By Stanley B. Trice
To Danny, it was a small victory not to be on the last commuter train home that Friday evening. On the left side of his double-decker heading south out of D.C., he caught glimpses of the Potomac River between leaf-burdened trees. On his right, an occasional swamp.
Slowly, his train pulled up behind a broken freight train. He lost the logic as to why anyone would pull up behind something broken. Half an hour later, what was the last commuter train passed on the right making Danny’s train the last one out of D.C. for that week. When Danny finally got home, his unmarried, pregnant daughter Beatrice met him at the foyer. The coming birth gave them something to say to each other. Her protruding stomach kept them from getting too close.
“I need a car loan. Will you help me or should I list you as deceased?” Beatrice being herself.
She blocked Danny’s way and prevented him from reaching his cold supper. Danny felt his skinny body start to fail. Stress from his job prevented him from eating during the day except for saltines chased by hot coffee. He deposited his empty briefcase at his feet and sighed once, heavily.
“I get up early to get to work early so I can get home early so I can go to bed early. Yet, I’m always later than I want.”
“Your bedroom door is not the solution to your problems. When you close yourself inside, I still know you’re in there,” Beatrice said with hands on hips and short legs pressed apart as if searching for balance. Her round belly looked like she was growing the head of another Beatrice.
“I’m in there trying to get more than five hours of sleep.”
“Mom understands me better than you. She commutes, too, and I don’t see why you two don’t drive together instead of you taking that slow train all the time. I’ll list you as deceased.”
Danny had his life flash before him the last time he commuted in a car with his wife. The presence of someone else in the car is too much of a distraction. “I just want to know where I am in this world of ‘I’s." His philosophy was enough to get Beatrice’s belly out of the way so he could eat and go to bed. He didn’t dare ask why she needed a dead person to get a car loan. Things must be desperate out there, Danny concluded.
That weekend, Danny drove his wife Jennifer on a two-lane road toward the intersection of Route 50. There, they would turn left and continue to Winchester. A day trip to an out-of-the- way winery and a means to get out of the house. On the two-lane road and to Danny’s right were open pastures sectioned into unequal squares by rows of trees and shrubs. Danny recognized Angus, Holstein, and Jersey, but no more. To his left and up ahead, the land sloped upward, creating a happy-looking, green mountain that reached gently toward a blue sky.
Before Route 50, Danny followed a white sign and detoured to Paris, Virginia. They rode a short, boring narrow road, where bumps of federal style houses rose a few feet from the road’s edge. Narrow, manicured lawns pretended to offer a barrier from their car. No people. Maybe the cows lived there.
They listened to Guy Lenard on the FM radio, munched on cheddar popcorn that was stale enough to get stuck down his throat. Route 50 was a four-lane road west to Winchester where Danny hoped for a Merlot to drown his throat and remove the thought of returning home. He liked Guy Lenard.
“This is where I think we should live,” said Danny later. Their wine glasses sat empty on a dark wooden bar.
“We live there. We should live out here with farm animals.”
“That doesn’t make sense. We have a stable home.”
“It’s just that we keep commuting back and forth between the same two places every day. If we want to break out and become superstars, we can’t because we exist in a stable world.”
“I don’t want superstar status. Or, even some low-grade fantasy hero. I might move landmasses and make them islands.” Jennifer slipped the last of her Pinot Grigio passed her thick lips.“I would like to make a decision that’s fun.”
Two hours later and an ice cream, Danny’s buzz had faded and he wanted to go home to find it again.
In the following weeks, they rushed towards the birth of their grandchild with a baby shower and repeated medical appointments. Small concerns vocalized by the medical community made Danny think everyone should be listening more carefully to the tiny heartbeat in Beatrice’s stomach. Instead, Danny witnessed their townhouse get smaller with baby items. Danny wondered if they were big enough to overcome everything.
The baby Tres came on a cloudy, cool Sunday morning. While churchgoers scurried to their steeples, the newborn lay in hospital blankets and did not breathe for way too many seconds. When she did breathe, those seconds had been costly. She was incubated. No one on the hospital staff was free of furrowed brows and hurried whispers.
Beatrice’s lost boyfriend came back that Tuesday from staying with friends on a binge that ended when their supply ran out. By Saturday, Beatrice and he had moved their stuff and the baby’s things into the finished basement without the baby, who was left surrounded by worried professional equipment. The things remained alone in the finished basement as Beatrice stayed with the equipment and the father hung around with the nurses.
Tres died alone on that next Thursday when her mother went to the bathroom and her father ran away from the alarms. The funeral happened on Monday.
The train ran on time all week, except Danny was not on it. He tried to replace the infant’s father who had left on his next binge. Beatrice and Jennifer had nothing to say as they all avoided the finished basement full of baby things. Danny got up at four in the morning so he could stand in the doorway of the nursery and listen to an empty crib.
Maybe Tres did not want to live with a commuting family, he told the crib. That weekend, Beatrice decided to write short stories instead of avoiding conversation and baby things.
“I’m writing a fantasy story about a woman who gets her car stolen. She gets it back trashed, fixes it up, and when the thief gets out of jail she runs him down.”
“I missed the fantasy in that story.” Danny really did.
“Death when you’re not looking. I’m collaborating with Mom.”
For the next two weeks, commuting became a timely, mundane event that left Danny not thinking about the trip. Instead, he became plagued with constant memories of who Tres could have been.
On a Monday almost a month after the funeral, Beatrice went back to work driving her parents in her new car. Beatrice got the loan using Tres’s death as collateral. Danny could not understand how someone dead could be held in collateral. He concluded that the banking institution was made up of people who had no beliefs and were unhappy.
On the way home that evening, Danny sat in front and Jennifer in the back. Beatrice told her father, “Everyone has scars—superficial, deep, and biting.”
“What does that mean?” Danny really did not want to know, but Jennifer was asleep in the backseat.
“I never believed my tears were real until now.” Beatrice stared out the side window.
Danny pulled the steering wheel to avoid a speeding commuter bus as Beatrice faced forward again. He said, “The real purpose in life is to be happy. When a person fails in that, they fail at life.
At home, they sat at the kitchen table after supper, deciding to carpool together since they all ended up in the same place every day and night, anyway. Also, Beatrice had a new car. Danny volunteered to do the driving.
On Thursdays, they rode the train since this was when Tres died. Don’t look for any reason for this because there isn’t any.
“Tres’s ghost wants us to keep riding the rails,” said Jennifer one Thursday evening as a chill shivered up the nape of her neck. It was a warm evening, so she paid attention.
They rode the train from then on and used the new car when the train did not run and they had to go to work. Danny felt like a hero because he finally got his family to be safe, riding a commuter train rather than risk driving on the busy roadway with drivers with multiple personalities.
Jennifer and Beatrice co-published a short story in an Irish magazine and all three visited that country. The people were pleasant talkers and, for the most part, happy. Everything was green and wet with short, narrow roads running closely past low thatched roofs that these happy people lived in. Bright blues and yellows made the small towns look like smiles. Danny liked the Guinness beer and pub sandwiches. Wherever they went, they were never late because they had no schedule to keep.
On the last day, Jennifer saw a black and white cow lying in a pasture of short grass. Three red birds sat on the cow’s long backbone as if birds and cow had always known each other. Jennifer told Danny she wanted a cow when they got back home. “Cows seem very stable and I think our commuting is very risky,” Jennifer told Danny.
Danny didn’t know what a cow and commuting had to do with each other, but he agreed about the risk of commuting. “Lately, I’ve felt like I am the commute. I need a better diet.”
Beatrice said, “There’s a lot of rocks near Winchester.”
Danny did not know what she meant. Most of the rocks in Ireland had become castles.
A year later, Danny had cashed out his retirement, figuring his job and commuting would guarantee his death long before he retired. He and Jennifer moved to an eleven-acre farm between Paris and Winchester where they bought a Holstein cow, four goats, and two llamas. Jennifer refurbished furniture and Danny sold Beatrice’s polished rocks in one of the back sheds. After another year, Beatrice married a banker and they had a son who looked a lot like Tres. Everyone continued to commute, but now from different directions.
Stanley is a member of the Riverside Writers, the Virginia Writers' Club, and the North Carolina Writers' Network that have been great sources of information and support. Currently he commutes by train to Northern Virginia to work on budgets and legislative issues. On his commute and lunchtime, he writes.