Victims of the Imagination
Evan Schaeffer

I was dressing for work that morning, knotting my violet tie, when I remembered a conversation I'd had with a colleague the day before. I was complaining to the colleague about the type of man who plays with trains. What a waste, I said, grown men, playing with trains. The colleague replied that not only did grown men play with trains, but they spent thousands of dollars on their trains, they published magazines about their trains, they made videos of their trains that they uploaded to the Internet, they held toy train conventions. The colleague laughed. I didn't.

That was the end of our conversation, but now, the next morning, I was thinking about it again. After a quick look in the mirror I headed to work. I planned to drop off my dry cleaning, but I made a driving error and missed the turn. I was still bothered by the type of man who plays with trains. Since I had a load of shirts in the back seat, I circled around and returned to the cleaners from another direction. That's when I noticed, in a shopping center I thought I knew, the train store.

Switchback Train Shop. The colleague hadn't mentioned it though it was only a pistol shot from our office. It's likely he didn't want to upset me. In the window were two crossing signs. Red and yellow. What had just been an abstraction the day before was now right in front of me.

I didn't want any trouble but the OPEN sign was a clear invitation to enter. When I did, a train whistle sounded. The store was filled with shelves of trains. In the back, two men were facing each other on chairs. Add that to the list, I was thinking. Not only magazines and videos and conventions, but early morning conversations on metal folding chairs.

From a blind spot, a third man appeared. He was wearing a t-shirt and asked me if I had a son. It seemed a revoltingly personal question. I backed up a step and turned. On the shelf in front of me was a blue and green train engine in a bright orange box. I was intuitively aware that in the hues of my own clothing I'd completed a rainbow of colors. I was revolted a second time.

I started thinking again about the colleague. It seemed suspicious that he knew so much about the type of man who plays with trains. It seemed so suspicious, in fact, that when I heard the sound of the train whistle, signaling another customer, I fully expected that I'd turn around and see him standing there, my colleague, dropping by the Switchback Train Shop on his way to the office.

That's not what I saw. It was a woman. Blonde, younger than me, not wearing a ring. The most attractive woman I'd seen all year, perhaps.

I realized I'd made a mistake. It was the second that day if you counted the driving error. Here I was, alone in the Switchback Train Shop with three grown men who played with trains. How could I expect this woman not to get the wrong idea?

I needed a diversion. My impulse was to buy the place and tear it down, but there was hardly time for that. "Thieves!" I said instead. It was a good start. "Crooks!"

I ignored the surprised looks from the men who played with trains and made my way out of the store, taking the woman by the arm as I passed. She came along willingly enough but began backing away once we got outside and I asked her why she'd come to the store in the first place. Surely her presence there had also been a mistake. Surely there was some connection between us that needed to be explored.

The men who played with trains observed us through the window. The woman needed a better explanation, but all I could think to do was call as she retreated from me, "I'm not like that!"

How hopelessly ambiguous this was. It should have been clear I wasn't the type of man who played with trains. But what if she'd mistaken me for a man who stumbled from place to place, randomly throwing off rainbows like an effete god?

I'm honestly not sure which is worse. For weeks, I've been keeping my eye on the train store, waiting for the woman to return. When I see her, I'm going to tell her I'm not what she thinks. I'm a victim of the imagination too. There's nothing about me to fear.

Evan Schaeffer lives in St. Louis. He has writing in or coming from Sonora Review, The Chicago Tribune, Artful Dodge, Nanoism and others.

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Detail of illustration on main page courtesy of Happy Via.

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