Somewhere in a First-Class car behind the son’s Coach car sits the father. The son would like to see him but does not want to impose. He might be conducting business or be sitting with a woman who is not his mother.
The train clanks and rocks through the night. The porter has not yet dimmed the lights. Looking out the window, the son sees a reflection of himself and the passenger beside him, a woman who might be his mother. But if so, why isn’t she sitting with his father?
The wheels screech beneath him as the train halts, puffing cinders and smoke. The son stands and excuses himself. While squeezing past the woman, he glances down at her bare, exposed knees. He walks to the sliding door and opens it. The conductor has raised the metal plate over the stairs and is standing outside. Once on the ground, the son sees the conductor staring at a tiny, one-room station, a weather-worn wooden plank announcing, “Alton.”
The son jumps from the track’s bedrock to long, wet grasses and enters a forest where brittle branches and scratchy undergrowth scrape his cheeks and thighs. He might walk into a tree or step into a hunter’s trap, but he puts up with these distractions.
He reaches a clearing. As if invisible stars and an unrisen moon conspire against the dark, the prickly, frozen grass glows as if lit from beneath. In the middle of the natural arena a young boy, eight or nine years old, dressed in what looks like moss coveralls, stares at the son.
What do you bet? the boy says.
It’s not what we bet, but how we decide who wins, the son answers.
That’s easy. The boy holds up a round, shiny coin slightly larger than a silver dollar.
The son approaches the boy who holds out the coin. Heads or tails?
Look it over.
The son takes the coin, cool and hard, between his left thumb and index finger. On one side a godlike figure Michelangelo might admire leans back on what looks like a beanbag cloud. The flip side features a goddess resembling Venus, lifted out of her shell, lounging on a vaporous mattress. Looks good to me, the son says. Who flips? Who calls?
First, we have to bet on something.
The future. That I have one.
Well said, says the boy. For me, my continuance.
You flip, I call and collect. Unless you want to call.
Nope, suits me. The boy takes back the coin and holds it in his fist. God heads, goddess tails.
The hand holding the coin reaches down, nearly touches the ground, then swings up past his face, his thumb spinning the coin above him, its rotation so fast it looks like a pewter ball flung in the air. Reaching its apex, the coin hovers as if deciding its fate, then lands at the son’s feet. The two boys bend down to read the answer.
The son sees the goddess looking up. Tails.
Tails it is, the boy confirms and holds out his hand to shake. The coin is yours now. You won it. That was the wager. You just didn’t know it.
Why should I have it? It’s yours.
No longer. The boy picks up the coin and shoves it in the son’s blue jeans pocket. You need to go. You’ll miss your train.
The son puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder, then turns and walks back through the woods, unaware of trees and traps he might fall into. The conductor checks his watch then waves the locomotive ahead. The son climbs aboard and finds his seat. He takes out the coin and looks at the goddess who helped him win the toss then turns the coin over and gapes, unbelieving, at what he sees.
She is still there, here, too, lounging on her billowy futon, identical to the other side. Same pose, same half-smile. He turns the coin over and over, but the goddess remains, replacing the god.
Sorry, the son, standing up, says to the woman sitting beside him. I need to get out.
Really? she says, perturbed.
Last time. For good. Promise. The car lurches forward. I won’t be back. You can give away my seat.
Can’t say I’m sorry, she says. Don’t get lost.
Not a chance, he says, then starts toward First Class. The boy foresees showing his father the coin. Perhaps they will go to the dining car where his father may allow his son a glass of Merlot. Enjoying the white linen service and exquisite meal ordered from a thick cardboard menu, his father may say, Yes, I’ve held that before. Isn’t she a beauty?
Richard Holinger’s work has appeared or will appear in Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Iowa Review, Chautauqua and has garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. Books include “North of Crivitz” (poetry) and “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences” (essays). He holds a doctorate in Creative Writing from UIC and lives northwest of Chicago where fox, deer, turkeys, blue and green herons, and eagles cross a field and lake.