Ben Bellizzi's work has appeared in the publications Monday Night, The Dream of Things, and Canyon Voices, among others, and was included in the "2010 Notable Reading" section of the 2011 Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers. He is a graduate of the California College of the Arts MFA program and lives in Northern California.
Since the announcement said they’d be stopping for twenty minutes, the soldier fitted his bandaged arm into its sling and collected his hat. It was his father’s hat, a checkered number with a sloped, full brim. He’d snatched it from the pile of effects at the final moment, thinking it might take the place of a photograph, or a handshake, and he’d kept it with him throughout his training and deployment. He preferred it to the cap that went with his uniform; it kept the rain off.
A cold drizzle splashed against the cement and it seemed appropriate, romantic even, to stand out to the side of the awning and have a cigarette. Though he didn’t normally smoke, and had no cigarettes, something about holding fire in his hand, kissing it and watching the embers respond in a flourish of red, caught hold of his imagination. He pictured a passenger from the train looking out upon him; smoke rising from beneath his father’s hat, his injured arm pinned against his chest, rain gradually darkening his khaki pants. A muted clarinet would croon off-screen while the burning cigarette provided the sole color in the neutral landscape. Perhaps this observing passenger would create a story around him the way bored couples are said to do while dining in public. It feels good to imagine yourself as the protagonist, as someone who sparks the interest of another. It’s necessary sometimes, even if you spark nothing at all.
On the platform, he spotted a young, somewhat haggard man smoking by himself. The man had a scarred cheek that looked like the result of skin dragging across pavement, and when he spat he revealed a canine tooth crammed up at an odd angle into his gums. The soldier tugged his hat low over his eyes and approached the man.
“Could I bum a lucy off you?” he asked.
“A lucy,” the soldier repeated, “You know, a single smoke.”
“I’ve never heard it called that,” the man said and fished out his pack. He gave the soldier a cigarette, but instead of handing him the lighter, he snapped it himself and held the flame out beneath the awning. The soldier had to stoop down to it with the cigarette between his lips, and because he didn’t inhale properly the first time, he was forced to repeat the procedure. He may or may not have thanked him.
The soldier grew more relaxed as he smoked. He watched the tip of the cigarette glow bright when he inhaled, then withdraw into ash as he held it away. Red, grey, red, grey. Lucy was there, and then she wasn’t. She was there, waiting for the train with her long red curls stark against the dark raincoats and umbrellas of the platform, and then she wasn’t, the homogony of the crowd no more recognizable than at any other stop. He inhaled once more— red, grey, depending on his touch.
Back on the train, the soldier laid his hat on the table. Now that he thought of it, he believed it had actually belonged to his grandfather. His father had worn the same veteran’s cap for decades, was in fact still wearing it in his hospital gurney when, as the doctor put it, he expired. The hat on the table surfaced when the insurance people went through the father’s storage unit and set aside items without value. It looked like something that would’ve been worn during the forties in the wake of a different war. That war had a definitive end against a definitive enemy, and the homecoming that servicemen like his grandfather had received was a national, if not worldwide, event. He’d seen footage of the parades, the sky thick with confetti as dramatic in black and white as it must have been in color, but rather than this sweeping celebration, the soldier on the train longed for a quiet, intimate welcome. His return would involve hitching a ride in someone’s pickup, getting out at the end of a long driveway, and waving as the truck honked twice and disappeared. He would walk up to the house and ring the bell. An almost completely faded photograph would flutter out of his pocket and onto the ground as the real thing came to the door. She would drop whatever was in her hands and nuzzle her head into the nook of his chest just below the shoulder, and the force of her embrace would tell him that he’d finally made it home. Only with this sort of greeting could he start to put the war behind him. New memories would replace the ones he didn’t care to preserve. He‘d have new home, and perhaps a new hat.
As the train began to move, he watched the station recede like a rock beneath the tide. Buildings became sparse and soon the train entered the countryside. The landscape remained unfamiliar. The soldier’s arm began to ache, a sort of itch he couldn’t get to, and he wondered whether or not it had been worth it. The injury sent him away but didn’t bring any resolution. There was the inquiry of the incident, now an investigation, to be conducted. There was the bank’s lingering claim concerning his father’s debts. There were the emails to Lucy, the delayed messages that came back, and the last one he sent, yesterday, the one thus far without a response in which he notified her of his official leave and his arrival the following day. Even the injury itself didn’t register properly. The attending doctor had muttered, “Missed the elbow completely. Lucky, very lucky…” and during his travels no one had asked him about it. They all seemed to know.
The train raced along. Stout one-story houses occasionally came and went, their porches rotted and decrepit and looking out onto nothing but train tracks and tree trunks. The soldier imagined the wretched lives of the inhabitants. A woman would come home and walk onto the slanted porch, sit down on a bench just inside the door, and with great effort reach down to unlace her shoes. Dinner rotated in the microwave. Bills sat unopened in the fruit bowl. These were the same houses that some of the platoon guys had grown up in. Some didn’t want to go back. Some men thought that with the lack of jobs and the slow economy and the Wall Street mess, they were better off in the army. “Safer,” one lieutenant said, “We’re actually safer over here.”
The soldier, however, had already decided to go home. He had in his possession a single hand-written letter. It arrived early in his deployment, on thick lilac paper, the loopy cursive smudged throughout on account of the inherent flaw of the southpaw author. The letter rambled on about musicians in the street, kickball in the park, a new pair of shoes, banana bread, fur versus leather, and the gentleman in the coffee shop who was once again waxing his mustache. She had signed it come home safe. It was a lovely beginning to a story, if he could make it so. Eventually, he spoke with Rodgers, someone who he could never imagine returning to a civilian lifestyle and perhaps the only one in their outfit who might agree to shoot him.
“I thought she broke it off,” Rodgers had said.
“Only because I’m not there.”
“I don’t know. I’m a good shot, but I still might kill you.”
“I have to try,” the soldier said, and again he showed him the letter.
“It’s gonna hurt,” Rodgers said.
Two weeks later, taking cover behind the same rubble during a night raid, Rodgers obliged him.
The soldier grew nervous as the train slowed for the next station. His stop was only one further. At a platform much like this one, he would scan the crowd for a splash of red, for the lower lip nipped between her teeth and her eyebrows cinched together as she too searched the different exits, aware that he didn’t have a phone and this was their one chance. If the crowd at that platform was colorless, if it provided a landscape lacking distinction and familiarity and any vestige of what could be considered home, he would nonetheless have to enter it. The train went no further.
He stared out the window and felt dizzy. He wanted to step out, to pause, to have a cigarette. Instead, many more people got on the train at this stop than had gotten off. His compartment filled up quickly as the walls seemed to contract. He inched closer to the window, pulled his bag against his side, and set his hat before him. Soon, a pleasant-looking couple filed into the seats on the other side of the table. They were dressed nicely, not extravagantly but nicely, like grownups. They settled into their seats without speaking. Moving with a certain fluidity, they assisted each other with their coats and stowed their bags as if train travel were their profession. The soldier pictured them discussing their trip while they waited at the station, laying out their itinerary the night before, scurrying around their bedroom while arranging items in the two open suitcases on the bed. One of them would carry the toiletries, the other the camera and the snacks, and when the man later lamented forgetting his reading glasses, the woman told him not to worry, she had packed them in her bag. Their familiarity turned the soldier’s eyes glossy. Comfort like that, with another, it could make everything okay.
He continued to watch them. The woman read from a small, well-worn book, the cover of which bore neither picture nor words. The man had a newspaper. Every now and then one glanced up at the other, checking the situation as a driver might while cycling through the side and rearview mirrors. The volume of the compartment had risen considerably, but these two, in their silence, didn’t seem to notice. The soldier thought them marvelous. Here were the people from those houses with the rotten porches. They perhaps lived within a drab canvas, but they’d somehow found color in their lives and exercised a measure of control over it.
The soldier removed the letter from his pack, unfolded it methodically with his left hand, and set it beside his hat. The lilac paper was frayed white along the creases and would soon require attention should it remain intact. It was over a year old. He looked through it, the words reading themselves at this point, and he again compared it to her emails of the last month. The bones of those emails were words like “reflection” and “distance” and “companionship,” and together they created a tone unlike any that could be attached to Lucy. The swooping curves of her pen against the tactile paper were far more authentic. He could hear the twang of the banjo in the subway station, he could smell the sugary mist wafting through what she referred to as the “Sweet Shoppe,” and he could feel, between his fingers, the sort of story that lay ahead. He had one splendid chance and he had to try.
Soon the single-story houses were gone. Storefronts and office buildings whizzed by, lines of cars stagnated in rush hour traffic, and through the evening dusk, the bridge’s red lights arched over the river and into the city. The train seemed to be moving faster than before, so fast that it could’ve been out of control. In a slight panic, the soldier reached down and put on his hat.
The intercom announced the next stop as the end of the line. The soldier placed the letter back in his bag and turned to his reflection in the window. He inspected his teeth, tugged at his collar, and took several deep breaths before he noticed the woman across the table looking at him. She crossed her arms over her closed book and tilted her head to the side. The man regarded him as well.
“You look fine,” she said, “She’ll be happy to see you.”
The woman leaned back and took the man’s hand in hers. It was the first time the soldier had seen them touch.
“Fiancé?” the woman asked. With her free hand, she made a writing motion in the air between them, her pinky extended as if holding the stem of a wine glass.
“There’s a chance,” he replied.
“Oh, how romantic,” the woman said, “Will she be at the station?”
The soldier began to cough. He tucked his mouth into his shoulder, but the movement pricked his injured arm and he gasped in pain. The alarmed couple leaned forward. After composing himself, the soldier answered,
“She might be there. I’m not sure.”
The woman frowned.
“I’ve been away,” he explained, “I don’t have a phone.”
“Oh, you can use ours!” The couple separated and the man removed a phone from the inside pocket of his sports coat. He held it across the table, nodding in encouragement.
The train crossed onto the bridge, and as the soldier entered each number, he felt the dreadful sensation of a hesitant rollercoaster passenger ascending the ride’s initial gradient. Below, the city lights shimmered off the water. He pressed ‘send’ and waited. Nothing happened. Several seconds went by, and finally, an automated voice informed him, “You’ve reached the voicemail of eight zero two…”
The soldier slid the phone across the table. “Straight to voicemail.”
“Well,” the woman said, “That’s a good sign. She’s probably on the subway.”
He managed to smile. “Probably.”
The rumble of the train deadened as it returned to solid ground. It glided through the middle of the street, the traffic gated off on either side, and eventually the wheels screeched as it began to slow. Passengers started rustling about and heading to each end of the compartment, but the soldier remained seated with his hat low over his eyes.
The train pulled into the station. The soldier’s window looked out onto a vacant set of tracks. After nearly a minute, the passengers began walking through the exits on the train’s platform side. The soldier trembled slightly at the chill from the open doors, and once the aisle was clear, he stood up and motioned the couple to go ahead of him.
“Certainly not,” the man said with his arm outstretched, “This is your moment.”
The soldier muttered a ‘thank you’ and picked up his bag to join the line. He shuffled forward, and when only one person remained between him and the door, the evening air hit his face like a wet cloth. His teeth began to chatter. The person before him descended the steps, and when he didn’t move, the woman nudged him from behind and whispered,
“Go on, go find her.”
He flexed his legs against a falling sensation and stepped out into the night. The crowd was dense under the drizzle while the floodlights atop each stone pillar cast a haze over the shadowy figures below. Lucy would be just in front of one of those pillars, stretched on her tiptoes and looking back and forth between the train’s exits while her red hair dazzled in the spotlight of an otherwise darkened stage. Standing on the highest stair, the soldier dropped his bag and took off his hat to get a better look. Raindrops sprinkled into his scalp and trickled around his ears, and he knew that once he spotted her, everyone at the station would seep into the backdrop. It would all be worth it.
He looked to the right and to the left. He squinted through the rain, craned his neck and leaned out to search directly beside the train, but he wasn’t able to focus on anything. Every figure was a blur, each face an indistinguishable darkened spot. He shivered. His seizing body caused the pain in his arm to sear, and after holding his breath, he fought for any semblance of control. He groped at his breast pocket. It was empty. He didn’t have any cigarettes. He didn’t even smoke.