(photo by Leah Runyon)
He had leathery skin and dirty fingernails. Not the kind that were unattractive, but the kind that said he was a hard worker. At that moment, though, they were on break—quietly strumming the base of a guitar as he made his way up and down the subway car. There were only a handful of people on the F and he had space to move about and sing softly to himself. Every once in a while he’d stop in front of me, reach up, and pluck a pen hidden between an ear and an old timer’s hat. Then, bending over his guitar, he’d wet the tip with his tongue and jot down a note or two in his flip-pad.
He wore a serious look when he wrote. His eyes narrowed and his lower lip came up and massaged his mustache. He was young. No older than thirty-five. He wore a heavy knapsack with a sleeping bag rolled up on the top. When he’d write, the whole thing would ride up his neck. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but watching him I couldn’t help but readjust my own belongings. I had used a similar bag when I first got married and went backpacking, laughing my way through Eastern Europe. That was when I first got married—before that bag got heavy.
I tucked the box under my arm and fixed the strap to my purse. The man continued to walk and sing. I looked at my watch. I got stuck at work again and was going to be late.
It got more and more crowded as we moved along and eventually the man had to stop. He slunk his bag onto the floor and took a seat on the other end of the car. He kept his guitar with him still and continued to play. The people near him seemed to be annoyed as they dug their earphones deep into their canals—either at the space he was taking up or the singing; I couldn’t tell which it was. I was beginning to get bothered as well. Not with him, though. Body odor had begun to creep about the compartment; I could feel it nesting in my hair. I wondered if it smelled less where he was. I decided it probably didn’t. I tucked the box back under my arm again, stretched my sleeve over palm, and took hold of the metal bar in front of me.
We stopped. More people rushed in. I watched as expensive people dressed in their work attire filtered through the doors, their pupils dilating heavy sighs of relief. I knew that feeling. Phones don’t work on subways.
I soon found myself sharing the lower half of the poll with an older woman. Something about being together at the bottom encourages people to share, as though being short meant we were members of the same club, and women to boot.
“A present?” she said with a nod at the box.
“My son’s birthday,” I nodded back. I could feel her eyes glide over my empty fingers hanging on display across the metal bar. I turned the other way. Between the tangles of body parts I could still see the man, his eyes closed, his head bobbing along to the strumming. He didn’t seem to feel the angry stares.
“Ah, lovely. My sons are all grown. The oldest just moved to Philadelphia. He’s an architect. Well, not to surprising, is it? Like father like son. Anywho, they have a wonderful program in Philadelphia and his wife is from there as well, so,” she said, her eyebrows raised with an impressive air. “How old is your boy?”
“Looks just like his father I’d bet.”
I chuckled and nodded politely. He did, but not that his father would know.
I turned back again. He was holding that pen and a pad. His lower lip feeling along his mustache.
“She’s pregnant too,” she said, her hand reaching out to my shoulder. I flinched. She took it for confusion. “My oldest’ wife,” she explained. “Beth. She’s pregnant. Not that I’m supposed to be telling people yet. But…” she shrugged her eyes. “A grandmother. One day you’ll understand, dear.”
I wasn’t pregnant, but I didn’t say that of course.
“Does she crave milkshakes?” I asked instead.
She tilted her head to the side, “I don’t know. I don’t think so, actually.”
She waited for me to continue. I didn’t.
“Well, what’s the young man getting?”
“Lego. He likes to build homes.”
“Ah, a young architect as well then. Well it’s never too early to know. Paul knew right from the moment he was old enough to go to work with his father.” Her eyebrows shrugged again. “All he wanted to do was build. It’s in the genes. It was in Paul’s genes.” She opened her mouth to continue. I leaned in slightly as to hedge her next question, “Did you buy him Lego for his birthdays?”
The old woman’s face got screwed up, then cracked into what seemed like a million different paths. She had an old laugh that reminded me of my own father. It made me feel young, like a little girl again.
When I was nine, my father took me out to dinner. It was a treat because I wasn’t usually allowed to go out on school nights. My mother had night shifts and didn’t need to know, he said. So we went. It was only going to be us, but my father ran into a friend at the diner. She joined us. They were good friends it turned out. They had stories and jokes I didn’t get. She made one joke that my father thought was hysterical. He laughed and hit the table with his fist. His fist turned into fingers that slithered across the table towards her hand. She had a fresh manicure and I remember it was a beautiful pink. His fingers wrapped around them. I watched and she looked at me. Then my father looked at me. His fingers scurried back into a fist. I got a milkshake. I got a milkshake again when Jake was born and his father snaked his way out of our lives.
Still, I thought, that wouldn’t be bad. An architect.
I figured that was as good a place as any to end the conversation. I looked at the man and kept looking at him and away from the old woman. I don’t know what it was exactly. There was something about the way he moved, the way his hiker boots slumped off the seat and kicked to the music that pulled me in close. And that bag, too.
It wasn’t long before he noticed me staring. He tipped his hat to me and twisted his mustache and that was all the invitation I needed.
“Well, this is my stop,” I said as the car came to a screeching halt. I ducked under the branches of arms and pushed my way through.
“Happy birthday,” yelled the old woman.
I slipped out onto the platform and raced back down towards the far door of the car. Quickly getting lost inside a pack of fresh on-comers, I reentered the F.
“Name’s Jesse,” he said before I could reach his outstretched hand.
“Chloe,” I replied.
We shook. He scooted over, leaving me a half a patch of plastic. I took it, careful not to sit on his coat. It was a tight fit and I could feel his hip resting on mine. I glanced over at the old woman. She had moved onto someone else. She was laughing that old laugh.
“What type of music you like?” he said, adjusting his guitar.
“How about I play a tune I just learned from a Jew, a lonely, wandering Jew.”
“Sure,” I said because what else do you say to something like that?
Jesse readjusted a couple of things. Tapped on the base with his palm and bobbed his head again. With his eyes closed so tight and hard, he began to sing or maybe he was praying. People were looking again. I closed my eyes and I could feel his hip gliding across mine as he swayed slowly and softly. And as he got going, I could feel his voice vibrating through me, too.
“ah—DOHN oh—LAHM, Pee—KOO Lee, Pee—KOO Lee, ah—nee ma—ah—MEEM, ah—DOHN oh—LAHM…”
I opened my eyes. He was looking at me. He was looking at me and for a moment or two, I got lost in his gaze, inside the black. His eyelids never shuttered. He was inviting me in. So I did. I walked right into the black and listened from inside. He continued to sing and I listened. He had an easy voice that sounded right. It sounded like aged wine collecting notes from its oak barrel. It was sweet and soothing. I didn’t understand a word he said and I didn’t care either. But each syllable was sung with all of him.
“Pee—KOO Lee, Dyan Ha—Olam, Dyan Ha—Olam, ROO—Akh Ha—Emet.”
And, then, it was like a light went on. Maybe it was the blitz of lights flashing by the car windows or maybe it came from inside my head or maybe it was from inside his, but whatever it was, it was clear to me. I could see him. With his bag and his guitar, I could see this man. There were signs inside his head too that I could read as I wandered through the ally of his soul: “No greener grass,” “No other,” “No neighbor’s car.” And he let me. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. It was more than that. He gave me a candle and said go ahead. Explore. And as I did, the people around us melted away like wax.
Let them look, I thought. There wasn’t anything to hide. There were no secret wishes. He was happy and it was safe inside.
“That was lovely,” I said when he finished. “Lovely,” I repeated.
“Everyone I meet says the same,” he said. “I’ve been wandering around myself, you know.” He tapped his bag. “Everything I own is in that bag and this guitar. Everything is here.”
I smiled. I already knew what he said was true.
The train stopped in Brooklyn. I thanked him. He tipped his hat at me. I bumped into the old woman on the platform. She gave me the eyebrows. I shrugged and made my way up the stairs.
It was six twenty-three when I climbed up my own stairs. I held the box behind my back and turned the key.
“I’m home, sorry–again.”