Elsewhere

By Fred Zachau




A man said to the Universe: "Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the Universe, "The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation."
Stephen Crane, "War is Kind."

As Jack Callahan walks down Forest Road toward the railroad crossing, he wonders if he is going mad. Forest Road appears deserted, lifeless. The houses are dark. The streetlights are out. The only light comes from the moon. The time is ten minutes to midnight. Midnight, an appropriate hour to go completely nuts, Jack thinks. If itís going to happen, it will probably happen at midnight. Jack walks on toward the railroad tracks pondering the workings of his own mind. Over the past three weeks his life went from humdrum to bizarre. What, he wonders, is real? Are his recent unexplainable experiences the creations of a deteriorating brain or are they extraordinary glimpses into an elsewhere where the irreal of here is real?

His Monday three weeks ago began like any other Monday. He walked out of his front door to his Jeep Cherokee and began the boring, Monday-through-Friday drive to work. Mud, acquired while carrying Jack along the back roads of northern Minnesota the previous weekend where he had hiked and photographed fall colors and wildlife, covered the exterior of the Jeep. He turned left out of his driveway onto 107th Street and joined the rush hour traffic. Three blocks later he turned left again onto Forest Road. No sooner had he made the turn than he heard the train whistle.

"Damn," he muttered and punched the accelerator to the floor hoping to beat the train to the Forest Road crossing. But the crossing arms fell while he was still a block away from the crossing. When he stopped, his car was third back from the tracks. He sat and watched the freight cars pass. The red lights on the crossing arms blinked monotonously. In the distance the trainís engine moaned. Todayís trains lack the romance of the old steam locomotives, he thought. The whistles on the steam locomotives had an upbeat, cheerful sound, and there is a wonderful lore surrounding the old steam locomotives: stories of the freight-hopping hobos of the Great Depression, who rode the rods and decks of freight cars, sometimes to find work and sometimes just for the hell of it; the wreck of engine 382 and the death of its famous engineer, Casey Jones; poems and word pictures by some of Jackís favorite writers and poets -- Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac, Robert Service, Walt Whitman. What about the lore surrounding the diesel locomotive? After a few moments thought, he decided that there isnít any.

The end of the train passed and interrupted his musing. The crossing arms went up. The red lights stopped blinking, and the line of traffic began to move. Back to boredom. On to work. Jack followed the traffic to Highway 30 and turned left on a green arrow. Ten minutes later he pulled into the parking lot of Advanced Computer Products. (Its space-age name is ACP.) When he reached his office he found his secretary, Carol, already in her cubical staring at her PC.

"Hi, Carol, Whatís happening?"

"Morning, Jack. Youíre registered for the conference in Chicago; your hotel reservations are confirmed; and your schedule for today is on your desk."

"O.K. thanks, Carol." Jackís day, as usual, consisted of a series of boring meetings and small, frustrating conferences. His project was behind schedule. If, at the upcoming conference in Chicago, Jack could find a vendor from whom he could buy the technology to solve a particularly troublesome problem, he might avoid a schedule slip. Jack would turn sixty-two in eleven months and retire. Then he wouldnít have to sit through any more dull meetings and explain any more schedule slips.

At 4:30 Carol poked her head in the door. "Are you going to need me any more tonight, Jack?"

"Nope, head for home."

"Have a good time in Chicago," she said.

"Well, Iím bound to have some fun. Iím entered in the conference golf tournament."

"Win it, Jack."

"Fat chance. Goodnight, Carol."

Carol remained standing at the door. Finally she asked, "Jack, am I going to get laid off?"

"I havenít heard anything, Carol. I think youíre safe for a while, but it wouldnít hurt to look around just in case Iím wrong."

"Thanks, Jack."

"And, Carol, if thereís anything I can do, you know, if you need a reference or anything, please ask."

"I will, Jack. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Carol."

The cost-reduction-obsessed CEO of floundering, foundering ACP had taken home just over $10 million last year. Jack contemplated the icons on the screen of his PC monitor for a long time. Finally, frustrated, he muttered a disgusted "shit," put on his coat, and walked out to the Cherokee. He drove to a health club where he swam half a mile. Next he stopped at a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Then home. After doing his household chores, he poured two fingers of brandy in a water glass, put a Stan Getz CD in the CD player, turned off all the lights, dropped into his recliner, and stared out his front window at the night wondering what he will do after he retires. Hit a few more golf balls, hike a few more miles, shoot a few more photos, he supposed. Maybe he should get a dog, someone to tramp the woods with, to come home to. Maybe he should become passionate about some cause. Jack looked toward a spot on the wall where he knew a photo of Kate, his wife, best friend, golf and hiking partner, was hanging in the darkness. She had been dead for just over two years. When Stan Getz and the brandy were finished, Jack went to bed.

The next morning he walked out to the Cherokee, threw his golf clubs, and a suitcase in the back, and began the drive to Chicago. At Madison he stopped for lunch. After lunch he located a telephone in the restaurant and dialed a Madison number.

"Leslie and Adams Tax Service," a womanís voice said.

"Suzie Adams, please."

"Sheís out of town. May I take a message?"

"When will she get back?"

"Sheíll be in tomorrow morning."

"Do you expect her to be at work on Friday?"

"Yes, sheíll be in for the rest of the week. May I take a message?"

"Yes, please. My name is Jack Callahan. Tell her Iíll call again next Friday about eleven."

"Iíll give her the message."

"Thanks. Good-bye."

"Good-bye."

Jack walked out to the Cherokee and entered the I-90 ramp to Chicago. He arrived at the conference hotel about three hours later.

The next morning he fired an eighty-three in the conference golf tournament, not a bad score for him on a course he had never played before, but not quite good enough to finish in the awards. Thursday morning he attended a presentation sponsored by a major computer manufacturer. Its title was "Where Are We Going in the Twenty-First Century?" and the speaker was a futurist. Bullshit, thought Jack. He doesnít know where we are going in the twenty-first century any more than I do. Experts who predict the future have an affinity with wrongness. Technology has not solved all of our problems. The green revolution did not end world hunger. All of our gadgets have not brought us great gobs of leisure time. And more and more American troops did not conquer the Viet Cong. In the afternoon he attended a seminar on marketing. More bullshit. Jack could remember only two things about his high school Latin book: it was black, and within it was the Latin version of Ecclesiastes 1:2: Vanitas vanitatium; omnia vanitas. (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.) Not quite right for our society today, thought Jack. Things have changed a bit since King Solomonís time. We have plenty of vanity, all right, but it isnít the foundation of our culture. Bullshit is. Bullshit and bullshit and all is bullshit. Now that describes our society. Certainly vanity is one of the bulls, but the big bull comprises all of the professionals who bullshit, not to satisfy vanity, but to promote, hype, and con to earn a living.

Jack spent Friday morning in the exhibition hall checking out the exhibitorís booths. All of this devotion to duty required dogged effort. Jack had been to too many conferences, had seen too many exhibits. Just before 11:00 a.m. he went up to his hotel room and dialed the Madison number.

"Leslie and Adams Tax Service."

"Suzie Adams, please."

"One moment, please."

"Suzie Adams here."

"Hi, Suzie. This is Jack Callahan."

"Jack, they told me youíd called! Where are you?"

"Iím in Chicago."

"What are you doing in Chicago?"

"Iíve been attending a conference. Itís just about over. Iíll be driving through Madison late this afternoon. How about having dinner with me tonight?"

"That sounds wonderful. What time will you get here?"

"Iíll be there by five."

"Fine, Iíll be home by then."

"How do I get to your place?"

She gave him very precise directions to her house, then said, "Iím really looking forward to this, Jack, itís been so many years. Weíve got so much catching up to do."

"Me too. Got to go, Suzie. Iíll see you tonight."

"O.K. Bye, Jack."

"Bye, Suzie."

After lunch he returned to the exhibition hall to finish checking out the competition. At two oíclock he walked out to the Cherokee and began the drive to Madison. In Madison he easily followed her directions to her house. As he walked up the driveway, he wondered if he was making a bad mistake by coming here. He climbed the porch stairs and rang the bell. The door behind the screen was half open.

        "Come on in," she called. "I'm on the phone."

        He entered just in time to hear her say, "I've got to go now. I'll call you in the morning. Yes. Good bye."

She hung up the phone, turned toward him, and stood looking at him for a long time. What's she thinking? he wondered. He knew he looked fit and trim. Many miles of hiking and swimming and many gym workouts had kept him in good shape. Oh, in spite of all of his huffing and puffing he'd developed a pair of love handles, but they're so small that when he has a shirt on, they're hardly noticeable. But he also knew he looked older. That's what she's thinking, he thought. He looks older. He looks so much older. Well, what the hell, he should look older. It's been, what, twenty-five years? No, closer to thirty.

He studied her face. When she was young, she had such beautiful skin. Now her face was covered with lines and creases. "Careworn" is the word that came to his mind.

Her face might have acquired lines and creases, but her figure hadn't changed much. "Cutest little fanny in ten states," Harry had always been fond of saying. No change there. She stood ramrod straight. Two of his friends had wives who were also pure Swede, and they, too, had posture that he admired. And they all moved with an easy grace, not stiffly like a marine. Osteoporosis must be unknown in Sweden, he thought.

She was wearing her once-blond, now more-nearly gray, hair the way he had always liked it best, in an upsweep piled on top of her head. Did she wear it that way for me? That hairdo is out of style. How old is she now, he wondered. He guessed fifty-eight. Incredible! he thought. She's pushing sixty, and she's still just about the classiest lady I've ever known. She had been watching him with a sober, concerned expression on her lined, lovely face. Then she smiled, and happy replaced careworn.

He held out his arms and said, "Hi, Suzie."

"Oh, Jack," she said, "it's so good to see you again," and they gave each other a long, very honest, good-friends hug. When they broke, both started laughing, each remembering a different good time they had shared when they were young. All of his reservations evaporated. He was glad he had come.

They talked about old times for a while. Then she asked, "Are you hungry, Jack?"

"Iím famished."

"Where do you want to eat?"

"Itís been so long since Iíve lived in Madison that I canít remember whatís good and whatís bad. You pick one." She decided and then volunteered to drive. A bag of golf clubs and two cross-country ski poles lay in the back of her station wagon.

"Do you still do a lot of skiing and golfing?" he asked.

"Yes, every chance I get." They discussed their golf games until they arrived at the restaurant.

"Let's get a bottle of wine with dinner," he suggested. "Remember, this only happens once every quarter of a century."

"All right."

They both ordered steaks and a bottle of Cabernet sauvignon.

"Wow, I haven't indulged like this since," she laughed, "last night." They started with the salad bar. Then came the steaks and the wine, and she began to talk. It was as if she had been waiting since Harry's death for an old friend to talk to. She talked about Harry, about their children, and about what sheíd been doing since Harry had been killed in the automobile accident. After his death she had taken classes in tax law to supplement her B.A. in business and then had gone to work for Ed Leslie. (On the advice of a psychiatrist? wondered Jack.) After two years, Ed had offered her a partnership in the business. He was seventy at the time. He had been threatening to retire since he was fifty.

"Do you think heíll ever retire?" Jack asked.

"I hope not. He wouldnít last two weeks. He loves his business. He doesnít even like to take vacations."

"If he does, would you continue to run the business?"

"I suppose so. I really donít have anything else to do."

"But all your skiing and golfing," he objected.

"I still golf with the same people that Harry and I golfed with, but itís different now. In some ways Iím still part of the group, but in others Iím not. Itís different when you are a widow. I just donít fit in with some of their activities."

"How about skiing?"

"Almost all the people Harry and I skied with have quit by now. I ski with a younger group that I met through the business. I donít downhill much anymore, but I still love to get out in the woods on cross-country skis."

"Can you keep up with them?"

"With most of them. And I try not to embarrass those who canít keep up with me," she said with a hint of pride in her voice. "But Iím so much older than they are that we really donít have much in common other than skiing."

She had always been a superb athlete, better than Jack. Could I beat her on the golf course? he wondered. "I suppose thousands of men have been hammering on your door."

"Hardly. Oh there have been a few, but when I look at them, I always see Harry. And I think several have been looking for money." She laughed. "Theyíd be so disappointed. They think I have more than I have."

After the steaks and wine were gone, they drank coffee and more coffee. Finally they drove back to her house.

"Would you like to come in for coffee, Jack."

Where might this lead? Jack wondered. Iíd really like to jump in bed with her, but is she just being polite? I donít want to make a big mistake. This is too important. Iíve got to think this over a bit

"I think Iím over-coffeed now, but letís do this again, and not wait another quarter of a century. Would it be O.K. if I called you again?"

"Please do, Jack. Tonight was so much fun." They gave each other another good friends hug, a little longer than last time, and when they broke they didnít laugh.

"Goodnight, Jack."

"Goodnight, Suzie." He walked to the Jeep and started the drive back to Minneapolis. While still in the Madison suburbs, he began to get sleepy. The coffee canít conquer the wine, he thought. He pulled into a motel, which, fortunately, had a vacancy. The next morning he completed the drive to Minneapolis.

Two weeks passed before Jack called Suzie. It was Sunday night, and he was standing in the middle of the living room holding the phone and wondering what to say. He should never have waited two weeks to call. He knew what he wanted to do the day after he left Madison. What will he do if she has changed her mind and says, No? Hit a few more golf balls, hike a few more miles, and shoot a few more photos, he supposed. He dialed her number without knowing exactly what he would say.

"Hello." A manís voice.

"Is Suzie home?"

After a long pause the manís voice said, "This is Bill Adams, Suzieís son. May I ask who this is?"

"This is Jack Callahan. Your mother and father and my wife and I were good friends in college."

"Yes, I know, sheís talked about you. You stopped in to see her just a few weeks ago, didnít you?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Callahan, my mother passed away last week. The funeral was yesterday."

"What... what happened?"

"She had a heart attack. Ed Leslie got worried when she didnít come in for work and didnít call. Ed called me at work, and I came over here to her house. I found her lying on the garage floor."

"Did she know she had a heart condition?"

"We donít know. If she did, she didnít tell any of us. She may not have. She wasnít very good about taking an annual physical. She always hated going to the doctor."

"Itís hard to believe she had a heart attack," said Jack. "She was so active. All her golfing and skiing."

"I know," said Bill. "We still canít believe it."

"Bill, Iím very sorry. Please believe me. She was a fine woman and a good friend, and I will miss her. Please accept my condolences."

"Thank you. Mr. Callahan."

Polite, inconsequential talk followed until they ran out of things to say.

After hanging up, Jack went into the kitchen and poured two fingers of brandy in a water glass. He walked back to the living room, turned out all the lights, put a Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan CD in the player, dropped into his recliner, and stared out his front window at the night. Four brandies later Jack went to bed quite drunk.

The next morning he awoke with a bad headache. After two aspirin he made a cup of instant coffee. Then another cup of instant coffee and two pieces of toast. Now what? He shaved, showered, and dressed for work. He walked to his Jeep Cherokee, climbed in, and began the boring Monday-through-Friday drive to work. He turned left out of his driveway onto 107th Street and joined the rush hour traffic. As he drove along 107th Street everything looked normal, but as soon as he turned left onto Forest Road, the world looked strange. Forest Road carried no traffic, not a car. No children waited for the school bus. No one walked out to a mailbox for the morning paper. No crows pecked at road kill on the shoulder. Forest Road was deserted, lifeless.

Puzzling. Then he heard the whistle of the steam locomotive. It took him a moment to realize what he had just thought -- the whistle of the steam locomotive! The red railroad-crossing lights began to blink and the crossing arms fell just before he got to the crossing. A few moments later the train reached the crossing, a train of several dozen wooden boxcars pulled by a coal-fired steam locomotive, all of 1930s vintage. An antique, red, wooden caboose brought up the rear. The train passed with a blast from its steam whistle and the crossing arms went up. No cars waited on the other side of the crossing. Jack looked in his rear view mirror. No cars behind him either. Across the tracks he saw only more dead landscape. He was alone on Forest Road.

His puzzlement gradually turned to fear. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. He accelerated hoping to drive as quickly as possible out of the desolation. By the time he saw the traffic semaphore at Highway 30, he was hitting seventy. He slowed and stopped for the red left-turn arrow. Highway 30 bustled with rush hour traffic. The arrow turned green and Jack made a left turn. Ten minutes later he pulled into the ACP parking lot and walked directly to his office. Carol sat in her cube staring at her PC.

"Hi, Carol, anything new?" he said, half expecting a weird reply (thereís an alien gentlemen from Mars in the lobby waiting to see you).

But no, she simply said, "Absolutely nothing."

In his office he checked the daily schedule Carol had prepared for him. Then he called Burlington Northern Railroad. From Burlington Northern he learned that the only steam locomotive that currently ran through the Twin Cities was engine 261, which had been lovingly restored by a group of steam enthusiasts and, pulling passenger cars filled with tourists, made a once-a-year roundtrip from the Twin Cities to some destination that changed annually.

What the hell is happening? wondered Jack. Steam locomotives that donít exist and Suzie is dead. A sphere of gloom settled about him. He told Carol he had to study a specification and didnít want to be interrupted, except for emergencies, and spent most of the day in his office with the door closed, staring at, but not seeing, a specification lying on his desk. He politely cut short telephone calls and interruptions by people who thought they had emergencies.

As soon as Carol left for the day, he walked out to the Jeep and drove to the health club where he swam half a mile. Next, dinner. Then, home. After doing his household chores, he poured two fingers of brandy in a water glass, put a John Coltrane CD in the player, turned off all the lights, dropped into his recliner, and stared out his front window at the night, thinking about nothing. When John Coltrane and the brandy were finished, he went to bed.

A few minutes before midnight, he awoke and heard it, the whistle of the steam engine. He sat up in bed, tense, and the feeling of terror returned as he heard the engine chug out of the distance, cross Forest Road, whistle again, and chug back into the distance heading -- where? To where it came from? Which is where? Not here. It doesnít belong here. To another reality, another universe? Theyíre realms out of science fiction. Elsewhere, he preferred the word elsewhere. Does this elsewhere really exist? Does the antique train itself really exist or is it only a creation of his weary mind, and if it is, does it matter? Does anything then really matter? He lay back down and after half an hour of wondering, fell asleep.

Each day for the rest of the week, when Jack drove to work in the morning, Forest Road appeared normal. He did not encounter the antique train at the crossing. Each day he cloistered himself in his office as much as possible, attended as few meetings as possible, and made only those phone calls he had to make. Each night after work he stopped at the health club and either swam half a mile or worked out in the gym for half an hour. Each night he stopped at a restaurant for dinner. Then home. After doing his household chores, he poured two fingers of brandy in a water tumbler, put a lonely saxophone in the CD player, turned out the lights, dropped into his recliner, and stared out his front window, thinking about nothing. When the brandy and the saxophone were finished, he went to bed.

Each night just before midnight he awoke and heard the old steam locomotive whistle, chug out of the distance, cross Forest Road, whistle again, and chug back into the distance heading to its elsewhere. At first the sound of the train frightened him, but as the week progressed, he became more and more comfortable with it, even looking forward to hearing it. Friday passed, much as did Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. After work on Friday Jack went through his health-club, restaurant, saxophone and brandy ritual. When he went to bed, he set his alarm for 11:30 p.m. He need not have. He awoke at 11:25. He dressed quickly, put on a light jacket, and began the one-mile walk to the Forest Road crossing. As he walked down 107th Street, all seemed normal. A few cars were still on the road. Lights were still on in a few homes. Through one window he could see a TV screen change colors. A dog barked at him from its kennel alongside a house. But as soon as he turned onto Forest Road, human and animal life vanished.

Now as Jack walks along Forest Road, he sees no movement, hears no sound. The only light comes from the moon. Spooning moon, Tinkerbell moon, werewolf moon; it is none of these. It radiates not love nor adventure nor horror. It simply coats the lifeless terrain with a pale, impersonal light. As he walks on toward the railroad crossing, he hears, as he knew he would, the whistle of the steam locomotive in the distance. Then the chug of the locomotive becomes audible. The lengths of the intervals between chugs increase. The train is slowing. The red crossing lights begin to blink, and the crossing arms fall.

Jack and the locomotive arrive at the crossing at the same time. The train stops with the caboose blocking the crossing. The door of the caboose opens, and a man steps out onto the platform. He hangs a kerosene lantern on a hook about head high and stands next to it. In the lantern light Jack sees that he is an old man dressed in old-time railroaderís garb: a blue and white striped cap, blue shirt, a red neckerchief, and bib overalls.

His wrinkled, weather-beaten face sports a white beard, and he smiles a warm smile. He says nothing, but his smile says very plainly, Climb aboard, Jack. Behind Jack lie 107th Street and his sphere of gloom. Everything around him, illuminated by the emotionless light of the moon, says, I feel no sense of obligation for your existence. The old man continues to smile. Finally, Jack climbs aboard the platform of the antique caboose, and with a chug, and a jerk the old train resumes its journey to elsewhere.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Fred Zachau

Fred Zachau is a retired software engineer who lives in the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. He spends much of his retirement time writing short stories, telling stories in coffee houses, working part time at the St. Paul Public Library, and, twice a year, serving as the copy editor for a literary anthology. Since retiring, he has published about fifteen short stories in nine or ten different electronic and small-circulation print magazines.

E-mail: kaz651@juno.com

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