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john palmer

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This is a short story I wrote a little while ago. Any comments would be welcom -- especially if I can learn from them. You won';t hurt my feelings. Honest.

John Palmer




The more-or-less-middle-aged-coffee-drinker sat down heavily in his seat at the end of the last car on the eastbound subway train, juggling his book, his bag, and his early morning coffee -- black, one sugar. Having short-changed himself in the sleep department for at least a week, he had felt compelled to grab an extra-large cup of Colombian instead of his usual "medium" from Cafe on the Go at Islington subway station, hoping that it would make a difference -- if even a little...
It had become a standard part of his subway ritual to rest his coffee cup on the flat metal surface atop seat in front of him while he was doing his morning reading, picking it up to gulp it or sip it as the spirit moved him...until the day before, anyway -- he winced visibly at the memory -- when a sudden deceleration of the train and a particularly captivating picture on page three of The Toronto Sun had combined their natural effects on his cup and his own person to produce the sad (and wasteful!) spectacle of the-more-or-less-middle-aged-coffee-drinker spilling the rich, black, liquid, not only all over himself, but the Sunshine Girl, and floor of the subway car as well.
It was amazing just how much coffee a large cup could hold, he had thought, as the three dimensionality of the cup was abruptly replaced by the unforgiving two dimensionality of the floor. It had gone everywhere! People had moved. He shuddered.
Now, he held his cup firmly in his left hand while Jennifer (it was, today) lay open (if the expression may be forgiven) on his lap, followed by a succession of news stories, letters to the editor, various columnists, and the sports section. Furthermore, he actually finished his coffee before allowing himself to deposit the empty cup in its usual place, feeling, to a reassuring certainty, that without the hot, dark, liquid essence of the bean sloshing around inside, it would indeed stay where he had put it, at least until they reached Kennedy station at the other end of the subway line, where he would then pick it up and throw it in the garbage.
When the bottom of his cup touched the top of the seat, however, as the train pulled into St. George station, a fresh complication arose. His eye was caught by that of another passenger more or less opposite him: an earnest-if-not-entirely-neurotic-looking-young-man in a too short, blue jean jacket, the collar half-turned up on one side, wearing an incongruously wide, brown, poorly knotted tie around his neck. His bulging, myopic eyes were brimming with disapproval as he stood, staring, alternately and pointedly, at the coffee drinker and his empty cup from a position near the door of the subway car where he was apparently waiting to exit the subway car once the train stopped.
Feeling essentially good-natured and generally well with the world despite his early morning fatigue, the slightly older coffee drinker smiled, shrugged, and voluntarily explained himself, nodding in the direction of the empty cup: "It's just till I get to Kennedy station..." He had a paper to finish reading, after all -- there were still the comics! -- and, even if he didn't, holding an empty coffee cup for fifteen or twenty stations seemed, well...a little silly somehow.
At this bit of explanation -- the most coherent he could have given under the circumstances -- the young stranger's expression inexplicably (to the coffee drinker's way of thinking) soured further. "Yeaaah, right!" he sneered.
"It's people like you," the stranger erupted, unequivocally crossing the line from earnest to neurotic, "who are responsible for the pollution--"
"Huh?!" The depositor of the now controversial cup was trying, largely without success, to shake himself out of his early morning stupor, at least sufficiently to deal with the stranger's near-ravings. "No, no. I'm just leaving it there until I get off...then I'll put it in the garbage. You see?" A last, desperate, though tactful, attempt.
"NO, you won't.. No, no!" The stranger prophesied, his voice rising steadily in both pitch and volume as he turned fitfully towards the now-opening door of the stopped train.
Having failed to assuage the man's environmental concerns in the slightest (failed, perhaps, even to register on his consciousness), the coffee drinker addressed his followup remarks quietly to no-one in particular as the fitful stranger left the car: "But I do this every day..."
"I believe you," said a kindly-looking-old-lady directly across from him, brightly, through her toothy smile. He smiled tightly in return before retreating to his, at first mumbled, and then wholly cerebral, collection of self-justifications.
And he was telling the truth, should the reader entertain any doubts the contrary -- I know him well! He did do it every day, just as he said he did, placing the empty coffee cup squarely in the big brown garbage container on the platform at Kennedy station. He would have done it this day, too, had not the earnest, young stranger's thoroughly neurotic tirade jarred him out of his usual sense of habit, resulting in his exiting the train, sans cup, the prophecy fulfilled.
Later, Kennedy station being at the end of the line, and it now being rush hour, a fresh trainload of passengers quickly replaced those who exited. The-particular-passenger-who-took-what-had-been-the-coffee-drinking-newspaper-reader's-seat, fussed a little with his lapel, and smoothed the front of his trench coat as he sat down, eyed the abandoned cup with some suspicion, took it tentatively from its perch atop the seat in front of him (sensing by its weight that there was no liquid left within), and placed it on the floor beside him, wishing that someone else had taken care of it. After three stations, he left the cup and the subway car for work.
A stray foot's lightest touch from the-next-passenger-to-occupy-the-seat, and the cup was lying on its side, rolling first one way, then the other, touching the aisle-side base of the seat at one end of its little arc, and the wall of the subway car at the other, on and off, for the next twenty-five minutes, observed intently for the last five of those minutes by a bored-young-man-who-was-getting-drowsy-on-over-the-counter-decongestants. Eventually, the tiny bumps that the coffee cup accumulated at both ends of its trajectory, combining with the speeding up and slowing down of the train, changed its arc just enough for it to clear the leg of the chair and make its way uncertainly into the aisle. From there, it was directed by the besneakered foot of a-fourteen-year-old-soccer-enthusiast, scudding, bouncing, and rolling, halfway down the subway car, much to the interest and amusement of a-ten-year-old-tom-boy who, designating herself part of the relay team, gave out a little whoop, and lent it a further impetus with her foot, sending it almost down to the end of the subway car before returning to her "ring around the rosy" choreography on the centre pole despite a continuous stream of directions to the contrary from her mother.
From there, the sturdy little cup, its side only slightly dented, its lip remaining essentially true, looped and rolled its way crazily through the last fifteen or twenty feet of the car to the very end by way of a variety of considerably less athletic passenger/coffee cup interactions, accumulating a steadily increasing audience for its adventures with each one of them.
A-late-middle-aged-businessman, for instance, (who looked stiffly out of place on the early morning subway car) responded to the cup's presence with a slight lift and a quick shake of his left foot, cat-like, dislodging it from the side of his shoe as he sifted his way through a thick sheaf of papers in the open attaché case on his lap, as if he were being embarrassed by some poor relation clinging to him sinfully.
Someone-sitting-opposite-him similarly nudged the cup off his foot, wrinkling his nose, much as if it were a dried cow flap, then looked to see if anyone were watching him...which they were.
Eventually, of course, almost everyone in the car was watching the cup's singular progress, and almost everyone knew it. Consequently, the manner in which each of the passengers responded to the cup's arrival on or about his or her own person took on a greater and greater significance with each subsequent encounter and the resulting addition of each new member to the impromptu audience: initially, it was a simple test of awareness and co-ordination; then there was a somewhat expanded list of factors to be tested, including such qualities as tact, discretion, and aplomb; later, it grew to encompass all of the foregoing items with the addition of general character; and, eventually, went so far as to being considered an indicator of each passenger's overall worth as a person (if only in their own eyes) -- such is the power of peer observation and analysis, both real and imagined, especially among the males of the species.
The resulting competitive pressure, with all its echoes of childhood athletic contests and the status or lack of same that they conferred upon their winners and losers, along with certain latent racial memories from our ancient hunter/gatherer ancestors, was evidently too much for the last few passengers who were visited by the cup, and handled the encounter in an obviously less well-thought-out and/or convincing fashion than had their predecessors. One of them, to his considerable chagrin, took an entirely gratuitous kick at the cup, missing it, however, entirely, causing many, for the most part, successfully repressed reactions from his fellow passengers.
Finally, the cup came into range of one especially-large-black-man with powerful naked arms, a massive chest, broad shoulders, and a remarkably short neck, who wore a dark blue bandana tied tightly around his closely cropped head. He had been eyeing the cup's meandering approach, squinting at both it and all the fuss that it was inspiring with visibly increasing irritation. Before it could actually touch him, however, he unhurriedly raised one great, booted foot, and, a moment later, brought it down squarely on the side of the little cardboard coffee cup as it rolled by. Now, the hapless cup lay on its side, mortally wounded, his shoe treads clearly visible upon its once white, now pathetically dirtied, Cafe on the Go label, never to be "on the go" again.
No-one said a word, but the very stillness of the air in the last car of the now westbound subway train was a clear indication that everyone gathered there held a heartfelt opinion, whether they were smiling widely (a-distinct-minority-consisting-almost-entirely-of-the-black-man's-two-travelling-companions), frowning (the more or less average reaction), or frankly and unabashedly open-mouthed. At opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, one elderly-oriental-gentleman grinned and bobbed his greying head at the black man's solution, almost elegant in the Zen of its simple brutality, and a young-blonde-girl-of-eleven looked as if she were about to cry. The overwhelming sentiment, however it was expressed, was one of shock and/or disapproval.
No-one spoke, however.
Nor did anyone move...except for especially-large-black-man, who rose up like a great mythological beast and hulked his way over to the sliding side doors, closely followed by his two travelling companions, as the train pulled into his stop. At first, he ignored the collective pressure of the many eyes that fell, almost as one, upon him, but, in the end, he felt compelled, in spite of himself, to justify his actions before leaving the remaining subway passengers and their little crushed cup behind.
"I step on it," he declared, "so it don't roll no more!"
And, somewhere, perhaps on a bus out of Kennedy station, the ears of a more-or-less-middle-aged-coffee-drinker were burning -- if one believes in such things -- if not bright, cherry red, at least a certain pastel pink, and an earnest-if-not-entirely-neurotic-looking-young-man was smiling widely (even if he did not know exactly why he was doing so) as the especially-large-black-man added, in a low mutter over his broad shoulder, "People...they should pick up after theirselves..."


Post Sun Jun 27, 2004 9:11 am   
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