Tuesday, July 29, 2014
THE RIDE HOME - #ShortStory
Collin Walker boarded the 1 train bound towards his sparsely decorated, dimly lit, undersized and overpriced apartment on the Upper West Side of
. He was accompanied for a portion of the ride
by three co-workers. The quartet of
stockbrokers had just departed an office holiday party on Wall Street where the
alcohol had been free and plentiful. Manhattan
Collin did not regularly fraternize with Doug, Randall, or Brandon. Outside of their shared love of making vast sums of money on paper, he did not have much in common with these men. Yet due to many hours spent together in confined quarters riding the impetuous charges of bulls and bears, they were his closest acquaintances, coming as close to friendship with him as anyone else managed. Collin held nothing in particular against fellow members of the human race. He simply had yet to find the company of another living soul preferable to neatly arranged solitude.
He bestowed smiles as a miser spends his money, released laughter like a devout nun experiencing pleasures of the flesh, with great reservation and only on the most holy of days. Collin would often flinch when innocently approached from behind, as easily startled as a sleepy infant. It was as if he pretended away the existence of other people to make his surroundings more palatable, only to be shocked by harsh reality when reminded of someone else’s presence. At first his colleagues teased him for his awkward discomfort with contact and personal interaction. Eventually they determined that it was best to just leave him alone.
Therefore on occasions as rare as today when his senses were assailed by rum and coke and he let loose his tightly wound persona, it was a treat for those who knew what he was usually like. Throughout the party Collin told rambling jokes that evoked laughter based on their manic delivery rather than the punch lines; indulged in forms of physical expression seldom utilized by him such as back slaps and shoulder punches; and flirted with a lack of skill that was nearly made up for by the novelty of his efforts. This year he had been in particularly rare form with a barely recognizable Michael Jackson dance imitation on top of a receptionist's desk.
"That was some shindig," said Doug, quite noticeably the shortest of the group at only five feet four inches tall, making him the butt of many a private and sometimes public joke. He always pretended not to mind, to be amused by this curse of fate while mentally cataloging every slight for future spiteful reference.
"You think the big guy will like our gift?" asked
the youngest of them at 24 years old. He
was two years out of Brandon and considered
a stock trading boy wonder. New York
"He likes anything he gets for free," said Randall, the elder statesman at age 58. Randall considered himself to be a mentor to his peers, but was alone in this opinion.
"We should've pitched in to buy him a toupee that fits," Collin said, collapsing in a fit of cackling that was a reasonable facsimile of laughter from one so unversed in the art.
“I think he’s having an affair with Evelyn,” said Doug.
"No way," said
"Why would a gorgeous woman like her sleep with him?" Brandon
"Because he's the boss and she's incompetent, sonny boy," Randall replied. His fear of being retired early to make room for more hot shots like
was not always as
well camouflaged as intended. Brandon
An elderly man dressed in rags and emitting a rather foul odor entered from the adjoining car, temporarily interrupting the gossip session.
"Excuse me, gentlemen. Could any of you spare..."
"No I cannot spare any change, and I don't want to hear the sad story of your life either," Doug answered. "Can't you just get a job at McDonalds or something?"
"God bless you, sir."
"Here you go," said
, putting a bill into the paper cup in
the man's hands. "Have a merry
"Merry Christmas to you too." The frail mendicant moved along to solicit the next passenger.
"You shouldn't be such a sap," advised Collin. He made this statement while clinging to the straphangers as if quicksand was beneath his feet.
"It's only a dollar," said
in defense of his
generosity, although it seemed ludicrous justifying himself to a man who
appeared to be impersonating a chimpanzee.
"Besides, he wasn't as annoying as most of them, and it is almost
"There’s got to be one of them per square foot in this city," said Randall. "If I gave a quarter to each one who asked, I'd be bankrupt in a week.”
"The dollar you gave away is going to be spent on a vial of crack," pronounced Doug.
“And that’s wack,” Collin piped in, tickled by how something so commonplace as liquor had released his poetic side.
The train pulled into the next station. Getting on was a teenager carrying a bulky radio. A rap song blared from its speakers in defiance of subway rules. The young man stared the Wall Streeters down to ward off in advance any statements of disapproval.
"Any of you guys got the time?" he asked.
The question was followed by a loud thud, which turned out to be the result of Collin stretching to look at his watch, after which he lost his grip on the straphangers and rapidly descended to the floor.
"It's almost one," he said upon landing.
"Thanks, homes. Happy Kwanzaa." The kid did their eardrums a favor and went into the next car. Collin's antics had taken him off guard, and he tended to avoid white people whose actions he couldn't predict.
"They complain they're not advancing because of prejudice," Randall pointed out quietly, after checking to be certain that the nearest person in possession of more melanin than himself was beyond hearing range. "Bigotry has nothing to do with it. It's all in the image you project. You come across like that and no one's going to want to hire you. It's that simple."
No less than eighty percent of Randall’s opinions on complex societal matters were concluded with the words – It’s that simple.
"I like Bennett," Doug said, speaking of the lone African- American who worked in their department. "He's a good man. He does his job very well."
"Bennett's an exception to the rule," Randall said. He could become quite testy when one of his expert opinions was refuted. "There's a lot more like the guy just in here playing that hippity hop music."
Brandon, whose girlfriend unbeknownst to his co-workers happened to be black, decided to contain his temper and sway the conversation in another direction. "Loved your dance routine at the office, Collin. Ever think of getting out of Wall Street and going into the music business?"
Collin rose unsteadily, shaken like a pair of die by the swerving train and alcohol swishing in his bloodstream. "There's certainly plenty of money in it,” he said. “Michael Jackson, look out!" He attempted a mid-80’s Jacksonesque spin, completely unaware that the singer was much more likely of late to be found defending himself in a courtroom or selling off assets to avoid bankruptcy than at the top of music charts, and ended up on the seat of his pants again.
"Bravo!" his associates cheered, applauding as he stood up and took a bow.
On the opposite end of the subway car, a thin Caucasian man in well worn fatigues entered. A scruffy beard failed to fully conceal the scar that ran from his left ear to mid-cheek. His pale blue eyes were vacant like a blind man's, but he could see. One immediately got the feeling that he had seen too much. He limped forward with grave determination, unsteadily navigating around shopping bags full of Christmas gifts that sat on the floor in front of several passengers, briefly telling his hard luck story to each of them before futilely holding out his hand. Finally he reached the Wall Street revelers, sixty five cents richer than he had been at the start of his journey.
"Hello, gentlemen. If any of you could spare some change, I'd really appreciate it. I have a metal plate in my head and a bum leg from the war, and the government ain't paying me a dime."
"I think I'll rest my bones for a few minutes," the beggar said, sitting opposite them and closing his eyes. "This cold weather really stiffens up my leg."
For the next few minutes the only sound to be heard was that of the train racing along the tracks, its steady rhythm hypnotic. The co-workers’ desire to socialize had run out of steam, the alcohol in their respective systems reversing direction, bringing each of them haphazardly down from the peaks they had been brought to. Tranquility was ended when the beggar began muttering in his sleep. He was apparently having a bad dream, for he twisted and turned in his seat. Then his eyes shot wide open.
"Oh God, no!" He shielded his head with his arms. "I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die!" In pantomime he proceeded to shoot an imaginary rifle at an invisible foe. "Die bastards, die!"
As unexpectedly as the flashback began, it ended. The beggar lowered his arms and his breathing returned to normal. His aimless glare was all that remained of the episode.
The other passengers looked at him curiously, but none with the intensity of Collin who recognized the expression that had been in the beggar's eyes during his episode. Absolute rage amalgamated with perfect fear. It was the same expression Collin possessed on a humid night in a dense jungle of
years earlier. It was on that night that he came across an
injured Vietnamese soldier clutching his blood soaked, useless right leg. Vietnam
Collin saw right away that the soldier's weapon lay five feet away, impossible for him to reach any time soon. He was no threat to anyone. Life had already left one of his legs, and unless he was given medical treatment, it would soon leave the rest of him.
No one could hate the war as much as Collin did. From the moment he set foot on that God forsaken corner of the globe he was in a continual state of paralyzing terror. Prior to then he had thought of himself as a brave man, though for no particular reason. His belief was theoretical rather than practical. His manhood was yet to have been tested.
As soon as he stepped out of the helicopter and into
Asia, fear became an intimate friend who
would never leave his side. It would
accompany him throughout his tour of duty.
Then it would go along for the ride back to , walking beside him like a
faithful dog. Whenever he was out on the
streets late at night and a shadow moved, or he heard footsteps behind him, or
a stranger's eyes rested too long on his own, there it was, causing the most
harmless of circumstances to seem life and death. He tried to ignore it, figured if he kept busy
with other matters he would have no time for it. But fear always made time for him. Death always seemed to be lurking nearby. America
The Vietnamese soldier's face showed no reaction when Collin raised his rifle. Perhaps his pain did not allow any emotion to be expressed. Maybe his soul was prepared to take leave of the earth. He may have gone through the war as frightened as Collin, and was relieved that in a moment he would finally be free.
It seemed an eternity passed as Collin stood poised to kill. He had fired into moving brush and shifting shadows before, but never face to face. Collin may have killed men, but didn't know for sure. This time he would.
Collin stood trembling while the soldier stared passively at him. Why wouldn't he get up and charge? Why wouldn't he make a lunge for his gun? If only he would do something, anything to force the issue. Enemy or not, war or not, if he didn't move and Collin fired, it would be murder. But it would also be one less enemy to fear.
How dare he lie there with no chance of overcoming his foe, yet be so calm? Why was Collin, in the stance of an invincible killing machine, incapacitated?
This man represented all he had been trained to hate. But could justification be found for killing a helpless, defenseless man?
In a language Collin would never understand, the soldier began to speak. It may have been a plea, a prayer, or a curse. Collin would never know, and his trigger finger did not allow the sentence to be completed.
Collin turned towards the voice that had brought him tumbling back to the present. It belonged to a Korean man with a shopping bag at his feet. His arm was outstretched, and spinning on the palm of his hand was a clear plastic top with a light inside. It made a whistling sound as it spun. He put the top into the bag and took out what appeared to be a bobble head doll. Collin had to smile when he pushed down on the boy's head and a stream of water shot out as if he were peeing.
But Collin’s smile vanished when he noticed a glint of steel. The homeless veteran seated across from him slowly withdrew a dagger from the back of his boot. His glare was not aimless or far away anymore. It was focused on the target at hand. He stood up, concealing the knife between his arm and body, and began walking towards the unsuspecting peddler. With the exception of Collin and those who were ignoring the scene altogether to ponder what more they still had left to purchase for the holiday, everyone's eyes were on the Korean man and his bag of treats. Some were reaching into wallets and purses to buy their final low budget Christmas gift of the day, while others were waiting to see what else he had to sell. None knew that he was about to die.
The war veteran was about three steps away from his would be victim when Collin tackled him, knocking into the peddler in the process. This altered Collin's momentum, so it was he who ended up on the bottom when they hit the ground. Stronger than he looked, the veteran was able to break free from Collin's grasp, deliver a punch to the jaw, then retrieve his weapon.
The dagger was held menacingly over Collin's throat. Tears crept from his eyes and his bowels also threatened to let loose their liquid. A feeling of self-loathing overcame him. Hunter or hunted, he was a coward. He had managed to summon enough courage to attack a battered homeless man from behind, but that seemed to be the extent of his bravado. Now that he was forced to encounter danger head on, he could do no more than cower and shiver like an old woman in a cold rain. Fear clung to him like vines on a trellis.
As Collin awaited the inevitable, he noticed a change in his captor's expression. The veteran gave Collin a knowing smile. What was it that he knew? That Collin wasn't worth killing, because he was no threat whatsoever? That he was about as dangerous as a dying Vietnamese soldier with one good leg?
The once proud warrior, now homeless vagrant, rose to his feet and headed towards his original target. The Korean man lay on the ground, somewhat disoriented because his head had hit the floor. His expression conveyed the same look of surrender possessed by the soldier Collin had killed years earlier.
Anger, hatred, and a sense of betrayal harbored far too long were set to be unleashed because the slant of a man’s eyes reminded the discarded hero of the time and place where his future was stolen from him. This is why Collin had been spared. The veteran didn't want to waste any of his fury on a fellow American.
Surely someone would stop him, Collin thought. Then again, maybe it wasn't so certain. They resided in the city of non-involvement, and it was only a foreigner who spoke broken English and sold toys on the subway who was about to die, not anybody who mattered. He would be slain in front of a moving studio audience. The veteran probably did not even realize that he was attacking an innocent man on a
subway. The jungle he believed himself
to be in was not of the concrete variety.
His mind had brought him back to the hell he had been condemned to years
ago for the sin of being a healthy young man during wartime. New York City
Collin finally understood what the eyes of the Vietnamese soldier he killed had been conveying. It wasn't a message of peace, or acceptance, or relief. It was questioning. His eyes were asking - "Why me?" Could justification be found for killing a helpless, defenseless man?
In answer to the question, Collin sprung to his feet and charged at the veteran, driving him hard into a door of the subway car. The veteran crumbled to the ground, no longer a danger to anyone. The peddler, realizing his life had been saved yet again, looked up more in wonder than gratitude. And Collin, with the knife now protruding from his abdomen, dropped down to one knee, vaguely aware of the queries of his worried co-workers, but preoccupied by the fact that he would probably die staring at a plastic boy with a bladder control problem. Fear was nowhere to be found. His old traveling companion, his one true friend, had finally departed.
The lights went out. Collin did not know if this was due to a commonplace glitch in the train's electrical system brought about by alleged under-funding that would inevitably lead to yet another fare hike. Of if it was because his ride home had officially begun.
IT WAS A WISE MAN WHO FIRST SAID "WAR IS HELL".