Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Making Their Ways

Last year I entered a short story contest. I knew about the contest for well over two months, but kept putting it off in favor of other projects. Well, as it always goes, I waited too long and when that friend called to ask me whether I had submitted anything, I had a grand ol' two hours to submit.

So I took a real story of mine, warped it with a cliched angle, and submitted the thing. Nothing ever came of it, and I forgot that I had done such a hack job.

Today, as I was rumaging through some old files, searching for a Word template for a friend, I stumbled upon the worded beast. There it was, the Frankenstory, a patch-worked piece of disjointed concepts, typed up and ready for rejection. Awesome.

I dubbed it: Making Their Ways. Here 'tis.

Pacing the filthy subterranean platform of the Manhattan bound 7 train like a zoo animal, Charles repeatedly mutters to himself the single word: “step”. This continues for no less than thirty minutes as he waits for the tardy train to screech through, but he does not notice that so much time has passed, as he has been in a constant state of emergency since he gave up the hero’s fine wine. “Step, step, step,” he continues to repeat, though not in sync with his footsteps.

His once proud frame, thick and manly during his creamier years, is now gaunt and wretched. His back has a slight hunch, knocking a full two inches from the 6’ 4” height displayed on his New Jersey Identification Card. His beard is a clumsy mistake, more a product of neglect than a fashion statement. The dark and dreadful dreads of hair that protrude from his cabbie hat are inspired by the same laziness that built his dreadful facial hair. His clothes are equally shabby, and not in a “rustic”, “cleverly casual”, or “vintage thrift” kind of way. His quiet chanting is periodically interrupted by a whispy coughing fit that begs for expectorant. But if he had any cough syrup, he would probably shoot it straight into his veins, since that is the only form of consumption which consumes his murky mind.

“Step, step, step…”

Just as a mild-to-profound shaking fit begins to make its way from his left leg north, a familiar gust of humid wind begins to pull through the subway stop. The train is approaching, and he has every intention of boarding it. Sweaty arm pits, missing front tooth, jitters and all. The car is full, but Charles manages to squeeze on to the last car of the caterpillar train, continuing his mousey “step, step, step…” mantra. No one appears cautious to his arrival, and the train lurches forward toward the island of metropolis.

“I really need to get a job today. Charles, we must get a job today. We will be… step, step, step…” he thinks to himself as an old lady seated below him drops her umbrella and is forced to stand up in order to retrieve it. “Step, step, step…” he murmurs when he sits in her newly vacated spot. She turns back around and notices him in her seat. He is rocking, ever-so slightly, acting as if he had been sitting there all along. She turns back around and grabs a hand-pole. The expression on her face is one of indifference, a look that appears to have been chiseled into lava rock rather than an expression made by a sentient being. She would obviously be more than happy to trade a seat for the right to not have to speak with Charles.

Once the shakes have subsided, Charles’s mind begins to wander in seemingly endless directions, steered by various dark feelings of loss, his physical needs, and a sense of depravity brought on by a rather long list of physical and mental disorders.

“I checked the papers, but the classifieds section labeled: ‘available six-figure position for smack addict with an active criminal record,’ was curiously empty this week.” A grin pours over his cracked lips as he muses at the idea of such a position, and that it would be advertised in The New York Times. Ha! Hilarity, or something like it. “I bet he’s listening to something new and hip,” he comments to himself while staring at a young, bookish sort of fellow standing near the door. This twenty-something child has a blue iPod with earphones the size of peanuts, which are delivering noise of some sort to his brain. “I bet he is listening to some of that crazy punk-sounding stuff that lives in Alphabet City. I cannot remember the last time I heard music. Music that I chose. Music that was music to me. I only hear one fiddle. God, just a quick dip, just a fast load, one for the road… and that will get my mind right so I can handle this money situation. Jesus… step, step, step…”

The cold sweats were returning, and his teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. An Asian woman with bags of wrapped fish edges an inch in the opposite direction. A business man in a full wool suit, reading the pink-papered Financial Times takes two steps backward from Charles, without ever looking directly at him. “Step, step, step… For Christ’s sake.” The business man throws a disapproving, raised-brow eye toward Charles, acknowledging that he heard his Lord’s name used in vain.

The door between cars slides open, letting the sounds of the tunnel fill Charles’s car. A middle-aged man enters the car, zipping up his zipper. “Oh, that’s nice, Zipper Guy,” Charles assumes he was urinating between cars, and turns his thoughts back to the nerd’s iPod and power to control the music. “I bet he is listening to Rod damn Stewart, that little prick. I bet he has turkey on Thanksgiving too. I bet people with success and interesting stories about traveling are there when they cut that turkey. I bet they have gravy. I bet they don’t vomit every time they take a piss. I bet he has Fleetwood Mac on that thing. My God, just one hit and I’ll be straight, I swear, to get my head right and do this… thing. Step, step, step…”

The car is bursting and thick with mid-day travelers, yet the Zipper Guy navigates through the crowd as if possessed, pushing to the rear of the car. As soon as he reaches the other end, the door from which he entered re-opens. An unnaturally tanned woman with bright blue eye shadow, pink lipstick, four-pound-ornate-as-hell earrings, and teased-to-the-brink-of-liftoff "poofball" hair, enters the crowded car. She scans the motley group of riders, making eye contact with everyone including Charles (whose mouth is curiously gaping-wide open. Her sense of purpose is a force none of the thirty or so occupants of the car can ignore. After a few uncomfortable seconds of her blinkless stare, picking among them, her glare steadies and her eyes purse-up like a mole’s, focusing on the car’s most recent addition.

Zipper Man is propped up against the rear door, clutching a tattered duffle bag as if it contained his soul, and his baseball cap is over his face as if taking a siesta.

"You little bastard," she bellows through the car, still blinkless. "Do you want me to tell all these people what you were doing you fucking pervert?!" Her middle-aged lipid deposits vibrantly rippling through her body, accentuated by her unnecessarily tight, bra-less halter top and two-sizes-too-small pink Lycra stretch-shorts. "Fuck you, you sick son of a bitch," she adds.

Unfortunately for Zipper Man, he had entered the last car of the train. He has nowhere to go. The next stop is his only savior. He remains motionless, continuing the siesta masquerade.

Charles continues to chase his thoughts as they flutter and bounce around the grey matter of his poisoned brain. “I bet that kid’s dad says supportive things. Like, ‘go get’em champ!’ Or, ‘that’s my boy, playing the saxophone solo, I am so proud’. I only remember dad telling me that if I ever turned gay, he would kill us both to put me out of his misery. I bet he has Def Leopard on there too. Turkey with gravy and yams and all that country-goodness crap. With napkins and polished silverware. Why did I ever leave San Jose? Jesus… Step, step, step…”

The incensed woman continued her tirade, subjecting the entire car to her hostilities. "Do you want me to tell them you were jacking-off on the train?" her voice becoming more irritated in reaction to Zipper Man’s apathetic attitude. "You need help you sick fuck," she goes on, in what appears to be an attempt at a more personal attack, with the hope that he will respond. When that does not end in success, she begins moving through the car, much as he did earlier, irreverent of the current inhabitants. Her eyes are so laser-focused on him, one would swear she is trying to burn that cap right off his face in order to expose the shame she so desperately believes should be underneath. Or, she simply wants to beat him like a circus monkey (she has enough low-grade, "corn gold" nugget rings on each hand to put him in a coma with little effort).

Charles marvels at the passion this woman has for her cause. He also wonders what her mother looks like. He feels sure that the daughter is little more than a hastily drawn caricature of the mother: sketchy on detail, out of proportion, and completely lacking in substance. But his mind flutters back to the student’s music and benefits. “I bet his trust-funded apartment is in Brooklyn where all those hipster-types live, with those stupid looking mullet-hawk hair cuts, tight jeans, and vacant expressions. A single bump won’t do me any real harm here. I just need to figure it out. I just need to get around this thing, and… step, step, fuck.” He puts his fists into his eye sockets, straining himself. “Damnit… Step, step, step…”

Beyond the confines of Charles’s brittle mind, the tension in the car is escalating as the angry woman pushes her way toward Zipper Man. But, before she has the opportunity to pop that cap off his head and put a few nugget-ring imprints on his scrotum, Zipper Man’s prayers are answered: the Lexington and 42nd stop arrives.

As soon as the doors open, everyone pours out onto the platform like they’re running from the bulls in Pamplona. The woman, submerged in her disgust, is not properly positioned in the car to pursue the object of her current hatred. Zipper Man slips into the chaotic crowd with a marksman's accuracy, and a Wimbledon ball boy's urgency. Gone. Charles rises, slowly, and is the last person to vacate the last car on that 7 train. He is not completely sure why he is exiting at this stop, but he knows there are things to be done nearby.

The only remnants of the Zipper Man’s episode are the irritated woman's screeching demands for "the authorities", bouncing off the moldy-slime covered tiles which line the subterranean 7 train platform. Meanwhile, all the witnesses of the event ascend the seemingly endless stairs leading to the cement-floored and glass-ceilinged world above. At this point, Charles’s group of travelers have become their own collective being. Emotionless, in some form of urban mass-consciousness, methodically cleansing their psyches, purging the previous ten minutes from their memory, shoveling it all into their collective subconscious. Just like always, doing what survival demands. As soon as the conscious-cleansing process is done, "Fuck me, it's hot," Charles mutters to himself, "I really need to find some coffee. Then I’ll get this thing taken care of right here. Step, step, step…"

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