Audra needs a quiet train ride this morning so she is purposefully taking a later train than normal. The sunrise train cars full of business people bickering about work-induced anxieties will be pulling into the terminal station tunnels downtown when she boards the eight-nineteen.
With the Loomis presentation on digitizing their warehouse only two days away, Audra will lead the rehearsal for the entire team this afternoon. As project manager, she will orchestrate a cohesive narrative – ensuring everyone understands how their piece of the project flows into one seamless presentation. She has proven herself repeatedly in these tense arenas and nothing less is expected. A poor showing and her company, Mertz & Associates, could lose the bid and worse, tarnish their street record as effective transitional technology providers.
Audra leaves her car and heads towards the station building. The dated brick structure with its low ceilings and church pew seats serves as an oasis for rail travelers keeping them dry and warm during bad weather. Audra utilizes most of the station’s services. Shelter from hail last fall. A daily refuge from the smokers outside. A clean toilet to pee. Audra has lost count of how much she has spent at the station’s greatest asset, a local barista-based coffee shop, Dewey’s Donuts and Coffee. Dewey cut the grand opening ribbon himself when the station opened twenty-two years ago. Dewey tells all his patrons he is good at three things and three things only in life: being on time, making good coffee, and never forgetting someone’s coffee preferences.
“Audra! I thought you decided to finally take a day off,” Dewey jokes while grabbing a size large coffee cup. “I am guessing today it’s a latte macchiato, almond milk, extra foam with a dash of cinnamon, right?”
“Close Dewey. I am going full fat milk today.”
Audra loves watching Dewey prepare coffee. He pours from two feet up and steams with the precision of a surgeon. His finished project is always wrapped in his signature sleeve with hand-drawn magnolias.
“The magnolias remind me of my southern belle of a wife,” he had told Audra the first time he prepared her coffee. His wife died in a car accident in eighty-six. Each coffee is a tribute to her.
Audra enjoys a few sips of her coffee and joins the small crowd gathering outside on the unmarked pads of blacktop signaling the train’s upcoming arrival. She jockeys to a front position without stepping over the yellow caution line. On most days, she isn’t concerned with her seat as long as does not have to squat on a stair or stand. Today though she has three seats in mind. Two single-rider seats on the upper berth or one double rider near the bathroom. Riders think it must smell by the bathroom, but she knows that on the morning trains, the only smell is the cherry-scented deodorizer latched on the door before the trains depart their home yards.
Spying the second-tier seats are full as the train comes to a halt, Audra maneuvers her way to the seat caddy corner to the sliding stainless steel bathroom door. She places her laminated monthly ride card in the slat on the top of her seat and spreads out, tossing her Kate Spade carryall in the empty spot. Coffee between her knees, she removes her phone, headphones, and her presentation notes.
Audra surveys the car’s population. About one-third full. This express train only has one more stop before zipping towards downtown. Removing her shoes and sitting cross legged on the faux leather bench, she selects “Accoustic Melodies Two” from her playlist and lays out the first three pages of her packet to review.
The train speeds by the Marquis Station. Audra jots down notes about inconsistent marketing numbers from March.
Switching tracks, the cars jostle by Montrose Bend. Audra runs through the VP of Finance’s introductory monologue in her head.
The doors open at the last stop. A large group of teens takes up residence a few seats in front of her. Four women dressed in too nice for work clothes clamor about the martinis they are going to drink fill in the remaining open seats.
Audra breathes a sigh of relief that she has been spared a companion. Thirty-five minutes of undistracted mantras and meditations before power-walking from the terminals to her office.
“There’s a seat over here,” she hears George the conductor yell. He is directing someone to Audra’s open space. Audra hopes she knows George well enough to ask him to redirect.
“Hey George, could you do me a favor and,” Audra stops mid-sentence looking up at an expensive green pant suit in tears carrying a basketed house plant. Audra has seen women like this in the train cars before. Usually cast offs from an affair or recent divorce who go downtown to escape into a sea of faces that pay little attention crying. These types like to keep to themselves with an occasional sob or sigh. The woman’s house plant is a new feature, but if anyone has to sit next to Audra, this is the category of riders who don’t want conversation.
Audra piles her remote desk on her lap and focuses on the Buddhist chants playing in her ear. She visualizes the proposal meeting beginning with the pre-meeting breakfast chatter over Le Gâteau Cuisine’s savory crepes selection especially prepared as a takeout order.
“Excuse me,” the woman to her left interrupts. “Can you hold my plant while I use the restroom?”
The woman hands Audra the plant before she acknowledges yes or no. Juggling her technology and work papers, Audra rests the plant on her thigh why struggling to lower her empty coffee cup to a small ledge below the seat. Audra realizes that the woman sitting next to her is not one of the unconfident, shamed women she thought, but someone who’s confidence might be too high. She has to be to simply dump a houseplant on Audra while she is obviously covered in work. Audra pulls out her corded headphones preparing to discuss train etiquette when the woman returns.
“Thank you for holding the plant while I pulled myself together.” The woman sees Audra’s Mertz key card sitting next to the lapped plant. “Do you like working for them? The owner is a long-time friend of my father.”
Trying to save the precious minutes left for herself, Audra quickly responds, “Yes, I like working there.” Audra’s frustration and curiosity grabs hold and more words fly out of her mouth. “So what’s with the plant? Not your typical train ride accessory, huh?”
“No it’s not. Not even sure why I brought it. What is a dead person going to do with a plant? Water it?”
Audra hates to do it, but strong in her faith, she asks, “Someone died? I am so sorry for your loss.”
Strangely, the woman smiles at the question. “If it were only that simple.”
Stuffing her presentation into her bag, Audra again does what she knows is right and asks, “Do you want to tell me about it?” Audra could not imagine telling her mother about this situation and then saying she went back to studying her work presentation notes
The trains siren hollers as it approaches a gated crossing
“I admire your willingness to listen to me even though I know you are otherwise occupied.” The women’s face lightens. “People in my office walk with their heads down as if avoiding eye contact makes all the problems go away. Heck, I walk around the office with billable case hours on the brain. As a partner, idle time does please the board.”
She must be a divorce or corporate lawyer Audra surmises. A criminal attorney would not wear a suit in any color but black or navy.
Carole explains her father suffered a massive heart attack during knee replacement surgery and has been on a ventilator for nearly six weeks. No eye movement. No brain activity.
“Today is d-day.” Carole stopped for a moment to recompose. “Disconnect day. Doctors assure me he will die within minutes once the machine is turned off.”
A silence begins. Audra cannot form words to offer support because the story stirs the emotional decision she was forced to make five years ago after her brother had been shot and placed on life support. Her mother said she could not be responsible her son’s death. Audra allowed the façade of his living go on for eight months until she sat on the train next to wiry grey-haired business woman heading home from her own retirement party. Kitty, as Audra recalled her name, carried her years’ old briefcase, a happy retirement balloon, and the remains of a cake.
“Looks like congratulations are in order,” Audra mustered.
“Yes, young lady. I made it to retirement. My last train ride home as an employed broker,” Kitty quipped. “Tomorrow I start my new career as a retired broker. Not sure what I will do with all my time.”
Audra smiled until her smile stalled. Looking away, she thought about the hospitality career her brother had started. No career advancement or service year pins or a retirement party for him. Audra held her head in her hand.
“I’ve got nothing now but time on this ride home. Let’s talk about the weight you are obviously carrying.”
Audra flooded Kitty with details and debated about right and wrong. When the wave of words stopped, Kitty shared her foresight.
“Allowing him to drift away on his terms honors his memory. Allowing him to continue destroys it.” Kitty whispered in her ear.
Audra approved the removal of his life support the next day.
The train enters the downtown terminals slowly, screeching its breaks to satisfy the speed requirements. Audra knows she has to say something, do something, but her mental bandwith is full between the memories, Carole’s story, and the now seemingly unimportant prep session that put her on this train to begin with.
Instinctively Audra hugs Carole. “Let him drift away and don’t forget to water his plant.”