The Train

“But I’ve got something for you,” he says, in a hurry, picturing the numbers falling away, her calculations lost.

He looks momentarily into the bag at his feet. He’s never given a confident gift, a gift he knows is right. When he bought it he was woozy with its cleverness, its insight, its potential to reveal that he paid attention to her. He saw the gift, its parts, from the street, and when he walked into the toy store it was like putting together a meal, pulling ingredients from cabinets in a hustle of inspiration. People judge meals, he thinks, but gifts are judgments too. This is for you. I noticed you need this, which means that you are lacking — and I noticed. I bought this because I love you, though. His father always told him not to be clever. Did gift giving count?

He pulls it from the bag, first the track, and places it on the counter: One curving length of model train track, two black rails, thirty-six silver cross-ties. Rosemary wipes the mustard from her thumbs and reaches for it.

The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877
(Oil on canvas, 80.33 x 98.11 cm)
BY Claude Monet
Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

Just her reaching thrills him.

“Wait, he says, grinning.”

Out comes the train, black and shiny with a V-shaped grill. Even in its smallness it tilts forward, bearing down on the lunch counter.

Rosemary lowers her head, peers into the conductor’s box and he swivels the track so that she faces it head-on.

“It’s supposed to be oncoming.”

“At me?”

He nods, sheepishly. She touches the sharp bottom of the plastic grill, assessing its danger he imagines, its potential to drive right through her if she were lashed to the tiny tracks.

“But there’s something else.”

He pulls from his shirt pocket a thin tube of glue, Atomic!, written on the side. In his head he can see the remaining gestures, the parts of the giving. Put the track on the counter. Then the train. Then the glue. Plans are new things to him. Gears that work or don’t. He thinks of batters at bat: swing, contact, follow-through. Physical. Inevitable. Complete almost from the start.

Without interruption.

But then there’s the voice behind him.

“It’s a small counter. It’s biiiiii-ssssy.”

It’s reedy, the voice, complaining. Robert doesn’t turn, but looks down at the floor, at the man’s leather shoe up on the foot rail, scuffed, the sole split like dry lips.

“We’re waiting for the check,” Rosemary tells the voice.

Robert watches her flash a smile. A gorgeous wide-mouthed, disarming smile. And he’s jealous. Worried that there’s a shortage of those smiles and that he’s lost her attention. She’s stopped touching the train, waiting for him to reach into the bag. He’s also in love with her mouth and turns to confirm how beautiful it is. Buddy, did you see that smile?

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