* The Marigold Loop

The Marigold Loop

Kenneth Burchfiel

The train sighed into the concourse, one eye open and the other light off. Teal sparks danced around the third rail in front of it, but the cars didn’t seem in the mood. The doors opened to reveal a pale interior that camouflaged the pale-faced occupants.

Briefcases and laptops scraped against his hips; tailored suits bumped into his flannel-fitted shoulders. A crowd of twenty, maybe thirty executives shoved their way into the car, save for the last few who came too late. Another groan, and the car limped out of the station.

He was the only one on the platform.

Armut walked back to his bench, the very furthest from the station’s center. It gave him an odd feeling to be standing there, surrounded by the same type whom he had worked with, dined with for the better half of his life. Or the worst half. He wouldn’t know just yet.

Another designer suit stepped off the escalator. Blue body, gold trim around the buttons. Her heels clacked against the platform floor until they stopped right before him.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a nervous smile. “I’m trying to get down to Uri, Uri Station. What line do I take?”

Did he tell her his revelation now? Or let her travel the loop until she realized it never took her anywhere?

“You want to take the Argon line down Crosstra, then take the Aluminum line to Uri.” He pointed to the approaching train, and the suit faded away.

Back to the bench. This set of cars was quite lively for seven in the morning; the train picked up a discarded Globe and tore it into a frenzy of newsprint. Armut watched the paper settle, then rise again as the cars departed.

When there was a lull in the traffic, or when he couldn’t quite bring himself to pull out the souvenir cup from under his shoe, Armut liked to gaze upward and watch the station doves. There were seventeen of them at his last count, each so distinct that he needed not reach for his glasses to tell them apart.

They congregated at the overhang, right where the two sides of the ceiling curved into a graceful row of columns. Armut smiled knowingly at the birds, then pulled out his orange cup and gave it a practice shake.

Four months ago, when Armut was a denizen of the loop, he and the doves met for the first time. He was one foot off the Argon line when a rapturous flapping sounded from above. The doves, yellow-tinted from the train lights, shot one by one into the tunnel. Within seconds, they had disappeared into the abyss.

He figured that they were headed for the next station, a circus of traveling birds that scoured the Albeit subway for food. But one look down the tunnel revealed a clump of white that seemed to be moving around.

Looking both ways and finding nobody to return his glance, he walked to the platform’s end. With each step, the speck evolved into an oval, then a patch, then an ever-shifting mass of white and grey. The birds had scraped out a nest between the transformer and the gas lines.

The only word the animals bought to his mind was peace. Peace, a strange term to find forty feet below the ground, yet far scarcer forty feet above.

Armut made a second, then a third pilgrimage to the dove’s next in the next two days. They were fascinating creatures to watch, from the way they pulled on every individual feather to the vocabulary of their calls. He wasn’t satisfied after fifteen minutes of observation, or a half-hour, or an entire hour. His boss asked Armut about the bags under his eyes the next day, and he wove together an explanation about a series of car alarms at his apartment complex. Must have been the college kids.

A strange thought came to him the next night, the next viewing. Armut was sitting on the bench near the birds when he wondered if he didn’t fit in better with them than with the world above. His coworkers were a strange flock: they drank as much coffee as their luxury SUVs drank gasoline. Abstracts and dissertations could drive them to tears, yet they didn’t blink an eye at some of the headlines in the Globe. The word “seniority” was like a mother’s lullaby to them. Perhaps, Armut thought, the birds down here knew something that the briefcase crowd, the people of the loop, did not.

Perhaps he could learn it, too.

It only took seven more days. He had marched into the subway with his skin popping and his eyes poised to spout. A co-worker had edited the wrong draft of Firm Proposal 30C, then promptly deleted his final version after finishing. The mistake lost him the firm’s most valuable client. Seeing the station empty once again, Armut opened his mouth to curse when he remembered the doves.

The mass of white was huddled together, each dove preening the neck of another. The older ones nudged their heads together, trading sweet chirps that the slightest noise in the station drowned out. Three chicks were exploring the underside of the third rail.

There was not anything special about the doves. Their actions, as far as he saw, were meaningless. They pecked for nothing, flapped for nothing, preened for nothing. But the more Armut stared, the more he realized that he was typing and negotiating for nothing. Twenty years in an executive office had given him nothing but a reason to fall out of bed in the morning.

The next week, Armut carried a bulky package and an orange cup with him on the way to Marigold station. The box obscured his long-sleeved shirt, a relic from law school that he hadn’t worn in decades. His blazer was on the frame of his bed, along with his loafers, his briefcase and the latest draft of Firm Proposal 30C. Even at fifteen pounds, the box lifted his spirits—if only for what it didn’t contain.

As the train moved silently to a stop, Armut noticed a gray-tinted dove perched on the station clock. He exited with the package and turned to the end of the platform.

Before stepping over the fence that separated the doves from the doctorates, he examined the loop one more time. The workers rode east in the morning, then west in the evening, east in the morning, then west in the evening, better paid each time but never going further than the tracks allowed. Some would ride the circle to their death. He wove to nobody in particular, then hopped the barrier.

Armut checked his watch, the only piece of electronics equipment that the box had contained. 121 days, 31 minutes and 13 seconds since he crossed the fence. He examined the orange cup for cracks, then walked up the escalator and stepped off the top into Albeit proper. The sun’s rays were powerful enough that he struggled to walk against them.

Armut settled down at his favorite bench and rattled the cup. The morning commuters were no philanthropists, but he hadn’t come here for the money. Armut shook the cup again and received a grimy dime for his efforts.

Every night, he went to sleep amidst the roar of subway trains and the gossip of doves. Before breaking away from the loop, he used to settle into a king-sized bed with 400 thread-count sheets, mood music and a school of sleeping pills. Ironic, perhaps, that the trains and dove put him at rest when the pills and blankets only kept him up. Ironic that he would find true freedom underground.

The bench faced the Marigold Station entrance, whose corners the sun sharpened into lines of white and gray. A pair of doves flew out of the tunnel, banking eastward towards the sun.

Armut smiled, leaned back on the bench and shook the cup again.

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