There are times when you know where you are but you aren't sure how you got there. This story was inspired by a trip I took with a class to Charlotte. We took the light rail.
This isn't about my trip, but about a man who went to the light rail and isn't sure why.
The light rail was the newest facet in the Charlotte area. The public took awhile to warm up to it. Now hordes of school groups traveling to baseball games and museums, families catching a movie together and tourist making the rounds to the gorgeous churches congested the concrete platform. People bustled with purpose, with excitement and an understanding of where they would end up.
Some had only gathered enough money to move a little farther down the line. They were wanderers, traveling hobos of the city. They were a special kind of homeless. Those in the city stayed put and over time lost their minds and faded into the background like every billboard and skyscraper, familiar landmarks on the terrain.
But one man this day did not have a purpose.
Many waiting passengers took brief notice of him while sitting on the bench. He took in the chaos of the autumn afternoon crowd. A weary smile and nod were extended to each passenger coming or going. Small children would exclaim the obvious with adorable naivety and the old man would laugh. Some parents relished in the attention while others pulled their children away and onto the train. They came and they went, and no one stored the memory of the grey and dusty man in the navy jacket and blue jeans for long.
He stared into the crowd and soon went off into a daze, the sound of the people passing and the detached voice of the intercom inside. The man looked down at the flower in his hand and wondered if he had bought it wilted or if he had lost track of time. When he gave up on finding an answer, he became aware of the silence that surrounded him. It was rare that the station was empty except for the weekdays when work and school called the parents and children away from venturing down town.
An empty platform left the man bewildered, blinking often as if he needed to awake from a dream. Everything was still when the voice spoke.
Train approaching in one minute.
The tracks clicked and a blue dot could be seen approaching quickly. It would not be a minute before it put on the brakes and opened its doors.
Train approaching. Please stay behind the platform area. Parents, please keep all children behind the blue line.
A familiar sight crawled past the man’s eyes and settled in front of him. The doors opened with a hiss. He did not step forward. This was not his ride. He had fifteen minutes to go.
From the corner of his eye he saw a flash of pink that disappeared into the train. His eyes scanned from window to window. And there, at the end of the train, nearest the conductor was a little girl looking out at him and smiling. No one followed her, and yet there she was, alone in a train with the biggest grin.
Before he knew what he was doing, the man was up and into the train. Pausing in the middle of the aisle, his body’s age caught up with him and his face strained. Wrinkles cut deeper with each wheezing breath. He grabbed a pole and settled into the nearest seat. When the pain subsided, he remembered why he was there and looked down to the conductor’s end. No one there.
The conductor was concealed behind tinted, bullet proof glass. It was here the man caught his reflection. Confused and alone in an empty train, he did not dare look around for the girl. The camera or conductor both would catch him. A sketchy passenger wasn’t tolerated by the line.
In front of him, the mesmerizing scene of the world passing unfolded in the smudged windows. At first the view was riddled with out of business signs, Aldi grocery stores, Compare super markets, and retail parks with empty windows.
Gradually the colors became more vibrant, new neon signs signaling new businesses and pristine new apartments shooting upwards. It isn’t until the light rail reaches the outskirt of down town Charlotte that you no longer see an entire building. They tower past the top of the window and out of sight. Passengers can turn their heads up to gaze upon the bumpy sky.
The man was waiting for down town. The voice again softly spoke into his ear.
The train is approaching the Charlotte Travel Center and Stadium with bus routes 45 and 46. Please consult your bus schedule to check times.
It slowed a little at a time, reaching a steady roll and a jerky stop. The doors opened and the man got up. Before he reached the door, the pink blur again passed him. There, in front of him, bounding towards the elevator to the street, was a little girl. Her brown hair was up pigtails tied off with pink ribbon and her puse colored Easter dress swayed from side to side. She giggled as she looked back at him with a gapped tooth grim. She stepped into the glow of the waiting lift, then turned and called to him.
“You can’t catch me!” she taunted
“Hey! Come back here!”
He raced forward and ignored the pain in his joints and muscles. He had to catch her.
The elevator door closed and a bell rang. He turned for the stairs and sailed down, gliding his hand over the rail in case he needed to catch himself.
She was fast in comparison. When he reached the bottom step, she was halfway up the block. He ran with the energy he had left and any he could pull from the recesses of his tired bones.
Business men and women crowded the sidewalks, charging forward to meetings or lunch, or lunch meetings. They morphed into a massive black, thorny barrier and the grey knight fought valiantly against them. They turned as he bumped past, hissing and flicking their tongues with a thousand curses. Gnashed teeth and angry eyes followed him up the street, but they never gave chase. They had purpose, and the man did not share it.
She continued to allude him and he kept on chasing her. The sea of people shifted its current, the next wave of bodies interested in his presence, hyenas to a fresh kill. They beckoned him, requesting his treasures. They had nothing, and this man didn’t consider their pack with shifty gazes, he wasn’t searching for his next meal. This man could help. He was their target. Some ignored him and peered from the perches while the rest of the flock stalked him like harpies calling sailors to the rocks.
The man continued, that giggling pink blur torturing him. His heart was racing at a pace his feet couldn’t match.
At the end of the tenth block, the girl took a hard right and vanished. The man drew up all his remaining strength to stop himself from flying into the busy street. Through his labored breath, he strained to look down the road for a spot, a hint of pastel frill. There was nothing but monotonous forms of black and brown, going where they needed to go.
“Have you seen a little girl in pink run down here?” He asked a man passing by, grabbing for his shoulder.
“Get lost bum.” A soft rain of spittle, acid rain.
The man’s mouth gaped wide. How rude, he thought.
He leaned against a light post. As he turned, he caught his reflection in the countless panes of glass armoring the bank opposite of him. It was then he understood the passerby’s reaction. His thin hair was wild and his jacket was wrinkled and crumpled at the collar. His age was not only translated through his wrinkles, but broadcasted by his confused and bewildered look. How had he gotten here?
The world disappeared as he hid in his hands, the flower cracking mid-stem and leaving a trail of oozing life on his fingers. A small tug at his coat woke him. His view was dominated by soft pink. The sidewalk was empty and dusk was falling. It was only him and her.
“Come on”, she said. “We have enough time to swing.”
She pulled him forward and he floated behind her, watching her march as if she were a band leader. Halfway down the block, she turned their parade into an open playground. She released his hand and charged towards the neon yellow swings, gracefully kicking up into the sky. Her laughter invited him to the swing beside her and he thankfully accepted the invitation to rest.
When he caught his breath and gathered his thoughts, he spoke.
“What is your name?”
Her laughter continued and she swung higher.
He continued his inquiries. “Where are your parents?”
More laughter and the chains squeaked louder as she kicked and kicked. A peaceful respect for the young girl’s spirit set in and he delighted in her laughter and smile. He even pushed his feet and commenced swinging along side her. It had been ages since he had been a child, even longer since he had sat upon a swing and aimed for the stars.
“At least tell me why you are out here alone”, he asked through the laughter.
Through the air she flew, propelling herself up and out at the peak of an upward swing, landing like a leaf, softly on the ground. In the distance, he heard the sound of screeching metal as she twirled to face him. She lifted her arms like a ballerina.
“Silly daddy”, she said. “Now catch me daddy, catch me!”
She was off again, but the man did not give chase. It was not his age that would keep him from matching her speed. He would never catch up with her. Not yet.
His serene face slowly changed, an ice cube melting into a puddle. The old man rose and followed in her echoed footsteps. He walked to the iron gate of the neighboring church and slowly opened the latch, swinging it open and entering the cool blue cobblestone walkway. It snaked off into several directions.
He paused and thought. Down five rows and over three. Down five and over three.
“Catch me daddy!”
He paused in front of his daughter’s grave, bent forward, laying the wilted flower at her feet.
“I gotcha baby. I gotcha.”