Reading Amelia Gray on the Train
I'm riding the train home reading Amelia Gray's On the Moment of Conception while seated between two men in business suits. I see the words mons pubis in the story and I hope the suits are reading over my shoulder. They aren't. They are glued to their phones, a requirement mandated by Metra in an effort to reduce the number of head injuries inflicted on commuters. You either hit your hand with a squirt from the superglue dispenser as you board, or you are prohibited from using your phone. This only applies if you sit upstairs, of course. Anyone caught in noncompliance suffers serious penalties, including, but not limited to, death. This only applies to commuter lines, from what I understand. There was a referendum back in January. I voted yay, although so many were opposed. I didn't take the train then.
I start reading aloud. I'm at the part that I suppose is supposed to be either erotic or terrifying depending on whether you are a woman or a man. Or maybe it is neither. The suits move their thumbs in jerks. They do not get off at La Grange. I figured they would.
More people board and squirt and climb. The suit to the left of me wears charcoal gray pants and black shoes. Wing tips. His hair is neatly trimmed. It is six o'clock. He should have more five o'clock shadow by now. His thumb slides over the screen, repeating an upward circular motion over and over. His thumb lands on a picture, slides it up, lifts, and swings back around to do it again. He is smiling. Slide lift swing slide lift swing slide lift swing. He slides pictures of children up and away over and over. He is a pedophile. He does not get off at Hinsdale. I knew he wouldn't. Pedophiles don't live in Hinsdale.
The suit on my right wears charcoal gray tweed pants with brown shoes. He should have on black shoes like the pedophile on my left. I tell him. I say, "You shouldn't wear brown shoes with those pants." He pretends not to hear me. I tug on the sleeve of his black tweed overcoat. All this tweed and shoe leather could make a girl crazy. I point to the pedophile. "You need black wing tips like him." The pedophile says, "These aren't wing tips." I turn to tell the suit on my right that the pedophile is rude and argumentative, but he must have gotten off at the last stop. He didn't say goodbye. I say, "How rude." Then I turn to my left to tell the pedophile that the man in the brown shoes left without saying goodbye, but he's gone too. He also left without saying goodbye. I say "How rude" again. I get up to look down the stairwell after him but it's empty. I call out, "Have a nice night," just in case he can hear me. I always say a proper goodbye, so I wave too. As I do, the superglue in my hand releases. My phone drops, striking the head of a man seated below. He falls over onto the woman sitting next to him. She is reading aloud. I can't see my phone down there anywhere. She says, "Hey!" and shrugs the man off with her shoulder. The force sits him upright but his head drops forward.
I spot my phone wedged in the back of the collar of his black tweed overcoat.
I say excuse me to everyone I pass and climb down the stairs. The train stops. Everyone says excuse me to me as they pass. I walk over to the man. He is dead. The girl is still reading aloud. The words are familiar. "You have strong shoulders," I tell her. She smiles but doesn't look up from her reading. She smells familiar. The train starts up again. Shoe leather. It's the pedophile who was sitting next to me upstairs! He hasn't gotten off yet! I am relieved. We can say a proper goodbye. "What are you reading?" I ask. She says, "Amelia Gray." I tell her I am too. I say, "I am too." She smiles again. She looks at me. She has small teeth and I can't see her shoes. The train pulls to a stop and the man falls forward but his chin hooks onto the back of the seat in front of him so he's slumped forward, head up, body sagging, arms hanging straight down. His overcoat is crumpled all around him. The train starts up again and his arms swing back and forth. His knuckles swing and scrape and drag across the floor over and over. Swing scrape drag swing scrape drag swing scrape drag. The floor is dirty and now his fingers are too. His thumb is the dirtiest of them all.
"He's dead," I say. The girl doesn't look up.
"I know," she says. I reach into his collar and take my phone. I inspect it for damage. "He was a pedophile," I say. It looks fine. "I know," she says. There are no cracks on the screen. My knuckles are oily from touching his hair so I wipe them on his black tweed overcoat, then I flip my hand over and rub clean my fingertips. I do this over and over. Wipe flip rub wipe flip rub wipe flip rub. The train rounds a corner and the man leans into the turn. He falls to the floor. He's so clumsy. I step over him to take his seat. His body begins to dissolve. At the next stop, seventeen people get off. I knew they would. The man is trodden down unto his death. I reach over and swipe his phone from his hand before it disappears just as an older man walks by and picks up the black tweed overcoat. I smile at him. "That's a nice overcoat," I say. He gives me a thumb's up. "That's a nice phone," he says. He gets off at Westmont.
The dead man's phone screen isn't cracked. I am relieved. I need a backup in case of another superglue malfunction. I slide my thumb over the screen, repeating an upward circular motion over and over. My thumb lands on a picture, slides it up, lifts, and swings back around to do it again. There are pictures of children. Children running. Children laughing. Children smiling. Children who smile at him. Children who look like him. Children who call him Daddy. Slide lift swing slide lift swing slide lift swing. The girl reads the words mons pubis out loud. I reach down and take the man's shoes. I tell her I have to go. I say, "I have to go." She smiles. She has no teeth. I step over a stain shaped like a man on the floor of the train car. The pedophile, now a smooth sidewalk silhouette, is the color of year-old gum. I put the backup phone in my pocket and wait by the door. I get off at Downers Grove. I knew I would.
Kathleen Buckley has been published on The Rumpus and her stories have been featured in the Chicago Listen to Your Mother and Expressing Motherhood shows. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and is currently working on a memoir in essays about mothering through the intersection of denial and belief.
You can read the Amelia Gray story mentioned here over at American Reader.
Illustrated by Meher Khan.