Arlo likes to ride the train to hear people talk about their lives, while his own life wastes away.
Arlo loved to ride the train, though it wasn't because of the money he saved. It wasn't because he could catch an hour of sleep while the train delivered him to work. It wasn't even because it gave him time to read when it seemed he never had any time anymore to open a book.
Arlo loved to eavesdrop. In the din and close chaos of the train, it was easy to eavesdrop, and he heard fascinating conversations, though most were mundane, routine, and mostly composed of small time chit-chat.
But sometimes, often, he heard snatches of conversation that sounded as if they had been written by a brilliant writer. He heard daily dialog to a play taking place right in front of him, for free.
Arlo found a seat on the commuter train and pulled a book out of his pack. He started to read, and people all around him began to speak. A male voice in the seat behind him talked to a woman. He couldn't see their faces. The male voice spoke in a hushed whisper.
"They're trying to blame me just because I was the last one to see him," the voice said.
"Did you see me on the news?" he asked.
"No, but don't worry about it, you didn't do anything," the female voice said.
An older gentleman in the seat across from him looked out the window at the Wool Warehouse, a store he obviously remembered in a different way than the decrepit, graffiti covered wreck it was now.
The stately old former warehouse had been built like a grand old hacienda, complete with all of the graceful architectural amenities of one. It had elegance and style, and was being converted by an investors group into a community theatre.
It had been built at the same time, and right next door to the Alvarado Hotel, an icon in southwestern railroad architecture and style. The Santa Fe Railway put the wrecker's ball to it in the 1970s before the city could appreciate its beauty. The hotel had once been graced by the beautiful and morally correct Harvey Girls, waittresses that served weary train travelers with shiny young innocence and friendly but correct professionalism.
"What are they doing to the Warewolf?" the old man asked a younger woman companion.
"The Wool Warehouse, Grandpa," corrected the woman.
"Que? Que dices? I can't hear you," the man said.
An older woman on the other side of him took a cell phone and put it in his front shirt pocket.
"Here, keep it here in your pocket so you can hear it if anybody calls," the woman said sternly. The older woman was almost certainly his wife.
"They're going to turn it into a theatre," the younger woman said.
"Oh que bueno, I love to go to the movies," the old man said.
The younger woman looked like she was about to correct him again, but decided it was too much trouble. Arlo smiled at this exchange.
“May I sit here?” a well dressed young man with cropped short black hair asked.
Arlo looked up from his book and in the young man's look, he noticed a strange expression of recognition, though Arlo was certain he had never met the man.
Sure, go ahead,” Arlo said. He moved his backpack and put it on the floor between his feet.
After a momentarily silence, the two men began making small talk. Arlo learned they were neighbors, and that Ramon, who appeared to be about 20 years younger than the 54-year-old Arlo, lived in Tome, a little riverside village just north of Adelino, a similar hamlet where Arlo had lived on the same land his great grandfather had homesteaded in the 1700s as part of an old Spanish land grant.
The train rocked from side to side as it gained speed, rumbling toward Albuquerque like a carnival ride. A huge luminous silver moon hung on the horizon like a silver coin. Gray scenes outside sped past like the frames of a movie in fast forward.
Since everyone in each little town knew everyone else in the town, they began exploring mutual connections. Arlo discovered a delightful connection in that Ramon said he had an older sister, about Arlo's age, named Clarita.
Arlo immediately remembered a girl named Clarita, whom he had invited to his 16th birthday party, where, Arlo told Ramon, she had been the belle of the ball under a shimmering disco ball.
“She's still beautiful,” Ramon said.
“I wanted to dance with her, and I think I saw that she wanted to dance with me, but I was shy,” Arlo said. “I was afraid.”
Being afraid was a condition Arlo had carried into adulthood. At 16, Arlo never envisioned still living in Tome. His plan had been to escape the farming community and see the world. Instead, he had been trapped, by poverty, meekness, and fear.
Watching the scenes zip past his window, Arlo remembered how he had had wanted as a college undergraduate to become a poet, or a playwright, perhaps even a novelist. And though Arlo had published a handful of poems in small literary or college presses, and had self published a book of poetry and of short stories, he couldn't help but indulge the feeling that the life he'd imagined had somehow abandoned him.
He even allowed himself to imagine that he must have a double in a parallel universe, who was happily living the life he had imagined as a youth.
He thought about the days that turned into years wondering what might have happened had he gotten enough courage to ask Clarita to dance. Maybe he'd have a Harley Davidson now, on which he had imagined he would see the country. Instead, he had a decrepit old Honda 350, a “rice burner” that got him to his job flipping hamburgers at the Dog House in downtown Albuquerque. He had wrecked it one night, leaving him with a noticeable limp. But he had put it back together with duct tape and baling wire, and it still ran.
The Dog House was so named because of the chile smothered hot dogs that became the roadside diner's speciality, but it could easily have also referred to the hound dogs that lingered in the parking lot for Arlo to drop some leftovers on his way to the dumpster at the end of the day.
Arlo thought back to the day of his birthday party, in his mother's beauty shop, which had festooned with balloons and ribbons. They had played 45s on an old record player, and no booze allowed. All the pretty girls of the village had come, and all of the boys. It was a wonderful party, yet Arlo had never gotten over the possibility that he could have danced with Clarita, and perhaps would have even won a kiss, if he had been less a dweeb and more of a man.
The train lurched to a stop at the Rio Bravo station; about 15 more miles to the Los Lunas station, where Arlo would deboard.
“So how is Clarita these days, besides being still a beauty?” Arlo asked Ramon.
“She's married, about 20 years, to a nice guy, and they have two children, a son and a daughter, both in their teens. He's an architect, and she's a school teacher,” Ramon said.
“Wonderful, that's great,” Arlo said.
The train stopped and the car doors opened. A blonde, wearing shabby clothes and chewing her gum furiously, declared to no-one in particular, “Survived another day.”
Then as the train began to pick up speed toward its final stop in Los Lunas, the woman settled back in her seat, and her gum chewing slowed to a crawll. She looked out the window, though her glazed eyes showed she was looking inside of herself rather than at anything outside the window.
Fifteen minutes later, the train slowed and stopped at the Los Lunas station. Ramon gathered his belongings and stood up to leave.
“Send Clarita my regards,” Arlo said. Then as an afterthought, he added, “Tell her I'm going to have another party in the beauty shop, and she's invited.”
Ramon smiled. “I will tell her.”
Arlo followed Ramon, and suddenly had the inspiration to follow him, on the chance that he might be lucky enough to see Clarita. Ramon was walking briskly ahead and didn't notice the tailing Arlo.
In the parking lot, Arlo's hunch paid off, when he saw Clarita open the passenger's side door. She got out of the car to greet her brother, and she kissed him on the cheek. She was even more beautiful than he had imagined.
What Arlo saw next nearly knocked the air out of his lungs. Arlo realized now why Ramon had looked with such a startled expression when he had first seen Arlo upon boarding the train.
Clarita went to the driver's side window, and asked the man inside to roll down his window. Then she kissed him. She used her finger to touch his lips lovingly. The man, it seemed to Arlo, could have been his identical twin. He was astounded to learn today that he had a double in the world, and that his double had married the woman of his dreams. Arlo watched them drive away. He walked to his Honda in the parking lot, and tried to kick the machine to life. It sputtered and died.
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