Whistler stood in the weeds, leaning against the brick wall of the old train station and listening to the susurration of wind over the tracks. The others might have known he was there, might have seen him suddenly after looking once and not seeing him as the wind stirred through the cyclone fence, wafting the trumpet vines and grasses down near the old, rusting boxcar where Nathan lived, but he saw no one. Bobo and Saint Louis lived at the other end of the yard in a faded red caboose, but nobody knew where Whistler lived. He appeared and disappeared. No one knew.
He held a violin case in his right hand. His left touched the weathered cornerstone on the worn building. He had read it many times before. Union Station, 1907. Over a hundred years, he thought to himself. The wind lifted some thistledown through the last rays of sunlight that slanted from between buildings on Summit Hill. Then the sun vanished and the wind became chill, the sky vaguely orange in the fading light.
Whistler stood immobile in the chilling dusk, a song playing in his head as he waited for someone to signal him to come. The song moved in his mind’s eye as if scrolling across some theater screen, and he stopped it now and then, replayed it, and then let it move on. Perhaps he would play it tonight.
He stepped around the corner to stand in the shadows on the platform where, in years past, trains hissed and belched, where people boarded and disembarked to pursue their hopes. Now it was desolate and bare except for an old, broken bench against the building. The doors and windows creaked as the wind leaned against them. Whistler blew through his lips as if to whistle the tune in his head but made no sound. He nodded in time to the imagined tune and turned to look at the weathered caboose, where a shadowy figure had stepped out onto the rear platform and leaned against the brake wheel. Whistler moved from the shadows and walked toward it.
Nothing was said as he approached. Instead, the figure on the platform scanned the rail yard carefully, as if he was a lookout on watch, then reached a helping hand to Whistler, but Whistler grasped the cold steel railing and hoisted himself up. The case banged against the rail, and he clutched it to his chest and gently brushed his hand over it. The other man went inside, and Whistler looked back over the darkened yard. Nothing stirred except the wind. Somewhere dogs or coyotes yelped.
Saint Louis sat on his bunk at the other end of the caboose. He nodded and spoke when the two entered. “Welcome,” was all he said. Bobo shuffled to the ladder that led up to the cupola on top of the caboose. He pulled himself up one rung and reached into a box and stepped down with three tins in his hand. Two were thin and oblong. Sardines, Whistler supposed. Bobo grinned and held up the larger tin. “Tonight we have peaches with our meal,” he said. Saint Louis nodded and Whistler sat on a keg, clutching the case as if to keep it warm in the darkening.
Something stirred outside. They each listened intently to discern the sound, to rationalize and understand it, to know what made it. It came again and they turned their faces toward the door at the end of the caboose. Whistler clutched the case as a figure framed itself in the cracked window in the door, and an old man dressed in a worn and stained tuxedo stepped inside. He wore a soiled red tie in a neat bow beneath his yellowed and frayed collar, a pearl stud in one cuff and a piece of copper wire through the other. He wore patent leather shoes, perfect and shiny, with no socks so that the dark skin on his ankles showed. He held in his left hand a sleeve of plastic-wrapped crackers.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said to the others in a resonant and mellow voice.
“Good evening, Nathan,” they murmured.
Saint Louis motioned for him to sit on a makeshift bench in front of the coal stove in the middle of the caboose. “Let’s have a fire tonight,” he said. The others nodded agreement. “Perhaps we’ll light the lamp too.”
“You found kerosene?”
“A little and I mixed it with some vegetable oil to make it go further.”
Whistler lowered the case to rest on his lap. The wind lifted and sighed against the caboose. Whistler’s lips moved again to the tune in his head. Bobo went to a little chest and removed a small knife from a drawer. He punctured the lid in the can of peaches and began to carve it open. When he was finished he placed it and the other two tins on the table. Nathan placed his crackers beside the tins.
“The instrument, Whistler, how is it?” Nathan asked the question and they all turned to Whistler, who pulled the case to his chest again.
He smiled. “She is wonderful tonight.”
The sound of animal yipping came through the walls, and something scurried under the floor.
“Has anyone seen anyone?” It was Bobo who spoke this time. The others shook their heads and were silent for a long moment.
“I think I heard an engine of some sort last night,” said Whistler.
“Couldn’t be, no fuel.”
“Well, something then.”
Bobo used the key on one of the oblong tins to peel back the lids. The fish were packed in oil. “Save that oil,” Saint Louis instructed.
Bobo went to a shelf in the back and screwed the lid off a jar containing congealed layers of cooking oils and grease. He poured the oily liquid into the jar.
“We may be the only ones left, four old men in an old train yard.”
“There must be others,” Whistler replied softly.
No one responded to this, and so, as if announcing a banquet, Saint Louis said, “Gentlemen, let’s eat, then we’ll have the music.”
They moved to the little booth built into the caboose, where conductors once worked their orders. They slid into the seats and crowded together. Each took a spoon from Saint Louis. Bobo went first and took a spoonful of the fish, put it on a cracker and put it in his mouth, and then passed the tin on to Nathan, who did the same and passed it to Whistler. Each man savored the fish for a long moment before chewing and swallowing. The tin went round the table twice, then it was empty. They repeated with the second tin.
“The water,” Saint Louis said and retrieved a plastic jug. “I boiled it up last night. Plentiful in First Creek.” He poured some into four glass jars and handed them over. Each man took one.
“A toast!” Nathan proposed. They lifted their jars, clinked them, and drank.
“Now the peaches,” said Saint Louis. As before, each man took half a peach from the can, then passed it on to the next. There were five halves in the can. When each had eaten his half, Saint Louis looked at the remaining peach half. “For you, Whistler. You are the entertainment.”
‟No, not for me. I don’t need it. Give it to Nathan.”
Nathan demurred but they insisted. He cut it into four pieces and pushed the can to the center of the table. “Enough for everyone,” he said. They each took a piece and ate.
Afterward the four sat silently with their hands resting on the table. The scurrying sound beneath the floor was heard again and the wind.
Bobo spoke. “Let’s light the lamp. The sun has set.”
“Shall we light the stove?” Saint Louis asked.
Nathan replied for them all. “No need tonight. It’s not that cold and besides, we’ll need the coal come winter.”
“There is plenty of coal scattered about the yard yet. Enough at least to get us through another winter.”
“But others will come,” Bobo observed. “I know. Someone has already begun to take it.”
“Then we’re not alone,” whispered Whistler.
“I thought I heard something in the night. Next morning I could tell there was coal missing from the little pile beside the caboose. I placed a huge stone of it beside the pile one evening. It sat undisturbed for three nights, and then, on the morning of the third day, it was gone.”
“Rolled away,” said Nathan.
No one said anything for awhile. Then Saint Louis spoke. “Play for us, Whistler.”
Whistler ran his hand reverently over the case, then turned it to him and unlatched the catches. He folded the lid back and took out a violin and bow. The instrument was polished and beautiful, the bow made of Pernambuco and ebony and strung with horsehair. Whistler held the bow and said, “I don’t know what we’ll do when the horsehair is gone.”
“We can use something else,” Bobo said.
“It won’t be the same,” Whistler answered. Then he raised the violin to his chin and drew the bow across the strings. He tuned and repeated this while the others sat, rapt, with their eyes closed. Then he began to play.
He launched into Zigeunerweisen and the gypsy airs filled the small space, and the others seemed transported on the music. For ten minutes Whistler played. He played the introduction majestically, then entered the lento with its spiccato bowing, and on, with increasing tempo, to the pizzicato and long lento runs, finishing at the end with the left-handed pizzicato. It was almost as if the gypsies themselves were whirling around the room.
Afterward the silence was absolute.
Finally Nathan exhaled. “Wonderful,” he said. Nathan, Bobo, and Saint Louis made a soft applause.
Whistler bowed his head without standing. He put the violin back into its case with the bow, latched the lid, and sat looking at them. “I should go.”
“Perhaps we should keep the instrument here. We are more eyes than you. We can guard it better,” Bobo said.
Whistler looked at him without animosity, but Nathan was the one who spoke in reply. “What is the instrument without the man, and what is the man without the instrument?”
“But he can come anytime. We’ll keep it safe. Or he can live with us even. Do that, Whistler. Stay with us.”
Whistler said nothing.
Saint Louis spoke up. “Finish your waters and hold out your glasses.” They did as he asked. He poured a little of the heavy syrup from the can of peaches into each glass. “An after-dinner toast,” he said.
He raised his glass jar. “To the music.”
“To the music,” they all replied. They clinked jars again and drank the sweet, heavy liquid. Outside the wind whistled in the fence, and in some alleyway the coyotes barked.
They remained this way for a long moment, each reluctant to leave the company of the others, and then Whistler rose and picked up the case. He said good night and walked to the door. A breeze through the broken pane blew his hair. He opened the door and stepped into the darkness. The others heard his footfalls on the iron steps, then, after a moment, they heard the crunching of gravel as he walked into the night. Nathan went next. It was the same sequence of footfall on iron, silence, and then crunching of gravel.
Bobo and Saint Louis followed to the platform and listened through the darkness to the fading sounds, seeing only shadows. Then they went back inside. Saint Louis pulled the canvas over the window and blew out the lamp. All was darkness.
Saint Louis listened as Bobo rustled into his pallet. “Good night, Bobo.”
“Good night, my friend. In the morning we must try to find Whistler and talk him into coming to live with us.”
The thing scurried under the floor again, and they listened for a sound from the little pile of coal but there was nothing else.
“I’m afraid if we do that, we’ll save the man and the instrument, but we will kill the music.”
“What will become of us if the instrument is lost or ruined?”
“The music is like these friendships, if you can call them that. They have their cadences. We cling to them like he clings to the violin. Once the music is lost, we’ll think of all that has happened as the beginning of the end. And in the end, we become savages.”