‘The Five-Forty-Eight’ by John Cheever

The title refers to the commuter train from a gray and grimy New York to the sanctuary of the Westchester suburbs where the main character, Blake, resides (and torments his wife and son, we learn.) On this journey Blake will meet vengeance in the form of the pistol-wielding Miss Dent, an emotionally unstable former secretary of his who he has slept with and discarded. The narration sticks with Blake and reserves judgment, which serves to make his point of view all the more poisonous. The story ends with his face in the dirt, but it’s more than an easy tale of comeuppance, of justice served. Even as Blake seems to stand on the precipice of death, there are moments of strange transcendence, as when Miss Dent forces him off the train and onto the platform, and the surrounding commuters are oblivious to his plight, enmeshed in their own lives: 

A few people got off from each of the other coaches; he recognized most of them, but none of them offered to give him a ride. They walked separately or in pairs—purposefully out of the rain to the shelter of the platform, where the car horns called to them. It was time to go home, time for a drink, time for love, time for supper, and he could see the lights on the hill—lights by which children were being bathed, meat cooked, dishes washed—shining in the rain. One by one, the cars picked up the heads of families, until there were only four left. Two of the stranded passengers drove off in the only taxi the village had. “I’m sorry, darling,” a woman said tenderly to her husband when she drove up a few minutes later. “All our clocks are slow.” The last man looked at his watch, looked at the rain, and then walked off into it, and Blake saw him go as if they had some reason to say goodbye—not as we say goodbye to friends after a party but as we say goodbye when we are faced with an inexorable and unwanted parting of the spirit and the heart. The man’s footsteps sounded as he crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk, and then they were lost. In the station, a telephone began to ring. The ringing was loud, plaintive, evenly spaced, and unanswered. Someone wanted to know about the next train to Albany, but Mr. Flannagan, the stationmaster, had gone home an hour ago. He had turned on all his lights before he went away. They burned in the empty waiting room. They burned, tin-shaded, at intervals up and down the platform, and with the peculiar sadness of dim and purposeless light.

First published in The New Yorker, April 10, 1954, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Vintage, 2000

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