James looked up from his phone and reached for his wallet to get his monthly pass ready. The 7:53 to Penn Station was standing room only as usual. He was thankful for the seat and the fact that it was his wife’s small rear in the seat adjacent. They had raised fares as much as the denizens of this beleaguered state could afford, then started cutting the number of trains and crew drastically. Nothing worked, and finding one seat, let alone two together, made commuting akin to being a roller derby Bay Bomber in the sixties. Not quite a cattle car yet, but give them time.
He glanced over at Marian, resting up for brunch and matinee with her new best friend Renee. Her embarrassing snores were scant moments away, her silky red hair pressed against the filthy window. For a woman who dispensed herbs and holistic advice with equal enthusiasm, she always had been a bit cavalier with her own vulnerability. Another inconsistency, the kind one noticed all the time after almost three decades of marriage but knew better than to comment on. Well, he knew better anyway, her not so much. For most of the twenty minutes to the train, she had been clearly bothered by his lack of interest in exactly which matinee she was going to see. Hence the peppered queries, for which he had been a half-asleep captive audience.
Didn’t he care which play she would be seeing? (No.)
Didn’t he want to know which big star in search of instant credibility would be center stage? (No again.)
Didn’t he remember that they had seen this very same play at the Shubert the first year they were together, with what’s her name playing the lead, when they had those great steaks and baked potatoes at Gallagher’s, when she got those free house seats from her boss? (No, no, no, but he did remember that guy’s pretentious handlebar moustache that was never in horizontal alignment.)
She should have known better. He didn’t play that game and didn’t have to. It was Shakespeare, always Shakespeare for her, and James disdained that corpse. Hated him, truth be told. Every play, every poem, every sonnet. Every summer repertory theatre crushing otherwise lush lawn in some park. Every coffee mug with that black and white silhouette on it. Four hundred plus years running, and he hated all of it, even that otherwise fine Devil Wears Prada actress Anne Hathaway who shared Mrs. Bard’s name.
Shakespeare and Latin and catechism and just about everything else they had tried to drill into him many decades ago at the Holy Nazarene in Rye. Some memories just don’t fade.
So this morning’s less than sunny attitude had nothing to do with his wife and everything to do with Shakespeare. He loved Marian, deeply and truly and all that, and admired her for mastering a very long time ago what it took to make marriage to him work. Trips. Day trips to Manhattan. Cruise trips to the Caribbean. Biking trips in Europe. Alone, with girlfriends, with the alumni association, with her yoga class. Short hops with folks like Renee and longer ones with longer term friends like Patti and Becca. A whole lot of trips. Over time she learned not to impart all the details of what she did when she was gone for which he gave small thanks. He had always understood how much of a control freak and daily pain he really was and their marriage had simply educated her. Love and accommodation.
He looked about the train car as they stopped at Metro Park. The ridiculously crowded train was about to get more ridiculous and James knew that even more slumped shoulders and weakening knees would be filling the narrow aisle. No doubt a guy named Guy with the most important deal on the planet would soon be letting his briefcase massage James’ neck. Guy would be informing the entire train about his new deal, everything that was wrong with it and everything that could go wrong with it. James always got Guy, his raspy voice, his briefcase, his wheezing, his half-eaten sesame bagel. He never got the quiet unmarried woman with exemplary cleavage heading to the Victoria’s Secret open casting call. She would be in the next car, as always. Just how life worked.
The man settling in to the aisle space next to him probably wasn’t named Guy and held neither phone nor bagel. He was tall and heavyset, graying brown hair and freckles, loose fitting jeans, torn Emerson Lake & Palmer t-shirt, blue Red Sox cap, small orange and black wrist tattoo of something that resembled a pumpkin playing hockey. He was staring, looking James over even as James now averted the gaze and found the maroon back of the seat in front. James wanted to turn and whisper to Marian, who of course still remembered everyone and everything, what they ate at whose house, where so-and-so had been hired, where he had been fired. But she was sleeping so quietly, warming up her snores, leaning more heavily into the dirty glass, and the man was in whisper range anyway. He just looked so familiar. An associate from Siemens on a day off perhaps. Almost certainly some part of his always fading past.
“Jim, is that you?”
James looked up. “That would depend,” he replied with a slight smile.
Long ago James had declared Jim verboten, along with Jimmy, Jimmer and Jimbo. Even for Marian who especially liked the simplicity of Jim’s one syllable and the way Jimmy was so easy to shout with emotion. Like carbon dating or tree rings, the use of Jim would put him as a classmate at Brown or prior.
“Depend my ass. Dude, you can’t hide in that goddamn thousand-dollar suit! Son of a bitch! Can’t believe it’s you, Jimster!”
That probably eliminated Brown. And Jimster was new and the worst one ever.
James felt bad for not recalling Kyle Miller right away. Not that he owed the jerk anything but Miller would most certainly be a prominent statistic in any compilation of his fifty-one years. Miller and he went back to a simpler time, before texting, before smartphones, computers, almost before stereo. He and Kyle Miller fought almost every day from 5th grade through ninth, something he never quite understood way back when. When James would return from summers at the Cape and Labor Day had passed and he was dropped off at Nazarene, he knew that he and Kyle would soon enough be rolling down that grassy hill leading from the school’s first floor red entrance door to the black wrought-iron fence. That was understandable. Each year was new and Kyle couldn’t really be blamed for testing how summer growth spurts or karate lessons might have changed things. Not that there weren’t other regular grapplers. They weren’t the only two crazy Catholic adolescents. Yet others seemed perfectly content to let the results of September battles dictate pecking orders for the school year. Not Kyle Miller. He’d go down on a Monday and be ready to try again by Wednesday or Thursday.
James did remember a few losses. Sucker punches, days when he was tired, or worried about what his mother would be thinking when she got the call from the nuns. Mornings when he had eaten too many pancakes and just couldn’t dart about with his usual quickness. But the losses were few and far between and James recalled that day at the end of 9th grade he gathered a few years of scrawled W and L notes and compiled something of an official notebook binder of their joint track record. By his admittedly questionable count, there had been 403 victories, 19 losses and 20 too close to calls in those five school years.
Why hadn’t the school tossed them both? What supernatural powers had his very involved mother exhibited with the sisters? Why hadn’t he ever been able to just walk away? And why had he considered Kyle Miller a friend, his strangest, no need for after-school play dates friend, someone to be admired for persistence if not brainpower? And where and why had Kyle moved without notice the summer before 10th grade? These were all questions for the ages. Frankly, having passed the last thirty-five years in a whirlwind of dates, dollar bills and diapers, and mortgages, mentors and Marian, the simple fact that he had rarely thought of Kyle again now mystified him.
“You bet! You ride this train all the time, old buddy?”
“Yep, five days a week. You?”
“No way. I had to go down to Trenton to help out a friend. Just on my way back to Vermont. Hey, you ever see any of the old guys?”
“Nah, I pretty much lost touch,” James said. “I read Sister Josephine died a few years ago and they were thinking about selling the church for condos, but that’s about it.”
“Yeah, Josephine. She was the only nice one in the bunch.”
“Who gives a shit?”
“So?” James nodded, his end of the conversation on empty already.
“One for old times?”
James looked over at Marian who hadn’t stirred. The ticket taker was still thirty feet away at the front of the car. He removed his smartphone and slipped it and his wallet inside his wife’s purse. He checked the immediate area to make sure there were no pregnant women or little children. He brushed his thin graying brown hair back.
“Yeah, guess so, why not?”
He sprang up like an aging tiger out of the cage. His left fist collided with Kyle’s stomach as his right elbow careened off his chin. It felt better than good. He fell forward onto Kyle, and they were on the floor rolling in the narrow space between black leather shoes and brown high heels. The phone calls were on hold now but the screams and shouts of disgusted annoyance were loud as could be. A cup of coffee fell to the ground and James caught sight of a buttered bagel, almost certainly sesame, plummeting onto Kyle’s head. James could see the oversized ticket taker pushing his way through the aisle with decidedly less determination than he remembered the sisters showing on a regular basis. Chances are he wouldn’t be lifting them up by their earlobes either.
Marian was still sleeping, missing a show so much better than Shakespeare. Her loss.
About the author:
Peter Brav is the author of the novels Sneaking In, The Other Side of Losing, Zappy I’m Not, and 331 Innings, as well as numerous plays, short stories, essays, and poems. He lives in Princeton with his wife Janet and three small dogs. His short story “Changing” was published by the Kelsey Review in 2011.