by Eric Westerlind
“Yeah, I never even saw the litttle bugger.”
“Do you suppose he was after your briefcase, maybe?”
Bernard Pinch glances down at the slim leather hardcase at his side.
“Would’ve been in for a nice treat if he had,” Bernard laughs and pats the briefcase, “after all –why be in Five Points if not for a little treat.”
The man conferring with him over the shush noises of the subway is an older Asian man. Mr. Pinch has seen him riding this same subway line before.
“Well, in that case you must be happy.”
The older man turns back to his paper.
Mr. Pinch rubs at his neck, feels the bump there, remembering the slight sting of what he’d thought, walking through the tunnel before, had been insect.
“No, you see, that’s the thing—”
The doors gush open, a saxophone player, older, his moustache crusted with snot, gets on and cracks the first few notes of a song, pauses, says something no one can really make out.
Mr. Pinch resumes: “—See, that’s the thing.”
[I am conscious.]
“I’m sorry?” Pinch asks.
The Asian man is tucked behind his paper: national weather – snow snow and more.
[I am aware.]
Mr. Pinch glances around, the tramcar half-full of folks in dark clothes bundled against the cold. A young couple steps in, he gently prodding her towards a pole on the other side of the car.
Mr. Pinch reaches out and taps the older fellow’s paper.
“Excuse me did you—”
The Asian man’s lips are shut – someone else is tossing their voice very well, Mr. Pinch thinks, because it is practically whispering in his ear.
The man plucks at his coat collar, says, “Yes?” still looking at Mr. Pinch.
Mr. Pinch smooths his hair and half-smiles and sets his own lips, then shakes his head.
The man returns to his paper.
Sounding desperate for breath or skill, the musician stumbles through the second song, and Mr. Pinch looks down at his briefcase again, his x-ray eyes, if he had them, zooming through its casing, the fabric of the pocket separator, and into the airtight SCUBA diver-case which for all purposes Mr. Pinch has no intent to use underwater, and visually strokes the ounce, plus or minus, of mid-grade marijuana which Mr. Pinch is very happy to have, he thinks. It, his briefcase, felt like a flaming matchbook in his hand the whole walk to the subway, though, which he found disconcerting.
The sax player coughs into his sleeve and the young man rubs his girlfriend’s hands while she blows into them.
[There is light; a distant, single, all focusing, all encompassing twinkle of starlight. A solitary point in the vast darkness in which I am. In which I exist?]
The voice cups Mr. Pinch, Bernard’s ears.
He stands and looks around and his heart is racing.
No one really takes note of him standing. His hair curls across his forehead and he looks around without moving his head, just his eyes, like he’s trying to take someone by surprise.
“What?” he says louder.
The young man pulls his girlfriend closer to him. She tosses curt glances at Bernard and then stops when she realizes she can stare at him in the reflection of the window. The saxophone player wipes his lips with a handkerchief and his third tune begins slow, low, a long drooping minor scale settling on the floor and just loping along between the seats and the passengers’ feet.
The doors don’t open or won’t open at the next stop but no one wants off and so everyone just sort of hides laughter at the few unfortunate people who try the doors and look desperate to get in.
[I am drawn to it. It is my reference.]
Twisting his head, Mr. Pinch does not sit and walks, slow, down the car. There is something like heat radiating across his shoulders and his stomach folds into crisp thirds.
[Is it that which makes me, that which defines me – or is it I that makes it, that defines it?]
“Who’s saying that?”
The woman in the two-seat by herself puts her purse deeper onto her lap and stares very hard at the window; Bernard peers under her seat then above her, above the seats behind her, up at the adverts and maps. Six stops until Bordaise, his stop.
“Who’s saying those things? Is someone…” Mr. Pinch trails off. A professional man in his suit stands aside for him, shaking his head, saying things under his breath which Mr. Pinch doesn’t really hear. He’s looking for the speakers.
The tram stops again and again the doors won’t open but this time there are people trying to get out, the Asian man and the young couple. They’re saying ‘hey!’ and ‘hello?’ as if the conductor could hear them from the ninth car and the young man starts cursing, his girlfriend biting his shoulder from behind.
[Does my awareness only exist whilst this speck of light exists? Am I only conscious while conscious of it?]
Smiling around his mouthpiece, the saxophone player scrambles through a complex mid-range howl, up, then up and his clothes are not ragged but they are dirty: an old suit too large in the leg and waist, likely suspenders under his coat which has a pen flowering from the breast pocket, yellow and rose petals.
Mr. Pinch reaches the end of the car, turns, surveys and cups a hand around his ear.
[Should it blink out, would I blink out also?]
A passing train gusts past. The car feels as though it is tapping its foot – everyone drifting towards the doors; the Asian man folds his newspaper again and again and grips the support bar. To pass Mr. Pinch, an older couple politely excuse themselves, the woman’s face locked in a craggy wink. The cold clenches its
fist around the neck of anyone sans scarf, notably Mr. Pinch and the young man whose girlfriend is doing her best to fill in for the garment.
“What! What do you perceive?”
“What motion? This?” Mr. Pinch begins jumping, doing jumping jacks. “Is it me?”
Someone bleats near the door. The saxophone player stops, wipes his lips with a handkerchief and presses it through the ring of his fingers into his palm to make a small pouch.
“You say perceive but who are you!? Where?” Flush races across Mr. Pinch’s lips, face. Another bleat. No one is putting any money in the musician’s coin pouch; he moves slowly, giving each person a smile, waiting until they say no or wave or sniff or are dismissive.
[Do I move to it? Or it to me?]
Mr. Pinch yells now. “To it! Or something! Where are you?” He slams a palm into a smiling advertisement running along the tramcar’s roof.
Everyone is trying to get off.
The young man and the Asian fellow are pulling at the door together, the newspaper dropped to the floor and a page is being scruffed around by someone’s foot, making hash-clupp’s against the hard car-floor and the girl says ‘get me the fuck out of here,’ and similar frustrations are happening at the other two sets of doors and someone screams, the woman with the purse, and she’s pointing at Mr. Pinch who’s ripping at seat cushions, or maybe pointing past him at the musician wandering up the aisle.
Two of Bernard’s fingernails splinter under the pressure, trying to pull the cushion from the seat.
He crouchs and yanks and doesn’t feel much in his hands but his body is on fire; it feels thick, swollen, rising from his waist to his neck.
[It grows larger, infinitesimally so.]
Mr. Pinch sees the musician coming towards him, his instrument slung at his waist, holding the empty pouch out before him.
“What does? What grows?” and he’s talking at the musician, but the words are sludgy, barely escaping his lips.
That woman screams again and the old woman crosses herself, still politely smiling, sort-of, and everyone watches Mr. Pinch and the musician who is close now, just a step maybe two, to the crouched man. A few of the larger men, including the professional-looking one make a barrier in front of the clusters of people at the doors who are now, a few of them, pounding their hands against the windows, another station passing by, the doors apparently sealed like Mr. Pinch’s little case, which he’s all but forgotten though it hangs in his hand.
The saxophone player walks right up to him; Bernard stands. The older man closes an eye and peers at him.
They stand there, quietly, then: “I get you, man.”
The saxophonist smiles and he has all of his teeth.
[Are we attracted? Entwined in a dance of existence, pulling inexorably, one to the other?]
“Who are you?”
“Me?” The musician scrunches his face. He holds up his saxophone, flipples a few of the brass keys.
“Who are you!” Mr. Pinch trembles, his hand rabidly fixed to the seat support bar. The tram stops again, Mr. Pinch’s stop, and the girl is crying and a bunch of people are beating against the door and windows.
“Hey, woh. Woh!” The musician waves his hands in front of him. “I get you, man. I’m just here like you and them and these chairs and all. Just street walking, amigo.” He sniffs at the air.
Mr. Pinch’s body feels raw, like inside, his organs pressed against his skin, and he hears some fabric, his jacket, rip but he keeps staring at this musician who holds up his money pouch.
Mr. Pinch can’t speak; something has locked around his throat and he shakes his head, then nods his head and the musician looks past him at the people by the doors, crooks his finger to Bernard in a come-closer.
“Say… you’ve got something on your back, friend.”
The musician taps a finger on his own shoulder and takes a step backwards.
Mr. Pinch feels his throat, claws at it, tries to ask ‘what?’ but the rush of his own ears is deafening and he feels too heavy to stand, starts being pulled back, his weight all wrong. He grips the chair, reaches up, another passing train hurtling by, and at the base of his neck where he thought he’d been stung maybe – and remembering now the moon-faced man or boy who he’d thought had been trying to rob him – but who’d just stopped him and pulled him close with a crook of a finger like that, just now, that one from the musician, and who’d whispered something like ‘do in a pinch,’ or ‘who it’s a cinch’ which he’d ignored, and hurried past, so focused on the pot and the briefcase and the marvelous wonderful shame, such that he didn’t barely feel the minute injection, the bug bite, where now his hand plays almost tenderly across the hard-coal stump growing from his shoulder, the hand-sized fledge-nub of an enormous wing.