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The Train by Beth Mead

People are just stupid, Reg thought.  Stupid dumb stupidheads. 

The person most recently annoying Reg, Green-Hooded Sweatshirt Boy, was driving the car in front of him, playing drums on his steering wheel, bobbing his green-hooded head up and down.  He could feel the bass from the boy’s radio, tinny and thumping.  Reg moved to the left lane, passed Sweatshirt Boy’s car, then pulled right back in front of it.  Then, like Reg knew he would, the boy got into the left lane and sped past him.  He probably gave Reg a nasty look as he drove by, but Reg didn’t turn to see it.  Stupidhead kid. 

Reg loosened his grip on the steering wheel.  He hadn’t realized how tightly he’d been squeezing it, how white and shiny his knuckles were.  He didn’t even want to be here, in this cold car that would never heat up, headed for the damn train station.  He was only here because of his breathing, the way it would stop sometimes when he slept, wake him up, cause him to gasp and sit up and wipe the sweat from his forehead.  Going up stairs, too, his legs heavy with each step, leaning into the handrail, his breath would leave him.  He’d have to stop midway, fill his lungs, bend his stiff knees a few times, before he could continue.   

After a month of this he went to a doctor about it and paid a lousy fifteen-dollar co-pay for some pinched-up woman to say, in a tight little voice, “Lose fifty pounds.”  At least she’d said it without pity.  Back when he still worked at the office, before he got the laptop set-up, the work-at-home sweet deal, the guys would talk about him, about his weight, like he was some toy for them to play with.  They’d say he looked good, like a man who knew how to live, then pat his soft back.  Reg never said anything back to them, just shook his head, shrugged. 

“Get out more,” Dr. Pinch-face had said to him, writing in the chart, not looking at him as she spoke.  “Do something different, something you wouldn’t normally do.  To get yourself started.” 

Reg stared at Pinchy’s eyebrows, the way they scrunched together when she talked.

“Maybe try rollerblading,” she said.  “There’s a good path at Sunset Park.” 

Reg coughed into his fist, thinking, rollerblading?  What, was she crazy?  Some crazy insane crazy-person?  He watched her walk out the door with a little swing of her pinched-up hips.  Reg pictured himself trying to balance on two thin rows of colored wheels, and he decided Pinchy was making fun of him.  Well.  He’d show her what he could do. 

So Reg decided to do a bunch of things he didn’t like all at once, to get it over with faster.  A train ride was just what he needed:  lots of annoying people to have to look at and deal with; seats too small for him to fit into comfortably; and leaving his city, well, just leaving his house was enough, really, enough to make him all itchy.  He’d gotten used to the comfort of staying home, ordering in food, sending out work by email, never having to stray too far, do too much.  But he had to admit it wasn’t working for him anymore, not when he couldn’t sleep, when each night was a struggle to get through.  A train ride would get him started, like Dr. Pinch-face said.  Then he could go back to her and say, See, look what I did, I’m not some stupidhead lazy jerk.

Reg pulled into Amtrak’s commuter lot and waited for his car to chug to a stop.  People were bundled up, scurrying toward the station.  He cracked open the car door and felt the air around him get even colder.  With a lurch he swung his body sideways, used his hand to help unwedge one bulky leg and get it down to the asphalt.  Reg took a deep breath then heaved his body upward, making sure his feet were firmly planted, balanced, before he looked up and saw the woman passing by.  She glanced away from Reg as soon as he looked up, and Reg knew what she was thinking:  Big clumsy oaf, can’t even get out of a car like a normal person.  Looks ready to pass out, that’s what she thought, while she was trying so hard not to stare.  Forget her, he thought, Miss Long and Lean, all draped in black, black hat, black hair, black coat, black boots.  Black black black blah blah blah. She probably dressed all in black every single day, thought it made her look dramatic.  Who cared what she thought. 

Reg lifted his jacket’s stiff yellow collar and ducked his head, chin pressed to chest, as if that would block the chilled wind, and made his way to the station.  As the train pulled in with its metal scrape of brakes straining against the tracks, the rain began.  Icy rain, so cold it felt hot when it hit skin.  Blast it all, Reg thought.  Picked quite a day for this train ride of mine.  After a wait that was way too long, and way too cold, he grabbed the small metal handrail and hoisted himself forward to board the train. 

A white-haired, white-faced, milky-white man checked his ticket and pointed Reg down the aisle.  Reg turned sideways and scooted his legs along the narrow aisle, feeling eyes on him, feeling his face prickle from the stares.  He lowered himself into a seat by a window, a seat with curved-up edges that dug into the bottoms of his thighs.  He wiped the sweat from above his lip, across his forehead.  Leaned forward, his hands on his knees.  Sat back again.  Wondered what the hell he was doing here.  The inside of the train was not at all like he’d imagined it would be.  He should’ve known better.  He’d imagined¾what?  An old-fashioned locomotive, with ornate dining cars, large sleeping areas.  Plush red, he’d thought, with gold trim.  But this train was dull, too much metal, smelled of window cleanser.  Everything was industrial gray or dirtied-up white.  Reg looked out the window.  The rain had quickened, become denser, louder.  Bits of ice hit with a tink-tink against the glass.  He wondered if train travel was safe in this kind of rain, if the tracks would get slick, if he would hydroplane to his death.  He laughed at himself, covering his mouth.

As the announcements began over the speakers, with every few words too scratchy to be heard, a young man hurried along the aisle.  Don’t sit by me, Reg thought.  Skinny thing, this guy was, skinny like a stick, tall and wiry and girly, with his cheekbones and little pointy nose.  Too pretty for a guy, he thought, and probably all prissy, wouldn’t talk to someone like me if I paid him.  Luckily StickMan sat in the row in front of Reg, so Reg had some room to breathe and didn’t have to wedge himself against the window to stay in his own seat.  He stretched his legs wide apart, rested his head back.  Then he started feeling conspicuous and sat back up straight again.  He looked at the old guy reading the newspaper across the aisle from him, probably retired, probably just riding the train for no reason like me, Reg thought, just bought a round-trip ticket for something to do.  Maybe he’s trying to get away from his whiny old wife for a while.  Retired Guy sneezed, and Reg was surprised StickMan didn’t say “Bless you” in some girly voice.  Nobody blessed Retired Guy.  He just blew his nose in a handkerchief, the white linen kind, which the wife probably ironed for him.  He wore a jean jacket, of all things, and blue jeans, but he was wearing shiny brown shoes¾probably the shoes he used to wear to work every day until he retired, took the early option package, thinking he and the wife could fall in love again, travel. He’d stop hating her so much.  But instead he puts on those shoes and comes here to ride the train and read the paper.

The train felt alive beneath Reg’s feet, but it hadn’t started moving forward yet.  Sleet was hitting the windows and roof hard now.  Stupid storm, Reg thought.  He started rubbing his fingers, feeling them clench up.  Let’s get moving, he thought.  A little girl a few rows up started crying, saying Mommy-Mommy-Mommy a lot, pulling on her mother’s coat sleeve.  She had that little-girl hair, fuzzy and colorless and uncombed, and her jacket was halfway off her shoulders.  Just a mess, Reg thought, that girl’s scared and a mess, and that mother should do something.  Reg didn’t even like kids, but he wished that mother would comb the girl’s hair, button up her coat.  Instead the mother was shushing her, pink-faced, embarrassed.  Reg looked at the mother and wanted to shake her, to tell her to relax and stop worrying about what other people are thinking.  The kid’s just scared.  Reg rubbed his hands over his knees and looked out the window.

The speaker was scratching out announcements again.  Something about clearing the tracks, safety precautions.  People were starting to get up and leave, so Reg pulled himself to his feet.  Just great, he thought, there really was a problem.  He almost asked Retired Guy if he’d heard what exactly was going on, but the words didn’t come out in time, so he just followed down the aisle behind him. 

The milky-white ticket man was standing in front near the steps, telling people not to worry, being vague.  Everyone was too close together in the aisle, Reg thought.  Too much shuffling forward, moving too fast.  Reg grabbed the metal rail at the doors and lowered himself from the train.  As he stepped down, his foot slid on the slick pavement.  He felt his hand fall from the rail and his elbow smack against the metal step.  His legs flew forward, feet in the air, and Reg landed hard on his tailbone.  He tried to get up quickly but slid back down, flat on his back. 

Stop, he thought.  Stop moving. 

He rested his head back against the ground and looked up into the falling rain.  The noise of people gathering around him mixed with the sound of sleet.  He didn’t move, just thought about how wet and cold he felt, and how ridiculous he must look, like when he was in fourth grade and the Breiser brothers pushed him down at recess, the two of them with their big noses and curly hair, like a couple of clowns.  Reg wasn’t even fat then, no reason to get picked on except that he just didn’t talk much, not much to say to the dumb-asses at school anyway, but that day the Breiser brothers wouldn’t let up.  Reg couldn’t remember why, but they kept poking him with a wiffle-ball bat, poking and pushing him, and then Jack or Joe, he didn’t know which, shoved the damn bat down the front of Reg’s pants, hurt like hell, then pushed him flat on his back and ran off.  He remembered laying there, looking at the sky, not moving, hardly breathing, noticing everything¾muffled stomps of feet on the playground, squeaking laughter around him, and high above him, the way the clouds were scratched across the sky, thready and weightless.  But now, looking up into the rain, Reg could only see StickMan’s face hovering over him.

“Here, grab my hand.  I’ll help you up.”  StickMan’s voice wasn’t girly at all, Reg thought.  Not what he’d expected.

Reg sat up slowly on his own.  He rolled over to his side, then braced both hands on one knee and pushed himself up to a stand.  His elbow and his ass hurt like hell.  He didn’t look at StickMan, not at anyone, just walked through the rain to the overhang where the rest of the passengers were standing, waiting. 

If this isn’t a sign, Reg thought, I don’t know what is.  Just go home.  Who cares what Dr. Pinch-face says.  I’ll be fine.  Silly idea, anyway.  Train ride.  What the hell was I thinking.

Reg stood there for a while, watched the rain slow, soften.  He saw the ticket man move back to the train steps, wave everyone over.  He watched people board the train, the messy little girl and her mother, Retired Guy, Miss Long and Lean.  StickMan was still standing by Reg, taking pity on the poor fat guy who fell, he guessed. 

“Ready?” StickMan said to Reg.

It would be so easy to turn around and leave, Reg thought.  Just turn and go.  He knew how to make life easy.  It didn’t have to be hard.

StickMan motioned for Reg to follow him, then walked toward the train.  Reg took a step and felt the ache in his back, down through his legs.  He thought about the Breiser brothers, and watched StickMan walking away, and he started to remember something else about that day at school, something he’d forgotten.  That silly little girl from his fourth-grade class, what was her name?  Ella.  Yes.  She’d walked over to him while he was laying there like some idiot on the playground, that plastic yellow bat sticking out of his pants, and she’d sat down right there next to him.  He’d yanked out the bat and thrown it aside, but he didn’t talk, didn’t look at her.  What did she say?  Something like, “Look, Chiclets—take some if you want.”  Her hand looked so tiny, so delicate, holding out that flat little box.  And then she whispered, “Chew slow and the teacher can’t tell.”  Reg remembered that he took some, a handful of the tiny colored plasticy gum, and he got up and walked over to the school building.  He stood against the brick wall, and it felt cool and solid, and he chewed that gum, all at once, all the tangy flavors mixing together, and it tasted sweet and sticky.  He leaned against that wall and chewed his Chiclets and waited for recess to end.  Reg didn’t remember saying thanks to the girl, to Ella, he was sure he didn’t.  But it was one of those small moments, a good moment.  Funny he’d forgotten about that. 

Reg started walking toward the ticket man, one hand on his stinging elbow, and got back on the train.  He made his way to his seat by the window, sat down slowly.  Finally, the train lurched forward, started its heavy pull from the station.  Thick smoke, sooty gray, swelled against the window before disappearing into the light mist of rain.  The seats rattled with the train’s jerking, churning motion.

StickMan turned around to look at him.  “You okay?” he asked Reg.

Reg noticed his fingers, how tightly he was gripping his knees.  He stretched his hands open, rubbed his knuckles.

“You know,” said StickMan, “the ride gets smoother as you go.” 

Reg cleared his throat.  “Thanks,” he said.

“Sure.”  StickMan turned back around.

The fuzzy-haired girl was leaning against her mother’s arm now, and Reg thought maybe it was seeing her that made him remember Ella and her Chiclets, or maybe it was falling on the ground so hard.  Whatever it was, he hadn’t thought about that in ages, and the memory hit him like a wind.

 



About the Author:  Beth Mead received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She has won the Jim Haba Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention in the River Styx Micro-Fiction contest, and her work recently appeared in Mid Rivers Review and Untamed Ink. Beth teaches writing at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri.



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