Missing the Train

In a hurry, always, I stuffed the last piece of the daily in the trash and ran to catch the next train, whenever it may come. I felt the floorboards shake a bit, and crescendo, and finally the train shot across the platform and stopped sharply to pile us on. Clothes stuck heavily to our bodies and we were short of breath. It was the Northern Indiana commuter train, not the train I usually boarded, but it would stop, I assumed, at my station.

I rolled the coming night over in my mind: first, home, stopping to check the free box outside the bookstore. I would shower and then hurry to the laundromat, grab a sandwich, iron my suit and shirts, speed into bed, and still my caffeinated heart long enough to trick myself into sleep, for the next day of work would be an important one and I would need seven hours.

So it was to go, and though never quite satisfactory, this is my life. But we don’t plan on making mistakes, or getting on the wrong train and speeding off in wrong directions. I was, of course, on the wrong train, the conductor informed me: headed fast toward Gary, Michigan City, and South Bend. I pleaded with her to make an emergency stop, and as she explained there was nothing she could do for legal reasons and so forth, the appropriate stop, and my plans, blew by the westward window of the train.

Sometime between eighteen and twenty I had decided, after too many frustrated minutes in traffic and lines, that I would breathe and live also in minutes I do not own; I would somehow squeeze life out of the compressed hours that pass unnoticed as we wait for moments of action.

Waiting itself, I decided, is a skill. Passing time anyone can do, and I am far too proficient at it, and think casually across years in both directions. Time passes well enough on its own without my urging. But waiting – who, in our time, can wait? Financiers finger Blackberries with eager eyes until the morrow’s opening bell; sleepless mothers lie watchful for the children to come home; lonely men walk in shadows a block or two off the main drag, needing appetizers while they wait for love.

So I nodded, swallowed. Scenting embarrassment, the passengers in the seats around me, newspapers opened, counterclocked their iPod wheels to better eavesdrop on the scene. I thanked the conductor for her kindness and asked for advice; get off at 130th, she said, and wait. The northbound should come in an hour and a half.

130th came quickly and I stepped off the train with less resolution than usual, for once uncertain of where in ten minutes I would be, and why. The platform was new, aluminum, efficient; the sound of weary homebound shoes, and I alone (I felt) had no particular place to be, no dinner on the table.

But the station door was unlocked, though six in the evening had passed. And there was a piece of home in the simple cafĂ© lazily closing inside. I sat at the bar, hearth and altar of the lonely, and ordered a tea. I loosened my tie, and the boneweary woman eyed me with suspicion and said she’d be closing in twenty minutes.

Then I looked at my phone and scrolled through the names. For some, the distance between us could be measured by days and stops on the line, for others years and compass-points – but I knew better than to linger long, and put the phone away.

There was no business especially urgent about any call I might have made, and it was in the area of dinnertime. And anyway, to pace until reminded of some matter that cannot be put off, some call that must be made – that may make the time pass. But it is not waiting. Waiting is a direct, head-on, stubborn standing up to gnawing despairs and longings of all sorts. Waiting is strong, monastic, manly – and it, damn it, was what I would do.

So I waited, writing without direction in my notebook. No events to analyze but the setting of the summer sun, red and heavy behind an industrial haze. Nothing but nonsense to fill the page: quick notes with bullet points, as I prefer when my life has stepped outside its narrative structure.

I waited. Slowly, slowly, the noise in my mind began to quiet and the first hints of satisfaction and rest settled in. And, when I could say so and mean it – after much waiting indeed – I wrote that I was pleased to have taken the wrong train, pleased that no laundry was done and that I would wear these socks again next day, and not a person but I would know.

Ryan McCarl grew up in Muskegon, MI, before attending the University of Chicago, where he worked as a columnist and editorial board member for the school newspaper. He has published articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Colorado Daily News, and The Muskegon Chronicle. He enjoys language and has studied in Japan and Italy. McCarl still resides in Chicago and is the manager of the University of Chicago Bookstore. He is currently working on his book, which explores the religious themes in the writings of Czeslaw Milosz.