by Sadie Worth
The magnet exists at the same spot on the same subway platform at the same time.
6:59 p.m. on the M line to Brooklyn.
Just as I round the corner from the orange F line transfer and approach the top of the stairs at Delancey. This spot is my magnet for the fascinating. On some nights, a mystical bum stands there, piled to the sky in found clothing – layer after layer of miscellaneous items each equally as filthy and awkward as the next. He never utters a word but situates himself at the top of the staircase, watching the world watch him. He is ancient, magical. He knows exactly what your innards look like as you pass him by. He can read your mind.
Other nights at 6:59 p.m., a tall, rawboned man in his late 50s stands there. Not to the side passively observing those around him but standing quite assertively and smack in the middle of the passageway. White against gray. Combat boots. Slightly tarnished polished joy. People shuffle by, ignoring his stare (straight ahead) and his white, white, Mohawked hair. His pale and wrinkled eyes encased in Poindexter frames like some sort of strange, elderly rock god trapped in 1976. I haven’t heard him speak, but I suspect that he does. His colorless hair piled into that Mohawk (thinning in the back) and his overly aggressive stare tell me so. He’s a real punk, in every sense of the word, but he just doesn’t realize he’s lost it yet.
Tonight a family has settled into this particular void for the forgotten. Mother, father selling hot and outdated VHS tapes, the most current releases spread out upon a clean, tidy beatnik blanket on the platform floor. A living room transported into the cold grime at 6:59. The smartly dressed couple peddle their wares as their young daughter sits in a child-sized lawn chair bundled in a snowsuit, scarf and knitted hat. Her scarf is wrapped tight and it covers her face so that only her sleeping eyes are visible to the world.
It’s frigid. I’m frigid. And yet this young thing sleeps in that mini lawn chair as if she’s cuddled into a pink four-poster bed safely surrounded by stuffed bears and fairy wings. The entire human race parades through her bedroom at this very moment. This little girl who seems well taken care of, but belongs to parents who are forced to keep their child at this late hour on one of the coldest nights of the year in what is one of the filthiest stations in Manhattan. When did they trip and fall here? Drawn to this spot by the electromagnetic storm.
I imagine that this girl has a wobbly life. She goes to school, she meets her mother or father at the end of the day and then together they ride the rails to a predetermined destination. There they set up shop and settle in for the night to earn whatever funds they can, trying to supply themselves with the life they used to know. And, I suspect that tonight all of these things have already happened; this little girl has already finished her homework while sitting in her tiny blue seat and she’s by now consumed her dinner (a meal of the pre-packaged variety: a candy bar, soda or nacho chips). And she has spent most of her evening just sitting in that spot, held by the magnet of dreams – contemplating her life, imaging herself elsewhere – in some fantastical, better place. A land full of friends, fuzzy warm creatures and her own special home in the trees until she finally succumbs to sleep, where she finishes dreaming herself somewhere better until morning.
I want to reach out, to touch her, to feel her. To take her with me into the soft warm light of the approaching train. But I don’t. I slip instead between the sliding doors and an overproduced rush of electric heat overtakes me. I allow the movable portal to close behind me, encapsulate me and rocket me to Queens.
It’s 9:56 a.m. when I pass through the connective corridor of Delancey Street Station again. The mystical bum is there. Standing in the usual spot, held firm by the pull of silent stare. I give him just the slightest hint of friendly nod and he radiates. A beam of light busts through his skin and illuminates at the top of the stairwell. His face opens wide, revealing three yellowed teeth and not much else. This troglodytic man walks toward me. Ancient and blossoming. Desperately trying to follow wobbling under the weight of excess baggage. He grabs my wrist and turns my palm skyward. I flinch at his raspy skin. Concrete fingers. He responds with a small red coin pressed into the palm of my hand, that grin still wide enough to swallow me whole. I can feel him assessing the taste of my bowels. And then suddenly this product of the void vacates my presence, leaving his paltry ruby token in my hold. I quickly drop it into the front right pocket of my woolen coat and step back into the shuffle, following the swell of commuters down the frozen steps and toward the orange line transfer.
I find myself examining the small coin while sitting on the F train, sandwiched between a schoolboy attorney and a diminutive grandmother who is busy trimming her grandson’s toenails. The woman holds the two bare feet belonging to her daughter’s only child firmly over her lap while the young boy’s empty shoes and socks tumble off of the bench and onto the floor. I initially take the coin out of my pocket to feign inspection, to distract myself from the nauseating sound of her clip, clip, clip. I hold the toy currency in my hand and rub the translucent plastic with the softest caress of my fingertips. The crimson surface has been worn smooth by generations of similar touch. Identical movements of thumb, finger, fondle. I flip the token over and immediately notice the thin, black lettering. The inscription floats (almost drifts) within the relic’s core. Tiny and clear print suddenly there and apparent. A calling card. A reminder.
I place the coin back into my coat pocket and find that the remainder of my commute is spent occasionally touching it. I need to reassure myself that the memento still exists. And again, on my lunch break, my hand returns to the coin. My fingers comfort it like a lost child. It is so insignificant, yet it contains an irresistible draw. It is nothing, this clear chunk of ruby plastic pretending to be a piece of operational currency. A forgotten child’s toy or bit of propaganda tossed to the pavement at a street fair. But I smile. Because tonight I will bestow this small talisman to an owner more deserving, more needing of its power. I will approach the top tread of the Delancey Street stairwell at 6:59 p.m. and will tuck its smooth surface into one tiny palm. Small eyes will light between fibers of thick scarf seated in a tiny blue lawn chair. She will discover the lettering and I will watch as it pulls her inward. Four letters.
Sadie Worth lives in East Aurora, New York. Her fiction will be featured in the upcoming Anthology of Buffalo Writers and she is diligently working on her first novel entitled, Owl’s Fly Way.