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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Strangers Near a Train
If the snow gets too deep, the cane becomes an absolutely useless appendage, good only for testing the depths of drifts moments before I tumble headlong into them. More than an inch or two, I'm screwed. That's why I'm always a little anxious when I hear that we're supposed to get snow overnight.
I was relieved when I left the apartment that morning to discover that what had fallen in the previous hours was no more than a dusting. Better yet, what was there was still clean and unspoiled enough that it glowed with reflected light, making the first leg of the trip into work easier than normal.
I got to the subway after slipping only a few times, made my slow way along the platform, and assumed my regular spot near some steps. I was a few minutes early, so I leaned back and stared at the floor.
I heard footsteps descending the stairs behind me. That was odd, because so few people used this staircase anymore. I also heard that whoever it was was muttering to herself in a quiet, sing-song voice. At first I figured it was the crack whore who shows up on the platform every couple of weeks, but this woman wasn't that loud. The crack whore tended to rant and yell, her words spilling out like automatic weapons fire aimed at whoever happened to be nearby. Not only was the woman coming down the steps too quiet for that, she also wasn't using "motherfucker" quite as frequently. She didn't sound angry at all.
Maybe she's calming down, I thought, thinking it still might be the crack whore. She was, after all, the angriest woman in the world. There's only so long you can keep that routine going before burning out. Normally I'd try to keep my distance from her, but that morning it didn't matter. If it was her, if it wasn't her, it just didn't matter. I was staying where I was. Train would be along in a second anyway.
"Can I have a cigarette?" a small voice asked. I'd been so wrapped up in thinking about the crack whore that I'd completely stopped paying attention to the woman coming down that stairs.
"Hmm?" I asked, as I turned to find myself facing a tiny, wizened old black woman. She was shorter than I was, wearing a stained red coat. A tired scarf was wrapped around her head. It was difficult to guess how old she was. She might have been homeless or just a little nuts, it was hard to tell. Of course there's nothing saying she wasn't both.
"Can I have a cigarette?" she repeated. She seemed fairly satisfied with things, there was no anger there, and she was polite. I reached into my pocket for a smoke.
"Brand?" she asked.
"Hmm?" I replied absently, still reaching into my pocket. It wasn't even quarter after six, I hadn't had any coffee, and so I wasn't all there yet.
"Brand," she repeated. I finally understood. When I at last freed a cigarette from the pack, I held it out so she could see. "Thank you," she said as she took it between her brittle fingers. Then she leaned in close and asked me, "Do you sing?"
"No, I'm afraid not," I confessed. Not in public anyway.
"Come on," she insisted, "sing a little song with me."
I had no idea what sort of song this woman was thinking of, but it didn't make any difference. "Oh, no, no, no, ma'am," I told her, "I'm afraid I really don't sing." I was beginning to wish that she'd move along down the platform.
"You sure do look like a singer."
"Well, I'm not."
She slowly reached out a hand and gently stroked my hair. "Nice and clean," she whispered. For some reason, this didn't bother me as much as it probably should have. If it had been a little later, perhaps, or if I'd had some coffee in me, I might've smacked her hand away. I tend to be more accepting of things in the morning.
"Can I have a light?" she asked. I looked, and noticed that she had stuck the cigarette in her mouth. The way things were going, I kind of figured she would be lighting up eventually, much to the loud, fake coughing, hand waving chagrin of all the upstanding citizens around us. I reached into my bag and started fumbling around for a pack of matches. I knew I had at least one in there.
"You're afraid of me," she said, with a broad smile.
"Not afraid of you at all, ma'am," I assured her, "just trying to find a pack of matches in here for you."
As I continued sifting through all the pens and magnifying glasses and other detritus, she leaned in very close again, to the point where the collar of my coat met my neck. Then she sniffed.
"Yep, nice and clean," she said, still smiling, seeming oddly satisfied as she leaned away from me once more.
"Uh-huh," I said, not knowing how to take that. I wasn't completely freaked out yet. Just confused. It'd been many years since I'd been sniffed by a stranger. I finally found the matches and handed them to her.
"You look like you're from the future," she told me, without explaining any further.
"I understand," I replied.
She began whispering again, waving the matches about as she spoke. "You know, there are people living in the future."
"I'm well aware of that, ma'am, yes."
She pulled a match from the book, then dropped it. With a series of grunts and heaves, she bent over, retrieved the match, and began striking it feebly against the sandpaper. I didn't offer to help, feeling I'd already conspired enough in this flagrant act of terrorism. She finally got it lit, brought the flame to the tip of the cigarette, and inhaled, as she stepped toward the edge of the platform. She shook the match out and dropped it on the tracks.
With that first lungful, though, she doubled over as she erupted into a series of violent, wracking coughs-their force driving her closer to the edge. I was afraid for a moment that she was about to drop off the platform.
"Hey, hey--" I said. "Come back here before you fall or something. Jeepers."
She moved back toward me, smoking more comfortably now.
"Know what happened to me today?" she asked.
"No I I can't say as I do." I wondered if it took place in the future. I had to admit, I sort of liked the idea of being a man from the future. Especially a clean one.
Above us I heard the bell announce the arriving train. That was a relief.
"My back," she began. "My back hamma no-ashway keenijk polly sogrom "
Her voice had changed in mid-sentence and her eyes had closed. As the light of the oncoming train drew closer, she continued to speak in tongues, or cast some sort of incantation or call upon the Old Ones or whatever the hell she was doing. Man, I was glad to see that train.
" halet menna peenawory "
The train pulled in and wheezed to a stop. The doors hissed open. She stopped chanting and her eyes opened.
"Well, " I said, "here's my train. It was certainly nice talking to you, but I've got to go now."
"You're leaving me?" she asked as I stepped through the doors. There was no anger or hurt in her voice. Just loneliness. At that moment, the conductor leaned his head out the window and snapped, "You can't get on the train with a cigarette."
"What?" she asked, as I aimed myself for a seat.
"You can't smoke on the train!"
The old woman took a step back away from the doors. As they were closing, however, she shouted to me, "Can I see you tomorrow?"