Friday, August 7, 2009

Tableau on a Train

Most days, on the train, I read, head down, concentrating on the words on the page without much thought to what’s going on around me, at least until my stop arrives and it’s my time to move on.

Today differed, though, and not for any clearly discernible reason. Maybe I was just paying more external attention than usual.

Today I stepped into the car and turned right, toward an unoccupied outside seat, at quick notice the only one vacant. As I walked by, a woman sitting in the seat in front of my destination looked up and smiled cursorily, an unusual happenstance, but I smiled back as I strode past her and settled into my own seat.

I took out my book to read, a novel, somewhat dense of style but entertaining, the sort that would usually keep my eyes on the page digesting the content with a reasonable amount of dedication to the words in print. But before I dug in, I noticed the woman in front of me holding her newspaper, with its congenital crease, and then she added an additional fold to quarter it, allowing a crossword to lay claim to one surface, and a Sudoku the other. I was curious as to which puzzle she would choose, and she responded to my unspoken query by taking out a red pen and inking in a numeral on the virgin Sudoku grid.

I’d pretty much just worked into a zone with the book when, in a veritable whirlwind, an entity spun into the seat in front of me, to the left of the woman taking on the numerical challenge, flopping heavily into the padding, shaking the structure of the seat bracing and pressing the woman against the window wall of the car, either by physical invasion of her space or by a leading shock wave brought on by the frenetic motion of the bulk slamming inward. And the truth is, he might have chosen the seat next to me, had I not unthinkingly plopped down my briefcase on the upholstery instead of my lap, as I usually do, though, in my defense, the hour at which I was taking the train this day generally never generates enough ridership to mandate doubling up, and especially never on a Friday. And so…

He was a man, maybe six feet tall, and on a glance wider across the buttocks than his upper half might indicate. A poignantly protruding, hawkish nose, pale complexion, and slightly graying brown hair, cut in a fashion better suited for a young lad, sprung from a head which itself sprouted from the collar hole of a blue checked button-down shirt. As well, he could have used a more recent, or more thorough, shave.

I looked back down to my book, after noting just how scrunched the woman now appeared from behind, and began again to read, when I soon noticed a series of odd, jerky motions in my peripheral vision. Looking up, I noticed the man’s right hand flicking, seemingly randomly, as though shooing away an imaginary gnat or some other more profound illusory ephemera. The hand stayed within what might be considered his personal space, but if it was distracting to me, it was certainly more so to the woman, as I could see her head turned slightly to her left, as though glancing sidelong at the spastic manual ballet that had entered her world. His fingers were long and as pale as the skin on his cheeks and neck, and they wiggled gratuitously at the terminus of each spasm.
Before long, the flicking and fluttering waned and he took from the case in this lap a worn yellow legal pad. After subsequently producing a blue pen with a chewed and flattened non-ink end, he started to write rapidly. And so I hope you’ll forgive me my voyeuristic license when I tell you what happened next.

His script was barely legible, but after seeing a few underlined headings and following entries, I was able to decipher a majority of what was being scrawled. First I decoded the word Vacation, and next to that /Packing, which lead to subheadings such as Socks, Linens, Pants, and Shirts. But these led further to Chargers (cellphone, Blackberry, razor), Pens (blue Bic, black [no Bic?]), Laces (black, brown, white [it pays to be prepared?]), and other minutiae. It conjured suspicions of OCD as I read surreptitiously over his shoulder. But a new wrinkle soon arose, as he flipped pages back and forth, from one list to another, more rapidly as the gyrations stretched forward in time, the pen racing across one page, flip, then another, flip again, then another, more this time, more letters and lines and even a couple exclamation points for those items demanding greater attention and less likelihood of being forgotten!!

And I have to say, it was fascinating to see those hands move in blurs that seemed to streak and illuminate like lights at night in a long exposure photograph. But what never ceased were the intermittent hand flicks, and always the right: he wrote, flicked, flipped, and wrote some more, then flicked at what must have been an opportune moment to stop writing and flipping. And when he took a break, perhaps to ease a cramping in his hand, he tented his fingers into a gable on his head, with his thumb on his right temple and the fingers wrapping around to and across the forehead above his brow, which was furrowed as though in concentration or discomfort, or maybe from some building internal pressure, an increasing impetus, because before long his hand alit from his head and lashed out, but now with the gnawed-upon pen crooked in the web between thumb and forefinger. And I will say that I feared slightly for the safety of the woman next to him, who now seemed to be cowering as his movements brushed and impacted on her space-bubble and hesitant to undergo an inadvertent eye-gouge or tracheotomy from his manic writing instrument.

Eventually, and not after very long, he slipped his pen away someplace unseen to me and produced a Blackberry, thumbing through various screens and items. Next came a flip cellphone, which he fingered open and checked through screens for calls, I guessed.
And then he reached down and back and unearthed a wallet, worn and brown and swollen with cards and papers, and at least the top edges of cash, checking the stashes there for who-knows-what. After replacing the wallet under his rump, while jostling the woman still trying valiantly but vainly to focus on her puzzle, he commenced slipping his fingers through his hair, plowing furrows and crests across his ‘do in patterns changing with each gesticulation. Then, at last, motion ceased.

I do not know much of what happened next, except that he turned and asked the woman, who wasn’t cringing but was rather compressed in her corner, if the next stop was hers. She answered in the negative, which apparently meant her stop was the same as his, so he asked where she worked. To my surprise, she replied with her place of employment, which was too muddled for me to hear clearly, but I wasn’t really trying to understand what she was saying, my eavesdropping not extending to words spoken, but rather only to the movements and train-bound physical undertakings of the man, and even then, only things seen. Maybe I was drawing a line, as though listening in on a conversation was crossing an ethical delineation that observing visually was not. But as the train decelerated and I rose to depart at the approaching station, I did hear him mention that he was a lawyer. And in fact, he said lawyer, not attorney, something that in my experience was not the norm, but was in no way out of the realm of the expected or accepted. And at that moment any guilt that I felt about acting so that he had no choice but to propel himself into her quiet world some twenty or so minutes ago vanished in wisps of inevitability, because it was then I heard her express interest, in a tone not likely to be feigned, and then ask him where he worked. I left them to their devices, conditions, issues, and hopes. I was out. And for the first time in months, I’d read not one full page of my book on the train.

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