portion of the artwork for Mary Lynn Reed's story

End of the Line
Mary Lynn Reed

The train rocks back and forth gently, like a cradle under protective hands, as she watches the tiny houses with scrubby yards slip slowly by. The modest dwellings replaced by piles of old tires and crumbling cement walls full of gang tags and event posters. She used to read books and listen to music, heightened with anticipation, on these often-but-not-too-often train rides. Now she clutches her backpack and presses her hot forehead to the cool glass window, watching Delaware and Philadelphia and New Jersey play themselves out like a Greek tragedy in Hollywood-style slow motion, with the unfortunate soundtrack of babies crying and businessmen typing on laptops.

Time, and its brutal slowness of passage. She stopped counting days, weeks, or months, years ago. Life kept going and she kept riding trains, often-but-never-too-often. She made her peace with it. That’s what she was telling herself again when she caught the strong smell of urine drifting through the train car. It hadn’t taken a hundred train rides for her to decide never to sit near the bathroom, so that wasn’t it. She lifts her head to look and sees the old man across the aisle push down on his crotch and squirm. He looks confused, as if he’s not sure where he is, or as if he’s misplaced something very important. She scans the aisle and sees the young man walking toward, clutching a handful of paper towels. His expression is an odd mix of embarrassment and fear. He drops the towels in the old man’s lap and keeps walking, without saying a word. The man pats his crotch carefully with the towels, taking each one in turn and placing them gently on the seat beside him.

She keeps her eyes peeled for the younger man, but through Trenton, Princeton, and Newark, he never returns. The old man sleeps, with his hand resting on top of the soiled towels that no one has retrieved. She wonders where he’s going, and if the young man knew him, or had just been a random kid sitting nearby, practicing the smallest kindness he could muster for a stranger on a train.

She contemplates picking up the towels, taking them to the trash, but the old man’s hand still rests atop them. He’s sleeping peacefully and she tells herself she shouldn’t disturb him. That helping isn’t always about doing something active. She thinks that’s just a rationalization for not doing a goddamned thing. For telling herself everything is OK and she can’t really make a difference, no matter what she says—or does—or tries to say—or do—but can’t quite manage.

She turns away from the old man and looks back out the window, just as the marshy landscape disappears and the train enters the tunnel to the city. Darkness. They are approaching it now. The city that welcomes her, when it can. The city that isn’t hers, and never will be. She squeezes her backpack and closes her eyes, not wanting to see the old man again. Holding tight, she tells herself none of this has anything to do with her life, or how she’s lived it. None of this applies to her at all.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 50 | Fall/Winter 2017