Upstanding Citizens

Ticket please.

The train car was stuffy and dimly lit, with the fading light of day peeking in through the windows. The conductor moved, achingly slow through the narrow walkway, stopping to turn at each pair of seats. He was a thin, stiff man with dead, fish eyes that rolled towards the passengers with barely concealed malice. He was dusty and dry, extending his skeletal hands to each person in turn, aluminum hole puncher in hand.

Ticket please.

A plump woman with a fox fur hat sniffed and handed him her ticket delicately, making sure none of her pudgy fingers came in contact with his hands. Her body was stuffed full and seemed constrained by the armrests. Her wide, red mouth was stretched in disapproval. The conductor restrained his sneer and turned to the next row.

It was a young couple, each of them clutching the other’s hand tightly and gazing into the other’s eyes.

Ticket please.

They didn’t seem to hear him. The conductor pinched his narrow nose and tried again. One of the archaic lights above buzzed and flickered on as the sun retreated beyond the horizon.

Ticket please.

The couple looked startled at the bite in his tone and the man shakily tried to hand him both tickets, but his grip faltered and they lightly fluttered to the floor. The young man flinched as the conductor’s poisonous glare landed on him. His lean form slowly stooped to retrieve the tickets, punch them, and shove them back toward the couple. Next row.

Ticket please.

And a double take. It was a little girl, pale, blonde, blue eyed, and very much alone.

The conductor blinked slowly as the girl stared up at him, craning her neck to make eye contact with him.

“You have a long nose.” She proclaimed. Someone in the front snickered and the conductor sent a pointed glare toward everyone in the general vicinity.

“It would seem so.” He sneered. The girl didn’t seem phased.

“Mama has my ticket.” The girl swung her legs, her little black shoes hanging off the toes of her stocking clad feet, “She’s in the dining car.”

The conductor sighed lengthily and looked toward one of the female attendants who stood at the back of the car. She hurried over, her brown hair in disarray around her flushed face and short heels clicking on the floor.

“Retrieve the girl’s mother.” The conductor glanced down toward the blonde hair, “…your name?”

“Marianne!” She chirped, grinning and exposing a missing front tooth. His black eyes focused on the attendant once more and she squeaked an affirmative, practically running out the back car door.

The conductor leaned stiffly against the side of the row and pinched his nose once more, massaging it gently, trying to alleviate the perpetual headache he’d had ever since he’d taken the job fifteen years ago.

“What’s your name, sir?” The conductor’s eyes moved toward the girl, Marianne, and he felt his thin mouth pull into a grimace.

“Gray.” He responded tightly. More titters from the rows in front caused his scowl to deepen.

“Mr. Gray,” Marianne traced the pattern on the fabric of her seat, “Why don’t you smile?”

“Because.” He intoned, “I am not particularly happy to be here.”

Marianne’s eyes locked onto the conductor’s and he shifted uncomfortably. She looked back towards the floor and continued.

“Mama doesn’t smile ‘cause Georgie’s gone away.” The conductor didn’t ask who Georgie was. He stared at the slumped form of the girl for a moment before turning his attention to the other rows.

The large woman with the fox hat was turned fully around in her seat, her beady eyes narrowed on the girl, purple dress hiked up so she could sit on her knees and peer over the headrest.

“Ma’am.” Mr. Gray strode over to the woman and loomed over her. Her eyes nearly rolled back in her head. “Please sit properly in your seat. You’re disturbing the other passengers.” The portly business man beside her looked ruffled and was leaning as close to the window as possible.

“Someone,” She squawked, “should be tending to that child! Where is her mother? The dining car, the dining car I say!” Her pudgy hands flapped indignantly.

“It is none of your concern.” Mr. Gray responded, dark eyes glowing murderously, “The situation is being handled.” The plump woman cowered in her seat, but kept grumbling under her breath. The conductor cast his eyes around the car. No one met them.

The back door to the car slammed open and the harried attendant ducked through, pulling a stumbling woman behind her. She was of average height and build, clutching her bag close to her and swaying on her feet as if the train was already in motion.

“I found her.” The female attendant bowed shortly and escaped into another car while the girl’s mother wobbled over to her daughter.

“Marianne, baby, Marianne!” She cooed, “Mama’s here!” Gray watched her fall into the seat beside her daughter and giggle to herself. Marianne patted her mother’s hand she smiled loosely in response.

Gray knew it would end up like this. He could smell the tension rising, the shoulders stiffening up like boards in the front rows and harsh whispers being passed from one disapproving frown to the next. His gaze zeroed in on the pudgy one with the fox fur. She was puffed up and indignant, and he could see her thoughts buzzing around in her head like hornets.

“She’s drunk!The woman shrieked suddenly, her voice tinny and metallic. The car became very silent, full of bodies that dared not breathe. “I’ll not have it, I’ll not have it!” She continued, “This is supposed to be a respectable line and I’ll not have this-th-this—” she couldn’t find a word and so her lips sputtered helplessly, her red mouth left to soldier on alone without her mind to help it along. Gray stared at her and watched her fidget.

“Well, are you going to do anything about her?”A weasely woman with a great deal of makeup layered on her face piped up from Row Four, the window seat. “It’s completely inappropriate for the mother of a young child to become-” She cut off, looking for a more elegant term for ‘become very drunk’. The man next to her nodded in agreement and the began to buzz with angry voices. He heard a hissy male voice behind him ‘Damn alcoholic.’ Marianne curled into her seat and squeezed her mother’s hand.

Gray turned sharply to the slumped form of Marianne’s mother, the expectant eyes of the passengers on his narrow back, and in a firm voice—

Ticket please.

The woman looked up dazedly and nodded, murmuring and digging around her large bag for a tense few minutes before presenting two tickets. The conductor punched them and handed them back.

“Was that it?” Came a shocked voice.

“I would suggest,” The conductor drawled, “You take your seats. The train will be departing shortly.” There was rustling as the passengers faced forward with hardly concealed frustration.

A tug on the leg of his ironed trousers caused him to look back down at the distressed Marianne.

“Thank you.” She whispered. Gray crouched down until his eyes were level his.

“Take good care of her,” He said, “She’s going to miss Georgie for a long while yet.”

“I miss him too.” Marianne mumbled, “He was so small. I liked to play with his little hands. But then he got sick.” A snore emanated from the girl’s mother.

Gray gave her a pat on the head before heading to the front car feeling the scratchy eyes of disapproving passengers on his narrow figure as he walked. He entered the employee car, sitting stiffly down next to the female attendant who had found Marianne’s mother.

“You were very impressive.” She said tentatively, twisting her navy blue cap in her hands, “I thought for sure there would be a riot.” Gray’s dark eyes slid over to the young woman and she looked straight ahead, back ramrod straight.

“You were peeping.” He stated. She nodded without looking at him.

Gray focused his eyes on the planks of wood lining the opposite wall of the employee car.

“I have worked this train for fifteen years.” He said slowly, “Everyone is the same. They assume an entire life in a split second.” The attendant gave him a lost look and there was a long semi-silence, where they only breathed and listened to the wind claw against the walls of the train.

“That woman― she was going on and on about her ‘baby Georgie’…” she said weakly, “Is he-?”

“There would be no point to the expense of a funeral car for such a small coffin. He’s in the back. With the luggage.”

“I see.”

The conductor got up and strode over to the window and watched the blackness of the night, only interrupted by the flickering of the station lamps.

“With the luggage.” Gray repeated and he heard the choke of a sob from behind him. He watched as one of the rusty red lamps flickered off and did not come back on.

Click Softly

Click softly does the tongue

To fill the thickened quiet which

Is hardly disturbed by the strokes of

Color or the wisp of bristles or the arch

Of the shadows leaping from the white plains

Forward into creation, true creation,

The God of a world that exists

Only as pigment on a canvas stretched

Tight and whining to be free

Shatter apart and release that of which

Only the eyes of the God see

The curtains dance around the windows;

Even the light wishes to be near.


Click softly does the tongue

As the ghost’s arms swish

Conduct color and bend light

Concentration as a whole being

Orbiting around a moment that

Will not move past its static point

Where the hands lilt, the brush

Shall follow dutifully and sweep

Downward to where the edge of the

World sits so peacefully, leaking love,

Go and sit by the edge, dear,

I have made a world for you and

I wish for you to share.

Tie the Young Necks

When I was young, about 12 or 13, I had a band instructor named Mr. Reavis.  He was a greasy, walrus man, with brown whiskers he kept neat under his chin and small eyes set into his face. Mr. Reavis was never seen without a collared shirt, soft loafers, and oval glasses perched on his bulbous nose. I remember specifically the tightness of his belt and how his stomach tipped over the edge of it, unafraid of gravity’s pull.

Reavis spent more time bellowing and cackling than actually teaching the class, and while I appreciated the chance to laugh and joke around with an adult… he was known for being unpredictable. He was known for being mean.

During class, he joked around until he wore his victim thin. He was a king amongst his subjects; a crooked finger, a lethal barb…

Sic ‘em.

Like a pack of hyenas they would descend, cackling madly, gnashing their teeth, rehashing a joke over, and over, and over again.

Why aren’t you laughing? We’re just kidding.

It was Russian roulette, we all knew it, and we all perched on the edge of our seats in anticipation, waiting to find out who was the target this time.

The man had no filter between that sharp tongue of his and the sensitive children who looked to him for attention. I knew what he was even thenI could see it in the way he moved and talked. I knew he wasn’t a good man underneath that broad smile and those flushed cheeks. Sometimes he would say things that made the child he was talking to cringe back with their whole body. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen children shrink so violently under an adult’s words, and it wouldn’t be the last.

One day sticks out to me particularly well. Reavis was being loud again, laughing hard, as if he was drunk. I could easily picture a beer in his hand instead of his conductor’s stick, sloshing as he waved it around and screamed. I was the class’s subject that day, forced to smile over a joke about myself I no longer remember. I don’t think I was overtly hurt by it, only embarrassed to have all the attention on me, and I remember being hot in my sweatshirt as a blush burned on my cheeks. I sent some sort of snarky retort back to defend myself somewhat under the friendly onslaught.

But Reavis always knew how to take a joke too far.

I don’t remember how, I don’t remember why, but in a second he wasn’t on his podium anymore but behind me, the hood of my gray school sweatshirt clenched in his meaty grip. He was pulling up, up, up, the caws and screeches of my classmates driving him to make the joke funnier; make the girl’s face redder. I know at first I laughed, but then my face heated from lack of oxygen and not just embarrassment and the world began to blur and blacken under my tears. I remember my fingers scrabbling at my sweatshirt as the beginnings of desperation set in and feeble noises escaped me. One of my friends, a flute girl who sat in front of me, told him I was crying and he let go.

I’m sorry! Could you really not breathe?

I coughed and grabbed my throat, feeling my own pulse beat frantically against my fingers as the world came back into focus. A trombone girl next to me nudged me and asked if I was okay, but the majority of the band was still stirring in their giggles and Reavis’s apology washed in and out of my ears. He went back to teaching, uncomfortable and shifty. He  wouldn’t look at me.

The tuba player on my left side, Josh, poked me.

C’mon—stop being dramatic. You’re fine.

I glared at him with wet, bloodshot eyes and he turned away. I coughed occasionally and blinked too much, a hurtful knot settling in my throat for the rest of class from holding back tears too long.

After band, I went to the bathroom and touched the red line on my throat, rubbing gently at the inflamed skin. My face was still red and puffy and my breath sounded raspy and long.

It was ugly.

In Then Out (Again and Again)

There’s not much more to this.

You think so, you say so;

But it’s just one breath after another breath

And another breath after

That.

You think there’s more to this than

Cold winters and mild springs and

Swinging the same hammer at the same nail

Over, and over, and over again–

Surely, there must be more out there–

Something great.

You think you are destined for a bigger life,

But that doesn’t make your breaths

Any more interesting.

Tic Tacs

Orange bottles litter your counter and

You feel full as if you’ve eaten

But you have not, you’ve

Eaten something, yes, but not food

And it’s left you bloated and curdled,

Curling into the cushions of your sofa

Clutching your swollen soul.

You want to be free, you could be

But your throat is already

So sore– you don’t know

Where to go and only down, down

Do you flow; hands grasping

At what you know will make

You right again– if only, if only

What you knew was right.

I Think We Should Talk About Our Relationship

We don’t like to be realistic when we’re writing poetry,

When we’re writing about

Love.

We don’t like to talk bout pain and

We like flowers and marriage vows–

Because they’re almost permanent

For a time.

We like to think poets

Are great and romantic–

Because it’s nicer than calling them

Liars.

And I think, in general, we don’t like to be realistic

Because our fantasies and our histories tell us that

Love should last forever and

We don’t like admitting that,

Honestly–

Forever is too long for anyone.