The Stranger Beside Me

by Michael Tuberdyke

A handful of passengers stepped off the train while the people on the platform waited anxiously to board. After the last passenger departed the train the others rushed on board hopping to get a seat. There were not many available and plenty were left standing when the doors to the train. closed

“It’s like musical chairs, but without the music,” one stranger spoke to another. “I wish there was music. Everything is better with music. Much more alive. My name is Louise.”

The passenger looked over to Louis. He was clean shaven, young, and had an air of promise about him. This air was matched with his clothes, which were almost absurd in their formality as if the clothes did not match the age of the person who wore them.

The passenger smiled politely. They had been used to characters having lived in the city all their life. This did not mean that the passenger was ready to tolerate such a person at this particular time. They removed themselves immediately feeling they did not want to get involved with anyone for any reason.

A man standing nearby observed the exchange. He found it peculiar that Louis was so open to conversation and did not seem to be wrapped in any sort of device. The man standing nearby took a seat when the other passenger left. He did not care to be talked to, but did not mind it either. Nothing significant happened to him that morning and throughout much of the afternoon he calculated just how many hours of his life had gone by before wondering if he even cared.

“My name is Louis.”

The man looked over blankly. He did not say anything at first. He nodded his head and looked down at Louise outstretched hand. He turned aside and faced forward to all the other passengers who stared with eyes that did not hold any sign of life.

“You don’t like contact. I get it.” Louis nodded his head understandingly. His voice carried surprisingly well. It forced a few other passengers to look over.

The man looked over. He was embarrassed not by his actions, but by the looks of the other people. He felt he was being judged.

“I’m sorry,” he began in a whisper, “it has just been one of those days. I just don’t know.”

The man noticed a large brown hard-shell luggage bag between Louis’s feet. The man then connected the dots. This Louis was a traveler-for his warmth, spirit, and charm was not common on the red-line through Boston.

“I understand completely, trust me, I really do.” Louis leaned with his hand on the man’s shoulder. The man was going to say something about his space, but Louis moved away and the two sat still and silent like perfect strangers.

A couple minutes passed until Louis began to tap his feet against the steel floor. He patted his hands against his thighs then he began to sing underneath his breath. The noise bothered the man, but the man knew better to say anything. It was better to have someone like Louis carry on or else one might find themselves on the wrong side of an altercation.

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know,” Louis said, suddenly looking over.

“What’s that?” The man looked over. He did not know that Louis was talking to him.

“That’s Shakespeare. He’s pretty good. I always thought it would be cool to be an actor. I’d like to be right up there with John Barrymore and Gary Cooper.”

The man nodded politely again not sure what to think or say. He did not know the people who Louis was referring too. He let Louis carry on in his soliloquy.

“I’m meeting some friends of mine tomorrow. Would you like to meet us?”

“I’m sorry, but I have plans.”

“With whom?”

The man laughed. He did not mean to laugh, but he thought the question to be too personal for some eccentric to be asking on the train.

“With my wife.” 

The man was not married. He had not seen anyone romantically in quite some time. The question still bothered him. He could not understand how some stranger could ask what he was doing and with whom. He was about to say something about it, but he lost his footing.

“Well, bring her along too. My friend Marty won’t mind. We can stop at Sandra’s. Marty always brings this woman to Sandra’s with us. And Sandra, you would love her. She likes everyone. She keeps a twelve gauge behind the counter just in case any customer gets fresh. I don’t know if it’s a Remington or…”

“Will you stop,” the man said, “I’m sorry. I appreciate it. I really do.”

“Then you’ll come?”

“No.” The man snapped. His voice carried and other passengers looked over.

“How did you come to meet your wife? You see, I’m very much interested in stories about love.”

“I’ve had a very difficult day today and I don’t want to speak to anyone.”

Louis smiled. “You don’t have to go to Sandra’s. There are nights when even I don’t want to meet up with the old gang.”

Louis pulled a piece of paper out from his sport coat and a pen. He began to write and while he wrote the man beside Louis debated with himself if he should just stand up and leave, but he did not want to appear rude. Louis ripped out the piece of paper and handed it over to the man.

“That’s the address. Sandra’s is the last of its kind in the neighborhood. Marty says the same thing. ‘Give me a good stinkin’ waterin’ hole,’ he says, ‘none of the new nonsense.’ Marty is funny that way, but he is right, you know they tear everything down just to build it back up again.”

The train began to slow down. The man stood up instantly.

“This is my stop, I’m sorry but—,” the man looked down hopping Louis would remain in his seat.

“Oh no,” Louis said, moving slightly in his seat. “It’s me who should apologize. I don’t even know your name.”

“David,” the man said quickly. He felt the train could not stop fast enough.

“David Lantle.”

“Well, Mr. Lantle, my name is Louis. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“Louis stuck out his hand and David shook it. He felt silly for shaking the same man’s hand twice in the last few minutes, but he felt he would do anything to make sure Louis remained in his seat.

David then began to inch closer to the door as he extended his gratitude for providing the information to Sandra’s and that him and his wife would love to come down one of these nights.

“Please do,” Louis called as the train came to a stop. “We’ll save a bench for you.”

David pushed passed the people already at the door who were waiting. Louis remained seated. He smiled and waved cheerfully as though a lifelong friend were about to leave on a shipping vessel that would cross over the world.

Michael Tuberdyke is the author of the novels, The Pharaohs and The River May Run.