American Fiction Historical Fiction

Times Like These

The building appeared to float out of the morning mist as the two rounded a corner. The friends had been riding since dawn, and the weather had cooled suddenly. After riding hard for three hours, they both slowed.

“Stop?” asked the companion. “Yup,” answered his friend.

“How’s your camelback doing?” his friend asked, as he pulled-off his riding gloves and dismounted.

“It’s full. Down to one bottle though…should be plenty.” his companion answered. They rested their bicycles against a knee-high platform, their destination still many miles distant.

His friend was checking the trail-map as they stretched. “Did you happen to see what the name of this town is?” he asked. “I don’t even see it on the map.”

“No, it looks like an old railroad depot or something,” his companion answered. “There’s a sign…S, T, R – something…can’t make out the rest.”

“Railroad depot!” his friend exclaimed. “You sure?” The area around them was heavily wooded, nothing else was visible in the fog.

His companion laughed and answered, “This is one of those rails-to-trails, remember? There used to be a train line along here.”

Not speaking, the two sat on the edge of the platform, legs dangling. They drank water, ate protein bars, and caught their breath. The whole structure was maybe 100 feet wide, a one-story building resting atop what looked to be a loading dock, with the remains of a rusty davit on one end near a ramp that sloped to the ground.

Rested, they gathered their gear as they walked around and checked out the depot.

“Funny that this isn’t listed on the trail map.” said the friend.

Suddenly, the companion broke out in laughter. “Come take a look at this,” he said.

“Poor Dave, totally misunderstood,” laughed the friend.

They started away slowly and did lazy circles in the middle of the empty trail, looking back where they had stopped. Definitely a train station. The place was old. The roofline looked solid and straight, but the rest, it seemed, was sorely in need of serious TLC. Looking back from a distance, they could make out several more structures above the fog - an old brick building immediately behind the depot, possibly a bank, a cupola and spire of what could only be a church, and alongside the creek bank, the unmistakable remnants of an old mill.

“There must be a few lonely souls who still live here,” said the friend. “That’s weird…up close, I couldn’t tell any of that was even there!”

“Let’s get going. We have a lot of ground to cover before dark,” said the companion.  They turned away and rode, still miles from their destination.

Far behind them, propped in a lonely window of the century-old train depot, a faded sign scrawled on a manila envelope read, “FUCK YOU DAVE!” 

“I’m not sure if I think it’s worth-it, do you?” asked Clinton, as he walked around the entire structure.

The building was built on a massive foundation, which seemed to be showing more signs of age than the station itself. Crumbling and flaking were separating all four corners, large cracks seemed to threaten large sections of the old, freight platform.

“Did you hear me David?” he added and came back around to the front. His fellow councilman was standing on the bicycle trail, staring up.  Mounted high up on the façade was a location sign in big, faded block letters.

“Hhmm?  I’m sorry, spacing out a bit I guess,” David absently replied. “Do you think this sign is original?” he asked Clinton.

“It couldn’t be, could it?” Clinton replied and looked up at the sign. “It’d be what…over 150 years old?” Just then his smart phone chimed. He looked at the screen. It was the county attorney.

David wandered off, climbing the ramp at the east end. As he reached the top, a small chunk of concrete broke off underfoot, and he stumbled near a sheared off steel post, sticking straight up from a solidly rusted pivot of some sort. He made a note on his tablet to have that removed.

As David started his second walk-around, he walked up and peered in a filthy window. “Wow, it’s huge in there. Have you got the keys with you?” he shouted to Clinton.

He saw Clinton through the window, holding his phone to his ear as he pushed open the door, waving away cobwebs as he entered. David knocked on the window and shouted, “Is that the historical society?”

The proposal to renovate the station was almost complete. It saddened David that he wouldn’t be around to see it happen. It was time to get out of Dodge. He’d been skimming the county coffers for years, and he wasn’t about to get greedy and blow it. And then there was Belinda. They had been sneaking around for six months now, but he was confident that Clinton knew nothing.

David had memorized the few original fixtures inside the depot. Each was purposefully overvalued in the report, as was the value of the building itself. He had his eye on the large, solid oak desk in the far corner. He pulled at the top drawer, and it came out in his hand. A yellowed sheet fluttered to the floor.

He reached down. “Clinton, look at this!” he called, as his fellow councilman finished his call. David held a handwritten freight manifest, dated: 1877-8-21.

“That should help make your case for total historic preservation, yes?” said Clinton, without real enthusiasm. “Put that in your proposal, and let’s get out of here.” he added and walked back outside.

Clinton thought he put on a good show. He knew about everything, but he went along with David, with his wife, and with the council. The council and the historical society would get the report, but not the one Dave prepared. His wife would get a call from his divorce attorney. “What time is your flight?” Clinton asked.

David locked up, handed Clinton the keys and the proposal, organized neatly in a manila folder, and briskly walked down the ramp and got into his car. “I board at 7” he answered. “You’ll make sure this gets done, yes?”

“Sure thing Dave, I’m sure you’ll be hearing from the county’s legal-council real soon.” Clinton said and watched as David drove away. He opened the folder, removed the manifest, and inspected the yellowed sheet. “This will look good in a frame on the wall…a souvenir.” he said, chuckling.

He pulled a sharpie from his pocket, scrawled something on the folder, went back inside briefly but returned empty handed. He smiled bitterly and looked back up at the depot. “Would’ve been a nice project,” he said.

Richard stood in the middle of the platform, alone, and stared up the right-of-way to the north, waiting for the 11:19 to pull in. He knew it wouldn’t. He had a new digital watch, given as a gift from his son, which he used now to keep track of the schedules. The watch was always spot on, required no winding, and now displayed exactly 11:19. He pulled out his father’s pocket watch. It was 7 minutes slow.

From inside, he could hear the radio, ‘Sitting on the front porch, rain is pouring down. News comes on the radio, there’s trouble all around.’  The wailing ballad perfectly reflected his mood.

Reception was bad out here, too far from Omaha or Kansas City. There were only two radio stations, and he never did care for the melancholy of modern country.

“But how can you go wrong with Barbara Mandrell?” He thought.

He put away his pocket watch and turned to stare at the front of the station. STRAHAN, IA, it read, the letters almost too faded to see, like the town itself.

Until late last week, he was an employee of the Iowa Southern Railroad. Richard received a fair pension and was allowed to stay living in the depot for 90 days. He wasn’t sure what was next for him. Retirement probably. His sister lived in Council Bluffs. She had always told him there was a place for him there. So far, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

He walked back inside and lit a cigarette. A bad habit that should’ve killed him by now. It hadn’t. He was as healthy as a mule. Stubborn as one too. He shuffled around his 3 room home, the specters and memories of 30 years drifting around in his mind.

Prior to 1951, this was still the place to come for a haircut, and Richard was deft with his scissors. His sister taught him when he was a boy. The whole town came for a shave, or a trim, or just to hear the latest news. Townsfolk left the depot looking good and loaded with the latest gossip. It was a meeting place, the town center.

“Where the action was.” Richard thought and sniffed a sad chuckle.  

The last passengers, bound south for Shenandoah, boarded around 1959, just after Wabash sold-out.

“Sold three tickets. Jenny Johnson and her kids,” mumbled Richard.

Thomas, her husband, had died during the closing of the iron forge. Shrapnel from the blast was still embedded in the back wall of the depot. The entrance to the waiting room was walled over then. Richard did the renovation himself. Shortly after, the new owners invested in a face lift, even installing a white pine, tongue and groove, solid plank ceiling. The company contracted the work.

“They did a nice job,” thought Richard, gazing at the ceiling.

With the mill long closed and the forge now gone, the bank finally went bust. It was around 1965, and the town population went from 2100 to 150 or so, almost overnight. Then the mail was all diverted to Shenandoah, and all the post boxes were removed from the east wall, along with the sorting tables, assorted carts, and equipment. Closed off the walk-up window too…Again, Richard did the work.

During the years since, the train stops dwindled to once a day. The 11:19 ceased its run almost two weeks ago now. Richard shivered a bit, a ghost running up his spine.

“90 days,” he said quietly as he sat down at the desk.

Richard once sat here and wrote a letter to Governor Robert Blue. He had also delivered a child on it when Lucy Malvern went into labor while she waiting on the 6:20 to Omaha.  “I bet you still have secrets to tell,” he said to the desk, pulling the rotary phone onto his lap and dialing his sister.

William watched carefully as the painters put the final touches on the mural. “Gentlemen, the top of that flag needs to have exactly two short tassels flying in the breeze,” he spoke in a clipped, officious tone. “The dedication is tomorrow, and I think it may rain later…I pray it will be completed on time.” William marched off to check on the windows being installed on the platform.

The workmen exchanged frustrated glances as they continued their work. One of them grumbled, “If he reminds us again…I swear I’ll come down off this ladder.”

“Look where they built this…the whole town will be nothing but ghosts in a year.” His partner said and added, “Let’s just get this job done. That man will be a memory soon enough.” Just a few feet over their heads, a large sign painted in large black letters was being winched into place, the name of the town’s founder displayed proudly.

William was nineteen, and this was his first assignment. They told him this town would grow quickly and would be an important stop for decades to come. There would be shipments of timber, iron, steel, limestone, general supplies…and passengers. It was to be a critical hub between Kansas City and Omaha, one of the first on the new Wabash line.

“Be very careful you don’t break those now. They are very expensive,” he called out to the men glazing the glass into the frames.

Today was a big day, and William was leaving nothing to chance. Satisfied at having harassed all the workmen on-site, he checked the time. The men from Western Union were scheduled to arrive any moment with their new equipment. William spent several weeks in Kansas City training to be a telegraph operator.

He stepped inside the station. It was spacious, nearly 80 feet from end to end, another thirty wide. It rested atop a massive brick and concrete foundation, the new aggregate a marvel of modern construction. There were plans to install a store, a barbershop, a passenger lounge, private quarters and kitchen. It was designed by the esteemed Ephraim Baldwin, who made the journey from Virginia to oversee construction.

The first official shipment of supplies and stores had arrived before the train. William had placed and received the order personally after the corporate representative left him in charge. In the far corner stood a pile of partially unpacked crates. According to the freight manifest, the station inventory was short by half. He would create a new document, less $1000.00 in goods and supplies 

“Nobody will notice a thing missing after-all,” he thought and made a mental note to visit the warehouse space he rented earlier that week to fully inventory his half.

He walked over to the magnificent oak desk and looked at it, almost affectionately, as he ran his hand along the polished surface. It had been shipped directly from company headquarters in St. Louis.

“This is my throne, and I will rule with utter impunity,” he said softly.

He reached into his vest pocket and slid the folded manifest into the top drawer. He slammed the drawer closed as someone entered the depot behind him. The edge of the manifest caught on a small, wood burr, on the underside of the desktop, and got pushed into the void between the back of the drawer and the back of the desk.

There it rested for over a century.

Over the next three years, William oversaw a profitable, efficient, and completely corrupt freight and passenger hub for the railroad. 

In 1881, he was arrested and charged with embezzlement. He was later found not guilty. The discrepancy in both sides of the corporate ledger led to his arrest. The missing manifest helped decide his innocence.

The demolition crew was irritated and behind schedule. This town no longer appeared on any map, and they were all ready to choke the google maps lady. “If I hear the word ‘rerouting’ ONE more effing time,” yelled the driver as he slammed the door.

The tractor-trailer had already been backed into place, and they were beginning to unchain the heavy equipment. “Luckily, there’s nobody around to hear the racket this is gonna make,” said the project supervisor.

“Wow, look at this place!” The driver exclaimed.

“Yeah, a one hundred and fifty year old train station…get some music on, huh?” said the Supervisor. “Country maybe,” he added.

‘…In times like these, the rich keep getting richer, the poor barely get by….’ Came the song, from the worksite radio they brought along.

“Wow, there’s an old one. Early 80s I think,” said the driver, tuned into the only station he could find.

March 20, 2021 01:38

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.