By Julie Zuckerman
For 27 years, from the day they moved into their three-bedroom starter home until the massive coronary stopped his heart forever, Cliff took the first commuter rail of the day. Alicia joked of a secret mistress on the 5:38, but Cliff would laugh it off with a gentle kiss to her forehead, saying he got his best work done between 6:30 and 9 am. In all the years, she’d never taken the early train with him, not because there were children at home requiring waking or holding or feeding, but because she didn’t care to start her days pre-dawn.
Depending on the season, he’d snap pictures of the rays illuminating the river along the route, or the muted light ascending above the treetops, and he’d send these to her, along with a brief text wishing her a good morning.
Now, in the feverish weeks since Cliff’s passing, Alicia’s biorhythms have changed. She can’t sleep past 4:45. She imagines Cliff stretched out on his seat, folding back the pages of his newspaper, unscrewing the cap from his thermos, sipping his favorite dark-roasted Colombian blend.
She composes a letter to the commuter rail to thank them for operating the 5:38, for giving her husband a peaceful start to his day, but it sits on her desk, unmailed.
Advice from the young widows’ support group is unanimous: if riding the 5:38 will make you feel closer to Cliff, go. Whatever you need to get through the day.
There’s no one else on the platform. When Alicia boards, something is amiss. In place of regular seats, cradles filled with sleeping babies line the train car, a mother dozing next to each one. At the far end, a section with blinking lights and incubators and two women in nurses’ scrubs comparing charts.
She flees to the next car; surely, she’s hallucinating due to sleep deprivation. But the next car is the same, and the one after that. Where are the commuters, the people with whom Cliff spent 45 minutes each morning? At last, she finds one mother awake. “What…is this?”
“Shhh! I just got him to sleep. It’s the colic choo-choo.”
“It’s a nickname. Up and down the line, the rocking is the only way to get these babies to sleep.”
“My husband swore he took this train to work. Every day.”
“We get a few commuters here and there.” The woman clasps her hand to her mouth, sudden recognition. “Oh, my lord! Alicia, right? We were devastated to hear.”
“You knew Cliff?”
“We all did. He was our angel. Walking up and down the cars, taking the most colicky babies and soothing them. He had a magic touch.”
Why had he never told her? He’d gone out of his way not to talk about babies and kids so she wouldn’t feel worse about her fertility issues.
Alicia shakes, unsteady. Unlike the babies, she is wide awake. Every vibration along the tracks an unanswered question, a newborn wail.
Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, will be published by Press 53 in 2019. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, Ellipsis, Sixfold, descant, and The MacGuffin, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. She can be found on Twitter at @jbzuckerman.