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Shopping Trip

Monte saw the ad on TV during a game and decided it was time he tried out cross-trainers. His current sneakers were more than ten years old. Holes in their soles, they had done heroic duty, earned retirement. So he would ride the subway to the uptown sale.

At first, fetid whiff of the stagnant warmth, reflexively, Monte steel-caged his trepidation, mumbled his reassurance slogan, "Into the Pit!" and sidled down the subway stairs. Hesitantly around its zigzag into the sight of the token booth, he sighed relief as he encountered no muggers, hustlers, frowzy panhandlers, or thieves hawking bargained spoils.

A lone disinterested male clerk glanced as Monte slotted in his token, entered and took a seat on the broad wooden bench to await the train. A few feet away, near the turnstile, a down-and-out couple was squabbling. Mosquito frail and pesky, the woman was complaining, carrying on with a whine that gnawed into the tedium of the subway platform. Voice slurred from alcohol, dope, or whatever addiction, she was saying, "C'mon, Harry, tell me. Who yu'think. Who yu'think ruint me? Huh? Who got me this life?"

The guy could've been a thick wall. Indifferent, implacable, he stared down the dark tunnel from where the local would come. He was broad-framed, though spare, six-four or more tall, with a stolid penitent's face. Its history was enduring life, an unkind place pleasant experience seldom visited.

The woman shuffled around to confront that severe face. Watching her, Monte was reminded of crabs in a barrel-scrambling over each other, unable to climb above themselves. He felt quick sympathy for the man as the woman faced him with her accusing whine: "Harry, you can't avoid me. You gotta say. Who it be? Huh? Was either you or him, Harry. And you was here longer, always my main course, Harry. It's got to be you that ruint me. Huh? How you testify, Harry? Huh? You gotta face it, Harry. Look at me!"

Monte glanced around at the other folks waiting. Four, no, five people within immediate sights of the token booth: A romancing young couple fully engrossed with loving themselves. Farther along the platform, a man GQed in business suit, open cashmere overcoat, expensive umbrella carried like a spear, his eyes on guard behind a quarter-folded newspaper. Almost out of detail, a homeless type huddled incognito, dozing on the far-side waiting-bench. And, right at the edge of the safe-waiting zone, close to one of the upright steel posts identifying the station, a man with a stout cane, off and on tapping the brink of the platform. Took an instant before, from the tentative sway of the cane and his alert unfocused stance, Monte realized the man was blind.

Somehow, Monte always expected sunshades.

The nagging went on: "Harry, yu'can't avoid me. You gotta tell. Wasn't no one else filling mih whole life, Harry. Who else it be that spoilt me, then? Huh?"

The guy, Harry, collected himself even taller as he heaved up a sigh, put his hand on her shoulder, bent his head low, and whispered to her.

It seemed to pacify the woman, as she snuggled her head into his chest, and with arms hugging tightly around his shabby coat's waist, crooned a low moan of self-comfort.

Monte glanced into the booth for the time. Four minutes of waiting had passed.

Considering the absence of shades, Monte wondered if the blind guy could feel when it was dark. Whether night had a different texture to his compensatory senses. Maybe the guy hadn't always been blind, he thought, but went so gradually due to some incurable disease. (There was one that worked that way, Monte knew. He had seen an NBA commercial with Bernard King appealing for donations towards research and cure.) So even though the guy had learned to compensate for his disability, maybe he still longed to walk with naked eyes open and free of the shades that usually concealed their blank sightlessness. Just for a feel of glare, or humidity, or perhaps breeze.

What ever had revived her, the woman's whine rasped through Monte's reverie: "Yu'don't care 'bout me, Harry. Yu'don't care. You never did. You're a dirty dog, Harry. Lap up others' leavings, yu'got no heart. No feelings for me."

It sounded all of a sad lifetime old.

Monte looked their way. Her companion had broken off minding her unhappiness, had turned his back on her embrace. Now, nodding heavy-headed, hugging herself, staring befuddled at the platform, she stood an arm's length behind him.

The hard guy's steady gaze away was like a laser beam burning through the overhead steel girder it blazed at. Sharp empathy pierced through Monte, fierce as the nagged man's focused stare. Which, its intensity catching Monte, made him follow its line of sight, and corner of his eye, he glimpsed something furry, skinny-tailed, scurrying away. At the scruff of Monte's neck, skin crawled.

Again he glanced at the blind fellow, wondering if he had heard the scurrying rat. But the fellow hadn't seemed to. At least, he hadn't visibly reacted. But what might make blind folks shudder? Monte thought. Clearly, it couldn't be visual suggestions of the horrible. Ghosts would not do. But was there an equivalent auditory stimulus? And what of smells, and touch, and taste? Was there some low threshold of those senses that might trigger fleet frissons, and grotesqueries of cringy notions?

The woman's griping cut in: "You look good, Harry, but you ugly as damn. Yuh soul's ugly shit. And you ruint me with your goddamn ugliness."

She paused to spit, awkwardly in her stupor. A dribble stuck to her lips, drooled down her chin.

Monte wondered how the blind guy's acute hearing took this, what images he got. Could he, from the woman's whiny tones, sense her drab, battered-down appearance? Her unsteady stance? Did her stench tell of the grimy, wrinkled clothes? Could he feel the man's passive defiance and contemptuous stare?

A train roared by on the express track, bringing Monte to check the time again. Seven minutes gone. His train was due any time now. He stood up, squared his shoulders, tightened and relaxed his back muscles, readying himself for the end of waiting. And, right on time, faintly, came the rising grumble of the arriving local.

The young couple untwined themselves from the business of a final, passionate, pre-boarding kiss, and still arm in arm started towards the edge of the platform. With a smart glance at the bedraggled woman, the boy made a private joke to his girlfriend. Above the noise of the approaching train, she sniggered.

The blind man, head cocked sideways, cane poised in the air, listened.

Just then, the woman again louded her stoic companion, her piercing whine at once complaint and threatening.

Beyond some limit, the man turned and swung savagely on her, his large swift hand exploding against her cheek like a fire-cracker.

She screamed. A high-pitched keening of deep-felt wounds. An awful scream louder than the mechanical screech and hiss of the braking train.

And the train, almost into the station, lost everyone's attention, as all turned towards her terrible shriek. The blind man, too, his cane raised defensive, turned sharply at the strident sound, the tip of his extended cane catching in the space between two passing carriages, unbalancing him to collide with the side of the moving train, then to stumble along and rebound once before slipping in between the next linkage space of the slowing carriages. His screaming disappeared down into the grinding rumble and clatter of the train-tracks as the engine finally stopped.

"Oh, God! Down there! Y'all, look! The man fell in!" The young girlfriend's ragged cry commanded the immediate quiet. It also dragged Monte's astonishment from where the blind guy had fallen in to watch her lover-boy-slack face frozen stupid between laughing and puzzlement-crumple to the platform in a faint.

Everything happening at once, Monte saw in the booth, the clerk's shaking hand startle the phone off its cradle; he saw the train doors shatter open; saw the fine-suited fellow shunning the scene, deftly slipping into a door; saw incurious passengers busily crowd out of the train; and at the very edge of his vision, he caught the junkie woman and her darting-eyed man sliding through the turnstile, away out of the commotion.

Monte followed their example, shoved his way through the press of de-training folks who were slowly catching on to the horrible message of the girlfriend's hysterical screams. His stomach churning bile, shuddering slightly, Monte climbed the zigzag stairwell out of the station.

That train was going nowhere. Neither was he.