A Subway Triptych
a short story by Mare Freed

- MONDAY -

At the end of a long ant trail of new passengers, a blind woman in a bossy tweed suit tap-taps through the sliding train door. She’s the only one you actually notice. Now she holds her white cane aloft like the staff of Moses, smacking knees and briefcases in search of a seat. All are filled and there are many standing riders. Across from you, a little office mouse of a girl offers her seat to the blind woman when her shin is whacked.

“I’m perfectly capable of seating myself,” the woman snaps. Several heads disappear behind several newspapers. You keep watching.

“You only offered because I’m blind, lets face it.” She finds the high hand rail and grips. “You thought that because I’m blind, I needed your help. Lets just face it, that’s exactly what you thought, am I right? Yes or no? I’m sorry miss, I didn’t hear your answer...”

You’re watching the girl stare at her lap, thin face sizzling pink. Embarrassed shrugs are being passed down the car, but you’re glued. The girl’s throat trembles; she pulls a catalog from her bag and flips frantically, not reading, knees pressed tight, the little bony knobs of her ankles grinding.

Your train screeches into a station. Kendall Square, not your stop and probably not the girl’s stop either, but when the doors open she bolts, wet cheeked, out into the platform crowd. Obliged to stay where you are, you watch her go, wishing wonderful things for her today - that she win the Publishers’ Clearinghouse and marry Brad Pitt and anything else she might want, and she disappears. The blind woman taps the girl’s empty seat, collapses her cane like a James Bond umbrella and sits.

This might not be an ideal situation for you to get involved in, but one thing is terribly clear; there sits a cruel, smirking menace on this train and, lets face it, no one else is doing anything about it because she’s blind. A few minutes ago you had nothing planned for this morning but work and a warm sesame bagel. Now before you is a malevolent mole-person, head bobbing in triumph, cropped salt and pepper hair sticking up on one side—an object of overwhelming disdain who’s day you must now somehow ruin in return. The train exits the tunnel, flooding with cold sunlight as it rattles across the river. Could you manage somehow to send it tumbling off the tracks, you would gladly tread frigid water for hours just to watch this wicked witch sink.

In the dark of the tunnel once again, you script what you’re about to say. Here comes the station; you’ll have to do this quickly. You cross the aisle and lean in close, your chin just above her shoulder. Wax flakes lining the inside of her ear give you instant, sour-mouth nausea, enhanced by the tiny funhouse glimpse you get of your face reflected in her gold button earring.

“I think you deserve to go deaf, too.”

It’s all you’ve planned to say, and you hope it sounded sad and final. Without waiting you head for the door, but it hasn’t opened yet. No matter if it had; a thick denim arm is blocking your way.

“What was that all about?” says a giant bearded man who now holds you firmly back as the doors roll open. Your nose is level with his decorated chest. You’re amazed at how much there is to look at from such an uncomfortably close vantage point. All those badges on his jacket -Amnesty International, Earth First!, bright solidarity ribbons for every known disease and societal lament - and tight on your shoulder, his huge hand sprouting red hair through a black M.I.A. tattoo. He cares. “I heard what you said and I don’t think I like it…”

You try stepping to the center of the door but he follows. Now no one can get out. He is actually clenching your upper arm, holding you chest-to-nose immobile and his jacket smells like bong water. People squeeze past on either side.

The car’s PA system gives a bong. The doors will close in a few seconds. He is not going to let you off. As endangered as a Panama sea turtle now, you hear someone behind you say “What just happened?” and you honestly don’t know. There’s no sign of the blind woman anywhere. Maybe she never even heard you.

A fat girl wrestling an enormous dufflebag into the car causes the bearded man to lose his hold momentarily; you have no choice but to bash past her as you force yourself free onto the platform. With crowds pushing inward, the man doesn’t make it out before the doors close. The last thing you see is his pepperoni finger jabbing the window, his grizzly bear mouth steaming a cloud of righteous fury onto the Plexiglas door, growing farther and farther away, cursing you where you stand.

Upstairs at your connecting train’s platform you buy coffee but have lost all interest in breakfast. You wait, letting two trains pass, pacing off your trauma, sipping, grinding your teeth.

A panhandler who you’ve seen a lot of lately is working the morning commuter crowd, adding substantially to your irritation as she demands money for a sammich. Up and down the crowd she shuffles with a shoe box held out for change, urine -yellow fingernails against palest brown skin, growling quiet hexes at any who turn away. Here she comes now, beach thongs slapping, parka hanging by its hood off her scabby head. Like a toddler she has a crusty, running nose, and for this reason alone you give her nothing. She asks for the rest of your coffee.

- WEDNESDAY -

“Hi!” says Beth. “My name’s Beth!”

Here is an attractive young woman you’ve never met before who clearly intends to follow you through the turnstile. This isn’t your regular station, but you had a pre-work errand to detour for, your head hurts for lack of caffeine, you are late, un-showered and disagreeable. She slides her plastic pass through the slot and falls in step behind you toward the down escalator, her soapy scent and the go-getter pat of her shoes reaching around like a business card under your nose. You’re thinking she’s about to pull out a petition on the empowerment of some whiny union, but she seems much too sunny for all that. Though you certainly know better, you make eye contact like some map flapping tourist.

“Mind if I walk to the train with you?” she asks. “We’re both going the same way, right?”

What a spunky elf. Now you’re more than a little ashamed. She looks like a lonely little yuppie, maybe new in town and finding out how hard it is to make new acquaintances in Boston. You introduce yourself. Beth has lots to chat about.

“Do you work downtown? I do, at the New Horizon Center. It’s a really exciting place, and there are programs you might be interested in. What are you doing today?”

You explain about the errand, then about work.

“Oh, well in that case, take this card. That’s our number, and there’s always someone to talk to, twenty-four seven!” Now she’s digging in her canvas tote bag. “I have something for you to read.”

There isn’t time to protest. Sitting in your startled hand is a color illustrated, hyper-abridged Book of Revelations. You should never have detoured from your regular stop. The bottom of the escalator suddenly looks miles away.

“Thank you, but I’d rather not,” you say. This won’t be enough—she’s trained for people like you. You’ll have to tell a lie.

“I’m Jewish.”

Bad call. You’re in for it now.

“Hey, Jesus Christ was Jewish, too!” chimes Beth. “Do you know who Jesus Christ is?”

Beth’s career-gal pretense is blowing away like angel feathers. Even her posture changes, softening. This really is your fault. All that ominous cheer, her tiny golden dove pin...

You had fair warning. Here comes the hard sell. “Jesus cares about people of all faiths.” Beth’s flapping tongue is very white with a crack down the middle, reminding you of frosted breakfast cereal and venomous snakes. “Maybe this is a good time in your life to get acquainted with Him.”

The silent treatment might be a good deflection maneuver. You pretend to read the booklet. On each page is a gruesome artist’s rendition of Earth during the coming Great Tribulation. Smiling idiots pass you on the “up” escalator, gliding by to life above ground. Of course they’re happy. None of them have an evangelist with AquaFresh breath reading over their shoulder.

“See there,” Beth clucks, pointing to an illustration of a dismal makeshift hospital. “After Christ’s return, it’s going to be all suffering for those who didn’t choose Him. Look at the bottom, Revelation 9:5 and 9:6, ’Their torment shall be as the torment of a scorpion striking, and men shall desire to die and death shall flee them.’ That’s just the beginning. Flip the page.”

Instead, you close it. The back cover features a bright blue sky dotted with white gowned people - the saved, apparently. There are two check boxes below; one says “I choose Eternal Life with Jesus Christ The Savior,” the other: “I choose Hell and torment forever.” Above you, a huge sign hangs proudly as you and Beth ride under:

 WELCOME
To The Longest Publicly Owned Escalator
In New England

No Strollers Please

Observe Safety Precautions

 You descend onward. A cinder block pried from the wall might reveal the glowing inner mantle of the Earth’s crust. Perhaps she plans to show you what hell is all about.

“Only the Bible can make a true promise of salvation,” she tells you, “but isn’t it great that anyone can reach out and receive it?” She pokes you in the arm. “You, too!”

You turn, perhaps a bit defensively because she draws back.

“Hey listen, no pressure, I just want you to know that you’re always welcome at the New Horizon Center, whenever you’re ready. Maybe I have one of our tapes in my bag here...”

The escalator steps flatten at last; you hurry off with Beth tight at your heels. You’d forgotten that she’s taking the inbound, too. You’ve got to lose her.

“Do you know how many people get saved each day? Take a guess...” Beth prattles on while you look for a way out. You could insult her, threaten her even, but suppose it brings another big activist goon out of the woodwork? The crowd on the platform is morning-rush thick; you scan it for familiar faces, anyone you know even slightly who would play along if you excused yourself and ran to them with a long lost cousin hug. All the way up the platform, it’s the same mosaic of anonymous heads and bodies.

“ ‘He standeth at the door and knocks, and shall come to all who open.’ Isn’t that neat?”

Someone is eavesdropping a few feet away. You’d noticed him getting off the escalator and given him standard cautious berth - a boy of about nineteen with spider webs penned on his face in blue ballpoint ink. He makes no effort at discretion but leans in attentively, a skateboard-toting wraith in black garments and leather thigh boots that suggest he is not with Greenpeace. He casts you a conspiratorial grin, wags an artistically pierced eyebrow to show he’s on your side. This appears to be all the assistance you’re going to find. Beth spots him behind her and doesn’t lose a minute with this jackpot of a prodigal son.

“Hi, my name’s Beth! Do you two know each other? Why don’t you join us...”

“Well, hi yourself! My name’s Locust!” The boy turns to you with a left side wink, theatrically furious. “Where the hell have you been? We’re going to be late for High Black Mass!”

Beth’s face darkens. She pushes out a patient smile. “That’s really not very funny, sir.”

Locust’s goatee is purple. He scratches it thoughtfully. “You know,” he says to Beth, “I’m being kind of forward, but you have swell tits. Would you like to join me and my friend here for our weekly Dark Worship and some brunch?”

He eyes her pert bosom, lips smacking. Diabolus ex machina. You hang your head, blessed, apparently, with a non-speaking role in this ruse. For the first time in your brief acquaintance, Beth’s white tongue is tied. She looks from you to Locust and back again, a mortified Dorothy lost in some obscure red light district of Oz. Locust keeps the ball in the air.

“I want to share something with you, Beth, is it? Elizabeth? Bethany?”

“Beth.”

“Well Lizzy, ask me how I changed my life.”

“It’s Beth.”

“Right. I changed my life, Lizzy, by turning it over to Lord of Darkness. That’s Satan. The Beast. His power can be shared by anybody. Maybe this is a good time to let Satan into your heart. I’d like to help you.”

Beth’s pretty mouth is a rectangle of disgust. “You don’t know what you’re saying...”

“Satan is my own personal savior. He could be yours, too.”

“I’m going to pray for you...”

“Satan loves you.”

“...I really am. ”

“Satan saves.”

“Don’t you want to go to heaven?”

“I have a branded phallus.”

“I’m going to pray for you.”

It occurs to you that you could just leave. You’re not important anymore, but Beth appears to be turning retreat. She puts a hand on your arm. “Please, please don’t lose that card I gave you. Twenty-four seven, just call. Christ can get you out of this.” Her shoulders go square; she’s in business form again, heading fast for the “up” escalator to find another prospect. Locust grins and pumps your hand like a drunk Shriner.

“I’m not really a Satanist, you know.” This is good news. “I just like playing with Jesus junkies. I’m a comic book artist.”

How eerie he had looked before, androgynous and sinister against the wall. Now, spider makeup and all, it’s easy to detect the goofy high-schooler he probably was a year or two ago. The track hums. Everyone shuffles onto the yellow line.

“I guess I’m more of a nihilist,” Locust continues. “Satan’s just another Christian tool for crowd control. Fuck ’em! I draw underground comics, goth stuff mostly, some splat sci-fi. You like splat? I’m getting pretty well known, not published or anything, but I just designed the T-shirt for Shock Expo East. I’ve got sketches here with me, check it out.”

You file onto the train behind Locust and his peppery girl/boy cologne cloud.

“This one is called Night Soil,” he tells you, indicating a sinewy charcoal mess of a super hero in his sketch book. “And this is Sister Canina. I’m thinking of giving her eight tits like a real dog. Or do dogs have ten tits? And then there’s the Viscosity Triplets and Chigger Boy who I’m pretty sure Kore Komix would be interested in, except I heard they’re going out of business which would suck ’cuz I just bailed on my job at Starbucks, but anyway, here’s The Amazing Choke Chicken—pretty good, huh? I want to hook up with a digital animator. My dad wants me out of the house when I turn twenty so I better do something fast like get famous or married…need a roommate? This is Chigger Boy again with a retractable suction navel. Which way do you like him better?”

“I like him without...”

The train worms through its stops. Locust might never shut up. To you he seems freshly emerged from someplace constricted; a larva waiting nineteen long years underground to finally dig free and talk. He has to shout over the train’s roar. “Can I have that bible booklet she gave you? I collect them, glue them up in bathrooms. She was a real waste of sweet meat. Man, there’s nuts everywhere you look, but listen, if that ever happens again and I’m not around you just tell them you’re Jewish ’cuz that always, always gets rid of them. You have to be careful, those psychos can be real good negative inspiration but they’ll make your own sanity all the more of a pain in the ass.”

He picks hard at a nose ring. “Yeah, I’ll tell you, don’t you sometimes just want to blow up the whole fucking world...?”

- FRIDAY -

It’s a game you invented in waiting rooms and bank lines; making detailed character speculations about strangers based on the colors they’re wearing. No matter that their color was probably different yesterday, and will be tomorrow, the idea is to take only what you see at the moment and hand- sculpt a whole life with only that one scrap of information.

This morning’s commuters load on and off in browns and reds, some venturing springtime colors which interest you more for some reason. You’re thinking about how the color each person has chosen to wear is intended to signal something inherent, the way a flower defines its nature. Like a bee you read them. I am yellow and poisonous. I am white and insignificant. I am lavender and cultivated. You are in your blackest black turtleneck, favorite sweater, cleanest jeans. Everyone’s briefcase is the same.

On the Park Street center platform you exit the train behind a woman you’re convinced could be some former Miss America gone stock broker. It’s not her face, which you can’t really see, but her graceful carriage and the auburn bubble of hair that scoops inward just above her shoulder. This Miss America’s suit is expensive looking and deep cream colored, and she walks to the stairs a few yards ahead of you. Her glide up the steps is effortless and smooth; nothing sticks out or wobbles. You have to admire her immunity in such a setting - all around her are the wet, the stupid and the depressed and still she lets them brush past her without the slightest hunch of a padded shoulder. Your mother would call her a class act. You have to agree.

Half way up the stairs, you hear the bark of the runny-nosed panhandler who drank your coffee the other morning. She’s here again and set up in a strategic spot that lets her voice carry to two track levels, filling the spaces between groans of the Green Line and hisses of the Red. “Wom buy um sammich, you hep me out?” No, you don’t believe you will today. She has extra gristle in her voice, something distinctively threatening about her pale brown Baba Yaga nastiness that makes you uncomfortable. The auburn-haired former Miss America look-alike ascends gracefully to the top step and you hang back a moment, dreading the mingled odors of vanilla blossom and urine soaked wool.

Just past the top step, you can see former Miss America unzip a front pocket of her briefcase and take something from inside. She is still several yards ahead of you - you catch no whiff of vanilla, but you do see her drop some object in the sandwich woman’s cardboard box. It’s a smooth, simple move, an absent move like tossing a tissue in a trash can, executed without a word or pause in stride as she glides towards the turnstile, an island of poise and polish. Perhaps she smiled at the sandwich woman, some sort of benevolent Our Lady of Mercy smile, but you doubt it. You pass the sandwich woman as she is pawing at some object in her box. Whatever she’s after is rolling around, making her growl.

Now behind you, her growl becomes a furious bellow. “Wazzis? Turn aroun’, bitch!”

The sandwich woman is holding something high in her mittened fist, the box kicked to the floor. Soon you and several other commuters must jump out of the way because she is running with surprising strength at the former Miss America.

“Wuhchoo think I want THIS shit?! Fuck you, bitchass bitch!”

She lunges forward with a grunt and heaves the object. It’s a child’s throw - all elbow and no shoulder - but her target is very close, and in the split second the object is airborne you guess it to perhaps be a brick red tube of lipstick; old, gummy, half used lipstick, not -wanted lipstick out of season and passe until the hard impact bursts its two paper ends open against the auburn head of the former Miss America look-alike, raining pennies all over the subway floor.

“Doncha gimme yuh useless muhfuckum pennies! Penny ain’t buy nuffin!”

The sandwich woman’s teeth look like golf tees poking from a fierce jack-O-lantern frown. Malty, infected breath reaches you, people pass with eyes averted, a mother with a bulky stroller lifts her toddler out to pick up pennies. Two clusters are forming, one near each woman, someone has run for security; you are somewhere in between seeing the back of former Miss America with her hand on her head while concerned bystanders block her from the sandwich woman’s snarls, blaring that they saw everything and will gladly testify in court. You wonder if you should join them—she didn’t deserve what happened— but before you can do anything she pushes out through the crowd and hurries up the street exit stairs.

A baby hand shoves at your shoe. You lift your foot and two pennies are snatched from underneath.

You’re late for work, and the action is over—best to leave now. You take the same exit stairway, push through the turnstile and out to the gray light of the mist-soggy Common. Glum vendors scent the breeze with their singed pretzel stink. Just ahead by the fountain you see her, recognizable only by her expensive cream suit. Miss America is vomiting into a nearby trash barrel.

She is a poised and dignified vomiter. She bends at the hips, not the shoulders. You don’t wish to look, and instead you buy a small bottle of spring water from the vendor for her. When she is finished and applying a paper napkin to her chin, you approach and get your first real look at her face. You’re not quite sure if you’re disappointed, but her features, while comely, are decidedly un-Miss American after all. Her nose is sharp with a straight bony ridge, nothing pert about it. Hers are not the eyes of a Dixie coquette; they appear oversized—poppy and vaguely thyroidal, too much white showing. If she were to smile, and you doubt she will, you suspect her teeth would be perfectly straight, but horse-sized. You approach and offer her the water, which she declines.

“Are you alright?”

“I am, yes. Thank you.”

“I saw what happened.”

“That I threw up? I’m fine…”

“No, the penny roll.”

She isn’t quite finished after all. You’d like help in some way, which is a very peculiar thing to feel at this odd juncture. Instead you stand politely and wait. She rests her pretty hands on the edge of the trash barrel, lips tightened into a pearlescent coral sphincter. You sense something medicated about her. Big girls don’t cry, you imagine saying, and she doesn’t cry. Neither do you.

  

©1999 Mare Freed

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