Man in a Box

Richard Taylor shrunk into himself when the cool breeze from the subway train whiffed across the platform. He had turned to face the oncoming train and its winking lights, waiting patiently for its arrival, only to be greeted by a stiff wind to the face. He grimaced and turned away until the train came to a stop in front of him. He stood three cars back from the front when the doors ambled open.

Another long day at the office left him on the evening train. Again. He stepped through the open doors dodging exiting passengers and looked left and then right. No seats were available. He had grown accustomed to getting a seat since he always took the late train home, but tonight, no seats were available. It irked him in a way that he could not understand as if something else that was rightfully his had been stolen from him. He ground his teeth together as he stiffened his jaw and grabbed the strap above his head to keep himself upright when the train lunged forward. He began the countdown to the stations he had to pass before he reached his destination. A sadness crept over him. It would be over an hour before he could collapse into his bed.

The crowd on the evening train bewildered him. Was it Friday night by chance? Had he lost track of the days? He put his bag down and secured it between his tired legs before he pulled out his phone to check the date. No, it was Tuesday. Only Tuesday? It felt like he had worked a week already. He expelled a sigh and shook his head. Why the crowd?

His shoulder refused to flex with the movement of the train sending a shock of pain down his back. He took a deep breath trying to will away the ache. He felt weary, but he seemed to always feel that way. Life sat on him like an arrogant bully that refused to move onto the next victim. He just wanted to sit down to rest, to share the burden of the long day with the hard plastic seat on the train.

The train came to a stop at the next station, and he glanced down to his feet to check his bag, but he couldn’t see it over his belly. He bent a little to catch a glimpse of the black bag and then stood straight up to placate his fussy back. When did his gut get so big that he couldn’t see his feet?  Another sigh. Another mark in the loss column.

The train rattled back to life and jerked forward. The glare of the fluorescent lights in the subway car made everything look sickly. He could only imagine how old he looked under the lights. He felt as old as he looked. He glanced up and down the car, but no seats had become available. His back whined in protest.

For the first time, he noticed a young couple sitting across from him. They appeared to be twenty-somethings, if that, likely college kids. They had their arms looped over each other, and the girl had one of her legs wrapped across the boy’s lap. They kissed and smiled, oblivious to everyone around them. The boy pulled at the girls hips to mimic a pulsing motion as if he intended to have sex with her right there. Richard gave them a knowing glance but it segued into a smirk. They were too young to comprehend what lie ahead for them, a morbid reality that would take a decade hence to even begin to sink into their youthful minds.

Richard thought of his carefree college days. Hookups, drinking, and an endless string of entertaining parties. No responsibilities. No house in the distant suburbs. No kids. The weekends were his, not an endless foray of errands, kid activities, and fitful naps. He missed those days. He didn’t realize how exciting his life was then. He felt a fondness that only time can render wonderful.

He turned away from the fawning couple, mostly to adjust his cranky back. He didn’t need to be reminded of his youth from the distant past. He wanted to read the report he had brought from the office. He liked to work on the train to cut down on the time he had to spend working on the weekend, but he couldn’t balance the big binder in one hand while he held himself upright by the strap. That required a level of coordination he no longer possessed.

Instead, he shifted his attention to his right and observed a couple with two young kids sitting in their laps. The couple looked to be thirty-something, definitely in a different stage of their lives than the frisky couple across from him. One of the kids was just a baby, maybe one year old, and the other one looked only a couple of years beyond that. The couple cooed and fretted over their young children, looking tired but glowingly happy. The man had one arm draped across the woman’s shoulder and held her close, a fleeting intimacy common in the early stages of parenthood.

Richard thought of his kids when they were that young. Now, they were petulant, disinterested teenagers who only called on him when they needed money or keys to the car. He thought of how close he and his wife were when the kids were young, and how she had become more of a stranger in the intervening years. In truth, he felt like an interloper in his own home, the one he paid for with the countless hours at the office.

He shuddered. The truth was sometimes too scary to acknowledge. It was best to live in fuzzy shroud of a lie than come to terms with reality. He shifted in place and averted his eyes from the young parents.

A loud hacking cough percolated above the rattle of the train. Exasperated lungs wheezed, and Richard held his breath hoping that the germs being emitted didn’t make their way to him. He couldn’t afford to be sick. He had to be at work every day this week like he had been for much of the past 35 years save for the annual merciful vacation.

He glanced back over his right shoulder and caught sight of the old man causing the ruckus. The old man wheezed a little more before he settled back in his seat. The seat almost swallowed his frail frame. The old man closed his eyes and continued to doze as if the cough were merely the physical manifestation of a bad dream. His head lilted to the side and hung at an angle that made Richard ache for him.

The old man was unshaven and unkempt. Richard couldn’t be sure he had even bathed in the space of a few days, but it was hard to pick up any odor beyond the usual urine smell that permeated the gritty subway car.

He watched the old man fritter in his sleep like an old dog curled on the floor and dreaming of better, no, younger days. Richard slumped in his stance. That old man could be him one day soon. He could spend 40 years working himself to death and end up alone on the subway sleeping among prying strangers who wished he’d stop spreading his germs to them.

Many stops had passed, but he still had many more to go. At the next stop, a bunch of the passengers disembarked the subway car and only a few replaced them. Several seats opened at once, and Richard toddled over to the closest one and slumped down. The force of his weight fell into the seat sending a pulse up his spine. The seat swallowed him whole just like the old man who slept across from him.

Even with all of the people gone, Richard felt confined, restrained, and trapped in a subway car going nowhere. That’s what home was, wasn’t it? Nowhere? He didn’t feel like he belonged there any more than he did at the office. He toiled away at the office every day in some nondescript tower downtown passing through the halls and elevator shafts like some faceless, nameless drone destined to work himself to death. No matter where he was the walls closed in on him, crushed his spirit. Point A to Point B and back. Repeat.

His mind drifted away from the over-lit subway car to the station near his office. What if he didn’t get on the train one day? What if, instead, he simply stepped in front of the oncoming train and let it put an end to his misery? These thoughts appealed to him in a way that he couldn’t explain. There were too many things he couldn’t explain, and he’d lost the desire to do so. He simply couldn’t see a reason to care anymore.

He imagined his death, a fiery grind of metal and flesh that pounded the life out of him. He felt satisfaction in that imaginary moment as if it were better than his dreadful existence of monotony and half-awake dreariness. How would his wife and kids react? Would they care? He wasn’t so sure. Either way, his existence on this planet would be a mere blip in he course of human history no more recognizable than the billions of other blips before him.

His imagination drifted to his funeral. He could see his church, morbid and dreary as always, with his casket holding court at the front. He walked slowly up the aisle to the casket as a ghost haunting his own wake. He stared into the coffin at himself in his final repose. He sighed.

He would always be a man in a box. Even in death.

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