This story is based on an entry I found in my mother’s journal. On a train ride from St. Louis to her home in Louisiana, she met some girls and sang with them. The girls’ names, as well as the song titles and lyrics, are those she recorded in her journal. The remaining 98% of the story is pure artistic license. Edea/DeeDee is my mother; we have the same name. Written in high school, 1997.
You know how it feels when you’re looking through the window of a moving car? That’s how it is on the train. There’s nothing but trees, and they move by my window so fast, they seem like one big curtain of green. I almost want to reach up and pull the imaginary cord to draw the drapes aside. Whenever the foliage thins sunlight blasts through the glass, and I close my eyes to the glare; I turn my face upwards to the light and feel the heat on my eyelids. That must be what Moses did when he was surrounded by the glory of God.
Edea put the end of her pen into her mouth and twisted it around. Her journal (really an LSU binder filled with looseleaf paper) was spread across her lap, and her eyes wandered from the red and blue lined paper to the split-second snapshots that flitted by her window. Resting her chin in her hand, she leaned even closer to the window, and her breath fogged the thick dirty glass. A quick swipe of her hand made the world outside come back into focus. She twirled her fingers around the sterling silver cross which hung from her neck and shifted her position.
I try to ignore the heaviness of my stomach. I have to leave St. Louis and return to the bayou, and I’ve known that all along. My whole being fights against going home, like a person who wants to drift back to sleep after waking in the middle of a pleasant dream. How can schoolwork compare to the cathedral in St. Louis? And how can singing at weddings release my heart like the parks in the city? Could the bridges over Bayou Lafourche, raised for fishing boats, begin to outshine the Arch?
She said the serenity prayer as she reached for the tiny cross again and squeezed it until it made an impression on her palm.
She thought of the bayou. Warm breezes tickled it at dusk, and the water shivered into thousands of ripples, reflecting both the pink and orange hues of the setting sun and the soft glow of the pale-faced moon. Lonely fishing boats rose up and down in time, and salty, pungent fish smells rose from piled-up nets to be lifted and carried away on the wind. As the breezes moved on, they soaked in the summer heat, rustled through the outspread arms of the magnolia tree, and absorbed the fragrance of fading blossoms. The wind chimes tinkled like muffled giggles under the red and white awning shading the front steps. Wilted magnolia petals drifted around the lawn swing, which creaked under her weight when she sat there on pretty nights to write in her journal. She certainly could never write in the house. Her grandfather was always yelling at someone on the phone or cussing at her grandmother. She stayed out of the way most of the time. They would probably notice she was gone if less food disappeared from the freezer. But the bayou was home, at least for now.
She had gone to St. Louis to celebrate the anniversary of the Daughters of Charity. Several other people from Golden Meadow, including her grandmother, made up the group. St. Louis had a magnificent cathedral, and Edea would go into the sanctuary when she had free time and listen to the choir practicing.
I’ll get away some day . . . go to college, earn a doctorate, and be a professor… or a writer, or a librarian, or a dancer, or a nun. l’ll live alone, studying the Bible and praying, far away from the bayou. And some day my life will be my own — mine and God’s. The bayou will be far behind me.
Edea clipped her pen top on the top ring of the binder and shut the journal. She was tired of sitting, and wanted to stretch her legs.
She could feel the floor vibrating through the soles of her shoes as she squeezed her way down the narrow aisle. People’s gazes followed her as she went, and she had to wonder about their lives. Who was happy, lonely, afraid, depressed, loved? How many stories and poems were waiting to be written about their lives, waiting only to flow through a pen or pencil and be captured on paper – and never would?
As she continued to make her way down the aisle, several people turned in their seats and asked her if her hair was real; her braid was a thick black rope which was long enough for her to sit on. She moved on, humming to herself the song which she had made up on the way to St. Louis. It was a silly little tune, and she had enjoyed making up the words.
Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail,
As the pilgrims go marching along.
On the bus, out the bus; on the train; and here we go!
As the pilgrims go rolling along –
For a hi! hi! hee! we’re the Golden Meadow group –
Look out, St. Louis, here we come!
We’re in coach 8-A, we’ve been singing all the way,
As the pilgrims go rolling along!
Recalling the trip to St. Louis made her want to turn the train around and go back. Wouldn’t it be funny if the people at the St. Louis station saw their train coming back, caboose first? “Hey, Larry, didn’t we send that one out a couple of hours ago?”
Edea smiled to herself as she pushed through the door to coach 8-F. She first heard the singing about six rows from the back of the coach. Each coach had a small bathroom in the back, and between the bathroom wall and the last seat, there was a sort of cubbyhole about three feet square. Edea had made use of it herself on the way up to St. Louis; it was nice and removed – a great refuge to escape the commotion. It served the same purpose as her lawn swing back home. She could run away and write, forgetting about everything else.
It was here in the cubbyhole of 8-F that the music originated. She stopped and sat on the empty seat across the aisle, watching two girls sway back and forth with their eyes closed. One ran her slender fingers over the strings of her guitar like it was the bottom of a baby’s foot, and the words and notes of the song flowed smoothly through their mouths and over their lips. Edea felt a shiver pass up her arms and settle deep in her stomach, and she surrendered herself to the melody. She was so delighted, she didn’t even notice when the singing stopped. Her widened eyes were focused in a blank stare at a spot on the wall above the girls’ heads, and her mouth was tipped into a kind of half-smile.
Edea was shaken back to reality by a rich, husky voice… it must have been the source of the deep and haunting alto notes. “What’s your name?” it asked, and her eyes moved to find its source.
The girl’s brown hair was long and straight, parted right down the middle. A few freckles were sprinkled across her nose and cheekbones, and her blue eyes penetrated Edea’s. As the girl stood up and extended her hand, Edea noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra under her gray t-shirt. A quick glance at the other girl showed that she wasn’t either. She could almost hear her grandmother walking through the supermarket, muttering about “fast girls who don’t know how to dress decent.”
Edea reached for the girl’s hand and shook it firmly. “I’m DeeDee,” she answered. “I know this sounds strange, but I… your singing was so beautiful.”
“No problem,” said the girl. She laughed and sat back down. “Why don’t you sit with us? I’m Ninna.”
“My name’s Bobbie,” said the blond guitar-player, her hands still positioned on her instrument. Her short, thin hair was tucked behind her ears, and her eyes were the shiny green color of wet grass.
“Your playing was wonderful,” Edea told her. “I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.”
“Nothing to it,” Bobbie said with a wave of her hand. She brushed over the strings again, and when the chord had died, continued, “All you need is a book. And you’ve got to want to do it. Can’t do anything perfect if you don’t really want to.”
“And you don’t let men tell you that you can’t do it,” added Ninna.
“All men should go to hell. They invented it,” said Bobbie with a giggle.
Edea’s eyes widened. She didn’t usually spend time with people like these. But then she decided that she wanted to. “I better go back to 8-A and tell my grandmother where I am,” she said, excusing herself. “Is it okay if I come back and sing with you all?”
“You bet,” said Ninna.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…” Bobbie sang soprano, and Ninna’s harmony provided a sturdy foundation for the music. Edea sang when she knew the words, joining in with Ninna when she did.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, long way from home…” Bobbie strummed her guitar with the same sensitivity and soul she had used earlier, and Edea relished the sounds filling the air around her.
“Long way from home… sometimes I feel like I’m almost dead, sometimes I feel like I’m almost dead… long way from home, long way from home.” They repeated the first verse again, and were quiet for a few moments after they had finished it, waiting for the last note from Bobbie’s guitar to fade away.
“Wow, that was great,” said Ninna.
“Almost as great as sex,” quipped Bobbie.
Edea laughed along with them and recalled how her grandmother stuttered and turned red whenever she had to say that word. She reached up to touch her cross briefly, then wrapped her arms around her knees and clasped her hands, waiting for the next tune.
“How about ‘This Train’?” suggested Ninna.
“I don’t know how to play that one,” said Bobbie.
“We could sing it a Capella,” said Ninna.
“Okay,” said Bobbie. She pulled the strap over her head and smoothed her hair back into place, then laid the guitar flat on her lap. “You going to start, Ninna?”
“No, you better start,” Ninna replied. “Unless you all want to take up from the harmony.”
“I’ll start, then,” agreed Bobbie. She hummed a few notes to herself until she found one she liked, then began the song. Ninna and Edea joined in a few notes later. “This train won’t carry no gambler, this train; this train won’t carry no gambler, this train.”
Edea allowed herself to become lost in the music. She loved the way that Bobbie’s clear soprano was accented by the velvety tone of Ninna’s harmony, and given texture with her own vibrato. They stayed on pitch, even without the guidance of the guitar, and Edea decided that she loved the sound of their voices alone.
“This train won’t carry no gambler, no midnight rambler; this train won’t carry no gambler, this train.”
Bobbie seemed to have picked up the tune; she lifted the guitar and placed the strap around her neck. The chords were so soft, they couldn’t be heard, yet they could be heard. Edea wondered if there was any such thing as a type of singing between a Capella and accompanied. She watched Bobbie’s fingers move over the strings, barely touching them. It was the first time in her life that she’d been able to not only hear and feel music, but see it.
The girls broke off into solos. Bobbie began the second verse alone. “This train won’t carry no joker, this train; this train won’t carry no joker, this train. This train won’t carry no joker, no high-toned women, no cigar smoker; this train won’t carry no joker, this train.” Bobbie nodded at Ninna when she was finished.
Ninna straightened her back and waited for a few more chords from the guitar before she began her verse. “This train won’t carry my mother, this train; this train won’t carry my mother this train. This train won’t carry my mother, my father, my sister, my brother; this train won’t carry my mother, this train.”
When Ninna finished, she turned and smiled at Edea. Edea opened her mouth to sing, and listened to her own voice ringing in her ears. “This train is going to glory, this train; this train is going to glory, this train.” She was so touched by the music, she forgot that only an hour before, she had been moaning that “this train” was coming from glory. The notes almost made her believe in the glory of the fishing nets and sticky air of Bayou Lafourche. “This train is going to glory; if you want to get to heaven, well, you’ve got to be holy; this train is going to glory, this train.” She stopped singing and listened as Bobbie played another verse.
“That was really good, DeeDee,” said Ninna. “Do you ever sing in public?”
“I sing at weddings, and at Mass,” said Edea, blushing at the compliment.
“How did we guess?” said Bobbie, winking at Ninna.
They sang “The Cruel War is Raging” and “Taste of Honey” before Ninna stood up and said, “This is my stop.” She stared down at them with a dazed expression, as if she didn’t know what else to say.
“Where are we, anyway?” asked Bobbie.
“Jackson, Mississippi,” said Ninna. Edea remembered seeing Jackson through her window on the way up, and recalled being satisfied that it was smaller than New Orleans. “I won’t be living here forever, you can bet on that.”
“I don’t blame you for wanting to leave. I’m headed for San Francisco, when I get the money,” said Bobbie with a wistful smile. “I’m going to be a singer, or an actress. Maybe start my own band. You know, I’ll get around.”
“Don’t get caught,” said Ninna with a grin. “Bye, you all. Till we meet again, huh?”
“Yeah. Till we meet again,” said Bobbie.
Ninna turned and walked away. Edea leaned backwards and peeked around the corner to watch Ninna stride to the end of the coach. The door shut behind her, and just like that, she was gone.
Bobbie put her guitar aside, stood up, and walked to the nearest window, Edea following close behind her. Ninna stood on the platform holding her suitcase and staring at someone else in the crowd. Bobbie knocked on the glass, but Ninna couldn’t hear her over the outside commotion. “Oh well,” said Bobbie with a shrug. She went to sit down again, leaving Edea at the window.
Ninna dropped her head, brushing the corners of her eyes with her forefinger. Edea watched her and whispered, “Please don’t cry, Ninna” to the smudged glass.
She rejoined Bobbie and both were quiet for several minutes before Bobbie piped up, “So what do you call home? I’m from ‘New Arleens,’ proud home of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter.”
“I’m from Golden Meadow,” said Edea.
“Where the hell is that?” asked Bobbie.
“It’s close to Thibodeaux.”
“Your parents keep a tight rein on you?”
“I don’t live with my parents,” said Edea. “When my father was in World War II, my mother and I lived with my grandparents. When he came home, he bought us our own house a few miles away. I told them I didn’t want to leave, so they left me.”
“They left you? Just like that?” Bobbie pulled a cigarette and a lighter from the pocket of her jeans. She lifted the cigarette to her lips and drew a long breath, then exhaled it slowly, watching the gray swirls turn into tiny wisps and then vanish.
“Yeah,” said Edea.
“Damn, they just left you there?” Bobbie asked again.
Edea nodded and leaned back against the bathroom wall with a sigh. “I’m pretty happy,” she added a few moments later.
“You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself,” Bobbie observed. Edea didn’t reply. “You want one?” she offered, pulling out her pack of cigarettes.
“I’m ready to sing again. How about you?” Bobbie smiled and smashed her cigarette against the floor. Edea watched as the tiny orange embers flickered out one by one. “You have a song, DeeDee?”
Edea laughed as she taught Bobbie the “Golden Meadow Song.” She hummed it through a few times so Bobbie could play it.
“Okay, I’ve got it,” said Bobbie. “Get ready!”
They sang it through. “That’s pretty crazy,” said Bobbie. “You don’t sing that in church, do you?” She laughed. “Do you have any dreams besides sitting around in the South?”
“I just want to get away,” murmured Edea. “I want to study and read and write. I’ve thought about being lots of things, probably a nun.”
“A nun?” exclaimed Bobbie. “Are you crazy? Trust me, honey, you don’t want to be a nun. Someday a young man will come along, and you’ll fall head over heels for him. Just make sure he helps you wash the dishes.”
“I don’t want to get married,” said Edea. “I want a lot of different things — but that is certainly not one of them.”
“You’ll change your mind.” Bobbie pulled out another cigarette and rested it in the left corner of her mouth.
“Do you believe in God?” asked Edea. She didn’t know why she had asked it.
Bobbie was quiet for a few moments before she replied. “We are all God. I believe in mankind… and womankind. As for all that angel stuff, no, I don’t believe in it.”
Edea stared at the floor and twisted one of her rings around and around her finger. “What do you live for?”
“I live for life!” Bobbie’s cheeks flushed and her eyes flashed. “Honey, once we’re dead, that’s it, you know? Live like there’s no tomorrow, cause really, there isn’t.”
“And you’re happy?” How could anyone live knowing that what they did all amounted to nothing; that there wasn’t anything better to look forward to?
“And you’re happy?” Bobbie responded without hesitation.
Yes, I’m happy, Edea told herself. How could I not be happy? “God does what he wants with me. That’s what makes me happy.”
“You’re happy with some big guy in the sky bossing you around? I’d rather for my soul to rot in the dirt than be the pawn for a bored omnipotent tyrant. Damn.” Bobbie smashed out her second cigarette, slamming it into the floor with vicious force.
“It’s really not like that at all,” insisted Edea. She longed for Bobbie to laugh and shrug it off and pick up her guitar again. “What are your parents like?” she said to break the silence.
“Jerks, both of them. My dad’s a doctor. He’s rich, but we don’t see a penny of the money. He left Mom a long time ago. Mom wakes up, goes to work, comes home and makes us sandwiches, drinks till about 8:00, then goes to bed. She changes her night schedule around sometimes to make room for the men.” Bobbie folded her arms and leaned her head against the wall. “You’re lucky to live with your grandparents.”
“Not really. They yell at each other all the time.”
“What could old folks possibly have to yell about?” Bobbie’s laugh was bitter.
“You’d never guess. What she buys at the bakery, what shows they watch on TV, who has the car. It never ends. They both have terrible tempers. Daddy – that’s what I call my grandfather – always goes to Randolph’s on Saturday morning, and he always asks for a half-cup of coffee. When the waitress gives him a full cup, he just dumps it on the floor.”
“Life stinks, doesn’t it? All the more reason not to believe in God. You either don’t believe in him, or you hate him.” Apparently, Bobbie wanted to change the subject too, for she paused and asked, “Do you know ‘Help’ by the Beatles?”
Relieved, Edea exhaled all the tension stored up in her. “I love that song. It’s one of my favorites.”
“Well, I say we sing it. I’ll start.” She ran her fingers over the strings of her guitar, and a chord appeared, transcending the dimension where music lives until it is played. “When I was younger, so much younger than today…”
“So that’s one of your favorites, huh?” asked Bobbie when they had finished. She smiled, her fingers still moving and playing soft chords as she spoke.
“I listen to it over and over again on my record player until I get sick of it. But then by the next night, I’m ready to listen to it again!”
“Are you sick of it yet?”
“No, never!” exclaimed Edea.
“Well, let’s sing it again.” They sang it two more times, and then Bobbie remarked with a wry smile, “Now I’m sick of it.”
“Why are you on the train?” asked Edea.
“I visited some relatives in Arkansas. It was so boring. My cousins just ran around everywhere screaming and tattling on each other. The men talked about hunting season and argued over which camoflauge works the best. The women gossiped about who was pregnant and who brought the best covered dish to the church dinner.” Edea laughed, and Bobbie’s sour expression turned into a broad grin. “Where are you coming from – or going to, for that matter?”
“I’m going home from St. Louis. A group from my church went up there for a week. I had the best time of my life.” She looked down at her hands… This train is going to glory, this train…
“I bet you’re one of those little straight-A students who never gets in trouble,” Bobbie commented. “You are, aren’t you?”
“I make some B’s,” replied Edea. She winced, realizing how petty she sounded.
“You poor thing,” said Bobbie. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, pulling the pack of cigarettes from her pocket again. Edea loved watching the little curls of smoke twist around in the air. “I’m lucky if I pass stuff,” Bobbie continued. “Like, a D in English is real good, you know? All the guidance counselors tell me I’m ‘troubled,’ and ‘confused,’ but I don’t think they know anything.”
“What do you think it is?” asked Edea.
“Well, I know what it is. I’m dumb as a brick. And I don’t care. If everybody was smart, we’d have people walking on the moon.” Bobbie gave a bitter laugh, and strummed a few chords on her guitar.
They sat in silence for a long time, listening to the rumbling of the train and feeling the vibration beneath them. Edea closed her eyes and imagined she was Hodel from Fiddler on the Roof, riding on the train to Siberia. Every now and then she heard a short laugh from Bobbie, and wondered what her new friend was recalling.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder, and she opened her eyes, turning around to see who it was. Her grandmother towered over her in a blue and white polka-dotted dress. “Mei, you know what time it is?” the woman asked.
“I left my watch in my suitcase, Moma.”
“Well, come on. We get off at New Orleans, and we’re about ten minutes away.” She glanced at Bobbie and her face darkened. “You need to come back and sit down with us,” she added.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes, okay?”
“Hurry.” Edea watched her grandmother go, then turned around again to face Bobbie.
Bobbie had no expression on her face. Then the corners of her mouth tipped into a wry smile. “So this is it, huh?”
“Yeah.” Edea got up and brushed herself off. She clasped her hands in front of her, staring down at the floor where Bobbie was still sprawled, her guitar lying at her side.
“Well how about that.” Bobbie remained motionless, although her eyes bored into Edea’s.
“Bye,” said Edea. She took off her cross and held it out to Bobbie, who took it and laid it beside the guitar without even looking at it.
Bobbie said nothing more, so Edea walked away with their music still ringing in her ears.
Angels don’t play harps. They play the guitar like Bobbie does, and the sound is so beautiful, even the people in hell can hear it and take comfort in it, and no person in heaven can listen and not fall before God’s throne in worship.
So few things are constant in my life — the bayou, Moma and Daddy, the lawn swing. Daddy will always throw beer bottles at the television, and Moma will always warn me about bad girls who smoke and cuss and don’t wear enough clothes. St. Louis was wonderful, but I’ll enjoy returning to my little simple pleasures. I’ll sit on the docks and dip my feet into the bayou. I’ll tiptoe to the kitchen every morning and read at the table while I drink my mug of coffee. I don’t like change very much, but it’s nice to have surprises every now and then. If everything was new and different, we would never appreciate the people we discover in the cubbyholes between the backseat and the bathroom wall. And if everything stayed the same, we would never find them to begin with.
Edea capped her pen, closed her journal, and tucked it under her arm. She lifted her suitcase and moved out into the aisle behind her grandmother as the train screeched to a stop.