by Emily Suess
There’s a white man in a dark suit. He’s immaculately dressed, wearing the finest silk tie, a matching pocket square, and hand-tooled wingtips. In one hand he holds a pipe, and in the other hand a pocketwatch.
He’s resting in a fancy leather chair with feet propped on a matching ottoman. The chair and ottoman straddle the crossties of a railroad track.
At the train depot platform several feet from the track, a little boy holding his mother’s hand pulls her attention away from the arrival schedule she’s reading. The boy points to the man and asks, “Mommy, why is he on the railroad track?”
The boy’s concern causes his mother some alarm too. She feels uncomfortable as a picture of a the train pulling into the station crosses her mind. “The train is not due for another hour, Love,” she soothes her young son and herself too.
It’s true. The next train isn’t scheduled to arrive from the west for another 60 minutes, but the boy doesn’t really know what an hour feels like, so he walks to the edge of the platform and looks as far down the track as he can in both directions.
With no train in sight, he resumes his place by his mother’s side, fidgeting as children do. He pulls at a loose thread on his trousers, swings his legs exaggeratedly, pokes at a knot in the arm of the bench following swirls of wood grain with his index finger.
Fifteen minutes pass. It feels like an eternity has passed to the boy. “Mommy,” he tugs her shirt sleeve. “Is the train still coming? Why is the man on the track?”
The woman replies with great patience, “Let’s ask the conductor.”
“Mr. Conductor,” she calls him over. “My son would like to know why that man is on the railroad track. He looks very comfortable, doesn’t he?” She subtly signals her concern without making her son more anxious.
The conductor chuckles, “That’s Mr. Whitebeard. He’s been sitting on the track for several hours and nothing has happened.” Then he leans in and jovially explains to the boy, “See his fine suit and his pocketwatch? He must be very wise and we would be silly to worry about him.”
The boy leans closer to his mother, turning his body toward her but keeping his eyes fixed on the conductor.
Exhausted by the waiting, the boy briefly naps. He is eventually startled awake as the platform buzzes with activity. It’s now just ten minutes until the train arrives, and a crowd of non-passengers has gathered with the travelers—some to say hello to new arrivals and some to say goodbye to those about to depart.
Mr. Whitebeard is still sitting in his chair. The chair is still straddling the track.
“Mommy!” the boy cries.
“Shhh, Mr. Whitebeard knows what he’s doing.”
The boy’s shout causes everyone at the station to notice the man on the track.
The ticket clerk whispers, “Seems a little foolhardy to be sitting on a train track like that right now.”
“You think?” a woman snaps in reply. She rushes to the edge of the platform and yells. “Hey, mister! The train will be here soon. You should move your chair off the track. If you need help, I will grab the ottoman, and my husband will help you with your chair!”
“No need for hysteria here,” Mr. Whitebeard dismisses her. “I’m in total control.”
“But the train is coming!” she shouts. She points down the track to the west where a small black dot emerges on the horizon.
Mr. Whitebeard glances at his watch, puffs on his pipe, and stands up. The woman sighs, relieved. Then Mr. Whitebeard turns his chair 180 degrees so it faces east, moves the ottoman in front of it, and sits back down.
“You’re a goddamn fool. Do you have a fucking death wish!?” the woman screams. The conductor approaches her and grabs her by the elbow. “Ma’am your language is unacceptable, and there are children present. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Many people in the crowd tut-tut the woman as she is escorted out of the station by the conductor. A young preacher says a prayer for her to be delivered from the bonds of Satan. The woman yells, “I just want Mr. Whitebeard to live!”
A school teacher in the crowd expecting her aunt and uncle to arrive on the train soon clutches her necklace and says—to no one in particular—“Can you imagine being bold enough to attack Mr. Whitebeard like that? Just yesterday I saw her sitting in a chair on her own porch!”
The crowd divides itself as the train approaches, and Mr. Whitebeard casually blows smoke rings into the air. The people on the left half of the platform are shouting, “Get off the track! The train is coming! This is dangerous! You will die!”
The people on the right side of the platform are shouting, “The real danger is telling Mr. Whitebeard he doesn’t have the right to sit in his own chair. Last I checked, this was still a free train station.”
A befuddled group in the middle begins writing a speech about the dangers of sitting on railroad tracks and asks the ticket clerk if he would read it aloud when they finish, probably in time for tomorrow’s train to arrive.
Meanwhile, on the train…
“Mr. Whitebeard doesn’t think you can even drive a train,” the engineer whispers to Mr. Quinn, an apprentice standing beside him in the cab. Then he moves through all the passenger cars announcing, “Mr. Whitebeard doesn’t think Mr. Quinn should be able to drive this train.” He yells after his first proclamation is largely ignored and the passengers gaze out the window at the passing landscape. “You’ll never be able to travel again!”
Back at the station, the people on the right side of the platform are pulling knives on station employees. Amid the chaos, the depot’s clocksmith jumps down from his ladder and runs out to the track, knocking Mr. Whitebeard out of harms way at the last second. The chair and ottoman are destroyed. The conductor and the ticket clerk call the clocksmith a hero.
The following morning, Mr. Whitebeard buys a new chair just like the old chair and sets it back on the train track. The town newspaper reports that the train’s engineer knew Mr. Whitebeard would be on the track yesterday. He had a chance to pull the brakes, but instead handed the controls over to Mr. Whitebeard’s long-time and well-known nemesis, Mr. Quinn.
A town meeting is called. “We need to give every passenger on trains a parachute so this never happens again,” the conductor announces.
“That’s ridiculous,” the owner of the town’s bakery says. “We need to stop buying tickets that pay the engineer’s salary until his license is revoked.”
“Train passengers are not the enemy, here,” the conductor says smugly, as people line up to buy tickets for the next train.”
Did you enjoy this piece? You may also like my webserial memoir, Who You Gonna Believe. Read the first chapter free.
Note: The post “Emily’s Christmas Ghosts Meet at Starbucks” is a response to Rubber Ducky Copywriter’s Writing Prompt Friday for December 20.
Tammy nudged Bart, who set his Eggnog Latte on the table and struggled to twist in his futuristic suit. “What?” Bart asked, annoyed. “I can’t see anything when I turn my head except the sidewall of this damn helmet.”
“Nick’s here,” Tammy said, gesturing toward the counter where a masculine figure in a white linen jacket and unbuttoned pink Henley ordered a Venti Caffe Americano. Tammy waved her arm above her head as Nick scanned the tables for his party. When he saw her, he nodded coolly and headed over to them.
The Starbucks on Neil Street was packed on the Monday before Christmas, but luckily Tammy had managed to secure a table near the entrance. Nick stepped sideways to avoid bumping into a bearded man pushing a stroller and then high-stepped over a young woman’s laptop bag before reaching them.
His chair scraped the floor loudly, momentarily drowning out the frenetic chatter of the over-caffeinated crowd and a festive Trans Siberian Orchestra track. “What’s with the get up?” Nick asked peeking over his RayBans. He nodded slightly in Bart’s direction, but it was Tammy who spoke.
“Don’t pick on him, Nick. It’s kind of a sore spot. By the way the 1980s called. Even they don’t want that suit.” Bart ignored his colleagues’ banter and sniffed his latte. He couldn’t take a sip without removing the entire Mylar onesie he wore, but if he lifted a panel on the helmet he could at least get a satisfying whiff of nutmeg and cinnamon.
“Very funny,” Nick made a face at her. “You do realize that in my capacity as Ghost of Emily’s Past Christmases, I am permanently attached to 1985? The first Christmas she remembers? The year she got her fist Cabbage Patch doll? It was either this”—he lifted his sunglasses and looked down at his white pants—“or the Rainbow Brite suit again. And those moon boots make my feet sweat.” He turned to Bart, “The future looks exciting though.”
“You know HR’s still got me on probation for the causality loop I created in ’08” Bart, the Ghost of Emily’s Future Christmases, said through his open helmet panel. “All I can safely say is that I forgot to double check 2019 climate conditions before I left the house.”
“Everyone looks fine,” Tammy said, hoping to avoid discussing why she was always wearing the same pair of pajamas to these things. It always brought everyone down. “Let’s get started. It’d be nice to finish this up before Christmas.” She opened a notebook and clicked the end of a ballpoint pen three times. “We’ll just focus on this year unless you guys have any objections. I know it’s the end of a decade and all, but rehashing the—”
Bart cut her off. “Actually, there
was no year zero, so technically 2020 is not the start of a new decade.”
Tammy looked up with an incredulous expression. “You’re the only ghost I know who gives a shit about this stuff, Bart. Anyway…Emily doesn’t seem to be at risk of an Ebenezer Demerit this year, but there are a couple of items here that concern me—she missed Christmas cards for the second year in a row. Or is it the third now? And she bought four gift cards instead of real presents this year.”
Nick winced and sucked air through his teeth. “Yikes. I didn’t realize. Sounds like she’s phoning in the gift giving. Not good.”
Bart jumped in to defend Emily. He was a pedant for sure, but he was also the most sympathetic of the three ghosts. “You guys know Lincoln Financial Group still isn’t paying her right? They paid that Hartner douche instead. To pretend she was fine. She’s been broke and depressed since March.”
“Put that in her permanent record, Tammy.” Nick jabbed his index finger on the form she was filling out. “Also, that fucker’s ghosts better be recommending him for a lifetime achievement demerit this year.” Nick slouched back in his chair, holding his paper cup between his widely spread legs and throwing his right arm over the chair back.
“I’ll bring it up with whats-his-face at the treasury, too,” Tammy assured them. “I heard they were running low on lifetime demerits this year, but if they know there’s a need they might dump a few million more into circulation.”
Bart grunted his agreement.
“The rest of her 2019 looks to be as charitable as it can be, considering,” Tammy said before passing the form around for signatures. “Shall I call her in to give her the results and discuss next year’s goals and areas of improvement?”
“Yep,” said Bart.
“Let’s do it,” said Nick as he threw back the last of his coffee.
The plan is to start editing the memoir today, but I hurt myself cleaning my office on Saturday, so we’ll see how much I get done. Let me tell you about my injuries. It should be entertaining. But first, a little backstory.
I’m not a neat freak. I like organization and I have my pet issues, but if I’m the only one to do the work of cleaning and organizing a room? Things can go long periods without being tidied up or sorted. The one exception is my work space. If I’m going to use my office and desk, they absolutely cannot be cluttered. Seeing that sort of mess (or just knowing it exists, if I’m honest) powers down my left parietal lobe.
Fun Fact: Back in the days when I could work 9 to 5, I would usually stop what I was doing every day at 4:55 to clean and organize my desk for the following morning. Because chaos on my desk always translated to chaos in my mind.
Well, as you may know, I spent a large part of January fighting bronchitis. During that time the office wasn’t just neglected, it became the de facto foster home for any object displaced by Christmas decorations or otherwise existing without spatial designation. That meant if I wanted to start using my office for writing and editing again (and I did) I would have to clean first.
Things were going okay until it was time to vacuum tumbleweeds of pet hair and traces of cat litter. I became fatigued (as I am wont to do) and decided that it would be easier to sit in my office chair and scoot around while I vacuumed Cat Box Corner™ . I’ve done this many, many times before.
Thing is, this time I leaned a little too far forward in the chair. As my weight shifted to the front of the chair, I pushed it out from under me sending it across the room behind me. I screamed, dropped the vacuum hose, and lay supine while the Shark blew hot, dusty exhaust in my face.
Yes, that’s right. I fell out of a chair. Vacuuming.
There were three cracks on the hardwood. My tailbone, my elbow, and the back of my head. No serious damage, nothing broken. Just a couple of bruises and one of those nausea headaches brought on by a minor concussion and head-to-toe muscle tightness. All exacerbated by the fact that my brain tumor already tells my nerves to record a response of PAIN to any and all stimuli.
Anyway, I still hurt more than usual, but I’m excited to get back to work on my untitled memoir. (I actually had a working title for it, and then found out — after Google searching potential domains — that that title was already taken, and so now I’m back to untitled again.)
I’m blogging on my phone from bed again because I’m feeling kind of low today. I’m not apologizing for it, but I am offering something of a warning. In case any of you are feeling less than content too and need to postpone reading more not-happy stuff.
First, I feel mostly sad and anxious today. As is usual with these kinds of things, I can’t clearly articulate why. Maybe the margarita I had last night to celebrate our five year anniversary has depressed me? One drink has never made me feel this way before, but I am still in the habit of internalizing the thousands upon thousands of messages I’ve received since I became chronically ill–messages that tell me everything bad that happens is the result of some choice I made. I had bread instead of Brussels sprouts last week. No wonder I hurt everywhere. I colored a drawing instead of riding the FitDesk for 30 minutes. Of course I can’t move my joints. I drank a margarita instead of water with dinner. Of course the whole world is closing in on me.
Or maybe I’m just having a harder time than usual pushing the stressful stuff out of my mind because sometimes that happens to people.
I do know I’m worried about the book. It’s the same kind of mental yuck I’d get as a kid the night before I had to give an oral presentation at school. Only the big difference is I’m not being made to write this memoir. I’ve chosen to do it.
It just feels so huge an undertaking, and I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes. (Not, like, do I have the talent, but am I able?) ‘Cause if I don’t pull it off, there will be even bigger financial worries in my future. And, hello, Universe? I don’t know if you noticed, but I already have a brain tumor. I don’t really need any more personal struggles. I’m good. I have built soooo much character in my 38 years.
But I feel the self-imposed burden to finish what I started, when it would be so much healthier for me if I could say to myself, “It doesn’t matter if you finish this,” and then really mean it.
Also? I have an earache, which has more to do with me being in bed than run-of-the-mill depression. I could pout for days. And winter hasn’t even started.
I packed up the memoir in a neat little Scrivener file and emailed it to Dan. It was much harder to do than I thought it would be. I know that in its current state it’s awful. It’s a first draft. I keep telling myself that. It’s a first draft. But I also know that without Dan to help me make sense of the chaos, I won’t get beyond first draft. I am well and truly stuck, incapable of even opening the file right now. (The last time I tried to take a look at it, I only got a few sentences into the first scene and cringed so hard I was practically paralyzed.)
So, yeah. Being 100 percent honest about the whole situation, I’m a little nervous Dan’s going to look over the existing manuscript and be like, “Em, this is not salvageable.” Even though my rational mind knows he wouldn’t say that even if he really did think it.
It’s weird, because I thought I was over getting apprehensive about my writing years ago. But this is different somehow. I mean, it’s not any more personal than a lot of my blog posts, and I seem to have no trouble hitting publish on these puppies! But it’s big, and it’s important, and I actually kind of need this thing to work because I’m relying on the income.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a first attempt at a book, and I know it’s not really fair to the project or to me. But, well, here we are anyway.
I’m not sure when Dan will have a chance to look at the file. I kind of sent it at a time when I knew he’d be busy with getting-us-ready-for-winter projects. I’ll post an update after he’s had a chance to look at it though.