• Steph Shuff

The Mantra

A man boarded the train, his voice booming as he walked through the closing metal doors. It was loud and gruff. He wore thick, worn overalls, a shearling vest, a heavy black overcoat. He carried several black plastic bags in his arms, stuffed full, tied closed. They were as worn and weathered as the skin on his face. His hands were dry and ashy. They looked strong, as if they could lift the world, as if maybe they already had. "Is this train going to Huntington?" He boomed.

The other passengers on the train answered him with silence. Above their heads, a digital sign spelled out BRANCH AVENUE in bright yellow light. They waited for the man to look up, to help himself, to bear the weight of his own burdens. They responded with averted gazes and pleading internal monologues. Just look up! They begged him. Just read the sign like the rest of us! There was nothing communal in their shared commute - they favored obedience, independence, self-sufficiency. The sacredness of this ritual must not be interrupted. They were meditative in the heavy silence of their capital pursuits. This was their religion now. How dare this man step onto the train and question God.

He bellowed his question again. "Is this train going to Huntington?"

A woman on the opposite side of the train car responded. Her voice floated past me in the silence. "No, it's not," she said. The tone of her voice was bright and confident, like glass. "You have to get off and wait for the next train. This one is going to Branch Avenue."

The other passengers were grateful for her disobedience. That will quiet him down, they thought. She was a single-serving savior, a prophet restoring order to the universe.

The answer to his question did not satisfy him. Instead, the man repeated the question. "Is this train going to Huntington?" He was yelling now, insistent. There was something panicked in his voice, an urgency. He had not heard a word the woman said, as if his head was poking through a tear in the fabric on this side of reality. What was he seeing on the other side?

Wary commuters peered at him from the corners of their eyes, from underneath furrowed eyebrows. Beside me, a man folded a newspaper and turned up the volume on his headphones.

Discouraged, the man slumped down in a seat in the middle of the car. His head nodded, as though he were too tired to carry the weight of his own body any longer. His chin came to rest on his large, muscular chest. "Nobody here is any more important than anyone else," he whispered. Even his whisper could wake the dead.

"We're all the same. No one here is any more important than anyone else."

His words hung in the air, floating near the mouths of the passengers, heavy and thick like smoke. They held their breaths in unison, fearful of the stench of them.

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