Robin Tuck - Fiction

The Underground

by Robin Tuck

The hardest part of anything is getting there, Sidney decides huddled on the subway platform against the wind. His commute to a comfortable, if underwhelming software development job, is forty-five minutes each way, 12 subway stops he knows by heart.

Everyday he sinks into the earth, down two storeys of escalators across a hallway with blinking fluorescent lights and down another flight of stairs to the westbound platform for line 8. Two other subway lines crisscross his own, arching over the escalators thick with rushing commuters, a maze of concrete and steel, bundles of cabling twisting out into the darkness like tree roots. The swaying stacks of overly bright lights always remind him of dystopian novels with all of humanity in bunkers underground.

He passes a family sitting in the corridor, four sets of legs tucked under a dirty blanket. No one looks at them. Just like no one looks at the bright graffiti covered advertisements for perfume and off-Broadway shows. He’s gotten good at ignoring them too and the churning guilt in his gut. One day they’ll be gone and he’ll be relieved.

On the platform the sounds of multiple conversations mix with the rumble of passing trains and the suction cup pressure of forced air. Beneath it all is the soft chorus of Hallelujah sung by a young man busking for dollars. The singing ebbs and flows with the passing trains, the screech of the doors sliding open and people in a stumbling hurry to make it to one of the open seats. It’s the singing, not the electric grind of the rails, that gets to him. The way the voice melts around him like a warm hum only loud enough to make out the melody and a snatch of lyrics. He finds himself singing along under his breath. Something about the song pulls him into all his senses, like he has snapped awake into the weight of his own body. He closes his eyes and misses his train. Swept away by the sweetness under the dirt, the smell of piss, trash and hot mechanical air.

The singing continues even when he thinks the song must be over. How many verses did Leonard Cohen write? He steps closer to the yellow line at the edge of the platform, looks down at the three rails and the plastic litter strewn over the gravel between them - waits for the animal panic that flies into him when the headlight of the next train barrels out of the tunnel.

This one he manages to board, clutching his brown messenger bag close, dodging stranger’s eyes and spots of old gum. He finds a free inch of warm, slippery handrail and grabs it just as the train lurches forward into movement.

No one is going to notice if he’s late. Most of the other developers don’t come in for another hour and the culture at Hern Technologies has never been social. Just last week his boss, Rick - a distractible man in his mid fifties who always wears khakis and a rotation of bright polo shirts- couldn't remember how long Sidney had worked in server maintenance. It didn’t seem worth it at the time to remind him it was two years.

Sidney tries not to think about all the other minor slights he’s endured, each one a small cold sting, piling up like snow drifts. Instead, he cranes his neck to gaze down the cars- the long segmented worm of the train undulating through the ground, accelerating with clangs and unnerving vibration. The string of cars is so identical that Sidney imagines he is looking into a hall of mirrors, his own image multiplying out endlessly. He squints into the illusion, feeling dizzy and hot from the press of bodies around him. The start of nausea pushes at the back of his throat. He unzips his coat, pulls the collar open and tries not to think of the omelette and toast sitting in his stomach. This assault of elbows and stray shoulders is the most he’s been touched in months.

As the trains slows into the next platform, something rolls out from under the seats towards him. It bounces once into his shoe, than thumps into the front wall of the car. Sidney reaches down and picks it up. It takes him a moment to place the off white object, turning it’s sticky, pocketed surface in his hand. It’s a cue ball from a pool table. He glances up at the other passengers, searching faces to find the owner. The train’s yellow bulbs give each face a waxy, shadowed cast. No one has the tell tale look of a person searching for anything, just the normal glazed eyes of daily travelers, looking at their phones, books or nothing at all.

Without thinking Sidney opens his bag and stuffs the cue ball inside. He spends the rest of the four stops to his office pressing the now sticky fingers of his free hand in order, one two three four, against his thumb. When he gets off the train and is sucked into the rush of people headed toward the surface, the ball smacks him in the leg as he walks, the heaviest item in his messenger bag throwing it off balance. Each thump is an odd, steadying comfort.

On the ride home he gets a later train than normal- he worked an extra half hour to make up for his morning tardiness, even though, as predicted, no one noticed- and manages to snag a seat. He takes the cue ball out of his bag and passes it from hand to hand, feeling the weight of it, wondering where it came from, the mystery a pleasant distraction. Somewhere at the back of the train the tinkling notes of an instrument Sidney can’t quite place. He looks up to find the source, but its hidden behind coat clad backs.

A strange notion strikes him. Sidney reaches down under the seat and rolls the cue ball towards the front of the train. He watches it pass unnoticed between feet and around purses. It reaches the layered car divide where the flaps hinge to the floor then the train begins to slow and the ball starts its journey back to him.

Suddenly, the overhead lights flicker and go out. He strains to hear the sound of the ball returning. The train lights flash back on, but the ball has disappeared. Someone must have picked it up. He searches for any obvious suspects, the man in the too tight blue suit arguing into new Apple earbuds dangling from his ears, the group of students laughing with necks bent to study each others glowing phones, the woman with bloodshot eyes, legs twitching nervously in ripped black jeans, but none of them hold anything resembling the ball.

Three stops pass and Sidney is convinced its gone. A strange sense of loss settles into him. He reminds himself it is just an old, lost part of a whole, but that doesn't stop him searching the floor every time the doors whoosh open and people spill out.

The next day his train to work is slightly delayed. They sit in the tunnel, fuzzy announcements unintelligible and loud pop on through the speakers. Line work maybe, or electrical issues. Sidney digs a finger under the face of his watch to scratch dry skin, and notices the white gleam of the cue ball rolling towards him again. Perplexed, and somehow pleased, he snatches it off the floor. Turning it over, he affirms it is the same ball. Though what are the chances of two cue balls rattling along in the subway? Admittedly Sidney has seen a lot of odd things on public transportation but even that has its limits. He peers at the other passengers. Someone must have rolled it back. Did they know it was his? Or did they have the same urge he’d had, to watch it bounce like a pinball through shoes, luggage and backpacks.

While part of him wants to keep it, now that it has returned, instead he places the ball on the floor and rolls it back the way it came. Again, it disappears slightly out of his line of sight. Someone is playing with him. Is it the woman in the bright red wool coat, or one of the teen girls in matching floral dresses and jean jackets?

The train creeps into life with another blared announcement he doesn't catch. Eyes sweeping the floor he fidgets with the zipper of his bag, waiting. It’s very possible the ball will not come back. Whoever it is will keep it this time, or someone else with pick it up. Bracing himself for the twinge of disappointment, Sidney tries to keep his expectations low.

He smiles as the cue ball reappears two stops later. There’s no time to send it on another journey, his stop is next, but he contemplates staying on the subway just to catch the eye of the stranger who started this little game. They must be a regular commuter like him, he realizes, to have caught the same train. Perhaps on the ride home he will discover who they are. He imagines their eyes meeting, both laughing, a few minutes of polite conversation. From then on he would see them each day, wave, nod, complain about the weather if they were able to get seats or stand together. He steps off the train and heads to work, humming.

Sidney waits a few stops on the ride home before digging into his bag and rolling the ball along the floor. He’s been looking forward to this all day, especially after one of the servers crashed. Hours were spent putting out metaphorical fires and writing reports for hysterical management. A stinging headache has been pressing at the base of his skull since lunch.

Careful to check each stranger’s face in the car, he anticipates the moment of shared realization, the smile, the laugh. While he waits for the ball to return, a group of older women shuffles on. They mumble to each other in a language he doesn’t recognize and stare down at him. Reluctantly, he gives up his seat. He doesn’t mind standing, but worries now that he’s moved he won’t see who is rolling the ball. Wedging himself between a man reading the news on his tablet and another leaning against the doors, Sidney scrutinizes the car for his stranger.

It’s then that he sees the unmistakable white shape of the cue ball. Only, it’s not in anyone’s hand, but caught on a broken edge of plastic from one of the seats where it is bolted to the floor. He stares at it for a few moments, realizing as the train rattles along that the vibration dislodges it and sends the ball rolling back down the train. He tracks the path of the ball, sees it bounce and come to rest in his usual place at the end of the car.

No one was touching it, there was no playful stranger. Just physics and boredom and the luck of catching the same train each day. His face heats with sharp embarrassment even though he hasn't mentioned the cue ball or the game to anyone. As quickly as it came, the color has leaked out of the other passengers. They sink again into the background, devoid of the bright potential that each face used to hold. Sidney is just himself again in a subway car full of people he doesn’t know and never will. There is nothing left but the bland familiarity of going home to Netflix in his studio apartment and waiting to go back to work.

Sidney gets off at the next stop even though it is not his. Dropping his messenger bag by his side he places his feet on the yellow line, stares down into the gravel of the tunnel, and when the next train light barrels towards him, he steps off the platform to meet it.