Hank knew where to stand. He had commuted on the Red Line for thirty years. When he boarded the train at Monroe Street he got prime position in the middle of the car, away from the crush of sweaty commuters who crammed together at the entrance. It was mid-July and the CTA’s air conditioning had given up.
In his former life he would have been schlepping his battered sample case and wearing his wool suit and white shirt with a tie Arlene would have bought for him at Fields or Saks. He would have been thinking about the sales calls he’d made and his plans for the rest of the week, and he would have tried not to think about Arlene waiting at home for him, ready to unload a day’s worth of her complaints. The passengers would be packed hip-to-hip and ass-to-ass, and Hank’s teeth would be clenched as the train screeched and clattered down the track, and he’d be suffocating from the tang of cheap after-shave and smoke-breath and the international potpourri of BO. And with all that stink and heat and humidity and noise Hank would have been happy.
He gripped the stainless steel loop on the back of a seat occupied by a trim, dark-haired woman who was reading an Elmore Leonard novel. Hank liked everything about her: her taste in literature, her lack of an iPod, the way her silk blouse draped her breasts—which Hank was studiously not staring at—her crooked mouth, the way her eyes darted from side to side as she read, and her smooth skin, which was sort of peach-colored, like she did stuff outside on the weekends. She was pretty, but not too pretty and she was younger than Hank, but not too young. Maybe she was one of those “life possibilities” his employment counselor had been talking about.
Hank’s left hand clutched the glossy brochure the CareerFinders counselor had handed him at the end of their session. The brochure, he was told, was full of important stuff he would need as he “pivoted” (the counselor’s word) toward his new career (whatever that was going to be). But it didn’t have the weight of his old briefcase, and when the train lurched out of the station, Hank lost his balance and fell hard into the tattooed kid standing next to him. The boy grabbed Hank to keep him from tumbling to the floor.
“You okay?” he asked.
Hank steadied himself and he could feel the color rising in his cheeks. He used to be able to hold his satchel in one hand and flip through the Tribune with the other. He nodded at the boy. “Thanks,” he said.
When the train pulled into Grand, he couldn’t avoid his reflection in the window. His hair was completely gray now. Arlene probably would have told him he looked distinguished, but with the harsh lighting he looked almost frail. He missed Arlene’s meals. His polo shirt hung loose and the collar was frayed. Arlene never would have let him leave the house looking like that.
This time, as the train accelerated, he held on tight. The woman had closed her book and was staring at him as though she knew him. Her eyes were friendly, inviting conversation. He would ask her about the book. Let her know he had read it, that they had something in common. And he wouldn’t do all the talking. He’d listen to what she had to say and then…
She tugged on his sleeve. “Would you like my seat, sir?” she asked.
Her words crumbled him. He shook his head. “I’m okay,” he mumbled. He tried to stand a little straighter, but his strength was gone. As the train screeched to a stop at Clark & Division his hand nearly slipped from the handhold. The man seated next to the woman got off and she moved over to the window seat. Hank dropped himself into the seat next to her. He sighed deeply.
“Long day?” she said, again smiling.
“Not long. Just different.” He looked at the brochure. He snorted. “My future is behind me,” he said.
“Behind you?” she said, her eyebrows peaked.
“A sportscaster once proclaimed of some hotshot rookie that, ‘most of his future is ahead of him.’” He shook his head. “Most of my future isn’t.”
She tilted her head to read the cover of the CareerFinders brochure. “You’re looking for a new job?” she asked.
“I’m looking for an old job. But they don’t make them anymore. I was in printing services–-you know, company newsletters, handbooks, brochures. Arlene warned me. Told me the internet would make me obsolete. What do you do?” he asked.
“I’m a librarian.”
Hank raised his eyebrow.
“We’re not obsolete. Not yet,” she said. “But we’ve had to adapt.”
“Yeah that’s what Arlene always told me. ‘You’ve got to retrain, Hank. Go to trade school, Hank. Upgrade yourself, Hank.’”
The train emerged from underground. In the natural light he could see friendly lines around her eyes.
“My name’s Hank,” he said.
She smiled. A southbound train roared past the window. “I’m Diane,” she said, after the clamor subsided.
They rolled past familiar landscapes: Treasure Island and Torstenson Glass Company and the dog park and then the backside of a row of Chicago-brick three-flats.
“See that guy there?” Hank said. He pointed out the window where an old man was seated in a folding chair on the third-floor stoop drinking a beer.
“He looks content,” Diane said. The train started to slow for the Fullerton stop.
Hank leaned forward. “When the train slows down, I can look into those apartments and watch people having dinner or reading a book or washing dishes. I imagine their lives.”
The conductor announced the transfers for Belmont. Diane leaned toward him to make room for a large woman making her way to the exit. “Is Arlene your wife?” she asked.
He nodded. Nobody ever asked him about Arlene anymore. “She died last year. Breast cancer,” he said.
She touched his forearm, just for an instant. “I’m sorry.”
“We were married for twenty-one years and Arlene was a complete pain-in-the-ass for nineteen of those years.”
Diane laughed and then quickly covered her mouth. “I guess sometimes marriage changes people.”
Hank shook his head. “Arlene was always in my corner, but she was annoying when I met her and she just got worse after we were married. Complained about everything—the weather, neighbors, politicians. Democrat or Republican—didn’t matter to Arlene—she was an equal opportunity complainer.”
Diane looked at him, the lines around her eyes a little more crinkled. “So what were the two good years?”
“When Arlene got sick her attitude changed. Through all that suffering she never complained. Even developed a sense of humor. Woman was amazing.” His voice had turned husky. More passengers exited at Belmont. The aisle was now empty. “Dying,” Frank said. “That was Arlene’s finest moment.”
Diane squeezed his hand. “When I get home I’m not going to complain to my boyfriend about anything,” she said. “Unless he really screws up.”
Of course she had a boyfriend. Hank should have expected that.
The train doors whooshed open and the computer-voiced conductor announced they’d arrived at Addison. Diane shoved her book into her bag. “This is my stop.”
As she stood, Hank tapped her on the arm. “Just remember. Most of your future’s ahead of you,” he said. They laughed.
Her eyes crinkled. “So is yours, Hank.”
When she got to the train door she turned and gave him a little wave. Hank couldn’t help but smile. He had liked everything about her. Well, everything except for the boyfriend thing. As they pulled out of the station he watched the sun-washed neighborhoods roll by. From where he sat, everything looked clean and bright and promising.