The Twelve Twenty
About the Writer
Dan Gutstein is the author of two collections -- non/fiction (stories) and Bloodcoal & Honey (poems) -- as well as stories and poems that have appeared in more than 100 journals and anthologies. He blogs at dangutstein.blogspot.com.
Vic noticed a long-haul configuration dead-stopped a few tracks removed, both doors on both sides of its baggage car open such that he could see clean through, policemen on the near side lowering guns they had just pointed into the cavity of the railcar. A few of the officers regarded Vic’s train, and one of them pointed, even as his cap blew free from his head, forcing him to give chase through the difficult footing of the ballast. Vic twisted around in his seat. The policemen on the near side numbered six or seven. They wore black gloves. They formed a knot at the coupling of the baggage car and a double-decker passenger coach. Faces, Vic could see, in every upper level window of every passenger car, faces in alarm, stages of inconvenience, and cell phone craning, and as his train accelerated clear of the long haul train, the windows turned to squares, the squares became colors, the yellows of a parched topography—one that Vic had manufactured from the color plates and brushwork of media, a quiet place where he could ignore the rapid respirations of his tumultuous signatures. Behind him, the terminal received more than thirty sidings under a high ledge of concrete and girders, a few front-in diesels pumping gray soot at the roof, but here, Vic calculated, the locomotive kept halving its position, en route to the four track north. A voice overhead, the metals of a voice dispensed information through the distortion of old speakers, the way a plea for mercy might carry through a cinderblock wall. “Victor,” it might have said, and if Vic concentrated hard enough on the conductor’s voice through the intercom, he heard his name, “Victor,” again and again.
A conductor entered the coach, and with two punches per ticket, worked his way, not so much a greeter, toward Vic’s seat. The fellow wore blue—trousers, jacket, cap—except for a white shirt with a spacious pocket. Into the pocket went the larger segments of the tickets, after the conductor had nullified them with a decisive click of his metal punch. Vic’s father had taught him a simple trick with strangers: to demand the time of day without asking please. “Tickets,” the conductor mentioned, at the row before Vic’s row. “Tickets,” he mentioned, at Vic’s row, collecting first the two across the aisle, before reaching across the empty seat next to Vic, who did not comply. “You got the time?” said Vic, without meeting the conductor’s fat hand. “We departed on schedule,” said the conductor, “about ten minutes ago.” Vic stared at the man, who retracted and flipped his arm, showing himself the face of his oversized watch. “Twelve thirty,” he added, “on the button.” Vic had already lifted his ticket to the conductor, who returned the short segment with a tiny rupture. “Tickets,” said the man, “tickets,” until the door to the next car sprung open, and kept open, allowing the good rumble of the wheels to penetrate the gentrified quiet of Vic’s coach. Vic thought a little bit about his week, how he avoided fistfights for a day, and how a single day of avoiding fisticuffs led to another, and so forth, until he had avoided boxing, scrabbling, wrestling, kicking, gnashing, slapping, punching, parrying, head-locking, and arm-wrenching until the seventh day, yesterday, when a dude—who Vic didn’t know—had charged at him on the sidewalk, forcing Vic to grapple, the whole encounter concluding without a single slug to the jaw. The other dude had instigated the fight, or whatever Vic would term it, and had disengaged, too, walking—no, ‘jaunting’—up the street past the awful hedges in front of the post office. The commerce of the street returned: bleating of delivery vans, orations from balconies, sawing of blacktop. Vic, for himself, dropped down into a basement pub, where he sat at a remove from a few college kids, three guys each trying to make a pretty girl. He ordered a few beers. When one of the guys staggered down the hallway to the toilet, Vic followed, and in the weak brown light, slapped the kid into the hand dryer, the porcelain of the sink, and the black graffiti of a bare wall, and finally, with a shot to the mouth that must’ve snapped off a tooth, knocked the boy into the stall, where he breathed without moving very much. Vic took a piss in the urinal. He washed his hands in the sink, dried them in the tepid current of the hand dryer. Just before he walked out, the kid said, “Thanks.” He said more, but the door closed.
An abrupt southbound express—“whomp!”—startled Vic in the towers and diagonals of his thought-making. The airshaft created by the second train jostled Vic’s coach, until the rapid clacking of the process, like the terminal frames of an untethered film, released the northbound, with a little bit of leveling, to its profile. The final sound of the two trains opposing each other may have resembled the frightened gasp of a woman bending across her shoulder for help, but Vic lengthened his posture, giving himself room to uncross his legs for five or six minutes. He had taken buses, and shuttle buses, and livery cabs, and street trolleys in the direction of the clinic. He had ridden a bicycle, and walked, and hitched, and hurried in the direction of the clinic. Vic had received escorts—a friend appointed by his father, a court officer, an officer of the peace, a social worker, and Audrey—who’d dropped him off near the clinic, but Vic had never waited three deep or worse, in a line that sometimes looped around the corner to the gas station mini-mart, never mind shouldered through the glass door cracked in a thick wave from boot-level to handle. No, he had loitered, instead, outside the aquarium, or the museum at the site of the assassination, or the home where the legendary athlete had lived as a kid before the Great Depression, or the specialty silverware factory, but he hadn’t entered any of those establishments, either. Vic could discern a portion of his face in the train’s window, not the hoods of his eyes, but the ridge of his nose, not his close-cropped ears, but his thick lower lip, and he could discern a portion of his white button-down shirt, the collar emerging from the collar of his winter jacket. He hadn’t loitered outside the aquarium today—too cold. He’d boarded a train, instead. A man could suffer hypothermia in cold weather, but a train, owing to its brisk pace, couldn’t freeze. A river, owing to its brisk current, couldn’t freeze. The current of trackside imagery rushing backward in the window couldn’t freeze, and Vic, sitting inside the train, regarding the current of sunny and shady shapes, couldn’t freeze, his eyesight couldn’t freeze, he could depend upon his eyesight to process movement, the river of the train.
It rained and it wouldn’t rain; the blank trees at the very tips of their branches had frayed like old wires, their trunks glittery. Everything wiry, thought Vic: the giant figures, like Titans, that collected and bolted the drooping lines to their many arms, or the catenary web above the train, or the barbed fences which had bulged, and broken open, and disappeared for whole segments. Wires reflected in ponds and streams, the wiry strength of water had began to beat in downward gradients, beside the cerebral trees that yearned, tragically but logically, for the knifing, prehistoric wires of lightning. Vic’s own wiry strength, uncoiled, dwelled within him like the potential energy of pulleys and winches, and he stretched, with modest completion, while the Twelve Twenty slowed for an elevated platform. As with currency exchange at a particular point of arrival, the coach traded fewer exiting passengers for several more entering passengers, the aisle filling with the triangles of legs, the elongations of raincoats, the contortions of mouths, and the knocks of luggage tossed into overhead shelving. A woman sat next to Vic. She wore light perfume, she hadn’t removed her coat, she tapped information into her smart phone. In crossing her legs, she plumped her top calf muscle. Audrey had crossed her legs in the same fashion, with the foot of the top leg somehow, impossibly, hooked behind the bottom leg, her thighs and her flat midriff and her light perfume. She had flown to Caracas or to Canberra or to Kuala Lumpur or to Karachi or to Konya or to Copenhagen or to Cologne or to Constantine or to Khartoum or to Cusco or to Quito or to Cancun or to Cleveland or—Vic severed the rhythm—to Edmonton, from which, Audrey once mailed a letter to him, or had she? If Edmonton had a red light district, then Audrey danced there, and if Edmonton had a casino, then Audrey waitressed there in a black skirt, and if Edmonton had a river, then Audrey stood beside it on a mild October day, and if Edmonton had a cold correcting rain then Audrey sheltered from it under a ripped awning, and if Edmonton had a vacant convention center then Audrey skipped beyond it on public transportation, and if Edmonton had a customs department at the airport, then Audrey once explained her reasons for traveling there, and if Edmonton had public posters of Wayne Gretzky and Scotty Olson, then Audrey admired the two sportsmen, and if Edmonton had a few men like Vic, then Audrey probably slept with some of them, but Victor stopped there, having exceeded a boundary. Audrey had departed for Edmonton just as much as she had departed for Copenhagen, just as much as her most recent gesture—to close her eyes so tightly her hands jumped away from her body—may have resulted from a sudden shock.
Vic’s father lived on the second floor of an elevator building, a shut-in, or mostly a shut-in, but for an occasional foray, with assistance, to the lunch counter. He smoked and coughed. He’d grown his moustache like a paintbrush; he’d grown thin. Vic’s father wore two hearing aids in his dusty apartment and cut on the radio often for the national news. He left the curtains closed but the screens open, the curtains blousy in cold and warm breezes alike. Several heavy locks defended his father’s front door. The bed slept one person. The couch slept one person. Vic kept keys. He’d visit, some nights, out of necessity. He’d tuck his knees to his chest on the couch, while his father sat near the stove, at a papery wooden table, solving the crossword. His father, old and bald, would apply a mentholated rub to his sunken chest. Victor would have nicked the Times, a salami, and some schnapps. This would entitle him to a night or two on the couch, but in the morning, his father would give him the business, if ‘giving him the business’ meant holding forth, at length, in areas of fleeting relevance. “People talk about Native Americans,” his dad would growl. “They should look at the camel. It was here first. When the Eskimos came across the Siberian ice about twenty thousand years ago, they passed the camels—the camels on their way out, the Eskimos on their way in. The camels became Middle Eastern. The Eskimos became Seminoles.” Vic would rub his chilly eyes, sit up, burrow his feet into his shoes. His dad made him laugh. “White people came to America,” his father continued. “They’d go down into the swamp and they were the first civilized people to see alligators. What the hell did they know? Some of them got eaten. Some ran away. A few of them hung around. I guess the Seminoles told a few of them about the alligators. There sure as hell weren’t any camels left, to speak of!” His dad coughed out a lot of cigarette smoke, sitting in his oversized bathrobe tied with a cloth belt. “That’s all right, pop,” Vic said, “that’s all right.” A breeze would split the curtains and light would blow into the apartment, shining the refrigerator handle, the rotary telephone, a framed photograph of Victor, his mother, and his father. Light blew out of the clouds, illuminating the center, the ribcage of the railcar. The woman beside Vic had struck an irritated posture, in response to the numerous text messages she had thumbed back and forth with a friend or boyfriend in another part of America. Vic recognized NWA, in static-y repertoire, from the maxed-out earbuds of a passenger’s iPod. “Ice Cube will swarm,” said Ice Cube, “on any motherfucker in a blue uniform!”
The Twelve Twenty cruised through several commuter rail stations, their platforms abbreviated, their signage amusing. “North,” one placard read, with a half-detached arrow beneath it, pointing into the earth. “Boston,” read another sign, with an arrow underscoring the general direction a passenger could travel, to reach this destination. Vic noted the broken roofs of the shelters, the rusty benches at forlorn distances, the whirlybird of the lampposts, a few lamps out of a dozen glowing for no passengers, old weathered tarpaulin blown against fences, rows of stunted evergreens in urban design, staircases leading down to enable underground crossing, newspaper vending machines with old papers yellowing in their windows, the fritz of blank message boards, the wooden planking between the rails. Every so often, a spur line would curve into the woods and perish, or a spur line would service a row of dead warehouses. The Twelve Twenty would encounter the sudden groan of a slower locomotive laboring on a local track in the same direction, the freight of its hoppers and tankers and boxcars and flatbeds. Extra rail, oxidized and misshapen, had been stowed along the tracks, as well as stores of concrete and wooden ties, but when a period of swampland began, a posse of foraging deer regarded the train, a great blue heron stood fastened to the water in shallow hunting, and Vic thought he’d observed the raised, red tail of a fox—or had anything at all been swallowed by the thick grass at the boundary of the mud? The woman beside Vic napped, her smartphone vibrating in her palm. A few conductors had gathered by the doors, kidding around. “Foibles,” said one. Did one say “foibles?” Nobody would’ve said “foibles.” All of them laughed. A short woman among them cackled. She hadn’t glanced at Vic or had she glanced his way? Did Vic miss a cue or a clue? He suffered a shot of vertigo, as if the scenery slugged backward while the train had come to a still-stop, but the train continued to drive forward, and Vic, with sweat at his collar, overlooked a water body, a bay that boomed like a loud laugh into the day-darkness of vanishing points. Trestles and suspension regulated the tracks above the water, then the shore received the railroad cars, promising, yet again, to mother a new arrival. Taggers, though, had slandered everything beyond the bay: utility sheds, maintenance shacks, heavy trucks that hadn’t shifted gears in a rusty decade, everyday poles, towering concrete supports, the bellies of buildings, the eastern faces of west-side structures, the shapes of machinery, the sample caboose at the Caboose Museum, even ordinary trackside mobile homes. The train, having arrived in another state, did, in fact, still-stop at an elevated platform. Very few people disembarked and very few people clambered aboard before the coaches jolted out of their idleness. Vic’s seatmate awoke, and having deciphered the circumstances, gathered her purse, and departed for the restroom. The line of her back, Vic thought, even through her coat, the line of her back like the line of Audrey’s back, through a dress or a coat, no matter, the line of her back. A new passenger inquired about the seat, but Victor indicated, “Taken.” The train gathered speed, and warmth, the cabin of the railcar had switched, at last, to heat. Nobody else had inquired about the open seat, even as a few wan figures drifted through the aisle, and the woman, herself, had not reappeared. The woman had not reappeared. Did Vic miss a cue or a clue? He jammed himself deep into his seat, he pushed himself backward by digging his shoes into the floor, sweat at his collar, his neck sweaty, but the warmth of the heated cabin worked him into a slowing of attention, a slowing of search, until Vic, after fighting a few wobbly slumps, fell asleep.
Vic dreamt the word ‘reify’, and he dreamt the name ‘Gareth’, before he awoke, but his wakefulness, a realm of low awareness, lasted a few moments before he dreamt the word ‘gavel’. A kilted man, in a different dream, jumped up a staircase, having hoisted a large television overhead. In the cathedral airspace of the second floor landing waited a much smaller chap, a fellow featuring small, round spectacles. An announcer, in the dream, proclaimed, “Television versus Feather!” when the smaller fellow produced a shaft of peacock plumage. Vic woke again into the realm of low awareness, before succumbing to another dream, about the puzzles on the funny pages. “Zodiac Isn’t A Brain Game,” read one puzzle. Words from earlier dreams—reify, Gareth, gavel—became clues to the crossword puzzle. He dreamt of himself as a teenager, before he’d had sex with girls. He dreamt of his young self asleep, dreaming of sexual acts that he couldn’t possibly know of, given his inexperience. Elvis Presley was giving it to Farah Fawcett in his dream-within-a-dream. The logic problem—how could his young self imagine sex?—disturbed the adult Vic, sleeping in his seat on the train. He wanted to wake. Elvis was hurting Farah. Both, briefly, had become rats, or had grown rat heads atop their contorted human bodies, but soon enough, in the dream, Elvis had gone, and Farah had gotten lost, naked, in the woods, in weeds, with mud on her thighs, crying, her face obscured in shade, her curvature the curvature of any woman’s broken body, and this nettled the adult Vic, asleep on the Twelve Twenty. He wanted to wake. Someone uttered the word monk, and Vic woke to the sound of jazz from a passenger’s earbuds, perhaps the earbuds from earlier, only now, a saxophone climbed several steps until it fell back, climbed several steps and fell back, climbed and fell, before the rest of the band—piano, bass, drums—joined. The realm of low awareness persisted, so Vic straightened his posture, sitting up, rigid, in his seat. His seatmate, the woman wearing a raincoat and distant perfume, had reappeared. She held her smartphone to her ear, behind a curtain of hair she shook, in her poor mood. “I’m on the train,” she said, in abbreviations of confidence to her partner in conversation. To clarify that, she added, “the same train as five minutes ago, the same train as I can’t discuss this issue because I’m on the train.” Victor could not determine the train’s place on the spectrum of its route. How long had he dozed? How many miles had the train cruised? Had he missed his platform? The sky had cleared. The sky had bronzed out of its exposure to the sun even as a muggy moderation must’ve taken hold outside the climate control of the rolling interior. Vic’s worry might have radiated like the concentric loops of water, after a rock might’ve fallen into the middle of a quiet lake ringed by sage blue hills. “I don’t care if I can’t prove it,” the woman said. “Hurt is hurt, Gareth.” A swerve of the tracks, however, slowed the coaches, which creaked with the effort to remain coupled. “I can’t hang up,” the woman confessed. “I can’t disconnect and you know that about me.” Walls grew beside the slowing train, then diminished. The saxophone from the earbuds again climbed several steps before falling back. Other walls grew beside the train, then remained, as a corridor. The saxophone shrieked a final note, then quieted, the song exhausted. “I am trying, trying!, to get as far away from you as I possibly can,” said Vic’s seatmate. The train entered a tunnel.
The tunnel lights, every few seconds, fell backward in a feeble streak until approaching bulbs reestablished the grey joints of heavy stones and the bundled arteries of wiring. The lights fell backward like the signage, Vic thought, on a wooded, county route at an early hour. His posture in the left-hand seat resembled his posture at the wheel of an automobile, the curving of the tracks in the tunnel akin to the curving of roadway, his right foot anxiously switching. He didn’t think the signal would carry, but his seatmate’s telephone call had continued, and Vic understood the dynamic from the standpoint of his own anguish. Everything meant the opposite. “I do care about you,” said the woman to her conversation partner, but she meant otherwise, she meant don’t. “I do love you,” Audrey had said, but she’d meant otherwise, she meant don’t. The undercarriages of the Twelve Twenty groaned and leveled, the undercarriages ground their wheels into the rigid opposition of the rails, when the electricity in Vic’s coach failed, the cabin dimming, for a moment. “Please,” said the woman in the raincoat, in the seat to Vic’s right, as the Twelve Twenty drove past another marker in the tunnel. For a moment, the car had re-illuminated. “Please,” the woman reiterated, and Vic thought about the opposite of please, when the coach’s lights dimmed again, a breakdown in the energy transmitted from the overhead wiring to the locomotive, and from the locomotive to its cars, fastened together. Vic reached for Audrey. He took Audrey’s neck in both of his hands, the woman beside him kicking her right shoe into the aisle. Her cellular phone clattered to the floor. Vic felt the woman’s pulse leaping above his grip into the swollen redness of her face, before a scream started a few rows behind, women and men standing. The Twelve Twenty emerged from the tunnel into the bright honest blare of daylight, when Victor released his hold, the woman in the raincoat spitting, her eyes wet. Vic walked through the next coach, where nobody knew him, and the coach after that, passing through the café car, as well. The train broke for a platform, and Vic, waiting in the vestibule between cars, took the opportunity to disembark, even as the radios fastened to the belts of the conductors reported a man, an incident, the need for assistance.
Vic stood at the midpoint of an overpass, his hands curled around two metal bars in a series of metal bars which rose from the retainer—as an inmate might peer outward from his cell. Beneath him, a locomotive idled, by itself, on one of two tracks that serviced a low, defunct platform. Its engine chugged with late century significance; its oily exhaust fumed upward into the oil-smoke complexion of the afternoon. No passengers had alighted on the main platform, serviced by the four track north and the southbound three track. No passengers clattered up the steps toward the main body of the station. Several red signals slept above the sleepy rails—would this mean ‘stop’ to an approaching train or would this mean no trains approaching or departing anytime soon? Where had Vic’s train gone? Had Vic been riding a train? He examined his coat, smeared with dirt, and his shirt, smeared with mud, and his trousers, greasy, and his shoes, splitting apart. His breath smelled dirty and his fingertips presented slivers of grime beneath his fingernails. He concentrated. “Victor,” he heard. He heard his name “Victor” overhead, almost like the trajectory of a shell, the wind lobbing his name beyond the overpass, where several dark buildings loitered. “Victor,” he heard, in hard footsteps crossing the lanes of the overpass, some of the men in plain clothes, and others dressed in full uniform, black gloves, and caps. Despite calling his first name, they knocked him down impersonally, a knee jamming his face against the sidewalk. Vic let the officers topple him but he didn’t volunteer to cross his arms behind his back, the officers having to muscle his arms into a position where his wrists could be handcuffed, “manacled,” thought Vic, an officer sitting on each of his legs. They kept him there, stomach down, the same knee pressing his face into the tepid pockmarks of the concrete. A plain clothes officer breathed an update into his radio, which popped, at the other end, in the affirmative. The officers stood Vic, but pressed his body against the bars he had clutched freely a few moments ago. He now viewed the tracks as a prisoner, while the uniformed policemen frisked his pockets, tossing aside their only discovery: a passenger timetable. They read Victor his Miranda rights. They asked him if he wanted to cooperate. When he said nothing, they circled him around, maybe to gut-punch him, Vic thought, but each policeman wore an electrified expression. One of the plain clothes officers asked him again if he wanted to cooperate, when the strings loosened—the strings that governed the catastrophe of Vic’s confusion. He didn’t sob but he shook. His eyes scored again and again where he couldn’t distinguish suffering from the dialects of rage. Vic yearned for his father, for waking on his father’s couch, a breeze blowing the fabric of the curtains into tremulous halves. The day’s brightness would drift out the window, like an expiring deep breath, the curtains tumbling together, the living room dim. A tin percolator set, in the kitchen, would brew coffee over a gas flame, amidst the uneven notes of its percussion. “Let’s go,” one of the officers said, and they walked Vic, both his arms hooked, toward the haphazard geometry of their parking. They had deployed, on the overpass, in a hurry.