Author: Amy Solov
Grade 11 at Oliver Ames High School
1st place Live Arts Contest
The haggard man sat cautiously on the plastic seat of the train. He had a crumpled one-way ticket in his left hand, a small green trash bag in his right. The bag held what little belongings he still had—a ripped windbreaker, a worn leather wallet with eleven dollars and thirty-three cents, a newspaper obituary, a small bottle of pills, a wrinkled snapshot of his wife and Hazel at Fanueil Hall, and one dull razor which he rarely attempted to run through his bushy beard. The man had broken exactly one year ago to the day. He put his head back on the cool metal of the train and fell into the memory he had seen every day for three hundred and sixty-four days.
* * *
It’s two thirty-three in the morning, and he wakes to the feeling of being watched. He bolts upright in bed, but his wife doesn’t flinch. They have a Tempur Pedic bed—the kind that can keep a wine glass upright even when somebody is jumping up and down on the other side— so she doesn’t feel him get up and walk downstairs. He pours himself a glass of water from the chrome refrigerator and stares at the finger paintings hanging proudly from plastic magnets. He finds himself smiling at one, a smudgy painting of a butterfly. Its wings are a deep purple that bleed into the yellow of the body. In the bottom left corner, five sloppy letters spell out H–A–Z–E–L. That’s when he hears the scream. Then the bang. He can’t make it up the two flights of stairs before he hears the second bang.
* * *
The man always woke up before he reached the upstairs bedrooms. Somehow, his mind had blocked out every action and every emotion that began when he reached the top of that staircase and realized he was alone. He felt nothing, and the numbness that overtook his body pushed him to leave that beautiful home in Brookline that haunted his dreams. A new family, loving and oblivious, had long since moved into the expensive brick home. The man, bitter and alone, had moved into a cold alley on Washington Street in Boston. The man lived a monotonous life. Every day was the exact same—ride the
train, buy a six inch turkey sub for $2.50, get back on the train, ride it to the alley, and settle onto a newspaper bed until the following morning. On this day, the man felt a void heavier than usual in his heart. The moment he opened his eyes to the piercing sun, he knew it was the one year anniversary of that day. He walked over to the train. This was it. This was his last ride. He bought a one-way ticket and wrung his hands six times out of necessity before settling deeply down into his favorite spot, the fifth
one on the right. He had been anticipating this day for months now, and he finally felt ready. He was to ride the train through the entire city of Boston. His city. Each stop held a different memory that he wanted to relive one last time.
The man’s first memory came at the stop by Fanueil Hall. He took out the picture of his wife and Hazel, their beautiful smiles radiant in the sun of last summer. They were standing in the middle of the market, fresh lemonades and bags of cookies from the Chip Yard in their hands. His wife was staring down at Hazel, who looked as happy as she had ever been. Her brown hair frizzed into little curls around her delicate face. The man glanced up tentatively as a mass of people climbed onto the train. When the door opened, an intoxicating aroma of chocolate chip cookies overcame his senses. How was that possible? Most people averted their eyes as they walked by the homeless man sitting in the fifth seat on the right, who had tears quietly rolling down his filthy cheeks.
The man kept his eyes closed for some time, still feeling the adrenaline course through his blood. Emotionally preparing himself for what was next, he counted the stops in his head, knowing the train schedule by heart. Kenmore… Hynes… Copley… finally the man opened his eyes. Arlington. A memory of his wife came flooding back to him with surprising force.
* * *
On their ten year anniversary, the man and his wife had taken the Green Line to Arlington. From there, they walked to the Hatch Shell, where a small, no name band was performing. The night went smoothly until the couple began bickering, shortly after intermission. Something about leaving a candle lit, not having enough cash to pay the babysitter, the man never ironing his dress shirts properly.
“I’m ready to go home now,” the wife sighed, completely exasperated.
The man nodded his head in agreement. He was disappointed that they couldn’t spend one night together without the stress of life getting in the way. They were the couple in the coffee shop that could barely look at each other, the couple that resembled perfect strangers as they walked side by side down the street. As he gathered his jacket and stood up, the band came back on stage.
“This next song,” the lead singer said, a voice like butter in the microphone, “is to all the true companions out there.” The man and his wife instantly stopped and stared at each other. Sure enough, their wedding song, “True Companion” by Marc Cohn, began to play. Without thinking, the man wrapped his wife in his arms and they began swaying slowly. In that moment, the man saw his wife just as beautiful as the day he had married her. The shadowy worry lines on her forehead smoothed away, and her aging hands were suddenly young. She nestled her head onto his shoulder, and he sang quietly in her ear.
“When the years have done irreparable harm,
I can see us walking slowly arm in arm,
just like that couple on the corner do
‘cause girl I will always be in love with you.”
They stayed out until two a.m. that night, giddy and in love.
* * *
The man’s heart physically ached as he played back this moment in his mind. He ignored the sea of bodies boarding the train, desperately trying to picture his wife as he saw her that night. Yes, beautiful blonde hair, her favorite floral sundress, and eyes that stared at him like he was perfect. The image of his wife distracted him from the young woman that sat down next to him. She kept her head down and popped in two white ear buds to tune out the world. By accident or by fate, she forgot to push the other end of her ear buds into her phone, and music blasted from its speaker.
“When I leave this earth, I’ll be with the angels standing, I’ll be out there waiting for my true companion.”
He smiled knowingly, and the overwhelming strength made him light-headed. The man
knew she was speaking out to him, that she so desperately wanted them to be together again. She was his true companion waiting with the angels, and he needed to be there with her by nightfall.
There was no desire stronger than the man’s to get off the train. He hopped off at the next stop, making his way quickly to the narrow alley he called home. It was dingy and unwelcoming, but home nonetheless. On the way, the man encountered a young family walking slowly in front of him. They had a daughter, about six years old, standing between them and holding a glass mason jar. The man tried to keep his distance, but he was genuinely intrigued. As he approached them, the little girl whipped her head around to face him and stopped walking. Embarrassed, the mother tugged at her daughter’s arm, muttering something about being mindful of the homeless and what did she tell her about strangers in the city and don’t look at him.
“It’s a monarch,” the little girl smiled, ignoring her mother and holding the little jar out to the man. He smiled faintly, but when he didn’t reach out to take the jar, the girl frowned.
“Take it, please!” She whispered, and her small eyes sparkled. He grasped it tentatively. Inside the jar was one single butterfly, with vivid orange and black wings. Somebody had mindfully poked holes in the metal top of the jar, so the butterfly could get fresh air. The man stopped for only a few seconds to admire the butterfly, and when he looked up to give it back, the family was out of sight.
The rest of the walk back to his alley, the man marveled at the little girl’s resemblance to his daughter. The man rushed, shuffling his booted feet all the way to the alley. He made his way further and further until he reached his favorite resting place, which had newspapers laid down from sleeping there the night before. He lowered his body down tentatively, and then began to rummage in the trash bag for his bottle of pills. They were the pills the man relied too heavily on for much too long. He curled on his side, attempting to get comfortable, as he began to swallow the pills. Nine…Ten… Eleven. That was the end of the bottle. He closed his eyes in a Romeoesque style, attempting to picture the wife and daughter he would soon see. It was a death of passion, they would say, how very romantic. Time passed. Seconds, minutes, he wasn’t sure how long. He focused intently. Suddenly a memory flashed into his mind.
* * *
He’s downstairs, getting a drink of water in the middle of the night. No, he is not getting water. He is reaching into the drawer next to the refrigerator. What is he reaching for? He pulls his hand out, and there is a silver pistol in it. Did the man own a gun? No, he is drinking water while staring at Hazel’s artistic interpretation of a butterfly. Water, clear glass, purple bleeding butterfly. Bleeding. He dashes up the stairs, he makes his way to the top this time, and there’s definitely something shiny and silver in his right hand. Shiny, cold, and silver. Water. He bursts into his wife’s room, perhaps to warn her that there is somebody in the house trying to hurt them. He feels no presence of an intruder, just his own rapid heart. His wife is breathing melodically, in and out, in and out. Suddenly, his arm is raised and he lets his finger go. Deafening bang. He sprints to his daughter’s room. He must be going to protect her, must be, must be. He completes a similar action, the arm raise and release of an index finger. Why is that associated with a bang again? Why is he running? Running, running out of the house, running from his family. He can’t stop running.
* * *
The man felt like a coward, and his stomach twisted in knots. He tried to get up and run, because running from his fears seemed like the right thing to do. But the pills, they weighed him down like a rock. His legs were so wobbly that he couldn’t stand, and the entire alley spun. It was so cold. He slipped in and out of the blackness, but he was no longer ready to go. His mind began running, trying to interpret the lies and the blank spots from the underlying truths. There was nobody to hate but himself. And he smelled chocolate chip cookies, and he heard “True Companion,” and he clutched the butterfly, but it didn’t mean what he thought it did anymore. And then he slipped further into the darkness, and he forgot to ask for forgiveness, but forgiveness from what? And forgiveness from whom? And then his mind couldn’t convince him where he was going, and then, just like the pull of the trigger, he was gone.