Short Fiction by Danielle Bainbridge
November 8th, 2008
Waiting at the Harlem 125th St. Station
Things to throw in the fire:
1) Dresses that don’t fit. Not limited to dresses. Includes: shirts, pants, and underwear.
2) The evidence of a life well lived but idly spent. This includes but is not limited to: movie ticket stubs,
packs of old candy, junk mail flyers, and bad poems.
3) The well-meaning gifts I always have half a mind but not the heart to throw away. This includes
thank you cards with heartfelt sentiments.
4) Old t-shirts from bands I no longer listen to (no explanation necessary).
5) Old notebooks with more scribbles than sense. This includes anything that overuses the word
6) Odd numbered things that make me uneasy.
As she writes these things down she swears it will be her last list. She has filled reams and reams of useless paper with lists. She won’t do it again. She can’t sustain the habit. She writes on:
I have too much stuff.
I sit in the corner of my tiny apartment with the hot hot heat where anywhere you stand you can always see my bed out of the edges of your eyes. I am surrounded by stuff. I contemplate what kind of burn it would produce. Would it be sharp and acrid, like plastic, or deep and familiar, like wood? I imagine it would be a combination of the two considering the mix of materials. Perhaps it would also burn like freedom tinder if I lit it, slowly pluming smoke rising up to tickle the backs of my throat and eyelids and nostrils. I check the fire extinguisher my landlord has strapped to the side of the kitchen counter and look upwards at the smoke detectors (I cover them with plastic bags when I am frying/burning bacon). Their steady blinking green lights indicate that they are still functioning. There is a pleasant feeling unfurling in my stomach as I contemplate the imaginary inferno. I would have to let go of the things I’ve carried. The playbills and t-shirts from high school. The boxes full of paper that document my childhood. Unflattering photographs. Mismatched socks. They would all be gone much more quickly than they gathered as I sit here fantasizing fire.
In a way I would be barren and free. I do not romanticize these contemplated loses, but rather I wonder what it would be like for the first time in my life not to have quite so many things. Perhaps the solution would be to fill up bags and bags of things and dispose of them. Or donate them. But that takes much more time and effort than collecting them did. I am lazy. And so I let them stay, let them envelop me, until in a fit of pique one day I will clean for hours and hours. Collect until the bursting point and then discard discard discard.
This is a good time to contemplate my shit. Why do I have it and why do I hold on? What is my end game? I don’t think I’ve ever had one. It just seemed important to me that I should have my own things. Once I had my first apartment this urgency quickly developed into a tendency to over-sentimentalize the mundane objects of my life.
“Oh I can’t throw this out. It’s a receipt from a dinner I had with a boy whose name I can’t remember now. But the dinner was good.”
“Why would I get rid of this? This is a bad poem I wrote when I was 14. I’ll want to look back at these one day and cringe.”
“Who would ever throw away a personalized napkin from their parents’ wedding? These sort of precious keepsakes will be shown to my grandchildren.”
(NB: I have no children but I am already saving with an eye to a second generation of progeny.)
She likes to write the abbreviation “NB” (nota bene) in her notebook because it reminds her of high school Latin classes, which makes her feel somewhat more in control. She speculates on imaginary children, gently rubs her empty belly (why hasn’t she eaten lunch yet? Maybe her mother will make something when she gets home?), and concludes:
I stole a street sign. I was 18 and it was the late on a rainy night. I arrived home with a friend in her car and I noticed that the street sign at the intersection of my childhood home had fallen down. I raced over to it, my body cutting through the rain, and attempted to remove the sign with the name of my street on it only to find out that it was welded to the pole. Nervous I would wake my neighbors, I raised my foot up high in the air and brought it crashing down on the pole. It made a loud clang as to metal ricocheted against the pavement and the top sign for the intersecting street came loose. Realizing that my quest for the other one was all but lost, I decided to grab what I could get and brought home the stolen loose sign.
This petty theft thrilled me, filling my body with an unseen energy. I had stolen public property and that was, in my 18 year old mind, the most dangerous act of disobedience in a life otherwise dictated by schoolwork and mild mannered behavior. I still have the sign. It is prominently displayed atop my bookcase in my apartment with my too many things. I do not even know where I would begin to dispose of it.
Can you put something like that in the trash?
Perhaps I am a habitual collector because I fear forgetting. Once I glanced down at my wrist and noticed a faint circular bruise on the back of my hand. It lined up perfectly with the nob on my watch. It came from checking the time so often, a practice born out of my anxiety that I would forget an important appointment or lose track of myself. I want to remember like I want to inhale, the compulsion uncontrollable if I wish to survive. And although this last statement smacks of the hyperbolic, I cannot help but feel that it is true. Maybe it stems from a desire not only to remember, but also not to be forgotten.
As she closes her notebook and rises from her seat on the bench she takes notice of the frail woman further down the train platform.
The woman is full of bones and bare of substance, the flesh on her body pulled taught like the skin of a kite over an unstably large frame. In terms of height she is quite short. Her agitation is evident from the cigarette she continues to quickly flick up between pursed lips and down beside her nervously ticking leg. Her slight swaying motion and tight tight skin and sharp jutting bones indeed made her look like a sky high kite that had long since abandoned its master, but is longer still from reaching a tree branch high home and all of its attendant precarity.
She watches the woman, their gazes meeting in an uncomfortably steady stream of eye contact. She feigns absorption with her new smart phone to hide her growing discomfort at this strange woman’s attentions. In a sudden lurch, the frail woman sets her short statured body into motion, stalking towards her with a singular and unswaying purpose. She tenses, quickly pushing her new phone back into the safety of her purse, keeping her fingers wrapped around it in a reflexive gesture of self-protection.
She has always lived in a city.
The woman comes to an abrupt stop at her right side, turning pupils as wide as dinner plates on her nervously clenched hand shoved deep down in her purse. Her own hand never slows its methodical journey between her chapped lips and the air by her pulsing leg, where she quickly flicks away the ash. Now that the woman is closer she can detect a faint tremor in the fingers of her left hand, the one without the cigarette. They compulsively rub themselves together as if for warmth, even though it is daytime and autumn and unseasonably warm.
A swift, sharp inhale on the ash end of the cigarette, “We went to high school together.” She sighs out an exhaled puff.
The woman offers no further explanation than this rather baldly intoned statement. She simply stares, waiting for a response. Still clutching her phone in her hand she is at a loss. She doesn’t recognize this chain smoking, small bodied, wide-eyed woman. From her continuous movement and dilated pupils she assumes that this woman is high as the too large kite that mirrors the tight stretch of her skin.
She has seen high people before. She has been high before. She thinks she knows the signs, although she is uncertain what kind of drug would cause the type of constant twitching movement in this woman’s extremities. She continues to stare at the woman. With a private high school class of less than 100 people it seems impossible that she wouldn’t know her. It seems even more impossible that in the 5 years since they’ve graduated that she would find a member of her class here, on the train platform in Harlem, high if not entirely strung out.
The woman’s white skin makes her even more of a stand out on the train platform and even still more anonymous in her eyes. Because of her class’s small size and predominantly white student population she knew every black girl in her class by face and name, if not also as a friend. She looks down to contemplate her own black hand, with fingers flexing and unfurling around the safety of her cellphone, ready to call for help if she needs it.
And now the woman is waiting for an answer, her gaunt and jittery face trained unwaveringly on her clenching hand and nervous gestures. The intensity and insistence of the woman’s stance and stare unnerves her and she smiles as if in agreement, ready to tell the woman that she doesn’t have any money followed by a self-consciously whispered, “Sorry.” Why do we always say sorry when someone asks us for money in public? We are not sorry.
She finally lets go of her phone and realizes that the woman is not there to ask her for money or to steal her purse. The woman genuinely believes that she should know her. They both stare for a minute before she nods her head at the woman. Can a nod be judgmental? If so, then hers was.
The light glints off of a big silver ring on the woman’s finger as the cigarette travels back towards her mouth. She recognizes it as their class ring and knows she must be telling the truth. This woman is her classmate from not too long ago. But who is she? What is her name?
It angers her that she cannot identify the woman. It’s only been 5 years and most of that time she has spent living in the same city. She went to college here, graduated here, got her first job here. She stayed. She never left. From the looks of this woman’s stained clothes and the sidewalk dirt under her fingernails it seems she never shook the city either.
They talk tentatively:
“Oh wow!….How are you?”
“Good. Obviously I’ve been better.” The woman opens her mouth to reveal a missing incisor, making with a humorless sound akin laughter.
“Good. Good….I’ve got to…catch the train…”
“It doesn’t come for 15 minutes.”
“What…are you…are you heading home?”
“Yeah, I’m going to my parents’ house. You know. Money.” She says this last word bitterly as if it tastes acrid in her mouth and she has to spit it out.
“Do you….do you still see anyone from high school?”
“Nah. Only the ones that need me to buy them coke.” Another humorless laugh sound.
“Well…you know how it goes…”
What the fuck does that even mean? “You know how it goes?” How what goes? How a rich girl growing up in the suburbs of the city goes from being an affluent face in the hallways to smiling through the gap of a missing incisor on the train line in Harlem wearing dirty sweats? How she stands, desperate to be remembered, while her classmate can’t even recall her fucking name? “You know how it goes?” Is this how it goes? Two women, each eagerly glancing down the empty line willing the tracks to fill with the stirring air of a passing train car, desperate for separation? Each going to visit families in the suburbs, both of them not asking but also asking with their silence for money to pay the rent on city apartments they can barely afford?
“You know how it goes.” And now she’s said it again. Emptied it into the air without thinking, anxious to get this woman to move on. It’s supposed to go like this: They are supposed to meet, five years after graduation, and recognize each other all at once. Exchange pleasantries. Talk about their jobs. Move on to a polite distance down the platform. Play with their phones. That is how this goes.
This is not how it goes. They know that.
They fall into an uncomfortable silence. In the space of their uneasiness a high stepping black man comes marching down the platform heading straight towards them. He stops to gesture and shout at wary passengers waiting on the platform, but it is obvious from the intensity of his steps that they are his final destination. Dressed in an overlarge pinstripe suit he has come to give them the good news. He has the same dinner plate wide pupils as her gap-toothed companion and an air of agitation hangs loosely around his sloping neck, mirroring the sagging shoulder pads of his ill-fitting suit.
“40 YEARS IN THE DESERT! FOR-TY YEARS!”
They both turn their attention to him. The woman is smiling out of the side of her mouth, her missing incisor presenting a blackened hole to the world. She flicks her cigarette butt to the ground and raises her hands above her head like a worshipper in a Pentecostal black church, her gesture an almost perfect mimic. She watches the woman nervously, unsure if she’s merely mimicking or actively making fun. She stares at the black skin of her feet now, trying to avoid eye contact with both the woman and the approaching man.
“THE IS-RE-A-LITES SPENT FOR-TY YEARSSS IN THE DESERT FOLLOWING THE COM-MAND-MEN-TS OF GO-D (praise Him)! AND IT’S BEEN FOR-TY YEARS SINCE DR. KING WAS SHO-T! THIS YEAR WE ELECTED OUR FIR-ST BLA-CK PRE-SI-DEN-T! LIKE THE IS-RE-A-LITES WE SPENT FOR-TY YEARSSSS IN THE DESERT! (praise Jesus) FOR-TY YEARSSSS OF DRAUGH-T! FOR-TY YEARSSSS OF STAR-VA-TION! AND NOW WE ARE ON OUR WAY TO SAL-VA- TION!! (praise His holy name).”
“Hallelujah!” The woman shouts loudly so that those who haven’t already given their attention to the screaming man on the platform are now forced to turn around.
She grasps her phone again and feels the blood rush to the apples of her cheeks and across her forehead, shiny with sweat. She is eager to be away from both the preaching man and the strung out woman. She does not want any of this unwelcome notice.
“SI-STER!” The man has now turned his attention exclusively on her. “DO YOU KNOW JE-SUS? DO YOU HAVE A RE-LA-TION-SHIP WITH OUR LO-RD AND SA-VI- OR?”
There is a sort of syncopated logic to the way the man speaks, punctuating the syllables of certain words more than others. The gap-toothed woman is smiling wider now, raising her hands like she’s ready to receive the word, shaking her greasy brown haired head back and forth in feigned fits of religiosity. She looks down again at her sandaled feet, studying the way the leather from her shoes winds its way around her dark toes.
How has she ended up in hell?
She hasn’t been to church in years, but decides the lesser of two evils is to nod her head in agreement until the man decides to walk away. Could a nod be desperate? If so then hers was. Hopefully he would take her nod as proof of piety, go away and take her as yet unidentified high school classmate with him.
She looks between the two characters on the platform, one with her missing incisor and the other with an ill-fitting faded pinstripe suit. Satisfied or pacified by her nodding head the man turns his attentions to her classmate now. Working each other into a fever, their words ping back and forth with an uncanny precision.
“MY SI-STER, DO YOU KNOW THE LO-VE OF THE AL-MIGH-TY LORD AND SA-VI-OR JE-SUS CH-RI-ST??”
“ARE YOU SA-VE-D?!”
They are both grinning broadly now as the man stops his preaching and the woman lowers her waving arms. He says that he would like to pay her a dollar for a loose cigarette. The woman smiles her missing tooth smile and offers him two for free. It is then that she sees the woman’s other incisor and immediately recognizes it’s long and distinctive shape, like the front teeth of a dog.
She knows this woman.
Although she cannot remember her first name (something common like Melissa or Susan or Claire) she remembers that long tooth. In high school she was a quiet girl, quieter than most, with a shy and hesitant smile. Maybe the woman is a year or two younger than her? Or a year or two older? She’s not sure. Her hair was always a little too long for her face, the bangs hanging perilously close to her drooping eyelids, threatening to blind her. She spoke to almost no one, if she ever spoke at all.
This is what she remembers of the girl who became this woman. Her long dog’s teeth, her drooping eyes, and her quiet. Funny that the absence of the tooth on one side would distract her so much that she forgot her name.
She hears a sound in the distance, like ice cracking in the tray, and she looks again down the platform to see the train coming, stirring the air around their three disparate bodies as it passes them then slowly comes to a stop. She is relieved.
Awkwardly, “That’s my train.” Neither one of them notices her. They’re too busy in a punctuated frenzy, playing some sort of strange linguistic mirroring game while smoking newly lit cigarettes.
“PRAISE HIS NA-ME!”
“Praise His na-me!”
She stands in the aisle of the retreating train car, watching out of the dirt tinged window as they slowly draw farther and farther into the distance, an unnamed black man in a too large pinstripe suit and an equally unnamed gap toothed white woman from her school days, praising and summoning the Lord.
She blinks at the strange sunlight reflecting off of the gray cloudy sky, rubbing the space between her fingers like she’d seen the woman do, as if for warmth or to roll around a lit cigarette. It starts to gently rain on the train platform, pelting the shoulders of the man and the woman who lift their hands up to the air as if waiting for the goodness of God to sweep them up into the grayness of the sky. She realizes now that the sound she heard wasn’t the train or the sound of ice cubes cracking in the tray.
It was the persistent showering of late autumn rain yielding softly into thunder.
November 8th, 2008
On the train from Harlem 125th, heading home
Things to throw in the fire:
1) All odd numbered things that make me uneasy.
2) My high school yearbook.
3) My hidden stash of secret cigarettes (underneath the old underwear in my drawer).
4) Things without inherent value, e.g. bad poetry, socks that I’ve lost the match to, old journals.