A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Hell Train
by Beth Stephenson (Oct 2011)


Isaiah ducked his head as he boarded the subway at the downtown stop.. Subway trains were built for short people. At least shorter than his 6’7”. He grabbed the pole as the train roared its departure. His favorite seat next to the door was vacant except for half a smashed cheeseburger, dismembered and spilling lettuce onto the floor. He pulled a large bandana from his uniform pocket and wiped the sandwich onto the floor. He mopped the seat with the bandana and sat. The train would fill to standing room only this time of day when it pulled near the colleges.

The cold-grease smell of the mutilated sandwich mocked his empty stomach. He had forgotten his lunch that day and had decided to go hungry rather than pay tourist prices at a downtown Philadelphia booth. Security guards didn’t get long enough for meals or breaks to go anywhere distant enough to get a good price, especially on foot.

He tipped his head back, gazing through the opposite window through half-mast eyelids. Surely this was hell. Dim concrete walls blackened in lurid graffiti and lit intermittently with Halloween orange bulbs, flashed by. How did the vandals get access deep in the tunnels to do their work? The Express roared by in the center track with deafening clamor, as scheduled as breathing.

The subway stopped and a dozen blank-faced people got on, found seats and drew their shoulders into themselves. The rocking train forced standing people to hold the poles. They let their bodies sway to the motion, resistless, neither soothed nor irritated, moving through the afternoon in mechanical submission.

 A transvestite with his false breasts too high to be anatomically possible crossed his fishnet legs in the seat opposite and examined him boldly.

In the back of the car, a young family huddled around a three-wheeled stroller. Tourists. The mother nursed an infant under a light blanket. The baby seemed too young to be out site-seeing. At least they got the full experience of the city’s extremes. Independence Hall where the Nation was born, Christchurch Cemetery, where the remains of 5 Signers of the Declaration lay waiting for resurrection, and now the hell train.

A load got on and off at Spring Garden. A nursing student slipped in the cheeseburger. Isaiah caught her elbow and righted her. She glanced numbly at him and moved away. He rested his head on the window frame and shut his eyes. Perhaps he should reconsider his daughter’s invitation. She was married with a pair of little wooly heads to tuck in each night. She said they missed their grandpa. He missed them too, since his son in law started his residency in Little Rock. But he had always planned to support himself until he was too old to work. What was right? What did he stay for?

A kid got on late at Fairmount and stepped on Isaiah’s ingrown toenail. He bit his lip without opening his eyes. The thing would never heal. Not as long as he stood in his black-polished boots all day, making sure no intrepid tourist decided to climb on the roof of Independence Hall to look for treasure map clues.

Isaiah felt a butterfly touch on his hand. He opened his eyes. The little boy from the tourist family stood in front of him, his nimble fingers resting creamy white on the sun-blackened back of Isaiah’s hand.

Isaiah smiled at the fearless fellow, who studied his face with round, dark blue eyes . The parents were watched intently, but made no move to retrieve the tyke. The little fingers drummed a cascading caress on the back of his hand. His mother’s haircut had missed a yellow-gold tuft and it stuck up like a sticky note reminded her to finish the job.

He had something in his left fist, but he pointed with that hand to the cheeseburger. “Missy!” he said.

“Missy?” Isaiah answered.

“Missy hangerger!” the boy insisted.

“Oh, yes it is, yes it is,” Isaiah answered. “A very messy hamburger.” How did the parents know he was safe for their little boy to talk to? Perhaps they hadn’t sensed the lurking danger in the inner city. But the infantine fingers on his hand were angel-food to his sweaty soul.

The child opened his left fist and showed a silver-wrapped candy like a teardrop with a paper flag.

“Tiss,’ he said.

“Yes, that’s a kiss.”

The boy shook it by the paper flag, holding it out to him.

“You want me to unwrap it?”

“Yah.” He smiled a little for the first time.

Isaiah unwrapped the candy with a glance to the parents. They were calm.

He held it out to the child but he shook his head and pointed to Isaiah’s mouth.

“You eat it.” He said it clearly.

“I don’t want to eat your candy.”

“Eat it!” The child pointed emphatically. “Eat it. Eat it!”

Isaiah tried to hand the candy back but the child shook his head. His hand patted Isaiah’s knee. The black man glanced at the parents. They smiled. “He’s a stubborn little kid,” the father said.

Isaiah put the candy in his mouth. The child grinned. “Yummy.”

“Yummy,” Isaiah said. “Thank you for sharing your candy.”

The child pointed to the diaper bag under the stroller seat. “Mommy’s” he said.

Isaiah laughed. “Thank you for sharing Mommy’s candy.”

The golden headed child grinned conspiratorially. “Mommy’s tandy.” He grabbed Isaiah’s left thumb and turned the hand over. He patted the large palm with his dimpled, ivory paw and ran back to his Daddy’s lap. He pointed gleefully to Isaiah. His father gently drummed his fingers on the child’s bare leg as he murmured something in his son’s ear.

A ragged man clanked the doors as he came from the car ahead. He rattled a few coins in a Styrofoam cup. “Spare change? Spare change? Anybody got spare change?” He shook the cup demanding a publican’s due.

Isaiah pulled two quarters from his pocket and dropped them in the Styrofoam cup.

The beggar didn’t look at him but rattled his cup and cried “Spare change?” again.

The train stopped. The father sat the child in the stroller and the nursing mother tucked the blanket more tightly around the baby. The child studied Isaiah as he wheeled past. “Bye bye,” he said softly.

“Bye bye,” Isaiah whispered.

The family stepped off. The train rolled forward. Isaiah closed his eyes as the orange lights flashed by, savoring the chocolate kiss that melted on his tongue.

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