The House by the Railroad

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Sam Jackson asked the driver of the company limo to stop at the bank so he could check the business account. As he got out of the car, he smoothed down his blue silk tie and regarded the little pearl cufflinks set in the wristbands of his shirt with satisfaction. These small luxuries still filled him with delight. He walked sedately into the marble-floored coolness of the bank. ‘Hi, Mr Jackson, sir’ chirruped the doorman. People greeted him on all sides and he felt deep pride and confidence in himself. He had risen in a real estate company that rented out apartments and offices in New York and was now a chief executive of that company. He earned sums his parents had never even dreamt about. What saddened him most was that Mom was dead now and he couldn’t let her know her boy had risen in the world and made something of himself. She had worked so hard to pay for him to go to the best schools, to get the new suit he needed in order to impress at interviews, even helped pay his first year’s rent. Just as he was doing real well and was in a position to start paying her back, she had upped and died on him. It was almost unforgivable. He had so wanted to put the dollars in her hand and say, ‘Look Mom, see what I’ve got here. All for you, honey. Do what you want with it, have a vacation, anything!’ It was in September that he met a girl called Betty-Lou. She was working in Smiley’s Bar and immediately caught his eye because she had something of that air of old-fashioned sweetness he had always loved about his Mom. Betty-Lou was young and fresh and had just arrived in the City. The edginess and brashness of New York hadn’t yet gotten to her, hadn’t made her voice sound nasal and twangy or her eyes become hard, cold and wary. She still sounded like a girl from upstate, soft-spoken, gentle. He began to go to the bar frequently and liked to chat to Betty-Lou, planning to ask her for a date one day. But despite his confidence and success in business, shyness made him powerless. He had never been at ease with women and wasn’t sure how to approach her. She was so young, so pretty - how could she possibly be attracted to a plump, short, middle-aged man with a balding head? He knew he had no physical charms to offer. But he did have money. He flashed it around a bit when she was there, offered her generous tips. Naturally, she was grateful and made a special effort to please him, which he hopefully interpreted as her growing affection for him. Sometimes she would come and sit down with him while there was a break during her busy evening and have a drink with him. No strings attached, just a drink. She wasn’t the sort of girl you propositioned and he wasn’t the sort of man to do that. She began to confide in him, instinctively felt a trust in him. He seemed a harmless old fellow and it was good to talk to someone who was kind to her. ‘From Dansville’, she said in reply to his question one evening, ‘I’m from a little place called Dansville right up in New York State, near the lakes.’ ‘Do you like city life?’ She hesitated, ‘Not sure, Mr Jackson, it’s kinda scary sometimes. I ain’t used to so many people. They’re all so crazy at times, rushing around, angry unless you serve them real quick. It’s like you don’t exist, you know. You’re just a machine. Guess I’m just a country girl at heart.’ ‘Well, you sure aren’t a machine to me, you’re a sweet girl,’ Sam said looking at her fondly. ‘Why, we all came from small time places to begin with. You’ll get used to it in time. You know when I was a kid, we…my Mom and I…lived in a miserable little apartment in East Greenwich on top of a bakery. My nostrils were filled with the smell of baking bread, bagels and muffins. Delightful you might think - but not when your stomach’s empty and all Mom could put on the table was vegetable soup and sourbread, perhaps an omelette or bacon on Sundays – if you were lucky – and a chicken at Thanksgiving and Christmas.’ ‘Gee, that sounds pretty bad. My Ma and Pa kept chickens and things, grew stuff, you know. We weren’t well-off but we always had lots to eat. That must have been tough for you.’ ‘Sure, it was tough, very tough. But I made it. Made my way outa there and so will you. You ever have a dream how things could be, Betty-Lou?’ ‘You bet . . . loads. I dream I’ll be really rich one day and go back home and have a place by a creek with lots of animals, my own horse to ride, a car to drive, lots of kids…’ ‘Whoa!’ he laughed, ‘Like that’s enough dreams to fill a lifetime. And,’ he added, looking at her a little soulfully, ‘who knows your dreams won’t come true. You’re a real pretty girl, Betty-Lou.’ She blushed a little and he felt his heart constrict. In some ways she so reminded him of his Mom. ‘You never included a husband in your dreams,’ he added slyly. Blushing again, she smiled a little,’ Guess he’d have to come first, wouldn’t he? Okay…I want …let’s see, someone like Marlon Brando or maybe – Gregory Peck.’ She laughed as she said this, so it wasn’t serious. Yet Sam felt a tad deflated. Not in his wildest hopes would he ever fulfil such an ambition. But all young girls worshipped movie stars. The reality was they never married them. ‘Well, keep hoping,’ he said sadly. His face was overcast with disappointment but it was lost on Betty-Lou who had no idea whatsoever of his hopes and longings. Sam felt painfully aware in this moment of the disparity in their ages but still held a vague hope that he might eventually grow on her. He went on, ‘You know, when I was little, I use to dream of the kinda house Mom and I would live in when I grew up and got rich. It’ud be quite unusual, not any house, something special. It’ud have lots of rooms, maybe a tower and gabled roof like a picture I saw once in an ad of a house in Connecticut. It’ud have pillars round the door, that sorta thing. I didn’t want one of those ordinary clapboard houses everyone else has. This house would stand out and be a marvel to all who saw it.’ ‘That sounds grand. Did you ever get that house?’ Sam’s face clouded over, his eyes drifting away for a moment into the past. ‘Nope, Mom died young, before I had a chance to get anyway rich enough. She never did have that dream house. And without her, there was no point. Instead, I got me a smart apartment, furnished it well, and enjoy living high up in the world, looking down on the busy streets below, watching people scurrying around like ants, shouting, laughing, touting for business, cars honking. Me, I like the life and bustle.’ ‘You ever get married, Mr Jackson?’ asked Betty-Lou shyly. He switched back to the present and smiled at her, ‘Nope, Betty-Lou, I never did.’ The truth was he’d never had a serious girlfriend to share his smart condo and his smart lifestyle. But that would change. He’d find a girl who would suit him someday. No one so far matched up to his Mom. She was so beautiful in her youth until his Dad had walked out on them. He’d watched her slowly turning into a drudge, her fresh bloom disappearing fast. He often brought out a picture of her from his wallet. Here she was forever young with her fair hair down to her shoulders, curling under in a page-boy style, her eyes wide and innocent, a look of sweetness and naiveté that went with the plump, fresh cheeks, the wide and generous mouth. If he ever found that old man of his, he reckoned he wouldn’t be answerable for the results. While Sam was getting up the courage to ask out Betty-Lou, he decided to take a trip home to East Greenwich. His conversation with her had brought back a flood of memories and he felt a sudden compulsion to return there. Something seemed to tug at him, almost like a call in his ear, a soft voice whispering from afar… ‘come, come!’ At first he had been intoxicated with the thought of working in the great City, leaving behind the small town where he had grown up and he hadn’t gone back there in a long while. It wasn’t that he didn’t love East Greenwich. It was a quaint little place with a beautiful old seaport. Whenever he returned there, his first sight of the Cove, with its charming, colourful yachts bobbing in the harbour, was almost heart-stopping, a sudden realisation of all he came from, his roots. He took a few days leave and caught the train to Boston one Friday morning. It was late Fall and the scenery past its prime, the lovely copper and golden colours of the leaves fast turning brown, falling in large drifts around the feet of the trees. He had seen the scenery many a time and the steady rhythm of the train made him feel sleepy although it was still quite early in the day. His head began to nod against the window-pane but his eyes stayed open, unfocussed, gazing out at the passing scenery without really observing. The train now passed some beautiful inlets, pools and lakes full of herons. It had arrived at Mystic. Sam straightened up and smiled at the woman opposite, ‘Guess it’s time for a burger and coffee,’ he remarked and she nodded and smiled back. He made his way to the bar in the next coach, ordered his meal at the counter, had a friendly chat with the woman who was serving and began to make his way back to his seat. As he settled down and began opening up his food packet, he took a look out of the window with more interest, observing the beauty of the Mystic River and its busy marina. The train seemed to slow down a little for some reason and it was then that Sam saw the house. Why hadn’t he seen this house before? It was his house, for God’s sake…his dream house! He was so excited that he dropped the burger, stood up and peered out of the window as the train, now gathering speed, rattled on past it. Sitting down again, disregarding the surprised stares from his fellow passengers, he filled his mind with the memory of the house. It was a tall house with three or four floors. It seemed to rise, white and ghostly from the side of the tracks. His memory was of nothing but the house, no trees around it, almost as if it was suspended in space and floating in a strange and surreal fashion. The house was a beauty. He loved the tower at the front, the wide veranda and porticoed doorway. The windows too had a gothic shape about them, really different and unusual. He couldn’t remember if there were blinds at the windows though he did seem to feel they had a closed look about them as if the owners were away and had drawn all the blinds down. He wanted that house. He wanted it so badly. That was the house he had imagined in his childhood, the one he was going to live in with Mom. They were going to have servants there and everything she could want. They would be so happy and Mom would lose that careworn look and be beautiful again like the photo in his wallet. He drew the picture out, smoothed it and looked at it for a long while. ‘That your girl?’ asked a fellow traveller. ‘Yeh,’ he replied absentmindedly. Having seen the house, he wanted to go back and find it. He made up mind to get out at the next stop and make his way back somehow, follow the railroad till he came to the house. The train stopped at Stonington and he got out. He found himself a cab and asked the driver if he knew the house at all. ‘Nope’ said the man, shaking his head, ‘ain’t never seen nothing like that, buddy.’ ‘Well, drive alongside the railroad track as far as you can,’ ‘Road don’t follow the railroad track.’ It was a mad venture and Sam decided to give it up. He had lost interest in his journey now. What was there in East Greenwich to entice him anymore? What had made him want to go back there anyway, as if it was still his home? His home was New York; may as well return there. He spent some time looking round the Stonington marina and then caught the next train back to New York. Seating himself on the other side, he kept his eyes open to see if he could pinpoint where the house was on his return. The train was coming closer to Mystic and suddenly there it was, the tall white house, looming up beside the railway, as if appearing from nowhere. As they went past, he saw a window blind go up. Darn it, people did live there then! He caught his breath. A woman had appeared in the window and was leaning out. Their eyes met. He could have sworn it was Betty-Lou! But he was going mad, surely. He looked again but the train had sped on past. He leant back in his seat and felt his stomach churn. What the hell was Betty-Lou doing in that house? She had looked straight at him; he could swear it was her and that she had seen him. When he next went into Smiley’s Bar, he patted Betty-Lou on the arm when she came up, sweet and pretty to take his order. He said, ‘I reckon I saw you the other day, Betty-Lou. You didn’t tell me you lived near Mystic.’ She looked at him puzzled, ‘But I don’t live anywhere near there, Mr. Jackson. What makes you think that?’ Sam stared at her. Her eyes were clear and innocent as always. He frowned and shook his head. ‘Guess I made a mistake,’ he mumbled and felt a fool. He made up his mind to go back on the train and find the house. The next free time he had, he caught the morning train again and as they went out of Mystic station, past the marina and the old ships there, he kept his eyes peeled. The house soon loomed up out of the misty Autumn morning and he looked closely at the windows. Again he saw a blind raised and a woman come to the window. His heart leapt in sudden fear. Why no, it wasn’t Betty-Lou at all, it was his Mom! It was Mom . . .but not Mom . . .for the woman was young and had long fair hair curling to her shoulders. But – that was Mom all right, like she used to be . . . beautiful . . . so beautiful. She waved to him, smiling away, she had seen him! God, he had to get off, he had to find that house, even if it meant walking all the way there. Getting out at the next stop, he found a cab to take him back to the railway station at Mystic. Then he began to walk alongside the railway tracks and kept on walking and walking for what seemed hours, searching for the mysterious house. It hadn’t seemed to be that far away from the main town but then the train had been going really fast, faster than usual, and it must have been further along than he had thought. He walked on. And there it was, looming out of the mist at him, the lovely, weird, white house with its portico and its tower and its tall windows under a Mansard roof. The door was shut but looking up to the first floor he saw the blinds raise again, the window open and the woman with long fair hair leaned over the window sill and smiled down at him. ‘Why Mom! How are you doing! You gonna let me in?’ The woman smiled and nodded. She disappeared and in a little while opened the front door for him. He opened his arms and she did the same and they hugged one another speechlessly. ‘Mom, oh, Mom, how glad I am to see you!’ Betty Lou was so sad when they told her that poor old Mr Jackson had died in that awful train crash on the way to Boston yesterday. He had been a nice old guy and always gave such generous tips. Funny how he had thought he had seen her at Mystic. It was just past there that the train had crashed. The End

Edward Hopper 1925

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