The Other Side of the Tracks

This is the terminal where ghosts are born. He sees his proposal to her on the platform over and over because he is forced to jump in front of the train eternally. Imprisoned by his suicide. Trapped on the 3rd street platform. He watches the memory play like syndicated reruns. Eventually, in one moment, he recognizes the man on his knees as himself and the next, the jump that sets him free.

#

And then the suspected ufo that haunted the city airspace. Rumors, “My cousin saw it last weekend, said it was a city block long and faster than hell.” He and his wife have bedtime conversations about the ufo sporadically along with the magazine awards coming in for their examination of American politics. Along with the increasing number of threats coming anonymously for denigrating the country. Along with more idle chatter about the ufo. The skyquake events growing stronger though no evidence of a cause; were first reported as “microbursts” in the early days of Racquelle and Cole’s relationship.

Cole sees the ufo in the sky or so he dreams with his wasted head rocking against the train window riding out of the city one morning. He imagines it as if real but knows it can’t be. Always considering the idea of a ufo as something like a four-leaf clover. Maybe they exist but he’ll never know. At the end of the book he witnesses, possibly from tv, the footage of the skyquake. Isn’t that how it is now? He thinks. Tool’s Vicarious lyrics running riot in his head.

#

I stand alone on the subway platform four days after Racquel’s burial, unshaven, and cigarette burns in the cuffs of the crumpled silver button-down shirt I put on the morning of her funeral. I toss my phone down into the tracks and check to see if the lights are making the corner down the tunnel. My destination isn’t on the color-coded map stretched along the wall on the other side of the tracks.

*

Last week we were about five hundred miles apart. Even though we’d been married eleven years I still struggled with the distance. She was so funny. I needed her to make me laugh constantly. Our vows were like a prescription with unlimited refills, she’d make me laugh and I’d stop having anxiety attacks. I couldn’t wait for her to return from her conference. Now that she’s gone she might as well be on Jupiter. The ocean between us is much too wide to swim across in my body. So, shucking it off is the only way to close the gap and reunite with her, my Racquel.

She was in Philadelphia for a convention. I think it was all comedy magazines and journals and she was a keynote speaker and panelist for a few different topics that week. I called her every night before I went to work at the warehouse. She’d be ending her day or getting ready to join some folks at the bar and I’d be setting out in the snow and cold off the shores of Lake Eerie to work sixteen-hour days. Sometimes at work that week, I’d tweet at her knowing she wouldn’t respond until morning but it made me feel like we were talking. She told me I spent too much time on twitter and maybe she was right because when she died not once did one of my 2500+ followers tweet a condolence or so much as a sad emoji. Granted, I didn’t tweet anything about her death until that moment on the subway platform but I thought maybe one of my followers would chance upon the news and extend a little 🙁 face to express their sympathy.

#

I listen some more for the train. The tunnel is dark and silent. A rat runs around the corner into the darkness.

#

The night before she was due back in town I took my name off of the overtime board and told my boss I wasn’t feeling up to another sixteen-hour day. I’d been fighting a cold all week and couldn’t wait for my weekend to start after that shift.

*

I am at my station doing my job, minding Robot #1 and counting down the hours until her flight gets in at five-thirty a.m.

Sometimes I talk to the robot at work. I gauge its intelligence. “Can you spell liaison?” I ask. Its hydraulic wheeze is the only reply. Before I leave for break, moments before my temporary replacement gets within earshot, I invite it to a game of cards. It just keeps stacking boxes. I ask it, “When are you content?” It does not answer, only stacks. I say to the robot, “You are just a machine. No heart.” The robot strikes me. Its wires got crossed. I think. I go to break after the on-duty nurse checks me out to see if I’m concussed.

In the break room, I play solitaire and watch the television out of the corner of my eye.  The skyquake events growing stronger though no evidence of a cause. It’s always loud in the break room and I can always make out three of the same voices louder than the rest; Hoozy, Babbitz, and Nikolai. They always lay their opinions down like tombstones. What they think has to be the last word on any topic, no matter how trivial. I stopped sitting at their table a year ago. I like to sit alone. It gives me time to read the news and tweet. I fly under the radar, even though I know coworkers call me Dexter and Unabomber and things like that. They don’t laugh though when I have to explain words like juxtapose and misogyny and pronounce them aloud like some kind of impromptu Schoolhouse Rock episode when they sometimes strain to read the newspaper. As loud and as bright as the break room is, it never feels like a break at all when I’m in there. I look forward to returning to my robot.

The skyquake events growing stronger though no evidence of a cause.

I watch its movement for eight, sometimes sixteen, hours a day. Or, night, I suppose, since I work the graveyard. If you step back far enough and use the right eyes, the robot looks like a big arm from shoulder to meat hook; like if you took a human arm and riveted the shoulder to the floor. The base of the robot is round and bolted thoroughly to the floor. Its mast rises straight up. It’s probably about seventy or eighty inches in diameter and narrows a bit toward the joint. At the joint, an arm sticks out about six feet and has a pneumatic clamp pressurized to just the right amount so that it can hoist three cases side by side without crushing them. The mast rotates 360° and the arm has a range of motion from the floor to about ten feet in the air. The robot sits between two lanes where the pallets slide in empty, are filled, and slide out full of product. My job is to watch the robot. Should a problem arise I either fix it if it’s minor or get on the radio and call for maintenance. Generally, there are no problems and I spend my nights hypnotized by the incessant dance of the giant robotic arm enveloped in the warehouse’s industrial music. The hydraulic wheeze. The pneumatic whoosh. The ratcheting chain drive beneath the sliding pallets. Behind me, the heavy noise of an army of forklift drivers honking and cursing and laughing as they try to keep up with the algorithm handed down from eight or nine desks up the food chain. I don’t know any of the forklift drivers. They’re in a different department. I watch Robot Cell #1. Straight down the line are nine more robot cells with their own minders. Oh, yeah. That’s what my job title is: Minder.

“Knox, you pulling sixteen again?”

“Not tonight.”

“What’s wrong? You feel okay?”

“Racquel’s back from her conference and we have our anniversary today.”

“Oh, congrats, Knox. What does she do again?”

“Thanks, Amesh. She writes funny editorials for her mag.”

“Oh, right. The comedy mag. You two have big plans to celebrate?”

“Don’t know. She’s keeping it a secret.”

“Well, have fun, big dog.”

Amesh is cool. He was in the Australian military and moved up to California when he got out. He met a girl out there and they got married. He said she tricked him into moving here but I don’t think it bothers him like he makes out. Amesh is the kind of guy that can make a go of any city.

“Knox, since your line is shutting down early today you can cut out early if you like.”

“That’s great, boss.”

“No problem. Enjoy your weekend.”

I nearly run to the scanner to badge out for the shift, but slow down when I remember they fired Saltzman for running on the warehouse floor last month. It was something like his fifth offense and they were all pretty petty but rules are rules and if they don’t like you they apply them with vigor. I’ve yet to be reprimanded for safety so I could have really tore ass out of there but I like my niche, under the radar.

I get to our house a few blocks away from the lake around five in the morning. Racquel’s flight lands about five-thirty. She won’t be home until seven at the earliest after the drive from the airport. It’s Tuesday morning and I can’t wait to see her but the cold I’ve been nursing for a week has my eyes burning. I decide to sleep a while until she gets in.

This is the terminal where ghosts are born.

When I wake up a few hours later, I roam the house looking for any sign of her. She’s not here. I look outside. No car. I pad to the bedroom to check my phone. A missed call and voicemail. “Hi, baby. I’m heading downtown to the office for an hour or so. We made a great deal at the conference and I need to fax a few things first thing to make sure it doesn’t fall through. I’ll be home by noon, latest. I love you. And, happy anniversary!”

Then I look up to the TV above our dresser that I’d fallen asleep to. It’s cable news and there’s something big going on. A lot of emergency vehicles and people running in swat gear. It’s so familiar. I recognize the block. It’s where she works. I call her phone. No answer. I call over and over. I call her desk. No answer. Months ago, she said they had security. She said they hired a professional company with experience overseas, contracted extra-military stuff. Freelance militia types. The local police couldn’t afford to offer extra protection with the state of their contract negotiations in the wake of so much political nonsense. But, I can’t see anything that looks like private security on the television. Unless you count the two bodies on the ground beside the door to the building they keep panning. The tightness in my chest. The lump in my throat. My knees buckle. I throw on clothes and jump in the car.

My steel-toe boots slap puddles standing in the street as I run to the front of the line where the barricades dash off a perimeter. I’m sure I’m on the cable news now. I see the camera sweeping the crowd where I’m held back. “Officer! My wife might be in there! Officer!”

“Sir, come with me to the car.”

“No, my wife!”

“Sir. The building is empty. Except for the victims.”

I remember the policewoman hugging me and sitting me down easy on the curb. I don’t recall anything for the next three days. Eventually, weeks after the service and some time off dragging around our house, I return to work. I return to Robot Cell #1. I watch its preprogrammed movement. It’s not a dance at all. It is mechanical repetition. I don’t speak to it anymore. It breaks down and the maintenance workers dismantle it, load it up with new parts, and test its wiring all night one Saturday. As I’ve nothing necessarily to mind while its being repaired I am tasked with some sanitation work, so I feather a broom through the heavy dust that accumulates like lake-effect snow and reach a kind of Zen state where I no longer concern myself with the pain.

I don’t understand why they shot up the magazine offices. I mean, when you start killing comedians isn’t the joke on you?

I toss my phone down into the tracks.

I check to see if the lights are making the corner down the tunnel.

I’ve been on Twitter for six years and use it too frequently she used to say. So this fourth day, I’m sending my last one, “Some strains of #love infect the afflicted with such devastating heartache that recovery becomes impossible.”

A light fills the tunnel and I hear the low rumble. My train. I step off the platform and it carries me to my destination without stopping.

This is the terminal where ghosts are born.

previously published in seveneightfive