"A Coward or a Fool"

An Original Short Story.

Paul glanced to the side as the train slowed to a halt. Only three of the passengers present when he boarded remained, all of which were collecting their luggage. It was a game he played every time he took the trip to visit his parents out west, seeing whether he would be the passenger who had ridden the train the longest. So far he had “won” every time, but this time he was a little disappointed in his victory. The passengers that preceded him had gotten off much sooner than he would have liked, bringing his game to an abrupt end. This left him nothing to do for the remaining three or four hours.

He turned back towards his scotch. Taking another sip, he suddenly wished the seats next to him weren’t empty. He missed the days when you could just talk to the stranger next to you over a drink, getting to know them, their family, their history, and then never seeing them again. Nowadays everybody kept to themselves, making the train ride seem exceedingly long. He looked around at the passengers on the train, all of which had gone on after him. None of them looked in the mood to talk. Still, he remained hopeful that someone would fill the empty seat and would be willing to have a chat. Someone was bound to need a drink sooner or later.

Sure enough, as soon as the train began to move, a man a little older than him, maybe early thirties, pulled up a stool two seats away. A beautiful young woman dressed all in white, from her knee high skirt to her expensive looking blouse and hat, was hanging off his shoulder with a big smile on her face.

“Are you going to be here, dear?” she asked sweetly, holding the sleeve of the man’s brown sweater even as he sat down.

“Yes honey, I’m just going to grab a drink.”

“Oh, no rush. I saw Amy in the other car and we simply must catch up! I’ll see you in a little while?”

“Of course,” he answered. “You girls have fun.”

“Thanks dear, we’ll only be a minute.” She kissed him on the cheek and started walking towards the next train car.

The man ordered a beer. Paul waited a few seconds for the man’s drink to arrive, wondering whether he should start a conversation. The seat in-between them suggested the man wanted his space, but what the hell, no harm in trying.

“So, where you headed?”

It took the man a second to realize the question was directed at him. He turned to his neighbour and turned back to his beer.

“Don’t know yet.”

“You and the missus going wherever the road takes you, eh?”

The man took a gulp of his beverage.

“Something like that.”

So much for talking, thought Paul as he turned his attention to his own drink, wondering how to pass the time. A minute or two went by, but then the man spoke again.

“What’s your name, stranger?”

This time it was Paul that was taken by surprise, delighted to find the man looking his way.

“Paul, and yours?”

“Henry. Can I ask you a question, Paul?”

“Fire away.”

Henry took a quick glance behind him before moving to the seat beside Paul, taking his beer with him.

“Would you rather be a coward or a fool?”

Paul looked at his neighbour curiously, trying to decipher the question. Still, he considered it carefully.

“A fool, I suppose.”

Henry had leaned in close, very interested in what the man beside him had to say.

“And why is that?”

“I’m not quite sure. Something about being a coward doesn’t sit well with me.” Paul searched the man’s face for any clues behind the unusual question, but found none. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, the way I see it,” Henry explained, “people make choices either by listening to their head or to their heart, so to speak. The heart tells you what you want to do while the brain tells you what it thinks is the smartest choice.”

Paul nodded, very curious.

“So you could say that a man who listens to his heart is courageous. He is ignoring his better judgment and does what he thinks is right, what his heart is telling him to do. At the same time, a man who listens to his brain and his better judgment is wise for thinking over what is best and following the most promising path. Is that fair to say?”

“I think so.”

“Now tell me, do you know what separates a courageous man from a fool? A wise man from a coward?”

Paul took a sip from his drink, his eyes staring off into space for long seconds before he spoke.

“I don’t follow.”

“The outcome.” Henry said, his face very serious. “That’s the only thing. If a man follows his heart and succeeds, he is courageous for taking a chance and coming out on top. But a man who follows his heart and fails is a fool for trying in the first place. Likewise, if a man is logical and uses his brain to come to the right conclusion, he is wise for coming up with the answer. Yet if he has come to the wrong conclusion, he is a coward for not opting to take the same risk a courageous man would take.”

“Interesting. And what are you applying this to?”

“Anything.” Some of the intensity left his voice as he finished off his beer. “Everything. Think about any decision you’ve had to make in your life, any decision anyone’s made. It applies to all of them.”

“There must be some exceptions to this,” said Paul, absentmindedly spinning his drink, making the melting ice cubes create a dull clink every time they hit the glass. “Surely not every man who takes the wrong path is a fool or a coward.”

“I invite you to think of one. In fact, I would love to hear it. But I don’t think you’ll find one.”

Paul considered the logic that had been presented to him while Henry ordered two more beers.

“For the missus?”

“Oh, no, no,” said Henry, shaking his head. “No. It’s just going to be a long trip.”

They drank in silence for a while, one thinking, and the other allowing him every chance to do so. Finally, Paul spoke.

“Have you heard of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans?”

“I have.”

“They knew they were going to fail, yet they continued to fight the Persians in the hopes of holding them off. Though they died, would you not call them courageous rather than fools?”

“You’re looking at it the wrong way. You see, what makes a fool is a man who makes a decision without knowing the outcome, and guessing wrong. When the Spartans decided to make their last stand, they knew they were going to die. They did not guess wrong. In fact, in a grim sort of way, everything went exactly as planned. So they were courageous in giving their lives for the cause, because that was what they wanted to do. Besides, their deaths served a purpose.

“Let me give you another example,” he continued. “A child is drowning and it is impossible to save him. A man who listens to his brain would make the wise decision of staying on land because he knows he has no chance of saving the child, though many might see him as a coward because of it. On the other hand, if he listens to his heart and dives in, he is undoubtedly doing the courageous thing in trying to save the child’s life, but since the premise is that it is impossible to do so, the man will drown in the attempt. Of course people will honour his memory, call him courageous for doing what he could, when the reality of the situation is that he was a fool for trying.

“That’s the thing,” Henry tore at the beer label with his thumb. “People are a lot more willing to forgive fools than cowards, to recognize courage rather than wisdom. Everyone wants to do the right thing instead of the smart thing.” He sighed and took a drink.

Though the train was still speeding ahead and the people around them were still talking amongst themselves, the train car suddenly seemed very quiet.

“Hey sweetie!” The man’s wife appeared from the other car after a time with a big smile on her face. “Sorry, Amy started telling me about her new house and I guess I lost track of time. I promise we’re almost done, and then we can enjoy the rest of the trip together, okay?”

“You ladies take your time,” replied Henry with a smile.

Paul noted the full beer in front of him, but the man’s wife gestured towards the bartender anyway.

“One water, please.”

The bartender brought her the water and she returned to the car in front of this one.

“She’s seven weeks pregnant,” Henry explained, noticing the curious stare on Paul’s face.

“Congratulations!” Paul raised his glass.

“Thank you. We had been trying for a while. We had tried everything, even those clinics, and finally it… happened.” The smile on his face looked more and more forced with each word.

“Well, I’m happy for you. Next round’s on me!” Paul lifted his hand to call the bartender over, but Henry quickly lowered it.

“Thank you, but you don’t have to do that.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s my pleasure –”

“Please.” The smile had left Henry’s face entirely.

“If you insist.” Said Paul, slowly setting his arm on the counter. He studied the man, who now looked close to tears. He wanted him to speak, but it wasn’t his place to ask. After a minute or two had passed, Paul lost hope of finding out what troubled the man beside him. He clearly wanted to be alone. Paul finished off his scotch and got up to leave.

“I can’t have kids.” It was almost a whisper. Paul sat back down and put his hand on Henry’s shoulder.

“Don’t say that. It’s completely normal for a guy to be nervous before –”

“No,” Henry interrupted. His eyes were locked on his beer, but his stare was vacant. “I can’t… have kids.”

Paul looked at him with a puzzled expression “But how did…” He saw a tear roll down Henry’s face and suddenly the terrible answer came to him “I see.” He didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t even drink from his empty glass. But he had to look away from him.

“The clinic told me there was no chance. I was going to tell her, but I could never gather the nerve. And before I could tell her, she told me she was pregnant.” Henry continued to tear at the label. “She still doesn’t know.”

And just like that, it all made sense.

“A coward or a fool, huh?” Paul sighed.

Henry didn’t respond. He just kept staring into the abyss of his beverage until the conductor announced the approach of the next station. Henry’s ears perked. The train began to slow.

“I guess this is my stop,” he said slowly. He set down the money for his beers and got up to leave.

“Guess so. Hey…” Paul called out as his companion turned to face him. “Good luck. You know… with everything.”

Henry nodded and walked to the next train car where his wife was. Paul ordered another scotch. After all the new passengers had gotten settled, the train was on its way again. Paul took a sip from his drink, wondering why Henry’s words had resonated with him.

‘I guess this is my stop.’ Not ‘our’… ‘my.’

He jumped from his stool and looked out the window. But the station was already out of sight. He looked at the doors to the next train car. He took a step towards them, but couldn’t bring himself to take another, couldn’t bring himself to see the truth for himself. He sat back on his stool at the bar.

It isn’t true. Of Course it isn’t. It can’t be, he thought. But what if it was? He had to be here just in case, didn’t he? Somebody would have to tell her if it was.

Now he was the one staring at his drink, looking, but not seeing. A minute went by. Then another. Finally, he sighed and looked down at his feet.

A coward.

He paid for his drinks, leaving the bartender a generous tip. He got up from his seat and started walking towards the car opposite the one Henry had gone through. Opposite the one Henry’s wife may very well still be in. He took one last look at the bar behind him and shook his head. He hated leaving a good scotch.