Safe Distance

Myrna waited for the commuter at her usual spot. This morning, icy winter wind coursed down the tracks slamming up against her.  Trying to stay warm she shifted her weight back and forth.  Every so often she would turn her face into the wind in hopes of seeing the train’s headlight coming down the tracks.  At 5:39 the train arrived.  No one else had been waiting for the train. This fact seemed odd to her but the day, being the Monday after Christmas, she thought it was possible.

 She found her usual seat, a single on the upper deck, and settled in.  As she did, the train lurched forward, leaving the station. She hadn’t noticed a conductor when she boarded and from the empty seats it appeared that none of the regular passengers were on board. Looking down from her seat she did see a man with tattered dirty clothes.  He was bent over in his seat and rocking back and forth.

 The train ride to the city usually took an hour and ten minutes. Myrna pulled Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories from her tote, found her place in the book and began reading. She had promised her son that she would read this book.

 The compilation of stories had been given to her on Christmas day.  Her son Ethan handed it to her just as he was telling her that he had become a Christian.  Myrna had been quite taken back by this news. She had thought that Ethan was an intellectual atheist just like herself.  She had raised him to be a well-adjusted man of the world.  She shuddered to think about gooeyness of religion smothering her son. 

 Though she had been raised a Lutheran, Myrna, later decided that Christianity had its place for the weak and dull of mind, for those not willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. She believed that learning was the key to life.  She went to night school.  She applied herself. Life was what you made it, she told herself.  And, she didn’t need a savior.  Saviors were for those who needed saving from themselves.  The savior myth of a dying god was just another story like Homer’s Iliad.  Her Literature teacher had told her so.

 And, Myrna certainly wasn’t going to waste time bending the knee and genuflecting before someone she couldn’t see and relate to. Besides, there were children in this world who are hurting.  Why would a god who is supposed to be love let such things happen to children?  She wouldn’t let bad things happen to her baby. In fact, she felt she was god enough for Elliot and for herself. Ethan was raised to respect knowledge.  Myrna had steeled him with a good college education. He was well-adjusted and not like his father.

 When the train arrived at the next stop Myrna looked out into the morning darkness and saw only blowing snow under street lights. She didn’t see any other movement.  No cars. No people. After a minute, the train started up again. She heard no one get on the train.

 Looking down from her seat, Myrna was able to see an old woman sitting behind the homeless man.  From the look of her clothes, the woman must have been destitute. She thought how strange to hear no one board the train and yet another passenger was sitting below. She brushed this off as not paying attention to what was happening and returned to my book.

 As the train headed east to the next stop she sat thinking about Ethan’s father. Ten years ago she divorced her son’s father.  She had had enough of the man.  Her son’s father thought himself a woman.  He wanted to live as a woman.  How absurd. Any fool, she thought, knows that DNA has the final word.  Why mess with a genetic constant. Does he think he’s god? 

 At the beginning of their marriage she did tell Ethan’s father that she had a friend who was transgendered but, she had no idea at that time that the children’s father was in the same mold.  As time went on she learned about him and decided that this relationship was not what she wanted.  He wasn’t of any use to her. She would have no part in him.  She didn’t want him. She decided that he was only good for the money he could provide. She told him, “I don’t want you. I want your money.”  She took him to court, divorced him and made him pay for what had become in her eyes a relationship with a freak of nature, a perverted third kind of person. She felt the divorce was the right thing to do:  “bar this miscreant from Myrna and the kids” is what her attorney told the judge.

 The matter was settled as far as Myrna was concerned.  She was not going to embrace “That THING!”  Just thinking about these things again filled her with more icy resolve.  She pulled her coat around her shoulders and returned to the book.

 Thumpety-thump.  Thumpety-thump. Thumpety-thump.

 After fifteen minutes, the train slowed down, pulling up to the next stop. As before, there was no movement, no sound. And, again, she looked around and saw another person now seated on the train.  This time it was a boy of about ten years of age. He sat down with the old woman. In front of them the homeless man sat rocking back and forth.  Myrna’s curiosity was awakened.  Do they let homeless people ride the train on cold winter days? She questioned to herself the sense of letting people ride a train who didn’t appear to have any money to pay for the ride. She thought, “I am paying for my ride and their rides.  Why isn’t the government paying for all of this?  With only a part time job and the monthly child support over, there is barely enough for me to get by. Why doesn’t somebody make this right? “

Except for the rocking tramp, the old woman and the youth the train was empty. Again Myrna wondered: “Is this a government holiday? Am I the only one going to work today?”  She quickly brushed this thought from her mind when she noticed across from her a young man seated, reading a newspaper.  “Where the hell did he come from?”  There hadn’t been any sound except for the train bell clanging and the constant thumpety-thump of the train running down the tracks.  The man appeared normal so Myrna felt better.  She now wished she had some coffee.  She wished her mind was stirred enough to discharge the other passenger phantasms.

 Another stop brought her closer to the city.  As the train came to a complete stop she turned her eyes from her book.  She peered down to the lower level, hoping to see if anyone came on board.  Yet, as before, there was no movement, no new passengers.  She put the book down on her lap.  There, right in front of her, sat a grey-haired woman. Myrna gasped.  The woman sat still, looking forward.  Myrna reached up and touched her shoulder, but there was no response.

 “Excuse me.  Is today a government holiday?” Myrna asked.

 No response.  Myrna then heard a whimper coming from down below.  The waif was now rocking back and forth, crying softly.  With a shudder, Myrna sarcastically wondered “How strange. Is this the train from hell?”  She couldn’t wait to get off the train and get to work.  She needed facts and figures, calculations and foundation plans to straighten her mind.  She looked down at her watch.  The time was 5:40 am!  The battery must have died, she thought.

 Holding her cell phone close to the window for a signal, Myrna called her boss.  His answering machine came on.  The deep voice reassured her.  He was a reasonable man her boss. He was smart and strong.  Well-adjusted.  She left him a voice message saying that she would be a little late.  She hung up and put the cell phone away. Looking up from her purse, she now saw a dozen people on the train’s upper deck: six people were sitting in a row directly in front of her and the frozen older woman. Six other people sat across the aisle sat facing them. No one was talking.  Their faces were dull, eyes barely open.

 Myrna’s heart began pounding.  Fear and anger flushed her face. She liked to be in control of things.  It was time for her to be at the station.  She wanted to get off the train, stretch her legs and get moving.  She needed circulation. She needed some fresh air. She needed to be at her desk with all her things around her just like before.

 The train lurched and then picked up speed.  Myrna leaned back into her seat no longer able to read.  Looking around she saw that every seat was now filled.  People were all around her but no one was talking.  It was deadly silent in the car.

 Thumpety-thump. Thmpety-thump.

 After a minute, the train braked and came to a sudden stop. Myrna turned her head to listen. She hoped the engineer would tell the passengers why the train had stopped. She was anxious to leave this theatre of the absurd.

 Looking through the window she saw a moonless black morning.  Out of habit she looked again at her watch.  5:40 am.  She knew that the train had been running for at least an hour, making the usual stops, and yet the train seemed to be no where near the downtown station. She wondered what the hold up was. She got up and walked down the tightly wound staircase to the first level of the train to see what was going on.

 Inside the coach vestibule, there was no one. No one could be seen in the other half of the coach.  No conductor asked for her ticket.  Myrna looked back into her car and saw the same lifeless people.  Nothing had changed.  It was good to be standing here, she thought, though not really sure that anywhere on this train was good. At that moment the north doors pulled opened and a gush of artic wind swept in.  In came a woman, a tall woman, who looked uncannily familiar.  Myrna thought she had seen those blue eyes and that pensive look somewhere before. Something clicked in Myrna but the thought soon vanished as the woman walked past her into the car where the others sat. 

 “Caution!  The Doors Are About To Close.” The booming voice on speakers warned.

 The tall woman sat down next to the homeless man.  He stopped rocking and sat up.

 Myrna, feeling peeved and not making sense of it all, decided to stay in the vestibule until the train reached the station.  No more foolishness for her, she reasoned, she must stay focused.

 With a loud clanging bell the train pulled into the station.  Myrna stood alone in the vestibule waiting for the doors to pull back. When they did, she stepped down and with a loud bothered sigh of relief said, “Thank God!”

 The station was empty.  The hallways and vendor shops were deserted.  Myrna, instead of being concerned, decided that she was beginning to like the peace and quiet.  She had become adjusted to the situation.  Her two feet felt strong under her.  It felt good and liberating to be walking to work.

 As she walked though the main lobby she felt as if she had left something behind.  An unnerving thought suddenly crossed her mind:  “Those eyes.  That look.  Ethan?  No, I am losing it.  Elliot lives in New York, she reminded herself.  Ethan is well-adjusted.  No. No. Absolutely Not.  And those people.  Did I know them? Haven’t I seen them before?  No.  No way.”  Without a further thought Myrna headed for the street door.

 Outside, wind-whipped snow lashed down empty streets and alleys, the air’s turbulence unleashing howling wraith-like gusts. The normally sun gilt buildings now stood before Myrna as dark and monstrous cyclopean structures.  With head down and jaw set Myrna pushed steadily onward towards work, disregarding the enduring chill she carried with her.

© Sally Paradise, 2011, All Rights Reserved

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