“Commuter Train” by Brady Golden
Minutes after the BART train pulls away from the platform, Lisa watches a ghost appear in a seat two rows up and on the far side of the aisle. It comes into being like smoke passing through a beam of light. White-blue, translucent, and person-shaped — there’s no doubt what she’s looking at.
Half a dozen passengers share this car with her. If any of them also notice their new fellow rider, they give no sign. No one looks up from their iPhones or their newspapers, from their quiet conversations, from their naps. No one gives her a clue as to what reaction is called for, so she doesn’t react. She sits and stares.
It’s female, she thinks, and Caucasian, although that’s more of a guess. Eyes, nose, and mouth are all hinted at in its face, but the features are fuzzy and non-specific.
They rumble through the tunnel that runs beneath the Bay, connecting San Francisco and Oakland. The windows look out on darkness. Oatmeal-colored Formica covers the floor. The seats’ green upholstery smells sour and musky, the mingled odors of the thousands of people who have sat on them. The train’s groan changes timbre as it emerges from the tunnel. When it breaks free, the ghost flickers twice, and vanishes.
The light from Lisa’s television cuts through the otherwise dark box that is her studio apartment. She is wrapped in a blanket on her futon, unfolded so that it fills most of the room. An ad for acne medication is playing, but the volume is all the way down. A warm ball of excitement sits in her stomach.
She saw a ghost tonight.
Only six months have passed since she moved to Oakland. She attended a college situated half a mile from her high school, and lived in her parents’ house for the duration, so this is her first time on her own. Three months after her arrival, when her savings had dwindled close enough to nothing that she’d begun to consider moving back home, Brownstone Solutions in San Francisco hired her as an administrative assistant. It’s her first job that hasn’t come with a nametag and uniform. Now she has a desk, and a computer, and three-and-one-half cubicle walls lined with fuzzy fabric to which she can affix photos, a calendar, and important documents with pushpins. She feels grown up. She feels like she isn’t playing anymore.
In the weeks leading up to graduation and the subsequent move, she pictured her future being filled with catered business lunches, happy hours, and blind dates. It hasn’t quite turned out that way. She spends her days filing contracts and filling out online forms. Her only conversations at work are with her boss, when he emerges from his office to chastise her for some obscure clerical mistake she’s made. Her nights and weekends are even less social. She assumed that the trouble she’d had meeting people here would cease once she found a job, but her coworkers have ignored her since the first day.
The hours of television that she watches give her eyestrain.
Today was a long one at the office, which was how she found herself on a later, less crowded train than her usual packed-to-capacity rush-hour one. She should be exhausted, but sleep is the last thing on her mind. She’s not afraid, and she can’t decide if she should be. A commuter train that she rides twice a day, five days a week, is the last place she would have expected to have the existence of life after death confirmed.
A man stands a few yards away, yelling into his cell phone. The argument doesn’t seem to be about much, just some domestic bickering that amounts to little more than two people naming their emotions to each other and then whining that they’re not being listened to. Lisa hasn’t had a boyfriend, not a real one, for a long time, but the conversation sounds familiar.
He turns around, seeing her for the first time. They make brief eye contact. He flushes and she looks away. After that, he lowers his voice to a whisper, but she can still hear anger and frustration, even if she can’t make out the words.
A fountain stands at the center of the office building’s rooftop patio, trickling water and ringed by wooden benches and skinny trees in waist-high ceramic pots. Since her first day at Brownstone Solutions, Lisa has been spending her lunch breaks up here with a book and a salad brought from home. This is the first time she hasn’t been alone. She has no idea what her colleagues do for lunch.
When the conversation ends, the man pantomimes flinging his phone off the side of the building, then slips it into his jacket pocket. Muttering to himself, he crosses the patio. She expects him to go inside, but he stops and sits on a bench near her, despite the number of other options. She concentrates on her book.
“I’m sorry about that,” he says.
“It’s okay.” She doesn’t look up.
“It’s Lisa, right?” Before she can answer, he says, “I’m Gabe.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
She already knows his name. They spoke on her first day, when the HR assistant led her around the building in a chain of introductions, but not since then. The nameplate hanging on his office door identifies him as a project manager. He’s in his thirties, is long, tall, and thin. His hair, cut close to obscure the steps it’s taken towards recession, is goldfish orange. He is fashionably, deliberately unshaven, his whiskers residing in the easy-to-lose middle ground between five o’clock shadow and beard.
“Listen, Lisa. Do me a favor. Promise me you’ll never get married.”
She doesn’t know what to say, so she smiles.
“Disastrous. Just disastrous.”
“Is everything alright?”
He responds with a snort. After that, they sit in silence. Lisa fingers the corner of her book, feels the grain of the pages. There’s no reading now, no escape from the moment she’s landed in. You can’t go from “Promise me you’ll never get married ” to “It was nice talking to you.” She’s stranded. The fountain gurgles away.
“I saw a ghost last night,” she says.
He cocks an eyebrow. “A ghost?”
“Yeah? Let me guess. Girl, kind of a blue color, second-to-last car. At, like, nine-thirty?”
“Closer to nine.”
“How did you know?”
He peers at her for a moment. There’s a slight change in his posture. “Are you being serious?”
“Yes. I know it sounds stupid, and maybe I don’t know exactly what I saw, but I know I saw something.” She bites her lip. “No, it was a ghost. I saw a ghost.”
“You know that the BART ghost is one of our biggest urban myths, right?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t know that. Who doesn’t know that?”
“I’m…not from here,” she says.
“A few years ago, this website was getting passed around. Everyone was sending it to each other. It was the funniest thing on the Internet for about a day.”
He digs into a pocket and fishes out a spiral-bound notepad and a pen. He scribbles something on a page, which he jerks out.
“Check it out. I could have it wrong, but that’s what I remember.” Uncertainly, he offers her the scrap of paper, folded across the middle, and, just as uncertainly, she accepts it. “You’re not screwing with me? Your really saw it?”
She unfolds the paper and reads what he’s written: www.bartghost.com.
He did not, as it turns out, have it wrong.
Lisa looks up the site the minute she returns to her desk. She intends to first confirm its existence, that this is not some prank he’s playing on her, and then to return to investigate it more fully later in the day after she’s gotten through some actual work. Once the site’s entrance page unfolds across her monitor, though, she cannot resist. She has to continue.
The website confirms what Gabe said, that the BART Ghost — an apt, if unpoetic name — is a well-known phenomenon in the Bay Area. Depending on the reliability of the witnesses, fifty or so people have seen her, always on the nine-oh-five train out of San Francisco, always in the second-to-last car. One person claims to have heard her speak, but the website’s operators doubt the veracity of the story. The ghost appears shortly after the train enters the tunnel beneath the bay and disappears as it emerges on the other side.
Several photographs have been taken of the ghost, and all are posted to the site. Clicking through them, Lisa can see that most are fakes, Photoshop jobs of varying quality. Several look to be nothing more than tricks of light, but a few unquestionably show the girl that she saw.
Conversations about the ghost take place on a message board. There are heated arguments about who she might be and what she might want. People have posted accounts of their own encounters with the supernatural, musings on her significance and on the significance of ghosts in general. It goes on and on, pages deep, a dialogue that began ten years ago and shows no sign of slowing.
Lisa reads every word. All these people brought together, all this energy expended for the sake of a single non-corporeal girl who has never said a thing.
They begin to spend their lunch hours together at nearby restaurants, or with takeout in Gabe’s office. He likes to complain about his wife, his job, their coworkers. He has gripes about everyone in the company, and he can’t wait to shut the door so he can vent. Gossip makes Lisa uncomfortable, but she tries to listen. When she can, she steers the conversation towards her preferred topic.
The website displays pictures of various women who have either gone missing or died on BART trains since the system began running in the sixties. Beside each image is a brief biography and a description of the subject’s death. There are heart attacks and aneurysms and a couple of suicides. There is a young woman named Ana Ramirez, whose boyfriend beat her head against the back of a seat until her skull fractured. It took seconds. None of the other passengers had time to process what they were seeing, much less do anything to stop it.
“That’s her,” Lisa says.
“She can’t be. You said the ghost was white.”
“She looked white. But I couldn’t really tell. Anyway, she’s a ghost. Aren’t they all kind of white?”
He points at a scanned photograph of a teenage girl who, on her way home from school one Wednesday, choked to death on a piece of gum between the 16th and 24th Street stations.
“I’m guessing it’s her,” he says. “She looks most like the pictures.”
“No, it’s definitely Ana.”
“How are you so sure?”
“Because she was murdered. None of these other people were murdered.”
“So that’s how end up a ghost. You die a violent death. Everyone knows that. You die angry, scared, and confused. You can’t find your way to the other side. You stick around.”
He taps the monitor again. “What about this lady? She threw herself in front of an oncoming train. That’s pretty violent. Safe to say it was probably pretty scary and confusing, too.”
“No. It’s got to be murder.”
She’s making this up as she goes, but she’s already convinced she’s right. Gabe looks up at her with a smirk that quickly spreads into a grin. Her cheeks go hot. The dead stare out from the computer screen.
Her heartbeat speeds up when she sees the subject line of the e-mail he sends her: Plans Friday? She opens it. The body consists of a single blue, underlined web link, which she clicks. It sends her to a page of the website that she has not seen before.
It’s that time of year again —
Our 7th Annual Happy Hour & Ghost Hunt!
After an hour-long meet-and-greet at an Irish pub a block off of Market Street, the group heads en masse to the nearest station. Everyone’s laughing and talking. Some have smuggled drinks out of the bar, and once the escalators deposit them belowground, it’s cocktail hour on the platform. The walls are tiled, and the echoing chatter sounds tinny. Lisa wishes that she’d thought to bring booze with her. She stays close to Gabe. He misinterprets it and gives her a knowing wink. He thinks these people are ridiculous.
They are the youngest people here by decades. Most look to be retirees. It makes sense. Is what they’re doing any different from birding or identifying wildflowers? Having come straight from work, she and Gabe are overdressed. T-shirts, khakis, and sneakers appear to be the agreed-upon ghost hunter’s uniform. Several people sport shirts with the website’s logo printed on the front, and the phrase “I believe in the BART ghost” in a wobbly haunted-house font on the back.
The message boards all around the station flash as a first train pulls in and out, and then a second. When a third train slides to a stop, a woman calls out, “This is it, people! Nine-oh-five!”
They file in. A few riders give them curious glances as they fill the car, but for the most part, the group is ignored. On public transportation, only the most outrageous sights draw more than passing attention. Over the PA, the driver announces that the doors are closing, which they do. The train starts up.
A round woman with short gray hair positions herself in the aisle, where she can be seen by everyone. She’s holding an open Heineken against her chest, and is rocking on her feet, either because of the alcohol or the train’s uneven lurching.
“We all know she doesn’t like to show herself much,” the woman says. “Especially when she knows people are looking for her. But that’s no reason not to be optimistic. Here’s to hoping!”
She lifts her beer, and the people carrying drinks match the gesture. Some toast with imaginary glasses. Lisa’s about to do the same, but Gabe places his hand on top of hers and squeezes. His palm is sweaty and damp.
There’s a sharp clatter as they cross from the tunnel beneath the city to the tunnel beneath the bay. Lisa feels it through her seat.
“Here we go,” someone says.
The mood of the group changes from celebratory to enraptured. People barely breathe. Most have pulled out cameras and cell phones, and they have them aimed at the empty seat where Lisa saw her. Faces shine. Lisa thinks of a wedding, of the moment before the bride appears at the head of the aisle, revealing herself at her most beautiful to her friends and family who are there to be amazed, who are ready to be amazed, and who will be amazed.
Before midnight, Lisa rouses Gabe. He has an arm draped across her bare chest. His face is pressed into her neck, and in his sleep he’s leaked a little drool onto her skin.
“The last train is in an hour,” she says.
“I’ll catch a cab.”
“I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there are no cabs in Oakland.”
For a moment, he’s silent, still not fully awake. His skin gives off a feverish sleep-heat. A long time has passed since she last experienced warmth and weight beside her while she slept. She’s missed it, but he can’t stay. Whatever is happening between them, it’s not that.
“Okay. Yeah, okay.”
They say nothing while he dresses. At the front door, she gives him walking directions to the nearest station. He thanks her, starts away, but turns back.
“I wish I got to see her tonight,” he says.
“Yeah, that would have been something.”
Two or three evenings each week, he takes her to restaurants with extensive wine lists, where the waiters wear tight-fitting black T-shirts and unseen speakers twitter electronic music. She usually makes do with a pre-dinner cocktail and a glass of wine while she eats, but he never stops drinking. By the time desert rolls around, he’s red-faced and talking loud enough that people at nearby tables stare.
“You make these choices because you’ve been told all your life that they’re the right ones. You get a job, you get married, you buy a house, because you figure that’s what you’re supposed to do. You figure, once you’ve done this stuff, things will start to feel right. But the more you do, the more wrong it feels. Sooner or later, you realize what a disaster your life has become. You’re surrounded by people you can’t stand. Just a goddamned disaster.”
Lisa tries not to let her embarrassment dampen the excitement she’s experiencing by being out, by being away from her apartment. A drunk is still someone to talk to.
When he’s able to come up with an excuse for his wife, they go to her apartment and have sex on her futon. Afterwards, he invariably pulls the covers up and reaches for the television remote.
“Um…” she says.
He groans. “Right. No cabs in Oakland.”
Their daily lunches together seem sure to arouse suspicion, suspicion that could lead to gossip, gossip that could get them both in trouble, and she suggests that they try spending less time together during work hours. He refuses.
“Time with you is the only decent part of my day. No way I’m giving it up. Who cares what these people think?” he says. “Besides, it’s not like the wife knows anyone here. She’s never expressed the slightest interest in meeting the people I work with. She won’t even come to the Christmas party.”
A silver-framed photograph of the happy couple sits on his desk. They stand in a well-lit evergreen forest, their arms around each other’s waists, flashing toothy smiles. Her name is Elana. Gabe never says her name. He tries not to mention her at all, but when it cannot be avoided, she is “the wife,” or just “her.” She’s small, blonde, with round cheeks and squinty eyes. Her smile widens her face, spreads it out as though she is pressed up against the frame’s glass.
One day, Gabe says, “I need you to know that I can’t leave her.”
“I never asked you to.”
“We’ve been together for a long time. Since college. I’m the only guy she’s ever been with. She came out to San Francisco with me. She doesn’t work, she doesn’t have any friends. Just me. She wants kids but…I don’t know. It’d kill her if I left her. It’d just kill her.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do with that,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t know what you expect me to do with that information. Are you trying to make me feel guilty? Do you want me to end it?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“I do feel guilty. Of course I feel guilty. You’re a married man. You’ve got a wife. Guilt accomplished.”
“I don’t want you to feel guilty,” he says.
“Well, I do. But that doesn’t mean I want to end it. If that was your goal, I’m not going to do it. If you want to stop seeing me, that’s on you.”
“That’s not what I want.”
Her own vehemence surprises her. So far, she hasn’t taken their relationship too seriously. It’s something new that’s happening to her, an affair, and its novelty has its appeal. She’s attracted to him, enjoys being attracted to him, and enjoys having that attraction reciprocated, but she’s not passionate about it. She’s had better sex with better-looking guys, long ago though it may have been. Still, secret lunches and secret lays give her something that she needs. Friendship. Companionship. Someone who will touch her. Hell, someone who will talk to her.
“I just wanted you to understand why I have to stay with her,” he says.
At night, from the Brownstone Solutions patio, Lisa can see across the Bay to Oakland. Darkness obscures the houses and skyscrapers, but their windows glow, miniature orange and yellow rectangles hovering in the sky. The water is a rough expanse of reflective blackness, an iced-over parking lot.
Apart from the custodians, they have the building to themselves. They’re on a bench, a knit blanket draped across their shoulders, passing their second bottle of wine back and forth. Lisa can’t tell how drunk she is, but Gabe is slurring.
“Sometimes I feel like you matter more to me than I do to you,” he says.
“Don’t do this. Don’t start a conversation like this. There’s no point.”
“So it’s true.”
He gets up. His half of the blanket slides into a heap.
“I love spending time with you,” she says. “I love when we’re together.”
“But how do you feel about me?”
“I care about you. Do you care about me?”
He wobbles on his feet. His lips are stained purple.
“How could I?” she says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Gabe, you’re having an affair with a coworker. You’re cheating on your wife. You’re not the kind of guy a girl falls in love with.”
“Are you kidding me? With you. I’m cheating on her with you.”
“I don’t feel good about it.”
“So why the hell are you with me?” He snatches the bottle from her. Merlot sloshes out the top. “Why the hell are we doing this? For sex? Is that all?”
She doesn’t answer.
“I think you care more than you want to admit,” he says. “But that’s okay.”
“Please, just stop.”
He steps in front of her, filling her field of vision, and grabs her by the shoulders. His fingertips dig in. Lisa looks up at him, puzzled, and he looks back. With a grunt, he shoves, and she flies backward off the bench. Her shoulders hit the ground first, sending the shock of the fall surging down her spine. She utters no sound when she lands, finds herself facing a starless sky wiped with clouds that have no edges.
Gabe moves around the bench and stands over her, clutching the bottle at his side. He’s barely more than a silhouette in the darkness, a lanky, angular shadow marionette, but she can make out his face, his curled lip and his wet eyes.
He’s going to hit her, she realizes. All she can do is stare up at him.
With as little warning as it came on, the rage goes out of him. His hands unclench. His eyes stream tears, and he drops to his knees.
She pushes herself up and brushes dirt from her jacket. His sobs garble words. His mouth moves, cow-like, but all that comes out is a mucous-thick moan.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s okay.”
She can’t quite bring herself to touch him.
She arrives an hour early, orders a vodka tonic, and finds a table near the back. From there, she watches the after-work drinkers arrive, dressed in clean, pressed business attire, and gather around the bar. The ice in her drink melts as she bats at it with a straw. She takes an occasional sip, but mostly she lets it go flat and watery while she waits.
Gabe delivered the invitation to meet him via a note, handwritten on Brownstone Solutions letterhead. She found it half-tucked under her computer keyboard when she returned from lunch. All afternoon long, she promised herself that she wouldn’t go. She’s already become a person she could never have imagined herself to be, but she can’t go back to a man who would lay a hand on her. She won’t become that.
And yet here she is.
Eventually, he shows up. She spots him through a window, lingering on the sidewalk, and waves her arm to catch his attention. When he sees her, he takes a deep, steeling-himself breath, and enters. He struggles to navigate through the four-person-deep crowd at the bar. She straightens in her seat. He drops into the chair across from her as though he’d just run a marathon.
“Aren’t you going to get anything?” she says.
He shakes his head.
It’s been days since they last spoke. When they’ve encountered each other at work, in the corridor, in the break room, they’ve behaved like strangers, unable to even look at each other.
“I just thought we should sit down together,” he says. “Just to make it official. It’s probably not necessary, but I thought it would be good to say it. That we’re done. Like a declaration, or an agreement, or something.”
“We don’t have to,” she says. “I understand what happened. We were drinking, you were upset. I understand.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t make it okay.”
“It is okay. I forgive you.”
He flinches, squeezing his eyes shut, as though she’d just hurled her drink in his face. When he opens them again, they are dull and hard.
“We have to stop,” he says.
“How can I change your mind?”
He punches the table. Her cocktail jumps. The carbonation revives with a hiss.
“Why would you want to?” he says. “Honestly, Lisa. Why the hell would you want to?”
“Because I…because I care about you.”
“No. You don’t. You really don’t.”
Every day, she eats lunch by herself on the patio. Every night, her TV stays on until past midnight, sometimes longer if she drifts off watching it. She sleeps through her weekends. This is her life now. Gabe distracted her from it, but he solved nothing.
She stays late at work, and when she runs out of reasons to be at her desk so long after everyone else has gone home, she walks around the city, not descending into the BART station until it’s time to catch the nine-oh-five train. The likelihood of seeing the ghost again is slight. She knows that she should consider herself lucky to have glimpsed her even once. Night after night, Lisa sits in the same seat of the second-to-last car, challenging the odds.
Then, one night, she appears.
Lisa notices the blue-white flicker in her periphery, like someone is shining a flashlight at the side of the ghost’s face. She’s one seat away, within touching distance. Lisa doesn’t move. The fragility of the moment grips her, holds her in place. No one will ever be as happy to see her as she is to see this ghost.
“How did you do it? How did you stay?” Lisa says. It comes out as a whimper.
The ghost says nothing.
Lisa manages to turn her head. She looks directly at the ghost, half-afraid and half-hoping that she’ll find her looking back, that their eyes will meet, that they’ll see each other. The ghost stares straight ahead, shimmering, blurry. The train rattles on.
When the office clears out, Lisa heads up to the roof. She sends a text message to Gabe, letting him know where to find her. She calls his house. The conversation with Elana is much shorter and not nearly as dramatic as she anticipated. She sits beside the fountain and waits.
The sky turns from gray to dark gray to black. The evening wind subsides, and a wet chill settles.After two hours pass, the patio door swings open and Gabe storms through.
“Why did you do it?” he says.
Lisa stands to face him.
“Do you want to ruin my life? Did you want to ruin hers?”
He starts toward her. She takes an instinctive step back, but stops herself. Something thick churns inside her. In a second, he’s standing right in front of her. His breath is hot, his eyes swollen. He’s been crying, but he’s not anymore.
“Say something, damn it.”
“She deserved to know.”
“Why?” he cries. “We were through. What difference does it make? Is this about payback? She’s leaving me, you know. Divorce. Do you understand? I’m going to be alone.”
She lifts her chin. “Good.”
He punches her left temple. The world turns pink, and her vision blurs. A thousand explosions go off in her head. Her legs turn to rubber, but she wills herself to remain upright, clenches her jaw and waits for the next hit. She hopes it will be hard enough to be the last one, but she doubts it. This is going to take a while. There’s going to be some pain.
“Again, Gabe. Hit me again.”
He gapes at her. “Jesus Christ.”
“Do it. Damn it, hit me.”
“What the hell is the matter with you?”
She tries to say something, but a wave of dizziness crashes down on her and she drops onto one knee. He backs toward the door.
“Jesus Christ, Lisa. Jesus Christ.”
Through the cloud of tears, she can barely make him out. Framed in the doorway, backlit by the lights inside, he could be anyone. She attempts to stand, but collapses onto all fours. She moves forward, crawling, the ceramic patio tiles cold and rough on the palms of her hands. She’s only made it a yard when both he and the light vanish.
Glossy white paint coats the closed door, carelessly applied so that crisscrossed roller prints are visible up and down its surface. A layer of condensation has begun to form. The metal handle is hook-shaped and industrial-looking. She lies on her stomach until the hard ground starts to hurt, at which point she rolls onto her side and draws her knees up to her chest. Eventually, she goes back inside, but she stays out here for a very long time.
|Brady Golden received his MFA from the University of San Francisco. His short fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Drops of Crimson, and The Absent Willow Review.|