The subway doors closed with their usual carelessness while Ken sat and listened to his music dreaming of her. They could only be together within the confines of a song’s fantasy, but perhaps that was all he needed. Either way, he had to learn to be content with a life that wouldn’t permit him to get to know her properly. Dreams are almost always better anyway, he figured as he let himself get lost within the lyrics of the song like an old poem. “The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds,” he sang to himself internally. At 1AM it hardly mattered if he sang aloud as he was the only one in the subway car, but proclamations of love were never quite the type of thing that emboldened him. Come to think of it, not much else did. He lived by a motto that suggested that one should be content with his life even if he isn’t. Some might say it’s cowardly to live that way, but sometimes a good love song alone could make him feel like he could conquer the world, capture the heart of the woman of his dreams, and ride away in some sort of Don Quixote –inspired glory out into the sunset with a new love that would inspire him for the rest of his remaining days. For a period of less than 4 minutes, Ken believed the love he had for Lizzie would be boundless and he had faith in that life he lived inside that song.
Winter would be brutal. The snowfall alone so far had made it one to remember. As they parted ways earlier, he had hoped only that she would get to home safely and stay warm. As it is, he himself enjoyed the warmth that the subway car provided and dreaded the prospect of having to leave it once he reached his destination. That would be a long way off though. For now there was just him, “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits, and his dreams of Lizzie and what she might be like if he were allowed to know her. The frustration that he may never get to properly know the woman of his dreams sometimes got to him, but as long as he had her in his mind as the music played that would have to be enough.
It wouldn’t be a wise thing to make a move on the boss’s wife even if he could tell that little love existed between the two. No, that was one marriage that Ken could never see ending. Vinnie would sooner have her killed rather than let her off with another man and Ken was a low level underling at that so everyone would be gunning for him at the drop of a dime if that’s what it came to. No, all he could do was dream and love from afar so that’s what he’d do. Besides, bad things happened to people who chased their dreams, got greedy, and decided to act on them especially in this business. Though Ken found himself in love, he knew that love didn’t necessarily conquer all – not bullets anyway. Cupid’s arrow was no match for a .45 caliber semi-automatic fired by on behalf of Vinnie Calabrese.
He valued his own life too much to act on his most paramount desire despite the fact he thought maybe he stood a chance if the circumstances were different. That very night after the near fatal collision, she had come ever so close to asking him for a kiss. Just as he leaned in, he could hear a car pull-up and sure enough it was one of Vinnie’s goons prepared to take Lizzie home leaving Ken to get himself home by subway. He could tell Lizzie was shaken, and Ken almost forgot himself as he was about to suggest waiting for the ambulance prior to recalling just who would be involved. The civilians from the other car seemed alright as they watched Ken and Lizzie leave the scene of the accident with petulant incredulity. What did it matter anyway? It’s not as if Ken was driving his own car? It would take time but once it was discovered that he was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle, Ken knew it would be best not to face any questions. Still, Ken was deeply concerned with the bruise on Lizzie’s head.
For now there was only the music in his ears and his dreams of Lizzie that danced around in his head and that would be fine. That was all he needed. Perhaps he should have been hoping that the cell phone of the man in the other car failed to record video of his face; perhaps he should have been hoping that Vinnie’s rage would fail to peak as he heard the news of his wife involved in a serious car accident. “Who was that idiot behind the wheel again,” Vinnie would shout to one of his goons. Ken would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that these little things didn’t poke into his mind occasionally as the music played. Still, this was his time with Lizzie. This was his time to imagine what it would’ve been like to completely lean in and kiss her. This was his time to imagine a world without men like Vinnie and his goons, a world where he and Lizzie were free to get more acquainted, fall in love, and have a future together.
The next song he played was “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty. Ken close his eyes and the lyrics swam around in his mind. He saw himself on a boat somewhere off in an imaginary sea with Lizzie beside him baiting some hooks. She smiled that wide smile of hers, the one she rarely let anyone else see. Ken only first noticed it the first time he met her. He had come around to Paulie’s place to drop off his collections when he noticed Vinnie and Lizzie sitting at the kitchenette drinking some coffee. Lizzie looked bored to tears. Her dark hair sat pleasantly on her shoulders and framed her face just perfectly for him. Though she wore hardly any make up, her natural beauty was enough to captivate his imagination. Paulie had called over to him to take the kettle and refill Lizzie’s mug, and as he walked over to her he felt the rest of the room fade away just as it always did in the movies. His eyes had then met hers at a casual glance, but later on that night his memory had been triggered by this Tom Petty song. “Run away, find you a lover / Go away, somewhere all bright and new / I have seen no other /Who compares with you.”
That night and every night since, Ken dreamt of Lizzie. Nothing overtly sexual would happen in his dreams. He dreamt they’d take the subway together and talk and laugh and just enjoy each other’s company. They’d maybe catch a game when the weather was nice or see a show or go out for some clams by the beach on Coney Island and just walk the boardwalk without a care in the world. Even though he hardly knew her, he felt the connection between them had been strong enough for something more to flourish if only life had been slightly different.
In reality, she probably barely even noticed him until that night. That night he was given the task of driving her home from one of Vinnie’s clubs. Vinnie had one of his important late night deals to be made and had to stay behind for one of his clandestine nefarious business meetings. At least that’s what he made it look like. For all Ken knew, maybe Vinnie had gone off to be with his goomar. Ken had no idea which one of these possible scenarios was true nor did it matter. All he knew was that he’d be alone in a Mercedes with Lizzie. Ken knew the score. He knew the car he’d be driving in would be stolen. That’s was Vinnie’s business after all, and there’s no way Vinnie would want some low level guy driving his wife home in a humble Buik. No, it had to be a Mercedes. Truthfully, Ken felt Lizzie deserved no less.
Lizzie came out of the club wearing her brown heavy leather coat as snowflakes whirled around her lovely brown hair. Like a gentleman, Ken got out and charmingly opened the passenger side back seat door for her taking her hand to assist her getting into the vehicle. Ken was wearing his best suit, a grey one with pinstripes that made him look like a Wall Street executive. He had received the call just 45 minutes ago to drive into Manhattan to Vinnie’s club on the Upper West Side and pick up his wife to drive her back home to Brooklyn. There was important business to be done and no one else had been around to drive her. Vinnie’s regular driver needed to stay behind for Vinnie while Ken had held on to the red Mercedes he had borrowed running an errand earlier that day. This is my big opportunity, thought Ken. He knew he couldn’t exactly profess his feelings for her, but he could at least count on some time alone with her. He could take in her beauty looking in on her through the rear view mirror smelling the perfume that would radiate throughout the car, and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation with her that didn’t involve refilling her coffee mug. The stage would be set for him to be with the woman of his dreams, and Ken believed nothing could ruin it.
Ken could tell Lizzie was tired as she yawned a big yawn seconds after getting into the car.
“How was your evening?” asked Ken.
Lizzie sighed, “These places tire me out. I pretend to enjoy them for Vinnie when truthfully I’d rather be home alone snuggling with a good book.”
“I know what you mean. I’m not much of a club person myself. Just relax and I’ll get you home.”
“I left my keys in the club.”
“Should I turn back?”
“No, keep driving but take it slow. I’ll have someone come and follow us.”
Ken listened as Lizzie reached someone at the club. The person on the other end said they’d have someone drive the same route and that they’d either meet up in front of the house or stop somewhere so Lizzie could get her keys. Ken enjoyed the sound of Lizzie voice. It neither was the high-pitch shrill of the other men’s wives nor was it that stereotypical mobster wife sultry mess of a tone you sometimes get in the movies. It had just the right tone to be unwittingly seductive exuding guilelessness that could only be genuine. He imagined himself listening to her talk to him, and it didn’t matter what words she used, whatever she said would sound just right. Ken imagined that Lizzie could be a singer if she wanted to. Perhaps the show business life would be less kind to her than Vinnie, but at least she’d have some kind of freedom.
The brisk night air could be felt despite the heat on in the vehicle. The snow started to come down more heavily, and the city streets were soon coated in a sheet of whiteness. The windshield wipers dutifully kept the snow from obscuring Ken’s view, but nothing could prevent him from dreaming. He had ran out of things to say and felt content enough to let Lizzie rest as her eyes lacked their usual flare of energy.
“You mind if I put on some music?” asked Ken.
“Sure, go ahead,” said Lizzie.
“I got this song stuck in my head and I just need to hear it.”
“What song is that?”
“Downtown Train – the Tom Waits version.”
“It’s a beautiful song but I’ve only heard Rod Stewart sing it.”
“You have to hear Tom Waits sing it. There’s just the right sense of loss and yearning behind it. The Rod Stewart version is a bit syrupy.”
“I know what you mean,” said Lizzie, “Put it on.” As she said this, that’s when Ken saw that rare wide smile of Lizzie’s. It told him she was genuinely interested. She was no longer in that sleepy fog as she fixed her hair and leaned forward from the back seat towards the middle of the front of the car next to Ken.
Ken took out his phone and cued up the song while sitting at a red light. The song started just as the light turned to green. The opening guitar line chirped like a morning bird as the Mercedes drove off. Tom Waits’ guttural voice came on soft and low, “Outside another yellow moon / has punched a hole in the night time mist.” Ken could feel Lizzie’s elbow against his bicep as he glanced over and saw her close her eyes and listen.
Tom Waits crooned on, “I climb through the window and down to the street / I’m shining like a new dime / The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds” Just then, Ken could hear Lizzie let out a sigh and she whispered, “That’s me.”
He could hardly believe he established this kind of connection with Lizzie. It was almost as if he had discovered a secret language to speak to her with. The music he played would speak to her heart from his very own, and who knows what would come of it as there would be no way for her to leave Vinnie putting both their lives at risk, but at least their souls could figuratively sing to each other in the quiet moonlight in this very car on this very night. He already decided that he wouldn’t kiss her even if she wanted to. The music would be enough for him. In a way, these lyrics and the way she took them in with her eyes closed and her full attention on the song, knowing that the song he played spoke to her very soul, in a way . . . in a way that was far more intimate than a kiss or even anything that might physically come afterwards.
Just before the chorus came on for a final time, she asked, “Ken, would you please play that song for me again after this is over.”
“Of course, anything you ask.”
Then after a pause she added, “I want you to drive fast.”
“But it’s snowing and –“
“Shut that mouth of yours and do as I ask, drive and drive fast. I want to feel my heart race.”
Ken hesitated for a minute. The next intersection seemed far enough so that he might be able to provide her with a brief thrill if that was all she wanted. He looked at her, and just then she kissed him on the cheek and said, “Drive.”
Ken put his foot on the accelerator and sped down towards the next intersection as Tom Waits gruffly wound down his song, “Will I see you tonight on a downtown train / All my dreams, all my dreams fall like rain / On a downtown train /On a downtown train.” The light changed from green to red just as Ken thought he might have been able to make it. He panicked putting his foot on the brakes only to have the brakes lock and the car continue to swerve towards the intersection. Lizzie had her eyes closed seemingly relishing in the vehicle’s temporary loss of control. Ken put his arm across to the seat next to him. He could feel her body crashing into his arm surging forward as the impact of the other car spun the car around. Instinctively, he pushed her body back towards the back seat preventing Lizzie from flying forward.
Her mouth opened wide as she landed back in her seat. They stared at each other in shock. With the car now still and the ringing in his ears starting at full force, he climbed in the back seat next to her and asked her if she was okay. Her head had snapped forward into the headrest of the front passenger seat. Ken could see a blue bruise on her head. She looked at him tearfully and said, “I think I’m alright. What happened?”
All Ken could think of to say as he held her shoulder awkwardly was, “I think I was driving too fast.”
Lizzie blinked a few times in a disoriented manner and then said, “That’s right I told you to drive fast. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m just glad you’re alright,” said Ken.
Her eyes composed themselves and she looked at Ken endearingly. Ken held her face in his hand, and just as they both closed their eyes, Ken could hear the car pulling up behind them. As he was about to lean in to kiss her, a knock came on the window. It was Nicky, one of Vinnie’s goons. They got out of the Mercedes and it was agreed Nicky would take her the rest of the way home since no one was seriously hurt.
As he walked away, Ken could hear Lizzie ask, “What about Ken?”
“Let ‘em take the train, whaddayou care anyway?”
Then, Ken remembered his phone in the car. He ran back to the Mercedes and grabbed the phone, which had somehow landed on the dashboard. Most would believe he went back for his phone so that the police wouldn’t have that as evidence against him, but only Ken knew he went back for his phone for the music. He noticed the guy in the other car point his own cell phone at him knowing it might lead to no good but decided to do nothing. Ken never saw himself as the threatening type despite the nature of his work. Besides, a violent outburst would be unbecoming of his noble love for Lizzie. He listened as the stranger in the other car involved in the accident protested and yelled for him to get back to the scene of the accident blathering on about insurance information and police and ambulances. None of that stuff mattered to him. Even if he had been fatally injured, Ken had a hard time believing that any of it would matter even then. All that mattered was Lizzie and his dreams of her and the music that allowed him to visualize her and the two of them together.
He laughed to himself as he got into the subway car. He sat down, played the Tom Waits song again, and imagined another lifetime in another world where he and Lizzie could be together. As the song began he thought to himself, Maybe . . . just maybe . . . Lizzie will be one of those Brooklyn girls breaking out of her little world and perhaps I’ll even see her tonight on a ‘Downtown Train.’ Inside the length of one song, Ken even fully believed he’d see her once again on the train that very night.
Author’s Note: This short story is a work of fiction inspired by some music as many of my stories are. For the sake of anyone who wants to hear the Tom Wait’s version of the song Downtown Train, here’s the youtube video: