F Trainby David Hollander
Aboard the F Train—the inefficient, underfinanced F train—in the late afternoon, the rush hour just beginning its bell curve ascent, the train ululating through black tunnels of disease, glowing like some interplanetary shuttlecock, its passengers bathed in dysthymic green light and hot moist air, the noxious distillate of human suffering and anger, aboard this fucking F train he considers once again the bottle of prescription, codeine-laced pain pills in the medicine cabinet above the gleaming white sink, upon the borders of which her collection of lotions and powders and hair gels and sprays and fixatives—something called ‘Mud,’ what product genius lit upon this marketing scheme?—still sat, poised and confrontational, a collective vestige of her actual smell, of the ghost that had trailed her from bedroom to bathroom and back again, a hundred times, a thousand times, these plastic receptacles that he felt unable to discard or to shelve, three days now and not a word from her, aboard the F train, bound for the hinterland of Brooklyn and for his shitty apartment, his shitty cracked-plaster apartment returned now, in her absence, to the hovel it truly is and was, his recidivist apartment the perfect warehouse for his own recidivism, 32 years old and jobless, without prospects and without direction, an evaporating eidolon, failed and failing as a writer and as a musician, just another breathing urban cliché, navigating a city that had never so much as acknowledged his presence, ten years of temp. work, of painting apartments, of degradation at the hands of the wealthy—as their waiter, their janitor, walking their goddamn dogs, clutching little plastic bags steaming with the shit of their privileged pedigrees—aboard this F train he considers the ease with which those pills might do their magic, thirty seconds of sobbing in that chrome-framed bathroom mirror (where he would no doubt question his status one last time—man or ghost, real or imagined—the subterfuge that mirrors plied against his confidence), thirty seconds, one second per pill, and then the uneventful passage from light to darkness or maybe, just maybe he thinks, the other way around, from the darkness of subterranean tunnels and unlit Brooklyn streets to the white light of Nothingness, the Great Reward, the Eternal Recurrence.
Aboard this F train, moving between points in a geometry for the beguiled, the befuddled, the Brooklyn masses returning from their lemming rush for tonier architecture, for midtown buildings reflective and haughty, aboard this F train with her smell still on his worn wool jacket, a few loose strands of her hair, considering an oft-considered Nietzsche quote, “It is the thought of suicide that is a source of great comfort,” seated aboard this increasingly crowded F train and noticing for the first time an old man slowly approaching, cadging change from disgruntled benefactors, noticing this broken man and hearing his sales pitch, “Ain’t no beggar, God bless, just lookin’ to get by,” hearing this and thinking about this God, thinking There, but for the grace of Him, go I, and then scoffing at the idea that his own loneliness, his own inefficacy, his own aggrieved skepticism, could in any way be the forethought of a merciful Overseer. Because he loves her, okay, and because his youth is fading and because he wants something, some form of affection or sympathy, to counter that which has blackened his heart, and he is aboard this F train remembering how he kissed her in an elevator, on the very day they met, reliving for a moment that nausea, the electric charge of doing something dangerous and unexpected, the voltage implicit in all first kisses, he remembers thinking Go for it Chris, delivering himself a fourth quarter pep talk because this was her last day (and his first) at Jensen, Roberts and Nester, the advertising conglomerate to which they’d both been leased by the same temporary agency, which is in fact the same agency from which he is now returning, having just claimed his final paycheck, because never again, these were their words, never again would they place an employee who had proven himself so disposed to abandoning his post, to walking out on the job, never again would they place an employee so apparently prone to nervous breakdowns, which he reported having with institutional frequency, half a dozen such breakdowns in his two years of sporadic breadwinning through this agency, and so he is aboard this F train with that meager paycheck tucked within his black coat, money already spent, and the train’s wheels crushing rusted steel, firing blue sparks into the vacuum, past his window, aboard this F train thinking of that elevator kiss, of how he had glimpsed their reflection in a concave wedge of mirror and that she tasted like raspberries and he is thinking of how he will never again taste that taste, not even if he were to dip his tongue sequentially into the various cosmetic-bearing canisters on the gleaming porcelain sink, because part of that taste was her, her flesh and blood and suspiration, and never again, never again. Aboard this F train, alone in the wasteland of his own body, he is thinking of how he is supposed to work tomorrow, how he’s supposed to huff it out to Queens and hook up with yet another painting crew, 32 years old and 12 dollars an hour, and how he just read in the Times how 60 percent of Americans believed in angels, how they believed in divine intervention, in everything happening for a reason, in the function of mercy and reward and do these people even live on the same fucking planet as him?, and how stupid that he is almost out of booze and that he will have to, literally have to, buy the cheapest bottle of cheap red wine he alights upon, aboard this F train he considers how this is the natural complement to those 30 codeine-stuffed capsules, a nice red, goes great with pastas, meat and suicide, and how he is less alive now than ever before, less alive than he ever imagined possible. The topography of his bleak future unfolds before him, all tar and gravel.
Aboard this F train, this F train, this fucking F train, he is festooned with grief and with fear, he is feckless, fatigued, secretly furious. He is a fabulous failure, fainthearted, defatigable; he is forsaken in his hour of need, fettered to fairy tale aspirations, foolish and forlorn, a phony. He is aboard this F train, a front man for the world’s forgotten, returning to that from which he would flee (were he a different person), bound for the accoutrements of his defeat, for the accumulated dust and paper of a life unfinished but without promise, without faith or fraternity or friendship, bound for the future that makes fools of us all, bound for an apartment still alive with her odor and her words and with little notes scrawled in her handwriting on old receipts and neon post-it notes, echoes of the dead, the buzzing ghost pain of a limb already amputated.
“Ain’t no beggar,” the beggar repeats, approaching with a limp and shuffle, a rag-and-stick man, and he imagines reaching into his own worn denim pocket, imagines dangling a quarter in front of the old man’s face and doling out punishment, But you are a beggar, so beg for it, on your knees motherfucker, and his heart swells in his chest at the mere thought of this indignity, his innards sizzle and expand, ballooning into his throat, and suddenly he is sobbing, heaving, broken aboard this F train and not a word from his fellow travelers, and not a hand on his shoulder, and not a gesture of sympathy, and not a moment of eye contact, only the stink of a hundred sweating bodies, perturbed bodies, only the flicker of overhead fluorescence and the raging darkness of endless tunnels, only the warm viral air and the shift of those seated nearby, the glowing torpedo of this railcar and the roar of the tracks and the silent bearing witness, thinking their ugly thoughts about this reckless display, only this and the knowing, as he knows full well, that while a hundred thousand others will pass this evening into death and darkness, that he, that he himself, will go on living.
David Hollander is author of the novel L.I.E. (Random House, 2000). He has recently published fiction in the premiere issues of Swink and Unsaid, and nonfiction in The New York Times Magazine. He teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.