SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
January 24, 2010

Night Train to Hateville

 

The snow that had fallen earlier that morning had since melted into well-trampled gray slush before refreezing, leaving the sidewalk a treacherous sheet of rumpled ice. It was a Thursday night, and much to my astonishment, I was able to tap and slip my way down the hill to the subway without falling once. It was my second trip into Manhattan that day, and I was tired. All the tensed muscles of the trip back to the station hadn’t helped.

            That’s why it was such a relief when the train that pulled in was nearly empty. Empty trains on a Thursday night are one of those rare and blessed surprises you run into here only every once in a distant while. The only other people in my car were a couple sitting at the other end, speaking to each other in civilized voices. So long as the mariachi and doo wop buskers kept their distance, all would be well. I took a seat and began to relax as the train rumbled and squealed on into the cold tunnel.

            It seems nature abhors an empty and quiet train car as much as it abhors a vacuum, so two stops later, as if by God’s Law, the doors opened and a group of five youngsters—I would guess from the sound of them about twenty-one or twenty-two years old—giggled their way aboard. Also by God’s vicious and spiteful law, although the rest of the car was almost completely empty, this group pf five found it absolutely necessary to sit next to me—two to my right, three directly across the aisle so they could shout at each other. My jaw muscles tightened and I stared at the floor.

            There were three girls and two boys, but it took me a bit to figure this much out. While I could distinguish between the sexes within the group, all the males and all the females sounded exactly the same. When did that start happening? It’s been that way for several years now, but I can’t pinpoint exactly what caused it—some extraterrestrial virus of some kind maybe, that mutated all the vocal chords of people of a certain age and a certain sex into an exact duplicate of all the others in that same group. Problem is, it never changes after that. The victims of this alien virus go on to reach adulthood still talking the same damn way. All the women—every last one of them, I swear—speak with this fake creak in their voices, and end all of their sentences with question marks. And all the men? Well, they don’t sound like anything. There’s no quality there at all, no character. It’s like listening to the verbal equivalent of tap water. And they all speak much louder than necessary, in spite of that fake and hateful relaxed creak.

            “My grandmother still lives there?” the woman who took a seat next to me was saying, “So we all went over there for the holidays?”

            “Really,” the kid who was with her asked, “so you speak fluent French, then?”

            “No? I mean, like, when I was growing up I spent all my summers there? But I never, like, really learned the language?”

            “Wow. Do you—” the young man began.

            “People hear that I spent all my summers in France?” the girl went on. “And so the they think that I must have had a lot of money? But not really? I mean, it was just what we did?”

            It was clear they were on a first date, and he was trying to play Mr. Interested by asking a lot of insipid questions. The operative word there being “trying.” He wasn’t really able to ask that many questions given that the girl seemed physically incapable of shutting the fuck up.

            “Is the subway really complicated?” the girl asked, but before anyone could answer she rolled on. “I was in Boston once? I mean, I love Boston? But I was there once? And I got on a train going the wrong way? And I was trying to get to the airport? So I was late? And I got lost, so I started crying in front of all these people? And . . . ?”

            Poor sap, I thought. All he wants is to get himself some, and he probably will. But she’s gonna suck his soul dry long before she touches anything else.

            Across the way, another couple with this group was struggling in vain to read the subway map posted next to the door, trying to determine whether or not they’d stepped aboard the right train.

            No, you haven’t, I thought.

            “I mean? Wherever I go I’ll need to find a roommate? Because I really can’t live alone? When I live alone I get really depressed sometimes? I always need to be around people? I just need someone there to, you know? Talk to about what my day was like and stuff? Otherwise I get really depressed?”

            “Yeah, when I was living in Pittsburgh—” her desperate would-be suitor began.

            “I was in Pittsburgh once? And I called it ‘Shitsburgh’?”

            ”I was—”

            “Didn’t I, Brittany?” she called to the woman across the aisle, still puzzling over the map.

            “What?”

            “Call Pittsburgh ‘Shitsburgh’?”

            “Yeah? That was really funny?”

            “I really love Boston, though? I want to go to school there? To Harvard?”

            “What do you want to study?” the boy asked, obviously seeing the futility of trying to tell his own story.

            “I want to go to Harvard medical school? To be a doctor?”

            Oh, god.

            “The money’s really good? And I think I really want to be a pediatrician? My friend Amber? She’s a nanny? And she really loves working with kids? And that was a real inspiration to me?”

            “Medical school, really?” the boy said, still trying, still keeping his eye on that prize. “That’s really tough—so are you as smart as everyone says you are?”

            I wanted to raise my hand at that point and say, ”I can answer that one.”

            “I don’t really know if I’m that smart?” she said. “But it’s just I study super hard? And that’s all it is?”

            “But you’ve got to be smart to study hard?” Brittany shouted from across the aisle, as her boyfriend sweated over those squiggly colored lines on the map.

“What did you study in school, Montrose?”

            “I studied pre-med,” her date (whose name, for the record, was clearly not Montrose) offered, more quietly this time. She ignored him.

            “Poli sci,” Montrose shouted back.

“Political science, wow?” she said. “Like, what did you do? Did you have to write papers and stuff? Or did they, like ask you more for facts?”

            “I guess we had to do essay questions and stuff. More of those.”

            “Did you use blue books? Do you know what those are? I hate blue books? Because it means you have to write? I took a Shakespeare class once? And for the test we had to write in these blue books? And I really hated it? I wrote in two of them? . . . So how much further do we have to go?”

            “A ways, I think,” Montrose said.

            “I hope I go to Harvard? Because I really love it in Boston? All the restaurants and stores and stuff?”

            It didn’t matter if anyone was listening, it didn’t matter if she’d been asked a question, it didn’t matter if she had anything to say. She simply talked, and didn’t seem capable of stopping. People like that—and you’ve encountered them—have always astonished me. What is it in their brains that makes it possible? And where do they get that energy? I find even normal speech wearying.

            Finally the train pulled into my stop. I nearly wept. From where I sat, the entire station seemed bathed in the golden light of Satan’s merciful salvation. In a few seconds I would breathe free again, at last liberated from all those pointless words. I unfolded my cane (which they probably took to be some leftover New Year’s doodad) and stood by the doors.

            The woman was, of course, still talking.

            But as the train squealed to a stop and the doors rattled open, I turned back to the group. “Wherever it is you’re going tonight?” I said with a big smile, “I hope you die there.”

 

Postscript

On Tuesday, January 12, Haiti was devastated by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. Homes, schools and hospitals crumbled. The death toll quickly climbed from the hundreds to the thousands to the tens of thousands. Immediately, international forces began shipping medicine, supplies, and manpower to the region to assist in the rescue and recovery effort.

            Along with millions of others, I followed the developments closely. Through it all, though, I couldn’t shake one thought: For all the talk about pulling bodies from the rubble and attempting to halt the spread of disease, nobody—and I mean nobody—at any of the major news outlets has mentioned word one about the real problem facing Haiti—the inevitability that’s gonna make that earthquake seem like a picnic on the beach.

            Their zombie population is gonna fucking explode!

 

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