Southbound Train

He always lingers like this when he thinks something is wrong. There's never anything wrong.

"You OK?" he says as he wipes off the steamer again. And again.

"Yeah, it's just so early." I wave over the next customer and he goes to the back to continue baking.

Last night, I sat out on my balcony with Holly, candles burning and blankets around our shoulders. Holly told me the winters weren't so bad in Chicago, but it was October and already I towed a blanket around the apartment with me. I wear a tank top at work because it gets so hot around the machines, but I've perfected the use of layers. It's the one thing everyone in Chicago agrees upon: layers are the only way to survive.

"Hey Lisa, could you come here a minute?" He wants me to go in back, probably to teach me something about something. I've been working here for six weeks now, and he's always thinking of something new for me to learn. There just isn't that much new to learn in a coffee shop.

Holly and I were talking about how different Chicago was from Downstate, how there seemed to be so much more going on here, how people were still really nice without being small-town ignorant, how there weren't that many trees.

"I'm really glad you decided to bite the bullet and come up here," she said. "It's going to be like college again. Only without the $1 pitchers."

He wanted to show me the baking schedule, which I'd already gone over about two dozen times before. I never used it because I never opened the store, I never closed the store and most importantly, I never baked.

"Oh, right, well it's good for everyone to know, anyhoo," he says. He sort of whistles anyhoo. He almost always acts like he works on a train line. He hums blues songs all the time. His beard is gnarled. When he leaves work, he shouts, "I'm punchin' out and gettin' out and all y'all can check me out... latah mayaann!" It's affected, but cute.

"Thanks buddy," I said.

"How about a quick smoke? Looks like you could puff a couple."

Holly and I watched a kid, probably about 15 and wearing a knit hat, ride his bike down the street. He had what looked like a little BMX, and was swerving and hopping, doing tricks for himself; practicing for when he got back to his neighborhood to show his friends. A grandpa car drove up: all black, black windows, black shiny tires, gold rims.

"So nothing's wrong, huh?" he says and pats his chest where his heart is. It's the most tender I've ever seen him, and it reminds me of a grandpa, even though he's a year younger than me.

"What the fuck is up with you?" I ask, laughing and taking a cigarette. He lights it for me.

"Hmmmmm," he says, and the sound comes from deep in his gut and I can feel the vibration in my cigarette.

It wasn't in slow motion, like the way everyone always says tragedies are. If anything, it was high-speed, non-linear and on an IMAX screen. It was too much. The window rolled down, something sharp poked out and it looked like firecrackers going off. The noise was on top of the light, no delay, just handclaps to our ears. The kid fell instantly, gracefully. When someone's dead there's nothing to break the fall or worry about the damage. It's a complete and selfless surrender.

Holly ran into the house to call. I took her blanket, put it over mine and burrowed underneath. She came and got me after the police left.

"I heard about the kid and I know that would mess me up pretty good," he says. "But you know, you can't just hit the brakes."

Now I say "Hmmmmm" and feel it tremble on his shoulder as I lay my head down.

"And I don't want you catching some midnight train Downstate," he says and laughs. He sounds unforced, like the rest of his speech is just an interruption of his laughter. He throws his coat over my shoulders.

"Thanks, Josh." I close my eyes, and try to see something else.

About the author:

Jonathan Messinger's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Black Table and various newspapers and magazines. He is copy editor of Pistil Magazine and former editor of the humor magazine, WheatBread. He has never eaten a pickle.