counter, hair half-undone, right cheek a wet welter. She was breathing hard and Claude could see the angry sinews of her attacker’s neck.
“Woah now, son.”
The dryer roared.
“Move in and away from the door! Do it, old man,” the boy said as he elbow-jabbed the big silver button.
Claude eased the door closed. “I’ll give you everything I have. What do you need, son.”
“You old hillbilly. You come to watch me slit this friendly slut?” He jabbed the dryer and it kept yowling. The stale air heated and circulated the smell of a birthing room.
He waved Claude over to the sinks, jabbing. There was a bright red line along Canese’s throat. She was trembling.
Claude kept his eye on her fiancé, talked real low. “I’m retired Air Force. I’m carrying my service revolver.” And, with his eye on the knife while the assailant kept watch on Claude’s left hand, Claude slowly reached into his pocket, gripped the little carving like a pistol, and held it pressed into the seam.
“I want you to let the young lady go. And you,” he motioned by pressing the little hilt of black walnut in a sweeping motion toward the door. “We can walk out of here together, you hear?”
“Hell no.” He pressed harder on her neck. Her face flushed red. He seethed at her: “See what you made happen? You have to kill him, too?”
“You got more to lose than I have, son,” Claude was steady and sure. “I will blow a hole in your watch-pocket if you don’t let the girl go. She’s not the one for you. Right now.”
The boy’s carotid artery was pumping, but he relaxed pressure on her neck, enough for her to turn sideways and begin coughing. For no good reason, he swept the knife up through her hair and a flurry fell along the floor like tides of brunette tinsel in the hot currents.
Claude snapped his fingers softly while Canese was coughing, hoping to draw her toward the door. She was in shock, pupils dilated. She unfroze and lurched past.
The dryer cycled off and stayed off.
“I’m sorry for you, son.”
“I don’t need your sorry,” the killer said. The ceiling vents made breezy sounds, like rain on a canopy. The plumbing offered an occasional bubbling, a low gurgle like a full pot of water boiling, soft inconstant slices and bubbles of sluicing water. Claude measured the boy–and the hunting knife he held flat and balanced in his right hand–to be six paces from him. One of the toilets was running.
“I want that gun.” The boy stabbed lazily toward the floor.
“I can’t give it, son.” Claude slowly increased his distance from the knife. “I’m going to leave you be.” He turned to open the door and pass through sideways. He could hear gathering at the staircase, then someone’s phone screen caught Claude’s eye.
Behind him, a muttered curse preceded a sting in the center of Claude’s shoulder blades. A few stories down, the Silver Meteor deposited lobbyists and lawyers, tourists, and protesters with flappy placards from New York, all come for cherry blossoms. Claude emerged from the far side of the great hall, with transit trains and bus lines and blood cells hurtling forward with him like a discus or some dogwood flower of time. As Claude made toward the rotunda, he tasted metal one last time. The marble steps were pinkish.
There’s an area of the brain that generates the sound of words, its own headhouse, with its own skein of arrivals and departures. Claude pressed out through its heavy oak- and glass-paneled door on his way to Faro. He looked to the left, and his eyes traveled down the arcade of arches, an allée of marble headstones, formal and organized. He moved forward to the triple-flags of the taxi-circle, the scent of exhaust and muck whipping lazy as Sunday drivers.
Canese’s fiancé checked Claude’s pocket and cursed. He pulled the blade from Claude’s back and ran. Claude heard the cook from the sandwich place holler. Canese pointed, cried out. Everyone was on the move. Curious faces cogged around the balcony, as calls for aid faded into low gear, the rattle of tracks shimmying under binloads of coal, the soft clapping of whispers rebounding in the ceiling of the headhouse. Claude could feel himself in a harness, in a cockpit, all the instrument panels vibrating overhead, currents pressing steady against the windscreen.
Claude lay on the bathroom tiles on his side, with the open door resting against his legs. He could see the reflections of the ceiling light on the door, like the big silver button of the hand dryer. It was like being back on the C-130, and he felt warm from the armpit level up but cold below that.
The sun was low and touched the runways of asphalt leading to Union Station. Faro turned and gave Claude a wink as he strapped in to his old Crew Chief seat, looking ahead toward the heavens. Faro nudged higher, kept thrusting left to circle the monumental Armed Freedom statue with her plume of eagle feathers, her laurel wreath, her aegis. The earth sank behind her, the Capital shrinking and distant. On the tile floor, Claude’s eyes filled with the fair-weather high mists and there was a roaring at the top of his head, incredibly loud, like that 4-engine turbo-prop attached to the uninsulated tin can, its blinking panels, switches, and circuits.
He waved Marcy and their son forward. They were flying. He told Faro he felt like an ancient ship, the full belly of its sails pulling him home.
A.E. WEISGERBER is from Orange, NJ. She is a 2018 Chesapeake Writer, 2017 Frost Place Scholar, 2014 Reynolds Fellow, and Assistant Series Editor for Wigleaf’s Top 50. Follow on Twitter @aeweisgerber or visit anneweisgerber.com.