James sits in his spot at the end of the bench at the train station. He wears his favorite possession, a suit jacket, charcoal gray with black buttons, just like the one his mother bought him for his big job interview, all those years ago. The suit jacket, frayed now at the sleeves from daily wear, connects James to the men on their way to work because he could be one of them, would have been one of them, if the problems hadn’t ruined it all.
He scans the busy main corridor, expecting to see his usual commuters. He secretly named them after famous people to make them his friends. And that’s how he came to think of them. All the men and women who pass by, pretending not to notice him, are his friends.
He spots Julia getting her coffee. She takes hers black, he knows. And in a few minutes LeBron will bolt through, always just in time for his SEPTA train, his backpack bouncing on his shoulder, as he hurries to the platform. He makes up a conversation with LeBron about slowing down, and in his fantasy LeBron takes his advice and joins him on the bench. His eyes glance over others, including Harry, one of the transit officers. Harry says good morning and calls him sir. He likes him.
A young black man looking fresh in a new suit sits on the bench opposite him. James has never seen him before. The young man catches James staring at him, smiles and nods, then goes back to his phone. It’s more acknowledgement than most give him. James continues to examine this new person. He looks familiar but can’t place him. He wonders where the young man is going, and the thought reminds him of his youth.
James’ friends nicknamed him Globetrotter. You’re going places, man, they said. Ain’t nothing gonna stop you. The memory is painful. He quickly dismisses it and focuses on the young man.
The young man has a worldly glow about him and a calm, determined ambition. He is Kobe. Satisfied with the name he has chosen, James closes his eyes to plan Kobe’s day.
He has a job interview at a New York investment firm, a big one in Lower Manhattan in a sleek modern building. As he sits in the opulent waiting area, a view of the Hudson River in the distance, he reviews his choice of clothes, a charcoal gray suit with black buttons, hoping he comes across as conservative as the middle-aged white men he knows will interview him.
His mother’s instructions come to his mind. Let no one set your purpose, she said. Only you and God decide who you will be.
A secretary ushers him into an office where five established managers, looking exactly as he expects, wait for him. But he is not nervous. He prepared well for this moment, and the meeting extends from questions to conversation, from business to pleasure. Thirty minutes later the job is his. One of the men congratulates him and claps him on the shoulder.
The shaking startles James. He awakens with a friend from the shelter standing over him.
“C’mon, man, they’re giving away coats at TASK,” the friend says excitedly. “We gotta get ours.”
It takes a moment for the fog to clear from James’ head. Sadness washes over him as he takes in the train station. This is his reality; the dream, what might have been.
The next departure is announced. The young man gathers his belongings and stands to go. James jumps to his feet.
“Taking the train to New York?” James asks.
The young man regards James with composed curiosity. “I am,” he says. “I got a job interview.”
“I know,” James says and the young man raises an eyebrow. “Your suit,” James says, looking the young man up and down with admiration.
The young man beams. “My ma bought it just for this. Nice, right?”
At that moment James knows who this young man is. It’s him, when he was young and fresh, before the problems.
“It’s what my mother picked for me,” James says, almost to himself.
The young man smiles and says, “I don’t want to miss my train,” and takes a step away.
“Do you know your purpose?” James blurts out, stopping the young man in his tracks.
“To get hired,” he says. “What do you think?”
James shakes his head impatiently. “That’s a job. But it doesn’t define you. Your purpose defines you.”
The young man shrugs and says, “My purpose right now is to catch my train. So,” and he begins toward the stairs.
“It’s important,” James calls out and follows him. “You listen to me. Your purpose in life matters.”
The young man’s face hardens, annoyed with James’ persistence. “OK, pops. So tell me, what’s your purpose? What defines you?”
James stumbles. He wants to give a great answer, words to inspire, but nothing comes out. He can only chew his lower lip and wonder how it went so wrong.
The young man softens his glare. “Go get your coat, pops,” he says. “I’ll think about what you said. About my purpose.”
An idea comes to his mind and his eyes sparkle. “Let’s talk about it sometime. It’ll be good for both of us. I’m Jimmy, by the way.”
James sees his own reflection and grins. “I know.”
Matthew McKeown is a Trenton resident and an aspiring writer. He had two short stories published in previous summer fiction issues, 2017’s “The Snuff-A-Rette” and 2018’s “The Banker.”