The Train’s Distant Whistle

A Short Story by Mathieu Cailler

Mathieu Cailler

Tiffany scrawled her name, smoothed the single sheet of paper with her hands, and brought the letter to the couch, combing over the sentences for mistakes. She didn’t know what she’d do if she were to find an error—rewrite the whole thing?—but it was habit. There were a couple of spots where she thought she needed commas, and she was able to squeeze in the little curves. One more time, she read the last paragraph: I know what I saw, Art. I know what I feel. I just wish you’d been honest. Were you confused or just chickenshit? She ran her tongue over her teeth and placed the letter under a tissue box on the coffee table.

So far, the Santa Barbara summer days had been perfection. The heat was alive in the daytime, but now, at six in the evening, the air cooled and gained moisture. As a breeze pushed through a screened window and fell upon Tiffany’s face, there was a knock at her front door.

Her heart jolted and her neck stiffened. The last time anyone had come inside her home, it was months ago, when a handyman had entered to fix the garbage disposal. She didn’t like people, preferring to stay tucked away in her home where she was distant from society’s judgments and stares. “Hello?” a voice that she couldn’t make out warbled through the door.

Excuses for a potential Jehovah’s Witness or solicitor started unfurling: an appointment, sickness, picking someone up at the airport. Then, she thought she heard a little girl’s voice penetrate the hardwood door. “She’s so…”

She’s so what? Tiffany thought. Weird? Lonely? Obese? It was nothing she hadn’t heard before. She fanned her hair off her shoulders and yanked the door open.

Three people stood on the welcome mat. They were Tiffany’s down-the-road neighbors, a young family, who had only moved in a few months ago.

“Tiffany, right?” the man said. He wore smudged glasses and had nice, straight teeth. He was flanked by a waifish woman, and a little girl who couldn’t have been more than nine. The girl’s eyes were watery. “We’re the Gibbons, the new neighbors. We met the other day when a package accidentally—”

“I remember,” Tiffany said, wanting to add, “Why are you here?”

“Anyway… so sorry to do this to you, but could you watch Kayla for a little bit? My brother was in a car accident and my wife and I have to go to the hospital. We can’t reach the sitter, and we can’t leave her alone.”

“The hospital is no place for her,” the woman said. “Would you mind?”

“Please,” the man said.

Tiffany looked down, spotting the girl’s saddle shoes that were stained brown at the toes. “That would be fine,” she said. “I’m sorry to hear about your brother.”

“Thank you,” the man said. “I’m Ben, by the way.”

“Leslie,” the woman said.

“And that’s Kayla,” the man added.

Tiffany nodded, telling herself that she could place the letter in an envelope and address it later. The mail had long since passed anyhow.

“Go ahead,” the man said to his daughter. “It’ll be okay. Tiffany’s very kind.”

Kayla blinked and nervously entered Tiffany’s home.

“Thanks again, Tiffany,” the woman said. She and the man scurried to the road, where their SUV idled.

Once the door was shut, Kayla peered at the floor in the foyer and twisted in place, her black curly hair lifting with each swoop.

Tiffany led Kayla to the couch, thinking about how the evening had changed from open-endedness to responsibility. “How old are you?” Tiffany asked. Kayla held up her hands, showing four fingers on one and three on the other. Then she muttered something softly. “What was that?” Tiffany asked.

Kayla brought her knees up and placed her shoes on the couch. “My uncle is going to die.”

Tiffany stood and turned off the ceiling fan so she could better hear the girl. “You don’t know that,” Tiffany said.

Kayla’s eyes aligned with Tiffany’s stomach and stayed there. “I saw my dad cry.”

“You did?”

“He never cries.”

“It was a really bad accident?”

“I think so.” The girl nodded. “Have a lot of people in your family died?”


“Is it sad?”

“Sometimes it’s sadder when people you love are still around, ‘cause you know they could be better.”

Kayla wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and asked Tiffany if she had a tissue. Tiffany pointed to the box on the coffee table, then went into the kitchen and returned with two glasses filled with ice and grape juice. They drank and Tiffany turned on the television. After Dusk was on, an apocalyptic film that Tiffany had seen in bits here and there, but never in its entirety. The end of time never frightened her, though. Our current existence—the one where we had to live with our choices—seemed far more terrifying than a world rife with fireballs and ice chunks. The movie, however, did seem to console Kayla. She propped her saddle shoes up on the coffee near her glass of juice, folded her arms, and studied the screaming people and mythical waves. “Is it just you in this house?” Kayla asked during a commercial.

Tiffany muted the volume. “Yes.”

“Do you have a husband?”

“Not anymore,” Tiffany said.

“How about a cat or hamster?”

“No. I don’t want to take care of anything.”

Kayla squirmed on the couch, trying to pull her dress out from underneath her body. In her attempt, she kicked out her legs and toppled her glass of grape juice. The purple liquid and crescent moons of ice flooded the coffee table, saturating the letter that Tiffany had spent hours writing. At first, Tiffany was worried about the mess and the shards of broken glass, forgetting that she’d placed the letter on the table. Once she saw the paper, heavy with liquid and the ink camouflaged by the dark juice, she shut her eyes and stopped. She sunk her teeth into her cheek and heard droplets splatter from the table onto the hardwood floor. Her heart sped and a twinge radiated in her lower back. Sure, she could write the letter again, but would she want to?

“Oops,” Kayla said.

Tiffany stood and stared at the mess. The coffee table was constructed of white tiles, which would wipe clean, but the liquid had managed to funnel into the gray grout, and disperse through the straight lines. She studied the juice as it pushed forward, and then turned her attention to the sopping letter. Could she even find those words again? Could a volcano ever erupt the same way twice? “Oops. That’s all you have to say?” Tiffany tried to keep her voice steady, but felt her words gaining momentum. “I was fine. You think I don’t have anything better to do than watch you?” Kayla clutched a nearby cushion and placed it atop her lap. “That’s what everyone says, ‘Oh, I bet that fat woman down the street isn’t busy. I bet she wouldn’t mind helping us out.’” Tiffany stopped. Kayla’s eyes grew glassy, and she hopped up and walked to the coffee table, plucking pieces of glass off the tiles. “Jesus! Don’t touch that!” Tiffany said, hurrying to the kitchen, where she flung open the cabinet doors and grabbed some paper towels, a sponge, and a bucket.

In time, Tiffany started cleaning the table, wadding up paper towels and absorbing the juice. Even though Tiffany had told her not to, Kayla continued picking up glass. “Who’s Art?” Kayla said, staring at the note.

Tiffany snatched the letter from her and tossed it into the bucket, where the wet paper landed with a thunk. Soon, the table was clean. The grout where the juice had rested was darker, but Tiffany thought that in time the color might lighten. Kayla picked up the last jagged bit of glass and dropped it into the bucket, this time cutting herself. Her blood was practically the same color as the juice, and Tiffany rushed to the kitchen, setting the cleaning supplies on the floor and grabbing a Band-Aid. “I’m sorry,” Kayla called to her.

Tiffany made sure the wound was clean before adhering the Band-Aid. “It doesn’t do much good to talk about it,” Tiffany said.

Kayla nodded, thanked Tiffany for the Band-Aid, and took a seat in the recliner, across from the couch where Tiffany was seated.

Through the open windows, Tiffany could hear the train sound its whistle as it zoomed alongside Highway 101. The train was consistent, and it always amazed her how a horn that loud could sometimes be ignored and sink into the ambient sounds of life; then, at other times, it was startling how hard the whistle blew, seemingly tearing apart the quiet.

“Was the letter hard to write?” Kayla said.

Tiffany’s stared at a moth that fluttered against a screen’s tight wires, searching for any possible way in, combing over the metal again and again. “It was. Yes.”

“Was Art your husband?” Kayla asked. Tiffany felt like she was back in the wood-paneled medical building where she’d sought treatment for her depression. “Did you love him?”

Tiffany didn’t want to answer these questions, but figured it was the best way for Kayla to forget about the recent coffee-table outburst. “Of course.”

“I love my uncle,” Kayla said.

“When I was your age, I remember begging each night for God to let all of my friends, family, and dogs live to be a million.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. Now I’m old enough to know that love of any sort is just delayed pain.”

The apocalypse movie showed the ocean growing in mass, swirling, and beginning to swallow the Statue of Liberty.

“Where is he now?”

“Not here, right?” Tiffany fluffed a cushion, recalling that Saturday in December, the 13th of last year. Art had just gotten out of the shower; his body rosy; Tiffany reading a spy novel. He’d started with a cliché: “I need to talk to you.” And had ended with something new: “I’m gay.”

“Is he dead?”

“In a way, I suppose he is.”

“Then why did you write him a letter?”

Tiffany stood and turned the ceiling fan back on. She leaned against the window where the moth continued to buzz and flicked at the insect. “We’re divorced.”

“I hope the doctors save my uncle. He always wears these ties with cartoon characters on them and brings me sour candy when he comes over.” Kayla continued to yammer and Tiffany wondered about Art. More than anything the letter served as a way of letting him know that she was still alive. When Tiffany tuned back into the conversation, Kayla was still gibbering about her Uncle Tony and the special oven he had in his backyard for making pizzas. What impressed Tiffany about love was that it wasn’t learned. It was innate. No one ever taught someone to love; rather the ability was developed from an early age, like language, but instead of vowels and consonants, it was passed through waves and gazes. “Is he married to someone else now?” Kayla said.

Tiffany sat back down on the couch. “I think so.”

“My friend’s mom and dad just got divorced. I hope my mom and dad don’t do that. Sometimes they scream.”

The bark of a neighbor’s dog cut through the air. “Screaming isn’t leaving, though.”

“That’s Tommy’s dog.”
“My neighbor. He has a big dog that barks only at night.”
Tiffany grinned. “I hear him now and then.”

Why did he leave?”
Tiffany crossed her legs. “What’s your favorite toy right now?”
“I have a lot.”

But your favorite one…”

“I like my doll, Tweenie.”

“Do you think you’ll love Tweenie forever?”
“Yes,” she said, picking at her Band-Aid.

“That’s good.” Tiffany thought that if she hadn’t put on so much weight after her father’s death that maybe Art would have stayed attracted to her. When she’d married him seven years ago, she was a little heavy, but after the loss of her dad, she turned to sweets to curb her sadness, while Art stayed in impeccable shape. The last time she’d weighed herself, two months ago, she was 311 pounds. These days, she was so disgusted with her image that she’d done away with all the mirrors in her home—something that no one noticed because she never had anyone over. When she traveled for business—which was rare—her first objective was to pin towels over the mirrors. There were times, though, when she accidentally caught a glimpse of herself in store windows or a restaurant bathroom, and it made her want to do nothing other than eat.

“If my uncle dies, how long will I be sad?”

“Who knows?” Tiffany said. “The sadness never really goes away; you just get used to it being there.”
“In a way, the heartache is all you have so you don’t want it to totally leave.”

“Like a year?” Kayla asked, retying one of her shoes.

“Everyone’s got their own speed, I guess.” Whenever she replayed visions of Art, the same images came to mind: the way he shaved his head every other day, how he always turned his socks right-side-out before dropping them into the hamper, and his weird routine of always kissing Tiffany on the bridge of her nose before bedtime.

Once Kayla’s shoelace was tied, she got up from the recliner and took a seat on the couch next to Tiffany. They watched the end of the movie with the sound still muted. Throngs of people evacuated buildings and the Hollywood sign lost many of its letters, until it just spelled HOLY. When Tiffany looked to her right, she noticed Kayla’s head, flush against her arm. She’d never felt the contact, not even the slightest sensation. “I wish I could tell my uncle how much I love him, but I know he wouldn’t be able to hear me.”

“In your mind, you can tell him whatever you want as many times as you want,” Tiffany said. She’d heeded her own advice, but knew Art had moved on. These days, with the Internet, it was hard to escape, and one night after too many wine coolers, she’d logged online and had found him, at a new job—one that specialized in building airplane wings. She’d written down the address and had driven there, hoping to see him. “When I was your age, my mom made me wear those types of shoes, too.”

“She did? What did you look like when you were seven?” Kayla asked.

“A little like you. Shorter, though. My mom always made me wear dresses, which I hated because they were hard to play sports in. I loved basketball and riding my bike. Oh, and I always had my hair in braided pigtails. Do you ever wear your hair that way?”

“It hurts when my mom braids my hair.”

“She pulls so hard. Why do they call them pigtails? They look like ropes.”

“That’s not catchy.”

“What about pig-ropes?”

 “Nope.” Tiffany laughed. In this moment, Tiffany stared out of only her eyes, instead of wondering how she looked to everyone else. At first this sensation was purely mental, but later the feeling spread to her body: The pang in her hips faded and the hard creases on her brow softened. “I can put your hair in braided pigtails—or ‘pig-ropes’—if you like?”

“Do you wear your hair like that?”

“Not anymore,” Tiffany said, gazing out the window, noticing that the sky’s light had vanished. “They’re too young. It’d be like me playing in a sandbox or swinging from monkey bars.”

“I’m sleepy,” Kayla added, yawning.

Tiffany trudged to the bathroom and moments later emerged with a comb and hair ties. She settled in behind Kayla. The girl’s hair was silky and Tiffany clutched a few strands, unsure of how to begin. As soon as she raked the comb through the girl’s hair, instinct kicked in and the process made sense. Tiffany divided the left side of the girl’s part into three sections. She was careful not to work too close to the scalp, as she didn’t want to repeat the same mistake as Kayla’s mother. When one side was completed, she secured the braided pigtail with a hair tie. It looked nice, Tiffany thought. Relaxed and soft. Tiffany then repeated the same process on the other side. A few times, Kayla tried to turn her head towards the braid, but Tiffany told her to wait until she was finished.

“I need to see it!” Kayla said as Tiffany finished the other side.

“Just a second.” Tiffany took to the bathroom, checking to see if Kayla was moving, but the girl stayed still on the ottoman. Tiffany dug through her bathroom cabinets, searching for her hand mirror. She spotted it deep in a drawer, under some cotton swabs and a half-used tube of zit cream. “Coming!” she called. “Coming!” She wiped the mirror’s glass with a hand towel but was careful not to look into it herself, keeping the mirror in line with the floor. After handing the mirror to Kayla, she stepped back and folded her arms. Kayla raised her chin, twisted her neck, and analyzed the style from all angles. “It’s cool,” Kayla finally said. “I like moving my head around and feeling them hit my face.” She showed Tiffany what she meant. “Do you have a photo of what you looked like with pigtails?” Kayla set the mirror face-down on the ottoman.

Tiffany plucked a burgundy photo album off the mantle. She sat down beside the girl. In another life, she had enjoyed putting together these scrapbooks on Saturday mornings, but since her split with Art and the invention of the digital camera, there was really no need for such a thing. Photographs nowadays were so easy to take, delete, alter, and ignore. Never had people snapped more and seen less. With the album on her lap, she scooted close enough to Kayla to pick up traces of grape juice on the girl’s breath. She flipped the heavy plastic pages and saw herself in a tire swing, wearing a Lakers t-shirt. And there she was, too, draped in a bed sheet on Halloween, the mouth hole enormous because her father “didn’t want her to suffocate.”

“Is that you?” Kayla pointed at a photo of Tiffany blowing out nine candles jabbed into a chocolate cake.

“Yes.” Tiffany didn’t remember that moment at all—almost as though if it hadn’t been recorded by a camera the instant wouldn’t have been real.

“Look!” Kayla said, pointing to a faded Polaroid near the bottom of the page. “Your hair! You’re wearing pigtails… and you’re standing near a pig!”

“I never thought of that…” Tiffany said. She did recall that trip to the petting zoo: the heavy smells and the way her father told her to keep her hand flat to feed the horses.

“Can I try braiding your hair?”

Tiffany didn’t respond. “Oh, it’s okay. That’s really sweet of you.”

“Please,” Kayla said, bringing her hands together.

Tiffany begrudgingly agreed, sinking to the floor so that Kayla wouldn’t have to reach up. She kept the album on her lap, perusing the pages and taking trips back in time. What she remembered most about her youth was that her default emotion was contentment. These days, happiness appeared, but it was rare. Like a SoCal rainstorm.

Kayla giggled as she tugged at Tiffany’s head. Tiffany wondered why. Did her hair smell? Was it greasy? Too coarse? She shut her eyes, bit her lip, and felt heat flood her forehead. The little girl’s fingers kept at it, though, and she didn’t seem disgusted or scared. In fact, when Tiffany opened her eyes and peered Kayla’s way, the little girl’s lips curved into a smile. Tiffany drew a breath and savored the warmth transmitted by Kayla’s touch. “It feels like you’re doing a good job. I can tell you’ve got three strands there.” Tiffany stared back at the album. The overhead light’s rays bounced off the glossy photos, so Tiffany repositioned the book. On this particular page were memories of a trip she’d taken with Art to Philadelphia. As with any vacation to the City of Brotherly Love, the photos were predictable: cheesesteaks at Pat’s, the Rocky statue, even a visit to the Liberty Bell. Tiffany combed over each detail, then dragged her pointer finger across the famous crack in the bell’s dome.

“I think I’m done,” Kayla said, locating the hand mirror and holding it out for Tiffany to take a look.

“I’m sure it’s great,” Tiffany said, setting the mirror back down on the ottoman.

Kayla got up and plopped on the couch. “Sometimes I dream about my uncle. This one time we went hiking and I fell on a cactus, and he helped me pick the needles out of my leg. It was weird. Do you ever dream like that? Do you think my uncle will be okay?”

“I hope he will.” Tiffany grabbed a blanket that had fallen to the floor and draped it over the girl. Outside, the night was thick, with the sound of crickets pulsing in the background.

“You look pretty,” Kayla said as Tiffany adjusted the blanket.

Expressionless, Tiffany nodded. She returned to the ottoman, where she picked up the album once again. After a few more pages of staring at Art’s thick eyebrows and delicate complexion, she shut the scrapbook. The ceiling fan powered cool air in her direction and she let its traces play on her face. She wished now that she hadn’t driven to his work to see him. But she had. She’d waited in the lot in her new car, under a shedding jacaranda. He’d pulled out of his spot in his old Camaro, the one he’d spent thousands on. A new engine, a rebuilt transmission, and a top-of-the-line exhaust. She’d followed him to his home in San Luis Obispo, only a ten minute drive from his office, and had parked a ways down the road. After he’d headed inside with a pile of mail in hand and a bag slung over his shoulder, Tiffany took her foot off the brake pedal and approached. His home was a long one-storey place with windows running the length of the entire façade.

Near the center of the house, she spotted the 1950’s scene—a woman meeting her man after work, planting a kiss on his lips, her red hair undulant and spilling towards her face. Tiffany didn’t stay long, just moments more, to make sure her eyes were telling the truth. Were there years together just a ruse? She could accept that her marriage had failed, but it was his lie that had hurt more than his leaving.

It wasn’t long before headlights whipped into the Tiffany’s driveway, startling her. She stood and felt blood spread to her limbs. Through the windows by the front door, she spotted Kayla’s father, whose name she’d already forgotten, walking under the outdoor lights.

Tiffany hurried over and pulled the door open. “She just fell asleep,” she whispered. “How is everything?”

He kept his voice high and Tiffany was tempted to shush him. “Not good. He’s in a coma, and the doctors don’t seem too optimistic. Wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.” There was a long pause. “Thanks for asking, though.” A bug fluttered near his face and he shooed it with a quick swipe of his hand.

“I’m sorry,” Tiffany said.

“I’ll just scoop her up,” Kayla’s father said. He approached the couch, reached down, and worked his arms under Kayla. Soon after, she was positioned perfectly against his body, with her head propped over his right shoulder. Somehow, she was still sound asleep. “I hope she was okay,” the father added.

<“Oh, she’s… lovely,” Tiffany said.

“Good,” he said, heading out the front door. As he lumbered back to the SUV, Tiffany stood on the stoop, entranced by the girl’s sashaying pigtails.

Eventually, Tiffany returned inside and locked the front door. She drew the curtains and turned off the TV. She cleaned up as best she could: pushing the ottoman against the matching recliner, putting away the photo album, and dumping the bucket’s contents into the trash. She later folded the throw blanket on the couch and tucked the hand mirror into her jean pocket.

Once she was in her bedroom, she inspected the dark façade of Kayla’s home. Maybe the girl had woken up by now, and her father had told her about her uncle, and she was asking questions, pleading for the answer to—would he ever wake up?

Before turning in, Tiffany brushed her teeth and splashed cold water on her face. In time, she even yanked the hand mirror out from her jean pocket and, before shoving it back into the crowded drawer, flipped the smooth glass her way. Her fingers quivered and her eyes tightened, but seconds later she surrendered. She widened her gaze and soaked in her likeness, even ran her fingers over the fragile strands of her braided hair.

Mathieu Cailler’s poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he is the recipient of a Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh (ELJ Publications), and Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), which has been honored by the Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Best Book, and International Book Awards. His poetry collection, May I Have This Dance? (Black Magic Media), is slated for publication in December of 2017.

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