By Ricky Altieri

Volume XXXV, Issue 4, May 10, 2013

The incident had delayed the train only five minutes. It was cold, dark, and windy in the early morning, and a heavy snow was pounding the tracks, which the commuters would assume was the cause of the delay.

The conductor, Matthew Ziska, was still a little rattled. Years had passed since anything unusual had happened, and he had never experienced anything like this. He was reminded of that time, twelve or thirteen years ago, when a cat had hopped onto the train. The orange furball scratched one of the seats, then jumped an old woman and tore up her purse, whose contents spilled out onto the floor. A little kid had come by and taken the cat off the woman, and soon the cat was asleep in the boy’s lap. That had been funny, because the woman was fine, but especially because the conductor had picked up an unopened dildo box as he helped the woman gather her things. He sighed. Maybe this would turn out to be funny, too.

Ziska had had trouble sleeping the night before, tossing and turning with nightmares. Even as Ziska saw the man—who was hunched over, toes inward, hands covering his crotch— the conductor’s attention had been elsewhere, sorting through the fog of his dream. He had been some kind of stump, he remembered.

But Ziska had processed the developing situation and reacted. The train had been scheduled to stop at that station, so Ziska was able to bring it to a halt quickly, far from the mysterious figure. He had called in the delay and given a brief description to a squeaky-voiced clerk who didn’t give a shit anyway. If you called in a problem with the mechanics of the train or the condition of the tracks, the problem-solvers picked up the phone. Otherwise you would get some punk teenager who thought doing his job was below him and that his garage band would make it big before the year was out. The clerk’s nasally whining reminded Ziska of his spoiled eight-year-old nephew.

“Name.” The clerk had squawked. “Train.” “Description—short, please.” “Get to the point!” his voice had cracked. “Delay Estimate.” “Someone will be in touch with you shortly.”

Then the clerk hung up. The ass hadn’t even said goodbye, not to mention asking why or how. “Someone will get in touch with you shortly,” meant no one would be in touch with him for awhile. What they would do, though, was announce the delays on the big speakers installed at every station— the earlier the notification, the fewer complaint calls. “The train to Valhalla is running five minutes behind schedule,” the speakers would say, in a deep, delighted tone. Whoever did the voices for the public announcements, Ziska thought, deserved one square in the nose. “And in the mouth too,” he said to the window. He chuckled, until in his reflection he saw his lips curl into an ugly, wrinkled grin.

Ziska tried to imagine what that clerk had written down—he had seen the ugly yellow forms, and the box allotted for “description” wasn’t much bigger than the one reserved for the official stamp. The clerk would phone a more important clerk, and he would tell the story in 45 seconds so he could go back to drooling on his desk. And the next clerk would tell his boss the story in 30 seconds, and so on up the line, and then that evening Ziska would get a call and someone would say, “According to my notes here, something happened on your train this morning.”

The man who had caused the delay was on the train. The backs of the fellow’s hands, covered in bushy gray hair, were sweaty and dirty; Ziska shivered as the memory of gripping them came to mind. They were so gross that Ziska had let go of the man’s wrist and instead grabbed his forearm to yank him up. Dressed in suit and tie, which were rumpled, probably from the fall, the man had a shaved head. Ziska rubbed his chin. He felt his own balding head, tugging on strands of blackish grey hair. Maybe he should shave his head, too.

Ziska’s longtime partner had retired recently, and the kid who had replaced him was a little slow; Ziska would have to handle this one on his own. He missed his wife at times like this. She had always been good with people. Even when she was getting sick, she had told him what he should said say to the relatives, which gestures to make. Through all of her pain she had helped him deal with his. But he was alone now.

Ziska considered his appearance in the window. His wife had always talked about “setting the right tone with people” by looking a certain way, and Ziska hoped he would strike a balance—he wanted the fellow to see an authority figure, but also a concerned and sympathetic listener. A few loose hairs were sticking up, and he did his best to push them down. He loosened the top button on his shirt, then fixed it, then loosened it again.

Ziska’s thoughts returned to that morning. The snow had tickled his mustache, and the bitter, frigid wind had chapped his lips. The man’s skin was bright red, and snot was pouring out of his nose. He thought again of those filthy hands, having to touch them as he helped the man onto the train.

“Are you okay? Are you alright?” Ziska had asked. Ziska had kept asking that—he could think of nothing else to say.

“I’m fine,” the man said. Then, after a pause, a strained, “thank you.” Ziska didn’t know what else to do. He had just left him there and gone to call it in.

The snow outside was getting heavier, and the wind seemed to be picking up, too. The morning clouds darkened the buildings to blurry ghosts, whose forms drifted past; or perhaps it was the train that drifted past them.

The conductor peered at his watch—6:18. A few minutes before he had to collect the tickets. He rubbed his coffee cup to warm his hands before bringing it slowly to his lips. When he had first started on the job, his morning espresso—and it had to be espresso—had been as important to him as his trusty ticket puncher. But time had dulled his taste buds. He drank coffee because he couldn’t remember the days before he drank it.

Years ago, policemen and firemen would take the early train to Valhalla—there were stations for them in the city. He had been glad to serve those commuters. He felt as though he was doing his part to help Valhalla’s finest. Back then, he had taken pride in keeping the seats clean, ensuring that the train arrived on time, announcing which stations could be used to transfer. They had given him a smile and asked about his wife. Some had even been his friends. But since they had stopped riding the train, those friends had fallen out of touch.

Valhalla had changed. The commuters now were investment bankers, stock brokers, and executives. Their apparel was not strictly a uniform, but they dressed the same way—black suits, suave ties, thin belts and shined shoes, and the Journal or the Times worn like a facemask. Ziska was never so aware of his uniform as he was around the businessmen. It wasn’t enough that they drove nicer cars and had pretty young secretaries—they had to look better, too. When they heard Ziska call for tickets they glared at him, as if he were a stray dog whining for food scraps.

Ziska hadn’t been happy when his little nephew dressed up as a “CEO” on Halloween. What did businessmen even do? Ziska knew they worked hard: He could see it in the black bags beneath their eyes. But their efforts seemed to amount to nothing more than toying with numbers on computers and screwing people out of their hard-­earned money.

If Ziska had a son, he’d dress as an athlete or a detective on Halloween. Ziska imagined himself laughing along with the other parents and telling the kids to say “please” and “thank you” when they asked for candy. His son would say “please” and “thank you” without having to be told. He would grow up to be a decent human being.

Ziska wondered what his son might’ve looked like—he had always pictured the boy with his mother’s red hair and his own blue eyes. But that didn’t make sense because those were both recessive traits, the doctor had explained. Ziska remembered the slow, gentle way the doctor had of explaining things—he spoke in circles, to soften bad news. But Ziska hated the suspense. When the doctor finally got to the point, which was that Ziska was the reason his wife wasn’t getting pregnant, he had been almost relieved that the suspense was gone. It wasn’t until later that he had begun to feel that he wasn’t a real man anymore, that he had failed the person he loved. She had been so gracious about the whole thing. Not once did she bring up adoption, which she knew Ziska didn’t want, and she hushed her parents when they asked if grandchildren might come soon.

The coffee had been sitting and the scent reached Ziska’s nostrils. He thought of the man on the train and of the incident earlier that morning. He remembered thinking about the holiday—the three days of paid vacation conductors were given if they hit someone. He hated himself for thinking it.

A bug crawled on the back of Ziska’s hand, and he nearly knocked over his coffee. Ziska peered at his watch again. Time to collect the tickets. Ziska exited his enclave and started on the morning march, trying to wear a cheery smile as he checked train passes and considered what he’d say to the man who’d fallen that morning. He had brought a bottle of water along for the ride, and he thought he might offer it to the man. Though a joke might work. His wife used to recommend humor to break tension, and this fellow would certainly feel uncomfortable. What if he combined the two? What was a funny joke about water?

But Ziska didn’t know many jokes, and he couldn’t think of any about water. He had walked through the train and found himself standing in the handicap section across from the man. A full minute passed in silence, as Ziska studied the man’s worn-out black shoes and then his own worn­-out brown ones. “Would you like some water?” Ziska asked, eyes still on the floor.

He mustered his courage and lifted his eyes. The man was staring at him.

“You look like you could use some water.”

“I’m alright.”

“Really, you should probably drink something. I mean, a man at your age…” Ziska trailed off, and his eyes lowered as he heard the man sigh.

“Listen, I’m not a doctor, but—”

“If I drink the damn water, will you leave me alone?”

The man grabbed the water bottle out of Ziska’s hand, yanked off the cap, and jerked his head back as he started to chug the bottle. Ziska stood there for a moment. That familiar lump blocked his throat again, as it always did when things were awkward. There was no way to win now, and he wanted nothing more than to punch the man in the nose, but Ziska was old now, and old people didn’t fight. He started back to the conductor’s enclave, feeling stupid.

The man hadn’t fallen, Ziska was sure now. He had jumped. He had pointed his toes inward and covered his crotch because he expected to die. Maybe that was why the man was so angry with Ziska; maybe Ziska should have realized, should have allowed the train to keep rumbling, should have done this stranger a final courtesy.

The train pulled into Valhalla. Ziska did not peep his head out the window to make sure all of the doors had opened and that no one had slipped in the snow. He tried, instead, to remember his wife’s smile. But in his mind’s eye, her thin lips were not nearly as vivid as the fellow’s dirty hands. Ziska pictured him hobbling on the platform, hobbling down the stairs, and hobbling to whatever job he had wanted to escape this morning. Counting a minute to make sure the man had gone, Ziska raised his eyes and looked out the window. The snow seemed to be getting worse. He hoped it would come down even harder. Bad weather could cancel things, or at least postpone them. Snow didn’t mean the end, but it was at least a reprieve. And the tired, bald man needed that—and Ziska did, too.