The Man in the Train Station

By Eli Landes

Sit down for a moment. I’m about to tell a story, and trust me—you’ll want to be sitting down for this one.

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Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard stories before. Exciting stories, thrilling stories, stories that set your heart pounding and blood racing. You may think you’re a veteran of tales—that you’ve heard them all. But

mark my words: none of them will be like this one.

You see, this story has something all of those others don’t.

This is my story.

Not all of it, of course. That would blow your mind. Just a small piece, a sliver, a taste, just enough to open your eyes and shatter your walls.

Who am I? Well—sit down. Lean back. And listen.

This story begins in a train station. It’s one of those small ones, the ones with only a few trains that you just know are filled with people going out and empty of people coming back, the building still modern and classy in a desperate attempt to conceal that it’s a dying relic of bygone days. People are bustling about, moving back and forth. Near the back, nearly unnoticed, sits a man in black.

This man … well, let me paint you a word picture. There’s something about him, something alluring, captivating, exotic, and even a little dangerous. Though everyone around him is busy, those who glance at him always glance back again, something telling them that they’ve never seen the likes of him before. It’s not his face that catches the eye, though he’s handsome enough—his mess of black hair swept artfully back from his forehead, not a strand out of place, his jaw strong and chiseled, his nose sharp and hooked. It’s in the way he sits, in the air around him. And it’s in his eyes. Those eyes—those eyes are coal-black, haunting, unforgettable, eyes that seem to pierce the soul and see all its secrets. There’s danger in those eyes, and promise too.

The man’s dressed in black, sporting an immaculately pressed suit with a long black coat over it. On anyone else the lone color would look drab, even depressing. But on him, it only makes him more captivating.

You’ve probably guessed it by now. The man is me.

I sit with graceful calm, an artless ease that cannot be faked. Chin resting casually on my fist, I idly survey the crowd rushing past, the corner of my lip curled up slightly in mild amusement. I watch and wait; I have all the time in the world.

You see, I’m the con man. Not a con man; the con man. The best, the greatest, the master of them all. And I’m here, at this small train station in this unremarkable little town, waiting for my mark.

I don’t know who it’ll be yet. I scan the crowd as I wait, seeing if anyone catches my eye. They’re all running, running to trains, running from trains, all busy, never idle. They’re here with a purpose, with a goal. None of them are why I’m here; they’re meaningless, mere extras to flesh out the scene. So I sit and wait, poised, patient, knowing that it’s only a matter of time.

And then he enters.

Let time freeze for a moment. The train station, the whole world, can rush on by unnoticed. There’s only one stage in this play, and it has only two occupants. Everyone else is forgotten; there’s only him.

He walks aimlessly into the station and stops, looking around in that lost way that tells me he’s not searching for anything. A young Jewish boy, maybe 17 or 18. He’s not carrying much, just a small bag that can probably fit only a change of clothing. His face is expressionless, the kind of emptiness born not from lack of feeling but from too much to bear. After a moment, he turns and slowly walks to a bench and sits down. His hands drum idly on the strap of his bag, then stop, then start again. He shifts back and forth, and even from here I can see him sigh.

The mark is made.

Let time unfreeze.

And I stand.

Cue the music. It’s a smooth jazz, a cool blues, a softly tempting melody as I slowly walk towards the boy. My coat billows around me as people stop for a moment to stare, their gaze caught on the sight of something so casually elegant. The crowds part seamlessly before me, almost as if it’s scripted, as if no one would dare stand between me and my mark. I move calmly, leisurely, head bobbing ever so slightly to the soundtrack inside my head.

I reach the boy and sit down next to him. Lost in his thoughts, he still hasn’t noticed me.

“Crazy, isn’t it?”

The boy starts and turns. The train station is loud and I didn’t raise my voice, but I know from experience that he’ll hear me. It’s like one of those movies where there’s a loud, hectic scene, and then someone speaks—softly, casually, almost I didn’t raise my voice, but I know he’ll hear me

as if in an afterthought—but everything

suddenly silences to hear. I’ve got that type of voice—captivating, the kind that makes you lean close and strain to listen.

The boy frowns. “What is?”

I lean back and wave vaguely, a gesture that somehow encompasses the entire station. “This. Them. All of it. Look how they run, how they’re always so busy. The hustle and bustle of life—don’t they see how crazy it is? They’re chasing life, chasing time, but time is a cynical, sadistic creature. Always a step out of the way, close enough to make you think you can catch up, but always dancing just out of reach.”

“Uh … yeah. I guess so.” He’s clearly trying to muster the courage to tell me to go away.

I nod as if I haven’t noticed, as if I’m some crazy person passing on his ridiculous fancies. As if every word, every gesture, isn’t a strand in my masterful plan. “The way I see it, there’s no point. We spend our time trying to catch as much of life as we can, but life is just a handful of moments that trickle out of your fingers even as you try to hold them.”

I lean close, letting my voice drop just a little lower. “But then there are moments. Tiny pockets of time when things feel … different. Little things we didn’t notice yesterday just don’t add up anymore. It’s like we hit a snag, a small hitch, and we should have kept on moving but we stopped instead, just for a second, to look over our shoulder to see what it was. And there’s a voice inside of us saying we need to keep moving. That there’s no time to waste, that we have things to do. But for some reason, it feels wrong. Time, life—it’s not important right now. They can wait. Right now, there’s only that moment—and you.”

The boy swallows. Stares at me, unblinking. He still thinks I’m crazy, wants to tell me to leave, but my words have hit too close to home. Something I’m saying is resonating with him. I turn to face the station again, pretending that I still haven’t noticed.

“Do you know what defines those moments? Doubt. Doubt’s an odd little thing. It creeps along and asks a simple question. ‘Are you sure?’ That’s it; that’s all it asks. So first you try answering it, but the voice keeps asking, in that soft, insidious voice, ‘Are you sure?’ Eventually you just ignore it, tell yourself that everything is fine. That doubts are natural. That with time they’ll go away. But through it all the voice keeps asking, over and over. And then, one day, you can’t shut it out anymore. The voice is in your head, and it’s asking the question, over and over. That same, innocent question; the worst question we can ever be asked.

“‘Are you sure?’”

For a long time, the boy is silent. Then, staring at me unblinkingly, as if I’m a rabid snake about to bite, he speaks, almost fearfully:

“Who are you?”

Who am I? Oh, little boy, if you knew, you would run—run and run and never look back. “I’m someone who’s been around. Someone who’s seen.” That, at least, is true. “And I’m someone who has seen too many people collapse under the weight of decisions they just needed a helping hand for. So that’s why I’m here. I was sitting over there, and I saw you, and … well. Let’s just say I can recognize a soul in torment when I see one. And if I can help, then I’d like to.”

That said, I turn slightly to gaze around the train station, letting the boy think in peace. It doesn’t matter anyway; he may believe he’s making this decision on his own, but it’s a foregone conclusion. The net is spread, the bait has wandered in, and now it’s time to tie the knot. He’s hooked now; he won’t back away.

He holds out a hand. “I’m Avi.”

I take the hand and shake it. And smile. “Call me Mr. Snark.”

I lean back against the wall casually. Change the soundtrack to something fast, a tune with spirit. The game begins now; I weave my web.

Come into my lair, fly.

“It’s nice to meet you, Avi. Now—what’s troubling you?”

He begins, slowly, haltingly. “I’m a … a student, of sorts. I study in what’s called a yeshivah, which is …”—as he talks, his hands clench and unclench, wringing together, squeezing each other tight before letting go. “No. That’s not a good beginning.” He takes a deep breath.

“I grew up in a religious Jewish home. I’m not sure how much you know about Orthodox Judaism, or Judaism in general, but it’s not just a religion; it’s a lifestyle. And it’s a lifestyle I believed in—still believe in. It’s just … well, I’ve been feeling … lost, somehow. All my life, I’ve been striving towards a goal, a path, and I just can’t seem to reach it.” The words speed up now, come faster and smoother. It’s like a dam’s opened, and now that he’s begun he can’t stop. “As a Jew, my life is dedicated to serving G"d. And I want to be on that path, be focused on my religion, be excited about my religion, but I keep struggling with things I should have mastered years ago. I struggle to wake up, to find the energy to pray—can you believe that? Eighteen years as a religious Jew, and I still struggle to pray. To find the interest, the passion. What type of religious Jew struggles to find the energy to pray?!” His voice is still quiet, but he’s animated now, hands clenched tight, voice taut with an inward-focused anger. “It’s like the whole world is standing in line outside a

palace, waiting, waiting, to get inside. And I am one of the few who is allowed in. And I go in and turn to the window to stare outside. I have what so many wish for, and I struggle to even be interested! What’s wrong with me?!”

He leans back, spent, as if the words have exhausted him. He waves a hand vaguely, hopelessly, as if signaling a problem too vast for words. “So … I don’t know. I’ve begun feeling that maybe it’s over. Maybe it’s time for me to give up. Maybe I’ve been beating a dead horse for too long, and it’s time for me to just … stop. So I came here.” He laughs suddenly, a sound that has nothing to do with humor. “I mean, I’m not even sure why I’m here. A train station? Where would I go? What train do I get on?” He sighs. “I guess … anywhere.”

This is my moment. I’m poised for the kill—I have only to say the right words to make this mark mine. Yet, suddenly, I’ve lost my calm, my cool composure. The soundtrack has stopped; the train station has emptied and gone silent. When did that happen?

I force myself to speak. “You already know the answer, don’t you?” The speech is prepared, smooth and suave, but the honeyed words taste like ash in my mouth. “Religion is about the absence of conflict.” Lies. Only the dead don’t feel conflict. Religion isn’t about the absence of conflict; it’s about overcoming conflict. “If you struggle so often, if so many times you succumb to your baser nature, then clearly you aren’t meant to be religious.” Lies. Religion isn’t the percentage of time you feel holy. It’s the struggles you face, and the moments you find the strength to surmount them. “You say you want to be on the path. To be religious. But if after 18 years you still haven’t succeeded, then clearly it’s time to try a new path.” Lies, lies, lies. He is on the path. His conflicts, his struggles—that is religion.

I sit, ashamed, my words echoing in the loud, deafening well of silence. Surely, any moment now, someone will run up and grab him, tell him the truth, tell him that the angels themselves are jealous of his strength, that the very fact he cares means his religion isn’t dead.

Tell him that a struggling, beating heart is sign of life. That it’s the silent heart that’s the dead one.

I wait, fearfully, hopefully, for someone to tell him, but no one comes. There’s just the silence. The silence and my lies.

And the boy nods. “You’re right.” He sighs, then slowly stands. “You’re right.”

He walks towards the booth to buy a ticket.

I stand, then slowly walk to the exit. I was successful—the con was set in motion. I will see him again, and after today my plans will be easier.

The boy is now mine.

Was there ever a victory that tasted so sour?

As I reach the door, something makes me turn back. The boy has reached the train and stopped. As I watch, he reaches down to unzip his bag, and slowly removes his tefillin from inside. For a moment he stands still, holding them, then reaches over to leave them on the bench. Then he shakes his head. He returns the tefillin to his backpack, zips it back up.

He boards the train.

And I know that, even though he’s on the train, he’ll never be mine. There’s a fire inside of him, and that fire will never go out. He’ll keep fighting, and one day—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day—he will return.

I turn back around and exit the station. As I do, I realize something.

I’m smiling.

I’m not sure why I write this small piece of my tale. I guess I write it for you. I’ve been fighting this war for so long, from the very beginning. My weapons are lies, deceit, half-truths and honeyed words. I tell you that you’re worthless, that your struggles make you evil. I tell you to give up, to give in. And yet, after all these years, I never win. You always come back, in some form or fashion.

So I write this story for you. To tell you that, after all these years of fighting you, there’s no one I respect more than you. That your struggles don’t make you weak; they make you great. That I stand in awe of your strength, your ability to fight when everything has gone wrong.

That if you only knew the way I saw you, you’d never listen to me.

Who am I? Well, you’ve probably guessed it by now. I am the voice in your ear, the shadow behind your back. When you feel down, when you slip, when you stumble, I am there to lend a hand. A hand you shouldn’t take. I’m the liar, the seducer, your oldest enemy, the one you’ve been fighting against for longer than even you remember.

I am the snake, the serpent. I have been called the Adversary, the Accuser, the Prosecutor, the Angel of Death. The Babylonian rabbis referred to me as the Evil Inclination; to the masters of Kabbalah I am the Old, Foolish King.

I am G"d’s servant, a loyal follower fulfilling his given duty.

My name is Satan.

This is my story.

Eli Landes was ordained as a rabbi in South Africa, and is working to complete his Bachelor of Arts. Currently residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., he enjoys blending the esoteric depths of Chassidus with the creativity of writing.

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