Reads: 10

Late in the Subway

 

 

It was about eleven o’clock on Sunday night. George was going back to Brooklyn after a weekend spent in Westchester, where he worked for some acquaintances turned friends — wealthy Americans. His task was to collect the stones from a hill by the house and plant flowers. He had done brilliantly.

It was a ten-hour a day kind of job. As a result, his whole body hurt—his back, hands, legs. His body felt so heavy he could barely walk.

George had no papers. He came to the US on a tourist visa, overstayed, and managed to live under the immigration service’s radar for over a year. Whatever he earned, he sent directly to his family in Bulgaria via friends.

George was forty-seven with hair grayer than it should be for his age. He had a medium build but was tough and resilient. In Bulgaria, George had a wife and two children, now young men of eighteen and twenty-two. He was an oncologist in Bulgaria. George supported his children with the money he earned in America. His oldest boy was studying to be a doctor at the Medical Academy in Sofia. The younger son was preparing for his admission exams by taking biology and chemistry classes. They wanted to be doctors like their father. He hoped that one day the medical profession in Bulgaria would be respected and paid well, but if not, they would be able to work abroad as doctors. It was too late for him to start over from the beginning.

The subway was traveling reasonably quickly. It was the 4-train going down through Manhattan. George sat in the half-empty carriage and rubbed his hands from time to time, which had been torn and hurt. He was too tired to think of anything. The man looked at his bike occasionally, which he had pedaled to the train station from the house where he was working. George repeated in his mind not to forget it—he was so tired that it was quite possible. The tired man thought that the next day was the turn for the construction brigade, where the work also was heavy. George did not remember how long it had been since he had a day off, but even if he had the chance to take a free day, he would not want to. He alone chose it that way. Hadn’t he come here to make money? George lived in a daze—work alternated with sleep. He was no longer afraid immigration would catch him or that he would get hurt at work or become ill.

Now George felt like sleeping again, and everything seemed like a dream. He waited eagerly for the train to reach Canal Street, where he could transfer to the R-train, which traveled to the last stop. Once on the R-train, George could fall asleep.

Finally, the train stopped at Canal Street. George walked to the platform slowly, pushing his bike. Somewhere ahead, water dripped in the tunnel, tap-tap. George wondered whether it was pouring in the city above. He could never tell whether it was raining or whether a pipe had broken in the subway.

George’s heavy footsteps were like a continuing echo to those drops, which continued even as the origin of the noise vanished behind the turn in the corridor. The transition from the 4- to the R-line went through a long, winding hall with stairs up and down. When he had to climb up, George picked up the bike, and when he went down, he just let it rattle down the stairs.

Slowly, a noise drifted to him from ahead. It was music. Someone was playing the saxophone. In a forgotten life, George was a jazz fan. He came out in a long, straight section of the corridor. In the middle stood a thirty-something-year-old man with a saxophone. He found a cozy place where he could practice and earn a dollar, although there were not many people there at the time. Such musicians can be found frequently in the New York City subway. Some are very good—professionals who put their hearts into their craft. This one was no exception. He played a familiar melody by Jan Garbarek. The song was called Red Wind and was one of George’s favorite compositions. He slowed his steps, passed the man who played, and reached the end of the corridor. Then George put the bike against the wall and returned to the musician. He put all the spending money he had in his pocket at the moment in the hat set in front of the guy—two dollars. The man nodded gratefully for the recognition of his art. George asked, "Can you play it once again from the beginning?" The musician smiled, and the melody began again. George sauntered to the bike and began to push it down the hall while the music washed over him and ran around him, entering his heart, filling him with joy. His body became light, and his fatigue evaporated. He turned the corner and continued straight as the melody faded behind him slowly. The joy that the song gave him kept him feeling warm and cozy long after he could no longer hear it.


Submitted: May 20, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Robert Ratman. All rights reserved.

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