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Short Story

Train Boy (Letter to Marie)

Well Miss Pouwer, I’m in a bit of a pickle. I’m in the mood to write you a letter but I just talked to you on the phone. I was thinking I could just fill up the piece of paper, talking just for the pleasure of talking, then I thought instead hey: maybe I can kill two birds with one stone. I wanted to write this little story I remember from India and maybe I’ll write it for you. I think India meant something special for both of us, maybe you’ll feel the emotion I put behind the words, even if I don’t get them out properly.

Let’s start then. Let’s introduce out protagonist and hero, the one and only Barrett Nash. He’s got a funny hair cut an easy smile and is searching for something that he’s not totally sure he’ll find. In this story let’s have him go by his first name, Barrett, because things are a little different here than in reality. Maybe I don’t remember things perfectly, maybe I want to make some small changes. Should we do past or present tense? How about past tense? OK, good. Onward.

The scene, the scene! It’s an Indian train. You know it don’t you? A thousand people, all eyes on you, your eyes on one of the million sights fighting for your eyes attention. Barrett was just sitting looking out the window. He’s got a book, a computer, a phone, an ipod and a tablet with him but he just stares out the window. Maybe the best time to think is when you have nothing to think about and Barrett is just letting his thoughts flow. He’s been doing this for I swear to god thirty hours already, while the train is a crazy 54 hour trip.

So far it has been pretty good. There was that group of Jain women that invited him to take dinner with them, very nice food though Barrett isn’t sure how he feels about being fed by a stranger as if he was three years old. There was that old man who didn’t speak a word of English, but his eyes danced as he gave Barrett a shaving of a nut he was peeling. His eyes roared with amusement and good cheer when that nut froze Barrett’s tongue and conquered his brain for a few minutes. What was that nut? Who was that man? Was it a good thing the man gave Barrett the nut? This story isn’t about the nut. It’s not about the family that he watched a Salman Khan movie about. No, this story is going to be about the men who sweep the floors.

I wonder if you’ve seen them, these men who clean the floors? Sometimes I feel like I’m blind to a lot of the bad in the world, I look over it unconsciously just wanting the world to be perfect. Then, these men, these untouchable dalits, they try to disappear as well don’t they? You remember my apartment in Udaipur, there was half a dozen dalits working there. They cleaned my room every day, yet, I never saw them. I never learned their names. They break my heart. People lower then dogs, sinners in a past life spending their entire accursed existence atoning for something that they didn’t even do in this life. Life should have hope, life should have opportunity, what a tragedy for these people to live life’s where they feel compelled to suffer, to be shit, to be less than shit. The train cleaners are these type of people, not the hardest lives, India doesn’t let it’s foreigners see the true bottom, but not the top dalits either. Usually they are old mean, pulling themselves on hands and knee as the scrape with their bare hands the garbage, waste and general gross shit heaped on the floor without regard by the very friendly and very blind Indian masses. The well off of these sweepers might have a little skateboard they’ll drag themselves on, most just drag themelves, skin against the floor, day in and day out. This is their life, this is what they do, this is their livelihood. After digging into every corner they humbly put their hand out, not meeting any eyes, hoping for a rupee or two. They usually get that, I suppose it’s enough to not starve on. That means something, I guess.

This trip Barrett was on was long enough to need to be swept three times at the point this story starts at. It was always an old man, ageless in his wizened feautures, maybe 90, maybe 50 and broken. Barrett doesn’t know if it was the same man each time, he can’t remember. I’m going to move to the present tense, it just feels more natural for me right now. The train cleaner is coming again, dragging himself, his darkened back shirtless. Barrett see’s that he’s coming, feels in his pocket for a few rupees and gets a little tip ready. He just wants to get back to starting out the window, get back to fantasizing and dreaming. The old man crawls through the compartment, comes to clean underneath Barrett’s legs, looks up at Barrett and shit, it’s not the old man. It’s just a boy. Maybe he’s fourteen, he can’t be older.

Well, let’s say this just kind of breaks Barrett’s heart right now. There are so many hard scenes in the world, yet, you build a wall, you build emotional calluses, there is too much pain in the world to let every scream pierce your serenity. This, however, is unexpected. A punch to the kidneys from behind. Just a young boy whose life flashes before Barrett’s eyes. This young boy will become one of those old men. He will spend his life crawling on the floor of trains, dragging himself. He will know the careless feet of people forever better than he will know even his lovers eyes. This is not a life Barrett would wish on anyone. And he is a child. He should be free, he should be playing video games, fantasizing about girls, getting into trouble. “The world is unfair, yeah, of course, but fuck, couldn’t it be just a little more fair,” is what Barrett is thinking.

He gives the boy the few rupees, he gives a smile that maybe still has a splash of innocence in it, then he carries onto cleaning the next compartment. And the compartment after that. Barrett looks back out the window, but his mind can’t stop thinking about the boy. He wants to save him, to take his suffering away, to change his life, to give him hope, to give him happiness. He thinks, “How dare I have so much when he has so little,” but Barrett, well, he’d tell you to your face that he’s a cynic. He cynically thinks that to change a life is not as easy as a lot of people would want to think. Maybe there’s something to that Chinese idea that when you save a life you are responsible for it, to change someones world is never something that should be done casually. Yet, today, Barrett’s icy cynicism melts under his anger at the unfairness of the boys life. “Fuck it,” he figures. He’s not going to change the boys life, but, just maybe, he can give him a little something. He can give him a little bit of money, not much, not even enough to throw his budget off for the day, but enough that the boy would think it special. Enough so that even if his life wasn’t changed, at least he might be able to have a fun day or two just to be a kid. Enough so that maybe he’d realize that there can be some good and good luck in the world.

Wrapping the notes in a piece of paper to disguise them, since people are evil everywhere and would think nothing of robbing a penniless dalit slave boy, Barrett chases down the boy. Without looking into his eyes he gives the boy the money, nods his head with the faintest splash of a smile, then goes back to his chair. He’s no happier, his heart is no more at ease. He wonders if he gave the boy money just to hide his own guilt. He doesn’t know. A shot of whiskey would be nice for times like this. He wrote a poem, maybe I’ll try to find it and put it at the end of this story.

Time goes on. Some people heart that Barrett gave the boy some money. He eyes them with a ‘who the fuck are you’ stare and tells them that it was his money and he can do what he likes with it. No one supports him for doing it, someone tells him to never do that again. This is how the heart builds its calluses. Time goes on. More hours unravel. Does the boy leave Barrett’s heart? No, but it is fading away into another color that builds the spectrum of his life, the immediate shock and pain fading away in that dirgeful symphony that fills Barrett’s mind through his waking life. He is enjoying the train ride.

After about another five hours of looking out the window, wondering how a billion people can live in the land on the other side of this glass, a man comes up to Barrett. He has the demeanor of importance, you can tell that he is used to being listened to. He says commandingly” Are you the foreigner who gave that boy all that money?” Barrett thinks this is just another person trying to butt into his business, then he sees the insignia that makes this man recognizable. He is the conductor of the train. Barrett says yes, he is the one that gave him the money. The conductor says, “That boy was bragging to other people. Word got around that he had all that money in his pocket and some men beat that boy up and threw him off the train.” The only word that Barrett gets out is, “Oh” and there is no sympathy in the conductors eyes for the pain in Barrett’s. He says to Barrett, “Don’t worry I have taken care of it. Don’t ever do something like that again” Then he marches off. What does ‘he will take care of it’ mean if the boy has been thrown off the train? There is a breaking in Barrett’s heart. There is another callous made. There is a certain amount of his faith in the goodness of the world taken away. There is a sadness that buries itself deeply that will not be forgotten. Then, with eyes that refuse the tears that the heart begs from them, he stares back out the window and carries on watch the unfair world unravel in front of his eyes.

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