Now that she had shared a story, the Mother said, he must tell her one of his own. Something that had happened to him. He could tell that she meant something terrible.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1976/2005. Gelatin silver print. 10 × 8 in. © Cindy Sherman.
Depending on where they were, the Mother could see an unknown town or herself in the window. When the glass became mysteriously opaque, she watched her face, dusky around the cheeks, looking up and expectantly, as if waiting for what she might do. Then the reflection would be obliterated by all types of houses or tall grasses that sloped up from the tracks. In tunnels she could see her own face but transparently, with bricks and metal streaming behind: things that might come shouting out of her mouth.
All those hours of the window changing back and forth had helped her to settle into a little bit of boredom. Which was a relief after the stress of taking a bus to the station, scuttling up cement staircases with bag straps falling into both elbow creases, figuring out the dizzying clack of the Amtrak board, and getting her duffel bag onto the rack above her head, what with her shoulder that always crimped up when she was nervous. The woman selling tickets couldn’t believe she’d never ridden the train before. Here-and-there for her whole life, people would be surprised by what she hadn’t done and what she had done.
She thought about the bag looming above her head, checking it with a glance every so often. It didn’t slide to the front of the car or come crashing through on her head or get stolen. She kept reaching into her hip pocket to check that the folded paper was still there. She’d written all the information on it as well as on her thigh with a Sharpie as well as on a paper tucked in the underpants net of her duffel: of who would meet her in Washington at Union Station and what number to call if she couldn’t find him.
It had taken her a good four tries to convince the man she’d talked to that it was possible she and Sergeant Birkus might not find each other in the station, and that she should have an In-Case-of-Emergency number. They said they’d take her to her hotel and then she could see Margot in the morning. She pictured what her girl’s face might look like: somber, but not beaten down? Somber, though.
“Hey, ma’am?” It was the young woman who’d earlier had a long cell phone conversation with her gynecologist’s office right there in her seat. Now she was leaning toward the Mother with an accusatory finger. “Your sleeve. See?”
The Mother grabbed her right arm, then her left, and saw that pinned to her cuff was the orange ticket from the cleaners. She’d just picked up the jacket last night; it’d been in mothballs before that. Her brother Hank had kept emphasizing looking serious and respectable when she arrived. She tore at the ticket, not being careful with the pin, and then made a fist around the threads she’d pulled loose.
“Oh.” She realized she should say thanks and said it but so softly she didn’t think the young woman had heard. The woman was staring into a portable DVD player the size of a paperback turned on its side. She had headphones plugged into it, but the Mother could still hear the sound seeping out.
The Mother could see some kind of war scene on the screen, and it sounded like bombs were exploding out of the young woman’s ears.
The young woman only looked back at her when a muffled sound started above their heads. The Mother recognized it right away: her ringtone that sounded like an old-fashioned phone ringing. She’d left the phone in her bag. The woman was looking at her, but the Mother just stared ahead at the seat in front of her. She knew she couldn’t get to it in time to answer and wasn’t too sure she could reach the bag anyway, let alone get it back up there while the train was moving. And what if it was something about Margot—something more about Margot? She couldn’t take a call like that with all of these people sitting near, listening. It seemed like the phone rang fifty times before it finally, mercifully, stopped.
When it did, the DVD sounded even louder. The Mother could see some kind of war scene on the screen, and it sounded like bombs were exploding out of the young woman’s ears. The Mother decided to move, though she was unsure of whether she was supposed to do that. Before she got up, she looked for the nearest empty seat—across the aisle and only one row up next to a man who looked her age, maybe older—and places she could grab on to while she was standing in the aisle. She had to press herself against the row of seats in front of them as she inched by the young woman, feeling the strangeness of a stranger’s legs skimming hers.
Because the Writer had become known as a Writer-in-Exile, he was accustomed to readers of all ages approaching him, even in such a place as a train car. So he was not surprised by the woman uprooting herself from her seat across the aisle to take the seat next to him. He had no signed books with him, but he did have carefully polished phrases he could dispense: A book breathes without me once it is born. Or: Something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day. That one was Joni Mitchell, but no one ever noticed. His accent had faded so over the years that sometimes there was a surprised arch of the reader’s eyebrows, and he’d have to sink deep into muscle memory for his mouth to tighten, release the words more sharply. Then a relaxing around the eyes: this is what the reader had been prepared for.
The woman sat down next to him but continued facing forward. Her cheeks looked as if wine had spilled beneath the skin. He folded his hands: a gesture he found people expected of him.
“Excuse me, sir? Do you know where we are? How long it’ll be until Washington, DC?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to Philadelphia. We’re still in Connecticut, though.”
“I’ve been on this train since Boston. I can’t take it anymore. Do you think I could get off and take another train? What other trains go to Washington? Do any go around?” He could tell she truly did not know who he was.
“Around what?” he asked with a smile, picturing the train’s route as a strand of yarn tacked along the jags of the East Coast. She didn’t have an answer for this.
The Mother had pulled a whole stack of papers and magazines from her purse and studied the top sheet: a printout of the dotty list of stations they’d hit before finally getting to Union Station. But she wasn’t really paying attention, because she was trying to imagine how she’d appear through the eyes of this man next to her. This seemed like an important skill to master right now. For her and Margot both. And for her to see Margot through other people’s eyes, even if she didn’t know which way to see her was the real Margot. Margot’s eyes always seemed like gray stone, her hair like how lumps of oatmeal might look if they could be sculpted into curlicues. When Margot was little the Mother tried to buy her gender-neutral clothes, which meant she was usually in primary colors. She’d been so skinny she looked like a stick figure a kid had crayoned square clothing onto. Until she got a little older: cheekbones like seashells, looking even prettier with short pixie hair. To the Mother anyway.
All the pictures now: a casual smirk the Mother didn’t recognize as her Margot, skittish as a chipmunk. Her mouth usually a small o. The gleeful gestures they showed seemed unlike her. The Mother couldn’t stop remembering the way Margot would carefully roll the toothpaste onto her brush as a kid, trying to imitate the perfect sideways s achieved on the commercials. Or at high school graduation, which now seemed a million years ago, how the Mother sat on her hands to keep from gesturing to Margot about her posture as the girl skulked across the stage, humming to herself, not looking up at the principal handing out the diplomas or at the Mother, camera in lap, waiting for the picture-perfect moment. The only picture they had from that day was the one of Margot standing in front of the car, robe already off. Their neighbor Mrs. Rose was sitting in the front seat, ready to go home. Still, it was nice of her to come for Margot. There seemed to be so many bigger families than theirs, spreading confidently along the rows of the school gym with all kinds of cameras. When Margot joined the army… The Mother was ashamed that one of her hesitations had been what people would think of her, letting her girl join up like that. Like they couldn’t pay for college another way since her husband died or like she wasn’t protecting such a young kid, even though there wasn’t a war on yet, anyway, when she made the decision.
Tears could mean many things, and lots of things could hold sadness, even smiles.
It was hard not to think whether something in the past had been a signal. Something reported from a teacher or some other kind of professional. Like when Hank’s son got the letter that they thought something was wrong with him emotionally. The teacher’d been reading a book aloud to the class and at the end, when the main character’s dog died, every child in the room had cried, except Hank’s son, who hadn’t shed a tear. They thought he was cold, pathological. It turned out he needed a hearing aid and hadn’t heard one word about the dog, dead or alive. They were certainly convinced, then and now, that teachers or whoever didn’t know everything and that tears could mean many things, and lots of things could hold sadness, even smiles.
The Mother tried to stop grinding her teeth and pulled her left shoulder down from her neck: all things the doctor told her to do. Not her doctor she paid, but Mrs. Rose’s son; the Mother could see him, standing over her as if they were in a doctor’s office, even though she was just sitting on her own kitchen chair.
A fly swooped in front of her eye and then grazed her bangs, causing her to jump a little. The train windows were sealed all around, no clear way for how to open them except In Case of Emergency; it made her squirm.
“Are you all right?”
His voice was formal-sounding. She hadn’t noticed the accent but now could tell and felt this little flutter of nervousness. Fear and meanness were like two feet, never walking too far apart: that’s what her husband always used to say. She covered up the loose threads with her right hand again and tried to yank that shoulder down. Pulled something to read from her pile and thought about a way to make it all up to him.
“You know this picture?” the woman asked, holding up a magazine with a famous photo from World War II. The Writer had in fact penned two different short stories about this very photo. In the first, the nurse fights back against this stranger who has grabbed her, bent her backwards, and kissed her against her will; she breaks his toe with her heel. In the second, the nurse stands up after the kiss, feels that after something like this, she might be anything—anyone—and walks away into the crowd to become someone new. He could never decide which version he preferred. His ex-wife found this an unforgivable failure; how could it not be clear, she would argue with her hands wild upon the air, that the version in which the aggressor’s toe is cracked in two was superior to the version in which a sick child’s mother never returns home after work? Critics, however, debated fiercely.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “This picture. Of course.”
She seemed to relax when he said that.
“This article says that there’s disagreements about who these people are. The people themselves aren’t even sure if it’s them. Do they not remember, do you think? Or would someone lie about something like that?”
The Writer could see the page clearly as it lay in her lap. He skimmed the lines of the article that had been set off in bold: competing claims, various technologies to determine identity.
“Perhaps such a thing happened to a lot of people, and they don’t know whether they were the ones photographed.”
She looked at him as though she had not thought of that, then nodded.
“The woman in this picture looks just like my Aunt Peg, and she was a nurse back then.” She ran her finger carefully along the edge of the page. “Whenever I see this I imagine it is Peg, on some day when Peg wasn’t Peg. When she had—you know, could have—been different.”
He did know, he told her.
“Where are you going again?” she asked him.
“Philadelphia.” He stopped himself from explaining about the conference he was attending, then reflected on his hesitancy. “To see old friends,” he added, which was also true. “I’m going to Washington, DC. To see my daughter.” She shifted her legs, her arms, the magazine, her purse. Whether her mouth went rigid against saying more or began tensing to speak, he could not know.
When she did not go on to speak, he looked out the window and could sense her watching the side of his face. For no reason he could specify it seemed the correct, polite gesture, so he continued looking out. They trundled toward a state line.
The Writer handled the pictures gently. They were not photographs but pages she had printed from the Internet. Poor quality. In some he could not tell exactly what had been done: unclear borders between unclear bodies. The relationship between the parts suggestive. He did not know if this made it better or worse: that one did not have to see the truth or that one’s mind would push to the most horrible imaginings of what could be true. He had seen some of these before. He had definitely seen the daughter on the news, blogs, and so forth. Posed for vacation pictures, really, smiling and pointing at what was behind her as though it was something viewers of the picture would be excited to see. Even with the fuzziness of what surrounded her, her posture, smile, and the casual cigarette planted inside her lip seemed obscene. He turned the stack of papers over.
“I am the Mother,” was all she had said.
The train started slowing, and neither of them spoke as the it rolled tediously, seemingly only its own inertia propelling it forward. So slowly, the Writer thought, one could imagine jumping off if one realized one had made a mistake. The door at the front of the car let out a gasp, and then a flurry of action that lasted quite a while: men in uniform marching through, announcing “Nooooo York!” and clicking away; bits of tickets spraying behind them until the door at the back of the car exhaled; all sorts of noises surrounding them as they came to a full stop in the dungeon-like tunnel of Penn Station; the stillness of the train itself while bodies appeared from all directions; stomping, heaving bags, sliding into seats, tramping through to the next car or the next; the hissing of the outer doors sliding shut. Then a settling of bodies. And the train began to roll again.
She put the magazine with the photo of the nurse and the sailor on top of the overturned stack. The Writer felt his knee jiggle beneath it.
She spoke as if holding something fragile in her mouth: “I just know my old Aunt Peg with bad arthritis and grown sons who never moved out. But now when I see that picture.” She pointed at her own lap, and then at his. “Not this, but that. Not this life, but one where you get yanked out of the crowd and kissed when you’re just headed home.”
“And you could then walk away,” the Writer said. “A new person.”
“Ye-es,” she responded, considering. “Something like that could happen to you, and you might just decide to leave it all in back of you and become someone else. Pretend, but from then on—” He waited; she stared at the pocket on the seat in front of her, then back at him.
“When you get out at a train station, let us say, in a new city. You—one—could just walk away from one’s intended business.” He saw the flicker of recognition in her face, like lightning; she seemed to momentarily close up then forgive him his suggestion. His failed advice.
She became for a second someone he scripted, placed into a scene and followed from chapter to chapter.
That was the precise thing about novels, he was always telling young writers who inquired: there is no advice, every situation a first. With its own rules and its own way of introducing something new and horrible into the world. How should one react to something previously un-thought? It was impossible to know. She became for a second someone he scripted, placed into a scene and followed from chapter to chapter. He felt unkind and looked again at her magazine article, the photo everyone had seen a thousand times. Showing interest.
“Could you imagine,” she said, touching his knee before snatching her hand back quickly. “Could you imagine not knowing it was you in a picture?”
“Maybe. Sometimes we are not quite ourselves.” This was not precisely what he meant to say. He thought of those last months, years ago, in which he was a Writer but not yet a Writer-in-Exile, when he could not have known what he looked like. To smell oneself and feel a heavy beard for the first time in one’s life without knowing what one looked like: it had all been a conundrum with which he had once occupied his mind. A mental puzzle he bestowed upon a character in one of his books.
“Once,” she told him, still staring. “I flew on a plane. My daughter and I both. We were both so afraid of flying and took turns taking sleeping drugs when we went from Massachusetts to Tacoma, where my brother Hank lives. And Tacoma to Mass.” Her finger traced an arc in the air. “One of us would drift off on the Valium while the other would stay alert, standing guard like a night nurse. We had flipped a coin: going east was Margot’s turn to sleep, going west mine. I was terrified when I was awake, but it was almost worse when I woke up on landing and saw how scared Margot was: her mouth open and the magazine I’d given her just settled in her lap, not open at all. When we touched down in Boston, she came to slowly, getting her bearings. I was clawing the armrests, felt like my eye sockets were cracked from staying so open. And I still remember what I said to her: ‘What a horrible idea. To make a country that stretches from sea to fucking sea.’ And she was still drowsy from the drugs, but she started humming along.”
He couldn’t tell if she found this amusing or something else.
Now that she had shared a story, the Mother said, he must tell her one of his own. Something that had happened to him. He could tell that she meant something terrible. He did not know why, but he told her of something he had seen, which was not about him.
Several years earlier he had been a Writer-in-Residence on a campus, and on a November afternoon a local woman—who spent lunch hours in lavish costumes staging protests on the college green about legalizing marijuana, et cetera—had set herself on fire in front of the library, taking a few steps, falling.
“By the end of the next class cycle, when the students flowed out of the buildings, she had been rolled up in fabric and taken away.”
She looked at him expectantly with a desire in her eyes for more. He recognized the look: how she wanted to hear how he had been irrevocably altered or how he had done something in response to witnessing this death.
He did not tell her how he had not gone to the memorial service some students had organized; how he had not read the student paper when they reprinted the woman’s suicide letter; how he had not thought so much about this woman in the years between then and now. He did not tell how all that happened from this event was that he had felt something entirely new: such an irresistible need to turn toward his own pains, to cape himself in the long-ago things that had led, somehow, to amnesty.
Rebecca Entel’s stories have appeared in such journals as Madison Review, Unsaid Magazine, Joyland, and Cleaver. She teaches at Cornell College, where she also directs the Center for the Literary Arts. She lives in Iowa City.