Ruth of the Railway Station

Here is short sketch I put together for you. Enjoy!

Whoever has happened to pass through Turgenev Railway Station prior to 2009 will have seen her. Even if they don’t remember, she was there. On the day I met her, I had just missed the last train to Albuquerque.

“It’s only three,” I said.

The cashier scratched his mustache, shifted on his feet, and looked to his coworker. “You know, the two-forty-five was the only train out of here to Albuquerque today, man,” he said.

“Christ,” I said. “I didn’t. What’s the next available?”

“Well shoot man, I can get you on the same track tomorrow, same time if you want.”

Just then, to our left, a voice piped out, “You are ignoring me?”

I turned toward the noise. I saw travelers impatiently awaiting service, by three other cashiers, and silently gouging out their eyes. But they all proceeded with their business, somehow ignorant of the phantom voice.

I told the man I’d take the ticket.

“Why won’t you help me?” The voice said. “Look at me? I need help.” Then I heard the crack of something hard beating against the counter. No one noticed.

“Anything else?” The cashier said. He wagged the paper slip at me.

“Help? Help me?”

“Anything else man?” The cashier said.

“You don’t hear that?” I said. I stepped away from the counter to see better. “Didn’t you hear, someone needed help.”

“Help?” The cashier said. Then he laughed. “No man, that’s just Ruth. She’s a regular, don’t mean nothing.”

“Look at me? Listen to me? My husband, please, my husband?”

I snatched my ticket from his hand and made my way to the end of the counter. At first I still didn’t see her, but on a second pass I happened to look down at the moment she spoke and then she appeared: A crooked old woman bent nearly in half, with a gnarled hump rooted in her mid spine, stood wrapped in a dark three-quarter coat and wool skirt, tattered at every edge and sewn in places with a shaky stitch. A soggy shapka, a sort of fur hat, hung heavy and wet atop her grey-white hair.

She struck the counter with a crude wooden cane and pleaded again for help. The woman behind the counter glanced at her nervously, then to a man in a buttoned down shirt standing behind her. This man came to the counter and stood on his toes to see over it to the little woman.

“Ma’am,” he said. “Ruth dear, I can’t have you hitting my property, okay?”

“Hey buddy,” I said. “This woman needs something.”

“Ruth,” the man said, “I’m going to have to call someone to help you out if you don’t stop hitting the property, alight?”

“She needs help,” I said.

“She’s fine sir,” the man said. “She’s always like this, kind of an attraction here.”

“Attraction?” Ruth said. “Attraction? I am not a show.” She struck the counter.

“Okay–okay!” The man said. He hurried around the counter and put an arm around Ruth. “Okay dear, we’re not going to do that. Let’s go sit.” He led her out of the ticket office. Ruth’s line of questioning faded with them.

Later that evening I had finished a hot dog and coke and crossed the elevated footbridge across the tracks to the station platform. “Better snag a comfortable bench to spend the night,” I thought. Before then I passed the time strolling around the freight station and peeking into open cars, but then I was feeling worn out and well feed, and in need of a nap.

The platform shelter held several benches with empty seats, so I stretched out on a three-seater and stuck my travel sack behind my neck. Soon, the air thick with the smell of diesel and the blaring of horns, I feel asleep.

I awoke at full dark and groaned at the stiffness in my neck. My sack had slipped in my sleep and the iron bench-arm left a tender dent at the back of my head.

“He was an American? He promised … much?” It was Ruth. A red and green carpet bag sagged in her lap.

I glanced around the platform. It was empty besides the two of us. “Ruth?” I said. She smelled heavily of open sewer and cat urine.

“Nile, Amazon, Yangtze,” Ruth recited, “Mississippi, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, Yenisei, Yellow River? It is a circle around the globe? I know them all. I can go on.” (The reader will not begrudge me overlooking Ruth’s bewildering accent for clarity’s sake.)

“What’s that?” I said.

“Rivers,” Ruth said. She flashed her yellow teeth and shut her eyes. “I know all the rivers of the world. I learned them from the Nazis when I was a girl.”

“Oh,” I said. My eyes adjusted to the fluorescent flicker. Ruth’s forehead and cheeks were deeply furrowed. Clusters of wire-hair sprouted on her lip and chin.

“In those days there was no law in Poland: every woman did that which was right in her own eyes. It was all we could do?”

“Did you get the help you needed before?” I said. “I can’t believe the way they treated you.”

“I left my country,” she said, “my religion, to follow my mother-in-law here, to America.”

“Why’d you do that?” I said.

“Oh!” She moaned. “Oh! Oh! He died. My husband died before he gave me that America? But I told her I would follow her to America. Naomi loved me? She gave me a home?”

“I’m sorry about your husband. Are you … can I help you Ruth?” I pulled out my wallet and checked the pocket: ten bucks. “Here,” I said, holding out the money.

Ruth pushed my hand away, shaking her head and speaking in Polish. “My sister-in-law would not come,” Ruth said. “She told me America was not how my husband said.”

So I pocketed the money, sat up straighter in the bench and crossed my hands. “Tell me,” I said.

Ruth smiled. Her cheeks bulged. “dużo w ciszy” She said. And went on.

An hour later, my train arrived. Ruth told me of Poland, and her American lover, and her journey to the states. I understood very little of what she said, but each minute that passed, I thought she sat straighter and spoke more calmly. I felt bad cutting her story short, but Albuquerque wouldn’t wait, and soon the train was departing. I watched her shrink into the platform and then completely disappear.

A year or so later, I passed through that same station and I asked around about her. The man at the counter joyfully explained that, “The old ghoul finally bit it. I don’t miss the smell.” Apparently she over-stepped curb and took a bad fall. Too bad. She was a fine woman.






2 responses to “Ruth of the Railway Station”

  1. Maggie Tisenchek Avatar

    The intermingling of lives, some trailing off to disappear and others just around the corner,full of promise and adventure. She shared a part of her life when she was young and full of hope…waiting almost forever… waiting for him. Perhaps they were reunited. Her life mattered and the young traveler knew it…even though she had lost reason…and perhaps found a life without pain.Someone cared…someone listened. The true measure of his soul….He too a weary traveler.

    1. admin Avatar

      Beautifully said Maggie. I think you hit it right on the head. Thank you for sharing.



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