Fiction Friday #2
I’ll be returning to Hong Kong on November 8th. Eight weeks, minus two days. I’m excited, yes, and a little nervous. It’s been a year and a half, and I’ve grown a great deal since I left, kicked the decade long bottle-a-day drinking habit while in rural Indiana, and I have enough faith in myself that I’m not worried about the drink regaining the upper hand – but I’m still nervous. I’ll be better when I land, I’m sure. The moment I step off the plane, out of the airport terminal and into the humid swamp of Hong Kong’s pollution, I’ll be fine. But, until I get there, I’m allowing myself a little apprehension.
The next eight weeks will be busy. The family needs firewood for the winter – we heat exclusively with firewood – and there are writing projects to finish. Tonight, I’ll be finishing the first editing run of Zen Motherfuckers. After this first pass is over, I’m planning another three, ending with the most difficult edits. The Roadkill / Rapture Boys is puttering along at 500-2,000 words per day. There are short stories to write (eight more before my departure, including this one).
The time, I’m sure, will pass quickly. There’s so much to do in such a finite time. Soon enough, I’ll be in Hong Kong. I have another writing project planned for when I’m there: a travelogue, revisiting the city where I grew up, visiting the places at which I used to be a drunk, only without the oceans of alcohol. The person I used to be – drunk, angry, depressed Jaron – knew the city well, or thought he did. The person I am now? I have no idea what I’m getting into. There are places to see, people to meet, experiences to be gained.
Oh, and I have a working title: Hong Kong Sober
Catchy, isn’t it?
Now, introducing the next short story, Comfortable Strangers on the Early Morning Chicago Train. A true story, not quite abiding by the spirit of Fiction Friday, but it’s a story, and I’m kind of in the mood for this one.
Fiction Friday #2:
Comfortable Strangers on the
Early Morning Chicago Train
I woke up this morning to my computer’s alarm clock program blaring its ‘classic alarm clock’ sound clip repeatedly, fully intending to reset the alarm to 10:15am and go back to sleep for my usual extra fifteen minutes before starting the day: pack a cigarette, pour a cup of coffee, and smoke next to the garage; then back upstairs, back to my computer, to write a short story. Something about a train, I’d decided. Something about a conversation with a stranger in an interesting hat, and I would discover some strange event while writing that would make it more interesting than a couple strangers meeting on a train.
I could see the scene vividly: I would use details from my train rides, the early morning Chicago train. The gray seats, the little white pillows, the passing scenery that I still remember so well. In short, I’d start writing something I’d experienced and discover an untold, previously uninvented fiction story along the way.
Then I remembered my last train ride, almost a year ago, before I got my ’93 Buick Regal with purple tinted windows for a good price because the last owners, an elderly couple, had driven it backward through their garage door and were a little too embarrassed to keep the car; so, instead of taking the early morning Chicago train, I started driving up instead.
I was waiting on the open platform, sipping hot coffee to fight the early morning chill and smoking a cigarette, chatting with a woman in rose tinted sunglasses to pass the time. I can’t remember her name, but I can remember the conversation in great detail.
“Are you studying?” she asked. We were minutes away from a university.
“No,” I said. “I’m living out in the country. Moved back from Hong Kong at the start of February.”
“Oh,” she said. “So you speak Cantonese?”
My interest surged. “I’m impressed. Most Americans seem to think that Hong Kong is in Japan.”
She laughed, the sun glinting off a rose tinted sunglasses lens. “I live in Japan,” she explained. “I’m an English teacher. My husband is a teacher too.” She paused before adding, “He’s Japanese.”
I grinned. “Cool.”
“Yeah,” she smiled. “I think so too.”
The train whistle sounded from a distance, and we could just make out the chugging sound of our train approaching. Quiet at first, then steadily louder, punctuated by progressively louder whistles. It seemed like, from the moment we heard the whistle to the moment the train pulled to a stop was just as long as the time we’d already stood on the platform. Anticipation does funny things to the perception of time. I was glad when the train doors swung open and the conductor stepped onto the platform, waving us on board.
We found seats next to each other and settled in for the ride. Three and a half hours on a train, you want to be as comfortable as possible.
I was glad for my half-full coffee thermos. It was still far too early, still around 8:00 am, hours earlier than I was used to being awake. I had a couple oranges and a small bag of off-brand beef jerky to munch on. I pulled out an orange and my pocket knife.
“You want some?” I asked.
“If you change your mind, just let me know. I’ve got some beef jerky.”
We chugged along, getting close to full speed. Three and a half hours before we’d arrive at Union Station, which meant three and a half hours without a cigarette. I didn’t mind too much. If I could make the long flight from Hong Kong to the States without going crazy for a cigarette, sixteen hours or so without tobacco, I could make it the three and a half hours until we arrived at Chicago. The last half hour would be the hardest – I would be twitching with anticipation of lighting a cigarette as soon as I got out of the station – but I could make it, and I wouldn’t bitch about it.
“Hong Kong, huh?” she asked. “Big change.”
“It’s taken some adjustment,” I agreed. “You ever been?”
“Once or twice.”
“It’s humid,” I said, remembering all the sweat soaked Hong Kong summers. “Hot. Polluted. I like it better here. I can actually breathe.”
“What made you come back?” she asked. “To the States? To Indiana, of all places.”
“My folks live here,” I said. “Hong Kong was killing me. I’m an alcoholic, was getting the shakes, DT’s – delirium tremens. A bottle a day, sometimes more. Needed to sober up.”
She nodded. Her bland acceptance filled me with a sense of relief.
“Anyway,” I continued. “I’m helping my old man. His left hand’s kind of messed up. Something with the tendon sheath, doesn’t have full movement. Worried about him damaging it more, so I’m doing the grunt work that he can’t do, or that’s not safe for him to do. Wood splitting, heavy lifting, things of that sort.”
“Excuse me.” A brown-topped head peeked over the seat in front of us. “Sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. My tendon sheaths are messed up, too.” He poked a plastic-sheathed hand over the seats.
“I’m Evan,” said the brown-topped head.
He seemed nice enough, at least what I could see of him, but there was something strange about his voice. Nothing I could put my finger on.
“How’s your Dad mess up his tendon sheaths?”
“Breaking sticks,” I said, embarrassed on behalf of my Dad. “We burn wood during the winter, and he’d smack long sticks on a tree trunk. Swing them like baseball bats. He thinks the shock messed up his hand.”
Sympathetic silence filled the space between the seats.
“You heading to Chicago?” I asked.
“My grandparents live up there,” I said. Another connection to add to the fucked-up tendon sheaths. Who was this guy? “Between Madison and Deerfield,” I added. “Out in the country.”
“I grew up in Indiana,” said Evan. “I was visiting my folks.”
“You come down often?”
Two big things in common, and I already felt the conversation dwindling. Really, how much could we say about Madison and tendon sheaths?
“So, Evan,” I said, retreating to the most comfortable question I could ask: “What do you do?”
“I transcribe telephone conversations for deaf people.”
“I work with this telephone service,” he elaborated, “that transcribes telephone conversations for deaf people. They have these special phones where they call through us, and I repeat what the other person says into a computer. We use this voice recognition software that’s actually pretty good, but I have to talk in this robot voice or it doesn’t understand me. It took some practice to get it right.”
Huh. That explained the voice.
“We get some weird calls, though,” he continued. “Like this one time, some woman calls up and she’s taken a load of pills. Like, a real load. And I’m in the middle of this conversation. And the person on the other end keeps asking, where are you? Where are you? And the woman just keeps saying sorry, she thinks she’s dying. She thinks she’s going to die. And neither one of them, neither one of them knows I’m there.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing,” said Evan. “I couldn’t do anything.” His voice was strangely robotic. “We’re not allowed to do anything. We’re legally obligated. There’s these deaf rights groups,” he explained.
“So what happened?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “They hung up.”
I played the scenario out in my head: trapped in the middle of a conversation, obligated to not exist. Just a conduit for the conversation.
“That’s fucked up.”
“We get all kinds of fucked up calls,” he said.
I thought I might have heard a small tinge of sadness that I couldn’t be sure was under the emotional disconnectedness layered through his strangely robotic voice. At least he didn’t seem to take any pleasure from his story.
Evan continued. “Mostly it’s pretty straightforward, but we get the occasional drug deal. Usually some kid calling his dealer on Grandma’s phone. I mean, it’s a crime and all, but we’re not allowed to intervene. We can’t call the cops, nothing. Deaf rights groups,” he reminded me.
“This lady I worked with was in a call with this old deaf lady telling her friend that she’s broke. Can’t afford rent, can’t afford bills. Can’t afford food. So this lady, the one I was working with, looks up the phone number and gets an address. Decides to be a Good Samaritan. Does the right thing. The decent thing. She writes the old lady a check, I don’t know how much, and puts it in the mail. The old lady finds it, wonders where it comes from, so she does her research. Asks around, and she finds out who sent it. She freaks out. Calls her lawyers, calls the rights group, sues the hell out of this lady, the lady I worked with, and sues the hell out of the company. Just like that, this lady’s out of a job and she’s in huge legal trouble. For trying to help out, do the decent thing.”
I shook my head, halfway to flabbergasted. “Yeah. That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah,” said Evan. “Both ways.” There was that little tinge of sadness, barely perceptible, just a hint on the edges of his voice.
“How do you stand it?” I asked. “The voyeurism, not being able to do anything. All of it.”
“Medical insurance.” He lifted his plastic-sheathed hand over the seat. “They keep me medicated, pay for physical therapy, take care of the medical bills.” I saw him shrug through the gap between the seats. “It’s a pretty good deal.”
We talked more after that: he was interested in my stories, wrote a little himself; the woman beside me planned on spending the afternoon shopping, relaxing at a hotel, might even go for a swim; I was visiting a friend in Chicago, would head up to Wisconsin to visit my grandparents; we promised to drop each other a line when we arrived at our ultimate destinations.
The conversation tapered off as we neared Chicago, and we collected our things. It was three and a half hours since my last cigarette. The anticipation was killing me.