By Mark William Butler
There he was, waiting for another train. He was so sick of the subways. Always late. Dirty. Noisy. Flying maniac kids dancing for dollars. Bad musicians. Endless panhandlers. And the so-called announcements? A muddled, mumbling mess. He stood close to the edge of the platform. Not very smart. People get pushed onto the tracks. It was happening a lot lately, but all he could think of was his current go-to word: whatever. It was a good word. It covered everything.
It was his birthday, so he was thinking about his life, of course. Such as it was. Things were going nowhere. There was nowhere to go. Nothing to do. There were no new plans, no new strategy. It had stopped dead, the big dream. He was awake now. Yesterday was the last straw. It wasn’t going to happen. And now he didn’t know what to do, who to be. So he stood on the edge of the platform, clutching his crumpled paper bag, which contained a can of beer. Why did he even bother with the paper bag? Who the hell cared? Once he saw someone rolling a joint on the A train. Another time he caught a glimpse of a crack pipe party on the M60 bus. So what was he, really? Nothing but a throwback. An old guy and his beer, in a paper bag. Who the hell cared? He took a swig and waited for the train.
And then he heard her, behind him and to the left. She was on her phone. Hello? And then shock, sudden, soul-crushing shock. She cried out. What? Her voice collapsed into a halting sob. The worst thing that could have happened had apparently just happened. He turned to look. Her face was melting, tears streamed down her cheeks. A man to her left glanced, then went back to his phone. The woman to her right moved away. The rest of the crowd stayed in their bubbles and waited for the scene to end. Don’t look. Don’t react. Besides, every street show in New York was open to interpretation: was it real? Was she real? Was she nuts? Was it a put-on? Performance art? Drunk? Drugs? Most of the crowd usually chose not to be part of the audience. It was a tough room.
But he knew it was real. Somehow. He looked, and then he found he couldn’t avert his eyes. He witnessed her breakdown, her collapse, her tears. Then suddenly a train was there. It was hers but not his. The doors opened and she stumbled on, crying uncontrollably. He stood there, and then suddenly he felt something. Sorrow. Heartache. Pity. For someone besides himself. He had to catch his breath. She took a seat on the train. He stared. He knew he shouldn’t, but he did. Suddenly he felt compelled to do something for her. But what? There was nothing he could do; she was a stranger. And that’s another thing, he thought. Why should I care? I’ve got problems of my own! I can’t even help myself! But he sensed her desperation, and somehow felt desperate himself. I want to help her. But how? He kept looking at her, hoping she would look back. But what if she did? What then? A smile? A thumbs-up? Pathetic! Should he get on her train? His mind raced. To do what? This is crazy! He took a step, but the doors were closing. It was too late. He kept his eyes on her, watching her through the window, and suddenly, without realizing, he had put his hands together, as if to pray. He was shocked. What was this? I don’t pray! But maybe she would see it, the gesture, maybe it would mean something. He kept looking at her, but she didn’t look back, and then, just like that, she was rolling away, then gone, leaving him standing there with his prayer and his beer, waiting for another train.
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Mark William Butler lives in New York City, and in addition to short stories, writes plays and musicals, many which have been produced and selected for festivals. His short story, “Cool and Clean and Crisp”, was selected for Best American Erotica 1994, an anthology edited by Susie Bright.