By Joe Neary
The morning begins with a now familiar knot-like ache in Alex’s upper back, immediately following his seeming to gasp himself awake, as if bursting up through the water’s surface, after holding in his breath for a childhood dare. Long, protruded breaths now, lying in an awkward position on his side, feeling his stomach press against his tight T-shirt, caught between his recently growing gut and his bed, a shirt corner stuck under his back. He feels old and sore, and suddenly understands how his 30ish-year-old assistant high school basketball coaches came to be the way they were—the squareness in the torso, love handles protruding at waist, and shoulders draped in flab. The awkwardly chunky calves, seeming to juggle in every direction as they made their way down the practice side courts, breathing heavy, sweat soaking their oversize cut-off shirts. He rolls out of bed, back still aching, shirt and boxers damp with sweat, and makes his way across the creaky wood floor in his apartment, and over to the bathroom.
Outside now, and walking along his lake-shored street, grungy remains under his feet: beer cans, receipts, cigarettes, fast food bags, and the occasional stray clump of vomit that he steps around—remnants of a Thursday night in Chicago. The buildings around him are mostly brick apartments, aging, yet recently renovated, a few Victorian homes sprinkled in, here and there, the lake a dark, cloudy blue to his left. He hears the grinding screech of the subway in the distance, like a knife sharpening, metal on metal, sparks of sound and heat showering outward, elements and industry meeting head on, releasing a propulsive energy.
On the train now, he feels this energy with each chug, feels it rocking the cabin from side to side, his right hand grasping the rail bar above, arm looming over the top of two strangers bunched in front of him, like the branch of a creepy, bare oak tree hanging over two miserable picnickers, who are somehow chilly, yet overheated; claustrophobic, yet lonely; somehow engaged and interested in this wonky podcast episode, yet also appalled and disturbed—Wallace? Again? Isn’t this like the third interview you’ve had with him in like the past six weeks, and isn’t he polling in like seventh right now? Also, the guy is blatantly against Medicare for all, refuses to turn down PAC money, yet, somehow, you’re still hosting him again, and doing so in your typical, evasive, faux-woke tone. Maybe he’s projecting a bit now. The early-thirties-looking, suit-clad dude in front of him seems like a probable friend of the pod, and now that he turns his eyes downward, he notices a rolled-up copy of The Economist tucked in, and sticking out of, his glossy, fancy-lad satchel. Yeah … definitely projecting. The girl in front of him is wearing yoga pants and is diligently carrying a rolled-up yoga mat under her armpit, while she grasps the hanging plastic handle connected to the railing above. Her other hand is holding out her phone in front of her, some sort of Snapchat filter (it looks like the cat one from here) on her screen. Maybe not the world’s two most likely candidates for lefties.
The train whizzes along, the passengers continuing to flail, careening from side to side, as they hold on to the handles and railing above them. It’s a Friday, and he and Tim are supposed to have some plans tonight, maybe dinner and drinks in Wicker Park. This excites him, and he feels an urge to rush through the day. He looks up at the stop alert flashing across the screen overhanging the cabin. Three more stops to go.
Suddenly, he’s unable to hear the pod, a deep, soulful singing voice muffling their nasally quips, and he’s unable to smell the damp, trapped heat, mingled with hints of BO of before (the standard Chicago subway smell), and, instead, feels his nose, mouth, and every other orifice, clogged and battered and drenched in the putrid, decaying smell of death itself. He nearly throws up and loses his balance, at the same time, one hand now held over his mouth, and his other hand hanging by three fingers on the railing. For a minute he thinks he isn’t going to be able to hang on. Slanted halfway down now, one arm nearly touching the putrid floor beneath him, his eyes fixed on his outstretched hand, and those strained three fingers hanging on for dear life, Mufasa style. He feels forceful hands behind him, and, suddenly, he’s recovered his balance, and avoided the fall.
One hand still over his face, he awkwardly removes both of his earbuds with the other, turning to view the source of the now echoing onslaught of song filling the cabin. He sees a tattered old man with stringy white, waist-length hair, his senses locating stench and sound as coming from the same source, some primitive signals clicking within his mind/body continuum, genes and memes developed and passed on through the ages, through space and time, converging in on this instant, on his own awareness of this filthy old man, on his stench so strong that one can taste it, on his bellowing voice, hundreds of eyes now fixed on him, of… Destiny’s Child lyrics? The man rocks from side to side in smooth strokes, bare feet rhythmically caressing the dirty floor beneath him in salsa-like, arched-foot movements, snapping his fingers and continuing to belt out lyrics in a voice soulful enough to attain Beyonce’s approval. Alex looks around, and most of the other people in the cabin have their faces covered as well, a few brave (or maybe it’s just nostrily-challenged) folks simply smile and watch, some now joining in for backup vocals. He hears a high-pitched croon come from right in front of him, yoga mat girl now belting out lyrics as well, gyrating her hips in the process, and gaining several woots and onlookers.
The man finishes the song in its entirety, the cabin erupting in cheers, most of the passengers now acclimated to the stench–a process akin to driving through rural Ohio on a trip to Cedar Point: eventually, the manure-stench-buttressing windows roll back down, and the wind batters your face, the endless corn fields forming a horizon of optimism for the day you finally take on and survive Millennium Force. The train stops, and the old, barefoot man regally bows, then turns, walking off the train. Alex eyes the cabin’s location screen—one more stop to go—and places his earbuds back in.
Joe Neary is a graduate student and writing instructor at Bowling Green State University, and a contributing editor at Flyover Country.