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  • Short Story: The Commuter

    I wrote this short story several years ago. It came from watching and observing different people on a commuter train and fictionalizing their lives. A friend’s post on Facebook inspired me to dig it up and post it here. Interested to hear what you think.

    He ran.

    His loafers rubbed at the already thin socks on his feet, adding to the calluses on his little toes and pushing on his heels. His suit jacket flapped out, pants drooping under his belly a little more.

    Thirty feet to go, then the 22 stairs. The whistle blew. He had to make it or sit and wait for another hour.

    Tie slung over his shoulder, he turned the corner and took the stairs two at a time — 2, 4, 6, 8 … 18, 20, 22. He waved to the man in the funny little hat and shouted for him to hold the train. The conductor nodded, silently telling him to hurry.

    ••••••

    He started testing time a few months ago, more than anything to add some excitement back into his life. The commute to and from his office held little to no mystery, so he pushed back when he left his house or office for the train station.

    He regretted that now.

    He punched his ticket, took the steps up to the car marked “Coach Class,” noticed the other man’s funny little tie clip on the third button of his shirt, and started looking for a seat.

    His feet throbbed. He couldn’t stand the whole way. “Please let there be a seat,” he thought, almost aloud.

    A ball of sweat rolled down his nose, even though it was just January. His skin turned splotchy red from the desperate run.

    There was a place six rows up. And remarkably, someone wasn’t slouching in it, snoring away. He had the entire row of two all to himself. He sat, pulling up his pants as the train pulled away. He was exhausted.

    ••••••

    But he couldn’t sleep. That often happened on days like this. Mornings that started way too early and ran deep into the evening. He was lucky, and he knew it, because the man with the funny little hat and tie clip had recognized him and held things up. He wondered how, in the sea of faceless people, the man had remembered.

    The train jerked slightly to the right, then straightened. It did this every time it pulled away from the station, allowing him to tell the veterans from the rookie riders. The regulars rarely noticed; newbies cocked a half smile and made an offhand comment to the person sitting next to them.

    At least the newbies spoke. They and a couple of veteran riders who were trying to convert you in some way. Commuter converters, he called them. They made nice for the first couple of minutes, checking out your political leanings, whether you had a family, what your job was, asking if you had a church, and then they started on their agenda. The sound and the fury varied, as did the subject matter, but the dulling effect on his senses felt the same.

    The morning talkers were the worst. The previous week he had gotten stuck next to a newbie wearing too much perfume. She was heading to a job interview for a position she would never get because of her smell. It was worse than the strongest, fuzziest cup of coffee he had ever consumed, but he didn’t have the heart to say anything. By the time the train stopped at his station, he was too tired and woozy to work.

    That wouldn’t happen today. He was on his way home, for one, and no one dared to sit next to him. He looked down at his belly and thought to himself, “Who would want to?”

    ••••••

    He’d been on this train for 21 years, traveling up and down an hour each way into the city. His wife had wanted to live farther out, so they found a house that looked like every fourth house in their neighborhood and moved in. The kids — a daughter now in college and a son, now in high school — were bored suburbanites consumed by shopping and social media. His wife, the administrative assistant to the county judge, was looking at retirement soon.

    Travel to the first stop took eight minutes, four seconds. By this time, he had settled into his comfortable routine. Take out the laptop, open the reports and start to shuffle papers. By the third stop — 22 minutes and 19 seconds out, give or take — he had finished his task and started looking around. It was better than laptop Solitaire.

    Twenty-one years on this train, he thought, and what to show for it? No major injuries. No wrecks or derailments. No robberies. He had not been conned or converted. He had seen towns grow and decay at each stop, wondering what was happening in the lives of those around him.

    One morning, on the Amtrak, he met a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head and headphones poking out of her ears. Occasionally she shifted in her seat but remained still for most of the trip. He wondered where she was going and decided to ask. It wasn’t like him, but he couldn’t resist.

    “I’m going home,” she said.

    “Me, too. Where’re you headed?”

    She told him of the town up north. She had been home to bury her mother, leaving her husband and seven children behind. Her husband was self-employed and they couldn’t afford for everyone to go.

    “They didn’t like her much anyway,” she said by way of explanation.

    ••••••

    Usually, he didn’t talk, even though he wanted to on some days. In high school and college, he had acquaintances who seemed to appreciate his wit and playful nature. That’s one reason his wife was attracted to him. Or at least had been.

    He worked for a government agency, like most everyone on the train, sitting inside a cubicle with his family’s pictures on the desk. Mostly, he pushed paper from one stack to the next, then into the outbox. Some mornings he daydreamed, with thoughts of playing hooky and touring the museums.

    It wasn’t a bad life. Just dull, he thought, as he saw the next group get ready to disembark. It was the fourth stop, 31 minutes and 40 seconds out. The person opposite his seat had gotten off one stop before. A woman and her child walked down the row, holding hands, and sat next to him, their seat still warm.

    The child, who appeared to be 2 or 3, looked nervous. She was the newest newbie he had seen in a while. Occasionally a group of school children went into the city on a field trip, pissing off the commuter converters who didn’t like to be squeezed in on “their” train. A little man who rode the same route always asked the tie clip attendant, “What the hell is this?” as the school kids got on, followed by, “I hope you’ll make sure they stay in their car.” It was the only time the little man, as he had been dubbed, ever spoke.

    But this child seemed different. She was younger than the school kids, for one, and he saw something in her eyes.

    “Hi,” he said to the little girl, who buried her head in the woman’s chest. “It’ll be OK.”

    The woman looked down at her child and kissed her on top of the head. The little girl peered at him, a thousand questions hovering behind those big, innocent eyes.

    “Is this your first time on the train?” he asked.

    She nodded.

    “You’ll like it. Look out the window,” he said, pointing.

    She lifted her head and saw the river, then said something unintelligible to her mother.

    “Lift up your feet,” she said then, a little louder.

    Her mom pulled up her knees. The little girl motioned to him and said in a loud whisper, “Lift up your feet, or your toes will turn green.”

    ••••••

    He did as he was told. The little girl’s mother looked at him and said, “It’s a little game we play; it keeps her occupied when we are in the car.”

    He smiled and asked the woman where they were going. One stop beyond his, she replied. They would be on the train together for the rest of the route.

    The little girl looked out the window at the trees. “What’s that?” she asked repeatedly.

    Her mother patiently gave an answer every time she asked, occasionally looking over at him and rolling her eyes slightly. He was intrigued.

    After the sixth stop, 44 minutes and 31 seconds out, the little girl started to squirm. They had been forced to wait much longer than usual, because an elderly gentleman had trouble getting down the stairs. He noticed the train attendant with the tie clip patiently helping the elderly gentleman down.

    He thought of the two extremes, the little girl and the old man, that were on his train. And that’s the way he looked at it; after 21 years, it sort of was “his train.” If he had been the manager, he would have given the attendant high marks for his kindness. He would not permit perfume. He would add a beverage area, but with no alcohol. He would force people to speak to each other.

    A northbound train zoomed past on the other track, scaring the little girl. She buried her face in her mother’s chest again and started to whimper softly. At least she didn’t scream.

    “Would you like to sit over here?” he asked in a kind voice, motioning to the two-thirds of a seat he had remaining.

    The little girl looked at him with the big eyes. She looked up at her mother, speaking to her silently, and her mother nodded her approval. As the train left the station, she squeezed in next to him, her legs just extending past the seat’s edge.

    They rode together for two more stops. She moved onto his knee, again with her mother’s silent approval. She asked about the trees, the silver door with the big red lettering that opened and shut. She pointed at a woman two rows up and asked if she was his mother. That made him laugh. She noticed the ripples in the second river they crossed together and made him lift up his feet again.

    His stop, 61 minutes and 34 seconds out because of the earlier delay, came quickly, and he didn’t want to leave. But he motioned to the girl’s mother that he had to stand up, that this was his stop, and she told her daughter to move away.

    The little girl complied, then turned and hugged him around the leg as he stood.

    “Thank you,” she said in a sweet little voice, pronouncing “Thank” as “Tank.”

    “No, thank you,” he said, smiling. “I hope to see you again.”

    She smiled back, an innocent.

    It had not been a bad ride after all.

  • Tides of Memories: Pat Conroy & Others

    Pat Conroy’s death last week brought back a tide of strong memories. The first was when I read the “Lords of Discipline” in high school, and the second was when I saw Conroy at a talk/book signing in Greensboro almost two decades later.

    Like “The Great Santini,” perhaps the book he is best known for along with “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” draws upon the author’s struggles with the military’s hardness, born of traditions that encouraged prejudice and misogyny in the Vietnam-era South.

    Published in 1980, the book was being made into a film a couple of years after “Taps,” another fictionalized drama about a military school. As I’ve often done, hearing about a movie based on a novel makes me want to read the book before seeing the film, so I picked it up.

    What “Lords of Discipline” taught me was how hard it must be to do a novel justice on the big screen. Even though the film was OK, there was no way it could capture the depth of Conroy’s work, or the (occasional) pulp of his prose. The book captured a South I had long heard of, but never wanted to be part of, in such a way that I became determined never to experience it.

    ••••••

    This has been a terrible winter for artists, and the world of classic rock-era music has been particularly hard hit. Add to that list author Harper Lee and actor Alan Richman, and it has been seemingly a never-ending roll call.

    In the first three months of 2016, we’ve lost Beatles producer George Martin, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Vanity, Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of Jefferson Airplane.

    In some ways, the deaths of most of those who passed away should not come as a shock, given the hard living that many of those musicians lived during the substance-fueled 1960s, 70s and 80s. Bowie, still working until right before his death, was the exception, even though he had been battling (quietly except to those closest to him) cancer for 18 months.

    The reason, I think, that the long list of deaths surprises and gives me pause is because each of these artists was popular during my childhood. And with each passing, that childhood recedes further into my life’s rear view.

    One singer’s illness, in the midst of everything, caught my attention. Joey Feek of the country duo Joey+Rory, whose public battle with cervical cancer was chronicled every step of the way by her husband, died this month at the young age of 40.

    I didn’t know much about the couple or their music. In fact, I’ve heard only a few of their songs, which are pretty enough (especially their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”), but not cutting edge or truly memorable. What caught my attention was their openness about the illness, the way Rory Feek wrote about and cared for his wife and young daughter as Joey moved into hospice care.

    There is something wrong about a person having to suffer in such a way, especially just a couple of years after having a child with Down’s Syndrome. But the grace and dignity they showed throughout is both commendable and memorable, and will outlive the songs they leave behind.

    ••••••

    Pat Conroy wrote about life, death, family, dysfunction, mental illness and life as a military brat in the South. He too was open about all of his family’s foibles, so much so that many of his relatives would no longer speak to him.

    He joked about this at the speech and book signing I saw him at in Greensboro, when he was promoting “Beach Music.” I had the chance to see him when Sarah Bullock, one of Jill’s co-workers and a second mother to her in many ways, invited me to come along.

    Conroy’s sense of humor, always bubbling under the surface despite his lifelong struggles with depression, was in fine form as he told stories about his father meeting Barbra Streisand, and writing. When I mentioned, during the book signing, that I had worked as a newspaper editor before moving into communications, he complemented me on “escaping my career choice.” He then signed my copy of The Lords of Discipline — a hardback I bought that day, with the phrase, “For the love of words and books.”

    Seeing Conroy was a highlight of my seven-plus years in North Carolina, and it’s rare that Sarah or I fail to mention it when we see or speak to each other. I still have the book, and last Christmas, Sarah sent me Conroy’s last work — “The Death of Santini.”

    May he — and the others — rest in peace.

  • The Commuter

    Editor’s note: This is my attempt at a short story. It came from watching and observing different people on the train and fictionalizing their lives. This person’s story stuck with me for some reason, probably due to its resemblance to my own. I would love to know what you think…

    He ran.

    His loafers rubbed at the already thin socks on his feet, adding to the calluses on his little toes and pushing on his heels. His suit jacket flapped out, pants drooping under his belly a little more.

    Thirty feet to go, then the 22 stairs. The whistle blew. He had to make it, or sit and wait for another hour.

    Tie slung over his shoulder, he turned the corner and took the stairs two at a time — 2, 4, 6, 8 … 18, 20, 22. He waved to the man in the funny little hat and shouted for him to hold the train. The conductor nodded, silently telling him to hurry.

    ••••••

    He started testing time a few months ago, more than anything to add some excitement back into his life. The commute into his office held little to no mystery, so pushed back when he left the house for the train station.

    He regretted that now.

    He punched his ticket, took the steps up to the car marked “Coach Class,” noticed theother man’s funny little tie clip on the third button of his shirt, and started looking for a seat.

    His feet throbbed. He couldn’t stand the whole way. “Please let there be a seat,” he thought, almost aloud.

    A ball of sweat rolled down his nose, even though it was just January. His skin turned splotchy red from the desperate run.

    There was a place six rows up. And remarkably, someone wasn’t slouching in it, snoring away. He had the entire row of two all to himself. He sat, pulling up his pants as the train pulled away. He was exhausted.

    •••••••

    But he couldn’t sleep. That often happened on days like this. Mornings that started way too early and ran deep into the evening. He was lucky, and he knew it, because the man with the funny little hat and tie clip had recognized him and held things up. He wondered how, in the sea of faceless people, the man had remembered.

    The train jerked slightly to the right, then straightened. It did this every time it pulled away from the station, allowing him to tell the veterans from the rookies. Regular train riders hardly noticed; newbies cocked a half smile and made an offhand comment to the person sitting next to them. He knew this from experience, plus he fancied himself to be a casual eavesdropper.

    At least the newbies spoke. They and a couple of veteran riders who were trying to convert you in some way. Commuter converters, he called them. They made nice for the first couple of minutes, checking out your political leanings, whether you had a family, what your job was, occasionally wondering if you had a church, and then they started on their agenda. The sound and the fury varied, as did the subject matter, but the dulling effect on his senses felt the same.

    The morning talkers were the worst. The previous week he had gotten stuck next to a newbie woman wearing too much perfume. She was heading to a job interview for a position that she would never get because of her smell. It didn’t compare to the strongest, fuzziest cup of coffee he had ever consumed, but he didn’t have the heart to say anything. By the time the train stopped at his station, he was too tired and woozy to work.

    That wouldn’t happen today. He was on his way home, for one, and no one dared to sit next to him. He looked down at his belly and thought to himself, “Who would want to?”

    ••••••

    He’d been on this train for 21 years, traveling up and down an hour each way into the city. His wife had wanted to live farther out, so they found a house that looked like every fourth house in their neighborhood and moved in. The kids — a daughter now in college and a son, now in high school — were bored suburbanites consumed by shopping and the Internet. His wife, the administrative assistant to the county judge, was looking at retirement soon.

    The first stop took eight minutes, four seconds. By this time, he had settled into his comfortable routine. Take out the laptop, open up the reports and start to shuffle papers. By the third stop — 22 minutes and 19 seconds out, give or take — he had finished his task and started looking around. It was better than laptop Solitaire.

    Twenty-one years on this train, he thought, and what to show for it? No major injuries. No wrecks or derailments. No robberies. He had not been conned or converted. He had seen towns grow and decay at each stop, wondering what was happening in the lives of those around him.

    One morning, on the Amtrak, he met a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head and headphones poking out of her ears. She shifted occasionally in her seat, but remained still for most of the trip. He wondered where she was going and decided to ask. It wasn’t like him, but he couldn’t resist.

    “I’m going home,” she said.

    “Me, too. Where’re you headed?”

    She told him of the town up north. She had been home to bury her mother, leaving her husband and seven children behind. Her husband was self-employed, and they couldn’t afford for everyone to go.

    “They didn’t like her much anyway,” she said by way of explanation.

    ••••••

    Usually, he didn’t talk, even though on some days he wanted to. He had been a gregarious type on high school and college, with acquaintances who seemed to appreciate his wit and playful nature. That’s one reason his wife was attracted to him. Or at least had been.

    He worked for a government agency, like most everyone on the train, sitting inside a cubicle with his family’s pictures on the desk. Mostly, he pushed paper from one stack to the next, then into the outbox. Some mornings he daydreamed, with thoughts of playing hooky and touring the museums.

    It wasn’t a bad life. Just dull, he thought, as he saw the next group get ready to disembark. It was the fourth stop, 31 minutes and 40 seconds out. The person opposite his seat had gotten off one stop before. A woman and her child walked down the row, holding hands, sat next to him, their seat still warm.

    The child, a girl of 3, looked nervous. She was the newest newbie he had seen in a while. Occasionally a group of school children went into the city on a field trip, pissing off the commuter converters who didn’t like to be squeezed in on “their” train. A little man who rode the same route always asked the tie clip attendant, “What the hell is this?” as the school kids got on, followed by, “I hope you’ll make sure they stay in theircar.” It was the only time the little man, as he had been dubbed, ever spoke.

    But this child looked different. She was younger than the school children, for one, and there was something about her eyes.

    “Hi,” he said to the little girl, who buried her head in the woman’s chest. “It’ll be OK.”

    The woman looked down at her child and kissed her on top of the head. The little girl peered at him, a thousand questions hovering behind those big, innocent eyes.

    “Is this your first time on the train?” he asked.

    She nodded.

    “You’ll like it. Look out the window,” he said, pointing.

    She lifted her head and saw the river, then said something unintelligible to her mother.

    “Lift up your feet,” she said then, a little louder.

    Her mom pulled up her knees. The little girl motioned to him, “Lift up your feet, or your toes will turn green.”

    ••••••

    He did as he was told. The little girl’s mother looked at him and said, “It’s a little game we play; it keeps her occupied when we are in the car.”

    He smiled, and asked the woman where they were going. One stop beyond his, she replied. They would be on the train together for the rest of the route.

    The little girl looked out the window at the trees. “What’s that?” she asked repeatedly.

    Her mother patiently gave her an answer every time she asked, occasionally looking over at him and rolling her eyes slightly. He was intrigued.

    After the sixth stop, 44 minutes and 31 seconds out, the little girl started to squirm. They had had to wait much longer than usual, because an elderly gentleman had trouble getting down the stairs. He noticed the train attendant with the tie clip patiently helping the elderly gentleman down.

    He thought of the two extremes, the little girl and the old man, that were on his train. And that’s the way he thought of it; after 21 years, it sort of was his train. If he had been the manager, he would have given the attendant high marks for his kindness. He would not permit perfume. He would add a beverage area, but with no alcohol. He would force people to speak to each other.

    A northbound train zoomed past on the other track, scaring the little girl. She buried her face in her mother’s chest again, and started to whimper softly. At least she didn’t scream.

    “Would you like to sit over here?” he asked in a kind voice, motioning to the two-thirds of a seat he had remaining.

    The little girl looked at him with the big eyes. She looked up at her mother, speaking to her silently, and her mother nodded her approval. As the train left the station, she squeezed in next to him, her legs just extending past the seat’s edge.

    They rode together for two more stops. She moved onto his knee, again with her mother’s silent approval. She asked about the trees, the silver door with the big red lettering that opened and shut. She pointed at a woman two rows up and asked if she was his mother. That made him laugh. She noticed the ripples in the second river they crossed together, and made him lift up his feet again.

    His stop, 61 minutes and 34 seconds out because of the earlier delay, came quickly, and he didn’t want to leave. But he motioned to the girl’s mother that he had to stand up, that this was his stop, and she told her daughter to move away.

    The little girl complied, then turned and hugged him around the leg as he stood.

    “Thank you,” she said in a sweet little voice, pronouncing “Thank” as “Tank.”

    “No, thank you,” he said, smiling. “I hope to see you again.”

    She smiled back, an innocent.

    It had not been a bad ride after all.