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Saturday, July 28, 2007

New Fiction!: A Dark Cloud Over Pittsburgh

This is my story from an in-progress anthology I'm working on with some friends. The collection is about a bunch of people waiting for a train one winter night in the fictional town of Whiteport, Pennsylvania. Hope you enjoy it.

A Dark Cloud Over Pittsburgh

A dead man stares at me from across the lobby. The janitor goes about his chores - I forget his name. Footsteps echo too loudly as a woman hurries passed. Looking at neither of us, she makes her way toward the floor to ceiling glass doors leading to the platform. The building hums.

I tell myself there are perks to retirement, but it’s daunting, waking up every morning. It didn’t used to be like this.

The hum of a vacuum drowns out a worried reporter in a parka speaking from a dozen flat screen televisions mounted to the wall opposite me, directly above the dead man. Closed Caption explains a clean up crew is nearly finished on a train that slipped its track somewhere in the Rockies, and the woman heading for the doors is left waiting in a station on the other side of the country. I guess that’s how things work nowadays.

The Whiteport station used to be nice. Cozy. A simple two-railer where people could stop for beer and conversation while watching the trains. Passengers never stayed for longer than it took to take a leak and grab a cup of coffee. It was dim and it was quiet. In this revamped architecturally modern building, every sound is amplified. Every footstep is a marching army. The reporter on the other side of the country is trying to talk over the payphone in the hallway. It rings endlessly, loud and consistent and abrasive.

Nobody could sleep through this commotion. That’s why I’m convinced the man is dead.
A crowd gathers, eating candy from a vending machine. Wrappers crunch. Lips smack. Even with no one talking this room is so loud.

They tore the pub down and built a bagel stand. Last week they ripped out the arcade to make way for a Starbucks – a Starbuck in a train station! I suppose another problem with old age is you just don’t get it anymore.

“Hey Pitt.”

It’s the janitor. I see his fogged breath before I see him standing there. His name badge hidden beneath a stained terry towel slung over his shoulder, he slides two bucks – two bucks! – into the pop machine. A can thunks in the retriever, dull and heavy as the bricks that used to make up these walls. Bricks mined from local soil.

He pops the top and the fizz hisses, mad and urgent. “Not a good night for train watching,” he says after a healthy gulp.

I suppose not, but nowadays it’s pretty much the same routine. He wipes his mouth with the towel and I see his badge says TIM. Why can’t I remember that? My son’s name was Tim.
I point at the televisions as a herd of folks meander in and sit beneath. “Lost one over near Steamboat Springs.”

“Where’s that?”


He stares at the TV. Sips his drink. “Six dead, so far. That sucks.”

My eyes flick over to the dead man. He hasn’t moved.

Tim shrugs. “I guess that happens, huh. Well Pitt, break time’s over.” He waves, dragging his mop and bucket behind him.

My name has been Pittsburgh since I was eight years old – the only thing I took with me from the orphanage I was shipped to after my dad was shot down over Korea. My mother couldn’t cope. My baby sister was taken in by one of my dad’s sisters but they couldn’t afford us both, not with little ones of their own to tend to. At eight, they figured I’d get along okay. I haven’t seen my sister since. I’ve never met my cousins.

The other kids called me Pittsburgh on account that’s where I’m from. Been all over since then, though. Allentown, Eerie, Uniontown. I haven’t been back to Pittsburgh but the name stuck.

The train station drifts in and out of stillness. A woman sneezes. A child complains of the cold. Someone talks aggressively to a cell phone. Then, a long stretch of silence. Or as close to it as this place knows anymore. Someone clears their throat and the volume pitches once again.

I watch them move. They’re restless. Tapping fingers, reading yesterday’s paper, plucking random pages from vacant seats. A man looks at his watch. The man next to him looks at his watch. It moves on down the line like the wave at Three Rivers. Or, whatever it is now.

The crowd, I could make up stories if I didn’t already know so much about them. They’ve all been through here before, hundreds of times in one form or another, the same faces only slightly varied, over and over again. Students, soldiers, tourists. Mourners, revelers, loners. Amish, Buddhist, Christian. All walks of life. Due to the weather this time of year, the vagrants aren’t kicked out unless they cause a ruckus or they’re too plainly drunk. There’s a lot more of them now since they added a bus stop out front. No one is on a first name basis anymore. It didn’t used to be like this.

A parade of quarters clunking into the pop machine draws my attention. A young man wearing fatigues and humping a duffle bag shoots me a look I can’t decipher – is he being smug or is it camaraderie? He probably thinks we can trade war stories.

“That place any good?”

He points to a poster for some Italian restaurant chain. I shrug as he drops the duffle bag on the Saltillo tile floor and takes a seat. He slurps his pop. Eyes the room like a combat zone. He can’t be twenty yet.

“You like trains?”

My first memory was of my dad deploying from the Pittsburgh station. It was a cold day like today, with the clouds so thick I thought I could reach up and grab a handful if my dad had held me up. As a teen I would sneak out and come here. I would sit in a corner that no longer exists and watch people move about, only here as a respite between where they’re coming from and where they’re going. That was back when this place was nice. Back before Starbucks and two dollar pops.

I didn’t say this to the guy. Instead, I grunted, “Yep.”

“I can’t stand them.” He continues to eye the crowd, the bundled up homeless, the single mothers, Tim buffing the hallway, the stench so strong my nose burns, the sound so loud the soldier nearly shouts at me. “I’m supposed to be flying to Newark. I’m deploying to Iraq in a couple days. Marines.” He has a knife in his hand, carving a symbol into the soft leather armrest. He holds it up for me to see clearly. “They wouldn’t let me board with this.”
I didn’t know what to say.

“They call is a weapon. I told them, every tool is a weapon. They teach you that.” The knife disappears. “Anyway, I think they got the message but I’d had enough of their disrespect so fuck them, right? I’m taking a train.” He shrugs. Sips his soda. The building goes back to humming.
“And look, now here I am, Buttfuck nowhere, late. Cold as shit. Anyway.”

He grabs his duffle bag and walks away as Rick, the night guard, gravitates to the vending machine. Drops in a handful of change.

“Heyya Pitt. Cold night, huh?” He taps my shoulder, conspiracy like. “Don’t look now but Shakes is back. Shakes the Clown.”

I look where he nods. An old man in a porkpie hat shuffles across the spotless floor.

“I call him that on account of his Parkinson’s.” He pops his soda tab. “Take it easy.”

Shakes – I’ve never known his real name – is a regular. He comes here everyday sometime after midnight to do his ancient Vaudeville act for people who couldn’t care less. Today, after making his rounds across the lobby, he zeroes in on a young woman a few seats down. I know his routine already so I stand to leave and my knees pop in revolt. I glance at the big digital clock on the wall, surprised at how quickly it’s gotten so late. The dead man hasn’t twitched.

The stench of the room is strong and bitter and my head feels cloudy. I head for the doors.
The chill air bites me. I pull my windbreaker close and stand in a corner to keep away from the wind and snow bursts. The woman from earlier sits on a bench with her luggage and stares at the tracks. The desperation in her gaze would break your heart if you let it. Above us, the old Plexiglas awning pitter-patters with sleet.

This platform is almost all that remains from the original station, though it’s scheduled to go when the snow clears. Everything else is remodeled, upgraded, and reconfigured. Everywhere else the homespun Pennsylvania steel is gone. The northeastern brick and mortar is gone. Now it’s all imported stone, smooth and flawless, completely without history or personality. Fluorescent lights everywhere, so bright and spaced just perfectly so there are no shadows anywhere. This used to be a place where you could sit alone in a corner and mind your business. Where you could burn away hours without any effort at all. But now there are no corners, and time has a slow lumbering gait. It didn’t used to be like this.

Inside, people stare at their laptops, their watches, the floor at their feet. Except the dead man, who stares at nothing. With nothing better to do, a few watch Shakes do his song and dance routine.

The doors open and an Amish kid steps out. He’s underdressed but doesn’t look cold. Without the beard I wouldn’t think he’s much older than 15. He joins me in the corner and pulls a joint from a pocket. He lights it with a match and smokes a bit before offering. I take it from his fingers. We say nothing for a while as we pass it back and forth.

“What are you two doing out here?”

The voice startles us, so sudden and unexpected. It’s Rick, the security guard.

The Amish kid smiles. “It smells like shit after Tim’s done buffing. Also, some crazy lady at the ticket counter keeps trying to sell God to me.”

He offers Rick last bit of the joint. Rick waves him off and pulls a pack of Camels from his pocket. “Sorry about that. I already warned her once.” He takes a long, grateful pull.

"Some woman found a bloody tampon jammed up in the toilet paper dispenser. Tim's in there disinfecting the entire room."

The Amish kid laughs as he sucks down the last toke. He flicks the butt across six brand new lanes of track. It used to be simple: one decision leads you to Pittsburgh. The other, Philadelphia. There’s no need for six lanes in Whiteport.

As they chat about the crash in Steamboat Springs, I peek inside. Shakes has moved along. The dead man is still dead. I’m tempted to wave my hand in front of his face, just to check.

I think, how would that be, to go waiting for a train?

Almost as soon as I settle in to my seat the noise peaks again. A monotone voice makes an announcement over the PA, waking me. A child screams, his mother threatens. A commercial for an energy drink demands attention. The mother takes her son by the hand and drags him from the room.

With that, silence again, except for the hum.

I used to bring my son here when he was that young. He loved the trains and the arcade, before it was a coffee shop. He would race up and down the platform as the trains arrived or departed, arms wide like he was about to lift off.

“Say Dottie! When I was on my way over here, I met a fella who said he hadn’t had a bite in weeks—“

Shakes is back, and he’s recruited a young girl as an accomplice.

“Did you bite him?” She asks, cutting in on cue. A few obligatory smiles from the crowd. Even the dead man seems to enjoy the show. I drop two bucks for a soda into his hat and walk away.
The only vacant spot in the room is just below the televisions. I don’t recall what was playing but I stare until my retinas burn, until my eyes are dried from the strain and the chill of the place. All the noise, everywhere. All the unnatural light. Everything drowns out – the movement of people, the dead man’s gaze, time passing. The noise peaks and drops. The hum is the only constant, a subtle vibration throughout this soulless building.

Then the room rattles – so minor a change that most everyone wouldn’t notice anything, but it’s enough to break the trance so I head for the door. A ground fog spreads over the old concrete platform as the rattle swells. A few regulars join me, tickets and luggage in hand as the building rumbles and quakes.

The platform fills with passengers stuck so long indoors. The rain is a slow and steady weeping. Snow spirals and the rails flicker. The air is crisp as it wraps around us, swirling, a harbinger bringing with it a chance for escape.

“Finally,” one of them says with a final, deliberate look at his watch.

I close my eyes as the platform convulses beneath my feet. My lungs shrivel and freeze, empty, burning, my breath stolen by the cold as the train squeals to a violent stop.

A child giggles rushing passed as I allow the push of air to rock me backwards.

The doors slush open. The crowd fights around me in a hurry to get out of the cold and on their way.

The doors close. The train lurches, screeching on the icy tracks.

Then, all is silent. Even the hum has lifted.

My face is warm. I’m allowed to catch my breath.

When I open my eyes the sunlight from the newborn day is blinding as it finds a hole in the cloud cover.

My eyes water, sensitive and unprepared.

The cold air freezes the moisture as it streams my cheeks.

Alone now, I turn toward the doors and notice the dead man is gone.