The Commuter by Jim Woessner

Five Twenty

Marco turned the key in the ignition. “Click.” Just a “click.” The car didn’t start. He checked the transmission in “park,” the brake pedal depressed, and turned the key again. Again nothing. A dead battery. Marco pounded the steering wheel. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Of all the goddam days.” He sat for half a minute looking at nothing, his mind racing with what-to-do options. His wife’s car was unavailable since Lilly had driven to New Jersey to visit her sister. It was too early to call a friend or neighbor. A taxi to the city would cost at least a couple hundred. There was still plenty of time if he could get to the station. Marco had always built cushion into his commute. It was one of the many self-inflicted sacrifices for living so far out of the city. He got out of the car, found the battery charger under his garage workbench, ran back to the car, popped the hood, hooked up the charger, and plugged it in. He again tried to start the car. Nothing. Dead battery. Dead battery charger. This is nuts, he thought. The battery is what? Two years old? He couldn’t remember, but he didn’t have time to think about it.

Five Forty-Five

Marco phoned for a taxi and was told one would arrive within ten minutes. He disconnected the charger and put it away, then went into the house to wash his hands. Minutes later, he was pacing back and forth in the driveway, looking at his watch, and wondering how he was going to manage the impact at work. He phoned the taxi company a second time, took deep breaths, and assured himself everything would work out. Trains left Huntington Station every thirty minutes. If the taxi showed up within the next few minutes, he might catch the six-ten and arrive before eight. The meeting was scheduled for eight-thirty. He decided he would call his partner from the train. It would be fine, he told himself more than once. Quit worrying.

Six Oh Six

When the taxi arrived, it was clear that Marco would miss the six-ten, unless by some miracle it was running behind schedule. He told the driver to rush and paid him in advance so he didn’t have to deal with it when he arrived. The taxi took the normal ten minutes to get to the station. At the curb, Marco got out and raced up the stairs to an empty platform. He had indeed missed the six-ten and would have to wait for the six-forty. A wasted half-hour. Marco did the math. He would arrive after eight but most likely before the client. The only thing he needed to do was let his partner know. Marco tried to convince himself it would all work out. He sat on a bench and looked up at the monitor. In bright neon, it announced that the next train was running nineteen minutes late. Marco held his head in his hands. His anxiety was running on max high octane. He tried to focus on breathing, got up and walked the length of the platform, bought a coffee from the cart vendor, bought a New York Times, and turned to the sports page for maximum distraction. His beloved Giants had lost the first Monday Night Football game of the season to the Denver Broncos. The Yankees had yesterday off, but they still had a 13-game lead in the American League East. That was as far as he got. Marco couldn’t get his mind off the morning meeting and the possibility of it ending in disaster.

Seven Oh Five

Once seated on the train, Marco called his partner to explain what had happened. Stan wasn’t pleased. Marco lied and said he would make it to the office before eight-thirty. Stan reiterated the importance of the meeting, but he also acknowledged there was nothing either of them could do at this point. Marco was the “detail” man. He had the file. It was his meeting. Stan told Marco he would greet the client team when they arrived, have coffee and pastries ready, and hold a “preliminary” meeting to go over big picture issues. In other words, stall for time. He assured Marco that nothing of substance would happen until he arrived.

Marco got off the phone, settled back, and scanned his notes. To what end? He knew the material, the offer, the contingencies. He had rehearsed for this meeting for weeks. But just now he couldn’t clear the negative fantasies from his head. Stan was angry, and rightfully so. Ultimately, he would get over it. Stan wasn’t the type to hold a grudge. They had been partners for twenty-three years, ever since they had met in graduate school. Marco worried more about the new client. He was convinced their team would judge him for being late, for not prioritizing their concerns, for being inattentive to the value of their time and the investment they had already made. How many times had they intimated that they were unsettled about switching firms? A screw-up like this could be the tipping point. They had given a handshake on the contract proposal, but handshakes were meaningless without signatures. Today’s meeting was all about signatures.

When the conductor announced the train’s arrival at Cold Springs Harbor, Marco looked out and quietly recited the station names on the Long Island line like a child reciting the alphabet. Cold Springs, Syosset, Hicksville, Westbury, Carle Place, Mineola, Merillon, New Hyde Park. What skills I’ve acquired, he mused, over thousands of commuter miles. I can also sleep in precise packets of time, he thought. Four minutes before the next station? I’ll sleep for three and a half. So many things for which I never get any credit.

Marco picked up the New York Times he had carried onto the train and tried to escape into the front page. Pressure was building for the President to take action to revive the economy. The NYC mayoral race was heating up. Research scientists were asking for a bigger supply of stem cells. Blah, blah, blah. His distraction lasted all of five minutes. The day, month, or year never mattered. The news didn’t change. Just variations on the same worn-out themes. He put the paper back on the seat and stared out the window.

The soundproof concrete walls and sickly brown hedges gave the impression he was standing still and they were rushing past. How quickly the loss of suburban innocence, he thought. Beyond the walls and hedges, where he lived, where he and Lilly had raised their boys. Over there was the definition of life. That’s where it existed. Or was it here on the train? Was this seat a more accurate description of where he lived? Did the barriers to the tracks represent a metaphor of the insulation between the dirt of business and some idyllic illusion he mistook for “life”?

He went over the reasons why he and Lilly had moved to Huntington nearly twenty years before. They had wanted space, a yard to raise the kids, better schools, a big house with a barbecue on the back patio, a two-car garage, and a golden retriever. All the usual reasons people give for choosing a middle-class suburban life. But at what cost? Marco felt he barely knew his two boys, now grown and living in other parts of the country. And his relationship with Lilly had been on tender hooks for years. Even when his boys lived at home, he rarely saw them. Between work and commuting, Marco was away twelve to fourteen hours a day for as long as he could remember. He had missed too many swimming meets, baseball practices, and parent-teacher conferences. And for what? Inching up the money trail? As if that was the only relevant path one could take. Regardless, it had been the path he had been traveling one way or another since birth. He didn’t know any other. And why was that? Where did it come from? His parents? Were they to blame? Or was he on his own in this argument?

Why did he do what he did? It was a question he had avoided for most of his adult life. Perhaps the answer was too painful. And why was it hitting him just now when he should be focusing on what he would say when he walked into the office? This client mattered. That was a solid rationale. They would be worth millions over the next five to ten years. It would be by far the biggest client they had ever had. He and Stan would be “set” if they successfully captured them, the operative word being “captured,” as in a primal hunt for food. They would be stealing them from another firm. Marco didn’t have to go far below his thin skin to know it was a game he enjoyed. Perhaps the only thing he had done well in his life.

But it was true. With this client their firm would thrive. They would hire more staff. Take on tougher assignments. And then what? More of the same? Could he expect anything different? Questions poured through the sieve of his mind. Why was he doing any of it? It wasn’t for the kids or Lilly. The boys were gone and Lilly would welcome a change, any change. They didn’t need a big house forty-five miles from the city. They didn’t actually need anything. So what was keeping him tethered? Had habit taken over along with the desire for money and some intangible notion of success? How was any of it worth tying his mind and emotions into daily knots?

The train slowed as it came into Hicksville. Marco looked at the commuters standing on the platform. Not one of them was smiling. There wasn’t a trace of excitement or passion on any of their faces. They looked like extras from a zombie movie. And each one seemed to be holding a mirror up to Marco. Am I one of them? he asked himself, knowing the question was rhetorical.

Marco called Stan a second time and Stan answered, “Yes, Raymond.” Not a good sign. No one called Marco by his first name. Lilly did when she was upset or wanting his attention. Even his secretary called him “Marco.” He took a breath and updated Stan on his arrival time at the office. Stan said that arrangements had been made, but the client hadn’t as yet walked through the door. Marco hung up and checked his watch. Nervous habit, checking his watch. Punctuality. Being conscientious. Detail oriented. Another glimpse into his compulsive nature.

Marco asked why he allowed himself to get so upset over trivial matters like being late to a meeting. This client wasn’t “trivial” in the day-to-day business sense of the word, but it was in the grand scheme of things. Securing this contract wasn’t going to save the planet or cure cancer. Marco admonished himself for the cliché, but not getting them wouldn’t ruin him or Stan or the company. It’s just that such things seemed to stress him beyond all reason. He knew he had to do something to change. And the answers he needed were clearly inside of him. The question was whether or not he could access them. 

The single biggest issue that kept bubbling to the surface was whether or not he could walk away from it, from the business, the city, from the way he had become. Could he get off at the next station and take the next train in the opposite direction? He wouldn’t do that to Stan. But could he do it next week or the week after? What was keeping him from choosing another life? What was he using to measure his life? Money and success felt increasingly hollow. If he used some vague notion called “quality of life,” he was probably looking at the lower end of the scale. If not failure then something close to it. Maybe all of this, all of these questions, were part of a narcissistic mental masturbation. How many times had he had these conversations with himself? And what had he ever done about it? Would this time be any different? Was change possible? On the other hand, he asked, am I a victim of my failings? The word “victim” stuck in his virtual throat. Is it even possible to exercise control over my life? And if so, what do I want? When an answer didn’t rush to the front of his mind, he laughed at his instinctive response to problem-solving. This is where I pull out a pen and sheet of paper and start listing the pros and cons of quitting my job and walking away from all this madness.

Marco glanced out the window. The train was approaching the city. Nothing green remained on the landscape. It was all gray urban ugliness, the graffitied backsides of warehouses and industrial buildings, the detritus of American life. Marco’s mind raced from one dark thought to another. He recalled his parents complaining incessantly about their proverbial treadmills, yet still imparting those same values to him. I’m the result, he thought. It was always about career, money, success. Living in the suburbs had been his attempt to create some semblance of normality, but what had he actually achieved? Marco wondered if he was the result of genetic programming, if his parents had no other choice but to pass on their way of life no matter how distasteful it had been for them. He realized, of course, he had done exactly the same for his boys. Rick and Jess were grown and well-established on their own treadmills. He hadn’t taught them anything different about life because he didn’t know anything different.

It was time to end this. Marco would quit. He said it again in his mind to make sure he had used the right words. He would quit. It felt good to say it to himself. He would do something else, anything else. Or nothing at all. He wouldn’t ask Stan for anything. He didn’t need a buy-out. He and Lilly would be fine. He would tell Stan tomorrow after the dust settled from today’s meeting. But first things first. He would do whatever was needed to secure this contract. He owed it to Stan. Perhaps even more to himself. He would finish this chapter of his life and leave as soon as it made sense. In a week, two at most. He imagined telling Lilly. She wouldn’t believe him. She would say she had heard this before. But in the end, she would be pleased. They would book the Iceland cruise they had talked about. He would work out the logistics of his leaving tomorrow with Stan. It was settled. He said it again. “Settled.”

Marco sat back and took inventory of his feelings about his “decision.” He wasn’t so naïve as to think it wouldn’t change in small ways over the next day or two, but he was certain about leaving. And in this moment he enjoyed the deep sense of joy coursing through his body. He closed his eyes as the train submerged into the black labyrinth of tunnels under the East River and Manhattan. He allowed himself to feel the rhythm, the slight jerking back and forth as the train rode over the switches and crossings for the last six minutes of the journey. He listened to the hum of quiet conversations, the echoed noise of steel against steel, the rush of displaced air, and finally the squeal of brakes as the train pulled to a stop at the platform.

Eight Eleven

Marco opened his eyes. Okay, he thought, this is it. Let’s get through today and put an end to this chapter. He looked once more at his watch. The client team had probably arrived and were sitting in the conference room. Stan was feeding them coffee, donuts, and small talk. Marco got up and hurried off the train but slowed in the crowd of commuters on the platform. On a normal day, he would take the subway. Without a delay, it would take 20 minutes. A taxi could take longer but it offered the possibility of getting there sooner if the West Side Highway was reasonably unclogged. Marco avoided the escalators, ran up the stairs two at a time, then fast walked, half jogged through the station to the exit on 7th Avenue. He felt more energetic than he had in weeks. On the street he got a taxi right away, and, as before, paid the driver up front.

Eight Forty-Six

At the curb Marco bolted out of the vehicle and started jogging across the plaza, dodging people, and heading for the doors. It was entirely possible he was smiling. As he jogged past the sculpture fountain, he heard a loud roar and reflexively looked up, then stopped and dropped his briefcase. Marco didn’t understand what he was seeing. It was as though an action movie was being projected onto a gigantic green screen in the sky above the twin towers.

Eight Forty-Seven

A large, low flying passenger plane crossed the space above him and flew into the North Tower. A fraction of a second later a shock wave nearly knocked him to the ground. He put out a hand as he fell, touched the concrete, and recovered his balance. When he looked up again, the sky was black and filled with the glitter of paper, glass, and burning debris. Flames appeared to be shooting out of the building. None of it made sense. Out of place, out of time, out of context. Marco’s first rational thought was that his meeting would have to be cancelled. His second was to run for his life.

Jim Woessner lives on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA from Bennington College and has had poetry and prose published in online and print magazines, including the Blue Collar Review, California Quarterly, Friday Flash Fiction, 101 Words, 200 Word Short Story, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fewer Than 500, The Daily Drunk, and Close to the Bone. Additionally, two of his plays have been produced in community theatre.

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