|Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction|
I had no way of knowing when the last train had passed. There weren't many people waiting. But that was no indication. Irene was leaning over the edge of the tracks, holding back her hair and spitting. Despite being nineteen, she wore the pleated, paisley skirts of an old woman. Her toes stretched the leather of her black flats. The low-cut blouse showed her neck and the upper part of her back—a luminous white with rifts of fine black hair along the ridges of her spine. No, she was not beautiful. An awkward, too-tall runaway from Missouri.
"I don't want to," she said.
A man in a blue jumpsuit hobbled between us, his gloved fingers wrapped around the handle of a push broom. His patchy gray beard and bulging eyes gave him a deranged appearance. He continued on toward a kiosk, where a woman stood behind her colorful display, re-arranging morning editions. She seemed much too alert for the late hour and the leaden smell that hung about the station.
"Just a little while," I said.
Irene stepped back from the tracks. She stood next to me. She curled her bottom lip over her top and blew the bangs from her eyes.
"I wish this train would come," she said. "I need some sleep."
"The trains to Queens run every five minutes," I persisted. "We could be in bed in twenty."
"They've been doing construction on some building across the way. All day those jackhammers. If it's not the jackhammers, it's some guy banging. I've watched him. Just banging things. I don't think he's even part of the crew."
"No jackhammers in Queens," I said. "It's mostly families."
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. A woman clipped down the concrete stairs and waited on the platform with us. Red leather boots shaped her calf muscles. She lit a cigarette. The way her fingers snapped it from her lips gave me an erection. Irene was leaning over the tracks again and spitting on the rats. She'd forgotten to hold back her hair. Saliva glistened in the black strands like the secretion of some insect. She pulled it off with her fingertips, then wiped it on the back of her old woman's skirt.
"Look," she said. "It's silly for you to wait like this."
"I thought it was fine."
"It was. But one time doesn't give you any rights. I hate it when men think once means whatever they want, anytime."
For two weeks I had lain awake imagining her next to me—the slippery skin, her shallow breathing, the alarm clock rasping as the sun climbed over razor wire, its sponge-colored light never convincing. I worked with Irene nightly. Her body garbed in black, sturdy legs plodding from table to table, oversized teeth and swollen red gums. Ugly, I kept telling myself. Yet every time she passed by the bar and wrapped her knuckles on the wood, I smiled.
"We don't have to do anything," I said. "I'll even sleep on the couch."
"Just go get your train."
"Because I don't want you to wait all night. The train might not be running. Cabs are expensive to Brooklyn."
The woman in red boots flicked her cigarette onto the tracks. She wore her hair punked-up, the ends dyed gold. The sweeper returned. The tongues of his boots hung over his toecaps. No dust had gathered on the end of his broom. He went up and down the same spot.
"Here it comes," Irene said.
All at once it was on us, bright and loud, hissing to a stop. No faces in the windows. The pneumatic doors snapped open. I made one step toward them when Irene planted her palm against my chest.
"I'll see you at work," she said, stepping back into the train.
The woman in red boots gave me a look as she passed, swiveling her head and taking me in. The doors clamped shut. Irene collapsed into one of the chairs, but the punk-haired woman watched me through the glass as the train jerked into motion. When the train had been gone awhile, I turned on the man sweeping behind me.
"Get that can," I said.
"It will end up on the tracks. Then someone else will have to get it."
"It's not my can."
"Look around," I said. "All the cans are yours. All the wrappers. All the little papers. And the dirt." I scrutinized the patch sewn over his left breast pocket. "Take that broom and move it around, Carl. Think of it as a treasure hunt."
As he looked up at me, his Adam's apple jutted from his neck like a fist.
"You're blocking my path," he said.
"This is the same path."
He jabbed the broom at my shoes.
Lying in bed was no convenience. The sheets kept pulling off the corners, the elastic band curling around fingers and toes, trapping me. They were greasy from my long nights of sweating, but I didn't wash them. Lamplight still burning, I picked the book off the night stand. It was old, fifty years, perhaps more. It still had its cover, though the edges were frayed. Below the red-lettered title, Horses, a Clydesdale stood looking regal. No saddle marred its presence, no bit or reins, no farmer or soldier standing over it. They always photograph horses in the sun. Big, glossy things. Jousting horses. Never the emaciated ones, the ones with bullet holes in their necks trying to stand up in some German trench, their hooves slipping on the mud, or the horses born with three legs, the blind horses, the spotted horses that are too ugly for even the donkeys. Or horses in Amish communities, lugging squashes, men in high hats whipping their flanks, buses roaring by, stunned faces in the glass—nobody knows how cruel this tribe is to horses, the miles they force on them, the unbearable burdens. Or all the horses in history transported by ship—the sudden attacks and a sea of them drowning, sharks tearing away their limbs. They always photograph horses in grassy fields, a silo in the background, a blue tractor. Or sometimes they'll capture them on the shore, galloping along the break, hooves kicking up foam, sun dipping behind sea. But those kind of horses are rare. Go to any farm and you'll see. Horses with bent backs, heads hanging, subsisting on rotting hay. I've seen horses with knives strapped to their legs, penned in by chain-link and then whipped by buckles until they attack, teeth gnashing, blades tearing at each other's necks as the men in dusty hats splutter and rage, bills crushed in their fists. I don't know why I found such solace in my book of horses, for inside they were all beautiful, done in 1950's Technicolor, little girls in curled hair and lime-green dresses and patent leather shoes with white ankle socks feeding them carrots. It was the only book I possessed. I looked around for one on camels, but found only books on dogs, geese, rabbits, and other such dull fare.
The following evening was my night off. I waited by the tracks. I tried to remember what section Irene was in that night. Section two meant she would be departing early. Section five, not until closing hour. Carl was there, pushing his broom up and down the platform, tongues hanging out of his boots, grease stains on his uniform right next to the shield betraying his name in black cursive. The morning editions weren't out yet, and the woman behind the kiosk wrung her hands beneath her chin. She peered every so often toward the staircase, but only travelers descended. Next to a chewing gum display, the newspaper scaffolding stood empty, the yellow-painted steel at odds with the cement wall behind it. I checked my watch, a digital thing I'd picked up for five bucks. Nearly midnight. I walked over to the staircase and sat on the lowest. Brogans. Pointy-tipped boots. Pink galoshes decorated with green frogs—but not the black flats with the scratched toecaps. I again checked my watch. Damn. Section five it was. At the kiosk I asked for a packet of cigarettes.
"Which one?" the lady said.
"I don't know. The best."
Gold bangles slid down her forearm as reached up and tugged a packet from the stack.
"Here," she said, sliding them across the countertop. "These are the most expensive."
"I don't like red."
"Give me a blue one."
"Why didn't you just ask in the first place?"
The blue ones were at the far end. I thought she might have to step on something to reach them, but her fingernails snared the plastic encasing.
"Here," she said, breathing hard.
I examined the packet: a series of blue squares, one inside the other, each a shade lighter so that the shape was visible. I didn't recognize the brand name.
"Bluebloods. Bluegrass. All the best things are blue," I said.
She punched some keys on the register.
"That's too much."
"The red one is ten."
"How much for just one cigarette?"
"I'll take the whole packet, then," I said, getting out my money.
I tried to roll the packet in my shirt sleeve, but it kept falling out. Then I slipped it in the front pocket. After walking around the platform awhile listening to the plastic crinkle, I took the packet out and opened it up by pulling on a flap and unwinding it. I tore open the foil with my fingernails, careful not to scratch the cigarettes. I sniffed one, but it didn't smell like much. I put it between my lips, sliding it from one corner of my mouth to the other. When I took it back out, it was wet with teeth marks in it. I stuck it behind my ear to let it dry.
"I'll take one of those," Carl said.
He stood with his hands atop the broom handle, chin on top of his hands. More gray bristles grew on his left cheek than his right. His eyes had quieted a little since the previous night, but they still gave me an uneasy feeling.
"I see a lot of cans," I said.
"I'm saving those," Carl said. "Going to be a long night."
I pulled the cigarette from behind my ear. I held it between my two fingers like I'd seen people do. I waved it around.
"So you work the midnight shift?"
Carl watched my cigarette.
"Eleven to seven."
"And you just push the broom around. Is that it?"
"Sometimes I'll get the mop out, like during a rainstorm or something. But yeah, mostly just this broom."
"And all these cans. What do you do with all those?"
"Look," Carl said. "Can you just give me a cigarette?"
"Certainly," I said, taking out my packet and offering him one. "Seven dollars."
"That's the going rate," I said, shrugging my shoulders. "I'm not even making a profit."
Carl lifted his chin from his hands and resumed pushing his broom across the platform. He swerved it once to avoid a bottle cap.
The morning editions showed up a little before two. As the man pushed the newspaper stacks in a dolly, the woman stepped around from her kiosk. Her long dress was of fine cotton, a pattern of golden angels holding trumpets repeated across a shield of lion's blood. It struck me at once how beautiful she was—a woman of near eastern descent, the shiny black hair kept in a bun and slender toes peeking out from the white strap of her sandals. The man unloaded the various editions, held together with twine, which he unclipped with wire cutters before taking away the dolly. The woman hoisted up each newspaper, careful not to let the leaves bend, and sniffed the front pages. She clipped each paper in the scaffolding. When that was done, she stepped back to survey her work. Unsatisfied, she re-arranged the Boston and London papers so that the foreign stood above.
Irene arrived a little after four, flats scraping across the concrete, shoulders rolled forward, pillbox purse swinging from her wrist. She was still in her uniform, the black slip showing beneath the pleated skirt. I was seated on a concrete bench behind the kiosk. When she took up her position in front of the tracks, I moved toward her. I was exhausted after waiting so many hours. Half a dozen times I'd told myself to go home, that this was a pointless endeavor, that she would just humiliate me again.
Just as I was about to lay my hand on her shoulder, she tucked her hair behind her ear, jutted her chin forward, and spat.
"I think you got it," I said.
She whipped around, the purse hitting against my kneecap.
"Jesus," she said. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I was on my way home," I said. "I knew you were getting off around now."
She stepped back from the tracks. Her eyes were a smeary red. The sweaty restaurant smell clung to her skin. I remembered lying next to her our one night together, and her hair in my face, her body hot and slick with it.
"How long have you been waiting for me?" she asked.
I looked at my watch.
"Ten, fifteen minutes. I just got here."
"Where were you?"
"I went to see a show."
"It was an improv troupe."
"You lie. There's nothing like that up here. This is mid-town."
"They were travelers. I saw them in a hotel."
"A big ballroom. There was also a woman in a big shark tank. She kept them away with a pencil."
Irene laughed. "A pencil?"
"Every time they got near, she would make these jabbing motions with the lead. You should have seen her eyes behind the mask. Come to think of it, she was just a girl. No breasts at all. And these skinny knees. After awhile the sharks just stayed on the other side of the tank."
Irene took the cigarette from behind my ear and examined it.
"What brand is this?"
"I don't know. Polish, I think."
She frowned but stuck it between her lips anyway. "Got a light?" I patted my pockets. "Forget it," she said, and unclipped her purse and tossed the cigarette inside. "I'll save this for home."
"We should make a night of it," I said.
"Of what? It's almost morning. You should go home and quit following me around. You're starting to give me the creeps."
"How about tomorrow?" I said. "We could go to the park."
"I hate the park. Besides, I'd be terrible company. Insomnia ruins me."
"It doesn't have to be like that. I live in a two-family house. There's a school across the way, but the children only make noise at eight and three. In between, my place is very quiet."
"Sorry," she said. "I prefer the jackhammers."
I closed my eyes but detected no faraway shutter—that sudden violence that is at once both threatening and reassuring.
When the train finally came, I slowly released my fists. Light filled the station. Irene stepped across the threshold separating platform from departure. She was nineteen, had been in New York three years. Her father left when she was seven. Her mother labored in a curtain shop, sitting ten hours a day bent over a sewing machine, working from paper patterns. They'd lived in a second floor apartment. Irene's room overlooked a twenty-four hour carwash. When she couldn't sleep, she sat by the window and watched the cars go through—mostly men, nearly always going for the deluxe wax job, the tire degreaser.
After the train disappeared around the bend, I went back to the kiosk. The woman was gone. There was no one in the station to rob her except me. Even Carl was absent, his broom leaning against the wall. I stepped around the display and found the woman asleep in a metal folding chair, legs spread beneath the cotton skirt, chin tucked into her chest and softly whistling through her lips. I took the packet of cigarettes from my shirt pocket and placed it on the countertop. I took a Butterfinger as I left. I waited to unwrap it until I'd ascended the staircase, afraid the noise would wake her. As I crossed over to the Queens platform, I passed the woman in red boots. She was just entering the station from the street, hair in the same teased-up style as the night before, skirt a stretch of cloth wrapped around her narrow hips and showing the length of her thighs.
"Hi," she said, and smiled lewdly.
But there wasn't much force behind it. She smelled sooty, the vestiges of perfume. Make-up had disintegrated in her eyelids, along the edges of her lips. Her bony cheeks shone with it. I thought how similar her story might be to Irene's—a past more, or less, intolerable. Or a series of wrong moves that had led her here at four-thirty on a Tuesday morning, her body all used up. But I didn't want to sentimentalize her. Even now, if I had the money, she would do what I asked, what I wanted.
I didn't return her greeting. My need felt so great that I feared a purchased hour. I feared failure, further humiliation, or perhaps worse, success, an addiction to icy touch, the manufactured screaming and shuddering, then heels snapping down the sidewalk outside my door.
At the Queens platform, I bit hard into the Butterfinger. And of course the train came right away. A few faces in the windows—night workers mostly, a train full of Carls and Irenes. I took a seat in the back and chewed my candy bar slowly, savoring not the taste, but the motion of it.
Horses often mate at night. The female will go into a dark field, a spot where no moonlight penetrates. She'll lie on her side, legs thrust out, head against the dirt. As the males stalk about, nosing their way through the grass, she'll remain rigid, even stop breathing if necessary. There's nothing she can do about the scent she gives off, but rich soil helps mask it. An upwind. When a pursuer whinnies, she knows he's given up. The night is long. In the morning, they will be required to carry bodies on their backs. Those less ardent ponder the elements, the great distances they will travel. The final two draw near, nostrils full of her, but eyes constantly betraying them. A tractor. A trough. Shape-changers. They poke at the grass with their hooves, move on. Finally, the last cries out. For the victorious, the female will rise. She'll back out of hiding, faintly calling.
I closed my book and turned off the lamp. Outside the cats were just coming awake atop the shed, mewling for their breakfast. I rolled away from the window, hugging the pillow to my chest. There are some who would argue that Irene was a lost cause, that only a fool would continue to pursue a girl who so obviously didn't want to be with him. But those are people who have probably loved more than I, who don't go against foot traffic just to rub shoulders with strangers, who have never been with Irene. I still don't know why she slept with me that night—walking to the station together, the hesitation at the entrance, and then inviting me to share a cab with her to Brooklyn. She was too tired, she'd said, she didn't want to wait for the train. Even after I paid, she could have sent me away. It was cruelty not to do so.