There’s something in a train whistle that haunts night. An ache. A sense of loss. A lingering lament.
Some nights that lament brought Cate Franklin to quiet tears as she lay in her childhood bed in her parent’s clapboard house outside Enid, Oklahoma. That long, melancholy calling across the prairie pulled at her. She wanted to go, but needed to stay.
Did those two compulsions ever converge? Ever conjoin?
She hears the whistle now, fading, leaving layers of silence building between Paul and herself as they linger on the Franklin’s front porch. Well after one a. m.
Bathed in white lamplight.
Suspended between what was and what is. What will be hanging in the balance.
Inside the house it’s cave dark. There Cate’s mother lies abed missing her husband who died in a grain elevator--smothered in wheat kernels. The weight of that sort of death debilitated her. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your mother but a broken spirit,’ the doctor told Cate.
Unfortunately, Cate knows, there’s no cure for that sort of malady. Time, perhaps. And if not time, then its companion--death.
Cate and Paul had been to the county fair—and stayed far too long. In her mother’s opinion. She had chastised Cate upon their return, but it was lovely being free of her despondency. Strolling the midway with its tawdry games, shrill music and pulsating multi-colored neon lights.
Paul held her hand. A familiar gesture. Cate allowed it though he had been gone for nearly seven months and seldom wrote or called. Too busy with his air force career. And other foreign women Cate suggested which Paul chose not to deny.
‘You’re still my girl. You know that. Right?’ he said as they sat high up in a Ferris wheel car.
The possessive ‘my’ rankled Cate. One more claim on her life meant to be her own.
Paul arrived late to her house. He had been listening to the opening game of the World Series—Yankees verses the Dodgers. So had Cate. It was an historic event. The first integrated Series with a Black man—Jackie Robinson—at 2nd base for the Dodgers. The first Series televised though there were only 250,000 televisions sets in America and the few in Enid didn’t receive the signal.
Cate played baseball. And she was damn good at it. Her muscular thighs testimony to her ability to play catcher and hit with power. She played with the Fort Wayne Daisies, part of the eight team All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Until her father’s accident and Mother’s deterioration.
She had been living out of a suitcase and making $85 a week doing what she loved. In the world far beyond Enid.
The front porch of her childhood home was a much smaller universe.
And while Paul’s proposal moments earlier promised her broader horizons, it was on his terms.
‘So, what?’ Cate had said. ‘I follow you from one air base to another while you live your dream?’
‘We live our dream.’
‘Things change. I’m playing professional baseball for money.’
‘Women’s baseball and how long is that going to last?’
‘Three thousand in the stands and sometimes more. Mostly men.’
‘Of course. Those short skirts and compromising positions.’
‘Which base are you talking about, Paul?’
‘All of them and especially home base.’
‘Was that clever?’
‘Is that what you learned in the Air Force?’
Cate regretted having said that. A remark born of her frustrations. With Mother. Paul. Enid, Oklahoma. And the long summer night elongated by the train’s whistle—her own mythical siren—both promise and plaintive.
Life seemed so small caged in other peoples’ hands. A slow suffocation till you couldn’t make out the difference between living and dying.
Until too late. Until they became the same thing.
Until she became her mother.
In baseball, Cate never took a strike three pitch.
Cate and Paul have known each other since high school. Their first time together, Cate led the way. She was never shy about her body. About the heat and intensity of her desires.
Nor about condoms. She always carried two.
Even now, wearing her bandeau top and short split skirt, leaning back on her hands, most of her charms on display, as her mother would say, Cate remains unabashed. And far away from Paul who had turned toward her and she from him.
They’re moving in different directions. Still, Paul continued to pursue her.
‘Don’t share this,’ he confided in Cate, ignoring her disconcerting attitude, ‘but the brass are reopening the airbase outside of town. Korea’s in their gunsights. I could be stationed in Enid.’
‘I want out of Enid, Paul. I only came back because of Mother.’
‘So, you won’t stick by me here or away?’
‘We’re so young, Paul. Commitment so—final. What’s our hurry?’
‘We promised one another.’
‘You went away.’
‘And you. To Cuba.’
‘Yes! And it was fantastic.’
And it had been. In 1947, Havana, Cuba was a vibrant, boisterous city. Old world narrow streets bordered by Spanish/Moorish architecture were aswarm with pedestrians and street vendors hawking food or fortune. Every lottery ticket a winner.
Music blared from open-air cafes. And something stirred in the crowds. In Cate.
Cate had flown there with all the other women in the League for Spring Training. The stands teemed with men cheering them on in their melodious Spanish. They loved their baseball and loved, even more, women baseball players.
The women had to be escorted wherever they went in Havana. The Cuban men uninhibited and forthright about their intentions.
Raul was different. His accented English as exotic as his European charm. Classic manners. Understated demeanor. Cate understood he existed as a fantasy. A singular moment. But made certain it was a moment she would cherish.
She thinks of Raul now—poised on her childhood front porch, her body all urgent with memory.
Havana throbbed with exuberance. Enid lay flat and grey in a vast expanse of wheat. Cate’s mother had lived here all her life. And look what it’s gotten her. Nowhere near Cuba, Cate thinks and arches her back.
Paul has been to places more prosaic. His current assignment is piloting the newly developed straight-wing F84 in which he had once strafed the Franklins' house on his way to a base in Arizona. Strafing citizens was against military protocol and could result in severe penalties and scared the bejeezus from Mrs. Franklin.
Cate never told her it was Paul expressing his affections.
He commanded his plane more ably than his emotional landscape.
‘What happened in Cuba?’ Paul asked not wanting to know.
‘I drank too many cuba libres,’ Cate answered dampening her enthusiasms for Paul’s sake.
‘During Spring Training? So much for the chaperones. And those mandatory charm classes.’
‘Those came in handy.’
‘Damn-it, Cate, I didn’t fly all the way out here to be toyed with.’
‘How is it you can fly all the way out here anyhow? On the tax payers’ dime to drop in on an acquaintance?’
‘It’s maneuvers, Cate and you’re more than a mere acquaintance.’
‘It’s maneuvers, all right. But they have little to do with protecting this country.’
‘Protecting this country and proposing to you. Both of which I’m dead serious about.’
‘That’s too high a price to pay for at least one of those.’
‘Cate,’ Paul said and his voice trailed away.
Cate understood he loved her. The body of her. Her fiery passions that exhilarated and exhausted him. An affection steeped in their fierce couplings on scratchy blankets and under the one eye of a lit and drunken moon. Deep in those soft Oklahoma nights when trains bound for one coast or the other barreled through the ebony dark—the passenger car windows lit and framing silhouettes of folks on their way to the same destination.
Each a victim of their own mortality.
But she also understood that was the past. And their present needed time to accommodate their divergent futures. And while Paul played from a script made of memories -
Cate had turned the page.
Lived to play baseball where the next pitch was all that mattered. Not the expectations and demands of parents, boyfriends—society. She thrived on the field. Captain of her team. Calling the pitches. Chirping at the opposing players. Leaping up from her crouch to throw out the runner at second.
The satisfying thwack of ball into glove. The exquisite choreography of athletes engaged in their art. That’s what compelled her.
Everything else served as a distraction.
Cate’s father never made $85 dollars a week. Neither does Paul even now. Protecting his country.
‘I’m a good baseball player, Paul. One of the best,’ Cate reminded him.
‘You’ve got a hell of an arm, believe me, I know. But what about all those plans we made?’
‘Fools make plans—isn’t that what the philosophers say?’
‘Which makes folks who believe in them -?’
‘Brave? Trustworthy? Faithful?’
‘Fine qualities. Who couldn’t love a guy like that?’
‘I don’t love you any less, Paul. I just don’t love you any more.’
Paul stood and jammed a fist into his hand ‘Damn, I wish I understood that, Cate! I really do.’
‘It would be so much easier if you did. Paul. So much easier.’
That deflated Paul. He sat back down on the porch railing—one foot off the ground. Speechless.
This is where they are now. Together and apart.
There’s a cough from inside the house. Raspy, dry. Cate’s mom used to bake the damnedest rhubarb pies. They won contests at the county fair—year after year. When her husband slipped from his ladder into the wheat kernels breathing in first the dust, then the kernels themselves—horror must have seized his last fleeting moments. This thought paralyzed Mrs. Franklin. Constricted her own breathing as if it was happening to her over and over again.
No wonder she has trouble sleeping.
They had plans. Mr. and Mrs. Franklin. Repaint the living room. Plant a winter garden. Visit her sister in Tulsa. Plans.
Cate is hitting .330 and leads the league in RBI’s. A superstar. Grounded now.
But Cate has seen too much of the world. And Enid. Both.
And while at present she’s bound to one, thereafter she’ll be bound for the other.
Paul flies high for the Air Force. The news from Korea ever more troubling. His job puts him in harm’s way.
He’s seeking a safe place to land.
Together they used to race each other across their high school football field. Cozy up round harvest fires. Their lives stretching out like the surrounding prairie. Endless. Far-reaching. Every direction away.
And finally, from each other.
And there’s something in a train’s whistle that haunts night.
An ache. A longing. A lament.
About the author
Kayner's plays, prose, and poetry have won numerous awards and appeared in a variety of publications.
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