I got the last seat on the subway, squeezing next to an old man who was coughing like he wouldn’t make it back to Brooklyn. My mother gave me a look that told me to stop staring but I couldn’t help myself. He was clutching a container of greasy fries and I wanted to know if he had eaten his food too quickly and just needed a good slap on the back to clear his throat.
I was hoping for a sign from his ruddy face, some indication of what kind of help he needed. All he did was convulse in his seat, trembling in sweat pants and an oversized army jacket. He sat with his eyes closed, clinging to the fries with ketchup-stained gloves.
My mother tapped my sneaker with the point of her shoe and gestured towards the window as the train emerged from the tunnel and started across the bridge. The skyscrapers were all illuminated in the early darkness, flickering like a mammoth display in a toy department—the Christmas Village or the Elves’ Workshop. All that was missing were the animated reindeer waving to us from the rooftops.
I wanted to ask the old man if he had any kids of his own and if he ever brought them to Santaland. My mother had just taken me there this afternoon. Last chance before Kris Kringle was off making deliveries with Rudolph. Macy’s was jammed but half of the displays were already closed—red curtains hiding what was left of the Chocolate Mountain and Teddy Bear Island. I could see ladders and metal scaffolding around the edge of the fabric. One of the elves tried to make a joke of it: hey, kid, even Santa’s toys get broken once in a while. My mother didn’t think the elf was very funny and we wound up buying most of our presents at another store.
She gave me one of the shopping bags to hold as the train accelerated towards the other side of the river. I ran my finger along the narrow box wrapped with the striped tie I had picked out for my father. I was tempted to offer it to the old man. He didn’t look like he got too many gifts and it was a pretty safe bet that my father wouldn’t be showing up until January. He was on vacation now with his new girlfriend in Florida.
The old man doubled over, gasping and trembling until the bag of fries slipped out of his hand, spilling its contents into a crispy heap on the floor. That was enough for my mother. When the train pulled into the next station, she tugged on my sleeve and pulled me out onto the platform, even though we were still two stops away from home. My mother told me not to look back but I couldn’t help myself.
As the doors closed, I watched the old man through the hazy streaks in the window. All the passengers with their snow boots and umbrellas had cleared away from him: a convulsing mass of greasy whiskers and frayed polyester. I waited for him to shake his head or wink or give me some kind of signal to let me know if he was ever going to get off that train again or if he was resigned to riding from one tunnel to the next, waiting to be reborn.
About the author:
Craig Fishbane is the author of On the Proper Role of Desire (Big Table Publishing). His work has also appeared in the New York Quarterly, Bartleby Snopes, Drunken Boat and The Nervous Breakdown, as well as the Flash Fiction Funny anthology. He can be reached at his website here.