Revised and published 2017
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com.
It was half an hour after dark set on a cold, forlorn late December evening. The dirty breeze passed its chill through the thick wool coat of Michael Curtis, a venerable old classics professor tenured at that most venerable of old institutions, New York University. Curtis bone-shivered, pressed the thick blackleather case tighter to him, hurrying past the orange construction cones and dark ochre hulks of dormant backhoes, around the red plastic netting blocking the crosswalk at fifteenth street, past flashing amber and red bulbs of discount drugstores. Where to? The West Fourth Street Subway stop to catch the train home to Brooklyn.
He passed Thirteenth Street. Around the corner came a throbbing, pounding sound he couldn’t recognize. Into the crosswalk zipped a black sports car with mirror strips tracing its sides bearing the black emblazon “MY TOY.” Inches from his frozen booted feet.
Michael ventured around the car; its tail-lights flickered ominously. The music—he recognized it now and winced—poured from behind the tinted windows. “My god…” he muttered, “… practically heresy…” It was a rap version of a once-familiar Christmas carol:
From the isthmus
Where the choppers rush in
See the snow bunch
Hear the kids crunch
Under twenty pound bombs.
N’ below all the rubble you hear…
“Silver bells… Silver Bells,” he thought, “It’s Christmastime in the City. People crush. People push. They all abuse Christmas day. Dirty people. Stupid people. Headed somewhere pointless. And they think their own lives are important…”
The light went green. The car sped through the intersection behind him, its dirge frozen in the frigid air.
He reached the green-lit Subway entrance. The dingy tiles seemed to welcome him. He rounded the corner and started into a practiced gallop down. It was lucky he grabbed the railing tightly, because from out of nowhere a pair of feet blocked the stairs and he nearly tripped down the length of the flight. Recovering balance, he turned to face the feet.
The feet were sparsely covered by ragged strips of leather barely recognizable as shoes. His eyes wandered up the body. The fat legs stuffed into hole-ridden stockings. The blue pinstriped skirt caked in months of oil and body wastes. Layers of sweaters bearing enormous rips. The shriveled face, shadowed by a running-jacket hood and grey with dirt. To complete the picture, the body was wrapped in a full-length London Fog trenchcoat crusted with grime. The skin on his hands crept.
Then the smell hit, a heady wave that spoke of poor sweat, urine, vomit, old feet and putrid food. Holding back the gag reflex, he covered nose and mouth with hand and tried to get past her down the steps. The homeless person (“Woman?” he wondered) sidestepped deftly and blocked his way.
“Spare some chain, misteh?” she asked, her voice humble and plaintive.
“Excuse me,” he said. After a pause he repeated it, firmer, “Excuse me, lady!” repressing the whine that began at the back of his throat. She moved forward, with agility he found surprising, to pinch his coat-sleeve between two fingers, halting him.
“Come on, misteh. That nice briefcase you got. Musta cos two hundarddollas. You try-na teh me you ain got a twennyfive cent, a quata, a nicka, a sometha, so I can get somethin?”
Feeling a surge of guilt, he stammered his rebuttal.
“Listen, I’m tired. Been a long day. Just want to go home. Sorry. I have no change. No change, understand? Now please, let me go past.”
She sighed, let go the sleeve and moved against the stairwell wall. He saw the opening and grabbed it, leaping the remaining steps. A young woman in a red fox fur coat started to descend. She spotted the crone and thrust out a hand to block her face. The homeless woman was indomitable. “C’mon lady, spare some chain, please lady please?” came her plaintive voice.
Approaching the turnstile, Curtis muttered, “That b-word thinks she can accost busy people. On the stairwell! Someone could fall. Someone could FALL. Look at her. She should work. She should get a JOB.”
His hand rooted the left coat pocket where the metrocard was cached. He got it out but a wad of bills and coins came with it. Though he fumbled in midair, a few clattered to the smarm-covered cement. Squatting, he retrieved them, picking them up gingerly with fingertips to avoid touching the nauseating ground. He glanced up the stairs. The plink of coin to pavement had caught her attention. She stared down at him. He twisted away, a torrent of guilt tearing at his chest. He said there were no coins, she caught him lying! The ignominy!
The thought of going back and conceding her a coin came and went. “You want to give her money?!” he thought, “Michael Curtis, the hell’s the matter with you?! It’ll go for drugs or alcohol. Possibly both. You wouldn’t be doing her any favors! Remember, this is the Cro-Magnon hausfrau who wouldn’t let you down the stairs! Where the hell does she get off?!” He bunched his face into the most furious grimace he could muster and fired another look up at her. She was still staring. He held the look for a moment, then turned slowly back to the turnstile. “Can’t let her think I’m retreating. Animal psych 101. Don’t let her think she’s won the interaction.”
He slashed the subway card into the slot, pushed through and made for the dark stairs. What a relief! But a nameless feeling made him turn again, to glance for just for a second behind. He saw her eyes. They seemed to shimmer slightly, like green phosphors, fixed on him.
Jaw ground shut, he leapt down the stairs to the trains, two at a time. The train arrived five minutes later, its doors sucked open. He glanced through the window to make sure there were plenty of other people in the car—he often told people this was the Primus Dictum of Subway Survival. He got on.
There were a few seats. He took one. After that the ride went quickly, two stops in Manhattan; the bridge with its silent ride over dark and quiet water; two stops in Brooklyn; finally: Seventh Avenue. The doors hissed. The dingy tiled station beckoned. He exited, trudged up the stairs. At the top he turned left, for the door to Flatbush Avenue. But it was no go.
The sign read:
“Dammit!” he shrieked. All the pent-up frustration had now found an acceptable outlet—the City of New York Department of Public Works. “Why don’t they post a sign at the bottom of the stairs if the bloody door isn’t working? It’s bloody typical of the damn City! They don’t give a goddamn about people. All they care about is getting the hell home early and taking their hundred days off a year! Bastards!”
“Bastards” echoed hotly in the lip of the stairwell. Grumbling, he descended the stairs, then up through the dark to the other exit, to emerge in open night air, a block from his two-bedroom apartment.
* * *
‘Rho Nu Delta Hall’ was not a building, merely a cavernous room that occupied half the fourth floor of St Martin-in-the-Fields hall (which was a building). But NYU freshmen and freshwomen reading their course assignment cards invariably thought it was a building; this always made them about half an hour late to their first-day classes. It was a fact to which the faculty had adjusted, and which gave endless amusement to the upper-classpeople.
Stepping into the Hall was like walking through a door in time. You passed into a place bedecked with hand-carved pilasters, dark-stained mahogany panelling, and a quiet, British-inspired austerity. Overhead, sunlight filtered smokily through dust-caked stained glass. Once, a hundred years before, pipes were quietly smoked in this room over whispered lectures. smoking was banned there now, but the Hall still spoke softly of tradition, of generations passing. Every time he crossed the doorway with its carved lion’s heads, his feet silently treading the vermilion-carpeted inlaid floor, Mike Curtis’s breast surged with pride. Freud had come to talk about thanatos in this room. John Foster Dulles once taught Advanced Studies in Political Theory in this room. Only the cream lectured in this room.
“In conclusion, it’s important to stress the revenge motif that runs through the Oresteia. Revenge is its primary motivating factor. More than simply a device to move the plot or keep to the Aristotelian rule that every drama must have a conflict. In this play, revenge is social function made flesh, so to speak. It is the demiurge, a page ripped timely from the word-horde of the time.” He paused, mostly for effect, then continued.
There was a flurry of raised hands and a few muffled shouts of “Mr. Curtis!” He rested hands on the podium and looked upon his class. Sometimes he felt old in comparison to this green young energy, this roomful of moist youthful skin puckering like an orange peel under the all-too-brief, skillful caress of knowledge. After all, he was nearly fifty, divorced, hair dropping out like old plaster, skin daily growing thin and dry as the two-hundred year-old books that lined his office walls. To them, of course, who understood little of these phenomena, he was a hero, a skilled tour-guide there to safely direct them through deadly realms of knowledge. How old were they? Nineteen? Twenty? With marriage nothing but a possible event on the horizon? He sighed. But mostly he loved it; the sight of those faces, new, made him feel almost young again…
He took a deep, open breath, then pointed at Barbara. There was a slight change in his pulse as he did.
Barbara Pasolini. That paper she handed in last week. Aristophanes The Frogs, wasn’t it?
He watched her arm strain skyward, her breasts rubbed (provocatively, so he thought) the soft fabric of her powderblue sweater.
Curtis had long since faced people’s opinion of him: that he was a dry-veined, lifeless, moth-eaten old fart. But there she was. Barbara. Face of a cherub, eyes always turned his way and filled (so he thought) with leagues of promise, shadows of secret fantasies.
Wasn’t it him that she looked up at, dreamy, while composing quiz answers (and not the board with Quiz Clues behind him?).
Last week, too, she mentioned she was thinking of majoring in Classics, even asking him, eyes blazing with hope, “If you have time, I may want you… to be my advisor?”
I. May. Want. You. The exact four words. They couldn’t have been just the random choice, could they? No, they were pendant with meaning. He couldn’t block out the thoughts of that meaning, in the full range of their every ramification.
True, the paper wasn’t really that original. Granted, it was at best a B paper, and he’d given her an A. No sense to discourage…
“Barbara, did you have a question?” All arms dropped. Barbara sat up straight.
“Professor Curtis, did you mean the image of the Furies serves more of a social role than a plot function?”
“Hm. That’s a good way to summarize what I was trying to say, Barbara. Yes. Tragedy did have a very important social role in Athens. Remember, the Athenians maintained a peaceful golden age for over a hundred years by using tragedy in this very same social role, as you put it. The Athenians thought humankind a brutal race, prone to every manner of bestial and violent act and not well-suited to civilized living.”
A classmate to her right giggle. Barbara turned away, distracted. He had to turn it up a notch.
“But they also harnessed that violence. Why? Because it was fun, sure!”
A few in the class sat up, one even laughed.
“Tragedy melded the joy of that nastiness — seeing the high brought low — with a strong sense of social role purpose. The hero, noble, but filled with hubris—that’s pride, right?—is brought low, by his tragic flaws—and then utterly destroyed by the power of the gods. Let’s take the Oresteia, a very Athenian play. The Erinyes, or Furies, embody the relentless destructive might of vengeance. Aeschylus—and through him, Athenian society—wanted to quell the common man’s desire for violent retribution against the mighty. To see the great brought low on stage was preferable to bringing them low in life. So the Furies, who would tear Orestes limb from limb for the crime of murder, symbolize purgation. They cleanse the body politic of its violent craving for revenge. Aeschylus calls upon a powerful archetype, eternal as language itself.”
It was a good set of sentences. But the bell rang in the middle of the last one, and the class began standing even before he finished it. He began to shout the homework out as loud as he could, unconsciously imitating college professors he had seen on TV and in movies.
“Thanks, everyone. Pay attention, please. When we resume in January, we’ll read The Libation Bearers, from First Chorus to the end, and look for stylistic differences from the Oresteia. See you Thursday.”
As the students filed out, Barbara paused for a moment, as if to ask something. But that classmate grabbed her shoulder, and she left with a conspiratorial whisper.
Curtis sighed. At least the last class before Christmas break was finally over.
* * *
“Another pint of Watney’s, Mr. Curtis?”
Curtis looked up from the puddle of beer in which he had just nearly dipped his nose. It smelled of rank old dishcloths. His head bobbed like a fog buoy that had lost its tie-line. He gaped down the bar, eyes passing the carved oak and smoky inlaid mirrors of the pseudo-English decor. There was Ms. Chichester, talking to her boyfriend… What was he again, a welder or something? God. A waste of admirable talent. Not bad looking, that old Chichester. What she needed was a hero, not a welder. A man who’d made his life out of gaining knowledge, not making trailers. For God’s sake.
“Trailers,” burbled Curtis indistinctly, lifting a hand to check his pocket watch. As he concentrated, a thin ribbon of spit trailed from his mouth, clear and viscous like a band of bubbled glass. He reached over to tap his companion, Teddy Murphy, fellow bachelor professor (Linguistics), on the shoulder.
“What time is it, Teddy?” he asked aloud, then answered the question himself with another glance at the pocket watch, “Eleven thirty! Great Hairy Mother of Christ! I have to get back to the train, Ted. You can’t catch them after midnight. Nah, not like it used to be, is it, before the political hacks cut the budget. Those bastards really messed up the City. The instrafructure is falling apart, gas pipes and water mains bursting all over the place.” He laughed in vicious little snorts. “And yet! Yet somehow they manage to spend so much money doing nothing that the City is practically bankrupt again! Can you believe it?”
Teddy moaned, a long, low, bovine sound of assent that sounded like, “Nnnnnnhmmmm Mmmike.” He was beyond speech.
Mike Curtis rose from the barstool, brushing peanut remains from his pant legs. He noticed a round wet stain on one knee. “Christ. I just sent these out last week. Don’t tell me I have to go to the dry cleaners again. The oriental robber barons that run New York take enough of my money.” He nudged Teddy again. “Listen, Ted. You awake? Teddy?”
Teddy seemed utterly dead to the world. He didn’t respond or move. For a moment, Curtis felt the beginnings of panic. Suddenly though, Teddy’s hand swung out from its resting place on the bar surface and smacked to a stop on Curtis’s shoulder. With a loud and prolonged grunt, Teddy hoisted his insensate self up from the bar, head lolling like a great lead block, in the process pushing Curtis firmly down and knocking him half off the stool.
“There you goooo,” Teddy slurred, “Shaved through the mir-cle off mod-ren sci- science. Leshon twelve, class, in great inventions of mankind. The lever. What an invention. D’jew know who invented the lever, Mikey?”
“Um, Archimedes,” replied Curtis, still brushing peanut dross from trouser legs, interest flagging rapidly.
“Archimedes. Yeh. Wasn’t he the one who sa- said, excuse me, Mike, I spit on your face. Here, lend me a hanky… wasn’t he the one who said, ‘give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world?’”
“That was he.” said Curtis, giving the handkerchief. Teddy took it and gently mopped Curtis’s face with it.
“What magical words. ‘Giff me a lever, and a place to stand…’ Jesus Christ, how be-youth-iful. ‘Giff me a place, and a stand…’ God. You got to luff the guy.”
“I guess you do,” answered Curtis, as dark clouds of sobriety began ominously to descend.
“Yes, you abs-looly do got to luff his ass!” He laughed. “You got luff his ass to death!”
“Teddy, listen, it’s almost midnight. I have to get going. Train home, you know.”
“Awright buddy. You get going. I can get home all right. I get home. Just point me in the right direction. Point me! Point me!”
Curtis, silently noting the parallel to It’s a Wonderful Life, pointed Teddy in the approximate direction of Houston Street where lay his friend’s tiny furnished flat, giving him a tiny shove. And Murphy was off, banging into every dumpster and tree in his path, true, but off. He chuckled. Toodaloo, Uncle Billy! Life imitates art! Then he turned and set course for West Fourth Street.
* * *
The green sign glowed above the Subway entrance. Curtis felt in the outer coat pocket for his metrocard. “Damn,” he thought, and in a flash came the visual image of where he had left them, on top of the dresser back home. He fumbled in the pocket for change, counting it with numbed fingers. “Christ,” he moaned, “even left my gloves on top of the bar—it’s The Night That Would Not Die!”
As he turned into the station his left shoulder brushed the greasy, broken-tiled wall and a fat thread from the coat snagged on a fragment of shattered masonry. He yanked hard to free it, turning at the same time, and found himself face-to-face with —
“Spare some chain?”
“Great Crusty, Rusty Nails of Christ!” he cried. He straightened to answer her, desperately trying to maintain calm, “Change? Uh, haven’t got any tonight. Honest. Some other night maybe.”
“You kiddin me, misteh. I reck-a-nize you. I ask you fo chain yes-a-day. You say you din have none. You lie to me, misteh. Why my suppose a ba-leave you now? Han ova some chain,” she growled.
“Lady, if you don’t get out of my way, I’m going to call for a cop.”
“You kin go ahea n call fo cop. I wan my chain!” She held his lapels in a grip that would have put a lamprey to shame. Her breath was a fetid wind that reminded him of Satan’s farts in the ninth circle of the Inferno. He reached a hand up to protect his nose. She pushed the hand down.
“You keep yo hans down! Ain no man gone tack me.” she cried.
Curtis looked down the steps to the turnstile. Trapped! He could feel the tears starting to come. He tried to quash them, but there they were. This couldn’t be happening! Where were the goddamned cops? Where? At the Grey’s Papaya across Eighth Street, having two dogs with everything, while he was practically being murdered here on the steps by a crazy street bitch, where anybody could see?
“Help!” he wailed, loud, “Somebody help me!”
A shoe scraped the pavement at the top of the stairs. Appearing as if to answer the cry, the Jamaican man rounded the corner and started down the steps. But then, seeing the street lady and her well-dressed prisoner, he shrugged up against the wall. In veteran New York form, he rushed down the steps past the pair, head turtled beneath overcoat collar.
“Hey!” screamed Curtis, watching his only hope for rescue push through the turnstile to freedom, “Come back here! Please! Mister! You got to help me!”
But there was no answer. The Jamaican man was gone. Footsteps echoed distantly from the second flight of stairs below. “Damn!” he thought, “Nobody to help me! If only Teddy could have walked me to the station!”
Thinking of Teddy reminded him of Archimedes and his lever. A plan surfaced.
“Okay, lady. You want some change. I admit it. I was lying. I’ve got change. Let go of me and I’ll give you something for your trouble.”
“You ain shittin me, misteh?” Her voice crested menacingly.
“You gone gimme chain?”
“Yes. I think there’s at least a two seventy-five in my pocket. I was going to use it to buy a swipe from a passing ruffian. It’s yours if you let go.”
“Three dolla,” she crowed, triumphant.
“Okay. Three. No problem. Just let me go!” He smiled winningly. “Please lady please?” he added.
She glared at him, her green eyes boring in like optical razors. Then, with a jerk, she let go, opening her hands to prove she bore no further malice, but keeping them at elbow-height to prove she would grab again if he tried to flee. She smiled confidently.
He got a better grip on the briefcase handle with his right hand, positioning his feet against the back of the step for anchor. With the left hand he pretended to fish the outer coat pocket for change. “Just a second, lady,” he said, girding his guts for what was coming next.
It was not easy emotionally for Michael Curtis. It took a full three seconds of pretending to fish in his pocket before he finally brought himself to act.
Then suddenly his left hand seized the banister. He swung around and rammed her with his heavy leather case.
“Get off me!” he cried.
The woman wasn’t holding onto anything. She lost her balance and began to slide down the stairs. Her arm shot out; she was lucky, managing to snag the banister. She looked up, the expression spitting hatred and outrage. She lurched for him, blood in her bright green eyes. She came within inches, but then her filth-caked shoes betrayed her, slipping out from under and sending her tumbling down the additional ten steps. A crack like a gunshot signaled her landing, as head hit concrete floor.
Curtis could have run, but didn’t, not right away. He stood transfixed, looking down at the motionless woman. His head went blank of thought. A minute passed. Then came the flash—he had to do something to help the woman! Call an ambulance. Put her in a cab to the hospital. Something! She might have a concussion. She could be dying. He had to do something.
But the loud voice clanged inside again, certain as a senator. “Help her?! Michael Curtis, you are the biggest idiot in New York, a City with no deficit of them! If you call 911 they’ll send out the police! They’ll ask questions. They’ll arrest you. Manslaughter! And if she lives? Rapacious law firms will queue up to take her case and every penny of your meager salary will be attached for the rest of your pitiful idiot life! You can’t expect justice or understanding! Get out! Get out of there, Michael! Before it’s too late!”
When his brain kicked in again, he was inside, having pushed through the chain on the exit door (only the booth at the far end of the floor was open anyway) and gone down to the platform. It was only a two-minute wait before the D train arrived. Not looking forward, not looking back, not caring, he stumbled through the open train door, grabbed a pole and swung onto a bench.
* * *
In the sky, between the bands where teal becomes cadmium blue, an ancient wheel begins dully to creak. Once it was well tended, oiled daily by a careful factotum. But now it belongs to a different temporal modality, lost for over two thousand years (and it is hard to get good help to stay that long without a pay raise). Though the wheel was designed for eternal vigilance, centuries of disuse has left its mechanism rusty.
But now, scenting skeins of nascent guilt from below, it turns. It moves one revolution, two. From her place in the sky, the hoary spirit, shaken loose by the wheel’s motion, begins to awaken.
She has slept for 2,138 years now and feels very cranky. Rising from the bed of gases and vapors, she raises a long withered arm; dusty umber robes twine about her. Her yawn is like distant thunder.
Grumbling, she starts the descent.
Passing through the ionosphere, she plugs her nose at the lambent scent of ozone. She is awake now. After all this time, she has another job to do. And she is really, really pissed off.
* * *
The train thundered in the dark wet tunnel. Beads of sweat dripped on his coatcollar. Thoughts splashed like drops of madness. What if someone did see? What if they find his fingerprints on the banister? Can the police get fingerprints off skin? Off sweat-encrusted cloth? Jesus Christ! He couldn’t believe he’d done it. She was dead. She had to be dead! It was all his fault! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!
Then, like sun bursting through overcast sky, the madness cracked and rays of relief spilled in. She was gone! The nemesis was vanquished! The terrorist of his past two nights was gone! He could go to the West Fourth St. Subway station any time now, sans worries! It was terrible it had to happen this way. But at least it had happened!
Other thoughts began to intrude. He wondered why the remorse was so short-lived. Everything he had ever been taught, both by his parents and in the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, declared unequivocally that taking human life was wrong, a sin. Yet he felt mostly concern for his role in… the murder. Face it, it was murder. And he might get caught! A guilt-ridden voice within spoke: was this appropriate behavior for a true hero?
“But no,” he thought, “Maybe people come in grades, like eggs. Yeah, that’s it. Some are more important. If you kill a really important person, like, say, Mother Teresa, you’ve committed a grave sin. Nobody can argue that. But what if it’s just an insignificant street person? Hell, an obnoxious one. That’s a different case, right?”
He sat back. Through the window he watched orange and blue worklights play in the underground tunnel. Where was he sitting? Usually he entered the train at the second car from the front, which deposited him in front of the steps leading to the Flatbush Avenue door. He got up to check. “I’m at the back of the train. Should move up at the next stop.”
Something made him look backward into the dark tunnel. A movement. It was different from the usual. There. There it was again. Like a workman waving a cloth, above and behind the train. The only thing was, they were going pretty fast, and the cloth didn’t seem to be getting any farther back. “But the way we’re moving, could somebody be standing on the roof, waving a rag? No. Impossible.”
They slowed in the tunnel. He looked back, hoping to catch a better glimpse of the strange moving object. It was murky there. There! There it was again! He squinted, trying to make it out. Without warning, there was a thud on the roof of the car. His hands turned to ice. Damn! Was something wrong with the train? He wished to be home, curled up in an overstuffed chair, a scotch warming in the left hand, a cigar smouldering in the right. Sweat poured from everywhere, forehead, hands, armpits.
The train lurched, lights dimming in the car. He grabbed the pole to keep from falling. There was another bang, softer this time. The lights flicked on again. For the first time, he scanned the interior of the car, and realized: There was nobody else aboard! Damn! He had broken the Primus Dictum of Subway Survival!
“This is too much!” He smacked the glass door pane and laughed. “Nerve-wracking night! That homeless woman must have made me sloppy. Can’t move between the cars—they’re locked on these damned made-in-Japan trains—but ah, it’s no big deal. At Grand Street I can move up. Easy solution.”
There was another bang on the roof. What was it, a loose cable? “Great, this is all I need,” he muttered, “The train’s going to break and I’ll be trapped. Perfect end to the night.” He turned darkly and took a seat, to wait for the next stop.
As he searched through the leather case for his class notes, the howling began. It started as a low murmur. At first it seemed to rise from the wheels grinding against the tracks. But it continued to grow louder, even when the train slowed on its approach into Grand Street. He put the case down and returned to the glass. There was another thud, very loud this time. It sounded as if the train had hit a large animal, like a deer or moose. Perhaps an economy-sized subway rat? He shuddered at the thought of it, of giant-rat guts splattering everyplace. “Eurgh,” he thought.
This time when the howling started, he knew something was seriously wrong. It was accompanied by a scraping sound, as if something was dragging a body across the roof. Curtis began to tremble uncontrollably. He looked through the glass and saw it: a shadowy bulk like an enormous wing. The howling stopped. There was quiet. Then a single, horribly loud smash of glass from the next car.
Just then, the train pulled into Grand Street. The doors opened, hissing as he slung his leather case over one shoulder. He approached the doorway silently and peeked out, trying to see if anyone was there. No-one was. He dashed out the door, rounded the corner with the aid of the tunnel support pillar, and bolted for the next car, reaching it just as the chime announced the doors were closing.
Panting, he plopped onto a seat. The train entered the tunnel on the gangway to the Manhattan bridge. The climb began, with stomach-dropping speed. He covered his eyes, realizing he was frightened half-witless. His thoughts raced. “What the hell is that thing? An asbestos-mutated pigeon malingering in the tunnel? Are toxic waste victims migrating across the river from Jersey?”
He sat back, trying to catch his breath and calm down. Now there was no sound but the hum of the train motor as it crossed the bridge. Out the window glowed the lights of the South Street Seaport and Financial District. Looking at the City always relaxed him. It was one of the reasons he lived in Brooklyn, to have this view of the City from the bridge. He smiled and tried to relax by humming a tune in concert with the motor. His thoughts rumbled. Everything was going to be fine. It would be fine. He sighed and leaned his head against the mirrory stainless steel wall of the subway car as the lights danced. Just three more stops to home.
* * *
“Yes, this is it,” she thinks, adjusting her loose robe. “The guilt is very strong here, like a pool. Time to get to work.”
The withered arms raise to gather the guilt, to change it to the weapon she needs to finish the job. A cloud of silver sparks coalesces between her outstretched hands. The foreordained implement materializes at her feet: a large burlap sack. She hefts it. It is very heavy.
Just then the train jerks. Thrown off balance by the extra weight, she slips and crashes to the roof. She howls in pain. Quickly she regains her footing. Still wincing, she drags the sack down to the other end of the train, to await the correct moment to strike.
* * *
The train hurtled into DeKalb Avenue. The doors hissed open. Curtis dashed from car to platform. He stopped with a scrape of gumsoles, twisted to look at the train roof. There was nothing. He raced to the next car. It was empty. At the far end a window was broken. It could have been a kid ‘wilding,’ or any of a hundred other causes.
“But I saw something! Where is it?! What is it?!” screamed his thoughts. He ran back to the middle of the platform, grabbed a squat black woman by the coat. She grimaced and tried to yank loose.
“Did you see it?! Tell me if you saw it!” he cried.
“Please leggo, mistah. I got t’git home. You git home too, if you got a, n’ git some rest. Now leggo. Please.” The plaintive look on her face, which seemed to say, “Not me, Lord, not tonight, OGodIKnewItWouldHappenSomeday,” made him stop the harangue and release her. Defeated, he turned back in time to see the D train doors starting to close. He bolted for the car, got through as the doors squeezed hard into his sides. He cried out. A moment passed, then they reopened. He slipped through. The doors closed behind. Dazed, he meandered to a seat.
As the train pulled away from the stop, his head leaned against the steel pole that bordered the seat. An old man at the other end of the car stared at him. His reflection in the stainless steel wall across the car told why. He looked utterly wild, a man from the Outer Limits. He sighed miserably again and sank deeper into the daze.
Between DeKalb and Atlantic it made its next move.
The train hit a bumpy stretch of track. The locked emergency doors at both ends of the car began to rattle slightly. The bumpy stretch passed. But the rattling continued at one end of the car. It grew louder. It became more violent. Something was trying to force the door open.
There was a smack on the glass. He looked up, kicked out of the trance. Adrenalin pumped. It easy to make out: the outline of a giant hand pushing against the window. The mylar and glass layers bulged and crackled with the force.
He jumped up and dashed for the end of the car. The old man cringed in his seat, whimpering, as Curtis approached. Curtis turned to him, trying to comfort him.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bother you, but there’s something outside the car and I think it’s after me.”
The old man stared at him silently, covering his mouth as if to keep from speaking. From the other end of the car the window in the emergency door was crackling like it would shatter any second. Curtis stared at the black, mossy hand as it pressed against the glass.
The train burst into the light of Atlantic Avenue, the blue painted pillars whizzing past. Curtis looked to the door again. The hand was gone.
“Whatever it is,” he thought, “it seems to only like it in the tunnels.”
The doors opened. Curtis looked back. The man had rushed out the door. He was making for the front car. Curtis laughed. Must have given the old guy the scare of his life. He pressed back into the seat. Only one stop to go.
Three people got on at Atlantic Avenue. There were two black boys, in their mid-teens. They eyed Curtis curiously. Normally he would have been scared by them, but as the door closed, he actually felt relieved to see them. The other, a bum in grey rags, found a seat in the corner across from him and hunched into a ball.
The doors closed. The train left Atlantic Avenue. Curtis girded himself for the reappearance of the black mossy hand, but there was nothing there. He sank back into the seat, every nerve on fire. He looked across at the bum.
“Excuse me. Sir? Excuse me.”
The black teens laughed.
“Now the tweed guy talkin to the raggy dude,” one said.
Curtis stood and approached the bum.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but did you see…?”
Hesitantly he reached out to touch the grimy shoulder. It was hot as a griddle. In reflex, the burned hand flew to his lips. The bum suddenly looked up. Curtis stepped back, one step, two steps.
The eyes were bright green like phosphors and the face that emerged from the folds of greasy cloth was scarred and pitted like something out of a Dore woodcut. She opened her mouth and hissed; it was a semicircular array of long white ivory needles. Amber saliva dripped from the edge of the jaw. She stood slowly, almost creakingly.
“My Gah… Gah… GAH! It’s a Eri… nyeh… a… HELP… it’s an Erin… IT’S A FRIGGIN’ FURY!!” he cried.
“Sure is,” said one of the boyz, giggling. “Yo, check it out. Dude look like a Freddy Chucky thang.”
The other did give the creative a more critical glance, and replied, “I think more Hellraiser. Maybe a touch a Planet Z?”
“I didn’t mean it!” pleaded Curtis. “It was an accident. She wouldn’t let me past! I was tired. You have to understand!”
The Fury had to hunch over in the car to stand, as the ceiling was only six and a half feet high. She glared down at Curtis and extended a wooly arm, hissing. In her other hand she gripped the heavy sack.
Curtis backed into the seat as the creature approached. She made a snatch for him and got a hold on his coat, but it was unbuttoned and he wiggled free as the wiry jaws snapped shut an inch from the top of his head. The rumbling of the train on track began to grow hollow. They were approaching Seventh Avenue.
She crept with a sliding, shuffling gait, down the length of the car after him, her bulk filling half the aisle. Evidently she preferred flight in the loamy dark to walking in the stuttering fluorescent light. Curtis, mouth tasting of metal, reached the last bank of doors at the end of the car and grabbed the steel pole. The roar grew louder as the train emerged into the light at Seventh Avenue. When the doors opened he vaulted out and broke for the stairs.
Behind him he heard mammoth wings unfold and stretch. Then the flapping began; huge, broad strokes accompanied by mighty gusts of fetid, displaced air. With each pounding step he could hear the thing getting closer. He thought of every molasses-stepped nightmare of his youth, hounds lizards big cats slugs werewolves snakes after him, inches behind.
The stairs, he had reached them and was making them two at a time, clambering up using hands and feet in tandem. The roaring, howling, flapping was less than a second behind. He had to reach the top, reach the door to the open air. Then one block home—safe!
From behind came a crash of bone on plaster. He looked back. The Fury had hit the ceiling at the top of the stairwell, must have misjudged it; disoriented from the shock of the impact, she flailed helplessly on the floor at the top of the stairs roaring like an monstrous infant throwing a tantrum. A chance! The door! He had made it!
The sign read:
* * *
They were just getting ready for shuteye. Mari was making the bed, pressing the cardboard boxes down so they were flat and smooth.
“Nice job, Mar,” said Artie. “Got the blanket there?”
“Here,” she answered, her voice calm.
She muttered the prayer she always recited at bedtime, a Tantric verse to purify the space for sleep. He hummed too, an old Christmas carol, as he propped their sign carefully against the wall, positioning it so anyone passing by could read it and perhaps give them something. “Hm hm bells. Hm hm bells…”
We are fire victims.
Please give what you can.
“I’ll go find Nicky,” she said, “whyn’ you go ahead and sleep, sweet.”
He lay down heavy on the cardboard while she went to search for their son. It had been a long day and they had only brought in enough to pay for some take-out at Kankakee Fried Chicken. So they had to sleep here, in the drafty space at the end of the Subway platform. It was better than a doorway on a cold night like this. He shut his eyes.
“Artie! Come quick!”
He sat up. It was Mari! Something was wrong! His mind flashed back to two weeks ago, when two teenagers shook her down, trying to rob her of their day’s take. Luckily the punks weren’t armed and he managed to scare them off with a trashcan lid. What if it was worse? What if they had a gun?
He ran down the empty platform. Mari was nowhere in sight. Then her voice echoed again from the stairwell that led to the transfer point for the Number Two train. He gulped and ran down, not knowing what he’d find.
Twenty feet from the lip of the stairwell stood Mari and Nicholas, staring down at a black pile of rags and bones about the size of a man. It gave off the distinctive reek of humanity. He shuddered.
“What are you doing here? That’s some poor guy, is all. Looks like the kids done a job on him. Let’s go.”
Nicholas shook his head.
“No, dad. It’s not this. It’s this.” He pointed to a large sack, also caked in grime, that stood just beside the pile.
Artie walked over to get a closer look. A hole had burst in one side of the sack and something silver seemed to be glinting through. He nudged it. There was a rattle.
“It can’t be, can it?” he asked, turning to the others who stood staring. “It’s too huge to be that. Nobody could carry anything that heavy.”
“Maybe he had a cart, Dad?” said Nicholas.
“Sure, maybe he did. Hey Mari, go get the cart!” cried Artie, kicking the bag hard so a trickle of coins began to plink to the floor, “It’s a miracle. A real goddamned miracle. Nickels, dimes, quarters. There’s enough change here to pay for a hotel for tonight. Hell, maybe enough for a place, a real place!”
As Mari set off to find the cart, Artie turned to her, his eyes brimming with love. “Merry Christmas, darling,” he said.
She smiled, turned and mounted the stairs, humming the song she’d heard him hum,
hm hm bells…”
“Look what else I found, Dad,” said Nicholas.
“What’s that? Oh, pocket watch, huh? Nah, it’s all smashed up, see? You can’t fix that. Give it here. Don’t pout, kid, I’ll buy you a new one, okay?”
“You promise?” asked the boy, fixing him with hopeful eyes.
“Yup, I promise,” he said, tossing the watch into the pile.
art: Furies by bob jude ferrante [copyright 2017]