Black History Month Special Issue Fiction Runner-up: Close Scrape

Pay attention on the subway. Things can happen fast. Trains derail. Maybe the conductor will announce that your train will skip all stops between 149th Street and Grand Concourse and 42nd Street-Times Square because of track work. Don’t listen to music too loudly, so you can hear the announcement if the conductor decides to make it. You need to get from 149th street and 3rd avenue (in the Bronx) to 125th street (in Harlem) to pick up a pint of gin from the liquor store before you go to a new club in Bushwick. You don’t want to buy drinks inside the venue—who wants to pay $13 for an eight-ounce drink when you could just pay $7 for a whole pint? Sneak it in. You need to get the alcohol in Harlem because it’s cheaper, and your friend Isabella asked you to get it from this store, because the prices “are basically wholesale,” and you always take Isabella’s advice. Isabella. You always go out of your way for her. 

Think about her soft brown skin, sinuous curls, and caramel-colored eyes. Picture her freckles, which are sprinkled carefully over the bridge of her nose, like tiny dots of cinnamon coating a piece of perfectly cooked French toast. She doesn’t need to know what you really think about her though, that you compare her freckles to sweet dots of cinnamon. Just stay on the train. See her tonight. It will be enough. 

But don’t stay onboard if the train decides to skip a bunch of stops. This is unlikely to happen because the two has never skipped all stops between 149th Street and 42nd street, but you never know these days. Listen to the announcer when she says: 

“This is a MANHATTAN bound TWO train. The next stop is one hundred thirty-fifth Street.” 

Murmur it under your breath. Relish the evenly paced cadence. It’s familiar. Consistent. 

“Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” a different announcer says. 

Listen to the little ding. Watch the tiny light flash and the doors close. There is a large man rushing downstairs and an especially fat rat scuttling alongside him. You wonder if it is trying to catch the train too. That’s it. There’s the second ding. All the doors close. The man stops just short of them; they snap shut right in front of his nose. He pounds on those streaky, oblong windows in a last-ditch effort to convince the doors to open. They don’t. Watch him mouth the word “shit,” but don’t hear it. Oh well. All of us get left behind at some point.  

The train’s arthritic wheels whine as they grate across the tracks, and you’re jostled back and forth violently. You grasp the cold, chrome pole with both hands for a second. This task will be made even more difficult by your outfit. Look at your shadowy reflection in the train’s windows, purse your lips (which are coated in burgundy lipstick), and adjust the two puffy space buns that sit atop your head. You are wearing an army green jacket, boots—red, suede ones outfitted with three-inch heels that cause the soles of your feet to scream—and a black, polyurethane skirt short enough to elicit unwanted stares from men and calls of, “Ayo ma!” on the street. You hate it when this happens. You hate it even more when your father says that the stares and catcalls are your fault, because you know that you’re not dressing for them. You’re dressing for you. Maybe. Maybe you’re dressing for Isabella too.  

A small woman, with a large, splotchy mole on her left cheek, looks up when you accidentally bump into her. (Say, “I’m sorry!” three times. She pats your arm, smiles, and says, “It’s okay.”) The sticky stench that lingers in the air does not help you concentrate on holding onto the pole; the acrid perfume comprised of sweat and, yes, just a hint of urine, is difficult to ignore. You look at another pole, closer to the door, because you see something out the corner of your eye—what is…is that…that tan thing? Oh, fuck! It’s a Band-Aid. Someone stuck a Band-Aid onto the pole. Shudder and let go of your own pole. The train shakes again, so grip it. 

Just before the train fully descends into the dark underbelly of the city, beneath the river, you feel your phone buzzing, then stopping mid-buzz in order to be interrupted by a fresh, new buzz. This will happen at least four times. You pull it out your pocket and see: 

Isabella Davidson. 5 Messages. 1 minute ago.

And think, “Shit, I probably can’t respond before I lose service, but I better open this anyway. I know I’m running late.”  

Look at the rectangular screen that hovers overhead in order to verify this. There is a red, overly-pixelated number 2 ensconced by parentheses. The time is 8:45 pm. You have to respond to Isabella, even though you’d prefer to ignore the text, because service down here is so goddamn shoddy. But you know that you can’t ignore a text when you’re on your way to meet someone who is willing to travel to Bushwick. Of course you like texting Isabella. She has this way about her, an aura that inexplicably attracts others to her. Maybe it’s because she does this thing where she leans in close and lets her curly hair brush against your cheek. And you have so many things in common. She’s the only one who knows about indie bands with fewer than 1,000 followers on Spotify. Two years ago, she held your hair back when you started projectile vomiting in the middle of St. Marks at 2 a.m. after you drank too many vodka cranberries at a party. Unlock your phone for this person. 

So, you do, and it says: 

“Where u at?”

“I know that u had to go to 125 to pick up alcohol but I want to get to the function before 11 cause after that the cover will go up.” 

“So maybe we should just skip the alc and get some in BK” 

“It’s 10 before 11 but it will go to 20 after that and I don’t really wanna spend 20.” 

“So maybe you should just get off the train at 42 and transfer to the nqr and u can meet me at 14?”  

“I think that may be better.”

She said this all in her characteristic flurry of texts, one after the other. Sometimes you pull out your phone and see the words, Isabella Davidson. 30 Messages. 5 minutes ago. You inevitably scroll through the sea of miniscule grey bubbles: it usually contains unanswerable questions about the nature of human existence; screenshots of Instagram posts advertising events near Myrtle-Wyckoff; tenable facts concerning the Trump presidency; and links to Vice articles about sex toys. The texts are usually thought provoking; the gears in your brain shift as you try to come up with a witty response to an article in a reasonable amount of time, and you end up asking yourself questions that you wouldn’t have thought of before. She pushes you, but you also end up feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of texts. And you want to respond to the texts—you do—but, somehow, you always become confused about where to start. Do you click on the Vice article about dildos first, or do you write, “Yes, I think that we should go to the pop-up show in Ridgewood on Friday.” Before you can think of a response, you hear the notification ping again, and the cycle repeats. 

“Yea, I can meet you at 14.”  

Type back. Hope that you have time to send another text. 

“Yeah I’m sure we can find something in BK.” 

Just as you send the text, you see the words, “NO SERVICE,” appear in the upper-left corner of your phone. A red exclamation point appears next to the last text. 

Now that there’s no service, you turn back to your surroundings. Something is wrong—two voices separate themselves from the otherwise constant hum of ambient conversation. The voices get louder and louder:

“I wanna stand up!” a small child says in a high-pitched voice.  He swings around the pole even though there is an empty seat right next to him. The train is running pretty smoothly right now, rumbling instead of jerking like the Cyclone. The kid doesn’t trip. 

“There’s a seat right there. You shouldn’t stand when you could sit. You’re going to fall and hurt yourself,” a tall man says to the small child. The man has broad shoulders and coffee colored skin. He’s wearing a black bomber jacket, lose fitting jeans, and tan Timbs. His hair is styled in tight, spiky twists that stand up in two-inch tufts. 

“But I want—” 

“I don’t care what you want. You’re the child. I’m the father. Don’t talk back to me.”

The train jerks again, and the child trips slightly. 

“What did I tell you? Do you want a pow pow?” 

“Daddy, I wanna stand though!” the child grabs the pole with an outstretched hand and juts hip out slightly as he makes a revolution around the pole.  

“I said stop it!” the man thumps the child on the arm. 

The child screams. 

“You shouldn’t hit your child like that,” a man sitting across from the pair says, as he stares at the man with spiky twists. The second man is wearing a blue button-down, and his brown hair sweeps the collar of his shirt when he moves. He is holding a cream tote bag in his lap. The bag has a statement that says, “ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE” on the front. 

“I was trying to get him to sit down so he didn’t hurt himself. You’d better mind your own business,” the man in spiky twists says. He turns away from the other man.   

“But it’s wrong to hit children,” the man in the button-down continues, holding his hands out in a way that seem to indicate that he means no harm. “Listen, man. I have a child of my own too, and I work with kids all day. I know it’s difficult to control them, but you’re going to hurt him if you keep acting like that.” 

“I didn’t even hit him. I thought I told you to mind your own business!” 

The man in the button-down gets out of his seat and walks up to the man in spiky twists, so that the two are right in front of one another. They’re probably close enough to smell each other’s breath. 

“A child is involved,” he says through clenched teeth. 

“I ALREADY TOLD YOU! DON’T SAY SHIT TO ME!”

Follow the conversation closely. Things may begin to spiral out of control. Your mother always told you to watch out for these things, these seemingly benign interactions that germinate into full-blown fights.  Apparently, most of the other passengers in the car have turned to look as well. You hope that things begin to de-escalate, that the man in the button-down will back off. No, you don’t think that it’s right to become violent with children, but you think that the father was just trying to stop his kid from getting hurt. The child might have busted his lip or his eyebrow on the seat, and that definitely would have hurt him more than the thump did. But you still don’t know what the father does at home, if he does more than thump the child. 

The child screams louder. 

“Shut up!” the man with spiky twists says to the child. 

“Stop talking to him like that. He’s just a child! ” The man in the button-down says. 

“How many times do I have to tell you not to fuck with me? Do!” he says, clapping between each word for punctuation. “Not!” Clap. “Fuck!” Clap. “With!” Clap. “Me! This is my child! Don’t you tell me how to raise my child!” 

 As the man says this, the train pulls into the station. 

Your phone pings again. Isabella Davidson. 2 Messages. 1 minute ago. She probably sent those texts when you were underground, but you didn’t get them until now because you just got service. 

“Bet b”

“I’ll meet u at 14,” she had written. 

“Sounds good,” you write. “Btw shit is getting wild on the train rn. I think a fight is gonna break out.”

The doors open again. 

“This is one hundred Thirty-fifth Street. Transfer is available to the THREE train,” the announcer says. 

At least half the passengers on the car get off and switch to the next one because they see the fight escalating. Others simply move away from the two men, inching towards the other side of the car. They’re brave. You like to think of yourself as brave too. Why switch to a different car? People argue on the subway all the time, right? It’s nothing, really. If you get off the train now, then you might not make it to the next car in time. If you do make it to the next car, then it will probably be more crowded than this one is now. 

“This is a Brooklyn bound TWO train. The next stop is One hundred Twenty-fifth Street,” the announcer continues. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.” 

The doors shut. 

“But you hit your son. You can’t just do that to a child. That’s abuse—” the man in the button-down stops, mid-sentence, when the man with spiky twists pulls out a small dagger out of his jean’s pocket. Everyone in the car lets out a collective gasp, and the passengers press further towards the other end of the car. Someone in the adjoining car looks through the window in confusion. You lose your balance and fall. Now, there’s a medium-sized scrape on your knee. The blood is beginning to pool around the gash; some of it trickles down your bare leg. Your heart pounds in your chest, and there’s a sharp sensation in the pit of your stomach. Put both palms on the ground, will yourself to get up, back onto your feet, before anyone in the car has a chance to step on you. This isn’t the time to get trampled. 

Back, at the other end of the car, the man with spiky twists brandishes the dagger. 

“If you wanna go, lets go,” 

“I didn’t…I mean…I’m not trying to cause any trouble…” the man in the button-down stammers. 

“Oh, now you don’t want to cause any trouble?” 

“STOP!” the child cries out in a small voice. 

“I’m not stopping nothing until he says something,” the man in twists says to the man in the button-down. Then, he looks at the other end of the car, and says, “What’re you all looking at?” Everyone sort of shakes their heads in silence and turns away.  “I thought so!” the man in the twists says.

You watch in awe, and wonder what Isabella would do in this situation.  She’s always there in moments like these, holding your hair back or leading you to a club or yelling at men who say things to you in the street. But now she’s not here, and there’s no service because you’re trapped somewhere between 135th and 125th street. You can’t text her. So, you just stand there, and watch the situation unfold. You look at the red emergency intercom button next to you, and put your finger on it, but you don’t bring yourself to press it. Will the voice on the speaker draw attention to you? You can’t be sure because you’ve never been in a situation that has required you to press the button. The train rolls along.

The man in spiky twists gets closer to the man in the button-down. “You got something else to say?” 

“N-no,” the man in the button-down says. 

“What was that?” the man in the twists says, pressing the knife up to the other man’s throat. 

“N-nothing to say,” the man in the button-down says. 

“Good,” the man in spiky twists says, easing the dagger from his throat. “Now leave us alone.” 

Your heart is beating in your chest and you can’t… well you’re trying…you’re trying to focus. The pain in your knee barely registers, and everything suddenly seems sharp, painfully intensified. But, thank God, you notice that the train is beginning to slow down. You look up and see lights shuttering in and out of the windows. There it is: 125th street. Your phone buzzes again. Isabella Davidson. 5 Messages. 1 minute ago. You don’t unlock it this time. 

The doors pop open, and everyone rushes out. 

“This is one hundred twenty-fifth Street. Transfer is available to the THREE train,” the announcer says.  

Get off the train. Now. 

Run. Try not to trip again. Ignore the blood that’s still trickling down your leg. Pass the sign that says “125th Street” in bold, white letters, and do everything in your power not to fall. If you fall, that’s it. There are at least one hundred people running behind you, nipping at your heels, and God knows that they’re terrified too. And, yes, if you fall, then those people would step on you in order to get ahead. In the car, you were less likely to get trampled because there was nowhere to run. You were all pressed together like well-oiled sardines in a can. But now the can has been opened, and the olive oil is oozing onto the counter.   

Go through the turnstile, feel it press against your waist, briefly, but don’t stop moving. Never stop moving. 

Emerge from the bowels. Breathe. In. The air. The rain is falling lightly on your legs, carrying away the blood. Try to stay afloat, and block out some of your senses, but listen to the noises: the honking, the people screaming, the woman calling 911. 

“Yes, there is an emergency…someone…someone pulled a knife.”

“At the train station on 125th and Lenox.” 

“Please come.” 

Think: Okay. 

Think: A knife. A man. The NYPD. 

Look at the lights flashing. Blue. Red. Listen to the sirens. They blare. Lean against the entrance and steady yourself. Close your eyes. Think about Isabella, but don’t text her. 

About the author

Isis Davis-Marks is a writer and visual artist who lives and works in New York City. She recently graduated from Yale University, where she double majored in Art and Philosophy. She was also a Yale Journalism Scholar. Her writing has been published in Artsy, Popula, Musee Magazine, Doubly Mad Magazine, The New Haven Independent, The Yale Daily News, and elsewhere.

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