The train would not arrive in Chiayi until around 5:30. It was a strange feeling. It had been many years since he lost rode the train at this time in the afternoon. Always, for the past five years, he took the train from Hualien to Taipei at 6:00 and would not arrive home until much later. Some nights, when he was too tired, he stayed overnight and would not go home until the next evening. In previous years, if not Hualien, then another city: Taichung, Fengliao, Jiufeng, and others. He looked at his watch, it was close to 3:00. The sunlight coming in through the windows of the train was much different at 3:00.
Until this morning, he worked as construction manager. Sitting in the train now, he was nothing. The thought of it made the beats in his chest pound even harder. He gripped the handles of the seat and was terrified by the thought of being nothing after so many years. Have to calm down, he thought, you're an old man now. He took a deep breath and felt the pounding subside to a throb. His chest had throbbed for many years until he got use to it and his mind adjusted. In the beginning, the throb was painful. After a year or two, it was uncomfortable. Now, it maintained his own sense of normalcy and self-identity. He was an aged man, just over sixty years old.
Liao Wu's father also worked in construction. Unlike his father, he was able to make it above the sweat of skilled labor, though he too had toiled there for years. At one point, they had worked together in the same company, Chen Kuo Construction. It was a heavy blow to his father, to see his son wear the same hard hat alongside him in such a place. After time, it was an even heavier blow, to not stand alongside him but to stand under him.
The difference between the two was that Liao Wu naturally drew people around him. It was easy for him to make friends and by that process, achieve favors here and there. Advancement depended on other people. Even the foreigners, who came to inspect the skyscrapers and commercial districts that Liao Wu and the men built for them, knew him by name: Larry. This was unlike his father, who even after years of unflinching effort, clung to his reserve with a stoicism that drew a black curtain over everything outside of his own family; this curtain between his family and the outside world was his badge of pride as a man, so a month after Liao Wu ascended him, he did not go to work the next day. Nor would he ever again.
When his father passed away, Liao Wu's mother told him over the phone. He was away at a site in Taichung. Liao Wu put down the phone and stood in the office in silence until it rang again. There was a problem with one of the contractors. He handled it and continued on with the day. Working through it all.
This was a natural part of the process. A man begets a son and becomes a father, who eventually rises above the father, with the father receding into an honorable, yet forsaken, retirement. And in the end, dies in peace, knowing that he had fulfilled the ultimate accomplishment as man, for his son to rise higher than him. It was a traditional concept and Liao Wu was a traditional man.
He looked at his watch, the train would be not leaving for a few minutes. It was only two. He knew his wife would be at home to pick up. He thought about what to tell her and how to tell it. His wife did not work. She stayed at home with their twenty year old son, who neither went to school or did anything else us. Instead, like his wife who stayed in their apartment, except to buy groceries or handle errands, his son stayed locked in his room. Only opening the door to leave the trash bin outside when it was full, the laundry basket when he desired clean clothes, and to receive or leave out plates of food when he was hungry. Open. Close. It happened without anyone ever seeing him.
They had tried to find help for him in the beginning. They reasoned that, perhaps because Liao Wu had him late, he was forty and this was his first child, some chemical imbalance in the brain was the cause. Not through lack of trying, but they were not able to successfully conceive a child up to then. There were murmurs from his wife's family that it was too late and there would be problems, but the fact that there was a child at all, Liao Wu took as a miracle.
Three and a half decades would disappear in the same time it would take to dial the number for their apartment in Taipei.
He dialed the number.
"Hi dear," the voice said on the other line. It arrived self-consciously soft. It was a voice that had trained itself to answer the phone, when it rang in the middle of the afternoon, with the direction intention to soothe weariness, "is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine. I'm just calling to tell you that I'm needed in Kenting. Something urgent came up and I'm afraid I'm needed. It's unavoidable."
"It's just more work for me. Don't worry about it. I'll be gone for the rest of the week."
"What about clothes?"
"I don't need much. I have the things from my office already."
"Okay honey. Take care then."
He stayed silent, he did not hang up the phone after "take care then". He thought about whether to ask or not: it was always a struggle for him to bring it up and for the last two years, they went through the days without every mentioning it. Like every once in a while, the words responded before his mind did, "How's Shao Wang?"
His wife performed her own moment of silence, before she too, spoke as if the words were just beginning to form, before she even realized they came from her, "He's...good."
"Good. I'll see you next week then."
This was not what Liao Wu wanted to say. He lied. He felt guilty, lying to his wife, but it was not the first time he had done so. What surprised him, was how particular one came so naturally. There was guilt but no self-hate. No remorse. Not like the other times. It was as if the lie was there in the advertisement behind the headrest of the seat in front of him. All he had to do was read it out loud and put into existence. He felt this way before he even removed the phone from his pocket, with the slightest idea of calling his wife. No, it was since the initial event this morning, the "sorry, I didn't want to be the one to tell you this because you've been so good and loyal to me over the years but..." that he received from his superior, his good friend, who sat looking at him across the table with his eyes peering over the glasses that had slid down his nose, with both hands clasped on top of another as if in prayer - that the lie had been told. Many times already. It was a natural part of the process.
Though he had until the end of next week to remove his things from the office and sign all the relevant paper work, he left everything as it was, untouched. It looked the same as it did last night, just as it did every morning when he arrived for work. He looked at the time, 8:00 am. Work had just started. They gave him the chance to stay for his two weeks, to aid his successor in any way, make him feel well adjusted for stepping into another man's livelihood. Make him feel guilt, but no self-hate, for doing so. Standing in front of his untouched desk, for the first time, he did not feel obligated to do anything and walked outside, hailed a cab and asked the driver to take him to the train station.
As foretold by the schedule on the wall in Taitung, the train arrived in Chiayi at 5:30. The trip from Hualien to Taitung and then onto Kaoshiung was much longer. But this leg had not been a long trip at all and since it was a Wednesday, there were not many people. The only complaint he had was when a young couple had taken his seat. Though the train car was largely empty, he was a traditional man, who always paid due to the common rules. In this case, his ticket was for seat 17 in car 6. He could have sat anywhere, without anyone noticing or caring, but seat 17 in car 6 was his, according to the rules. He stood next to the seat and looked down at the couple. It was the girl who first noticed him standing over them. She released herself from the boy's chest, apologized and got up. The boy was silent, until he stood up and also apologized. The boy did not speak Mandarin though he looked Chinese. This served to annoy Liao Wu even more.
Liao Wu sat down as the boy took down their carry-on from the storage compartment and moved into the train car in front, car 7. After this brief occurrence, he felt the pounding in his chest, the unseen anger at the boy, then realizing the existence of anger, he took a deep breath until the pounding returned to the normal throbbing, reminded himself that he was an old man now, and then called his wife.