By yourself on the train, you watch people. You watch them come and go, into the car and out of the car, into your life and out of your life, people you have never seen before and will never see again. You’ve missed your stop, and you decide to stay onboard for another full loop. You have nothing better to do, anyway. The people are coming and going like the flickering image of a 1940s black and white television screen.
You raise your eyes to the door sliding open, an elderly man hobbling in, his right hand retaining a firm grip on his cane. He knows what he’s doing, and you know that he no longer needs to think about watching the gap between the train and the platform. He sits down across from you, letting out a sigh like a gust of wind blowing across a field of corn stalks. His coat rustles and crunches like dead leaves on the forest ground as he moves to take it off. He smells of tobacco and dust, reminiscent of your great-aunt’s attic. Old people smell like old memories, you note. You see a wooden pipe in his breast-pocket and you wonder if, like your great-aunt’s, it has Chinese characters carved into it.
You wonder if, unlike your great-aunt, he can actually understand Chinese.
His forehead is like a desert, his wrinkles like dunes that shift and flatten out as he raises his eyebrows at something you can’t see, and that he probably can’t see either. You don’t know if he really can see all that much. He has removed his glasses and has placed them in his pocket with his pipe. His right eye is a striking green, and you think it’s cliché that your first thought is of the ocean. You try to find a better comparison. It is like the strange green color behind your eyelids after you look into a light for too long. His left eye is not the same. It is dull. It does not move.
It is made of glass, you realize. You’ve never seen a man with a glass eye before. You become more certain of this fact when you watch his right eye flit back and forth and his left stay in place. They are opposites, the animal lying motionless on the side of the road and the animal still running wild, having made it across.
There are areas on his face that are smooth. The tip of his nose, for example. The rest of his skin is weathered and folded like a crumpled blouse that you forgot to iron, and now it’s too late. The tip of his nose is like the eye of a hurricane, and you start wondering again. You wonder how old you will be when your nose becomes the eye of a hurricane. It’s a funny thing to wonder about. His hair, receding to the point where it only begins behind his ears, is wispy in some places, like thick fog that has begun to disperse. Strato-cumulus, cumulostratus. You could never remember the names of the clouds, and so you decide that you could just as well associate his hair with the smoke from his pipe, as you imagine it drifting out into the air from between his lips on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
His hands seem as rough as a burlap sack, and perhaps working in his garden was a pastime of his. You question whether it still is today, if it ever was. His right fingers are trembling on the head of his cane, his nails yellowed by the passing time and by the harshness of the years as they whip by.
He opens his mouth as if to speak, and you lean forward. He coughs, once, twice. It’s a quiet cough, and you’re surprised. The old people you know cough loudly, as if wads of dust and grime that the ages have collected are stuck in their throat. This man coughs as a soft way of showing he’s still alive. You think he will speak, but he doesn’t. He rests back into his seat, shifting his shoulders slightly. You can almost hear his bones creaking, like the unoiled hinges of a door you haven’t opened in years.
The train jerks to a halt, and your body jolts a bit from side to side. The man across from you gets up, using his cane for balance, wheezing as he pushes his body up and unfolds himself slowly from his sitting position. You’re rooting for him. He can do this. He does. When you spend your life sitting and getting up, sitting and getting up, it’s harder to stand up straight. He shows this, like a paper that you’ve folded and unfolded too many times. The mark will never go away.
He shuffles out the same way as he shuffled in, one dirty white sneaker in front of the other, the fabric of his worn pants rubbing against itself and making a sound like static on the radio, and you watch him as he goes. You wonder if he had caught you staring at him. You wonder if it really matters, in the long run. You wonder why some things matter in the first place.
You tear your eyes away from the door, which is now closing with that sound that reminds you of a vacuum, telling you that you are still stuck in here until the next stop. You look back to the seat where he had been only moments ago. There should have been nothing left. Instead, there is. There is a black, formless shape still lying on the seat, like a forgotten shadow. There is a small tag sticking out of it, an address scrawled on it in messy blue ink.
He has left his coat behind.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.