The Early Train

by Stephen Mammele

It started with the girl in the window at the station. The Fritos on her hoagie. The grease on my ticket. It brought me some place dark. The train is slowly filling, and the woman seated to my left smiles at me through too many teeth. Her fragrance lands somewhere between musty meadow and wild game, Caribou Rut. She brandishes a soft pretzel from nowhere, asking me, if I hold mustard. Unsure which dimension I stepped into this morning, I simply say no without addressing the almanac of reasons why I don't hold mustard. From further nowhere, she produces a ketchup pack and applies it to the pretzel as if time is running out. All I can think is how I’d like to punch a bunny as quickly as physics would allow. Right in its smug little bunny mouth. The image of my crazed visage reflecting in its innocent little eyes, sprinting with a cudgel in hand, drooling, laughing. The thought gets me through for about two more stops, where our real showstopper climbs aboard.

The airbrushed tiger on his sleeveless shirt gives me everything I need. This long-discontinued model is in the bowels of a proper bender, speaking in tongues to no one in particular. A soul re-purposed then promptly forgotten, God's own private pervert, a hasty mess of DNA. It blows my mind that no other passenger seems concerned about this wild animal in our midst. Years of abuse have left his face a series of abrupt gradations in color. His hair is an unkempt grove of belly button lint, wiry and undecided. And why wouldn't he bypass a few clearly open seats to park it right beside your humble narrator? He smells like buckets.

I'm beginning to entertain the possibility my coffee may have been laced. Why not just move? you ask? To that I answer, "Then why anything?" There's only comfort and boredom beyond the trenches, both equally dangerous. The more attention I award the mundane, the quicker things happen, the less I suffer. My new and exiting creature of interest, sweats through the dried sweat on his custom-fitted shirt, his mouth-breathing heavily, as if something is about to happen. It does. One last panting breath, and he releases everything. I counted three different octaves to his colonic siren song. The previously not-so-fresh air absorbed in a blitzkrieg of internal decay, abomination. I retreat to the descriptions on wine bottles from my drinking days to apply meaning to my current circumstance: Undertones of rot. Suggestions of sarin. Traces of trench foot.

There’s a woman two seats ahead of us who has been clawing at her scalp for the duration of the entire ride. A neurotic little nest of decay. Her scratching resonates through my cartilage, growing louder than the steel wheels breaking on the rails. Flakes of dead flesh fall to the seats around her, some remain airborne. Those passive enough to sit close slowly ingest her. Unfortunate cannibals. The pretzel woman sucks the ketchup from her thumbs with the sound of a boot being pulled from the mud.

The emergency window says, "Pull handle, remove rubber, push glass." Tempting as it is, I can't make the news this morning, not yet. I scan the now crowded car for any empathy, some other witness to share this life with. Anyone. But all of their heads are buried in various devices, too unaware or too terrified to partake. Moving through space inside of this tin box of distracted grimaces, a familiar thought resurfaces, like an old friend who drops by without calling first— “O Ishmael, how I long to abandon this culture.” I could easily be off foraging somewhere, listening for hooves, quietly carving my own little corner of earth. I’d spend my spare time bending time.

Stepping slowly off the train, I lustfully inhale the freshest air Philly has to offer. The difference is infinitesimal. People bump into each other, then go around. Their eyes downcast, thumbs forever bouncing on small screens. I feel like a stone in a creek. Climbing the stairs of the train station, a daily different ass to the face, a whole new series of questions. Walking toward what I’m gradually considering more of an occupation than a career, I remind myself I could easily be in prison, fighting to keep my o-ring intact. And that’s all it takes. A sudden bounce introduces itself to my gait. A million tiny angels breathing lightly on my undercarriage. These hours will work for me today.

About the Author:  Stephen Mammele is a Union Plumber with no formal education in writing. After graduating from the University of the Arts as a sculpture major in 2004, he returned to working in construction. Having written privately for over a decade in the throes of addiction and existential crisis, he cleaned up his life and began sharing his work. He lives quietly in Delaware County with his wife and three young children.