The sun generously bathed Mr. E.P. Hardy in sparkling light as, humming, he bounded onto the train platform, swinging his brown leather suitcase to the beat of “Camptown Races.”
Mr. E.P. Hardy attracted some attention because of his panama hat, perched so precariously to the side of his head. Leaning against one of the platform’s grim concrete pillars, he tapped his patent-leather-clad foot to the tune, oblivious to the contemptuous stares of the family nearest him.
On his other side, a white-haired gentleman, slight of figure, smiled faintly. “And how are you today, son?” he asked kindly.
Though dressed to the utmost formality, when observed carefully it was clear that Mr. E.P. Hardy was youngish, not more than nineteen or twenty. He had grown a rust-colored moustache to disguise his age, and so he stopped humming, abruptly, when the old man referred to him as ‘son’.
He smiled loosely at the stranger and responded, “as a matter of fact, sir, I have never felt better in my life. Today, I am discovering the world!” Fingering the one-way ticket in his pocket, he turned back to face the rails, but all he saw down there was a lot of gravel and a few rats scurrying between the grimy wires searching for food. Sighing, he faced the old man, who in his austere black suit was a sight more attractive than the rats with their whipping tails. “You seem very dressed up, sir,” he observed, hoping to strike up a conversation.
“Quite an observant young man you are,” the man smiled. “I’m on my way to a funeral.”
“My apologies, sir!”
“No. Not your fault.” The man waved it off. “It’s nobody particularly close—a friend of mine. Your name, son?”
Our man in the panama hat informed him with starch formality. On being asked why he was leaving, he shrugged nonchalantly in the manner common to men of his age and disposition. “I’ve had it with this town,” he sighed. “No freedom for expression or creativity here, no passion for the arts.”
“Ah! An artist.” The elderly man spoke this with such warmth and interest that Mr. Hardy eagerly plunged ahead into a detailed account of his dreams.
“Sir, I grew up next to a lonely graveyard, isolated at the top of a hill,” he said, “and I firmly believe this town is dead. It’s gray, and it’s cold, like one big cemetery. I want life, with beautiful girls clad in exotic purple skirts and men shouting poetry out onto the streets, with artists lined up and down the avenues painting everything as the smell of roasting food from vendors’ stalls permeates your nostrils. I’ll tell you, I’ve heard of some streets in Paris…”
Overhead, the intercom snapped on as an unintelligible metallic voice rattled off what both men assumed to be the time when their train was due to approach. Like an intruder the voice sliced through the thick, quiet air.
Breaking the heavy silence after the intercom had snapped off, Mr. White-Haired said, “You know, I used to live in Paris, myself.” Seeing the young man’s wide eyes, he
continued proudly, “Yes, I there went to l’université. Quite as you described it, quite, though I gather you’ve never been.”
“So you speak French fluently? And you’ve read all the books? Seen all the paintings? And the girls?” The young man grinned broadly as the old man nodded to each question in turn. “Well, that’s wonderful, sir! But why did you come back here?”
Again, the intercom snapped on, as various people with tired drooping eyes covered their ears to block out the annoying indecipherable voice. But now, a whistle sounded.
“The train approaches!” cried Mr. E.P. Hardy, as the sun ducked behind some clouds and droplets of rain began to splatter onto his panama hat.
The old man’s eyes were a clear pale blue, the sort of shade that easily could be confused with gray. Mr. Hardy saw them for the first time and felt strangely stagnated. “Why did you return?” he squeaked, his throat constricting as he anticipated the answer.
“I had to,” the man said, voice raised over the increasingly loud sound of the train’s wheels. “I have lived too long to be idealistic, son.” The rats scattered.
Like a raging angry bullet the mechanical gray train squealed to a stop before the platform, as pallid faces stumbled toward it in their vapidity. Mr. E.P. Hardy did not move, as the old man fixed his tie and picked up his black luggage bag. “Good day, young man. It was lovely getting to know you.”
The young man stuttered, “whose funeral, again…?”
That was what the white-haired man, donning a black bowler hat, had said. However, as the cavernous doors of the train swallowed up his back, whispers of unknown origin seemed to call the funeral “his own.”
Mr. E.P. Hardy pulled his one-way ticket out of his pocket and, as the disgruntled conductor shouted for “the man with the wet hat to get a move on,” looked at it with newfound terror.