This is happened in a dream two nights ago.
I imagine it on stage. Maybe one of Audie McCall
's short plays.
I imagine it on film. One of riverrun
's directorial triumphs.
I imagine it really happened somewhere,
Or it will.
The morning train: Cross was hanging on the strap trying to make sense of a dream. He stood resting his head on his bicep to detach himself from the crowd. Now his body could be still while everything moved around him. The train lurched. Pulled out of his station. The tracks knocked the wheels in jazz beat syncopation. The air brought the smell of department store cologne from the damp neck of a gray-haired man who was staring at the folded pages of a newspaper he held at arm's length.
On the mirror of Cross's mind a baby deer was trying to keep from falling from slippery rock ledge. A forested hill. The light was dim and flat. Rain pattered down through the leaves clumping in big droplets that fed the trees and turned the ground to mush. Everything green. Slippery.
Doe eyes glistened, drifted away under gravity's pull while he watched wondering what to do. How do you grab onto a falling deer without twisting its neck or breaking its legs?
And she spoke in Tina's voice, "Cross, we gotta talk."
Thinking of it made him wince. It was there every time he looked at his cell phone --
"You have one saved message..."
Something tapped his arm. He tightened his grip on his leather case. Touched his wallet in his pants but he did not look until he felt the tapping again. It was deliberate.
There was a young blond girl next to him. Crowd close, he could see the striation in her irises, tones of gray like clouds, a hundred horizons on a hundred stormy days. She wore bright white clothes and her smile was as warm as beach sunlight. She held something out. Paper. He tried not to look. Closed his eyes as if she wasn't there.
The girl touched his shoulder. They ran into him on the street, girls hardly twenty handing out ads to lonely men. It usually happened at night. Had this one been awake so long she didn't realize it was morning?
He didn't want to impose his voice onto the orchestra of commuter train sounds. He had to.
"Not today, honey," Cross said to her. Then looked away again. She tapped again.
"Look, I told you..." and he saw that she wasn't holding an ad. It was an envelope. His name was handwritten on the face. "Oh come on. You a process server?"
She pushed the envelope toward him and he took it.
"Who are you?" he said, but she'd already turned and was moving through the crowd. In seconds she became anonymous.
The man with the newspaper glanced toward the envelope and then looked back at his paper muttering, "Too late now."
It couldn't be a subpoena. No legalese on legal sized paper. The script on the envelope's face reminded him of his mother's handwriting.
Letting go of the strap, he opened the envelope while he swayed back and forth in time with the rest of the riders. Inside was a single piece of paper. Thick bond. Watermarked. The words handwritten in the same script as the cover:
"but for love"
And then a palm stretched between his eye and the paper. The stench of something dying bore a word, "Sir?" He looked up to see the man, his blackened gums exposed in a smile, "Good morning. Spare change? I haven't eaten in days."
He pulled a few bills from his pocket, put it in the palm and the transient thanked him.
Cross said, "That goes for food, then."
The man squinted at him as if he were trying to make out his face in a fog. He held out his hand, gave back the money saying, "Sorry. No stipulations."
And then he left the way the blond girl had gone, squeezing through the crowd of commuters, becoming nameless in the population.
"How'd he get on here? Port authority sleeping on the job again," said cologne man. Next to him a student with shaggy brown hair and a thin beard repositioned a strap that crossed his shoulder.
The student said, "Dude -- it ever occur to you there's more than one of us in the world?"
Cologne man went back to scanning his newspaper and the student turned to Cross, "Ever wonder why there was more than one of us in the world?"
A woman standing next to the student stood with her eyes closed. Two white wires snaked from her ear buds, joined below her breasts and fed into a pack at her waist. She swayed to the music and whispered the words to a song.
"There's only us. There's only this."
The student asked him again, "If you were building the world, would you have done it this way? There are so many alternatives."
Cross shrugged. Looked away trying not to get involved in the conversation. Back to his dream, the fawn slipping off the edge, he muttered what he felt, "Maybe there is no reason."
"Then it would have been different," the student said, and stared at the floor.
The music woman swayed and sang,
"Cross. We gotta talk."
Did she say that?
The train went into a tunnel and lurched. The interior lights flashed and stayed out. The sound of squealing metal cut concentration to irreclaimable shards. He was thrown forward when the lights went out. Orange yellow sparks shot past the window. He lost his grip on the strap and fell into someone who in pushing him off, set him upright. And when the movement stopped and the chorus of groans and curses faded, there was a moment of absolute silence in the dark, when all seventy people in the train car took the moment to reload their mouths with the ideas and despair, then the peace of the absolute futility seeped into Cross like a drug. He felt his muscles loosen and his knees wobble as if gravity was losing hold of him.
Then the girl with the music whispered,
"There's only here. There's only now."
And she wasn't singing.
Someone told her to shut up. Cell phones came out. Seventy cheeks illuminated in blues and reds. Identical conversations.
"I'm going to be late."
And then the phones went out and it was dark again. The conversations started rhetorically. People asking themselves aloud, "Where are the conductors?" and "What did we hit?" and "Is it terrorism?"
Likewise came the answers, "There are no conductors." "We didn't hit anything." "Don't need no terrorism, these trains are just fucked."
There was shuffling around him and someone put a hand on Cross's forearm. He tried to wiggle free but couldn't. The hand was light and trembling. It belonged to someone who was a shadow in the dark.
"Hey, watch it," Cross said, but the grip wouldn't go.
The shadow said to him, "Come with me."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"There's always more road. I've seen it."
"What the fuck? Where the hell's the cops?"
"We gotta talk."
"Who the hell are you?"
The lights came on and the darkness evaporated. The grip vanished. The shadow disappeared as if a daydream. People sighed. Electric motors began spinning underneath their feet, singing a note from bass to ultrasonic soprano. The train lurched. Cross scanned the crowd but nobody acknowledged him.
A voice on the intercom, barely comprehensible, "Sorry. Minor delay. We're on our way."
"Stating the obvious is not contribution," said the student.
"There's your fucking conductor," said someone else.
Everyone got off at the next station. There was a rush to get to the street and find a cab and there was no way he'd be close to the front of that line. Waiting for a taxi could take till lunch. Quicker to walk. He loosened his tie. Unbuttoned his collar.
He started toward his office joining a clump of people from the station who were headed in the same direction. At a corner they waited for a light to change. The student and the woman with the music were together. They made eye contact with Cross who said, "You guys got far?"
The student said, "We got far, but we got time. 'Time equals distance,' said Einstein. When you got one, you got the other whether or not you like it."
"We could share a cab," Cross said.
"Sometimes a good walking day just demands to be had," said the woman, and before he could stop her, she laced her fingers between his and held his hand. They walked across the street and he didn't watch where they were going, suddenly captivated by her. The essence of her palm in his made him feel calm and connected. Like he knew her family, and what she looked like when she was a baby.
"Didn't that feel good?" She let go.
"It wasn't what I expected," Cross said.
"We all take damage."
Cross said, "I've crossed a lot of streets on my own."
"But you let me do it. Held the hand of a complete stranger."
"Well, you're a beautiful woman," Cross said.
The student, who had been listening, held out his hand. "Next block."
"I don't think so," said Cross, and the student smirked.
There was a faint streamer of cologne, and from behind them a voice, "Do you mind?" Cross turned and saw the gray haired man trying to get past the three of them. The man said, "Some of us have appointments."
Cross stepped into the gutter and let the man pass. The man's hustle reminded him he was late. "I should get moving," he said.
"Aren't you?" the student asked.
Cross scanned the traffic for a cab. They passed every couple seconds. Most were hired.
"Come with us," the woman said. "We'll walk with you."
"That's nice but I need to get to work. You guys sure you don't want a ride?"
Cross hailed a free cab. "We can share."
The woman and the student watched the cab pass. Another free cab approached. Cross stepped into the street. It swerved to avoid him without stopping. The student said, "Maybe you weren't earnest enough."
"Throw yourself under the wheels," said the woman.
"We don't have much farther," said the student.
"You don't," Cross said. "My office is cross town."
"So come with us today. It's closer."
"Sorry, I'm already late," Cross said, now getting angry in the late morning sun. He took off his jacket and draped it over his arm. A few more cabs passed him. "Do I look like a terrorist or something?"
"Maybe you're needed elsewhere," said the student.
Cross ignored him. He started down the sidewalk, walking quickly. He tried trotting but his leather sole shoes slipped on the concrete. After two blocks he was out of breath and had to stop, panting. Sweat dripped from his head to his neck and made wet his collar. By the time he got to work he'd need a change of clothes.
A man in a hurry came out of a news store and brushed by him. Cross recognized the cologne.
"You make a profession of being in my way," said the gray haired man with a new newspaper in hand. He pushed Cross's shoulder and his leather case fell to the sidewalk. A pedestrian kicked it accidentally, and his portfolio spilled onto the sidewalk. The pedestrian apologized and tried to help Cross collect the pages but most of them wound up trampled by other people passing. One flew into the street and was plastered against the grille of a speeding Mercedes that disappeared down the avenue.
The pedestrian handed Cross the pages he'd collected. Apologized over and over, and Cross told him not to worry, over and over until he left Cross standing there in the sidewalk knowing the world had decided it was "beat-up-Cross day". Today he would not win. Today would end in misery.
"It's just at that next door," said a voice behind him. It was the student and the woman with the music.
"Sorry about your presentation. That must have been a lot of work," the woman said, and she touched Cross's arm. "Just the next door. That one."
"But I have to get to work," Cross said. "I have things to do." And he remembered the dream -- the fawn slipped from the precipice before he could figure out how to help it. When he peered over the edge, the body lay broken on the black-brown rocks below. "I have somewhere I have to be."
"Have to be," said the student.
"This door. Here," said the woman.
Cross reached for his cell phone to tell them he would be late. Don't hold the meeting. Resched.
The phone slipped from his fingers. Clattered to the ground. When he picked it up it was exactly as he suspected. The display was dark but on its face imprinted permanently -- one message.
He slipped the broken phone back into his pocket and followed the woman up six flights of stairs. She knocked on black door that was coated in thick ripples of paint.
The sound of chains and freed locks came from within. The door opened and a figure was silhouetted in light from an open window within.
The student said, "We've brought someone. He needs Alex's help."
When Cross saw the blond girl at the door he first wondered how she managed to get from the train to that apartment so quickly. And then she welcomed him and it felt natural for her to be ahead of him, or anywhere. Her smile was a warm invitation of memory, as if something from a book or a movie he'd just seen. Then the smell of the apartment turned the memory sour. Someone had used bleach to mop up something foul, and the stench of both mixed in the air, a cocktail of sickness.
Inside the apartment's single room a hospital bed was pushed up against the window. A gaunt man lay under a single sheet. His head was hairless and there were purple-red splotches on his face and neck. His skin was thin and translucent. The head of the bed was canted upward so he was almost sitting. And even though his eyes were opened, they spoke to him as if he could not see.
"Alex. We brought someone."
The music woman led Cross to the bedside and stepped away. And he asked himself why hadn't he just gone to work? Why had he let them bring him here? What was he supposed to do?
Cross could see the veins in the man's neck pulsing with each beat of his heart. His breathing was shallow and labored. It seemed to Cross he was trying to lift his hand, and Cross slipped one hand under the thin fingers, and then enveloped them with the other. It felt like he was holding a shuddering bird. The tiny vibrations seeped into his wrists and arms. Up into his shoulders and then down into his heart. Up into his head.
The student said, "You can ask him whatever you want."
Someone pushed a chair to his legs and Cross sat in it without letting go of the dying man's hand. "I don't know what to say."
The music woman said, "We have to talk."
Then the student, "Otherwise it's just chance."
"How can I help him?" Cross asked. "What am I supposed to do?"
"A complete stranger," said the woman.
Behind him the door opened and closed and more people came in. They came to the foot of the bed, then stopped as if by a wall of glass. Men and women lowered their briefcases and hid broken cell phones.
"What's that smell?" one asked.
"Let's get outta here," said another.
The student stood behind Cross, leaned over his shoulder and whispered into his ear, "He wants to know why you won't answer the calls."
"I hardly know her," said Cross, now beginning to tremble.
And more people filled the room.
"What the hell is this shit?"
"What are we doing here?"
"I can't believe we came all the way for this."
The student said, "If you were to die today, what would be your greatest accomplishment?"
"I'm sure I haven't done anything..."
"Alex is still trying," said the student.
The woman leaned over his other shoulder and said, "She could say she's pregnant. She could say she's HIV positive. She could just be calling to see if you feel about her as she feels about you. Whatever it is, it's already true. But you have to talk. It's the difference between chance and life."
"I hardly know her," Cross said, and his nose stung. A tear merged with the sweat on his cheek. "Why did this happen to me?"
"Look at him -- see what love gets you?" said an angry man in the crowd.
The cologne had worn off the gray-haired man. He worked his way to the foot of the bed. He dropped his newspaper and briefcase, knelt next to Cross, and said, "How was I supposed to know we were all going to the same place?"
Soon the room was full of diverted commuters, seventy men and women in rumpled business suits stood confused, watching, listening quietly like passengers on a broken down train.
They looked around the room.
One said, "There's so many of us."