Part 2 of Elements

This story first written 1989.
Rewrites 1996 and 2018.
Exclusive to

It is morning. A morning like any other. Like any other in 1989. To be more precise.

It is important to be precise if you plan to sign your name to your statement. Which I plan to do. Sometime before I complete it. If you work with numbers and scan the elegant crests of growth distribution waves and leading drag effects on value-at-risk. If you are doing things of that ilk. You have to be somewhat tentative. Perhaps squirrely. Perhaps so.

Broken. Broken wood. Broken wood on the green door. And spotty. Spots. A rusty panel. I push it. It gives. Today it waves me in, and keeps swinging, and in swinging waving, and wailing, as it waves, still swinging. The door weeps in its age, but continues in service. As we all do. It weeps for itself. It weeps for me.

Now the glass of the booth. The token booth. It is a token booth and a token for token booths. Not clean glass. Fingerprints. But now I see in the glass a most revealing self-portrait. In the glass is reflected a half-formed shade of a man. That is me.

Behind the glass, the blue wizard hands out talismans, the gold-and-silver coins that are the keys to the underworld. I talk to the blue man in the booth,

– Two. Two, please.

The blue man does not answer. I consistently have a moment of wrenching doubt after he takes my ten dollar bill. You see, when I was seven, my father, the late Mr. Patrick Shawnessee, warned me some clerks pocket the money and refuse to hand over tokens, or change. They take and do not give. Although I myself cannot provide an example of that actually occurring. Still I remain watchful. Wary.

There’s a picture of Dad cached securely in my mind: Walking down Park Ave, one hand gripping mine, the other covering on the pants pocket that holds his wallet.

And now I realize my naming my father, narrows the possible number of people this could be speaking to three, unless you happen know the gender of the person speaking, in which case, it’s just one. Nonetheless, I persevere.

But the tokens come, Dad is wrong again. And the bills and silvery coins of change and the dull bronze tokens break through the picture of Dad, at least break through where the grey slot is under the glass. So that now I must continue my journey.

I have the tokens again. I rub the tokens to send sparks of their force ahead of me. For protection.

I never count the change, Dad. Just shove it in my pocket. Nine? Eight? What does it matter. No, it just went up, the fare, it’d be seven-seventy now, the change. Precision. They expect it of you.

With great care I slide one and only one token from my new cache and place it carefully, gently into the turnstile slot. A few times I was rather careless in the placing and it jammed. When that happens the rotor won’t turn. It clamps up and you get it, a big silver battering ram right in the… in the… man parts. I’ve learned my lesson. Now I am gentle and cautious with the mechanism. The coin slides in. I go through, bump the turnstile just so with my hip. Easy hard. Like that. It spins. I’m in, go down.

And now I realize I have revealed my gender as well. So my continued reticence to sign my name is even more a gesture of futility.

Regular observation works wonders. Really, you should try it. For example, if you stand in the correct place the train door opens right in front of you. Everyone should have a spot by a door. I don’t even have to search to find mine. It’s a chocolate-colored smudge of old gum and God-knows-what. The star that guides me where to stand. Fourteen inches west of the spot. I wait, a magus, the morning star my guide.

When you stand here, voices come from out of the air—they always do. I know somewhere in the rear of my mind there’s a metal speaker overhead, but I also forget. I give it an ear, hoping this time to make out what the voice is trying to say.

– … again. Your attention, ladies and gentlemen. This is the New York City Transit Authority. We have all of your linen. If you want to see it again here is what you must do…

The threat always begins the same. But the guy (always a guy) from the Metropolitan Transit Authority never says what he wants you to do to get your linen back. Strangely, this part of the announcement gets lost in sudden bursts of static. Actually, I have a theory. The “static” is actually caused by another person, specially hired by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, who drops metal scraps, five-penny nails onto the microphone.

It is a fantasy. I skirt its edges, wondering how they figure the correct proportion of five-penny nails to tiny bits. Did the MTA have to hire a static consultant to determine the correct mix? I’ll bet they did. Wouldn’t be a surprise. Your tax dollars at work.

Is that a good field, static consulting? Is it better than banking? Dad, do you know? You know everything. Dad?

Now the train. It always comes half through a fantasy. Inside, through the smudged glass, are the ghost faces.

I haven’t been able to muse out all the details, but someone told me once that the electric lines are long dead. It’s not hard to believe, it’s a well-known fact, almost a bit of folklore: the Subway system is fueled by the power of dreams. The third rail, the one they tell you not to touch, is for show only.

It’s the dreams. Alone.

The doors gulp open and the ghost faces turn into people. A wall of people crowd the vestibule. I shoehorn in. The warning chime rings, two notes, a major third.

(I took Introduction to Harmony 112 at Fordham University, thinking that by ‘harmony’ they meant ‘serenity.’  Later I became embarrassed at my obvious mistake. But it was a useful class — how else could I recognize the interval of the chime? The tone on the elevator? The 1-6-4-5 of the pop song blaring through the earphones of the woman standing next to me?).

Through the glass of the closing door I see a young man, his brown skin shines. He thrusts himself through the door. It closes on him but he presses against it, a sudden warrior, mighty, grinning. They grapple three or four seconds. Then the door, vanquished, retracts; the victor joins us, pushing into an old man who mutters. I can’t hear what the old pushed man is saying. I can tell only that it’s not nice.

The train moves on. The shadows whirl in the tunnel, taking their shapes. Look. Here are salamanders about to burst into flames, there Golems rise from dead matter. Here Loki and the Trickster compare their skills at Three-card Monte. The tunnels are filled with these shades. They don’t usually interfere with our lives, we who are from the light lands. But today? Fingers close around the remaining coin, safe in pocket.

The train slows, then stops.

–  Seventh Avenue, says the speaker earnestly and almost clearly.

The doors open. There’s no possible way another person can fit on the train, but somehow four more people get on, haggle for territory like pups in a litter nipping at their mother… their poor mother.

– Hey, can’t you wait?

– Inhale and make room. I got to get to work too.

Behind them the metal speaker again,

– Atlantic Avenue next. Change for the B, the Q, the IRT, and the Long Island Railroad. Careful of the closing doors.

Atlantic Avenue passes. The tunnel again. At DeKalb a few people get off and we huddled masses breathe free. It does not last. Many people get on. I have to inhale, set my jaw for the trip across the bridge.

The train climbs the approach ramp to the bridge, vibrates with traffic, skims a lake of noise. The traffic sings a song. The chorus of the song goes: It is morning. A morning like any other. The song is a big hit around here.

I hold the strap, thick like a steel sausage. It keeps me standing. The pressure of strap against hand balances against numb legs.

A high whine drones from the overhead speaker. Broken. Behind the whine, I can just make out, faintly, the voice:

– There’s a stalled train due to the observance of religious practices at Grand Street. We apologize for this inconvenience. We thank you for your penance and cooperation.

It’s OK. They have a right to their beliefs and their practices. Everyone, everyone. And we are the penitents, the co-operative. This morning we have piled into a steel box on our way to visit steel cathedrals; we supplicate, aching bodies pressed into the steel box, though passionless. religious practices.

What do you mean? Sure it is religious. We are going to work. As Dad would say, work is a form of worship, of service. Everything is. This is a service economy, right Dad?

And Dad comes back, footage looping, older and gradually older versions of him, a thousand of them, ten thousand of them, standing on the D train morning after morning, the same jerky walk, bent forward at the hip, but slowing down more and more until it is I who stand in his place, I who walk with that bent jerky tread…

I’m sorry, I’m almost ready to tell you who I am. But wait. Here I am, getting not older but maybe a little fatter, but continuing the ritual. We shove against hundreds of other bodies, they thrum with the rhythm of the dream current that pulses through the train. Yet no-one looks into the eyes of a fellow worshipper, into these eyes for example.

I look down, and down, and he falls again, falls all the way into the hospital bed. Tiny cells, his own, invisible and ravenous, gnaw at his lungs and liver. His face forever turning away from me, turning so that I know eventually it must come around again to face me. There are only after all three-hundred sixty degrees of rotation. But it never returns.

I know why he turned his face away. I keep saying that. I know why. Why he wouldn’t look. It was death. He was ashamed to look at me. Ashamed of his death.

It goes away. I lurch with the train.

This is what we call Civilization. To touch another person without knowing, or caring. Not even dogs could be so indifferent. Could they? Okay, well probably they could.

My chest and hips are pressed against a woman’s back. I peek at her face. For some reason I can’t make it out. Strands of her coarse black hair touch my right shoulder. The train lurches again, and I try to withdraw. I mean she probably already thinks I’m trying to rub myself against her back on purpose. Have to be careful. That would seem reckless. Mustn’t seem reckless. Or be reckless.

But listen. If she wants to move her hips, she can move her hips. I can leave mine right here. She doesn’t move.

She grunts and twists her body around. I adjust. But, oh no. Now it is the front of her body pressed against me. Right there.

But she won’t look. She does not want to know me. She must be a civilized woman. Her hips she doesn’t care about. She will just throw those things around. Right around.

I feel warm in the legs. I can’t show it. The music would come. The music will not be allowed.

I require a distraction. Something on which to focus. The faces of the other people in the car. The faces will do. I can examine them. They have heads, they have cheeks, they have eyes. What is in the eyes. What is in the eyes.

Nothing. Nothing. I pretend to study the faces. Nothing What am I looking for? Nothing. This opens a space up in my mind. This will work. All will be well.

A man looks up. I stare back. He looks away. I’m always ready to snap the eyes, pretend to study the seat they’re sitting on, or that ad for a new some kind of cream. A woman looks up. Her eyes now look at the hips. It is not my fault. She might think it is my fault. But it is not. But Snap. The benches on this train are of some polymer or other. A hard, unyielding, new formulation polymer. But look, a piece is broken off from a corner, there, beneath that woman’s green skirt. She has to shift, then you can see it. Give it a moment.

Up the wall, behind the face-and-bench barricade, is a pitted, smoky window, criss-crossed by scratches. Someone has shaved their name in the Plexiglas with a knife or a pen. Eired loves Arrow? Eired, it’s good to love if you have the time.

Damn. It’s the music again. Look up, out the window.

One moment the milky scratches are all I see. Then eyes unfocus. Out to the river, that strange music is pulling. Another damn vision. I can hear it. It starts, droning like a what like a a a tanpura.

The shadow of a bridge girder blows across my face. I look away. Not today, I whisper, go away, come again and thanks and have a nice another day.

Hand slippery. I wave it in the air, furiously trying to dry it. And of course that is when the train lurches again. I fall. Almost knock the hips-woman over. Hand grabs the strap and I’m fixing me. Now I look at her face to face. I have to say something. What do I say. What do I say.

– Sorry.

She glares; the limit of her hostility, then she turns away and a smile flickers. I don’t know how to do this. Our heads are arguing and our hips are still good friends.

When I was 10 I learned to stop the music by disconnecting my ears from inside. I should try that. I disconnect. But that opens me up to the other angle. Now the screen shows Dad’s face. Everything is all wrinkled up, and not just because he’s 41. He is mid-lecture, lips moving, no sound radiates. But another man is speaking. He says, “Hard work.” He says,  “Land of opportunity.” He says, “It’s the performance not the dress rehearsal…”

I’m trying to get the look, the city look, to seal things off. It’s coming. Eyes, still open, pore over the surfaces inside the car, to cool my mind down. Now I have it. A cynic’s practiced murmur of a gaze. And the curtain closes. Worked. Worked.

Distract. I check the watch but really look at her again. Reading a book. What book? I look over the edge (not easy to do without being seen, but I am a veteran subway magus). With one hand she holds the book. She looks up at me. I do another quick watch check. Eight thirty-four.

Over the edge of the book, the words dance. In and out. Hebrew. That’s Hebrew. She reads feverishly. Worshipfully. Eyes ticking, right, left, right, across the page, lips dance words out and they curve like candle smoke.

Her eyes are closed tight shut now. She is whispering the words. I can’t make out what she is doing. Her words, strange to me, are inhales and exhales in a rhythm, a specific rhythm.

It is called chanting. The words have a meter. Sometimes they drag the beat and sometimes they rush the beat.

She is deliberately pressing. Her hips. To mine. I am measuring and every increase in pressure corresponds to a beat of my heart. She has… dark hair. A warm warm and and clammy warm feeling, small of the back. Release the strap and wave the hand, thumb still hooked. I won’t fall again. Dry it off. Dry it off.

I try a dry stare. Nothing. Now my throat is dry. I’m a rock on dry sand, pounded by sun, baked by sun.

Look at the water. Out the window. I have to look. I’m dry and there is noplace left to look but there where it is water and it is not dry.

The rhythm begins to take me. The music again. It’s out the window. I can’t look out the window. I must fight, like the black man did against the subway door. But it’s strong.

Beginning at the far shore, a lake of orange fire seethes. It pulses, potent with the energy of life, of morning. It laps at the city’s shores, burning away the coals of night, of dark. We hang in the air, high above.

It is a hungry sea, full of longing. But angry. It wants to draw me in, sucking with fire’s hunger. It wants to to swallow, to consume me. I want to let go, to fly. Can’t resist. If I give in, even for a moment, I will be lost. I tighten the grip on the steel strap and swing with the train as it lurches.

The music. It is the raging thoughts of ten million dreamers, all dreaming the same. It is the heat of a winter morning, not overt, lost in icy wanderings. It is the pent-up lust perhaps in the body of a young woman reading Hebrew. Of perhaps my own body. Of a car full such bodies. What am I against a tide of bodies? It licks up, into the train, inside a silver metal box suspended above a river of fire, to pluck me out. It crystallizes, it is a mandala, a circle of earth above four horses of fire above eight turtles of water above 16 cranes of sky.

It picks me up delicately. It sucks me in. It swallows. Almost lovingly. And my body bursts, shattered like the dream it always was, crushed by wind, rock, pressure, like a dry leaf.

Where am I now? Now? Now? I am fragments, waves, suspended in fixed space. The song is deafening, silent. It spans every possible pitch and timbre. It is an instant in which nothing has happened, yet everything is possible.

What I am, will be, is bounded by the water, the burning water. Left behind is only space, a field occupied by quarks, protons, whirling, churning, agitated. It will look the same only in form, but be ever shifting, like the shadows in the deep tunnel.

The words are the whispered words mouthed by the woman, they are the lyrics of the song the fire sings me. Slow, cadenced with silence, they fall like slow drops off a tree bough after a storm into the swirling storm of fire that I am. Atom by atom the words fall into place, drops of red-hot liquid glass that fill the space I occupied. I am built up slowly, block by block, cooling…

Conscious again now. I hear the hiss of the speaker and feel the thick metal strap. How long was I gone? The metal speaker clicks:

– Grand Street Chinatown. Please step in and stand clear of the closing doors.

Swarms, hundreds of gnomes clutching long black and blue coats pour out onto the Grand Street platform, up the steps, out the exit. The warning chime rings, two notes, a major third.

I look at the hand, flex the fingers. It looks strange. I never noticed before what an odd thing a hand was. Why these four fingers? Why this opposable thumb?

I look around. Suddenly self-conscious. But it is a day like any other. Isn’t it? Nobody is paying any mind.

Where is she? I am alone now. The train lurches into motion. She has gone.

Out the flashing window, saw shadows battle. Soon I would be in the bank, among my fellow parishioners, struggling, praying for a hold. Like my father before me. Information Society. Service Economy. Would you like to open a NOW account, ma’am? Yes, sign at the ‘X.’ Your new checks will arrive in four to six weeks.

It slows, stops. The metal speaker says:

– Broadway Lafayette, change here for the F and the downtown number 6 train. Please step in and watch out for the closing doors.

I can’t go there, not any more. I am different now. I was taken apart, reassembled by fire, water, chant. I look the same outwardly, weird four fingers that can tap keys. Inside? I am transparent, glistening, different.

Not long to decide. My stop is next. I check for my wallet, keep a hand on it, glance at the watch. I slip from wrist to faces again, the faces of the parishioners, lined up on the grey plastic pews.

They know. Every one of them. Why didn’t I ever notice it? They had heard the music before, seen the lake of fire, felt the drops of molten glass. How could I miss it? When I saw nothing in them, what I saw was inner glass. Transparent, like me.

– West 4th street. Change here for the F and for the A, B, C, on the upper level.

It’s the warning chime, two notes, major third. I am still standing in the car. This is the stop! As the doors close, I thrust through them, press against them, battle them. And win, grin.

Up the stairs, out the exit, onto the street of light and noise, leaving the dream river to flow on beneath the feet.

Until tonight.

I, Darin Patrick Shawnesee, do approve the heretofore.

Copyright © 2018 Bob Jude Ferrante