The Commuter’s Dream

Each night David’s wife said, “I’ll just help him down.” But when David entered the room an hour later, the crib was always empty. Mother and child lay in bed, asleep in a way he himself never slept. Light from the small lamp, transmuted by canary-painted walls, cast the bedroom in parchment tones. It’s like a new world, he thought, like seeing land from the bow of a ship.

For twenty years his lean body had stretched toward a finish line so far away it might as well be imaginary. He still felt that familiar lunge, as if chained to twelve weeks of paternity leave, locked out of his job for three months, other writers taking his clients, his accounts, his place by the fire. There was a covenant between the men of his father’s generation, and he was breaking it. What was he doing, giving up the hunt for an entire season? Work was identity.

But there was something here, outside the circle. Something his own father never saw.

He settled into his solitary evenings. Books and movies kept him company. He read the classics and watched reruns. After a month, he couldn’t tell the difference between Wuthering Heights, which he hadn’t read since his MFA days, and The Honeymooners, which he hadn’t watched since he was a kid. Wasn’t Ralph Kramden just Heathcliff in a sitcom context? Why was one high art and the other low art? The board books his wife curated took on existential heft. If “To be or not to be” demanded an answer, then surely “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” was equally urgent. Who was right, his financial advisor who said a 30-year mortgage was freedom in the future, or Thoreau who said you can’t kill time without injuring eternity?

His days took on a nostalgic quality, though unlike any previous experience he could refer to. The small family strolled to the farmer’s market each morning and bought just enough fruit, vegetables, cheese and bread for the day. He built raised garden beds in the backyard and planted tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers, and the wild basil and rosemary made dirt smell like a five star Italian restaurant. He walked around the block with his son slung to his chest, talking about his life as if confessing to a priest. He even began taking naps, an act that was once taboo except on weekends. In the moments of half sleep just before he woke, he felt like someone else, though he couldn’t say who.

He was losing the capitalist hierarchy of things, drifting off a shared map into waters uncharted by the men in his family. The hours passed so gently he felt the burden of time slip from his shoulders, a weight he didn’t realize he carried until he dropped the pounds. Short gray hair, once greased back for the fast lanes, lay dry and tousled, crowning his 42-year-old face with a confused happiness.

David had never been home during weekdays, except on vacation, and even then he and his wife were usually traveling. Now he felt like he was breaking the law, playing hooky from his duties as a provider. His wife laughed when he hid from the mailman, but David felt scandalous sitting outside on the front lawn, watching his son sleep on a blanket. When he pushed the stroller through the outdoor mall, and saw all the suits taking lunch in the sun, he felt like an escaped convict and ducked his head so he wouldn’t be recognized. He tried to extrapolate downward from himself to the baby he had been and forward again to the man he now was. But who was he? How did he get here? Out of the box that defined him, he no longer knew for certain. During his naps, he had a recurring dream where he was a Renaissance cartographer. When ships came in, he met the captains and took their experiences as evidence, inking trade routes to spice islands, meridians guarded by dragons, storms and currents and ports of call. But the reports contradicted each other so he packed his tools in a trunk and went to sea to discover the truth for himself.

Sometimes, waking early in the morning, he’d hear the first metro pass at 5:04. That had been his commute, that predawn train arriving like a slow comet, Claremont to Los Angeles, shackling across 34.7 miles, through half a dozen sleepy communities, reaching Union Station in just 53 minutes. Some mornings he drove to the station and watched the train pass, bright rectangles filled with faces, heads bowed as if in prayer.

In the 8th week, David met Henry for lunch at South Beverly Grill. Henry was more than a boss. He was a mentor. David owed the trajectory of his career to this elder statesmen of the advertising industry.

David glanced at the shimmering bar, black and white photos mounted like memories on brick walls, warm wood booths, men eating fast and talking faster. He closed his eyes: the cold click of silver and glass and porcelain, the collision of voices. He tried to want it again, to feel the hunger for it all. But the punches of laughter sounded different now.

He opened his eyes and watched Henry work on a raw steak.

“That’s why I need you back,” Henry was saying. “No one cuts copy like you.”

David wondered if Henry consciously chose the word “cuts” because he was cutting meat, or was it an unconscious grab into a drawer full of sharp words?

“Thanks, Henry. But I still have four weeks.”

“That’s what I’m saying. I’ll buy out the time at double your salary for the month.”

David felt the old hunger. Chum in the water.

“Triple,” Henry said, if you come back tomorrow. We’re under the gun here. This new client is killing us.”

Cuts, gun, killing. David looked around. At every table someone was cutting something. All those elbows jerking back and forth made him laugh. It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie. Any moment now the tables would fall apart, cut to pieces.

“What?” Henry said, looking around.

“Nothing,” David said.

When David’s twelve weeks were up, he cashed in his backlog of vacation days. Henry called and emailed and texted. Henry even contacted David’s father who called to ask if David was “feeling like himself.”

“What happens when your vacation time runs out?” his wife asked.

“Then I’ll go back,” David said, as if going back was as easy as putting on old clothes. But he knew he was farther out than that. He didn’t know how it happened, but the commute was across everything now.

He stayed up later and later. The breathing of his wife and son on the monitor sounded like waves, like he had reached the end of a continent. Each night, as he lost more faith in the old order of things, he tried to convert to whatever came next. But it wasn’t manifest yet. He felt like a magi who had nowhere to go because the star was over his head.

Charles Duffie is a writer and designer living in the Los Angeles area. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Prime Number Magazine, Spelk, Meat for Tea, Exposition Review, Scribble, Third Street Writers, Role Reboot, and American Fiction by New Rivers Press.