trains

“Whatcha doin’ over there?”

I jerk my head up abruptly from my laptop, making eye contact with an older man sitting in the aisle seat across from me. “Um… writing a story,” I stutter out, startled by the engagement in conversation. Usually, the train compartments were havens of silent bubbles. Each set of chairs seemed to set up a wall between its neighbors.

He nods, stroking a greying beard. “A writer, huh. Haven’t come across one of those in some time.” My eyes travel and I see that his leg is missing, from the knee down, and I don’t catch myself staring until we make unfortunate eye contact (again) and I turn my head to break away from the gaze, highly embarrassed. My face reddens and I stare out the window, trying earnestly to appear interested in the Industry City. The streaked glass panes don’t aid in beautifying the place.

He chuckles, and although I can’t see it, I feel him shaking his head. Way to go, I chastise myself. You just made yourself look like an idiot.

“It’s okay to stare. It’s not everyday you see a guy with a leg and a half.” He says loudly, presumably to me, but I pretend I don’t hear. A public shaming in front of everyone on the train is not in my itinerary for the day.

“Really, it’s fine. I couldn’t stop staring myself for at least six months after it was amputated. Takes some getting used to,” he laughs again, this time more softly. He sounds apologetic.

I slowly drag my eyes away from the gray warehouses and take a deep breath. Once facing him again, I see a warm smile on his face. He sticks his hand out from across the aisle. It barely reaches across his aisle seat to my window seat.

I take it cautiously. His hand is calloused and rough, and wrinkled with what must be middle-older age. Past the top of his head, which is donned in a weathered Dodgers baseball hat, the extra train cars sit idly. Placated, docile, unmoving.

There’s a pause when we release hands. “I’m really sorry,” I say to fill the empty space. “I didn’t mean to stare or make you uncomfortable.”

He waves his hand, as though he is swatting some imaginary insect. “Don’t worry about it. Like I said, I wasn’t used to it myself. Still aren’t on some days.” A million questions enter my brain but I bite my tongue.

He notices my pathetic attempt to hide an inquisitive look and starts talking anyways.

“Explosive back in ‘Nam. Me and my buddy were caught in the crossfire in the jungle one day, we thought we got all the bombs but we missed the damn one. We were always careful- I think he must’ve been talking about a poker game he won the night before, or something. Something had to have distracted us,” he laughs, but not the warm one before, a hard chuckle, one that sounded pained. I stay silent as flashes of “Good Morning Vietnam” run through my mind.

“Where are you coming from?” He asks suddenly, tone lighter, changing the subject.

“Los Angeles,” I say, a little taken aback.

“No, duh. I meant before that. We all came from Union Station.”

“Bel-Air. The club I’m in at school had their end of the year party there,” I say.

“Sweet deal,” he says, nodding. I nod along.

“Yeah, it was really neat. It was the last time I’ll see some of the people for a while, so it’s a little bittersweet.”

“Oh?”

“Well, it’s a Christian group, it’s called RUF. Our campus minister and his family are moving to Florida, and one of our interns is moving to Georgia.”

“Yikes,” he remarks, looking up at the ceiling. “That’s a lot of coming and going.”

“Yeah, it’s been rough. They’ve been really influential in my life this past year.”

He sits there, taking it in for a moment. “I haven’t been to church in a real long time, you know. I believe in God and Jesus stuff, just haven’t found anywhere to call home really.”

“It’s so hard to find a place that feels comfortable and doesn’t, you know, preach heresy or anything.”

He laughs heartily. “You’re telling me. People are the most important part of the church, besides the Bible. That part that talks about the body is no joke. I used to hate that metaphor, when I lost my leg, it made me feel useless and lame. But I was a stupid kid. The older I got, the more I realized it wasn’t about me. God put my ego in check, that’s for sure.”

I smile. “I’ve needed that, more times than I’d like to admit. It’s easy to get a big head when things are going well.”

“Don’t I know it. The fact that He can use us, no matter how stubborn or weak we are, is miraculous to me.”

We let the conversation sit on that note, as I think about his words. A few moments later he asks, “What are you going to do next year? You know, about your club. With the new minister and all.”

“Good question. We’re still trying to figure that one out. We met him, and he’s awesome, it’s just going to be weird without the same people and dynamic there that I’ve always been around,” I say.

“Change is good,” he says, bobbing his head up and down. “It’s always good to have a change of pace.”

“I don’t like change,” I say softly. The warehouses and junkyards gradually fade into houses, trees primly lining the manicured lawns and sidewalks. I think about his missing leg, the constant flux of people in and out of my life, the little suburban neighborhoods. A gnawing feeling claws at my stomach, the familiar talons of anxiety trying to find its way in.

“Where would we be without change?” he says gently. He gets up and slings his backpack strap on his shoulder, bracing himself by a pole for support. “If we couldn’t go from here to there, we never would’ve met.” The train comes to a slow, quiet stop, and he, along with almost all of the other passengers in the compartment, begin to filter out. He waves before he goes down the stairs.

“It was great meeting you. God bless, and watch out for the heresy!” He disappears around the corner.

I sink into my seat and my mind is blank while watching the influx of light warp the paisley pattern on the seats as the minutes drag on. Gold and violet, shimmery, then a muted periwinkle, and finally a calm blue. Change.

When the train pulls into Riverside, I gather my things and stretch as I stand up, thanking God that I am blessed to have two functional legs. I shoulder my way through the crowd and out onto the platform, taking in the familiar sights of downtown and home and the usual and life for 19 years. So many memories took root in this place. A faint reminder of the warm embrace I received before I left for the train station is brought to mind, and a tiny smile tugs at my lips.

How beautiful is it that God is the conductor of all things, His plan set in motion and perfect in His way, and that I am such a seemingly insignificant piece in the grand scheme of things, yet He wants to utilize me anyways. The almighty, all-powerful Creator of the universe allows me to take part in the most glorious, triumphant story of them all. He is the everlasting and constant and His plan was dictated from the beginning, but oh, we get the gift of experiencing it as new, unexpected, exciting, heart-wrenching, angering, a glimpse of what is to come.

I thank God again- this time, for change.