Doppelganger in the Loop
Paul sat on a weather-beaten wooden bench in the middle of the platform. He glanced at his wristwatch; it was a quarter to six in the morning. Dull, yellowish electric bulbs glowed eerily in lamps lining the peaked tin roof.
Facing south, he saw endless steely tendrils of track; countless bile-green and dung-brown stations and overpasses; an enveloping wall of drab brick, concrete, steel and glass emerging from the murky indigo shadows; all narrowing to a point on the horizon. A dingy, leaden sky enshrouded the sleeping city.
A late autumn Chicago wind whipped across the platform, lashing his exposed face and hands, stirring bits of scattered rubbish and ruffling the feathers of scavenging pigeons. The pigeons cooed noisily as they pecked at garbage, ingesting urban trash while splattering the blanched wooden structure with their chalky droppings.
Inside the station, the fare-taker sat secure in his cage, reading a magazine; a wizened, humpbacked old news vendor hunkered down in his newsstand. Paul was the only passenger waiting for the “A” train: alone, except for his doppelganger.
The doppelganger sat next to Paul, identical in every detail: gray-streaked brown hair; pale, wrinkled forehead; grizzled beard stubble; cloudy blue eyes; expressionless face; even the doppelganger’s clothing was the same. It wore a dingy tan trench coat, brown corduroy trousers, and scuffed loafers.
Paul reached out; his left hand passed through the doppelganger as if it were an illusion. “Am I dreaming?” Paul wondered. He looked at a sign, confirming he was in the Loop: the Adams and Wabash “A” and “B” stop on the Lake Street elevated.
He scratched his chin, fingers tingling at the bristly coarseness of two day’s growth. Sliding his right hand over the rough surface of the wooden bench, little grayish-blue paint flecks peeled off; he rubbed the withered chips between his fingers, crushing them into powder.
He sniffed the sleeve of his coat; it gave off a slight, acrid odor of mothballs; the doppelganger seemed odorless. “I sense myself, and the objects surrounding me; this insubstantial mirror image can’t be real, yet it appears as real as I am. Either I’m dreaming, or I’m mad.”
The platform shuddered, station lights flickered, as the el rumbled toward the platform. Brakes screeching, the train came to a sudden halt. Doors opened; no one exited.
Paul got up from his bench and walked to the nearest car; pulsating electric motors filled his nostrils with the pungent metallic tang of hot oil and ozone. Entering the almost empty compartment, Paul turned, watching the doppelganger; it remained motionless on the bench. Doors closed, the train lurched, and Paul grabbed a metal pole to steady himself. He walked to a seat, and sat down, facing forward, as the train moved down the track.
Disembodied, semi-intelligible crackling through a loud speaker announced the next stop. The announcement was of no interest to Paul; he would continue riding to the end of the line.
On the left side of the car, facing him, sat an attractive girl of about sixteen or seventeen, with long, light brown hair, creamy skin and large dark-brown eyes. Paul stared at the girl; she didn’t look away.
He listened to the whine of electric motors, and the incessant ca-lack, ca-chunk of steel wheels on rails. Occasionally, at a bumpy patch of railbed, the car rocked and the lights dimmed. Paul looked to his right, watching the city pass by, filtered through his reflection in the window.
They crossed a black iron trestle; below, the turbid river flowed toward a canal. A little tugboat towing an empty barge chugged down the olive drab waterway past steep, dun colored mud-banks lined with crumbling, red brick warehouses. The cloudy, plumbic sky seemed toxic: the smothering atmosphere made Paul sweat and tremble with anxiety, as though trapped in a small, dark, airless box.
The train rolled onward, ca-lack, ca-chunk, past sprawling, prison-like housing projects and older two- and three-story buildings: some abandoned, some still seemingly inhabited. Many of the superannuated red, brown and yellow brick buildings had dates on their elaborately corniced Victorian roofs.
Turning away from the window, he noticed the young woman, still staring straight ahead. She seemed familiar; Paul just couldn’t place her in his memory. Gazing at the pretty, impassive girl, his anxiety waned; gradually, the rocking of the car, and the monotonous rhythmic rumbling of the wheels, lulled him to sleep.
Paul awoke to crackling noise: “Harlem Avenue-Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park-Harlem Avenue; end of the line.” Except for Paul, the car was empty; the girl was gone. Paul got up, exiting by the front door.
The train moved down the line toward the railway yard. Paul walked along the platform to the exit, stopping briefly to look northward. The low-level, suburban storefronts and office buildings sparkled in the early morning sunshine. Tall oaks, maples, and elms lined the streets, their fallen gold, scarlet, and copper-brown leaves returning to bare branches, rejuvenating to spring green as he watched. A small flock of chattering birds circled overhead, and then settled on a telephone wire. The clouds were white cotton wisps in a broad, bright azure sky, the breeze mild.
Refreshed by the change in atmosphere, Paul smiled, inhaling clean air. Turning toward the exit, he saw the girl from the train, standing next to a young man.
The girl wore a maroon high-school jacket, a short, green, plaid pleated skirt, white woolen knee socks and brown loafers. The boy wore a school sweater covered with athletic letters. They kissed briefly; the girl walked to the exit landing, where she turned, smiled, waved, and then disappeared into the darkness of the stairwell. The young man walked back to a bench and sat down. Paul seated himself next to the boy. It was his doppelganger; or, rather, it was an image of Paul as he appeared forty years earlier.
Staring at his reflection aged eighteen, Paul thought, I’m dead; but which one of us is the ghost?
A chilly wind blew over the platform, swirling and kicking up scraps of paper: the clear blue sky turned slate-gray; the bright orange sun disappeared behind clouds tinged with poisonous violet. Paul checked his watch; the hands on the analog dial spun crazily. He looked up at the station sign. He was back in the Loop, and the time was a quarter to six.
Turning to his left, he saw the fifty-eight-year-old doppelganger. Smiling wryly, Paul asked, “Do you think the trains are running on time?”
Large snowflakes fell from the ashen sky, drifting over the tracks and platform, enfolding the station in a luminescent, silvery white winding-sheet. The doppelganger sat silent and motionless. They remained together, waiting for the westbound train.
First published 2006, in Bewildering Stories Issue 205