Andrew Hertzberg

Out of Place


That train whistle. I would know that train whistle anywhere. But the timing is wrong. Yes, I knew something felt amiss. This train is late. A late train is lipstick on the collar. This train is hiding something.

I sip from my coffee and contemplate what to do next. No one else in this cafe seems to think anything is wrong. The employees, the other customers. They all talk, laugh, cry. But I am alone. I am idle.

“Excuse me, waitress?” I ask.

“Yes?” she responds while hovering over my way.

“This may sound like an odd question,” I continue. “But does anything seem wrong to you? I mean, not in general, just today. Is something out of place, not where it should be?”

I notice a twitch in her eye. She is pretty, brown hair, white blouse. No, don’t get distracted. That twitch. It’s a tell: she knows something! I start to raise my voice. “Answer me, do you or do you not feel that something is wrong today? The train was late, didn’t you notice? You’re here everyday. Surely you’d notice something like that.”

She hesitates, brushes her blonde hair away from her face. “No, sir, you were right. That is an odd question. I am too busy right now to be playing these games.”

She walks back to her service station, behind a corner, and disappears. Did I actually offend her? It’s not like I’d asked her anything perverse. It was just a simple question. Perhaps we are past the point of just a simple question.

I sip from my coffee, release the waitress from my thoughts and am back to thinking about trains. No, not trains plural. One train. Why is it late? Not that I was even planning on taking that train. I wanted to enjoy myself under a crimson sky and admire the jagged clouds, smell the sour air, and taste a pallid pastry. I sit here, watching the other patrons in gloves and jackets and hats and sandals, smoking pipes of all sorts of varieties, wooden pipes and glass pipes, held in hands made of flesh, plastic, or metal. I am comfortable in this rubbery chair, sipping cerulean coffee out of a furry mug. The cottony taste compliments the stale breeze as a pack of swallows roar their clever songs as they sit on a molten tree, wiggle their wings, and alight from acidic branches.

“Excuse me, sir?” a woman asks me.

“Yes?” I respond as she hovers over.

“This may sound like an odd question. But does anything seem wrong to you? I mean, like, not in general, just today. Is something out of place, not where it should be?”

She frowns as she asks me this question. She is pretty, red hair, emerald eyes. I feel like I’ve seen this woman before. Don’t get distracted.

“I think I might know what you mean,” I reply. “But why are you asking me?”

“Well I wasn’t planning on asking you. But I was sitting at that table over there,” she points, “enjoying myself under this magenta sky and admiring the prickly clouds, smelling the salty air, and snacking on a hollow muffin. I was quite comfortable in my scratchy chair, sipping my mushy coffee in a blurry mug. I was hugged by the rough breeze melded with the vapor from brick pipes, held in hands made of desire, naivety, and lost hope. But I was put off by the huddle of swallows and their morose overtures. The tree they sat on was too bright to look at and when they started to gyrate their gelatinous bodies, well, it was then that I realized something was amiss. And what I realized was that before all of this happened there was a train whistle. It was a train whistle I’d know anywhere. But the timing wasn’t right. This train was early. And I knew this train was about to do something. I’d noticed you in your scarf and t-shirt and you seemed like a reasonable person to talk to. So do you, do you feel that something is out of place?”

“You are quite right, that something is off,” I reply. “But, Miss, I hate to inform you, but look, look at those clouds,” I point, “and notice how they are not prickly. They are jagged. The air is stale and sour, not salty. And that train whistle. It was late. The train is hiding something.”

She sighs. “Well then all hope is lost. Because you seemed like the last person in here that could understand what was happening. That train is in trouble. It’s running away. There is still time to save it. But if you want to sit here and tell me that it’s too late for action, then you are not who I expected you to be. I’m going to the station. I’m going to find out what’s happening.”

She stands up and walks away. I collect my thoughts. What the hell was all that rambling about? And then, in the distance, I hear a whistle. This whistle sounds more clear to me than the first. I would know this whistle anywhere.

And this train, this new one, is early.


Andrew Hertzberg is a Chicago-based writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Belt Magazine, Moonglasses, Chicago Literati, Third Coast Review, and other obscure corners of the Internet. He is working on his first novel. He tweets at @and_hertz.