Time Between Trains


J. M. W. Turner, "Rain, Steam and Speed," National Gallery file


Five days a week, the track inspector checked the rail line from the Superior waterfront up to Chub Lake. During summer and autumn dry spells, he worked weekends looking for fires set by sparks from train wheels. From the cab of his rail truck, he spotted undercuts, washouts, and fires in the tinder-dry grass, reporting them to the radio dispatcher at the rail yard in Superior. Joe Rubin extinguished small fires himself. With a track warrant for every portion of his trip, he went along in the special truck that had rubber tires for road and highway travel and flanged, locomotive-style wheels for railroad travel. To switch from one to the other mode, he would center the truck at a railroad crossing, climb down, grab a metal pole to insert into the wheel mechanism, and raise the steel, flanged wheels, leaving the rubber tires resting on the track. Backing up the truck, he’d stop, turn the steering wheel, drive forward, and be back on dirt or pavement.

In his fourteen years with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Joe Rubin looked for sun kinks, broken rails, broken bonds, wood ties left on the tracks, and other potentially deadly defects or impediments on or alongside the way to Chub Lake. When he reported a sun kink (when the sun expands a steel rail, bending it out of place), the section crew got after it. When he reported a pull apart (in bitter cold, railroad tracks contract and pull apart), the section crew came to lay kerosene-soaked ropes next to the rails and waited for the heated track sections to snap together.

Along the east-west tracks before the Crawford Creek signals (where flashing yellow means a track inspector can move onto the main line at Saunders) were the broken ties he reported one day last November. West of there was a section of track ballast to keep an eye on near that boggy run before the Vet’s Crossing. Farther along, past Boylston, almost to the signal lights at Milepost 15.9 where the tracks converge, was the hair-thin rail fracture in the right rail of eastbound track he reported last December. How important this work! Thank God for the track inspector.

Naturally, his job required keen senses. In a noisy diesel locomotive pulling twenty-two thousand tons of taconite from the Hibbing, Minnesota, plant down past Kelly Lake terminal to the Superior dock, sometimes a railroad engineer can also sense discrepancies in a track. But Joe Rubin was supposed to be first to identify when a track sounded off. He was regional Employee of the Month twice in fourteen years. The award meant much to him, for unlike many employees, he lived for the railroad. Mornings, he cleaned his BNSF hardhat of grease or dirt, whispering absent-mindedly to himself about a section of track he had to examine. Friday evenings, in the kitchen of his apartment by the rail yard, he reviewed his week’s performance. The work week over, he was likely to talk aloud to his parents’ pictures on the walls of his rooms. On the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, he got a haircut. All of these were solitary activities, for he wasn’t one to say much to a barber.

His week, his life, was made solitary in other ways. He’d had very few girlfriends, which meant no one to telephone about meeting for a drink or going to dinner. He was probably the only Jewish track inspector in a vast BNSF railroad network stretching from here to Fort Worth, and he drove the truck eight hours a day through such long stretches of uninhabited country that he might as well have been in Siberia. BNSF section hands called him “the Wandering Jew.” Wanderer or not, this was lonely work. The tracks ran through miles of speckled alder rising black against the snow—through aspen and pine forests, past tamarack bogs and cutover hayfields, out over trestles where you saw frozen rivers meander below. Here and there appeared farmhouses and railroad crossings, but once he had his track warrant on a winter morning and was passing under Tower Avenue westbound on Number 1 main track, he pretty much said good-bye to everyone but the dispatcher. When he was stopped at a crossing or off on a siding while a 170-car taconite train came highballing down Saunders’ Grade on the mainline, he’d wave to the engineer; but there was no talking, no laughing with a fellow employee, just Joe Rubin in freshly pressed work clothes standing on the shaking earth or sitting alone in his truck as the brown rail cars thundered past, trailing steam from taconite so hot from the mill that, even parked in the yards, unloaded boxcars steamed for three days.

With the last cars flown by, blinking safety light gone out of sight around a curve, quiet returned to the track inspector. Chickadees sang in the aspen trees. Crows circled above. A flock of snow buntings in a quiet cloud rose out of the stark gray branches of a mountain ash. After the train’s passing, which disturbed Joe Rubin less than it did the wildlife, he called the dispatcher. “What you got going west? Number ninety-two BNSF is by me now. Can I get a warrant to Chub Lake?” To which the dispatcher might reply, “I’ve got a taconite train coming out of Allouez dock. I’ll be holding a coal train at Chub Lake. You got an hour. Get coffee if you have a place nearby.” More often than one might imagine, track inspectors have time between trains.

Though from certain mileposts, Joe Rubin could have raised the flanged wheels and made it to a country café and back, he generally brought a thermos of coffee and a sack lunch to eat. With his windows rolled down, what things he saw on mild winter days as he waited dreamily for the through freight; a spider made its way over the snow by his front tire; an ermine popped its head from the white earth; a snowy owl perched atop a paper birch, looking at the curious world. The delicate, beautiful bird and animal tracks he saw after a fresh snow reminded him of his own work on the tracks. Once Joe Rubin drove his truck into the silent void after a train passed, it was as if the train had never been there—no shrill whistle frightening deer, no diesel smoke—just the smooth gliding of the track inspector on his way to Chub Lake.


Early one year, he decided he’d become too committed to his job. Through his heavy boots, his legs, even up into his heart, he sensed the slightest problem with tracks. Nothing was too fine to escape the inspector’s attention. He took good care of the truck; he worked late; he reported problems before they occurred. He wanted so much to be Employee of the Month again that week after long week he thought of nothing else.

After work on Fridays he’d stop in a place where he could be less vigilant of the railroad for an hour. Seeing Joe Rubin, someone would yell to Ogy, the bartender, as he rang up a cash register sale, “Play that Jewish piano, Ogy. Make the Jewish piano sing.” The track inspector laughed as was expected of him, for he wanted to get along with people. But what some wiseguy yelled to the bartender coupled with “the Wandering Jew” nickname and other small slights made him feel that he might just as well go back out to inspect the tracks. Listening to the sound of rails wasn’t so bad, he told himself. He might as well spend the weekend in his truck on a siding, maybe at Milepost 8 or M.P. 12.


At M.P. 15.9 lived a woman who wished she were less solitary. Alone most evenings, Sofia had done well in life, at least for Superior. She was a teacher in an elementary school outside town, eight miles east of her home. “Mrs. Stepan,” the children called her, though she was a widow, and her married name now had a sad and hollow ring in her ears.

She lived at the four corners where South Irondale Road crosses County Trunk Highway C, then winds through thick woods down into a river valley.

Sofia’s house was the only building at the corners. Across the highway and the BNSF tracks were the wooden M.P. 15.9 sign and the gray railroad masts that told east- and westbound trains to hold or proceed. In midsummer when everything greens up, the area is unremarkable, unnoticeable. In other corners of the intersection were ditches dug out of the clay, a few scraggly alder and hawthorn bushes, and miles of fields that ended in the woods where, forty years ago, her father hunted rabbits. Twenty times a day trains passed—every five minutes a truck or automobile on the paved highway came close to the house, but nothing slowed, nothing stopped except once in a while a train on Number 1 track being held until the eastbound line was clear. Otherwise nothing, no reason to stop, though sometimes a truck driver speeding by might wave if he spotted Sofia staring out her bedroom window on the highway side of the house. At least there was something to see that way. Her other windows looked out on empty fields.

Five days a week during the school year she was busy, and then, in June and July, there was summer school. Sofia loved her third-graders; but after teaching them and reading to them, correcting arithmetic and penmanship, escorting them to the playground, coordinating milk breaks, meeting parents, taking care of the small and large responsibilities of a teacher’s day, she found the job growing more tedious each year. For twenty-five years she’d done the work. During the January that Joe Rubin fully realized the extent of his commitment to his job, concentrating on railroad tracks to the exclusion of everything else, Sofia stared from her bedroom window and wondered where the years had flown. Her husband, Jerry Stepan, had been dead ten years, she had two women-teacher friends she saw socially once a month, and she lived alone in her house with shiplap siding at a boring crossroads in a flat country above a river valley. With a class of eight-year-olds clamoring for her attention, Sofia had less time than the track inspector for introspection. Still, as much of her time as they took and as much as she delighted in the children, she knew her life was passing.

As she daydreamed out at the fields, sometimes her life seemed empty, but then she would snap herself out of her reverie and return to her pupils’ work or listen to records as she reheated coffee in a pan on the stove. Maybe everyone feels this way in winter, she thought. Sofia had a few moments in the evenings to think like this, or on weekends after finishing the dishes and preparing her school clothes, but the track inspector, during every long season, had plenty of time to worry over where his life was going.

Though neither knew it, they traveled parallel tracks. The highway runs beside the tracks (except for the ditch between) until “Shortcut Road,” where Sofia turned down a dirt road to pick up South State Highway 35 to school. Four or five times a year as he was heading to Chub Lake and she was on the way to or from Nemadji Elementary, they rode close to each other, the proximity occurring more often when he had time between trains—for the tracks at M.P. 15.9 are only a few steps farther from the house than from the highway. To Joe Rubin what did it matter that sometimes there was a woman driving parallel to him at the same speed he was going? Since the old neighborhood of Jews on Connors’ Point had vanished, he thought there was no one worth noticing. His people had intermarried or moved away—everyone but the track inspector, who’d put off marriage to care for his parents. When his father died, the synagogue closed; the remaining old people went to Adas Israel in Duluth. Right before his mother died, the boarded-up Hebrew Brotherhood Synagogue in Superior (where his parents once had to reserve seats during High Holidays because of the large turnout of people) was set on fire. Over and over in the last weeks of her life, his mother said to Joe, “This isn’t how it should end.” As if to support her claim, her burial left the Hebrew Cemetery filled to capacity.

Busy as he was, Joe Rubin didn’t often go to visit his parents’ graves, and there was nothing left to see of the synagogue.


He concerned himself with a different kind of particulars now. He’d become a detective, you might say. At work, he carried with him a small book. In some dreary northern place, when he got out of the truck to stretch, he compared pictures of animal tracks in the book to tracks he saw in ditches and fields, or sometimes running along or between the railroad tracks. Sometimes these mammal tracks made exquisite designs. Magnified, the smallest of them—shrew tracks—looked like hands with long, crooked fingers growing sharp and thin at the end. He learned that “long-tailed shrews frequently leave a tail mark on their trail, which is barely over an inch-wide.” During the course of his investigation, he read in Mammals of the Superior National Forest that “red fox prints appear as a line of prints as if the animal were walking along a string. A fox track is roughly circular and 1.5-2 inches in diameter. In soft snow where detail cannot be seen, their tracks appear as a line of round depressions.”

Sometimes he confused mammal tracks with the tracks made by birds’ claws. The way they went out over the fields, on out into the distance, all these (if you pretended) could be the tracks of people like the wandering inspector. The variety of mice living in the area presented problems in track identification, too. Above the snow and tunneling beneath it, they left an artistic network Joe Rubin got on his knees to observe. What was so unusual about his kneeling in snow? Joe wondered. Old-time railroad workers broke out a pint of brandy or a couple of miniatures of whiskey or vodka to keep them company. At least what Joe Rubin did endangered no one. Kneeling in his brown jacket and insulated pants, he looked as if he were praying as he searched for the animal tracks, which, to him, seemed to represent the Diaspora of the Jews.

As he was doing this searching that resembled praying one afternoon while the schools celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and when he himself waited for a taconite train to pass, a voice startled him. The track bed, the tracks, the gray signal masts looked especially forlorn. All morning, a biting wind ducked low over the fields. Now this voice—“You grow to be like the company you keep.”

Turning, he saw a woman in the middle of Number 2 track.

She said it again in what he thought must be Polish, “You become like the company you keep . . . Z kim przestajesz takim sié stajesz.”

She walked down the slight pitch in the road, crossed the highway, and went into her house, wondering, the teacher, why she hadn’t walked toward the river on her day off. She sat a half-hour in her coat and gloves pondering it.

Now that he had seen her, she wouldn’t catch him so deep in thought again.

When he heard her call to the rural mail carrier one afternoon, “Yes, it’s a nice day,” several months had passed. He’d traveled hundreds of miles round-trip from Superior to Chub Lake. He’d seen the spring sun erase mouse and hare tracks in the snow. He’d even noticed willows along the route turning yellow. Their leaves would appear in a month.

Two nights in February, on the other hand, she’d stayed at school for open house. One night in March, she had drunk too much Irish coffee, finding herself staring at the M.P. 15.9 sign. Another night that month, she had reread all her husband’s letters, whispering “Jerzy” in Polish.

In April, when the wind is sharp (wind that sounds like her husband’s name), then in the shelter of ditches bloom delicate cowslips, which her husband had called marsh marigolds. He’d ask in letters from Buffalo, New York, or Lorain, Ohio, “Are the marsh marigolds blooming, Sofia?”

“The cowslips, don’t you mean?” she’d answer, jokingly.

He never bothered to correct her. A wheelsman on the ore boat William F. Sutter, he drowned in a Lake Michigan storm when the marsh marigolds were blooming back home. As a widow she learned that the chaliced, yellow flowers with heart-shaped leaves really are called marsh marigolds as often as cowslips. Each year for the ten years since her husband’s death, they bloomed. Each April she was sad.

She didn’t know the track inspector’s name, but on her way to school, she was aware of his truck on the tracks paralleling the highway. She knew from a lifetime of learning important and unimportant facts that James J. Hill, the Empire Builder, had brought the railroad through here in the late 1800s, that her dear mother came from a part of Poland now called Silesia, that Douglas County has high unemployment, that a bulbul is a Persian bird, that the moisture content of hay in silos has to be checked to be sure that the hay doesn’t combust, that cowslips are marsh marigolds, and that during the Middle Ages, Poland was a haven for Jews. She knew this last like she knew what a trapezoid is—or a parallelogram (her husband had accumulated compasses, rulers, protractors). What she knew about Catholic Poland and the Jews, that miscellaneous fact, would matter to Joe Rubin and the teacher. Now in a gusty April, however, she sat in the place where roads cross, the lonely four corners where, with nothing stopping it, the wind sweeps along without regard for anything.

When she was thinking of the track inspector—which she did at odd moments, happy to know that if he was at M.P. 15.9 then her house would be safe from intruders—the wanderer was thinking of her. When he had time, he’d surprise her, stand at the crossroads, wave to her. What did she mean saying he would become like the company he kept when he had no company? He imagined he saw those who really mattered, the people of the Diaspora, in the winter prints and tracks, in the forest shadows when the snow left, in the brown grass of fields, in the pictures on his walls. He could trace them back to Noah. His ancestors had remained four hundred and thirty years in Egypt. Such was the company Joe Rubin kept! If he hadn’t found a home and still wandered the earth, enduring hardship and insult, such was his lot, he told himself as he radioed the dispatcher for a track warrant.


The one thing Sofia Stepan did with delight was to grow a garden out of sight of the railroad tracks and the county trunk highway. Except for this garden, she in no other way indulged herself. Though the garden stood in sunlight all afternoon on the south side of the house, by six o’clock—no matter the warmth of the day—it was cool and quiet. There she grew aster, yarrow, phlox, black-eyed Susan, hollyhock, butterfly bush. Coreopsis and lantana were not unknown to her. From flower to flower fluttered cabbage butterflies, mourning cloaks, monarchs, swallowtails. One afternoon she counted sixty-five butterflies. Sofia thought the butterflies could impart something of their beautiful delicacy to you in proportion to how much peace and strength you needed after a decade of disappointments.

Though Joe Rubin hadn’t seen her garden, he often thought of the woman at the crossroads. In May, convinced that the language she spoke was Polish and that she appeared to like seeing him at Milepost 15.9, he thought of no one else but her. One evening in the Hebrew Cemetery, where he hadn’t been in months, he wondered exactly what kind of company she kept, this Polish woman. The names on the gravestones echoed his question—Lurye, Sher, Vogel, Pomush, Edelstein, Kaner, Cohen, Marcovich, Handlovsky . . . The old people knew Polish. They’d lived in Poland. “You become like the company you keep.”

As is customary, atop his parents’ graves he placed a few stones from the cemetery road. They symbolized a rock-strewn desert landscape and how all are equal in death. He gathered a few stones to keep in his pocket. He prayed for his parents’ souls, spoke aloud to them as the warm, spring breeze swept through the willow groves along the river below the cemetery. Stones on a grave are more permanent than flowers.

On the way home, he decided the next time the Polish woman was at work he would cross the highway and walk down Irondale Road past her house. What was the harm in going by her place? Polish Jews and Polish Gentiles had lived together for centuries.

Before he had a chance to do so, it was June. Her garden had been transformed by gentle rains, by the warm sun on the side of the house no one saw. As the third week of summer school passed, there were more butterflies in Sofia’s garden than she’d ever seen. The flowers and bushes she planted attracted them. She wanted to read her husband’s letters aloud to them all day long; but in addition to a morning filled with teaching, she’d agreed to perform certain administrative tasks in the afternoon. When she finished, she hurried home.

She was still at school when Joe Rubin saw the company she kept. Even from the road, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Flying about, carried on slight, warm breezes, the butterflies in Sofia’s garden looked like colorful patches of silk. They tumbled and fluttered, purple, yellow, orange, blue, lighting on the flowers, glancing against the bright, delighted leaves. No one but the Wandering Jew saw them, in his pocket the stones from the cemetery, which in his amazement he left on the road in front of her house and in her yard.

When she returned home at four o’clock, she thought at first it was Jerzy in the butterfly garden. “Jerzy?” she cried, thinking her theory was right about the peace and strength butterflies bring to those in need. She thought her husband had brought her a letter.

When she saw who it really was, however, and that this was no sailor’s ghost of Jerzy Stepan with a love letter, her heart fell for just a moment, but then she murmured, “That’s all right. You can come in,” to the trespasser, to the lonely man who looked for mouse, hare, and fox tracks in winter and who now gently swept the butterflies from his shirt and hands before he went through the door she held open for him.



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