American Fiction Contemporary

The doors slid closed silently, and muzak piped in from overhead. Charles sat by the door, his jacket slung over his arm, the bag strap across his chest. He could see his reflection in the dark glass - the haggard face, grayed eyebrows, brown sagging skin. Years of watching and waiting were in that face.

He flexed his hands open and closed. They had manipulated those controls, sliding forward and back, pressing and twisting, so many times. 

He felt the buzzing under his feet, the telltale but tiny lurch that indicated the train would begin moving, and then he felt the gentle force of being pulled toward the back of the train, sideways. Rarely like this, though.

He closed his eyes and pictured the view from the front, the one he’d seen day after day, the tunnel telescoping in front of him, the waiting passengers, the lights, the buttons and screens in front of him, the hum of the engine, the static on his walkie-talkie, the slightly sinking feeling of his weathered cushioned seat. 

Charles watched as a woman lifted her toddler off the seat, dusting the seat off. After a while, she gathered up a diaper bag, her purse, and buckled the child in the stroller, and rolled out of the train. Charles could still see the tiny fingerprints in the window.

A student was looking at his phone, bobbing his head to silent music that was probably coming through his wireless earbuds. With his long hair, the earbuds were invisible, so it seemed he was moving to imagined music. Charles smiled and subtly tapped his feet in time to the boy’s beat. 

He remembered the music he used to play for himself - jazz, which he occasionally piped in through these overhead speakers. Today, however, the music was muted and nondescript. Probably Rashida driving - she was all business.

At Market Street, a large crowd got on. Charles stood up to let a woman with a walker sit. She shuffled over between people much taller than her, wearing pastel clothes in contrast to everyone’s dark jackets and black pants. She smiled up at him, her wrinkles matching his own. He would not be long for a device like that, he thought to himself.

He smelled the sweat of everyone’s bodies, jostling against his. He hoped he didn’t smell in his ordinary clothes. People shuffled and said, “Excuse me,” trying to get past each other, inching closer to the doors as their stop neared. Charles maneuvered himself toward the far wall of the car, near the posters that admonished “NO SMOKING,” and public service announcements to eat five servings of vegetables a day. He held onto a vertical bar and leaned against the window. 

Five stops later, most everyone had gotten off again, off to their respective homes or out to dinner, pulling out their phones as the doors opened again, restarting conversations that had paused in the tunnel. 

Charles patted his jacket pocket, where he had an emergency phone. It was one of those old-fashioned flip-phones, that kids these days would think was made by dinosaurs. But it helped him out only if he was in a real emergency. He’d always had the train phone in the past to get him out of a jam - which he’d only used twice. Once, when the power had gone out all over town, and he needed to reach someone to help a passenger who was claustrophobic. He had been gasping for air, and fortunately, a doctor was on board. The second was during the bombings. He would never forget the fear and panic and sadness of that day.

By now the train was nearly empty. A lone older man in a motorized wheelchair was nodding off. Charles could see that the next car was also sparsely occupied. Few ventured this far. 

At the next stop, the man in the wheelchair moved his little joystick and zigzagged his way out of the train with a small revving sound. Charles remembered his own joystick, the feel of it in his hand, the way it stuck ever so slightly in reverse. The murmur of the engine, the way the floor vibrated, the buzzing that was all around him, the echo of the tunnel, the wind as the train whizzed past the platform. 

Soon he could feel himself all alone on this train. No one else rode to this end, this far out. 

He remembered Rashida and made his way to the front, wiping crumbs from his shirt. They’d been kind enough to get him a cake today. It was a round white cake that said “Congratulations, Charles” in red icing, with a train toy stuck on top. Inside was chocolate and white buttercream. They knew he liked chocolate. They’d all sung For he’s a jolly good fellow, amazingly in tune, with some whooping and cheering. His old buddy Glenn, with the baritone voice, sang in harmony. Word was that he always played opera on his route. Charles laughed, almost out loud, at what his riders must think. 

He sat down where Rashida could see him. She opened up her door and asked him politely but casually how he was doing. “This is it, huh?” she asked. He nodding, his head continuing to move long after the question had hung in the air. She made some more idle chitchat, reminiscing about the time they’d gone on strike, the first time she ran this route, even the day they never spoke about. She asked him a couple of more questions about what he planned, and he replied noncommittally, unsure himself of his next steps. 

Then she was quiet, focusing on the silent ride. He, too, just looked out the window at his side, staring through the front of the train. Ahead was a golden circle - soon the train would exit the tunnel, to emerge on the surface. 

He watched the tunnel walls, where the grayish brown gave way first to spray-painted graffiti tags, and then a triangle of golden sunshine, which grew on either side, until they were above ground. The train yard was littered with cars - new ones out for service or getting spiffed up to go for the first time, and old ones that had been here for decades, just collecting rust and watching the others go by. 

That would be him now. 

He looked back - behind him were the tall skyscrapers of the city, the night lights just blinking on, the sounds of evening wafting over. He looked ahead - the blue and purple hills in the distance, soon to be shrouded in darkness. The water would ripple with moonlight. The wild oats that grew and waved, shimmering in the fading light.

Rashida opened the door, and announced, as if to a large crowd, “Last stop.” She saluted.

Charles smiled. He slowly put on his jacket, and walked forward. He lifted his foot off the train, and set it purposefully on the final platform. 

Outside, he turned back, and saluted Rashida as she drove on. She would wrap up her train for the day. 

He turned toward the mountains, walking in the direction of his new home. There would be no more driving for him, but there was a beautiful future awaiting him.

April 19, 2021 20:22

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