“On Trains”

James Alan McPherson

July 9, 2019 
The following is a story from James Alan McPherson's collection Hue and Cry. McPherson’s characters give voice to unheard struggles along the dividing lines of race and poverty in subtle, fluid prose that bears no trace of sentimentality, agenda, or apology. Pulitzer Prize winner and Guggenheim Fellow James Alan McPherson has contributed to many publications, including The Atlantic, Esquire, and Playboy, and was the editor of Double Take magazine. He was a professor at the University of Iowa.

The waiters say she got on the train in Chicago, after transferring from Dearborn Station. She was plump and matronly and her glasses were tinted so that she might have been a tourist seeking protection from the sun; but there was neither sun nor fresh air on the train and she was very pale and a little wrinkled, the way clerks or indoor people grow after many years of their protected, colorless kind of life. She was, indeed, that nondescript type of person one might be aware of but never really see in a supermarket or at a bargain basement sale, carefully and methodically fingering each item; or on a busy street corner waiting for the light to change while others, with less conscious respect for the letter of the law, flowed around her. She rode for a whole day before coming into the dining car for a meal: then she had the $1.95 Special. She asked for buttermilk and wanted “lightbread” instead of rolls. The black waiters all grinned at each other in their secret way.

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When she finished her meal she sat reading a book and looking out at the yellow and green flatlands of North Dakota until the steward had to ask her to leave so that the waiters could clean up the table for the next setting. She did not protest, but left with an indignant flourish of her dress. The automatic door to the car leading to the Pullman section hissed angrily behind her. The steward called her a bitch between his teeth and the waiter who had served her, standing next to the steward with his tray under his arm, grinned broadly, showing his own smoke-stained teeth. But when he saw that she had left no tip he called her a cheap bitch aloud and the steward scowled at him.

After the last setting the waiters sat down to eat their dinner. Two Pullman Porters came in with their coffee cans, begging for handouts. They were very greedy and, if given one can of free coffee, would continue to come back for more during the length of the trip, as if the first can had entitled them to all that they could drink. They sat down at the waiters’ table and watched the waiters eat. The waiters were very greedy too. They ate ravenously. The porters watched the waiters for a while, then one of them closed his eyes and began to doze. The other one, an old fellow with aged and tired eyes like an owl’s, looked out at the floating gold of the sunset across the passing wheat fields. He watched until the fields became patterns of black and fading gold. Then he turned to the waiters.

“We got a old Southern gal back there,” he said.

“We had her up here,” one of the waiters said between huge mouthfuls of beef. “She got good service but she didn’t leave no tip.”

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“She had me polishin’ her shoes,” the porter said, “but I don’t reckon she’ll pay off when she gets off. I didn’t put much work out on it anyway.” He stretched his thin legs under the table. They cracked with the sound of dead autumn branches underfoot.

A woman in pants passed through the car. Her hair was cut somewhat like a little girl’s Dutch Boy and a ringlet of it curled against her cheek. She blew at it out of the corner of her mouth and smiled knowingly at the men seated around the table. “Which way to the club car?” she asked. Her lipstick was above the line of her mouth so that it looked like a red moustache. She was not at all pretty and not at all young.

“Two cars ahead,” one waiter said.

She turned to go, took a few steps and then looked back at the men. The two waiters were looking her over, one porter was still dozing, and the other, the tired one, was seemingly not aware of her.

“How late does it stay open?”

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“Till twelve,” the same waiter said.

“Chicago time,” the other waiter added.

They watched her move through the door.

“She’ll tip big tomorrow,” one of them said.


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“That old biddy knows where the club car is. She been in there all day. I seen her battin’ them greasy eyes at John Perry on the bar.”

“Maybe he’ll take care of business for her tonight,” the tired Pullman Porter said. But there was no humor in it, and all of their laughs were only polite.

“If he does she’ll tip big tomorrow,” one of the waiters said again.

The porter with the owl eyes pushed the dozing porter. “Time to get the beds down, Tim,” he said. Tim got up slowly and they took their coffee cans and trudged down the aisle toward the Pullman section. As they reached the door it opened and the lady who had transferred from Dearborn came into the car. The two porters stood on either side of the aisle and let her pass between them. They wore white jackets with silver buttons which were embossed: “Pullman Company.” Together with their caps with silver plates, which also read “Pullman Porter,” and black pants, they looked like two painted black statues before the entrance to some fine suburban home. She did not notice them, but passed directly through the car, leaving behind her a scent of something sweet and strong.

When she entered the club car the woman with the Dutch bob was sitting at the bar talking to John Perry, the bartender, who stood behind the bar leaning with his arms on its waxed red surface. They were very close and the Dutch woman was smiling mysteriously. There was no one else in the car. The Dearborn lady seated herself at a deuce near the far end of the car and began to stare at John Perry as he said something low and soft and smile-provoking to the painted thing on the stool across from him. The Dearborn lady cleared her throat. John Perry placed his dark, thick hand closer to the other, softer hand on the bar and did not look up. The painted woman made a throaty chuckle, like the confusing sound one might hear near a car parked by a frog pond on a summer night. “I want some service,” the lady at the end of the carnally said. “I’ve been here for ten minutes now and I want some service.”

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The bartender looked annoyed as he went over to her table. “What’ll it be, lady?” he said. His voice was deep and smooth and almost as greasy as the painted woman’s lips; and it had that familiar ring of professional servitude, which is peculiar to small, serving people who like their work.

“I want a Benedictine and brandy.”

“No Benedictine. This is a train, lady.”

She paused. “I’ll have a crème de menthe then.”

“We don’t have that neither.”

“Try bourbon and water, honey,” the woman at the bar said, and she lifted her glass for the woman to see. “He makes it very good. I’m going to have another one myself.” She looked at the bartender as she pushed a five-dollar bill across the bar. “Make yourself one too,” she told him.

The lady at the deuce looked at her fiercely.

She finally ordered a rosé, paid for it, and settled back, taking turns watching the immediate reflections of the two at the bar in the window next to her face and the darkness of the passing countryside beyond their reflections. The train lumbered on and it made the only noise, save for an occasional giggle and a deep-throated chuckle from the bar. Finally the woman got up from the stool and said, “See you later on” to the bartender. She said it with a contrived, unnatural seductivity and took her time moving out of the car. The Dearborn lady, still seated at the table and facing the window, saw it all through her tinted glasses.

The bartender began to whistle as he washed the glasses. He was a robust fellow but he moved very gracefully behind the bar, like a dancer. Still, he splashed a great deal of water on the floor. He glanced over at the lady once or twice as she, in turn, looked alternately at the darkness beyond the thick window glass and at him. But only her eyes moved. Then the man moved out from behind the bar and came toward her. She stiffened and gathered her purse and got up, all very quickly. He was wiping the tables and whistling as she hurried out of the car.


In the Pullman car, the porter was still making the beds. He shuffled from one roomette to the next, not wasting a single step. The occupants came out of their rooms and stood in the hall while he swished and tucked their sheets. Then he knocked on the Dearborn lady’s door. “Porter!” he barked, the way a street-corner concessionaire would say “Hot Dogs!” There was no answer, so he went in and began turning down the bed. She came up behind him and watched his back as he moved about the small compartment. She was breathing very hard.

“What time do you lock the doors to the car?” she asked.

“The doors ain’t never locked,” he said, not turning to face her.

“How do you keep people out?” She paused, and then said: “My luggage is in the hall. It’s very expensive.”

“I’ll watch out for it. I sit up all night.”

“Inside the car?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“But I . . . we have to sleep. We have to sleep in here,” she said. She was very excited now.

“Yes ma’am.” He did not stop his work; nor did he look at her, but answered her questions and made the bed with the proficiency and cool detachment of one used to confronting stupidity in the intelligent. It was bargained and paid for in the price of her ticket and his was a patient and polite endurance of her right to be stupid. “I’m a Pullman Porter,” he said. “I been a Pullman Porter for forty-three years.” He had finished the bed and he smoothed down a light ripple in the red blanket. His hands were rough and wrinkled and the backs of his ngers were very black. “Forty-three years,” he repeated reminiscently, half to himself. She could not see his eyes.

“Well, you can’t stay in here tonight,” she said, and moved into the small compartment as if to possess it entirely with her presence.

The porter backed out. “It’s my job,” he said.

She was extremely nervous now and ran her hands lightly over the sides of her dress. Her hands stuck to the thin silk. “You go get the Pullman Conductor,” she said. “I can talk to him.” She began to pace up and down the little length of the roomette.

The porter returned in a few minutes with the Pullman Conductor. The blue-suited conductor entered the compartment while the porter stood outside the door and watched them, his dark old eyes flashing from one face to the other.

“He sits up in the car, lady,” the conductor said. “It’s his job. He has to be here if anyone rings for him at night.” The conductor was very irritated. He had already started to undress for bed and his tie hung loosely about his neck. The lady was perspiring now and the little beads of sweat glistened on her temples in the glare of the white light overhead.

“I can’t and I won’t sleep in the same car with that . . . that gentleman!”

“That’s your business if you don’t sleep, lady,” the conductor said. “He stays in the car.” The conductor was very mad now. The lines in his forehead grew very red and his nose, which was small, grew larger and redder with his controlled breathing.

“We have a right to sleep here without these people coming in doing things.”

“What’s he done to you, lady?”

“He’s black! He’s black!” And she said it with the exasperation and utter defeat of an inexperienced teacher whose patience has been exhausted and who can only stamp the right answer into the mind of a stupid child.

“He’s a porter,” the conductor said.

The porter, who stood all the while like a child waiting for punishment, seemed to droop and wither and grow smaller; and his eyes, which had only minutes before flashed brightly from the face of the conductor to the enraged face of the lady, now seemed to dull and turn inward as only those who have learned to suffer silently can turn their eyes inward. He was a very old man and he grew older, even older than his occupation or the oldest and most obsequious Pullman Porter.

People were looking out of their compartments and the Dearborn lady, hearing them, raised her voice in a plea. “He sleeps in here. He sleeps in here with us!” she shouted to them. Down the hall, the painted woman opened the door to Compartment G and listened and smiled and shook her head, and then closed the door again. And the rest listened and weighed the thought, which was a new one deserving some consideration. But the conductor said that it was necessary for comfort and they agreed and returned to their rooms. Only the porter stood outside the door looking guilty.

It was finally decided that the Dearborn lady would take a seat in the coaches for the night. She wanted it that way. The porter would sleep as he had always slept: sitting up in the back of the car with his eyes closed and his mind awake and his coffee can by his side and the small bright night-light over his bowed head, and his ear next to the buzzer in case someone should ring. Everyone agreed that it was the way things should be; it was necessary for comfort, and besides, it was his job.

And later that night, when John Perry, the bartender, who danced and splashed a great deal of water when he washed glasses, stole into the dark sleeping car, he paused for a minute before the bent old man on the porter’s seat. The coffee can had fallen over on the seat and John Perry picked it up and placed it on the floor next to the old man’s feet. Then he knocked very softly on the door to Compartment G. And after a while it was opened and quickly closed behind him.


Excerpt from Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson. Copyright 1968, 1969 by James Alan McPherson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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