ANOTHER SHORT STORY originally published in SLAM volume 1, circa 1999
I recently changed the ending, to add the bit about stories only ever having one ending. I may change it again. It's good being me.
It was a short taxi drive to the train station, full of nothing and meaning very little. The ride was quiet; the world flashed by quickly and silently. The driver didn’t say much – his fare in the back seat clearly didn’t feel like talking either. The man’s eyes followed the same spot in the window the whole ride, but he never seemed to notice anything. The cab driver shivered involuntarily – the solemn indifference on the man's face gave the driver the creeping willies. He’d never had a fare so still, so quiet – he looked like a dead man, pale and motionless.
He just sat.
He just sat and stared.
The woman in the train station looked at her watch for a fourth time. Her ride was fifteen minutes late. Her left foot tapped impatiently for a moment, then her fingers. She craned her neck around, searching for a clock on the pale, nondescript wall behind her, and then glanced at her watch again. The train station was a menagerie, a wild circus of motion and sound, and the hustle and bustle only magnified her impatience. She was due for an interview later in the day – a formal dinner with a potential employer – and she needed time to change beforehand. There was a hotel room waiting for her, where she would clean up and catch a taxi into the city, into a new world, a new life. She cleared her throat, wiped her nose, recrossed her legs and glanced at her watch again. A minute had passed.
The man gathered up his belongings and paid his fare, tipping the driver fairly but not generously. He stumbled towards the station, in his arms a large luggage case and an umbrella. The sky was dark and rain drizzled down, but the man made no move to open the umbrella, instead shuffled unsteadily towards the shelter of the station, the water gradually soaking him as he crossed the parking lot. Behind him, a wheeled suitcase skipped reluctantly through the soggy and uneven street attached to his wrist by a leather strap that just too short to be comfortable. A brief gust of wind toyed playfully with his battered hat, threatening to toss it into the gutter, and he groped clumsily for it, mashing it into his already matted mess of dark hair.
She stood up quickly, glanced at the train schedule, gathered up her purse and scooted her small suitcase under her chair. She scurried off around the corner to the washroom, glancing at her watch again as she disappeared through the door.
He clambered in the door of the train station and toppled into the closest empty chair, completely oblivious to the small leather case resting below it. He stared at the floor as water steadily dripped from his coat onto the grey carpet. As he blindly soaked in the ambience of total mayhem surrounding him, the woman fretted for herself nervously over a grubby sink.
The rest is simple.
She would return to her seat and wonder why the odd – yet reasonably handsome, if she excused the disheveled appearance and rain-soaked attire – man was sitting in her chair. She would ask quietly and politely if she could retrieve her suitcase from beneath him, and he would apologize profusely. They would both laugh nervously, and for lack of anything better, he would try and start a conversation. She would be grateful for the pleasant company. They would even compare destinations – and to their mutual surprise, the two would be the same.
The train would finally arrive; they would stumble on it together, and abashedly at first he would approach her and ask if they might share an empty spot together where they could talk. And hours later they would find themselves still talking, and still talking, until the morning changed to afternoon and the cities breezed by through the hazy windows.
Their ease of conversation and common interests would astound them both. She would explain – dancing dangerously on the verge of tears – how her husband left her for a busty barmaid on their last vacation to Las Vegas, and had moved with his new flame to Memphis in pursuit of his country-singer dreams of fame and fortune. She had been stuck in Vegas for three months, scraping together what she could to afford airfare home. She had sold their home of seven years – a lonely, dismal home, but a home nonetheless – and was trying to escape the dreary memories and ungodly weather of the east coast. He would listen sympathetically, then tell her how he’d lost his job as an insurance salesman, and had left his small but comfortable apartment to find a job somewhere else – anywhere else but here.
They would smile and their past misfortunes – he would stare a little too long at her wide smile and bright, perfect teeth; she would find his vacant, lost-puppy dog eyes endearing and somehow adorable. And as the train halted at their stop, she would hesitate just a moment longer than necessary before standing up.
As they left the train, he would offer to get her a cab, and she would invite him over for coffee. They would find themselves making sweet and passionate love, and promising their faith and devotion to each other.
They were both victims of chance. Perhaps if her husband hadn’t earned himself a raise, they wouldn’t have vacationed in Vegas that year – and perhaps she would have remained married to an unfaithful husband. And the man – there wasn’t much he could do about his job – he disliked it anyway, but it paid the rent – and he traveled without much money, and even less of a destination.
Their broken hearts would drive them from their pasts and into each other’s arms.
But none of this really happened. This is the stuff dreams are made of – convenient and pleasant fiction, stories with happy endings. Maybe she found another seat across the room and waited – embarrassed – until the man boarded his train; maybe she fretted too long in the restroom and missed her train. Maybe he noticed the luggage beneath him and moved to another seat. Either way, they never met.
This is what could have happened, and perhaps in another time, and in another place, their stories unfolded differently. But here, in the cold train station, this story has only one ending.
Instead, he rode all the way to West Coast, lost himself into the bottle and now graciously accepts tips with vodka on his breath at a gas station somewhere south of Portland. She found herself – after months of drifting – waiting tables in Chicago, barely scraping together enough to pay rent in her tiny studio apartment. She dreams of stories, sometimes – the stories she read as a child or stories she dreamed up in her head, and they make her smile. But all stories – real or imagined – only ever have one ending. They end the way they end - not the way they ought to end or the way they'd like to end. Stories end the way they end.
She’s been to jail twice already, and can’t remember leaving her suitcase at the train station three years.