Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Disappearance of Arthur - Week 3 of 52round2

“Edward, I need those figures for my 10:00 meeting.  Will you have them prepared on time?”

After dealing with Arthur at least once a day for eleven years, Brandon Clowdine, Sales Manager, had never gotten Arthur’s name right.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Clowdine.”  Arthur began gathering papers on his desk.  “The report will be on your desk by 9:30.”

As he had done each day for eleven years, Arthur tried to set the record straight.

“One other thing, if I may, Mr. Clowdine, sir.  My name is not Edward.  It is Arth…”

When Arthur looked up, he was alone, and he could hear the ding from the hallway outside his cubicle that signaled the elevator’s arrival on their floor.  Clowdine never waits long enough for me to even finish a sentence, he thought.  Why ask me a question when you have no intention of waiting for my answer?  I might as well not even be sitting here when he comes by

Arthur knew there was no point upsetting himself.  Clowdine would never change; in fact, he knew nothing would ever change, so no sense fretting.  Arthur finished his calculations on the weekly report, made a copy for the file, and placed the original on the Sales Manager’s desk.  It wasn’t quite 9:30, but Arthur was ready to have his lunch.  He had fallen asleep during the 6:00 news the night before and had missed dinner.  This morning he had discovered he was out of both cereal and milk.  Arthur didn’t relish the thought of bothering the President of the company with a request for an early lunch, but both secretaries had stepped out of the office.  He knocked on the frame of the President’s open office door.

“Excuse me, Mr. Harcourt.  May I trouble you for a moment?”

Receiving no acknowledgement of his presence, he asked again.

“Sir, might I ask a favor?”

“Hmmm,” the President mumbled, while not looking up from the stack of papers on his desk.

Arthur took that as a cue.

“I’m not really feeling very well today, sir.  I missed dinner last night and breakfast this morning, and was going to ask for an early lunch.  But I’ve since developed a headache and wondered if I might go home.  My work is caught up.  Would that be alright with you, sir?”

“Hmmm,” the President responded again.

Arthur hoped that meant he had permission to take a sick day and was on his way back to his desk to get his coat and briefcase when he heard the President call out from his office.

“Did somebody say something out there?  Is anybody there?  Hmmm…”

No, Arthur thought.  Nobody said anything.  Arthur Schuckel was out there and said something, but he is nobody, so it doesn’t matter.  I may as well not even be here at all.  As Arthur put on his coat and picked up his briefcase, it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps it would be better for everyone if he just disappeared.  It was as if he didn’t even exist anyway, both at the office and at home.  He decided to simply walk away – from everything.

Arthur considered stopping by his rooming house before embarking on his mission to vanish, then decided against it.  He had always paid his rent one month in advance and slid his check under the door of his landlord, Mrs. Brewer.  The next day when he arrived home from work, there would be a receipt for his payment that had been pushed under his door.  He had only seen, and spoken to, her once in eleven years on the day he inquired about the room.  She had been sitting on the steps in front of the building reading a newspaper, and hadn’t looked up even once during their entire conversation.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Arthur had said.  “I understand you have a room for…”

“It’s furnished and the rent is $20.00 a week.  It has its own bathroom with a tub, and there’s a small fridge and a hot plate.  Laudromatic is around the corner.  It’s clean and I expect you to keep it that way.  No drinking and no drugs.  I run a respectable house.  Take Number 3 downstairs.  Door’s open and the key is on the coffee table.”

“Well, that would be wonderful,” Arthur began.  “But, you don’t have to worry.  I don’t drink or take…”

Before Arthur could finish his sentence, Mrs. Brewer folded her newspaper and started to walk to the corner.  Arthur was stunned.  When he had left his parents’ home to find his own place, he thought there would be applications and inquiries to face.  He had obtained a position as head bookkeeper at Harcourt Sales a couple of blocks away, so he wouldn’t even need to take the bus if he lived here.  This couldn’t have worked out better.  He was certain at the time that he would be able to get to know his landlord over time.  She was probably just busy that morning.  He found his room and it was perfect.  It was a place to hang his hat, heat up a can of soup or ravioli, and sleep comfortably.  It was all his.  Alone.

Eleven years later and nothing had changed.  He had never seen his landlord again.  He knew she was there because she cashed his checks, but there were no nights sitting on the steps getting acquainted.  He accepted that nothing ever changed.  He walked past his building without so much as a backward glance.

Arthur was getting hungrier by the minute, so he decided to stop for a sandwich and some coffee at the corner diner.  He could arrange his disappearance just as well on a full stomach as an empty one.  The diner was about half full and Arthur was glad to see the lunch rush hadn’t begun yet.  He would be able to relax, enjoy his meal, and develop a plan for his departure from the life where he felt he was so despised.  Well, that was not exactly the problem.  His very existence wasn’t even acknowledged enough for him to be despised by anyone.  Oddly, being reviled seemed an almost pleasant alternative to Arthur.  If people hated you, it meant they knew you were there.

Arthur found a table and looked through the menu.  He selected a BLT on toast, a bag of chips and an iced tea.  The waitress came to his table, held her order pad, and without looking down at Arthur, tapped the pad with her pencil.  He assumed that was his cue to order, since a ‘good morning’ or ‘what can I get for you today’ would obviously have required too much effort.  She must have been exhausted from dispensing all her pleasantries since Arthur had heard her say those things to the customers at the tables close to his.  Arthur almost asked her why he was not worthy of some common courtesy, but chose to simply place his order.  I supposed I’m lucky she came to my table at all, he thought.

“I would like…,” he began, as his waitress turned and walked toward the kitchen, slipping the pencil and order pad into her pocket.

She picked up the order for the customers at the table next to his.  As she set their food down, she smiled and said she hoped they would enjoy their meal.  She did not return to Arthur’s table, as he had already known she would not.  I must become invisible when people come within three feet of me, he thought.  I need to figure out how to become permanently invisible.  The world would be a much happier place if I wasn’t in it, taking up space.

Arthur got up and decided to buy a couple of chocolate bars at the cashier’s counter.  The young girl working the register was texting on her cell phone, shaking her head and giggling.  Arthur picked up two candy bars and asked the girl how much they were.  She, of course, never gave him an answer – not that he expected one.  He placed $2.00 next to the register, put the candy in his pocket and walked out.  He decided to find somewhere to eat his candy and find a way to stop existing.  For real.

After finishing the second chocolate bar, he looked for a trash bin, and hadn’t realized he’d walked so far.  So deep in thought and cloaked in self-pity, he’d paid no attention to the fact that he’d left the center of town and wound up at the rail yard.  There was one freight car on the tracks with the door wide open.  It had ‘WBC – No. 62’ painted on the side.  There was no engine or other cars around, and Arthur noticed there were no guards or conductors either.  He had never ventured this far from town before, and while he didn’t know anything about railroads, he assumed there should be workers on duty around the clock.

He shuddered as he remembered a documentary he had seen recently on the educational channel.  It was the story of three men, and one woman who spent their lives riding the rails.  He had seen how dangerous that lifestyle could be with jumping on and off moving trains.  He had also seen how equally dangerous the people who lived that way could be.  They were very territorial about the cars they lived in and carried weapons to guard their possessions and to protect their very lives.  Arthur wondered if there were any train hoppers hiding in this car, waiting to attack an unsuspecting citizen who only sought a quiet place to think and plan how not to have a future.

Arthur cautiously peeked inside the car and saw only darkness.  Since that car obviously wasn’t hooked up to anything, he doubted it was occupied and climbed in.  The inside was warm and didn’t have any offensive odor as he had imagined.  He walked to one corner and sat down.

“Now, how do I arrange to permanently remove myself from the face of the Earth?”

Arthur could feel his bladder releasing a few drops as he heard rustling from the opposite side of the car.

“Is someone there?”  The voice was deep and Arthur thought the tone indicated anger.  Maybe not anger precisely, but annoyance at least.

Arthur stood up and backed himself into the corner.

“Please don’t kill me,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.  “I’m nobody.  I’m nothing.  If you look in my direction, you won’t even see me.  No one else ever does.  I’m sure you won’t either.”

The inside of the car was slowly filling with light as the occupant turned the lever on his lantern.  Arthur could see him clearly now.  He was an older man, Arthur guessed in his 60’s, with sparse gray hair, and a bit of gray stubble on his cheeks and chin.  His hands were clean and his overalls and shirt was spotless and there were no holes in his shoes.  He didn’t look to Arthur like the drug-addicted, filthy, mass murderers he believed lived on trains.

“What are you saying, son?” he said, his tone seemingly calmer now.  “Nobody’s going to kill anybody.  I fell asleep at the last stop and hadn’t realized I was in a whole new town.  What is this place called, young fella?”

Arthur felt more at ease.  He wasn’t sure why, but felt comfortable with this stranger.  At least, the man was looking at Arthur and having a conversation with him.  This was new – and nice.

“You’re in the rail yards outside of Bridgeton.  It’s a little town in…”

The man closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh.

“I know Bridgeton, son.  Truly.  I do.”

The man appeared to be trying to compose himself.  Arthur wondered why the name of his town had obviously upset this man.  He waited for the man to speak.

“So, what’s your name, young man, and why are you taking to the rails?  I know you’re not a regular since hoppers usually don’t wear three-piece suits and carry briefcases.”

He smiled.  Arthur didn’t see the harm in sharing both his identity and his story.  At least when he spoke to this man, he stayed put and listened.

“My name is Arthur and I’m in the process of trying to disappear.”

“Disappear?  Well, that’s quite an ambition.  Mine name’s Jeb, and all I’m trying to do is find a bit of peace.  What are you running away from, Artie?”

Arthur knew it was presumptuous to correct a stranger he’d met in a boxcar on the railroad, but the man was overstepping his boundaries.  Gently, now, Arthur, he thought.  You don’t want to be dismembered over something as minor as a nickname.

“Actually, sir,” he said quietly.  “I mean, Jeb, sir, my name is Arth…”

“Did you rob a bank or shiv your roommate?  Do you really think this lifestyle is for you?  You know, Artie, my boy, there’s some pretty dangerous fellas that ride these rails.”

Arthur decided to drop the name issue.  He wanted to vanish from his present circumstances – not to have his body parts spread along the tracks from here to Atlantic City.

“No, Jeb, of course not.  My only crime is that I exist and I’m obviously excess baggage to the rest of the world.”

Jeb couldn’t believe he was hearing such defeatism and bitterness, especially from one so young.

“My, my, my, Artie.  It’s way too early in the day to be drowning in self-pity and crying in your beer.  At least wait until after noon.”

Arthur was livid.

“I almost believed you were different,” Arthur began.  “But you’re like all the rest.  If they don’t ignore me, they’re making fun of me, like you are.  People are all the same.  Maybe if I go to the desert, I can finally be done with everyone.  And, by the way, my name is not Artie – it’s Arthur!

“Good for you, Artie.  Is that the first time in your life you raised your voice?  How did it feel?”

Arthur was shocked; the nerve of this man.  Come to think of it though, it felt kind of good.

“Why are you picking on me?  What did I ever do to you?”

“I’m not picking,” Jeb said.  “I’m trying to understand why you’re running away.  You’ve got a backbone.  I just saw you use it.  Tell me son.  Why would you want to disappear?”

Arthur thought, maybe he is trying to help me.  I could take a chance.

“This might be hard for you to understand because I’ll bet you’ve never been ignored in your whole life.  But, people act as if I’m not even there.  At work, I can be in the middle of a sentence and they walk away.  In restaurants when I get ready to order, the waitress walks away.  My landlord has never looked me in the eye and when I first rented the room, she told me which room was to be mine and walked away.  They’ve always walked away all my life.  They all walk away.”

Arthur began to cry.  He pulled some tissues from his briefcase and wiped his eyes.  Jeb wondered yet again why the world could be so hard on some.

“Artie, let me explain something to you about people.  Everyone is looking out for themselves.  Haven’t you realized that yet?  Times are hard, times are always hard, and that’s the only way to get by.  Folks rush through their days and never feel like they have enough time to share any of it with someone else.  Sound familiar?”

Arthur nodded.  This man knows exactly what I go through each and every day.

“Then again, son, half of the problem is you.”

“What?”  Arthur couldn’t believe Jeb had turned on him too.

“All I meant, Artie, is that you just let people walk away from you.  Why don’t you call them back and say ‘hey, I wasn’t finished’ or just follow them and keep talking until you are finished?  That takes effort and caring though, doesn’t it?  It is easier, I guess, to whine that nobody likes you and decide to run away from home, right?”

“Why are you being so mean?”  Arthur began to cry again.

“Listen to me, boy.  You don’t want to run away and disappear.  I made that mistake myself a long time ago.  I walked away from my gal and my life because I thought I wasn’t good enough for her.  When I came to my senses and realized that she really did love me just for me, I tried to go back and make things right, but it was too late.  She’d already found someone else.

“You see, when you give up your place in this world, if you wait too long, somebody else might fill it.  Then you’re left to wander and son, you don’t want to be left to wander.”

Jeb paused for a moment and then began again.

“Do you have a gal, Artie?”

“Not exactly,” Arthur said.  “The front desk secretary, Francine, is a very sweet lady, but I could never ask her out.  She would never want to be seen anywhere with me.”

“There you go again, son,” Jeb said, shaking his head.  “See how you do yourself in?  If she says no, then ask another gal, but don’t give up before you even try.  You need to go back and take your place back in this life.  If people walk away, call them back.  Don’t let someone else take your spot, and make sure you ask that secretary of yours out for a date.  Do it before another fella does and puts her out of reach.  Don’t let it be too late for you too.”

Jeb sat back in his corner and Arthur knew he saw tears in Jeb’s eyes too.

“You know, I will do it, Jeb.  You’re right.  It’s just that I have always been afraid, but no more.  I’ll go back and fill my spot up so good there won’t be room for anyone else to take it away from me.  I’m going home to get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning.  Thank you, Jeb.  Thank you for everything.”

“You’re welcome, Artie,” Jeb smiled.  “Think of old Jeb when you’re bouncing your grandkids on your knee.”

Arthur walked home and felt like a new person.  Life involved taking chances, and he was no longer afraid to take them.

Arthur woke up and got ready for work.  He wasn’t sure if he still had a job after leaving without notice yesterday, but he was prepared to suffer the consequences, if any.  Regardless of how that matter turned out, he knew he was going to ask Francine out for lunch or maybe even supper.  He had always thought she had the cutest way of pushing her glasses up on her nose.  Jeb had been right; half of his problems were his own fault.  He decided to pay him another visit and bring him something to eat.  He made a sandwich and put it, and two cupcakes, in a bag.  He walked to the train yard, but all the tracks were empty.  He saw a man working on one of the signal lights.

“Excuse me, sir,” Arthur said, making his way through the maze of tracks and equipment.  “I was wondering if you could help me.  There was a freight car here yesterday and it had WBC painted on the side.  Do you know when that one will come back around here?”

The man expected a cruel prank from kids, but from a grown man?

“WBC is nothing to joke about, mister,” the man said angrily.  “Take your sick sense of humor elsewhere.  I’ve got to get ready for today’s run.”

As the man began walking toward a small shack, Arthur almost turned around and continued on his way, but stopped.  ‘Don’t give up before you try – call them back.’

‘Sir, I’m not trying to trouble you.  Perhaps I was mistaken about the logo I saw.  Maybe I saw WBC somewhere else.  Could you please tell me why mentioning that name upset you?  Would you mind?  I can’t really explain why, but it’s very important to me.”

The man decided this fella was probably okay.  From the looks of him, he’s some kind of bookworm who doesn’t get out much.  No harm in telling him about the nasty business, he supposed.

“Sorry to pounce on you like that, son, but I thought everyone knew about the tragedy.  It’s part of this town’s history – the dark part, anyway.  You see, the WBC was a local line.  It was based here and only went through this county and the two to the South of us.  They went out of business more than 50 years ago after that horrible crash.  D&W’s the only train we get through here now.”

“Crash?  More than 50 years ago?  Please, sir, tell me what happened.”  Arthur needed to know, but wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“Well, there were problems with the engine and all the inspectors kept letting them all slide.  Apparently, the cost to fix them would have been too high.  In the end, though, the cost wound up being the lives of three people.  The morning train was hauling four cars filled with wood for a project the town was planning – some storefronts, I was told, and the train was on its way back here.  About fifteen miles from here, the tracks used to run on that bridge over the canyon by Hoff’s Bluff.  Halfway across the bridge, the train stalled, the engine started sparking and then exploded.  The entire train, along with all four freight cars, went off that bridge.

“There was supposed to be two men on the run, the conductor and his assistant.  They found their bodies in the wreckage, but they also found the body of another man in what had been car number 62.  Old fella, they say, a hopper they hadn’t known was even in there.  No one knew who he was so they checked missing persons, but came up empty, and no one ever came forward to claim his body.”

“He wasn’t technically missing because his spot wasn’t vacant anymore.  Someone else had filled it up,” Arthur said, tears forming again.

“What was that?” the man said, seeing Arthur wipe his eyes with the back of his hand.  “Didn’t mean to make you misty-eyed there, young fella.  Were you related to any of them?”

“Oh, no,” Arthur said.  “It’s just that I…what I mean is I saw…, I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.  Thank you for the information.  I hope you have a very nice day.”

The man told Arthur he hoped his day went well too and went back to adjusting the signal light.  Arthur walked back toward town on the way to his job.   Jeb, he thought, Artie here.  Thanks for wandering my way.  I promise you I will stay in my spot and I pray you’ll found another somehow, wherever you are.  God knows you’ve more than earned one.

2 comments:

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    1. Thanks so much, Mike. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm not sure where this one came from, but it felt good to write it.

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