Another story. Hardly a story at all (although it had a title); a kind of introduction to a story. An invitation to one, really. About another innocent man. Who walked on the train one day to go to work. When something happened.
The morning Charles met Lucinda, it took him several moments after he first opened his eyes to remember why he liked keeping them closed.
Then his daughter, Anna, called him from the hallway and he thought: Oh yeah. She needed lunch money, a note for the gym teacher, and help with a book report that was due yesterday. Not in that order.
In a dazzling feat of juggling, he managed all three between showering, shaving, and getting dressed. He had to. His wife, Deanna, had already left for her job at P.S. 183, leaving him solely in charge.
When he made it downstairs he noticed Anna's blood meter and a used syringe on the kitchen counter. Anna had made him late.
When he got to the station, his train had already left--he could hear a faint rumble as it retreated into the distance. By the time the next train pulled in, the platform had been repopulated by an entirely new cast of commuters. He knew most of the 8:43 crowd by sight, but this was the 9:05, so he was in alien territory.
He found a seat all by himself and immediately dived into the sports pages.
It was November. Baseball had slipped away with another championship for the home team. Basketball was just revving up, football already promising a year of abject misery. This is the way he remained for the next twenty minutes or so: head down, eyes forward, brain dead-awash in meaningless stats he could reel off like his Social Security number, numbers he could recite in his sleep, and sometimes did, if only to keep himself from reciting other numbers. Which numbers were those?
Well, the numbers on Anna's blood meter, for example. Numbers that were increasingly and alarmingly sky high. Anna had suffered with juvenile diabetes for over eight years. Anna wasn't doing well.
So all things being equal, he preferred a number like 3.25. Roger-the-Rocket - Clemens's league-leading ERA this past season. Or twenty-two - there was a good round number. Latrell Sprewell's current points per game, accumulated, dreadlocks flying, for the New York Knicks.
Numbers he could look at without once feeling sick. The train lurched, stopped.
They were somewhere between stations - dun-colored ranch houses on either side of the track. It suddenly occurred to him that even though he'd ridden this train more times than he cared to remember, he couldn't describe a single neighborhood it passed through. Somewhere along the way to middle age, he'd stopped looking out windows. He burrowed back into the newspaper.
It was at that exact moment, somewhere between Steve Serby's column on the state of the instant replay rule and Michael Strahan's lamentation on his diminishing sack total, that it happened.
Later he would wonder what exactly had made him look up again at that precise moment in time. He would ask himself over and over what would have happened if he hadn't. He would torture himself with all the permutations, the what ifs and what thens and what nows. But he did look up.
The 9:05 from Babylon to Penn Station kept going. Merrick to Freeport to Baldwin to Rockville Centre. Lynbrook to Jamaica to Forest Hills to Penn. But Charles clearly and spectacularly derailed.
Two nights later after dinner, my four-year-old climbed onto my lap and demanded I do treasure hunt on his back. "We're going on a treasure hunt," I whispered as I traced little steps up and down his spine. "X marks the spot . . ." as he squirmed and giggled. He smelled of shampoo and candy and Play-Doh, the scent that was clearly and uniquely him. "To get to the treasure, you take big steps and little steps," I murmured, and when I finished he asked me where this treasure was exactly, and I answered him on cue. This, after all, was our routine.
Copyright © 2003 by James Siegel
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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