Winter at the Old Rose Takeout
The old man is sick. Anyone can see that. Even through the layers of worn coats you can make out the fragile shoulders, the dead chest and protruding belly; the tremors. His face is locked in a grimace as he sits on the gravel with his legs pulled up tight. He presses his back to the concrete wall with his arms across his torso, his hands stuffed in his armpits.
The electronic clock above the bank said that it was four degrees below zero today. The Christmas lights are off in the dim, early morning, and the streets are empty and gray, cold and salt-stained.
It hurts so much. Jesus Christ does it hurt.
He tries to force his mind to other places, to turn his thoughts around something that will distract him, that will push it out. But all he finds is the pain. Each breath. He can’t breathe unconsciously anymore. Every breath is an act of will. Pulling the thin, December air in, getting just the smallest bit down to his lungs, horribly aware that each time it will burn and rip a little more than the last. Tears run down his face, the pain and the icy wind compel them. They are not wiped away and quickly freeze at the top of his feral beard.
One half mile away there is a diner with a pretty waitress, called Old Rose Takeout. It’s a wonderful place. They keep it nice and warm, and nobody wears a jacket inside. The lighting is soft yellow and the coffee is good and strong, and they don’t mind people with no place to go. The owner, Carl, is a big man with dark skin and a hard demeanor, but he’ll have the girls refill your cup for free if you look like you need it bad enough.
Old Rose smells like bacon fat, coffee, and cigarettes, just like all good diners should. And there’s one waitress there, Emelda, that smiles at you while she pours your coffee, even if you’re the kind of man who’s kinda hard to look at.
The old man has enough for a coffee, and he’d really like to smile at Emelda today and nod to Carl. Today he needs to feel something warm and familiar.
But a half a mile may as well be an ocean today. It’s too far. It’s just too goddamned far with the way his body’s fighting the breath. He pulls his collar up again, trying to shield his neck from the daggers of wind. Down here by the tracks you stay clear of most of the wind, but when it does come it comes like a tidal wave. Between the city and the lake, the gusts get caught between the concrete walls and rush into the station along with the trains.
A rope of icy air makes it into his coat and snakes down his back, touching every vertebrae on its way down. He shivers hard and his breath catches, and when he does exhale it feels like his throat is being stripped.
With his head down and his eyes closed he thinks about Old Rose. He wonders if maybe his mind is playing with him. Maybe it isn’t such a sweet place, as it seems now, and it’s just that he’d rather be anywhere than here. Maybe any old warm room would do.
The old man traces the path in his mind. He’d have to stand up first, which in itself feels like a horrible task right now. Then he’d have to walk away from the station, over the loose gravel around the tracks, to the service stairs. The stairs are a couple of hundred feet away, just around the bend in the wall. Just out of sight.
Then the stairs. Jesus Christ, he thinks. Jesus, there’s no way.
He stops there. He doesn’t even contemplate crossing the park or Michigan Avenue. Doesn’t think about the last three blocks to Old Rose, because Jesus Christ, those stairs.
There’s no way.
Sometimes Carl will come by your table himself with a steaming plate in his hand. And he’ll set it down on the table and tell you to get your shit together, but he doesn’t say it angry. He’ll say someone returned an order, but you were sitting right there, and you didn’t see anyone return an order.
Scrambled eggs and toast and two strips of bacon, hot and new, just like everyone else eats. Then Emelda will come by and ask if you want a refill and you’ll smile and nod and she’ll pour it to the top, smiling back.
“This should warm you up,” she’ll say.
And it does. She has no idea how warm that coffee is.
Tears build up in the old man’s eyes and roll down his face. In the cold wind he can feel them distinctly as they trace his lines, finding the markers of age and using them as paths.
He’s used to feeling nothing. And anger. He’s used to feeling that too.
But sadness, the pure cold pain of sadness like this, is something he hasn’t felt in a long time. Sadness like this needs a want, a goal that is unattainable. How unfair, he thinks, that it should return now.
The old man slowly, painfully, pushes himself up to his feet. His knees feel like two rocks rubbing together, and as he unwinds himself the cold gets deeper. He stops halfway up and leans his ass against the wall, his head and torso hanging forward, and tries to concentrate his breathing into slowing down.
The pain in his lungs, growing constantly, consuming him for years, has him paralyzed, as if some great constricting snake had managed to invade him and squeeze everything inside until he consents. He doesn’t move. He can’t move, and wonders if this is death.
He tries to listen in his head, to clear everything. If this is death, he thinks, I want to know. He listens for death because he’ll be goddamned if it’s going to sneak up on him; but then his chest unclenches, and the moment passes. He stands up the rest of the way and leans against the wall, looking up at the spare, winter sky. He rubs his beard and feels the tiny icicles break off and fall away from him, and steps forward, only a small part of his mind conscious of his intent.
There was a day that made the old man love Carl forever. Carl hadn’t been at the diner for a few days and his nephew, a mean imitation of a man, had been running things. He’d kicked the old man out because he said he smelled bad and didn’t have any money for refills. “One cup of coffee,” he told him. “And you should be happy you got that.”
The next day the old man was back, and the nephew gave him that look of scorn, a look reserved for animals and insects, that the old man was well used to. He bought his coffee and drank it slow, and Emelda’s smile that day was apologetic.
Then Carl came in. He was wearing blue dress pants and a white, dress shirt spotted with sweat. His sleeves were rolled up and tight just above his elbows and his thin tie was loose and dangling. He came through the door and the bell sounded and everyone looked up at him, his face bright with joy, his white teeth standing out like an announcement against his dark skin.
“It’s a boy,” he said. “It’s a boy, and Jaquelyn’s fine.”
Emelda congratulated him and his nephew shook his hand, and Carl took a flask out of his back pocket and drank deeply and let out his air, smiling big and honest.
Then Carl looked over and saw the old man and his nephew followed his gaze, becoming afraid that he’d done something wrong to even let this trash in.
“Alright, buddy,” the nephew said, advancing, “it’s time to go. You had your coffee.”
And that’s when it happened. Carl put his hand on his nephew’s chest and told him to chill. Told him the old man was all right. Then he strode over, his giant legs covering the space between him and the old man’s table in no time, and he poured a little of what was in his flask into the old man’s coffee.
“I had a son,” he said.
The old man smiled and nodded. “Congratulations,” he said, and his voice was weak and unused. Then Carl put his big right hand out and said “Thanks,” and the old man took his hand and they shook.
Carl turned to the heavyset Mexican at the grill and motioned to the old man’s table, and the old man felt his eyes fill up with good, warm tears. He looked down at his coffee so that no one would notice and felt that if he had anything of value in the world he would have given it to Carl at that moment.
The old man is walking slowly, carefully, because the idea of falling right now is too painful to bear. One foot delicately in front of the other as the gravel ascends slightly up to the first tracks. The rails are visibly, deathly cold, the patina dulled with dirty frost.
He steps up, over, and between, and repeats, and heads into the valley of gravel between the first and second track. The ascent this time is harder, and unconsciously he draws a deep breath and shudders as he lets it go. He stops on the incline, listening as the cars on Lake Shore Drive honk and accelerate and the rocks beneath his feet crunch and settle.
There is no thought in his mind. There is no plan. He does not wonder where he is going. Some part of him knows, some part of him is directing, but it is unexamined and he is blank.
His right foot comes up and forward and is placed down next to the rail on the second track, and with care he sets his left leg over the rail on one of cracked, wooden cross ties. As he does this he relaxes and falls. He controls it as much as he can, sitting down heavily on the icy wood, then letting his torso back, his head touching down harder than he would like.
From above the old man lies in the middle of the tracks, between the rails. To his right there is one track and to his left there are fourteen, busy and cutting the ground as they head into the station. From above his left foot is planted in the ground, his knee pointing up, and his right leg still hangs over the rail. His left arm is straight by his side and his right is across his stomach. His eyes are open and he’s staring straight up, and he coughs and a tiny rivulet of blood runs over his body lip. Then he’s still, and from above he looks just like a dead man.
The old man isn’t positive. Positive is a very strong word. But he’s almost certain that this is the track that the next train will come down as it makes its way in. He doesn’t time them, but he’s spent enough of the last years hiding from the wind in here that he can see the trains even when they’re not there.
He hears two trains, one closer than the other. The farther train sounds as if it’s coming in on an outside track, but the close one, that’s the one. He wants to look, but knows he won’t be able to see it anyway, not until it comes around the bend, and by that point everything will be inevitable. The vibrations bring the rails to life. A low hum is close on both sides of him, and where his right leg is thrown over, at the back of the knee, it tickles and sends its message down his leg to his crotch and belly.
He watches the lean, wintry clouds inch along the sky and in his mind he can hear his own voice as if far off.
It won’t get any warmer. The pain won’t go away. Death is death is death and the dying is coming with every heartbeat, every movement.
Just let go, it says. Let go.
If he was at Old Rose today it would be different. It would be heaven. It would be the only thing he’d ever wanted and he wouldn’t want for more. He’d sit in there, completely there, and smell the butter and bacon, and he’d lean over his coffee and inhale deep and he would want for nothing.
It would be wonderful.
The vibrations are strong now. He can tell that the train is just clearing the bend and it’s loud and close.
The horn blasts and he shudders.
The horn blasts again, this time unbroken, long and thundering. He tries to remember a prayer, but the sound makes it impossible to concentrate on anything. He can hear the engine working, the metal on metal where the train meets the track.
The long horn is replaced by urgent, spastic exclamations. Over and over and over and bouncing off the walls so that the sound of the screaming train is multiplied by a thousand. The entire world is noise.
This is the exact moment when he hears a memory, a voice in his head, strong and clear. It’s a man’s voice, and all at once he goes tight with absolute fear and he can’t remember who it was that said it but even before it uncoils in his mind he remembers it in his gut and time is stopped and he can’t hear the train and the words hurt like divine truth.
It is always better to be alive.
He knows he heard it when he was young and he understood it then, and now his mind feels too dull and thick to get it intellectually, but he knows it’s true and he wants to scream and weep. He wants to scream No! No! I’ve made a mistake! Stop!
And he raises his head but he can already feel the power and the noise of the train upon him.
The gray mammoth of steel and glass rips by him on the track just to his left, whipping his coat and beard with wind, and he closes his eyes against the wind and debris and feels it pass through him.
Then it’s gone and the noise recedes into the station. He hears the train’s bells echoing as it pulls in, slowing to a stop. He hears the metal on metal of brakes, clearer now without the horn, and he puts his right elbow down and props himself up. He looks back after the train and watches as it continues to slow.
He doesn’t move. He watches the train patiently, until it finally, jerkingly, lurches to a stop. Then he rolls over and swings his left leg over the rail with his right and sits up.
The old man sits on the outside rail, his legs stretched out in front of him, angling down into the valley between the tracks. The rail is painfully cold, even through his layers of pants. He spits a mixture of blood and saliva onto the freezing, white gravel and watches it seep. Then he turns his head to the left, toward the bend in the wall and the stairs up to the park.
I’ll take a few stairs and rest, he tells himself. That’s it. Just a stair or two and then rest.
He starts to think about walking across the park and crossing Michigan and Wabash, about getting to Old Rose and falling into a seat and the smell of warmth, but then stops himself.
Just stand up. His head down, eyes shut.
“Just stand up,” he says aloud, but again his muscles don’t obey. He grinds his teeth and they squeak together, and his eyes are shut tightly and in his mind the words recycle. Stand up. Stand up. Stand up!
The old man sits on the train tracks, perpendicular to the rails, his head shaking slightly. The metal begins to vibrate as another train rumbles from the Southside of Chicago towards the station, and his right leg begins to inch in towards his body, and there’s a hum on the wind as if he’s speaking to himself, but almost instantly it’s gone, replaced by engines and horns, by the whistles of cops and the unending dirge of shoes meeting ground.