>Character sketch of Earl and me on the train

March 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

>In New Haven, I gained a seatmate.

“Is this seat available?” He leaned down and looked right at me. I was eating an apple. First, I noticed his thick black glasses, lenses deep with bifocals. His cream-colored, bald head was speckled with age spots and bits of thinning hair on the sides. He must be in his late sixties or early seventies. He had a groomed, white goatee that connected with a white moustache. Red blood vessels streaked his cheeks.

As soon as he was seated, he rummaged in his dirty, camel-colored windbreaker (matching his tan cotton pants) and said, “Got a poem for you.”

He pulled out a hand-written, lined sheet of paper, titled, “Joyce.” And in a loud, confident voice, he began to orate a love poem. I cannot remember any lines from this poem because I was sent into a panic. How do I respond? Will he be on the train with me for the next hour and half until we reach Boston?

When he finished, I was staring out the window at the passing scenery; this did not deter him.

“How are you today?” he asked.

“I think I’d like to ride in silence,” I said.

“I will abide by your request,” he responded. “You just looked so dumbfounded there for a minute,” and he said something else, but I could not hear him. This whole time I was also listening to my Ipod.

I stared at his hands, brown hairs on the back sides, more age spots, nails longer and better cared for than my own, and felt a horrible guilt that I often feel when someone is different and I am forced to respond to them in public. Why should I hurt his feelings? Why not enjoy his poetry and learn something from a stranger? Isn’t it a writer’s job to be interested in everything?

He reclined in his chair, and when I finished my apple, I noticed a faint day-old urine smell emanating from him. He took out a plastic bottle of pills, the label rubbed off, from his pocket and threw one back with a sip of his Nestea. Then he replaced the cap on the pills and the cap on his Nestea and stuffed one bottle into his left pocket and the other bottle into the other.

More rummaging. He pulled out a ticket. I read it, shamelessly. Earl something. I can’t remember the last name. Traveling from New Haven to New London. Relief. He will only be riding for a short time. Yet, I am angry at myself for disengaging.

The conductor came by, and greeted my seatmate with cheer. They knew each other.

Earl unfolded a doctor’s appointment slip for next week in New Haven.

The conductor called Earl, “a fine passenger,” and mentioned how good it was to see him.

Earl’s big brown eyes stared through those thick glasses at my computer screen as I typed this and tried to shield him from it. I noticed the silver staple in his jacket cuff, his black lace-up boots. His elbow touched mine.

He removed his Nestea from his pocket and my thigh felt cold. I looked down and realized that he had accidentally spilled a few drops on my jeans.

“Oh, be careful,” I said, pointing at the spot and moving my computer away to protect it.

“I’m sorry,” he said, defeated.

When we went over a bridge in Connecticut, he held his fingers to his nose and puffed out through his mouth. He did this over and over until we were on the other side of the river. Then he took out his Nestea, took another sip, and replaced it in the pocket farther from me.

For the rest of the ride, we didn’t speak though his mouth stayed slightly parted.

I wanted to take back all of my properness, my scolding. I wanted to hear the poem again. I wanted to know everything.

He burped, a loud single note before we reached New London. Still, I wish I had been nicer.

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