Monday, July 18, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday (Cycle 40) Visions of who I did not want to be

Flash Fiction Friday Prompt: Use the photo for inspiration.
Genre: Open
Word Count: 1000 words

The New York Subway system is an unforgiving place and if you are smart, you quickly adapt to its way of life. I came to the city six years ago and learned the ropes by riding the system in the early morning hours from my apartment in Flatbush to my job at an accounting firm in Upper Manhattan. The basic rules were simple, never make eye contact with anyone and ignore everything that goes on around you unless your life is in danger. If it is someone else’s life being threatened then it then becomes a judgment call but I have been told several times by cynical native New Yorkers even then its best to look the other way. It went against everything I was raised to believe but like everyone else, I soon realized getting involved brought more problems than it was worth.

After a promotion I moved to Jamaica Estates in Queens and began my established routine even earlier, which had the benefit of me riding the trains before they became unbearably crowded. Each morning I saw the same small group of people at the station reading the morning paper or working on their laptops as we waited for our ride. When the train arrived and the doors slide open like programmed ants we would invariably spread ourselves as far apart as possible staying locked up in our own little worlds. I either ignored those around me by transporting myself to some faraway and isolated land where angry ocean waves crashed upon rocky shores or by working on one of my novels I was writing that I hoped would make me famous and do the same thing.

I easily adjusted to the new route and in some subconscious way felt I was accepted by those around me even though we never looked directly at each other. We were all quite the featureless professional bunch, nicely dressed in some sort of business attire, each carrying some form of briefcase and maybe if the weather was bad, a matching trench coat.

Some part of me hated this existence, the money I was making was great but I felt as if my soul was slowly being corrupted. Feeling an ill-defined hopelessness, I figured this would be my life unless something drastically changed. Another promotion resulting in a transfer could be that that change, although improbable, or by actually getting one of my books published with it making the bestseller list would work as well, although that was a joke for several reasons. Change did soon come and as usual it came from an entirely unexpected and nearly unbelievable direction in the form of a grubby old man.

It was a spring morning when he first appeared. He was small in stature with a baldhead and long white beard he never the less had intense eyes that marked him either absolutely crazy or very smart. His clothes at best were tattered consisting of dirty sneakers, baggy brown pants, and a faded t-shirt with the word "Navy" written on the front. He contrasted sharply with us well-dressed riders preparing ourselves for the onslaught of another day being good, productive citizens racing against the clock to constantly beat some arbitrary deadline only to have another replace it.

For my fellow rider and me his appearance was so sudden that we all committed the gravest of sins by looking him directly in the eye. Callously indifferent to the stares he was receiving; the old man took a seat and gazed right back with disdain.

While his sudden appearance that first day was a surprise, the problem he brought came from him disrupting the neatly crafted territories that separated the people on the subway car. Usually we all had an empty seat on either side of us, just enough to allow everyone an illusion of personal space but the old man threw that out of whack forcing someone to move which caused a ripple effect throughout the car. No matter what though, by disgruntled wordless acclamation the accepted orthodoxy had to be maintained forcing each member of the commuter collective to move whenever the old man boarded.

Months passed and despite it all the old man became an unwanted fixture daily taking a different seat in the train forcing yet another wave of movement as people adjusted their personal spaces. Somehow, I was immune to the irritation he caused choosing to return to my imaginary storm tossed coastline or again dreaming about being a bestselling author after I my turn came to adjust seats.

The change the old man brought to my life occurred one morning when I got off the train far earlier than usual. I had an appointment of the east side of Manhattan and in the rush to get off in time I left my briefcase on the subway containing not only work related files but one of my novels on a flashdrive. Realizing this I turned around in time to see the train speeding away with just about all my hopes with it.

Fortunately, the accounting paperwork could be easily restored but the version of my novel on the flashdrive was nearly irreplaceable and it would take months at least to bring an earlier version up to the same level. Waiting in the subway station for the return home that afternoon I was almost despondent until the old man plopped down beside me on the bench I was sitting then handed me my briefcase saying the words that I needed hearing.

“Listen son,” he began, “you don’t know me from Adam’s housecat but I was very much like you once. I played the game everyone told me I should participate in while deep down I knew none of it was right for me. I hated it and over the years it ate me alive, by the time I couldn’t take it anymore I was responsible for a wife and two kids. So, I started playing fast and loose with my job and family trying to cope and lost it all. I’ve watched you for months and you are not like those mindless drones, just look at me as what your future could be and run as fast and as far away as possible and find something you love to do.” Right as he finished he handed me my flashdrive with a huge smile on his face.

Completely stunned by his words and feeling I was indeed seeing the person I could become I thanked the old man and ran away from it all despite the stunned disbelief of many. Will it pay off? I have no idea but I now happily watch the wave’s crash ashore on the coast of Maine awaiting some answer.

(Author's note: Okay I have no idea if this story works, but I wanted to do something without gun play, detectives, starships, aliens, or hinting of the great and awesome Jimmy Buffett. Comments are very much welcome, so tear it a new one.)


Akelamalu said...

I loved that the old 'tramp' was in fact a benefactor of sorts. Great stuff Beach.

Bill's Big Bamboo said...

Another good-to-excellent post.

When one learns/figures out the NYC subway system, a whole new world of adventure & characters come along with it. Your writing reminded me of my own time in NYC as a "Strap-Hanger".

Thanks for the subway ride.


Windsmoke. said...

Wise words from a tramp who's been there and done that and lost everything in the world then becomes a guardian angel of sorts. Great stuff well written :-).

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

Where was that frigging dude 25 years ago? That tiny beach up in Gloucester could have been mine (well, kind of)!!

Lowandslow said...

Modern life is indeed one giant soul-sucking treadmill. Well written and with a great moral. :)


Nance said...

Damn! You're good at this!

Thomas Pluck said...

I really like the whirlwind nature of the narrator's thoughts, it perfectly captures the busy, work-obsessed mind we've come to think of as normal.
Well done, BB!

Beach Bum said...

Akelamalu: Thank you, I'm not crazy about this story but I haven't been able to concentrate on my writing as deeply as I would like lately. Been doing a lot of yard work and home repair projects and I have often been too tired to write.

Bill: I'd give it a "Good" at best. Actually did do a little research on this one though, looked at a map of the subway system.

Windsmoke: Thanks, wanted to go deeper with the relationship between the two but the word count stopped that.

Will: Actually meta rich guy once who told the rat race to kiss his ass and he ran away with his wife on a sailboat. That post was called "Cavorting with Sea Gypsies."

LowandSlow: Wouldn't mind heading off over the horizon myself.

Nance: Thank you, maybe one day I will be "good," right now if I have a decent story its just dumb luck. Sort of like what they say about putting a hundred chimps in front of a hundred typewriters, given enough time one will write Shakespeare.

Thomas: Thanks! Still didn't care for the story all that much.

Randal Graves said...

Not your usual fare, but I liked it. I really think you should add a coat of polish and perhaps lengthen it, this could be something extra cool.

Plus, always bonus points for making it clear that the real villains of the world wear suits and not scruffy t-shirts, heh.

Tag said...

If you meet Buddha on the road Kill Him. The idea that no one can bring you to enlightment except yourself. This story has that zen flavor. Nicely done.

Vinod Narayan said...

Loved it, Keep writing sir,

As I read the stories, it also strikes to me that we all see a picture and not just the person in the picture but also the train gets stuck in our thoughts :)

Oso said...

Good one, Beach.You made it good and believable and made us feel good about it.

Glen said...

escaping the system - madness. I for one could never accept a man that stops me from getting my regular seat :-)

Anonymous said...

Better live free doing what you love than chained up to money, I agree with your old man:)

Angie said...

I like the twist at the end! :)

NatalieFord said...

I LOVE this! Also, I am already heeding the old man's words before reading them.

Pixel Peeper said...

Yes, it works! It has elements everyone can relate to (love how you describe the subway seating arrangement!) and a good, optimistic ending. Oh, the "you don’t know me from Adam’s housecat..." made me laugh out loud.

Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw said...

"...the accepted orthodoxy had to be maintained forcing each member of the commuter collective to move whenever the old man boarded."

Sad commentary on man... "the accepted orthodoxy..."... I can't get past that... that is so sad!

The message here... well, there are several actually... but, one I learned some time ago...

Just because someone is old does not mean they are of any less value to society, and should not be treated as such. They are not a pair of shoes that you discard when they get old and worn. I learned that from Nana.

Great story, Beach...

R.L.W. said...

I love this story! You did an awesome job!

Beach Bum said...

Randal: Yeah, I have getting tired of my usual stuff and wanted to go in a different direction. Had the word limit allowed it I would have had the main character become somewhat fascinated by the old man and begin to follow him around. The ending would have ultimately been the same.

Tag: Like anyone who attempts to write to a degree there is a bit of myself in the main character. I hate this hyperactive consumerist society where the love of money has become a very real religion in its own right. Again like most people feeling this way I would love to get off this unholy merry-go-round but for several reason can't, at least until my kids are grown.

Vinod: Thank you, and yes but in way I found the train useful.

Oso: I wish life was that easy.

Glen: Now there is that, a good seat is hard to come by.

Dark: Thank you, I wish more people like him really existed.

Angie: Thanks, like I mentioned above I would have developed a fixation on the old man by the main character but could not swing it.

Natalie: I look forward to the day I can.

Pixel: My grandparents used "Adam's housecat..." a lot. Its made me smile to use it in the story.

Veronica: Thank you, it felt a little weird not to pull out my trusty Sig P226 but hey, you can't shoot everything all the time.

RlW: Thank you! I appreciate all the comments but feel really honored to hang with such talented people. The other stories this week blew me away!

Anonymous said...

I loved this! The old man was the one person who everyone hated, but he ended up being the one who came to the rescue! Awesome (:

Sue H said...

Beach - who says all stories have to be 'guns & action'? I think this is a wonderful tale of the rat-race having to cope with one less rat!

I did four years of travelling the London underground to work in the City and I can recall a lot of what you write here!

I'm glad you didn't add the cliche of the old guy being a secret benefactor who could secure publishing deal!

Finally - if I could choose to 'hole-up' and retreat from the world to write it would have to be somewhere on the Maine coast, too! My first visit was just last year - and my heart's still there.

Rose Green said...

Rose Green - (finally) repaying you the compliment of reading my story 'Hidden'. You were right, we did come up with similar ideas - great minds, methinks. I like the sense of being at peace with uncertainty at the end. He's given everything up and it might not turn out the way he hopes but he's willing to take the chance. There's real courage in that attitude.