“May I see your ticket?” Russell Morley asked a slouched over man seconds after he emerged from the rear car of the light rail train.
“All right, all right,” he stammered, rummaging through his pockets for the ticket which he found wadded up in a side pocket of his denim jacket. “Here you are.”
Morley checked to see if the ticket had expired, it hadn’t, then handed it back to him. “Thank you, sir.”
Irritated, the man threw the ticket on the ground, then headed for the stairs while Morley asked to see the ticket of another passenger who seemed even more irritated by the request. Quickly he understood why because the ticket she presented to him had expired two hours ago.
“You know this ticket isn’t good anymore?”
“I know, officer, but I was visiting my aunt in the hospital and she wanted me to stay longer than I’d planned.”
He didn’t know if she was telling the truth because often when he discovered someone without a valid ticket the person came up with a seemingly plausible excuse. It didn’t really matter whether he believed her or not though, because earlier this morning he was informed by his supervisor only to issue warnings, not citations, to violators. She was fortunate because if it were up to him, he would have given her a ticket, just as he did to almost every violator he discovered.
Morley was a security officer with the Transit Authority. It was a job he got, not quite a year and a half ago, through another officer he met while tending bar at a lounge across the street from one of the busiest light rail stations in the northeast part of town. Usually he worked on board trains but this week his assignment was to stand on the platform at various stations to make sure the passengers getting off the trains were not free riders. At least twice a year, in an effort to crack down on chronic offenders, the Transit Authority stationed officers on platforms to inspect passengers’ tickets. Always scores of violators were discovered but because prosecuting them would overwhelm the courts, only warnings were issued. So far today, he had issued fourteen warnings, and he expected to issue many more by the time his shift ended.
Shoving back the left sleeve of his pine green windbreaker, he looked at his watch and saw that the next train was not scheduled to arrive for another six minutes. Sighing, he then removed his baseball cap to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Though it was only a quarter to eleven, it was already very warm despite the steady downpour that started earlier this morning. He wished he could leave his cap off and remove his jacket but knew that was against regulations and didn’t want to be reported for being out of uniform.
Standing in the shade of a maple tree, still sweating profusely, he watched a boy and a girl seated on a seesaw set up in the middle of the small park across the street from the station. The girl was bigger than the boy so she was in control and for long moments kept him up in the air until he demanded to be let down. Occasionally, they managed to establish a tenuous balance but most of the time the boy was up, his sneakered feet dangling beneath him, while the girl’s feet remained firmly on the ground.
Smiling, he recalled all the times he and his sister used to play on the crude seesaw their father made for them in the backyard. A cedar stump, which their father cut a deep groove into, served as a fulcrum in which he fitted a long plank of birch wood. Morley was two years older than Bess and several pounds heavier, so he was in control of the seesaw. Both of them enjoyed riding on it but Bess did more than he did and started smiling the moment she sat down on her end. She even smiled when she began to scream when he kept her above him too long.
He still could hear her screams as clearly now as he heard the whistles of the trains pulling into the station.
The last time he heard his sister’s voice she was screaming so fiercely he thought his ears were going to fall off. It was late at night and so cold out he had the heater in their father’s Oldsmobile going full blast. She had just returned from visiting a friend in San Francisco, and he offered to pick her up at the airport. He had never been to California and was eager to find out what it was like but she was so tired she dozed off just moments after she climbed into the car so he decided to wait until morning to ask his questions. They were only a few blocks from home when he heard her scream and, having dozed off himself, he looked up just as the car smashed into an elm tree on the corner.
That happened nearly nineteen years ago so it was not surprising that he could not remember what her normal speaking voice sounded like but he could never forget the sound of her scream. It was a sharp, plaintive cry that was burned into his memory.
“It’s amazing,” Morley remarked after an older passenger showed him her ticket.
“What’s that, officer?”
“Those kids riding that seesaw in the pouring rain.”
“I don’t see any kids.”
After the next batch of passengers left the platform, Morley resumed watching the boy and girl on the seesaw while he waited for the Orange Line train to arrive. In seven and a half minutes, according to his watch. Up and down they went, bobbing like buoys in turbulent water, up and down, up and down. Then, for a couple of minutes, they managed to maintain their balance and were so still they looked like figures in an oil painting. He was almost tempted to applaud their achievement but didn’t want them to know he was watching, so he kept his hands in his pockets.
Because he was heavier than his sister the only times they were ever in balance was when he edged closer to the center of the rickety seesaw but he seldom did that because he liked keeping his sister in the air and hearing her scream in excitement. The thought of that now made him cringe, and he wished he had never done such a thing but he had, to his everlasting shame.
Morley suffered a concussion and three broken ribs in the crash and spent almost a week in the hospital. Each day he was visited by his mother who could not conceal the pain and disappointment in her eyes however hard she tried. The only time his father came to the hospital was to take him home. Usually as garrulous as his mother, he scarcely said a word during the drive, preoccupied with finding something he could listen to on the radio. Then, as he turned onto their street, he said almost in a whisper, “You’ll never be allowed to drive this car again. Is that understood?”
“That’s how it has to be.”
Twice that first week back home he sat down for a few minutes on the seesaw and pretended Bess was on the other end. Again and again he apologized to her for falling asleep at the wheel, adamant he should have been the one who died not her. It was foolish, he knew, sitting there, but it helped him to remember her as she had been, years ago, when they used to ride the contraption. She had been such a beautiful little girl, with hair as bright as the sun and so long it had graced her hips.
“What the hell are you doing out there?” his father demanded when he saw him back on the seesaw the next week.
“Get a chair if you want to sit somewhere,” he barked. “We’ve got plenty of them in the house.”
Later that day, without consulting him, his father took the seesaw apart and put the pieces in a corner of the garage. When he asked him why he had dismantled it, he just shook his head as if the reason were too obvious for an explanation.
His parents scarcely had anything to say to him after the accident, other than to complain about one thing or another, and they never spoke about Bess in front of him. It was as though she had become a ghost in the house, a presence that was never acknowledged despite the large framed photograph of her that sat on top of the piano that was her dearest possession. He realized how hurt his parents were and how angry they were with him, and he didn’t blame them, not for an instant, because he was just as angry at himself for his unforgivable negligence. It was so unlike him to fall asleep while driving because he was always regarded as the most responsible person in the family. If something needed to be done, he was the one who did it. He was the one with the right instincts and the sure hands.
Some nights, lying awake in bed, he wished his parents would scream at him until all their anger was exhausted, but instead, they kept it inside and averted their eyes when he looked at them. He seemed to become to them as much of a ghost as Bess, so shortly after he graduated from high school, he left to visit an aunt in Reno who worked as a blackjack dealer at one of the casinos. He intended to spend three days with her but spent only one afternoon, then got on a bus for California. He figured he would visit San Francisco because it was the last place Bess had visited before the accident. But halfway through the ride he overheard a passenger behind him complain about having to return to Portland to attend a wedding.
“It’s the gloomiest place I’ve ever been to,” he declared. “All it does there is rain, night and day, day and night. It’s overcast so much of the time it feels like a gigantic cloud hangs above it like a chandelier.”
Morley also detested the rain so he reckoned it might be fitting for him to go there instead of San Francisco as a kind of penance for his negligence. His first night in Portland he slept in the bus station, scrunched up in a chair near the ticket counter. He moved to a shelter the next night, and by the end of the week found work as a busboy at an oyster house a few blocks from the station. The city was every bit as dismal and depressing as the passenger on the bus had claimed. The first three weeks he was there it rained every day, and soon his throat was so sore he could barely swallow a sip of water. He didn’t complain though, because he believed he deserved to be in such a miserable place.
“I’m here in Portland, the City of Roses,” he scribbled on a glossy postcard he had purchased at the shelter. “I’m writing to let you know I won’t be returning home. Not for a while, anyway.”
He didn’t provide the address of the shelter because he didn’t figure his parents would be interested in writing back to him. They were done with him, he believed. Though he had intended to return in a few weeks, he never got around to it and never wrote to his parents again.
Morley had not been on the job a week when Bernie, another busboy, stepped next to him in the pantry one afternoon and whispered, “Here, let me show you something.”
Not answering him, he leaned in and wrapped his right arm around Morley’s neck, grinning mischievously.
“What are you doing?”
“Relax,” he told him, slowly applying pressure to his carotid artery. “Trust me, you’re going to feel as good as you’ve ever felt.”
Futilely he struggled to squirm loose but Bernie’s grip was as tight as a noose. Soon his mouth grew numb, and he started to feel light-headed and, afraid he was going to lose his balance, reached for one of the bread shelves but it was too far away. He tried to scream but was unable to, and in a matter of seconds, lost consciousness and collapsed into Bernie’s arms.
“Did you feel it?” he demanded as soon as Morley recovered. “Did you, chum?”
“That strangeness…that sense of being somewhere else. Near the other side, you know. Near the final curtain.”
“All I know is you caused me to black out with your little stunt.”
He chuckled, folding his burly arms across his chest. “You should get down on your knees and thank me, Russ. I let you feel something no one else has let you feel. I’m sure of it.”
“You could have killed me.”
“Not a chance,” he said vehemently. “I knew exactly what I was doing.”
Before he blacked out Morley did experience a strange rushing sensation, caused, according to Bernie, when oxygen was cut off to his brain. It was a feeling, however brief, that made him forget about what had happened to his sister. Twice more that week he asked Bernie to put him out, which he did, but when he asked him again the next week, he refused.
“You don’t need me, Russ. You can do it yourself.”
“You wear a belt to keep up your pants, don’t you?”
He nodded. “So?”
“Put that around your neck,” he said. “But you have to be careful you don’t cinch it too tight or else that could be it for you.”
Later that night, in the laundry room of the shelter, he removed his belt and slipped it around his neck and started to tighten it. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped, realizing the temptation to cinch it tighter than he should was too great, and slumped back against one of the washing machines with the belt dangling from his neck. For several minutes he remained there, trying to convince himself he had to accept what he did to his sister and move on with his life. Certainly he could never forget what had happened but he mustn’t let it destroy him, either. That, he was sure, was not something Bess would want him to do.
“I’ll bet you a milkshake you can lift this bag of peat moss,” his father challenged him one afternoon while they were weeding in the backyard.
“I couldn’t do that if my life depended on it.”
“Sure you can.”
His father then picked up the bag with both hands and, groaning audibly, lugged it to the middle of the yard and set it on one end of the seesaw.
“Now go sit down on the other end,” he told him, and as soon as he did, the bag was lifted. “See, I told you you could do it. Now you owe me a milkshake.”
“It’s a trick. That’s not fair.”
Earnestly he shook his head. “No, son, it’s a simple principle of physics. The board you’re sitting on is really a lever, and with it you can defy gravity and lift things you never thought you could lift.”
“Is it ever going to stop raining today?” a passenger wondered as she showed Morley her ticket.
He shrugged his left shoulder. “You know what goes up when the rain comes down?”
The woman smiled. “That’s for sure.”
Again he looked over at the rain-soaked seesaw. One end was raised high in the air as if someone were seated on the other end, and he stared until he was sure it was Bess.
T. R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such publications as Gravel, The Istanbul Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Welter.