The Grind: Revelatory Repetition in Edward P. Jones’s “An Orange Line Train to Ballston”
By Alyson Mosquera Dutemple •
In the very first line of his story “An Orange Line Train to Ballston,” Edward P. Jones signals to readers to expect repetition and recurrence throughout the rest of the piece: “The first time Marvella ‘Velle’ Watkins saw the man with the dreadlocks, the rain threatened and she just managed to get herself and her three children down into the subway before it began.” By pointing out this is the “first time” Marvella sees this man, Jones sets readers up to naturally expect there to be a second time and perhaps even a third. But the reappearance of this stranger on whom Marvella pins her doomed romantic hopes is just one of many recurrences throughout this story that takes place over several months, largely during a daily subway commute. Jones uses specific language, including recurring conversational topics and repeated lines of dialogue, to create a sense of stifling predictability in Marvella’s life. She suffers not only from the grind of the monotonous commute, but from the grind of her monotonous responsibilities as a single working mother.
Jones escalates tension not only through repetition, illustrating how the pressure of going through the motions is starting to become increasingly burdensome for Marvella, but also through the places where there are noteworthy deviations from Marvella’s tightly predictable regimen. Whenever there is a moment, no matter how small, that doesn’t fit the established pattern Jones has created for Marvella, we recognize right away it is significant, that such a moment will imply a deeper shift in either the relationship between Marvella and her children or in Marvella’s perceptions of, or expectations for, her own life.
In the opening paragraphs of the story, Jones establishes the predictability of Marvella’s days by using a few key words in his description of her family as they wait on the subway platform. Observing her son Marcus:
Marvella noted out of the corner of her eye that he was yapping away, as usual, and at first Marvella thought he was talking to Avis or having another conversation with himself. “Everybody else is borin,” he said to her the first time she asked why he talked to himself. He was now seven. Long before the train came into view, it sent ahead a roar, which always made Marvella look left and right to make certain her children were safe and close. And when she turned away from the coming train, she saw that Marcus had been talking to the man with the dreadlocks.
By employing words like “as usual,” “another,” and “always,” Jones suggests a subtle tedium in the children’s daily repeated performances. This tedium also comes across in the close third-person Jones uses to convey Marvella’s private thoughts. When her other son, Marvin, asks Marvella a technical question about the operational system of the train, for example, we see Marvella’s response to his curiosity: “My son, the engineer, his mother thought.” A few pages later, Marvella has a strikingly similar reaction to Marvin, after observing him chastising his brother and sister for being childish: “My son the old man, his mother thought.” In both cases, Jones patterns the sentences the same way: “My son the___, his mother thought.” By constructing a pattern in her reactions to Marvin, Jones shows the conflicted way Marvella feels about him. Whether it is weariness that causes this phrase to repeat itself in her thoughts, or an attempt to categorize Marvin in order to understand him better, Marvella struggles to connect to Marvin, the moodiest of her children and the only one who demonstrates attachment to her estranged ex-husband. The repeated phrase signifies a disconnect between mother and son, and the changing categories she places him in (engineer-cum-old man) suggest that Marvella, perhaps, isn’t exactly sure how to react to Marvin and his regard for his father. We suspect he grates on her nerves by the second occurrence of the phrase, but by the third time it resurfaces, we are sure of it:
“Then why we wait while all those trains went by?” Marvin asked his mother.
My son the lawyer. “I don’t know,” she said. That was the only answer in life that ever seemed to shut him up.
By the time we get to this third occurrence of the “my son” phrase, the reader has been primed for Marvella’s loss of patience. We are not surprised by language as harsh or uncharacteristic as her desire to “shut him up” because with each repetition of the phrase, there’s been an escalation of the implied estrangement between the two.
There is also escalation inherent in the categories Marvella chooses to assign to Marvin in this sequence of thoughts. In the first instance, she sees him favorably. “My son the engineer” contains a degree of maternal pride at the inner workings of her son’s mind and his constant curiosity. “My son the old man” contains less pride, but still has a friendly connotation. There remains a degree of acceptance of his crotchetiness. He may seem like an “old man” to Marvella, but the phrase comes across as a loving, or at least a tolerant, thought. In “my son the lawyer,” however, there is blatant exasperation on her part. The curiosity that so impressed her earlier in the story with “my son the engineer” has taken a turn. Marvin’s questioning of Marvella’s choices, coupled with his loyalty to his father, has worn her down, and her appreciation and tolerance have turned to bitterness.
Marvella’s growing exasperation with Marvin manifests itself most strikingly in the closing scene of the story, in which she berates him for his questions in a very public and humiliating way after feeling privately embarrassed for trying, and failing, to arrange another “spontaneous” encounter with the man with dreadlocks on the orange train line:
As they went up the first set of escalators at McPherson Square, Marvin began asking again why they had to all the time wait when the blue train was like the orange. Just in front of the farecard machines, Marvella put down Avis and grabbed Marvin by the arm. She pulled him along to a corner, away from the passing people. Marcus and Avis followed silently.
“I’m the boss around here, and you seem to be forgetting that,” she said to him. He was utterly surprised and began to shake. “Who’s the boss around here, you or me? Who? Who? Who’s the mama in charge around here?”
His eyes filled with tears. “You are,” he said, but not loud enough for her.
She did not like scenes like this, particularly around white people, who believed that nothing good ever happened between black people and their children, but she could not stop herself.
“Who’s the mama in charge around here, I said?” she kept asking the boy.
“You are,” he said louder, crying. “You the mama. You the mama. You the mama in charge.”
In this exchange of escalating tension (which, it bears noting, begins on an actual escalator), there are multiple lines of dialogue repeated as Marvella berates Marvin. Moreover, the beratement is caused by the repetition of his question about why she has decided to take the more inconvenient train. Though he doesn’t understand that she has chosen that train in the hopes of running into the man with the dreadlocks again, the question, nevertheless, hits a nerve, and Marvella comes to her breaking point. Jones demonstrates this unraveling through the excruciating loop of phrases, “I’m the mama in charge” and “You the mama in charge.” This painful call and repeat in the subway station acts as the story’s emotional climax, and the fixation on the idea of who is “in charge” lays bare Marvella’s underlying frustrations with her lonely life. While her ferocious refrain brings to mind Shakespeare’s “The lady doth protest too much,” Jones complicates the role of repetition here by making it both the cause and the effect of the scene. This dual significance renders the exchange all the more heartbreaking, and the reader feels sucked along the downward spiral of this damaged relationship between mother and son with each skip of the broken record.
Jones foreshadows this spiraling in another instance of repetition throughout the story, fittingly in the train’s morning announcements. The first two times the family boards the train in the story, we hear a pattern in the language used by the conductors. The first time, they are greeted with: “‘Good mornin. This is an orange line to Ballston.’” A few pages later, Jones employs the same words in the announcement on a different day: “The train stopped and the subway woman announced that it was an orange line train to Ballston.” Though Jones chooses actual dialogue in the first example and reported dialogue in the second, the reader still recognizes that the announcements’ words are almost exactly the same. However, the third time this line appears, Jones introduces ellipses to convey a subtle but powerful change in the way the line is used: “‘Mornin,’ the subway woman said after they entered the train. She sounded as if the last thing in the world she wanted to do was speak. ‘Orange line…Ballston…’” Not only does the narration point specifically to the conductor’s weariness, but the ellipses demonstrate the degree to which the daily repetition has become a grind. They imply that the conductor can no longer even muster the patience to repeat the sentence as a whole. Likewise, at the end of the story when Marvin needles Marvella one too many times, she, too, can no longer muster the patience to go through the motions. His final questions strike a nerve at a moment when she feels vulnerable in her desire for companionship, and her exasperation with his questions leads to the emotional scene in the station.
The story closes shortly after the exchange near the escalators with a noteworthy deviation from the pattern the reader has come to expect:
After that, she did not ever again see the man with the dreadlocks and she did not look for him anymore. But for some time, as she went about her days with their blocks of time, she would find herself comparing his hair with other dreadlocks she saw. By then the subway people had extended the orange line all the way to Vienna.
We can’t help but expect to see the word “Ballston” follow the phrase “orange line.” But, surprisingly, we are told that the orange line to Ballston doesn’t even exist anymore. Now it’s the orange line to Vienna. Not only does this change signify to the reader the loss of Marvella’s hope in finding companionship with the man with the dreadlocks, but the new station stop also represents an important shift in the relationship between mother and son after the emotional blowup in the station. We understand now that even if they wanted to go back to the way things were before Marvella lashed out at Marvin, the damage is irreparable. Through the very lack of the repetition we’ve come to expect in the train’s announcement, Jones shows us the degree to which this strained relationship has ultimately been derailed.
ALYSON MOSQUERA DUTEMPLE is a writer from New Jersey with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best Small Fictions. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, The Puritan, Flock, Pigeon Pages, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. She reads fiction for CRAFT and works as an Editorial Consultant on their Editorial Feedback Team. Find her at alysondutemple.com and on Twitter @swellspoken.