To my friends at a certain firm:  I cannot ask for permission, only forgiveness.

James James

Morrison Morrison

(Commonly known as Jim)

Told his

Other relations

Not to go blaming him.

James James

Said to his Mother,

"Mother," he said, said he:

"You must never go down to the end of the town

without consulting me."

–Disobedience, A. A. Milne


Chapter one: Doodles on the Train

James Morrison had a moment on the Grand Central platform — a psychic hiccough or a belch — a fleeting sense of void. Blinking at all the people scurrying past, he knew that something skipped a beat. Not his heart. Something elusive...but unmistakable. It was his soul; that was it. For a wink of a moment, James felt as if his soul had gone missing.
Not the James Brown kind of soul, needless to say. A New England WASP of ultimate breeding, a product of the best prep schools and Ivy League colleges the moneyed can buy, James never had that kind of Mojo. No, this was deeper, that essential something buried beyond the reach of the mind. Now an elusive word on the tip of his tongue. 

He joined the moving shadows on the dingy platform, Kenneth Coles squishing, Brooks Brothers sloshing. Minding the gap, he stepped into the fluorescent dinge that was his commute home.  As he tromped up the aisles, looking for a seat, he sensed his eyes peering through the hollowed out skull in his head.

He was not one of these people.

Trudging past the yapping masses, the suburbanites on their daily trek to and from, he felt apart, distinct. He thought he might vomit, to heave out his insides until his toes came up through his throat and he’d just disappear into himself. The emptiness swallowed him from inside, a vacuum in the sea of holes that sucked in everything, including all the holes.
He gazed about this relic of 1970s transportation, its floors strewn with overturned coffee cups, gum wads, sodden newspapers that had served as umbrellas, broken umbrellas that had served as weapons of defense, rolling iced tea bottles, dented beer cans, the detritus and debris of the overworked and underpaid, the men in gray flannel and women in sneakers …all steeled for the sciatic-challenging commute. Looking at the possible seats, he eliminated them one-by-one:  not near the grating tart braying into her cell phone; never amidst the garrulous poker players in their pitted-out shirtsleeves; certainly not by the crone with the halitosis.

In this new soulless state he saw them all for the first time, and scowled. He felt disgust and disdain for them all. Steerage.  If he had a lifeboat he’d lock them below in the hull. Not worth saving. This was a different James.

He spotted a coveted aisle seat, where he could stretch out his long legs. Alas just ahead of him, a middle-aged woman, yesterday's perm now splintered and frizzed, dropped her New Yorker. A well-heeled gentleman, James reflexively stooped to pick it up. As he returned it to her outstretched hand, he looked into eyes that reminded him of something; eyes that had seen tragedy, had experienced pain, suffering, eyes that somewhere deep inside wanted him. This was a human. He looked around at the others. Humans. He instantly offered the desirable seat to this living Keane painting of a woman. 

And the sensation — or lack thereof — lifted. 

He stepped past the woman, and folded himself into a cramped seat by the window, and sighed long and deep — enough to breathe life into his parched spirit.

Humans.  Just tired workers looking for a respite from miserable day.  Humans.  Like himself.  James Morrison.

And then another sensation overwhelmed him.  Sadness.  Inconsolable sadness. The air was redolent with disappointment, with unexplored pathos.  Right here, up and down the aisles, he could feel their yearning. 

He tried not to feel sorry for himself, although bitter would be closer to the truth.  The age of Christ, and only a fart-sniff away from partner in his Firm, he’d expected to be further along than this – certainly not commuting drone.  While his Harvard peers were living it up in their penthouse apartments, or, at the very least, squired home by coveted car services and limos, James resigned himself to the current misery. He, too, was cargo on this aging human freight train, speeding home to the whatever that was life.

Dutifully, he pulled his working papers and legal pad from his brief case and recommenced the endless study of facts, figures, and frameworks that made up his job as a management consultant.  Flipping through a PowerPoint deck, its pages stuffed with colorful charts that might resemble pinwheels or phases of the moon to the uninitiated, James began scribbling notes in the margins.

When he grew bored – which was often the case – he doodled.  His pads and papers were crammed with vivid drawings — great scrambles of art that usurped text and bar chart alike.  The drawings often became the subject of some hidden story, many of them crude, but alive, perplexing, if not just a bit worrisome. A product of his early undergraduate art studies, they reflected his lifelong yearning for a career as a comic book illustrator. But when calmer minds interceded – specifically his mostly absent father  – James had given up such childhood dreams and gotten himself a real degree, then an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Still, the drawings crept along the margins of all his charts and memos like spider webs – many featured Captain Reluctant, his fanciful comic creation. A former high school football hero and rowing champion, Captain Reluctant was your typical Alpha male. In a strange accident, he was pelted by beta rays, rendering him the opposite of Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Mike Bloomberg – heroes who concealed an alpha male persona beneath a beta male exterior. From head to toe, Captain Reluctant was all alpha male: cleft chin, straight nose, inviting blue eyes, not unlike James.  A cartoon of handsome.  But save a burning building? All right, but maybe he could just hold the ladder for the fire department. Rescue a runaway school bus full of children? Perhaps he’d shove a few bales of hay in its way and rest his tired feet.

 It was a concept that always amused him, and he’d figured one day it would make him rich. Alas, as a management consultant, he realized richness would not be his unless he channeled his own alpha male and took charge. But flipping through the endless charts, the industry cost curves, the financial projections, he found himself whirling down into one of his own drawings, overcome by sleep.

He awoke when his head banged against the rain-pelted window. Looking about, dank, disoriented, it took him a moment to remember where he was. A glance across the crowded aisle at that poor bedraggled woman, and the unmistakable hum and thrum, it could only mean the dreaded MetroNorth railroad. 

A quick look at his pad, then back at the other passengers, he could barely see the difference, each stretching past his periphery in scratchy lines. He clenched his eyes shut, willing away the drowsiness. He gazed out the window at a passing train, its windows dewy with the breath of dozens of Connecticut commuters.

The train slowed, and James could make out little slices of activity, of life, as if captured in their own action-adventure frames: here a blonde commuter animatedly chatting to her neighbor, there a chubby, disgruntled conductor waiting for the right change. Frame by frame, window by window, they sped by, lost in their own little worlds, just passing characters in another unread comic book.

As the trains slowed, James was surprised to see another face peering directly at him. At first he looked away, out of politeness, the way one does when catching a glimpse of a driver in a passing car.  But curiosity got the best of him and he looked back. The face still stared. And smiled.

James was certain that the stranger was looking right at him – now only a couple feet apart, separated by mere windows. And yet, he never blinked, never turned away. Instead the stranger stared and James stared back. He wanted to look away, but he was helpless, lost in an unannounced game of chicken. 

As the trains dosey-doed, one pulling ahead, then slowing, the other doing the same, James could clearly make out a toss of graying, sandy hair, dimples, square jaw, and a snarling snipe of a grin. The grin chilled, causing James to flinch.

He recognized something about the eyes that floated above: soullessness. Again that thought! The notion of soul rarely occurred to him at all. Perhaps in some previous, dutiful Episcopalian observance, but now? Had the stranger recognized something in James, too, he wondered?

But it was clear to him: the man had no soul. Certainly. The mouth smiled, the the eyes revealed nothing.  Windows into an empty room. A comic villain if ever he’d seen one.

Instinctively, without really knowing it, he began to draw. As he looked from pad to window, both evil faces leered back. James scribbled. The man stood. Relieved now — the other train was finally pulling ahead.

James amused himself with his new villain, an evil businessman. His drawing took on new dimension as he slashed and shaded with his rolling-writer.  He laughed.  Chortled.  The woman nearby shuddered and drew away.

He didn’t care.

Leaning against the window to reflect on his new creation, he was startled to see the man once again staring at him, this time from another window. Impossible, he thought, and yet the stranger seemed to be following. As the other train picked up more speed, the stranger moved toward the back, keeping pace, keeping watch, keeping James in view.

Now they were both locked in their own train tango: the stranger even switched cars, lunging through the heavy doors that separated the them, emerging from the void, his smiling face floating over the commuters, all ignorant of this little dance.

The lights in the other train blinked off for a moment, and James tore himself away from the sight. When they came back on, he was relieved to find that his car was aligned with the rear car – which appeared all but empty.

There at the back, sat a lone, lonely passenger. His gray hair matched his sagging skin, his glasses perched on a non-descript nose on a non-descript face. Another tired hack, perhaps James one day, a gray man in gray flannel, speeding home this gray night.

The lights blinked off on the other train, and James returned to his doodle. But when they went back on, it seemed impossible, but there was the face – the smile. Finally this villain and this sad sack shared the same frame. The lights blinked. On, then off.

The villain yanked the poor sap up by his tie and twirled him effortlessly against the window. There the man’s face was smashed, spectacles askew. He looked at James for help.

Another blink – another fluorescent flash. Slashing. Glinting. Was that a knife? Knife like pen, slashed. James looked at the passengers around him. He tried to get that bedraggled woman’s attention, perhaps he yelped.

She looked up, shielded herself in her New Yorker.

All around him the other passengers went on with their commute, while in the other train, he was witnessing: Murder.

The villain gashed. Blood splashed.

The poor sot’s face was now smeared, sliding down the window like a finger painting. His glasses stayed, stuck to the glass. The stranger leaned forward and grinned through those spectacles – smiling right at James. Gravity returned; the glasses fell.

The lights blinked on. And off. The train pulled ahead.

The screeching of the emergency brake echoed James own scream.


            Read Chapter two

Excerpt from the comic thriller

Copyright - 2009

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