Stephen Ambrose’s book, Nothing Like It In the World, told of the building of the transcontinental railroad. He spoke of writing the book as “sitting around the campfire after a day on the trail, telling stories that I hope will have the readers leaning forward just a bit, wanting to know what happens next.”
Trains carry people, and people carry stories. My interest in trains began at an early age on the cobblestone sidewalks of train stations when I looked into the passenger cars and saw the faces of strangers, each one with a different story.
Train and people watching has been a life-long hobby, and a favorite place to do both is Ashland, Virginia.
When Brenda and I lived in Richmond we went there often. We are 500 miles away now, but we still watch the trains clamber through Ashland on YouTube, thanks to a digital camera that sits on the roof of the Cross Brothers Grocery, where rail fans can watch the 50-plus trains that come through town a day via Virtual Railfan.
One night last week the rain had started casually, clinking against the round, large shade on the black lamppost like the city scenes we used to see in the black-and-white film noir movies of days gone by.
“Do you remember that rainy night years ago when the woman threw her necklace into the trash can, strode away from her husband, and left on the train?” I asked, as we watched the rain on our TV.
“Yes, I sure do,” Brenda nodded.
I remember as the rain fell harder, we moved under the wide eves that extended beyond the train station giving us reprieve from the downpour. The other passengers and train watchers had slowly abandoned the depot and slipped away.
Brenda and I were alone, standing in the shadow of the train station, looking at the deserted streets, and the pouring rain. “Would you like to leave?” I asked Brenda.
“No. Let’s stay for a while. We are safe. The rain and the empty streets are fascinating,” she replied.
The shaky headlights of the old, blue Chevy pick-up truck came down Clay Street before stopping in front of the Henry Clay Inn. The woman was slim and pale, her thin sundress backlighted against the lamppost. She struggled to get out of the truck, while her husband turned his back and walked ahead without her.
The couple appeared to be in their mid-sixties, and the years of hard work and perhaps the pain, were etched in their faces. They were close enough we could overhear their conversation.
The man was heavyset, and kept wiping his forehead with a red handkerchief although the night was cool, and the rain made it cooler. He stood silently off to the side.
Finally, we heard him say, “I wish you wouldn’t go.”
She had a small suitcase and you could tell she was an ill-suited traveler, probably hadn’t gone anywhere without him since they were married.
The man spoke again. “I will change,” he said.
“You have said that a thousand times before. I can’t go on like this anymore,” the woman said her voice shaking.
He could tell she meant it this time. He always had talked her into staying before.
“Are you really leaving?” the man asked.
The woman never answered. We didn’t sense we were watching a woman leaving on a train for a small vacation or family visit. It seemed more serious than that.
We heard the whistle of the blue and gray Amtrak locomotive as it turned the corner at the edge of Ashland. The engine was sizzling and shook the tracks as it pulled to a slow stop in front of the station where the four of us stood.
“I can’t go on like this anymore,” the woman said again, as she walked toward the train.
She took about ten steps away from her husband, with no hug, wave or goodbye, before she paused, turned, and put down her suitcase.
The rain was coming down in sheets. The two were soaked.
She took a couple of steps toward him before hesitating. She dropped her head, turned and Brenda and I watched the woman climb the train steps and sit down in a seat, a solitary light glowing down above her head, outlining her frightened face.
As the train began to move slowly away from the depot, the woman waved softly at her husband from behind the rain-drenched window. He waved back. It was a feeble wave, but all he could muster, as he realized the world he knew was slipping away from him.
We never saw the couple again, and we don’t know how their story ended, but we know when rain, a train, and two people who once loved each other come together at the right moment, we will be reminded once again, how we stood under a lamppost in the rain, watched a woman board a train and slowly click the light off above her head.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.