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Leo on the Train

First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2015.
This story will also be published in our 2015 Summer Newsletter.

"Leo on the Train" by Meera Collier

Late Summer, 1944

He kept the trumpet on his lap. The colored cars of the train were full of people, women in their Sunday best and men in their pressed jackets, shiny from years of ironing and starch, now wrinkled and wilted in the cramped heat. Children and toddlers, some barefoot because their mothers couldn’t convince them that travel was as solemn an occasion as church, kicked the seats of the people in front of them and whined for pieces of wrapped pound cake and fried chicken in their mothers’ baskets. Adolescent girls cooed at the babies and chatted with each other and laughed. Cigarette smoke mingled with the perfume of the painted ladies at one corner of the car, while Sunday grandmothers waved their fans and threw glances in their direction, making disapproving tsks as they complained to each other about the heat. Lawd, Lawd. The heat and the slowness of this train. Lawd, Lawd.

Leo sat, facing north, with Alabama to his back, staring out the window at the telephone lines swooping alongside them, following up, swoop, up again, broken only by birds on the wire. The clacking of the chigga chigga clatter beat in rhythm with the lines of the wire, and the grandmothers’ backup murmurs set Leo’s mind to music, and he ached to pull out his horn and play alongside it. He fingered his mouthpiece in his pocket. Chigga chigga swoop, Lawd, Lawd.

A shriek of laughter from the painted ladies became the cry of a clarinet. The deeper rumble from the wilted men struck a walking bass line, and the chigga chigga swoop crash as an abandoned station flew by, adding to the drums. The young men watching the painted ladies struck chord after chord, each leading to the next, never landing, Lawd Lawd, train wheels rumbling under his feet, grounding him.

The music distracted him from the scenes that replayed in his head, and when the music faded, he couldn’t stop the images that appeared. The shouting. The mob of men, full of anger and aggression that made the group move like one rabid beast, uncontrollable and terrifying. Moe sprawled against the back of the bar, and the dark, oily stain spreading out from where he had fallen. Bella’s screams and the smell of gunpowder mixed with whiskey. The frantic whispers of Mrs. Reynolds as she yanked cash out of the till and thrust it in his hands for the train ticket. Slamming the screen door of the Honey Pot for the last time. Echoing, pounding footsteps down the wooden walkways as he ran home to grab a suitcase and his horn. Watching his mother watch him leave. The hasty ride in the back of a pickup truck to the train station in Selma.

Slouching, he rested his head back, shaking loose the memories and listening to his music, played by the band of his people, leaving Alabama behind. He closed his eyes, breathing in the smoke from fields being cleared, old cotton plants, and the whisper of hay and peanuts whistling in from the cracked window. He played a duet with the wind crying in the stuffy, smoky air. Sweat beaded on his upper lip and temples. Chigga chigga swoop thump chigga chigga swoop. Lawd, Lawd.

The song of goodbye.

He opened his eyes and looked out the window again, noticing that in certain lights he could see the painted ladies in their tight dresses with tight curls, smoking long lipstick-stained cigarettes, laughing and blowing smoke. A woman in a green dress and pearls faced him, and caught his eye in the reflection of the window.

Startled, his gaze dropped to his trumpet in his lap, glad that his sudden erection was hidden by its case. He would have blushed if he weren’t already red from the heat. Even though he was fifteen, he still didn’t know what to do with these urges. It only used to happen when he was playing certain pieces with the band or when Bella was singing almost anything. Her silhouette in the lights was all he needed to plant the seed of the urge, but when she sang, her buttery lines slid up and down each song, lubricating each line to mold to her own image. His embarrassment at his body’s reaction at first was distracting, but then became the longing he needed to rise to her voice, until she recognized that he wanted to duet with her.

But he was shy and stayed behind his music stand, staying out of the limelight, adding his trumpet to her voice, propping her up and holding her in the only way he knew. The line of unmuted trumpet echoed in his mind as he listened to his memories of her, of the bar, of the night, of the violence that pushed him out the door to head north: Chicago. To where the wind blew.