Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Phantom Of The Metro

With the limelight-popularity of comic book hero movies, I think I obsess on homocidal men dressed up in costumes. This one also gave me the opportunity to indulge in "purple-prose". Hope you enjoy, thanks for reading.

***

His second week working the night-owl shift at the downtown metro-line station, Ben Reynolds couldn't hold it. He left security, took the stairs, his footsteps echoing the late-night emptiness. The men's room crawled with yellow, poorly-caulked tile. He usually avoided public bathrooms, a prejudice inherited from a mother who called public bathrooms 'the pits' because of the people who frequented them, the dull-eyed, the incontinent, people without decency enough to hold it until they reached the privacy of their own homes. His mother would have set aside a special portion of her despite for the Metro's bathrooms where strangers defecated on their way to 'somewhere else'. For although Ben didn't share the sentiment, having no leftover feelings for the father he'd barely known - since his father had disappeared to the place of mysteries called 'somewhere else' without a word, or even a note, Ben's mother was naturally disposed to hate 'somewhere else' and its mysterious travelers above all else.

Ben was still in the Metro-line training program. Not that there was much to learn, to help with frustrated passengers who'd missed their connections, or the homeless who came to huddle in the station's empty alcoves, forlorn and ragged. According to Richard the night-owl shift (eight in the evening to five in the morning) was where you learned the secret art to the job - how to keep things that wanted to fall apart together.

Bald Richard, pierced and inked, scarecrow in his company uniform was off on patrol, acting as priest and confidante, bouncer and general, kissing with the left hand, pulling hair with the right. Ben went in the largest stall. He unbuttoned his dress pants and slid his underwear down, wincing at the cool touch of the toilet seat.

Upkeep of the bathrooms was one of his duties, not to scrub them clean but to make sure no one in the night and early morning destroyed them, keep the towels stocked and the toilet paper dispensers rolling. This being the very first time he'd made use of the facilities himself, from this vantage, he thought that other occupiers should feel blessed he took his duties seriously and in the two weeks he'd worked here had replaced the toilet paper religiously. The stall door was dark-stained, there was graffiti, some etched, some markered, or scrawled in ball-point. He sighed.

He heard footsteps.

He panicked, pausing in the midst of his ablutions, staring at the graffiti to calm himself. All Hail The King Of Porn. Bailey And The Bleeders. Call Derek If You Find Out About His Zipper After Midnight.

The splash of urine hitting the bowl.

A poem caught his eye. The poem's author had went to great lengths to make sure his work was permanent, etching it deeply into the door.

The Toiloet Makes Lakes And Earthquakes
He Smells Ripely As He Makes His Cripey

The piss-flow shorted to a few drops.

After interminable moments, in which he dare not do more than catch silent breath through his nose for fear of unclenching his bowels and releasing his lunch, there was a flush and the footsteps receded.

He waited until the coast was clear.

Eeny Meanie Miney Mo Catch A Tiger By His ASSHOLE - He slumped in relief.
Back at the office desk, Richard played a handheld electronic poker game.

"I was in the bathroom."

"Spare me the details," Richard said.

Richard played his game into the wee hours of the morning, cursing when he lost, ignoring Ben, who at various times throughout, had to toss out an old codger talking to invisible cockroaches, break up an argument between two well-dressed men who appeared to be business partners and had suffered a loss from wherever they had come from. Ben left the two shaking hands and holding identical bowler hats in shame. Most horrifically, a woman accosted him, declared her child was missing, "my baby is gone," she whispered, nails biting his wrist. "He's been eaten." He'd intended to call the cops until the woman's husband showed up on scene, a man who seemed to have taken fashion hints from American Gothic, who glared at Ben before leading his wife away.

At the end of his shift he learned something he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"There's coffins on these late trains," Richard told him. "They send them when everyone's asleep."

Angela was leaving for work when he put his key in the door. She was a bank-teller and worked regular hours. He tried to make her late but she was having none of it, scooting out the door and escaping.

"I'll call you," she said as she darted down the hall to the elevator.
He fell asleep still dressed. There was a trashy television show on in which a woman was determined to tell her husband she was sleeping with his brother. No matter how she tried; going so far as to bring the brother in question to the stage; a plump brother with shaggy blonde hair, his penis purple, which he stroked while he laughed heartily. The crowd jeered when the wife straddled her husband's brother, sitting on his cock with a breathy, exultant expression - yet even when she stood dripping seed down her leg, the husband still shook his head and declared his disbelief.

He woke wondering where the hell the host had gotten to.

Angela was shaking him.

"You need to clean up," she said wrinkling her nose.
Angela made him a quick meal, before sympathetically sending him on his way carrying her soft kiss into the darkening sky. He was early. Of the two men on duty, neither of which he'd seen before, one reminded him of his uncomfortable dream, of the brother gone to fat who pranced in his sex and nakedness like a satyr. Dream-Brother introduced himself as Mitch.

"I'm new too," Mitch said. The other man said nothing, concentrating on paperwork.

"Dave," - Mitch gestured at his companion - "says that when it gets cold the homeless look for somewhere to stay."

"Yeah?" Ben asked.

"I've got the cops on redial just in case."

Richard was late. "Can't be too careful," he said when Ben told him what Mitch had said. Ben wandered the station. He was stopped by a boy, about twelve, with a bad haircut and a ratty T-shirt that had been washed until the logo was indecipherable. The boy's mother (there was no question - she hid her features but sported a head of identical hair) slept nearby. The boy clutched a comic book.

Ben felt sorry for him.

"What's the book?" He asked.

The boy stared at him. "It's not a book, it's a comic."

"Okay, what's the comic?"

"It's about a creature called the Phantom who lives in the sewers and fights monsters, like giant albino alligators."

Ben decided to keep walking but before he took a step the boy must have decided something.

"You want to borrow it?" The boy asked shyly.

"You bet," Ben answered.

While the boy tried to pretend to only half-watch, Ben thumbed through the comic. The phantom was an albino mutant, the product of a government scientist's genetic experiments. The artist had rendered him with the claws of a cat, who hid his identity in a black cape when he emerged from the sewer to walk the city. Forget the villains and forget the duplicitous action panels, the Phantom's eyes were moody and human, remarkably human in their riveting desolation.

"How long do you got to wait?"

The boy seemed surprised to be addressed - "Oh, - tomorrow," he said, glancing in concern at his sleeping mother. "We're going to live with my grandparents."

"I'll bring this back in a little bit, along with something of mine for you." Ben spoke of the comic in lost and found. Surely this lonely boy would be the better caretaker.

"Where'd you get that?" Richard asked, when Ben returned to the office.

"A kid."

Richard didn't say anything for a while then got up, picking up the comic where Ben had laid it - apparently thinking to take it with him - "Hey I have to return that," Ben protested.

"I need something to read."

"Find something else."

"Whatever," he said. "Keep it then."

Richard had been friendly the first few nights but each occasion when Ben did not pander to the bald scarecrow, Richard showed less of his friendly nature and more of the unfriendly. It also hadn't helped, Ben thought - when Angela had visited and Ben and she had retreated to a dark corner in the Metro, to steal a kiss between her big breasts capped by almond nipples, the soft skin like the gentle touch of velvet on cheek.

When they returned flushed, and he bid Angela goodbye, Richard hadn't said anything. It was long into the quiet hours of morning when Richard had begun talking in a bullying way, sharing his views on 'mixing the races' with looks at Ben to see if Ben would protest. Ben, of course, said nothing, used to similar from his mother, the same unrepressed criticisms, though culture had long ago, at least publicly disbarred such thinking, the lease of judgment was not easily gainsaid, or the fruits of such judgment, the reward which was the act of judgment itself - feeling of superiority.

He pitied Richard. The man probably went home to an empty one-room apartment, his only company his tattoos of zippers, and poorly drawn demons. Ben watched Richard on the closed monitors. Too tall, too bald, desolate enough to be sympathetic, as Richard trudged from the men's room to the public seats.

He picked up the comic book, quickly setting it back down when he felt his stomach quiver. "Shit," the word about to emerge into reality in his pants. For the second night in a row he hurried down the stairs to the men's room. Sitting on the toilet on his haunches he couldn't help but think Richard had just vacated this same bathroom hopefully - with a twinge - not the same stall. Why was it that the monotony of all the endless hours was not broken by lunch or by breaks or phone calls or even the occasional event? It was only the prayers to the bathroom God, delivered a salvation against the crushing boredom. He found himself thinking of his mother. Rheta Myers lived alone. She didn't approve of Angela, not only because Jesus the Savior did not approve of living in sin but because she had no room for non-whites destroying the foundations of her world. Ben and she were not close, he'd been a quiet, meandering child whose temperament was inherited from his father and she had wanted a child the very opposite of his dad - but there had never been open war either, not even in adolescence; when his peers were feeling the desperate mix of sex and rebellion and molting into new creatures with agendas their parents despised; Ben felt none of it, at best only easily-ignored desires. He'd continued to live with her after high school, not pursuing higher education since he had little interest. Then he'd met Angela. She'd appeared like a dream in his life and he'd seen in her something that from the very beginning thrilled him, opening new avenues of delight and he'd not been fool enough to let this dream escape. Within knowing her two months he asked her to marry him; the next day she allowed him to move in with her.

They scraped.

They lived for weekends when he wasn't scheduled (she worked a regular week) spending entire Sundays making passionate love, eating in the nude, ravishing each other, casting each other's organs in the centrifuge of memory. Neither were church-goers and Ben took private pleasure imagining his mother's head bowed in piety in her church while he heretically fucked his girlfriend blind.

(thinking these thoughts, gazing with hypnotic intensity at that poem)

The Toiloet Makes Lakes And Earthquakes
He Smells Ripely As He Makes His Cripey

He heard footsteps enter.

They were heavy, dragging steps, accompanied by bestial grunting.

To his surprise, Ben sat on the stool and prayed. He didn't pray to the God he'd forgotten or the God he and Angela had created; God of sleek flank and soft tissue: God of fucking. He prayed to the God of the bathroom. The silent, private God who had a dependable acolyte in everyone, whose protection must be surfeit.

How he hated Toilet-Talkers, men who unburdened more than their bowels, making conversation, who considered the bathroom a provocateur's Eden. Listening to the grunter he wished he had one sitting in the next stall.

"Ben how's tricks; see there's news of another War?"

In silence he mentally composed additions to the Toiloet's poem.

Next Time Ben Makes Cripey He'll Do In His Pants
He Will Not Come Here, Not Even To Peepee

The stall next to his banged. There was a sound, like smacking flesh. The grunter moaned. It was a dog's moan. The sound of slurping. Someone down to their very last drink with the straw sucking air. Then the grunting which seemed right next to his ear withdrew, it was gone. The stall rattled, dragging footsteps receded.

Ben flushed. He emerged into the empty bathroom feeling like an interloper. He bravely washed his hands, the hair on his neck standing like a bird's plumage.

***

A woman in a saffron sport suit on her way to see her family found the head. She intended to throw away a Styrofoam coffee cup familiar with the name of the chain, and screamed when she glimpsed what had already made itself a home in the garbage. The head rested surrounded by pieces of flesh for all the world like a flower bouquet. The boy's eyes open with surprise: it had been savagely sawed at the neck as if chewed, the face liberally spotted with blood-spatter.

***

Travis Corrigan walked the tracks. He took to the under-tunnel with nostalgia. Growing up, he'd heard the stories of the trains from his grandfather's lap. They'd once been an integral commercial industry - now their importance was dwarfed, their existence lay moribund as they steadily lost money, with old lines closing one by one, no new being birthed, amid the four letter words, words like bankruptcy (a word like fuck or spit) came the swell of other, cheaper transportation. In his grandfather's words, trains were the Corrigan franchise. A Corrigan had been there during the very first day when hammers were laid in sweaty, blood-soaked hands, days of cheap labor and cheaper life, to the boom when dominion was an unspoken law, work and industry had been plentiful, and then into the gradual diminishing. Travis's father Philip was the first Corrigan to break the continuity of the franchise, beginning a new franchise the Irish-American clan could hold close: Police work.

Corrigan hoped Arbogast had better luck. He was searching the other direction, where the trains eventually spilled out to East Chicago and ran unbroken to the Atlantic. Corrigan, was trekking west; trains had been called off for the duration of the search.
The boy's mother was in hysterics for good cause. Corrigan supposed that the discovery of your son's head in the garbage would do that; at the scene it had required both Corrigan and his partner Arbogast to control the woman who previous to their arrival was going through the garbage in a gruesome, heart-wrenching frenzy, tossing the evidence with soaking red hands. They'd had to manhandle her.

He'd had enough, the nostalgia worn off. The underground rails gave no evidence. Corrigan thought it likely the boy's assailant had taken the rest of the body from the station for whatever horrific purpose, whatever keen impulse that, like leaving the blood-filled head in the trash- compelled this madman.

His flashlight bobbed as he walked awakening spiders in their webs, illuminating water-colored cement. Thinking of turning back when his light found something. A pair of pants. He pulled his gun. The pants were a boy's. Next, the shoes. He lifted one tennis shoe. There was blood in them; and reflexively he dropped it, blood running down his hand. "Jesus," he said. Here were streaks of blood on the tracks, and shining his light up, more on the tunnel walls. A final wreath: the boy's shirt sopping with scarlet. Someone had bathed in the boy's blood, but what had happened to the flesh?

***

"You can always quit," Angela told him, brushing her sleek hair.
Shirt open, Ben hopped through television channels. "I can't quit right now."

"I make enough," she said.

"I'm not a baby," he replied.

She snorted. "A boy's head, what, chopped off? That's not something you deal with at a bank. Ben."

"I'll quit then," he said. "Tonight."

He wouldn't. Yet she seemed at least partially satisfied with his admission, insincere though it was.

He was late for work. When he got to the Metro, a cop was waiting out front. The plainclothes officer introduced himself as Detective Corrigan.

"They found the body," Corrigan lied.

"He wasn't in good condition," Corrigan went on. "Freak thing. Maniac chopping a kid up. But I guess you get that in these old places: a bad crowd. These's like cruise ships. People vanish all the time. Maybe it's part of the attraction, that you might not make it. But a disappearance doesn't hold a candle to this...maniac."

Corrigan paused, a brief flicker of interest, as though surprised at his own loquacity. "What I wanted to ask you Ben, was that your co-worker mentioned the kid gave you something?"

"The kid gave me a comic book," Ben answered.

"May I see it?"

"Sure," but when Ben led Corrigan to the train security office, and rifled through the desk drawers all he could find were work inventories. "I left it here last night," he said.

"Oh, yeah, you were in a hurry to get home?"

"Sure."

"How long have you been employed by Metro-Lines?"

"Fifteen days."

Richard strolled into the office. Corrigan looked Richard up and down as if Richard were a new breed of animal allowed to join the population on a probationary basis.

"Officer," Richard said. "You looking for this?" He held the comic book. "Sorry it gets pretty boring around here. Not always as exciting as last night, no Sir. Hi there Ben, I hope I'm not interrupting things."

"Son that's evidence," Corrigan told Richard.

Richard shrugged. "So officer," he said leaning against the wall - "is he hiding in the train tunnels?"

Corrigan debated his answer. "The tunnels, no, somewhere in the station, that I don't know."

***

Corrigan dunked an ash into his coffee. "Shit," he said. Arbogast sat across from him in the booth, not partaking of late night libations, rumitively studying the contents of a manila folder.
"Hey Marleboro Man, those are gonna' kill you long before a perp gets a chance," Arbogast said.

Arbogast passed over the folder.

"Anything?" Corrigan asked.

"Just a can of worms," Arbogast replied.

The waitress brought their breakfast, hot waffles for Corrigan topped with melting butter, corn flakes for Arbogast, sugarless and still crackling.

Eating, Corrigan reached for the file. Arbogast slapped at his hand. "Don't stain it." They ate in silence. Arbogast shoveled corn flakes into his mouth, napkin tucked into his shirt, while Corrigan cut his waffle into shrapnel, forking each bite twice before bringing it to his mouth.

In the folder was a history of the Metro-Line, from its swift inception to its slow failure as trains became antiquated, expensive to run and maintain, replaced by innovation. Metro-Line continued to eek out an existence serving the business class with corporate discounts for riders, sold at a rate equivalent to a bus ticket, advertising for those who wished a mediocrum of comfort unavailable to bus-riders, sleeping cabins, a dining car, the company of better-heeled men and women than found in the musty seats of the bus. Born in Chicago the business had regularly changed hands through each generation, rarely turning a profit. Metro-Line was under investigation for ignoring safety standards, a trouble they'd likely duck out of, citing the very real possibility of bankruptcy if leveled with excessive fines and resulting bad publicity.

But there was more.

There had been disappearances. A few here, a few there, not numerous enough to draw the attention of the black suit specialists at the FBI. People had a natural tendency to disappear. Unhappy husbands and petulant wives, run off with lovers. On their way from the office, returning from a vacation in some exotic Summerland, an unobtrusive trip to a grocery store for milk and eggs. But digging further: there was more that didn't settle the stomach. The disappearances tied in with the Metro-Line Chicago station, didn't fit the schematic of unhappiness. A traveling soap-salesman from Cedar Falls, Iowa, disappeared a year back. A twin due to visit a sick sister in Duluth, Minnesota. A midget stuntman hired to play a dwarf-jester in Hollywood's latest spectacle. All, among others, seen disembarking in Chicago never to be heard from again. The twin in Duluth had expired complaining of her twin's pain, talking about her sister's excoriation, her last moments spent as wild-eyed as her first. The salesman's pets had starved, battered beyond recognition - animals that had waged war against each other snapping teeth as their own bones snapped, hides rotted. The Hollywood epic used special effects to reduce a man's stature, had gone on to sell millions of tickets, responsible for millions
of empty popcorn buckets tossed in a landfill.

"More coffee?" The waitress filled their cups. Her nametag read Gretchen. "You two cops?
Yeah, I can tell, my dad was, in Utah." Gretchen's words rushed out and piled at the end with a "look, no brakes, ma."

"Oh yeah?" Corrigan asked. "Can you bring me a toothpick when you get a chance?"

When she was out of ear-shot, Arbogast winked. "Monkey's uncle, what do Utah cops do? Arrest Mormons with too many wives?"

"Called polygamy."

"Yeah."

The two were silent.

"This one's gonna' make us or break us," Arbogast said.

Corrigan tired of Arbogast's pretentious belief in a partnership that relied on the Wizard Of Oz; Corrigan a medley of the three: Tin man, Straw man, And Cowardly Lion, while Arbogast himself played Natalie Wood, a six-foot tall Dorothy, unshaven with spoilt features. They'd been partners two years and Corrigan had yet to find something he liked about the socially-inept man.

"There's a goddamn labyrinth under that station, probably rats the size cattle-dogs down there," Arbogast said.

"You don't say?" The man's ability to overstate the obvious was particularly grating. Corrigan's cell rang. He switched it on, thinking to give the caller the hard time Arbogast deserved. He listened, annoyance turning to excitement.

"It's that kid, Ben Reynolds, on the phone. They've got the guy on video," he told Arbogast.

***

A lonely man turned out to be the watch supervisor, Mr. Munst, who with droopy eyes, stood uncomfortably next to Corrigan and the Reynold's kid. The video quality was abominably bad, made worse by a poor angle. Corrigan thought that before he left the office, he'd have a word about camera placement with hang-dog the monosyllabic supervisor from hell.

There. A fat grey coat. Moving quickly (too quick for a good look).

The boy looking at a map, a large one showing all the cities the Metro-Line served. Corrigan watched the bulky figure in the grey coat, the sort a business man might wear but even in the grainy images Corrigan thought the coat looked dilapidated. Grey-coat stalked up behind the boy.

The right word for what grey-coat was doing was mincing. Playful.

Dreadful.

Grey-Coat grabbed the boy, pinning his arms and dragging him off camera. Corrigan felt a kind of horror, watching this, like a peeping tom. Had Grey-Coat taken him directly to the train tracks? Through the figures milling, waiting with tickets? Corrigan doubted it.
While the mothers sleep their children weep; something dull Corrigan remembered from Sunday School. Corrigan passed through a corridor plastered with advertisements for discounts: Ride Free From The Colorado Mountain Tops To Topeka Kansas, To Los Angeles, All The Wayward Miles; If You sign Up For Metro-Credit; Let Us Pay You. He reached the map-board. If Grey-Coat had wanted to evade notice he might have first went to the bathrooms.

Arbogast came up. "Any ideas on the 'perp?" He asked.

Corrigan seethed. How did he get such a nonsensical man for a partner? One who never missed an opportunity to use the word 'perp'.

"No idea, Tom."

Arbogast rubbed his stomach. "I think I've got a bladder infection," he complained.

"Be careful in this place's bathroom," Corrigan said.

"Why?"

He really was clueless, Corrigan mused.

"The 'Perp'," he said, saying the word slowly - "hacked the kid's head off in the bathroom, left it for someone to find in that trash can." He pointed."He hid the rest of the kid, took him to the maintenance shaft to the tracks and I imagine the boy's clothes I found were a leftover from a passing train."

Arbogast looked contrite.

"Just go to the bathroom," Corrigan told him.

***

Ben did a round. It was after midnight. He had no idea where Richard was, probably in a corner somewhere logging more hours with electronic poker - at present he didn't particularly want to find Richard. Earlier, as if Ben was his new best friend Richard had told him about a girl. "You'd like her. She was Mexican. Big ugly flabby tits. I put three fingers in her ass while I fisted her. She was bleeding like a boxer. Then I made her lick up all her shitty blood from my fingers. It was a real finger-licker."

At Ten-thirty PM he'd expelled a junky who brought her works out in public to get her fix; she'd spit curses. Well-heeled passengers pretended not to see the haggard thin woman with brutal lips and package of needles. She was loathsome to them, therefore invisible. Where mothers should have covered children's eyes and fathers tuned to the inner television station where they broadcast deeply authoritative displeased frowns - when he came upon the junky, she'd already tapped a vein, to general disinterest.

He supposed he ought to check the bathroom. Mr. Munst had put a note in the log book.
Check all facilities during normal rounds.

The women's room stank. He didn't spend more than an uncomfortable second there. It was the men's room where all he was, heart and blood, ligaments and persuasive cells masquerading as himself; the stability Ben had always known, even in his fatherless world in which Jesus Christ was a profundity, his mother's 'thing', an image wake only to her penitent woes of flagging exhaustion, a necklace totem to hang between superstitious breasts. His sense had drawn him unerringly, like a water-dowager to the stall he'd used with the poem by the Toiloet.

The Toiloet Makes Lakes And Earthquakes
He Smells Ripely As He Makes His Cripey

Beneath this:

I enjoyed the meat

In blazing black marker, squiggled at the ends in a half-caste cursive.

Ben's heart ripped. Beside the words the artist had drawn a cartoon meat cutlet attached to a bone. He listened for footsteps, the inimical sound of heels on cheap tile. He imagined the maniac feet propped, waiting in another stall, a figure in large rubber waterproof gear, trails of fresh black splitting his horribly beast-retarded face, mouth holding a reservoir of brackish, swamp water, as if sucking on the stale stuff, waiting.

But the bathroom was empty. He saw himself in the never-adequately cleaned mirror. To this splattered maniac, the boy had been nothing more than a ripened steak.

(Red and bloody please and hold the sauce.)

He walked, shell-shocked, back to security. He saw Richard on camera, sauntering near the maintenance shaft. Ben had heard of the world-underneath and the hatch was locked and off-limits but he also knew that was where Richard smoked.
He picked up the phone, reached into his pocket for Corrigan's number. He called. There was no answer.

"Fuck," he said to no one in particular. Still staring and thinking at long distance, he jumped at
Richard's touch. Richard's face was flush with excitement.

"I've found him I think," Richard said.

"Who?"

"The maniac, his nest anyway. It's creepy man. You been down in that shaft - you ever went deep?"

***

Corrigan plugged in the camera, wires hanging from the computer like the entrails of some future-beast. He played the Clash on his radio. London Calling. He and a reluctant Arbogast had placed a camera in both Metro bathrooms. He'd already skipped through the women's. A cheap small and highly serviceable camera made to record movement. Technically, he'd need a court order to do this (thus Arbogast's reluctance) but most travelers wouldn't notice if an elephant were stuffed in the stall they were using.

Corrigan ignored a group of rough young men smoking pot in front of the mirror. Fascinated, he did watch a homeless man with long white hair preen in the mirror.
The camera, like the one in the lady's room, was small and innocuous, buried under a soap dispenser.

Not that everyone would mind putting on a peep show for a voyeur, Corrigan believed. They'd
find it painful to admit but human beings cried out for an invasion of their privacy. It pleased the ego. They also dearly loved to be recorded, immortalized as they experienced the consequence of mortality. Certainly not all but many had a private fantasy through all the storms, upheavals, regrets for which there was no answer, to live on no matter how that life was obtained, the easiest being a film record. Actors must have it easier, already living their immortality. Was this any different? to be seen at one's most natural.

The footage was grainy-green, and choppy. Corrigan forwarded it through men pissing and farting, so they unbuttoned and refastened their pants in fast-forward. Men flushed or didn't some picked their nose as they urinated, wiping the ill-gotten goods on the already sour-smelling walls. Barely any washed their hands when they finished, no matter the surgeon general's warning.

(There - wait.) A little bit after midnight. The figure in the fat grey coat drug a struggling thing into the largest stall. Whatever Grey-Coat was doing required the door remain closed, and closed it stayed.

A few minutes later the door slammed open. Grey-Coat carried the boy's head in gloved hands, blood bubbling under his fingers. This Phantom - and that was what he was Corrigan thought (he had studied the boy's comic, the name had got into his conscious when describing this madman), the Phantom of the Opera, but no piano or woman, this phantom's obsession was the murder of innocents. Whatever, or whoever was stalking this station, it was death, and as inevitable, as breathing.

(He watched the video again, analyzed it again thinking to unravel it by memorizing the grisly murder. Did this thing, both phantom and record, ultimately make a permanent scar, even as it was diminished into bytes of sound and color?)

***

Dawn came and with it passengers disembarking. When Ben and Richard were relieved by their adjuncts, Richard led Ben to the Maintenance shaft.

The shaft-hatch was branded metal. Its incisors flush with the floor. It was a matter of unlocking the padlock and unscrewing the bolts that held the hatch in place; Richard did this, stripping back the bolts and lifting the hatch, revealing a smooth iron ladder wet with moisture.

Ben hesitated at the shaft's lip.

"Let me get ahold of this guy, Corrigan," he said.

"We're the security here," Richard replied. "We're what stands between people and this maniac."

Ben acquiesced.

"Just to this nest?"

"There's two of us. Don't worry."

Richard's flashlight's powers were at best vague against the onslaught of the dark. The dripping wet surfaces, the scuttled echoes of their own feet, conspired to unnerve Ben, walking behind Richard. Richard led the way, guiding their steps like a man used to it. His tall shape, however, didn't bring the sense of safety instead an intimation of doom - the tall, gaunt Richard could have been a crow-feather mantled reaper leading a journey through a formless purgatory.
They headed down wet corridors, the fauna gradually changing from cement to an older material, the two having to climb over a broken cinderblock, shattered, and distressingly the stone of the block had been beaten into a design, of a fly's face. The edges of the stone fly glowed an eerie green. "Moss," Richard said. "It's completely harmless," answering the unvoiced question. "It's the same as algae that grows in the sea."

Would this tunnel put them out at the edge of some great underground lake? Was this a vast aqueduct? If so time had not been kind. Age had left its mark on the squalid passages where the stone crumbled to the touch. It seemed as though all of it must be held up by some other-world Atlas grown weary. The titan's eyeballs jellied in their socks, his veins burst into plain sight and dangling from concentrations like shrubs. These natural caves that had been stitched by unknown engineers at the genesis of Chicago, would, no doubt, fall. It was an eventuality that this underbelly could not survive forever, and would one day collapse. Not, Ben hoped, before they got out.

Ben heard the buzzing of flies. They entered a chamber that was so large Richard's flashlight didn't touch the walls. Little flies moved into flashlight beams, their movements furious, these maggot-born.The scent of raw waste was in the air. Ben tried not to take deep breaths.
Richard paused, motioned to Ben.

"This is madness," Ben protested, looking behind him.

Richard shone the light on Ben's face, blinding him, then shone the beam at the center of the room.

"Look," Richard ordered.

Ben wiped a sweaty hand on his front, and did as Richard bid, looked down into an abyss. It was a black environ of deep terror spiraling down: a limitless throat. The void must be where the shaft became Chicago's sewer. It was a long way down, and Richard who had come up beside him, shone his light into the gulf, a light that did not pierce the black depth but did illuminate thousands and thousands of flies clinging to the moist walls of the pit. They buzzed at the interruption, their wings in multitude giving voice to a raspy hiss.

"You think he lives here?" Ben asked.

"Yes," Richard answered. He pinned Ben's arms. Ben felt the air underneath him as Richard tossed him into the void with the tenderness of a mother flinging her newborn from a burning building. He screamed, mouth filling with flies, swelling his cheeks, a few transparent wings fluttering from his nose: they'd moved into his sinus. He fell gagging into the dark hole, faster than the piss-spray from his pant leg.

Richard surveyed the darkness with a broken camera's solemnity. His blood was hot. He'd long ago perfected the art of the home invasion. It wouldn't be hard to break Ben's black bitch, spread her open. He whistled, shut off his flashlight, and the thin man turned into the darkness, eyes adjusting as he walked, in no hurry for his appointment with Angela. Ben lay broken in the dark and wet bottom. He did not think, the dead do not think. When the flies came and roosted in his remains, he did not flinch. As they moved through his memories Ben did not try to hide anything from the shit-flies, not even when they cracked his innermost hidden truths, and sorted through his dreams.

***

(Corrigan had a dream of Halloween; an eyeful of shape, Grey-Coat prancing, dancing a jig, face-hooded, submerged in pulled-up coat collars. It danced back and forth, turned, bent over, and lewdly patted its rump. He woke up sweaty).

Since Reynolds and the other man had went into the shaft and Reynolds had fallen, the phantom had been quiet. They hadn't recovered Reynolds body.

Corrigan looked at himself, in the mirror. He'd escorted Ben's girlfriend to the funeral, a beautiful girl, and since then he'd been seeing her, now and again. The funeral had been on a high, cold day, and as Angela wept, and Ben's mother was even moved to her side in sympathy, the leaves turning, the air skin-chapping, Corrigan saw a shadow at cemeteries edge, watching the mourners, in particular, Angela and Reynold's skinny, former co-worker who had shown dressed in a mottled dusty sport coat with prodigious holes and smelled like he hadn't showered for the occasion.

The figure turned.

Corrigan wondered if that was the phantom, and later that night, in his boxers, he watched the video of the killer in the bathroom. It'd been the first time since Reynold's accident.

***

They closed the Metro later that year, the final workers talking of a face, white with fly eggs and a tongue of fly wings; eyelids black, bulbous, eyes scarlet with poisons; a rotten face.

Rumor became legend.

Richard after he heard sounds in the night, and though he never gave voice to the thought, he felt trapped and wanted, being stalked even as he stalked Angela. This phantom like a dead man's memory, waited, long past the rational - to give Richard torments due. Proving of course, that the cycle of death and revenge, comes for all.


The End

4 Comments:

Blogger Max said...

"His mother would have set aside a special portion of her despite for the Metro's bathrooms where strangers defecated on their way to 'somewhere else'."
that sentence needs some work

"For although Ben didn't share the sentiment, having no leftover feelings for the father he'd barely known - since his father had disappeared to the place of mysteries called 'somewhere else' without a word, or even a note, Ben's mother was naturally disposed to hate 'somewhere else' and its mysterious travelers above all else."

good way to intro this, but perhaps rearranging it to:

'His father having disappeared to this very place, Ben's mother was naturally disposed to hate it. Ben did not share the sentiment, having barely known the man.' Just to get your subjects straight and remove the unnecessary dash.

Change the next sentence to this, maybe:
"was still in the Metro-line training program. Not that there was much to learn; he only needed to help with frustrated passengers who'd missed their connections, or the homeless who came to huddle in the station's empty alcoves, forlorn and ragged."
In general this whole story would be cleaner if you were more careful with your commas and run-on sentences. There is charm in creating a breathless tone, but not when it sounds sloppy.

"how to keep things that wanted to fall apart together."

maybe "wanted to fall apart from falling apart"? "fall apart together" is funny-sounding.

"Bald Richard, pierced and inked, scarecrow in his company uniform was off on patrol, acting as priest and confidante, bouncer and general, kissing with the left hand, pulling hair with the right. Ben went in the largest stall. He unbuttoned his dress pants and slid his underwear down, wincing at the cool touch of the toilet seat."
AWESOME

"The poem's author had went to great"
had gone

"After interminable moments, in which he dare "
dared

"Ben left the two shaking hands and holding identical bowler hats in shame. "
again, awesome.

"but before he took a step the boy must have decided something."
cut that part, it breaks style. should be, 'ben decided to keep walking'. 'boy speaks.'

"Ben thought - when Angela had visited and Ben and she had retreated to a dark corner in the Metro, to steal a kiss between her big breasts capped by almond nipples, the soft skin like the gentle touch of velvet on cheek."
missing a word somewhere in there, i think.

"same unrepressed criticisms, though culture had long ago, at least publicly disbarred such thinking, the lease of judgment was not easily gainsaid, or the fruits of such judgment, the reward which was the act of judgment itself - feeling of superiority."
borderline incoherent, break it up into two sentences maybe. and also it seems to break tone.

"They were heavy, dragging steps, accompanied by bestial grunting."
add something else here maybe, something a bit more terrifying, if it is prompting him to pray (just after describing how he doesn't, no less).

more when I have more time.

12:59 PM  
Blogger sb said...

Hey, thanks for the critique. I've done various things, grammatically, that were mistakes, but this story -- was a sort of transition attempt, the purple prose was intentional, because I was trying to get at a different style of writing, one very cartoony, et, etc. I can't generally write this way - I found it very difficult but I wanted to appropriate it briefly to try to get a better understanding of HOW to do it. It looks like I've failed!

4:54 PM  
Blogger Max said...

dude, not at all, the narrative voice in this is incredible. i'm only through what you see above but it's really drawn me in. the sparse but heavily exaggerated detail and missing transitional phrases give it just the right dream quality for a guy who works at such a job (i assume it's going to get weirder so i can't yet speak to that, but still, so far so good).

7:53 PM  
Blogger sb said...

I appreciate your kind words but it seems I overreached myself, in some fashion. It ignited me though, and last night I stamped out a 5 thousand word story in a more natural fashion. This story is a dead end for me, because it's built on images, and the sentences are unnatural, in some ways inarticulate. It's more image than story, and so it ends up in the desk of lost things, forevermore.

7:57 AM  

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