PITTSBURGH, PA- DECEMBER 24TH, 2017
There were only three other passengers on the trolley when Orrin got on.
It wasn’t one of the new cars that pulled up to him on the freezing Carson St. platform, but rather the old bullet-shaped type with a squashed nose, one single headlamp, and a domed roof capped by a tall metal pole reaching up to the overhead wires. The warm glow of incandescent lights shining through its rows of small windows was an inviting contrast to the fading grey light outside. The changeable narrow legend above the front window glowed with soft amber illumination, displaying the car’s destination:
Orrin wasn’t an old man yet, but he felt like it. He’d had had a close call earlier and still felt a bit shaky from it. As he was stepping off a curb in Market Square, a taxi racing the yellow light cut the curb, and had came awful close to taking him with it. As the streetcar’s old doors rattled open and he stepped inside, he was still hearing the sound of the taxi’s rear wheel crunching snow right next to him.
Now he made his way to the rear as the trolley began moving again, holding onto the bar above to keep from falling as the rattling car churned through the tunnel under Mt. Washington. The back was always his preferred spot. The other three passengers already aboard didn’t look up as he passed where they sat.
There was an older woman with glasses and a babushka scarf wrapped around her hair. A heavy long colorless coat hid the rest of her except for thick legs protruding from the bottom hem. She wore galoshes and held an umbrella in a death grip as the Driver picked up some speed and the shaking inside the car got worse. The cable connection above would occasionally fail, and the lights would flicker and wink out momentarily.
Past the babushka woman a businessman sat on the same side as Orrin. He had all the telltale signs- the dark suit peeping from under his heavy overcoat, a briefcase on the floor braced between his scuffed shoes, and a clean-shaven chin that dipped down to his chest with fatigue of body and spirit.
The trolley came out of the tunnel and began climbing up the long hill towards Beechview. To the right side of the car the hill went almost straight up, while it fell off precipitously just past the tracks to the left, cascading down several hundred feet to where the headlights and taillights of commuter cars inched along West Liberty Ave. in the holiday traffic snarl. This was why he’d taken the trolley. Naked winter tree branches occasionally scraped the sides of the streetcar as it rolled right past the Westfield and Fallowfield stops without picking anyone else up or letting anyone off. Orrin figured this time of night on Christmas Eve, most folks were already home.
This last passenger was a young woman sitting near the front; close enough to be chatting with the Driver. Orrin couldn’t overhear what they were saying all the way in the back above the racket of the old trolley. She was young. How young was hard for him to pinpoint. She could be nineteen, or she could be twenty-nine. As he’d gotten older it had become harder and harder to gauge the age of younger people. But her cherry blonde hair reminded him of a girl he’d known when he was a younger man before he’d met his wife. He hadn’t thought of that girl in years- not even when his wife had left him in 2002.
After his close call downtown, he’d decided to get a bite at Woolworth’s counter to help himself recover, but had then remembered Woolworth’s was long gone. He ended up sitting by himself in PPG center eating a lukewarm cardboard slice of pizza. Everything had changed so much since he’d started working at the bank. He ate and felt like an alien watching all the people walking all around him with their eyes perpetually glued to their phones.
The trolley was rolling along Beechview’s main street Broadway now- a zany affair where the tracks ran down the center of the street and cars usually had to dodge around the slower-moving streetcar. But tonight Broadway was a long lonely snowswept stretch. Orrin found himself staring out the window at the drugstores, bars, laundromats and houses going by. When he looked back, he noticed the old woman had gotten off. He didn’t remember the trolley stopping at any point. It was possible that he’d dozed off for a moment while looking out the window, but still… it was strange.
They were making good time despite the lousy weather. They passed the Potomac stop and now entered the tunnel that went under Washington Road in downtown Mt. Lebanon. In the blackness of the tunnel the pole above their heads would occasionally send a shower of sparks raining down outside the windows to fade and disappear, mimicking the drifting snowflakes outside.
Orrin was anxious to get home. His daughter Camille was coming over at seven and they were going out for Christmas Eve dinner later. Of course Camille was all grown up and had a good job at a software company, but he was her father and he was looking forward to the moment when he’d pay the check. It’s what fathers did. Even fathers who’d just been forced into early retirement and weren’t entirely sure how they were going to make ends meet in the future.
The small fenced-in backyards of apartment buildings had now given way to the larger open backyards of suburban houses, and these now flew by in the moonlight. The snow had slowed a bit and the trolley was really cooking, rocking back and forth like a baby’s basinet. The lights winked out again, this time for a good ten seconds- and when he looked up again Orrin noticed the businessman wasn’t sitting in front of him anymore.
It took a good long moment to process. Orrin felt a kind of surreal dreamlike feeling flow over him, turning him sluggish and stupid, like suddenly awakening from the torpor of a nap. There was now no one else on the train but himself, the Driver, and the young woman sitting up front. This time he was sure they hadn’t stopped. The doors had never opened and the businessman had never risen to get off. He was just gone.
Of its own volition, his hand reached out before him and gripped the seat rail. He found himself standing, and more- walking slowly towards the front of the streetcar, holding on to the steel bars for support as he worked his way forward, closer to the car’s only other denizens. They were deep in the suburbs now, rumbling through the frozen South Hills. It had grown quite dark outside the trolley’s windows, causing them to reflect the light from within instead of revealing what was passing by outside.
As he sat down directly behind the Driver- a big man squeezed behind the controls- the girl across from him smiled in friendly fashion. Words came out of Orrin’s mouth almost unheeded:
“Seems to just be us three now…”
She cocked her head and smiled: “Not for long,” her voice was soft and gentle. “My stop’s coming up.”
“I must have dozed off or something, I missed seeing those other two get off.”
The Driver chuckled at that. “You mean Old Mrs. Newinsky and my friend Mr. Darren? Nah, they’re good. They found their spot, don’t you worry about them.”
The car gave a little jolt as it bumped over a cross street— red flashing lights and striped automatic arms keeping the cars safely off the track as they passed. The snow had all-but stopped outside. Orrin’s head felt light. Something wasn’t right but he couldn’t manage to bring what it was to the fore of his thoughts.
“Actually I think I might have missed my stop back there a ways…” “No, you’re fine, Mr. Orrin,” said the Driver. “Be a bit further up here.”
None of his statement made any sense to Orrin. “How do you know that?”
“Cause I know you ain’t quite there yet. You’re close, but not quite there. Any minute now.”
There was a flicker of the lights again- for a moment the snowbound landscape in the moonlight outside was as clear as anything. It looked perfect in every way, but something seemed different about it, too. Difficult to put a finger on. Familiar, yet distant as well. In another second the lights came back on and Orrin was staring at his own reflection. Behind him, across the aisle, the seat the Girl had been so recently occupying was empty.
He spun ‘round. Of course she was gone. The Driver drove on as if nothing was amiss.
“Where did she go?”
The man turned just a bit in his seat: “Where’d who–? Oh, Miss Janine? She found her spot.”
Orrin’s head buzzed. “I don’t– what spot? Where’d she go to?”
Finally the Driver turned and looked at Orrin. His face blended sympathy and authority in perfect equal measures. “She went where she was happiest, Mr. Orrin. Same as Old Mrs. Newinsky and Mr. Darren did.”
Orrin was indeed finally catching on, just as the Driver had predicted. His mouth was dry as he considered his next words: “This isn’t the regular line, is it?”
“No sir- this is Special Service.”
“I’m not going home, am I?”
The man grinned with big teeth: “Course you are. Don’t be silly.”
The bumps and jolts had lessened. The streetcar seemed to glide along the tracks now. The panic that had been welling up inside Orrin felt oddly distant, replaced with a contemplative calm. Things were beginning to make sense again.
“So… I’m going where they went?”
The man shook his head, “Well that wouldn’t make much sense, would it? What would you do at their Christmases? Be an awkward situation, to say the least.”
The Driver sighed a patient sigh: “Old Mrs. Newinsky’s back in McKeesport with her husband and her boy, before he shipped out that last time. My friend Mr. Darren, he’s back on the old farm. He’s hoping he gets that red bike with the training wheels tomorrow morning and just between us? He is. And Ms. Janine—well, she gets to have one more Christmas with her Caylee.”
He turned to look at Orrin’s face again. “You still catching up, Mr. Orrin?”
Orrin nodded. The world around him was clarifying into sharp focus. He felt warm and unafraid.
“A little. I think I’m almost there.” Indeed, what had heretofore been fuzzy to him was becoming increasingly clear. “That taxi… the one that jumped the curb. That taxi didn’t miss me, did it?”
The Driver faced forward once more. “This here’s Special Service. We run three hundred sixty-five days a year. We make sure we get folk to their happiest place. This time of year, lots of folks’ happiest place is Christmas Day. The best one. The one they had with the ones that’s gone now. The Christmas they didn’t think they was ever gonna get back.”
“And you’re taking me to mine…”
“Just as soon as you figure out which one it was.”
“And that’s it? That’s where I stay?”
“Oh you can stay as brief or as long as you like. I’ll give you a transfer to take the next ride whenever you’re ready. You know where you wanna get off now?”
Orrin nodded. He knew. He didn’t even have to think about it. “Nineteen Ninety- One. Camille was six. Her mother and I got her that blue tent and she spent the whole day playing inside it right in the living room. We all ate sandwiches in there in the afternoon and watched cartoons through the flap. She fell asleep in it after dinner and we carried her up to her bed. Then we just– sat by the tree. There were other good ones. Plenty of them… But yeah, that was the one. The best one. Okay?”
The Driver smiled. “Sounds good, Mr. Orrin.”
As they cruised along towards his destination, Orrin looked toward the window, but only saw his own tired face reflected. Camille would be fine. She was all the best he’d had to give and much, much more. He would miss her, but then he was about to see her all over again and that made him smile. The lines in the face in the window relaxed.
“Could you do me a favor? Could you switch off the lights in here a minute?”
“Sure thing.” The Driver flipped a small toggle switch near his elbow and the lights winked out. The snow-blanketed hills flew by in the night, and Orrin settled back into his seat.