Strangers on a Subway

Timothy Belin

The subway careens to a stop and more bodies shove their way in, pushing Marcus further

from the sliding doors. After a long and disappointing day, he does not feel the strength to resist the human wave rushing in, but his stop is coming up and he worries he might not make it through the crowd on time. 

“Excuse me,” he says timidly, trying to get the attention of the large man pinning him

against the wall. “I need to get off soon.” 

If the man hears him, he fails to show it. 

“Sorry,” Marcus insists, moving one leg as if to walk into space that is not yet available. 

Again, no response. Maybe when the doors open again, Marcus thinks, steeling himself for

that moment. Seconds later, the conductor’s voice warbles something over the com system, unintelligible over the sound of the car’s progression on the metal tracks and the deafening hum of voices. But when the old metal doors creak open, Marcus flies into action, pushing all his weight against those around him in the hope they allow him through. 

“Hey, watch it!” someone yells, while another shoves back. Marcus is thrown sideways,

catches himself on a pole, spins around some more, and emerges into the station. 

“Smells like piss,” he mumbles, wrinkling his nose. Then he looks up at the overhanging

sign, and his face falls. He got off at the wrong stop.  

* * * 

Clint is sitting on the cold stone floor, a worn blanket on his lap and a flipped fedora by his

side, when he sees the young man emerge from the subway. Roughly college-aged, the newcomer’s hair is a mess, he’s wearing an ill-fitting suit with sneakers that do not match it, and he appears out of breath, as if he ran five miles just to get out the subway door. Most importantly, he seems utterly lost. At that moment, Clint knows he has found a mark. 

“My wallet!” Clint yells out as if in panic, his eyes focused on the newcomer’s back. 

As expected, the man instinctively reaches for his back pocket to reassure himself his own

wallet is still there. Too easy. And then the man starts in Clint’s direction, walking over to check the decaying map painted on the wall he’s sitting against. 

Clint keeps a low profile, stretching his hat out to oblivious passers-by, as the man traces his

finger against the map and mutters under his breath. As the minutes drag on, Clint eventually looks up and sees the worry etched all over the young man’s face. As concern expands across the man’s juvenile features, Clint remembers his own formative years and feels a tinge of sympathy for the stranger. 

“Where’d you need to go?” he asks against his better judgment. 

The young man twitches and glances down, apparently startled to hear someone address

him. 

“34th street,” he says hesitantly. “But I can’t find it anywhere, and I don’t know where I went

wrong.” 

Clint nods, looking up at the map as if he needs to study it too. In truth, Clint has spent so

much time in the stations and riding the cars that he knows all the stops and all the lines, but he cannot admit that. The man has already looked at him too long, and now Clint needs to make sure he doesn’t do anything that would make him memorable. He has to blend in, be just another random face in a sea of people, or the young man might be able to describe him to the cops later on. 

“You’re going to want to take the orange line,” he says after a lengthy consultation. “Up the

stairs, take a right, and a second about 50 feet down. There’s a sign. Go west, three stops and you get off, take the white line north one stop and then walk a block further north.” 

The man nods enthusiastically, repeating the directions to himself. “Thanks,” he says with a

warm smile. Then he pulls out his wallet, drops a bill into Clint’s hat, and strides off towards the large staircase. 

Clint eyes him as he walks up two-steps at a time, careful not to follow too quickly. Once he

is satisfied the distance is appropriate, he gets to his feet, wraps his blanket around his shoulders and grabs his hat, pulling out the lone bill as he places it on his head. However, just before he slides it in his pocket with the other scrunched up one-dollar bills and loose change he has gotten that day, Clint unfolds it and sees, to his surprise, that the young man gave him a twenty. No one ever gives that much, not even the pompous businessmen with money bursting out of their self-important pockets. It’s almost enough to make Clint give up on his plans. 

Almost, but not quite. 

* * * 

At the top of the stairs, Marcus takes a right, repeating the beggar’s directions to himself. 

“Orange line, three stops, white line north, one stop, one block north,” he whispers. 

He walks down the crowded corridor, looking for the promised sign and dodging hurried

travellers as they rush by. But when he sees it, he realises his mantra has left out a key detail. Did the beggar tell him to go west or east? Marcus cannot remember. He looks around him and feels his breathing accelerate. Men in expensive suits and women in high heels all waltz by without hesitation, their eyes set in front of them and faces closed off to his vain attempts to get their attention. It’s getting late and Marcus is once more lost in an unfamiliar city. This time he senses the tears coming to his eyes as a panic attack slowly creeps up on him. 

He is about to turn around and head back to the map when a man bumps into him and he

loses his balance. As he staggers, he already sees himself falling victim to the stampede of businesspeople, but catches himself against the wall. As he looks up to see who shoved him over, he spots a familiar fedora floating above a tattered blanket. 

“Hey!” he calls out, but the fedora keeps on moving. 

“Did you say West or East?” he yells, his voice sliding into an embarrassingly high pitch by

the end of the question. 

The fedora slows down, stops. Marcus regains some hope, only for the hat to move forward

once more, stop again. The masses keep on washing by and Marcus feels as if the seconds are stretching into hours as he watches that lonely fedora, unmoving amidst the troubled sea of heads. And then it turns around, and Marcus lets out a breath he hadn’t realised he had been holding. 

Marcus watches the beggar approach, hat screwed down over his head and blanket firmly

wrapped around his shoulders, emerging from the crowd like a divine intervention. 

“You want to go West,” the man says when he is finally within speaking distance. 

He wraps his arm around Marcus’s back as if for good measure, using his other arm to

indicate the corridor he needs to take. Suddenly, Marcus feels a pressure against the seat of his pants and jumps, hand flying to his back pocket. The beggar releases him and looks him over. 

“You okay?” he asks, one eyebrow raised. 

“Yeah, all good,” Marcus says, his face heating up. “I thought someone had stolen my wallet,

but I was wrong.” 

An expression Marcus cannot quite discern comes over the other man’s face, but just as

soon it is gone. Marcus is about to go when he speaks up again. 

“You don’t take the subway much, do you?” the beggar asks. 

Marcus takes a second before replying. “No, not really,” he admits. 

An awkward silence follows, as the beggar stays where he is as if expecting Marcus to say

more. Marcus simply stares at his shoes. 

“You need help?” the other man finally asks, and without waiting for a reply he grabs

Marcus by the arm and leads him through the crowd of travellers, parting them like the Red Sea. 

Once the two are on the platform, the rush of noise ebbs away and the beggar speaks up

once more. 

“I’m taking the same line, if you want to stick with me,” he says, sitting down on a vacant

metal bench. 

Marcus hesitates, then joins him, staring at the empty tracks as he struggles to think of

something to say. 

“Thanks for saving me,” he finally mutters, immediately hating himself for the choice of

words. 

“No worries,” the man replies. “We’re all new at some point, we gotta help each other out.” 

Marcus smiles and takes his first real look at the man beside him. Up close, Marcus notices

that he is younger than he would have thought, in his early thirties at most, though hardships have aged his face considerably. His hair is shaved down the side, with unruly, curly tufts peeking out from beneath the fedora, and a cocky grin lights up his features as his bright green eyes stare at the wall opposite him. Something about that smile comforts Marcus, but he quickly turns his gaze away when the man’s eyes slide towards him. The man looks him over, and neither say a word as they wait for the subway to arrive. 

* * * 

As a shiny silver car screeches to a halt, Clint gets up and walks to the door farthest back,

knowing it will have the fewest passengers. He steps in, breathing in the smell of weed as he finds a worn-out plastic seat, and looks up to see if the young man followed him. He did, but he is standing by the exit, gripping the nearest pole as if a fierce wind might try to suck him out of the door any minute. Clint chuckles to himself. There is something oddly comical about that boy. 

“I’m not gonna bite, you know?” he says, indicating the seat across from him. 

The young man hesitates, glancing between the seat and the door as if judging the time it

would take him to escape. Finally, he sits. 

“I’m Landon,” Clint lies, curious about the other’s reaction. 

“Marcus.” 

Clint already knows this, having glanced inside his wallet earlier, but he wanted to test the

young man’s honesty. There’s a naïveté in him that Clint finds endearing. Despite the scare with his wallet, Marcus appears trusting, though excessively shy. Clint envies that innocence, wondering when he last felt the same. And there is something about the young man’s awkwardness, the way he cannot bring himself to meet Clint’s eyes, that he likes, too. Clint finds his boyishness cute, and he wonders if that is why he returned the wallet. No, he reminds himself. I needed to do that or he would have known it was me who took it. I’ll get it back later. But some part of him does not want to steal this man’s wallet. Some part of him he had forgotten existed tells him to leave him alone, to find someone else to rob. But his mind quickly rationalises those thoughts away and reminds him what will happen if he does not meet his quota for the day. 

“So what brings you to the city?” Clint asks, deciding conversation will help him quiet his

doubts. 

“Job interview,” Marcus responds, making it obvious by the way he says it that things did

not go well. 

“You like it here?” 

“Not really, but I need the job.” 

Marcus seems to want to say more, so Clint keeps quiet, waiting for him to continue. 

“I think I hate it actually,” he finally says, and Clint can see on his face how liberating those

few words were to him. “Everything about this day has been shit. Every alley stinks of piss, all the stores want to rip you off, I can’t find my way through the fucking subway system, and everyone I’ve spoken to’s been a stuck-up prick.” 

Marcus suddenly stops, and Clint can see his cheeks turn red. “Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean

you,” he stammers. 

Clint laughs. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I think this city sucks too. I’d leave in a

heartbeat if I got the chance.” 

“Then why don’t you?” Marcus asks, matching Clint’s gaze for the first time. 

Clint sees the kindness in the eyes looking back at him and immediately regrets his words.

There is something disarming about the boy, and he needs to stop before he slips up. Emotions only get in the way. 

“Family shit,” he says, his tone making it clear that the conversation is over. 

Marcus looks away once more, as if embarrassed he asked, and for once Clint decides not

to prompt him further, aware he is already on a slippery slope. Instead, he turns his body around and stretches across several seats. Out of the corner of his eye, he is vaguely aware that Marcus is furtively glancing at him, but he decides to ignore it. He chooses rather to close his eyes for a moment and wrestle with his inner thoughts. 

When the conductor announces their stop, Clint swings himself back upright and sees

Marcus’ gaze scramble away as he does so. 

“This is where we get off,” Clint says. 

Marcus nods, keeping his eyes fixed on the door. When he gets up, Clint goes to stand

beside him. A quick look down confirms that the wallet is still in the same pocket, and Clint knows what he has to do. As the doors slide open, he stands back to let Marcus out first, then moves swiftly, as if misjudging Marcus’s own intentions, brushing against him as he does so. His fingers, practiced with years of work, deftly pluck the black leather pouch from where it was nestled and transfer it to his own coat. If Marcus noticed anything, he does not show it, simply looking up at the station sign. 

“White line is that way,” Clint says, indicating a tunnel on their left. “North one stop, and

then walk one block.” 

Marcus thanks him, meeting his gaze one last time, and at that moment Clint sees that well

of kindness hidden behind those deep brown eyes once more. But this time it seems to be mixed with something else, something like sadness. No, not sadness, pity. And then Clint wants to be mad, wants to shove the young man’s pity down his throat, wants to pull out his wallet and taunt the ridiculous boy in the too-big suit. Who is this kid to know anything about his situation? Who is he to judge him? But, somehow, he feels none of this, just a dull ache as the eyes drift downwards once more and a final thanks exits Marcus’ lips. Clint merely stands in silence and watches his timid steps take him away, almost wishing he would feel for his wallet, realise it is gone, and come back to get it. Clint wants to call out, to admit everything, but he stays mute, and soon Marcus has disappeared around the nearest bend. 

Clint remains where he is, unmoving, until the next subway comes along. This one smells

like bleach, probably to cover a much nastier smell he does not wish to consider. Clint finds a seat once more at the rear, where he can look out onto the darkened tracks as they speed away behind him. Only once he has passed a few stops does he finally decide to check on his bounty. 

As Clint pries open the wallet, it quickly becomes obvious to him that something is wrong.

Where credit cards and IDs should have been, there are only empty flaps of leather. The wallet has been emptied, he realises, understanding the look of pity Marcus gave him at their parting. Anger, shame, and despair overcome Clint, and he wants to toss the wallet across the nearly-empty car he sits in, but, before he can bring himself to do so, something else catches his attention. Sticking out of one of the empty slots is a thin piece of paper. It’s a receipt, and on the back are scribbled a few words in a barely legible handwriting. 

 

it seemed like you needed this more than me 

thanks for your help today 

Marcus 

 

Clint reads the words several times before their meaning sets in. Then, hesitantly, he slides

a finger into the wallet’s main compartment and feels the rough edges of a number of bills. Tens and twenties, a half-dozen of them. Clint simply places the wallet back into his pocket. 

He cries all the way to the terminus. 

Spring 2021