As regular readers of these columns know, I love trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.
“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.” I first heard it a few years ago on an Abilene radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix. I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.
And from our family to yours, Merry Christmas!
As Performed by Geoffrey Lewis
There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.
Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow, a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.
Suddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire.” As I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.
I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, staring at the presents, like sharks staring at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.
I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about “the best way for him to crack the walnuts” that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.
But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away, holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other… looking straight ahead and I heard her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”
The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.