Bruce Jamison watched as the commuter train approached his station. He looked around and saw that all of the people waiting to board the train were staring at the train as if mesmerized by the approach of the huge beast that took them into New York City at this time of the morning, Monday through Friday. Bruce had been riding this train for seven years now; ever since he and Beth had moved to Connecticut. Bruce had met Beth at a friend's party and they had hit it off right away. They had lived in New York City for the first five years of their marriage. For the first couple of years, after moving to Connecticut, Beth had driven him to the train station. He couldn't remember when or why she had stopped driving him to the station; she just didn't take him anymore. These days, he drove his car to the station and parked it there all day.
The bitter January wind gusted and several of the passengers turned away from the wind. Bruce pulled his knit cap down over his ears and inwardly cursed the sharp wind... It was still dark and the sun had not imparted any of it's warmth on the biting wind. Bruce's stomach seemed to twist inside his body and a bit of bile spilled into his throat. He pulled the breath mints out of his pocket and popped two of them in his mouth. The mints burned his tongue as they dissolved in his mouth. He took a sip from the throw-away cup that held his first cup of coffee of the morning; the hot liquid burned his tongue. The burning was magnified by the irritation of the breath mint. The breath mints were with him throughout his day to mask the smell of alcohol. Bruce never drank during the day but he was afraid that someone would smell alcohol on his breath from the night before.
At night, after he left the office and arrived at the station in the city, it was usually twenty or thirty minutes before his train arrived but lately that was enough time for three martinis. After he got home and ate dinner he would go into the study and work for a while on the cases that had been assigned to him and have another drink or two, sometimes more if the case was grinding on him. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone call him an alcoholic. He never let alcohol interfere with his work and he didn't take a drink during the day. Even at the power lunches he drank coffee or iced tea. Most of his fellow lawyers would swear that he didn't drink. He had promised long ago that he would never be like his father.
Brice Jamison had passed his bar exam on the first try. The law firm that had recruited him right out of law school had assisted him with tutors and time off to study for the exam. He repaid them, in spades, rapidly becoming one of the best corporate lawyers in the city. His reputation drew clients to the law firm like a magnet. Bruce quickly had his own staff working for him. His salary grew along with his reputation. He had planned to work a few years to get his feet on the ground and then start his own practice but the money that he was making now was just too hard to turn away from. For some reason, partnership in the firm always seemed just a millimeter away. Right there but he couldn't touch it. Bruce told himself that it was because the firm was huge and the older partners were greedy.
The train slowed to a stop in front of the platform, pushing a bit of the frigid January air ahead of it. There was a rush to board the train and Bruce held back, knowing that there would be plenty of seats. Since this was one of the first stops, there were always plenty of seats. Bruce got on the train and began to walk toward his regular seat just as the train started to roll. He slid over to the window and looked out, into the half-light, at the Connecticut scenery slipping past the window. As it usually happened when he started his trip into the city, he got the feeling that something was wrong with his being on this train. He really didn't like New York City that much.
A movement in the aisle caused him to look up. A distinguished looking man, with a full head of striking silver hair, sat down next to him and nodded in greeting. Bruce smiled politely and opened his New York Times. The words printed on the paper didn't interest him and he drifted from one news article to another before folding the paper and putting it on his lap. He looked out of the window again and saw the eastern sky beginning to get a little lighter. The sun would almost be up when they pulled into New York.
Bruce heard words but he didn't really hear them until he realized the the man sitting next to him was talking to him, "Uh, I'm sorry. I didn't hear you."
The man smiled slightly and nodded toward the front of the train, "That woman, sitting at the front of the car reminds me of a woman that I knew many years ago. She was the wife of a friend of mine. That woman has the same inner beauty that my friend's wife had."
Bruce gave the man a weak smile and turned to look out of the window; hoping that the man wouldn't continue talking. He just didn't feel like talking to a stranger this morning.
Bruce had never talked to the woman that the old man had indicated but he had heard someone call her Jennifer once so he figured that was her name. He had heard someone talking to her about one of the fashion houses so he thought that she might be in the fashion industry.
"Are you married?" the man asked.
Bruce turned to look at the man, "Yes, two children."
He hoped that the additional information about his two children would give the man all of the information that the man wanted to hear about Bruce. Bruce wondered where the man got on the train. He had never seen the man before.
"Ah yes, children," the man continued, "God's reward for putting up with the trials and troubles of life. Man's grasp on immortality."
"My friend and his wife," the old man continued, "oh it was so many years ago, they were so much in love. It was like God made Tom and Sarah for each other and that no one else in the world would have suited either of them. I'm afraid that if they hadn't found each other that they both would have remained unmarried."
Bruce smiled politely and looked out of the window again.
He realized that the man was talking again, "They had two children. They were smart as they could be. Everyone knew that those two children would rule the world one day. They were two of the most pleasant children that ever walked the earth. Teachers used to cry when the children moved to the next grade. Circumstances kept them from reaching their full potential though."
Before Bruce realized that he was walking into the man's trap he asked, "What happened to them?"
"Heredity happened. You see, Tom's father was an alcoholic. The drinking and the weekend beatings drove Tom's mother off when he was eight. His father transferred the beatings to Tom after the mother was gone. Tom withdrew into himself and never told anyone about the drinking and beatings. He quickly found that it would be best if he avoided having friends over to his house. Soon he avoided making friends completely. Tom took every opportunity to stay out of the house and away from his father.
Tom was the type of person that didn't have to study. He got straight A's in every class. If ever anyone was meant to go to college it was Tom. It just wasn't to be though. Tom ran away from home at sixteen, lied about his age and joined the Army. He was sent to Korea and he won several medals. He was wounded and spent time in the hospital in Arizona."
Bruce had turned to listen to the man's story, "No, I meant what happened to the children you were talking about?"
The man continued as if Bruce had never spoken, "It was in Arizona that Tom met his future wife. Sarah had been raised by her father. Her mother had been killed in an automobile accident when Sarah was an infant. Sarah's father was a fine upstanding man until Sarah started to blossom out as a woman. He would only drink once or twice a year but on those few occasions he would abuse her shamefully. He was very repentant when he sobered up. He would cry for weeks after it happened and apologize to her over and over, but the damage had already been done to Sarah's soul. Sarah began to drink when she was in high school. She never got drunk and she never drank more than one or two at first. She got into casual sex, searching for the love that she never found at home. When she met Tom she felt that she had met the man of her dreams. He was quiet and didn't drink much and he loved her. Before too long she found out she was pregnant with Tom's child. Sarah's father signed the consent form allowing them to be married."
The man paused, "I'm sorry. I'm bending your ear. Please excuse the ramblings of an old man."
Bruce smiled and turned to the window. He could fill in the rest of the story for himself.
After a few minutes Bruce turned to the man, "What happened to Tom and Sarah's children?"
"Their first born was a boy. He was a handsome boy from the minute he was born. All you had to do was look at that boy and you knew he was destined for great things. They named him Adam. Tom got out of the Army and started to work to support his young family. Without a high school diploma all he could find was low paying jobs and they didn't usually last long. Soon a daughter was born and they named her Mary after Sarah's mother. As is often the case with people that have parents like he had, Tom felt that he had been cheated by not being able to lead a normal life and get the education that he had the brains for. He and Sarah began to drink more often and sometimes the children would go unattended for several days. Soon Tom started to drink until he got drunk and then he would vent his frustration on Sarah. Sarah put up with the beatings because she loved Tom and because he was her drinking partner.
The noise from the train rails became louder. Bruce's mind wandered to his own childhood and, in his mind's eye, he saw his father beating his mother in a drunken rage. Bruce would hide because he knew that if his father saw him some of the beatings would be his.
The old man continued, "When Mary was about four, Sarah disappeared. Tom never looked for her. He convinced the county somehow that he couldn't work because he had to look after the children and he went on welfare. A lot of the welfare check went to buy alcohol for Tom and he supplemented his check by burglarizing homes in the more affluent sections of town. Three years after Sarah had disappeared she showed up at Tom's front door again. She wasn't the beautiful woman that she once was. She was hooked on heroin and alcohol. She had been working as a prostitute for two years. She came back to Tom because she had no where else to go. She had advanced ovarian cancer. Tom took her in and she lived with him for about a year before she died. Poor Tom went off the deep end. The children had to fend for themselves after that."
The old man began to look off into the distance and Bruce asked, "Did the kids make it?'
The old man continued, "Adam fell in with a gang. Alcohol became a big thing in his life too. When he was fifteen he tried to hold up a convenience store and killed the clerk. The clerk was reaching for the money and Adam thought that he was reaching for a gun. Adam shot the clerk twice in the head. The police picked Adam up after they viewed the surveillance tapes. He's sitting on death row right now."
"What about Mary? Did she turn out OK?"
The old man sighed, "Mary's nude body was found in a ravine. She had been working as a prostitute. She had been raped and shot. The animals had started to eat her dead body."
Bruce shuddered, "So many lives destroyed."
The old man nodded, "Children of alcoholics usually wind up as adults with many mental problems."
Bruce turned his face to the window so that the old man couldn't see his tears. He began to examine his own life and he saw that he was continuing the cycle. He wondered what damage he had already done to his own children. His son was already withdrawn and didn't have many friends and his daughter stayed in her room most of the time with her door closed. Both of his children rarely spoke to him unless Bruce initiated the conversation.
Beth's face came before his eyes. Bruce and Beth argued constantly. Lately he was beginning to wonder what he ever saw in her. At times he suspected that she had a lover. They had become like two strangers living under the same roof. He sobbed very softly; he still loved Beth. Was there any way to undo the mess that they had created?
Bruce turned to the old man. The seat next to him was empty. He turned and looked toward the back of the train but the old man was not in sight.
Bruce turned to the man sitting on the aisle seat opposite his seat, "What happened to the man that I was talking to?"
The man looked surprised for a second and then began to grin, "You must have been dreaming. There hasn't been anyone in that seat since you got on. Are you done with your paper?"
Bruce handed the man his paper. He turned to the window as the train pulled into the station. He saw the sign designating the town's name. He turned to get another look at the sign before it was out of sight. It was the second station on the way to New York City; the station after the one where Bruce started and ended his trip to the city every day... The station was only twelve miles from where he got on. The train had only been traveling a few minutes. That couldn't be! Bruce and the old man had been talking much longer than that!
Beth sat at the table in the restaurant looking at the lunch menu, She would be eating alone today. Meg had called a couple of minutes ago and said that she had to get one of her kids from school. The school nurse had called and said that the child had been throwing up and was running a slight fever. Beth was glad that her children were older and had grown out of those mysterious childhood sicknesses that began quickly and ended just as quick.
She finished her Vodka and orange juice and motioned for the waitress that was passing her table to refresh her drink. This would be her last drink until after dinner. No sense tempting fate and getting a DUI. After Bruce went into his study she often had a couple of drinks to relax her while she watched TV. She knew that Bruce was drinking as he worked; she could smell it when he came to bed even though he had a breath mint in his mouth when he entered the bedroom.
He eyes began to wonder around the room. She watched a young couple sitting at a booth. They were obviously in love. They both sat on the same side of the booth and they held hands and smiled at each other constantly. They were oblivious to all of the other diners. Beth's breath caught in her throat when she remembered that she and Bruce used to be like that.
Beth stared at her drink. What had happened to the two of them? Bruce made very good money and Beth had her own business as an interior designer. They had always been inseparable. They used to go on vacations to exotic places, explored new places in New England and took pride in their home. Their house was always full of friends and the walls vibrated with laughter. She couldn't remember when their marriage had become such a chore. It had been a long time since any friends had stopped by. Beth couldn't remember when they held the last party at the house. Meg was her only friend and Meg took pains to avoid being in the house when Bruce was home. Meg said that she couldn't stand the constant bickering between Beth and Bruce.
She was concentrating on the liquid in the bottom of her glass and became aware that someone close to her was talking. She looked up to see an older man smiling at her. The man had said something that she hadn't heard; at least she didn't think she did.
"I'm sorry," Beth said, "I didn't hear what you said."
"It seems that there's a lunch-time rush today," the old man said softly, "There are no seats left. Would you mind terribly if I sat at your table? I'm only going to have a coffee. I've been shopping and my legs are protesting loudly."
Beth smiled and motioned for the man to sit down. She saw that his hair was a striking silver that reminded her of Donald Sutherland's hair. Not a hair was out of place. Beth acknowledged his thank you as the waitress came to the table. The man ordered his coffee and the waitress left; leaving them alone at the table.
"Please don't think that I am being forward but I must say that you are a very beautiful woman," the old man said pleasantly.
Beth thanked him and took another sip of her drink. Right now she didn't feel very beautiful. She had just come from a clients house. The job was complete and she was making a courtesy call to ensure that everything was to the client's satisfaction. Throughout the project there had been flirtations and innuendos between the two of them. Beth was tempted to follow through with the client's veiled suggestions but she got cold feet. She had never been unfaithful to Bruce and she didn't know if she ever could be unfaithful to him. Her exit from the upscale residence had been tense and it made Beth uneasy that she had acted so unprofessionally with a client.
She heard the old man say something, "I'm sorry. My mind was wandering. What did you say?"
The man nodded his head toward the young couple, "I was just commenting on young love. They seem to be very much in love. I doubt if they know that anyone else is in the restaurant."
Beth looked over at the couple and gave the man a weak smile. She thought to herself that it would be great if their love could remain as bright in the future as it apparently was today. She wondered to herself if all love dimmed with time. She wondered if it ever became so dim that it wasn't worth trying to relight the spark.
"My daughter and her husband were once that much in love," the old man said snapping Beth back into the present.
Beth smiled and looked down at her glass. Her table-mate was beginning to go where Beth didn't want to go. There was a period of silence as the old man began to take a sip of his coffee.
"Do you and your wife live in the city?" Beth asked to turn the conversation to a place where she would feel more comfortable.
"No, my wife passed on several years ago. I'm afraid that she worried about our daughter so much that she neglected her own needs."
"I'm sorry," Beth said, "Is your daughter alright now... I mean are she and her husband okay now?"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth she wished that she hadn't said them. Beth wished that there had been other seats open. She didn't really want company today.
"No, they've gone their separate ways. They stayed together for years leading separate lives. They both gave up on the marriage years before they called it quits. It was just little things that began to eat on them and the little things would fester until they became large issues. They both retreated into themselves and they both used alcohol as a crutch."
Beth looked around the restaurant and saw that no one was looking their way. She tried to take another sip of her drink and found that it was empty. She put the glass down.
"Sometimes a marriage just can't be saved," Beth said.
"I'm afraid that they didn't really try to save it very hard," the old man continued, "like so many other coupes they lost the will to communicate with each other. I guess they expected each other to instinctively know what the other was thinking or needed. The alcohol gave them an excuse to avoid talking out their problems."
Beth began to think of her own marriage. She and Bruce rarely had any conversation except to gripe about something one or the other had said or some imagined slight by one of them. It suddenly hit her that she and Bruce were each living their own lives while living in the same house. Bruce hadn't talked about his work in several years. She never talked to Bruce about her work.
"I've never been able to figure why couples stop talking to each other," the old man said, "it just seems so natural to talk to each other and find out how your spouse's day went. Has our world gotten so fast that we haven't the time to talk to each other anymore? How can couples forget the qualities that brought them together in the first place? We spend so much time worrying about the small things that we forget to live."
"Did your daughter ever remarry?" Beth asked.
"No. I'm afraid that my daughter has become a bitter woman. She looks for the faults in every man that she meets and she always seems to find some flaw in the man that she feels she could never put up with. She spends her evenings watching television with a drink in her hand. I don't know what ever happened to her ex-husband. The last time I saw him was at a sales conference in Dallas. He was so drunk that he didn't even recognize me. People were going out of their way to avoid him. I've never understood why some people feel that alcohol will numb the pain that they feel."