On the train home from work, Miguel awoke to find a man sleeping beside him. The train car was packed with people while it was half empty when he boarded from the downtown station. Miguel squinted from the sunlight streaming through the windows. It was always jolting for him to awaken to altered surroundings, as if much had changed in the fifteen minutes he was napping.
As he turned his attention to the other passengers on the train, Miguel saw that many others were asleep. Men, women, suits, yuppies, laborers, vagrants, and students. Most of the people who were not asleep stared out at the passing landscape.
Miguel thought about all the hours that these people passed away on the trains. All that time in this in-between space, replenishing their bodies with sleep—for time with their loved ones, or another day at work. Now that he worked full-time at the library’s resource
desk, Miguel spent two hours every weekday on the trains, a rate of over 500 hours or
twenty entire days commuting. It saddened him to think of all those hours that could
never be brought back.
Miguel read his book for the rest of the ride to Fremont. By the time the train rolled to its final stop, a handful of people remained in the car. When he stood to walk off the train, Miguel noticed a gray-haired businessman with his head slumped against the window. The man sat two rows in front of him. He did not rouse when the train brusquely aligned to enter the station.
“Fremont—Fremont station. End of the line,” the conductor said over the loud speaker in a singsong voice. “All passengers must off-board. This is now a Richmondbound train.”
Standing in the aisle, Miguel leaned over to tap the man’s shoulder. “Sir,” he said. “It’s the last stop. Sir?”
He tapped the man’s shoulder again with more force. The man showed no sign of awakening. Frazzled, Miguel whipped his head to the train doors that would be closing soon. No one else was in the train car. He turned back to the man. A crumpled newspaper lay on his lap. A black leather briefcase rested by his legs.
“Doors are closing but will re-open,” the conductor said.
Miguel leaned over to shake the man’s shoulders. “Sir, wake up!”
The man’s head slumped against the cold windowpane at an unnatural angle.
Miguel’s eyes opened wide as the train doors closed to a bing sound.
“Oh god,” he said, dropping his shoulder bag to the floor.
He bent close to the man’s chest. It did not move. Miguel placed two fingers over the man’s carotid artery
just like he had learned two years before during a CPR training he took for one of his first jobs out of school. He felt no pulse. Reluctant to believe what he was seeing, Miguel grabbed the man’s wrist to check for a pulse. There was still none. He noticed that the man had no wedding ring on his hand.
His CPR training had been done on rubber dummies, never on a living being, so Miguel dashed to the end of the car.
He pressed the intercom button. “Hello, hello?” he said into the speaker.
The conductor responded.
“Ma’am!” Miguel said, “there’s a man in this car who won’t wake up. He’s slumped against the window and his chest isn’t moving and I checked for his pulse and I didn’t feel any. I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
“Just stay there and don’t move him,” the conductor said. “I’m calling emergency medics right now and I’ll be right there.”
Miguel hung up the intercom. He stared back at the man, his head angled against the window half a train car away. Oh god, get me out of here, Miguel thought while he walked back to retrieve his bag, careful to look away from the man.
With his bag slung over his shoulder, Miguel slouched forward on one of the seats next to the train doors. For minutes that seemed to drag and drag, he stared out the window, past the parking lot where he could faintly hear sparrows chirping in a row of trees. Where was this man going? Did he have children he was leaving behind? Did he live alone like his father who used to take this same train into the city to work as a lobby attendant?
Before long, Miguel heard the station attendant’s voice over the loud speakers.
“Attention passengers. The Richmond-train train on Platform One is out of service due to a medical emergency. Do not board that train. All passengers, please board the San Francisco Daly City-bound train, which should be here in nine minutes.”
The conductor came through the sliding doors between the train cars. She speed-walked to the man. Miguel watched her staring at the man. She grimaced and shook her head before walking over to Miguel.
“Are you okay?” she said.
Miguel nodded. “Yeah, I’m all right. I’m just, you know, sad for him. He looks young—like he’s in his fifties at most. Younger than my dad.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “We all gotta go some time.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
As a crowd gathered on the platform, the conductor opened the train doors when the paramedics rushed over, pushing a stretcher.
“Can I leave?” Miguel said. He had nowhere to be but he wanted to be home in his apartment. It was beginning to feel like a long day.
“I’m sorry, but you can right after one of the officers takes your statement. It shouldn’t take long. Just procedure.”
In a daze, Miguel stepped out onto the platform. A few bystanders stared at him before a BART police officer moved them aside. The station attendant’s voice boomed again. Miguel stared off at the waning sun with the sudden urge to laugh aloud. Then he saw a man in a business suit pacing along the platform toward him.
“Hey Bill, it’s Paul,” the man said in a loud, self-important voice. “Listen, I’m stuck at BART in Fremont. I’m going to be late because some guy fainted or had a heart attack or something. We might have to reschedule with their sales team.”
Miguel’s inched in the man’s direction. His pulse spiked with rage.
“Yeah, yeah. Believe me, I’m sorry, too, but shit happens, right? Talk to you
The man snapped his Blackberry shut. While he stared at him, Miguel could imagine this man sitting behind an executive desk in an office perched above the city. He seemed like the kind of guy who spit out phrases like “Let’s hit the ground running,” “I want 110% effort,” or “These quarterly numbers are low, people.” This was the kind of man his father used to grumble about when he came home from work, the kind of man who would walk past him every morning without acknowledging him as though a lowly
lobby attendant did not exist.
Miguel wanted to punch him. He glared at the businessman. For once, he didn’t want to bite his tongue to such a man, even if he was a stranger. He took a step toward the man, planting his feet wide on the platform.
“That guy you just talked about is dead,” Miguel said. “Have some damn respect.”
The businessman flinched and turned to avoid Miguel’s glower. He walked away.
“Asshole,” Miguel muttered, staring at the man’s back before he walked over to
the police officer.
The officer took his statement. Before he descended the stairs to leave, Miguel peered into the train. He saw the dead man resting on the stretcher, covered with a yellow blanket. Though he did not know the man—what he had and had not done in his life—he solemnly hung his head and left.
Out in the vast parking lot, emptying with a flux of cars, Miguel took out his phone. He called his dad who he had not spoken to in months.
“Hey dad,” Miguel said, staring up at a sparrow that looped in the sky above him.
“How are you?”
Juan Alvarado Valdivia was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received his MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in BorderSenses Literary Magazine and the e-journal, Label Me Latina/o. He lives in Oakland where he is at work on a collection of short stories. Ramblings, lackluster poems, and excerpts from his memoir can be read on his blog: cancer-landia.blogspot.com.