Fourth to Last Train Home

The hour was not incredibly late, but both parties were quite weary from their respective days’ toil. It had been a long, dog day of midsummer. They each carried aches in their bodies, but the weariness stemmed from elsewhere. There was a mental exhaustion at play, a soft drone humming on the part of the brain that stores numbers and hard facts and must quantify information that will eventually become trivial, but further seeping to whichever lobe it is that smolders in its desire for its body to be elsewhere at nearly every given moment. The emotion-rendering part of the mind had been searing all day, in a grand many ways that seemed uninvited and intrusive to the productivity of said parties. By the time they were on the train and retiring to their respective hovels, they had all but given themselves over to the unwelcome thoughts that made them question what they might be missing. Would they one day possess or invent some semblance of completeness in their lives? The battlement in their minds was left unguarded and they sat flat in their seats, pinging off the stops as their respective buildings, and their respective empty rooms, neared.

Her day, though she did not like to partition time into convenient, calendric squares, had begun with a quick errand downtown where she was to pick up and then deliver dry-cleaning for the woman she worked for as an extern. It was a holiday and the cleaners were only open for a few hours in the morning, before the city essentially shut down to motorists so the pyrotechnic celebrations could begin. She wondered, on the bus while she was getting the plastic-sheathed clothing, whether she would be able to put a check mark next to this task on her to-do list without being wrangled into some other petty chore. That she would have to actually see Ms. Kingsley posed a very real threat. Did the woman ever take a day off? Doubtful. Is that going to be me one day? Hopefully never. She considered the likely probability that she might not walk away from this errand without gaining one or two more last-minute chores, chores she had neither the time nor the inclination to accomplish. So she sat in the same blue seat that thousands had sat in before her and took advantage of the precious time to sketch out ideas for the fall fashion line that she’d been dreaming up. A few minutes after plunging deep into a sudden brainstorm session involving fox-print flannel vests, she looked up and out the window from her notebook at the ideal moment to press the yellow strip to request her stop. Soon she was entering the little shop where the freshly-cleaned garments and their launderer awaited her arrival.

His day was nearly identical to the rest had been so far that summer. Though most students left the city for the summer, he had decided to stay. He told himself he would wait upon as many tables possible in order to beef up his savings account before the imminent grace period for his university loans ended and he found himself getting bruised by the bully that is life beyond college. He had stayed awake into the early morning reading a novel by a writer he’d heard give an interview on public radio, but still set his alarm for his usual pre-dawn time so he could go for his usual pre-dawn run around the pinking dawn pond. Navigating the dried, green goose droppings of the paved walking path had become automatic, as he was now nearly two months into summer and had become religious about this running ritual. The consistency of the morning exercise, that rhythmic patter when his rubber tread touched down on the macadam, granted him a tranquility that he had not before known. It was welcome and necessary, mostly because the unpredictable and wearisome doubles he worked five days a week had the potency to unravel the unconditioned body and mind. The holiday meant that the restaurant was only open for dinner service, which meant he could spend a few hours to finish a load of laundry and walk to the market and drug store before catching a thirty minute snooze induced by his attempt to finish the novel he’d begun reading the evening before. Work would either be very busy or very slow, he’d decided. When the time came to leave his apartment, he had come up with a handful of different scenarios about what he was going to do when he graduated in December. He walked past a woman who was rubbing the film off a lottery ticket with a penny. While waiting for the train, he grinned widely because he thought he’d buy a car after New Years and drive west and see what happened from there. Once he boarded, the thought went just as soon as it had come.

They were now seated across from each other, several hours after they had begun their days. They looked worn down, but they were young and able to endure the days and weeks and years of what would soon transition into the forced work of the workforce. She cringed at words as such, imagining cold metal badges on political cartoonish figures that meant you were a member of this pathetically common group, The Workforce! Strength in numbers! Check your soul at the door! She listened to the music made by people her age who did not buy in. She envied their words and their voices and that they were reaching her from their paradise of nonconformity.

He kept looking down at the 291st page of that novel, nodding off in brief, four to seven seconds of slumber while he tried to finish the book. After a few stops, he marked the page and tucked the volume into his bag and looked about the car, trying to focus on something that he could think about to try and stay awake.

They were unsettled.

It was the Fourth of July, for Christ’s sake! Should they not be out on a picnic or toasting red plastic cups with the threads of family and friends who so tightly stand in union under the city’s annual display of cardboard encased rockets, gazing into the sky and away from the injustice that is such a part of this country as is its hubris? Should they not be looking skyward with their arm around the shoulder of an aunt or cousin or sister or parent who they have not seen since the winter holiday, deliriously grinning and singing red-blooded patriotic melodies? Should they not be representative of their generation, the generation of the now, the must-read bestsellers, bookended on the shelf by their aging parents and their still wet behind the ears nieces and nephews? Should they not speak intellectually with their elders, assuring them that although members of their age bracket may feel as lost attempting to operate a cellular phone as they do pretending to understand how their generation’s civil choices will sustain a rebound in their children’s economy and restore their survivors’ faith in this myth of good government, the world will in face be alright. Had they not been promised the end of the world since it all began? Has pending apocalypse been a catalyzing factor in human life for centuries? It is the justification to live chastely or to live hastily. Should they just roll with whatever punches come and rediscover humanitarianism and morality as if there hope for a future, or should they fabricate justifications for the necessity of living in the moment? Do you believe infinitely or transitorily?

As the trolley line dwindles out, the boy recognizes that he is in the presence of a strikingly beautiful girl, who he guesstimates to have roughly the same number of years to her name as does he. That is to say that he thinks her to be about his age, but he comes to this conclusion in much a more direct way that you have, reader, for words are not needed to an observation of this nature. Granted, not so many words are needed for the telling, really it only takes a glance, but what is a tale without a generous portion of lexicons? The importance here is that he wonders, on this day of national celebration for something neither of them had anything to do with, but both have felt so moved in the past to recognize, each longed for something they recently had been resigned to think they would never obtain – the strengthening of their self by way of another. Lasting, comforting companionship.

He concluded silently to himself that her stop must be coming up soon. His stop was the second to last before the train turned around to head back to the city and she had begun to take the plastic earphones from her head. A sure sign she was preparing to step off at one of the next stops. He noticed the crease in her auburn hair, likely from the elastic that had it tied in a ponytail for the majority of the day. He wondered what thoughts had passed through her mind beneath that neatly collected mass while she rode the train inbound that morning on the way to wherever spent the day. He assumed from the satchel brimming with books and papers that she must have been at one of the university libraries. Perhaps she had been studying for exams or writing a research paper for a summer course. He tried to shoo the idea away that all it would take was a simple inquisitive approach and he might know just what it was that made her look worn out now as the evening hours closed in on another box on the calendar. When his commuting days had begun, he would make it a point to notice attractive girls his age and romanticize potential encounters with them that usually ended with them moving in together and being excruciatingly happy in their union. He wondered how many children grew up hearing tale of their parents meeting on trains. Your father wasn’t always such the debonair, broad-shouldered man he is today. Once he was just a skinny kid with a messenger bag, riding the Green Line each night to his stuffy little studio apartment. He thought these things in an instant, and then shunned them. Why not say something? It’s the Fourth. This should be a communal day.

He looked back toward her as she was stuffing her earphones into a side pocket on her bag. Before he could open his mouth to get the words from his throat to her, she looked straight at him and said, “Long day?”

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