Drawing by Meghan Ellie Smith
WINTER MONTAGE, HOBOKEN STATION
by Tobias Carroll
Nathan’s talking to me about melancholy songs. Nathan’s talking to me about this band from Seattle, and how he’s getting obsessed with them. His kid brother’s girlfriend turned him on to their music when they’d gathered last Christmas, where long drives down crisp winter highways were the rule. “I like it, mostly,” he says. “When I’ve got it on, it makes everything in my life seem like a montage.” And suddenly I’m seeing it too: those moments of revelation and realization at the end of television shows and sentimental movies, wordless or with words obviated by a pop song’s rise and fall. The people in those movies and those television shows are about fifteen years younger than Nathan and me. They’ve got good skin and good hair and never have odd bits looking unkempt. They walk wide-eyed in daylight, never squinting because of brightness, eyes never tearing up from the sheer strength of the sun. They have epiphanies and those epiphanies coalesce into something that matters. Montages don’t belong to folks in their thirties sitting in a train station bar in Hoboken.
Issue #32 soundtrack: Merrady and Gene "When You Came Home"
I rode the light rail in from Jersey City at two. Clumps of snow were falling in an unhinged slurry, and had been since the night before. I had some downtime; I was waiting for word back on two freelance projects, and those whose word I awaited had told me they had no desire to stagger through snowbanks and slushpiles. Which was good: it left me feeling less apprehensive about seeing Nathan. Suggested I could arrive early and have a first afternoon beer alone before I knew what awaited me.
Transit always reminds me of transit. The light rail that runs along the Hudson calls back every trip I’ve ever taken to the Twin Cities -- if the cars used on each line aren’t the same make, they have to be siblings or kissing cousins or flat-out doppelgängers. Minneapolis makes me think of winter, makes me think of long walks through the same snowbanks that petrify my clients out here. I spent four years there, punctuated by repetition: every six to eight weeks, I would take the light rail from riverside neighborhoods to the airport, would step out into the airport’s cavernous station, and would take flight. I almost always returned at night, and sitting at that station, half a dozen standing in random concentrations along the platform, might as well have been heraldry for that time in my life. An inexact isolation, punctuated by a Whitman’s Sampler of transportation.
Then I moved back here. I’d hear from Nathan periodically. We’d matriculated at opposite ends of the country; he’d headed east when I went midwest, and he went north when it was my turn to make a return pilgrimage to old haunts. The slender times we saw one another after high school remained close at hand, those moments when shifting and dwindling groups would gather at chain restaurants to update life stories and anecdotal evidence. Nathan generally had a sibling in tow. Having none myself, I stood as my family’s lone representative at such functions.
Jokes would be made about the inevitability of things the one time we talked about our plans for the world when we were twenty-two: the city he chose and the city I chose. The dog-eared rib-jab: you go to the city, you meet someone, you get married, buy the house, move to the suburbs. Have the kids. The inevitability we joked about became reality, and in the years that followed, we realized you could keep tabs on that, fiber-optics bringing us news of last names changed and faces altered, of bright-faced children, of moves and divorces and an evolution I never quite caught.
Nathan had tried his best at these steps, but had gone at them in a grab-bag style. He’d moved north of the city, bought a house there. Some time later, there was a wedding. Two months after that, the marriage dwindled. I tried to imagine Nathan’s house, but could never manage it properly: part of a postwar subdivision or something much older; a townhouse of right angles and judgmental points; something older, worn down and in need of restoration. The only time Nathan ever spoke of houses was once, one of the few times in our twenties when visits to our hometown had overlapped. Nathan was drinking well whiskey, no ice, and seemed obsessed with certain makes and models of shelter. Childhood’s glow in his eyes, he spoke of geodesic domes, modular houses, minimalist residences six hundred square feet total. He spoke of unnamed places hidden away off a mountain road. The whiskey in him prompted an unusual evangelism, and he began to scrawl figures on a series of napkins, his pen inevitably tearing through each in turn and prompting him to start again.
We kept in fractured touch, missives sent in clusters, periods of exchange in a rapid-fire queue followed by long gaps, a dub rhythm if charted on paper and viewed from a distance. He mentioned that he would be in Hoboken on that particular day, that he would be taking meetings with a lawyer. Later, he suggested we get a drink in the afternoon. Morning of, I heard from him that nothing had changed, that he was still boarding a train near the state border and taking it down. And so the place was set, and as I walk towards it, a bar in a space hidden away, I realize there’s no way of knowing what’s to come.
I walk from the light rail tracks towards the trains -- the bar’s beyond -- and I look around, look to see if there’s a sign of Nathan, if he’s had the same idea as me. The schedule looks down at me as I pass, and a few people stand, waiting to become passengers. The waiting room is similarly piebald. I look over at the engines and see cloudlight shining through. Through a gap above, a small rectangle of snow is coming to rest just past the edge of a dormant train. A hundred feet down the line is the bar. There’s a dim light inside, sparse grey shapes at a few tables, two at the bar. My hand is pushing on the door, my reflection’s briefly seen in the glass, and I’m through. There is no sign of Nathan, and after a momentary monetary exchange, a pint of beer is before me. Through the glass, I see a short parade to one of the tracks; a few minutes later, I see a short exodus from a different space.
The second thing Nathan says to me, after the obligatory hello, is to comment on my head and its lack of hair. Whatever the widow and the monk left over isn’t particularly verdant, and after a while I stopped trying to adjust the remnants and opted for the filing down. (My actual explanation of this to Nathan is much more concise.) I offer to buy him a drink and he scans the bourbon behind the bar and cites a name I don’t know. It sets me back nine dollars. It is three-fifteen and I am on the day’s second beer; we have a corner of the bar to ourselves, and I think it’s only fair to follow Nathan’s comment about my hair with a question about his lawyer.
He winces. “It’s an intellectual property thing,” he tells me, “but I probably shouldn’t talk about it.” The sip he takes of his bourbon is of a scale I’d associate with slide-making in our high school biology class.
“How’s upstate?” is greeted with another grimace. I’ve always thought it strange that New York towns like Nathan’s get service from this state’s transit. I had a weekend once when I did little but study maps: eyeing bus and train lines, routing them, trying to bring them all together, trying to find the odd spots around me that were inaccessible to all but drivers. Nathan clears his throat.
“When did we first meet?” he asks. “I don’t think I can remember a time when I didn’t know you.” And that’s true for me as well. I’m pretty sure I could narrow it down if I tried, think of memories of elementary school classes where Nathan was there and ones where he wasn’t, but that starts to back up on the years when memory collapses into a grayness, a sense of a time when I was alive but lacked awareness. Through the doors comes another boarding call and my eyes start to drift. I focus back on Nathan, look at him, envy him just a little for the fact that, for all he’s been through, he still looks good, looks five years less than his age.
It starts coming to me, then, this phrase: Boy with triangle head. Kindergarten or the first grade. We were told to draw ourselves. I don’t remember my own scrawls, though I doubt that my skills with pen and paper have improved much since then. But I remember Nathan’s: a figure with a triangle for a head, distinct in a series of figures with round and block-shaped heads.
I tell Nathan this and his face sours even more. “Christ, I did that, didn’t I?” He takes another wisp of whiskey and lowers the glass and then raises it back to his mouth and takes a normal drink. “Yeah, I did. God, I remember doing that more than I remember most of 1996.” This whole time we’ve been facing the liquor rack, our heads angled in one another’s direction rather than looking at each other head-on. Now he turns to face me. “I don’t remember shit else from that time, but I remember why I did that. I kept thinking, this has to be different. This one can’t be round, this one can’t be square. And that left me with a triangle. I had three hairs jutting off the top of it, and I think I colored the face in blue.”
Here I start to wonder whether Nathan’s legal meeting perhaps involved a spot of drinking. I don’t tend to talk childhood unless there’s beer in me, and generally a lot of it. And when I do, it’s to wake the next morning with needles in my skull and a hard-rain regret, uttering self-directed curses as I maneuver down sidewalks towards food, towards client meetings, towards travel and exercise and passage. I wonder whether this is condescending, whether Nathan will pick up on it. Terseness aside, it’s good to see him, but I’ve given up all hope of directing this conversation, and I’ve given up on my expectation that it might last more than a drink. These silences are stretching longer than I’d like, and we’re disrupting them with the briefest of utterances: gossip we’ve heard, news of classmates’ childbirths, deconstruction of our old hometown.
After the longest of these silences, Nathan finally says, “I miss the weird.” His whiskey is down to something barely perceptible, but when the bartender moves to take it, Nathan snaps that he isn’t finished yet. He looks back over at me. “I’m trying to get the weird back.” And that’s when he ushers in the yarns about his family, about his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, the montage rock and a range of familial discontent. He names a bus route and starts to explain it and I wave him off. “I know that one,” I say. He gives me this weird look through one squinted eye and I try to think of ways to explain it and realize I really can’t phrase it in a way that’ll make anything resembling sense. It’s my own weird, and I suspect inspiring envy is not what I want to do just now.
I can remember how we’d see bus stops when driving around our old roads. Not the ones I’ve grown used to here and elsewhere in the country, with shelters and seats and posted schedules, but ones that were mounted on steel frames and left at random by the sides of well-trafficked avenues. Sometimes you’d see them walking your dogs or out for a run, transit logos emblazoned on the top with a route number. Sometimes the ground would have a worn patch of dirt left there; sometimes the grass would sit undisturbed like a graveyard or memorial.
I ask Nathan whether he wants another whiskey. It’s his turn but I suspect he’s fence-sitting on the question of the second round. As I wait for him to come up with an answer I rub the top of my head and catch a sliver that isn’t exclusively scalp. I’ve been sloppy with the morning’s routine, and I vow to touch it up when I get home lest some previously unrevealed engagement take shape for the evening. I momentarily think that I should say something to Nathan, invite him for dinner, suggest we go on the town, we two bachelors; that we seek out bars and charm our way through the city. But as the words are beginning to accumulate and configure themselves, Nathan taps the top of his glass and says, “Yeah, the one more. But after that, I ought to go.” And he looks at me and meets my eyes and says, “I appreciate it.”
I fish in my pocket and find a twenty and hail the bartender, beckoning another round. Nathan taps me on the shoulder and says he needs a bathroom and I tell him his best bet is in the waiting room, two sets of doors to cross. He nods and sets out and I hand the bartender the twenty and wait for change. When he walks back five minutes later, he’s humming a song I can’t place. I ask him what it is and he stops. “Something that’s been on my mind,” he says.
He sits me down and explains to me how his brother’s girlfriend -- Deb, let’s say -- has left him full-on beguiled. Those long drives shared with the two of them, the conversations that left him satisfied in a way no other interaction had for years on years. This bond he felt he saw between them, and his growing resentment for his younger brother, his growing resentment over some kind of power games and a penchant for putdowns and laughingly delivered denunciations of the See, this is why you’re wrong variety. The moments of joy Nathan took from his time in Deb’s company and the moments of abrasive horror he was handed when socializing with the two of them.
He says to me, “I think I should tell her something.” He looks up at me; his whiskey is half-done and my beer’s barely been touched. He says to me, “I’d go just about anywhere for her. Burn any bridge that needed it.” He pauses and nods his head and I’d swear it’s to the same rhythm he was humming before. And even if I didn’t swear, that ten-foot smile he gives to no-one in particular seals it.
And so he looks back up at me. “But it’s my brother,” he says. “I don’t know that I can fuck that up.” And here’s where I know I’m bound to fall short: I’ve got no practice where siblings are concerned, no direct knowledge of the genre. Nathan might as well be asking me to do up his tax return or build him a water engine for all that I know of the relations between brothers and brothers. I know in that moment that Nathan’s got the pull, that he could do anything right now, that he could reach his hand into the maw of his family and see what comes loose or be swallowed by it, or he could return home to his unlikely home and blanket himself in isolation.
“What would you do?” he asks me, and all I can say -- all I know I can say with any kind of honesty -- is that I’m out of my depth, that I was the wrong person to go to for this, that I can’t give him any kind of answer he wants. And his eyes shift from earnest to defeat, and he looks back at his whiskey and gets back to the eyedropper sips.
Twenty minutes later, we’re both done. We walk through the wood-framed doors and out into the awning. He looks up at the times and says that his train’s boarding in four minutes. He gestures over to the machine and says that he needs to get a ticket. Like a parent or a guidance counselor I say, “You know round trip’s cheaper,” and for a moment he looks at me with hatred and for two more he looks at me with sadness, and I can’t meet his eyes.
I cough something out about seeing him around and he swallows something back at me and each of us gives something that’s barely a nod. I start to walk towards the light rail to carry me home and I look out at the water. The snow’s still falling, hitting the Hudson and turning anonymous. I get the sudden abstract sense that going by train in this weather isn’t safe and I turn back around to see if Nathan’s still at the machine, if there’s time to go back to him and say something better than what I’ve given so far. When I look back, there’s no one left to stand at the machines. There’s a blur between train cars, someone stepping on board a train on the far side of the train facing me. Then there’s nothing: the snow falling, the trains stilled, the clock tower looming, its face beckoning us all towards home.
Tobias Carroll's fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, Metazen, Word Riot, 3:AM, and as part of featherproof books' "Light Reading" minibook series. He is a contributor and editor to Vol.1, and his criticism has appeared in Dusted, Yeti, Flavorwire, and elsewhere. He makes his home online at thescowl.org.
Meghan Ellie Smith is a 23 year-old South Carolinian turned Brooklynite lady of chaos and artist of many mediums. She is currently working on a sketchbook series of soldiers and sailors from WWI and WWII which you can view a few of here. For more, view her online portfolio at meghanellie.com.
Merrady and Gene is the debut effort of recent LA transplant Merrady in collaboration with Brooklyn-based Gene Back. Their 5-song EP was self-released in May. Visit merrady.com or facebook.com/merradymusic for more.