“Sometimes everything around me seems so diffuse, so tremulous, so little solid, that I imagine this world to be only the mirage of a world to come: its projection.” Jules Renard
Strange how the heat seems to rise up to embrace the light. How the picture window glass bleeds tiny beads of moisture, and the shadows moving outside, seem unreal as dream creatures, noiselessly floating inside a transparent cell. Brief flashes of colored light punctuate the heat oppressed night. When the full-bodied, thunderous rain finally comes, there will not be much relief; only clouds of humidity rising from blacktop as a subterranean fog released from below, wrapping itself around the street lamps.
Time for another drink. Always time. Two fingers extended for the double whiskey chilled in a mixing tin poured straight into a glass tumbler. One finger for the ice-cold beer to follow the whiskey down. Money on the bar offered and taken away. No words spoken. None offered.
The tight enclosing room packed with bodies face to face speaking loudly, gesturing wildly, animated as performers in a crowd scene no script has been written for yet. Only the sitters are free to look out beyond the grease and the fingerprints and the human stains no one has seen fit to remove; grim exteriors, interior smears.
A mute, gesturing woman, one stool removed, mimics the lighting of a cigarette. Pointing toward the prominently displayed, No Smoking Under Penalty of Law sign behind the bar does not discourage her, makes her supplication more insistent; a demand rather than a request. Looking around, the drinking mass all seem to have ignored the law. Another sign beside the entrance to the bar says No Smoking within twenty-five feet of the door; out there in the heat, where twenty-five feet might be a hundred miles from here.
Leaning closer, she touches the hand that offers the light, steadying the cigarette, the match as she inhales deeply. A touch of human flesh that repels. Two fingers of raw whiskey cannot wash it away, nor the chilled beer after.
A tapping on the grime-streaked picture window. The unnatural light outside augmented by a flashing of neon signs, and the face pressed against the glass, features compressed, distorted as some nightmare funhouse apparition thrust into view, its hands smearing the grime, bulbous lips and vermiculate tongue extended in an obscene, suggestive kiss. The washed-out woman’s voice on the neighboring stool imploring, “Hey, lover boy, light my fire.”
Her long thin, cigarette held between stained fingers. Her dull, hard eyes and whiskey-stained voice, “What you waiting for? I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
As she sucks in the smoke, the light leaves the room, the television screen goes dark, the air conditioners relentless hum pauses, and all conversation stops, as if momentarily stunned into silence. Heat lightning flashes somewhere beyond the skyscrapers, somewhere beyond the high-rise apartments, and the factory smoke stacks.
The barroom is stifling; close and smoke clogged. The woman’s face is a blur as she turns to the bar gesturing for another drink. The shards of ice in her highball, shards of glass tainted with a smear of lip gloss and tobacco.
All motion ceases inside, as if frozen in time. The face in the window is now flush against the back bar mirror staring out, its distorted features and fingers turned the palest kind of white. Then the power surges, is restored and the collective held breath is released.
The vision in the mirror disappears.
The woman’s drink is refilled and her, cold dead eyes refocus, renewed by a sudden burst of life. “Cures what ails ya. Don’t talk much do ya? Do ya? Hey, where ya going? We were just getting to know each other?”
In contrast to the air-conditioned nightmare inside, the sheer physicality of the heat stuns. It is like a moving humid wall, a punching fist, a hammer toss to the brain. I am stunned, inarticulate, fumbling my way forward, moving without clear direction.
Reflected artificial light in the dissipating pools in the pavement. Bent sideways road signs pointing up, their messages as senseless as the flashing hieroglyphics on the corner crosswalks; blinking meaningless symbols only the blind can see.
The street trembles, as somewhere well below the creviced concrete, a subway accelerates away from a station, as the express hurtles downtown further into the darkness between stops. The heavy morbid air makes breathing difficult, as if walking here was a submersion in a dank, adhering cloud that straightjackets the lungs, each step forward pulling the restraints tighter. Perhaps, the air underground will be less congestive. Perhaps, somewhere else less constraining.
A few measured steps across the sidewalk brings me near the opening where the steps lead downward into the dark. Moving with the others, jostled, almost dragged along by their momentum toward where the noise of the cars on the rails are loudest. Destination signs point the way uptown and down, but I have no way of determining in which direction the people I am in the midst of are moving. The way forward fluid, riverine, tidal, powerful as it is amorphous and I, in the midst, pulled along as flotsam, with no will, down the stairs, through the turnstiles, and on to the platform beyond.
The foulness of the air in the poorly lighted, dank, subterranean space. Crushed amid the writhing mass of people barely able to breathe independently of the others surrounding me. The sweat and the stench of sickness and waste, of rotting garbage so far beyond putrescence as to be almost indescribable. The chipped, formerly white tiles of the station walls, marked and defaced with private codes, gang symbols, messages of love and hate, fantasies of death and disease. All the faceless heads turned toward the dark space where the subway will emerge, dispatching cargo and allowing more to squeeze into the places the others have vacated. A disconcerting process that seems inescapable, now that I am wedged deep inside the intractable mass of people, waiting.
Waiting for what comes in a rushing blur of speed. An express heading somewhere, either up or down, well past here, where we wait as one. The bodies of the passengers, human effigies, cardboard cutout images in a hot white stream of light blinking on and off as each car passes so fast the succession of them going by hurts the eyes forced to stare after. And in the wake, we wait; wait and struggle with our breathing the unventilated air.
An odd, almost palpable silence, filling the void after the express. The only movement, a slight edging forward as more people descend from above, further crowding the platform. The waiting becoming something physical like a pain, once remote inside, incipient like headache, becoming more severe as whatever had formerly masked it, recedes. The nearness of it, the mass of it, the aliveness of it, breathing.
And then a train appears before us, stops and the doors slide open. No one inside moves. All about me, everyone, everything moves as one. Toward the waiting, unaccommodating place inside. Unable to struggle against the flow, I am compelled forward along with everyone else. Am nearly crushed in the small place I am allotted, almost flush against the sliding doors. I see nothing distinguishable beyond the scratched panes, nothing but the smudged, familiar outlines of bodies at rest, their features wiped away as if sand blasted clean; white tiles with black marks on them, unreadable messages from beyond.
The rapid forward motion of the car sickens me. I have never felt so unwell, so in need of breathable air. I am shaking with an overwhelming sense of panic, sweat soaking my already sodden clothes as I try to move, struggle to cry out in anguish for release but no sound escapes, nothing happens. I see a kind of reflected image in the defaced glass, something distorted and unfamiliar struggling to break free. As I am pinned, motionless, and mute, the image cannot be my own. Must be something from out there in the dark, in the tunnel where the sparks ignite the darkness, and the subway moves on without me.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.