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Tag: train

The Good News

When I was young, my mother told me I’d gotten a phone call. I was whining about what terrible news it was certain to be, and she said, “How can it be good news if you don’t leave room for it to be good?”

I think of this every time I’m about to open a SASE. You know, the letter that, incredibly, some very high-end literary agents still use—no internet for them. My natural pessimism kicks in until I remember my mom, and I think, Ellen, you need to leave room for it to be good.

Today as I slit open the letter, I took it one step further. I said, whatever is in this envelope is good news. There’s lots of ways to spin this into truth, the primary one being he or she wouldn’t have been the right agent for me anyway. More importantly, it makes me read the letter looking for the good in it, which might otherwise slip by unnoticed.

I’m not going to identify the agent—she probably didn’t expect to be quoted, and I also don’t want anyone to be negative about her. To be clear, she did NOT offer representation. What she offered was hope.

She praised my characters, my writing, my keen observations, and my publishing credentials. I don’t mean to be blasé, but she is not the first agent to do so. What she did that hasn’t been done until this draft of the manuscript was to praise the storyline.

I have worked so hard on the story. I poured my heart into fixing the plot, making it work, pulling it into something desirable in a process that reminds me of my grandmother hand-pulling old-fashioned taffy, the taffy searing to the touch, Mamo working it into ropes before it cooled too much to be formed. To have someone say the narrative promises to be unique and entertaining is balm to my soul.

That’s good news.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Train of Thought

The train whistles in the distance. Slanting sunlight filters through the living room window—the train, which arrives and departs Memphis morning and night in the darkness, is late. Seated on the floor, I rub the dog’s belly and confide, “I love the train.” How I can love the instrument of my daddy’s death is beyond me.

In college I lived beside the railroad tracks. In my Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, the train snaked through the woods, unseen. When I ran away from home and divorced, I gave up the train for the tractor-trailers rumbling down the interstate—it wasn’t the same. I moved to Memphis where the train passes my house twice a day on its way to and from Chicago. Not satisfied, I leased a second residence in New Orleans where the train passes so near I can almost touch it.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if my habit of sitting my butt down by the railroad tracks is a form of “keep your enemies closer.” It’s not. The train releases in me, as it does for so many people, the excitement of possibilities, the flying into the fabulous future and, at the same time, the remembrance of hope lost, the past retreating into a place where it will never be seen again.

So it is with my Daddy Joe, my birth father who died when I was three, hit by a train then dead. The evocation of lost things always brings that poignant mix of happiness and sorrow. But this morning seated on the living room floor letting the dog gnaw my hand, I realized I would never have to miss the past again because it is still with me, always. Nor do I have to “miss” the happiness of the present, overly aware it, too, will pass away. The moments I’ve lived live on inside me, as present as the whistle of the train, which I also cannot touch or see but feel in my heart, vibrating.

Life is good, and it will always be good, as long as I sit on the living room floor in the sun, rubbing my dog’s tummy.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Interstitial Moment

I don’t exit well.
Astounded, I stared at the blank space on the dining room table. Last time I looked, my train ticket had been lying in that spot. My “this is not a ticket” information sheet, too, just in case I needed it. Ahead of time, I’d dutifully printed both pieces of paper and laid them in their special place. Which was now blank.
This discovery came shortly after a frantic fifteen minute search for my glasses. Upstairs, downstairs, in my outside car—all in vain. Neither the essential glasses—I am blind as Elmer Fudd—nor the tickets were ever found.
Me, pawing through the trunk of the car, running up and down the stairs, scattering everything from my pocketbook onto the couch: this is not a pretty sight. A “melt down,” said my patient husband who, unfortunately, witnessed the entire thing.
Why is this? Why did I wake with dread this morning when I’m off to enjoy a fun weekend with my family? What about leave-taking undoes me?
First of all, I expect mistakes. I know I will forget something. When I was practicing law and left the office, the staff would count (“one, Mississippi; two, Mississippi”), waiting for me to reappear and retrieve what I had forgotten on my desk or to tell them what I’d forgotten to say or ask for the directions I’d forgotten about while rushing out the door. As a result, when something goes wrong happens, panic sets in: you always screw up this way!
Rushing, harried, frantic, panicked.
My problem, I think, is a life-long attempt to cut it too close. Sleeping until the last minute, ready to walk out the door at the last minute, leaving no time to compose myself and think: do you have every thing you need, such as your tickets? If the answer to that question is “no,” and it is time to get this show on the road, a meltdown ensues because I HAVE NO TIME, I’M LATE, THE TRAIN WILL LEAVE MY ASS!
Now, there’s an atmosphere that makes it easy to think.
I’m making a vow (publicly, no less) to quit that foolishness. No longer will I set my alarm to the minute, work on my stories up to the last minute. From now on, I will build in a buffer zone. A period of stillness, ten minutes at least when I sit and think, what is it you need in order to move on to the next thing?
If I can do this, maybe I will learn to honor the interstitial moment, the hiatus, the pause between one era of time and the next. Whether leaving for Jackson or leaving a beloved service organization or leaving one adventure for another, I can sit quietly and ask: what is it I need to take with me?
Oh—are you wondering how I got on the train with no tickets? These days, you can use your phone. Or, even better, you can walk up to the platform and the conductor says, “Name, please?” You say, “Prewitt,” and he finds your ticket on his own phone.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Angels on the Train

We were many. An overflowing, summer-stuffed, unpracticed group. Even those of us who weren’t novice train-goers were intimidated by the crowd, made nervous by the excess: would I really have a seat?
He was kind, the conductor who did not view his job as an opportunity to inflict minor cruelty on those more ignorant—and dependent—than he. As we anxiously asked about proper tickets and checking luggage and trying to line up in the correct place so we’d be out of the way of his tram, he re-assured us, “You’re doing it right. You did a good job.”
“He’s always here, always like that,” a sister traveler said when I noted the man’s kindness.
A miracle, I thought, when it could have so easily gone a different way.
I knew I wanted a coffee, but when I stalled on what to eat, the patient cafe attendant offered a list of appropriate breakfast food. As my bagel warmed in the microwave, he asked, “Are you okay? You seem sad.”
“I am,” I said, tearing up: I am fine until someone is nice to me.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he replied.
Later, when I’d done some good work on my writing and watched the trees whiz by the train window in an arc of green, I returned to the clerk to ask for a “regular Pepsi.”
“How is your trip going?” he asked.
“Better,” I said.
“I can tell,” he replied. “It shows in your face.”
Much improved, this time I did not cry.
I have never been an adherent to the “angels in your path” theory. People are just people. But those working on the train today were kind people. And that may be all angels are.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Without a whistle
without a lurch,
the train moved out.
Stationary at the crossing
doing God knows what,
it finished,
and went along its way
unaware that three heartbeats before—
one thump thump,
two thump thump
three thump thump,
a boy had been shoving his bicycle
between the cars
then clambering up and over after it,
impatient to get along his way.
The boy did not know the train was about to move.
The train did not know the impatient boy was about to act.
One heart beat sooner—
one thump thump—
the boy would’ve been crushed.
The train has a mind of its own. Be careful.

creative synthesis . . .

Ties that Could’ve Been

Riding the train from Memphis
watching the tracks go by,
I was struck by the railroad ties
strewn hither and thither
along the way.
Old ties, been there a while—
it wasn’t like the tie collector
was chugging along behind me
ready to recover the rotting ties.
I couldn’t help but think of my
artist friend
and the wonderful things she could make from
those ties.
The ties were in the railroad’s
right of way—
the company could toss purple ducks along the tracks
and be in the right.
But just because it was their
right of way
doesn’t mean it was
the right way.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

We Got Plenty of Time

It’s six o’clock. The cab was supposed to be here at six o’clock. I call.

“This is Ellen Prewitt? Y’all were sending a cab?”

“You’re in Harbor Town, right?”


“We’ve got someone coming.”

I stuff the phone in my back pocket.

Two seconds later the phone rings. “I’m coming to get you. You’re in Harbor Town, right? I’m on Park. I’ll be there in six minutes.”

Park is a long way from where I live.

I gather my bags, huddle at the front door. It’s black as pitch outside. The train leaves at 6:50. My ticket says: arrive thirty minutes early, or the train will leave your ass.

In a minute, the phone rings again.

“I’m on Fern Bend.”

I pause. “I don’t know that name.”

Across the harbor, speeding along the tracks, the train whistles by. The train I’m supposed to be on. Headed toward the station. Where I’m supposed to board.

“You’re off Island Place, right? Harbor Isle Circle East? You go around a curve?”

I consider. I’m terrible with street names, but something rings a bell. “I think Island Place is two neighborhoods down. Is it a big wide street? I’m in Harbor Town.”

“Oh, I know where you are. You’re in Harbor Town. My girlfriend, she has my GPS—she’s a contract driver with the company. That’s why I’m asking you where you are. I’ll be there in two minutes.”

I hang up.

It’s 6:20.

I drag my bags outside, lock the door behind me.

Something rustles beneath the maple tree. It’s a woman walking her dog, at this time of the morning. She glances up, startled to see me standing on the walkway. I think her dog pooped and she didn’t scoop it up.

I stand in the dark. I’m glad I didn’t tell the cabbie my porch light would be on because, of course, I’ve had to turn it off. Getting ready to leave. Whenever the cab arrives.

Headlights tear down my street. The cab—one of those van-like things—bounces to a halt. I sling in my bags.

“I knew I would find you,” he says. “If you were in a hole, I’d find you. Then I’d sling a rope down that hole, and I’d pull you out. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that before.”

I go through my wallet, hunting the money for the fare.

“Don’t nobody in dispatch help you. I’ve been driving a cab eleven years. They’re supposed to help you. ‘You supposed to know where the street is.’ Well, I’m supposed to know where the street is before I get in the cab. You can’t know where every street is. Sometimes GPS is wrong, sometimes the map is wrong. It’d work better if dispatch and the driver worked together. Only one person in dispatch would stand on their head for me. Don’t nobody help. ”

We’re tooling along. We hit a red light. We wait.

Then he tells a story. It’s a funny story. The story involves Eades and a long drive  into the country and million-dollar houses, eight concrete steps to get into the house, a brass handle on the door, drunk-as-skunk millionaires partying in the house. “I’m afraid to go in the house,” he says, “poor Black guy out in the country with nothing but million-dollar houses.”

I want to reach out and touch him on the shoulder, tell him I know we can’t go any faster if he quits talking, but I need for him to quit talking. I refrain. He takes a left down G.E. Patterson. Some cabs I’ve been in, they circle around, trying to find the entrance to the station, confused by the one-way streets. He’s headed straight there.

His dispatch calls. He says, “Yeah, I got her. It don’t leave until 6:50. We got plenty of time.”

When we glide into the station, traverse the parking lot, ease beside the long platform that leads to the train, there is no train.

Has it left already?

“See there,” he says. “The train is late. It was late yesterday morning, too.”

I give him a $3 tip on a $11 fare. My bags and I head to check-in.

He comes trotting after me.

“That was your cellphone I was calling, right? When you on your way back, call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

When I get on the train, I retrieve his number from my phone. I write it down. The man knew what he was doing, GPS or no. I liked him, I liked his story. But most of all, I liked his attitude. I need someone to drive me around, telling me every waking minute of every day: relax, we got plenty of time.


As irrefutable proof of my ingrained belief that the problem must be mine, I retained the title, description, and target audience given to me by a former agent whom an editor said was not marketing my novel correctly. That period is over.

Old Title: Trouble at Big Daddy’s Chicken Palace Emporium

New title: Don Chickote: Or the Strange Adventures of Lucinda Mae Watkins on the Train 

Old Description: a Southern “train trip” novel

New description: The daughter of a fast food chicken magnate hits the rails in a wild ride across America to restore her dead daddy’s rightful place in fried chicken lore.

Old Audience: Fannie Flagg lovers

New audience: Those who mourn the demise of “The Flight of the Conchords.” Who think Darnell was the funniest character on “My Name is Earl.” Who follow Bubbles on “Trailer Park Boys,” who sing along to Beck’s “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”  Anyone who thinks the funniest movie ever made was the one where Johnny Depp wore the fake arm. Readers whose favorite hardback is, “All My Friends are Dead,” who can quote Douglas Adams by heart. Those who don’t understand when you call it “quirky”—it’s just funny.

New secondary audience: devotees of all things chicken

OK. I”m still working on it. The point is, it will be mine this time. Rise or fall, sink or swim, give or take—it will be my sensibilities. Such as they are.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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