Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
(page 3 of 6)
At the Port Authority terminal on 42nd street, Ray took one escalator after another, slowly descending into the belly of the beast. He had five hours to kill so he headed downtown with a plan: dinner in Chinatown, coffee in the Village. He made his way to the west side subway, the IRT, the Interborough Rapid Transit, the name itself a wild exaggeration sandwiched between two part-time facts. He was waiting for the express train when he heard the music. He followed it to a lonely corner of the platform by the far stairway.
She was an apparition, New York subterranean style. She was tiny, he couldn't tell how old she was, maybe seventeen, but probably younger. Her sickly color and dirty skin distorted her age. The number of years really didn't matter. Ray saw only the ripped and stained pink party dress with the little fringes of tattered lace around the bottom and the ends of the sleeves and collar. He saw only her tired, stained saddle shoes; saw only the once white stockings with gaping holes revealing yet more dirty skin; saw only the smudges around her eyes and her painful smile. A smile whose remains she clung to like the party dress, a paper cut reminder of who she used to be or once dreamed of being.
The girl appeared before him, her head held straight and staring blankly. She softly whispered a single word.
But she was dancing. She was tap dancing to the music from the little radio which he now saw was a few feet in front of her. It was propped up in a shoe box, among some small pieces of cloth and a dollar or two in change. The sound was muffled and noisy but somehow managed to compete and even be heard above the noise of the train station. No one was paying attention. She danced with her head held straight, her smile never changing.
Almost as soon as he had found her, the uptown train pulled in with the usual roar that slowly deafens you over time. Ray turned to look at the train for a second and when he turned back again she was gone. As he looked around he saw her getting on the uptown train. Without thinking, he followed her.
The doors closed and they headed north. She put her shoe box on the floor by the center pole, turned on the radio and started to dance again. This time he was standing directly in front of her. Her eyes stared straight ahead as if watching a movie somewhere behind him, her matted blonde hair barely moved as she danced. He could hear the taps on her shoes now which were nearly drowning out the music. She never stopped smiling. It was her rigid, vacant smile that made him think of her as someone's pretty little bassinet stuffer, someone's little dirty diaper maker, first steps, first word, first grade, first date. Someone's first warm, wet kiss.
Diagonally across from Ray, leaning against the other doors, was another onlooker. He smiled and Ray tried to return the same smile, both of them perhaps a bit embarrassed for her or maybe for their indifference beyond curiosity. Ray wondered if this man was also on the wrong train.
When the music stopped she stood still for a moment and then bent down toward her shoe box. At first he thought she was going to pass around the box but instead she picked up a piece of cardboard which Ray hadn't noticed before. It was folded in thirds and as she unfolded it she turned, in half circles, arms extended, holding out the sign. The scrawled blue crayon letters read:
help the girl with no home
Breakfast and a Cigarette, Part I continues...