Friday, November 06, 2009

Central Time

Fiction by F. T. Rea

August 16, 1966: Roscoe Swift sat alone in a day car slowly rattling its way into Central Station. The solitary sailor had spent the last hour turning the glossy pages of Playboy and contemplating infinity. As the train lurched he glanced out of the window at Tuesday morning, Chicago style.

Roscoe had sequestered himself from the marathon poker game in the club car. The stepped up call for wild cards and split pots, by the various dealers, had finally driven him from the table. His resolute grandfather had schooled him to despise such frilly variations on the already-perfect game of poker.

“Gimmicks like that were invented to keep suckers in the game,” was the old man’s admonition.

This was hardly the day Roscoe wanted to invite the sort of jinx that might be set in motion by disregarding absolutes.

In the magazine’s lengthy interview section LSD pioneer Timothy Leary ruminated on his chemically enlarged view of the so-called Youth Movement. Professor Leary called the current crop: “The wisest and holiest generation that the human race has yet seen.”

The subculture forming around psychedelic drugs in that time was opening new dimensions of risk for 19-year-old daredevils. Roscoe wondered if he would ever do acid. His friend Bake had tripped and lived to tell about it.

There was a fresh dimension to the conflict in Vietnam that month, as well. The Cold War’s hottest spot was being infused with its first batch of draftees; some 65,000 were being sent into the fray, like it or not. Until this point it had been the Defense Department’s policy to use volunteers only for combat duty.

Also, on the home-front, quakes of change were abundant: A 25-year-old former Eagle Scout, Charles Whitman, climbed a tower on the University of Texas campus and shot 46 people, at random, killing 16; comedian/first amendment martyr Lenny Bruce was found dead -- overdosed and fat belly up -- on his bathroom floor; news of songwriter/musician John Lennon’s playful crack -- “We’re [the Beatles] more popular than Jesus Christ now” -- inflamed the devoutly humorless; and reigning Heavyweight Champ, Muhammad Ali, bent all sorts of folks out of shape with his widely reported quip -- “I ain't got nothing against them Viet Cong.”

Since leaving Main Street Station in Richmond, Virginia the morning before, Roscoe had traveled - via the Chesapeake and Ohio line - through parts of West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, on his way to Illinois.

Taking leave from the airbrushed charms of September’s Playmate of the Month his mind kaleidoscoped to the sound of his girlfriend Julie’s laughter.

As a preamble to Roscoe’s departure for basic training he and Julie had spent the weekend in Virginia Beach, trying their best to savor the bittersweet taste of war-torn romance, black and white movie style. As luck would have it, the stately Cavalier Hotel’s central air conditioning system went on the blink the Friday they arrived.

Since the hotel’s windows couldn't be opened that meant the sea breeze was unavailable for relief from the heat wave. Nonetheless, they stayed on, because the hotel itself, a stylish relic of the Roaring ‘20s, meant something. After two years of catch-as-catch-can back-seat romance, this was where they had chosen to spend their first whole night together.

That evening they stretched out on the bed and sipped chilled champagne. With the hotel-supplied fan blowing on them at full blast, suddenly, a good-sized chunk of the ceiling fell onto a chair across the room.

After Roscoe mischievously reported the strange problem to the front desk -- “I hate to sound like Chicken Little, but perhaps you have a safer room?” -- Julie suggested a barefoot stroll on the beach to cool off.

Walking in the surf, neither of them had much to say. An hour later Julie and Roscoe were happily soaked as they returned to the hotel. With a little snooping around the pair discovered the door to the Cavalier’s indoor pool was unlocked. As it was well past the posted time for the pool to be open and the chlorine-smelling room was nearly dark, they reasoned that the facility was at their disposal for a little skinny-dipping.

*

Stepping off the train, Roscoe was two hours from another train ride. This one, aboard a local commuter, would finish the job of transporting him from Richmond’s Fan District - with its turn-of-the-century townhouses - to a stark world of colorless buildings and punishing grinders: Great Lakes Naval Training Center was his destination.

In the last month Roscoe had listened to plenty of supposedly useful yarns of what to expect at boot camp. Concerning Chicago, he could recite facts about the White Sox, the Cubs and the Bears; he had seen the movie about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the big fire; he thought Bo Diddley was from Chicago. One thing was certain, Seaman Recruit Swift knew he was further from home than he’d ever been.

Outside the train station on the sidewalk, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” -- a novelty tune on the summer's Top 40 chart -- blared appropriately from the radio of a double-parked Pontiac GTO.

After laughing at the ironic coincidence of the music, Roscoe, Zach, Rusty, and Cliff - comrades-at-arms in the same Navy Reserve unit in Richmond for four months of weekly meetings - considered their options for killing the time between trains, and they spoke of the ordeal ahead of them.

“That’s it, man.” Rusty explained. “The Navy figures everybody eats Jell-o, so that’s where they slip you the dose of saltpeter.”

“Get serious, that’s got to be bullshit,” said Zach. “The old salts tell you that to jerk you around.”

“OK, Zach, you can have all my Jell-o,” Rusty offered.

“Not even a breeze; what do y’all make of the Windy City?” asked Cliff. “It’s just as damn hot up here as it was in Richmond.”

A couple of blocks from the station the team of eastern time-zoners, outfitted in their summer whites, stopped on a busy corner to scan the hazy urban landscape. Finding a worthwhile sightseeing adventure was at the top of their agenda.

Answering the call, a rumpled character slowly approached the quartet from across the street. Moving with a purpose, he was a journeyman wino who knew a soft touch when he could focus on it.

In a vaguely European accent the street-wise operator badgered the four out of a cigarette, a light, two more cigarettes for later, then a contribution of spare change. When the foul-smelling panhandler demanded “folding money” Roscoe turned from the scene and walked away. His pals followed his lead. Then the crew broke into a sprint to escape the sound of the greedy beggar’s shouts.

Rusty, the fastest afoot, darted into a subway entrance with the others at his heels. Cliff was laughing so hard he slipped on the steps and almost fell.

As Roscoe descended the stairway into the netherworld beneath the city, he was reminded of H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine” and observed, “I guess this must be where the Morlocks of the Midway would live; if there are any.”

Zach smiled. No one laughed.

The squad agreed that since they were already there, and only Rusty had ever seen a subway, a little reconnoitering was in order. Thus they bought tokens, planning only to look around, not to ride. Roscoe, the last to go through the turnstile, wandered off on his own to inspect the mysterious tracks that disappeared into darkness.

Standing close to the platform’s edge, Roscoe wondered how tightly the trains fit into the channel. As he listened to his friends’ soft accents ricocheting off the hard surfaces of the deserted subway stop, he recalled a trip by train in 1955’s summer with his grandfather. Roscoe smiled as he thought of his lifelong fascination with trains. Unlike most of his traveling companions, he was glad the airline strike had forced them to make the journey by rail.

Walking aimlessly along the platform, as he reminisced, Roscoe noticed a distant silhouette furtively approaching the edge. It appeared to him to be a small woman. She was less than a hundred yards down the tracks. He watched her carefully sit down on the platform. Seconds later she slid off, disappearing into the dark pit below.

Although Roscoe was intrigued, he felt no sense of alarm. Not yet. He didn’t wonder if it was a common practice for the natives to jump onto the subway tracks. He simply continued to walk toward the scene, slowly taking it in, as if it were a movie. When Zach caught up with him Roscoe pointed to where the enigmatic figure had been.

Roscoe shrugged, “What do you make of it?”

To investigate the two walked closer. Eventually they saw a gray lump on the subway tracks.

Zach asked in a hushed voice, “Could that be her?”

When the unmistakable sound of a train began to report from the tunnel’s void, what had been a puzzle was solved.

Roscoe screamed at the woman, “Get up!”

The scene took on a high-contrast, film noir look when the tunnel was lit up by the oncoming train’s light. The two desperate sailors waved their arms frantically as they ran toward the train to get the driver’s attention. The woman remained clenched into a tight ball, ready to take the big ride. Suddenly the brakes began to screech horrifically, splitting seconds into shards. Metal strained against metal as the train’s momentum carried it forth.

Roscoe's senses were stretched to new limits. Tiny details -- angles of light and fragments of sound -- became magnified. All seemed caught in a spell of slow motion and exaggerated intensity.

The subway train slid to a full stop, about ten feet short of creating a grisly finish. Roscoe and Zach sprang from the platform and gathered the trembling woman from the tracks. They carefully passed her up to Rusty and Cliff, who stood three feet above.

Passengers emptied from the train, as well as the driver. Adrenaline surged through Roscoe’s limbs as he climbed back onto the platform. Brushing off his uniform, he listened to the conversation between the driver and the strange person who had nearly been splattered about the area.

The gray woman, who appeared to be middle-aged, spewed thank-yous and explained her presence on the tracks to having “slipped.”

In short time the subway driver acted as if he believed her useful explanation. Zach pulled the sweaty man aside to point out another angle on the truth. Roscoe began to protest to the buzzing mob’s deaf ears, but stopped when he detected a second feminine voice describing what sounded like a similar incident. He panned the congregation until he found the speaker. She was about his age.

Filing her fingernails with an emery board -- eyes fixed on her work -- she told how another person, a man, had been killed at that same stop last week: “The lady is entitled to die if she wants to. You know she’ll just do it again.”

As she looked up to inspect her audience, such as it was, Roscoe caught Miss Perfect Fingernails’ eye. He shook his head to say, “No!”

The impatient girl looked away and gestured toward the desperate woman who surely had expected to be conning St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that morning, instead of a subway driver. “Now we’re late for our appointments. For what?”

Roscoe watched the forsaken lady -- snatched from the Grim Reaper’s clutches -- vanish into the ether of the moment’s cheerless confusion. Shortly thereafter the train was gone, too.

“Well, I don’t know about you boys,” said Roscoe. “But I’ve had enough of Chicago sights for today.”

On their way back to daylight Roscoe listened to his longtime friend Zach tell the other two, who were relatively new friends, a story about Bake: To win a bet, Bake, a consummate daredevil, had recently jumped from Richmond’s Huguenot Bridge into the Kanawha Canal.

“Sure sounds like this Bake is a piece of work,” said Cliff. “You said he’s going to RPI this fall. What’s he doing about the draft?”

“This is a guy who believes in spontaneity like it’s sacred,” said Zach. “Roscoe, can you imagine Bake in any branch of military service; draft or no draft?”

“If he can hack being told what to do at art school, I’ll be surprised.” observed Roscoe.

“Hey, man, I’m not so sure any of us belong in the service,” Rusty volunteered.”

“I hear you.” Cliff concurred.

Upon rejoining the others from their Virginia contingent at Central Station, the four sightseers found a legion of additional boot camp-bound sailors from all over the country. For the men assembled, a two-year active-duty hitch in the Navy Reserve was preferable to rolling the dice on what the busy Selective Service system might dish out.

Rusty and Zack eagerly rehashed the morning’s bizarre adventure: “One of them told me there’s been three suicides in Chicago’s subways this summer,” reported Zach. “Could it be the heat?”

“I still had no idea what they were doing when I saw these two fools hopping off the platform, right in front of that train,” Rusty chuckled. “Hey, I couldn’t see squat on the tracks.”

“She’s probably standing on the roof of a skyscraper, right now” Zach theorized. “And, I’m sorry, but I’ll let some other hero break her fall.”

*

Aboard the train from Chicago to Great Lakes Roscoe sat by the window considering the unseen dimensions of his new role - a GI sworn to stand between what is dear to America and its enemies. Only days before, as he walked on the beach with Julie, he had felt so sure of being prepared for the task.

Yet as he sat there, with miles of unfamiliar scenery streaming by, Roscoe felt waves of trepidation washing over his easy confidence. On top of that, he wished he had gotten a little bit of sleep during the trip.

With their destination only minutes away the four Subway Swashbucklers opted to get in a few hands of stud poker; to accommodate Roscoe, wild cards weren’t suggested.

Sitting on an ace in the hole, with a king and ten up, Roscoe called Zach’s fifteen-cent-bet. There were no pairs showing and the bettor had just drawn a jack to his queen.

Cliff mentioned that the Treasury Department had announced it would no longer print two-dollar bills. “And, I heard boot camp pay comes in the form of -- what else? -- two-dollar bills.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Zach challenged. “I bet it’s bullshit.”

“Maybe we’re going to get the last of the deuces,” said Rusty. “And, I’ll take any of them you don’t want.”

Roscoe’s mind wasn’t on payday or the poker game. He was daydreaming about Julie; smiling on the beach, teal-colored eyes glistening, sun-streaked hair livened by a gust of wind.

Roscoe grappled with his thoughts, trying to pull them together: memory, urges, and anticipation all marching to the steady beat provided by the tracks. It occurred to him there was something more than mere distance between his seat on that train and what had been his life in Virginia.

“If time has borders, between one age and the next, it might be thicker at the border?” Roscoe asked no one in particular.

Rusty, the dealer, batted Roscoe’s oblique remark away, “So, are you calling Zach’s bet, or what?”

Expressionless, Roscoe stared at his fourth card, a queen. He pulled out a cigarette. Nodding toward Zach’s hand -- a pair of jacks, showing -- Roscoe flipped his up-cards over, face down. “OK, even if saving the Queen of the Subway from certain death doesn’t count for shit, anymore, there are certain standards that still don’t change; not for me.”

Rusty shrugged, “Meaning?”

“So, this disposable hero won’t pay a cent for a fifth card to fill an inside straight,” said Roscoe, lighting his cigarette. “First hand, or last, it’s still a sucker’s bet. And, I’ll sit the next hand out.”

“Whatever you say, man,” Rusty laughed. “But we’ve probably got time for just one more hand. Sure you want to quit now?”

Roscoe took a big drag of the filter-tipped Kool and drank in the moving picture of Illinois that was streaming past his window. The railroad ties were clicking monotonously. He thought about how movies depict motion by running a series of still pictures through a projector. However, with the memory picture of Julie he’d just conjured up it wasn’t frozen like a still. Nor was it in full motion. The image moved ever so slightly, capturing what amounted to a single gesture.

After receiving their last cards Cliff and Rusty folded, too. Zach smiled broadly and raked in the pot. Cliff gathered the cards and began to shuffle; preparing to deal the next hand.

“You in, Swift?” inquired the dealer. “The game is seven-card stud. The ante is still a quarter.”

“This time let’s make it 50 cents,” suggested Rusty, sliding two quarters into the center of the makeshift card table.

“Last hand? I’m in,” said Zach.

Roscoe blew a perfect smoke ring, which he studied as it began to float out of shape. He promised himself that no matter what happened to him, he would never forget that smoke ring.

He smiled, “OK. Deal me in.”

* * *

All rights reserved by the author. Central Time with its accompanying illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached. Two remaining stories, set in the '70s, will be inserted, eventually. Links to the six others which have been finished are below:

Dogtown Hero
Fancy Melons
Gus the Bookstore Cat: The Film
Maybe Rosebud
The Freelancer's Worth
Cross-eyed Mona