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Helene Simkin Jara

On the Train

We’re on the train again. Our mother has stuffed us into our compartment. My little sister Sherry and I rush to the window looking out at the Canadian prairie, feeling the movement of the train, the stops and starts, the steady rhythm.  We see people’s’ backyards, clothes hanging on lines, old abandoned cars, gardens, cows.

We look around, excited at the bunk beds, the seats, the window.

“Are we going to sleep here Mommy?”

She nods.  Sherry and I grab hands and squeal, jumping up and down.

“I want the top bunk.”

“Me too.”

Our mother has her tired face on. She sighs.

“You will both sleep in the top bunk.”

“Can we get a candy bar Mommy? Please?”

Our mother doesn’t hesitate.

“No, you cannot get a candy bar.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t have enough money.  Don’t ask again.”

We get quiet.  Our mother looks worried.  She turns to us.

“I’m going to check on something.  You stay here.  Watch your little sister.  I’ll be right back.”

We watch our mother as she shuts the compartment door.  I look at Sherry.  She’s never left us alone before.  Especially in a place where we don’t know anyone.  I feel very important.  I look at my little sister.

“I really want a candy bar, don’t you?”

Sherry’s curly brown mop bounces up and down.

“Yes!” 

Sherry looks at the door to the compartment and turns to me.

“Where did Mommy go?” 

Her brown eyes are big.  She’s looking at me, her big sister, who she counts on for everything, who knows everything, who can do anything.

“She went to get money.”

Sherry squeals and jumps up and down. 

“Then we can get a candy bar!”

I hold Sherry’s hands as I consider a plan.

“I’m going to help Mommy.  You stay here.  I’ll be right back.  You have to sit down and look out the window until I get back.  Don’t come looking for me or Mommy whatever you do.”

Sherry looks scared, but she obeys right away.  She sits down and turns her head toward the window. 

“Like this?” she says facing the window.

“Exactly like that.  I’ll be right back.”

I turn the knob that opens the door and venture out into the skinny hallway.  Nothing looks like anything I’ve seen before.  I walk past other compartments and see people in them.   There are families and some people all by themselves reading books or newspapers.  It’s kind of like watching television, but you’re walking past the shows.  I don’t see Mommy anywhere.  And then I see a compartment with no one in it.  I get on my tippy toes and look into the room.  On the seat, I see a purse.  I think of Mommy and her purse.  She has very important grownup things in her purse.  She has money and lipstick and keys in her purse.  I walk into the room and look at the purse.  It’s open. In it I see a yellow wallet.  In the wallet are a lot of dollars.  I grab the wallet and run back skipping happily to our compartment.  When I open the door, Sherry screams at the sound. She’s still facing the window, but she has been crying, the big baby.

“I didn’t think you’d ever get back!  I thought you and Mommy left me forever!”

I proudly hold out my hand with the yellow wallet to her.

“Look what I found!  Now Mommy will have money and we can get candy!”

Sherry just looks at me. 

“I don’t feel so good.”

I look at Sherry’s face.  It looks red and puffy.  And then I see the bumps.    She has red bumps on her face and her neck and some on her arms and legs. 
Just then, our mother opens the door.  She still looks tired and even more serious than before.

“Mommy!  I found you some money!” I say as I hold out the yellow wallet to her.  “And Sherry has bumps all over her.  She’s sick!”
Mommy has a look I’ve never seen before. 

           *               *               *               *               *               *              
If my mother were telling the story, she would reveal that she had just made the required visit to my daddy’s side of the family in Winnipeg.  They are the rich ones, although we aren’t.   She would also say that Daddy couldn’t come because he had to work and she was going to have to go to her father’s funeral in Calgary bringing along her two girls.    She would say that traveling with two little girls was exhausting.  She would recall the humiliation visiting the Winnipeg relatives because their wealth made her painfully aware of living in a one room shack with a coal stove in Ypsilanti. 

And then she would talk of her shock when she walked back into the compartment to find out that one of her girls probably had the measles.  She knew it was probably the measles because one of the Simkin kids had it, thank you very much, and now both her girls would get it.  And if they had the measles, how would she be able to go to her father’s funeral and then how would she sneak them over the border to the United States with the measles? And if that wasn’t enough, her eldest child, the so-called responsible one, had stolen someone’s wallet on the train and she was going to have to find them and return it to them.

My mother might continue telling the story by saying that she stopped at the door to the compartment, turned around before going back out again and asked me straight out why I had stolen a wallet.  The answer was:

“You said you didn’t have any money and Sherry wanted a candy bar.”

This kind of humiliation was not new on my mother’s side of the family.  Apparently escaping from the Pogroms in Russia to Canada had been a big step down for my grandmother.  She was forced to open a second hand store in Calgary because my grandfather simply tended a garden.  The story I overheard was that he had accidentally run over and killed a little boy in his driveway and had never gotten over it.  Soon after that he got throat cancer and didn’t live very long.

My mom, being the middle child, had wanted to show her mother that she married well and could dress her little girls in the finest dresses, but this simply hadn’t happened.   Daddy had just finished school and was working for the Veterans Administration and he didn’t have much money.   He had come back from World War II, having lost his only brother in the Battle of the Bulge, his aunt having said to him, “It should have been you, Jimmy!”

My mother would then recount how she could only spend two days in Calgary for her dad’s funeral because we were sick.  Then she’d tell the story about how she slathered her liquid makeup all over us and told us to face the wall in the top bunk to hide from the border patrol.  She would tell the story about how she instructed us to pretend we were asleep if the border patrol came into our compartment.  We were not to giggle or there would be hell to pay, whatever that meant.

I remember hearing the door open and the voices of two men.  I heard my mother talking to them and being very polite.  The worst thing I remember is hearing my mother tell them we were asleep and trying real hard not to giggle.  I didn’t want hell to pay. I smashed my face into the pillow real hard and was aware of the smell of the liquid makeup.  I’m pretty sure Sherry wanted to laugh too because I could feel her body shaking next to mine, her face also smashed into the pillow.  And then we heard the door close and they were gone. 

I never did find out how my mother found the person with the yellow wallet or what she said to them. We definitely didn’t ask for candy again for a long time though.  I remember that much.

Helene Simkin Jara is an actor, director, writer and teacher. She has been published in The Porter Gulch Review, Mindprints, Nerve Cowboy, La Revista. In 2003 she won best prose in the Porter Gulch Review for her story, Josefina , again in 2009 for her play FUBMC , and again in 2007 for her monologue, Vat Means Rad? She has twice been a finalist for Glimmertrain and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2007 for her poem, The Difference. She has recently self-published her first book called Because I Had To, a collection of prose, poetry, monologues and plays. She's close to finishing her second book, True Doll Stories.

Fiction
Vinnie Hansen
Helene Simkin Jara

Poetry
Jeff Burt
Patricia Grube
Peggy Heinrich
Robin WT Lysne
Aimee Mizuno

Morton Marcus Poetry Prize Winner
Marsha de la O


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