Irene often felt as if she had one foot in this world and one foot in another. This other world was a “spiritual world,” a kind of invisible cloud that surrounded everything, and she would sometimes commend herself for having nurtured such a strong connection with God that she could view the scenes around her with “sanctified eyes.”
During her morning commute, she would gaze out upon the gray and dusty buildings and pray for the inhabitants. Certain that the people who lived or worked out there must have tedious and demeaning lives and jobs (since they lived in the city), she would deem herself their heavenly intercessor. And, as the train whizzed past the clanging intersections, she would take in the faces of the expressionless strangers and, almost regally, bring them before God. “I don’t know their needs, but you do,” she’d whisper with a sage smile.
Union Station was, of course, a remarkable place for her to scatter the spirit of the other world. She would imagine herself reaching into the secret world and spilling its sublime contents into the station’s smudged and damaged hallways, stairs and escalators as she moved through. Like a holy Tinkerbell, she saw herself consecrating the world with light. This made her commute glorious each day.
The crowds at the station needed her. That mundane office job was an earthly necessity. The flesh, of course, must be fed, clothed, housed. Her real mission in life, however, was to bless this mass of people passing through the doors of the station each day. That’s why she arrived on the 7:32 train in the morning. That gave her time to cast her quiet blessings since she didn’t have to be at work until 9am. And that’s why she caught the 7:20 train at night. God had called her to walk through the station and silently shed grace on the evening commuters. This was to be her life. That explained everything.
Once Mama had died, Irene had thought perhaps God would place her in a marriage and give her a family. After all, Irene clearly was a nurturer. She had nursed Mama for eight years, all through the illness. But God had chosen, instead, to bless Irene with a file clerk job where her cousin, Jerry, worked. She was lucky to get in, he said. Jobs were scarce But God knew what he was doing. After a few months of commuting Irene realized his real purpose in placing her in the city. God was sending her into the station as a sort of missionary. Hers was a pure light to be held up in the middle of dusky sin and indifference. She would sit, back straight, shoulders squared, like a queen on a worn out bench in the Adams Street lobby and stare, bright-eyed, as she bestowed mute absolution on the ignorant and ungrateful.
That all ended on March 13, 2020 — Friday the 13th. She wasn’t given to superstition, but it seemed a little suspicious that she got the call that day. She wasn’t to report to work temporarily, they said, due to Covid. How temporarily? Just a couple of weeks, they said.
Alone, in Mama’s house (Irene’s house now) there were no crowds to pray for. There were no dusty buildings to pass and contemplate, just some dusty knick-knacks sitting on shelves, Mama’s glass angels. Well, God must have wanted her to rest, that’s what it was. So she rested and studied, wrapped herself in a big shawl and drank lots of tea. But the weeks dragged into months. Months of staring at glass angels. And those angels grew thicker clouds of dust while she scolded herself and promised to clean them up.
There was no going out of the house. Certainly God didn’t have it in mind for her to die choking and gasping in some hospital room somewhere. There was no station, no work, no church. There were few phone calls and, as Irene never did get all this computer stuff, she had no virtual company.
When summer rolled around, Irene wandered in her overgrown backyard and tried to smile at the squirrels playing. Those were, after all, creatures of God, but her face felt stiff, like glass. There was nothing to do but go back inside and sit.
When fall arrived, the leaves turned a glorious red and covered her front yard but she never even noticed them as she watched the mailman walk past her house. When the winter snows came, the twinkling lights from the house across the street reflected red and green against her pale skin as she sat next to the window in her darkened living room.
Irene thought about the station and about how her current existence was called “sheltering.” Irene didn’t feel sheltered at all. She felt shelved. She had one foot in this world and one foot in the next but neither of her feet were grounded anywhere at all.
Luann Lewis is a Chicago native who has had short stories, non-fiction, flash and poetry published in print and online as well as had a flash piece performed professionally. She has facilitated numerous flash fiction classes and recently earned a 3-year fiction MFA certification.
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