The Old Man on the Train

Submitted for Contest #37 in response to: Write a story about someone who keeps coming across the same stranger.... view prompt

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Submitted on 04/12/2020

Categories: Mystery

I walk this same path every day.


Morning, I get my coffee at the corner minute-mart and my paper from the outside vendor. The headlines are dire, as they are most days. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if the front page told us something happy. Would the world come to an end because we chose to focus on something positive? It’s a nice thought. Not the ending of the world, but the positivity. We could all use more of that for sure.

Passing person after person on the sidewalk, none of us say ‘hello’ or even nod. We are all lost in our own thoughts, passing the time as we mull last nights dreams or the 6AM news or the fight we had with our spouse. Why won’t our pets eat? Did Jackie really mean it when she told Roseanne she hated her? Shouldn’t I call my sister this week, then, before she thinks the same?


Passing through the turnstile, I deposit my ticket and the magic, metal arms open and twist, letting me through. The crowds are thick this time of the day. We are all struggling through the early haze of the day, fueled by one or two cups of coffee, maybe none.


A few blocks ago, I caught sight of an older man. He was stooped, with graying hair. In his arms, he carried a bundle of flowers so large I thought for certain they had to be overwhelmingly heavy. I thought maybe he got them for his wife. Or it was his daughter’s birthday. If he had a daughter, that is. Or a wife. I wanted to offer to carry them, but I didn’t know if we were going the same direction. And would he answer me, anyway?


It’s the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. His burden reminded me that I needed to get flowers after work to take to her grave. I would set them there, talk to her about my week and pretend that she was answering, that she had the answers to the riddle that was my life. Jeff at the office got married last week, and I often wondered why it wasn’t to me. Was our six-month relationship so boring? Maybe it was. We both left it without a negative thought for one another. I bought them a mixer for a gift.


As I trudge onto the train, I see the old man again. He is tucked into a corner, his flowers resting on the bag of groceries. At least, I think they’re groceries. I see a head of lettuce and a newspaper. Is it the same newspaper I carry? Gloom and doom and the forecast for years to come the same?


He is looking at his feet. The shoes on them are so shiny I could see my reflection if we were sitting close to one another. A pre-summer bite is in the air, and his jacket looks too light to compensate for that. I wish I could offer him mine. But it wouldn’t fit, much less be his style. Women’s peacoats belonged on women and I could see my backwoods brother now, railing against men wearing women’s clothing and women thinking they could wear pants.


He never left West Virginia. But my mom moved to New York with me, lived in a tiny, cramped apartment with me for three years before she lost the fight to cancer. Some days, I think I should go get a check-up. Does it run in the family? Mom was never sure what Grandpa died of and she says Grandma died of a broken heart because she didn’t want to be in this world without her husband.

Some days, I wish I had a husband.


After the train docks, I walked another two blocks to work. My cubicle is next to Mark Davies. His is covered in motivational sayings; mine has a picture of my family, back when we were all together. The other side has drawings my sister sent me from her children; childish colorings that she told me were the cat and dog. I’m not sure, they all look the same: giant red scribbles vaguely resembling a massacre on Valentine’s Day.


Work passes, as it always does. When the clock reaches 4:30 PM, I gather up my things and nod to Mark Davies as we pass. He smiles. He’s a nice man, with 3.5 children and a wife, a boat and an apartment smaller than mine. I don’t know how he does it, being trapped with that many people in such a small space.

I am on the train again. I look to the corner, as if I’ll see the old man again. The doors open and close, people leaving, people boarding and people holding on to the straps in the ceiling, as if the action will save them from whatever awaits them at their stop.


The old man gets on again. This time, he doesn’t have the bag, but he still has the flowers.


I begin imagining a story for him, though whatever fantastical thing I can think of is likely nothing at all compared to the truth. Still, as if he senses my eyes on him, this time he looks up, catches my glance and nods. To be polite, I nod in return. Perhaps, we have our flowers in common now. I grabbed mine from a rickety stand a block from my work.


As I pass my own stop, to my own apartment, I swallow and try to breath around the sudden pit that opens in my stomach, filled with dread and obligations. Then, it is the stop a half a block from the cemetery. I get up, get off. The only one that does with me is the old man. We cradle our flowers, nod and continue on our way. Only, this time, I notice he is going in the same direction.


Though we enter the cemetery together, we say nothing. We are solitary sojourners on our separate paths.


He stops before I do. He kneels down, though I can sense it hurts him. The grimace spasming across his face is enough, though he makes no notice that he felt it, much less shared it with the world around him. The gravestone is large, underneath the wings of an angel, and says ‘Beloved Beatrice’. I stop too, uncertain why I do when my journey ends at least five gravestones away. Maybe it is the glint on his face, as he bows his head and prays, caught by the fading evening light.


I don’t know. But I walk to him, set my flowers down beside his own, and continue on to my mother’s grave. I think Beatrice needs them more than Mom does right now. I think the man needs a friend, even if only a silent one.


Today, I will talk to Mom about the lonely old man and his flowers. Maybe, next time I come to visit, he will too.

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4 comments

Karen Kinley
13:13 Apr 21, 2020

Haunting and sweet story. I liked all the backstory you weaved in through her internal dialogue. Well done!

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Jennifer Lewis
01:58 Apr 25, 2020

Thank you!!

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C. jay Loren
06:48 Apr 19, 2020

This story feels just so, so sweet and is very clear and well written. Thank you for sharing.

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Jennifer Lewis
14:03 Apr 19, 2020

Thank you for reading!

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