Nicholas Laudermilk laid in bed staring into the darkness and listened to the high pitched mournful wail of a train’s whistle in the distance. Unsteadily, he raised up on his elbows, trying to get his head closer to the sound. When the whistle faded, then disappeared, he plopped back onto his pillow. He remained awake the rest of the night.
Patsy entered his room and opened the curtains. Hazy morning sunlight streamed through the window. “Good morning Nicholas,” she said when she turned around and saw him staring at her.
“I heard a train during the night,” he said.
She went to his bedside and put her fingers around his wrist. After a moment she said, “Your pulse is strong this morning.”
“It brought back old memories,” he said.
“The train I heard.”
She reached behind his head and lifted it as she fluffed the pillow with her other hand. “You must have dreamt it or imagined it. We’re surrounded by prairie and there aren’t any train tracks anywhere near here.” She gently lowered his head back on the pillow.
“I’m certain I heard it,” he said.
She pulled down the blanket and sheet and reached into his pajama bottoms. “Your diaper is wet. I’ll be back in a few minutes and give you your morning bed bath and get you ready for breakfast.”
“Why don’t you believe me about the train?” he said.
“I told you. There are no trains that come near here,” she said. She patted his leg then left the room.
“But I heard it,” he mumbled.
Strapped into his wheelchair in the nursing home day room, Nicholas stared with disinterest at the chocolate sheet cake on the table in front of him. There were nine burning candles on it, one for each decade of his life, plus an additional four for the additional years.
Grace Mumsford sat in her wheelchair next to him, her hand on his. “Isn’t it lovely?” she kept saying. Patsy had fixed Grace’s sparse snow-white hair so that her bald spot was hidden and put some rouge on her cheeks.
A few of the other residents and another nurse were also seated or standing around the table.
“Do you want some help blowing the candles out?” Patsy asked him, gently placing her hand on his shoulder.
He turned his head toward the window and watched an eddy of dust skim across the parking lot. “I was nine years old when the drought finally killed the last of our crops. The entire county had turned to dust,” he said.
“Hold the cake up,” Patsy said to the other nurse.
With the cake held a few inches from Nicholas’ face, Patsy said, “Blow.” As she blew out the candles, Nicholas gazed out at the verdant lawn beyond the parking lot.
“I didn’t get to California until five years later. I was fourteen. I saw all that green and thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said, although no one was listening.
They were watching the cake being cut by the nurse and served onto paper plates with balloon prints around the edges.
Nicholas ate his evening meal in his room. It was against the rules, but the evening shift nurse, Marla, allowed it because it was his birthday. He sat by the window and poked at the mashed potatoes and creamed spinach with his spoon while watching gray clouds fill the sky. When the first drops of rain splattered against the window, he pushed his food tray aside and rested his forehead against the cool glass. He was in that position when he heard a train’s blaring whistle. It seemed closer than the one he heard during the night. He quickly raised his head and searched the horizon for signs of a train, but found none.
His friend, Frank, tapped lightly on the door before opening it and sticking his head in the room. “You done eating?” he said.
Nicholas slowly turned his wheelchair about and said, “Yeah, I’m done. The food wasn’t any better than if I had eaten it in the dining room.”
Frank chuckled. “You up for some company?”
“Sure,” Nicholas said. “Come on in, but don’t bring Grace with you. She’s always touching me.”
Frank walked through the doorway, tightly grasping the hand grips on his walker, then sat on the edge of Nicholas’ bed. “She’s sweet on you. It’s all that the ladies here can talk about.”
“I’m a bit old to have a girlfriend,” Nicholas said. He rubbed the white stubble on his cheek. “I’ve been hearing a train whistle the past couple of days. I never heard it before and Patsy said there’s no train nearby. I’m wondering if I’m losing my mind.”
Looking at the rain battering the window, Frank said, “Do train whistles mean anything special to you?”
“I was fourteen when my pa, ma and I jumped the first train. That boxcar and all the others after that were crowded with folks heading to the coast. Every time I hear a train whistle I think about those times. I was only a kid so it all seemed like a great adventure,” Nicholas said.
Frank ran his hand through his thick, gray hair. “Doesn’t sound to me like you’re crazy. You’re just remembering.”
“But the train whistle I’ve been hearing sounds so real,” Nicholas said.
“I’m ten years younger than you and I sorta have the same problem,” Frank said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and can swear I hear my wife telling me to take the garbage out.”
Marla came into the room carrying Nicholas’ medications in a small white paper cup in one hand and a plastic cup filled with water in the other hand. She looked at the food remaining on the tray. “You didn’t eat much,” she said to Nicholas.
“Strained ham has never appealed to me,” he said. “It looks too much like dog food.”
She handed him the cup of pills. “I’ll see what I can do about getting your diet changed.”
He swallowed the pills then drank the water. He wadded the pill cup in his hand. “I’ve never told you this Marla, but you remind me of my granddaughter. You have her same kind disposition.”
“Thank you,” Marla said. “I didn’t know you had a granddaughter.”
“She’s my last living relative, but I haven’t seen her in years.”
Red, purple and gold streaks fanned out across the twilight sky. Sitting under the awning at the front entrance of the nursing home, Nicholas inhaled as deeply as he was able, bringing the fragrances of wet soil and prairie grass into his lungs. Beyond the well-manicured lawns and shrubbery surrounding the nursing home, yellow sun burnt prairie stretched to the horizon. He held his hand to his mouth as he coughed, then pulled his hand away and stared at the spot of blood in his palm. He wiped it on his forest green fleece bathrobe just as Marla came out of the building and stood by him, her hand resting on the back of his wheelchair.
“What a beautiful sky,” she said.
“In Nebraska, the train my family and I were riding on stopped in the middle of a plain just like this one. It was this time of day and everyone got out of the boxcars to watch the sun set. The colors of the sky were so beautiful, so intense, that there were both men and women who cried,” he said. “Imagine seeing something so extraordinary that it makes you weep.”
“Why were you in boxcars?” she said.
“No one had the money to ride in passenger trains,” he said. “It was called riding the rails.”
Then a train whistle echoed across the prairie.
Nicholas sat bolt upright. “Did you hear that?”
“The train whistle. It was the closest yet.”
“I didn’t hear anything, “she said. “I don’t know why they built this nursing home out here almost in the middle of nowhere, but the isolation can make a person imagine all sorts of things.”
“It wasn’t my imagination,” he said gruffly.
She adjusted the blanket covering his legs. “It’s time to get you inside.”
She got behind the wheelchair and pushed him into the nursing home and down the long hallway to inside his room. There she removed the strap across his waist and helped him pull his arms out of the robe. She removed his slippers then pulled back the cover and sheet and transferred him onto his bed.
As she pulled the bed clothes over him she said, “What was it like to sleep in a boxcar?”
“There were so many of us that there was hardly enough space to stretch out on the floor. The smell of sweat and dirty clothing sometimes made it difficult to breathe. Most of the time I was awake during the night. I’d listen to the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks and to everyone breathing, snoring or coughing.” He paused as she fluffed the pillow. “I have never felt such excitement as I did during those nights imagining what it would be like to arrive at the unknown.”
As Marla began to leave the room, she said, “It’s still early so I’ll come back later and turn off the light.”
Countless stars freckled the night sky. Nicolas stared at them through the window recalling how often he sat in the open doorway of a boxcar and saw the same kind of sky. The longing to once again ride the rails was like having a weight pressing down on his chest. He turned his head away from the window and looked around his room. On the dresser there were photographs of him with his wife. Their large black and white framed marriage photo hung on the wall above the dresser. His fishing trophies stood on a small round table in the corner. Pictures of his son with his family were on the wall above the table.
Then the train whistle sounded, filling the room.
Marla entered Nicholas’ room. His pajamas were in the bed, laid out as if he was in them. Nicholas was gone.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 130 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He has traveled extensively but now lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time.