Fiction by R.M. Schneiderman
Dusk in Calcutta, Italy
An old stone town slumbers atop a moss-covered cliff, in a place once abandoned by carnage and mired by despair. Now smoke rings billow in the incense-laden evening. Cigarettes sleep in ashtrays and cats roam free in the hurrying dusk.
I can’t help but stare at these cobblestone streets and think I’m standing on
an island filled with ghosts, an ancient beauty cracked by callous
hands, then mended back together by acts of accidental sculpture.
Last night an old man told me that people come here to break
A P A R T
And I thought: this town must be sprinkled with stars and varnish. Listen to the brook croon through the fortress of trees! Listen to the leaves dance in the cardiovascular wind!
There are no bombs in the forest now. No corpses.
Did they ever exist?
How many nights did I lie naked on the floor in my bedroom, mourning my own shards? How many days did I spend in Union Square, dreaming of buttresses, trembling at the thought of another faceless moon?
Now every morning you lay beside me. You sleep late. When you wake, you lend me a groggy kiss. Your lips taste like mortar, like concrete. And when I look in the mirror to brush my teeth, there is no sign of a shattering.
My face grows rich with architecture.
A Ride on the 7-Train
Without distractions, everyone in this city would go insane, I thought. Everyone would lose their minds. Scream in protest. Shatter the windows of storefronts. Assault random people on the subway. All without thought or reflection.
It was a typical uptown winter morning. The air was cold and my breath looked like cigarette smoke as I exhaled, waiting for the train, watching the sun rise bright and orange over West Harlem. The weather had been cold for months, but it had yet to snow – an oddity for the city in mid December.
Early in the morning, the subway on 125th street is normally packed, but I was heading downtown about an hour earlier than usual, and the platform was relatively empty save for a few weary-looking faces, both black and white. People with sleep in their eyes and coffee on their breath. I paced back and forth, listening to my iPod, feeling as if my eyelids were attached to bowling balls:
Walking to the store with a pocket full of nickels.
In a city filled with World Trade Center candle victim vigils.
There's anthrax in our mailboxes and Xantax in my tummy.
There’s a single Spanish female out West roamin’ the country.
Earlier that day, I'd awoken around 6am to find that I'd slept in my clothes - a pair of baggy Dickies and a hooded sweatshirt. It was the third time that week. And as I splashed a few drops of water over my cornrows to cool my scalp, my mother's nagging voice rang in the back of my head: “Juanito, you need to stop saving your tarea until the last minute!”
She was right. But that morning was THE morning. The day on which college tacitly ended, the day on which I would hand in my last paper – a 10-pager on Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations - and finally do something that no one in my family had ever done. Graduation was a week away, but already I felt something swelling up inside me. Past that, I hadn’t given life much thought.
I heard a rumbling in the distance and walked towards the edge of the platform; the train was coming. I backed away about two feet and closed my eyes. The train thundered past me. (I once saw an old Asian man fall across the tracks in Union Square. His head struck the third rail and his body convulsed. Smoke rose from his scalp. By the time the police arrived, I’d vomited on my shoes).
It wasn’t just the subway that put me on edge. In high school my friends used to call me el paranoico. I’ve always just thought I was prudent. But they seemed surprised, perhaps even delighted, that Latin Catholics could have seemingly endless Woody Allen moments.
Those moments kept me out of trouble when I was in middle school. I didn't smoke or drink, and I was too shy to talk to girls, let alone bold enough to slip, fall down the stairs and get one pregnant. It wasn't a principled opposition, I was just being careful. Every sip of alcohol was a stomach-pumping waiting to happen. Every hit of weed was potentially laced with angel dust. And until late in high school, I concentrated on school and sports, and in retrospect it turned out well
But not all of my fears were unexpectedly blessed. Once when I was 12 I forgot to turn off the lamp in my room. “You’re going to burn down the casa,” my mother would to say. And I believed her. I remember sitting in class, trying to find the square root of 35, when I suddenly realized what I’d done. Almost immediately I envisioned torrid flames gnawing away at our tiny rental house and my father’s stoic face cracking into shards. I ran out of the room and all the way home. When I arrived, I was surprised to find that nothing was ablaze, save for my imagination. The next day my friend Darrell asked why I’d left.
I told him I hated math.
The subway doors opened and I pushed my way past Dominican kids in winter coats and Catholic school uniforms, past black men with braids and white kids in hipster peacoats. I sat down in the middle of the car and wedged my way in between a large black woman in a fur coat and a young Dominican boy on his way to school. The boy, who looked about ten years old, had black wavy hair and skin the color of roasted almonds. He looks like me when I when I was his age, I thought. A slight smile parted my lips, as I watched the red-purple sky swirl over the clustered tenements to the east and music filtered through my headphones:
And I knew the gash wouldn’t stop bleeding.
And I knew the PH balance wasn’t right.
And I knew how September would affect it.
At 110th street, the boy beside me got off the train, and a 30-something blond in a woolen suit stepped onboard. She went to sit on my right, but when she looked directly at me, she turned away and remained standing. I stared at her for a moment then put my head down. As the train plodded along, she shot me a glance, then walked to the other end of the car. My stomach tightened.
It’s nothing I try and tell myself. It’s nothing. But deep down, I know it’s always been there, lingering in the air like a thick persistent fog, hiding out in between sentences and unseen movements of the eyes.
I’ve often wondered why my mother never talks about it. Maybe she wants to protect me. Or maybe she’s just never experienced it in the same way my father has. He never talks about it either, but I know he’s felt it: the tightening of your stomach; the prickliness brewing up from the middle of your back, boiling over your shoulders, then dripping onto the floor. Perhaps he’s just too tired to deal with it. Or maybe he just won’t see it, doesn’t want to. Maybe he just wishes it away because of all he’s sacrificed.
When I was a kid, Dad was always busy working at the shoe factory – the last one left in Camden - chipping away at the American Dream, trying to justify why he left his immediate family behind in San Cristóbal.
The day St. Matthews Prep accepted me was the proudest I’ve ever seen him. It’s as if he knew it had all been worth it, that the fate of our family would change forever. He was right.
But in high school, everything changed. Everything shed its innocent skin. At some point – I don’t know when – I became part of three different worlds. Three different colored circles that converged and formed rings around my body – rings I’ve often had to balance and juggle, so they don’t fall to the ground and crack.
It’s not that I felt hated or disliked. It was the little things, jokes, off-hand remarks – “Wassuppppp my brutha!!!” – all made in passing. There was little malice behind them. When tryouts began for basketball, everyone assumed I’d play. Everyone assumed that I could dunk, that I had a mean fade-away jumper and could slash through the lane like Vince Carter. Imagine their surprise when I went out for tennis, when my serve blew past them, or when I ripped an overhead smash down the line. Arthur Ashe, they called me. MalaVai Washington. What other references did they have?
Sometimes it was more than that, though. Part of me said I shouldn’t care. I’m not from Mexico after all, so why should I care how many Mexicans can fit in the back of a pickup truck? I should be able to laugh with everyone else, right? But I couldn’t. Walking through Spanish Harlem with their eyes, would I see a faceless mass of car thieves, slick-hair mustachioed men sleeping away their lives?
The train stopped at 96th street and the doors flung open. I walked onto the platform and waited for the express.
That’s where I saw him.
It was his eyes that caught my attention. They were red, almost sun burnt. His skin was the color of charred tobacco and a thick mustache reclined between a long, narrow nose and a pair of thin, dark lips. He looks Algerian, I thought, though I didn’t know why; it was the first word that popped into my mind. He turned towards me and I immediately looked down; on the tracks below me, expired cigarettes lay motionless in fetid puddles of water.
Moments later I heard the low baritone grumble of the train and saw the dim yellow lights break through the blank darkness. I walked behind the dark-skinned man towards the front of the train. But when the doors closed I saw he was standing behind me, staring at me with eyes like tinted glass. I moved across the car and leaned back against the door on the opposite side. My hand gripped the pole; it felt cold.
We stopped at 72nd street and a cluster of collared shirts and slacks piled onto the train, all pushing me towards the red-eyed man. I stared at my shoes. The train lurched forward then rumbled through the tunnel. Heads bobbed to the rhythm of rap and rock. Heat whished down from the ceiling, and the smell of perfume filtered through the careening car.
The doors popped open at Times Square and I stepped off the train. The cold subway air clenched my lungs, and a throng of people belched out from the car across the platform. Still, I was glad to be off the train. Glad to be away from that Algerian-looking man who seemed to be staring through a prism at a different world. The N and R trains were closed, so I followed the signs to the 7, which was muttering in repose. For the hundredth time I wished I’d been able to afford a place closer to school. Somewhere in the East Village. Maybe down by the Seaport.
All of the seats were taken, so I walked to the opposite side of the door and held onto the pole. I pulled out my book and began to read:
“There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and they were all out to kill him. There was Lieutenant Scheisskopf with his fanaticism for parades and there was the bloated colonel with his big fat moustache and his fanaticism for retribution, and they wanted to kill him, too.”
A short while later, a static-filled voice punctured the silence. The doors are now closing, the doors are now closing. Next stop is 42nd street, Bryant Park. The bell rang and the doors began to close. Suddenly a dark arm blocked their path. The doors popped open, and the dark-skinned man rushed forward and stood by the pole, staring past me with vitreous eyes. The doors shut, but the train stood still. I exhaled a deep breath. Then I read the same sentence four times:
“There were billions of conscientious body cells oxidating away day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and every one was a potential traitor and foe.”
The train lurched forward and plodded along. Then it came to a halt. A layer of sweat formed on my brow. I stared down at the floor. Minutes passed. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark hand pull out a small white box from a pair of khaki pants. I looked up and saw a cigarette dangling between the lips of the dark-skinned man. He put his hand back into his pocket and sifted around for something.
My throat tightened.
His hand escaped his pocket and the train jerked forward. A small black lighter fell to the ground. Sweat dripped down my shirt. My heart beat in arpeggios. The dark-skinned man bent down to pick up the lighter, then started fumbling with his right shoe.
Something inside me cracked.
Part of me wanted to run, to switch cars, to pry open the doors and jump onto the tracks. Another part of me wanted to grab the red-eyed man and yank his arm behind his back, to slam his face against the dirty subway floor and empty my lungs.
Then, all of sudden, it happened.
I felt a jolt and everything went black. Smoked clogged my lungs, fire ripped through the darkness. Screams exploded from the walls, from the ceiling. My feet resembled cement. I felt trapped inside a groaning carcass of broken glass and twisted steel. Then everything went black again.
When we arrived at Bryant Park, the doors popped open. My face felt wet and I tasted salt on my lips. The dark-skinned man hurried out of the car. I paused for a moment, then remembered where I was. I looked around. People were reading the papers and listening to music. A homeless man began crooning for change.
As the doors began to close, I stumbled off the train.
Out on 42nd street, the air was cold and the sky was the color of an elephant’s skin. The cars honked their horns and the buses growled their engines. And as the morning sunlight yawned and poked its head through the clouds, I saw the same Algerian-looking man smoking a cigarette on the corner. Above ground, his pupils seemed whiter; his skin appeared lighter in tone.
I crossed the street, and walked up a block until I came to an old stone bench. I sat down. A thick gray mist formed on the horizon. Moments later, snowflakes began to waltz down from the clouds, as if someone had finally remembered to shake the snow globe sky.
R.M. Schneiderman is a writer and journalist living in Manhattan.
He holds a Bachelors Degree in History and Comparative Social Policy
from Boston University and a Master's Degree in Journalism from
Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Dayton Daily News,
The Source, The Forward, United Press International, Newsweek,
Forbes.com., The New York Press and The New York Times.