Castle on a hill
Image credit: Majkl Velner on Unsplash.com

Bittersweet Chalk

It would be a day like any other, but also, not at all. Adam Warren glanced down at his watch and concluded that he was going to make the 08:37 train. He was cutting it close though, especially as he had run back to his apartment to get the chalk. When you are in a time crunch, there are things that you need to prioritize, and for the past five weeks, Adam had prioritized the chalk. Not the briefcase. Not the brochures. Not even the cellphone he would need to contact his boss. No, the chalk had been the most important thing. This might be the day, he thought, as he entered the breezy train station that had not yet been warmed up by the scorching late August morning sun.

The platform was empty. Adam was travelling to the Hamptons but had to take an unusual route to get to the David A. Sarnoff Reserve in Long Island. When he had been given the task of showcasing the reclusive and luxurious manor in the middle of the reserve, he’d been given the information by the seller on the back of a napkin to “take the Montauk Branch towards Hampton Bays from East New York train station on platform 7. Goes twice in the morning. Once back in the afternoon. Always sit in the last car”. Upon asking around and searching for the route online, the general consensus was the seller’s instructions evidently reflected the old man’s dementia and the habit of sipping too much whiskey. Despite the confusion and lack of information on the station’s timetable, Adam had gone to platform 7 on his first day as realtor for Reignstill Manor and, to his surprise, a train had arrived.

Adjusting his black portfolio with the silver emblem representing Weathervane Private Realty, tucking in his white shirt, and readjusting his blue necktie, Adam walked across the platform. He kept a steady eye on the ground for the mark that he had left yesterday. The thing about platform 7 was that it was not like other platforms. When you ride a train or a subway every day, you get to know the distinct timing that a specific platform has. After a while you know exactly where to stand to be right in front of the doors when they open, useful knowledge during rush hour. However, platform 7 always changed. There was no consistency, other than the fact that it was continuously inconsistent. Adam would always sit in the last car, which was the furthest away, but no matter how far he went, he never managed to be in the right place for the doors when they opened. With his chalk stick Adam drew a thick white “X” on the platform. Old marks seemed to vanish overnight, and Adam always assumed it was due to the rain or a cleaning crew, despite that there had been a heatwave for weeks and he had never seen a cleaning crew on any platform, let alone platform 7. Then, standing by the “X” the next day, he expected to time the train perfectly, but not even once had that been the case. It was although he was in competition. A pointless, yet mesmerizing challenge.

Adam stopped. Maybe today was the day. The distinct marking on the ground was between his feet and as the clock hit 08:35 the train slowly approached. Adam watched the silver larvae crawl forward. He kept a close eye on it as the doors of the carriage got closer. Closer. Closer. Yet, the screeching sound suddenly halted, and the train stopped.  Six feet. He had missed it by six feet. With the chalk in his hand, he walked over to the door and, disappointed, made another “X” on the platform.

The carriage was not what one would expect. It had old neon skateboard posters in it and there were several plants, located on a few seats and an old hat shelf. Who watered them and kept them alive was a mystery to Adam. The car was usually filled with the others, but none of them took care of the plants. Adam did not miss them, but he was curious whether someone would show up. He glanced at his watch. 08:36. He hadn’t been late before and taken the later morning train, so maybe today he would be in the car alone.

He waited, but when the clock was about to turn 08:37, a familiar bumping sound echoed in the distance. Adam watched the doors give way to a large black bear wearing a small blue hat. On his first day, Adam hadn’t known what to do. A black bear in a train car in New York? That just didn’t happen. Several rats and on the occasion a few exotic pets, sure, but not a bear. Trying to remember those short survival videos that never applied to him, Adam had tried to remain calm despite nearly having a heart attack. He had moved his way over to the emergency phone hanging on the wall, only to realize that it was made of cheap plastic and glued to the wall as a decoration. Now, Adam was used to the bear’s presence, and despite not having asked the bear its name, Adam had nicknamed him Oxy.

“Hey, what’s up?” Adam and Oxy always took the early train together, so he was curious why they had both managed to miss the first one. But with Oxy answering a short grumbling “nothing much”, they went silent and listened to the rhythmic sound of the doors closing and the train departing.  As he watched the green summer scenery, it hit Adam that he had no idea how the train would stop. The railway by the unnamed station in the forest split up, so every morning the train would disconnect the last car and continue its journey to Hampton Bays, only to connect to the car again in the afternoon on its way back to New York. But Adam had never taken the second train. Did that mean that there is already a car there waiting? But he had never seen two cars on the way home.

The train slowed down in the middle of the forest. They had arrived.  Adam looked out at the wooden shed with a lantern hanging from the crooked roof and the lacquered sign with the cursive word “station” painted across it. As the train disconnected the car and left them behind, Oxy was the first to continue their ordinary routine. Standing on his hindlegs, Oxy placed his blue hat on a small bush by the rails, and like a normal black bear, sauntered into the forest, departing from Adam without a word. Adam himself started to walk down the path leading to Reignstill Manor. However, with a sudden rush of joy, he glanced back just to double check, that yes, there was only one car. With no time to lose, Adam began to jog through the forest with the tempting thought that maybe, for some miraculous reason, that they wouldn’t be there today. That they hadn’t taken the first train that morning.

Having been assigned Reignstill Manor by his boss, Adam had assumed that it was a reward for his hard work, but it had been the opposite. During summer, or as the firm called it, “house hunting season”, lawyers and surgeons made their way down to the Hamptons to spend millions of dollars on a house they spent three weeks in per year. Adam knew the area and those type of clients well, so to be given a manor in the Hampton area seemed like a done deal. Except it wasn’t. Rumored to have been a secret vacation stay for a European Royal family during the 1970s, the manor had a timeless but gothic appearance with all the prestige, but also privacy any celebrity would die for. Yet, the house had been empty for months with no interested buyers.  Upon first inspection, Adam understood exactly why. To sell it, his boss had ordered him to have open days every day to appeal to the filthy-rich clienteles, but also to bring over buyers if for some miraculous reason they wouldn’t be there.

Glancing the manor between the trees, Adam jogged until he reached the great lawn that was decorated with several marble fountains. The manor looked like it belonged to a handsome vampire that had a taste for absurd art and gardening. Naturally, in his house brochure he’d left out that description and instead written “classic gothic chic”. He quickly skimmed the garden and the manor’s windows to see if he saw anyone, and when he saw no signs of life, he smiled. Approaching the manor on the gravel pathway, he picked up his phone to tell his boss the good news. He gleefully imagined saying; “Boss, the house is empty today! Bring over a client ASAP!” But before he pressed the contact info, Adam heard a voice. His heart dropped when he saw the woman wearing a fire-helmet, black evening dress and satin gloves walking around a marble statue of Athena, holding a dirty shovel. The ground around her was filled with flattened molehills. The woman adjusted her helmet and continued her intensive discussion with the statue about horoscope acupuncture. When a new molehill appeared, she immediately ran to smash it to the ground. Adam sighed, brought out his seventh version of the house brochure and scribbled down “well-kept grounds”. He needed to make their presence sound good, so the brochure needed some further editing. The fire-helmet woman meant only one thing, that they were all here.

Opening the grand wooden door, Adam’s suspicion was confirmed. The spacious foyer of marble with golden flakes was, as usual, covered in two feet of murky water. According to the law of physics, when opening the door, water should flood out into the garden, but as per usual, the pool of water didn’t even ripple. It looked like a dirty fish tank except there was no glass aquarium. Adam took off his shoes and socks, and stepped in. In the middle of the foyer, a small grey wooden boat floated, and in it sat the gloomy young woman accompanied by a plastic skeleton holding the oars. As usual, the woman was looking down into the water while making tiny circles with her finger. She never looked up at Adam and seemed unbothered when he waded through the foyer. In his notes, Adam scribbled “built in humidifier”, and he moved towards the kitchen.

Staring into an empty fridge, the girl with silky hair sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor. She seemed ordinary enough until you could see that she had the beak of a platypus. She also had a tail and Adam had to google around for a while before he concluded that it was a racoon tail. The beak-girl had a habit of opening the fridge, staring into it for a while and walking to the window, all day long. Adam noted down “spacious kitchen”.

For the rest of the day, he walked around the house to see the others. The chimney sweeper in the hobby-room who was rolling balls of yarn all day was always sooty, but Adam could never recall if the manor even had a functioning open fireplace. Then he went to see the lady in the library, who tied herself to a pole every day, put the spruce twigs beneath her on fire, and then grabbed a cigarette to stand there and smoke. Neither the fire nor the smoke ever spread anywhere in the house, so Adam had noted that the manor had “excellent ventilation”. He had also added “natural lighting” for the master bedroom where a large hummingbird was trying on an array of ball gowns in the soft afternoon light.

Like any other day, Adam tried to make phone calls and convince clients to come and view the house, but they all kindly rejected his offer. Then, when the clock was five, the day was over. Wading through the foyer, Adam went outside to dry his feet in the summer heat. While putting on his socks and shoes, the door opened multiple times and the chimney sweeper, the beak-girl, the smoking lady and the hummingbird all exited the manor and walked towards the train station. The fire-helmet lady joined them, and Adam followed a few feet behind.   They all usually took the morning train together, and the same train home in the afternoon. They never spoke and they never interacted, and after countless efforts, Adam realized that he was never going to sell the manor.

Oxy was the last onboard, as usual. He approached the train from the woods, looking like a wild bear, but when he stopped to put on his hat, he suddenly became Oxy. In silence he squeezed into the car and after a few moments, the train came and reconnected, taking them once again to New York.

“This is all madness,” Adam said, perhaps louder than he intended. Yet to his surprise, Oxy glanced up at him. “They come to the house every morning, do the same stupid meaningless things every day and then repeat it week in and week out!” Oxy tilted his head.

“Habit and routines are oddly natural,” he concluded, but Adam continued.

“It’s natural for a black bear to be in the woods all day, but it’s not natural to be like them,” he said, gesturing to the unresponsive figures next to him.

“You will see, it’s a common abnormality to not see the full picture of your behavior.”

“How can you not realize when you are doing something so absurd and pointless?” Retorted Adam, but Oxy did not respond.

For the rest of the trip home, Adam sat so lost in thought on what he could do to make the sale happen, that he didn’t realize when they had arrived at East New York station. The others had already left when Adam exited the car, except Oxy. It wasn’t like Onyx to wait behind, but this time, his gigantic head moved like a slow bubble head doll between Adam’s face and the ground of the platform. Adam looked down and all he saw was a large number of white X’s. Five weeks’ worth of X’s. They had seemingly vanished one by one, but now they were all magically there again, reflecting back at Adam his own strange habit and pointless routine. The bizarre resemblance of a starry sky or failed attempts to find a buried treasure, made Adam look up and mumble, “I am like them.”

Oxy adjusted his hat and answered, “Whether they make sense or not, habits and routines are a bittersweet comfort.”

The late August summer heat was still alive and flourishing, but a lone dried leaf spiraled lightly down from the sky and landed on an X. In a few days, the seasons would change, and fall would begin. House hunting season would be over. Adam picked up his phone and started to walk away. While dialing his boss’ number, Oxy shouted, “See you once again tomorrow?”

Adam put the phone to his ear and turned around. “Once again? try never again.”

He smiled at Oxy and when his boss answered he said, “I quit Reignstill Manor.” Adam’s voice drifted away and Oxy watched him leave.

Then, alone on platform 7, Oxy sat back on his hindlegs, yawned and said, “Good”.