A Day in Time

He didn't like the way it smelled, like black licorice dipped in tar.  That wasn't how coffee was supposed to smell.  It was supposed to be comforting, like a warm memory.  He wondered if it was coffee at all.  He thought of waiting in line to complain, but he only had ten minutes to make it to the platform for his morning commute.  He grabbed a couple of creamers and poured one into the patchy, off-colored swill.  It curdled as it hit the surface.  The creamer was sour.  He was sure of it.  There wasn't enough time to order another cup.  He wanted to start over.  That was what he wanted to do.  Start over.  Actually, he wanted to go back to yesterday, to exactly 4:32 p.m..  That was when he had forgotten to pick up his suit from the cleaners.  That was why he was wearing the same ensemble he had on yesterday.  The women in the office would notice that.  They would snicker.  They would tease him about it. 

"Didn't make it home last night?" the receptionist would say.  "Who was she?  Not someone from the office, I hope." 

She would smile and the other women would laugh and look around, hoping to spy embarrassment on the face of one of their office mates.  The guys would stick their heads out from behind the walls of their cubicles.  They would stare at him with toothy, jackal-faced grins, as saliva dripped from their canines.  They would want to know who she was.  And no matter how many times he told them that he'd went home alone and watched a rerun of Lost, they would persist with the interrogation until he came up with a plausibly disgusting sexual escapade. 

Maybe he should call in sick.  But he was already at the platform, waiting for the 7:05.  He glanced at his watch.  It had stopped.  More accurately, it had malfunctioned.  Symbols he didn't recognize littered the digital display, as if mocking him in a language he didn't comprehend.  Even the numbers on his watch were fucking with him.  He asked the elderly woman standing next to him if she had the time.  She gaped at him as if he wanted to mount her right there on the platform.  She arched her brow, fixed her one good eye on the watch adorning his wrist, and harrumphed.

"Broken," was his simple reply.  He tried to show her, but she inched away from him.  Maybe he was diseased.  He hadn't felt right all morning.  He considered hissing at her, just for attention, but didn't want to spend the rest of the morning trying to explain to a transit officer why he was acting so peculiar.  Peculiar.  Peculiar.  Pe-cu-liar.  That sounded funny.  No, not funny, strange.  What was in that coffee?

The 7:05 approached the platform at precisely 7:17.  He knew this because there was a large clock tower at the far end of the platform.  He had never noticed it before.  It looked new.  Maybe they had just built it...last night.  He was going to be late.  Barring any other delays, the train wouldn't make his stop until 7:59.  It would take him another twelve minutes to walk the five blocks to the office.  That would make it 8:11 when he trudged into the building.  Add another six minutes for elevator time, and he wouldn't reach the office until 8:17.  He wouldn't have a chance to stop for a morning paper.  Maybe someone would leave one behind on the train. 
           
He boarded the locomotive and jockeyed for a good seat, one near the doors.  All of them were taken, so he made do with one halfway down the car, next to the elderly woman he had frightened on the platform.  He smiled, hoping his charm would smooth out any concerns the woman had about him.  Instead, she sprung to her feet and forced herself past him, her right hand placed deftly behind her back, guarding her rear.  He laughed.  He had actually thought of goosing her just for the hell of it. 

His smile faded as he slid towards the window.  A mistake.  He had broken one of the cardinal rules of train travel: never get boxed in.  It made escape nearly impossible.  He attempted to return to the outside seat, but a frigid looking woman with a plaster cast of her face squeezed into the seat.  She managed to sit squarely on his hand.  Surprisingly, she didn't seem to mind.  That was odd.  He managed to pull himself free without incident, but made the mistake of looking too long at the cast in her lap.
           
"It's for my daughter's show and tell."  She put the cast up to her face.  "They're going to fill it with some kind of gel.  It's supposed to have the same consistency as skin after it hardens.  Then, they're going to let my daughter paint it.  All the parents sat for one.  The mold, I mean. 

What do you think?"
           
"Nice," was all he could muster.  He gazed out the window.  They weren't travelling very fast.  Not even thirty miles an hour by his estimate.  He still had his coffee so he took a sip.  The creamer was sour.  Why hadn't he dumped it while he was on the platform?  Now, he would be stuck holding it for the next half hour. 
           
"You look like you slept in that suit.  When's the last time you had it dry cleaned?"

"I have another suit.  I forgot to pick it up."

"Didn't make it home last night?"

He cringed.  "No, just didn't make it to the dry cleaners."

She shook her head, the way a person shakes their head when they don't believe what you're telling them, like a bobble head Jesus on the dashboard of a moving car, somewhere between yes, no and whatever. 

"So, do you have children?" she said, eyeing the ring on his finger.

"What is this, the fucking inquisition?"  He wanted to swallow the words as soon as he uttered them, but it was too late.  They echoed defiantly throughout the car, amplified by the innumerable metallic surfaces.  The woman's eyes widened with shock and her fingers caressed the plaster cast, nervously outlining its features. 

He looked around for the elderly woman.  He wanted to make sure she was there to confirm her fears.  She was sitting several rows back on the opposite side of the car.  She whispered something to the woman sitting next to her and they both stared at him.  They seemed pleased. 
           
A uniformed man approached him.  How did he make his way through the crowd with such ease?  When he reached the stricken woman, he put his hand on her shoulder to calm her. "Do we have a problem here?"
           
The woman leaned towards the conductor and spoke in a hushed voice, "He said the f word."  She managed to sound like she had never heard the word uttered in public before. 
           
"Is that true, sir?"  the uniform man asked in a whisper.
           
"Well...," he looked out the window.  Had the train stopped?
           
"Sir?  I asked you a question.  Did you address this woman with profanity?"
           
"Yes,"  was his reply.
           
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to exit the locomotive."
           
"What?"  He looked at the woman in disbelief.  "You've got to be kidding me."
           
The man in the uniform braced himself and reached for something on his belt. 
Did they let conductors carry guns?   He closed his eyes for a moment.  He wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere safe.  He couldn't think.  His mind was empty and cavernous.  "Look, I don't know why I said that.  I don't.  It's this day.  This fucking day.  I'm sorry I swore.  It's not like it's a new word.  I mean, fuck!  Are you going to shoot me because of it?"
           
The man in the uniform raised his walkie-talkie and pressed a button.  "We have a situation in car 7.  I may require assistance, over?" 
           
He could hear the static from the walkie-talkie.  How had he not heard it before now?  People were clamoring around him.  More specifically, men were clamoring around him.  It was clear what was going to happen next.  He was about to be railroaded.  He laughed.  In hindsight that must have made him appear crazy, but the thought had amused him.  Several men pulled him to his feet.  The woman was no longer sitting next to him.  When did she get up? 
He was losing track of time.  It must have been the coffee.  He tried to placate the crowd by making his way towards the doors, but that didn't matter anymore.  The men had their hands on him, much to the dismay of the conductor, and as if from a saloon on the plains of the wild, wild west, the mob tossed him through the doors and onto the hard, cracked concrete.  Of course, he forgot to tuck, duck and roll.  Instead, he hit the pavement face first, scuffing his hands as he tried to break his fall.  The foam coffee cup crumpled under the weight of the impact.  Thank Christ!  Its contents spilled forth like diseased bile onto the platform. Columbus Circle.  He didn't recognize the stop.  He sat up and watched the people board the train without a moment's concern for his welfare, and then they were gone.

In less than a nanosecond, the platform resembled a ghost town.  He was alone.  That felt odd, like one lung.  He couldn't breathe.  Alone.  Alone.  A-lone.  It was minutes before he attempted to move, and when he did, he realized he was still clutching the remnants of the coffee cup.  He gazed at the clock tower at the end of the platform.  Did all of the stations have clock towers?  It was 7:33.  He got to his feet and threw the crumpled cup into a nearby wastebasket.             

Good riddance!

It was a fifteen-minute walk to civilization.  Civilization was a coffee shop on the corner of Piccadilly and Forest Lawn.  Actually, it was Piccadilly Square Road and Forest Lawn Lane.  He tried to make sense of the inherent contradictions, but gave up. 

A bell attached to the door rang as he entered.  He could see why the workers of the establishment might need such a warning device.  Besides the two people behind the counter, and himself, the only other customer was seventy year old man in plaid shorts, a polo shirt and white tube socks pulled up to his knees.  He stirred his cup of mud and perused the editorial section of the local newspaper.  Maybe the old man would leave it behind when he left.  He thought of asking him if he would share it, but didn't want to press his luck.  Any conversation would probably lead to fisticuffs and the calling in of the National Guard for support. 
           
He sat down in a wooden high-backed booth and examined the cuts on his hands.  They would become infected.  He knew it.  Not in days, or weeks, but within the next few minutes.  What was with this day? 
           
An attractive woman in her twenties wearing an apron with the company emblem on it made her way towards his booth.  He couldn't make out the logo.  Was it a brush?  Or the profile of that guy from the movie House Party?  He couldn't tell.  The woman followed his gaze, examining the apron for stains. 

"I know.  My apron's a mess."

"No.  I was just trying to make out the logo.  What is it?"
           
She laughed, then realized he was serious.  "It's a cup of coffee."
           
"No way.  What are those squiggly lines?"

"Steam," she replied with concern in her voice.  "Are you all right?" 

She studied his wrinkled suit and noticed the scrapes on his hands.  "You're hurt.  Did you fall?"

"Something like that."

"Would you like me to get you something for it?  We have a first aid kit in back."

"No, thanks.  I'm sure they'll turn gangrenous no matter what I do.  It's just been one of those mornings."
"That sucks," she said.  "How 'bout something to warm you up?  Maybe that'll put things in order."

"That'd be great.  Coffee.  Straight up.  As dark as you can make it."

"I'll see what I can do."

She returned moments later with a napkin, a steaming cup of coffee, antiseptic spray and several Band-aids.  She slid the coffee to him and sat down.  "Let me see those hands."

He thought about objecting, but it was the first decent thing that had happened to him all morning, so he decided to let it play itself out.  He offered her his hands, palms up, an act of submission.  She lifted the can of antiseptic, but stopped herself.  "We'd better move your coffee.  We don't want it tasting like a hospital."

"How exactly would a hospital taste?"

"Sterile.  I would imagine," she laughed.

"You're not too busy,"  he offered.

"You should have been here a half an hour ago.  It was a madhouse.  It always is before the 7:15.  Especially when it's running late, which is most of the time."
He glanced at the clock on the wall.  It was 8:05.  He had lost another seventeen minutes.  

"Are you late for something?" she asked as she gathered her supplies.

"I think so," he said, examining his newly bandaged hands.

"You think so?  Did you hit your head on something?"

He smiled.  Maybe he had travelled back in time.  He looked at the garland that framed the windows of the shop.  It hung there like nostalgia.  There were pictures on the walls, pictures of men standing proudly next to their Model-T's.  And several photos of trolley cars as they made their way down busy streets.  There was even a picture of a Woolworth's.  It looked like it had just opened for business.  He began to speak, but the girl was gone.  When had she left?
 He hugged the warm ceramic cup with his hands.  It reminded him of permanence and love.  It looked alluring, with a lustful lip.  Its rich, reflective contents beckoned him.  This was how coffee was supposed to look, dark and evenly blended, without color variation.  He took a long, slow swig and felt overwhelmed.

It was 8:17. 

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone, hit speed dial number two and waited for the receptionist to pick up.

"Good morning, Brown, Mabry and Reid.  How may I direct your call?"

"Hi, it's me.  I'm afraid...well, I'm running a bit late this morning."

"Oh, Mister...," her voice drifted nervously, "that's okay.  We didn't expect you in at all today, sir."

He was dumbfounded.  "Why?  Is it Saturday?"

"No sir.  It's Monday, August 17th."

"Oh," he whispered. 

"Sir?  Are you okay?"

He pulled the phone away from his ear and gazed at the photo of a short, raven-haired woman with skinny arms and perfect teeth.  She was holding a croquet mallet above her head.  The mallet had three thick, blue stripes near both ends.  It weighed more than she did.  The waters of Lake Huron glistened in the background.  A lonesome wave played splishy-splashy with a giant rock near the shoreline.  She had just hit a croquet ball as hard as she could towards it.  It had only travelled about fifty feet, leaving a distance of approximately three miles to the lake.  She looked so happy.  He had taken the picture five summers ago on their trip to Mackinac Island.  They stayed at the Grand Hotel, where Rastar Pictures filmed the movie Somewhere in Time.  He thought he heard her voice calling out to him, but it was only the receptionist on the other end of the line, so... he hung up.   

He placed the phone on the table and wiped away a smudge.

The girl returned with a second cup of coffee.  It looked as inviting as the first.  She angled her head to get a better look at the picture.  "Is that your wife?"

"Yes." 

"She's beautiful."

"Yes,"  he whispered, "it's our anniversary, today."

She started to congratulate him, but eyed the scrapes on his hands instead.  "You forgot, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did.  But she's been reminding me all morning."

"Good for her."

"Yes.  Good for her."

"So, what are you going to get her?"

"Flowers."

"Flowers?  I'd do better than that if I were you.  You forgot!"

"I don't think she'll mind," he offered solemnly. 

He had forgotten to visit her.  How had that happened?  He picked up the phone and studied the image of her.  He wanted to remember her the way she had been, a gleeful willow, humble and triumphant..  He wanted to remember the endless summer days they spent laughing at the grass.  He wanted to remember every line on her face, and what each of her smiles meant. He wanted to go back in time, to Mackinac Island.