For more than a year Walter Mason and the woman with one ear nodded to each other at 5:22 p.m., or thereabouts, when the Western Local pulled into Lincoln Station. As he descended the steep metal steps clutching his briefcase, she would be standing near last in the small line of passengers waiting on the wooden platform to board. If it were lightly raining or snowing, she might hold a newspaper over her head. Sometimes she turned her face to the sky and opened her mouth a little, as if thirsty. In heavy rain she held a small yellow umbrella while the others waited under the eaves of nearby shops. She always carried an overstuffed white shopping bag, but nothing ever protruded from the top to hint at what was inside.
Her complexion was dark, perhaps Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. But she dressed as any American woman might, in a blouse and skirt, or pants and sweater. Invariably, though, she wore a colorful scarf around her head, wrapped delicately, it seemed to Walter, as one would a bouquet or some other live thing.
The scarf covered, of course, the missing right ear, as Walter assumed it was meant to do. He would never have known of the deformity if a gust of wind one afternoon had not whipped the scarf suddenly free of her head. She dropped her purse and shopping bag and fumbled to secure the fine silk under her chin. Then she looked up and saw his rude stare. It was awful of him, he knew that, and he averted his eyes. What had possessed him to gaze at her for those few seconds that the crimson scarf fluttered in the wind, revealing the thick, slashing scars of an ear that wasn’t there anymore?
When the woman didn’t appear on the platform the following Monday, Walter didn’t think much of it. She had missed other days over the last year–he could recall two for sure. But both were during snowstorms, it occurred to him as he crossed the rutted dirt parking lot, not on unusually warm spring days such as this. He opened the door of his Saab to let the day’s hot air exhale from the car. Then it came to him: Perhaps she had not appeared today because he had noticed her missing ear the Friday before. It charmed Walter to think of this woman as being so shy. He was shy himself. He hadn’t married even though he was 47 and interested–that in itself would demonstrate a lagging sense of forwardness. He did cheerfully submit to the blind dates arranged for him through the unstinting efforts of the married women at the Institute. But they remained one-time affairs–or rather more precisely, one-time intersections of two people looking for something other than what they found.
What was he looking for? A certain sweetness of temperament was uppermost on his list, a flexible mind (though not one incapable of holding a firm opinion), and perhaps a sense of mankind’s insignificance in the totality of the universe. The ability to apply order to the world would also be handy in a wife. These attributes, which he obligingly scrawled down as an aid to the matchmakers in his department, were apparently no help at all. They wanted to know what he desired in height and weight, profession, previous marital status and post-marital attachments, such as children. He supposed it was curious that he never thought in those terms, but there it was. He didn’t care about shape, occupation or legal connections, just as he hoped a woman wouldn’t care that he was unfit in the athletic sense of the word, underemployed for the number of degrees appended to his name, and suspiciously unattached for all of his adult years. He didn’t try to camouflage the gray in his hair or wear the kind of tailored suits that would slim down the excesses of his appetite. Though he was not overly proud of his condition, he was at least comfortable with it. But if he had only one ear, he wondered, what would he do, without a scarf to hide the terrible secret?
When the woman didn’t appear on Tuesday, Walter concluded with some certainty that she had begun a week’s vacation. Each succeeding day that the train arrived at 5:22 and she was not there only stiffened his reasoning. On Thursday, cold rain draped the region, and Walter found himself lamenting that the woman’s time off might be spoiled by inclement weather. Perhaps, though, she was a reader and would be happy enough within doors. When he leafed through the New York Times Book Review that Sunday, he imagined her vacation reading list, possibly a book on exotic foods, such asBengali Cooking, or an intimate collection of short stories, such as Women in Their Beds. For a lingering moment, Walter pictured her as the woman on the cover of that book, with her long black hair languishing on the pillow and one breast peeking above the sheet.
It was with some anticipation on the following Monday that Walter rose from his usual seat and hurried along the aisle even before the train began its slow braking into Lincoln. He reached the heavy sliding door just as Mel, the conductor, opened it from the other side and called out, “Next Stop, Lincoln. That’s Lincoln, Next Stop.”
Walter squeezed past him so he would have a good view out of the open car. “Where’s the fire?” Mel asked.
“Oh, no fire, Mel,” Walter answered with a little shrug. “I’m just…expecting someone.”
Mel winked at him, which made Walter feel a bit odd. The train crept past the crossing signal on Concord Road, and he leaned out of the car to scan the small group waiting to get on. The woman with one ear was not among them.
“Mind your step,” Mel said as Walter made his way down to the platform, and these words reassured him as always that his welfare was being looked after. He walked slowly across the parking lot, glancing over his shoulder to make sure the woman didn’t come running late from one of the station stores. In a few moments, the train took off without her.
Why was he so disappointed? It wasn’t a sexual attraction, Walter decided, unless one so subtle that he couldn’t discern it. Frankly, he didn’t find her particularly attractive. He supposed that in another age she would have been considered a handsome woman. But he disliked handsome women–the blocky faces, the large eyes, the broad cheekbones. To another man, he supposed, she might be considered mysterious, and thereby interesting. But Walter disliked mystery. The simple question, “What if?” could lead to so many disturbing places.
He was obviously not attracted to this woman sexually, and the evidence was perfectly clear: He had never spoken to her. Surely if he were propelled by a secret fuel of desire he would have managed some small step on the route to intimacy–a brief hello, a smile, perhaps even, “Have a good day.” No, not that insulting phrase. Who was he to be using the imperative with this woman? “I hope you have a very nice day”–that would be perfectly appropriate. And yet, there were only so many words one could say in passing. She might not hear all of them. She might misconstrue. Better not to risk conversation at the station, but rather, simply stay on board one day in a seat precisely halfway down the car–her customary spot–where the rows turned from facing backward to forward. She would slide into the wide seat without even realizing he was there.
As the second week of the woman’s absence stretched on, Walter became worried. His concentration, normally among his strongest attributes at work, failed him several times. At one point, a fellow researcher had the temerity to tap him on the shoulder and ask, “Daydreaming, Walter?” “No,” he had replied courteously, “I was thinking.” Thinking he certainly was, about why a person would take vacation time at the end of March, known as mud season in these parts. There were other possibilities, of course. She might have fled to some warm-weather island. Perhaps the woman with one ear had simply returned to wherever she had come from, or moved on to someplace new. Perhaps she would never again take the 5:22.
By Thursday Walter had decided to make inquiries, starting with Mel. The conductor knew something about each of his passengers, and it was his habit to share the news, discreetly, up and down the car. For example, with a nod of his head and a few well-chosen words, Mel let it be known to the single women in the car that James, the investment adviser, had just landed a big promotion and was available. On the other hand, Kelly–the young woman with the sad brown eyes–was definitely “not looking and might never be again.” She had recently lost her boyfriend of three years as well as her beloved Honda Civic, events that left her crying some days and required Mel to start carrying tissues.
Walter had overheard himself being referred to in a respectful tone as “The Professor…MIT–never married.” That wasn’t strictly true. He had been hired as a senior researcher to conduct experiments in machine vision, his specialty. It suited Walter to labor among just a few other engineers and their support staff. It suited him even more to retreat each evening to his apartment in the suburbs where he could work uninterrupted on his book of odd designs. He was near finishing his collection of Impossible Objects, such as a teapot with the spout and handle on the same side. It amused him to imagine things that could never work. Often he listened to his short wave, and the crackling sound of far-off voices seemed to him as if coming from a large immigrant family living on the other side of the thin walls. Sometimes, usually before one of his arranged dates, he imagined a woman in his apartment, a wife. What would she be doing right now, he wondered, what would she do there?
When Walter, with money in hand, looked up from his seat to ask Mel about the missing woman, he was shocked to see another conductor. “Where to?” the man asked. Mel never talked in such a clipped expression. He always asked, “And where would you be heading?” or “Where can I take you today?”
Walter handed over his three dollars to Edward, as the man’s badge read, and said brusquely, “Lincoln.”
“Lincoln it is.”
“Where’s Mel,” Walter asked as he peered over the seats, “working up front?”
“Mel? Don’t know him.”
“He’s been the conductor on this line for years.”
Edward handed over the ticket. “Well, that explains it then. I’ve only been the conductor for a day.”
“You mean you’ve replaced Mel?”
Edward shook his head. “I can’t say that exactly, not knowing anything about Mel. I guess he was before my time.”
Your time? Walter thought. You’ve only worked this train for one day. You haven’t had “a time” yet. Edward moved through the train. Every few rows Walter heard him say, “Where to?”
There were others besides Mel to ask about the woman with one ear. Several people regularly waited with her at the station to board. Perhaps she had spoken to them. Walter spent the twenty-minute ride to Lincoln plotting what he would say in the brief seconds as he got off and the others got on. “Excuse me,” he might begin, “I just wanted to ask–do you happen to know anything about the woman with…” He certainly couldn’t mention the one ear. “…the woman in the colorful scarves who used to get on here each day?” Walter practiced his question at different speeds and emphases as the train slowed into Lincoln. As he moved down the aisle toward the door, he noticed that no one else was getting off with him, and no one was waiting to get on, either. The Western Local left quickly.
Because March 28 was Good Friday, Walter had no opportunity to continue his inquiry until the following Monday. On that day, he boarded in Cambridge as always, took his seat at the back of the car and waited for the conductor. This time he would be forceful in inquiring about Mel. Then in Lincoln, he would stop in the shops by the station to ask about the woman. Surely she had made some small purchases there–a newspaper or mints, perhaps even medicine at the pharmacy. She would be remembered.
Edward approached, humming. “Where to?” he asked with not a hint of recognition in his eyes.
“Lincoln,” Walter said with a trace in his voice of “You should know that by now. Mel knew the second day.”
“Don’t stop at Lincoln.” Edward said.
The words and tone confused Walter. Was the conductor offering advice–“Do not stop at Lincoln,” or some new information? “What do you mean?” Walter asked. “The 5 o’clock out of Cambridge always stops in Lincoln.”
“I wouldn’t know about always,” Edward said. “I only know about today. Today this train doesn’t stop at Lincoln–the engineer told me himself. Now where else do you want to go?”
“I don’t want to go anywhere else. I live in Lincoln. I’ve been getting off there for two years.”
“I can see your problem,” Edward said. “That’s why people should always ask when they get on where the train’s stopping. Saves a lot of this kind of trouble.”
The train pulled into Waverly Station, and Edward hurried to attend to the doors. When he returned he said, “Where to?”
Was it some kind of game this strange conductor was playing? Walter wondered. But Edward didn’t appear to be a man capable of sustaining a joke this long. He did appear to be a man capable of stupidity, and so Walter said, “I’ll prove the train stops in Lincoln. Let me see a schedule.”
Edward checked inside his lapel pocket, but his hand came back empty. “Sorry, all out.”
Walter had reached that point his mother had customarily referred to as “her wits’ end.” He had no wit left, at least to deal with Edward. Walter stood up to appeal to the familiar faces of the Western Local. There were more people than he had ever seen in this car before, but he recognized none of them. Walter sank into his seat. “Just let me off at the next stop–that’s still Concord, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is,” Edward said taking the three dollars. “That will be another fifty cents.”
Walter exited the train at Concord and stood alone on the platform. His Saab was four miles back in Lincoln. There was no cab in sight. A few cars were going by, but he couldn’t imagine standing with his thumb out while dressed in a tie and jacket. He would walk. And since the shortest route between stations was undoubtedly the rail line, he would go by the tracks.
He felt a bit adventuresome as he set out. The dwindling daylight did not bother him. He had never been afraid of the dark. He started off briskly, walking between the rails and stretching his stride to land on every other wooden tie. After awhile he broke the monotony by balancing on one rail, and he surprised himself by how far he could do it. He looked back frequently, even though he knew he would hear a train coming well before he would need to step aside. At one point he knelt and pressed his ear to the cold rail to sense the vibration of an approaching train, but he felt nothing.
The woman gone, Mel gone, the Lincoln stop gone–what else might disappear from his life? Walter descended the long stairway to the platform in Cambridge on Tuesday. Perhaps the train itself wouldn’t show up today. Then tomorrow, the whole station would vanish. He laughed at these fanciful ideas. They were more appropriate for some giddy science-fiction story, not the real life of a mechanical engineer.
The train approached on time, and Walter climbed aboard behind a half-dozen strangers. The car was quite full of commuters already. Walter scanned the aisle and finally spotted a vacant seat midway down the car, where the rows turned from facing forward to backward. As he slid into the wide seat, the train pulled away.
“Where can I take you today, my friend?”
Walter practically jumped at the voice. He turned around, and there was Mel at the end of the car punching out tickets. Walter called to him, but the conductor was busy and did not look up. The train sped on from one station to another, as Mel slowly worked his way closer. When he reached Walter he said, “Hey Professor, how’s your book coming?”
“Mel,” Walter stammered, “where have you been?”
The old conductor leaned against the seat for a moment. “Oh, just a little safety retraining course they put us through every few years. You know, a train crashes out West and they rush everybody into emergency classes. Why, what did you think?”
“I don’t know. You were just…gone.”
“That’s how the railroad works, they don’t give anybody notice.” Mel slipped his punch over the green ticket. “Lincoln, I presume.”
“Lincoln?” Walter said. “No, I came in from Concord this morning. You don’t stop in Lincoln anymore. Didn’t they tell you?”
Mel laughed and pulled a paper from his lapel pocket. “Here’s the new supply of schedules–just came out today.” His big forefinger worked down the row of times and stopped at 5:22. “There it is,” he said, “Lincoln.”
“But yesterday the train didn’t stop there–Edward made me go to Concord.”
Mel nodded as if not overly surprised. “We dropped Lincoln on the earlier run at 4:50. The engineer subbing yesterday must have gotten the stops confused.”
The explanation pleased Walter. Edward had been wrong. “Well, today I’ll have to go to Concord, where my car is.”
“Did you ever notice,” Mel said as he processed the ticket, “how people always return to where they come from? Wouldn’t it be a more interesting world if people sometimes ended up far away from where they set out?”
Walter shook his head, trying to dismiss the crazy thought. But why did each day have to be a perfect circle? Why couldn’t a person take a sidetrack, go a little ways, and then come back, if need be?
As the train neared Lincoln, a few people got up, and Walter wondered how they knew it would stop there today when he did not. He watched them crossing the parking lot to their cars. As the train moved on, he sensed a person sitting down at the edge of his seat. When he looked over, he saw the woman with one ear.
“I am sorry to intrude,” she said, “but the train is so full today.”
“No, it’s fine, there’s plenty of room,” he said, drawing himself closer to the window so she would not be frightened. Walter breathed the intoxicating scent of some delicate perfume. He felt the vinyl seat shift under him as she settled into her place. He said, “It’s nice to see you again.”
She nodded pleasantly and fixed her large shopping bag on the floor between them. The top fell open and he could see a white uniform inside, the kind a nurse might wear. Then her thin hand reached to the knot beneath her chin and began loosening the bright orange scarf. What could she be doing? Walter looked away so as not to be tempted again to stare at the scar. But as he gazed into the train window he saw the reflection of the silk fall from her head. She folded the scarf neatly on her lap.
He turned to her. There on the right side of her head was a perfectly formed, little pink ear. It was smoothly curved at the top and delicately lobed at the bottom. The ear seemed magical to him, as if sewn on by miniature hands.
She tucked a few errant strands of her short black hair behind the ear. He smiled at this gesture, wishing that he had something new and wonderful about himself to show her. She smiled back at him. “Wasn’t that your stop?”
He was pleased that she had noticed. He looked through the bleary window at the lights of Lincoln Station receding quickly. “No,” he said, “I’m going farther today.”
–from “The 5:22,” published by Story magazine, Fall 1999, and Best American Short Stories, 1999.
Copyright 1999 by George Harrar. All rights reserved.