The Train

On the napkin he’s drawing another figure, a series of intersecting rectangles and squares. Long thin rectangles for the arms and legs, a rectangle for the torso. The shapes remind Robert of the ads in the back of old comic books — learn to draw by mail. He watches Lewis grimacing over the figure and pictures him waiting by the mailbox in the summer for a new lesson, other boys passing by on their dusty bikes. The figure emerges quickly, a blocky superman pushing against an invisible wall, head turned away from the imagined impact. He has a cluster of circles for biceps, a jawbone rigid and square.

“That’s nice,” says Rosemary. “It’s a nice drawing. You did it quickly, too.”

“It’s for him,” Lewis says, his voice pitched and complaining.

“Okay.” She’s frowning. “I just thought you said it was for both of us.”

“It’s for you,” Lewis says, smiling into Robert’s face. “A superman for superman, right? A superman within a superman. Matryoshka.”

The figure emerges quickly,
a blocky superman pushing against an invisible wall, head turned away from the imagined impact. He has
a cluster of circles for biceps,
a jawbone rigid and square.

Lewis’s eyes begin darting again, and it’s the first time Robert has looked directly at the kid, noticed that one eye drifts vaguely to the left. Robert has the sense that each is doing double work, the right watching him, the left Rosemary.

“I still don’t see what you mean.”

“You’re clever, right Robert?” Lewis reaches past him for the train and track and figure, slides it front and center between the two men, his right eye trained on Robert. Robert recognizes the gesture with irritation, the way a bigger, older kid might drive his finger into half a tunafish sandwich and drag it over to his side of the cafeteria table, Robert’s harpooned, pilfered lunch, disappearing down the throat of some fourteen year old with newfound assuredness. Lewis is shifting in front of him, unreadable. A minute ago embarrassed and in retreat, now looking straight at him with his one steady eye. Only Robert’s not twelve and small. The grown man Robert begins to pull the train back, but there’s Lewis’s motherly, coddling voice: “Just let me show you,” he pleads loudly, beyond their two stools, over the heads of the other eaters. The cook turns from the grill.

He’s eaten here so many times, the Box Car Diner. How many times with Rosemary? The outside of the diner is even painted like a train, wheels painted on, a bent piece of v-shaped sheet metal like a train’s pilot tacked onto the eastern wall.

Lewis takes his drawing and drapes the Man of Steel over two napkin dispensers, holds it down with a pepper shaker so that it reveals itself like a parade banner down a department store building. There’s Robert’s superman in bright vivid colors, the blue legs, the yellow cape. And then there’s the ghostly superman, blocky in dimensions, somehow furious, angular jaw and resisting hands pressing against nothing. Robert thinks of this young man sitting alone in a rooming-house, drawing incomplete pictures. His thought is half-formed, emerging. Dog-smart, his father would have called it, something you know but can’t explain. But at the tip of his mind he knows he’s proud he had the entire idea: superman, train, track.

“Matryoshka,” Lewis says, and pulls a menu from between the ketchup and mustard bottles. He flips it over and lays it lengthwise against the napkin dispensers so that its laminated border touches the edge of the napkin. There on the flip-side of the menu, back to back with pancakes and eggs and coffee is another train. A Northern Pacific engine photograph in sooty black. Lewis’s drawing is scaled to perfect size, his superman hands pushing back against the train’s massive grill. Rosemary exhales lightly, but audibly. He looks at her still face, resigned, eyebrows crooked as if to say “you should have left him alone.” He feels the heat rush in his neck, his temples, and a falling inside. Not a heart falling, but a skeletal falling, as if the embarrassment were melting the steel girders in his chest, the lag bolts holding sternum to ribs, shoulders upright.

“Clever, clever, clever,” Lewis says, giddy with Robert’s knowing. “Hey clever man?” he calls out to him, even though they are separated by no more than thighs and knees.

He’s eaten here so many times, the Box Car Diner. How many times with Rosemary? The outside of the diner is even painted like a train, wheels painted on, a bent piece of v-shaped sheet metal like a train’s pilot tacked onto the eastern wall. In the toy store he had reached over the head of the young boy eyeing the gift-train, tucked it underneath his arm as the boy watched. “You sure these arms are bendable?” he’d asked the clerk importantly, pointing to the superman, even though the packaging advertised “posable arms and legs, action ready!”

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