Paper Giving

Paper Giving

“New York Quickread, get a New York Quickread!”

Sandra stood at the mouth of the subway station, handing out papers to folks coming up from below. Cars and buses honked along Broadway, giving melody to the drudging, ever-spinning turnstile gears.

“New York Quickread!” Sandra yelled.

She spotted a man in a long black peacoat, holding a briefcase as if it were another limb. He’d put slick in his hair and combed it back in distinct fins. Reminded Sandra of a shark. She reached out her hand with a paper. The shark pushed by and left the station.

“New York—”

Then, holding a toddler and followed by another, a middle-aged woman came through a turnstile. She put down the one she had in her arms to pick up another from the other side of the vertical posts. The first toddler dawdled in place, picking his nose. Sandra doubted he wanted a paper. But when the woman came by, she offered the latest issue anyhow.

“New York—”

Then, a young woman with a large instrument case on her back struggled through one of the mechanical gates. She slid under the top of the arch to get the case through. Her eyes were a flurry in the midst of the crowd. For a moment, she paused, looking to the entrance, towards Sandra.

In fact, she might have looked right at Sandra.

Sandra extended a paper—but the girl moved along.

Sandra took a breath in. She looked at the large clock on the station wall: 8:30am. Two more hours until the flow of commuters did not provide a return on investment. She dropped her current paper into the large stack that remained untouched across the morning. Sandra stuck her hands in her pockets and sat on the stack, watching the people come through. A pull in the current, then a push of folks, shouldering each other, standing stupidly, sidestepping to a MetroPass machine. Perpetually.

Sandra walked outside, where Sammy was doling out papers.

“You doing well in there?” Sammy asked. “That’s the best seat in the house.”

“Shut up, man,” Sandra said. Sammy laughed. “We ought to switch one of these days.”

“No, no, no,” Sammy said. “We will do no such thing. I will stand out here with my coffee,” Sammy said, picking up his cup and taking a sip, “and you will stand in there, and so it shall be.”

Sandra shook her head. “Bruce just likes you more, is all.”

“Bruce basically hates you, Sandra,” Sammy said, and they both laughed. “But he’s still giving you papers, so there’s that.”

The bustle of commuters died down for a moment, and Sandra and Sammy stood silent on the corner of Broadway, not hearing a single honk.

“How do you give out more papers than I do, Mr. Sammy?” Sandra asked. “Just curious.”

Sammy smiled. “Make it seem like they’re doing me a favor. But don’t say it.”
He put down his coffee, picked up a paper, and singled out a man carrying double-bagged groceries, brusquely stepping towards the crosswalk.

Sammy said, “Excuse me,” and the grocery man looked up, stopping. “New York Quickread?” The grocery man shifted his glance to the street. The crosswalk sign was white. But he’d paused too quickly and, as Sandra saw, he’d looked into Sammy too long. He took the paper and crossed the street before the blustering traffic continued.

Eyes, Sandra!” Sammy yelled, pseudo-spooky, raising his hands and wriggling his fingers. “It’s all in the eyes.”

***

Sandra didn’t remember getting out of bed. The job had become so automatic she’d become conscious at the train station, walking up the stairs and passing through the metal arms.

She’d gotten her stack of papers from the depot, and no backtalk from Bruce, which was a good thing. She looked at the paper headline: 16 DEAD IN SUBWAY COLLISION.

That’s terrible, Sandra thought. She never really read the news or looked on Twitter for updates, so this was the first she’d seen of it. Sandra’s stomach turned. She didn’t want to read anymore. Enough news for me today.

She dropped the stacks of papers at her usual spot. She looked at the station clock: 7:30am. Eyes weary, Sandra about-faced towards the turnstiles.

They were silent. She didn’t see any commuters.

Huh, Sandra thought. That’s weird. Usually there were throngs of people struggling just to get out the exit. Sandra rolled up the paper like a baton and shuffled around the station. She put her hands on her hips and stared around for a minute. Then she took a step outside, and realized how little sound there was on the street. When Sandra looked further, there were no cars, no honking.

And where was Sammy?

Everyone gone somewhere today? she thought. Should I just leave?

But what if they all come back?

Sandra walked back into the station. She fumbled with the paper, hit a central pole with the paper to make a satisfying thwack sound. She paced the pole. She stared at the pole.

An hour went by.

This is ridiculous. There a parade or something? Did I miss the memo?

Sandra conceded: She’d just go home.

Then someone approached the turnstile.

It was a man with greased-back hair. Long peacoat. Briefcase. When he passed the metal arms, he stopped and looked around. His mouth was ajar.

It took a minute, but Sandra recognized him. New York characters rarely stood out, but this sharkish fellow was familiar. He’d passed Sandra yesterday. She looked at the clock. A few minutes after 8:30.

“Hello?” Sandra called out.

The shark turned to her. He didn’t reply. He walked forward. But he didn’t look at Sandra. He seemed to look around her. He shuffled towards the exit, sidestepping Sandra and her stack of papers.

“Sir, can you hear me?”

The shark lifted his free hand to his brow, shook his head. Did he acknowledge Sandra? Could he hear her?

He turned to Sandra, and instead of responding, his eyes spoke for him. He shook his head again, brows raised. Then, he turned to the exit, and continued on out.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Sandra asked. “What’s up?”

Again: “Hey, mister!”

Again: “Hey, talk to me!”

But the shark moved along and out the door, with a stillness so deafening it could shatter glass.

Okay, Sandy, she thought. Congratulations. You’ve finally lost it.

But then she heard someone else at the turnstile. Crying. A child crying.

Sandra leaned her back against the central pole and edged her vision to the turnstiles. Holding a shouting toddler was a middle-aged woman. The metal arms clinked, and the woman came forward, bouncing the tearful child against her shoulder. The closer the woman came to the exit, Sandra saw, the more apparent the red circles around her eyes were.

“Can you hear me?” Sandra asked.

“Mommy!” the toddler yelled, sobbing. “Mommy!

“Stop it!” the woman said, her eyes and nose compressing into its own despondent mask. “Just stop!” She paced forward, walking towards Sandra.

“Can you hear me, miss?” Sandra asked again. They, too, seemed familiar. A sudden vision struck Sandra of the woman and… two toddlers.

“Where’s Randy, mommy?” he asked. “Where’s Randy?”

“I don’t know, love, we’re going to find him, please stop asking me—”

“Mommy?”

Sandra watched as the woman, like the shark, walked around her, rushing to the exit as the child screamed.

She sat down on her stack of papers again, spread her knees wide, and held her head with her hands. She’d been in the station for little more than an hour, but she felt the lifting and lowering of her chest start to slow, her eyes start to lower.

What is happening—

Sandra heard a struggle at the turnstiles. She looked up from her hands. At one of the arches, a young woman fumbled with fitting a large case on her back through the metal threshold. She lifted a leg over the rotating arms, managing to find some footing. But when she lifted her next leg, she lost leverage on the station tile. The young woman fell backwards onto the case, which hit the ground and echoed in the otherwise silent station.

“Miss? You okay?” Sandra asked. Her own legs met the ground like unmoving pillars. A flare in her brain shot out, saying, Go help her! But Sandra’s body didn’t move.

Sandra instead examined the young woman from afar, splayed like a wrongside-up turtle that could no longer move. The young woman rested on the ground, but she raised her hands to her eyes, letting out little, gentle sobs.

Just get up, Sandra thought. Go.

But where was there to go? Something was wrong. And she was tired. There was nothing to do.

She needs you.

Yet Sandra did not move. She closed her eyes, and again relaxed her head into the cradle of her hands.

Minutes or hours passed. Sandra heard the light tap of shoes on the ground. She looked up from her cradle: the young woman was on her feet. Her instrument case was gone. Sandra saw it by the turnstiles, open, its contents splintered and strewn on the floor. She turned back to the young woman, whose aim, it was clear, was the exit.

Do I let her go alone? Wherever she’s going?

The thought had lodged into Sandra’s brain.

Stay put. She’ll ignore you, anyway.

Sandra leaned back, and as she did, she felt the stack of papers teeter underneath.

But what if she doesn’t?

The young woman continued, passing the central pole, onward to Broadway. Before she could leave, Sandra spoke:

“Miss? Please?”

Sandra’s voice rang out like a siren in the cavernous station.

The young woman stopped. Sandra saw her body sway, her chest expand and contract, both her hands tremble.

“Miss? Please?” Sandra did not resist her own tears. “Miss, please, please talk to me. Please, just—” and Sandra thought of what Sammy had said. “Please just look at me.”

The young woman turned. Their glances coalesced like binding locks. Even from feet away, the young woman’s eyes reached out for miles, asking in their own way, Can you help me?

“So you do see me?” Sandra asked.

A tear rolled down the young woman’s cheek.

 

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