By Claire Seelinger Devey
James kept the earphones in even though his iPod was off. He didn’t often listen to music on it anyway, unless he was looking for an escape, but usually he left it off to conduct his research. A person on a cell phone would say anything if they thought no one could hear and on the “El” they weren’t likely to lose service unless they were underground. There was plenty of time to listen and observe, but James would not speak unless absolutely necessary. If he had time, he would push his luck and test out his theories about people. Recently he had had more frequent opportunities to do so because he was getting to be pretty good.
Once, while on a bus, James used the dead white wire trick and adjusted his posture and facial expression to his standard Commuter-in-a-Daze setting. He set his backpack on the seat next to him and then clearly heard the sound of the outside zipper pocket being undone only a couple of minutes later. He waited, letting the hand root around inside before he turned to face the passenger behind him. No dramatic confrontation, no words exchanged at all; caught was caught and the wannabe thief quietly returned an empty hand to his lap. James gave himself an extra point for that one; he’d spotted the guy from the front before he’d even swiped his fare and he had elbowed his way into the empty seats ahead of two (typically) giggly highschoolers.
Today he wished he wasn’t trapped near a toddler. The kid was delirious with excitement; he sucked the handrest as he stared, wide-eyed, out the window. He kept saying “tayn, tayn, tayn” over and over again, to remind himself that he really truly was riding a real train. His mother acted shy but James could tell she was proud. “He rides every day and he never gets bored!” she exclaimed and an older gentlemen (predictably) mumbled something about the wonder of childhood.
James had hated most of his own childhood and he intentionally didn’t go by “Jim” because he thought it sounded childish. A Jim or a Jimmy might drool or pee himself, but a James would never allow himself to be so helpless or transparently needy.
“But,” James thought, “a subject with mucus is still a subject,” and he got down to the business of dissecting and labeling. Three stops later and his conclusions were typical – but they were almost always typical. There wasn’t much that could surprise James anymore; he had ridden too many trains and buses to encounter anything new and he prided himself on being able to peg anyone down within three or four stations. The mother was young and the toddler was probably her only child. The older man was no doubt riding to meet his chess partner and they would listen to the Russian radio station at the lakefront while they played. The too-cheery woman in her thirties was clearly an evangelist and when she deliberately took the aisle seat in order to corner the unfortunate passenger who was to be her afternoon target, James thought: “Ha.”
James sometimes felt guilty about these little exercises, sort of. Monosyllabic language and the absence of salivary control was entirely age appropriate for a one- or two-year-old and the beaming mother wasn’t exactly breaking any moral or natural laws, either. Mothers are supposed to be delighted with red-faced hysterical newborns and to carry that pride into the pimply teenage years. It was just that it was all so very predictable. James was bored by all their boring typical-ness.
He sighed and that’s when he noticed her looking. She was staring at him and smiling slightly, amused though not unkind. He guessed her to be a decade ahead of him in age and with the self-confidence not to care about trends or even makeup. A no-fuss hairstyle and sensible shoes, but pretty. She was a graduate student, or one of those non-profit types, or maybe she worked at the Newberry Library, he couldn’t tell. Either way, she had him: the classic smug twenty-something who plays his transit game and is conceited enough to think it was his idea first.
James walked out through the doors of the train and down the stairs of the Belmont station. Before he reached the Vic Theatre, before he was even a block away, he had switched on his music. He had already forgotten them all.