Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.
I am sick, I am a tired man, I need rest. Can they not make these trains cease their shrieking? You do not know how I suffer every hour as they thunder past my attic room. This very moment as I write these lines to you, my oldest friend, I shrink from the cars’ shrill squeals and screeches.
What is night except a torment as I pace my chamber’s unvarnished floor boards and warm my hands at the meager remains of the evening’s coals? My neighbors slumber. Again, I see their lights extinguished, one by one, while mine alone burns brightly at my bedside long past midnight.
Is this torture a punishment for my sins — which, I confess, are many? Yes, they are innumerable and not for the ears of the innocent. But Merciful Creator, I cannot bear this constant interference with my peace.
The train ride today was a particular affront to my simple need to be transported to and from the cellar in the city where I toil for intolerable hours every weekday save one — counting, tallying, calculating, ordering, reordering, shuffling my employer’s papers. White sheets go to and fro, yellow sheets come and go, green sheets say yes and no. Will the wretched department that controls my days ever cease its immoderate, ceaseless fertility?
Oh, and I am complicit in its futility. Yes, I am complicit.
But what was I telling you? The train ride: it is soothing, restful when it deigns to be so. Its quiet, gentle rhythms often lull me into a restorative nap.
Do I contradict myself? But let me explain, dear friend. Be patient! We must practice patience in all things.
This afternoon, with a shriek and a jolt, the train that was delivering me from my place of business abruptly halted. And when I lifted my eyes from the yellowed pages of the tired volume in my untidy lap, a strange figure loomed above me, clinging to the railing that hung suspended, horizontal, from the ceiling throughout the length of the car.
It was a man of the middle years facing leftward toward the front end of the carriage. His left hand grasped the rail, obscuring his face but not his drab hair. His black bag — constructed from a cheap and faded cotton — swung unchecked, offensively close to my own unguarded forehead, and evoked in me a slight unease.
But a more objectionable provocation than this utter disregard for the well-being of a fellow passenger was his peculiar —
And I must be honest here, dear friend. If nothing else, I am an honest man — flawed, yes, but honest. I must speak my mind, or, or. . . .
Where was I? Oh yes, I’ll never forget this creature’s peculiar — let me reiterate this: most peculiar — stance.
Believe me, friend: this man’s brazenly indecent posture revealed his corrupted interior state, and it offended. Yes, do not doubt me. Were you to have witnessed this unnatural episode, you, too, would have shared my vexation.
I stared downward at my threadbare knees, shaking sleep from my poor, addled brain, when my eyes were drawn to the floor, where the man had placed, with deliberate exaggeration, his black-shod feet in an extraordinary position. His legs stood perfectly rigid in a wide triangle, knees locked as though set in stone, with both shoes pointing to my left — like the posture of some ancient hieroglyph in a dusty underground chamber.
As my eyes focused, I stared in disbelief as he continuously adjusted his alignment. At one moment, the spread-eagle feet were not quite wide enough apart. At the next, the clenched knees were not sufficiently rigid, the arm not suitably vertical, the elbow not close enough to the ear. The twitching and correcting occurred in silence, save for the intermittent shrieks of metal wheels against metal tracks at severe turns in the dark tunnel through which we were propelled.
Now, please confess, my friend, that you know me for a tolerant man — a man who keeps his own counsel, who dares not presume to impose his will on others. For who am I — frail embodiment of untold debilitating appetites and predilections — to judge my fellows against some bloodless standard that invariably gives rise to unhappiness in all who attempt to meet it?
But I tell you, this . . . this . . . I suppose I must say this man — although as I gazed at his intransigent figure, he became for me more like some living aspect of unbending, uncompromising mulishness — this man radiated such perverse self-will that he instigated in me (and in all around him, as well, I am certain) the seeds of dislike that grew geometrically with each turn of the carriage’s wheels.
By the time we had progressed one stop, two stops, three stops, I felt that I knew all that there was to know about the essence of such a creature. Yes, his most inward secret wants and needs were divulged quite blatantly to all who chose to see and to interpret. Had no one ever taught him that ever-lovely quality of moderation, esteemed in young and old, high and low alike? Or had he refused to heed his instructors’ lessons?
Oh, that would be just like him to ignore the good and trustworthy advice of his educated betters. And those teachers also surely would have attempted to pass on a few useful scientific truths — for instance, the simple physics that determines the quintessential pose for best absorbing the random shocks and jolts that lay siege to those who ride the underground rails.
Yes, physics! You will nod, my friend, as you read these practical lines about natural philosophy and the material world. Why, it is common knowledge that the train traveler who stands must direct his face toward the car’s windows, that the feet must be positioned with toes slightly outward, that the knees must be relaxed — at the ready to bend here, there, wherever and whenever they are required to receive without recoil the excess energy of a body thrusting through space.
But to lock oneself as though restrained by iron chains and shackles in a foolhardy and misguided attempt to become a tempered steel appendage welded to an equally immovable surface — why, it was the height of imbecility.
Surely, the creature who did so was proclaiming to the world’s people that all their moral ambiguities were by his fiat to be settled by a toss of a coin. Without a doubt, his rigid posture declared that life was an antiseptic series of choices that were merely black-and-white, all-or-nothing: yes or no, up or down, in or out, good or bad.
“Oh, yes: Be like me!” his stance shouted. “Watch me! Learn from me! Yes, I have the answers, I have the solutions: I, I, I. And do not doubt me. No, do not doubt or question — or my black rubber soles will teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”
Well, dear companion of my youth, I cannot explain how it happened. Some things in life are mysteries.
But my walking stick — yes, the rod of mountain ash that my father before me carried and that has been well worn from its years of daily service — slipped from my ink-stained grasp and to the floor, by chance falling and hitting the creature’s black-covered Achilles tendon, which lay exposed above the rear foot’s heel. And as I rose hurriedly to retrieve my cane — my mouth forming the beginnings of an apology — I became aware that this breach of the creature’s fortress-like defenses had gone unnoticed.
Yes, it is astonishing and yet a fact, nevertheless. If you can suspend your disbelief for a moment, I ask you to ponder this: Could my inadvertent assault on this sensitive area of the body truly not have discomfited my co-traveler?
This lack of reaction gave me pause. My thoughts began to race in a new direction as I considered the possibility that the stiff-necked statue that stood planted before me had coerced even his nervous system into obeying his uncompromising will.
Did he truly not feel? Had he so perfected his calcification that no human touch could be processed by his nerves — by his now petrified axons and dendrites?
You must agree, my friend, that this turn of events presented me with a dilemma. And as a seeker of truth — it is true! all who know me say it is so! — I found myself intrigued despite my growing exasperation. What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate this creature’s pigheadedness?
A new thought occurred to me: He could not — he surely would not dare attempt to intimidate me with his outlandish principles, would he? For I could not allow myself to be bullied by such a — a — tyrant!
And so I had to know, and would not rest until I did know, whether this obstinate, black-garbed mule hovering above me presumed that he could instruct me — me, the possessor of a master’s certificate and two philosopher’s diplomas from the nation’s finest educational institutions, not to mention the author of innumerable published commentaries and letters of opinion! — on the fine art of physical, mental, and spiritual balance.
I ask you, dearest friend, how dare he? And how could any reasonable man allow this confused, delusional bungler to use the trains to proselytize about his sadly illogical, misinformed miscalculations of the laws of science and ethics? As a paragon, he was sadly off the mark — although convinced of his utter rectitude — and he would need to be corrected.
And so it happened — as his widespread stance dared and taunted me — that my book soon slipped from my lap to the floor, resting deliberately against the taut calf of the offensive rear left limb. I was sorry to treat my beloved volume discourteously, however, and felt a pang of conscience as a dry leaf with penciled annotations separated from the book’s binding and slipped onto the dusty floor. But as this experiment was being conducted in the interests of science and to further the cause of knowledge, I felt that a brief callousness on my part could be justified.
But, my God, once again, the creature showed no notice of my trespass! He remained undeviating in his spread-eagle deportment — his legs wide, his arm vertically upright with elbow tightly locked, resisting even gravity’s pull as he swung and swayed above my alarmingly exposed torso.
Oh, how he lorded himself over me — as though he felt not a whisper of a touch from my dear walking stick on his ankle or from my beloved octavo against his calf.
What a brute! What a cloddish, loutish, oafish swine! How dare he attempt to intimidate me with his domineering ignorance?
For that was what I had before me, my friend. Yes, the creature presented to the world the ultimate in ignorance, intolerance, and oppression.
Even so, being a fair-minded sort of man — you know me well, my good friend; would you not agree that fairness and moderation are my hallmarks? — I calmed myself in the face of these outrages and vowed to allow this fanatic one more opportunity to prove his humanity, to show to his fellow mortals that he was indeed one of our species, flesh and blood, tender and warm-hearted, and that he could cast aside his wrongheaded interpretations of the cosmic laws of physics and philanthropy.
My station was fast approaching, and so for this third and final test, I made a show of collecting my meager possessions — my stick, my book, the modest bouquet of shrub roses that I had purchased from a vendor who priced his tired blossoms at a level that could be met by my severely circumscribed wages.
I thought that these rustlings would alert this effigy that loomed above me that I would soon rise from my seat and that therefore he — or it, to give the creature a more accurately descriptive pronoun — should begin to adjust those obdurate limbs in a fashion that would acknowledge my presence and account for my intention to rise from my seat and thereafter exit from the train.
But was there evident in his callous apathy an admission of another’s needs, another’s yearnings, a fellow human being’s desire to rise upward — to stand freely, unfettered by that sentry? Did those fence-pole arms and legs shift? Did that oppressive arm, a vertical bar of iron, soften?
Oh, no, no, no — of course not. How foolish I was to hope for anything more — for some glimmer of understanding, of compassion, of simple benevolence — from this being toward his fellow creature. Why, this unremitting obstinacy was truly staggering. It took my breath away.
I have no need to report to you, my friend — I know that you have already anticipated me — that the mule failed this third and final test.
There I stood. Actually, I could not stand. There I crouched — with knees bent, spine slumped, head bowed, my scant and flimsy possessions clutched in my inoffensive arms.
My lips mouthed the words “Excuse me. . . . Pardon me” — softly, gently, with great care taken not to startle or offend.
Or perhaps I did not speak these words aloud. Perhaps I thought them, spoke them solely with my docile gestures, which were so soft, so gentlemanly, so decent.
But my politesse fell on stone — on ears of stone, eyes of stone, heart of stone.
Oh no, you don’t, I thought, in the face of this silence and inaction. You are not the man to bully me, to browbeat me and block my path.
“This is my stop!” I announced, as the train’s wheels slowed, shrieked, and groaned. The familiar platform of my station was coming into view as the train approached its appointed destination. “Please, sir. This is where I stop. Allow me to pass!”
And still, the creature did not move. Could he not hear? He wore no visible auditory amplification devices. Could he not feel the train’s deceleration? Could he not see the station approaching — see me stooping beneath him?
Was I invisible? Was he my master, and I his slave?
“Get out of my way, sir! Move yourself!” I cried, fearing that the doors would open and shut before I would be able to reach them. I swung my walking stick — dear, lovely, solid artifact, so faithful and so true — swung down hard against his legs, again and again and again. Ah, the satisfying crack as the stick connected with the statue’s left knee.
Success! At last! The man turned his gaze to me in surprise, gasped as he released his left hand from the railing, and reached downward toward his knee. His bag — no longer swinging dangerously above my eyes — slipped from his arm and dropped onto the floor.
“Good!” I shouted, as I swung again, this time onto his back as he reached down to his bag. “Now you can show us that you, too, can bend.”
He sputtered an objection: “Stop! Please! Somebody help me!”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” My blows rained down hard on his legs, his back, his neck, even his head — that doltish, unyielding block — as my arm trembled from its exertions.
When the train came to a full stop, the wounded creature limped across the carriage and slumped onto a nearby bench, hands held to head as blood trickled from right eyebrow down to punctured upper lip. His tongue emerged briefly to taste the scarlet, ferrous evidence of his wound. Dazed, he no longer played the stiff-necked bully who had so recently intimidated all around him with his obstinacy.
Alas, in my furious agitation, I had not noticed that my poor shrub roses had joined my gallant stick in delivering these necessary lessons. The train’s floor and the creature’s bag were now covered with the blossoms’ crimson petals.
“So you are human, after all,” I announced as I collected my book and the remains of my bouquet.
I shook my stick one final time in his direction before I headed toward the exit doors. I felt magnificent, for I had waged a battle against the forces of darkness, and I had triumphed. Sic semper tyrannis! Yes, I had triumphed!
And for a moment, I savored the sound of my fellow passengers’ applause as I stood and straightened my coat and trousers.
Perhaps you would not have heard their acclamation, for my companions’ faces remained buried in their undoubtedly compelling reading materials, and their hand movements were so restrained that they were nearly — but not entirely — imperceptible.
But, my friend, I heard them. I heard their grateful thanks, the heart-felt cheers that my dear brothers and sisters delivered for my harsh but necessary acts of charity. And I felt humbled by their ovation and their gentle deference.
Before the train’s doors closed behind me, I turned, nodded respectfully, and bade them all a genial and benevolent adieu.