The Man I Thought I Knew

Short story. Enjoy!


This rail line once belonged to me. Not literally, no. I walked along the track every day before work. The serene quiet was calming. As soon as my ears started ringing from the quiet and right before I could handle the silence no longer, the train would trudge passed me. Its horn blasting, its wheels grinding against the rails.
For four years and four months I walked that line every morning. At 6:30AM, I got up, took my shower, and headed out. With an hour before I had to leave for my morning commute, time allowed a walk far enough into the woods along the track to come up to a bridge overlook.
It was beautiful with its fourteen meter drop into a gully where a quiet brook floated through. The overgrowth made the water tough to see from the rim and impossible to hear. Instead, only a gentle rustling of the leafy overhang trickles into the ears. It’s so serene, I was content stopping a moment to take it in before turning back to the house.
After four years of walking the same railway, just as I came upon the gully and the hidden brook that cut through it, I found a man standing on the tracks on the rim across the bridge. He just stood there, staring straight back toward me, though his gaze continued passed down the track. Tears streamed down the man’s round, yet almost chiseled, face.
I knew that look. Many of my clients had those same looks when they stood right at a precipice. Either they would buy my argument and not do what they were about to do. Or I had to make a phone call the next day. Unfortunately, I found this man both at an emotional and a physical cliff.
I yelled across to him but he did not respond. The bridge spanned a mere twenty feet, so there remained little doubt any person in a more conscious state would hear me perfectly fine. The train’s horn bellowed in the distance. Without reaction from the crying man, I walked across the bridge. The rail ties lay close enough together that only modest fear coursed through me as a stepped on each tie. After all, it was not the first time I found myself in dangerous situations. For some reason, my protective instincts tended to kick start and my personal safety clicked off whenever these situations arose.
All the while I asked his name and if he needed any help. His glassy eyes stared straight through me as if I were a mere figment of my own imagination. Standing inches from him, I told him my name and held out my hand. For a moment he continued to look at something well beyond me. The train’s horn echoed closer. Its massive weight rumbled through the railroad tie I stood upon tickling my toes and rattling my teeth.  
Turning, I saw the train less than fifty meters away from us and coming at an impressive tick. With no time to spare, I asked the man again for his name. Nothing. I slapped him once across his pale face. Rarely did I resort to the attention getting slap during situations such as these, but they were highly effective.
The man flashed red and sneered right before his glazed over gaze focused on me. Then he softened. I was in.
“Come on,” I said as I guided him off the track.
The train thundered by just as both our feet stepped onto the rocks.
We sat on an embankment of rocks a few feet from the track for several hours before he spoke. One rule learned long ago, after that initial close call, assuming they survive like we did, it was of the utmost importance that they make the first move. Because, as we all learn the hard way, until they make their first move, nobody is out of the rough waters.
“You didn’t have to.”
I did not respond.
“You could’ve let me do it.”
Another thirty minutes passed.
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”
Another hour passed.
“My girl died yesterday.”
I said nothing.
“We were together six years. Six years this July.”
Another long while.
“She was my fire. My everything. I just couldn’t see myself without her.”
“And now?”
“I don’t know.”
I took a tissue out of my pocket and handed it to him. He blew his nose hard enough to rustle the nearby tree leaves. Then more silence.
He chuckled through his tears and sniffles.
He asked if I was scared just then.
“Not till afterward,” I said. Quiet for a time, I continued simply to pass time and, hopefully, to loosen both our tongues.
“Staying calm in instances when death stares me in the face has always been a strong suit of mine. Or a weak one.”
We both laughed quietly.
“How I do it? I don’t know. That’s how I bat .500 at work. That’s why I need this walk.”
“You do this all the time?”
“The walk,” I asked. “Yeah. Every morning. It clears my mind.”
It is quiet again for a long time so I talk just to keep our minds busy and to get this man more comfortable with who I am.
“My morning walks are my life raft.” He says nothing as he plucks a blade of grass from between his feet and peels it like string cheese. I continue.
“Working with ‘at risk’ youth takes a lot out of you. I hate that term ‘at risk’. By the time I see them, risk has already taken its ticket and sat down. Trouble is merely waiting at the other end of the line.”
He chortles at the reference, so I know he’s listening. That is a good sign.
“Since they receive no encouragement from home, my job is to attempt to prove to them that living life straight edge and by the book is somehow more lucrative than selling drugs or, Heaven forbid, themselves. My job is to sit beside them at the train station and try to convince them not to get on the train while everyone else around them roots for them to join the rich, short-lived, fast life.”
“Kinda sounds like this. Doesn’t it, Doc?”
I’m no doctor but correcting him on such a meager point could pose a detriment. So I let it slip.
“Seems I always find myself in these situations.”
We both laugh.
“Maybe that’s why I got into this job in the first place. Might as well get paid for it if I’m gonna do it full time.”
He peels another blade of grass.
“Almost every teen in these precarious positions fall hard. The lucky ones end up in prison. The rest just end up underground. Then their children grow up without their parents, just as they did, and the cycle repeats. Over and over. Those few who end up in our inner city program have a fighting chance. Each of us Brownstone city dwellers who work there have a caseload of about ten teens. But those ten kids cycle through quickly.”
A tear trickled down the side of his face I could see. I’m in. But I was not sure exactly why I was sharing what I was sharing. Then again, he did interrupt my therapy session. Besides, the rambling appeared to grab him.
“Once they end up in prison or dead we stop working with them. After all, our job is to keep them from those terrible outcomes. I have the strongest success record at the organization. But I’m still batting .500. That means, once every six months or so, one or more of my kids disappears. Sounds terrible. And it is. But most everyone else loses kids almost every day.
“I cross my fingers on the first day they don’t show up for our appointments. One quick and painful phone call to the Department of Corrections and I find if they are incarcerated or just in a morgue marked as a John Doe. These tracks and these quiet woods help clear the thoughts and mentally prepare for the day ahead. At least, that was the plan.”
Realizing I should not have said what I said just then, I stopped talking. The man worked on several more strands of grass. A pile of clippings collects between his feet.
I finally say, “Can I walk you home?”
“No,” he clears his throat. “I live just beyond the brush over there. I can find my way back OK.”
“Very well then,” I added, patting him on his knee as I stood. “I’ll be on my way.”
That was when I realized my entire workday was spent with this man. However, guilt did not bubble up. It was hard to feel guilty when your job is to save lives and you take the day off to save a life. He caught me looking at my watch, “Sorry if ya had somewhere to be.”
“No worries,” I lied. “Nothing I can’t reschedule,” which was not a lie.
He stood, “So you come this way every morning?”
“Well, I was planning on it.”
The man wiped the last of his tears away and bit the inside of his cheek, “See ya again, maybe.”
“Perhaps.”
Quiet again. I broke the silence first, “You gonna be OK?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Just one of them moments. You know.”
“All too well,” I smacked him on the back a couple times. “All too well, indeed.”

The next morning I woke and proceeded down the rail line just as every other morning. Usually, my mind drifted into less and less thought as the thicket enveloped me. By the time my house disappeared in the brush, only the gentle whisper of the leaves overhead snuck their way between my ears. I felt my heart slow, my worries trailed far enough behind to forget they were there. Just as I came to the railway bridge, the train was already rumbling in the distance.
There he stood.
The same man as the day before, standing on a railroad tie at the rim of the gully across from where I emerged from the overgrowth. His face wet with sadness all over again. I closed my eyes, rubbed them, and hoped when I reopened them, he would not be there. But he was.
I rarely count myself among those that flaunt their successes. Modesty gets you further than flattery anyway. However, I felt it strange that this man who just lost his wife would give up on life so easily after our conversation. Under normal circumstances, once someone started to chuckle, even that awkward sad giggle half hidden by tears, I knew they would pull through their dilemma. He held all the signs of someone headed in the direction. Yet there he stood.
I called out to him with no response, so I walked across the bridge. Eye contact was important with people in his situation, but too much space between railway ties forced me to look down frequently. Coming up on him I noticed his gaze did not pass through me as it had previously. Rather, it wavered between the oncoming tressel and my face.
Progress, I thought.
He flickered an awkward smile as I pulled him from the tracks. We sat down just beyond the same embankment of rocks before the train crossed our path. The power of it passing blew my hair in all directions. As yesterday, I waited for him to speak first. The entire length of the train passed us by before he spoke.
“Thanks again,” he said.
I let another few minutes pass before responding.
“What happened? I thought we were over that hump.”
“So did I,” he added rather irritably.
For a moment it sounded as if his irritation stemmed from my pulling him off the track. Though it could just as easily been my own irritation with another personal meditation session interrupted. I could not help but think of the appointments I missed yesterday and how I could not miss them a second day in a row without expecting consequences.
“So what was it then?”
“Don’t know,” he said with definite irritation.
Normally this would be the point at which I step back and move at the distressed person’s pace. But I had appointments that could not be rescheduled.
“Is it about your wife?”
He grunted.
“Is it about someone else?”
A smirk flickered in the corner of the only cheek visible to me from where I sat.
“Someone else then,” I added.
He half turned to me. His eyes seemed to attempt to peer over but fell short and stared off into the woods a solid dozen paces ahead of us. I get that look a lot when I read people like that. Others have told me I see things most cannot. Having never lived otherwise, there was no way for me to know for certain. I just do it. Perhaps that’s why I do what I do.
“Is it a friend?”
He huffed another smirk but more airy than his last.
“So, it’s a friend.”
Then his gaze darted around the woodlands around us. A sure sign of trying to hide something. In this case, a deep secret so bothering to him that he would rather remain silent than speak up and survive another day.
“Were you and this friend of yours close? Maybe? Did something happen to them? No?”
This reading made me so curious about why a man would stand in front of 600 tons of oncoming steel. For such a burly man in street clothes, I expected parents to die in a flaming car crash or a son knifed in an alley trying to score his first 8-ball. Usually I am able to hold back on the angry questions. But I had to ask.
“Then why try to kill yourself over a friend that’s OK?”
“Stop asking so many questions,” he yelled. He rubbed his temples with his thick fingers. We sat in silence for another half hour or so. He built up second pile of peeled grass clippings. Judging by his face, he appeared bored. Then again, I might have projected my own boredom onto him.
“I can only help you if you let me.”
He snorted and worked on another blade of grass.
Peering at my watch, I only had an hour before my first appointment of the day. The kid at my 10:30 appointment found himself between a gang and a hard place. We were meeting to discuss his options and work out a plan of getting him out of the underground system before something terrible happened to him or his family. I knew the gang. Its threats were not to be taken lightly.
“Look,” I finally said after the pile of shredded grass collecting between his legs doubled in size, “I have an appointment shortly. I have to get back.”
“No,” he startled. As he grabbed my wrist, his eyes held both fear and anger. His grip was tighter than I thought it should be. I wondered what he feared so much and how I managed to inflict such anger. I froze, unsure what to do next. My fingers began to tingle as his hand clamped down harder.
“I’m sorry but I have other people to help. You have to understand. Don’t worry though, I’ll be back tomorrow for my same walk.”
His eyes diverted from mine choosing instead to look out into the distance. There were no tears in them. He squinted. Then he let go of me. I rubbed my wrist trying to encourage blood flow back into my fingers.
He followed me up as we both stood simultaneously. His stance was no longer that of someone in need. I had become a crutch for this man. Dependence was common in these situations of constant help. I should have known.
“I have to go now. I have an appointment I have to keep.”
“Can’t let you do that, man.”
Even his tone changed. No longer did his voice vibrate with fear. He was escalating. His fear transitioned into anger. Uncertain how to respond, I just spoke the first thing that came to mind.
“Why is that?”
“You ain’t. Going. Nowhere.”
Rustling in the woods just outside my periphery sounded like a bear or large dog making its way through the thicket. I tried to swallow but it caught in my throat. When I looked over toward the sounds from the near distance, I saw three men emerging from the dense foliage. They did not look familiar. However, their tattoos I recognized immediately. They belonged to the gang my 10:30 appointment was trying to allude with my help.
“What are they doing here,” I asked sharply of the man I thought I knew. He did not speak. Instead, the man in the middle of the group that emerged from the woods spoke in his place.
“He’s with us.”
“Really,” the man I thought I knew asked of him.
“Yeah,” the man in the middle said, slapping hands and ending with a fist bump. “You’s in.”
I took several steps back hoping to fade away while they conversed.
“Where do you think you’re goin’, hommes?”
The lump in my  throat refused to allow me to respond.
“You can’t go nowheres,” the man in the middle said.
All four men encircled me. Suddenly, the man I thought I knew seemed bigger, more dangerous.
“But you were crying. You were nearly run over by that train.”
The man I thought I knew looked down at his feet while the man in the middle spoke.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “We told him if he moved before you came and moved him, we’d kill his momma. First time that ever worked for reals.”
“But the tears. Jesus,” I realized. “You were gonna have him kill himself?”
“Only if you didn’t come by. But you did.”
“Well, yes, but…”
“So it worked for everybody. Well, almost.”
“But why?”
“You said so yourself. You gots a 10:30 appointment you gots to keep.”
“I never said anything about a time.”
“Oops,” he spat sarcastically. “Don’t matter now. We gots our guys taking care of your 10:30 appointment right now.”

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