Title: The Commuter
By: Tochi Onyebuchi
Song: By the Way
Artist: Theory of a Deadman
Album: Scars & Souvenirs
(Picture from http://farm1.static.flickr.com/151/404708986_4393bb8c70.jpg)
This is the train. It has to be.
He gets on at Union Station in New Haven when winter has snatched all warmth and moisture from the air and folks on the platform, with their scarves wrapped tight about their throats, can see their breath mist in front of their faces. A few of the regulars, like loyal patrons to a bar, wave or nod acknowledgement in his general direction before returning to their wooly, felt-capped cocoons. At first, he would wave back or smile. They welcomed him and didn’t ask about his purpose or the intent behind his thrice-daily pilgrimage, why they would see him here in the morning, again in the afternoon at the Stamford stop and, sometimes all the way at Grand Central Terminal, then again speeding past Bridgeport that same evening. They never asked him what he was waiting for, what he was looking for, or whether it was as simple as being addicted to motion, like the shark that must move or else die.
The train rolls into the station, and he boards. Takes his customary seat by the window and engages in that daily ritual of watching the sunrise.
He’s been chasing her for almost two years now ever since she vanished with his Lily, and acrimony was easy at first. Routine took over, however, and left him only with a sense of emotionless purpose. He doesn’t know what he will do when he sees her again, whether he will snatch Lily back, whether he will appeal to her mother’s humanity or whether he will call the police and have her arrested. He only knows that he has to look, to continue to look. Because without this hunt, he is nothing. He is a fedora, an overcoat and a pair of scuffed loafers, a bundle of well-pressed rags on a train.
The first time he saw her, he’d been staring at something else entirely. He’d been working, still adjusting to the masochism of his early commute by taking solace in the sunrises on this part of the Massachusetts River. The rain the day before had just broken summer’s hold on the Eastern Seaboard and he had welcomed the opportunity to finally don a jacket. Early on in his commute, the rain had had the effect of altering the sunrises, changing them from gorgeous, showy splashes of ochre and pink to gradual, formless alleviations of the darkness. And he couldn’t help but be thankful to the God that would send him such a gift on his way to work every morning.
That was when he noticed her reflection in the window. It was a thing cut with pinks and blues and gold, but he stared for a long time and discerned the contours of her face, the button nose, the high cheekbones, the streak of red slashed through her bangs, the pursed lips on the cliff’s edge of a smirk.
She hadn’t glanced at him at all during that first ride, and he was ready to consign her to the realm of dreamstuffs. But she’d showed up again, as much a slave to routine as he had been.
He has a book with him, but he doesn’t open it. Nor does he play with his phone. A troupe of construction workers get on at Stratford and fill the seats across the aisle from him. They’re regulars but from a different bar and though he recognizes them and they him, there is no wave or nod of acknowledgement. The men converse and he returns to his window. He wonders if any of them or their white-collar compatriots who board at Milford had ever had any such romance, any relationship built on train cars, stacked end-on-end like compartments spanning the length of track. He wonders if any of them, like him, found their heart stilled while they sped in a metal chrysalis at a hundred miles an hour on their way to work.
She had domesticated him, cured him however momentarily of his wanderlust, his addiction to locomotion. As the train lurches into the Fairfield stop, he thinks of the home they’d purchased on the outskirts of that city, how they both knew they were living above their means but for the child nestling in her belly, any debt was worth it.
And when Lily was old enough, she would bring their daughter on the train so that even on the weekends, they would ride back and forth, all they way to Grand Central and back. And she pointed out the window and saw her Lily following her finger and seeing the smoke billowing from the smokestacks in Bridgeport, the blackened, dilapidated cars in the junkyard, the small cathedral and the emptying factories that surrounded it. Lily marveled and her mother smiled, as if to say, “This is a beautiful kingdom and one day, it will be yours.”
A balding man in a Brooks Brothers jacket snaps him out of his reverie and he shifts to allow the man room to sit down. If he does not see her now, he knows she is not on this train. The passengers finish boarding, the light flickers by the door, the conductor waves his arm and the door whispers shut like an airlock.
By now, the compartment is a sea of Apple products and Brooks Brothers jackets and he feels like a pauper having wandered into a downtown cocktail party. As the train rockets towards Stamford where even more suits will board, he remembers how she had stilled that particular rumbling in his heart, that anger he felt whenever he was placed among his betters. And he remembers a time when he’d driven her and Lily past his childhood home just outside Hartford. With the car idling at the foot of the driveway, he remembers telling the two most important girls in his life why winter was his favorite season, how, this one time, it was cold enough outside for longjohns and a hoodie but warm enough for snow to fall in soft, tiny flakes from the sky. Highlighted by the amber glow of streetlamps before continuing their descent onto the already-white pavement. He hadn’t been out there shoveling for long but aside from a single SUV whose taillights blinked forlornly as it navigated the street, he was the only movement outdoors.
It was nice, the manual labor. And it felt familiar the way an old pair of sneakers felt familiar. And he could let my mind wander over the worries that lurked around the corner, waiting for him on the other side of the weekend. He had worried about graduate school and how he would handle whatever travails the final semester had in store for him. He worried about his A.A. program, how he’d strayed from the path, lured by the comforts of vacation and leisure time spent with the family when he should’ve been doing the spiritual heavy-lifting of this particular bit of self-improvement. He worried about the chastisement that awaited him when he rejoined his group. And he worried about the financial cesspool he’d spent two years wandering into. FAFSA season was always a bitter reminder of just where he had come from, just how little he had and just how audacious he was to want more than what he’d got. And every year without fail, the filling out of those federal financial aid forms heralded a dark cloud. But for the thirty minutes that he was outside shoveling his driveway, alone in his work, he was content.
The train pulls into Stamford, some commuters get off, more get on, then it’s a straight shot to Harlem-125th Street, then Grand Central. He doesn’t know why he expected her on this particular train. Perhaps he hoped that her reappearance would be as sudden and shocking and reaffirming as her disappearance had been.
By now, as they cross the bridge, the sun has fully risen and he remembers a time earlier in his quest for his missing lover and daughter when he had taken to reading Chekhov on the train platforms to pass the time. Reading about Chekhov’s love of nature and the Russian countryside and how it reinvigorated him, how it refreshed his spirit, how it cleansed him of the emotionally poisonous smog he’d ingested in the cities, he found himself experiencing the same. New York was not Moscow, and New England was not the Russian countryside, but he imagines that on some mornings when the winter is clear and absent of precipitation, before the world has begun and everything is quiet, a man can stare out a window and have his soul refreshed.
He disembarks at Grand Central Station, spends a few useless hours scanning the massive church of a building for anyone remotely resembling his wife. He does not know that he will recognize his daughter. Soon enough, he is back on the train heading in the other direction, shading his eyes from the almost-oppressive sunlight.
There was a time when the sunrises on his commute were spectacles of dazzling wonder, when they stopped his heart or when he found himself moved to tears. There was a time when every sunrise, in its explosion of pinks and reds and in the way it gilded the underbelly of cumulus clouds, reminded him of her, what she had looked like and how it had, then and for a long time afterwards, stopped his heart. But today’s sunrise was different.
Winter seems to have made his sunrises more functional. No frills, no handwaving, merely the promise inherent in the word ‘tomorrow.’
Tochi Onyebuchi is a professional student whose academic interests are merely a clever disguise for his storytelling impulses. He is finishing an MFA in screenwriting and, in August, will matriculate at law school. He can sometimes be found window-shopping PhD programs. His blog is a virtual chimera of his interests in cross-border smuggling, literature and New England. He tweets on occasion @TochiTrueStory
This story is dedicated to the girl with the wavy hair and the leather jacket who gets on the train at New Haven.