“By the time the train skips East Broadway and hurtles under the East River towards Brooklyn, uneasiness is beginning to catch beneath the exasperation, a low burbling panic like the sound of scuba tanks exhaling…”
“The Passenger” first appeared in Gutter Magazine
You board the F train at Broadway Lafayette, even though the coffeehouse is closer to Second Avenue, even though you’re exhausted by the day. If someone asked why, you would find it difficult to articulate—you’d probably shrug. Somewhere though, you’re thinking it’s a good omen for the tiresome midweek, this pleasing name. It reverberates with Franco-American relations, Sinatra scooping Charlotte from Serge’s arms, running her into the sea himself. It’s fun to say in an accent, rolled on the tongue like bitter ristretto, chin tilted in Givenchy and silk scarves. Sometimes, you like to eschew geography and let more poetic forces dictate your route: there is never telling where that might lead. However, no one cares to question your station choices. The train is grumpy and silent; the commuters are not seeking friends. You hide your face in a Metro, tuck your feet up on orange plastic and murmur: Lafayette, Lafayette.
It is a stupid habit, this reliance on romantic notions. Alan has always told you so. It isn’t something that will get you anywhere; it doesn’t gel with progress. There is a way to do things—a way to bone a fish, to wire a plug, to ensure the straight lines of skirting boards—ways, which are, in fact, the way. So: it would be churlish to act otherwise. It is churlish to indulge in the small rebellions you sometimes do. It would be sensible to board the closer train.
Either way, you are here now, slumped and daydreaming in the corner, and this train finds its cantankerous momentum, pulling into the dark tunnel. You wish the lights were dimmer. The faces in the fluorescence seem obscene, like the final songs of discotheques when everyone looks up, glistening. You press your cheek against the windowpane, aware if he were here he would chide you, horrified by germs, but the pane is cool and blocks out the worst of the light, the people, your grease and their eyes. Second Avenue pulls into sight. The platform is thick with crowds and you realize when they swamp on you will need to move your feet, curl tighter. You would prefer the train whisked through, ever onward, and took you straight home.
This thought is not vocalized, but it seems the gods hear it anyway. The train slows to a tease, then gathers itself and moves on, the doors steadfastly closed. The faces on the platform are furious; you turn away, lips bitten in a smug grin. Passengers mutter, shuffling back to their seats:
“Huh, I thought the F stops here?”
“Usually yeah, we can walk from Delancey though.”
This may be so, but as the train approaches the station’s mosaics it shows even less inclination to pause, rattling through with panache. Those who were supposed to get off here, or earlier, are now hunched at the doors with fists, full of expletives and scowls, pointing at the map where the white dot promises the train will stop. But it hasn’t, and you are quietly, head-down, pleased. Soon, you will be home. You can undo the pins from your hair and clean the coffee granules from beneath your nails. You can make dinner of that goggle-eyed sea bass you brought home from the Chinatown market last night, which ogled you from the fridge shelves at breakfast this morning. You can go to sleep early: tomorrow you have a double shift.
By the time the train skips East Broadway and hurtles under the East River towards Brooklyn, uneasiness is beginning to catch beneath the exasperation, a low burbling panic like the sound of scuba tanks exhaling, emanating from inside and outside all at once. It was supposed to stop, the train was supposed to stop, and it’s not so long ago that those planes taught the skyscrapers not to aim so high. People are wary now of surprises, particularly those sprung in tunnels and transport. They do not want it rammed home that they are here, in a metal box, hurtling through shafts carved in the foundations of the city. Strapped in this ride, the bar has come down, the music has started. At this thought, a man shakes his fleshy head, yanks himself from his seat, and stomps through the carriage. He makes for the front of the train. It is time for someone to find out what the fuck is going on.
You pay little attention to the man’s mission; something in your brain is convinced his attempt will be fruitless. The train is moving with an intent which undoubtedly trumps his own. You are distracted by an old woman who is rummaging through a loose-leaf notebook. Her arms are scrunched up into her sides like crippled chicken wings. As she scribbles in the pages, she shrugs her shoulders, darting and juddering in her seat. You wonder what she is writing, what inventions could possibly justify this panicked dance. It might be the story of her life, making its way into posterity down a lined page. She could be inventing maps, creating cities and populations in neat columns, a secret world made real in the retelling with ragged scrublands and battered firths stretching long into the land. Perhaps it is only a shopping list.
When the fat man returns, the first riot kicks off.
“There’s no one there. No driver. He’s….”
“You heard me! There’s not even…I can’t….”
The man paws at his chest, his breath rasping. His eyes scan the carriage accusingly, unwilling to admit that this is a crisis, still clinging to the supposition that this is some elaborate hoax played on him by friends who will wait for his panic to slap him on the back and laugh, “You believed it, you asshole!” This is not the response he is given.
“What do you mean, there’s no driver?”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Daniel, don’t shout, the baby—”
“Don’t shout? The man says there’s no driver. We’re in a tunnel going God knows where and there’s no one at the controls and you’re telling me not to? I mean, is he in the bathroom? Is he…. Where are we? What was the last station? Shouldn’t we be at Jay Street? Be passing Jay Street? Oh God, where do these tunnels go? Oh God, oh where? I—”
A number of passengers are jostling through the Do-Not-Open-Unless-In-Case-Of-Emergency door which leads between the carriages, pushing forward to the front of the train where the small room of buttons lives, where there should be a sullen man in a peaked cap who leans out at stations to yell “Stand AWAY from the doors.” The train is still moving, you realize; although the windows are black there is the sound of a steady canter and a cool wind blows through the open door, tickling your hair. It is a small doorway and no one is willing to wait for an orderly queue.
“Get out of my way!”
“Ah fuck you, mister.”
“I need to, I need to—”
“Let me PAST!”
The boy swears again and turns to the man, whipping out a small blade he brandishes like a fist, eyes dark beneath a lank fringe. For a moment, it seems as if this will bring the momentary calm of threats upon the crowd, but then a fist flies into his gut and he crumples, the knife skittering across the floor and under your seat.
And then there are kicks and scuffles, the shrieks of young women, a dull thud like files dropped on desks. There are yells like questions and knees which find groins and the “Stop it stop it stop it stop it, my baby, stop it stop it, please, I—” and a puckered woman with brown roots like a scull-cap in her bleached hair scratches her diamante nails down the cheek of a dark teenage boy dressed in baggy Diesel jeans, and a shambling drunk emerges from his layers of pus and grime to head-butt the smooth Armani chin of the banker who yells “FUCK”, and a Hassidic Jew lets loose with a kick, and they scream and tussle, and the train hurtles and you sit and you watch and
And suddenly the noise is lathed by this keening harpy scream, loud beyond all proportion from those crumpled lips of the bird lady. The idea that noise could be produced in her withered lungs is impossible, and the shock stills the crowd instantly. It is as if an innocuous draped sackcloth has been yanked away to reveal a gleaming cage, the tiger prowling inside. Everyone stares. She stops screaming and looks back at them. A mitt unclenches a handful of hair, muscles relax, the coiled mob shuffle apart, silent but for mutters. Suddenly, eye contact is impossible. The carriages sop with the embarrassment that follows the shaken hat of beggars. For your part, you already suspected this ugliness lurking beneath the veneer of manners, though you never wanted to get involved. Now everyone is in agreement, and quiet. The train lurches on.
“Listen.” It is the fat man who first investigated the situation. He is slumped against the window, his features slack and defeated. “There’s nothing there. There’s no driver, but that’s not it, there’s no, no…controls. There’s nothing. There’s two more carriages but they’re empty and then the train, it just…stops. It, the door, it’s gone, or wasn’t there, or. I don’t know.” He exhales heavily.
“Well, what are we going to do?” asks the woman with the baby, rocking it back and forth on the seat, bouncing her knees like a child waiting for the bathroom. The carriage is silent. “We have to do something.”
“I’ll call the authorities. They’ll come. Or they’ll stop it.” A man pulls a Blackberry from his pocket, triumphant. “Quiet, a moment, everyone,” although the carriage is already silent, all eyes trained. He punches some numbers determinedly, a collective breath is inhaled, but the phone beeps in protest. Of course, there is no reception imbedded this far beneath the city, no signals penetrate the pavements. He drops his technology to the floor and blushes. “There’s nothing.”
You are watching this all with a curious detachment. Although logically there is cause for concern, it as if the panic of the others has removed that responsibility from you. You sit patient as a character in a play, convinced that events will unfold. Secretly, you find something intoxicating in acceding control. There is nothing to be done, and you cannot be blamed for not going home, to bed, to work again. You needn’t apologize. The train bobs gently and the gaggle of voices recedes. You fall asleep.
And in your shadows, the bird lady is pecking around an empty lot, worrying at the dry earth. She holds sheathes of paper, which she crumples into balls and rams underneath stones. The soil catches beneath her fingernails as she furrows deeper in her paper graveyard. You are trying to make yourself invisible, though her attention is elsewhere. Crouched behind a wooden stile, you shift from one foot to the other. You watch her pause, remove a pen from her folds, and add more words. Whatever is written is clearly the crux of the matter, undoubtedly she is spelling the secrets.
You wait until nightfall, which happens sudden as the flicking of switches. She is gone. She left no markers where the papers are buried, but you move with certainty to a spot where the earth is barely disturbed, and begin to dig. Once you break the surface the earth becomes hot and moist, inhaling and exhaling primordial whispers. Your arms sink into it, scooping great hunks of mud. There is dirt everywhere; your face is smudged; you can feel grains between your teeth. You feel like a warrior, face-painted and heroic, and dig faster, gasping. You catch a glimpse: there! A corner of white paper gleams and you brush away the remains of earth like a crack-addled archaeologist hunting for the final tinfoil remains. You make to close your hand around it. With a rustle, the paper scurries deeper. You claw after it, but the paper is faster. You are digging frantically, panting on your knees. You are sinking, headfirst, into the hole. Your arm reaches over and you follow it tumbling, plummeting, into a moist and filthy abyss.
When you hit the bottom it is like a slap. You are wrenched back and open your eyes. You are on the train.
By this point, much of the hysteria has dispersed. With no active plan, the other passengers have settled, like refugees, to wait. Small camps have set up; food is shared. People sit cross-legged on the floor, no longer bound by propriety to remain upright. There is still the occasional rippling of discussion, but the stones cast are smaller now and quicker to settle. You are all, for the time being, inert.
Time moves differently. In constant motion, you think about the conundrum of the twin aging differently in the spaceship to his brother on earth. Time is dilating. You wonder if you walk backwards through the carriage you would be standing still, you think about the earth spinning through space, you think about home. If everyone there is growing older, the food in your fridge decomposing. If Alan misses you, if he’s noticed. Maybe there’s a search party hunting for your corpse; you can’t imagine he would entertain the other implication of your absence. You don’t think that you’re losing your mind. There is a simplicity to decisions you lacked before; in fact, decisions are few. You open your hands and let the weight of intention be lifted from your palms. Sit tight, and wait.
Time passes, and some of your fellow passengers begin a pilgrimage to the carriage with the Dial 1-800-IMMIGRATION adverts, mutter at the sign in low confessional tones. Church services to a laminate God. You find it hard to believe that visas and paperwork will be required where the train is taking you, but perhaps they still believe in returning home, and worry without custom stamps they will be trapped endlessly behind borders. Or maybe they just like to talk to the poster, with its definitive fonts. Personally, it offers you little relief. You find your own solace balanced on the platform between carriages, breathing a damp tunnel air in the momentum of clatters. You like the confirmation that, as suspected, the train is in constant motion, ever forward. Sometimes this is forgotten in the lull of carriages. You spend many hours chin poked into the air, watching the walls whip away. You try not to think too hard about where you are going. Just this, the journey, seems enough.
When you’re not standing outside, you tend to sleep. Despite everything, you have never felt better. You sleep soundly with rich, textured dreams curled up in a plastic corner. Unlike at home, you don’t toss and turn for hours. The tightness in your throat has abated and you no longer wrestle through a long fug on waking: your eyes open and your mind is instantly alert. It would be strange to say you are happy, but when you wake and find everything is still the same, you are.
In fact, you realize, as you wander into another nap, this is the best you have felt in a long while. You are not ditzy nor frivolous, no. Whatever is happening, you’re doing fine. You are coping, you are confident. In your small life, you feel almost in control.
And then a noise wakens you, a sound like the scream of a mechanical bat. You look instinctively at your watch, although it could be 3am or 3pm and neither matters. Your stomach is unsettled: something has changed. The train is not moving. You are not hurtling. After the sound of brakes, there is silence. Passengers look to one another with wide eyes like open palms. Those who are standing reach out for bars to clutch, for windows to lean against. It is like stepping off a ferry onto solid ground after months on a tempestuous sea. You feel sick. Strangely, of all the endings, this wasn’t the one you tended in your mind.
The more vocal passengers decide to lead an expedition back through the tunnel, back to the city, the world beyond the train. They will walk as long as is necessary, they will find help, rescue will blaze through the tunnels. Salvation will arrive. You find yourself on your feet, tissued with indecision.
You could follow, join the trailblaze to the city, make your way back to where home is waiting. You could sit tight here and wait for the turning of the world. The bird lady twitters to your side, squeezes past down the carriage, and you notice she has left a single folded sheet. You lunge, unfold, and read the message she has left. It is, of course, exactly as you have come to realize. You sigh. Then, you think of the other options and a grin begins to tease at your lips. Humming, you clamber from the carriage, past the others, to the front of the train, the darkness of the tunnel. You fold the paper into your back pocket, take a deep breath, and carry on alone.
© Jane Flett
Jane Flett is a philosopher, cellist, and seamstress of most fetching stories. Her writing features in the Best British Poetry 2012 and has been commissioned for BBC Radio and performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She is one half of the riot grrl band Razor Cunts, the poetry editor for Leopardskin & Limes and a founder of Queer Stories Berlin. Jane is also the recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award, and was voted Berlin’s best English-language writer in 2015 by Indieberlin. http://janeflett.com