The train is crowded today, everyone takes up twice as much room as usual in their floor-length trenches and barrel-busted down-filled parkas, plaid scarves glistening with bright beads that have already forgotten their crystalized earthward hurtle. The heater at my feet blasts one boot into dry submission, and the car is filled with the wet-wool perfume of a January kindergarten classroom. Each of us clutches a briefcase or backpack or voluminous purse, all except my seatmate who is weeping openly into her bare hand. I’ve already tried to hand her a tissue from the plastic pack in my purse, then a mint. I even touched her wrist with one of my cocooned fingers. “Are you sick?” I asked. “Do you speak English? Can I call someone for you?”
She is ordinary, to the eye. Thin-faced, her trembling chin hooks slightly, like a crescent moon. Long black hair caught in a tortoise-shell clip. Hatless, scarfless, her white hands red at the knuckles, she wears a coat that seems warm and new, a purple, quilted sheath. Her black boots, though, seem more decorative than functional, as if she did not plan to tramp through the snow today. As if this trip is a whim, a mistake. They rise to mid-calf where her skinny jeans are tucked in. Late twenties. Around my age.
“What’s your stop?” I ask her. “What’s your name?” And then, thinking I’ve missed the obvious, cheeks flushing at the way my own assumptions have failed me yet again, “Are you deaf?” This I ask with the corresponding sign, shaking her slightly with one shoulder so her dark eyes, swimming in wet, flick to me once, quickly. Her drowned irises hold twin reflections of my puffy, Isotoned-finger tapping my cheek then dragging toward my mouth the way my cousin taught me. She had a deaf kid in her sixth grade class and that year learned dozens and dozens of signs. The woman’s eyes flick quickly away, uncomprehending, back into her private storm.
Now and again one of the passengers sitting in front of us will turn around and look, their gazes skittering over the woman caught in the vise of her grief, pinned by it, and then landing on me, as if I have wronged her. Perhaps I have with the whine of my iPod between us, the wet hem of my pea coat encroaching on her half of the bench, my meddlesome intrusions into whatever hell has claimed her. The other passengers shift and flutter in their seats, imploring me to fix her, shut her up, restore some peace to their inky pre-dawn commute.
After the time it takes for the sky to soften to an even gray, for buildings to emerge from shadows like buried, broken treasure, the wracking sobs that shook our seat taper to small hitches and gasps. We are twenty minutes from the city where it seems we are both headed. “Excuse me,” I say, fiddling one earbud into my palm. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I’d like to.”
She turns her ruined face to me. “You can give me your jewelry,” she says, pointing at the small diamond in my ear. “And the cash in your wallet.”
I open my mouth to speak, but no words come. The woman stares back at me frankly, her face red and puffed around the eyes, but otherwise unmarked. Hair shiny. Clothes neat. She smells of something citrusy, expensive. A gold band rings the fourth finger of her left hand. “Is—are you threatening me?” I ask. “I was just trying to help.”
Incredibly, her lips curl in a weak smile and she sinks back against the vinyl seat. “Sure,” she says. “You want to help. My lucky day, sitting next to a hero like you.”
She turns toward the aisle now, and I pop my earbud back in, casting sideways looks her way as if at any second she will draw from her boot a hunting knife, a snub-nosed revolver, a can of travel-sized pepper spray small as an infant’s thumb. I’m glad for the gloves that hide my engagement ring. If the train wasn’t packed to its airless gills I would climb over her and sway away up the aisle to a different seat.
When the train finally jolts to a halt at South Station, I stand quickly, muscling past her into the mass of commuters and don’t let myself breathe deeply until my heels hit the puddled platform. I wouldn’t have seen the woman again if I hadn’t stopped in the bathroom behind the Dunkin’ Donuts to sit for a moment on the cold toilet seat, willing my hands back to steady, massaging color back under the nails. When I feel able, I gather my leather rucksack, too big, almost, to call a purse. Seventy-three crisp dollars, ordered by denomination, lie in the dark of my wallet. In jewelry I wear probably $3000 more.
Back in the cavernous waiting area, I spot her walking stiffly with a man, his hand heavy on her shoulder. Her back is very straight. Partners in crime, I think, walking quickly to pass them and escape, until I see her shoulder is lifted where his fingers burrow, tips invisible, as he seeks purchase in the skin and bone under her coat. To brace his grip on her collarbone, a thumb presses into her knobby spine. It’s the clamp of a cop on a criminal. Her feet shuffle as he steers her toward signs for the Kneeland Street Parking Garage. It’s then I reach for her wrist, heart rattling the cage of my chest. “Hey,” I say brightly, “I almost forgot to lend you that book.”
They turn. His jaw, heavily fuzzed with brown beard, flexes as he blinks in the beam of my forced smile, his gaze groping the length of me. “An old friend,” she says quickly, apologetically, curling more dramatically at the shoulder where his grip must have tightened. “I forgot she worked in the city.”
I stand before them, digging in my giant purse where I’d tossed a pristine copy of The Secret, dozens of which my boss had distributed to everyone at the firm last month. Think positive, he’s gone around chanting these past few weeks: Ask. Believe. Receive. Rifling with my hands out of sight, I slip all the bills from my wallet behind the book’s stiff jacket before drawing it out.
“I think you’ll enjoy it,” I say. Hovering between us with the book balanced on my fingertips, my hand’s new tremor is pronounced.
She holds up her own hand like a crossing guard. “Thanks, but I couldn’t,” she says. “You have to be an optimist for that stuff to work.” She produces something more smirk than smile, and shrugs as if to say, “too late.” Then he is propelling her into the crowd and she is walking alongside, boots ringing out against the slick tiles. Before the sea of bobbing faces blocks them out, I watch her arm rise slowly behind his back and wrap around his waist.
“No problem,” I say after they’ve moved out of sight.
Bracing to walk the three frigid blocks to work, I set the book and its burden on the first empty bench I pass. That stupid refrain, what the Germans call an earworm, loops between my ears until it blends into a nonsense invocation: ask, believe, receive, askby, leavry, sieve, vast-bee, leaf-recede. Release, relive, relieve. Another word for help.
About the Writer
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Word Riot, and Monkeybicycle, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.