"The Train" tells the story of Miss Dent, as she waits in a train station late at night.
Earlier in the evening, Miss Dent had used a gun to force a man to kneel and plead for his life. "She tried to make him see that he couldn't keep trampling on people's feelings" while he begged, then she pushed his face into the dirt and walked to the station.
She is alone in the station thinking of the event when two people enter, a shoeless older man with white hair and a middle-aged woman. They are both drunk and dressed nicely, as though they have been at a party. They seem annoyed that Miss Dent is there, though the man is polite to her and the woman has no trouble talking as though Miss Dent is not there.
The man wants to smoke, but neither of the women have matches. The woman is insulted that he doesn’t remember that she doesn't smoke. Miss Dent is extremely aware that her handbag holds a gun, and thus keeps it close. The woman tries to speak to the man in another language, but he tells her he doesn't understand. So the woman then talks about how "the girl back there…will be the one to pay." She says that "Captain Nick" will never be blamed. The woman's description of the group she's referencing makes them sound free-wheeling and vacuous. The man tries to convince her she doesn't have to worry anymore, insisting that the woman was "in another room when [Captain Nick] said, 'I'm not serious, but I'm in love with her.'" It seems to be the first time the woman has heard this detail, as it makes her excited, and vindicates her opinions.
The man begins to walk around the room, searching the floor, which Miss Dent assumes means he is looking for stray matches. The woman turns to Miss Dent and says, "You don't say much, but I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started." She asks Miss Dent's name, and the latter gives it. They acknowledge they don't know one another, and then the man comes in, having found some matches on the ground outside. The woman tells him he is lucky, and then tells Miss Dent that things will get harder for her once she gets older, to about their age.
Miss Dent gets some water from the fountain, and sees them looking at her. She considers telling them about the gun and threatening the man, but then they hear the train. They all walk outside, to see there are not many people on the train, and those people seem surprised to see them waiting so late.
The story jumps to the perspective of the passengers as they watch the three characters board the train. They notice the strangeness of the crew, but they "had seen things more various than this in their lifetime." They assume that the three are all together. The conductor gives the signal to the engineer, and the train heads down the tracks.
"The Train" is unique both in this collection and in Carver's oeuvre for a few reasons. For one, it is dedicated to American fiction writer John Cheever, and is in fact an explicit sequel to Cheever's short story "The Five-Forty-Eight." In that story, a woman named Miss Dent accosts a businessman on a train for having stood her up.
The other quality that makes it unique in this collection is the perspective, which is significantly more omniscient. Whereas there are several third-person narratives in the story, the perspective tends to focus around one character at a time, getting into his or her thoughts and feelings. Even in "A Small, Good Thing," in which the perspective shifts between Scotty and his parents, it is limited to their perspective while with them. In this story, the first line establishes that the storyteller is distancing himself from his subject: "The woman was called Miss Dent." She is a "woman" being watched, forever distant. Whereas Cheever's Miss Dent seems to have had some mental problems, we never get such insight here. Similarly, the perspective jumps to unnamed and undifferentiated passengers at the end, in a way that tells us nothing about any specific individual.
This omniscience helps to establish the story's theme of isolation, which is not unique for a Carver story. Each character has his or her own story to tell in "The Train." While we do get the dramatic details of Miss Dent's story, we never get any background and are left to wonder about the backstory (unless, of course, we've read the Cheever). Likewise, Miss Dent is left to guess at what transpired with the man and woman, with the more interesting details – who is Captain Nick? Why is the man shoeless? Have then run away together? – impossible to discern except through guessing. The characters acknowledge their separation from one another, especially when the woman and Miss Dent say to one another "I don't know you." The perspective of the passengers furthers the theme. They notice the strangeness of the group, but have seen such strangeness before. What's more, they assume this group is together, a fact only the reader blessed with the storyteller's omniscience knows to be false. The idea seems to be that we all must make our own narrative up if we want to know someone else, because they will always be distant from us.
Paired with other stories from the collection, one could argue that Carver believes that this distance exists even when two people are intimate. So full of deceit and silence and miscommunication, the dialogue between husbands and wives often separate the parties as much as they connect them.
The story has lots of poetic detail that help to establish the sadness and paranoia that run throughout. Notice how Miss Dent constantly pulls her bag to her chest, and the way she observes the man and woman. This atmosphere also connects the story to the common Carver theme of desperation – the implication is that, though we're all alone by nature, we all want desperately to tell our story. There's no doubt that the woman's storytelling is at least in part for the benefit of Miss Dent, even though she's a stranger. The woman wants her to know how dramatic her life is. And Miss Dent considers revealing her secret about the gun, obviously a bad idea. This suggests that given the choice, "everyone wants to get their story told so the terrible isolation of their lives can break," as a character from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio says.