The Train

“Hey clever man?” Lewis is asking, singing almost. “Hey clever man?”

Robert is lost between the intersecting lines of Lewis’s drawing, boxes intersecting boxes. He can feel a headache coming on, its thin cramped fingers crawling up the curve where shoulders meet neck. He wonders what else he doesn’t see, fears that there’s another surprise coming, that Lewis might reach into Rosemary’s purse and pull out a picture of her and the pip-squeak kissing. Or that maybe he’ll look down and see that he’s dressed himself this morning in blue tights under red underwear. Lewis is poking him, jostling him.

“Hey clever man? Clever man?”

Robert grabs Lewis’s forearm arm and thrusts it back at him.

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

“Is it just clever, or obvious too?” Lewis smiles, a smug, radiant smile. “Clever or obvious, too? Answer me.”

“Fuck off,” Robert tells him, holding his voice low.

“Answer me, clever man, superman.” Lewis’s eyes are tight around the edges, as if he’s peering into Robert from far off. The cook’s voice is loud, tired:

“You don’t pay to eat in two places, Lewis. You done down here?”

“Tell me,” Lewis demands, ignoring the question.

“Tell you what?”

“Clever or obvious? Clever or obvious?”

Both, Robert thinks to himself, the ache in his head crawling up behind his eyes. He’s gonna walk out of the diner into the cold and there will be a breeze on his face to cool him. He’ll find some way to talk about this date that puts it to rest, puts it away. He’ll figure it out. Gifts will be straightforward: roses, cards with plain notes of appreciation. He blinks a long blink, an aching invisible tar on his lids, and when he opens them Lewis is leaning even closer, murmuring, each syllable rising. Tell me, he’s saying. Tell me, tell me, tell me,tellme tellmetellme.

The cook is clearing Lewis’s plates. He looks up at Lewis’s chanting.

“You’re done eating. Go home.”

Lewis ignores the order, pressing Robert for the answer. Tell me, he chants, standing as Robert stands, the two of them, bodies pressed between opposing stools.

“Where’d you put it?” the cook shouts, moving around dishes.

“Tell me, superman, tell me”

“Where’d you put it?” The cook shouts again.

“Lewis, where’d you put it?” the kid mimics, his voice deepening. “Where’d you put it? Where’d you put it?”

Robert feels only the cold jangling of fear, as if he were the nested figures the kid drew, rattling back and forth inside each other, six or seven hopeless and contained urges to flee. He can’t see Lewis’s hands…

Robert tries to step past him but Lewis leans in closer.

“Where’d I put it, Robert, huh?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The knife,” Lewis says evenly, the chant falling away. “Where’s the knife, clever, super, man?”

Robert feels only the cold jangling of fear, as if he were the nested figures the kid drew, rattling back and forth inside each other, six or seven hopeless and contained urges to flee. He can’t see Lewis’s hands now that their bodies are so close. He thinks about falling back into Rosemary but then maybe the kid would be on top of them and Robert would have just trapped her there. Lewis can hear the cook demanding the knife, his voice carrying over the heads of all the diners, where’s the knife, while Lewis carries the intimate notes between them, same song, same lyrics run blurry at double speed: Where’s the knife?

Lewis, he hears her say. Lewis, over his right shoulder, past his ear. Rosemary repeats the kid’s name over and over, so firmly, so softly that Lewis turns his one straight eye over Robert’s shoulder. Robert watches the kid’s other eye drift over too, lazily, like a tag-along friend crossing the street to meet a girl. Lewis, she says, look, and Robert wonders to himself how many times Lewis’s name has been called in this fashion by a woman. He follows the kid’s gaze down to the counter where her slender fingers take up the Superman by the waist. She makes a whooshing sound as she does it, pushing the train back a few inches on the track and then slowly raising both train and man into the air. Lewis’s mouth goes o-shaped, near slack. Over his shoulder Robert watches the cook dip his stubby fingers into an old man’s full glass of orange juice. “Hey,” the man cries out in surprise as the knife emerges, pulpy and small. But Lewis misses the end of his bluff, his mouth slack and soft, still watching Rosemary fly the train.

EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL Palace

HEADER IMAGE: Minneapolis Skyline, c. 1912
(Gelatin silver print, 8 x 48.5 in)
BY C.J. Hibbard
Library of Congress

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