|A pleasant ride, a pleasant talk|
The aches and pains suffered from the morning chore of getting out of bed had just about worn off. He looked at the clock above the kitchen door, it was a quarter to eleven, his habitual time to leave the apartment and take the subway to Brooklyn to buy his weekly ration of pipe tobacco. His only son often laughed at these weekly Tuesday outings.
“Dad, when we live on New York’s upper Westside why do you go all the way to Brooklyn to buy tobacco.”
His reply had always been the same.
“It gives me something to do, it fills the day, and I can watch the people on the subway.”
His son just shrugged his shoulder saying,“Dad, have it your way.”
Now that his son had moved to Boston he had even more reason for finding things to do to pass the time of day. His wife had died several years ago and left him to cope with the creeping misery of old age. As he closed the door on his apartment he thought life hadn’t been that bad, but now silence and loneliness crawled relentlessly into his world.
He boarded the 11 o’clock downtown local at 103rd street. Being a man of habit he always took the third car from the front, it also had the added advantage of putting him directly in front of the exit at his final stop, Brooklyn Museum. The subway car was quiet at this time of the day, gone were the mad crowds of the morning rush; although the air was pervaded with a message saying we will be back. How true he thought, for years he had been part of these morning and evening mad crowds.
Opposite him, lounging in a drunken fashion was a large black man trying to recover sleep long over due. Next to him was a young couple holding hands and talking in a foreign language he could not understand. Two seats down on the right sat a sprightly old woman whom he had seen on several occasions. He had often noticed her curious hats. Infrequently he found himself wondering about her. He guessed they were about the same age. She had an air of natural curiosity about her, and her eyes were continually moving from one passenger to another. It was as if she was intently watching a play that was unfolding before her eyes. On her lap was a small dog; on her head a peculiar looking hat reminiscent of English tea parties given in the colonies for society ladies. Her face radiated with kindness, a generous mouth and a small, slightly turned up nose. He imagined as a younger woman she must have been cute.
Two seats away on her right sat a young man dressed, no doubt, for his first interview, definitely nervous as he continually crossed and re-crossed his legs. Further down the subway-car hanging on to the bars were two brawny young men, certainly, on their way to the gym. This was part of Tuesday’s morning scene on the downtown west side local. By the time he reached his destination the scene would have changed many times. This living theatre is what he liked to watch but he could never convey his enthusiasm to his son. So be it, he thought.
He was just about to settle into his morning day dreaming when two youths moved through the car and started pestering the little dog on the woman’s lap. She got quite annoyed and told them to behave. They persisted; the dog started barking, this made matters worst. The large black man woke up from his disturbed sleep. The youths took one look at him and decided to move on.
This little incident had the effect of making the small group sitting in the middle of the car feel a touch of human warmth towards each other. The little old lady leaned across to thank the big black man, he just grunted and tried to go back to sleep. She looked across the carriage at the man her own age and whispered.
“I think as he woke up the youths got scared.”
He replied “ I agree, I travel this line often……………….”
Before he could say another word she intervened.
“I know, every Tuesday at 11 o’clock you get on at 103street on and get off at Brooklyn Museum.”
With this statement his curiosity was peaked. He said, “Do you mind if I come and sit next to you and ask you why you seem to know so much about me.”
“Please do.” She said.
He moved across the carriage and sat down next to her. The little dog looked up at him, sniffed, and made a small grunting noise as if to say he approved.
“My name is Robert,” he said, extending a hand.
She replied that her name was Catherine and warmly took his extended hand.
“I am very curious to know why you would keep track of my travel movements on a Tuesday. I remember seeing you many times before,” he said.
Before Catherine replied she looked at him as if she was a medical doctor examining a patient before making a diagnostic. What she saw was a man about her own age, gray hair, definitely thinning, an open face with a trace of loneliness and sadness around the eyes, a small mouth touched off with an aquiline nose. His bearing and manners were pleasant. She could even detect a slight whiff of his morning shaving lotion. He instantly attracted her.
“Well” she said. ”Every Tuesday and Thursday I take this train from 116th Street to the end of the line, Far Rockaway, and then turn round and come back. Like you, I always choose the third carriage. To tell you the truth it gives me something to do; passes the time of day.” At this point she lowered her voice. “I have invented a little occupation. On my travels there and back I make a mental note of people I think are interesting. Generally it is never more than five. I tend to be interested in people of our own age, as they carry the baggage of their past. When I get home I write a story about each person; I give them names, and imagine what they would be like. If I never see them again their story ends there, but you would be surprised many of my imaginary friends have quite long stories attached to them. You see, when I see them again I imagine what they have been doing since the last time I saw them. I write in a diary form so I know the last time I met them. Take you for example: as I see you often you have a diary all to yourself.”
She paused. “This is a very unusual day as I make it a rule never to have any contact with my imaginary friends; somehow I think it would spoil my world to know what they were really like. Don’t you?”
Robert didn’t know what to reply. His thoughts were concentrated on this little old women who was spending two days a week on the subway living in the real world and then going home and converting this world to an imaginary world. Before he could say anything she started talking again.
“You see my husband died fifteen years ago; we had no children so to fill my lonely days I started traveling the subways. Within the first year I had my little plan all worked out. Ride to the end of the line on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and write my diary on the other days of the week. You see, I was an English schoolteacher so the writing part is easy.”
Again she paused lost in thought. Robert looked at her in fascination. He was about to ask her a question when with a sigh she continued.
“Just lately I have missed a few days, a great disappointment. I have not been feeling well; it must be old age.” Suddenly she gently touched his arm.
“Be careful, you get out at the next stop.”
Robert’s question was forgotten as he got up to leave the train. Just before he moved towards the carriage doors he turned to Catherine and said.
“See you next Tuesday.” She looked at him and smiled.
For the first time as far as Robert could remember he had a feeling of looking forward to their meeting next week.
The following Tuesday at eleven o’clock he stepped into the third carriage from the front and there she was. She had changed her hat but it still had that English colonial style looking totally out of place in a subway rumbling it’s way downtown New York City. He thought charm always had deceptive ways of expressing itself. The next thing he noticed was the absence of the little dog. As he took the seat next to her he opened the conversation with remarking about the dog.
In a subdued voice she replied. “It has been an awful week. I nearly did not come today. A taxi hit my little dog while I was shopping on Saturday morning. The taxi never stopped. The police were very sympathetic, but politely told me there was nothing they could do. The little fellow has left an empty space in my life. I am getting too old, it is time to leave.”
Robert immediately jumped in by saying. “Don’t talk like that, you are as young as you feel. What’s more you can get another little dog.”
“No! I wouldn’t do that. Toby, that was his name, has been with me for over fifteen years. The one consoling thought is if I disappear from this earth there is nobody left that depends on me.”
Robert was anxious to stop this conversation and gave her an affectionate pat on her hands lying in her lap. She turned and smiled at him.
He said. “Do you know anybody on the subway this morning?”
This question seemed to revive her spirits and she looked around. “Yes” she said. “There are three people I have seen before. But I must keep to my golden rule and not talk about them. Let’s just talk about things that interest us. Shall we talk about our likes and dislikes, about the weather and all those silly things that make us sad and happy?”
As the subway rattled its way south, opening and closing its door at every stop the old couple just sat there and talked. They went sailing through Brooklyn Museum right to the end of the line. They crossed over the platform still talking and took the next train North. On the way back Robert nearly missed his stop at 103rd street. Just before he left they exchanged names and addresses and agreed to meet next Tuesday. Robert stood on the platform looking at the train disappearing down the tracks. He was enchanted; he had been to the end of the track. In such a short space of time he had never talked so much. He had even forgotten to stop and buy his tobacco.
The day had been memorable. He stood on the platform, slightly dazed, allowing three trains to go through.
On Monday morning Robert was surprised to see a formal, thick letter from a well-known local law firm. Over his morning coffee he opened it and read the contents.
It was addressed to Robert Close and read:
Dear Mr. Close
We are saddened to inform you that in the night of Tuesday and Wednesday morning of 24th of October, Catherine Neff died peacefully in her sleep. She was eighty-seven years old. In her last will and testimony, signed and dated the evening of Tuesday 23rd she left you her diary collection. They are at present in her apartment at 140 West 116th Street, appt 4 D. Please give us a call so that we can arrange for you come and pick them up. We also enclose a letter that she addressed to you. Please accept our condolences.
Robert sat there looking at the letter with his name on it. He had only met Catherine twice in his life, but the ride to the end of the line last Tuesday would be forever chiseled his memory. He didn’t immediately open her letter, but called the lawyer. He learnt Catherine had been cremated last Saturday, that was her wish. Only one person attended the ceremony. The lawyer suggested Robert come round tomorrow, being Tuesday. He immediately told the lawyer that this would not be convenient, so they agreed on Wednesday. On Tuesday Robert took the subway to the end of the line. He still hadn’t opened the letter. On the way, at Brooklyn museum stop, he opened the letter.
(It was dated Tuesday evening, the day they went to the end of the line).
My dear Robert
In my imagination I have known you for many years; one of my diaries is consecrated to your imaginary life; you are known as Mr.Pennewickle, my Tuesday man. Today was very special for me. It is the first time I actually talked to one of my characters after all these years of writing. I am excited and at the same time anxious to know if did I do justice to all these people that entered my imagination.
This evening I changed my will and left you all my diaries, after our talk today I know you will understand. In your care my imaginary friends will be in safe hands, Dear Robert, look after yourself and take my advice always: go to the end of the line.
Robert took out a handkerchief and wiped a tear from his eye. He never imagined that a brief encounter could affect him so deeply. His spirits seemed to move in time to the rumbling of the train as it sped on its way to the end of the line. This chance meeting with Catherine Neff had in some particular way focused his thoughts on a world of make believe, something he had never given a thought to since his childhood. He found himself lost in memories of long ago when he went to his room and took down his children’s toys and books. He could almost touch his secret world of make believe. Here he was in the twilight of his life reversing the clock with prodigious speed. As he crossed over the platform at the end of the line he was still in deep thought trying to remember his childhood adventures. He started to see the subway car as some kind of chariot taking him back into the past, he realized at that moment his childhood had been one of the happiest times of his live.
At the appointed hour on Wednesday he rang the doorbell of Catherine Neff’s apartment. A clean shaved man in his early forties opened the door. He was dressed in a pin-striped suit, white shirt and somber tie. Definitely a lawyer!
“Thank you for coming Mr. Close, this way please.”
He was lead down a short passage to a room that was adjacent to the kitchen. The room was of medium size; around all the walls were bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. The shelves were full of diaries each carefully marked with a year and date, in some cases he could see a name had been inscribed. In the middle of the room was an old-fashioned roll topped desk. The desk was placed at a slight angle so that the writer could benefit from the light of the only large window in the room. Robert immediately got the impression that the room was full of people; the walls vibrated with the imaginary noise of people talking, he thought he heard the rumble of the subway in the background. Robert stood there in a trance only to be brought back to reality by the lawyer saying.
“It is quite remarkable, her diaries are beautifully written and she has animated them with sketches. They must be worth a fortune.”
Robert did not reply, but at random selected a diary. It was indeed a little masterpiece. Slowly he walked round the room; sure enough he came across the diaries of Mister Pennewinkle. He allowed his fingers to caress the binding.
He turned to the lawyer and said, “Give me ten days as I need that time to find a suitable storing place. I will send somebody to pick them up.”
“That’s fine, take your time Mister Close.” He replied
With that Robert left.
History relates: Three years later the first of a series of diaries under the name of “ Traveling to the end of the line” were published under a nom de plume. It made the number one spot on the New York Times best-sellers list. The author’s name was never disclosed.
That day Robert’s son called from Boston and asked his Dad if he had read the diaries.