Every night for the past two weeks, at exactly eight o’clock, I have helped a man into an ostrich. He gets in under its raffia skirt and I wait for him to run back to me so that I can pluck out his black-striped tail feathers. He disappears and then the ostrich flies away. The woman who gets to push the button that carries the ostrich away told me my first day that real ostriches don’t fly. I told her that real lions don’t sing either. We haven’t talked since.
Problem is, I’m only the substitute for Jane, the woman who usually wrangles the ostrich. They tell me she is coming back Tuesday, so this is my last night with both bird and man. I don’t know what will come next, only that the past two weeks have felt like a lifetime, and that I have made more money than I’ve ever made in a month. In that regard I guess I’m lucky.
I was asked in kindergarten what I might like to be when I grew up. I thought people could choose to be animals and said I’d most like to be a whale. Everybody laughed but a few weeks later our class was taken to this musical. After the show everyone wanted to be a lion or a baboon or a meerkat when they grew up. It was the first time I didn’t feel alone. Also, putting a man in an ostrich is closer than any of them ever got.
More and more, though, I don’t feel like an animal. I’ll never lift a lion cub out over an audience. I’ll never command an army of hyenas. Instead, I feel like a pincushion. Everybody has to sink their fangs into something, and I guess I make an easy target. People forget I’m also struggling. They forget I too have eyes, can see the things they won’t say behind their needling impressions. My body grows into the pins, works around them. One day my skin may just be glistening pinheads. Funny how fast our pain becomes armor. It beats being a sack of sand.
The subway is empty. It seems wrong that it should run just for me, that if I weren’t there this machine would travel only for the sake of a possibility. A full train is often as silent as an empty train; the only difference is the confetti of blue light caught in people’s hands. Somehow it feels harder to take up space on an empty train—hard enough on a full one.
A man with a white cane boards. One of his eyes is milky: a full moon. The other pierces like a subway headlight. He is the only person I’ve ever seen on a train that will always be permitted room. When one sense diminishes, you are allowed your personal sphere. He reminds me of a shark. The way police cars are like sharks, like you have to give them space to avoid their teeth. The sea also has sirens, so the streets must have sharks.
He smiles and I see a ripple in his cheeks. My smile back stretches thin as I realize he might not see it. Eye contact is hard enough on the subway. I am afraid to show my teeth when I smile, but also I never wanted to be a shark. “What do you do?”
His voice is like sandpaper, like rubbing a shark’s skin in the wrong direction. Shark skin is made of endless rows of teeth, just like shark teeth. I think of my ostrich, suspended in the wings. Flying should never feel like being trapped. “I don’t know anymore,” I say.
“I’m an acupuncturist.”
The subway runs on an alternate route due to construction. Stops whizz past, caught in the frames between concrete columns like a roll of film. My eye tries to find objects to latch onto, freeze the moving space into singular pictures. We break our lives into similar lines.
The train stops. Static, like the speakers explaining why. The blind man asks for my hands. I gaze at them. They look like they shouldn’t belong to me. They don’t belong to him either. I walk over regardless. He smells like cinnamon, like autumn. “They are so sad,” he says, pressing the space between my thumb and pointer finger, “you have never found what to do with them.”
He removes a jar from a briefcase, a pouch that he unfolds in his lap. The pouch is full of needles so thin they seem translucent. The jar is full of liquid cloudy as his eye. “How do you know where to put them?”
“Sometimes it is easier to feel where another person keeps their pain.”
He dips a needle into the liquid, dips it into my skin. With each pinprick I feel a jolt, a loosening. He plucks several hairs from my hand, replaces them with needles. “Your hair is the death of things you used to be.”
When he is done, it feels like he has removed more pins than he put in.
The blind man leaves. I transfer trains. The alternate route is not working for me. Canal. Chambers. Bowery. The stations down here feel older. Bowery is a cave full of peeling brown paint stalactites. It is abandoned and the whole platform is rats. This is their preening hour so they have become brave. They chew at the trash. They chew at the paint. They are stalagmites. If day never came again and all the trains had no passengers they would chew through the entire station.
I stay on the steps above the platform. I am not ready to wade through rats. They aren’t ready to wade up stairs and I am grateful we have found an agreement.
Time passes. A man sits next to me on the steps. He wears olive green—too pigmented for army green. His phone is cracked and he has thick whorls of bushy hair. Apparently he used to be many things. I have felt my own hair begin to thin.
He looks at me. I have received more direct eye contact on this trip than I have ever received on the subway before. “We can’t go down there,” he says towards the seething platform below us.
He stretches his arms out to them, tries to conduct a symphony of rats. Somewhere behind the staircase I hear another voice. “Rat! Rat! Rat! Rat! Rat!”
There must be as many rats at the other end of the platform. Why have they gathered here? Is this how many exist everywhere? The olive man gives up on his symphony. “If they were fish we wouldn’t let them be here. We’re too similar. Mammals.”
The rat chant stops behind us. The olive man whistles at a rat. “Hey Stuey. Stu?”
I want out of the rat cave but the trains march slowly here. “Rat! Rat! Rat!”
“Stuey,” the olive man descends onto the platform and looks back up at me, “have you read Stuart Little?”
Rats approach his clogs and he retreats back to the steps. “I think we could tame them. If none of this were here. If it were just the rats and us. Stu?”
I can hear the train. The rats don’t seem to notice. Another empty subway drowns out the rat chant. The olive man and I step onto the platform, parting the black waves. The train stops and we are standing directly between two cars. He moves towards one and I towards the other. “Rat! Rat! Rat! Rat!”
My mother has often mentioned that New York has a problem with strays. People who don’t belong anywhere. People who think the city is a good idea. They feed off it, anonymous. Perhaps we are all too similar to the rats.
The subway runs on an alternate route due to a biological anomaly. It threads its way through stations it was never meant to enter, marking its path in and out and in again like a knitting needle. I am wary of the view beyond the glass, stops whose names I have never heard before. The train slips above ground and we stop in the middle of a cemetery. I see the olive man get off, wonder if he will tame the rats among the tombstones—stalagmites too, in their own way.
All the cemeteries in New York are full. Overcrowding. Maybe that’s why they put a subway stop here? The dead deserve to find their way home. The dead are strays. Perhaps the city planners hope they will go somewhere else. Go back to be dead wherever they came from. Skeletons have no hair, and I have suspicions that they may not be the death of things we used to be either. The subway dips back underground. Six feet under.
A woman in leather culottes boards the train. Her hair is short: rings but not ringlets. If you are going to look a person over, most people start with the shoes. She wears black and white opera shoes. She asks, “Is the train supposed to stop at a highway?”
I look out the window and see darkness, like driving on highways. I meet her gaze: a deep black circle inside an electric blue ring, whites rimmed by cobalt shadow. She has evil eyes. Any stranger might. “What do you do?”
I don’t know what my voice sounds like, only that it is different from the one in my head. The skull is an echo chamber. The mind even more so. “I sell comfort,” she replies, “comfort and clarity. And sometimes color.”
I want her to say more. I don’t know what to ask. Sometimes silence is the only appropriate response. Silence is a pin that has always found a home in my body. “Like this train car,” she says, “isn’t it comfortable? Isn’t it clear?”
She laughs. “There are no shadows in a subway car. Only reflections.”
“You can’t trust reflections.”
“They are colorful.”
“But not clear. Or comfortable.”
“There are no shadows in subway cars because of the lighting. I design lights. The subway lights were designed to keep secrets at bay.”
“There are shadows in your eyes.”
“And sometimes under the seats, if you look carefully.”
I have come to distrust windows. The reflections are bad enough. How do you know what you see through a window is actually what’s on the other side? What if they change to show us our surroundings only when we are about to open them? Glass, I’m told, is a slow moving liquid. I suspect the subway too has become a slow moving liquid.
The lighting designer is surveying the landscape, surveying what the glass tells her to see. Who can say what’s out there anymore. “It may be time to transfer again soon,” she says.
“Can I ask you about shadows?”
“Shadows are two dimensional.”
“Maybe they do belong in New York then.”
“They don’t belong to this world.”
We settle into the slow churn of the subway, the occasional threads of light beyond the glass. The train stops stopping. We might be crossing a bridge. “If you stand in the right place,” she says, “you can see your silhouette from every direction.”
The subway goes dark and I think I can see what she means. A voice comes on the intercom. I can’t make it out through the haze of static. Machines can’t improvise, but nature is imprecise. Neither make good musicians. The doors rattle open and we have stopped in a rose garden. The stems are brittle with cold. All the roses have dripped to the ground and scattered. Their petals look like seashells, like tawny fins of dried out fish. There are dead weeds among the roses, tiny lanterns marking the fog in the distance.
The lighting designer gets up. “I think this is my stop.”
“Plenty of shadows.”
“You should transfer. This route won’t serve anybody soon.”
A man boards the train and tells me to go fuck myself. He exits a stop later. Even on an empty train there is always a man to tell you to go fuck yourself.
The next stop is the end of the line. There is a short walk to the connecting station. Outside there are no more skyscraper ribcages, no brownstones. The trees are the color of the sidewalks. The sky is the color of the trees and the sidewalks are the color of the sky. Winter levels everything.
The subway station is also the color of the sidewalks, but is somehow different from the color of the trees. The stairs are ground teeth in receding gums. The platform is crowded with people under blankets. Rather, it is crowded with shapes resembling people under blankets. Blankets are like glass. Even if you know what is on the other side of them, you can’t be sure. A train worms its way through the tunnel but it is not stopping. I think I see the acupuncturist beyond the wrinkles in the window of a car, but it moves too fast to be sure.
Another train comes. It exhales and the doors open. Everyone on the platform continues sleeping. They have found their resting place. Inside the train are more shapes under blankets. They stretch across the seats like beached whales and I think back to kindergarten. This may be the first time in my life that the past seems brighter than the future. There is only a small space in the corner for me to sit.
A voice tells me to stand clear of the closing doors. The doors stay open.
The subway runs on an alternate route due to track fires. In colder places they light the tracks on fire to prevent the metal from shrinking. Pins also hold down train tracks, and if they shrink enough they burst free. I look out the window to see if the tracks are on fire. I cannot see the tracks.
The subway churns over a shoreline. Even the beached whales are returned to sea. We approach a stop I recognize but the train keeps moving. Tiny needles of rain streak the windows and lengthen. Glass also expands in heat. Bodies are all I can think of that doesn’t expand in heat. We all become whales if it is cold enough. Blubber. Winter levels everything.
A man in a fedora and trench coat enters the train car and sits in the opposite corner. He has a dog with him. Its ears are sharp points. I never spent enough time in Prospect Park to know dog breeds. The man looks like a caricature of a stranger, like he could find a shadow even in a subway car. He looks like his dog, or his dog looks like him. There is no way to decide who started it. I’ve heard that if you share a bed with someone for long enough, the microbes in your bellybuttons become uniform. The dog sits under the subway seats, and I see what the lighting designer meant. The dog has found a shadow where the stranger could not.
He looks in my direction. The dog also turns its head.
Every stretch of road on a continent could eventually take you to every other stretch of road. I wonder if the same can be said for train tracks.
The subway sways back and forth as it stitches its way forward. The dog sleeps. The stranger leaves it resting. He has noticed something. “There is an ostrich feather in your breast pocket,” he says.
I look down. He is right. How could I have held onto one of the feathers instead of putting it in its basket? It is the only mistake I’ve made in my two weeks with the ostrich. The stranger makes his way towards me. I stand and we meet somewhere in the middle. He plucks the feather from my pocket. “It weighs so much.”
I tell him it is made of silk, that a wire runs through its spine. I don’t know if he hears me. He reaches further into my breast pocket, pulls out a red, heart-shaped pincushion. “That definitely weighs more,” I say.
The subway sways more. Back and forth. The dog growls in its sleep, kicks at something invisible. “We will see once I have taken the pins out.”
“They belong where they are,” I say as he touches the head of one.
The subway will always be there to take you where you need to go. It’s as easy as falling asleep—like having blood drawn. Many people have told me it feels like an airport, like it becomes nothing space. A time eater. A jar to store your thoughts in. The train is just that: a vein, a machine. A needle sucking up blood to deposit elsewhere. The endless circulation of a throbbing organ, like an endless performance concluding for another night. A contract, all wrapped up, or a flightless bird: suspended by hooks in the wings, ready to leave behind the vacant plume of another shed feather.