Fiction from Josh Patrick Sheridan
According to the schedule, the train will be coming in two minutes. There will be lots of people on board—a Saudi exile, a former welterweight boxer, a family of twelve with tickets to the aquarium’s new PenguinTown show. Women and men will be holding hands, their noses nestled into each other’s fur-lined corduroy, shifting like eggs when the brakes clamp; other women and men will be staring at each other from across the aisle, their ample asses stuffed into the grubby seats closest to the wall, their noses grown red and pocked, their hats crooked. They will have had so much of each other by now that the reprieve of a train-car’s width is worth coveting. A Mexican teenager at the far end of the car will be playing ranchera music on his ukulele, trying to earn a buck.
When they alight, they’ll be stepping into a cold and windy Chicago in which nine babies have already been born (and it is not yet noon); in which three people have been shot; in which the buses will later stop running for the better part of a week, thanks to an impending blizzard. The frozen-solid floorboards of the platform will accept their footfalls like concrete, ka-thunk, ka-thunk, but they won’t notice, happy as they are with their dinner plans or their product proposals or their tickets to the PenguinTown show. The dark sky will be looming over them—over the Sears, over the Hancock—gray as a chalkboard, but they won’t see it until they are streetside, and by then they’ll be holding cups of coffee or pastries warmed in microwaves and likely won’t be moved by the thought of an apocalyptic snowstorm, literal tons of water dangling above them, waiting to fall like trillions of miniature bombs, to crystallize mid-air and strike earth with all the violence of an eyelash brushing a lip.
If they come from a certain car, chances are good they’ll bump into a smallish, slender man named Eli, who carries a shining new briefcase that smells of the plastic bag it came in, who wears decent shoes and who carries himself, overall, with the decency of an old-timey baseball player. Eli will be the only person waiting for the train, because at mid-day he’s headed to Aurora, a place people as a rule don’t go until their days are over. He’ll be blowing streamers of breath toward the platform ceiling, playing that secret game lonely people play in which they compete with themselves to reach meaningless goals—in this case striking the ceiling with a continuous stream of breath; he’ll never reach the ceiling, though, because his lungs aren’t strong enough. Eli’s had asthma his whole life, and it gets much worse in the winter.
In his briefcase, Eli will be carrying the specs for his new invention, an invention that has him convinced he will soon be both wealthy and well-respected. It’s not that he’s always been an inventor, or even a tinkerer, or even someone who has good ideas all that often. It’s that this particular good idea is so obviously a life-changer, an earth-mover, that he assigns it zero chance of failure and one hundred per cent chance of changing his circumstances for the better, of getting him out of his apartment in Avalon Park, of buying him a new scooter and maybe a small dog. He’ll be pitching his invention—incidentally, a permanent, surgery-free device the size of a lapel pin that vibrates at an identical frequency to that of a human voice and fastens to the head behind the ear, in nearly the same fashion as a lapel pin, and allows its users to silently listen to music, hear their voice messages, or call their mothers without the hassle of having to break out those bulky headphones or go home to use the phone—to a group called Aurora Home Audiology and Hearing Adjustment (AHAHA), who have promised him ten minutes and a coffee Q&A.
If any one of those folks from the train decides to stop, to chat with Eli for a moment and ask him what he’s got in the case, maybe offer him a preliminary “How do you do?”, and then ask him what he’s got in the case, Eli has decided he will play his creation off marvelously as simply the product of a dorky bachelor’s voracious tinkering, something totally not worth a second of their crucial time, while simultaneously imagining them with the fresh-shaved spot behind their ears his product will initially require, the little black box about the size of a lapel pin fastened securely to the side of the head. He’s already thought of the licensing possibilities: military, intelligence, aviation. A further generation of his product might revolutionize warfare! GPS coordinates read aloud in real time! Hands-free walkie-talkie communications! The possibilities aren’t exactly endless, but they’re pretty damn close.
It will be snowing by the time they arrive back on the platform. The aquarium will have closed, claiming emergency; the young lovers will have eaten their lunches, done their romantic-comedy dance up and down the winter sidewalks of Grant Park; the fat old couple will be standing with shopping bags clutched between their blistered and throbbing feet. The ten children in the family of twelve will still be excited about the PenguinTown show, which they luckily didn’t have to miss, but more so about the snowstorm; they will want to go home and bury each other in it, stuff it into their mouths and try to talk through it, tilt their heads backward and stick out their tongues, try to catch it piece by piece. The lovers will continue on to their row house in Bucktown, each of them lost in the storm to their own brand of memory—him to the news, on a similar snowy day in Wisconsin, that his father had died of a stroke; her to the sound of her sister’s voice, which she hasn’t heard in months, garbled in the background, almost inaudible through the bustling din of a Parisian marketplace. The old folks will simply be annoyed, will childishly question the need at all for so much snow, for so much anything, will wish they’d moved to Florida when their nephew was still offering the spare bedroom in his condo.
The train, they know, will be coming in just two minutes.
When it arrives, Eli will be standing in front of the door, waiting to disembark; his face will be slack, his shoulders hunched, his meeting not having gone the way he’d projected. The folks at AHAHA will have been gracious, initially; they will have offered him coffee, been prepared with coffees of their own, taken notes in professional-looking leather pads. Young, attractive experts in their field, ready to swing a deal, make a buck, get in on the ground floor of this thing. But, standing there, waiting for the doors to open, Eli will remember the change in their faces when he’d produced his prototype, their use of words like vulgar, aggressive, and cruel.
“Isn’t there an adhesive that can do the same job?”
“Aren’t you worried about subliminal messages?”
“Why not just hold the damned thing?”
They will have spent half his allotted time, and the entirety of his Q&A, laughing at his design, telling him how far behind it is, that other, smarter, people have taken the same idea and improved it a hundred fold before he’d ever even had it. They will have explained to him the logical progression of the telephone, from bulky wall ornament to, eventually, ten years from now maybe, external brain-in-pocket, capable of being seen and heard from almost anywhere, capable of having a conversation with a human—words he’ll have heard fewer and fewer of as the meeting went on, distracted as he will have been by the building storm in the window, a wave of gray clouds washing quickly from the west, rolling like a herd over the broken cornfields of suburbia.
Though they’ve been standing, freezing, for some time, they will wait for Eli to step off the train before stampeding on. They will be able to see, even through their own relative successes, a man disabused of notions of a better tomorrow. We have all seen that man. We know what he looks like.
The air in the train—warm and piss-reeking, thin—will relieve them immediately; the Mexican boy at the end of the car will be playing a dirge he’d begun when Eli boarded in Aurora. Each of them, in his own space, will be thinking about Eli, about what could have been wrong with that poor little man with the briefcase, and each of them will have a heart for him, but none will have a moment. Thoughts of the things they need to tell people, to call people about—penguins dancing for fish like a dictator’s entertainment, a girl at lunch with no panties, a deal for a comeback fight in Atlantic City—will compete with their compassion for Eli and will, ultimately, drown it out completely.
Eli, for his part, will have a brief moment, an outburst of frustration, during which time he will throw his briefcase—and the redundant, antiquated technology inside—over the edge of the platform and watch it tumble down a hillside of snow and blowing rubbish to rest in a ravine with the other detritus of a normal year in the city: losing scratch-offs, condoms full of seed, train tickets with their destinations rubbed away. In an hour it will all be covered, forgotten, like it had never been thought of in the first place.
And then, just before the train pulls away, Eli will turn wildly to face it, heaving, his hair swept, his cheeks burning red, and he will see that the passengers on board are all waving to him, as though he’s just done something worthy of their appreciation, as though they’ve grown to know him in their fleeting and chaotic time together and to respect something about him—his passion, maybe? His effort?—or as though, as they lurch slightly forward, heading west towards the grasslands of the upper Great Plains, straight into the mouth of a blinding, unnavigable blizzard, they have recognized in Eli something integral to their own history, something they don’t even know they’ll never be able to get back, and they’re simply waving it goodbye.
Josh Patrick Sheridan lives with his fiancée and daughter in upstate New York, where he teaches writing at area colleges and works as a tutor for an early-college program. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen journals, including Shenandoah, The Adroit Journal, and Coe Review. He’s at work on his first novel. Follow him on Twitter @belmontfoghorn or at his blog, belmontfoghorn.wordpress.com.