Belmont Station and it’s 2 a.m. by Max Steiner
Belmont station and it’s 2 a.m. and the father’s stranded out here somewhere in who the hell knows on his way back home, when it should have been a straight shot but has somehow taken him a good two hours to just end up getting lost like the sad-eyed dogs you’ll see tied up side of the highway sometimes and plus he’s starving, so bad it feels like pennies in his guts. Looking round there’s not much else but there’s a vending machine all lit up sickly sweet from deep inside its Plexiglas and its hum a low soft kind of hum. So he digs his pockets for loose change and slots some three quarters and double checks the numbers and keys in the code for a Mars bar or a Baby Ruth maybe and then watches the coil unspool until it stops short and doesn’t drop a single thing. Which now just hangs there on the cusp and guess what: that was the last of his cash, his pockets empty now except for lint. And he stares at the vending machine and goes, Right, like his luck is just what he’s gotten used to since his kid got the biopsy a couple months back. He slumps forward and rests his forehead on the lit up Plexiglas, cool against his worry lines and so familiar from the hospital’s pediatric wing’s waiting room, where it’s this same electric hum and lit up interior behind glass and soda out of a machine and parents sitting and yawning and thumbing Nat Geo or shuffling round and looking lost, and also there’s friendly fish cartooned on walls and Legos in Tupperware and maybe a couple kids without eyebrows sporting bracelets that string one extra glow-in-the-dark bead for every visit to the Cobalt-60 and who are playing like it’s all going to be okay—and the father’s question always is but is it really? And often in the waiting room there’s a silence so heavy with worries and what ifs and those bleary-eyed spent prayers in lieu of any real kind of answer because the thing is that he just can’t know, can’t be sure beyond the 5-year survival rate they explained to him twice like out of an insurance brochure. Even though what good is a statistic when it’s your own kid that’s on the line. When odds are no straight answer he can give the little guy whenever he looks up and asks a tired how much longer ‘til. And so this doubt he cannot shake, not in the waiting room and not out here washed up at Belmont station, head resting against the vending machine, where he’s now left hanging not dropping and starving and stuck, the Mars bar or Baby Ruth still on the cusp right there, until it’s all played itself out and is answered for him, and if he knew anything at all he’d know the next train home is still a long ways off.
Max Steiner lives in Berlin, where he teaches kids English and has a thing for vending machines. Find more of his work in Rejection Letters, SAND, and Bending Genres.