To catch the train home from work, Wilbur Jamison had to walk through an underpass beneath a busy thoroughfare to reach the platform. A train pulled in as he started down the stairs into the urine scented concrete tunnel – he knew he would just miss this one and have to wait for the next. A handful of young men vaulted the fence – baggy pants and all – and dashed through the honking cars to make the train. Wilbur wouldn’t… couldn’t vault and dash – he would have to wait.
There were two metal seats at the place where the train doors would open in a half hour. Wilbur plopped down on one to catch his breath after struggling up the steep concrete stairs from the underpass tunnel.
The other seat had a hamburger on it. Wilbur looked around to see if it belonged to anybody – there was no one on his side of the platform (the train had left only seconds before, after all). He was alone except for some man in a P-Diddy T-shirt and the most ridiculous pair of embroidered and bejeweled denim shorts he had ever seen. The man was screaming into a cell phone on the other side – across the tracks – waiting for a northbound.
The hamburger on the seat next to Wilbur sat in the exact center of a round foam plate. It had one generous, neat, semi-circular bite taken out of it. Wilbur figured it had been abandoned when a train pulled up – eating is not allowed on public transport. It appeared to be a plain hamburger. Nothing, no lettuce, tomato, pickles – not even a stain of ketchup or mustard – was visible in the exposed edge of the missing crescent. Wilbur thought that there could, however, be a thin careful application of unknown condiments in the center, hidden by the bun.
Wilbur considered getting up and throwing the food into the trash container a few feet farther down the platform. He thought of himself as being socially reliable and liked to think about doing small acts of responsibility and kindness unacknowledged by the rest of the world.
He thought about this, but before he could gather the momentum to get up and move another commuter, a large man accompanied by a young girl, pushed the plate and the hamburger off the metal seat, swatted the air a few times and then sat down with a grunt. Wilbur was surprised; he had not seen the man and girl walk up.
Wilbur frowned. The man had not properly disposed of the hamburger and plate – it was now wedged under the frame of the large advertising sign behind the little seat. He didn’t like this lack of concern on the part of his fellow commuter, but he didn’t say anything. He pulled a dog-eared paperback out of a jacket pocket and began to read until his train came and he boarded.
Two train stops down the line, a woman climbed on board and sat down on the bench next to Wilbur. She was wearing thin, ill-fitting black slacks and some sort of ratty brown striped Rayon uniform/smock. She had a black plastic visor with the white initials “WH” painted on it. Her large yellow plastic badge said “WAFFLE HOUSE – MARLENE.”
She had been smoking on the platform when Wilbur had spotted her out of the train window. She had leaned over and snuffed the cigarette out on a light pole and now that she was seated on the train had pulled out a weathered pack of Camels from somewhere and was carefully replacing the half cigarette back in the pack.
She had to concentrate to get the Camel into the package while the train was accelerating away from the platform and starting to sway. She scrunched up her face paying attention to her task and that brought out a tight maze of small wrinkles framed by her thin short blonde hair and the black plastic eyeshade. Wilbur felt he could read this labyrinth – thought he could see the echoes of decade after decade of struggle – of desire and disappointment – of unwilling denial that mirrored his own.
Wilbur had never spoken to a stranger on the train before, but after five minutes the pressure became too great. He became deathly afraid that she would get off at the next stop and he would never see her again.
“Uhh, Hi Marlene… I’m Wilbur,” was the best he could muster.
“Oh, How did you know my name? Do I know you?” She looked confused.
“No,” he said, gesturing to her badge.
“Of course,” she said with a little chuckle, “I forgot. Pleased to meet you.”
So they chatted until Wilbur’s stop. She was getting off the night shift, he was starting the day. They shook hands as Wilbur stood to leave.
It wasn’t hard for Wilbur to find the Waffle House close to Marlene’s train stop. It was even easier to learn her schedule and to time his commute so he was on the train waiting for her. He started getting to the station extra early, letting a train or even two go past, waiting for the proper time. He would make sure the seat next to him was open, no matter how crowded the car was.
Marlene began looking forward to seeing Wilbur waiting on the car. Every now and then she would be late getting out of work or the schedules would slide and Wilbur would catch the wrong train and they would miss each other. Wilbur would go through the day in a dark funk and Marlene would have a hard time sleeping that day, though she had worked third shift for most of her life, whenever that happened.
They traded favorite paperbacks, Marlene started bringing Wilbur lunches from the Waffle House, and finally Wilbur summoned enough courage to ask her out to a movie. He had a car, a nice one, really, though it had a lot of miles on it. He only took the train to work to save on parking.
Marlene slept while Wilbur worked so their schedules worked out pretty well together. They would go to a couple of movies on the weekends and try for a nice dinner on Wednesdays.
Wilbur decided to ask Marlene to his house for dinner after a movie one weekend. His only son lived in Japan and had stopped even writing to him years before and nobody other than himself had set foot in his house in the decade since his wife had passed away. He asked a neighbor for a recommendation and hired a woman to come in to clean the place. He kept a simple, neat house, that fit in with all the others in the suburb, but not one that was spotless. He had never learned how to do that.
He drove to Marlene’s second floor studio apartment to pick her up. She appeared at the door carrying a small overnight bag. Wilbur was so nervous and excited during the movie that he never could remember what they saw.
Later that night, not long after he had brought her to his house, Marlene silently removed her clothes.
“Well, here it is,” she said with a combination of regret, excitement, and acceptance.
Wilbur gasped. She looked as if a bite had been taken off the top part of her body – a pink arc from one shoulder across the tops of her breasts on up to the other shoulder. Another arc cut across her legs – from one hip down to mid-thigh and then curving back up to the other hip. Everything else between these two arcs, her entire torso, was completely covered in complex colorful, dense, intertwined tattoos.
“Oh my God!” It escaped his lips before he could get control of his amazement.
“I’m sorry – I should have said something… I should have.”
“No, no, Don’t apologize. I think they… it’s… you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen… in a long, long time.”
“I’m sure you’re wondering where, why… well… it was like….”
“No! Stop! Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I don’t ever want to know. Don’t ever tell me.”
Marlene shrugged. She seemed more than a little relieved.
“Fine with me,” she said.
Eventually, Marlene quit her job at the Waffle House and gave up her apartment, moving in with Wilbur. The neighbors barely noticed. It took her a while to get used to a usual schedule, sleeping at night, after having worked third shift for so long, but she was glad to work at it.
Wilbur had saved up a lot of vacation over the years and they began to travel. They started out with weekend driving trips close to home and gradually worked up to international voyages. They particularly liked traveling by cruise ship – Marlene enjoyed the shore excursions and Wilbur preferred the luxury on the boat.
Wilbur liked to lie next to Marlene and trace the intertwined designs across her skin, to try and separate each one out. He would make up little silly stories about each one and Marlene would laugh at his imagination. A few times she wanted to tell him the real story about her tattoos but Wilbur would not let her say anything. They were a mystery and he wanted to keep it that way. They were his mysteries and he liked the thought of having something so wonderful and strange belonging to him alone.
Marlene was almost as alone as Wilbur, but not quite. She had a beloved old aunt that lived in Toledo, Ohio. Marlene received word that her aunt had fallen sick and she went up there to tend to her. She was gone for two months and Wilbur missed her terribly, but they talked on the phone every night, and that made it better.
Finally, Marlene’s aunt regained her strength and she flew back home. Wilbur met her at the airport and they drove home. Wilbur carried her luggage into the house.
“I’ve got something to show you,” Wilbur said.
“Oh, you didn’t have to.”
“I’ll give you the present I bought for you later, but this is different, it’s something I did while you were gone.”
“Something you did?” Marlene was confused, and a little nervous.
Wilbur turned his back on Marlene and pulled his shirt off over his head. There, angling across his back, was a large, complex red dragon. Marlene knew ink like that could not be done in one visit, knew that Wilbur must have been waiting for her to be gone for an extensive time to get this dragon done. She also knew how much it must have hurt.
It was an expert job; the colors were bright and the detailing crisp. The dragon was a Japanese design, she had seen it before. The dragon was long and scaled, with several pairs of legs, and it was curved around, almost tying itself in knots. It seemed to pulse and seethe across Wilbur’s back. She moved in to look closer and snapped on a bright lamp to see better. The dragon was holding something – something clamped firmly in its foremost claws.
“The dragon is holding something,” she said.
“It sure is.”
She looked even closer. “Is that a hamburger? A hamburger with a bite out of it?”
“It sure is,” Wilbur said.