The Road to Hell
I just wanted to ride in peace, so I started painting over the floor of the subway car with the most awful stuff I could think of: screaming mouths within mouths, swollen masses of red and white flesh, silhouettes of broken frames and shattered eyes. One after another, I squeezed out entire tubes of paint I couldn’t afford to replace; my best two brushes were plucked from my backpack and thrust between rigid fingers. I crouched as close to the floor as I could and worked with such ferocity that worried onlookers formed a circle from a safe distance, some guarding their pants with shopping bags lest any stray colors fly in their direction.
But despite my hard work and good intentions, I made an even greater mess for myself. As my painting grew and grew, some of my fellow commuters took a greedy interest in the project, commenting to one another about its stunning detail. The train made its usual station stops on its crawl downtown, but no one left the car—instead, waves of new passengers pushed their way aboard, eager to see what all the fuss was about. In breathy gusts of warm, wet air pooling against the back of my head, I heard men and women with whom I had nothing in common discussing the politics of my work:
“Subversive. Utterly subversive.”
“A blistering love letter to the artist’s life, if ever I saw one.”
“Hilarious! I don’t know why I’m the only one laughing. What a satire!”
After a few stops, new passengers began standing on seats and hanging from the ceiling to make room for my painting, which now covered nearly half of the subway car’s floor. Even as I grew irritable and weary I pressed on harder, determined as ever to have a quiet ride. But as my work began to touch walls and my imagination wore thin, the pealing of my onlookers’ excitement ballooned to even greater volumes until it was impossible to maintain proper concentration.
I stopped mid-stroke, feeling defeated. Giving the crowd a quick and dirty look, I drew a vicious black X through everything I’d painted thus far; a cry of anguish arose from some passengers, who were quickly shushed by the rest of the train.
I stood up and pulled my hair back into a messy bun, and just as I was about to say something wicked a set of hands extended from deep within the crowd and offered me buckets of paint. I paused a few moments to inspect the paint—perfect and white—before taking hold of the buckets and dumping their contents all across the floor, ruining dozens of shoes in the process. A great cheer erupted as it became clear to everyone that I’d decided to start anew, and even I ceded a small grin at the sight of such a lovely canvas. I shot one hand and then another into the mob, and when I reeled them back in I found them stuffed with handfuls of paint tubes of every color I could name.
I set to work immediately. This time, I aimed to shock even myself, and so I painted with my eyes closed, trusting my manic hands to find their own way. Cut off from sight, I became more attuned to the train’s twists and turns, and as my new work progressed I thought I could feel the train speeding up, taking corners of the tunnel a little too hard and entirely skipping—I was sure—some important stations.
My audience responded to each brush stroke with deafening applause, and their total lack of revulsion burned my cheeks and locked my jaw, propelling me into a frenzy of creation. I swung my arms to and fro with unnecessary force; at one point, I was certain I struck flesh, but no protest was offered. Even as the train’s turbulence grew more pronounced and I struggled to maintain footing for more than a few seconds at a time, I never stopped pounding brush against floor for a moment, goaded on by the cheers of devils.
So when at last I’d covered every inch of that canvas with paint, and when I was sure my hands had delivered to me exactly what this crowd deserved, I opened my eyes expecting something I could finally be proud of. And believe me when I say that nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, this child of my own blind talent. Figures and shapes I’d never imagined lapped at each other’s sides and bled into a sea of new and terrible colors, and no matter where I turned I found fresh evidence of something worse than my worst impulsions. I let out a howl, unable to take it all in but equally unwilling to close my eyes, and as I spun I was assaulted from every angle by a thousand smiling strangers, finally made quiet by their collective appreciation for my art. I spun and I screamed, faster and louder and faster and louder, until only just before the end did I hear the sound of another train’s siren shouting back from beyond the walls of the car.
About the Author: Jean-Luc Bouchard is a writer living in New York City whose work has appeared in PANK, Epiphany, apt, NANO Fiction, One Throne, Umbrella Factory, and other journals and anthologies. He is also a contributor to The Onion. He is the winner of Epiphany Magazine’s 2016 “Writers Under 30” contest, and was selected for Honorable Mention by the Speculative Literature Foundation for their 2016 Working Class Writers Grant. His work can be found here and he can be followed on Twitter @jlucbouchard.