If you take the 10:15 up to Mungeville, you will get to there by 11:37, but you won’t get back to Grorkton, if you came from that place, until you take one of the later trains, say the 12:14, which will return you by 1:28, barring breakdowns, cancellations, and bad behavior.
Hemd followed this route most Saturdays of the year. It wasn’t much of a route, but it was enough for Hemd, whose intention was not to go very far, and to come back as soon as possible. There was nothing like it for security and no surprises.
It was Hemd who gave the stops their names, according to his careful thinking. More about that later.
Hemd worked in an office somewhere all of the week. On Sundays he moped about Grorkton, usually at home, and did nothing else at all, unless it was to plan an excursion to Mungeville for the following Saturday on the 10:15.
In the warm May of this year, Hemd waited at Grorkton Station for his train to pull in as usual. Though the breezes might have been blowing ash from distant incinerators, the sun was shining cleanly and the air was crisp, so Hemd was pleased he would not have long to wait.
Hemd had no convincing reason to go up to Mungeville, and was unlikely to discover one, except that it was nearby and it wasn’t Grorkton. He knew no one in Mungeville, there were no major attractions, and he always came right back home with nothing to show for it.
For in Mungeville nothing moved him. Nothing occurred to him. No one came to him. No one tried to take his life to make the world a better place. So in rain or shine, he remained on the platform in Mungeville until the 12:14 rolled in to carry him back to Grorkton.
The explanation for this behavior lies in the half of Hemd’s thinking concerning change. There is nothing truly new to be learned, but only the appearance of new, which in the end is merely the unfamiliar. Therefore to avoid the illusion that something new can be learned, it is essential not to stray from the familiar, which in Hemd’s case was pretty much limited to the lessons learned from his masters.
According to Hemd, this principle applies as much to travel as it does to learning, and permits only minor departures for limited recreation.
Not surprisingly, this thinking often led Hemd into contradictory opinions without his knowing it, for he never examined any point of view not already his own, and consequently knew little of the thinking of those who dissented from it.
Eventually, the doors of the 10:15 came open, and a smallish number of passengers began to board ahead of Hemd, who delayed a moment until the conductor gave a sign he would entertain a query. His large face and physique were known to Hemd, and his own less imposing exteriority known to the conductor.
“Is this the train to Mungeville?” Hemd said, employing the here-unrecorded place name established by the authorities. It was Hemd’s constant practice to inquire.
The conductor smiled down from his two chins.
“It is, as I’m sure you know. But not to Farc, if you’re going to Farc. Not to Scearploff, either.”
“I never asked about Farc,” said Hemd, “or Scearploff” — for these were points in another part of the compass.
“Knowledge of the world is a great thing,” the conductor continued. “You’re not going to Shamshish, I suppose?”
“Mungeville,” said Hemd. “What’s in Shamshish?”
“You might go there on a lark, or to see a friend, or to buy something for the pantry.”
Hemd shook his head.
“No? Well, find yourself a place then.”
Hemd climbed aboard and threw himself into a seat beside a dingy window.
The 10:15 began almost imperceptibly to move and soon settlements and other places of human activity began to fly by, flung, Hemd was cheered to see, like so much detritus toward the back end of the train and wholly out of his reckoning.
Then Hemd began to anticipate the stations that lay ahead, sounding their names with satisfaction according to a system worked out from the other half of his philosophy, using a name-generator and his own high selectivity: Penk, Crath, Cacky, Hiw (the “i” silent here), Wopple, Nuth, Crod, Mungeville.
“Wopple,” he repeated, preparing to launch his thought into action, as he had noted a not unpleasant movement of the lips and a certain reticence of the tongue in producing its sound. He would have to change it — to Lufp, perhaps, or Glufp; because there must be no hint of beauty in it; because no beautiful name or thing in Hemd’s experience ever lived up to its promise, or ever could.
It will be seen that the two halves of Hemd’s philosophy make a whole: the unchangeableness of his knowing, together with the full grasp of the ugliness principle best reflect the real, and properly understood lead to few disappointments.
More likely to be disappointing than places, of course, and therefore especially dangerous, were people. Hemd’s building was full of people, and none more dangerous than Ms. Shudwucket.
Ms. Shudwucket was amply endowed with feminine attributes, and therefore might easily lead Hemd into further contradictions, though he well knew that after the initial impressions, he would find the flaws. Beauty was never truly beauty, because of the flaws. Nevertheless, the young woman’s arrival put into play just this critical part of his thinking concerning beauty and its inevitable deceits.
Unaccountably, and against all reasonable expectations, Ms. Shudwucket had intimated an interest in Hemd.
There were at first chance encounters in the hallways. Afterward, her chances seemed to be arranged with discernible precision. Then she altered her face and her style of dress. Was he the intended? Hemd thought she must require something of him, and he wondered if he had misunderstood the signs, despite the frequent smiles she gave him.
In return, Hemd gave her the name Shudwucket, which he carefully crafted to begin with a deceiving sibilant (the lure of beauty) and then lead quickly into a wall of hard consonants (the inevitable flaws and disappointments).
This did not deter Ms. Shudwucket, in large part because she never heard the name, and further, in Hemd’s analysis, his evasions likely made him a more valuable conquest.
The most bewildering occurrence to date had been the time Ms. Shudwucket stopped Hemd with a firm application of her finger to his chest, and said,
“What do you do on Saturdays?” without any slow working up to the question.
Hemd wouldn’t say. Did she know?
Ms. Shudwucket smiled as if she did know. She’s smart, he thought, and a looker; but nothing is ever as good as it seems.
Another time he thought she said he needed to be more “now,” as if with small improvements he might retain her interest. “Now” is pretty much what Hemd thought he already was, so long as she meant by that not expecting anything much from when or then. Could it be she really wanted him?
At Nuth, Hemd’s train of arresting thought was broken by the conductor, who came up behind his ear to say,
“Do you ever try new places?”
“Not much,” said Hemd, wearily. He ought to have added some words of wit, but the conductor was gone, and Hemd fell silent.
After that, Hemd must have dozed, because it looked like Crod coming into view.
The conductor made his way back to Hemd’s coach one last time and put his face almost into Hemd’s, as if the two of them had become friends after an exchange of ideas.
“I’m attached to that,” the conductor said, holding up his punch for inspection. “It’s my own. There’s a serial number says so. Look where I’m pointing.”
Then he told Hemd of the individual unique punches assigned to individual unique conductors, and of the labors of the die makers to accomplish each separate uniqueness, and how they might run out of new ones well before the beginning of the next time they were needed.
“And what do you think of that, now?”
Hemd thought it might be orderly, like his renaming; but just then he was too stuporous to trace out the parallels and contradictions, so he said he never knew of so interesting an act of precision and fine machining.
“Right you are! And your stop is the next one,” said the conductor, drawing up the full height and bulk of himself, with a smiley look of satisfaction.
Hemd gave a laugh that surprised himself, and then let the half-mad conductor go without a single glance after him.
At Mungeville, Hemd ate his packed lunch and wondered at the mystery of human behavior. Few of the conductor’s promptings accorded with Hemd’s understanding of things and only slightly more of Ms. Shudwucket’s did, though the latter clearly required further attention to ensure no congruities were overlooked. He concluded, tentatively, that the references of the others were broader than his own but lacking the common foundation.
When the 12:14 for Grorkton came in, Hemd boarded and sat as before next to a window.
There was no conductor he was conversant with in the southbound direction and nothing much to hold Hemd’s attention. With his lunch heavy on his belly, Hemd began to slip quietly into a dream.
And then in no time at all the train was approaching his home station. Had he slept through the others? He heard the long stopping, then the last squeaks and screeches.
Soon Grorkton Station itself appeared, and Hemd turned his head in that direction and was jolted to see Ms. Shudwucket roaming the platform with long-legged strides.
He sat up abruptly as the train came to a full stop, and then Ms. Shudwucket came near to the windows and began hopping and peering in. With her heels on, Hemd thought, she must have stood nine feet to the eyeballs, for she seemed larger than herself, and her shoes would have had springs in the works, and shock absorbers, and some system of lubrication for the high jumps.
Hemd had to wonder at this and at other proofs of Ms. Shudwucket’s athleticism.
She went straight for his coach the moment she spotted him, and was up the steps before the doors had opened. As she entered at one end of it, exultantly, Hemd lunged toward her impulsively, and then seemed to be sucked out of the other end of it in a miserable state of confusion.
All that was left was de-boarding in one leap, and then bounding across the platform and through the station house, and not once looking back to see what was on offer, though he seemed to hear Ms. Shudwucket giving voice to his name and her heels striking the hard surfaces behind him.
At last, Hemd reached a small unfamiliar park where he thought he might sit and sort things out with a timely course of reflection.
But minutes passed and Hemd put his head down and imagined that sleeping would be the best technique at present, as there seemed no role for analytical or synthetic thought.
Whatever he might achieve now, he still had Sunday to prepare himself; there was that much to his advantage. And if Ms. Shudwucket confronted him on Monday, he might defend himself with denials, or the claim that he must have been sleep-walking when she entered the train, or that he mistook her for a process server and no offense was intended.
This much thought Hemd could manage: he must find his way back to the platform at Grorkton and hope for the best.
Symons, a Pennington resident, is a freelance translator and technical writer, as well as a long-time member of the U.S. 1 delivery team and a reviewer of the submissions to the Summer Fiction issue.