FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 1990

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

Gina M. Beaton
S.M. Webb (4)
S.A. Galliah (2)
Joe Blades (3)
Rick Armstrong
Timothy Dansdill
Louann M. R. Scallion
G.J. Munro
Laura L. Beaton
Edward W. N. Meers
Nick Lolordo (2)
Mike Butler
Lisa Michelle Fiander (2)

Prose

Yassarian King
Martin Doucette

Artwork

H.A. Hutchinson

[PDF]

Yassarian King

 

 

Please Smile

     I never minded the bus. The ride was a time of relaxed contemplation, a time to read the business section or look out the window, a time that pleasantly connected 8:08 at the bus stop to 8:36 at the office. It was a part of the routine. The routine that began when the alarm rang at 7:00 sharp and I was in the shower three minutes later, shampooing hair, washing face, left arm, right arm crotch, right leg, left leg, left foot, right foot. Then toweling dry in the same order. Shaving and hair combing occupied the next six minutes, allowing me to be in the kitchen by 7:28. I would set coffee brewing, collect the paper, and start the toaster. The toaster had been a wedding present from my mother, and needed fixing: the toast was always half-burned, or if you made an adjustment, half-raw.
     Drinking coffee, eating toast (with margarine and strawberry jam), and reading the news, I would talk to Jane as she prepared Johnny and Alice for school. At 8:03 I would get my jacket and hat off the hook in the hall, and an umbrella if it looked like rain, and take the stairs two flights down to the first floor. Old Mr. Tate was always waiting. I had never learned if he was married or what apartment he lived in, but we talked convivially and intimately about the weather or last night’s ball game.
     I worked hard every day, was liked by my peers, respected by my subordinates, and appreciated by my superiors. My hard work was rewarded two years ago with a promotion to upper management. We could finally afford the suburban house, the bigger car, the new toaster. Morning rituals remained little changed by our new fortunes--started half an hour earlier, and the toast was evenly done (with butter, and sometimes marmalade instead of jam) but otherwise things remained the same.
     Unti1 I left the house. Now my trip to work began with a ten minute drive to the subway station, where I parked and waited on the near-deserted platform for the train to take me the 38 minutes to the office building downtown.
     At first I didn’t realize how dangerous the subway was, thinking it merely impersonal. But it soon become clear that it was an instinct for self-preservation that made everyone keep their eyes to themselves. I supposed it was a bizarre toxin in the dank atmosphere that flowed sluggishly through the subway tunnels which would cause some sort of electrostatic reaction blinding any two pairs of strange eyes that inadvertently locked gazes. I’m no physicist, but I figured the explanation was something like that. It seemed strange that no one had complained to City Council about the situation.
     My first analyst, smoking his pipe and gazing intellectually out the window, said it was all in my head, but I had seen his big black-and-silver Jaguar XJS parked outside and knew he wasn’t even a subway rider- -I should have known he wouldn’t understand. The next was more sympathetic, but rather strange--he kept asking about childhood experiences in caves and asking me to look at blotty pictures of people bleeding. I realized that the professionals just weren’t interested in helping me spread the word about the dire danger lurking beneath the city streets.
     So I set about becoming adept at avoiding people’s eyes. I practised every chance I got--in meetings, at golf games, around the dinner table at home. Elevators were particularly good practise, and I got into the habit of taking one up to the 27th floor and back to ground level before leaving work, as a warmup for the trip home.
     At first I was too afraid to do more than take the easy way out and simply pretend to be asleep. This worked fine in the morning when I always got a seat, but on the crowded evening train it was usually impossible and I felt very self-conscious and vulnerable with my eyes closed even if I could sit down. Instead I affected a pensive, self-absorbed air and stared vaguely at the ceiling or the ads and notices high on the walls.
     Then as I gained experience it became an exciting, challenging and potentially deadly game to watch and examine the other passengers without being caught. The trick was to appear to be always staring forwards and downward, when actually you were sneaking sly, furtive glances around you when no one was looking. I developed an instinct for knowing when someone was about to turn their head in my direction, and instantly returned my own eyes to the fixed, vacant straight-ahead stare. Looking at reflections in the windows was a another useful technique, which I used initially for watching people undetected, then later, dissatisfied with the blurry view, just to make sure someone was looking the other way before darting a direct glance at them.
     After two years I had become a master of the game. One quick look was all it took to observe clothing, face, expression and attitude and classify a given subway rider. During the rush hour I typically travelled in, business executives, other veterans of the game, formed the majority of travellers. Women in precise, sexless plain-coloured outfits of efficiency; men in dark, well-tailored suits, younger ones wearing paisley power ties, their elders in traditional stripes and solids. Most of these had been commuting for years and were rarely caught moving, let alone looking anywhere near you.
     Equally safe were people I called ‘sleepers.’ These were obviously new initiates to the underground ways taking the easy route I had once taken, simply closing their eyes and leaning against a window or pole. It was always amusing to see a sleeper without a seat-- only a rank amateur would pretend to be asleep while standing up clinging unsteadily to a handhold. Also funny were the sleepers who really fell a sleep--they would nod off and sag lower and lower towards the person next to them, until eventually a harder than usual jolt would startle them into frightened wakefulness, snapping back upright with a look of panic in their eyes.
     ‘Shoppers’ behaved like sleepers with their eyes open. Typical of this class were elderly, overweight Portugese house wives with seven or eight carrier bags full of groceries. They would sit erect in their seats and point glassy eyes straight forward, ignoring everything around them. This kept them out of danger, but often they were so unaware of their surroundings they wouldn’t realise they were at their stop until almost too late. Then, hustling bags together and offering no apologies, they barged and shoved their way through the pressing crowd and the swiftly closing doors.
     All the types I have described so for were relatively harmless, and only a careless accident of inattentiveness presented any risk of searing eye contact. The ones to watch out for were brash, insolent young punks who stared arrogantly about, daring anyone to look their way. This dangerous breed was easily identified by earrings, tattoos, army fatigues and pitch-black Doc Martens laced aggressively in red. They rarely presented a problem during the business day, but I often ran across them on my weekend expeditions exploring the limits of the subway lines. I always tried to get on a different carriage from them. When that was impossible I usually reverted to sleeper mode and just slumped down and counted stops until reaching mine.
     Most dangerous of all, however, were those infrequent riders who weren’t even aware of the peril they placed everyone in by looking indiscriminately around. These were often young kids with baseball caps and lollipops, excited to be on the subway and eager to see what was happening. Charming though their enthusiasm was, one could never tell which way they would look next, and they were best left alone. Sometimes their naivete was such that they would actually talk to the stranger next to them, making small talk or just asking the time. The inevitable response was a gruff, mono-syllabic answer spit out of the mouth’s corner, with no accompanying eye movement. It was sad to have to do this, but there was no sense in endangering one’s self or them.
     My life was going well. Jane complained that I was getting more and more distant, and objected to my weekend subway spelunking. But I was bringing home a handsome paycheque, my golf game was improving, and instead of worrying I now looked forward to the excitement of the subway ride.
     Then it happened. I must have gotten too confident in my abilities, or else lack of sleep made me careless. Whatever the cause, last week my constant vigilance faltered one the unthinkable happened - I looked at a stronger across the aisle and he was looking straight back. We stared at each other in horrible fascination as the seconds telescoped excruciatingly, until it seemed our eyes had been locked for hours. I Just sat there dazed and confused, waiting for lightning to strike or some malevolent, incomprehensible force to rip my eyeballs from their sockets. Time stretched interminably, the train and the rest of the passengers receded from consciousness - leaving just him and me tied together with mute strings of terror.
     But nothing happened. No lightning struck, my eyes were intact, no strange chemical reaction took place. Then he grinned at me. A great crinkling smile began in the corners of his deep grey eyes and spread rapidly through ruddy cheeks to take control of a broad, beaming mouth, suffusing his entire weathered face with a warm, friendly glow.
     “Hey mate, how are you?”
     How was I. I was fine... no burning pain filled my pupils with hot fire, no electric sizzle was shorting through my optic nerve to my brain... I felt great. I had been wrong! There was no reason not to look at other people!
     This revolution shocked me out of the reverie I had fallen into, and I looked up eagerly to greet the man who had shown the folly of my ways, but he had gotten off. No matter, my immediate and compelling duty was to let everyone know of my experience, to spread the word about the joy of warm, open, human contact.
     “I can see! I looked straight at him and I can still see! There’s no danger - you can look at each other, smile at each other, talk, laugh! We’ve been living in pointless shadow for years. There’s no need.”
     My excitement trailed off. No one was paying attention. A few passengers had uncomfortably glanced my way, then quickly averted their eyes. People edged away. I didn’t understand. Why were they doing this? I pleaded with them.
     “Come on, we’re safe! Look at each other, laugh and be happy smile!”
     “Smile... please?...”
     “...please smile...please smile...please smile...”

     But nothing was changed. Some people got off at the next stop and others got on, but they all ignored poor Bob Reynolds sitting in a small, huddled, whimpering pile in the corner. Just another loony, they thought to themselves.

 

last updated August 17, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing
poetry, prose, and artwork © individual authours | website created by Alana Paul