He walked on the train, looked up for an empty seat and struggled to get his briefcase, his luggage, and his overcoat into the relatively small seating section. I was sitting three rows directly behind him.
I had been morosely staring out the window looking at the group of passengers impatiently waiting to board and willing them to hurry because I was tired, and I thought the rhythmic movement of the train sliding over the tracks would allow me a few moments of sleep.
Now, I sat up, alert.
It was Doug. From high school. We had dated for a while. He had joined the Air Force and then moved south. I married and moved west. Last time I talked to him, a few years ago, he was driving a taxi, struggling, but cheerful. He seemed to like his passengers. He’d liked to joke around, and several of them told him he should try stand up comedy. We laughed at that, but I thought he might be seriously thinking about it.
“Sure, why not?” I said.
“D’you think I’m a funny guy?”
“Funny how?” We both laughed.
Then he told me how his second wife, Sherry, had died unexpectedly during routine surgery. She was his true happiness and now his heartbreak. He had begun drinking. And then, I heard nothing more, until I saw his Facebook page.
He was dead. His son-in-law had found him on the floor of his apartment after Doug hadn’t showed up for work. His supervisor had called the next of kin.
It was a coronary.
I cried as I wrote condolences on Doug’s Facebook page, something lame about Doug having been a friend from high school and the best guy. It seemed pointless. Words were failures. I was inconsolable that he had died alone.
The train began moving as I stared at the head of the man three rows in front of me. Impossible! The man had Doug’s face, his features. But this man wore a three-piece suit. Doug wore jeans and flannel shirts. He was a picture of a scruffy woodsman, yet, he had never been one. No. This man couldn’t be.
I was upset that Doug hadn’t wanted a memorial of any kind. He just wanted to be cremated. I cried. I couldn’t even go to Illinois to say good-bye–for me. There were things I had wanted to say to Doug, weren’t there? Apologies? Yes. And what else? To ease my mind about anything bad that had happened between us? Maybe.
But who was this man? I couldn’t tell, and I couldn’t stop staring at him and wondering. Did I dare to move up to the compartment door and then pretend–oh, I don’t know, that I had forgotten something at my seat? No. Yes. I have to know.
So I moved. Shoved my laptop and coat out of the way, mumbled an excuse to my row partner, and stepped out into the aisle. As soon as I got to Doug’s row, the man looked up at me, shock lighting his face. My heart shuddered.