The train conductor makes his way down the aisle. He’s collecting tickets. He asks for yours. You give it to him. He continues down the aisle.
Ten minutes later, you hear behind you “Tickets, tickets.” It’s the conductor again, making his way down the aisle. He’s moving in the same direction as before, forward through the train. This means he must have passed you and returned to the rear of the train and doubled back. But you never saw him pass. This time, he’s not asking everyone for their tickets—only particular passengers, presumably those who’ve just boarded.
But he stops at your seat and asks for your ticket. You tell him you already gave him your ticket. He says, “Be that as it may, I still need a ticket.” You suspect he does not know what “Be that as it may” means. You say again that you’ve already given it to him, and that you received no receipt. He moves on, but with his face in a squinch, suggesting he’s dissatisfied with this state of affairs and plans to right it.
Twenty minutes later, again without you seeing him walk back down the aisle, he approaches from behind and asks for your ticket, but in a way that suggests he’s never seen you before in his life. You tell him that nothing’s changed, that you’ve given him your ticket.
“Look,” he says, “I don’t want a speech, just a ticket.”
He says this and does not wait to finish before moving on, which suggests to you he will be back. As you wait, you think about how “Tickets” said over and over starts to sound like “Stick it.”
Thirty minutes later, he is back. From the same direction as always, and asking for a ticket. You say you’ve already given him a ticket.
He says, “Why don’t I remember that?”
You say, “I don’t know. We’ve talked about this twice before. Do you remember that?”
And he says, “I don’t like games. I’m a conductor. I’m not here for games. This isn’t a game. I just need a ticket.” He moves on.
Sure enough, forty minutes later, here he is, asking you for a ticket. You hand him a piece of ham. He takes it and moves on.
Fifty minutes later, you hand him a pencil. He takes it and moves on.
You continue to give him things, whatever you can muster, until the train stops at your station. As you get off the train, you hear a voice behind you.
“Your luggage, sir.”
You did not board with luggage, you have no luggage. The conductor hands you a traveling case and disappears into the train. You look inside the case as the train rumbles off. Inside is everything you gave the conductor—the mongongo leaves have wilted, the egret looks discouraged—plus a train ticket for a destination you’ve never heard of.
The next morning you decide to take this new train to see where it goes. You give a different train conductor your ticket. Twenty minutes later he comes around again and asks for a ticket. Thirty minutes later, the same thing.
You give him broken crockery, the orange reflective triangle from the back of an Amish buggy.
When forty minutes later he asks again for your ticket, you say, “I get it. This is, like, an allegory, right? The world wants what you don’t have. But it’ll take what you can give. A metaphor for life, right?”
The conductor looks at you like you are a penance. He says, “I need a ticket, sir. Honestly, what I’d really like is your silence. But I’ll just take a ticket.” You mistake this rudeness for frustration, and wonder if it means he finally remembers you from before.
But no. He does not remember you. He is just rude, a rude grump. You give him a handful of spelt. He seems content to take it.
You settle in for a nap. You have a good fifty minutes.