The blacktop has been cracked ever since I first took the job here. Over the years grass and clovers have grown over the ridges and onto the black valleys. Basketballs have memorized other paths toward the basket and shoes have learned how to avoid an embarrassing trip-up. The train station platform has fewer cracks and rough edges because the higher-ups are always barking about rules and regulations. The fixes are usually cheap though, some tan-colored epoxy or half-off untreated plywood from the hardware store down the street usually do.
They call me the “Welfare Supervisor” officially. Unofficially, I’m just a security guard that works days at the Primary school and nights at the station across the street. I’m a big guy with a large frame and an unassuming presence to everyone. They used to make me spread my shifts out so I’d never work back to back but now they don’t really care. Along with the offense their PR rep took to the title of “security guard” I guess they lost interest in “humane” hours, but I don’t mind. It gives me something to take my mind off of my own issues. Solitude within the crowd. Silence among the conversation. You’d be amazed at what you can hear people say when you stay really quiet.
There’s this woman. Her name is Hom. She works in the Thai restaurant next to the dance studio in the old YMCA attached to the train station with a brown brick facade that’s crumbling faster than the city planners can keep up with. I go there sometimes between shifts, always ordering the number 7. Over charred eggplant and slightly soggy noodles, I get my one break where it’s not my job to watch people. But as I try to clamp and scoop rather than poke and lift my chopsticks into the steaming sticky rice that comes with every meal I find myself watching Hom out of the corner of my eye. Her son, Jason, who is in the fifth grade goes to the school next door that I “supervise.” They also cover my other territory when Hom drops Jason off onto the 8:06 am eastward train every Saturday, from what I’ve assumed to be visits to his dad. I don’t normally work night shifts on Sunday so I never see him come back but come Monday morning Jason is always there scanning his ID into class. Seems like a normal kid.
I’m telling you this woman gets it. I see the other people that come to the restaurant and I see how they treat her. They make the same face they make when they’re dropping their kid off in the circle or swiping their card to get to their platform. It’s this expression you make when you only acknowledge that someone is there for a purpose, not just to be. We blend into the backgrounds like the cracked plaster walls and purple speckled tiles do in the primary school. Like those epoxy quick fixes and untreated plywood ramps at the station. We become simply quick barriers of our environment to them, and nothing more.
So I sit there on Tuesdays and Fridays with my number 7 and extra sticky rice. I try to smile at Hom and make eye contact when I order but she just looks down at the register. I don’t take it personally. I do the same thing when people have to come up to me.
I sit down at my favorite table in the back that faces her and I see her talking to Jason who’s in the doorway crying, holding a piece of paper. She’s hugging him and I can’t help but admire the way her arms bend when she holds him. The way her hands brush over his hair so lightly and the rhythmic tap of her other hand on his back. She wipes away his tears and I can’t help but smile…
There’s this new guy working at the school, Ed. One of the types who hasn’t learned to shut up yet. On this one day, in particular, he really wouldn’t stop. Going on and on about yadda yadda plans to make it big: quick ways to get some cash. Eventually, he gets it out of me that I work across the street too. I’m telling you I wasn’t trying to tell him I was just trying to get the guy to shut up. The next day he walks over to the desk with this swagger. As he hobbles over he has this big grin with his big teeth and I can’t help but wonder what he’s up to now. He tells me he got the train station job too, that they accepted his application within hours and now he’s working doubles with me. I can’t believe my luck but I don’t want to aggravate any ideas again either so I look down at his greasy face and give him a subtle nod. He grins even wider and slaps me on the back.
“You and I are gonna be best buds.” I don’t want to be “best buds” with greasy Ed. I want to be “best buds” with Hom. I want her gentle hands to stroke my hair softly too. But as the days go on it becomes apparent that there can be no daydreaming with Ed’s constant droning on and on. And so eventually, I realize, the only way to get him to stop talking is to start talking, myself.
“You know there’s this chick I really like.” I figure that’s what most guys talk about, seems like safe territory. Yet for the first time ever Ed doesn’t say anything. I look down at his short frame, towards his greasy face and large teeth that never tuck away and instead I see bright eyes staring back. It’s almost like his ears are wiggling in anticipation for what I’m about to say. I start to feel confident, a warm sensation stretches across my chest.
“I’m telling you this girl gets it. She knows what it’s like to be a speed bump to these people, to be looked over every day. And I’m telling you she has the most beautiful hands. One time she was comforting her son Jason…”
“Wait, she has a son?” He speaks up but I’m not ready to hear him start talking again…
“Yeah but he seems like a normal kid. Anyway, I saw the way she comforts him and I’m like I need to be with this girl. She’s different, I’m telling you. Works at the Thai restaurant in the Y, you know the one attached over here…”
Besides his brief interruption, he stays quiet for the rest of the shift. Even when I run out of things I know to say about Hom and trail off he stays quiet. The days start to pass quicker. Sure Ed still goes on and on about his next scheme and all the bullshit stuff he cares about, but the moment I start talking about Hom he gets quiet. One day in particular he seems extra finicky while he’s listening,
“How about you let me come see her?”
“Let me come with you to lunch so I can see what this chick you won’t shut up about looks like. I’m serious”
“Nah man I don’t know…”
“I’m not going to say anything I just want to see her okay man calm down”
I don’t say anything back for a second, but as I look down at Ed and his greasy head I figure why not show him. Maybe it’ll force him to grow up a little when he realizes his coworker is involved with a real woman and not some bullshit money laundering all the time.
“Alright man, dinner tomorrow. Hope you like eggplant.” I walk away from him toward some kids that are clowning around. I pretend to shoo them as Ed stands still in the background. His shoulders down and his head up, like he’s thinking about something. I bark a little bit more at the group of kids than I normally do. Something about it made me feel good and that warm feeling came over my chest again. I stand straighter and make eye contact when I tell them they need to head home now. I realize Jason is one of the kids I told to move but I don’t care. Seems like an older group for him to be hanging around… but Hom oh her hands and man she gets it she really gets it she knows what it’s like to be a speed bump…
Ed and I get off the next day and head over to the Y. I walk up to the register and order for Ed and me. She doesn’t look up like normal but I know that’s what makes her like me. I bring Ed towards the back and pull up a chair next to mine. We sit and another woman brings over our food. I explain to Ed that this is the best angle of the cash register and therefore the best place to watch Hom. We sit for a little while, he says he likes the eggplant but I don’t say anything back as I scoop up the soft meat and stiff rind. All of a sudden a crash, a loud crash. Jason runs through the swinging door with a squeaky top hinge that needs a good grease. He runs in with his hand in a towel and there’s blood. Ed gets up and his chair crashes over making an even larger sound. Like I’m telling you the dude starts to lose it. He starts to run around like a chicken without his head; I knew he’d find some way to embarrass me. But my disgust is quickly overruled by Hom’s quick thinking. She runs over to Jason and grabs his bloody hand. She drags him over to the sink and starts to clean his hand. The way she looks at him with so much care in her eyes brings back that warm feeling. But right while I’m admiring her Ed starts to squawk in my ear.
“I don’t like blood dude let’s get out of here”
“What do you mean you don’t like blood you’re a fucking security guard” I yell back, pushing his grabby hands away from my arm.
“I thought we were Welfare Supervisors and unless you want me to hurl on you we gotta go!” I know that would only make things worse so I scoot my chair out and take Ed outside the exit where the cherry blossom tree drapes over the caving roof’s eave. He starts to hurl like nothing else and I try not to look so eggplant isn’t ruined forever for me. I pat his back and say some comforting bullshit, looking up at the pink and gray-white leaves falling gently over onto the sidewalk and dandelion-littered grass covered in Ed’s vomit. I think about Hom and how smart she was to help the kid so quickly. What a perfect woman…
We don’t speak about the vomiting accident after but now I feel like Ed has a better picture of Hom when I tell him about her. As the days go on though Ed starts to get quieter and quieter. He starts to have a greenish tint to his greasy face like the day when he threw all that eggplant up on the fallen cherry blossoms. But I don’t mind, I feel like for the first time in my life I’ve found my voice. As the days go on and Ed stays quiet I start to reveal to him my fantasies about her more and more. I start to go into detail about the thoughts I have during the night shift at the train station. I start to tell him everything. But then one day, a couple of weeks after I took him to dinner at the Y he doesn’t show up to work. Super unlike greasy Ed and his money is everything mentality. A couple of days later he shows up at the end of the school shift when I’m about to head over to see Hom and get some grub. He comes up to me but he’s not wearing his uniform and he strangely, if possible, looks less greasy than normal. He’s wearing a light pink polo the same as those damn vomit-covered cherry blossoms and I can’t get that fucking picture out of my head.
“What’s up, Big Ed?” I started calling that ever since I learned he wore two-inch inserts in his Jordans to try to be taller like me.
“Man, not now. I gotta go. I’m quitting.” Now I’m confused. What happened to his money schemes and retiring at forty?
“Why? What happened Ed?”
“Man nothing, just let me get my hat and card and I’ll be out of here”
“Ed I’m serious what’s up?” He looks down at his chunky shoes and doesn’t say anything except for a small movement of his head as if he’s shaking it to say no.
“Ed bro you can tell me anything? Don’t we have fun? Talking and hanging out and stuff…” But then he interrupts me and he looks up into my eyes.
“See dude that’s just it. You won’t fucking shut up and has anyone ever told you you’re the most insufferable self-absorbed bastard in the world? And geez you’re so obsessed with that poor woman you’re like a fucking predator or something!” He grabs his card and hat from behind the desk and turns on his heel. I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything…
I call off sick on Saturday. Probably for the first time in my life and I know without me or Ed they probably were really struggling down at the station but I don’t care I just can’t find it in me. I pick up a long shift on Sunday even though I’m normally off but I feel bad for the guys that had to scramble yesterday. Yet even the constant sounds of trains coming in and pulling away can’t distract me. Normally I love the sounds of trains. The way they pull into a station and clack and clack slower and slower. The way the brakes by command create a slow creak and a vibrating hum on the platform floor. But today not even the monotony can distract me from the confines of my brain.
I try telling myself that it doesn’t matter. Am I really feeling bad about this greasy guy who has to wear lifts in his shoes and smiles with buck teeth? The type of guy who listens to self-help podcasts and says thinks he’s not gonna have to work his whole fucking life? No, that’s not me. I’m a speed bump. I’m a quiet guy who stands and watches over people who ignore me, who walk all over me. But they don’t know that I hear everything, I see everything, that I know everything.
As the night starts to go on and the trains become fewer and far between. I do my normal thing after doing my checks to keep myself busy. Scene by scene I picture Hom looking up at me at the register when I place my order. She says I know you, you’re number 7, right? Sometimes a squawking bird or an old woman who needs to double-check the train schedule even though it’s plastered literally everywhere will take me out of the trance but I will always restart it and play it over and over again. Maybe it’s a good thing Ed’s gone, now I have more time to think about things like that.
A train pulls in and the platform’s steady vibration takes me out of my fantasy. Passengers get off and do that almost-bump and pivot dance to try to avoid each other as they all head for the same exit. I see a figure of a younger boy with a backpack get off the train but then just stand there as the train pulls away. After a while, I realize it’s Jason. He just stands there for a while and I think about his beautiful mom who is probably cleaning up after her shift at the Y right now. Scrubbing the tables with the vinegar and soap in a reusable spray bottle labeled with some other type of spray. The slightly fermented smell it leaves on the table gives me that warm feeling in my chest every time I smell it.
But then the kid is still there. He just stands there empty on the platform next to the yellow lines. He looks around for a second and then drops his head again, his shoulders slouch so much I think his backpack might just slip off his skinny frame. And as I stand in my usual spot in the shadows of the schedule monitor I realize he thinks he’s alone. He scans up one more time and then looks back down, this time at the four-foot drop down to the train tracks from the platform. Before I know it he gets down onto his knees and scooches on to the ground His feet make a slight thump as he lands on the compacted dirt in between the iron rails.
My heart starts to beat really fast. Is anyone going to do anything? I feel like rushing over; doing exactly what they told us to do in the 13-minute video they made us watch before taking this job. The first thing you do is make sure they can hear you and then you press the emergency button. No wait, it’s the other way around. My palms start to sweat and my throat feels dry. But before I can do any of those things I realize my feet aren’t gonna budge— it feels like they’re epoxy-ed down to the ground. All I can do is watch.
He stands right in the middle of the train tracks for a long time. Then he gets down on his knees again like he did when he hopped off the platform. This time he lies on his back. He uses a backpack as a pillow for his tiny head. All I can do is watch. Someone else has to be seeing this, it can’t just be me, that’s not fair. But then something happens. He stands up. I’m shouting in my head, get up, get up, run away! He picks up his backpack and drapes it over his skinny shoulders. It almost slides off so he has to adjust it. Then as quickly as he got down he slithers back up to the platform. Saliva starts to pool in my mouth and my heart is starting to slow down. But then I feel my lunch coming up and I know I’m about to be sick. I turn away from Jason and puke over the rail onto the oak tree’s bark. The pinecones lying on the ground absorb my bile pretty easily and it’s clear I hadn’t even eaten enough for the day. I swing back around as soon as I can and it’s clear Jason realized someone was there. He looks over in my direction with bright eyes. I’m not sure if he could see me but he definitely could hear me. He starts running in the direction of the Y. His backpack jangles up and down and one of his shoelaces is untied. As he gets farther from my watching spot and the pool of liquid that didn’t make it onto the tree it becomes harder to see him. Only after a minute can I swear I hear the swinging door open to the Y and I know he’s safe, for now. The light that I was supposed to note down as busted flickers back on and under the harsh yellow light and on the untreated plywood ramp I stand on, my vomit has a weird pink tinge to it. Like cherry blossoms.