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"Return To The Sunset Train"


This story is not new.
It was originally a song I wrote back in the sixties.
We liked the song, but song lyrics have limitations.
They are necessarily "bare bones",
so I wrote the story to fill in the details.
It was based partially on reality: Misty and I actually had the painting.
The "real" one was titled: "The Red Caboose", by Paul Detlefsen.
We had just bought a tract house in Miami with no down payment,
and had no money for furniture or curtains for the windows.
The painting was waiting for us at the W.T. Grant store.
It was big, beautiful, and under $20.
We lost the house, and moved a lot, but we always kept the picture.
It represented home.
* * *

He headed for the cashier's counter,
hoping that the curtain rods he was carrying
were the ones she wanted, when he saw it for the first time.
Funny! He'd been in this store,
and up and down these aisles dozens of times,
but he had never noticed those wall pictures before.
He wasn't much of an art critic, he guessed.
Didn't really know much about it,
but he DID know
he'd never seen anything quite like that train picture.

The surface of the picture was textured
to look like a genuine oil painting,
and somehow that scene looked MORE REAL THAN LIFE!
The silver steam from the old engine glowing in the sunset,
billowing against the yellow-blue-orange-pink sky.
The brightly colored, but weather worn railroad cars.
The red caboose so real you could almost step right into it.
Each piece of gravel along the track,
each clump of vegetation on the lonesome prairie
clearly defined and casting a long, late afternoon shadow.
The mountains were a bluish haze against the distant horizon.
It was a painting you could stare at for a long time,
finding details previously overlooked.

A bell rang. The store was closing.
On impulse he hurried to the Customer Service Desk
and put the picture on "layaway" with five dollars,
that should really have gone toward overdue bills.
He didn't know when he'd be able to manage
the eleven-ninety-five balance.
He paid for the curtain rods and went home,
feeling a little guilty.

She stood back and looked critically at the curtains she'd hung.

He told her that they sure made a big difference in the little apartment.
She laughed that, at least,
the curtains looked better than the view of the trash cans in the alley.
He held her
and said he wished he could provide her with a decent home,
with enough furnishings to go around,
and she replied that they weren't doing too badly for newlyweds,
and that she believed in him.
He didn't mention the money he'd foolishly spent on a picture of a train.

Pay day again, and another losing battle with arithmetic.
If only a single tree or a patch of grass
could be seen from their window, it might raise their spirits
by interrupting the stark drabness surrounding their dingy apartment.
He felt especially sorry for her, being stuck there all day.
At least taking the bus to the factory everyday
gave him a change of scene.
These were his thoughts as he paid the cashier
and waited for the large picture to be wrapped.

He centered it carefully on the wall
over the big easy chair with the broken spring,
and called her to come in from the kitchenette
and take a look at the "surprise".
Wiping her hands on her apron,
she glanced around the room until her eyes stopped
at the unexpected explosion of color.
It was so beautiful she almost cried!
Why, it was just like having a window overlooking a lovely,
peaceful valley locked in eternal sunset.
They held hands and stared at the painting until dinner almost burned.

Years struggled by,
and the broken spring chair was replaced
by a new living room suite, complete with payment book.
They moved several times in the course of their lives,
first to a couple of larger apartments,
then to a house in a suburban development and finally,
anticlimactically, back to another cheap apartment,
where they were to spend their autumn years.

The infirmities of old age often require a tightening of purse strings.
They weren't complaining though.
They'd been through rough times before.
Through the years they'd managed to hang on to two treasures:
The Sunset Train painting and an undying love for each other.
Perhaps they weren't so poor after all.

It hit him hard when she passed away.
Somehow, he's always imagined he'd be the first to go.
He wasn't prepared for the horrible emptiness.
Nobody ever is.
He took the habit of conversing with her, even though she was gone.
He'd stare at the painting and talk over old times.

Sometimes he'd sit for hours in front of the television,
but his eyes would wander back to the Sunset Train,
their most prized possession.
He'd imagine that they were together in that valley,
or riding on the train itself.
The neighbors, aware of his condition since her death,
occasionally dropped in to check on him.
Conversations always gravitated to the unusual picture.

Several days had passed before anyone noticed
the newspapers accumulated outside his front door.
Fearing the old man had died,
and after receiving no answer to their knocking and calling,
the neighbors set their shoulders to the door,
and the old wood gave way.

Finding no one in the apartment, all clothes intact in the closets,
and the television left on,
the neighbors notified the police of the old man's disappearance.
They arrived shortly after.

While the premises were being inspected,
an officer casually commented to a neighbor,
"Unusual painting in there! So realistic, I mean."

"Yeah," replied the other,
"everybody remarks about that train picture. It's real pretty."

"No," said the policeman,
"I'm talkin' about that big picture of the valley and the sunset..
There's a railroad track runnin' through it, I guess,
but no train.
Yep, I'm absolutely sure there was no train in that picture."

And that was absolutely right.
* * *


After the excitement of hit records,
and the money and fame faded,
we found ourselves, almost twenty years later,
going through a rough bankruptcy.
Our big homes, sports cars, and belongings were being sold off.
We salvaged a few things and moved into a trailer park.
The Sunset Train painting was left with a friend,
along with some other memorabilia,
for safe keeping, until we could get settled somewhere.
More years flew by, and the friend began to think our stuff was hers.
We still can't get it back, and can't find a replacement,
so all we have left of our old train
is a sketch I drew as a promotion for the record.


Copyright  December 20, 2001 by Jack Blanchard. All rights reserved.


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