The Old Man and the Subway

It was just another day when the old man stepped into my life. I was on the subway, off to work. Frankly, I wouldn’t have noticed him if it weren’t for his hat. It was a light blue baseball cap with a flattened rim. The words Watching The Bay were painted on in big white letters, and flanked on either side by the skeletal outlines of two marlin fish. 

Even then, I felt myself drawn to the hat’s simplicity, but I couldn’t overlook the man’s toasted olive skin. It was worn and stretched, much like his tan leather jacket. The cuffs on his baggy jeans were rolled above his workman boots. On his lap was a grocery bag, stuffed with miscellaneous clothing articles and a big Ziploc bag, which itself was stuffed with a sandwich and what appeared to be Ruffles potato chips. 

The old man was concentrating on a thermos mug. I watched his thick fingers fumbling with the device while his big brown eyes examined it closely, as if searching for a message carved into its shell. When our subway came above ground, onto the bridge and into the light, he glanced about nervously, as though the day was chasing him. He soon shrugged it off and continued inspecting his thermos, turning it over purposefully as I watched him go.

His eyes were closed when I got off at my station. Work was upon me and I quickly forgot about him. I don’t remember much of that day, other than it was windy outside. I answered emails, went to a few meetings, and watched some television after dinner. The weeks and months piled up, turning Winter to Spring, and the old man faded from memory – irretrievably, one would think – until a Friday afternoon near the beginning of summer. I was coming home from work when, all of a sudden, he was there on the subway, just as I had left him.

Again, I wouldn’t have paid him any mind if it weren’t for his hat. The azure threw into sharp relief the earthy sprawl of the underground, myself included. I clung to the straightforwardness of its meaning. I sensed its tranquility dissolving my present circumstances, dislodging me from my immediate surroundings. In the pale blue I returned to the summer sky of childhood, which I remembered as eternal, misty and free of storms. I wonder, though, if it was his childhood that caught my imagination. Or maybe I was simply captivated by his skittish eyes, which seemed to take in a great deal, or those thick fingers that couldn’t stop moving.

It wasn’t until above ground that I recalled our first encounter. As he glanced about nervously and removed a thermos from his grocery bag, I felt the weight of many months bearing down on me. I grew disoriented, like I had stood up too quickly. 

Recollecting myself, I was on the subway and the old man was across from me. He was still twirling and rotating his thermos. The item appeared to me as some sort of disfigured hourglass. Sitting there, watching him go, I felt restless, bewildered. His fidgety hands, his burned skin, his plain footwear – it all struck me as grotesque. I think it’s because there he was – just as he was all those months ago – and there I was – just as I was all those months ago. I wanted him to do something useful, to keep his hands still, or at least to get off the train and leave me in peace.

I stayed in my seat when my stop came. I felt that I needed to speak with him. I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted him to know I was there. I wanted him to know I had seen him all those months ago. He needed to know I existed like I knew he did. I stood up and started toward him, but an aerial hand returned me to my seat. I couldn’t disturb the old man – not then, not there. It seemed more acceptable to speak with him on a platform, so I decided to follow him off the train. 

Each time we slowed down I readied myself to stand up, but the old man remained motionless, pardon those hands grappling with that thermos. It seemed like a Rubik’s Cube that only he could solve. 

I worried the old man would never leave, or that our train would go on forever, but the last stop came and he pulled himself up. He was shorter than I thought, and he walked with a limp. I felt guilty for watching him, not to mention ridiculous for following him. I wanted to ask about his hat, to see his travels, to know whom he loved. I was too caught up to stop and think that he was waiting on the same train to loop around and take him back from where he came. I only realized this when I was back on the train with him, watching him alternatively turn over the thermos and rest with his eyes closed. 

And that’s how things stood until we reached the line’s last stop, when he pulled himself up and waited for the same train to take him back again.

I stayed with the old man for as long as I could, yet he never looked in my direction. He didn’t acknowledge my presence, except for those thick fingers. I swear, they seemed to accelerate or slow down in tune with my pulse.

As the hours passed, I felt myself stepping into the old man’s life. I don’t know why, but I would have followed him to the end of the earth. I think he knew that, and I think that’s why at the break of dawn, as we reached our last stop, he placed his thermos on the seat before alighting. I watched him limp off the subway, then turned my attention to the mysterious object. I pulled myself up and approached hesitantly, worried it may explode, but when I picked it up nothing happened. I opened its lid, expecting to find something important – anything, anything at all – but it was empty, except for a few drops of water.

I rushed onto the platform and looked in both directions, but the old man had left the station. I sat down on a wooden bench to wait for my train, hoping it wouldn’t be long. As I inspected the thermos, I wondered if the old man would find his way.

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