By Amelia Goldberg, 12th Grade, Hunter College High School
2015 Gold Key/American Visions Nominee, Short Story
(Photo Credit: The A Train by Trisha Khanum, 12th Grade, Painting, High School of Art & Design)
“Let’s play a game,” Charlie says.
We stand on the raised yellow security strip at the edge of the subway platform. Far above us, industrial lights glow. Whoever designed the station didn’t include enough electrical supply, so the bulbs are kept on starvation rations, blinking sickeningly. Watching, the flicker becomes a pulsing ache within my skull. Down here, millennia of dust wash the floor and walls in soft greyness.
I had peered into the tunnel and squinted for the growing glimmer of an approaching train. “Nothing there,” I’d announced.
Charlie had bent his head to look. “Nothing but rats, a bag of Lays, and half a Diet Coke.”
We’d subsided into contemplation. I wondered aloud whether he was thinking what I was thinking.
“What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking…let’s play a game.”
“What kind of a game? There aren’t any subways here to surf.” It’s a dry joke, and only gets a weak laugh. We are friends (or something) because neither of us is brave enough to place his neck on the guillotine of the system. We are still naïve enough to dread the rush that comes with clinging onto the steel back of the massive beast as it races headlong towards death, and who knows what else. We would rather ponder each other than imagine that else.
“Pretend that people are sacks of skin,” Charlie tells me. “You know, like they’re still people-shaped but on the inside they just have stuff. No organs or anything, just stuff.”
“Well, what’s she filled with?” He nods at an average woman, mid-fifties, about my mother’s height. She rifles through a small book, hemming and nodding occasionally. She’s the color of communion wafers and seems just as bland.
“I don’t know, blood?” I guess.
“No, not like that!”
“Maybe…wine. Cheap white wine. Can’t you imagine her just sloshing full of dollar-store weekend wine? And her name’s Christine, which she hates because Christine is a boring name, which is probably why she drinks. And it makes her fingers swell, so she had to stop wearing her wedding ring.”
“That’s deep, man,” I mutter awkwardly.
“Come on, play!” He nudges me. “That fat-ass over there.”
She’s hugely fat: rolls of the stuff spill over each other with total disregard for her bone structure and skin size. It bulges across her face, massing around her dark eyes so that where they show through, they seem small and beady. Why’d she do that to herself, I wonder. I wonder if it’s a form of self-expression or if it’s an expression of her faith; of letting go and giving her body up to Someone Else’s plan. Charlie’s looking at me and I want to look back – straight back – so I don’t. What’s she filled with?
He laughs, and I continue.
“She’s full of fat like a hot dog’s full of meat. She’s a fat wiener. Like a sausage, but with all fat and nothing else.”
Charlie licks his lips, half-joking but also a little bit seductive.
I grimace. “That’s gross.”
“Man, I’m serious.”
“You know what you’re full of?”
“Bullshit. You’re just a skin full of cow-crap. Total bullshit.”
“Maybe,” Charlie laughs. The game is over.
I peer down the tunnel again.
“Almost nothing,” he corrects. I shrug.
“Fucking MTA,” I offer, and he nods. I stare at the mural on the opposite wall of the station – 42, it says, over and over at regular intervals. At one spot the designer must have made a mistake because the gap is a few tiles too long, so the 2 is scrunched next to the 4 like children huddling together against the city’s winter. The aberration is enough to hold my interest for a while but, I decide, too boring to bring up in conversation.
“It’s been eighteen minutes,” Charlie complains. “It’s like Someone doesn’t want us to get out of here.”
“Do you believe in God?” I ask, partly inspired by the numerology but mostly to fill the time, when the roaring arrival of a train drowns out his answer. By the time we elbow our way into the car it’s no longer relevant.
Apologizing, Charlie squeezes into the only remaining seat. I stand above him and subside into examining his face. His right nostril is slightly larger than his left. My gaze catches his attention so I look away and stare at the white flecks in the linoleum floor, looking for patterns, finding none. Finally the silence settling between us gets to me and I say the first thing on my mind, which is –
“I think God found me yesterday.”
“I didn’t realize He’d been looking for you,” Charlie quips.
“I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t God. What do you call not-God – the Antichrist?”
“You mean Satan?”
He scoots forward, elbows on his knees and chin in his hands. “Good, I like stories about Satan.”
“Wahl sohn, it all begun on this varry trayn,” I say in an artificial Southern drawl, really just to tease Charlie. He chortles; I giggle uncomfortably. Laughing on the train feels blasphemous, like kicking beggars or kissing in the classroom.
“But seriously,” he says as our smiles subside.
“But seriously, I was going home yesterday. You were at ‘bible school’,” I say, making air quotes with my fingers.
“Hey!” Charlie laughs. “Sundays are enough for me to stay tight with the Big Guy in the Sky. He made every other day for everything else.”
“It’s your soul,” I tell him. “Anyway, I’m on the subway, and this guy gets on. One of those evangelizers, but this one is French. So he’s prattling on about the church and god and stuff, but it sounds all wrong, like, ‘I haf foun’ Got! I never kneew abou’ Got when I wass een Franz but now I come to deess Amereeca and Got has taken me unner hees winks.’ You can barely understand him! And he doesn’t have a megaphone or anything like they sometimes do, so he’s just shouting at people on the train, but he’s too quiet to really be heard. He’s cute, too – typical French, really good sense of style and a perky little face on top. So I didn’t know how to feel about him…On the one hand, he’s a crazy evangelical, but on the other hand, he’s a hot Frenchie!”
“Hmm,” Charlie murmurs, casting his eyes sideways. I’ve made him uncomfortable.
“No, go on!”
“Okay…So Frenchie’s shouting at people, demanding that they listen to his story about finding got. He probably didn’t complete his training or something – evangelizer training, is that a thing? – because he’s stagnant in the middle of the train. Like a tourist, he’s afraid to let go of the pole so he just swings around it like it’s his center of gravity or his altar or something. He’d hold on with one hand and usually a leg too, while talking and crossing himself with the other. And you know how gross that pole is. Everybody touches it with their dirty hands, but he’s practically humping it. Meanwhile, nobody listens to him. Maybe they already had Got. Probably they just didn’t care.”
We pull into Brooklyn Bridge and a seat empties next to Charlie. I sit, carefully avoiding body contact. The heat of his left shoulder lands comfortably on my right and I pause to enjoy it.
“…That’s weird…” Charlie says, his voice trailing off, drawing me back into the present.
“Oh, no, there’s more.”
“Okay, so Frenchie’s rambling on. But then this hobo sitting across from him speaks up! Only, Hobo’s got no teeth so he sounds like he’s talking through a glass of water. ‘God never helps,’ he said, I think. But it might have been ‘go to hell.’ He just lifted his head up and said it, all of a sudden, like something made him do it…”
The moment flashes before my eyes: I’d witnessed an extraordinary implosion of all the emptiness in his belly, some hungry dignity that jerked his head up and rode his gurgling breath out into the subway car. I don’t say any of this. Charlie’s waiting for me.
“Hobo doesn’t look at anyone exactly but you can tell he wants everyone to listen to him, you know? Well, it makes Frenchie shut up for a second. But then he starts talking back: ‘Got safed me! I foun’ Got! He safed me from ‘ell! I foun’ Got!’ So Hobo comes back at him with this chant. I think he was saying the same thing over and over again. I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t even saying words at all, but there was this rhythm to it.” I mimic it, slurring my speech: “’God never helps…no never help…god to Hell’s.’ He would speak, and then pause to breathe, and then speak again. ‘Nobody ever helps…nobody ever Hells…how to hell…God don’ helps…nobody to hell.’ It rose and fell on the tide of his lungs. ‘God to hell…go to hell…nobody don’ helps.’
“And in each pause, Frenchie jumps in about how got has come into his life and made it better. He’s gotten almost into it now but you can tell he’s still scared of Hobo. You know, how do you tell that kind of a person that it’s all a part of Got’s divine plan? And he still can’t let go of the pole, so he’s swinging over and waving his hands around but he’s still at least six feet away!
“God, it was just the fucking weirdest argument. And who knows, maybe they really were just talking about what they got. Everyone in the car was laughing, right in their faces, right out loud. No goddamn mercy.”
“What happened next?” Charlie asks.
“I don’t know. They were freaking me out and I wanted to concentrate on 2048, so I switched cars.”
“What? You walked away from an epic of biblical proportions, dude!”
I nod. It had bothered me, too. “I guess I just didn’t want to know how it ended. I didn’t want to see Hobo pull out a brown bag and start drinking…or see Frenchie pull out an old coffee cup and start begging. I guess I just got sick of listening to them.”
“Yeah, it was probably some sort of messed-up panhandling stint.”
“I don’t know, something about it just caught my attention. Whatever.”
“It’s a good story, bro,” he concedes. “I love the part about the evangelist and his pole.” He gyrates his hips and chuckles, snorting a bit.
“Do you think it meant anything?” I ask, hoping he’ll sober up.
He purses his lips and strokes his chin, mocking Plato, and pitches his voice down. “Everything means something,” he drones. Charlie’s face is dominated by his merry eyes, challenging me to be as happy. I fake a laugh. Rather than stare, I look past him.
An advertisement across the car promises that Dr. Zizmor will give me “Beautiful Clear Skin.” I don’t believe it. The smiling woman labeled “after” has nothing in common with her dreary, pock-marked counterpart. “Look, those photos are clearly faked,” I tell Charlie.
He glances over. “Yeah, sure.”
“I just mean it’s not fair to lie to people like that, is all.”
“Can you really tell that it’s edited from this distance?”
“Look, the nose and everything, it’s all so different. It’s not the same person,” I retort. My sharp words flatten against Charlie’s indifference. I turn away. He adjusts himself on the bench. Silence stretches between us like a rubber band, quivering. He cracks his knuckles and I jump, spinning to face him again. My mind conquers my mouth and I say –
“Do you believe in god?”
“Yeah, man. Sure.”
“Why?” The word flies out, tinged with an accusation that I hadn’t meant to express, floating a pitch too high with hope, or something. But the train reaches Bowling Green and he hops off without answering, pulling on headphones and taking the stairs two at a time. The right side of my body is chilled by his absence. I speed off towards the almost-empty tunnel under the river.