There was a perfectly good porch just up the hill with a perfectly comfortable chair, but it was the kind of unseasonably pleasant August afternoon that put Lois in mind to carry her basket and a linen cloth down to the edge of the dirt road that looked out over the railway easement, across the narrow strip of the northernmost field of Chris Harden’s farm where you could sometimes just catch the afternoon light sparkling on the Potomac through the trees. She unfolded and shook out the cloth before spreading it out on the unruly grass there and easing herself into a familiar spot where a little hollow in the ground made for a comfortable seat.
The freight traffic was heavy, and had been for a few days, but the distant cries of locomotives signaling as they approached Orleans Crossroads from the south and looped around the little town to head east to Maryland and then the bigger cities still gave her the giddy feeling she remembered as a little girl when they thundered through, albeit more quietly now, with the old diesels relegated to the scrapyards in favor of all-electric locomotives that plied the routes, playing the overhead wires like a violin bow. She adjusted the angle of her broad-brimmed straw hat, extracted a large mesh bag from her basket, set that to her right, and set a large plastic bowl to her left.
In a pattern she’d perfected over the eighty-five years that had slipped by since her grandmother had sat with her on her own porch, having determined that she’d reached the right age to join the consort on the porch in the practice of manually processing bushels of string beans for canning, she pulled string beans out of the bag one at a time, snapped the flower end of the bean and pulled the string off the pod, then snapped the vine end, stringed the other side, snapped each bean in two, and tossed the pieces into her bowl. A freight train called from the far side of the double bend to the northeast, and she snapped beans in a careful rhythm that counted out its approach until the low-set bright blue scout car zipped into view, paced far enough ahead of the train to send back detailed reports on the local conditions to the heavy freight locomotive.
The scout zipped away, its camera array whirling in the clear dome that it wore like a little helmet, and Lois paused, waiting just long enough for the locomotive to lumber in. As a little girl, she’d have run down to wave to the engineer, but modern locomotives were entirely windowless and streamlined except for the various ports for the cameras, laser rangefinders, and other sensing equipment they used, and anyone human on the train would be comfortably ensconced in the caboose, ready for spot maintenance tasks or just deadheading the trip to get to another work site. Nevertheless, she raised a hand, wondering if the trains had gotten smart enough yet to appreciate the gesture, before returning to her string beans.
The train cars hissed and shifted, heaving over from banking right on the previous bend to banking left in anticipation of the tight bend around the town, and both the scout car and the locomotive had identified Lois as a person or person-sized object of roughly the size and temperature as a person and had assessed no change in her position and had therefore noted that no further action was required. Lois strung and snapped handfuls of beans as two kilometers of container freight streamed by, plastered with the logos of their places of origin, looking up only as the caboose passed to see if anyone was framed in the windows, but she couldn’t make out any faces, so she kept to her task, tossing discarded tips and strings into the grass to her side as she went.
After a time, when she’d emptied out the mesh bag of beans and filled the bowl, she folded the bag and placed it and the bowl in her basket, then sat back on her elbows to bask in the sun for a moment. In the distance, she could just make out the thin, windy sound of the approaching Capitol Limited heading for Chicago on the monorail track suspended on pylons over the cycleway on the river side of the tracks, and watched it plunge into view and disappear again as quickly, full of people on their way from elsewhere to another elsewhere. Sometimes, she’d wave, or raise her straw hat to give the travelers a little local color, but even as the passenger trains slowed slightly for the series of upcoming tight bends, as close as she was to the tracks, they’d barely see her for a moment before she was gone.
Missing out on a good bet, she thought, getting to her feet, shaking out and folding up the linen cloth, tucking it into the basket with her other things, and trudging up the hillside with the steady, measured gait of someone who had neither the time nor patience to be in a hurry.
© 2019 Joe Belknap Wall
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