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[Story]

The Quiet Car

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Nowhere are we so exposed, so vulnerable, as on an elevated platform at a suburban train depot.

In balmy weather, choosing to stand outside to await the 11:17 a.m. to New York City instead of huddling in the depot, with its stained floor and malodorous restrooms and incongruously pewlike benches.

Seeing then, by the purest chance, for he rarely looks around in such circumstances, a person staring at him — unmistakably.

And this person, a woman, amid a gathering of passengers as oblivious of him as they are oblivious of one another.

Quickly he looks away. Is the woman someone he knows or has known? Someone who seems to know him?

“Untitled, Train Tracks,” from Meadowlands, by Joshua Lutz

“Untitled, Train Tracks,” from Meadowlands, by Joshua Lutz

A startled expression on the woman’s face. A long horsey face, doughy pale skin, an impression of long teeth bared in a half-smile, or half-grimace, of something like disbelief yet recognition. Clearly, the woman (middle-aged, stolid, and nondescript, with gray-stippled hair) is surprised to see him but isn’t brazen enough to call out to him, in the moment before, casually, without acknowledging that he has seen her, he turns away.

It’s a risk of being “known” — if only to a very small subset of literate Americans. For he is an individual of considerable accomplishments, not famous but (certainly) admired in some quarters.

Rarely does R — lose his poise in such circumstances. Though sometimes it does happen, more often in a museum, that a stranger will stare at him as if trying to place him, and if the stranger is reasonably attractive, whether female or male, of some possible interest to R — , he may smile and acknowledge the recognition, might even, depending on his mood, shake hands, exchange a few words. I’m an admirer of your writing — these words he has heard a gratifying number of times in public places, deflected with a murmur of thanks and a modest smile.

This morning on the train platform, in a bright blaze of unsparing autumn sunshine, the horse-faced woman isn’t attractive enough to merit a second glance.

And the train is arriving at the depot, exactly on time.

So accustomed has R — become to the New York City train arriving at Track 1, he has half-consciously memorized the exact place on the platform where the door to the Quiet Car, which happens to be the first car, will line up.

Briskly, he steps inside and takes his usual seat near the front of the car, left side of the train, and lays his raincoat beside him to discourage another passenger from sitting there (though, in the Quiet Car, it isn’t likely that anyone would sit with a lone passenger unless there were no other empty seats).

In the Quiet Car, a tense sort of quiet prevails. For where there is a generic prescribed quiet, even subdued murmurs and whispers are jarring. Of course, cell phones are forbidden, and fellow passengers are vigilant to uphold the rules.

From time to time, when an unwitting passenger blunders into the Quiet Car talking to a companion or on a cell phone, the occupants of the car will glare at him but (usually) will not say anything in the hope that the conductor will come by quickly and restore order.

It is not an exaggeration to say that R — , who loves few things about his life, loves the New Jersey Transit Quiet Car. He loves the isolation, the solitude, the “invisibility” of quiet, the understanding that no one will speak to him and that he need not speak to anyone. If a friend or acquaintance comes into the Quiet Car, it is protocol for them to sit alone, with no more than a nod or smile of acknowledgment. Here, eyes shift away. Most people have brought work. Even the conductor will murmur politely, if speech is required.

R — had not willingly moved to this suburban place, had not willingly left the city. Financial constraint determined the move, which (as it turned out) was a very good idea, though it is (still, after years) not an idea that brings pleasure, and so he rarely thinks of it and if he does, if he is obliged to think of it, it is in the Quiet Car that his abraded soul takes sanctuary.

As the train pulls out of the depot, he resists the impulse to glance around to see if the horse-faced woman has followed him into the Quiet Car. He does not think she would dare sit with him — surely not — but it would be as annoying to him if she were to sit across from him or behind him, if she’d taken a seat in the Quiet Car a few rows back, to study him from afar.

At last, steeling himself, he glances around — and doesn’t see her.

Relief! Yet (he has to concede) mild disappointment. For now he will never know why the woman, seemingly a stranger, had looked at him so intensely. As if she hadn’t just recognized R — but had been startled to see him.

On the trip to New York City he usually reads that day’s New York Times. If he reads slowly enough, with the obsessive care of one with a surplus of time on his hands, the entire seventy-minute trip will be taken up by the paper, which he (more or less) forgets as he reads, and which he can then jettison at Penn Station.

He has brought along work as well — notes he has been taking on a new project that hovers just out of sight like a shimmering mirage, which, as he approaches, retreats . . .

Flatlands of New Jersey. Rears of crumbling buildings, rooftop water towers, fences topped with razor wire. Open fields and wetlands, trees growing out of mounds of rubble. . . . By Edison the air has turned sour like fermentation. By Elizabeth the white-hued autumn light seems to have dimmed. He has not been thinking of the horse-faced woman, but suddenly he remembers her: Carol Carson.

That bland, generic name! He recalls what a strain it had been to feign interest in the earnest young woman, who had seemed, even at the time, at least twenty-five years ago, on the brink of middle age — one of a dozen students in a graduate seminar he’d taught at a distinguished university during a time he’d come to consider, in rueful retrospect, the very pinnacle of his career.

R — had had a visiting professorship at the university; in fact, he had been invited to teach there several times. Overall he was treated well by the university — that is, the humanities program in which he’d been hired — and yet he’d never been offered a full-time position with tenure. His was a quasi-glamorous career navigated at the periphery of the academic world, a matter of prestigious but finite appointments: endowed professorships that, for all that they were paying, ran their course within a semester. Of course, R — understood: he did not have the formal requirements for a permanent position with tenure, for he had only a master’s degree in comparative literature. He did not have (probably) the professional commitment to an academic vocation that would require much beyond the teaching of advanced seminars and the giving of a few public lectures. His name had had some currency, as merely academic or scholarly names did not; he was an attraction midway between popularity and obscurity, though (to R — at least) it was something of a joke that anyone might regard his career with envy, supposing that his books sold well.

Still, he’d been published in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the New York Times, a trifecta of sorts, interpreted as glamour by those who’d never published in journals with circulations beyond a thousand. For a brief, vertiginous while he’d published a “witty” — “scathing” — column in Vanity Fair in which, with the zestful ferocity of a state-appointed torturer, he’d castigated the overly talented for their ambition. And he’d always been grateful, which is a kind of innocent vanity, as if sensing that such achievements, like a career as a tightrope walker, might be tied to the energies of youth, and would run their course in time.

As a young man R — had acquired a certain reputation in New York literary circles. Like indelible ink, a certain reputation does indeed fade with time but doesn’t quite vanish.

In the seminar, intriguingly titled — Dystopian Visions — each student had been carefully selected, by application, since more than fifty students had applied for twelve openings. As a young instructor at the time, R — had taken the responsibility seriously.

She, the woman, one of just three young women in the seminar, had intrigued R — only initially; he’d been impressed by the writing sample she submitted, a close reading of texts by Kierkegaard, Rilke, and Camus. But as soon as he realized which student she was, which of the young women, he’d been disappointed and bored. Of course, he made every attempt to disguise his lack of interest in her, as he made every attempt to be courteous to all his students and to seem not too obviously to favor some over others — those who impressed him as sharp, bright, possibly brilliant, those who turned out to be “good” but not extraordinary, those who were touchingly intimidated by him yet did not fawn, and those who were annoyingly intimidated by him and did fawn.

He recalls: a young woman with glinting red hair, almost a beauty except for oddly wide nostrils and a sharp nose; a heavyset young woman with skin that resembled foam rubber; and the horse-faced girl, Carol Carson, who seemed so clearly in awe of R — , if not in love with him, that he’d found it difficult to look at her. He couldn’t decide if she was amusing or embarrassing, gratifying (to his ego) or exasperating. Though not as large as the other young woman, she was far from slender, an athletic-looking girl except that she moved with a plodding sort of deliberation. When he happened to see her in the corridor of the humanities building, unaware of him, she was likely to be staring down at her feet as she moved, a small fixed insipid smile on her lips.

In the seminar, Carol Carson seemed to accept a minor role from the start. She took diligent notes, shyly gazing at R — , at times with parted, moist lips. She never disagreed with anyone, even when (R — sensed) she might have had something to say. He grew impatient with her, cruel: “And what do you think, Miss Carson? Do you think?” The others laughed, eager to align themselves with their young professor. Miss Carson blushed, and bit her lower lip.

If R — persevered, she might finally speak. It was as if (he eventually realized) this annoying student required his permission to speak in his presence. She then often contributed astute and original remarks about Dostoevsky, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley. When he asked her to read passages from one of her papers, the others were impressed as well, if but temporarily. In any group there are those who must be acknowledged and admired, and there are those who make no demands on us, for whom we feel a kind of gratitude that they expect little from us and so will not object when it is little we give them, in our zeal to give the others what they demand.

Carol Carson especially lacked the edgy feistiness, or flirtatiousness, of those female students in the seminar who might have been identified as nascent feminists. She seemed to belong to another, earlier era when plain-faced females did not aspire to much beyond their station, neither muses nor creative artists themselves. When R — took up Robert Graves’s blunt remark “Woman is not a poet. She is either a muse or she is nothing,” no one in the seminar took particular issue with it, and even the women laughed, if uneasily. She, Carol Carson, had shaken her head in a kind of giddy mirth at the mere prospect of a woman who might brashly aspire to creativity.

Wide-hipped, with a flat chest, she’d worn dull, dour clothes of no discernible hue. It may have been a small gold cross she wore around her neck. R — had never looked closely. The long face exuded a mournful air, and the often bared and damp teeth had a look of childish trust, but the eyes — he was remembering now with a quickening of interest — were thick-lashed, amber, and beautiful: intelligent eyes, yet without confidence. It was typical of Carol Carson, he thought, that though she was one of the more impressive students in the class, she did not behave as if she knew this; in fact, she seemed to shrink from such knowledge, like a tall person who tries to minimize his height. It exasperated R — how the girl deferred to the least talented (male) student in the seminar, as if such deference were his due.

One thing was clear and unwavering: Carol Carson’s fixation on him.

Had the other students noticed? R — supposed so. No one seemed to be a friend who might have suggested to Carol Carson that she was making a fool of herself; though perhaps, as far as R — knew, it was all utterly harmless, schoolgirl behavior — just slightly incongruous in a graduate student of obvious intelligence. She’d allowed R — to know, however obliquely and shyly, that she had to travel an absurd distance to attend his seminar on Thursday afternoons, the sole university course she was taking at the time, for she was the caretaker of an aging, ailing parent in a small town beyond the upscale suburban setting of the university. She’d taken graduate courses in an obscure subject — an amalgam of linguistics and psychology — at the seminary attached to the university, for some unclear reason.

R — had asked if she intended to become “a woman of God” — the expression had seemed comical to him — and Carol Carson had answered solemnly, “Oh no, Professor. I couldn’t be that,” as if the prospect were too grand. “I want to know all that I can know about God, I don’t want to be a theologian.” And then she’d blushed fiercely for having uttered a statement that so conjoined the pretentious and the preposterous.

After the three-hour seminar, when R — was eager to depart, there was Carol Carson, lingering in the wood-paneled room, slowly packing her things, glancing toward R — with lips parted in that fragile smile, awaiting a kind word from him — “Excellent work today!” or better yet, “Would you like to have a coffee, Carol?” Of course, R — would never utter such words; it was all R — could do to smile toward the awkward girl with gritted teeth and, without quite seeing her, mutter, “Good night!”

Just before Christmas break she hauled into the seminar room a bag of hardcovers revealed to be, after the other students had departed, copies of R — ’s first two books, and in a paroxysm of shyness she asked if he would mind inscribing them, explaining: “I’m giving just special books as Christmas presents this year.” R — had been gracious, if somewhat embarrassed. (He would think afterward that no one else in the seminar had purchased a book of his, as far as he knew, though they’d all seemed to admire their young professor very much.)

Recalling now the dour, doughy-skinned face flushed with pleasure when he handed back a paper on which he’d written in red ink, Very promising. Thoughtful & original. A.

Yet — something had gone wrong. What was it?

Twenty-five years ago. No, longer — at least twenty-eight years ago. . . . When he’d still been married, before he’d become estranged from both his children.

When he’d been in the heedless ascendancy of his career and not (as he had to concede) as he was now, in its long, slow afternoon of decline.

Carol Carson — barely can R — tolerate that name, which has become ever more grating in its banality — had made an appointment to have a conference with him in his borrowed office, to discuss her final paper, and R — had forgotten. Or, rather, an acquaintance had come to town, an editor of a distinguished literary journal whom he’d hoped to cultivate. (Or had the editor hoped to cultivate R — ? In such relationships there is invariably a gentleman’s quid pro quo that no one would be crude enough to acknowledge, still less to name.)

All these maneuvers, these transactions, or plotted transactions, which had held such promise to change his life for the better, had come to nothing much, despite all the excitement in their contriving. The intense, heightened, thrilling, and occasionally risky alliances he’d made in New York literary circles, the quickly forged bonds, broken promises, minor betrayals, and feuds for life, embittered recriminations in an era before email, when a letter might be an investment of hours to be recalled for decades — most of these turned gossamer thin, faded and forgotten.

Worse yet (he is remembering now, like one who has flung open a door so wide it can’t be easily shut), he’d disappointed the girl another time at least. Not his fault, was it? For Carol Carson so pursued him, in her plodding, deliberate way, a figure of pathos in graceless snow boots like hooves, a scarf tied hastily about her head, eyes downcast as she’d trudged through a blizzard to the humanities building bearing more of R — ’s books for him to sign, though she must have known, as any child would have known, that no faculty member was likely to be in the department on a Friday afternoon in a blizzard.

The departmental secretary was the only person on the floor, and she’d been preparing to shut up the office early that day. With sly, cruel humor she would report to R — how Carol Carson showed up with books for him to sign and lingered outside his door in a little puddle of melted snow from her boots — “Forlornly, poor thing.”

Carol Carson had asked the secretary if R — had been there, and the secretary said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think he has. I wouldn’t expect to see him until next Thursday.”

Of course, it had been some foolish misunderstanding. R — had (probably) misheard Carol Carson’s request for a conference at that particular time; or he’d heard, without troubling to write it down. The blizzard was entirely fortuitous.

How exhausting, another’s adoration! By the end of the semester R — had had quite enough of the lovestruck girl who seemed never to be hurt if he was short with her in class, or failed to smile at her in the corridor, or amended her grade of A with the slash of a minus.

It was not his fault. At the end of the term he’d been confronted with an embarrassment of very good work. Never again would he invest quite as much enthusiasm, energy, and zeal into any university course as he did in this one, with the result that virtually all of the twelve students handed in worthy papers. Yet he could not hand out A’s to more than half the seminar, with a sprinkling of A–’s; and so he’d given Carol Carson a B+, downgrading her final, ambitious paper (“Dystopian Visions Through the Eyes of Virginia Woolf”), along with work by the other young women and the weaker male students, leaving him with a respectable spread of grades from C+ to A, to which no dean could object. One or two of the young men had complained, but none of the young women; certainly not Carol Carson, who accepted her fate and retreated without a murmur.

It had been a triumphant semester, of a kind. R — had quite enjoyed his Thursdays at the suburban university. Invited to dinners most weeks by distinguished faculty at the university and at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study, where his certain reputation guaranteed a general interest even among those who rarely read books by living writers.

That year, one of R — ’s books had received full-page, laudatory reviews in The New York Times Book Review and in The New York Review of Books. He acquired a Parisian publisher. He was short-listed for a major book award in that ambiguous area of non-fiction categorized as cultural criticism, but failed to win; in subsequent years, though he would write better books (in his opinion), he would not be nominated for any award. Who can understand such things? In the decline and fall of others, we see a natural, inevitable trajectory; in our own, a bafflement, an injustice, and an outrage — sand and pebbles slipping beneath his feet, despite the care with which he strode along the walkway gripping a railing . . .

Had Carol Carson written to R — after that semester? Not to accuse him of treating her unfairly, of course, not in reproach, for reproach is not the way of the Carol Carsons of the world. Rather, she had written flattering letters to him, thanking him again for the “wonderful, unforgettable” semester that had “changed my life”; plying him with requests for reading lists, suggestions for graduate schools, advice. She’d dared to ask if she might meet with him in New York City, just once. Of course, she’d asked him for a letter of recommendation to be “placed in my file.”

He had not answered. Vaguely he’d meant to answer — but he had not. His relationship with the distinguished university had become clouded. He could not punish anyone on the faculty, but he could punish, however obliquely, one of their students. Nor had he any interest in a pen-pal relationship with an earnest, deeply boring, and unattractive girl, however bright, imaginative, and adoring of him. Soon, the letters ceased.

He’d totally forgotten her. Not one minute of one hour of thousands of hours since he’d last glimpsed her a quarter-century before (in the humanities seminar room, slowly assembling her books and papers, only just daring to glance up at R — with shy amber eyes aswim with moisture as he talked and laughed with the glintingly red-haired girl standing very close to him) had he thought of Carol Carson.

So all things pass into oblivion and are not mourned — as the train to New York City, passing through the nondescript New Jersey countryside, is a kind of moving oblivion. You see, but you don’t see. Your eyes glance at but don’t retain. The brain is not involved. Attention is elsewhere. Concentration is too precious to squander.

At Penn Station, the journey ends abruptly — in jangling darkness that yields reluctantly to dimness, then to muted, underground lights.

R — is lost in a reverie and has not finished even the first section of the day’s paper. He has been thinking so intensely of the horse-faced woman that he finds himself looking for her when he leaves the train. Hordes of strangers hurry past him; that air of clamor and impatience. He calculates that the middle-aged woman who’d once been his young, hopeful student had probably boarded the car just behind the Quiet Car, for she had been standing at that position on the platform . . .

And now, again, he sees her through a gap in the crowd: on her way to the escalator, but pausing to stare at him.

Indeed it is Carol Carson, in her fifties. Grown yet more plain, thickset. Someone’s mother, grandmother. Unless, more likely, she had never married.

Yet the eyes are still striking, moist, amber, thick-lashed, and fixed on him.

“H-hello! Professor —” Her voice is hoarse, wavering. She calls him by the old, formal title, though he has not been a professor in years. “I think you saw me looking at you. I’m sorry, but I was surprised —” She pauses, embarrassed. She is a clumsy woman, and tactless, graceless; she wears a hideous pantsuit and clunky shoes. She could be a minister, a teacher, a public defender, a social worker; there is that air of service about her, a grim persistent service that thrusts itself upon others, to their despair.

“I’m sorry, Professor — I — I guess — well, I —” Again she pauses, with a fleet, fatuous smile, “ — I’d heard you had died . . . ”

“Died. Really.”

He is shocked. He is deflated. His eyes blink rapidly, as if in a bright, blinding light.

“I mean, obviously — I thought I’d heard . . . I don’t know if I had actually heard . . . ”

The silly, maddening woman! R — would like to turn away, stride briskly away without a backward glance. Yet there is something in the woman’s expression that holds him, the look of girlish yearning in her eyes, and bafflement, wonder.

On the platform beside the Quiet Car, he is trying to recover his old poise, equilibrium. Though he is not as young and resilient as he’d once been, in his professorial days, in the days of the Dystopian seminar when a young woman had trudged through a blizzard on his behalf, and had not for a moment blamed him for scorning her.

With a cool smile, like a performer in an Oscar Wilde comedy, R — says archly: “Well! What did you feel, when you heard that I’d died?”

Smiling at the silly woman through a haze of pain, a headache imminent. Yet it is crucial to continue to smile as if nothing at all were wrong, on the platform at Penn Station, as strangers pass around him and Carol Carson impatiently, like a rough current in which they are fixed like bodies trapped between boulders in the stream.

“What did I feel?” — the woman pauses as if seriously thinking, frowning. “Well. To be frank, I guess I didn’t feel anything much.” Adding then, as if such a fine point might be appreciated by her listener, “I’d never known you well, Professor. When you were alive.”

’s most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” appeared in the November 2013 issue.

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October 2016