The BOOKPRESS December 1999

Story Problems

Anna Harrington

A train leaves Philadelphia at 8am and travels west at 100 miles per hour. Two hours later, a second train leaves San Francisco and travels east at 80 miles per hour. If a careless switch operator accidentally throws the wrong switch, connecting the two tracks on which the trains are traveling, how long will it take before the two trains collide? And would it make a difference if on one of those trains, a young woman wearing a bright yellow dress were on her way to meet her fiance with the deed to their new home tucked safely inside her purse? Or if the conductor of the train were only two days from retiring after thirty years with the railroad? Or if there were a boy on his first family vacation to the seaside? But what if that careless operator sends only one train down the wrong track with his accidental flick of a lever, to a track that leads not to a collision with the other train but to a dead end in front of a granite wall. Would it matter what train the woman in the yellow dress is riding? Or the little boy? Or the retiring conductor? And if the careless switch operator has slept through his shift from too much drinking the night before, causing a more careful operator to pull the correct lever and keep the two speeding trains separated, where will they pass and at what time? Would anyone care, including the boy who just threw up on the woman in the yellow dress?

What if her name were Wanda? Yes, Wanda Jean Franklin, a young woman who has never before owned a yellow (and now stained) dress, much less a wide-brimmed hat and matching handbag. What if she has saved up her loose change for months in a pickle jar she keeps hidden beneath her bed in the boardinghouse where she lives in exchange for fifty dollars a week and evening dish-duty, until enough crumpled bills, dimes and nickels have gathered to buy the (now stained) yellow dress. The same dress that she first sees in the department store window, worn by the faceless mannequin with the cream-colored vinyl purse and shiny new shoes, the night her boyfriend takes her to the movies. Would it matter what the boyfriend’s name is, if he were a Dwight, a Norman, Max, or Jim? Would a different name cause them to walk down a different street on the way home, perhaps past the park instead, so that she never sees the dress in the window? And what of the movie? If they see Some Like It Hot instead of An Affair to Remember, will they be holding hands so tightly, walking so closely and slowly together down the avenue? Or would they be so wrapped up in each other’s eyes that they don’t notice the window display at all, and the next morning a plump woman with flame-red hair purchases the yellow dress for her niece?

For every story problem there is a set of givens, and it is a given that Wanda Jean Franklin sees the yellow dress in the window, that her boyfriend Jim comments on how pretty she’d look in it, that instead of seeing An Affair to Remember or Some Like It Hot, they buy a ticket for her landlady so that Wanda can smuggle him up the backstairs of the boarding house, to spend two hours making love to him. And Jim proposes to her. But what if, instead of proposing to her, he tells her that he’s taking a job with the Pacific-Atlantic railroad? Would it matter that he has to leave that same night? That he leaves her in tears at the station to catch the midnight train to St. Louis and promises to write every day? And what would it mean if he saves his money from the job to surprise Wanda with a honeymoon cottage with a white picket fence? But it takes two years to save the money, and the letters grow shorter, fewer, colder. And the dress that Wanda sees in the window, the yellow one with the matching shoes and handbag, is bought and lovingly hung on her room’s wall, like a precious painting, nearly eighteen months before. Then, after a year of waiting for Jim to either return or send for her to join him, the dress is moved into her closet. After two years, it has gradually voyaged through the closet and now hangs, nearly forgotten, in the very back.

And what of Jim working the railroad in St. Louis? Which would have the larger impact on those two speeding trains: if he dedicates himself to his job and thinks of Wanda at every moment, or if he spends long nights with strange women and thinks of her only when he feels obligated to respond to her increasingly desperate letters? But what if those letters aren’t desperate but simply distanced because she’s living her own life independent of him and any false sense of the future? He might even suspect that she’s seeing another man. And what if she is? Would she have the right, and would she enjoy it, even as the yellow dress hangs in her closet? Would she understand if the reason his letters come fewer, shorter, and colder is that he’s working double shifts to earn as much pay as possible? And what would it mean if Jim finally sends for her to join him, if he mails her a one-way ticket to start a new life together, and if on the night before she is due to arrive, all his friends at the railroad throw him a party? And what if one of the people who attends, who arrives at just a few minutes past nine and drinks more beer than anyone else, is the man in charge of switching the levers that sends trains onto new tracks?

Suppose that the wrong lever were thrown and the tracks crossed...would the retiring conductor, even with his thirty years of railroad service, sense that something were wrong? Or would he be focused instead on the retirement condo he and his wife Maeve have just purchased in Sarasota, the one on the beach with the ice cream-colored pink and green awning? Or is he focusing on the bitter taste of the coffee Maeve has sent along with him in his metal thermos? No sugar, again. Would something seem different to him on that train trip, would the tracks sound different, vibrating peculiarly beneath the metal wheels? Would the engine run differently? The sound of the steam whistle? The smell of the air? Would he be able to sense any difference at all? Or maybe there is no difference between this train ride and the thousands of others he has taken during in his long career. Not even a cold shiver up his back. And if he does shiver, in some kind of telepathic or karmic warning, would he simply shrug it away, blame it on the morning chill, and reach for his thermos of bitter coffee?

Would it make a difference that the train crew surprises him that day with a retirement gift of a brand new fishing rod and a jelly roll with a single candle flaming up in the middle? He loves jelly rolls, they all know it, just as they all know that Maeve forbids him to eat them. Your cholesterol, dear, she warns gently. Would it make a difference if he suffers a mild heart attack two years before? Or that he spends a week in the hospital hooked up to all kinds of whizzing machines? And if the heart attack is actually severe, forcing him to remain in the hospital fluctuating between life and death for over three weeks? What if that is the reason for his retirement? Could that heart attack dull his senses to the point where he won’t notice when the train turns off its correct course and speeds down the wrong track, won’t suspect that the scenery passing by is strange and unknown, won’t feel any shivers of cosmic forewarning? What if there is no heart attack at all? Or no wife. What if she divorces him ten years before, leaving behind a house full of empty rooms and a kitchen stocked only with a single box of jelly doughnuts? What if he never marries her at all? If on that night when he meets a beautiful and funny woman at the train station in Mobile—an adorable creature who is lost and stops him to ask for directions—she catches her scheduled train and he never sees her again?

Still, he would smile at the boy who bounces aboard the first-class car with his parents, unable to sit still because of his excitement. That is a given. The boy with the light brown hair and Buster Brown shoes, dressed in a small suit that matches his father’s and holding a little suitcase of his very own. And the boy would smile back, perhaps even wave, hoping secretly without daring to ask that the conductor would offer to show him the mighty engine on one of the stops. Would his mother admonish him for fidgeting in his seat, for marking fingerprints all over the window, for asking too many questions? Would it dampen his excitement at all or merely make him even more nervous? So nervous that he develops motion sickness? And in his excitement, would he notice any of the people around him, including the woman in the bright yellow dress until he vomits on her just as the train passes into Chicago?

What if his parents are lying to him? If there is no vacation to the seaside as they promise, but instead a trip to a California hospital? Could the conductor tell, even as he waves to the boy, that Tommy is terribly sick? Would the pretty woman in the yellow dress scream less loudly when he vomits on her if she knows that his medication causes queasy stomachs? Would the conductor take him to meet the engineer if he knows the boy is dying? The crayon drawings Tommy makes of the passing scenery, including one of a railroad track curving away from the train as the cars switch tracks, would be sent back to his classmates and teacher. And if there is no sickness? If the trip is an excuse to leave him with his aunt while his parents take a second honeymoon? Or adopt a baby sister for him? And if one of his parents remains behind because someone has to take care of the dog and water the plants, would he be as happy, even as the train speeds westward at 100 miles per hour? What if his family has never bought a dog? Or any plants. Would it make a difference to the conductor who runs to fetch a bucket and clean towels, or to the woman in the (now stained) yellow dress who begins to weep loudly because she has no other dress to change into before her fiance greets her at the station?

For every problem, there exists a specific and limited set of givens around which a unique solution revolves. It is a given that one train leaves Philadelphia at 8pm and travels west at 100 mph, while a second train leaves San Francisco two hours later and travels east at 80 mph. It is also a given that a careless switch operator does throw the wrong switch and does send those two speeding trains onto the same track, with no way to detour them or stop them, and it is a given that they will collide at a combined velocity of 180 mph somewhere in middle America. There will be no survivors. Within this set of givens, would it matter that if on one of those trains, a young woman wearing a vomit-stained yellow dress were on her way to meet her fiance with the deed to their new home tucked safely away in her purse? Or if the conductor who was only two days from retiring after thirty years with the railroad wipes jelly from his mouth? Or if the boy on his first family vacation to the seaside suffers motion-sickness? Or if a twelve-year-old girl in Muncie, Indiana, her pencil paused in the middle of calculating the exact time of the impending collision, wonders if she will ever use algebra in real life?

Anna Harrington is the winner of several short fiction and poetry contests.

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