Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think.
The overcast skies split to allow a few pale rays of sunlight to bleed through the seemingly solid clouds. Below, an Assistant Professor of English sits on the platform bench. She is alternately grading the stack of papers in her lap and contemplating the advent of her thirty-fourth birthday tomorrow—the end of her “Jesus Year,” as her friends in the Department of Theology call it. She is not certain she ought to be evaluating her students’ work along with her life, but she sallies forth nonetheless.
There is much to accomplish tonight, and she consoles herself by starting with English 342: Shakespeare’s Histories’ Richard III essays. She reads: “By killing those who stood between him and the throne, he was able to dramatically affect the lives of their loved ones—however, he could not manipulate….” She sighs. How many times has she talked about using the literary present? As she crosses out “was” and “could not” to write “is” and “cannot,” she imagines the wind rushing across the tracks and up over the platform—it whisks the pages out of her hand and sends them up over the trees and beyond the buildings, circling ever higher until they disappear from view….
All right, perhaps she should begin elsewhere. She pulls out her Modernism file and selects a paper. After all, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? She winces at the feeble joke, even though she hasn’t said it aloud. She starts at the top of the pile and reads until she comes to: “When official critiques were printed, her novel was written off as ‘a disappointment—all about nothing—exquisitely written of course.’” Hello? Hello, hello? How about citing the source? She closes her eyes and conjures up a band of marauding children who steal her papers as they run by laughing—they rush down the stairs, across the street and down the block, folding them into boats as they go, launching the vessels into the lake’s cold waters when they reach shore, watching them sail over the waves….
She opens her eyes. The Waves. Very funny. She replaces the Modernism file and reaches for one of her Comp 101 compare and contrast essays. Eventually, she stumbles upon what she believes to be the thesis statement: “Although football and baseball are both popular American-born sports with many rules, baseball is defiantly more complicated because the defense has control of the ball.” Defiantly? No. Spell check strikes again. And again, and again, and again. Definitely, she writes.
She hears the train and looks up to see it coming around the bend. She imagines loosening her grip on the papers, watching them fall onto the tracks and being ripped to shreds by the train, filling the air like a ticker-tape parade—happy birthday to me! But she tightens her grip, scribbles “apply yourself” on the top paper, places them all carefully in her briefcase, and steps onto the Red Line.
He breathes in deeply, relishing the scent of the best coffee in town. They have a decaffeinated version of their signature Redline roast, but today he went with the real thing. He feels so weak asking for decaf, though he probably should have today. He can feel the blood coursing rapidly through his veins.
As usual, nobody noticed him take his post in the weathered easy chair in the corner. He tucks himself carefully inside his anonymity and turns his eyes on the creatures before him. It is the standard mix of students, artists, and suits. Most are hunched over laptops, a few frown over textbooks. They all seem so intent. So vibrant. He selects a pale young woman who is gazing with such earnestness at the bearded man speaking to her that her eyes appear in danger of leaping from her face.
Her lips part slightly as she drinks in the bearded man’s words. He cannot pull his eyes away from the shiny glint of teeth and tongue between those lips. He feels the familiar urge swell through his chest. His hands clench, and he nearly drops his mug. He aches to run a finger—a knife—over her round, pink cheeks, draw a line down to her throat, and slice through her carotid artery. He can feel her body go slack in his arms, can picture how pristinely beautiful she will look as the life quickly drains from her: peaceful, pale, serene, other-worldly. He does not know how he knows this, but he knows. Has always known. He hasn’t done it before. No—he hasn’t done it yet.
The young woman stands, breaking his trance. She shakes the bearded man’s hand, holding onto it a moment longer than necessary. He notices this even as he smoothly places his mug in the bin for dirty dishes and slips out the front door. By the time she steps outside, he is off to the sidewalk’s edge tying his shoe. She pauses long enough to adjust her purse before turning left and walking—almost skipping—toward the station.
He slides into the crowd three people behind her, following her through the turnstile and up the stairs. The train has already arrived and he leaps gracefully through the opposite door of the car she entered a moment before. He waits for her to settle, then takes a seat and gradually pretends to nap while watching her flushed face through his eyelashes. She is captivating. He will be sorry when she departs. He always rides to the next stop….
His pulse races as a realization washes over him. It begins at the top of his head, warming his face, then his torso, then radiates through his limbs. Today is the bloom. Today is the dawn. Forget decaf.
Today he will follow her home.
She is almost mesmerized by watching them, the toddlers tumbling over and around each other like puppies (or the baby foxes—kits—that were born each spring in her grandparents’ backyard). Across the street, the playlot surface is a faded black, but in the sunlight it becomes a shocking blue, reminding her of the football field at Boise State (she’s never been that far west, but that’s how it looks on television each Saturday in autumn). The swings, slides and monkey bars are all bright primary colors (almost too vibrant against the backdrop of concrete and brick).
She catches movement out of the corner of her eye. An old woman is slowly making her way down the platform, talking (to herself?) and gesticulating. She tries to listen. The old woman is difficult to understand (but why?) She is loud enough, she is speaking English, she doesn’t appear to have an accent—wait, there was something about…scabies, was it? And how her doctor told her to avoid using the dryer in her building, should the board of health be notified? The old woman has stopped in front of her (waiting for a reply?) She attempts one: “ Oh, yes, there’s never any harm in…letting people know.”
That answer appears satisfactory, because now she hears: “and cleanliness is next to Godliness, you know. I have always been clean—my maid comes every week and asks what she’s doing there since nothing needs to be done. I don’t believe a person can be truly religious without being clean, do you?” The old woman pauses. “Uh…I think I agree with you.” She does not consider herself at all religious, but her own home is immaculate, so it is easy to believe that might be the first step toward God. (Or perhaps the last step and she bypassed all the others?)
There is a rush of unintelligible syllables, then suddenly: “…women just need to stand up for each other, they need to stand together.” The old woman regards her plaintively. “I agree absolutely.” (At last, something she is sure of!) “I thought you would. Like minds, you know. My name is Esther. Shalom.” The old woman nods, turns, and shuffles toward the platform elevator.
Like minds? She looks around. Why did the old woman choose her? Or was she simply in her path? Somehow it is only after the old woman left that she is able to see her: large glasses, a silk scarf and sunhat on her head, a beautiful antique bead necklace, a pretty (though inexpensive) dress. Quite fashionable, in fact—why hadn’t she noticed? Was it because of her stoop? Surely not.
She turns her attention back to the playlot. A little girl has broken away from the pack and is trying (without much success) to climb up the front of the slide. Like minds, she thinks. And then it strikes her: here I perch, halfway between tumbling and shuffling—inexpensively stylish, climbing (albeit metaphorically) the more daunting side of the slide.
She shakes her head, chuckling. What an unwieldy thought for a sunny day! And what exactly are scabies? She hasn’t heard the train approach, but the doors open before her. She steps on, taking one more of the many supporting journeys wrapped up inside her principal one.
She has not spoken in six-and-a-half days. She wants to make it seven. Something about the whole situation makes her giggle—inside, of course. When she realized she had not said a word—in any language, for any reason—for two straight days, she decided to challenge herself to a full week. She is surprised to find it—well, not at all challenging.
She lives alone and works from home. She e-mails her family and colleagues and texts her friends. She smiles her thanks at store clerks and waves to the neighbors. She uses an ATM. She claps at concerts. She nods at readings and shakes her head at lectures. She waves signs at political rallies. She mouths the hymns in church.
She loves having this secret. She feels like a spy. This is something nobody knows—and they can’t tell just by looking at her. There is strength in that—knowing something, being something that nobody can tell from a glance. From outside. She peers around the train, relishing this newfound fuerza. El valor. She wonders how long she can go before somebody notices.
She could write a book about it—she wouldn’t need to talk to write a book. She thinks it would sell. One day they would make a movie out of it. Eva Langoria would play her. She would want to do all of the casting herself. She would cast all of her favorite film stars. They would come to parties at her house where she would greet them at the door in a designer gown and serve them glamorous drinks. She would smile slowly when they begged her to say just one word for them—but she wouldn’t give in. She would be the most mysterious woman in Hollywood. Una mujer hermosa y loca. A recluse.
“Hi!” She hears a small but insistent voice beside her. “Hi!” Was that meant for her? “Hi!’ She turns. It is coming from a two-year-old boy with big brown eyes—they are looking straight at her. “Hi!” The boy is holding on to his mother’s hand, but the mother is not paying attention. “Hi!” Why won’t he leave me alone? “Hi!” Please leave me alone, just leave me alone, dejane sola! “Hi!” The mother is not making the boy sit down. “Hi!” Why won’t the boy’s mother make him sit down? “Hi!” People in the car are starting to notice. “Hi!” They’re staring. “Hi!” They’re frowning. “Hi!” Alguier hagnla parar. “Hi!” The kid is unrelenting. “Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!”
Defeated, she croaks, “Hi.” The boy smiles, laughs, and sits.
Three times, three times in his life of almost twice that many decades he thought—without a doubt—that he was on the verge of death. Each time was in Chicago. On an ‘L’ platform. In February.
This is not one of those times—the wind chill factor hasn’t yet dipped below zero and the wind itself, though brisk, is not threatening to hurl him to the tracks below—but still he has lost the feeling in his feet and hands. He grew up in Arizona, and when he moved to the city he wondered how everyone else could go about his or her business during this shortest but seemingly longest month when all he wanted to do was shout, “What can possibly be important enough for us to subject ourselves to this lunacy?” but the years since have altered his perception of the entire business.
He understands now—the people are not mad—they are martyrs. They are not persecuted—they are penitent. This month is not about Valentine’s Day. Or African-American history. Or the Superbowl. This month is about atoning for every cruel, rotten, miserable, violent, or even slightly questionable act committed any other time of year.
Cheat on your taxes in April? February. Have an affair with the nanny in June? February. Call in sick to go to a Cubs game in July? Steal your coworker’s lunch from the break room fridge in October? Beg off taking your mother to The Nutcracker last December? February. A straightforward system of crime and punishment—atonement and absolution.
The wind picks up speed. He realizes the numbness has engulfed his ankles and wrists, and he takes a moment to regret filching his neighbor’s newspaper last August. He turns toward the fully bundled creature standing next to him and wonders about the frequency and nature of her sins. Were they worth it?
The train is nowhere to be seen, and he stares at the sign for the Apostolic Church. The numbness climbs toward his knees and elbows, and he thinks of palm trees. He thinks of the desert. He thinks of his family and friends back in Tucson, where they are golfing, working with the windows open, napping in a large patch of sun, wearing short sleeves…. A sudden wave of compassion overwhelms him—he knows they can never reach paradise.
She clutches the bright orange book to her chest and smiles at her little sister Nhu, who is only three and playing with something sticky. The fourth grade textbook feels smooth in her hands, even though it is a used book read by many students before her. Many fourth grade students, she thinks excitedly. She is only in second grade, but her new teacher, Ms. Archer, told her today that she will be going down the hall to the fourth grade classroom every time they break up into reading groups.
She imagines how strange it will feel to do this—to get up and walk through and out of the room with everyone else’s eyes on her. Will the other kids understand? Will they hate her? She decides to wear her green T-shirt with the butterflies tomorrow and tries not to care.
She looks over at her mother, who is now trying to clean Nhu’s hands with a baby wipe. Nhu keeps twisting her body and holding her hands out of the way: above her head, out to the sides, behind her back. It looks like a dance. She wants to show her mother the textbook, but she knows what the response will be: “Oh, a new book? How do you like it?” Her mother will not understand its significance. She will have to pretend she has forgotten about the news until the middle of dinner and bring it up then.
Her insides feel heavy. She cannot believe she missed it for so long. All her mother’s complaints about there never being enough light. All her mother’s laments about needing new glasses. All her mother’s mistakes. There was the time that she left a permission slip and a list of new school rules on the kitchen table for her mother to deal with after work, and when she picked them up the next morning the list had been signed, but not the permission slip. There was the time she had the broken leg and asked her mother to bring her The Little Princess from the bedroom, but she brought The Little Mermaid instead. There were all the times she asked her mother for help with a new word, and her mother, without looking, simply said, “sound it out.” Then there was this morning, when the woman in the uniform handed her mother a map of ‘L’ station closings and she watched her mother somehow look at it without seeing.
Nhu is now waving at the orange book, wanting a story. She opens the book and flips through the pages as the heaviness inside her grows.
The secret is not that her mother cannot read. The secret is that now she knows about it, and it is her job to keep everyone else from finding out.
The smells of whiskey and urine are overpowering as the doors shut behind her, and she tries not to breathe as she quickly maneuvers to the far end of the car, softly repeating to herself, “alcohol sterilizes, urine is sterile, alcohol sterilizes, urine is sterile.” She sits down gingerly. She gasps for air and finds herself simultaneously grateful that the odor has diminished and distressed that it lingers at all.
She turns to look outside to distract herself and her eyes fall on the words SULLY NORTH AMERICA written in tiny print in the bottom right corner of the window. “But we’ve already done that!” she blurts, before it occurs to her that the words must be the name of the window manufacturer. She glances about to see if anyone noticed her outburst—she hates to call attention to herself—but everyone is either resting with eyes closed or plugged in to one kind of device or another.
She leaves her own laptop and iPod at home, where they can be disinfected at regular intervals. She used to leave her phone there too, but her brother wouldn’t hear of it, and he got her an anti-microbial pouch to carry it in. She still won’t put it to her ear, but she replies quickly whenever he texts her—that appears to have placated him.
She opens her purse to see if she remembered her phone today and is once again astonished by the white cotton gloves on her hands. Most people don’t wear gloves in the summer, of course, but she tries to make them less noticeable by also donning a dress and a pretty hat, and carrying a handkerchief. She checks to make sure she brought a clean handkerchief today and finds it—freshly starched and ironed—on top of the note.
The note. Now she is thinking about the note. She leaves it in its Ziploc bag and snaps her purse shut. She doesn’t need to read it. She knows it by heart:
I suppose you’ll read this as soon as you find it.
Do you know that the first time I spent the night you left the cap off the toothpaste and your toothbrush on the bathroom counter? It was just sitting there with a puddle forming around it. And I suddenly wondered if I could handle looking at that toothbrush night after night. And it wasn’t just your toothbrush. It was your socks on the bedroom floor, your powder all over the dresser, your crumbs on the kitchen counter, and the stacks of files scattered all over the apartment.
I just can’t live in the same space with you, sweetheart. I hope you find a man who can.
He gets on the train, happy to find an empty seat by the window on the west side. He unzips his bag, takes out his library book, and zips up his bag, settling both on his lap. He does this quickly so he can gaze out the window as the cemetery comes into view.
He has visited Graceland many times, though he is not personally acquainted with any of its inhabitants. He even went on an official tour once, but he disliked being there with all those other people. All those other live people, he reminds himself. He imagines himself buried there someday, though he knows he never will be. But where?
On Wildwood Avenue, perhaps—that sounds both elegant and dangerous. Certainly not Dell—too close to dull. He is sure, somehow, that he would not care to be near all the prominent Chicagoans. It would be lovely to picnic near the Palmers, but one wouldn’t want to be there for all eternity. Nor by Sullivan, Van de Rohe, or Burnham—he intended to leave no monument, and he feels, somehow, that would not suffice; Van der Rohe may have said “less is more,” but he suspects the architect personality is better suited to Burnham’s “make no little plans.” No, he would have to look elsewhere.
Hmmm. He could never impress the McCormicks—who could? He is too poor a speaker to satisfy monologist Anna Morgan—too clumsy a dancer to honor Ruth Page (though he believes she would be gracious in the face of his inadequacy).
He wishes his body, this awkward, vulnerable casing for his spirit, could simply disappear as he exhales his last breath. He wishes his freed self could float throughout the city, looking down with complete anonymity—almost as he does now—on the hum and bustle of all those outdoor, animated lives. He does not wish that day too near, nor too far.
Each time he travels past, he looks at the mausoleums and gravestones, the majestic and inconspicuous alike, quietly asking the inhabitants, “Do you envy me, or should I envy you?” He does this with a small smile on his face and no sense of melancholy, but that doesn’t mean he knows the answer to his question.
Last night she dreamt of scissors. Small, sharp, silver scissors. She woke suddenly, calmly, as though cut cleanly from sleep.
She stares at the ceiling, her eyes tracing the cracks to each corner. The strips of peeling paint look like the curls of butter her mother used to put on her pancakes every Sunday morning before church. She doesn’t need to turn her head to know he never came home last night. The sheets are neat, the bed cold.
She gets up and dresses quickly, moving to the broken mirror in the tiny bathroom. In her reflection, her left eye sits apart from her face. In spite of this, she applies her make-up deftly, simply. As a little girl she would climb onto her parents’ bed and watch her mother at the vanity, preparing for the rare night out. The powder, the lipstick, the hairspray, the perfume—she tried to capture the exact moment the mother became the angel.
One night she sat on the bed with an old shoe—all day she had been trying to learn how to tie the laces. Upon completing her first shaky bow, she crowed in triumph, looking up for approbation. The woman smiling down at her was already the angel—she had missed the magic transformation! She couldn’t hug the angel that night—in fact, she was unable to hug her until the next morning when she became the mother again. Her mother.
She gazes at her left eye, floating in the mirror, trying to escape the rest of her face—the rest of her self. She thinks of the life she meant to have. College. Friends—maybe even sorority sisters. Independence. A boyfriend who loves her. Confidence. Her mother’s approval. A plan. Her left eye peers back at her. Through her.
Moving mechanically, she makes the bed, creasing the corners, fluffing the pillows. She opens the door to the only closet and pulls out her ratty gym bag. She puts in a change of clothes and crosses to the bathroom to grab her makeup bag, but decides to leave it on its shelf. Instead, she picks up her wallet and keys from the dish by the front door. She exits the apartment without looking back. She locks the double deadbolt, slides the keys under the door, steps outside, and begins walking east.
The early morning sun is in her eyes, and she narrowly misses stepping on a broken beer bottle. She passes the Holiday Club, where he bartends, and briefly wonders which girl he went home with last night. The club’s gold sign looks garish by day. Before turning away, she catches her reflection in the window—she looks whole.
She reaches into her wallet and pulls out her blue transit card. That card will only get her downtown. But from downtown, she can go anywhere.
For this life-long Sox fan, the only downside in moving to the north side is having to walk by—and look at—Wrigley Field every day. He cannot keep from cringing when he glances out the window before the train leaves the station.
He is quite a catch: a twenty-five-year-old educated, professional, well-dressed man. And handsome! Smooth, firm cocoa skin, even features, a runner’s body, a slow, sexy smile. A recent MBA and already the Assistant Comptroller at a prominent manufacturing company.
Just yesterday the Vice President had gone out of his way to stop by his office and compliment him on his work. As he shook the VP’s hand, he couldn’t help but calculate how long it would be until he had the man’s job. That calculation—though only an estimate—led him to the decision that he should marry in four years time, and he spent the ride home assessing the attributes of every woman on the train.
Most were easy to dismiss. Not that he is looking for a specific person right now, just deciding what traits she should have. He resumes the pre-selection process. She should be pretty, certainly, but not too beautiful—no sense marrying a woman who continues attracting men everywhere she goes. She should be smart, of course, and have work that doesn’t take up too much time but that she truly enjoys—something in the non-profit arena, perhaps—no sense letting her become too dependent on him for money or self-worth. She should be a good cook. They will have two kids, and will live in his town home until the younger is born 3 years and 6 months after the first (he read a study that concluded this was the age difference for the optimum social, psychological, and intellectual development in siblings). Then they will move to a house. A house in the city, not the suburbs—no sense living a long-distance life if you can afford tuition at a good school.
As he pulls out his Blackberry to make note of these thoughts, a tough-looking middle-aged black man bangs his way into the car, claps his hands and yells, “Ladies and gentlemen, I need your attention. I am unemployed. I am an ex-con. I need work to support my kids and their mamas. I have one copy of my resume—I need money to make more. You want me to steal? You want me to sell drugs? I need your help. I need it now.”
Nobody on the train looks at the man who speaks, and he walks to the next car. The young man wonders if white people are ever embarrassed by the things other white people do.
So, so tired. The rhythm of the ‘L’ is so unlike anything that might lull someone to sleep, but still he fights the urge to do just that. His thoughts seem distant, as if he needs to reach out, grasp them, and draw them in. He nears exhaustion so quickly these days—thirty years ago he had so much energy. In college he pulled all-nighters every week, glorying in the giddy feeling of accomplishing so much without needing rest—studying, writing, partying sans consequence. Or talking all night—the fiery intensity of those perpetual conversations! So determined to save the world, right all wrongs, balance the inequities.
He smiles grimly. Surely they ought to have finished by now. He has to admit that some things have gotten easier—at least the days of phone trees are long gone. It takes fewer of the dollars they never have enough of to print posters—color posters. Permits are processed faster and with fewer arguments and agitations. Yes, organizing a protest, rally, or parade has gotten easier, but getting people to notice—to attend—to care has become almost impossible.
These days, people would rather post some absurd political video on YouTube than hound politicians until they earn a sit-down with the big guns. They would rather lounge at home and sign an online petition than stand shouting and waving signs in the wind and rain. He shifts uncomfortably. Quite frankly, so would he.
Secretly he hungers to spend his evenings in, to be settled with a nice home and a nine to five career. Occasional nights out as a couple, weekend activities with the kids. Just the typical life of a middle-aged married man—the kind you see on any television show. Ah yes—a married man. That, after all, is the point.
He stares out the window and thinks of his partner’s face and his own, changing slowly over the two decades they’ve been together. His stop is announced, breaking through his reverie. He grabs the bags full of fliers, and prepares himself to take another stand.
“Damn hot, I mean double damn hot, I mean retarded hot, you know what I’m sayin’? She just reeks of wanting it, I’m tellin’ you.”
The two guys are loud, putting on a show. The one with the red Pi Kappa Alpha cap speaks again.
“Her name is Kate, right? Or Katie, do you know? The blonde one with the great stuff, I mean. Incredible. I could totally hit that, no problem.”
His compatriot, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I’M MAGICALLY DELICIOUS,” nods loosely and flicks his tongue over his lips.
“You should, then, man, if it’s a given, you know. Friday night, man, I mean it’s still two days away but you should solidify if it’ll be that good. I mean, what’s stoppin’ you?”
“Nothin’, man, nothin’. We’d have some good times, you know it. A definite hook-up. I mean, my pleasure, ma’am. It’s just that…well, you know. That thing. That mole thing. On her lip. I mean, it’s tiny and all that, but sometimes I think it’s gonna start crawling across her face. It’s too much, man.”
“Oh, yeah, that sucks, man.”
They fall silent and stare glumly ahead. The train speeds up.
“I think I’m covered, man, remember that crazy redhead that used to be the social chair for Chi-O? She was at the Vu last night and couldn’t take her eyes off me. The feeling was re-cip-ro-ca-ted, you know what I mean? She is smokin’. It’s practically a done deal. Can’t wait ‘til Friday, man.”
“Which redhead? The one with that fuckin’ hyena laugh? That would drive me insane, man, more power to you for puttin’ up with that.”
“Oh, shit man, I totally forgot about that. It was so loud at the Vu that I couldn’t hear it. I mean, she won’t be laughin’ when I cap her, but I’d prob’ly have to take her out first and I can’t deal with that, no way.”
The guys pause long enough to crack their knuckles. Pike makes a snapping sound with his wrists.
“Hey, man, what about those two chicks in Econ? You know, the ones who are always whispering to those hot T.A.’s? Just think about all that long hair. That tall one looks like a dancer, and I don’t mean ballet, man. I’d tap that in a second, no question. Maybe they’d bring the T.A.’s and we could each get a threesome out of it.”
Suddenly, they both look stricken. The blood drains from their faces.
Delicious recovers first.
“I don’t know if I’d do that tall one, man, her teeth are kinda yellow. I mean, I don’t care if you smoke, you know, but don’t have yellow teeth. And the short one….”
He searches. Up and down the aisle, his audience waits.
“Well, fuck, she’s just too short, man. I mean, what’s a weekend without my fav-or-ite po-si-tion, you know what I’m saying?”
Pike does not answer.
Delicious returns the favor.
Friday night hangs in the balance.
“You know what they used to say, bros before ‘ho’s man. Grand Central or Wrightwood Tap?”
Delicious answers immediately.
“Grand Central, man. I wouldn’t miss the game for anything.”
An apprehensive, curious-looking but well-dressed sixty-year-old is on his way to see a play at Steppenwolf Theatre. He is a subscriber. A SUBSCRIBER. The word rolls over his tongue, though he doesn’t say it aloud. He tastes it and savors the taste.
He once asked a young man at the box office how many subscribers were single ticket holders. The man had hesitated before replying: “Quite a few, sir” so he knows it was a lie. He briefly contemplated buying a pair, but then realized that would mean he would have to share his experience, SHARE his night with an unknown quantity. Besides, he’s not certain he could convince anyone of quality to join him.
He glances around with a look of distaste. He refuses to sit down. He hates the Red Line, thinks it is dirtier than the Purple Line that brings him down from Evanston—yes DOWN from Evanston, exactly right—but he had a doctor’s appointment late this afternoon and didn’t have time to head back north a few blocks and catch the Purple Line. He considered taking a cab, but there weren’t any on his doctor’s block, and he refused to spend any more time on the streets of that neighborhood than necessary. He considers changing doctors.
He looks, for the first time, at the people with whom he is sharing this ride. He wishes he hadn’t. They are not like he is. He wonders why they are on the train. He stares at all the men’s shoes. He had debated buying the ones he is wearing now. He suspected they were too shiny. The salesman convinced him they were the best available, and he grudgingly made the purchase. Now he is once again doubtful. He wishes he could go back in time and buy the less shiny pair. He wishes this ride would end. He wishes he had eaten dinner—he doesn’t want his stomach to grumble during the performance.
He hopes he will understand this play. He usually doesn’t. That is, he understands, he just doesn’t UNDERSTAND. Not the way everyone else seems to. It is the same way with the book club he joined last year. He reads the book, thinks he knows all about it, then goes to the book club and realizes he knows absolutely nothing.
He wonders why he never seems to read the same book as everyone else. Or see the same play. He tries to laugh at the same time the rest of the audience laughs. That way no one will know. But he doesn’t actually want to be the SAME. He does all this because he wants to better himself. He wants to be BETTER.
Than everyone else.
Clark and Division. Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Division. Dividing. Divided. “A house divided against itself….” Divisible. Divisive. Dividend. Diverge. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….” Digress…
Clark and Division. Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Division of labor. Class division. Division of battle. Homicide Division. Division of profits. Upper division. Division and multiplication. Conference division. Voices of division. Voices of derision…
Clark and Division. Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Cellular division. A cell divided. Into two. Two people. From one cell. Twins. He had a twin. He had had a twin. He came first. Then five minutes. Then the twin. The other half. Now whole. But five minutes. Not four minutes. Not six minutes. Five. Prime number. Only divisible by itself. Who wants to divide by itself? And one. Who wants to be only one? He came first. The older brother. Then five minutes. Then the twin. The twin was lost.
Lost. Lost in thought. Lost in space. Lost track. “Beauty seen is never lost….” Lost perspective. Lost sight. Lost opportunity. Paradise lost. Love’s labour’s lost. “It is better to have loved and lost….” He was the older brother. He was supposed to keep him safe. To protect him. It was his fault.
Fault. Fault lines. Common fault. Generous to a fault. Find fault. His fault. It would always be his fault. He lost the little brother. He lost the twin. Twin cities. Twin peaks. “Twin of my vision….” Twin cornerstones. Twin towers. “Happiness was born a twin….” He came first. The older brother. Then five minutes. Then the twin. They named the twin. They named the twin Clark.
Clark. A cell divided. Against itself. Cannot stand. Clark and Division. Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark and Division. Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark, Clark and Division…
She was born in July of 1967, the day Vivien Leigh died. This is nothing more than a fact she knows about herself—it has no bearing on her life, really, but it sometimes occurs to her in the few moments that her mind is not actively pursuing something else.
She reminds herself that she does need to concentrate—she is traveling to meet her friends at Water Tower Place, where they will shop and lunch, and she needs to do her homework, so to speak. She takes a deep breath and carefully reviews the names of each friend’s husband: Marshall, Everett, Clinton, Bob—thank goodness for Bob—and …and Wilson? No—Wendell.
She knows she should have looked up addresses before she left home. She can never remember which suburbs they live in—each has a Lake, Oak, Park, River or Forest in its name, or some combination thereof. Except Bob and Cindy, of course, they lived in Winnetka. Or was it Wilmette?
The train is already slowing down and she hasn’t gone over the most critical information—the kids. There are three sets of twins among her five friends, and they are never referred to by anything other than “the twins,” which simplified things. Melinda was the picky eater who belonged to her friend Laurel—how to find appealing dishes was often discussed at these get-togethers. She is both proud and ashamed of herself for never asking why children are allowed to be picky—whatever happened to the same dish of broccoli showing up at every meal until it was consumed?
Diane was the mother of Morgan and Taylor—they were less than a year apart. At the moment she cannot remember which is the boy and which is the girl, but she does know they received iPhones on their fifth birthdays. Her own gifts—a large roll of butcher paper with a set of finger paints and a small trio of bongos—paled by comparison.
Katharine and her son were currently embroiled in some sort of Mommy and Me controversy, Abby just paid $4,200.00 to enroll her younger daughter in a week-long pottery camp, and Laurel went downtown early so that she could pick up a dress for her mother at American Girl Place—Grandma wanted one to match Laurel, Melinda, and Melinda’s doll Julie.
It was understood that all of her friends’ children were “gifted.” All, that is, except for Bob and Cindy’s four boys, who wreaked happy havoc wherever they went.
The train slows as it nears the stop, and she frantically tries to come up with detailed questions to ask about their lives—they never seemed to arrive in due course anymore. This exhausts her.
She yearns to fast forward to dinner with her single friends—there, she can relax and indulge in simpler conversations, ones that involve the necessity of setting boundaries in artistic criticism, the potential dangers and communal comforts of organized religion, the perpetually egregious state of citywide politics, and the all too rapid decline of the English language.
He wonders distractedly if he will see eighty. At seventy-seven, he is headed to his doctor’s office across from Northwestern Memorial. He is going to hear results from a biopsy. In truth, he already knows the results—if the tumor were benign, a nurse would have told him over the phone. He realizes he has never felt so lonely.
He closes his eyes and thinks of his wife. He can picture the tangerine scarf with the olive leaf pattern woven through it—so it looks like something can still grow on my head, she would laugh. The tiny white scar behind her left ear from falling off her bike before she met him—was there really a time before she met him? Her easy smile. Her turned up nose. Her all-too-often sunburned cheeks. Her thin neck—every time they met an artist there had been a request to paint or sculpt that delicate neck. The St. Anthony medal her father had given her—she never took it off. The short wool jacket with silver buttons and the matching skirt with the small slit at the back…but wait, that was the traveling suit she changed into after their wedding, and those aren’t her hands he’s envisioning—why can’t he remember her hands?
These slips of the mind frustrate him to no end. It’s like humming a phrase of a tune you can’t quite recall, then breaking into the words of the song only to realize you are now singing a commercial jingle from the 1950s. He will have to wait until he is back at home with the photo albums.
He opens his eyes and rejoins his fellow passengers. He hears the recorded announcement: “This is Chicago and State.” He knows he should get off at Chicago—it’s closer, and he doesn’t walk as quickly as he used to—but a memory won’t let him.
Back when his wife was still alive and they were traveling to the hospital for her treatments, the announcement had simply said, “This is Chicago.” His wife would scoff and say, “Well, obviously, I’ve only lived here my entire life.” Then she would turn those blue eyes toward him and ask if they could please, please wait until the next stop—it wasn’t that much farther. He always agreed. They would wait for the next announcement: “This is Grand.” She would smile, link her arm in his so he could help her up, and whisper, “Yes it is, isn’t it? It truly is.”
The old man stands up and slowly makes his way to the doors. He hears: “This is Grand and State.”
Nothing is just Grand anymore. Nothing at all.
Not another article about lack of depth in the bullpen. Jesus. He snaps his paper in annoyance—the woman next to him looks up, startled. He doesn’t notice. What will he do on the train when all the newspapers go broke? Maybe it won’t happen before he retires—less than five years to go. He dismisses the thought, then groans inwardly. A present for his mother.
He sighs. His sister sounded so angry when she called to ask him how he possibly could have forgotten Mom’s birthday, and even asked Mom to spend it babysitting his kids while he and that teenaged wife (a nasty nickname—Mandi is twenty-six) went to an out-of-town-comedy-club-and-resort-spa. As if that had been his damn idea.
He sighs again. His ex would never have let him mess up like that. He actually misses her lists. Her calendars. Her spotless kitchen. It does not occur to him that he might miss her. At the moment he especially misses the way she always found the perfect-gift-for-everyone-so-all-he-had-to-do-was-sign-the-card.
He remembers seeing something on the news about a Free Trade Festival in Daley Plaza. His Mom would probably appreciate a shawl or bag or something-woven-by-a-poverty-stricken-woman-in-some-third-world-country. He can go at lunch and still have time to eat. Usually, of course, he avoids those things. Last week there was that Turkish Festival. All he did was cut across the Plaza to avoid the lousy protestors up the block, but with all the people milling around the booths it took way too long. And once he made it to the sidewalk there were those kids asking him if he could spare a minute for the environment. At least no one tried to hand him a flyer promoting marriage equality or one of those maps of Africa with numbers labeling each country and “How many countries can you name?” written underneath. Self-righteous jerks trying to make the rest of us feel like morons. Christ.
He folds his paper, places it under his arm, and heads for the doors. Macy’s on State Street. Problem solved. If there was a woman who wouldn’t love a pricy-perfume-silk-scarf-jewelry-or-better-yet-gift-certificate, he hadn’t met her yet.
She is shockingly beautiful and completely—almost irresponsibly—unaware of the effects her beauty has on others. Because of this, she doesn’t carry herself accordingly, so from a distance she appears quite ordinary. Surprise, fascination, appreciation, or envy registers on each face as it nears her. Conversations stop. Trains of thought derail. Errands of all sorts are momentarily (and sometimes permanently) abandoned.
Often, men stop her to ask for directions, look into her face for the first time, and forget their destinations. Some recover more quickly than others, but never without a series of stammers and half-apologies.
Waiters drop menus and forgo their carefully memorized specials lists for a longer look. Men who would never dare to approach her collect items that once belonged to her (a scarf, a barrette, an earring) and tack them artlessly to the walls above their dressers. Many write her love letters—long missives that are never sent (unless the author mails one in a drunken stupor—she never knows what to do with these epistles, which are usually inscribed in pencil and slightly smeared). Still others write her poetry and leave it, unsigned, under the windshield wipers of her car.
Once, while she was standing at an intersection waiting for a light to change, a man grasped her gently but firmly by the shoulders and said, “I’d marry you, but I could never be sure of you” before disappearing immediately back into the crowd. All this leads her to believe that men are somewhat feeble-minded.
Of course, they are not the only ones affected. Children flock to her, drawn to the symmetry and delicacy of her features. Women defer to her opinions on matters domestic and foreign, certain she harbors some secret knowledge bestowed upon her at birth. People of all ages step aside to let her pass, offer to carry her baggage, give up their places in line at the bank, the post office, the library. She thinks this is how the world works for everyone.
She thinks most parking garage attendants let drivers exit without paying if they just smile and say hello. She thinks the world at large receives free desserts and drinks at the majority of dining establishments. She thinks all women receive multiple marriage proposals from men they feel they barely know.
One day all this will change. It will not be soon—her kind of beauty lasts much longer than most. She will notice fewer doors being opened for her. She will stop receiving the letters, the poems. She will start to feel invisible. She will bemoan the callousness of youth. She will believe courtesy has vanished.
She will never recognize the power she once had, even when it is lost.
He slips on some gravel and just misses crossing with the light when he has to step aside to let a lady with a tank-sized baby carriage pass. Shit, man—what are they doing out this early anyway? As he runs across the street and down the stairs he remembers that he has taken two long bus trips since dawn, and by now much of the world is crawling about.
He skirts a big puddle forming at the bottom of the stairwell, lifts his case over his head, and dances through the turnstile. He joins a group of perfumed ladies heading farther underground and hears the rhythm of the southbound train as it pulls out. Below, there are students laughing, flirting, teasing and swatting at each other. One girl sits apart, uninvited. Another frantically tries to do her homework without looking like she is doing any such thing. A man in a pinstripe suit leans precariously against a post, so tired his eyes keep closing for longer and longer periods of time.
God, he loves it down here! Not that he could explain it to anyone. He unlatches his case and assembles his horn—it looks so shiny, even in the anemic underground light. His signal to begin is two trains pulling in at the same time, and today he only has to wait five minutes—that means good luck all day long! He loosens his lips and starts to play.
He plays Roy Orbison, Percy Sledge, Marvin Gaye. He plays James Taylor and Carole King. An hour has gone by, and he needs to take a break, but a group of haggard-looking tourists is struggling up the stairs from the Blue Line, dragging their suitcases distractedly. He jumps in to “Sweet Home Chicago”–after all, it’s what they expect—and they are instantly animated. One sways to the music. One claps his hands. One tries to listen but an older woman—her mother in law?—won’t stop gabbing in her ear. One tries to sing along, but it’s clear he can’t quite recall the words. One puts a twenty in his hat, and he nods and halfway smiles his thanks.
Soon they are all whisked away and he gets his break. Later, he plays Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder. He breaks. They put bills in his hat. He eats the sandwich his ma made for him, handing it to him gently, careful not to ask him when he’s going to get a real job. He plays Joni Mitchell and CCR. He breaks. They put bills in his hat.
He plays life hurts love heals time passes. He plays up down left right lost found. People arrive. They listen or not. They disappear. He plays I am here you are here we are here. These are his friends. This is his real job. This is his life. His own little corner of paradise—what man could ask for more?
He breaks down his horn and grabs his now-heavy hat. It has been a lucky day indeed! He wonders if he should head north and treat his auntie to dinner. As if to make the decision for him, the northbound train arrives.
He takes one last look around this, his favorite venue—he’s tried them all—grins, and steps onto the Red Line.
I chose Red Line Stories because of the decision it makes about form, and the way it justifies those decisions with its ending. This is a story about Chicago and about the unacknowledged community of passengers on the red line. I liked the details in many of the mini chapters, and especially liked the decision regarding the final stop. Here the writer successfully completed the form without violating the rules of it, made the form in a sense, transcend itself, and moved this reader all at the same time.
—Pam Houston, 2012 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize Judge