Graveyard Shift

On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights, Thea had to answer to the name Doreen. A few days ago, her first day on the job, she nearly corrected the woman talking to her. Thea frowned at the memory. She reached underneath her coat, past the rough material of the oversized scrubs, until she found the real Doreen’s identification card clipped to her front pocket. She squeezed the faded photograph on the card three times before releasing it from her grip. Doreen was called to Barbados last week to see about a man, a potential suitor, and she needed a replacement night aide for Mrs. Robles. Doreen claimed that if she asked for time off again so soon after the last time, she would lose her seniority when she returned. Thea needed the money, but she was nervous about being caught. She was only a few weeks into their Certified Nursing Assistant course and had no real experience as an in-home aide. “Nonsense!” Doreen exclaimed in her commanding lilt. She went down the list of duties. When Thea politely pointed out that she and Doreen were nearly a decade apart in age and looked nothing alike, Doreen cackled and replied, “That woman more than half-blind. Beside, to all dem, Black is Black!” Thea insisted on borrowing her uniform and took great pains to plait her thick hair to resemble Doreen’s signature crown braid. 

The ride to Kew Gardens was over an hour. Thea was tired from sweeping up hair in her aunt’s shop. She wanted to rest her eyes before the long night ahead, but took out her flashcards to make good use of the time. The train doors were on the verge of closing when the man flung his arm through the narrow opening. The doors recoiled and the interloper stepped onto the train. His name was Ozymandias. He was tall and slim with broad shoulders that filled the doorway he now occupied. Pencil-thin dreadlocks tumbled out of his gray knitted cap and the fluorescent lights illuminated his rust-colored skin. He cradled a large bouquet of orange, red, and yellow flowers in his arms and scowled at the passengers who dared to meet his gaze. 

He opened his mouth and shouted, “You mess with me, and I’ll put flowers on your grave!” All eyes that had failed to stay on the man traveled back to him, and passengers craned their necks in his direction, irritated that he had interrupted the solemnity of the crowded rush hour trip. 

“You mess with me, and I’ll put flowers…on…your grave,” Ozymandias bellowed. His voice ricocheted off the train compartment walls as he sliced the bouquet above his head. The cold air stilled and flowers took on an ominous meaning.

As the train car pulled forward, the low hum of the motor and the clack of the wheels gliding down the track filled the atmosphere. Ozymandias stumbled away from the doors and sat down next to a small gray woman who quickly switched seats to avoid catching his wildness. Her movement eased the tension in the car and the passengers shifted their attention back to their phones and newspapers. Except Thea. She loosened her grip on the flashcards in her hands and welcomed the break from silently fitting her mouth around the syllables. She was entranced by the man, and could not figure out why she felt this stranger seemed so familiar. She searched for another person who was equally under his spell and locked eyes with another Black passenger flanked by two grocery bags. The woman nodded her head in Ozymandias’ direction, and shook her head in piteous disgust. Thea sighed to herself and looked away, a refusal to serve on the woman’s jury.

The train had reached the next stop, and passengers entered after others exited. Thea studied the man, and watched as the feral look in his eyes faded. Ozymandias turned to the young woman who had sat next to him, and asked, “Excuse me miss, would you like a flower?” She beamed and accepted a brilliant red flower. He then handed a yellow flower to a woman sitting across from him. “Oh! How beautiful,” she replied, followed by a high-pitched giggle. Ozymandias mimicked her laugh and the woman laughed harder in response. Thea grinned at this exchange. Ozymandias continued to distribute the bright perennials at random and stopped when he had cut the size of his bouquet in half. He then sat up tall and regal, as if he were sitting on a throne, resigned to rule over a foreign kingdom he had never heard of before coming to power.

Ozymandias swayed back and forth, propelled by the movement of the train, and began to hum in a low tone. Thea observed the friendly meanness return to his eyes as he watched one of the women twirl the stem between her fingers. He clutched the flowers tightly to his chest and proclaimed, “I know where all the best flowers in the city are because I talk to them every morning!” The passengers who witnessed his earlier arrival onto the train paid no attention to this outburst. Those who had only known the Ozymandias from seconds ago were alarmed. Two of the flower girls exchanged nervous glances. One of them quietly dropped her orange daisy on the ground. It disappeared among the masses. Ozymandias’ face contorted, making the smattering of freckles on his cheeks dance. He paused to enjoy the renewed interest in him, before shouting, “You either doing the Lord’s work or stirring the devil’s pot! Every tongue that speaks against me deserved to get what they got!” He laughed maniacally, enjoying the discomfort of his fellow passengers. 

Thea furrowed her brow and stuffed the flashcards in her coat pocket. She had heard this phrase before. She scrambled to find her phone in order to write it down and considered giving up her seat to talk to the man. Suddenly the conductor’s compartment door flew open with a loud creak. A pink-cheeked man appeared and quickly waddled through the aisle. The eyes of the passengers followed the conductor, fully aware of where he was heading. When he reached Ozymandias, he towered over him for a moment before narrowing his eyes. He lowered his porcine face close to Ozymandias’ bouquet and shushed him before growling, “Quiet!” 

Ozymandias bowed his head, and muttered “I’m sorry,” into his flowers. He smiled meekly at the conductor and attempted to hand him the flowers. The conductor swatted them away.

“What the hell is wrong with you? You come on my damn train, start throwing flowers everywhere and yelling about Jesus?”

“No sir, no, no, no, sir,” protested Ozymandias. “What you think is not how it is—”

“Quiet! One more outburst and I’ll have you kicked off at the next stop.”

Ozymandias looked defiantly at the conductor, before turning his head to look at his fellow passengers. Thea tried to catch his eye, with no luck. She felt uneasy. She was certain that something was going wrong, and she was the only person on the train to notice. After a moment, Ozymandias slumped down in his seat. He placed the bouquet across his lap and clasped his hands together in mock prayer. Satisfied at cowing the man below him, the conductor looked around at the passengers and charged back into his compartment.

At the next stop, Ozymandias sauntered off the train, murmuring under his breath as he exited. He stopped in front of the gray lady who had refused to sit next to him. “Good day to you,” he said in a sing-song voice. When he made his way past Thea, a crumpled piece of paper fell into her lap. Before she could tell him that he had dropped something, he had vanished into the throng of people and the doors shut together. As the train began to move again, she stared at the scrap of paper in her hands and unfolded it. The words scrawled across the page read, “All the money in the world can’t buy you another second of your life, for money is worthless in the hands of time.” She couldn’t make sense of the missive. 

She felt herself traveling through her memory. She was four or five, standing in the doorway to her grandmother’s kitchen. Her grandmother liked to stay up late and much to Thea’s parents’ chagrin, so did Thea. She watched as her grandmother sloshed a can of chicken noodle soup in a mug before adding water from the tap, stirring it, and placing it in the microwave. As her grandmother watched the mug rotate, Thea coughed from the doorway. Her grandmother caught her breath and squinted toward her. Thea walked into the kitchen. “Baby, you always tiptoeing around here at night. One of these days you’re gonna scare me to death.” She took the soup out of the microwave and stirred it while shaking her head.

“Can I have some?”

“Are you hungry?”

“No,” said Thea.

Her grandmother laughed, pulled her close and kissed her forehead. She fed her a spoonful of the soup. “You don’t like to do anything but stir the devil’s pot!” Thea blinked, and she was back on the train. She didn’t have any more of that memory.

She placed the note in her coat pocket, slung her bag over her shoulder, and exited the train at her stop. As she emerged from the station, Thea thought of her grandmother, how her large body became a small figure that had to remain wrapped up under a dozen blankets during the last days of her life. It was June. No matter how many covers they gave her, her grandmother insisted that she was not warm enough. She talked about things that had happened in the past as if they were going to happen in the future. Thea had misheard the man on the train, or dreamed him into being. The mind plays tricks on you when you miss someone. Thea thought of Mrs. Robles. She wondered if it was better or worse to not know how time was moving. She envied the inability to know the difference between one moment and the next. She yawned as she rounded the corner and reached the front of the stately building. She looked up at the clear night. She hoped that Doreen would return soon.