Up ahead, he could see the railroad crossing arm was down. Coasting downhill the last couple hundred yards, the red lights flashed and the warning bell rang its droning, “Din din din din din.” The line of cars waiting was five deep, but he rolled past, pedaling half strokes until he braked to a stop and put a foot down.
The train wasn’t there yet. He was expecting a long parade of coal cars from out west, heading toward the Great Lakes, which would have made for a long wait. Instead, though, it was the Amtrak. Silly, he thought. Passenger and freight don’t run on the same lines. Or do they? He didn’t know, he realized, as he watched one engine and eight cars shuttle past.
It was moving east to west, and though he didn’t know much about Amtrak, it occurred to him that this train must have come from Chicago, and was heading across the rolling hills and lakes of Minnesota where he was touring to Seattle, across the plains of Montana and the Dakotas, through the mountains until it would finally reach the sea. Until he saw this one, passenger trains had never really existed for him.
He could see shapes of people, most of them paying no attention to the bike and cars waiting on the road. There was a dining car, he thought, because people weren’t sitting in the regular passenger pattern – facing each other in sets of two. Some people looked like they were standing at a buffet table. Finally there were a few more passenger cars.
The last car approached, and he was about to put his foot back in the pedal stirrup, when something in the window of the last car caught his attention. It was a boy looking directly at him.
The boy had platinum blonde hair, black horned rimmed glasses, and appeared to be wearing a bow tie. Next to the boy was a woman in cat-eye glasses, wore a sky blue dress, and had strikingly bold auburn hair with a scarf over it. The boy’s mouth moved into a half smile, and then his hand waved. The man waved back, and just like that, the car was gone. The “clack clack clack” of the train fading as the “din din din” stopped abruptly, the arm went up, and the cars restarted their engines and filed past.
The man stood there. In a matter of moments, the sound and dust settled, and the late afternoon sun glinted on the rails to the west. The man shook his head at the sudden stillness. That was weird, he thought. That boy and the woman weren’t dressed right, and stranger still, there was no way he should have seen them. The man rode a bike because he couldn’t drive. He was visually impaired, had suffered from a retinal detachment from birth, and as a basic rule, couldn’t see people behind windows at such a distance, and certainly couldn’t recognize facial features even if he could see the people, There was no way he could have seen that boy and his mother in the kind of detail he did. His mother? Why did he assume that? He shook his head again, slipped his feet into the stirrups, and slowly started pedaling forward.
As he bumped over the tracks it came to him.
Amtrak didn’t run here. The woman was his mother. The boy, well, that was him.
“Are you going to eat that?” Marisa asked him.
“Are you going to eat your chicken?”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”
Jack was normally kind of a fanatic about cleaning his plate, to the point where it was one thing that was driving Marisa crazy after twenty-six years together. “Six good ones,” he’d joked once, “and twenty others.” It was a worn, stock husband-wife joke that was old before it was even conceived. Marisa rolled her eyes at this, and a hundred others like it.
Tonight, though, there was something bothering Jack, and his lackluster approach to supper was the smoking gun Marisa needed to start interrogating her normally unflustered husband.
“You don’t have to finish it,” she said.
“No, I’ll…” and then he got up and went to the window.
“Jack?” He didn’t seem even to hear her. “Jack, are you listening to me?”
“Hmm… Oh, yeah. Sorry. You were saying?”
“That you were going to finish your supper. Jack, you’re acting really strange.”
He looked at her; rather, he looked through her. Then he shook his head as if trying to clear it.
“You’re right. If I tell you something really…strange, will you still help me do the dishes after?”
“Of course. Do you need to see a doctor?”
They faced each other, the kitchen table between them. The clock over the sink ticked.
“I saw something today, and it…well, it’s just something that I couldn’t possibly have seen.”
“OK…maybe tell me what you saw and this will make sense.”
“You’re going to haul me down to the clinic when I say it.”
“I might haul you down there if you don’t. Now get on with it,” she smiled encouragingly.
“I saw…my mom.”
Marisa’s jaw dropped. “What? She’s here? Why didn’t you tell me? The sheets aren’t clean. I need to vacuum! We’ve got no food…”
“She’s not here.”
“I saw her forty years ago, and I was there. I was five years old and we were on a passenger train. We were on our way back from Madison from surgery with the eye specialist there. I know can’t be, but I saw us – Mom and me – and we waved to each other.”
Marisa’s mouth wrinkled into a hesitant smile. “I’m waiting for the joke part,” she said.
“I knew I shouldn’t have told you. Let’s just forget it and do the dishes.”
“No joke part?”
“No, just overall weirdness.”
“Go back to the beginning. Where did this happen?”
And so he told her.