It starts below the city of Boston in the tangled system that hosts trains going anywhere and everywhere, with no concrete schedule of when they’ll arrive or depart. It starts with the time you’re given to stand and wait while the train is running around the city. It starts with that dull olive army cap that always seems to stay in the same corner of your eye as you stand patiently by yourself, waiting.
It’s odd. Even in the middle of the growing crowd of people waiting to get somewhere, that army cap never seems to go away; it stays near you, bobbing along with the rhythm of the masses. The cap is misleading too because it’s clear that it doesn’t even belong to an army guy. Instead, the only visible cues of life from that hat are grey, matted hairs springing out from underneath it. These hairs are sparse, but frequent enough to provide a little shade for the glassy-grey eyes that sit below a wrinkled, spotted forehead. All of these features exist undercover with help from that fake cap.
Its frequent persistence is a little unnerving, so you decide to move away. Being stared at is nice sometimes, but why from an old guy? Apparently the young, strapping army lads are at boot camp and you’re stuck here, in this dingy train station, with their homeless grandfather batting eyes at you.
As you walk, you take in all the other sensations specific only to this place. This place where trains come and go, people stand and wait, and musicians play for quarters with the hope of a big break. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel bad for them—nobody really gives them a second glance. You keep moving in hopes of escaping the hat and those eyes. The magazine stand looks informative enough, hosting dozens of papers and tabloids promising that they know the secret to the new Hollywood diet. It’s all very intriguing, but the sugar infused junk food they sell is what really grabs your attention. Rows of chocolates and sweets and sugars and all sorts of things that you were warned about as a child fill at least half of the stand—there are so many choices that it’s almost hard to decide. The magazine men are nice enough though. Give them a dollar twenty-five and they’ll respond with a Snickers bar.
But that cap still finds a way into your line of sight. You shoot a glance in its direction to see a full head accompany it. A pallid, shriveled face whose cheeks seem to have been shoveled out is standing among a huddled mass of shorter Asian people, and that face is staring at you. You groan a little inside your head. Just look away and maybe the face, the cap, and those eyes will look away too.
The train is still en-route and still winding around the tunnels of underground Boston, so you lean into a cold cement support column. It provides a nice backing for the enjoyment of your Snickers bar, which you promptly tear into. It relieves your sweet-tooth and is gone in less than a minute; the perfect mixture of peanuts and caramel and chocolate and whatever else they add into a Snickers bar to make it a Snickers bar offers an ideal retreat from the soot-stained walls of the old train station. Since it’s warm down here, the chocolate melts across your fingers. Your jeans are old and unimportant, so you smear the chocolate along the seams of the denim; it’s darkest there and not many people will notice the smudges.
The cement column cools your back for another five minutes before a robotic voice announces the arrival of your train. Throwing away the Snickers wrapper, you see the head that was once just an olive colored cap become a full torso. Standing behind a kid from some random family, he’s still staring at you. Another inside groan precedes the tasteless jokes your mind throws at you—hey, maybe it’s your sexy blonde hair that did it, weathered homeless men love blonde girls. Regardless of the stupid synapses your brain involuntarily makes dealing with the old guy, you’re very aware that you don’t want to spend your train ride with him. Nope, Mr. Army-Hat-with-Thinning-White-Tufts-of-Hair-and-Glassy-Grey-Rodent-Like-Eyes-All-Piled-onto-an-Oversized-Torso-of-Mismatched-Jackets-and-Vests, your company is not wanted on this trip.
As it whistles into the platform area, the blue stripe across the side of the train comes to a halt. To ensure that the man doesn’t follow you, you dodge a few briefcases and strollers and shopping bags to find the car farthest away from where most other people are entering. Stragglers and loners are the only ones in here. As soon as you step foot into the threshold of communal seats and poles, you head towards the most remote end and sit in the darkest corner because, surely, he wouldn’t notice you there if he were to follow.
After sitting, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the grimy window reflection across from you and shift from your thoughts of the old man to wondering why your eyebrows are dark but your hair is blonde. Weird. Someone told you once that you could dye your hair and get away without doing the eyebrows. Maybe you should consider it. People begin to slowly filter into your car now; there aren’t many, just two or three. A man who looks like he’s trying to regain his youth by letting his hair grow long and stringy, despite the receding hairline, sits on the opposite side of you in the middle of the car. An older Hispanic lady carrying groceries while trying simultaneously to keep a firm grip on her cane follows him into the car and sits on the opposite end.
Then you see it. You see the hat, the hair, the wrinkled forehead that introduces the glazed eyes, and the mismatched coats. You realize that your plan failed and this man’s eyes were obviously very attentive, regardless of being so glassy and empty. You’re sure he won’t sit next to you; it would be way too blatant and way too creepy. And then, proving you wrong for a second time, he sits directly across from you.
Question marks start forming in your head and you begin to seriously wonder what you did to make the gods punish you with this noticeably smelly homeless man. As your cheeks begin to flush, you blindly dig around in your thick messenger bag to find the book you intended to read during this innocent little journey on the train. Thank god you brought it, because otherwise you might have to spend your time darting eye contact with those huge obnoxious eyes and that hat and those coats and vests and that smell sitting across from you.
“Anomic Suicide” by Emile Durkheim—seems to be an appropriate choice of literary entertainment right about now. Flipping through the pages, you can feel the glassy eyes burning into the top of your head. You could always move to a different seat. No, that would be rude, you think. Besides, he’s lonely and, apparently, likes to stare. It’s fine; staring never hurt anyone.
Time passes and pages turn. You’ve done well avoiding his awkward looks and the train has almost reached your stop. Glancing up from the pages you see something slightly encouraging—he’s looking away! It’s about time, you think. But just as your eyes trace downwards toward the page again, something fleshy and out of place grabs your attention.
Like a light-switch, your cheeks flip from an innocent shade of pink to a fire-engine wash of red. For a brief moment, you try denying the fact that he’s holding his penis in his spotted, wrinkled hand. But it is undeniably his penis and from behind the shelter of an abandoned newspaper, it is undeniably being flopped around and massaged. The newspaper, which is strategically held beside his body, conceals his actions from the people at the other end of the car, leaving you as the only audience member. Controlling the urge to vomit, you force your eyes in an unblinking state to stay on the page, which coincidentally says something about “alienation from society.”
Mind freezing and eyes watering, you struggle to decide what to do. Should you ignore him? Should you move? Should you yell? Should you attack? The don’t-talk-to-strangers advice your parents gave you so many times apparently doesn’t hold strong because after a brief moment of contemplation, you decide to yell. An indecipherable string of words flies from your mouth sounding something like, “Whatthehell,putthatgoddamnthingaway! Goddamnit!Whatthehell!Icantbelievethis.” Unfortunately for you, however, since the glassy-eyed man’s private maneuvers were shielded behind the newspaper, the rest of the passengers were unaware of his enjoyment, making you look like an irreconcilable jerk for yelling at such an obviously sad and decrepit person. Unaware of how long you’ve been shouting at this desperate man, you are interrupted by the announcement of your destination as the doors unfold to the station.
Now above ground, the train is flooded by light of the setting sun; the dark corner of the car where you once sat is now filled with geometric patterns of light and shadows. Stepping onto the platform, you give a sideways glance towards the man only to see his olive green army hat and glassy-grey eyes peering at you from behind the newspaper.
By Morgan K. Moretz