I am a connoisseur of places to sit.
There’s one over there—that park bench. It gets shit on less than the others, and occasionally the street lamp works at night, though it still flickers sometimes. Or against that lamppost just outside the convenience store. Strategic placement, I call it; people are always dropping things on their way out. Kinda risky, though, deciding when to go for the bread or can of soup. Too late, and someone else has your lunch for the day. Too early, and it’s yelling and threats of police involvement.
I’ve never much liked yelling.
But I think the best place to sit would be on a train. I’ve never been on one, but I used to like sitting in cars without distractions, just looking outside, imagining things that weren’t real. I used to picture some big thing—a tiger? I don’t remember—running along beside the car, dodging trees and other cars. I thought it kept me and whoever I was with safe. And then I got older and just started watching the scenery or, rather, the blur of scenery when my eyes unfocused. It was a nice blend, a pretty palette. Peaceful, too. It was the best way to fall asleep, now that I think about it. Those were some great naps.
Trains, though! Great invention. Always enjoyed them. It’s why I save my pennies, really. People say pennies are worthless, but I beg to differ. Doesn’t take too many to get a bag of chips, and pennies are being dropped all the time. It’s like people heard they weren’t worth anything and just upended their wallets right onto the street.
Right now, I don’t have a lot of them. They clink together sadly in the little wallet I made from what might’ve been a blanket or a threadbare sweater. I’ll have enough of them soon and I’ll get my ticket. It’s a lot cheaper if you’re just going one way. Even if I get kicked off (bums make people uncomfortable; what can you do?), I’ll at least be somewhere else.
I like the seats I have at the moment. There’s a nice selection to choose from. I can go there and think of things or not, and I can just sit. I can just be. It’s nice. I don’t have to think about being hungry because I have friends who’ll give half their food to whoever else might need some. Compassion’s part of human nature, I think. I remember reading that in a book somewhere. I didn’t like reading more than I had to back then. It was probably for a class. What had it been, though… sociology? psychology? Something like that.
But it’s boring to think about inconvenience. I think that’s really why I don’t let myself. Sure, I’m hungry. I know I don’t smell the best. But you can only have that conversation or thought so many times. Why waste the energy on it? I guess that’s why I like the silence. Conversation is cyclical. One person complains, the other commiserates and then complains, too. What’s the point?
That’s why sitting’s so much nicer. It’s more passive. Passivity suits me.
I do beg, though. Sometimes. Friends are nice, but you can’t rely on them completely. And sometimes you’ve got to repay the favor. It’s just bad form not to.
I smile sometimes when I sit with a cup or a hat in front of me, whatever makes a decent enough receptacle. But that just warns people off, mostly. Their eyes slide across me like I’m part of the scenery—oh, what a nice shrub. Then I smile or they meet my eyes and nope! Not foliage. Just another human being wanting to eat.
There’s either guilt or something dead in their eyes when that happens and they look away. Really that much of an effort to spare a dollar? A quarter, even? Hell, I’d take even a penny. I like them well enough, too.
Because, yeah. I don’t like thinking about it, but hunger happens. Digging through trash cans can only do so much. As much as I’d like that train ticket, well, funds have to dip because it’s been a good two days since my last half-meal and I’m not keen on dying. It’s disappointing, though, to see what hard-won cash you have take a hit. But I’ll have my ticket soon.
I’m thinking of heading further west. I won’t have to worry about the cold, or worse—snow. I might even be able to leave behind one of my jackets. Someone else can use it. Traveling isn’t fun with a lot of things. I learned that backpacking across Europe. Big mistake. But I like to think the people I gave my extra clothes to use them well.
You know how people with the little dogs—the kind that get that awful musty scent about them—stop noticing the smell? You can do that with people, too. Even yourself, until those unwanted whiffs come by and God do you need a shower. I’m thankful for the gyms that’ll turn a blind eye to a filthy drifter—compassion, you know? People have it.
And then they don’t. There was a lady once who yelled at me. I’d have been impressed at the language another time in my life, but I remember running out half-naked, leaving behind some of what few clothes I had. I think I left the town that night. But I still remember her face. She was one of those suburban mom types, angry at the world in a way that any teenager would envy. There’s nothing to incite the wrath of an entitled soccer mom like a little placid smiling and unfocused eyes. (What can I say? I was tired and just grateful for some hot water.)
I’ve learned since then it’s easier to pretend you’re on drugs when you’re caught in a situation like that. People start insulting your intelligence, but they’re the ones who already made the wrong assumption. Who’s stupid now?
I think it’s my age, really. That’s what gets people. It’s one thing to see someone middle-aged on the street. It’s another to see someone old. There’s something sad in those stories. But when you look like me—like someone who should be in class, in college, especially after I’ve cleaned myself up—people get indignant. It’s like I’ve offended them. I mean, I don’t remember doing anything wrong. I don’t remember doing anything other than sitting, but somehow, my existence has become contemptible.
As a result, I’d say I’ve learned to really appreciate the people who just take me as a plant instead of a person. If someone might react loudly, then there’s really no point in interacting with anyone at all.
People like to be angry, to complain. I’m certain of this. I also know people are generally good, but all the goodness in the world can’t stop a good complainer ranting about this or that because they can. It just sucks to be on the receiving end of it.
At this point in my life, you’d think I’d be one of them. But I’m not. I can’t find it in myself to be angry, not anymore. I’m alive, I have food, and I have clothes. And I’m probably going to go somewhere warmer. And that? That’s a hope, not a stress. I don’t stress anymore, not like I used to. All that really matters right now is whether or not I’ll get that train ticket. I’d very much like to get one. They’re a little over a hundred dollars? Maybe? I’ll find out soon.
It’s the occasional twenty that’s getting me there. It’s funny when it’s an accident. People get really flustered, having thought it was a dollar. “Oh, I didn’t mean to…” they start to say, but all it takes is some wide-eyed gasp and grateful pawing at them, the beautiful maneuver of pretending to go in for a hug, before they grumble and say you’re welcome as they leave. It happens more than you’d think.
And as much as I don’t much think about talking, I do like listening. I have a kind face, or so I’ve been told, and I’ve had a few teens come and take a seat beside me, hand over a hot dog or a burger, and start asking questions. It isn’t hard to redirect.
“I’m Taylor. I live here. What’s your story, Greg?”
“I’m Cameron. This is a nice place to sit. Why’re you out so late, Rachel?”
Some variation of that, and they start talking. They’re a bit younger than me, usually. But they’ve seen some shit. I pity them. Envy them, too, maybe. Mostly I’m just thankful for the hot meal.
I know I don’t help much, but they talk and then they feel better about themselves or whatever problem brought them out to seek a little sage advice from the neighborhood drifter. They go back to their lives through the doors that haven’t been shut. They have a couch and a dog or a cat that loves them and a family somewhere, usually, even if they’re not going back to that home in particular.
Must be nice.
It’s an accident I get the last of the money, if I’m being honest. Twenties happen, but fifties don’t. And it’s really theft rather than kindness that gets me there. I should feel bad, but I don’t. A fine, upstanding citizen like myself can make a mistake here and there. It’s not a big blot on my soul that he dropped his wallet and I pilfered a bit of money before dropping it off at his address. With his setup, I figure he won’t be wanting for too much. Maybe just better pockets.
It’s not like I even took all of what was in there. I could’ve. Would’ve kept me going for awhile. But I didn’t, so I can feel good about that. Maybe he won’t even notice.
Except he will and part of me does feel guilty, but then I’m walking to the train station and I can honestly say that I don’t really care.
Or I won’t until I’m sitting. Sitting will lead to thinking. For now, I’m rather guiltless. A little giddy, even. I’m getting my train ticket.
I stand back from the counter at the train station. The woman behind the counter is side-eyeing me something awful while she tends to other customers. It’s pretty dead today. She’ll probably call security soon if I don’t do something.
There’s a hole in my wallet. I can feel it. It isn’t big enough yet to be a problem… None of my money will be falling out. But still. I should patch it soon.
If I give up the fifty, then I won’t be able to get my ticket. It’s been so slow these past months… It’s going to get cold soon.
Make it up later. Do a good deed.
Easy justification. Almost religious.
The ticket I buy will take me into Utah. It leaves me a nice three dollars and twenty-nine cents that’ll turn into a meal at some point. I’m not feeling so hungry anymore. Maybe when I make it to the station, I will be. It’s about a nine-hour ride. It’s a lot of time to sit and think and get hungry. Unless I sleep. If it’s like a car, then I’m going to be out in, at most, ten minutes.
I requested a window seat specifically, and I’m glad the lady was able to make it happen. For all her half-glaring at me, once we actually started talking, she was pleasant enough in a robotic saleslady kinda way. I don’t envy her. Retail sucks. I didn’t last long behind the counter myself about a year ago. I still wouldn’t.
But I’m not thinking about her long when I take my seat because this—this is the kind of sitting I’ve been wanting. It’s like sliding into a hot bath for all the peace it brings me, the realization of this one, tiny dream of mine. Regardless of everything else, I have this and it is glorious.
I take off my backpack—all patches, a little smelly—and tuck it at my feet. I lean against the window and look out, though there isn’t too much to see. There’s a gentle sort of murmur that I tune out, the quiet bustle of people getting onto the train and their attempts at being polite when getting in each other’s way.
Disdain has a certain feel. You know it’s there before you see the person with it, but I know the man who sat next to me wasn’t happy about the arrangement. He huffed and he brought out his paper immediately to shut me out, but I stopped caring about his existence before he even sat down. This was my ride, too. He could deal. I just wish he’d stop hating me so powerfully; it’s kind of shitty, hating someone for something they can’t help.
I’m eager, childishly eager, for the train to start moving. I picked a direct route to the next station; they can’t kick me off and, even if they want to, I’m not sure they could legally. And they’d have to do it now if they really wanted to. I’m a little worried about that. But if they do, I’ll get there another way. A bus or hitchhiking or something.
But it doesn’t come to that and then we’re moving. I didn’t realize what a relief it was to move forward again. I’d been at my last city too long, gotten too comfortable. That’s always been the problem with me. But I’m comfortable now and just fine with it, sinking back into a seat more plush than my ass has seen in months.
My eyes close. There’s a rhythm a train has that cars don’t in the sound of their wheels. It’s lulling. I’ll be asleep soon.
I open my eyes and blink once, twice. Confused.
“Sir, please move,” the man beside me repeats, not a little irritated. Even disgusted.
“Sorry,” I say and shift off of him. Pity. He’d been a comfortable pillow.
The man adjusts his jacket. I think he may want to burn it when he gets home. “It’s fine.”
“Also…” I start, mostly because I’m still half-tired. Half-stupid. Why engage? “…forget it. Sorry.”
He returns to his crossword.
I angle my body more towards the window and look outside. It’s dark out now. Pity. No colors to appreciate.
“Next Stop” by Emily Conway appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Emily Conway is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in English and minoring in Creative Writing. She intends to become an editor for a publishing house. This is her first publication.