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A Death on a Train

By Robert Russell



Midafternoon on the Lansdale/Doylestown line to Center City, halted at the Fort Washington station, a man and woman boarded. I did not see their faces, only frames; my eyes were turned to Virginia Woolf. They passed me and sunk down into the seats directly behind mine. I heard murmurs of Spanish and soft sniffling beneath their masks. Shortly after the doors shut, the train lurched forward then slowly accelerated into a rapid dash onward to Oreland.

            Through the windows, maple and oak trees stood stagnant, darkness in the spaces between their trunks; verdant vegetation spanned like an ocean, dipping, deepening with swelling hills, sun-shimmering sedge spilling into shadow, split with streams which curved and crossed and cut through fluttering petals, grass, and bark–all blurred into an amorphous, variegated mirage, infinite frames converging into one. Within the car, seats were scantily peopled with other passengers–students, employees, parents, friends–their destinations, identities, and stories different and unknown to me.

            The train attendant came, stopped, and stood next to my neighbors behind me, asking for their fares. I heard the man say, we’re headed to Center City. My brother died yesterday. We’re going to identify his body. The train attendant said, I’m sorry to hear that. It’ll be seven dollars please. Each? Each.

            With eyes cast to Woolf, her words slowly began to lose meaning. Narrative diminished. Characters blurred. Interest dwindled. Letters turned to mere marks on a page. The spaces between them seemed somehow greater, pauses loudening the silence. And the train car too was silent save the low thrum of the engine, the churning driving-wheels scraping upon rail, and the infrequent blare of the horn, muffled by plexiglass, air, and distance from its source. Outside, backyards undulated behind rows of houses, their shapes morphing, colors blending, barrenness birthing more barrenness and then sheds and firepits alongside pools, patios, and porches; a tennis court.

            The announcement, Fern Rock will our next stop, next stop, Fern Rock, resounded through the car, rupturing whatever reverie seized my faculties of focus. I shook my head, glanced down at the book in my lap, but still the words were devoid of all meaning. Who was this dead man? This brother? This son? How had he died? Gun violence? Opioids? Suicide? Lost on the darkened, cold streets in the City of Brotherly Love, a love that had not been enough for him and the countless more like him, who every day, every minute, leave their loved ones alone, sniffling, and murmuring on lines to Center City, despondent and anguished and numb.

            Neighborhoods ended and streets rose; intersections with cars passing, cars waiting, passersby, friends, lovers with interlaced fingers, bystanders on benches, a person reading, a person eating. Buildings, bright in the sunlight, shown from corners, looming above sidewalks, offices, storefronts, businesses. Others of brick and wood, dilapidated and tumbledown, stood hollow, paint chipping, windowpanes broken and jagged, shadows within, boards splintering down walls and falling into history. Down powerlines traced figures in the streets, and across plots lay signs, thwarting growth, matting down the grasses, and breathing up dust and dirt.

            Gazing outward from the train, letting the changing frames wash over, turning from many into one, I thought silently, it was like a life unfolding. Each instant a moment, something lovely, something loathsome, lost in a second, a memory, a decade transitioning into the next, my relative perspective remaining distant, outside, objective, beyond. And when my stop would arrive and I would depart, it would be over, dead, gone like my neighbors’ beloved brother and son.



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