If Only In My Dreams

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1945. A soldier and a lonely woman meet on a homebound train.
15.1k words
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The olive drab bus squealed to a stop in front of North Philadelphia Station. The driver turned in his seat.

“Here we are, boys,” he called, “Merry Christmas.”

The nine men on the bus rose in rough unison, took their duffel bags from the overhead racks and shuffled forward. As each man stepped off the bus, the driver bid him a Merry Christmas once more.

The soldier had been sitting in the back row, and was the last to disembark. As he stepped down, he looked back at the driver.

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” he said.

“I guess you’ll be glad to be home in time for the holidays,” the driver replied.

The soldier hesitated, then nodded and said, “What about you? When do you get to go home?”

The driver let out a sardonic laugh. “I’m a lifer, buddy. The army is my home.”

The folding door closed and the bus pulled away.

The morning sky was bright blue, yet snowflakes swirled around the soldier. He gazed up at the elegant line of high arched windows along the facade of the train station, and realized that the wind was sweeping yesterday’s snow from their sills.

He thought of all the smashed and shattered buildings he had seen in Europe. Factories and apartment buildings, even cathedrals, all reduced to rubble. He’d seen so much that he wanted to forget, but feared that he never would.

As he stepped toward the doors, a silver haired black man in a porter’s uniform scurried toward him.

“Allow me to take your bag, sir,” the porter said.

“Thank, but I’ve got it,” the soldier replied.

“Please sir, it’s an honor to carry a soldier’s bag. My boy was over there, in Italy.”

The soldier let him take the bag. “Has he come home?”

The porter hesitated, then said, “No, sir. He won’t be coming back.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Why, thank you sir,” he said, leading the soldier into the station. “He was in the Transportation Corp. Drove a truck.”

He paused, then added, “Truck got hit by an artillery shell.”

They reached the ticket line. A long stream of holiday travelers snaked through a velvet rope labyrinth.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” the porter said as he handed the soldier his bag.

“Merry Christmas to you.” The soldier held out a dollar bill toward the porter.

“No sir, I won’t take a soldier’s money.”

The soldier slipped the money back in his pocket and extended his empty hand.

The porter looked surprised, but shook the soldier’s hand. He walked away as the soldier took his place at the back of the queue.

Directly in front of him, a stout man in a camel hair coat and fedora was complaining bitterly to his wife. She was several inches taller than him, so he was unable to see when she looked over her shoulder at the soldier and rolled her eyes.

“I told you,” the husband barked. “How many times did I tell you, Esther? We’ll be in this line all day.”

“It’s the holidays, dear,” Esther replied, “Lots of folks are traveling. It can’t be helped.”

“Can’t be helped? Sure it could, if Truman would tell those car companies in Detroit to get off their duffs and step up production.”

“You’ll be able to buy a new car soon, dear.”

“And it will be about damn time. Hasn’t this war put us out long enough?”

Esther jabbed him with an elbow. He gave her a startled look. She jerked her head toward the soldier and her husband turned his head.

His face blushed a vivid pink when he saw the soldier’s uniform. He snapped his head forward and did not speak again as he and his wife inched their way toward the front of the queue.

The soldier was more amused than offended by the man’s callous remark. Civilians had no idea how good they’d had it during the war, and, in his opinion, they were better off for it. As for the long lines, “Hurry up and wait” was a way of life in the army. He was used to it.

When they had finally reached the front and were the next customers to be called to the ticket window, Esther leaned her head close to her husband’s and whispered. His shoulders slumped, but he nodded his head.

Turning to the soldier, he said, with an obviously forced smile, “Why don’t you go ahead of us? You know, for your service.”

The soldier grinned and mumbled his thanks. The clerk called “Next!” and he stepped forward.

The ticket clerk was a kindly eyed older man. He reminded the soldier of his grandfather.

“Where you headed, son?” the clerk asked.


“One way?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Glad to hear it. Got your voucher?”

The soldier dug his papers from his breast pocket and laid them on the counter. The clerk peered at them closely, then looked up over his spectacles at his timetables.

He muttered to himself for a moment, then asked the soldier, “Do you mind a bit of waiting, son?”

“Not really. I just got discharged from the army, sir. I’m used to waiting.”

“Good. Everybody’s in a damned hurry to get somewhere for Christmas. Seems like they ought to slow down and enjoy the holiday.”

He looked over his charts again, then back at the voucher. The soldier was beginning to understand why the line moved so slowly.

“Well, the reason I ask,” the clerk said, scratching the top of his balding head, “You’re just in time to catch the 10:15. Now that’s scheduled to get you to Chicago at 7:45 tomorrow morning, although I’ll caution you that it often runs a bit behind. And that’s because it stops at every damned factory town and half the crossroads between here and Union Station.”

The soldier shrugged. “So long as it gets me there.”

The clerk held up his finger and grinned. “Now, on the other hand, if you are willing to wait until this afternoon, I can put you on the Broadway Limited at 4:40.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Why, the Broadway is a Pullman.”

“It’s got sleeper cars?”

“Yes sir. And it’s an express, so fewer stops. A nicer ride all around. But mainly, the difference is, do you want to sleep sitting up in your seat all night, or comfy in a sleeping berth?”

Either option beat a fox hole, the soldier thought, but after two weeks swinging in a narrow hammock on a troop transport, then nearly a month on a hard army cot at Fort Dix, the idea of a Pullman berth sounded pretty good. But there was the question of expense.

“Will my voucher cover it?” he asked.

The clerk’s expression turned serious. “Son, I’ll make sure it does.”

He did a bit of scribbling, stamped the voucher, then handed a ticket and a receipt to the soldier.

“Welcome home, son,” he said.

The soldier thanked him and asked, “Since I’ve got time to kill, is there anyplace nearby where I can get some chow?”

The clerk gave him directions to a diner, just a few blocks down. As he turned to leave, the soldier made eye contact with Esther, smiled and gave her a wink.

She smiled and blushed. Her husband was already leaning into the ticket window and barking at the clerk.

The soldier left the station and easily found the diner. He enjoyed the walk. There was a brisk breeze, but the bright sunshine gave at least the illusion of warmth.

The warmth in the diner was real. When he stepped through the door the mingled aromas of hot coffee and sizzling bacon stopped him in his tracks. He relished them for a moment, then crossed over to the counter and took a stool.

The place was almost empty. It was past the breakfast rush and too early for lunch. Judy Garland was on the radio, singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

The waitress, a young girl with an old woman’s eyes, came down from the other end of the counter.

“How you doing?” she asked as she filled his coffee cup, “Just muster out?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the soldier replied.

“What can I get you, honey?”

The soldier picked up the menu and looked it over. “Ham and eggs,” he told her.

“How do you take your eggs?”

He hesitated. It had been so long since he’d eaten fresh eggs that he had to remember how he liked them.

Any way but powdered, he thought. “Over easy,” he said.

“You want hash browns?”

Hash browns. He had forgotten such a thing existed. “Sure. Hash browns. Sounds great.”

“Comin’ right up.”

The soldier looked around the diner while she went to put in his order. Near the far end, a tired looking young woman sat in a booth with two small boys. He wondered if their father had come home yet, or if he was coming home at all.

The waitress, Margie according to the embroidery on her pink uniform, returned a few minutes later and put a plate down in front of him.

He stared at it for a moment, then slowly picked up a wedge of toast and pressed its corner into one of the egg yolks. He raised it, watching a few yellow drops fall back to the plate, and took a bite.

It was so delicious that he closed his eyes and let out a slow deep breath. He thought it was the best thing he had ever tasted.

Then he tried the ham. Real ham, he thought, not pressed bits of pork scraps squeezed into a can. It was salty and smoky and melted in his mouth.

Every bite of his breakfast was a delight. When he had sopped up the last of the egg with the bite of toast, Margie came and took his plate.

“More coffee, hon?” she asked.

“No, I’m fine, thanks.”

“You from around here?”

“No, I’m from Chicago. Catching a train this afternoon.”

“My brother come home last month. You know, he mostly just sits in his room and don’t talk to nobody. Why do you think he’s like that?”

Maybe he watched his best buddies die, the soldier thought, or maybe he can’t forget the faces of people he killed. Maybe he saw corpses stacked like firewood, or floating like pale logs down a muddy river.

“He probably just needs some time to adjust to being home,” he told her.

He paid his check and left her a good tip. As he left, he said, “Merry Christmas, to you and your brother.”

The soldier returned to North Station. The lobby was mobbed, even more than it had been earlier. He worked his way through the throng of holiday travelers to the waiting room.

It was no less crowded than the lobby, and the bustle was even greater. People were moving in every direction. Some sauntered slowly, toting heavy loads of luggage or balancing stacks of wrapped gifts. Others were rushing, desperate to make their connections.

At one end of the room a Christmas tree nearly reached the high ceiling, gleaming with light and glistening with tinsel. A children’s choir was gathered beneath the tree, singing traditional carols.

The soldier made his way to the newsstand. After a short wait in line, he bought a Hershey bar and the latest issue of Life magazine. Paulette Goddard was on the cover. She’d always been one of his favorites.

He still had hours before his departure time, so he looked for the best place to wait. There were rows of benches throughout the room, but he was hoping for somewhere out of the center of activity.

He found an empty bench near the corner furthest away from the tree and the singing children. He sat down and propped his feet on his duffel bag. He looked up at the big board of arrivals and departures, and read the list of cities; New York, Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Memphis. Chicago. Their American names were comforting.

To pass the time, he picked out individuals in the crowd, or couples or families, and tried to imagine where they had come from or where they were going. He was so used to being among men in uniform that the array of clothing he saw seemed as exotic as an Oriental bazaar. There were men in business suits and women in dresses of every hue and color. There were workmen in green and blue coveralls, and porters, scurrying back and forth in their crimson coats. And everywhere, there were soldiers and sailors and Marines.

When he grew tired of watching, he ate his candy bar and flipped open his magazine. The first few pages were filled with glossy, colorful advertisements for luxury goods; plush linens and towels, brand new appliances, the latest fashions. There were plenty of advertisements for new model cars and he wondered if Esther’s husband really could not find one for sale or if he just didn’t want to pay the high prices.

Between the cheerful holiday ads, the shadow of the war lingered. There were articles about the housing shortages caused by the huge numbers of returning GI’s, the crisis in China, where the Nationalists and the Communists were fighting for control now that the Japanese had surrendered, the trials of the Nazi leaders in Nuremburg.

He put the magazine down, took his bag and went to the drinking fountain, then the latrine. No, he had to correct himself, the men’s room. When he returned to his seat, he found that someone had taken his magazine.

He sat back down, and once again put his feet up on his bag. One thing the army had taught him was to sleep whenever you get the chance. He closed his eyes and within minutes began to drift off. He dozed fitfully at first, awakened several times by loud voices nearby or the blaring announcements of arrivals and departures.

Eventually, he slept deeply enough to dream.

He was sitting in the big blue chair in his grandmother’s parlor, the one with the white lace doilies on its arms.

He heard voices, coming from somewhere behind him. He recognized his grandmother, his parents and his sister Ruthie. They were talking and laughing but their voices were growing faint. He looked across the parlor at the Christmas tree. His dad had cut it down and dragged it to the house from that stand of woods out behind Uncle John’s barn. It was a fine tree. There were only about a dozen lights on it, but it was festooned with garlands of colored paper chains and strings of popcorn. Its only store-bought decoration was the fine porcelain angel who crowned its peak.

Suddenly there was a deafening boom, and the tree exploded into a million jagged shards. Pine needles rained down, biting into his upturned face.

He looked around in a panic. He was surrounded by towering trees. Explosions were bursting like terrible flowers blooming in their boughs. The earth shook from the noise.

The shriek of artillery rounds was deafening, but even so, amidst the chaos he heard voices, frightened and confused. It was no longer his family. He heard Bates and Nowell and Girardi. Loudest of all, he heard Stewart. Stewart was screaming.

Searching frantically, he saw him lying in the snow. A tree branch as long as he was tall had speared him through the upper part of his thigh. Blood was spraying from the wound, melting holes in the snow where it spattered down.

The sound of the shelling stopped, and there was a deep, profound silence, save for the trickling blood and Stewart’s screams.

The soldier bolted upright in his chair, awakened by the shrill whistle of an incoming train. The announcement came a few minutes later.

“Broadway Limited, now boarding for Altoona, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago.”

The soldier stood and straightened his jacket. He picked up his duffel bag and went to board his train.


The woman checked the closet one last time. Aside from a couple of bare hangers and a few wispy clumps of dust, it was empty. She closed the door, then looked herself over in the full length mirror that hung on it.

She did not think of herself as old fashioned, but there was one tradition that she still adhered to; travel was a special event. She came by that notion naturally. When she was a girl, her father, who was not one for dressing up, would wear a three piece suit just to take the train to visit his brother in Kenosha.

Her new dress, the first she had bought in years, fit just right. It was dark blue, with a trim v-neck. With a belt, it cinched nicely at her waist and fell just to the middle of her knees.

She had bought new shoes as well, a sweet pair of oxford pumps. No more coveralls and work boots for her! And stockings. Brand new silk stockings. When she slid them up her legs, they had felt like an exquisite luxury.

Satisfied with the reflection in the mirror, she checked her watch. It was nearly time to go. She closed the suitcase on the bed and snapped it shut.

The woman carried the suitcase and her shoulder bag down the stairs and set them next to the front door. There was a phone alcove on the foyer wall. She dialed the operator and asked to be put through to a taxicab company.

Once she had booked her ride, she went to the kitchen. Mrs. Mason was standing by the sink, drying the dinner plates.

“I wish you would’ve let me help you with that,” the woman said.

Mrs. Mason shook her head. “No dear,” she said, “You’ve got a long trip ahead of you, I didn’t want you to bother with it.”

“Are you sure you’re going to okay on your own?”

Mrs. Mason smiled. “I talked to Davey this afternoon. He’ll be home next week. I’ll be fine till then.”

The woman felt a surge of regret. She felt like she would be leaving a piece of her heart in Pittsburgh. But she knew it was time for her to go.

“Well, Then I guess it’s best that I move out of his bedroom,” she said.

Mrs. Mason put down her towel and the two of them hugged.

“You’ve helped me through some terrible times,” Mrs. Mason said. She turned to the kitchen counter and picked up a brown paper sack. “I’ve made you some sandwiches for your trip, and a dozen oatmeal raisin cookies.”

The woman took the sack and thanked her.

“What time does your train leave?” Mrs. Mason asked.

“8:50,” the woman said, “I went down yesterday and bought my ticket, so I don’t have to get there early. But still, I need to go. My taxi will be here any minute.”

Mrs. Mason blinked back a tear and kissed the woman’s cheek. “Please promise me you’ll stay in touch,” she said.

“Of course I will.” Struggling to hold back her own tears, she hugged the old woman one last time and said goodbye.

The paper sack of sandwiches and cookies barely fit into her crowded shoulder bag. She took her coat from the front closet and put it on. Compared to her new clothing it looked drab and thread worn. She would need a new one to get her through the long hard Chicago winter.

She picked up her bags and went out to wait on the stoop.

The street was dark. It had gotten colder, but each house gave off a warm glow through their frost covered windows. Looking up, the woman could see the stars. There would not be a white Christmas in Pittsburgh this year.

She only waited a minute or two before the taxi came crawling down the street. She stepped down to the sidewalk and waved it to a stop, tossed her bags into the backseat and climbed in after them.

“Where to, miss?” the driver asked.

“The train station.”

“Home for the holidays, huh?” He flipped the meter and pulled away from the curb.

She hesitated a moment, then muttered, “I guess so.”

She caught his eyes in the rearview mirror. Her response had clearly puzzled him. But he didn’t pursue the conversation.

The woman sat back and looked out the window as they drove down the dark, empty streets. Some of the houses they passed were illuminated with garlands of gaily colored lights, in others, Christmas trees shined through the windows. She imagined the scenes that might be taking place inside those houses; families wrapping presents, baking cookies, singing Christmas carols together around the radio.

She was struck with a vivid memory. It was the Christmas just after she had turned seven. Her sister Sybil, would have been five. They had awakened before dawn and scurried down the stairs to see what Santa Claus had brought them.

In front of the tree, among all the brightly wrapped presents, stood two beautiful wooden rocking horses. She mounted hers, so excited that she rocked too hard, too fast, and tipped it over. She flew out of the saddle and went head over heels, landing hard on the parlor floor.

Her father scooped her up in his big arms and held her on his lap. She cried, more scared than hurt. Her horse was lying on its side, and she was terrified that she had broken it. Her mother brought her a Christmas cookie and a cup of hot cocoa to calm her down.