Short Story Contest Entry: Commuter

Today we repost the 3rd place entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest. The contest officially closed on September 15. 

Third place went to long time Redding resident, Writers Forum member, and Edgar-award-winning writer Charlie Price. Charlie won the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery novel in 2011 for The Interrogation of Gabriel James. Charlie and his wife, artist Joan Pechanec, recently relocated to be close to family, but Charlie remains a member of the Writers Forum family.

All submissions will be posted to the website and the Facebook page, and will also be considered submissions to the Writers Forum anthology, River’s Edge, to be published at the end of the year.


COMMUTER

The woman’s name was Arlene. I heard that much before the train arrived at another station and echoes blurred their conversation. Pretty sure she was late thirties, a handsome Asian woman in a charcoal gray suit, high-collared white frilled blouse that peeked through her jacket, sturdy burgundy pumps polished to a luster. Administrator, I guessed. The man beside her looked younger by ten years with narrow waist to match the Italian-cut suit. Shadow of beard on a strong chin, eyes the color of slate. A pretty boy. I hated him at first glance.

When the train left the station, I could hear again.

He said she was making a mistake.

Her, it’s my mistake to make.

Him, you lose me, you lose fifteen top clients.

She didn’t react.

He, I’ll change my locks, no more beck and call, no more balcony view, no more Blue Label. I may not delete the pictures.

That brought her head up. Flawless skin. I couldn’t avert my eyes.

“Pictures . . . There were no pictures.”

“You sleep naked. I couldn’t it pass up.”

Her cheeks went from light brown to scarlet and she backhanded him hard enough to start a nosebleed.

I knew he wouldn’t forget that. Ever.

She gathered her overcoat and briefcase, stood, and crossed the commuter aisle to an empty seat nearer the middle of the car. Closer to me. Now if I leaned slightly to my right I could see her in more detail. The back of her left hand was dripping blood on her coat. Her third finger, no wedding band.

I switched my attention to the man. Both nose and lip were damaged. Maybe she cut her hand on his teeth. His face had gone dark in a grimace and he was searching his coat pockets. I didn’t think gun until the second before he produced his handkerchief. Of course. A young exec wouldn’t shoot his colleague? supervisor? on a packed Westchester train. Probably wouldn’t shoot her at all. Instead, he would undermine her in an untraceable manner. Leak her business confidentialities, poison her reputation. He wouldn’t farm out the pictures until she was already tumbling out the door. Pity, they would say. She’d broken the glass ceiling, now it was falling on her. He took out his cell phone, but I don’t think he was making a call. I think he was buying time, hand near face, waiting while his nose stopped dripping.

I wondered if they got off at the same stop. What would happen then?

They didn’t. He left immediately when the train pulled into Scarsdale. I bet myself he didn’t live there. Bet he just wanted more privacy while he put himself together. I tried to watch her in short enough segments that she didn’t feel my gaze.

She disappointed me by getting off two stops later at White Plains. I was twenty minutes farther north in Mt. Kisco but I got off behind her and scanned the unfamiliar area as we walked down a brick platform. The station’s outdoor waiting area was huge, the adjacent parking lot mostly obscured by the railroad buildings. Odds were, she’d driven. I’d have to grab a taxi to have any chance of following. I needed luck and spectacular timing. I wasn’t worried. About that. If I wanted to, I could probably follow her in my car on another workday. But I was worried. What in the hell did I think I was doing? When had curiosity become surveillance.

Was it about the woman’s safety? Not exactly, even though I knew the younger dickhead would try to get even. Was it her loveliness? That played a part. Did it boil down to my loneliness? Divorce makes an idiot of most men. Being left for another man, woman in my case, saddened me. I couldn’t decide whether it embarrassed me. Some catch I was. Managed to turn off my mate to the male gender. But I knew that wasn’t true . . . wasn’t how it worked. What I had managed to do was to so utterly and completely misread my wife, that I’d never had any idea who she was or what she wanted. She and I weren’t that young. I was just that stupid. I assumed a good job and money and security and upscale dates to spendy restaurants and concerts was a marriage. That and good sex. I see I was probably alone in thinking the sex was good. Did she fake her orgasms like I sometimes did mine? Probably.

Right now, I knew my behavior was somewhere on a long continuum between foolish and weird, a short continuum between criminal and pathetic. I wanted to help. Not her. Me. Magically, I wanted her to need me. I wanted her to validate my prowess, appreciate my protective nature. Right. Even I who’d just made that up didn’t believe it. But I hedged in one area. I told myself my impulse was definitely more complicated than an atavistic desire to get in her skirt.

Okay, yes, I was ashamed of my motives, but that didn’t stop me. Besides, I lived alone now. No one examined my ethics or cared if I was late for dinner.

When she walked around the corner of the station and made a right into the parking area, I sprinted for the closest taxi, wondering what story I might concoct if the cabby became suspicious. It came to me as I piled in the back seat.

“I know this sounds strange but my sister’s ex has been stalking her. Restraining order’s useless. I follow her home to make sure he doesn’t intercept her. Do you mind?”

The driver in a khaki jacket and Met’s cap half turned to me. He was gray-faced, stocky and round like my favorite green grocer. He’d obviously had a bad experience with shaving sometime in his youth.

“I should pull over if he stops her?” His voice was raspy but I didn’t smell cigarettes. “You want ta jump out, you gotta pay now. A yard. It don’t take that, I give you change.”

I fumbled for a credit card while I tried to keep track of the woman. She’d walked behind a tall van.

“Stop here for a sec,” I told him.

He could see me straining to find her.

“You don’t know your sister’s car, huh? Stalker? Fuck the money, get outta my cab.”

Wait. … She was going to borrow a friend’s ride so she’d be harder to track.”

“Get out.”

“Two hundred!”

He picked up his mic. “Dispatch, I got a nine-eleven at WP Metro—”

“I’m gone!” . . . he was still speaking to somebody as I bailed and crossed the wide street, slinking between slow-moving cars on my way back to the station. I sat on a bench near the tracks to look like one more working stiff waiting for the next southbound. Just to make sure, I turned my sportcoat inside out and rolled up the sleeves. Average Joe, me.

Boarded the 6:45 with no problem. Took a window seat and a deep breath. A deeper one when the train left the station. I took out my cell, put it away. Stood, remembered these trains had no club car. Sat again.

Why this woman? What would an attractive professional like her want with a middle-aged ex-cop? Pure chance that my seat was close enough to hear their drama. Close enough I got nosy and didn’t want pretty boy to get over. So, I was a victim of fate. I was going to protect her, comfort her, reassure her. She would be suspicious, then grateful, then impressed. She’d want to know me better. Good Samaritan, me. She’d understand why I’d gone for the big score in Oakland and gotten my partner killed. She’d forgive me for losing my job; for losing my wife and daughter to a gas-fire divorce. She’d overlook that two months ago I was in a California jail. She’d grasp why I’d moved to New York and be unconcerned that my new job didn’t pay enough to afford a residence hotel. She’d see a diamond in the rough. She’d be indebted by my rescue and ignore the poss— . . . Oh. Wait. I didn’t rescue her.

Guess the cabby was right, garden-variety stalker.

“Are you okay?”

I turned to the gray-haired woman sitting beside me.

“You groaned,” she explained.

I nodded. Tried to smile. “Work,” I said.

“It’ll do that,” she said, glancing at my face to see if I was listening. “I’m retired.” A half smile. “I say that, but I go into the city three days a week and watch my granddaughter. Like a job, but better.” The whole smile finally arrived.

“Yeah,” I said, hoping that would end it.

“Where you getting off?”

Hey, right here was someone I could protect and serve but I didn’t want to. So the good Samaritan thing didn’t wash. I was lonely and the cure was finding someone to want me. Want me, not pity me. I was doing that for myself.

I looked past her, out the window, to the countryside racing by. The hardwood trees, the shady two-lane that paralleled the tracks, the occasional white-framed houses probably built before these rails became a commuter line. It was scenery. Pleasant, maybe even charming, but right now I was missing the high desert. My pickup. My badge. The Corral with cozy women, cheap beer and fat burgers. Yeah, all that and my daughter.

“You’re groaning again.”

“Sorry.” I looked up the aisle hoping to see an excuse to walk away.

“I had those days,” she said.

“I can’t talk about it.” Probably too abrupt, but effective.

“I used to be like that,” she said, looking out the window herself. “I was a closed book. Nearly cost me my health.”

Okay, not effective. I got it. Karma. I was going to give the business woman help whether she wanted it or not, and now I was on the receiving end. I closed my eyes to make the old woman disappear.

“You can tell me all about it,” she said. “I’m not getting off till Katonah.”

Cop training. Extinguish it. Don’t feed a crazy conversation. Don’t say anything.

“I guess I passed it on to my son,” she said, now looking at her lap. “He shot himself.”

There was nothing she could have said to make me stay with this conversation. Except that. I had been wondering the same thing. This is a shit life I’m living. Time to eat the gun?

“I felt wobbly for months.” She had found a limp handkerchief in her purse. “It was over for him, but it pulled the heart out of the rest of us. Killed my husband. Stroke. My daughter’s never been the same, and the awful thing is, I’ve been thinking about it lately. I mean, I love my daughter. And my granddaughter, but I’m hating living. That’s actually what I thought of when I heard you groaning.”

I was underwater. Couldn’t see the surface. Out of breath. Watching the bubbles float up . . . I fought with myself. I did. Don’t speak. Get up. Get off. Get the next train. This old lady was sick. I knew the feeling. Wasted, hopeless. Was there anything I hadn’t fucked up in the last twenty years?

“I’m not going to,” she said, reassuring me. “It’s too chickenshit.”

That choice of words surprised me and I turned to her. Cop face. My best scowl. Scare mask. “Who do you think I am!”

She didn’t flinch. “A sad man,” she said.

I didn’t have to go into the office the next day but I did. I made several hours of unproductive phone calls, ate a thin sandwich on a park bench for lunch. Got to thinking. An extra-added attraction? I might see the businesswoman if I took the same evening train.

But no payoff. She wasn’t on the train. The pretty boy was, his lip still swollen. He read the Journal and got off at Scarsdale again.

I didn’t see or sit next to the older woman, but I could remember every word she’d said. Could still smell her sour talcum. Could see the spots on her hands. The way she’d arranged the scarf to cover her neck. Could see her at her son’s grave. At her husband’s grave. Could see her at a coffee-stained table, coloring with her granddaughter.

Last night I’d cleaned and oiled my service weapon. Set it by my bedside. Left it there this morning. Wondered if tonight’s train ride home would give me ammunition to change my mind.


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s