by David M. Sweet
Doralea looked out the window of the southbound train. Mid-October leaves dappled the Kentucky hillsides in fiery oranges and burning reds, dull yellows and rusty browns with a few evergreens peaking through the canopies. Colors were made even more vivid by the morning sun and clear, blue sky. Flaxen sedge grass along with green tangles of weeds, brambles, and even a few autumn flowers blurred together as she shifted her gaze downward toward the edges of fields and fence rows speeding by next to the railroad bed. They were somewhere between Cincinnati and London, finally going home. Her young husband, having recently returned from the War in the Pacific a year after the Japanese surrender, slumped next to her, snoring. He was somewhat unshaven with his Navy jumper wrinkled and unbuttoned, his tie undone. A silver flask with the initials 'JB' inscribed in a flourish of calligraphy peeked from the inside of the jumper pocket. Her curiosity was piqued because those were not his initials. He had cocked his white sailor's hat over his eyes. She huddled under his dark, navy peacoat. She wore a plain, beige cotton dress and scuffed matching pumps that had seen several seasons of wear. The coat completely covered her small form. At seventeen she was still quite petite, not even five feet tall, so she was able to curl up into a small ball under the woolen peacoat. She had forgotten how cold autumn mornings could be. Her breath fogged up a small section of the window. She tentatively reached one arm from under the coat to quickly scribe a happy face and her initials, MDJ, on the window with her index finger. Mrs. Doralea Jackson, she thought. She quickly tucked her arm back under the coat.
She loved riding the train. She adored the mournful cry of the steam whistle, the rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the rails, the way the cars undulated up-and-down and side-to-side, giving the conductor, and anyone else walking the aisles, comical movements. Unfortunately, none of her outings on the rails had ended happily so far. She was hopeful this one would be different.
Her first trip had been with her mama and five brothers to Indiana five years ago to live with her dad. Richard Hood was a small man with a poor constitution. He had not been able to find steady work in London. Almost no deep mines operated in the county. Though many areas of the country had started to see brighter days ahead at the end of the depression, Eastern Kentucky still lagged behind. For the United States, war was still a few months away. For the last ten years, her dad had left home several times, traveling throughout Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Indianapolis to find some factory work here and there, but layoffs were common. He finally landed a steady job with the Hobart M. Cable Piano Company in La Porte, Indiana. His family had remained in Kentucky. He sometimes came home for Christmas. The family had grown to seven children, and even though Annie, the oldest, had recently married, six children was too much for Adeline to handle on her own. Richard tried to keep himself afloat in Indiana, but couldn't manage himself and his family in Kentucky. The family would have to move. Doralea, the second oldest and twelve-years-old, would take her first train ride North.
She had grown up within sight of the L&N Railroad. It ran down Mill Street near the old house. Her uncle owned it, and they had been fortunate to live there, but it was time to leave it behind for now.
"Doralea! Denver wandered off again.
Go find him. Hurry up, we're going to miss the train!"
Adeline, already exhausted, wrestled two small suitcases that held all they could take with them. The family had relied upon Richard's meager wages for the last several months. They also depended upon the kindness of family, but that time had now come and gone. She once lived with Richard in Cincinnati a few years ago and hated being so far from home and family every minute she was away. Annie and Doralea were the only children at the time. They left the girls behind with her sister. Adeline begged Richard to go back home, eventually taking it upon herself to return because she didn't want to give birth to her third child away from family.
"Mama, I got him and Stanton." Doralea walked around the corner of the house balancing the toddler on her hip and holding Stanton by the hand."Now, Harold, hold Cliff's hand. You all stay close to me and mama. We get to ride the big choo-choo today!"
They made their way down cold streets to the depot. February winds cut deeply, and flurries scattered in the early morning air. Blue patches of sky peeked through low, grey clouds. Adeline managed to herd her gaggle to the depot and onto the northbound train.
Doralea was elated about her first train ride. Up close, the blue and vanilla L&N passenger cars seemed almost magical. She spent many evenings after supper watching trains pass their house in the gloaming, dull yellow lights of the passenger cars revealing shadows through the windows. Who were they? Where were they going? Why were they on the trains? So many questions.
"Look, Harold, there's our house!" Doralea pointed excitedly. The boys smashed their faces against the windows. It was an amazing experience to see it from this side. The house looked smaller somehow. She was now one of the shadows in the train and could finally answer some of those many questions she had asked herself so many times. They left London behind, and soon Kentucky. When the boys finally settled down, she watched the icy world pass outside. Winter clouds gathered again creating a monochromatic panorama. Patches of snow clung to frozen ground along fields and forests, the snow nearest the tracks made dull and grey by coal soot from many passing steam engines. Rusted leaves clung stubbornly to oaks. The only real color in the landscape were from evergreens and occasional mistletoe hanging high in the skeletal arms of bare trees. Fogging up the window with her breath, she slowly traced her initials onto the cold glass: "DH."
The most amazing moments of the trip had been crossing the long iron bridge into Cincinnati. Doralea had imagined big cities, but this was like something out of a storybook: paved streets everywhere with so many cars and people! Mama had hated living here; however, Doralea could imagine herself in a fancy dress on the arm of a handsome young man going to the movies and out to eat in a nice restaurant. She wanted to live here.
Reality quickly beset her. She spent most of her trip to La Porte helping her mama wrangle the boys, especially when they changed trains. She kept a close eye on them in bigger stations and crowded depots. The boys wanted to constantly run up and down aisles and hang from the backs of seats. Over the course of the more than 400-miles, Cliff threw up three times, Stanton sang nonsense at the top of his voice, Harold randomly pulled her hair and made stupid faces at her, and Denver cried off-and–on the whole trip. Her mama spanked all of them at least twice, which Doralea didn't find fair since she was trying her best to help. By the time they reached La Porte, she noticed bruises starting to show on her mama's legs and feet where they had stepped on her so many times. As the train pulled into the station, the large red sandstone clock tower of the La Porte courthouse gleamed in the late afternoon sun. The city was near The Great Lakes and not far from Chicago. Perhaps bigger adventures awaited, especially since it wouldn't be long until Doralea was a teenager.
Her dad met them at the depot. He was much thinner and paler than the last time she had seen him. His light brown hair wisped in the cold breeze. His worn woolen coat seemed to swallow him. He grabbed the suitcases and turned toward town. His words were harsh and few as they made their way to the tiny apartment. Most conversation was kept between her parents. They spoke in low tones where Doralea couldn't hear. Mama carried the baby. Doralea wrangled the rest. The apartment was tiny and cramped, but they would make due.
Fortunately or unfortunately, they wouldn't make due long. In March, her dad, caught in a spring rain storm on his way from work, soon became extremely ill and missed two weeks of work. Mama tried to get a job cleaning houses, but no one would hire someone they didn't trust from out of town. Her dad lost his job because he missed too many shifts. They would be taking the train back to Kentucky.
"Doralea? Doralea, honey. Are you okay?" Her husband's deep, rich voice broke her reverie.
"Yes, just drowsy."
"We're almost home. I've been thinking. Once I get my next paycheck, we'll be right back on the rails, and we'll take The Flamingo to Jacksonville. I owe you a proper honeymoon."
"I would love that."
"I need to stretch my legs. You want something to eat? I need coffee."
"No. I'm okay."
Denvil Jackson straightened his uniform and made his way down the isle. She heard a man call him "Lefty." She couldn't hear their conversation. Obviously someone he knew from London. After speaking briefly, the two men exited toward the dining car. Doralea stared at the countryside drifting along as the train continued southward. She worried about the upcoming reunion with her dad.
The few years after returning to London from La Porte, her dad worked sparingly. They received monthly commodities. Her mama took any job she could and was still there for the children. Once Doralea turned fifteen she started working as a waitress at a local diner, The Hob-Nob. That's where life really began to change just over two years ago.
Denvil strolled in one day near dinner time. Doralea had briefly dated his brother, Charlie, but her dad put a swift end to the relationship. Richard Hood didn't care for the Jackson family. They were rough. They didn't go to church. Their daddy played banjo at barn dances. Denvil's grandfather, a known gambler and rounder, had been killed by a train on Manchester Street on his way to a poker game a few years ago. Cards weren't even allowed in the Hood household, even if used to play Old Maid or Slapjack. Cards were a sin, as was cussing and drinking, which the Jackson's were also notorious for doing. In fact, Denvil seemed a little tipsy when he entered The Hob-Nob that fateful day. He was handsome, though.
"How about a little coffee, Doralea?"
"Sure. You want anything else?"
"Just to talk to you would be fine."
Doralea covered her mouth with her right hand, hiding her smile. She was self-conscious about her front teeth. Kids at school often made fun of her.
"Denvil, I'm workin' and my daddy don't really want me talkin' to boys, especially you Jacksons." She couldn't agree to go out with him even if she wanted to, and she really wanted to.
Denvil grinned. "Now listen Doralea, I ain't Charlie—"
"No, you're worse," she quipped. "I'll be right back with your coffee."
Stunned and slack-jawed, he stared at her as she defiantly walked away. He didn't expect this. She was usually quiet and non-combative. He wouldn't give up, putting on his best smile when she returned.
"Why don't you go out with me before I ship off to war?"
"Why, you can't run off to war. You're only sixteen."
"My mama said she doesn't remember what year I was born; it could've been 1925 that would make me eighteen."
"My daddy was right, all you boys do is lie. I don't think you should go, I hear it won't last much longer."
"Too late. I've already joined the Navy."
"Lord, why? You ain't never even seen the ocean."
"Old Man Buckhart told me all about the ocean. I want to see it. I've even dreamed about it. I'd rather do that than be a ground-pounder."
"Well, here's your coffee. I'll ask my daddy to see if I can go out with you."
"Don't do that! He'll never let you. Just meet me at The Reda for a matinee on Saturday."
"I'll think about it. Besides, I can't stand here and talk to you. I'll get in trouble."
Doralea stepped to another table, her heart pounding. She couldn't turn around to show him just how happy she was.
That day began their lives together. She didn't ask her dad; she met Denvil at The Reda that Saturday. The secret of dating Denvil was difficult to keep from her dad, but she managed it. Denvil joined the Navy, and when he returned from basic training, they snuck off to Jellico, Tennessee to get married. He left two days later. She continued to work at The Hob-Nob, and his brother Charlie would sometimes bring her money from Denvil's paycheck. The rest went to his family. Because her dad had been so sick, the money she made helped her family. This was the arrangement until Denvil wanted her to join him in Philadelphia. He was coming home in a few weeks, and they would need an apartment there while he looked for work. He didn't want to return to Kentucky. Her next train journey would be to Philadelphia.
That summer had been eventful with the war ending, but agonizing because she couldn't allow her dad to know her secret. While she managed to keep it from him, her mama knew but didn't say anything because Richard's health worsened. Doralea postponed the inevitable until the night before leaving.
"Daddy, I know I should've told you about me and Denvil Jackson, but I knew how it would be. If it wasn't for him we wouldn't have had extra money this summer."
Richard narrowed his eyes. "And I guess we'll have even less now."
"Harold just started a job. That'll help."
"You just go on and stay at Annie's tonight. Go on. Don't come back."
And with those words he walked into his bedroom and closed the door.
During that Golden Hour of the next morning, Doralea stood alone on the depot platform. The world seemed so bright. Lustrous green leaves glowed in windless trees. Jarflies released their energy in vibrato to the rising sun. She stared into the bold sky, its blue saturation gradually fading to white along the horizons. Staring soon became too painful. She prayed. Her prayers seemed reflected rather than penetrating that vast depth. Suddenly remembering her dad's eyes, also impenetrable, she closed her eyes against it all and stepped onto the northbound train. When the train passed their house on Mill Street she saw her dad sitting in his chair on the porch. Stanton sat on the porch edge swinging his feet and petting his little brown dog. When her dad saw the passenger cars, he stood up and walked unsteadily inside the house. Warm tears wet her cheeks.
That happened over a year ago. A recent letter from her mama explained that her dad now struggled with tuberculosis. She managed to talk Denvil into this trip home. It had been a tough year. The tears returned. She knew no one when she moved to Philadelphia. Denvil had given her the name of a friend's wife who had neither been helpful nor friendly. She waitressed in a small restaurant, and when she wasn't at work, she was home. Alone. She even felt that way after her husband returned from overseas. Denvil's drinking worsened. There would be times she wouldn't see him for two or three days until he drunkenly stumbled into their apartment. She issued an ultimatum: she was going home with or without him. He relented.
She began recognizing landmarks. They were near Mount Vernon. London would be the next stop. Denvil returned from the dining car. He had been drinking.
"Don't talk to me." She pulled the peacoat tighter around her.
She watched the last few miles of autumnal landscape unfold. When the train passed the house on Mill Street, no one was outside. She and Denvil would be staying with his family until they could leave for Florida on The Flamingo, which she felt guilty about now. She must see her dad first.
Entering the family's small house, her brothers, so happy to see Doralea, crowded around. Denver hugged her longest. Her mama had supper on the table. Her dad was in his bedroom. She could hear the strangling coughs.
"He wants to talk to Denvil," Adeline said, her face expressionless.
Denvil entered the bedroom and closed the door. Doralea sat at the table, but couldn't eat. Her brothers had a million questions, which she tried to answer but the only voice she longed to hear was her dad's.
After a while, Denvil exited the bedroom. He was not happy. "Get your things. Let's go."
Doralea warily approached the bedroom. Her dad stood there in faded pajamas with a Bible in one hand and a bloody handkerchief in the other. His eyes were sunken, his face ghostly. He suddenly unleashed wracking coughs. She waited for him to finish.
"I love you, Daddy–"
"Don't call me 'Daddy.' You ain't no daughter of mine."
He slowly closed the door in her face. She listened to his coughing as he climbed back into bed, bedsprings straining as he attempted to make himself comfortable.
They left in the gathering dusk. Denvil carried his duffle bag and her suitcase. As the young couple made their way across town, they heard mournful cries of a steam train continuing its trek southbound toward sunnier shores.
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Congrats on your win, it was well deserved. I loved your description of both the setting and the characters. It really painted a picture that was easy to visualize. Descriptions are something I still have to work on myself. Your dialogue was very realistic as well, even though there wasn't much of it. I sort of saw your train as a harbinger of bad news: whenever the MC goes on one, things don't turn out well for her it seems. I wonder if, since she is riding a train at the end, more bad news will follow. It really makes the reader think abou...
Thank you for your observations. Part of my process is seeing the story play out as a movie in my head, and I just write down the movie I am watching. Doesn't work every time, but when it does it seems so much more real to me. I don't have much dialogue because, honestly, these people were not the type of people who talked much in real life. They were individuals of few words. I love your observations; they were spot on! I left it somewhat open-ended because I see this story as part of a larger anthology of stories involving these characters...
Thanks so much!
So, this is totally out of the blue. I love the story! Don't get me wrong, I can write; I just get nervous and don't submit short stories or anything. Can you help me, please?
I have had a passion for wanting to write most of my life. I was really pursuing it when I was in high school, but then life got in the way when I went to college, married, started a career and family, etc. I am now in my retirement years and picking it up again. My first advice is start from what you know. Southbound is passionate for me because it comes from family stories. I know these characters (maybe not as well as I would have liked sometimes) and I can fill in gaps with my imagination. I also write poetry (mostly imagery-based) ...
Beautiful story. It really emphasized both the south and the time of WWII. Both somewhat sedate. I had to move around the story, returning to the beginning several times to keep the characters lives in order. To me, that makes for a story that holds the readers interests. Also, I could feel the gentle rocking of the train. Congratulations on the win.
Thanks for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed the characters because they are dear to me.
Nicely written description, rich with character, I would have liked more dialogue and confrontation talk between Dolores and her father in some deep flashback scenes. Congrats on the win
Thanks so much. This format was tight; I was at 2,995 words in the 3,000 word limit. I will definitely keep this in mind going forward. I plan on expanding this as I am working on a number of pieces involving these characters and time period. Thank you for the constructive feedback and for taking the time to allow me to share this story with you.
I just loved it and the characters - not a huge deal or anything just wanted more word exchange. Look forward to seeing more of your writing. cheers
I enjoyed this story. The descriptions of surroundings and the generational interactions are much like those of Anne Tyler, my favorite author.
Wow! That is quite a compliment. Thank you for your support and your encouragement. I hope I can continue to keep this level of integrity in my stories.
A well written vignette of the time following World War II. Doralea is a great character, and it's easy to hope that she will be able to keep her hope and optimism alive as she struggles with her father's rejection and her husband's alcoholism. She's like so many young women who always had to be strong. World War II has been something of an obsession since I was a child in the 60s, and I grew up with kids whose parents had served in the military during the war, knowing neighbors and friends who took their shared wartime experiences for gra...
Thank you for your kind words; I will take them to heart. This story comes from my parents' generation, much of it inspired by family stories. In the end the indomitable will of Doralea will win out, both in future stories and in real life (spoiler alert). I appreciate your support.
Loved this story! Great job 😊 Just curious if hob nob was inspired by the one in Gate City?
Thank you! The Hob-Nob was an actual restaurant/diner that my mom worked at in London, Kentucky. I actually have a picture of her standing outside the place. It was one of the pictures among others that inspired this story. Thank you for reading.
I love this! Well deserved win for sure!
Thank you so very much.
Nicely used regional words, such as 'jar bugs', and names of the regional vegetation that give authenticity. The seemingly going nowhere but back and forth of a train seemed to give a sense of her marriage to a drinker that would probably not 'go anywhere'.
Thank you. I am from the region, and I appreciate your acknowledgement of the authenticity of the piece. Thank you for reading and for your support.
Congrats on the win! I love how you mentioned in another comment that it was based on your family. Sometimes I think the best writing comes when there's a bit of truth mixed in or inspiring the fiction :)
Thank you so much. Good luck with your writing as well. I'm ooking forward to reading more from you too. I find that some truth mixed in with the fiction is inspiring and cathartic. I've tried to keep true to the spirit of the characters, while filling in gaps that I wasn't sure about and creating a framework for the story that would also appeal to readers.
I can see why this won: it's not just a response to the prompt, the train journey seems to power the whole narrative, quietly mournfully chugging along in a steam of inevitability. This had the sense of a much bigger family saga waiting to unfold at its own relaxed pace. Well done on bringing quite a different speed setting to Reedsy: a beautiful old steam-train of a story.
Thank you for your extremely kind words, which made my day! I am working on a larger set of stories that interconnect with these characters. There are many heart-rending stories, but also many stories that celebrate life for these characters as well. Again, I appreciate your kind words and support.
A well deserved win. So well written. Her rejection by her father was so powerful. I hurt for Dorolea. I hope things work out for her and Denvil. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks for your support. You may get to see this happen as I expand this universe out into other stories. This story is actually based on events in my own family. (Spoiler alert) It was a rough road for them, but the goodness and happiness developed over time. They were married almost 70 years!
I love trains so I could so relate. The story so beautifully told, you can see the characters come to alive. The ongoing battles of the generations and ideals ... Thank you
Thank you for your support. As I work on other related stories, you will see the generational struggles that develop and the ideals that created wonderful lives for these characters who, in real life, were a great inspiration for me.
Beautiful slice of life piece and so full of melancholy. It was a lovely read.
Thank you for your kind comments and support.
Oh, this is so sad! You captured the melancholy of doubtful hope really well. I feel for the main character who lost her family's affection and didn't win a good husband to compensate for it!
Hey! Congratulations on the win!
Thanks so much! I appreciate your support.