By Kylie Goetz
The old man stepped from the platform onto the train. His wrinkled suit hung loosely on his withered frame. He felt like Sisyphus. We’re born, we live, we love. And for what? We all end up vulture food like Prometheus in the end.
He shuffled down the aisle looking for an empty seat. The train was crowded. Every step further into the compartment was a chore. A few rows back there was a girl sitting by herself, young, pretty, but with dark circles under her eyes. She looked up and saw him coming towards her. She smiled a resigned half smile and picked up her backpack, leaned down and shoved it under the seat in front of her. She obviously wasn’t overjoyed, but did it anyway. He shuffled closer, using the tops of the seats along the way to steady his progress. “Thank you,” he said in a gravelly bass as he maneuvered his body into the now vacant seat.
“No problem,” Susan said quietly. The old man sat, smelling of aftershave and baby powder. As soon as he was settled, she leaned down again and unzipped the bag, pulled out a book and turned slightly away. Susan hadn’t wanted to move her bag but force of habit and an ingrained sense of etiquette compelled. The book, however, was a ruse; a defense against intrusions. I hope he doesn’t talk to me, she thought. She stared at the page in front of her, not comprehending. The words could have been written in Greek for all she knew. She tried to focus but she could hear the old man next to her breathing. Her own grandfather had breathed like that, she thought, wheezy and broken. He’d been a wonderful man; compassionate, considerate, caring. Not like Mark.
Her grandfather would never have treated her grandmother like a disease. Never would have told her that she was a dirty whore for getting pregnant. That it couldn’t have been his. To get rid of it.
Peter leaned back in the uncomfortable, thinly-padded seat feeling the full weight of his eighty-five years. His back ached. Everything ached. Not long ago, people would remark on how sprightly he was. That’s the word they would use, sprightly. Like he was a damn fairy, he thought. Still, he preferred that to the looks he’d gotten yesterday, like he was an old dog that should be euthanized, put out of its misery. For its own good, of course.
He was taking the train back home, to an empty house now. His black suit would be placed back in the closet, most likely not be seen until it was put on him for his own funeral. The kids asked him to stay, had discussed “his options,” talked of retirement communities and nursing homes. Kindly meant, he knew, but he would rather die first. If Sartre was right and hell was other people, then the deepest circle of hell would involve being surrounded with all those other sick old people, reminded of his age and infirmity every second of every day. No. He would wait out the end in his own house, damn the kids and their opinions.
He missed the days when his children had talked to him as opposed to talking around him. They spoke to each other about him as if he wasn’t there. As though he didn’t know what they were saying. A lot doesn’t work anymore, but my damn hearing’s still fine, Peter thought. He could hear the static crackling of the station announcer hurrying people stragglers on to the train, the rustling of that newspaper the man in the row ahead was reading, the girl next to him shifting in her seat.
Susan was fidgety as she stared out the window at the almost empty platform. She held the book in her hands slightly upwards, the pages still unturned. She couldn’t believe she was leaving. That she’d never see Mark again. Mark had thrown a wad of money at her, but she used her own. She’d gone by herself, walked into the clinic and asked for an abortion. She could still smell the antiseptic, the slightly sickening smell of the wilting flowers in the waiting room. Lilies, she thought, how appropriate. Still, it was just a clump of cells. That’s all it was, she thought. It wasn’t anything yet, and with me for a mother, it never would be.
Her own very Catholic mother had disowned her. Tightened her hard, thin mouth as she’d ordered Susan to get out. “Baby killer. Abomination. No child of mine.” Her father would have put in his two cents if he’d been sober long enough. She shouldn’t have told them, but she’d been so distraught it had all come pouring out. Sickened with herself, abandoned by all, she’d taken the money Mark had given her and used it to buy this ticket, to book into a hostel, to get away. Oh God, she prayed, let one of them (preferably Mark, God) come running up the platform, begging me to come home, to marry him, to beg for my forgiveness and let it all be as it was.
Peter sighed as the train pulled out of the station. Home, he thought. He’d have to tidy up when he got there. That was the first thing. He thought that Betty had kept all the cleaning products out by the washing machine, but he’d have to check. The washing machine, that was another thing he’d have to learn to use. He hadn’t done his own washing in over fifty years. Well, he’d just ask Margaret next door how to use it. If he asked his kids, they’d only take it as a sign that he was somehow incompetent, an excuse to put him away. Lock him up with all the other old geezers. To hell with that. Let me die in my own home, surrounded by reminders of Betty, her knitting still by the faded floral print armchair. And memories of happier times; the day we found out she was pregnant with David, and then Lizzie, then Joe. The days before we found out about the cancer eating away at her insides. Before we went up to the city, to the big hospital with its fancy doctors and false hopes.
The scenery unfurled past the window; the congestion of the city, then the factories and smoke of industry, lastly the countryside. South, down the coast, and then into their sleepy little town. Not much there besides the university and the stores supplying it.
After an hour or so of staring at the seat back just ahead of him and trying to think of all the things he’d need to do for himself now, Peter heard a soft moan from the seat next to him. The girl was staring out the window, eyes glazed over as silent tears rolled down her white cheeks.
Susan hated crying in public. She’d held out so long, sure that if she made it on to the train without sobbing she would be fine. She hadn’t thought about the hours with nothing to do but reminisce and wish. Wish that things had been different, that she’d found a better way to tell him, or to have not told him at all. Never told anyone. Just taken care of it and let things go on as if nothing had changed.
Peter didn’t want to intrude but she looked so like Betty had once, or like the girls he’d taught so many years ago. A gesture, he thought. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. Betty had embroidered it with his name and a fleur de lis. It was clean and neatly pressed, in sharp contrast with his suit, he thought, noticing the wrinkles, wishing he didn’t look such a mess. He shoved the white cotton square over towards the girl. Trying to say with his gesture that he wasn’t interrupting, didn’t want to become involved, just helping out a bit.
It was hard with girls he thought. His own daughter, Lizzie, was a mystery to him and he’d been married to the same woman for almost sixty years. Besides, Betty had hardly been indicative of the whole sex. She’d been a saint, miraculous, not like other women at all. And when he’d started teaching there hadn’t been any girls in the classes. Of course, by the time he retired, twenty years ago, there were so many girls. Generally not crying though. A few tears over a late paper or a poor grade, maybe. None of them quite as miserable, as fragile, as this young thing next to him.
The hankie intruded into Susan’s consciousness, jarring her out of her desolation. Oh Christ, Susan thought. “Thanks. I’m okay, though.” she mumbled, ashamed of being caught out, blubbering in public.
“Go on,” said the man shaking the hankie a bit, “Take it. Besides, if you’re okay then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” He smiled at her wryly, as if he knew how corny he sounded. In that wrinkled face, gentle eyes peered at her with compassion, and he was obviously just trying to be nice. Susan decided to accept. Nobody else had noticed her crying yet. Maybe if she cleaned up a bit, no one would. It wouldn’t do to show up at the hostel with bloodshot eyes and mascara streaks. She gingerly took the handkerchief, taking care not to actually touch him as she did so.
“No really,” she said, dabbing her cheeks gently, hoping that she wasn’t getting much makeup on the very white square. She couldn’t believe anything would make her feel better but she did, if just a bit. “I’m just overreacting. It’s just…leaving’s a bit tough,” she mumbled.
“Ah.” Peter thought he understood. It must be a young man. He vaguely remembered Lizzie crying over various boys, locking herself in her room for days on end in the turbulence of adolescence. He’d always let Betty handle it, she was the one adept at emotional things. He stuck to discussing the news of the day or the results of the match or the books the kids were reading. Still, he felt he should say something to lighten the mood. Some pearl of wisdom maybe. She looked so distraught. He leaned in conspiratorially, “Whoever he is, he’s not worth it. Trust me. We’re all bastards.”
It seemed so incongruous coming from this wrinkled, courtly, ancient man that Susan laughed. “Don’t I know it. But…there’s knowing and knowing, you know?”
He nodded. As he did so, Susan felt, if only for a moment, like someone was on her side. After feeling so isolated, for so long, his kindness was a balm on her aching heart. She wanted to repay him somehow, so she offered her name. “I’m Susan. Susan Fitzgerald.”
The old man replied, “Nice to make your acquaintance. I’m Peter. Dr. Peter Phillips. So, Susan, are you going away to school?”
“No, just going to visit some friends,” Susan lied.
Well, that’s not the way to make a fresh start, she thought, which is the whole point of this move. Besides for some reason she felt as if she could share a morsel of the truth, if not the whole thing, so she corrected herself. “Actually, getting away from some friends. Well…not friends after all.” She smiled a bit and felt her eyes watering again so tried to make a joke. “And you, going away to school?”
“No, going home. I was just in town for a few days.” He sighed. This poor girl already felt so bad. Then again, he thought, misery loves company. “A funeral.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Susan knew she shouldn’t ask but she was so relieved at the change of topic that she plunged in anyway. “Was it a close friend?”
Susan chest constricted. Christ, she thought, I’ve done it again. Can’t I ever say the right thing? She handed the handkerchief back, this time touching, gently pressing it as she let go the fabric, noticing the swollen knuckles. He patted her hand with his free hand. When he let go he ran his arthritic fingers over the monogrammed square. “Thank you. She made this for me. Quite good with a needle and thread was Betty.”
“It’s beautiful.” Susan wished she were a million miles away. Or a mute. Then everything she said wouldn’t sound so banal. She started at the stained seat back before her and wished she could say something comforting, but what? “I hope I didn’t get any makeup on it,” she lamely offered.
“Don’t worry, even if you did, that’s what washing machines are for.” Poor girl, Peter thought, I should have just kept my trap shut. I never know what to say. Didn’t know what to say at the funeral, how to ease the kids’ pain either.
Then he had an idea. He could tell that Susan was grasping for a way out of his awkward revelation, to ease the solemnity of the moment. “I’m sorry. This might be an odd question, but you wouldn’t know how to use one, would you? A washing machine? It’s just that Betty always did my laundry and I’ll need to learn now.”
“Of course,” said Susan relieved that there was something she could help him with, that even if she couldn’t say how sorry she was about his wife’s death without sounding hollow or trite, she could say something. “They’re really easy once you know what to do. Soap first, then clothes, separate the lights from the darks and do them in separate loads, then you just pick your setting, like ‘heavy load’ or ‘high water’ depending on what type of machine you have, that’s if you’ve put in a lot, and then you just pull out or push in the knob for whatever wash you want to do. Oh, and the water temperature, cold for colors, hot for whites. And if you have a dryer, it might be easier to buy fabric softener dryer sheets than to deal with the liquid fabric softener.” Susan rambled before realizing that she’d lost Peter back somewhere around the separate loads. “Sorry. I could write it down for you,” she suggested.
“That would be lovely.” Peter watched Susan pull a notebook out of her bag and start writing. The notebook was one with a clear cover containing pictures. From the way Susan paused as she glanced at the book before opening, Peter guessed the picture of the attractive James Dean type was her young man. Too damn handsome, Peter thought, and looks as if he knows it too.
Susan was still scribbling away as the train pulled into the last stop. She folded up the paper and handed it to Peter. “I think that’s everything, it’s enough to get you through your first couple of loads anyway.” She smiled shyly and rolled her shoulders back as she stood up. Peter waited a moment as the crowds went past before trying to get up. His knee popped as he pulled himself up on the seat back in front of him.
“Thank you for this.” Peter tucked the paper into his pocket. “And you, are you all set with somewhere to stay? You know how to get there?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine. Thanks,” Susan said, all business now, steeling herself for the new reality that awaited her once she stepped out into the world again.
Peter was saddened to see her earlier brusqueness returning. “Well,” he said, steadying himself on the doorframe as he stepped off the train onto the platform, “if you’re in town for a while, you should stop by for tea or coffee one day. I’m in the fifth house past the university on Markham Road. The house with the roses.”
Susan looked at Peter and smiled. She paused before responding, she didn’t want to sound rude, but she hardly knew this man, just his name and that of his dead wife, and that he seemed nice. Not much at all, she told herself. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be around, but I’ll stop by if I get the chance.” She shouldered her backpack and looked around the platform. Groups of kids her age were heading towards the parking lot, lugging laundry from their weekend home or shaking off hangovers from time spent carousing in the city. That could be her, she thought. She could do this. And who knows, maybe there would be a message waiting for her at the hostel. A reprieve. She looked at Peter, standing there, clearly wanting her to say something else.
Peter sighed regretfully, he could see that she’d never come to visit. His vision of this girl stopping by with tales of her exploits, bursting through his door, eager to share her news was an old man’s whimsy. Ah well, he thought, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks anyway. Since he’d been unable to be that man to his own children, surely he would just have disappointed this girl as well. He sighed, his chest tight with the thought of the empty home waiting for him. At least he had his books, and his memories. He smiled wistfully at the young girl as she looked expectantly up the platform, towards the exit. “Take care, young Susan. I hope I see you again.”
“You too, Peter.” Susan watched as Peter shuffled towards the bus stop at the far exit. She regretted this perfunctory parting; she knew she was disappointing him. His offer was so good-natured, but she knew she’d just disappoint him more if she did visit him. She’d be awkward, tripping over her words or blurting out the wrong thing. Like she had with Mark. Like she had with her mother. Like she always did. Better to leave now, before he had any real expectations. She sighed, wiping her sweaty palms against her jeans before turning and striding off in the opposite direction, towards the hostel.
When Kylie was five, she wanted to be either a nun or a lounge singer. Luckily (for the church and lounge patrons everywhere) she discovered a love for storytelling around the same age. This eventually translated into a B.A in theatre from Florida State University and a MA in creative writing from Macquarie University. You can buy her book here and follow her Word of the Day Poetry Project