Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
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
help the girl with no money
help the girl with nothing
Without waiting for donations, and with automated movements, she folded up the sign and put it back down on the dirty floor of the train, turned on the radio and began dancing again, her eyes still staring straight ahead, still refusing to acknowledge where she was. At the next stop Ray put some change in the shoe box, felt for his wallet and transferred for the downtown train. Like a dog wandering the neighborhood after finally jumping the fence, he was free to go anywhere, free even, to take the wrong train.