"You ever wonder about all the spilled birds?"
I take a sip of my coffee, hoping it hasn't gone cold. I'm disappointed, but not surprised. The bagel place where I bought it is only three blocks from the subway stop, but that's three block of ruthless New York winter, and a couple millimeters of paper is no match for that.
I hear the rumble of the train, but it's the wrong rumble, and I know that when the metallic monster rounds the corner, it will be from the city side, which means that it will be continuing deeper into Queens. Which means I just missed the train that takes me into the heart of the beast. Which means I'm going to be standing next to this lunatic for the next thirteen minutes, sipping cold coffee out of a cup I can barely feel with my frozen fingers, cursing myself for taking that extra three minutes under the hot water in the shower this morning.
I ignore the guy talking, pretending to listen to music. I forgot to plug my phone in last night, so I've only got 2% battery life until I get to work and get to a power outlet, but I shoved my earbuds in out of habit when I dashed out the door this morning, so there's no reason for him to know that I'm faking.
He looks at me for a few seconds, and I look at him back, but only with peripheral vision--no way I'm going to make direct eye contact with this guy. He finally turns his head back to the tracks, and we both watch as the train pulls to a stop on the opposite side of the tracks. I look through the windows as travelers pile onto the train headed for...wherever.
I've never understood why anyone would need to take the subway past Queensboro Plaza away from the city at 7 in the morning, but apparently people do. Maybe the graveyard shift going home after a night of work in the city? It doesn't matter--it's always too early for me to give much of a shit about anything.
The train pulls away, and we're left in our respective silences.
"I know you can hear me," the stranger says.
I pretend like I don't hear him. I do a damn fine job of it, I don't mind saying.
"Your headphone cord is hanging out of your pocket."
"It's okay," he says. "You don't have to talk. I was just wondering. Sometimes, it does me good to wonder. Sometimes, it does me bad. When it gets to where I can't tell the difference which it's doing, I try to ask someone else. If they look at me like I'm crazy, I know that it's doing me bad, so I move my brain along."
He looks up, at a group of pigeons passing across the too-bright morning sky. By instinct, I glance up, too. When I look over to see if he noticed, I see that he's looking down.
Determined not to be busted, I look out over the tracks.
"I just hope they're okay," he says.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I say, because I haven't lived here long enough. I know a seasoned New Yorker would be able to continue the headphone ruse, despite the fact that they'd been blatantly busted, but I'm just not there, yet. I've been bridge and tunnel people for almost eight years, but I grew up in the Midwest, and I apparently haven't hardened up enough to flat-out ignore someone when they speak to me. If I can't trick them into believing I can't hear them, I mean.
"It's okay. Almost nobody does. Shoot, even I don't, most of the time."
I take another sip of coffee, forgetting for a moment that it's cold-nasty evil. It's quick to remind me.
"The spilled birds, that's what I was asking about. Do you ever wonder about them?"
"I don't guess so," I say, because I have no idea what he's talking about.
"Watch," he says. With a swiftness that would make a ninja envious, he turns to me and snatches the paper cup from my hand, pops the plastic lid off, and dumps the coffee onto the concrete.
"Dude! I just bought that."
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumpled five dollar bill, shoving it into my hand without looking at me--his attention is focused on the puddle of coffee on the platform. I can't help but follow his stare.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"The spilled birds. Quit thinking and just look."
I stare into the coffee, trying to figure out what the fuck he's talking about. I don't see anything but wasted money, at first. But then I see the reflection of the birds flying overhead. It's brief, but it suddenly makes sense.
The spilled birds.
"You saw them," he says. "You saw the spilled birds."
"I saw the reflection," I tell him.
"Do you ever wonder what happens to them?"
"The puddle will dry. Or freeze. And they're still in there. We see these birds every day, flying above us, making their homes, gathering food, shitting on cabs. But those ones, the spilled birds, we only see them for an instant. What happens to them? What happens next?"
"It's just a reflection."
"You think so?"
"Yeah, man, it's pretty obvious."
"As obvious as a guy listening to music on a subway platform because he has earbuds in?"
"That's not the same."
"It's the same," he says, and he turns away from me for the first time since arriving on the platform. I'm caught off guard by the squealing of the train brakes--I should have heard the rumbling several seconds ago. I turn towards the train as it slows to a stop, seeing my image reflected in the windows, one after another as the cars pass. I see him, too, and I hate that I care that he looks so sad. Maybe I'll try to cheer him up on the ride into the city; maybe I can tell him that the "spilled birds" go on to live full, happy lives.
The doors open, and I turn to the stranger, trying to think up encouraging words that don't sound like 'm patronizing him.
I glance up and down the platform, but he is nowhere to be seen.
Screw it I think, and move towards the train. Just before I step on, I see his reflection in the glass, staring up at the sky. I enter the train and turn to see an empty platform.
"Please stand clear of the doors," the automated voice says. "Next stop, Lexington Avenue, 59th street."
The doors slide close and the train jerks into motion. I stuff the five dollar bill into my pocket, along with the loose end of my earbuds, and make my way to an empty seat, disgusted and impressed with how weird this city can be at such an early hour.
I've recently started following a blog called WriteWorld. Every day, they post writing prompts, with the caption, "A picture says a thousand words. Write them."
Because I've been wanting to start writing more, and because a thousand or so words is doable, I decided to start giving some of them a try. The above story was inspired by this post, with the following picture:
Bus Ride by Thecreakyattic
Posted under Short Stories on 8/22/15