On his birthday Samuel Builds-the-Fire tries to be cheerful despite the fact that his children, who all live far away, haven’t sent him any birthday wishes. He goes to his job as a motel maid and is laid off. Samuel has a gift for storytelling (like his grandson Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who does not appear in this story), and his friends like to challenge him to create stories on the spot about random objects.
Samuel has always avoided drinking after seeing the havoc it has wrought in the lives of the other Indians on the reservation. However, he buys his first beer after being fired. He recalls one of his favorite stories, about how white people were created from the toenail clippings of Coyote, the creator god.
He also remembers feeling irrelevant as he grew older and his friends died. Eventually he moved off of the reservation and got the job as a motel maid in Spokane. Prostitutes and drug dealers frequented this motel, and Samuel was especially disturbed when he saw Indian prostitutes. When an Indian boy died of a drug overdose in the motel, Samuel felt even more weary and lost his ability to tell stories.
Back in the present, Samuel has become extremely drunk. He wanders onto a set of train tracks and passes out just as a train approaches.
Through this story about Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s grandfather Samuel, Alexie creates some context for Thomas. Although Thomas is something of a mysterious figure in the other stories in the collection, “A Train Is An Order...” reveals that his talent for storytelling, his optimism, and his resilience run in the family. Samuel Builds-the-Fire only succumbs to drinking after a lifetime of disappointment and loneliness. Even after watching his friends die and move away, he attempts to start a new life off the reservation before he turns to drinking. In this sense Samuel is unusual, since many of the other characters in the collection - including Victor, Junior Polatkin, and John-John from “Flight” - structure their lives around leaving the reservation and seeking their fortune elsewhere. However, Samuel is the only person who actually lives off the reservation during the narrative of a story.
Alexie allows Samuel’s death at the end of this story to remain ambiguous. Although the reader knows that his death was accidental - he passed out before the train came - the circumstances leading up to it will make it look like a suicide to witnesses. The title of the story hints at this ambiguity; the train seems like it will surely kill Samuel, but the story ends before it happens. Alexie leaves the reader to speculate about whether Samuel actually died and if so, how his death was interpreted. In keeping with this sense of mystery, none of the other stories in the collection reference Samuel or his death. In this sense, the ending of the story is less important than what came before. Alexie ends many of his stories on an open-ended or ambiguous note, as if compelling the reader to meditate on his characters. Also, the style and tone are emphasized over narrative clarity, giving this work a more poetic and philosophical feeling; the emotions evoked are more powerful than plot.