Michael O’Connor

She came out of the subway car with the morning rush-hour crowd at East Thirty-Third and immediately noticed a figure up ahead on the platform. A bright blue cape covered him completely, so that the only parts of him visible at a distance were his shaggy gray curls and full silver beard. A refreshingly comic sight, she thought, of a sort you might have seen more often at an earlier point in the city’s life, back when its id, its unhinged subterranean strata, was still occasionally visible on the streets. He was one of the throwbacks, awkwardly out of place in the cleaner, more sober, immensely more wealthy, surveillance-saturated center of the universe that Manhattan had become.

She walked with her now-routine limp and Parkinsonian stiffness, all the more maddening because she was late to work, and fumbled to insert the earphones of her iPod so that music might even out her gait. Her hands were unusually uncooperative this morning, and the rest of her body suffered for it. When she could set herself up properly, the throb of Talking Heads or the driving pulse of Phillip Glass would propel her forward in such a way that she could almost forget the exasperating disobedience of her body, the thick unresponsiveness of much of her left side. But without the music’s elixir—a drug as surely as any of the pills she swallowed four times a day—she was left to hobble.

She had to stop to untangle the earphone wires. The people around her continued forward, and by the time she finally had the buds in her ears she was one of only a few bodies left in the station. Up ahead the man in the blue cape was now turning slowly in circles. She smiled faintly as she resumed walking, now to the strains of “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones, which she relished for the literal application she made of it. She had taken but a few steps, however, when the iPod began to skip, and she stopped again.

She was not a citizen of the electronic state. She did not, even at this late date, speak the language. Her relationship to keypads and screens was tense and stressful. Had she been at home, she might have hit her fist on the desk and screamed, giving in to her fury at the born-too-long-ago mockery all the infernal machines directed at her. But here in public she stopped herself, allowing only a clenched-jaw growl of aggravation. “Forget it,” she muttered, and stuffed the small silver rectangle into her pocket. With a deep breath, she started moving again.

She felt her left leg drag and strained to bring it forward with each step. This is how it was—a never-ending effort to arouse her recalcitrant limb, to coax or push it into action. She lurched along, irritated and depressed, toward the gates.

The man in the blue cape was still twirling on the platform. Everyone who had exited the train when she got off was now long gone. A few other people had already arrived to wait for the next train, but they were at the distant other end of the station, and now the screeching PA system announced a delay. She would need to pass close by the man on her way out. The amusement she had felt at first seeing him shifted into unease. He was now standing perfectly still and seemed to be looking directly at her as she approached. Wanting to appear as able as possible, she redoubled her effort to push her left leg forward and to move in as erect a position as she could.

She saw herself in her mind’s eye, as she suddenly sometimes did, as if in a video of herself walking. She was far from the quick young woman of years gone by. Age had begun to diminish her, and disease had accelerated the process. Her face was not yet terribly lined, her hair not yet gray, her figure not yet gone, but without the battery of medications she took, her spine would become rigid, her gait stuttering and uneven, and her posture stooped. Even when her drugs were in full force, she moved in a somewhat spastic, gangly fashion that sometimes made her cry. Just now her limbs felt heavy and slow, as if she were moving through mud. She thought she had taken her morning doses, but they didn’t seem to be working. Had she, with her prematurely failing memory, forgotten? She banished the image of her present self from her mind and, with a slight trace of shame, replaced it with a picture of the blonde, blushing-cheeked athlete she had once been. Thus tensely determined, she pushed on. She would refuse eye contact with the man and keep moving.

She bore up under his unrelenting gaze, looking straight ahead in grim resolve. But as she drew closer he seemed to become more and more solid and still, statue-like, and to grow in menace. She was perhaps ten feet in front of him when he suddenly shouted in a booming voice, “I can cure you!”

Startled, she looked at him.

“I can cure you!” he thundered.

The force of his exclamation had stopped her in her tracks. The tremor on her left side, her oldest and most frequent symptom, seemed to be moving through her whole body. Normally a periodic occurrence, like a theme in a musical piece that arose and subsided and arose again, in moments of stress the shaking took over and would not quit, so that she became a quivering mass, a cartoon of fearful trembling. She must not allow it, she told herself. She must gather her will and keep going. She looked aside and forced herself to begin walking again. “I can cure you!” the man shouted for the third time and moved directly in front of her, blocking her way.

“Excuse me,” she said, trying to contain her agitation.

The man did not move.

She stepped to the side. He stepped too. She stepped back the other way; he followed. “I can cure…” “NO YOU CAN’T!” she shouted, cutting him off and startling herself with her outburst. “You have no idea what’s wrong with me, and no idea of what to do about it! Move out of my way!” Her voice was ragged and shrill, but powered by completely unexpected force. Her quivering had stopped.

“Calm down, my sister,” the man said in an urgent tone, raising his hands in a gesture of appeasement.

He took a step back and then began to sing quietly, to chant in some unknown tongue. He was no longer looking at her face, but was directing his gaze toward the middle of her chest with intense concentration, as if he were trying to penetrate her center. He held his hands forward, palms facing each other, as if to focus and intensify the stream of energy he was directing at her. He sang in an eerie, unearthly vibrato.

She reassessed the distance she had to get around him, but it still seemed too little. She imagined charging him and knocking him over, but that seemed improbable. More likely, she would be the one knocked over. He would push her off the platform in front of a train and she would become another lurid death-on-the-subway-tracks story in the tabloids. She looked ahead along the platform. There was only the small group at the other end, a few young women chatting, oblivious to her and the man.

Still vibrating with the energy of her outburst, she thought to swing her purse, an overfull leather bag, as a weapon. The bag was big and solid and if she could swing it hard enough it would certainly be a threat. She might not be able to push him with her body, but she could force him back. She slid the bag off of her shoulder and gripped the straps with both hands. She began to heave it from side to side in an arc in front of her and to advance toward the man. He began to chant louder in response to her forward movement, baying his mock Urdu or Kirundi, with absurd flourishes of nasal intonations and guttural stops. But he was also stepping back. It was working, she saw, and hope swelled in her.

She began to grunt with every swing, like a tennis player trying to up the ferocity of each stroke. And with each step the man retreated further.

But she was not entirely in control. The weight of the bag pulled her too far to one side and then too far to the other. Maybe she would be better off turning in a circle, she thought, maybe she could stay more centered and steady. But could she keep moving forward if she did that? Would she have even more balance problems? The man was still retreating. She felt power surging through her.

And without quite thinking it, without quite being willing to think it, she felt she was no longer defective, no longer the hobbled and humbled creature she had evolved into, the focus of other people’s stares. (How used to those stares she had become, used to being the object of pity or disdain or shallow curiosity, used to people thinking that she was drunk or mentally impaired, used to having mothers pull their children out of her way even as they stood back to gawk.)

She made the first turn, and the man backed further away. He raised his arms up high, and as he did so his blue cape, a polyester graduation gown, separated in front to reveal his complete nakedness underneath. Twirling as she was, she could register this revelation only glancingly. Flickers of repulsion mixed with wild amusement darted through her, but she had no time to consider the pallid, sagging flesh, the bony legs, the shrunken genitals. She had to focus every ounce of her will on the task of keeping upright and moving forward. She was forcing him to retreat even further, but also causing him to raise his voice even more. She raised hers too. She was no longer grunting with successive swings, but screaming almost continuously, like an infantry soldier in full charge. They were both bellowing now, he in his fake-shaman intonations, she in her war-cry shrieks, their voices mingling in a jangling caterwaul. An express train rushed through the middle track of the station, adding to the clamor. The power of the train racing by jolted her. She felt its steel and fire, its heroic electric charge. She felt as if she were flying.

She pushed on, turning and screaming and moving forward step by step. She was within striking distance of the exit now. Soon she would be able to lurch through the turnstile and up the stairs to the safety of the street.

By this time more people had entered the station and were now audience to the outlandish spectacle. Some had come onto the platform, others held back outside the turnstiles. A teenage boy in the front of the crowd held up his phone, taping the action.

Just as she was about to reach the turnstiles, the man, whose eyes had seemed to grow bigger and bigger as the struggle moved toward its climax, halted. Perhaps sensing she was near escape, he lunged forward and grabbed her bag. This stopped her abruptly, almost causing her to fall, but she recovered and, with all her might, yanked the bag back toward her. They began to pull back and forth in a clumsy tug of war, both still howling as they stumbled to one side and then the other. Finally they fell to the ground in an awkward tangle.

Some girls in the crowd screamed as they hit the concrete, and two lanky teenage boys rushed up and began to pull them apart. But almost as soon as the boys were there, so, miraculously, were three policemen. (A 911 call? A surveillance camera summons?) They came running down the stairs, pushing startled riders aside, and leapt dramatically, athletically, over the turnstiles. Shouting at everyone to stay back, they shoved the boys, who might have been their slightly younger brothers, out of the way. One of the cops grabbed the man by his hair. Another took out his nightstick and brought it down hard on the man’s wrists, breaking his hold on the purse. He put the nightstick at the man’s throat and dragged him back. The man was gagging, but still trying to chant. “Quiet!” the cop yelled. The man’s robe was still parted. He was bleeding from his fall and being dragged on the concrete, bleeding from a cut on his forehead, bleeding from cuts on his thighs and ribs, bright red on his paper-white skin.

Another train rushed through the middle track with its earache roar. Applause erupted from the crowd, which had swollen in the climactic moments of the confrontation.

A policeman was bending over her. His face was indistinct, but very young. “Are you all right, ma’am?” he asked. She stared at him, but said nothing.

The two other policemen had hustled the man through the turnstile and were dragging him toward the stairs. “I have cured you!” he shouted back to her. “You are healed!” he screamed as he disappeared up the stairs in a last flash of billowing blue material. She started to get up from the ground. The policeman put his hand on her shoulder. “You need to wait for EMS, ma’am.”

She stared at him again, then closed her eyes and lay gently down on the platform.

In the ambulance, she began to cry. She had still not uttered a sound since the man was pulled away from her, had not answered a single one of the many questions from the medics who put her on the gurney and carried her up from the subway station to a second round of applause from the crowd. (For me? she wondered. For them?) She had said nothing of her medications or her condition. She owed no one an explanation.

With her eyes closed, she saw the man’s aging flesh. She saw his open robe, his fallen torso with its sagging breasts, its misshapen stomach, its protruding veins, the loose folds of skin that drooped from his ribs, the swollen abdomen that hung like a kangaroo pouch, and the patches of wiry white hair that sprouted in irregular clumps over it all. She could take it in now, could contemplate his wreckage, theatrically framed by the robe, curtains parted to reveal the scene of decay.

We are all falling to ruin, she thinks. The police, the medics, every soul in the applauding crowd. In her own swooning brain, her brain that now forgets how to direct her limbs, how at times to turn to the right or left, or even to lift her foot, she, most of all, is falling. Down, down, down into a cool dark well, or a turgid, engulfing swamp.

But she does not feel like she’s falling now. No, she feels the opposite—a kind of buoyancy and openness. What she feels now through her tears is an almost giddy elation and tenderness. She hopes the man (the clown? the angel?) is OK. She hopes the police did not injure him too badly. She hopes they are not still beating him. What she feels now toward him is not anger or fear or vengeance (or maybe just a little of those things), but kindness and concern and curiosity (or maybe just a little of those things). A bit of the delight that had been her first response to seeing him returned to her now and through her tears, which are flowing freely now, which she feels as freedom itself, she smiles.

She feels herself growing lighter and lighter, and she sees herself again from afar. Now the video is a dream: her body, once bent and stiffened, is dissolving, becoming so transparent that it begins to rise in the air, so immaterial that it passes through the roof of the ambulance and hovers above it, looking down on the agents of mercy within who could not comprehend where she had gone, who did not even see that she had left. The applause of the crowd returns to her ears as she drifts further upward. Now they are applauding her dissolution, a magical encore to her performance on the subway platform.

She trembles and she breathes. The air is sweet as it enters her nostrils and the beating of her heart is a comfort that enfolds her. As the ambulance swerves silently through the streets (no sirens, no urgency now), she rocks gently from side to side, hugged by the straps holding her to the gurney, as if she were being transported in a boat, gently swaying in the water. She is resting now. And as she drifts further and further from consciousness, yielding to her exhaustion, the deep heaviness of her limbs brings her not pain or frustration, but a peaceful pleasure she hasn’t known in a very long time.