THE SUNSET TRAIN.
He headed for the cashier’s counter,
hoping that the curtain rods he was carrying
were the ones she wanted,
when he saw it for the first time.
He’d been in this store and up and down these aisles dozens of times,
but he had never noticed those wall pictures before.
He wasn’t much of an art critic,
but he did know he’d never seen anything quite like that train picture.
The surface of the picture was textured
to look like a genuine oil painting,
and somehow that scene looked more real than life!
The silver steam from the old engine glowing in the sunset,
billowing against the yellow-blue-orange-pink sky.
The brightly colored, but weather worn railroad cars.
The red caboose so real you could almost step right into it.
Each piece of gravel along the track,
each clump of vegetation on the lonesome prairie
clearly defined and casting a long, late afternoon shadow.
The mountains were a bluish haze against the distant horizon.
It was a painting you could stare at for a long time,
finding details previously overlooked.
A bell rang. The store was closing.
On impulse he hurried to the Customer Service Desk
and put the picture on “layaway” with five dollars,
that should really have gone toward overdue bills.
He didn’t know when he’d be able to manage
the eleven-ninety-five balance.
He paid for the curtain rods and went home,
feeling a little guilty.
She stood back and looked critically at the curtains she’d hung.
He told her that they sure made a big difference in the little apartment.
She laughed that, at least the curtains looked better
than the view of the trash cans in the alley.
He held her
and said he wished he could provide her with a decent home,
with enough furnishings to go around,
and she replied that they weren’t doing too badly for newlyweds,
and that she believed in him.
He didn’t mention the money
he’d foolishly spent on a picture of a train.
Pay day again, and another losing battle with arithmetic.
If only a tree or a patch of grass could be seen from their window,
it might raise their spirits by interrupting the stark drabness
surrounding their dingy, low rent apartment.
He felt especially sorry for her, being stuck there all day.
At least taking the bus to the factory everyday gave him a change of scene.
These were his thoughts as he paid the cashier
and waited for the large picture to be wrapped.
He centered it carefully on the wall
over the big easy chair with the broken spring,
and called her to come in from the kitchenette
and take a look at the “surprise”.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she glanced around the room
until her eyes stopped at the unexpected explosion of color.
It was so beautiful she almost cried!
It was like having a window overlooking a lovely, peaceful valley
locked in eternal sunset.
They held hands and stared at the painting until dinner almost burned.
Years struggled by, and the broken spring chair was replaced
by a new living room suite, complete with payment book.
They moved several times in the course of their lives,
first to a couple of larger apartments,
then to a house in a suburban development and finally,
anticlimactically, back to another cheap apartment,
where they were to spend their autumn years.
The infirmities of old age often require a tightening of purse strings.
They weren’t complaining though.
They’d been through rough times before.
Through the years they’d managed to hang on to two treasures:
the Sunset Train painting and a true love for each other.
Maybe they weren’t so poor after all.
It hit him hard when she passed away.
Somehow, he’s always imagined he’d be the first to go.
He wasn’t prepared for the horrible emptiness.
Nobody ever is.
He took the habit of conversing with her, even though she was gone.
He’d stare at the painting and talk over old times.
Sometimes he’d sit for hours in front of the television,
but his eyes would wander back to the Sunset Train,
their most prized possession.
He’d imagine that they were together in that valley,
or riding on the train itself.
The neighbors, aware of his condition since her death,
occasionally dropped in to check on him.
Conversations always gravitated to the unusual picture.
Several days had passed
before anyone noticed the junk mail and newspapers
accumulated outside his front door.
Fearing the old man had died,
and after receiving no answer to their knocking and calling,
the neighbors set their shoulders to the door
and the old wood gave way.
Finding no one in the apartment, all clothes intact in the closets,
and the television left on,
the neighbors notified the police of the old man’s disappearance.
They arrived shortly after.
While the premises were being inspected,
an officer casually commented to a neighbor,
“Unusual painting in there! So realistic, I mean.”
“Yeah,” replied the other,
“everybody remarks about that train picture. It’s real pretty.”
“No,” said the policeman,
“I’m talking about that big picture of the valley and the sunset.
There’s a railroad track runnin’ through it, I guess, but no train.
I’m pretty sure there was no train in that picture.”
And he was right. The train was gone.