Third Prize, Fiction
Jovon Pryce Chemistry, Hunter College
Packed Trains and Empty shelves
Human Fly, U.N. window washer, Bedrich Grunzweig, 1950.
Happiness is the manifestation of satisfying rewards, loving relationships, and fulfilling endeavors. It is no wonder, then, why you are not happy. Happiness is the root of all joyful lives. Without it, is life really worth living? Surprisingly, laborers have proven that they don’t need happiness in order to survive. They’ve become accustomed to waking up early and rushing to a meager job on a packed train—rushing to clock in. At days end, they scramble to collect their things—rushing to go home. When they finally make it home, they often find that they’re hungry for food, but money will be scarce when determination to excel has been expelled by disinterest in one’s profession. So, their cores are left devoid of food and fulfillment.
With a heavy sigh, you close the book. Staring at the bland cover, you hope that the hardback will be able to contain all the truly depressing information inked on the pages within. You can’t make out the title as it has been etched away by time, fear, and the hatred of past readers. Readers who could surely relate to the words on some personal level, as you just have.
A quick glance at your watch reminds you that you only have twenty-five minutes to get to your least favorite place in the world. You wonder if it’ll happen again today. If, on your way there, your mind will drag you to the future, where you’ll be standing over a still body lying on a flat table, and you’ll move expertly, scalpel in hand, carving to save a life. The thought fills you with dread.
If you are taken to that place, you’ll surely also think of that other place. The one where your sitting in front of a desk, pen in hand, expertly carving words along still paper. Ah, the smell of ink coats the room, and it fills you with peace.
Both thoughts will fade as the silence is broken by the ding of the trains arrival. You will stand along with tens of miserable faces, moving towards the doors. The crowd outside will part before rushing in to replace your collective gloom with their own. This is certain. The certainty of it all fills you with anxiety.
The look of the people around you makes you realize just how loudly you’re breathing. “Swallow the nerves,” you whisper to yourself. But it gets stuck in your throat and you cough. They’re staring even more aggressively now. Awkward. Ignoring it, you look over at the bookshelf, right at the empty spot at the bottom where you got the bland, miserable book. You smile at how fitting that spot so close to the bottom is for such a lowdown, terrible book. You stare at the emptiness. You think of your parents, who sacrificed everything to bring you to this country, far away from the familiarity of their own home. You think of their expectations for you; become a doctor, make money, save lives. Their hope sucks away your own. As you think of the hours you’ve spent toiling through medical books, studying, practicing, preparing, you’re filled with fatigue. But then you remember that they’re books first and foremost, despite the mundanity of their topic. A smile cracks across your hardened face. You look crazy, certainly.
“You’re very gifted at writing,” your teachers told you. They said it so much that you actually started to believe it. “Don’t think you’ll make any money doing that,” your brother and mother’s words, spoken years ago, echo in your mind. Alas, it was too late. Back then, you had already designed a makeshift journal by stacking loose-leaf and tying it together with thread. You made a practice of writing down the days occurrences in it and sharing it with your family. After three days you ripped it apart because something that now seems meaningless happened. Looking back on memories like that fills you with regret, occasionally.
They’re wrong—your parents. You are gifted, you decide. Maybe you can’t make money writing, but you’ll be a lot happier dealing with ink than blood. Probably.
Reason rushes to tear into you for daring to think of such absurdity. The safe thing to do is to finish college and pursue a career in the most lucrative, expansive field possible: medicine. Jobs are always readily available there. After all, people will always get sick. On the other hand, writers are like rats. Everywhere you turn there’s a blogger, a poet, an author, screaming to be read—to be heard. Nothing makes you any different.
Twenty minutes to go. You rush to the receptionist’s desk. Her hair is pulled back tightly into a messy bun, and her hands are working furiously, attacking some poor book with a ballpoint sword—pen, you correct yourself. She sighs and sets the pen aside, waiting for something to happen.
“Well, are you just gonna stand there looking pretty, or do you need something?”
It takes a moment before you realize she’s addressing you. The subtle beauty of a woman at work distracted you, clearly. You weren’t staring at the low hanging curve of her shirt’s collar—nope. Messy hair and sloppy clothing, the tell-tale signs of a hard-working individual, or a lazy bum; you’ll have to decide later, after you take a look in the mirror.
Somehow, you manage to croak out a weak, “how are you?”
She looks annoyed now. “I’m great, how are you?” You get ready to tell her you’re having a midlife crisis when, suddenly, she shoots her hand out to shield herself. “I was being sarcastic!..I don’t really wanna know, dude,” she admits. Quiet sets in. Awkward. Disappointedly, you let the silence sit between the two of you.
Sighing deeply, she states, matter of factly, “I was working on a piece, since you asked.”
Curious, you press on, “A piece of steak? Cause you were slashing that book to pieces…” you tease. She stares back, abhorring your presence. Her glare is matched by your grin.
“Let me read it,” you demand.
“No,” she shoots back. Her apprehension masks something. Is that fear?
“Why not? All good writing deserves to be read.” Your statement betrays you.
“You say that like you know anything about writing, kid,” she retorts.
Preferring not to give away your most closely held dreams, you ponder how old she might be. She called you a kid, because she wants to belittle you?...Or, because she’s old and miserable, instead of just miserable? But you realize that she can’t be that miserable if she can do something so passionately: hack at paper. Slender arms and a high-pitched voice tell you that she can’t be much older than you; however, the bags under her eyes and wrinkles nested in their corners challenge that idea. The corners of her mouth have wrinkles, too, the kind you get from frowning a lot. She keeps glancing back at her piece. A quick glance behind her reveals stacks of books, litters of magazines, and trash heaps of crumbled paper. It immediately registers that this poor receptionist is a writer. So, she’s miserable after all, you decide. A librarian gets to be around books all the time, but you doubt that would be enough for someone like her—or someone like you.
“I’m writing America’s next greatest novel, if you must know,” she finally says.
Oh! Intrigue races across your face. Disbelief follows. How could she be writing what you keep stashed under your bed, behind your adidas box of sneakers? “Yeah right,” you respond, hoping she’ll reveal more.
Feigning modesty, she shrugs and begins, “Well, I’ve been writing since I was four! I’m actually really into it, plus I’m a fantastic writer,” she gushes, “I’m not alone in this thought either,” she wags her finger to assure you of that. “My teachers have been urging me to commit to this path since elementary school...I was scared to at first, but I ultimately decided to, as you can see. This here,” she holds up what she’s been writing, “this is my pride and joy. I call it ‘Elephant Run.’ I can’t reveal any information right now, for security reasons, but it’s sure to change the world.” She finishes her spiel, smiling ear to ear. The smile fades when she realizes that everyone’s staring at you two—at her, really. This makes her realize how loudly she was talking and is now breathing.
Still, that doesn’t make your smile fade. You smile because when she spoke, her face lit up, her eyes shone, the little imperfections by her mouth and eyes disappeared. She was filled with happiness, certainly. Though she’s miles behind on her journey, she moves forward, cutting paper like steak, angrily responding to guests, proudly telling her life story to strangers. The thought of it fills you with hope.
Just as everyone is ready to return to their boring old lives, you laugh hysterically. All eyes shoot back at you. She winces, embarrassed for you and herself. “I think you’re a fantastic writer,” you exclaim. Her cheeks flush a rosy red and her sanguine lips part to say, “How would you know? You haven’t even read my work...” Her response speaks volumes, though she whispers it. Despite how confidently she spoke before, there’s still uncertainty underneath her facade.
Placing a hand gently over hers, the one clasping the piece, you answer, “Because you seem happy doing it.” Your answer is more for you than it is for her; it’s something that you wish someone would tell you; that it’ll all be worth it as long as you're happy. Although chasing a dream is risky, the security of your low paying, monotonous job just isn’t worth the suffering you endure. Never mind the possibility that you won’t make a lot of money—you already don’t. At least you’ll be poor AND happy. Moreover, you might just make it big and become rich. Ha-ha, who knows.
The receptionist smiles appreciatively, and nods to your other hand. “So, are you going to get that before you go?”
You manage a confused, “huh,” before looking down to see that wound tightly between your sweaty fingers is that cold, old, depressing, and now truthful book. Had you taken it without realizing? Nevertheless, you were already running late, and returning it would take too much time. You could leave it with her, though she seems like the type to get annoyed by that sort of thing, but for some reason you want to take it. “Yes.”
Rushing out of the library, you barely manage to hear her yell out, “I promise to let you get a sneak peek sometime.” You smile, hoping that, that applied to more than just her book. Boy, was she cute, in a dorky kind of way.
It takes two swipes before the turnstile registers your metro card. Twelve minutes to go. The train takes two, what luck. There are no seats available on the train, so you stand. The book in your bag weighs you down, along with the name tag around your neck and pouch around your waist; you had to get dressed early since you were running so late. The train is packed. You can smell the homeless man sleeping in front of you, taking up several seats. He’s not the only rotten thing on board, though. Laborers, returning from work, reek of sweat and misery.
Come on, come on, you urge the train forward. DING. The train comes to a halt, and a resounding voice reports that there is traffic up ahead. A collective groan fills the train. The sound of people moving wakes the homeless man up. Pulling a dirty baseball cap from behind him, he gets busy. This is his job—begging, that is—and, boy, is he unhappy about it.
“Can anyone spare a quarter?...” No one responds, probably because he grunted each word as if he were angry that they hadn’t already offered up their wallets. He begins telling the story of how his life fell to such depravity. Tired workers turn their backs, some passengers turn up their music, but some naive persons tune in. You can see them listening intently as the man weaves his story. He’s just like any of you. He had a nine to five and worked all his life, but his job let him go. One day, just like that, his life went to shit. Pointing at several passengers, he tries to connect with them, to convey the point that it could easily be them in his shoes, begging for change.
“I worked for my employers for years, passing up on my own dreams,” he explains, pausing between words to cough. “It was a decent job, nothing to brag about, but nothing to cry at night over either—cough—I was supposed to be a doctor you know! Save lives and shit, now I’m the sick one—cough. Ugh, the irony, ha-ha... I gave everything to that job, because I saw it as a way to avoid this type of life. But it just used me, wrung me dry, chewed me up and then spit me out. That’s what most of them will do to ya. Especially when your hearts not in it. I’ll tell you one thing though… I’d rather be here than there! So, don’t look at me like that. Don’t look at me with pity. I’d rather feel your contempt… I was a hardworking man, and I still am. I’m not asking for handouts… This is just so I can get back on track to my dreams, really.” He finishes and wipes the spit that accumulated and momentarily moistened his dry lips.
A few people toss some money his way, holding the bills at the very edge as to not come in contact with his hand. The man grabs the money excitedly, taking no care to avoid contaminating their clean hands with his own. You laugh at that. It doesn’t seem like anyone else will contribute to his plight at this time, so he climbs back onto his bed. He is filled with resignation.
Fortunately, the train starts moving again. Later, the ding sounds again and you’re at your stop. The crowd shifts once more, preparing to exit. You feel something tugging on your faded black jeans—work expects you to wear completely black trousers, 09 black, they call it, but you’ve been putting off buying a newer, darker pair in an effort to conserve money. You look down and find filthy brown hands holding onto you. Cracked, dry lips part to say, “Spare a quarter, kid?” You are filled with pity. You rummage through your back pocket and draw out a dollar. Handing it to the man, you smile down at him and say, “Keep the change.” You think he winks at you, but he’s really rolling his eyes.
The doors slide open, and the crowd outside parts waiting impatiently for your misery to evacuate their den; instead you step out filled with the pride that comes from helping someone out. You can’t help but feel like the kindest, most thoughtful person in the world right now. Then, you imagine that you might need that money later. You think of how that one dollar is one-fourteenth of your hourly wage. You are filled with worry.
As you get to work, you think of your job’s “three standard phrases,” the most important of which is: “Hello, how are you today?” It’s a polite way of greeting customers, even though most of them just ignore you. You think of how useless it all is. This sentiment is shared by most of your coworkers, even the managers. Nonetheless, you clock in four minutes late. Thanking God, or maybe the corporate executives, for creating the five-minute grace period policy, you rush up the stairs.
You pass the low hanging heads and sad eyes of some coworkers. Too tired to speak, they ignore you. You’ve barely started but you’re already feeling lonely. It forces you to think back to the library. You consider whether that receptionist is still working on her piece, carving elephants out of steak. It makes you smile. You nearly walk into a wall, “Ouch.”
The momentary relapse into reality lasts until you make it to the store floor, where a supervisor is waiting to give you instructions. Looking over at the stores advertisement for their new selvedge denim reminds you of the book you recently salvaged. Back into the library you go. Your mind drifts back to that empty, dark spot at the bottom of the bookshelf where you got that sad, unbearably honest book. You can hear the supervisor shouting orders, but you’re not really listening. You think of the space’s emptiness. You desperately want to fill it with something—a book! Yes, to fill that space with your own book would be marvelous. A good book, too. Something cheerful, nothing like the one you removed. Because you are certain that most books at the bottom shelf are gloomy, you want to break the rhythm of it all. Because you wished you could break the rhythm of your own life. You wish your manager would stop yelling. You wish you weren’t stuck in a low paying, mindless retail job. You wish you could give the homeless man a dollar and not regret it later. You wish you didn’t rush to places. You wish it was a pen in your hand and not your pouch. You wish you could share a sneak peek of your bottom of the shelf book with the receptionist.
You desperately want to fill that empty book space with a book. That desperation fills you with determination.
“Are you even listening!? Maybe you don’t belong here!” Your manager screams, frustrated with your negligence.
Just then a customer straddles over. Your manager is right, no doubt. You don’t belong there. He doesn’t belong there either. He just isn’t brave enough to admit it. He waits for an answer, but, instead, you turn to the customer. Taking in a deep breath, you steady your heart rate, preparing yourself, and finally you shout, “HELLO, HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” The customer, manager, receptionist, and you, are all filled with confusion—for now, at least, that much is certain.
The pain of your job, sadness of the homeless man, misery of the train laborers, emptiness of the bookshelf, the hope of the receptionist’s dream, as well as your own, fills you. It all fills you.