Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Don

I ran into Chicago Union Station about 10 minutes before my train was set to depart for St. Louis.  I’d overslept.  Two months into retirement, I still hadn’t gotten into a new sleep rhythm.

I was one of the last passengers to board, so it wasn’t hard to spot my open seat, a window seat in coach.  An old man was in the aisle seat.  He was wearing a denim shirt and wire-rimmed glasses and had a scruffy beard and a ponytail.  He looked like an ancient hippie.

I stuffed my bag in the overhead above him, but he didn’t get up.

“Excuse me,” I said.

He looked up, as if he was just realizing I was there.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, slowly stepping into the aisle.

I squeezed by, laptop in hand, and sat down.  The old man then sat back down.  He folded his hands on his lap.  He didn’t have a device or a book, and he didn’t say a word.  I figured he was one of those guys who didn’t like to talk on trains.  After sitting next to more than my fair share of windbags on flights over the years, I respected that.

As we pulled out of the station, though, he said, “Where you heading?”

“St. Louis.  You?”

“West Coast.”

I nodded.  I thought he might say something else, but he pushed his seat back, closed his eyes and fell asleep.

I pulled down the tray table and opened my laptop.

About 15 minutes later, the old man woke up and looked around, as if he were getting his bearings.  He looked at me, then past me, out the window.

“Beautiful day,” I said.

He looked at me and smiled.

“Yes,” he said.

I felt my watch vibrate.  I tapped the face.  It was a text from Catherine.  She was already on a break on the first day of her conference in Washington.  She wanted to let me know it was off to a good start and wish me safe travel.

I tapped my watch twice, held it held close to my mouth and said, “Good.  Period.  Train left on time.  Period.  Let you know when I get there.  Period.”  Then I tapped it again.

I looked up.  The old man was looking at me.

“My wife,” I said.

“Oh.”

He stared at my watch, as if he were trying to figure it out.

“So where on the West Coast are you heading?” I said.

“LA.”

“Great city.”

“Never been there.”

“What brings you there?”

“The weather.”

After a long pause, he said, “I just couldn’t face another winter in Maine.”

“Sometimes I feel that way about Chicago.”

“What brings you to St. Louis?”

“I’m just going to hang out there for a couple of days while my wife’s away.  Probably go up in the Arch.  Take in a Cardinals game.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Hope so.  I’ve been to St. Louis many times on business, but never for pleasure.  I’m looking forward to it.”

“What business are you in, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“Not at all.  I’ve actually just retired.  I was in advertising for 40 years.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.  It still feels strange to say I’m retired.”

“I’ll bet.”

“What about you?  Still working?”  

I assumed this guy was retired too but wanted to be charitable.

“I just quit my job a few days ago,” he said.

“Really?  What kind of work to you do, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“Dish washer.”

“Pardon me?”

“I wash dishes.  I’ve washed dishes for over 50 years.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“It’s okay,” he said, he said with a small smile.  “It’s not as glamorous as advertising, but it’s a living.”

“Absolutely.”

I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Finally, I said, “Have you been to St. Louis?”

“No.”

I nodded.

About a minute later, he said, “I’ve only been out of Maine once.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Where did you go?”

“Vietnam.”

Holy crap, I thought.

“Were you in the Army?”

“Yeah.”

“When did you serve?”

“In the late sixties.”

I was too young to have served in Vietnam, but I knew the late sixties were the deadliest years of the war.

“Did you see action?”

“Yes.”

“Were you wounded?”

“Not physically.”

Now I really didn’t know what to say.

“But I saw a lot of people who were wounded or killed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

Once again, I was at a loss for words.

Then, after an awkward silence, he said, “When I came back, I had a hard time adjusting.  All I wanted to do was stay home.”

I nodded.

“But I had a wife and a young daughter to support.  So I got the first job I could find:  washing dishes at a local restaurant.  I never imagined I’d be washing dishes all these years.  Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor.  But what I saw, and did, in Vietnam changed me.  It broke me.  I was never the same.”

“I understand.  At least you were able to provide for your family.”

“Yeah, for a while.  But I was a lousy husband and father.  Eventually, my wife left me, and she took our daughter with her.  I haven’t seen either of them for 50 years.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.  Anyway, I just kept washing dishes, and I never left Maine.  I’ve pretty much kept to myself all these years.”

“What will you do when you get to LA?”

“I don’t know.  Look for a place to live, I guess.  I’ve saved a bit, and my sister’s going to mail me my Social Security and disability checks.  So I guess I’ll be okay.  I don’t need much.  Just a place in the sun, a place where I can finally feel whole again.”

“I’m sorry your life has been so hard,” I said.  “I hope this will be a good move for you.”

“Me too.”

I looked at my watch.  We still had four hours to go to get to St. Louis.  I sensed this guy was kind of talked out, so I re-opened my laptop.  I skimmed the news headlines.  The top stories were about the war in Afghanistan.  I felt lucky to have been too young to fight in Vietnam and that my son never had to go to war.

I thought about my family.  My career had demanded a lot of me.  I was absent from the lives of my wife and children far too much.  I had shortchanged my loved ones.  That was my greatest regret.

I hardly saw my kids anymore, and I knew I’d never have much time with them again.  That made me sad.  But I figured that, when I retired, Catherine and I would finally have time together.  

But I discovered that, over the years, she had created a whole new life for herself.  She’d become a life coach.  When I was working, I wasn’t really aware of how much time she was devoting to this.  I had no idea she’d become such an expert or how well regarded she was in the field.  She’d never talked much about her work.  Or if she had, I wasn’t listening.  

We’d once been so close.  But we had drifted apart.  At some point, our lives began spinning in different orbits.

Now Catherine was now a speaker in demand.  That weekend, she was speaking at a conference in Washington.

I thought retirement would be different.  I deliberately hadn’t planned to do anything right away.  I thought I’d give myself some time to decompress and consider my options.  But so far, I felt adrift and alone.

I looked over at the old man.  He was sleeping.  I thought about his lonely life.  I thought about his decision to finally quit washing dishes, the only thing he’d ever done, and leave Maine, the only place he’d ever lived.  I admired his courage.

He woke up when lunch was served, and we chatted over turkey wraps and coffee.  When we got to St. Louis, I finally introduced myself.

“By the way, I’m Tom,” I said, extending my hand.

“I’m Alan,” he said, taking it.

At that point, last names seemed too formal.

“I hope you enjoy LA,” I said.  “And thank you for your service.”

“Thanks.  And you’re welcome.”

I took an Uber to my hotel and checked in.  My room overlooked Busch Stadium.  I’d planned to go to the game that evening.

But then I thought about the prospect of sitting in the ballpark and watching the game by myself and coming back to this room and sleeping alone.  I thought about Alan.  He no longer had a wife.  I did.  But once again, even without a job to call me away, I’d left her to do my own thing.

Is this what my retirement is going to be like, I thought, just an extension of the ego trip that had been my career?  Am I, like Alan, destined to be on my own?

I thought about Catherine.  She was probably speaking to a big audience at that very moment.  And then, probably after dinner with people who appreciated her, she too would go back to a hotel room and sleep alone.

I thought about Alan.  He was probably in Kansas by now.  He was choosing to make a new life for himself.  He was on his way to find a place where he might finally feel whole again.  I longed to find such a place.

I opened my laptop, went online and bought an airline ticket to Washington for that evening.  It will be tight, I thought, but I can make it.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Having recently retired, I find that much of what Tom reveals rings true, at least on the surface and for me. Until the decision to fly to DC. Uninvited. A surprise for Catherine (shock) in the making. A surprise for Tom (shock?) a distinct possibility. As the story captures, the ability of a casual passersby (Alan) to impact the behavior of others is fraught with surprises. Much to chew on here.

  2. Ah, the wisdom to embark on a different journey than the one planned. The courage to heed one who had basically failed at life. You have captured these two essential elements to living a meaningful life. Well done, Don.

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