Select Page

“The Silences,” A Story from ‘Tracks’

They were young, this couple seated on the train. Too young, their friends back home had teased them, to be riding an old-fashioned locomotive. But they’d boarded anyway, and here they sat, side by side, caught in the quiet of the passenger car during one of those rare moments when no one was speaking. The sound of the train’s movement met their ears like a lullaby, a soothing soundtrack to the window’s serene scenery.

Malcolm and Tina were the same age: nineteen years old, just out of high school. She’d loved him for as long as she could remember, first as a friend, then as a soulmate. Malcolm worked as a dishwasher at Red Brick Station; Tina was a sandwich artist at Subway. They both had futures ahead of them, they knew, but their individual lives came second to their life together. They considered themselves two halves of a stable whole. They’d been a steady couple for years, ever since they transitioned from middle school to high school, and if they were sure of anything, they were sure of their love for one another.

That’s why they weren’t in any rush to get into college. There’d be plenty of time for that in the years to come. They knew where to place their value: in one another. It was more important to get married, have children, and devote themselves to one another and their family, than to chase all the education, wealth and worldly success they could possibly procure.

“Too many people place too much importance on glamour, wealth and success,” Tina had said early in their relationship, before they’d even graduated tenth grade, before they’d even seen
one another in full.

“You got that right,” Malcolm had been quick to agree, his gray eyes sparkling. “If people put the kind of effort into their families that they put into their careers and making money and getting successful, we’d live in a better world.”

“Right,” she’d said. They used to spend their after-school hours by the neighborhood pond. The surrounding green was punctuated by aesthetically placed stones and perfectly positioned trees. The tree without a bench underneath it was their favorite place—their place.

Others could have their benches; Malcolm and Tina preferred to sit side-by-side beneath the tree in the fresh grass, his arm around her, cuddling in the shade and watching the sun reflect off the water. They smiled contentedly and watched the ducks try to catch the reflecting sunlight, dipping their heads in the water, their tail feathers rising in the air. “It would be a better place. More . . . old-fashioned.”

Their parents and friends often teased them for being old souls in a new world. Malcolm and Tina just laughed it off. They listened to swing, show tunes, classical music, and jazz. He could name all of Glenn Miller’s songs, but not one artist on the current pop charts. She’d seen every episode of Gilligan’s Island, but not one segment of Survivor. Others teased them for their old ways, but Tina was sure unspoken admiration was at the heart of their jibes.

On the train, Tina glanced at Malcolm, his copper hair reflecting the sun. He’d be a shift supervisor in another year; then they could afford to move out of their parents’ homes, get married, and start their life as one. She’d get the perfect wedding gown; it would be snow white, even though he’d taken her virginity when he gave his to her. “It’ll be a storybook wedding,” he’d promised, describing the horse-drawn carriage that would sweep them from the chapel to the swinging reception with big-band music. It sounded wonderful.

It was quiet now, on the train. Too quiet, for Tina’s taste. Sometimes it seemed they had everything they needed in the having of one another. But now, she needed more. She needed his words, his attention. Malcolm was in the center of one of his silent spells again. She hated it when he fell into silence, and he seemed to do it more and more often the more comfortable he got in their relationship. She wanted him to say something romantic now. Something about how her radiant smile made his heart as light as her feathery hair, or the how the sound of her voice made his soul sing. She probed for the poetry of their past. It had been his idea, after all, to take the train. He’d said the plane was in too much of a hurry and that a train was nice and slow, that they’d have lots of time together, side-by-side. “Railroads are romantic,” he’d said.

Tina looked at the man of her life: young, handsome, and at her side, his gray eyes reading a paperback of Poe’s collected works. He’d been reading it for an hour straight, not sending so much as a word her way. While Malcolm read, Tina alternated between watching the scenery outside the window—young trees intermixed with old—and looking at him. Finally, Malcolm caught her staring. “What?”

Tina’s longing eyes begged as eagerly as her voice. “Say something.”

He slapped his paperback down, resting it open on his leg. “What do you want me to say?”

“Why don’t you tell me you love me? Like you used to?”

He sighed. “I love you.” The words and the annoyance in his voice did not match.

Annoyance infected her voice as well. “It’s not the same when I have to tell you to say it.”

“Can’t win for losing,” Malcolm griped. “I mean, you just asked me to say it, I said it, and now you’re upset because I said it! What the hell do you want? Do you even know?”

Tina noticed the woman shifting in the seat in front of them. The lady peeked back at them, then quickly faced forward. Under the sound of the woman’s sigh, Tina lowered her voice, not wanting to disturb the passengers around them with the personal problems between her and Malcolm. “I just want you to notice me!”

“Notice you?” Malcolm’s voice didn’t lower to meet hers. “You’re right next to me—you’re a part of me! How can I not notice you? It’s like not noticing my left hand or right foot!”

“So you’re comparing me to your right foot?” Tina couldn’t help but turn up the volume herself. “Nice.”

“Tina.” Malcolm emitted a deep sigh. “You know what I mean.”

The lady sitting in front of them continued to shift uncomfortably. She was probably ten or fifteen years older than them. The woman stood from her seat and walked the aisle of the moving train, riding its rhythm. Tina watched her, embarrassed to have driven away this quiet neighbor with their argument. This wasn’t the first time the woman had gotten up for a walk. Tina looked back at Malcolm to find him watching the woman as she strutted; his eyes glided down the curvature of her back, onto her rounded behind, down her long, denim-hugged legs. She knows how to move, Malcolm’s captivated gaze was saying—although he never would—as he admired the woman’s slow, leisurely stroll.

“She’s nice looking, for a thirty-something,” Tina said softly.

“What? Oh, I was just staring off into space,” he said.

“Yes, I saw the space you were staring off into.”

Malcolm put on his devilishly embarrassed grin. “Cheer up, Honey! Of course I love you. Can’t I read a little without having to say it?”

“I just want to spend some time with you, Mal. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“All right,” Malcolm said. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

He held up his paperback. “How about Edgar Allen Poe?”

“Never . . . never mind,” Tina said. She was no Poe fan. She gave Malcolm a look as distressed as the writer’s prose. “Just go back to your reading.”

He smiled and pecked her blushing cheek. “I’ll just finish this story,” he said. “Then we’ll talk.”

Tina smiled compliantly. She watched him return to his book, and she turned back to the window. They were somewhere along the border of Ohio and Kentucky, and she could see the Ohio River flowing outside. Leaves from nearby trees descended from their secure places and fell toward the water. Like little kayaks, the leaves floated along the Ohio. Some had run one onto the other, connected. They traveled together, the pairs becoming wholes. But most drifted alone down the cold autumn river. Only the lucky ones traveled in pairs.

Tina remembered a time when it had been all she could do to get a word in when Malcolm was talking. He’d spoken about everything under the sun and some things beyond it. Their early conversations had revolved around school subjects and teachers,then went on to movies and books. When puberty hit, the conversations grew awkward for a while, but they leveled out into romantic proclamations and private poetry recitals, Malcolm declaring his love for her. Tina found it difficult to ignore his words or decline his kisses. But then, she never really tried to.

 

Like their first few dates, their first intimate relations had been more awkward than satisfying. But since those early days, they’d landscaped one another’s bodies and now knew the lay of the land. He didn’t need the rhythm of a train to arouse her.

As their relationship flourished, their conversation shriveled. Tina guessed he was less out to impress and more comfortable with her, and that made him less ambitious in his speech. Or perhaps he’d already said everything he had to say, exhausted all of the matters he’d mastered. She wondered whether there was anything he knew or thought that he’d not already told her. There was no question of his love for her. But she didn’t want to be the comfortable old brown shoe for his right foot. She needed to be lifted from the place to which she sometimes dragged herself down.

Sitting alone on the train—Malcolm being submerged in the world of Poe—Tina worried about the route they were traveling. She had a clear vision of their future as husband and wife. There would be the exquisite wedding, the magical honeymoon, the excitement of children. But she wondered what they would be left with when the rearing of children was behind them, when the conversations of a busy life were abandoned.

They would sit in the living room of their cottage, just the two of them. He’d have his newspaper or a book open in his hands. She’d be watching a program on television or looking through an album of photos, remembering better times, wishing photos had audio clips, snippets of Malcolm’s words, of the conversations that had made her fall in love with him. Sounds from before the silence. Who is this person beside me? she would wonder. And why won’t he say anything? Why won’t he talk to me? Tina would cook dinner and Malcolm would eat it. They would look at each other, perhaps he would grunt, “Mmm. Good, Honey.” And then, back to the activity or inactivity that kept them from talking.

Tina imagined that in that far-off future she would have to break the ice sometimes. She would look at her husband of thirty years and see him in his recliner with the newspaper, working the crossword in his mind. “What are you thinking?”

He’d look up, startled by her voice. “What, Honey?”

She’d smile at him. She’d still be pretty and fit, attractive, still able to get his attention. “What are you thinking about?”

Malcolm would continue to look at her, puzzled by the question. “Nothing.” He’d return to his crossword, hiding his face behind it.

“No, really,” she’d persist because she’d need his words, the words of their youth, the ones she’d fallen in love with. “You’ve got to be thinking about something. What?”

This time he’d keep his face hidden behind the newspaper. “A seven letter word akin to love,” he’d answer. Or he’d begin talking about a book he was reading that she never would.

Tina would put it to him directly. “Do you think we could talk?”

He’d squirm. “I’m working on this right now.”

“After you’re done with the paper,” she’d say, tightening her grip. “Can we talk then?”

“Well, sure. Sure we can.”

But the newspaper would take longer to read that day. He never looked at coupons or the Taste sections, but Tina imagined he would that day. Finally, he would finish, only the entirety of the stock listings unread, and he would depend on Tina to guide their exploration of once-familiar territory.

Tina would fall silent. She wouldn’t know what to say when the opportunity to say it came, not any more than Malcolm would. After a lifetime together, after retiring from their jobs and sending their children out into the world to establish their own lines of communication with loved ones, there would be nothing left for Malcolm and Tina to talk about. Once you’ve said everything, what more was there to say? And so, in their uncomfortable silence, Malcolm would pick up a book and Tina would find yet another photo album to revisit, another silent set of images from the days when there was enough romance to keep the dialogue going.

The train continued alongside the Ohio River. Malcolm put the paperback of Poe on his lap and turned to Tina. “So what’re you thinking?”

Tina turned from the window view. “Huh?”

“What’re you thinking about? You’re in a dream.”

She smiled, seeing the book out of his hands. “About you,” she said. “About us.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Sincere happiness resided on his face. “Let’s go get something to drink.” Tina agreed, and the two of them walked hand-in-hand from one passenger car to another until they hit the crowded lounge car.

The woman from the seat in front of them was here in the lounge, drinking a glass of white wine. It appeared she had come here to think, not to talk. Others engaged in friendly conversation: a woman with a huge tattoo on her lower back flirted with a younger man; a couple talked about their grown kids as they sipped beer and iced tea; a man in a military uniform comforted a confused-looking old woman. But many passengers sat silently: an older man jotted in his planner like he was in a race against time; a silver-haired guy read note cards; a big man in a leather jacket played with an unlit cigarette as he looked around the room.

A sad lady with a dragonfly broach on her breast caught Tina’s attention. The woman seemed to be trying to mend a broken heart with an old love poem on antique paper, crying over the words or what they represented. Tina hoped that wasn’t how she would turn out: a forty-something crying over her memory of Malcolm’s words.

Early in their relationship, they’d promised one another that there would be no secrets. Tina had remained true to her word, until recently. She hadn’t told Malcolm about her daydreams of their quiet future. She hadn’t told him that such visions had driven her to seek out alternatives. That she’d setup an email account just to correspond with her friend from high school, Katie, who’d moved to New York after graduating. Katie waited tables while her agent tried to find her work as a model. Before leaving, Katie had encouraged Tina to join her and Tina had refused; it wasn’t part of her plans with Malcolm. But recently, Malcolm’s silences had made her question the depth of his devotion, the intensity of his love, the stability of their future.

Tina had begun using the hours that Malcolm was at work to investigate the idea of moving to New York City on her own. She’d even called an apartment tower and inquired about rates and
availability. The lady on the phone had gone over the details of several apartments she had open, stressing the unlimited opportunities waiting in the Big Apple. “Want me to reserve one
for you? We can do the application over the phone.”

Tina’s heart raced at the idea. She had to swallow down a lump in her throat before answering. “I’ll call back,” she said, and hung up. But she never did. The Big Apple seemed a forbidden fruit, and she couldn’t bear the thought of taking a bite without sharing it with Malcolm. Just thinking about it made her feel ill.

Forgetting the idea of an alternate life wasn’t as easy as hanging up the phone. Tina thought about life alone in the big city often. That wasn’t her desire—she needed Malcolm—but she didn’t want to end up living with his silence instead of him. All she needed was his love, his words, his assurance. She wished he’d offer her something now.

“Coke?” Malcolm asked.

“Bottled water’s fine.”

Malcolm got their drinks and found a corner with two empty chairs. They uncapped their bottles and drank. Malcolm broke the silence. “So what exactly were you thinking about us?”

“Oh, your favorite subject,” she joked. “I was thinking about how much I need you.”

Malcolm looked around, embarrassed. “Aw, we don’t have to get into that right now.”

“Well, you know it’s true. I love you.”

“Of course I know,” he said softly. “You too.”

Silence slithered back between them. Then he asked, “What do you want to do first? When we get there? Tickets to the Bears? Or hit the Field Museum?”

“What about Sally and Bo?” Visiting them had been the pretense for their visit to Chicago. Sally and Bo were friends from high school who had graduated a year earlier and moved to Chicago to attend the American Academy of Art. “They’ll be at the station when we get there; they may have something to say about our schedule.”

Malcolm took a drink of his water. “Yeah, but they’ll want to do what we want,” he said. “They live there; we’re only visiting.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll see the Bears in action, we’ll get to see the dinosaurs at the Field Museum. They’ll take us to Hard Rock and Jordan’s restaurant.”

Malcolm smiled at the activity their week promised. “And that place with the deep-dish pizza they’re always talking about…Giordano’s.” He laughed. “Tina, we’re gonna have a great time
together.”

Tina bent forward and kissed him. As they parted, leaning back in their seats, each took a drink of water. They looked out the window at the passing hills. Their silence lasted a couple minutes, but it seemed unbearably long to Tina. “I hate the silences,” she whispered.

“What?”

She met his eyes, then looked at the little bit of water left in her bottle. “The silences. I hate it when we don’t have anything to say.”

Malcolm looked at her as she averted her eyes. Her soft blonde hair swept along her shoulders. “I love them,” he said.

Annoyance crept back into her voice. “Whatever.”

“Really, I do,” he said. “They’re comfortable, the silences. We don’t have to be yapping all the time. We can be comfortable just being together, without saying a thing.”

Tina thought it over. “I guess so. I just hate it when we run out of things to say.”

“We’re not running out of things to say,” Malcolm protested. “We’re finding easier ways to say what we have to say.” Registering her puzzled look, he elaborated. “We know each other so well, we can say things without really saying them. I know you really want a Coke by the way you keep measuring how much water you have left, like you’re fulfilling a requirement first. You told me without saying a thing. You want something with flavor, but you’re trying to do the healthy thing and get your daily allotment of water in.”

Tina grinned. “I guess that’s true.” She wanted to look at the bottom-dwelling water in her bottle again, but self-consciously refrained.

“The way I see it, the fact that we have these silences just proves how comfortable we are, how we’re made for each other. Your left hand doesn’t have to talk to your right foot. We don’t always have to be chatting to be into one another.”

She smiled and gave him a purposeful look. “Then you’re not bored with me? You didn’t stop saying you love me because you stopped loving me?”

“Of course not, and you know it. It’s just that when a couple is as tight as we are—practically one person—we don’t have to keep saying it. It’s like breathing, or our heartbeats. It’s automatic. We just know. It’s there, in you, in me, in the speaking and the silences.”

She took his hand in hers and looked him in the eyes. “It’s still nice to hear it once in a while.”

“All right, all right. I love you, Tina.” This time he didn’t look around to see who might have heard. “Now, how about a Coke?”

As they walked back to their seats, they passed the old Amtrak conductor. “You kids enjoying the ride?” He’d already chatted with them earlier, in the lounge car. He may have been the only person she’d met who talked as much as Malcolm, when Malcolm was in the mood to talk.

“We sure are,” Tina said, her arm around Malcolm’s waist.

“Thanks for asking.”

The old man chuckled. “It’s sure nice to see young’uns who appreciate the train.” He tipped his cap and walked on. Tina and Malcolm took their seats.

“He seems like a happy guy,” Malcolm said.

“He’s lonely,” Tina said.

“Lonely? He was all smiles.”

“He’s friendly, but he’s lonely. You can see it in his eyes and the way he has to talk to everyone.”

Malcolm grinned. “See? You know what I’m talking about better than I do.”

Tina smiled back. “Maybe I just needed you to tell me what I already knew but hadn’t figured out.”

They were close now, somewhere west of Indianapolis. According to the map, after the next stop the train would bend to the right and proceed north to Chicago. Tina looked forward to a
fun week with Malcolm, Sally, and Bo. As anxious as she was to get off the train, she even looked forward to returning to it for their ride back to Baltimore together. Tina had a definite vision of her future with Malcolm.

In that distant future, Malcolm would be reclining in his favorite chair and Tina would be on the sofa. It would be quiet in their living room, with their children all raised and sent out to make tracks of their own in the world. Retirement would keep Malcolm and Tina together most of the time, enjoying each other’s conversation, each other’s presence, each other’s silence.

When Malcolm finished the newspaper, he would look over to the sofa, over to Tina. She would return his gaze, no words between them, and pat the open space beside her. He would stand, strut over, and take his place by her side. They would look together at the photo album and remember good times together. There would be no need for audio clips—they would provide their own live commentary. They would talk about those times, remind each other of feelings conjured by the pictures. They would talk, and then not talk. They would kiss and make love and make more good times. Then they’d enjoy the silence.

Tina decided that when she got home she would delete her secret email account. Katie could have her modeling career in New York City. Tina had all that she wanted in her life with Malcolm.

Back in their seats, she looked out the train’s window at the autumn trees once again. Leaves came down like sporadic droplets from branches after a hard rain. Once in a while, two leaves
remained connected at the stems, falling as one.

Eric D. Goodman has been writing fiction since he was in the third grade, when a story assignment turned him on to the craft more than a quarter century ago. He regularly reads his fiction on Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR, and at book festivals and literary events. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Writers Weekly, The Potomac, Grub Street, Scribble Magazine, The Arabesques Review, and New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers. Eric is the author of Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. Tracks is his first novel and is now available for purchase.

Visit the Tracks website to see excerpts, watch video clips and hear Eric read stories from the book!

Photo Source: ThinBee Blog, Photo Source: Atypicas.net, Photo Source: blirk.netPhoto by djsosumi, Flickr