A gasp of adrenaline lurched Ian from sleep to wakefulness, vestiges of dream receding like a jump cut from his consciousness. Ian’s dreams had been work-related as of late. A troubling pattern. Signifying, hard to say what exactly. The day overwhelming night. Then again, Ian supposed, what else is one supposed to dream about, if all one does in life is show up at work? By day, Ian was a banker. To be accurate, he was a teller. A bank teller. Which was – it occurred to Ian now in his sleep-addled state – nothing whatsoever like being a teller of say fortunes, the fortune here being of course being safeguarded by the bank, not foretold, there being no “telling” involved in the job description whatsoever. Ian briefly imagined a combination of the two job descriptions. The uniform would be different. But otherwise, no – he couldn’t even think of what a fortune teller would say under a given circumstance that a person already in a bank might receive with any degree of coherence. “You will become a billionaire.” How? “By becoming the president.” When? “In fifty years from now.” Here’s a receipt for that. Or a more truthful combination: “You will find that the twenty extra dollars in your pocket were already yours.”
The bedside clock’s minute hand hung a single minute away from triggering Ian’s alarm, which was indisputably the worst waking-up scenario that Ian could imagine. Either one turned off the alarm altogether and risked falling back into such a degree of deep sleep that one might be, say, belated in one’s arrival at work; or one waited it out with heart pumping in the lessening darkness of the early morning for the full minute, all the while awaiting the alarm clock’s sudden beeping – the anticipation of the sound somehow worse than the alarm itself – after which one might hit the snooze button and fall back asleep for another nine minutes; but that minute of waiting somehow destroyed the whole concept of the snooze. It was like the moment before death. The knowledge of one thing coming full speed at you like a guillotine falling from heaven. Fortune teller indeed. “You will be dead soon. You will die in your lifetime. You will find yourself awake with one moment left to live, and you will wonder why there is no snooze button on life.” Ian turned off the alarm and got out of bed.
In his tiny kitchen nook, he drank coffee and chomped on some flavorless breakfast cereal as he read the news on his first-generation Ipad, which was covered in milk and coffee stains, its noticeably lagging response to each finger swipe reminding him of himself. The news was about the news. President Trump was angry about something and threatening to fire someone over either the same thing or some other thing. Ian only read the headlines. There wasn’t much pleasure to be derived from the articles themselves, nor much content. Headlines tend to do the trick. “Trump Under New Fire.” “Man Attempts Bank Robbery.” “Truck Strikes Store, Injuring Four.” “Man Risks Being Late for Work By Dawdling UnNecessarily.” Right. Ian dressed himself, nondescriptly, a pair of gray Dockers and a collared shirt. He will don the requisite blue vest upon arriving at his workplace. He will, once there, clip on his name tag. It will read: Ian, Bank Teller. Perhaps, he thought as he descended the four sets of stairs from his apartment to the front door, he should cross out the word bank and write in “Fortune” just to see if anyone even noticed. The customers barely make eye contact. They pass bags of quarters to him. Checks that are made out to a misspelled last name. The job rendered practically unnecessary in the era of photographically cashed checks and direct deposit, so that the majority of the users of the actual banking window tended to be elderly or stupid. What Ian wouldn’t give for a well-educated twenty-two year old with a handful of checks to cash out who might notice his little joke. Who might smile and ask for her fortune. He would respond, You will be married to a very rich man. What’s his name? She might ask. Him, smoothly: Now that would be telling too much, now wouldn’t it? Her: What’s your name then? They would find themselves at that neighborhood bar that Ian walked by every night on his way back to the train. Who knew what, after that? Although, scratch the twenty-two. Unrealistic. Twenty-seven. One year younger than Ian. More reasonable. Much more likely. “You will find yourself engaged to the person in your dreams.” Of. “Of your dreams.”
Ian, on nondescript subway platform, waits for the early-morning B train to pull in from deeper Brooklyn en route the great island of Manhattan. The time sequences that announce the next arriving train on the little electronic board are nonsensical. A train will arrive in four minutes, followed by another train in seven minutes, followed by another train in nineteen minutes. Why would anyone need to know the projected arrival time of the second train, much less the third? Was it all a cosmic joke? Was there any basis in logic, or is it just numbers, spinning, there to satiate the mind? No but here comes the train, thank god. The first number was right after all. The doors open. Ian boards the train. The doors close. The train exits the terminal and vanishes into the darkness of the tunnel ahead, en route the temporary display of all of lower Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge.
It takes Ian a moment to realize that the train car he has entered is utterly empty. Except, of course, for Ian himself. What omen might this foretell? The trains were normally packed at this hour. Was there a stinking homeless person hidden somewhere in the car? Ian checked, but no – he was really and truly alone. He briefly, mentally, calculated the day – could it be a holiday or weekend and he just by force of habit forced himself into the din and grunge of the subway for no reason? No, it was Tuesday. Yesterday had been indisputably a Monday, and it was the middle of the week – well, early mid – and so there was no satisfactory explanation for the empty train car that Ian found himself on as the train rattled to its customary halt in the deep darkness off the bridge, where it would wait, idling, as it always did, for some uncomfortable amount of time before grinding its way above ground to cross the East River.
Confident of at least a few moments respite prior to the next stop and its imminent rush of crowds, Ian flouted the subway rules by putting his feet up on the seat next to him, and allowed his mind to drift back towards some element of his mostly-forgotten dream, which was work related but had involved some sort of promotion or moment of glory – a bank robber scenario? It might have been. Ian imagined himself the hero, appearing on local television and being interviewed by an attractive anchor person who also noticed his cheeky addition of the word “Fortune” on his name tag, and had just started to formulate his witty response to the fictional anchor person when the sound of a person entering his car through the front interior in-between-car door that explicitly stated it was to be used only in an emergency jerked him back into the present.
A quick glance across the car at the oncoming stranger reinforced Ian’s immediate terror that this intrusion on his momentary respite was caused most likely by a stinking homeless person, alongside a high level of probability that this person would attempt to panhandle money from Ian, which was all-the-more terrible and horrifying with the absence of other people in Ian’s train car. An immediate dilemma, as in, nowhere to hide and no way to pretend that one is not aware of the other’s presence. And come on. It’s not like Ian has that much money in the first place, a mere bank teller on meager salary as it is, on the way to his stupid workplace and this other person has the right to solicit him under these circumstances? What of the signs, the advertisements on the train that occasionally run alongside messages such as “If you see something, say something,” the ones that state that panhandling is against the law and offer the firm instruction “Do Not Give.” Who, then, continues to give, messing it up for all the others? After all, if no one gave, then no one would roam the trains day and night muttering their sad story for all to hear and struggle to ignore? God damn it, Ian thought. He had no reading materials handy and his phone along with headphones were buried at the bottom of his bag. No way out. He closed his eyes tightly as though he had suddenly been struck with an animal tranquilizer dart and hoped for the best.
The shuffling sounds of the homeless person drew nearer, and Ian was able to determine, his horror mounting, that the individual had paused and was standing to his immediate right. He could hear a muttering sound, the voice higher pitched than one might have expected. There was no discernible odor. In spite of itself, Ian’s brain reached out to the muttering, massaged it, sorted through it for recognizable phrases – whether he did this out of morbid curiosity or simply brazen survivalism (know thy nemesis!) Ian did not know. While much of it seemed to be garbled nonsense, he was able to make out, curiously, “rather slit my wrists than be press secretary” which was repeated over and over as though a sequence or mantra. The voice raspy, feminine. Ian flickered his eyelids to get a look, and she – for it was a she – was staring right at him. There was something alarmingly familiar about her – had he seen her before? On television? Or a wanted poster? Her face was skeletal, bronzed skin stretched from forehead to chin as if pulled tight from the back of the skull, with matted blond hair and wearing what may have once been a business suit but now was a collection of rags, a business shroud almost – Ian squinted so that his eyes appeared mostly closed but so he was able to continue observation of this strange other. At least, his mind reminded him, she hasn’t asked for money.
As though hearing his thought out loud, the creature addressed him. Ian blinked once. Averted his partial gaze. She leaned closer. Her lips almost grazed his forehead, where nervous sweat had started to bead. Her breath smelled of vetiver perfume and rot. Her voice a death rattle: “You’re the alternative. Fact.” And then, sensing no response from Ian, she receded back into herself, returned to muttering her internal “slit my wrists” mantra, shuffled away to his left, and passed on to the next subway car just as the train itself shuddered and seemed about to move from its resting point.
Ian, filled with a combination of relief at her departure and confusion over her rather aggressive characterization of himself, was about to check his wristwatch in order to determine whether or not the delay would, in combination with his slight dalliance in leaving his house, result in noticeable lateness – in essence, the difference between standing at his teller’s window at the moment the bank doors opened themselves to the public versus having to make the walk of shame, eyes down, name tag fluttering listlessly, to remove the “Next Window Please” sign in full view of all the public, plus for certain the real bankers and without question his manager, who would possibly find this reason enough to cut his already-insufficient hours. However, just as his wrist bearing watch was nearing eye level, the train jolted to an even-more-sudden stop than before, and all but one of the fluorescent lights abruptly turned off, leaving Ian’s car in darkness. The train’s air flow turned off along with the lights, and so the train was suddenly filled with the absence of sound, light, and movement. And then the far door between cars sucked open, and Ian, seized with claustrophobic dread and a nameless anger at the MTA, realized that yet another homeless person had entered his car.
With cover of darkness, Ian found it possible to observe this new specimen without drawing undue attention to his presence. The intruding creature appeared this time to be male – strangely, also clad in what had once been some sort of formal suit – the undershirt was torn, revealing a bloodied neck line still adorned with the knotted part of a neck tie, although the tie itself was missing, roughly shorn as though a pack of wild dogs had chewed it off. The man was of middle age, and Ian at first thought he was imagining the leaves and sticks protruding from his trousers. But no, they were real, suggesting that this individual had just fought his way through a thick shrubbery following an attack by dogs and had just now unexpectedly found himself on a stalled and darkened train with no idea how he had gotten there. The man did not seem to notice Ian’s presence until he was about three quarters of the way past him, and then did a little jump upon catching sight of Ian in the gloomy darkness. “Fuck!” the little man squealed, and then fell down hard. He pulled himself up again just as the lights on the train flickered back on, effectively freezing him in a half-off-the-floor position while his eyes ratcheted from left to right, reminiscent of a squirrel trying to determine the level of danger. Finally, he looked Ian straight in the face, swallowed, and forced himself to whisper “no comment at this time,” which seemed to free him from his frozen state and allowed him to half-crawl his way to the rear door of the train, still looking at Ian as though he expected something dreadful to happen. The man’s hand blindly found the door handle to the train car beyond and he fell through it backwards, leaving nothing but a few spare leaves and branches behind.
What followed, Ian would later recollect – although in the moment he experienced it as a series of unending individual events, headline after headline after headline – was a lengthy procession of the apparent homeless through the but-for-Ian vacant train car; each entering from the front, and each exiting through the rear. Time itself a lost concept, as the pneumatic doors just kept opening and another damaged being would emerge, blinking in the light, to make their tragic runway walk past Ian and on to the next car. Several of the men were quite tall, their heads almost scraping the ceiling as they shuffled along. Few were women. Even fewer were black. A procession of mostly older white men in ruined suits. Some missing shoes. Several seemed to be on fire. The odors of burnt expensive wool and cheap sweat filled the car and lingered. The lights above switched on and off and yet the car never moved. No voice of conductor audible, explaining away the delay. At some point, several points actually, Ian tried again to check his watch but found that he was no longer wearing one. Perhaps he had given it to one of the panhandlers, although he could not remember which one. He was also no longer wearing the same pants – instead of the contemporary khakis he had left the house wearing, he was now dressed in something rough and pleated with a houndstooth pattern. Ian had no recollection of how this came about. He simply looked down at some point and found that it was. The procession continued, endless, lamentable, almost comic in its proportion. Strangely, only a few asked for money, and those that did uttered the words haltingly, as though through a filter of thick shame. Needless to say, Ian did not give.
Ian could now make out a whisper of a conductor’s voice, and he strained to make out the words through the reverberation of fifty-year-old speakers. The conductor seemed to saying: Miles are covered one step at a time. Man is born to live and not prepared to live. Others cannot help you. Meditation with an old enemy is advised. People find it difficult. Now is a good time. We apologize for the delay upon delivering you to your final destination. And, finally: You will find yourself in a strange land but that land will be your own.
The car itself had fallen into total darkness and the voice of the conductor fell silent. The sounds of the procession continued for some time, and Ian may have even fallen asleep. He remembered jolting awake to the smell of what could only be described as – although Ian didn’t know how he would have known the scent – burning currency. A rich green acrid smoke belching forth from a monster in a mostly empty suit. A flash of orange hair sticking straight up, illuminated by a sudden strobe-like flicker of the subway lights. A toad-like voice barely audible, and Ian strained to make sense of the words. The creature seemed to repeating, with unequal emphasis, “You know it, I know it, we all know it,” but Ian was never able to figure out what “it” was. As the creature drew near, less ashamed than the rest, it smugly revealed an undersized yet hammy hand from the folds of the smoldering suit and opened it meaningfully at Ian’s eye level. The hand held nothing. An empty sweaty plane. Outstretched, for what, money? Ian felt around in the pockets of the foreign pants but wasn’t even able to find a wallet. The creature snorted, crumpled the nothingness into even more nothingness, and the hand disappeared back into the coat sleeve. “Disappointed. Sad! You know it, we all know it.” A final exit through the rear door. Without warning, the train jolted once and then clunked its way into movement once more.
The train moves. He moves with it. They cross the bridge into Manhattan. The fog is heavy. Or is it smoke? Smog? The city is obscured entirely. Tendrils of cloud cover sweep past. Across the bay, the Statue of Liberty appears to be missing. Instead, a bright yellow crane on a huge barge juts through the mist. The train doors open at the next stop. He disembarks and reports to work, somehow, impossibly, only four minutes late.
In the dank employee locker room, he dons the remainder of his uniform. His name tag, affixed at last, reads Ivan. This does not seem inaccurate. He does not remember whether or not this should be a cause for alarm. Ivan seems about right.
And later, once the morning banking rush had died down, when the mentally unbalanced man wielding a medium-sized knife, clearly disturbed and wearing a hat with an American flag on it, entered the bank calling out something like “Take back the republic!” and chose Ivan’s window to approach, he automatically depresses the panic button just below the cash register that would summon the state police while calling out “Nemedlenno pokinte pomeschenie banka!” in a clear, clarion voice that he barely recognizes as his own.