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April 15, 2024

From the End of the World: Four Scenes after Henri Michaux, II

By Terence Kuch

II: "The great stream, the vast and desolate stream"

From now, this second autumn after it began, looking back to the first faint disturbances, I knew we should have discussed it then, among ourselves, in whispers at least, perhaps spoken of it in the marketplace or written letters to one editor or another. But after a while it just seemed too late. What could have been said had not been said; what should have been said had been thought, instead.

So we said nothing, pretended not to notice. Made excuses no one believed but no one challenged. "Did you take the subway?" We no longer asked that question, since the different answers were all the same: "Oh, no; we took the bus instead." "Taxi." "Walked; needed the exercise." "Stayed home."

I called it the 'Presence.' I didn't know what others called it, since we didn't speak of it. Perhaps I caught Sally once saying 'the Stream' to herself, but she denied it with her eyes. Sally and Dave lived right above us in the co-op. In our innocence, those first days, perhaps I might have said 'presence,' then without the rising tone of majuscule that I used more recently. Sometimes I heard them above me, Dave's heavy voice, Sally's lighter, arguing then making up. Ruth and I pretended not to hear, but it's impossible not to, since we were on the second floor above the A-train, Dave and Sally on the third. Every time the train came through beneath us the china would have rattled, if we could have afforded china instead of dishes from China.

I didn't know how long the Presence had been passing there, beneath us, because the trains were still running at that time, their passage underground sounding about the same as always. But there was that transit strike, you know, the motormen, and the rattling should have stopped because the trains were all in their lay-ups, but it kept on. I verified that the strike hadn't been settled yet. 'Verified' -- that's a fancy word for leafing through the Daily News. Still out on strike. So why did trains still run, or sound as if they ran?

I retreated to my computer and finished the last chapter of the MS my editor had been waiting for, Calming Yourself Through Medication, the next effort after my moderately successful Calming Yourself Through Meditation.

Next day, I walked down into the Canal Street station. Started to, anyway. But a stranger caught my arm, alarmed me, but he was not intent on the usual dollar.

"No!" he cried in a whisper. "Don't go down there!"

I looked at him. "What?"

"The station! The station!" he breathed and scurried off.

I thought of Conrad; but, not to be deterred by some nutcase, I descended the stairs into the station. No one was there. I checked my watch. Nine-oh-seven a.m. I shook it and looked again. Just tripped over to nine-oh-eight. I stood there, not sure what to do. It was obvious that no trains were running, or other passengers would be there, heads in newspapers, on personal-space alert. At nine-twelve I decided to leave the station and walk, but just then I felt a breeze on my face. Air pushed into the station by an approaching train? I peered for the first sight of lights down the tunnel, fainter than air. No light, but a faint red glow, then brighter. Heat poured into the station, a sound of rattling, banging like the train, but now these, too: moaning, sounds of muffled rage. I had to shade my eyes, cover my ears. I ran for the stairs, walked twenty blocks north to my editor's ramshackle office, handed over the MS. He smiled perfunctorily and gave me a check. Still no china, but groceries for the month, anyway. Ruth was relieved.

On my way back to the apartment, I ran into Dave. He was fuming about something, so I tried to avoid him but really couldn't. He knew I wrote professionally, so he usually assumed I had plenty of time to spare for his rambling on and on. This time, he stopped me on the street and gave me a complete core-dump of his problems, starting with his boss, then the phone company, the super, and Sally, and then he started to say something that might have been about the subway strike, but suddenly stopped. I mumbled about hoping the rest of his day would be nice, then thought to mention the strange events at the subway station. I started with "Dave, I was just at the Canal Street station, and --." But his face changed instantly from sour to stricken. His words tumbled out half-formed, but I caught something about "sorry to trouble you" as he ducked around me and hurried away.

I think I may have given you too much information there, but that day was very memorable for me. You know that the motormen never did go back to work. I saw a few of them from time to time, drinking coffee in the morning, whiskey in the afternoon, weaving on home. They never went near the trains. Neither did I. Neither did anyone I knew. The Daily News was entirely silent about the situation, except for an occasional story on an inside page, "Transit talks resumed," "Transit talks stalled," and so on.

I thought of speaking to some friends about my adventure in the station, but as soon as I nudged toward the subject they, each and all, thought of something very compelling that needed their immediate attention. I'm not sure I ever would have actually spoken of the Presence, though; there was too much going on underneath the words, some laborious and painful subtext.

The next year went by uneventfully. Motormen found new jobs. Commuters walked or took buses. My next book, Calming Yourself through Mediation, came out. My backlist 'Calming' books were all in new editions, selling well. My editor trademarked CALMING YOURSELF...™, asked me to step up production, offered me research assistance which I declined. Ruth and I began eating at a better class of restaurant, where they didn't automatically put bottles of ketchup on the table or call the customers "you guys." She bought a few pieces of china, but seemed more distant. Dave and Sally were as usual, but we didn't see them as much. Small talk can go only so far. China patterns and so on. The stairs to the Canal Street station were boarded up. The rattling from the subway grew more frequent and more severe, and now I could occasionally see the color red glowing up from ground level when the Presence passed.

This is now. I came home today to find Sally in our living room, weeping and telling Ruth that she'd found out that Dave had been having an affair. Ruth had a strange look on her face. The Presence came by, very fast and very loud. One of Ruth's new china plates fell off its rack and broke. Sally went home. Ruth was very quiet. The Presence passed again and again, its glow now lighting our windows, the street, the sky.

No one speaks of the Presence. No one at all.

Part Two of Four

Article © Terence Kuch. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-07-25
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