Tick-a Tick-a

By James Ryan

You take your seat on the 8:07 and show your monthly to the conductor. You open your copy of the Times and have your eye caught by the latest out of Bosnia; a mass grave with the bodies of over 300 freshly dead found, severe trauma and abuse evident on corpses again piled like firewood there. The guy in the seat next to you has his Times open to the sports section. There’s a joe with a dirty workshirt across the aisle doing a better job of following the teams with the News. The mother with no daycare is doing her best to keep her kids from screeching like brakes before the train crashes. Not many empty seats, and not much you haven’t gotten used to in the seats that are full. Same damn thing, every damn day.

The other conductor in Metro-North navy, his counting ticker is notching off as he goes down the aisles. Tick-a tick-a as he passes you and the other Times reader. Tick-a to the guy with the News. Tick-a tick-a tick-a mom and kid and somebody in the seat not facing you.

Guy doesn’t say much, looks very serious as he counts off everyone. This is where you notice how really dark his outfit is, how thin his fingers and how sharp the cheekbones. He stares at you real hard. You stare back in defiance. He nods and goes back to ticking off people. You let it pass as you go back to Bosnia. Only real interesting thing in an otherwise boring life today.

Another boring ramrod up into the ass of Grand Central as you suffer another stifling day in the rat race. Platform’s crowded as the train disgorges the rest of the morning wash. All of them are trying not to really go to work as they plod toward the only ramp from Track 42. No help the recycling cage for old news blocking people off from getting out of here. Shuffle shuffle stagger stagger, annoyingly bad rhythm for commuters.

The other Metro-North guy with the counter’s already at the head of the ramp with another one. Both are really dark, their outfits, their gaze, their shadow across your face. Tick-a tick-a tick-a, both of them, on the crowd bleeding out onto Manhattan streets, the counters looking alike in uniform.

Nine wasted hours later, and thanks to some dickwad on the phone, you miss the 5:03 and have to wait for the 5:47. The main lobby’s a mob again, lines for ticket windows blocking the stairs to the only good bar in Grand Central itself (and one that costs too damn much, but you prefer to pay extra for clean glasses). Below the bar for the customers’ amusement, the musicians and pamphleteers fight for floor space with the panhandlers, druggies, and other wackos. The newsstands have too many people elbowing each other for a piece of shit from Gannett, so you fight through the crowd for your seat on the next train to wait it out there.

You think you know a shortcut to your platform down one of the back staircases away from the crowd and start winding down the turns in near darkness. Three Metro-North guys in real dark clothing block the bottom of the stairs. You start to push through, not giving a shit any more about it, and feel how cold their blazers are. You need to give an even bigger push than you expected to and want to tell them off, but the way the three of them stare at you with their dark eye-socket-black gaze shuts you down hard. You hide the trembling as you hop off for your train. When you get there you find they haven’t opened the doors yet and expect you to choke down here in the still-overheated sweat, waiting for them to get around to making you feel better.

You slouch off to find some way to kill twenty minutes before it kills you and head toward Oysters. Right at the front there are two more from Metro-North in ultra-navy with counters, tick-a tick-a tick-a on everyone going in and out of the restaurant. You pass them and see if there’s a magazine that’s worth buying and find three more going tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a on everyone buying the Voice and Newsweek.

You shake your head and start going around Grand Central. There’s one by the Haagen-Dazs, tick-a tick-a. There’s one hovering over the drink cart by Track 17, tick-a tick-a. There’s two covering the information booth, tick-a tick-a tick-a. There’s even one inside the Chemical Bank ATM branch, tick-a.

They all look alike. No, it’s not just the uniform, they all fucking look alike. The whites of their eyes like coffin lining, long fingers like pitchfork prongs. You circuit around all thirteen of them, the same damn face, the same damn Metro-North uniform hanging over bony bodies the same way, and the way their Metro-North uniforms look different from everyone else’s.

You go up to the one by Track 17. You ask just what’s being counted, anyway?

He stares at you, the same nasty stare you got from the one you pushed past. No, not like the one you pushed past, exactly the same stare.

He holds up his counter and gives it a TICK!

You reach for your neck and start to rub instinctively the sudden pain you feel there. You massage it a few times and can focus through the shock just as he’s gotten a few feet away from you. Hey! you shout, I asked you a question, and you cut in front.

The same look now, but it’s nastier this time. TICK!

You balance on the balls of your feet as your back arches from the short sharp shock at the base of your spine. He stares at you and starts to walk past you as you’re doing an imitation of a Rolls hood ornament, giving you the same push you gave earlier.

Enough of this shit, you snarl to yourself, and you damn well aren’t going to let this guy pull that shit with you. You grab him by the arm and hold on no matter how numb your fingers get from the cold coming from the jacket. He stares as sharp as a stiletto while you whip him around with blind anger and grab for that offensive clicker. You grab the clicker and start to tick! tick! TICK! at him in retaliation. You don’t see him flinch but he doesn’t move, he just stares at you trying to look more angry than wounded. But you aren’t giving up, oh no, just let the cops come. You’re sure all eight of the people waiting on line at the drink cart to kill the pain of their job with a Schlitz or a J&B saw him push you first.

That’s when you notice that only three of them are paying attention to you, and the minute you look at them they turn away and hope you didn’t notice. The conductor pushes through a throng of a dozen through the gate and out toward the main lobby, but not a single one notices him, and as you follow he gets lost quickly in the crowd.

When you lose him is when you notice how comfortable the counter in your hand feels. It hums like a vibrator and is as warm as a Zaro’s cookie bought fresh from the oven. It’s as comforting as a gun, as safety-inducing as a scotch, as protective as seeing the horror of the world safely through your TV. You roll it in your hand and feel the smile that produces creep up the corners of your face.

You notice right then just how quiet it is. Everyone’s talking, but you can’t really hear anything above the low moan of the trains rumbling in the tunnels and the steam pushing through the pipes. And the more you stare at them, the sooner you realize how slowly they’re going, taking ten seconds, no shitting, for the left foot to go in front of the right. The more you look, the more the crowds pushing for Stamford and White Plains look more like a statue garden to play with, like someone’s kid’s left their Barbies all over the floor for you to either avoid stepping on or play with.

There’s a man wearing a coat that’s got to be worth more than you make in a month flipping the bird to a panhandler. You brace the counter like a large handgun in a Bronson film and flick off a TICK! He twists his knee and looks a little pitiful as he stumbles in slo-mo.

There’s a cellophane husk of him, at least of his body sans clothes, of what he was doing just as he was ticked, that stands there and is ignored by everyone. You run your hands down it, the husk collapsing at your touch, pouring around your hand, pooling at your feet like dripped snot. By now the guy whose shell you’ve melted is recovered and is pushing his way towards the 5:36 to Peekskill.

No one’s paying any attention to you, but a strong angry tick too many might get some notice, so you try just counting in front of the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance. Two women come in from shopping at Bloomie’s with many bags; tick-a tick-a. Their unclothed shells stay behind right in the doorway, but everyone coming in behind them goes through them. Next an old rabbi; tick-a. His body shell makes a menage á trois between the other two, and still everyone walks through them. Now a family of seven with cameras and maps and no idea of where the hell they are; tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a tick-a. The whole set piece is now an orgy with everything except an animal to fill the entire taboo catalog. A young woman with an art portfolio and her cat tucked in her coat; tick-a tick-a. The list is complete and is still being ignored by everyone.

You pat the little girl of nine’s remnants on her head, and the head melts into wisps like a smoky candle. You sniff some of the fumes; there’s a rush of excitement:

It’s my first vacation away from home and away from Iowa and how happy I was to finally see the Empire State Building for the first time today.

You stagger back from all the youthful excitement. As far as you know you’ve never been to Iowa, and after the first hundred times there’s nothing exciting about the Empire State Building. You grab a bit of the art portfolio woman and watch her arm dissolve. You move the bits of arm smoke to your face:

I can’t believe the crap these agencies give freelancers, and I swear the shithead with the pussy joke makes me really want to kill him.

You turn to face her afterimage; the cat’s curled up between her breasts, and like it was a chocolate Easter rabbit you bite the cat’s head off:

Hunt sleep eat warm sleep hide sleep hunt sleep.

You smash out at these remnants, and though you try to avoid it, bits of them get up your nose:

Damn expensive trip

great bargain at cosmetics

should recommend Yeshiva to Bernard Weiss

damn, I ain’t seen a mugging yet

maybe I should get out of art

hunt warm sleep

so where’s the Washington Monument

I can’t tell her I’m sleeping with her husband

I wanna use the potty

Too much, too many, the wisps dance like ghosts up to the constellations on the ceiling as you run down the stairs to the lower platforms.

Anyone you see you avoid, looking for a corner to hide in, someplace dark. The far end of the platform for Track 116 goes on a long distance before it slopes down onto the tracks. You rush down the platform and onto the track bed and start running for the open mouth of the tunnel all the way up at 97th Street, but the farther you get away from the station, the stronger the pains in your chest and the locks in your knees. You push on, struggling to get away from the station. The pain is too much; you collapse right on the tracks. The only muscle you can move is your neck to stare up at the incoming train. You don’t remember any prayers they tried to teach you as a kid to prepare you to meet your maker.

The train hits you, feeling like you dove into cool water. You feel the undercarriage of the train ripple across your back as your insides feel the feet of the passengers inside with the force of a light feather. You never imagined being smeared like a fly under a rolled-up newspaper could feel this loose or light until you notice you’re rolling behind the train like loose paper picked up in the backwash. You take stock and realize you’re still in one piece as you tumble behind the train up to Track 103. You tumble onto your feet, watching the train disgorge its passengers.

You throw the counter at the train, but it bounces right back into your hand. You smash it on the ground, but it just comes right back to your hand like a yo-yo. You run up to the first person you see and try to force them to take the counter from you, but no one notices you or even pays attention no matter how hard you try and force them to take it. You get so angry you try and smash someone’s face in, but you do this three times, and every time your hands don’t connect with their face. You start running like mad, trying to bounce off everyone around you and just going through them.

You lose track of how many you scream at and try to kick or punch, and feel tired and bleary before you remember the counter that you can’t get rid of. There’s a guy who just walked away from the newsstand with a smuggled copy of Penthouse under his coat that he didn’t pay for. TICK! and he slips. TICK! and he hits the ground with his knee. TICK! and his arm goes limp. The fear in him pushes him to run like a rabbit down the stairs, and you follow like a hound. TICK! as he gets to the stairs and rolls down like a rock. TICK! before he can get up. TICK! and he cries out in pain. TICK! TICK! TICK! and he shimmies like jello in a hospital. You can barely make him out from behind the five afterimages the counter left behind. A few passengers come over, push right through you from behind without you feeling it, and help him up. You put your hand out to his leftover selves, but they melt at your feet.

Feeling a sense of waste, you wander around, not realizing until it’s too late that Grand Central’s closed. You realize this as the Metro-North guards start herding people out the doors, the heavy gates come down, and the doors to the street are locked. You try to head out a door that hasn’t been locked yet out onto Lex, but every time you go through the door you end up entering Grand Central. You do this twice again before the gate closes and traps you inside.

You run around, trying to get the guards and whatever train workers are still here to let you out, when the dark conductors appear in the main hall. You count and only twelve of them are here. They’re no longer angry with you, but that identical look of disappointment is still disturbing.

The twelve dark conductors surround you, using their mass to steer you into position at the next-to-last position of a line that stretches the width of the main hall. They all look at you in unison wordlessly, until a night watchman down at their end starts his patrol, going right on down the gauntlet.

Tick-a goes the first one. Tick-a goes the second, the third and fourth. Tick-a tick-a tick-a followed by eight through eleven. They say nothing, but you know what they expect, so you tick-a too, followed by thirteen.

The first one goes to his remnant form and wrings its arm like a towel, smelling up the vapors produced. The fourth you see going on his knees and licking his form on the scrotum up to its chest. The sixth wraps his arms and legs around his form and presses his lips into the back of its neck, sucking the head through them. The ninth grabs his form from the front, twists it open like a loaf of bread, and with an open mouth inhales the crumbs and pieces expelled from its torso. The eleventh takes one finger at a time, breaks it off, and smokes it with a long-drawn inhale.

You stare at the naked form in front of you, turn to see the watchman oblivious to others dining off his passage. You get closer to the form, at first uncertain. Then you nibble at his ear:

I swear, just two more months of overtime, then that’s it, I’m gonna file a grievance with the union.

You turn away from the half-chewed head and look back; the rest continue to dine on their portions. You sink your teeth back into it:

Got enough problems with paying off the house and the child support that I don’t need this shit from my job.

You dine on his feelings and thoughts that you snared, enjoying the taste of your meal by the time you start shoving its legs into your mouth.

The rest stand atop the information kiosk, the clock ball their informal table, leaving a position in their circle for you. You join them as they in turn take a deep breath and belch out a whiff of stuff that forms a small naked statue, probably a piece of a meal. Each one burps their offering, then passes it around, you and each other one touching it, feeling some of its afterthought on your hand warming like a brandy in your stomach. You try it too and produce the artist’s cat, but compared to the high school girl who’s considering suicide because her lover’s seeing someone else and the marketing director mulling whether to come out of the closet, your offering on the table elicits soundless disappointment, but also soundless expectations that tomorrow you can do better.

Tomorrow, when the first train comes in after 5:30 and everyone brings their lives with them through Grand Central Station. Thousands of lives, lives to be sampled, tasted, swallowed, but not lived. So many choices, so many lives to look forward to. You march solemnly around the ball clock tonight, awaiting new lives to come.

Copyright 1993, 2000, James Ryan

About the Author

James Ryan has been on the verge of actually being recognized as a writer in the past; who knows, someday it may happen.... His work has appeared in such places as Dragon magazine, Lacunae, the Urbanite, the New York Times, and some of the better men's room walls across the state of New York. Until he gets the chance to follow the program for disenfranchised neurotic writers, he's doing the regular job and grad school schtick. His wife Susan and son Jamie just nod and smile when he starts to rant, which, all said, makes things that much easier.

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