Joyland

The South |

The Conductor

by Julia Coursey

edited by JD Scott

Once there was a wizard who was also a train conductor. He was not a particularly powerful wizard; in fact, his main skill was detecting whether or not someone had paid for their train ticket. His girlfriend wanted him to be more ambitious. She didn’t have any magical powers and she was the assistant to the human resources manager at her company—just from hard work! Conducting was a dead end, she told him. Unless he wanted to conduct an orchestra, perhaps, or a series of important scientific experiments.

So he started going to night school. He learned about management strategies and PowerPoint and auditing and SWOT. He copied everything written on the board down into grey spiral notebooks, then put each notebook into a drawer in one of the many filing cabinets surrounding the large mahogany desk in his home office. As a train conductor, he had not needed a home office; his office had always been the railways of America. But he had been told in class that it was required for a businessman, so he converted their rumpus room. He also purchased a number of business-type suits, and practiced shaking hands with himself, grasping until he heard the bones crunch. Soon he had all the necessary skills to conduct executive seminars for high-powered business people. He taught them the facts in his notebooks and shook hands with each of them very forcefully. His girlfriend was proud.

She decided that they needed to become more cultured, now that they were people of means. It was expected that they would know certain things. The wizard had embarrassed her at a dinner party with some of their new friends by not knowing the difference between Manet and Monet. So he paid for them to go to Paris and she made him look at some paintings of flowers in a pond.

Later, they went to see the orchestra. The show was delayed, and his girlfriend was uncomfortable (she didn’t know how to conduct herself while surrounded by the Parisian women, each with a scarf effortlessly angled to accent the cheekbones). The conductor had suddenly fallen ill, they were told. The performance would have to be cancelled. But the wizard remembered his girlfriend’s words and advanced on the stage. “I am a conductor,” he said, and they gave him the baton.

Never had Paris seen such a performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony. The orchestra wept as it played, and the audience wept as they listened. Afterwards, the wizard was swept away by his bouquet-bearing admirers and could not find his girlfriend. He took up with a flautist who spoke very little English but seemed to enjoy his company. They decided on a flat in the 8th arrondissement, a compromise, and made a life for themselves there. Each morning, they drank tiny cups of espresso on the balcony, then fought through streams of businesspeople on the way to their practice spaces. Each night, while she breathed her dreams softly beside him, he listened to the low whistles of the trains leaving the Gare Saint-Lazare, and counted the fares of the passengers.