I was startled by the configuration of the station, whose walls met at unexpected angles. The arrangement of the tracks, which crisscrossed in an abstract design unrelated to their function, compounded the confusion. The architects had laid them back to front. You would think you were going to Paris but then arrive in Africa, or to China and find yourself lost in Turkey. I have eaten ndakala spiced with pili pili in dives in Kinshasa, sucked da zha xie from the claws at stalls on the streets of Shanghai, and know the sewers and alleys of Istanbul as well as a native rat. This time, the overhead signs, all in English and advertising local goods, announced I was in Chicago. Considering the arrangement of the tracks, I suspected this was not my destination, but that instead it was what I was leaving. I recalled that Harold Pinter play, the one with the ending before the beginning.
I found the configuration of the terminal and the omelet of the scene to be complementary flavors, both confused, as was the crowd, which bubbled in an erratic direction, looking at each other with wonderment, perplexed by the strange blend of our respective attire, coloration of our skin, polyglot dialects, and apparently also confused by me. They studied me as though I were from another planet, while simultaneously trying to comprehend the architecture of the station and its skewed tracks, as though the recipe explained the meal.
However, it is not one’s physique that defines nationality, nor the ingredients that determine the art of the meal. Rather, it is our outlook that tells us who we are. The skill of the chef determines the taste. Therefore, neither the geography of the station, its tracks, nor the changing populace, were my challenge. Understanding why the trains were backing away from the station instead of heading straight for escape, and why escape was their destination, was what required my attention.
The many scenes that I have seen have refined my senses. That explains why I could intuit that death was present. My clue as to why, which is the existential question that deserves primary consideration. It explained the turmoil, the crowd seeking explanation, and the disjointed route of escape. So. I knew, “why.” Death.
Now I could address the other questions. I believe in starting with the easiest, then building to the conclusion, just as a train develops momentum.
Next, where? Union Station, Chicago. That I knew from the signs. But picture Union Station filled with a motley assortment of commuters; some, wearing turbans; others, scarves across their faces; others, swathed in pagne about their heads and wrapped around their bodies; and all competing for the food steaming on the vendors’ carts, which were so close together that their wheels interlocked. Also, the crowd did not seem to notice, but my nose had detected the stench beneath the scent of the food.
A vendor at one of the pop-up stalls grabbed my sleeve. “Kiwavi?” When my frown showed my confusion, she repeated, this time in French, “Chenille?’ She gestured at the caterpillars heaped upon her cart. She had them boiled, fried, smoked and dried. None of them was fresh. We were much too far from the Congo.
“I don’t eat anything that crawls,” I said. “It’s a matter of principle.” I wrinkled my nose.
She wrinkled her own nose, looked away from me, and said, “Kile ni harufu ya kukera.” Then, shrugging away my ignorance of Swahili, she repeated in French, “Odeor nauseabunde.” She too had detected the odor under the smells of the station, and knew that death always lurks under life.
After I pulled away from her various African offerings, I passed stalls of Chinese food reminding me of happier days in Shanghai, where I met my love, her form draped in silk that clung in invitation. All that was left of her now was my memory of our days shopping the streets, our nights sloping the sheets. I missed the taste of her flesh.
I rejected Chinese offerings of thes henne shi chou wei and ci fan. I no longer had an appetite for crab shell, fried pork buns, rice balls or green-onion pancakes.
Having confronted why, and identified where, I considered, next, the question of what? Obviously, death will spoil the appetite of any crowd that senses its presence, if not its locus. It seemed to be wherever I moved. The crowd parted as I approached, as though I might carry a virulent virus.
So. When? Long enough to putrefy, but not to liquefy. Say, 24 hours. This was mere speculation, but the existence of a moving location suggested that the pollution had not yet pooled. I boarded the train, hoping to escape further question as I was fearful of the answer.
But against my will, I faced the final challenge as the train gathered momentum. Could it have been that long ago? Where was I in the interval? Could it be that I am who? I was in a large car but its only occupant. I swayed in my seat as the train backed forward. The smell was no longer merely present. It overwhelmed the car and my seat. The clues were now sufficient.
We take our last ride alone. I was not he who observes. I was the observed. The crowd that had filled the station was now jostling for position on the platform, munching the treats from the stalls, awaiting my resolution. They stood for the show, as at the Globe Theater in the days of Shakespeare, before they invented seats.
Dick Carmel‘s publications include Chicago Literati, bird’s thumb, Mash, Travel Today and Northwestern University Law Review. Long List, Pulp Literature Raven Short Story Contest, 2015. B.A., J.D., Northwestern University