Claire tried hard not to fidget. She leaned against the paneled wall and shifted her weight to her left hip, arms folded, right foot crossed over left. Howard was scrunched on the floor, still tinkering with the track: checking electrical connections, adjusting couplers, aligning joints. There were, evidently, some major mechanical issues. Howard was engrossed. Claire was bored.
“How long to I have to just stand here, Howard?” Controlled breathing curbed the impatience in her voice. “Didn’t you say that model railroading is a great hobby for couples? Remember the ‘couples’ part?”
“Sure, Babe. Absolutely. Just give me a minute to figure this out.” Howard spoke without raising his eyes from the track. “Hand me that small Phillips, okay? It’s the one with the blue handle.”
“Here.” Claire slapped the screwdriver into Howard’s upturned palm with the efficiency of a surgical nurse. She was fed up with being a good sport.
“I think I’ll add another straight section of track; this layout isn’t right. The passenger cars derail every time…” Howard’s voice trailed off, his absorption total. He was lost in that single-minded focus indigenous to the males of the human species.
Caught somewhere between exasperation and bemusement, Claire stared darts at the back of Howard’s head. The man was impossible. For weeks she dropped hints big enough to trip an elephant, and this is what Mr. Romance gives her for their 20th wedding anniversary: an HO-scale, Pennsylvania Railroad model train set, complete with chuff-chuff steam engine sounds and lighted passenger cars. How obtuse could he be? Did she have to hit him over the head? Next time it would be with a club.
“Howard, remember how we used to talk about taking a cruise one day after the kids were grown?” No response. Deaf as well as obtuse.
Claire sighed. Loudly. Indiscreetly.
Being relegated to observer status added insult to injury after Howard’s big presentation and sales pitch just a few hours ago. Grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, he had half-pushed, half-pulled the unwieldy, unwrapped box out of hiding. Talking fast and selling hard, his words had tumbled over each other. “You’re gonna love it, Babe. I got this special for us so we can spend more quality time together. Isn’t what that you keep talking about? Quality time? We can even join the Pasadena Model Railroad Club.” Biting her lip, Claire had folded into silence.
Grimacing, she rubbed the ache out of her jaw. Clenching her teeth was becoming a bad habit. Her eyes closed with the release of tension. She drifted into a favorite fantasy. She was the women in the ‘tell her you love her all over again’ TV commercial: one of those Diamond Council ads where adoring husbands drape glowing wives with diamond anniversary jewelry. So, 20 years and what does she get? Something sparkly from her favorite store in the whole San Gabriel Valley? No. A toy train.
“Howard, what about—? She cut herself off. He wasn’t listening anyway. Claire switched her attention to the photo collage hanging above the fireplace: the kids’ baby portraits, Danny riding his skateboard, Linda’s dance recitals, one of herself huge with pregnancy, and a pre-baby Claire and Howard, toasting their future with dripping ice-cream cones.
“Wooo-WHOOOO! WOOOO.” The burst of sound ricocheted both itself and Claire off the wall.
“What the hell was that?” Claire’s eyes widened. “Howard?”
Howard managed a lopsided grin, working his words around the wooden train whistle clenched between his teeth. “Sounds like the real thing, doesn’t it? Bonus gift. Came with the set.”
Claire’s stare morphed into a full-blown glare. The intended impact was lost on her husband whose nose was already buried in a technical information sheet.
“The locomotive runs great alone, but the passenger cars still derail at the turnout.” Howard wasn’t speaking directly to Claire as much as mulling the problem over out loud. He was visibly enjoying himself, despite his frustration with the mechanics. “If I connect the engine behind the cars, so it pushes rather than pulls, everything holds. Maybe if I change the coupling on the back of the locomotive…” His
voice trailed off again.
Claire pulled up a barstool. There was no telling how long Howard planned to tinker with the wretched train. She studied her reflection in the mirror above the wet bar and grimaced. OK. She wasn’t exactly young anymore but she was still attractive, wasn’t she? Her skin was unlined and her chestnut hair was barely touched by gray. She wondered what Howard saw when he looked at her these days. Her life felt like a cliché.
“Here we go?” Howard stood up as he spoke. “Hey, Claire, are you watching?” He motioned with his head.
She nodded her attention, and Howard ceremoniously pushed the ‘forward’ control on the remote. The locomotive chugged to life and began its trek around the S-curve of the track. The stream engine whistled; the coal car lit up; the passenger cars stayed attached. The train clicked its way around the track.
“Well.” Howard boasted. “Got her running. I think I learned a couple of things too.”
“Me too.” Claire responded thoughtfully. “Sometimes you have to pull, sometimes you have to push, and sometimes you just have to change the coupling.”
© Copyright 2009 Lynn Nicholas. All rights reserved.
Lynn Nicholas, a retired technical editor, now writes just for the pure joy of writing. She won National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2007 and 2008; her story was chosen for the NaNoWriMo True-Life Tale in September 2009.When not writing, she can be found cooking for friends, gardening, or ballroom dancing. Lynn lives in Tucson with her husband and much-adored Australian Terrier