A Short Story by Brian Fountain
I reclined deep into my chair until it threatened to topple, head tilted back, frowning at the fluorescent lights. The kind that makes your skin look jaundiced and your eyes look sunken and bruised, humming softly in the background, casting everything in a sterile radiance. Every office I’ve worked in has used those lights. Every hospital I’ve ever visited, too. I can’t make the walk to my cubicle without remembering my great-aunt hooked up to those nauseating tubes, edema draining from her soggy midriff. There was a deep pain in the space between my neck and my left shoulder. My ass was pressed firmly against the paltry cushioning of the seat. My feet were falling asleep.
I rolled my shoulders and stood and stretched the ache out of my stiffened body. It was late in the afternoon and a stack of folders still needed work, but I fumbled with the words and the numbers. I reached for my messenger bag and held the straps and the buckles so they didn’t make any noise. Sometimes a small group would be gathered around the espresso machine, and then I would have to pretend that I was just stretching my legs and slink back to my desk. Today it was quiet and my decampment went unobserved. In the past eighteen months, spurred on by boredom and burnout, I had become increasingly adept at slipping out through the side doors without anyone noticing. I turned right toward the road before drifting rightward again onto the trail that ran parallel along the highway, down to the train station and then far beyond that.
It was still warm, but when I passed under shadows I could feel the coming autumn against my skin. When I was younger I could smell it, the leaves changing, getting ready to drop, the soil and the rain all different somehow. I can’t smell it anymore, but I can still feel it if I pay attention. Bumblebees were frantically collecting nectar and pollen from the few remaining thistles of the season, and I stood watching them for a moment. Their fat bodies, plump and greedy, hung loose while their wings pumped fast against gravity and their own gluttony. I hopped out of the way of a cyclist as they shot passed, then turned and continued down the trail.
I began walking the two miles to the train station because I realized that, as I gained seniority at the office, I spent progressively more time sitting in front of a computer pretending to work. I recalled my father inflating as his title went from senior engineer to general manager to vice president of operations, each promotion accompanied by a dramatic escalation in corpulence. He enjoyed wiggling his stout finger in my face when I had done something to upset him. I thought of him scolding me when I signed him over to the cheapest nursing home I could find. He could hardly remember who he was then, a year or two before he died. When I talked to him, I could tell he didn’t recognize me. I could tell he didn’t remember his own cruelty, and I wondered if it was fair to institutionalize him.
He would laugh like a child, giggle rapturously at cartoons a nurse put on the television for him. He gurgled with delight when I introduced him to my fiancée, and teared up when later I had to tell him it hadn’t worked out. He couldn’t remember her name, but his silvery eyes welled up, shimmering puddles of emotion, when I told him she had called it off. The man I knew from childhood would not have cried in front of me, and when I saw him contorted with sadness, it wasn’t concern or anger or desperation to not be responsible for the care of an ailing patient that motivated me to turn him over to the professionals, but a panic and an embarrassment I never fully understood. He used to tell me everyone got what they deserved out of life. Three months ago I was named quality control supervisor of my firm. I had put on twenty pounds since then.
The path spilled out onto a small platform which wrapped around to two train tracks. This was the end of the line, and both trains were settled there, one departing in five minutes, the other in twenty. Each going in the same direction. I sat and took a swig from the water bottle I had in my bag, then put it away and leaned back and waited.
The menagerie that streamed onto public transport always roused my contempt. Men with calloused hands and stained fingernails took seats opposite twenty-year-old women with five-year-old children. I recognized one passenger, who looked to be just beyond middle-aged, by the enormous mole that sprouted out halfway up his nose on the right side, interrupting the crevice it formed in his withered cheek. When he turned his head I saw the deep creases in the back of his neck like geological formations, canyons etched into his skin after years of erosion. I had seen him on the train a few times before. The two seats to my right were empty.
Two girls, one drunk and the other tending to her, sat in the back. They couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen. The drunk one spat on the floor of the train a few times and held her bangs back and I was worried she was going to be sick, but then they both got off and sat on a bench near the platform, the sober one gently rubbing the drunk one’s back. From them my gaze settled on a man scouring the garbage for any scraps of food. He found and promptly swilled the last few drops of a discarded soda can and I turned away, grimacing. Just as the doors were about to close, a woman reeking of urine launched herself on board and nestled into the seats opposite me.
I could see the sun setting in the windows above her, and I looked at the feverish clouds and the mountains turning black beneath them, and then at the city buildings, their windows just starting to scintillate in the coming darkness. The train lurched and when the city was hidden from view I looked down at her. At first she was turned toward me, hand over her eyes, mouth slightly ajar. She was relatively young, not much older than I was. Her teeth were gray and worn to rows of crumbling tombstones. Her entire arm was marred with wounds. I winced as I regarded the tender landscape of pale skin, pocked with bruises and scabs.
She muttered obscenities. She rolled on the uncomfortable seats, her lithic voice a litany of fucks and shits and damn-it-all-to-hells. I absurdly pretended to not hear what she was saying, but I kept looking back at her. I kept looking at her scars. Briefly, I saw some parallel grooves of striae running along a slash of exposed stomach before she pulled her shirt back down, and I imagined her abdomen swollen with life. I swallowed hard and shifted my weight uncomfortably in my seat and tried to think of something else.
Four or five stops later the train was coming to another station, and, unsteady, she stood. One hand held up ill fitting trousers and one hand rubbed sleepiness out of her eye. She paused for a moment, waiting for the train to come to a complete halt, and limped for the door.
“Fuck you bastards,” she muttered as she passed, the faint odor of soiled clothes wafting behind her like a putrid ghost. I looked for her out the window until she disappeared into obscurity, and then settled back into my seat. The sun had fallen behind the mountains and it was dark in the valley.
A while later, after a pass through a stretch of craggy hills sheathed in conifers and browning fields of grass, the train came to a shuddering halt and I made my exit. I meandered, nudging stones and watching pedestrians out of the corner of my eye until the bus finally turned the corner. I boarded, nodding curtly to the driver, and passed by a young man with his arm draped around a stroller. I walked to the back and sat down in the corner, one leg crossed over the other. I looked out the window.
Here the city was all pavement and kitschy posters and power lines and gray. Like some gruesome metastasis, its tendrils reached outward and disintegrated into shops with metal bars protecting their windows and streets that ended abruptly in dead ends and obese toddlers crying at their mothers on sidewalk corners and grizzled, unshaven faces with cigarettes hanging loosely out of frowning mouths. Police officers were gathered around a man laying on the ground, no shirt on, shielding his face from the sun. The bus stopped and the father got off, pushing the stroller along.
Gray gave way to green as we turned into a small neighborhood spiralling around a gradual slope. I had read that this squat mountain was still volcanic, that eventually it would unleash chaos in the form of steam and molten rock, belched up from some depth I had trouble imagining, that magma would gurgle up like acid reflux. In my dreams, if I chased my Zoloft with some bourbon, I saw toxic plumes and singed earth and hot hazy rage devouring these nice homes and the nice people that lived inside. Nobody here seemed concerned, though, in their houses with wrap around porches and their golden retrievers and string lights and little children bouncing their way home from school. The bus stopped by a café I frequented. A man got on, phone nestled between his right ear and his shoulder, asking about a refund.
A woman hobbled onto the bus and sat in the handicap seats. She exhaled strongly and wrapped her arms around herself. She wore a scarf that reminded me of something my grandmother used to wear. We neared the neighborhood where I lived. The trattoria I went to for lunch on Saturdays was busy. On one of the quieter roads, shaded by an overgrowth of leaning trees, a haphazard village of tents dotted the sidewalk. I frowned at them as we rolled passed. I couldn’t tell if there were more than there had been this morning.
I signalled for the bus to stop. We veered to the curb next to a dog park. I exited and turned, crossing the road in a hurry to avoid missing the walk signal, toward my apartment complex. It’s a nice apartment complex, perhaps slightly too expensive. It sits on top of a grocery store that has a wide variety of cheeses and Belgian ales. There was once a different building here. When they tore it down some of the locals protested, but that was long before I moved to the city and I never learned more about it.
A frail looking man with short gray hair stood outside the grocery store. He had a cardboard sign that I didn’t read. I knew what he wanted so I avoided looking at him.
I ignored him. I walked on.
Brian Fountain is a scientist and writer who divides his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest. His work has been published in The Rival and Biology Letters. He is in the final stages of editing his first novel, and manufactures immunoassays to support his literary activities. He lives with a deeply ambivalent rabbit and is an expert on the biology of the pea aphid.