“The Passenger,” by Addison Clift

Dec 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

“North and Clybourn is next. Doors open on the right at North and Clybourn.”

The train starts to move. Arms tangle with arms, grabbing for something to grab. Legs tuck in, not to trip other legs. Eyes search for a safe place, avoiding contact with other eyes. I have read the same paragraph seven times. Seven times. And I’ll probably read it seven more. Monkeyfucking Dostoyevsky.

Work. Train. Home. Judy. Sleep. Up. Train. Work. Train. Home. Sleep. Oh God, how I want to sleep…

On Monday, after nearly forty years of casually-dressed existence (three of which I’ve been in their employ) Hadley’s Stationers is going to start making us wear uniforms. They dropped this little bomb on us three weeks ago, and ever since then I’ve been dreading it like a car trip with my cousin Murph. I have spent the last nine years of my post-graduate life climbing the retail ladder, and I have finally attained a job where: 1) I can wear whatever I want, 2) I can dick around on my laptop all day, and 3) I receive benefits.

Now, after creating an environment that I could kind of almost grudgingly describe as borderline tolerable, they pull this crap. Today I tried it on for the first time. It looks like I work at Domino’s. And to make matters worse, the girls preened around in them, saying they were like oh my god the cutest uniforms ever. Imbeciles. Don’t they see that if they take away (1), then (2) and (3) are soon to follow? (Although I don’t know what the point is of having health insurance if you have to wear a uniform. You might as well be dead.)

Judy’s probably home already. Spreading her stuff out everywhere. Putting her music on. Nice of me to agree to an apartment that’s a brisk ten-minute walk from her workplace, and a thirty-minute cattle car ride from mine. I am such a nice guy.

And I’m not kidding when I say cattle car. There’s barely enough room in here to blink. An old woman in a hot pink jumpsuit is standing next to my seat, her ample posterior getting nice and chummy with my face. Every time the train lurches forward, her Nordstrom bag swings back and hits me in the knee.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Why don’t you stop being a dick and offer this woman your seat? Also, how the hell did you even get a seat at rush hour? I never can. Please, one question at a time. I’ll answer your second one first.

For the attainment of a situated position on a northbound rush hour train, I have a method. Step one: walk all the way to either the farthest car forward or the farthest back. (Fore and aft, in nautical terms.) Today I went aft, since it was the longer walk on the platform. (Longer walk = fewer walkers.) Step two—and this is more important than which car you get on—is where you get on the train in the first place. If I got on the northbound train where I work—Lake Street—I’d be standing with an armpit in my face, instead of sitting with an ass. So I walk south to Harrison Street and get on there. For a northbound train, walk south. For a southbound train, walk north. That’s how to get a seat.

Now, as to your first question: why don’t I quit being a dick? To be honest, I usually do. After walking all the way from Lake Street down to Harrison, just to get the goddamn seat, more often than not I end up offering it to some golden oldster so I don’t spend the whole ride tormented by guilt and self-loathing and nagging questions of CTA etiquette.

Yet today, a certain paralysis has set in. Today, for whatever reason, I sit. I feel rotten about it, but still I sit. And the train moves, ever…so…slowly.

But get a load of this: up toward the middle of the car, between two scrawny kids and a stain that might be a piss stain but no one’s sure but they’re avoiding it anyway in case it is, this one guy looks sick. I mean, really sick. He’s sweating and rocking back and forth on his feet, and just now he’s started twitching violently. And yet the woman sitting under him just goes on reading her little e-book thingy, pretending not to notice there’s a man twelve inches away going into severe convulsions.

And it’s the same with everyone else. The indifference I’m seeing all around me is frankly shocking. You read about this stuff, but to witness it firsthand like this… well, it makes you wonder about the world we live in. Would it be that hard for someone to call 9-1-1 or alert the conductor? I mean, I’d do it, but I’m all the way back here. Makes more sense for them to. They’re closer.

Anyway, back to my paragraph: “I am crushed with tedium. After all, the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything. I have mentioned this before.” Oh, yes. He’s mentioned it before. I sure hope you’re happy, Judy. I could be reading Elmore Leonard or Terry Pratchett. But no. I’m reading Dostoyevsky. I’m reading Dostoyevsky because you approve. And reading what you approve of is my way of stretching out in your lap and begging for a tummy rub.

But I’m on to you, with your fitted hoodies and your Buddy Holly glasses. You want to suck all the joy out of life, until everyone is a pale, unsmiling art student who watches Matthew Barney films and thinks urban farming has gotten too commercial.

Well, you know what, Judy? It’s working.

Okay–new development. The twitchy guy just screamed something that sounded like “PHARA KOLTANA I AM YOUR VESSEL!!!” You know, I never really got this New Age stuff. One time I saw Shirley MacLaine on Letterman and she—whoa, hold on there. Now his arms are elongating and reconfiguring themselves into two, three…four segments? His head is thrashing violently back and forth, his neck is bulging, and…ick. His skull just split open and in its place popped out the head of what looks like…well, honestly, it looks like a mantis. Long antennae, compound eyes. And his arms have become a mantis’s forelegs, complete with spiked claws at the end. Its head swivels in an almost complete circle as it coolly surveys the other passengers, all of whom are doing their best to ignore it.

Its first victim is this aspiring Lincoln Park housewife wearing a wrap cardigan over workout clothes. With lightning speed it thrusts a sharpened tibia into her back, which then comes out through her chest. From the look on her face, she is quite surprised. It pulls her to it, withdraws its clawed foreleg, and then, using the cavity it has made, cracks open her rib cage and sloppily eats her organs. I think she was actually alive for the first part of that.

Now it sets its sights on this black guy reading a Sun-Times over near the stain that might be a piss stain but no one’s sure but they’re avoiding it anyway in case it is. The mantis closes its forelegs around him, then a chomp-chomp here and a chomp-chomp there, and suddenly this car has a lot more standing room.

There’s nothing approaching panic in the other passengers, but I do notice a little anxiety. A nervous glance, a hurried text message. The woman who’d been sitting closest to the mantis has done her best to scoot away while remaining seated. This was a scoot of about one-and-a-half inches. Likewise, as we come into Fullerton, nobody with a seat seems willing to give it up. I guess they figure it’s not their business, so it’s not their problem. (Although I just had to duck to avoid being hit by a kidney.)

Anyway, I can’t get over this damn uniform thing. What am I, a Wal-Mart greeter? A sandwich artist? Is there no indignity they won’t make us suffer, just for the sake of slapping their goddamn logo on one more available space? I wanted to quit when I found out, and I wanted to quit again today when, standing before the restroom mirror, trembling with revulsion and dread, I beheld myself in that light blue polo shirt with “Hadley’s” stitched across the breast in florid red cursive. Five years of college for this? When Josh asked me how I liked it, I should have wrapped it around his neck, cut off his oxygen, and asked him how he liked not having a soul. But did I do that? Of course not. Instead I said, “Pretty good.”

Pretty good.

I must really enjoy my present state of total debasement. In fact, I think Dostoyevsky had something to say about that. Yeah, here it is: “No, a man can’t have a trace of self-respect, can he, who has attempted to find his pleasure in the consciousness of his own degradation?” I’m way ahead of you there, Fyodor. I can state unequivocally that I have no self-respect. And now I have the uniform to prove it.

Damn. That guy’s head came right off. I thought it would be more difficult, what with the spine and the neck muscles and all the gristle. But one swipe of the mantis’s foreleg was like someone hitting a home run in tee ball. It was some LaSalle Street prick who’d been jabbering into his Bluetooth about how much money his next con job was going to make him. No great loss there. But at least I’ve found out one thing is true: the head goes on living for several seconds after separation from the body. As it flew in a perfect arc the whole length of the car, his lips were still making the words: “I’ll have that on your desk first thing in the morning.”

Guess he won’t.

Judy is another problem. When we first started dating, she treated me like a new app. Now she treats me like a collection of old CDs that she never got around to throwing out, and which she’s slightly embarrassed about because it’s all Godsmack and Limp Bizkit and these days she only listens to German emo rock. Just last weekend I asked her if she wanted to do one of the intentionally pointless things we used to do, like rent a car and drive to Rock Island and back. She said, “What would be the point of that?” I said, “There is no point. It’s pointless. That’s the point.” She looked at me like I was a brain tumor and said she had work to do. Later I caught her masturbating to an old picture of Neil Patrick Harris. I said, “You do realize he’s gay.” She said living with me was like trying to cross the ocean on a mountain bike, so I went into the kitchen and ate all the Newman-O’s. It was a pretty typical weekend.

All right, now it’s getting bad in here. I haven’t seen this much blood since Shark Week. I think my fellow Red Liners are finally getting a little antsy. This guy in a turban got on at Belmont and then walked right off again. I’ve only got five stops to go until Bryn Mawr. I don’t want to give up my seat. But I think it’s about time I started looking at this with a practical eye. Given this thing’s approximate body mass, I would have to think that there’s a point coming in the fairly near future when its appetite for human flesh will be sated. One more rider? Two? Three? There are at least a dozen directly between it and me, so mathematically speaking, I should be okay.

But that’s assuming it lives according to the usual rules of biology. What if it doesn’t? What if it has no biology? What if it’s just a giant ‘Fuck You’ from the universe? A cosmic Mr. Creosote that will devour us all and then burst in a fusillade of goo, thus offering a valuable lesson on the perils of overconsumption. Is this how I’m going to die, eaten by a praying mantis on my way home from a job that doesn’t value me to a girlfriend who doesn’t respect me?

(By the way, I just texted her and apologized about the Newman-O’s, said I was really enjoying Notes From Underground, told her she’s the most wonderful girlfriend ever, and said I might be a little late.)

All right, I need a plan. Right now this thing is perched on the back of a seat about dead center in the car, peeling an exchange student the way some people peel string cheese. It’s got a good vantage point and it’s watching both doors. Around Addison and Sheridan there was a mild rush for the exits, but now the standers are gone, and it’s just us sitters. Which is appropriate, I think. We’re the hardened long-haulers, with calloused butts and seen-it-all attitudes. This train belongs to us.

But it looks like our friend here disagrees. And it might not let us leave.

“This is Wilson.”

Okay, let’s see if anyone tries to get off. Three people head for the exits and…two of them make it. But the guy who didn’t—ouch. He won’t be doing somersaults anytime soon. Or anything else, really, that requires having a torso.

Still, two out of three. Those are pretty good odds. I see the other riders looking at each other, nodding and smiling. No one’s giving up their seat just to stand on the next train, not for two out of three.

That doorbell sounds.

“Doors closing.”

The train begins to move.

“Lawrence is next. Doors open on the left at Lawrence.”

Do you ever feel like some line of decency has been crossed?

Get this: up near the front, this dude was sitting with his back to the carnage. He had his music up loud on one of those old-school jumbo headsets I keep meaning to pick up.  I think he was the only one still blissfully unaware that this has been converted to a dining car and we’re the buffet. But his ignorance didn’t last long. The mantis yanked him over the back of his seat, spiked him in the air with one foreleg, and with the other, sliced him open from chin to crotch. Everything fell out. It was gnarly.

But you know, it’s really got me thinking. One minute you’re sitting contentedly on the Red Line, listening to Wiz Khalifa on your tricked-out personal sound system, and the next minute you’re being gutted by some overgrown cicada from God knows what dimension. Then the thing has the audacity to kneel down and start slurping up your viscera. I mean, how fucked up is that? What did this guy do to deserve such a death? Play his music too loud? That LaSalle Street prick was one thing. But this was just a regular guy, on his way home, grabbing a few minutes to relax on the train. A fellow passenger. An average Joe.

He was…Jesus, he was just like me.

“This is Lawrence.”

What if Dostoyevsky was right? What if Judy is right? What if this is all there is? You go through the motions of your life—working and sleeping and working and never getting anywhere, wondering if you’d be better off just chucking it all, and lost in a sea of people who are probably thinking the same thing—and before you even have time to make up your mind, the cosmos sends a cricket to finish you off. And for what? What good did my life do, for me or for anyone else? What good would come of my death?

“Argyle is next. Doors open on the left at Argyle.”

There has to be more than this. There has to be. I don’t mean God or Buddha or some sort of pie-in-the-sky. I just mean that someday, I want to be able to look back on my life, and read the words that I wrote on the side of the world: I. Was. Here. I was here and I made my mark. I don’t know what that mark will be yet, but I hope it’s a little more than just my pancreas left a sticky stain on the floor of a Red Line car.

There aren’t many passengers left. Just me and a few others. And now, for the first time, this thing is looking directly at me, rocking from side to side, sizing me up. I feel like I’m staring at my own Fate, and Fate is staring back at me with a thousand hungry eyes.

And you know what? It can go fuck itself. Because I am sick and tired of letting events outside my control determine the course of my life. No more will I be a leaf blown about by the agency of others. Here is where it ends.

First: Tomorrow I am going to quit that ridiculous job. Nobody puts me in a uniform. Nobody.

Second: Judy and I are done. Splitsville. Finito. This last year we’ve been like a fish flapping around on the bottom of a boat, slowly running out of oxygen, struggling in fruitless despair against the horrible inevitability of death. (Ironically, if our relationship were a Russian novel, I think Judy would really dig it.)

And third: I have a message for the lanky fellow who by now has made provender of most of the riders on this train. My message for you is this: not today. Sure, someday you may get me. Someday I may be eaten by a giant insect, or struck by lightning, or a piano might fall on my head. But not today.

Because today I’m going to ride this thing all the way to the end. I’m not getting off at Bryn Mawr. I’m going to Howard Street, and from there up to Northwestern, where I will march into the Registrar’s Office and announce that I’m finishing my master’s in journalism, and nothing with or without an exoskeleton is going to stop me.

And I’m going to get there sitting in this very seat.

Because I have worked too hard and put up with too much bullshit to let some big ugly grasshopper tell me what’s what. Every day I get up and leave a girlfriend who doesn’t appreciate me to go to a job that I’m embarrassed to admit I still work at, and when the job is done I walk all the way from Lake to Harrison, just to get this seat, just so I can have a few minutes to relax and tune the rest of it out.

The way I figure it—I’ve earned this seat. Screw. By. Screw.

Do you hear me, you absurdist joke? You insignificant arthropod fuckstain? You bit player in a bad cosmic soap opera?

This is my seat.

Come get me off of it. I dare you.


Defenestration-Dapper GentlemanAddison Clift recently left a position with the prestigious Los Zetas cartel to serve as U.S. Under Secretary of Agriculture. In his spare time he writes fiction, which is also upcoming at Shock Totem. He lives on the Massachusetts-Illinois line.

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