by: Rhiannon Richardson ((Header art by Benjamin Nordsmark.))
A short story centering around an all consuming anguish that threatens to undo the myriad blessings life has to offer…
Moisture rose off of the river that morning and moved ambitiously into the city. It thickened the air all the way down into the subway, where Noah sat uncomfortably on the edge of an orange three seat bench against the west wall of the subway car. He reflected that he had a way of always picking the one car that seemed out of sorts.
Noah had rushed into the car earlier in the morning, almost missing the train that would whisk him to his dentist appointment. After he’d been sitting for a few minutes, and had collected himself, he smelled the urine. On the other side of the car’s interior, a liquid spilled off a seat in tiny rivulets. A puddle was forming in the shadowy area underneath the bench, and Noah panicked whenever the urine moved. The puddle had claimed its own, slowly widening, quadrant of the subway car as people avoided the area altogether.
He could have left, but he was cemented to his seat by his own awkwardness. Noah looked around at the other passengers standing and sitting; the car wasn’t packed but there was nowhere else to sit. Noah had been lucky in getting a seat. Even if he stood up and waded through the bodies to a different car, there was no guarantee of a seat or better conditions.
Noah bounced his leg on the ball of his foot in an attempt to settle himself. He interlaced and detangled his fingers while looking at the various hands gripping a nearby pole. The multitude of fingers was reminiscent of a swarm of worms; disturbing and curious. A woman with a brown hand and a gold band around her finger caught his eye. Noah thought about his wife, Polly.
That morning, Polly had risen early and fixed them a pot of coffee. They had sat at their kitchen table and drank the coffee together. Polly asked Noah if he was nervous about his dentist appointment. Before he answered, she told him not to be nervous. “It’s just the dentist, “ she told him lovingly. She asked if anything had gone wrong at one of his previous appointments and if that was why he was tense. Noah had said “no” from behind his coffee mug. He held his mug close to his face and let the steam warm his skin.
“You’ll be fine,” Polly said.
Polly coughed on some phlegm jammed in the back of her throat. Then the air stilled with their silence. The coffee maker rumbled, trying to process the few drops of water left in the reservoir.
“Mrs. Waker said you haven’t called her,” Noah said to Polly. Mrs. Waker was a nice sturdy woman who lived down the street. She managed a small vitamin distribution business. There was a group of girls who went to various neighborhoods in the county to sell vitamins door to door. It would be good for Polly, Noah thought, if she worked again. She could get fresh air and talk to people.
“I haven’t had time,” Polly responded. She stood up from the table and walked over to the spice cabinet where she kept her cigarettes.
“I mean, I gotta clean the house, wash these dishes, and make your food.” Polly stopped talking long enough so that she could hold a cigarette in her lips and light it. She held a hand in front of the flame, protecting it from the still air inside the house. She inhaled twice sharply and coughed up some smoke before taking the cigarette from between her lips. “I didn’t have time last week either,” she said.
“The house is clean now,” Noah said. “Why don’t you call Mrs. Waker sometime this week? Maybe?”
Polly sucked down her cigarette, still standing over by the spice cabinet. She’d left her coffee on the table. Noah watched her look down into the sink. Then she flicked the ash off the end of her cigarette into the drain. Noah appraised his wife. She wore her robe over flannel pajamas and a headscarf to protect her hair at night. He tried to remember the last time she’d taken off the scarf and properly done her hair.
“Maybe,” was all she finally said.
Noah watched the woman on the subway twisting her ring around her finger with her thumb. He could see that she was barely gripping the pole. She wasn’t looking at Noah, but at his side of the compartment where the puddle of urine lay. She tucked her free arm under her nose to block the unpleasant aroma and then held her eyes closed. Noah contemplated smelling his sleeve or hand, but worried the gesture would draw unwanted attention. He contemplated closing his eyes as well, but feared he might not open them up again.
Noah peered between the black and navy trousers and stocking coated calves of the working class, searching for the puddle of urine. The liquid rocked slightly in the shadowed area under the seat while the subway car rocked slightly on the rail. Noah scrunched up his nose. For some reason looking at the urine made the smell worse somehow. Instead he looked down at his watch. Still a ways to go.
Noah knew he had to find something else to focus on if he was going to survive this train ride. He tried to remember what fresh air smelled like. On the other end of the bench, a woman took the lid off of her cup of coffee. She carefully worked a sugar packet out of her pocket, watching the coffee rocking inside of the cup in rhythm with the rails. The scent mixed with that of the urine, and Noah couldn’t decide if that was better or worse than just the urine alone.
On the other side of the car, there was the flick of a lighter. A few heads turned, including Noah’s, in time to witness the lighting of a cigarette. That quadrant of the car pressed tighter together, it seemed, to escape the urine and fall into the cloud of smoke belonging to a well dressed stranger.
Polly always smelled like both coffee and cigarettes. She’d been smoking more since the baby, and the scent of tobacco and menthol now clung to all of her clothes and even her skin. Noah remembered a conversation he had with his older brother — back when they were in high school — about cigarettes. He told Noah that people smoked when they were stressed, people smoke in hospitals because they’re suffering through losing a loved one, people take smoke breaks during work because work is degrading, and people smoke after school because school kills you slowly. His brother had been trying scare Noah, but now Noah feared smoking for a different reason. Noah thought it was the loss of the baby that made Polly smoke. But months had passed, the distance grown, and the habit had only worsened. Polly wasn’t in school, hadn’t been for years. She wasn’t working either. Noah wondered if he stressed Polly. He worried any time he was present when she lit a new cigarette.
Noah tried to focus on the smokey syrupy scent of Polly’s Camel cigarettes as the subway hurled him towards his appointment. He imagined the smoke escaping her lips and he tried to inhale it secondhand. Instead all he was met with was urine with notes of coffee.
In the subway car, with the fluorescent tunnel lights bouncing through the windows, Noah’s attention was drawn back to the brown hand with the gold ring. The woman had stopped fidgeting, and all four of her fingers were wrapped around the pole, her thumb creeping around from the opposite side. She had slender fingers and Noah realized that the ring hung somewhat loosely.
Polly had gained weight during her pregnancy and had stopped wearing her wedding ring a few months ago. Noah wondered if she’d lost any weight from all the smoking. He tried to guess what Polly’s fingers might look like compared to the woman’s on the train. He tried to gauge if their rings were the same, size 7. Maybe it was worth a try. Maybe he would ask Polly to put the ring back on?
The silence of the subway car was broken when the man sitting next to Noah started fiddling with a gum wrapper. The paper crinkled between his fingertips. The air started, infused with sudden mint breathing. Noah silently thanked the larger being that he fabricated for times like this for the respite.
“You want one?”
Noah’s eyes came down from the ceiling, from the high place of his personal savior, and rested on the silver strip pressed under the thick thumb of his bench companion.
“Oh, no, sir. Thank you, though,” Noah said, politely, before his eyes had even focused on the small item.
The man shrugged, and Noah felt the motion of his upper arms rub against the thinner fabric of his work blazer. The gum disappeared and so did the minty breath. Regret drummed against the inside of his chest because he could’ve said yes. He could’ve smelled the cool mint of his own breath over the now pervasive scent of urine.
Noah checked his watch only to realize he’d probably be late to the dentist. He replaced his hand in his lap and recognized the wedding band on his own finger. He twisted it, focusing on on his reflection in its polished metal. There were scratches and dents in the gold from the time he’d dropped it in the parking garage at the office, back before he sold his car to help pay for the stroller and the crib.
That morning, Noah watched Polly rise from her seat at the kitchen table. The sound of her slippers scuffling against the kitchen tile caught his attention. Polly was wearing a pair of white slippers that she’d received as a wedding gift. They were a few years old and greyed by the dirt and dust around their house. While she stood at the counter, unaware of his scrutiny, Noah decided he would come home with a new pair of white slippers for his wife, lined with sheep’s wool, and uncorrupt from being lived in. He could splurge on this. Maybe a gift would remind Polly of what she did have. She had Noah. She had a husband and a ring.
Noah saw “12th & Washington” move across the subway monitor in red pixelated letters. His dentist appointment would’ve started three minutes ago. Maybe, in a better life, his son or daughter would have woken up just as he was leaving the house. His child would’ve cried and he would’ve gone to it, changed it, fed it, rocked it back to sleep — causing his delay. He could explain the event to the dentist; they would laugh and he’d show him the picture of his child he kept in his wallet. Admittedly, sometimes Noah tried to imagine what that picture might look like. However, he knew not to dwell on such matters.
Noah felt the subway slow, and the urgency of the appointment waned. He froze and realized, with an unfamiliar calmness, that he did not want to move. The appointment was for a routine cleaning anyways, nothing serious. Noah realized he had a couple hours before he’d agreed to come into work and the extra time was a rarity. Something told him to go home, to Polly.
When the subway stopped in the station, Noah surveyed the mass of bodies illuminated by the fluorescent lights. People boarded the car, people left. A few inventive profanities were exchanged over the urine. The brown hand with the gold band disappeared and Noah stayed on the subway.