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As Ray reached into his paper bag for a ninth cherry tomato, another man stepped onto the train. He had buzz-cut brown hair and glasses like the ones the kids give out as gag gifts at birthday parties. The man gazed around the train as he entered, mouth hanging open in an expression of wonder. As if instead of seeing all those passengers going to their homes or to their night classes or to their mistresses, he were witnessing his own personal parade of silk-clad acrobats, complete with elephant and maybe a lion jumping through a hoop. The man sat down in an orange seat across from Ray.
And Ray sat and remembered the way her dingy nightgown had hung off her arms, the same kind they used to buy for her when she was seven years old and had all the freckles and the bangs and the teeth that were several sizes too big for her face. She didn't get out of bed very often these days. And her hair was long and a little stringy because she didn't wash it as often as she probably should -- she figured nobody would see it anyway.
Next to the man with the party-favor glasses sat a shriveled old lady who was almost completely enveloped in a mauve sweater. He turned to her and waved, grinning. She smiled. "How are you, ma'am?" he said. His voice carried over all the other noise on the train.
"Oh, I'm all right, dear. I'm all right. How are you?"
"I'm doing really good! I'm going to visit my mom and dad.”
“Oh, that sounds nice.”
“Yeah. It's their anniversary, did you know that?"
"No, I didn't."
"They've been married for 39 years! I haven't even been alive that long!"
The lady smiled at him again and nodded. "Thirty-nine years is quite a long time. That's wonderful."
"Yeah, I know! We're gonna have a chocolate cake to celebrate. And I think there's going to be some presents too, like a birthday and everything." He paused and wrinkled his forehead. "Hey, are you married?"
The smile dropped off the lady's face for a moment, and she stared at the window just past Ray's shoulder. "No, dear. Not anymore."
The man followed her gaze to where Ray was sitting. "Oh. Hey, mister, are you married?"
Ray, who was halfway through a string bean, looked up, startled. He shook his head.
"Oh. Well, you guys should come to my mom and dad's anniversary party. You could have some chocolate cake too."
Ray thought for a minute about asking the man a question to continue the conversation, maybe about where he lived, or his mom and dad, or something. The man would've been delighted to talk about anything. But Ray was not very good with conversation, and so instead of saying, "What stop do they live at?", he instead reached into the paper bag and started on the other half of the cucumber.
The train slowed to a stop, and the lady rose slowly, pulling herself up with the metal pole in front of her. "I would love to go to your parents' party, dear, but I need to get off here. I hope you have a wonderful time."
"Oh, ok! Have a good night, ma'am!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Forward and backward, forward and backward, forward and backward. Paper cut-out woman swayed. Like the silhouette of a bird preparing to take off. Hair whipping Medusa-like around her head, face tilted toward the now-sapphire sky. Sleeves of her nightgown streaming backward from her arms. Paper cut-out woman took several steps forward, soles of her feet facing in toward each other against the sides of the roof. Until her toes were no longer touching the roof at all and the soles of her feet were her only point of connection with the earth. And she swayed forward and backward, forward and backward. Until she swung herself full-force forward and did not go backward again but instead, her black shape disappeared against the black shape of the house and things were still again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The girl caught the little drop of moisture on her fingertip before it reached the boy’s chin. His cheek still showed the path where it had traveled; the light from the bare 60-watt bulb in the ceiling shone off the cold trail. He continued to stare at the wall, but he tilted his head toward her so that his temple touched her forehead. He sniffled loudly into the silence. She ran her hand up and down his arm, slowing at each pass over the razor-thin scars that spiderwebbed the translucent skin on its underside. She traced a finger around the tarnished metal chain that circled his wrist and finally slid her palm against his, interlacing their fingers and squeezing his hand.
He sniffled again. "Anna, I don't know what the fuck to do."
She stared at his ear, concentrating on the silver ring that went through the lobe, her forehead still resting against his temple. She ran her free hand in circles between his shoulder blades. "I don't know either. It's a really hard situation."
"He fucking gave me all the sharp stuff from his backpack today. Just handed it over. Like I know what to do with it. I mean, he was even giving me notebooks and shit. What could he fucking do to himself with a notebook?"
"Well. Was it one of those spiral-bound ones? with the metal part?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Well, I guess those can be kind of sharp."
She continued to rub slow circles across the thin black fabric of his t-shirt, moving from one shoulder blade, over his back, over the crest of his spine, back down toward the other shoulder blade, and across his back again. She gave his hand another squeeze.
"You should see the shit in that thing, too."
"The fucking notebook. All these poems about broken mirrors and rain and shit. And all these pictures of I don't even know the fuck what, fucking scribbles, and little people with fucking knives through their eyes. Nooses. Little fucking stick figures on the ground with splat marks around them."
"I mean, I want to fucking do something, you know? Tell his mom or the guidance counselor or some shit. Fucking steal all the knives and razorblades from his house. Something."
"Maybe you should."
"He'd fucking kill me."
Anna ran her fingers along the raised lines on his arm. "Well, maybe that's not what matters most, you know?"
"I don't know. I can't fucking do it. I mean, I know how it feels to be in that place. I would've fucking lost it if any of my friends ever betrayed me like that when I felt that way. He'd never talk to me again."
* * * * * * *
"All right, babe, we're here."
"Something smells bad."
"Well, if we go inside, it'll smell a lot nicer." The mother started through the door, turning sideways to make room for the laundry bag, herself, and her son. As she turned to pull him in, she caught a whiff of it too. He stepped onto the gleaming white tiles of the laundromat floor, and her suspicion was confirmed -- a trail of brown followed after his blue-and-red sneakers. "Oh, God, Olly, you stepped in dog poop." She dropped the bag with a loud thump, picked him up by the armpits, and rushed outside to a patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street.
"All right, wipe your feet back and forth on the grass."
"To get the dog poop off."
"I don't wanna."
"Come on, babe, it's easy. Look." She shuffled her own feet on the sidewalk, doing a little dance that probably would have made any passerby think she was insane.
He put his hands on his hips and shook his head, blonde wisps of hair flying out from side to side. "No!"
"Olly, come on. We need to get started on the laundry."
"Oh, Christ." The owl-like faces of the other customers began to peek out one by one from the laundromat. "Olly, don't do this. Just wipe the poop off your shoes and we can go in."
"I DON'T WANNA!"
She spoke through clenched teeth. "Just pretend you're doing a little dance."
"NO MOMMY! I DON'T WANNA!" His eyes scrunched up to little slits in his face, his hands balled up at his side.
"Olly! We need to get this done so we can go home and get some sleep! We don't want you to be cranky when Carol comes over tomorrow, do we?"
"I DON'T WANNA DO A DANCE!"
"Ok, fine! You know, you're making this a real pain for Mommy." She picked him up by the waist and held him, squirming, under one arm and tried to remove the sneakers from his kicking feet with the other. He opened his mouth and let out a scream like a police siren.
"Olly, Jesus, come on! Stop moving around! We just need to get in there and do the laundry and then we can go home!"
"AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHAHAHHHHHHHHH!!!" He kicked his feet with a vengeance, evading her hand every time it got near one of his shoes. Finally, she managed to clamp a hand down on one of his feet long enough to tear the sneaker off.
After several minutes, she got hold of her son’s other foot and wrenched the remaining shoe off, then crouched and planted him on the ground. He seemed to have used up his lung capacity -- he stood next to her, whimpering and sniffing loudly. She smoothed his hair down and stood again. As her body moved upward from the ground, she felt her hand brush the back of Olly's head.
"AAAAAAAAAHHH!! BAD MOMMY!"
"Jesus, Olly, I didn't do anything. Stop screaming!"
"BAD MOMMY! DON'T HIT ME!"
"I didn't hit you! Don't say that. That's a terrible thing to say about your mommy."
"HITTING IS BAD!"
"Yes, hitting is bad, I didn't hit you." The people inside the laundromat shook their heads at each other. "I didn't hit him!" she said to the window, but the people just kept shaking their heads. “Jesus, Olly, why do you have to do this right now?”
“I can’t believe this...”
“Ma’am?” A tall, gray-haired man was leaning out of the laundromat door. He gave a disapproving glance at the red-faced boy standing by the mother’s side. “I don’t mean to be rude, but some of the customers are starting to complain about the noise --”
“-- out here. Do you think you could try to calm your son down a little?”
“Look, what do you think I’m trying to do?”
“All right, I understand, I understand.”
“Olly, come on, stop it.”
“Yes. What. I’m sorry. I am trying to calm my son down.”
“It’s just that he’s yelling pretty loud. I just don’t want any trouble.”
“Ok, I know. I’m trying. Just give me a few minutes, ok?”
“Well, all right.” He went back into the laundromat, looking over his shoulder at them.
She turned back to her son. “Jesus, Olly, why’d you have to say that?” Olly stuck his thumb in his mouth again. Twin streams of mucus trailed out of his nose.
"Look, just don't say anything like that in front of Carol. Ok?"
He sniffled. She checked her pockets for a tissue, but all she came up with was a week-old ball of white that she had used a hundred times. She wiped his nose with the cuff of her sleeve.
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