Aisle

What was next? The train, of course, and departure with haste. She smiled and he returned a grin from beneath a face shadowed in the thickening crowd, and then he turned to board. It waited beside him on the tracks, and as soon as he made his way through the aisle, its pistons stirred, hissing with steam, and the black of its siding marbled in the voltage spewing from above, the smoke and cold and night conspiring to thicken and emulsify the light. An entire nervous system lay before it, extending across the countryside and depreciated districts of the outer city; possibility was as delicate, haphazard, and stinging as the tentacles of a jellyfish. All forty cars were set in motion, and the light thinned as the train gained speed, so that it ran along the top and sides, and from within the windows, blurring faces, setting the track into a commotion of arms waving farewell, hers among them, though he did not think to look. He had resolved himself into a steady feigned sleep, his face propped towards the luggage rack above, and the family across the aisle granted no more attention than the woman he had kissed each morning for the past month, whose love for him denied the possibility that he would be doing anything but waving back, his hand a moth against the pane, unable to find the flame it had escaped with wings almost too singed for flight. But flying he was, and when the clatter of the rails found a monotonous regularity, he permitted his eyes to open, and his neck to turn to the children of six or seven, twins by the look of it, and to whisper, in a hoarse and spit-inflected voice, “if you could please, it is the quiet car and I am trying to rest.” That it was not the quiet car, that in fact there was no such car on this train, made little difference to the parents who, with the gentle rebuke of proud middle class northern Europeans, stared at him in return, murmured to themselves, and called to Hannah and Eric, pulled them to the window, and took the aisle seats for themselves.

He thought of his own sister, nearly thirty-seven now, and childless, alone, gaining weight, and watching a gameshow no doubt over her glass of wine and homemade curry, and he wondered at the strange coincidence of it: their having the same names, and leaning over the aisle to the parents, he was surprised to find his eyes forming tears, his lip trembling and his mouth unable to force a sound outward. He leaned back in his chair, unsure what he had intended to say, and now, a wave of fatigue genuinely overcoming him, as it did after any exertion of love or desire, he closed his eyes, and set his glasses softly on his knee. He was hot; the autumn had not yet fulfilled its promise of frost, and his blue button down shirt grew damp along his stomach. He undid a button. Then, opening his eyes again, he saw the children at play, wondered at the game they had imagined for themselves, since they held no figures, no toys, and no cards or scraps of papers, but modeled their hands into a series of gestures that might have been an invented sign-language or the gestures for shadow-puppets.

Clumsily, and without design, he began, surreptitiously at first, between his knees, to cast his hands into similar shapes, following along with sidelong glances so as not to disturb the parents. His sister might have been across from him, and she would have smiled, but she would have wondered what he was at. She was not stupid, but she was not clever like that, not like those children were, or he was himself. The woman from the past month would not even have smiled, only peevishly smirked at the child’s play, and then asked him instead what they should do for dinner, hearing that the reservations were hard to obtain at the restaurant where she most wanted to dine—wherever it was they were going, and they had travelled frequently, she had most wanted to dine somewhere or other. She would arrange her scarf, but, sighing and smiling downwards at the shapes his hands had arranged, he thought back on the departure, the quick kiss, excused by the rush of the crowd, the grip of the hand, a sign of convenient indeterminacy, and that last grin he had cast, confident for the future, on both their behalves. It was relief he felt.

For a length of time that surprised him, at least ten kilometers beyond the limits of the city, where dim-lit warehouses inspired several dazzling bloomings of graffiti and where alleyways and roads maintained security guards in comfortable sinecure positions until retirement, he continued to watch with delight the gestures of the hands, and to add to them, inspired and inventive, without anyone knowing. But in the dark quiet of the countryside, houses shuttered for the evening, towns sequestered by ripened vineyards, hedges, and fields, the consciousness of the train altered, affecting all within. The fact of space expanded, the sense of possibility narrowed, as destinations, whichever they were, pressed upon the minds of passengers even as they seemed to vanish into the distance.

Across the aisle, the faces of the mother and father, whose names he had caught and released unconsciously, expressed only fatigue from a lifetime of expression; the children’s game had continued with the same frenzied rhythm, so that they might have been possessed or even deranged. He could not bring himself to stop his mimicry, having nothing better to do, and having no thoughts worth further investment, but his mimicry had started to feel cruel, towards them and towards himself. There was nobody he knew, nobody in the entire world that he knew, who would have joined in with him, or even understood what he was trying to accomplish; having no idea of what the children were trying to accomplish, or even any belief that it might be called an accomplishment, he suspected himself of the crassest satire.

When the train slowed, passing near to a row of houses, a spell was broken, and the husband across the aisle started from his reverie of lifelessness. In a bag that he had held between his feet, he rummaged, and eventually withdrew several small wax-paper parcels. He unwrapped one after another, four sandwiches in total. The man slowed in his hand gestures, without stopping entirely, and stared at them, feeling all of a sudden his own gnawing hunger. The elation of departure, the relief of solitude, collapsed, instantly, and he was left in the rubble, discovering with dismay the shoddy substances of which his feelings had been formed, and seeking refuge in animal satisfactions. He tried to curb his disappointment but could not. In his rush to leave, he had rejected her suggestion that he purchase food for the journey. It was barely seven in the evening, and he was accustomed to dining at eight, and so he imagined he could sustain himself until half an hour beyond his usual hour. But now he dreaded what he might feel and think without the distraction of satiety. Inadequate though it was, the game with the children across the way might provide some relief, and he resumed, a bird, first in flight, then higher, as an eagle, and then an ostrich scurrying to a shelter, but then, on second thought, an eagle again, pressing its flight towards the solitary heights, where the wind would cut the skin, and whistle without break. Hannah and Eric were there too, not in the nest, but circling in the sky nearby—neighbors in lonely glory—their wings the only motion against a frigid blue sky that balked the eye that would strain to discern gradation in the brilliance.

“But you need to eat”—the father spoke, and then, as a husband, to the wife—“they cannot last until the hotel” and to the children again—“it is a ham sandwich; you will like it; I already removed the pickle.”

He eyed the scene, with less discretion than before, his hands moving with unambitious lethargy now. Hannah and Eric were turned away, chins pointed upwards, lips in a pout, their gemini features striking against the darkened window-pane. Neither showed the least interest in the food, and their hands moved still. It seemed now, as he watched them, that they were weaving a cloak together, the thread strung between their fingers, each rotation of the wrist or bend of hand a swerve in the pattern, and he likewise participating in the design.

“The sandwich is here, you must eat now.” The father, exhausted after a day of travel, thrust the sandwiches before the children. The mother closed her eyes and her nostrils trembled as she breathed deep through them.

“Now.” And one hand moved the sandwich in front of Hannah’s face, and the other took her by the wrist, wrenching her hand away, immobilizing it and tearing through the thread.

“Excuse me”—without his having noticed the moment of deliberation, he spoke loudly, and extended his hand outwards, into the distance of the aisle that separated him from the father. “Excuse me,” he repeated, and the movement of his hand up and down in the air drew the man’s attention, so that he turned.

“You must not worry—they are quite content.” And as he spoke, his hand in the air of the aisle began fluttering a series of rapid gestures, the result of habit already formed; his eye wrested on Eric, who had, despite his sister’s momentary crisis, continued to play at the game of gestures, involving now both hands in dialogue with one another, waiting for Hannah’s return.

“Excuse me, but I do not know who you are and do not know what you mean, talking to me”

“I mean your children—the ham sandwich. I didn’t like them myself, and neither did my sister. We were Hannah and Eric too. We are, that is. I am Eric. I never wanted a ham sandwich. It was the butter on the bread against the soft flesh of the ham that I never enjoyed. But I mean to say that you should not worry. They are having a wonderful time in their game, and I am sure they will want to eat once they are finished.”

The movement of his hand had not ceased, had even gained speed and vivacity as he spoke, and the train at the same time had accelerated, so that it seemed again a spell was being induced once more. He felt that it was, at least, and he was braver on account of it. But the mother had stirred and answered:
“It is really no business of yours when my children eat or what they eat. I would appreciate it if you left us alone, thank you.”

The English was stilted, but clear; he had been correct in assuming that they both spoke it, and now he was confirmed. But as he appreciated her elocution and grammar, her husband had glanced down and seen his fingers, slowly now, despite the rush of the train on the rails, turning in play, as the children’s were.

“And what do you mean by that? Why do you taunt them? Please if you could leave us alone, or I will go and find the ticket agent.”

His hand withdrew immediately, his face reddened, but he said for himself:

“But I’m not taunting—why would I taunt—but you must not force them with the sandwich, because, don’t you see, they are trying so hard and they will be done soon, it is almost done, it is nearly complete, and I am only trying to help,”

“Please, sir, if you please”—the mother had interjected.

The children were still absorbed in their play, but the mother now fixed herself to their shoulders: “We must move. There is a strange smell here, and it is not healthy. Let’s go elsewhere in the train.”

The father stood, even as she spoke, to remove bags from the rack above, and the children were whisked away without any more words. All the while, as they walked down the aisle of the train, Eric and Hannah continued with their games, their hands dancing, flitting, grasping after something. He would have followed. He stood, actually, while they were at the far end of the car, fearing suddenly that he would lose them forever, his hands and fingers both now working with ingenuity, finding shapes of animals, stars, birds, and people long dead.

Then, his having been distracted apparently by a slim blond on a seat nearby and her elderly companion, too public in his affection, they were gone; and he looked at his hands dancing along his thighs. The heat was first, intensely in his neck and chest. Next, the recognition of faces all around him in the car; he did not know who they were, but he knew that they were there, and that some were watching him, he was sure. His hand slowed in response, then ceased entirely. He leant back in his seat. His body slouched down, he buried his hands in his pockets, and he closed his eyes again. Without intending to do so, he recalled her features, the deviation in her nose, her elongated ankles, her lotions and treatments, none of which changed a freckle. His mind drifted towards Eric and Hannah, and he saw, as he drifted to sleep, that what they wove was monstrous, full of holes and ragged edges; he started and awoke. He looked confusedly for where they were, and then he recalled that Eric and Hannah had departed, had been asked by their parents to leave, and he had asked her to leave, without telling her he had done so, that regret becoming shame as he stared ahead, and sideways across the aisle, at empty seats, dreading, his breath becoming heavy, that an elderly woman would sit there, hands quaking in immobility, too alone to speak for the benefit of his overhearing. The train slowed again.

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