A Fragile Time
ON THE sidewalk outside the
station, the snow was already several centimeters thick. These late storms
always disappointed yet never surprised Carl-Albin. He brushed the snow out of
his hair and stomped his boots on the concrete floor. He was on his way to
visit his mother. He presented his ticket to the woman at the ticket window and
told her his destination. She stamped the ticket to indicate he would be
crossing two zones.
On the escalator down to the platform, he remembered he’d forgotten to go to the bank for his mother. She was eighty-seven and had a difficult time making it out of the house. He went to the bank on her behalf every week and withdrew one thousand kronor from her account. Since she’d been diagnosed with dementia, he’d had power of attorney over his mother’s finances. He determined the amount she needed for groceries, clothes, bills and incidentals week to week. She didn’t drink and she never played keno with her friends at the bingo hall in the city. One thousand kronor was too much money for his mother’s weekly needs. For this reason, he only gave her 750 kronor every week and kept the rest for himself. He was saving for a trip to the Canary Islands. It was unlikely his mother would ever notice the discrepancy in her accounts, but he worried often that she would. At forty-eight, he was too old to be stealing money from his mother.
An advertisement on one of the billboards that line the escalator passage had reminded him he’d forgotten to visit the bank. The advertisement was for a charter tour company that offered trips to the Canary Islands. He’d looked into this company’s services. The advertisement featured a photograph of a woman on a beach in a red bikini. She faced away from the camera and toward the glistening blue water. Her right foot was raised up off the sand as if she were running. Beneath her feet were the words: Come Find the Sun.
It was March, already dark in Stockholm by mid-afternoon. He would have preferred to be in the Canary Islands and not on his way to his mother’s on a dreary late-winter afternoon having now forgotten to withdraw money and having, therefore, forgotten to give himself 250 kronor toward his trip. He’d already saved seven thousand. Soon he would be able to afford two full weeks on a charter trip. He could participate in any as many activities as he pleased and not once think of money.
On the platform, he waited for his train. He disliked taking the metro. There was an odor on many of the older trains that reminded him of vomit. Because there did not ever appear to be any other source of this odor, he assumed the smell came from the seat cushions; and so whenever he found himself on such a train, he stood in the aisle with one hand on the railing above him for balance and the other covering his nose and mouth. The rocking motion of the train and the sweet, warm air tended to exhaust him.
His mother’s bank had a branch office at the square not far from his mother’s house. He looked at his watch, then up at the digital clock above the platform. The train was coming in one minute. Assuming everything was running on schedule, he could make it to the bank in twenty minutes. It was 16:26. If he jogged from the station to the bank, he might get there before closing. The snow, of course, would complicate his plan.
A train was approaching. Preceding the train, warm air rushed out of the tunnel and up the platform. There was a distant screech as the train took a final curve before entering the station. Passengers stood up from benches and walked slowly toward the edge of the platform. They began to gather in tight groups near the yellow markings on the platform that indicated where the train doors would open. A group formed near him and he joined this group, gesturing with his left hand for a young man to go ahead of him. The young man was wearing a gray raincoat that Carl-Albin admired. He’d recently seen a similar coat at a store in the city. He thought he might buy the coat himself when spring officially started. The vernal equinox fell on the following Friday. The length of the coat was just right, and so was the way the coat fell across the young man’s shoulders. Carl-Albin hoped the coat would look similar on him, though he knew his shoulders were broader. A female voice came over the loudspeaker and announced the destination of the train. She said, “Train toward Hässleby. Hässleby.” The voice then reported the time. It was 16:27.
The train entered the opposite end of the station from where he stood amidst the group of passengers. There was a popping sound as it did so. He looked down the platform at all the people waiting. Some of them looked up at the train, others kept their heads down, reading. Those passengers who’d not already gotten up from benches did so now. Behind him, he heard a woman’s voice say, “Excuse me.” Then louder, “Oh! Excuse me!” He turned in time to see the woman running toward him with her arms out in front of her. He thought he was being attacked. Such stories appeared from time to time in the evening papers. It was 1992. The city seemed more violent than it ever had been. His neighbor had been robbed in December. In October, a young Kurdish woman had been beaten to death by her own brother, and for the past six months, a man the newspapers called The Laser Man had been shooting immigrants. He shot them from rooftops as they walked on the street. He shot them while they were riding bicycles. He shot them exiting shops. He’d once walked right up to an Iranian student at Stockholm University and shot him pointblank in the face. It was a fragile time. Carl-Albin smiled at the woman, hoping to diffuse whatever situation was unfolding, but she appeared to be looking past him. He turned in time to see the young man in the gray raincoat step off the edge of the platform and into the path of the arriving train.
He was surprised at how quietly the accident transpired. Apart from the woman, who was still screaming, it didn’t seem to him that anyone in the station had seen what had happened. People still pushed forward in small groups. Carl-Albin looked to the people waiting near the top of the platform where the young man had jumped. A man approached the edge of the platform and peered over to the tracks. He put his hand to his mouth. Carl-Albin felt embarrassed, as if he were witnessing an intensely private act. He looked away from the man and toward the crowd of people on the platform that now, it seemed, were awaking to the accident. There were hushed whispers and the sound of shoes clicking on the concrete floor toward the stopped train. Carl-Albin didn’t want to see a dead body, nor did he want to see the injuries sustained from such an accident. He’d once witnessed a woman fall from a ski lift and break her leg. For weeks, he’d been unable to clear the image of her broken leg and the sound of her screaming from his mind.
Near the escalator a man shouted, “Police! Police!” up the passage. Carl-Albin looked to the crowd gathering beside the driver’s compartment. The driver exited the train, walked quickly to a bench near the center of the platform, sat for a moment, then returned to the compartment and closed the door.
After what seemed like far too long, two paramedics and a number of policemen came running down the broad staircase between the escalators. He didn’t know what to expect. The paramedics jumped down to the tracks. He watched them disappear behind the front of the train. The policemen turned and faced the crowd as if to warn it away. People rushed past Carl-Albin on both sides. He heard murmuring and the hushed, sharp intakes of breath that come from the covering of crying mouths. He didn’t plan to wait to see the body removed from the tracks.
An announcement echoed repeatedly throughout the busy station that bus service on the disrupted green line would begin immediately. He joined the crowd of people silently riding the escalator back to the surface. The Canary Islands seemed now unappealing, the woman in the poster naïve. Outside the station, the crowd formed a line, two people wide, and boarded the buses. There was little talking, but he heard some laughter far behind him in the line and wished he’d heard what had caused it. He took the bus to the end of the green line. By the time he’d boarded a second bus to his mother’s neighborhood, he didn’t recognize anyone from the metro. Those who’d witnessed the accident were by now dispersed throughout the city, safely tucked into their warm homes, and Carl-Albin felt alone with what he’d seen.
At his mother’s house, he stood on the front step for a moment before letting himself in with his key. He shook the snow from his coat, stomped his boots on the rug in the hall. He liked this rug and had already picked out a place for it in his own apartment. Now the colors seemed all wrong. When his mother died, he would donate the rug to the Salvation Army, along with the lamps and the cedar china cabinet he’d always found ostentatious. “Hello,” he called into the house to alert his mother that he’d arrived. It was warm inside, a sign his mother was feeling well enough to have turned the heat on. Perhaps she’d fixed herself something to eat. She was sitting in the brown leather recliner nearest the picture window opposite the hall. A cup of tea steamed from the table beside her. The sun had dropped below the squat pines out back, casting the yard and the near side of the trees in a dark shadow. The cold, yellow light of the hall lamp behind him shone onto the dark window and in the clear reflection, he watched himself move toward his mother. He sat in the chair opposite her. Though he couldn’t see it clearly, the snow continued to fall.
“I’m glad you made it,” his mother said. Since she’d been sick, he could never be sure she was speaking about the present or if she were living a memory. “I’m glad you made it,” she said again. “I worried about you in the storm, Carl-Albin.” He didn’t take his eyes from his reflection and in it watched another, better version of himself rise from the chair to thank her.
Jensen Beach is the author of the story collection For out of the Heart Proceed. His writing has appeared or will soon in Cincinnati Review, Fifty-Two Stories, Kenyon Review Online, Ninth Letter, Sou'wester, and Witness, among others. He lives in Illinois with his family.