STANDING IN THE NIGHT, 1943
by Candy Prudhomme
Inspired by ‘Standing in the Night,’ a mixed-media print by Delita Martin.
Who was this woman, where was she and what was her story?
She arrived on the 11:10 from Memphis. Alone. In the dark. In the pouring rain. As her fellow passengers made their way into the night, the station master closed the ticket window and locked up his cage.
“Is someone meeting you?”
“Oh yes, he’ll be here soon.” Soon.
As soon as the door shut, she paced the perimeter of the station. He said he would meet me here.
Now that the station was deserted, she felt agitated, muttering to herself as she continued to pace. Where is he? What am I supposed to do now, nothing but the ticking clock and a two-line note from HIM in my pocket to keep the night at bay?
She made a list to quiet her mind, things to do while stranded in Jonesboro, Arkansas, no railway café with lousy coffee and stale sandwiches.
One. Sing my favorite hymns in harmony with the echoing walls. Rock of Ages, cleft for me… There was no one here to care or complain.
Two. March around, shake out my legs numb from sitting too long. Legs that now were too restless to sit still. Angry legs. Vertigo set in fast – it was such a small station after all, and she didn’t have enough energy to stay angry.
Three. Write letters. If only I had brought paper and pencil, I could write letters. One to HIM. One to my mother. Another to my sister. Perhaps even one to Ann Landers…
Dear Ann: I’m alone in the train station. My lover didn’t arrive on time to pick me up. Should I continue to wait all night long (don’t really have a choice)? Do I call him up to ask where the hell he is (I DO have a nickel but there’s no phone)? Do I spend the night in the local motel (IS there a motel)? Signed: Abandoned.
Dear Abandoned: You may as well sit tight and think of all the reasons why your lover hasn’t shown up. Maybe he had a flat tire. Maybe he just plain changed his mind. You can spend the rest of the night, hungry, tired and cold, thinking and fretting and wondering. Sorry. Signed, Ann
It was 2:20 a.m. on the over-sized clock that stared down and mocked her anguish. No night shift here with cleaners to break up the monotony. I could stand on one of the benches and sing out my tribulations. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve known. Is anybody out there? Where is my robe, for God’s sake? There was no room to pack it in her suitcase. She would just have to sign up in a new church and get another one. She had carefully packed everything she couldn’t live without. I’m not going back. Ever.
Four. Play games. She played hopscotch on the tiles, and memories from childhood pushed their way in through her grief. She wished she were seven again, playing with her best friend Ellie, getting in one last game before the darkness sent her rushing home for her firefly jar, the one with the air holes carefully punched out in the rusty lid of an old mayonnaise jar. For now, she was left standing in a dimly lit station, alone with her thoughts, seeing her dreams go up in smoke, the wrinkled note in her pocket that said to come on the evening train. On Friday. On the twenty-first of September. Nineteen hundred and forty-three.
There has to be something else I can do.
I could leave here and start walking, but where would I go? It’s raining, it’s cold, north is south, east is west and up is down. I can sleep for a while on the hard wooden bench with my purse for a pillow.
The night ended abruptly, and the door slammed open, blowing in a soggy but cheerful station master ready to spend another day directing arrivals and departures. His gruffness belied his look of concern.
“What are you doing here, Woman, all by yourself? You been here all night? Why didn’t someone pick you up?”
Finally someone to talk to other than her own pitiful self. She pulled herself up stick straight in response, “He didn’t show up.”
She said this matter of factly, as if to say, “It’s Wednesday, it’s just another day, the grass is green.” The rain let up as dawn parted the clouds. Sigh. And nothing for it but to get back on that train for home. Perhaps no one has missed me yet. I hadn’t left a note, hadn’t uttered a word to anyone. I could just head on back, make it to Saturday night meeting, and breeze into work on the line on Monday as if I had never left for this new life.
She cocked her head to the left as the train sounded in the distance. The café sign flickered its welcoming beacon once, as the “e” sputtered its last and died. The train slowed its approach to the station, and the sun flickered its warming light between the cars, as if sending her a private message. She could still make her escape.
“How far will twelve dollars take me?”
“St. Louis.” He smiled at her sudden spark.
The train crawled to a stop without so much as a yoo-hoo, expelling a breath of steam, resting just long enough for people to step off into waiting arms. The sky slowly cleared with the morning sun. Now the rain had stopped, the cicadas faintly hummed good-bye, good-bye, and the conductor yelled, “Board!”
St. Louis was as good a place as any to start over. She didn’t need HIM for that. She hadn’t really liked him all that much to begin with.