I hate coffee, dirty shit-water. Not as much as I hate the subway at five a.m. Stinking sleeping homeless and miserable coffee-shop slaves like me. I press play. Every morning I listen to the recordings on my phone. My friends say delete, delete, delete. I’ll never heal. I’ll never get over you. My favorites are the acappella ones. Just you singing to me. My requests. Bob Dylan covers. Hallelujah. That one we wrote together about the ducks on the Hudson. I listen on repeat.
For the longest time I thought there was nothing harder than leaving you sleeping in my bed to get up for my shitty job and make coffee for a ton of people who aren’t you. What’s actually harder is waking every day in a confused panic, because you’re not there.
With you in my ears it’s almost okay, the early-morning hour, the bullshit commute, even the going-nowhere coffee-shop gig. Things are deceivingly bearable. The way most things are when you’re in love.
Four stops to go. Someone that could look like you gets on the train. Of course it isn’t you. It never is. For a distracted second there is only silence in my headphones, as if this moment is a fucking cruel set-up. And then I hear it. It’s a faraway sound, way in the static background, but it’s immediately familiar. Right in the silence after you sing, “don’t think twice, it’s all right.” I normally skip this bit. I don’t like hearing you lie to me.
I track back and listen again. Still there.
What’s harder than waking alone, harder than listening to you sing me love songs a year after you dumped me, is hearing my own laughter, hearing the sound of myself, happy.
Jennifer Chardon is currently at work on a novel, Chasing Summer. The title will probably change. Jennifer has spent much of the last six years backpacking, journal writing and staying up late. She recently bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii because she refuses to live another winter in New York.
I thought about how each time you moved, you left behind more and more: the antique furniture; the soft, faded T-shirts; the garbage and then the garbage cans themselves, until maybe one day you were left with only what you could carry on your back, and what was packed inside your own skin.Emma Straub, “Fly-Over State,” Other People We Married
by J.R. Rogers
Peter and his wife Mimi had been riding for the last two days. They were on a train from Los Angeles to New York.
They slipped away from the coast just as the afternoon rush was building. Mimi, who worked downtown, met Peter in the cavernous station still in her work clothes. She looked distraught, dragging her heavy suitcase across the concourse toward him.
Now, it was nine o’clock and black outside and they had settled into a routine which to them was defined only by sitting, eating, and sleeping. Their first night out, Peter felt the train slow, stop, and then sit still on the tracks. There was no sound. He struggled to his elbows. Peter could not see his hand in front of his face. The darkness in their roomette was as thick and complete as a tomb.
He looked up at the underside of her bunk. There was no response. Peter tried again, this time sitting up more completely, raising his voice. When he finally stood and reached up to touch her shoulder, he found only a warm spot on the mattress. Peter grew frantic, irrational, caught up in a fear he could not explain. Groping in the dark, he dressed quickly and exited their little compartment. Moments later, Peter found her, wrapped in a blanket, sitting alone in the observation car. The overhead lights had not been shut off completely, only dimmed.
“Mimi, it’s the middle of the night.”
“I didn’t mean to wake you. I’m sorry. The motion of the train. I didn’t feel it anymore.” She drew the blanket closer around her.
“I guess it woke me, too,” he admitted.
“Look outside. The moon, the landscape. Look how beautiful it is.” She invited his gaze.
Peter could see the outline of their faces reflected in the cold glass and the little orbs left by the touch of her fingers hovering in front of him. He watched himself sit beside her. Beyond the window a gigantic buttery moon hung suspended over the flat landscape like a brilliant bulb. Despite the black night, there was so much for his eyes to capture that for a moment he saw nothing. Peter had no idea where they were, though there was contrast enough for him to make out a meandering dirt road snaking off into a vast, uncluttered plain. There was a crooked line of telephone poles lining the road to one side. Otherwise, there was not a thing to see.
He curled up to her, listening to her breathe, and for a while, neither spoke. From underneath her blanket, Peter felt Mimi’s hand reach over to find his and they sat there together in the dark. Sometime later, he felt the coach jerk softly, then slowly the train gathered speed, though the moonscape did not change. Peter wondered whether he was dreaming. He didn’t feel awake, but only semi-conscious, afloat in a dream-like void.
Then, quietly, without speaking, as if comforted because they were again underway, Mimi stirred and stood and they went off to bed. Mimi led the way, trailing her blanket like a child while Peter followed, holding on to her in the narrow corridor because he worried she might go back to sleep.
J. R. Rogers has been writing short stories for many years while pursuing an eclectic career in management consulting, aircraft manufacturing, and electronics. His first short story was published in 2011 in Steam Ticket: A Third Coast Review. He has also published two e-book novels, The Counterfeit Consul and Leopold’s Assassin, and is at work on a third. Follow his tweets about books, literature, writers, and writing @authorjrrogers.
We took a sleeper to Amsterdam from I-don’t-know-where because France derailed us with its wines and cognacs and armagnacs. And girls with Gauloises. I know we paid in Guilders (there was no Euro then) through a small opening at a small window to a shrunken woman with spectacles who then said, “Welcome,” but more in the “welcome to Europe” way than the polite response one usually gives after being thanked. Halfway through the night, the train stopped I-don’t-know-where, Utrecht maybe, Arnhem maybe, Tilburg, Eindhoven, maybe neither, but it picked up an armed band of English hooligans high on their team’s win earlier in the day, who stormed into the sleeper and started banging on anything that was made of matter—rattling, shaking, looking to destroy—all the time yelling in fascinating unison: MAN-CHES-TER! MAN-CHES-TER! They roused everyone to their feet and for one terrifying moment I thought it was 1942 and we were being transported to Dachau. Like cattle. But as suddenly and violently as the bald heads invaded the car, the wave receded down the line. Jesus, what was that, a man with crusty eyes said in solid English. Football. It brings people together.
Alex M. Pruteanu emigrated to the United States from Romania in 1980. Since then, he has worked as a day laborer, film projectionist, music store clerk, journalist, TV director, and freelance writer. A staff writer for The Lit Pub, Alex also works as the Managing Editor of an education assessment software system at North Carolina State University. His novella, Short Lean Cuts, is available in paperback at Amazon and as an e-book at Barnes & Noble.
by Sarah Malone
On the twenty-eighth floor of a building now long demolished, Dorothy Zimmer returned to her desk and found a girl with the new puffed sleeves and white lace all around the base of her high collar. She was fixing her hair at Dorothy’s hand-mirror. She had the scent of the El on a summer afternoon.
“What are you doing here?” Dorothy said.
“I type,” the girl said. “On twenty-nine. Two hundred words a minute.”
A mole, glossy like new iron, clean-edged as a new bolt, showed behind her ear. Dorothy fancied a gold sheen to the girl’s skin. The girl opened a shallow tin with a fine line drawing embossed onto its top, of a girl dressed the way she was. Inside was something cream-colored, smooth and concave like an unburned candle.
“Coco butter,” the girl said. “Here. Taste.”
It tasted of pantries, preparations, cookies. The girl held Dorothy’s wrist and rubbed in a small patch. Dorothy was aware of a cool barrier to the air, thin as gold foil.
Going home, she stood on the El platform where she could see the towers around Wall Street, focusing and defocusing them between the shine of her new fingers. By the time an uptown train stopped, she fancied the gold had reached her shoulder. A fancy, no more; but no harm. Indeed, why not? Steadying herself to sit, she felt her arm light and strong, and flexed it as her brother did with his barbells. Flexing felt like what it was supposed to do. In her belly gears engaged, a belt whirred. She sat very straight, facing crosstown, and in the hot tenement stretches between the shadows tall enough to cross the tracks she felt the barred sun in her cheekbones. A woman opposite drew a boy and a girl tightly to her skirts.
“Hello, children,” Dorothy said.
“Henry, Charlotte.” The woman pressed the boy and girl’s faces to her lap.
Dorothy found herself unable to locate the word to describe the woman’s blinking. There was one, an exact word.
She got off one stop early. Walking up Eighty-Forth Street, her legs did not feel tired. They did not feel anything. Her mother was in the parlor, looking at a pattern-book.
“You seem happy,” her mother said. “There’s a spring in your step.”
Dorothy heard a punch card drop into a metal slot, behind her left breast from its sound. The slot registered the number of holes in the card. Fifty; the shape of happy. The card slotted back and another card slotted in.
“Yes,” Dorothy said. “There is a spring.”
In her room she dusted and organized her books by the colors of the human visible spectrum. She was aware of lenses so thin as to be invisible, sliding across her optical apparatus. Her mother knocked.
“Dinner,” her mother said. “How tidy your room looks.”
“I would like to read,” Dorothy said. “I have a great deal to study.”
She slept standing. Or not quite slept: the belt wound down. She was aware of a cooling. She read the Encyclopedia Britannica, one volume with each optical apparatus. Whatever was happening to her, perhaps she could become a professor. Or a secret agent. Or a navigator on a trans-Atlantic steamer. The bolt behind her ear vibrated a little. Card T5 slotted into read position. Thirty-five holes—hope. Card T6—fear.
The hall outside her room was unlit. Her parents and brother had gone to bed. She could hear their breathing. She could not hear her own. Two lenses locked in place across her optical apparatus and by the moon in the skylight she was able to register the polished wood banister. In the parlor she read the New York World and the Times, the classifieds—situations for young ladies.
Something was wrong, something missing, some procedure no longer being triggered.
She re-registered the papers, letter by letter, a five hundred point nine percent increase in efficiency over her previous input, which her chronometer registered as a two hundred percent increase over estimates of previous, biologically-tooled readings.
No deficiencies. All operations were proceeding optimally.
In the morning, on the platform, she marked a minimum three-foot distance from the hem of her skirts to the next passenger. On the train, she sat at the end of one bench, and the no one took the seat beside her.
At her desk mirror, she fixed her hair to fully cover her right rear cranium bolt.
“Ah, Dorothy,” her boss said. “Excellent. There’s a new girl on twenty-two. I trust you know how to proceed.”
“Correct,” Dorothy intoned. “I am familiar with the routine.”
In her chest cavity, to the left of her spinal cable, where everything should have been dry, something dripped onto a flywheel, and the flywheel flew, in error or excellence, and to what purpose, she would have to determine. Not immediately; no need. Nearly half her daily chronometer was, as yet, undesignated.
She could locate no instructions concerning limits.
by Dinah Serritelli
A Caucasian male has been found by The Old Mill railway line, a line not used in over thirty years.
No identification was found other than a well-worn Bible, on the fly leaf an inscription reading “To my precious son, remember God loves you and so do I. ~Momma.” It was dated 1952.
Death was natural causes, age and hard-living appearing to be a big factor.
Anyone who might have information please notify your local Police Department
to contact the Sheriff here at Morrison County.
Dinah Serritelli does quite a bit of scribbling. Keeps me off the streets and out of trouble, she says. “Morrison County Local News” is part of her fictional newspaper series.
by Daniel Schafer
The man stood in the posh underground at Harvard Square, deliberately placing himself below a murmuring fan that jostled his shaggy hair, causing it to halfheartedly whip his brow in a way that was not threatening and only mildly annoying.
Those first few minutes at the station were typically pleasant. The thoughtfully crafted brick walkway made him think of what a cobblestone street in 19th century London must have been like, or the fancy courtyard that lead to Emily Gilmore’s famous front door.
A woman strummed her guitar to the beat of a synthesized drum track and happily bounced as she recited Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way.” It was early, his mind was still lost in a morning haze, but her heavy Chinese accent, wide smile and comically phony synthesizer conjured memories of the first time the man heard the song years before. A sunny day in June. Early evening. He was about to leave his house to run with some friends from school before swimming laps or perhaps playing water polo. Afterward he’d watch Gilligan’s Island reruns and devour two or three bowls of spaghetti his mother had saved for him. The live music really was his favorite part of the commute. This song in particular made him smile. The man thought he’d give her a dollar if his legs weren’t so exhausted. For some reason his legs always felt drained after a hot, sticky night of little sleep at the hands of the Boston humidity.
With each passing minute the string of tight, knee length skirts and tie-less collared shirts swelled and became more of a hoard, edging the man closer to the yellow safety mat above the tracks. The wall read “Danger: Third Rail” but the pebbles cradling the steel below looked inviting compared to the raised, crowded platform. He imagined stretching out between the tracks, nestling in to the pebbles, and happily dozing off to the continuing music and the faint cries of braking trains. The man considered himself lucky that he hadn’t grown accustomed to his life as a part-time sardine.
The telltale gust of refraction blew in to the station, overpowering the kind fan’s efforts to cool him, and signaled that it would soon be time to shove his way in to the Red Line train bound for Park Street. It would soon be time to reach over a middle-aged woman’s shoulder and sturdy himself on the pole using only his index, middle finger and thumb. It would soon be time to feel his bottom rhythmically tap another man’s in time with the rock of the train and smell his body odor as he reached toward the ceiling in order to secure his own all-important stability, despite his glands’ effects on his fellow commuters. It would soon be time to cradle his messenger bag in his free arm and hope that a stumbling rider wouldn’t damage his coveted, fragile peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The doors parted in a not-so-symmetrical manner, and three rushing passengers spilled from the already bloated car. The man didn’t look back, but over the rapid-fire instructions blaring out of the PA system overhead, he could hear the woman: You Can Go Your Own Way… And he wondered aloud if this was a bored artist’s attempt at subway irony.
“The song isn’t even about traveling.”
The doors closed.
Daniel F. Schafer hails from the green side of Washington state and earned his MA in English at Washington State University (located on the not-so-green side) in 2010. After a twenty-five minute bout with a runway modeling career, he resolved to rejoin the human race and devote his mid-twenties to exploring New England. Daniel now lives in Allston, MA and one day dreams of owning a 1966-or-older VW Bug.
by Christopher Allen
Conductor’s Note: The following flash fiction was originally published at Mel Bosworth’s Flash Fire 500 in 2009.
Jessie wasn’t the best of readers, but he decided he had to give it a whirl. On the train last week, he’d fallen in love with the literate look of the woman who, with her nose in a novel, ended up sitting across from him. That afternoon he went out and swiped the first book he saw.
The next morning at precisely 8:22 he boarded the train, took his seat across from The Reader, as he now called her, and opened his book to page 103 where he imagined a love story called The Readers in Car 103:
“Good morning,” he’d greet. Or maybe just “Hiya.”
“Good morning,” she’d reply. And she’d smile.
Jessie, however, couldn’t muster the courage to greet. Thrumming fingers on page 103, he drank in The Reader reading. Her eyes, lowered to the book in her thinly veiled lap, were lashed half moons in the window of Jessie’s night train. Her hands, vanilla Dreamsicles dripping on her cornflower-blue dress, dog-eared her sticky pages.
He missed his stop and dropped his book. The moment he reached to retrieve it, The Reader crossed her legs and moaned “Oh God!” A heady breeze of blood powdered Jessie senseless for a page, but he recovered and returned to The Readers on Car 103:
“I love you,” he’d confess. Or maybe “Let’s fuck.”
“You’re worthy,” she’d say, wiping the drool from his lower lip.
But Jessie was neither romantic nor crude, so he continued to catalogue The Reader’s every freckle and curve. Sweat drops at her temples glistened like intellect. Four lines on her forehead outed a serious, experienced soul. Her strawberry mouth puckered a thousand silent kisses towards the words on her page.
Hungry for the letters of her lap, Jessie’s lips parted, mimicking each buss. The faster she gobbled, the faster Jessie mime-gobbled. But try as he might, he could never taste the words on her pages 168, 169, 170 …
She smacked her book shut and looked up.
Jessie’s shocked eyes shot holes through page 103. He felt The Reader’s eyes caress and crawl in and out of him. She’d see he was stout, bearded, blond and nothing if not a devoted reader. She’d surely notice the literariness in his book, House Plants for the Homeless. She’d sense his smell: the earthy, bacterial Renaissance Man. If she was smiling when he looked up, he’d have to wolf her down.
With a coquette’s eye-batting gentleness and the courage of a bear, he raised the windows to his soul and gazed into hers. Then, like a sudden sea mist, came the burning realization, the unbearable pain. He pinched his eyes and regretted the misreading.
“I’ll spray you again!” a woman’s voice came. “Someone get this smelly creep off me, or I’ll fuck him up good.”
Christopher Allen's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in places like (and very much unlike) Wilderness House Literary Review, The Legendary, and BootsnAll Travel. He rides the train every day and writes about his obsession with traveling at imustbeoff.blogspot.com.