My boss suggests I take time off—says I need it. Normally, I’d laugh this off, because really, what would I do at home? Cry while playing Scrabble on the computer, as I did last night, until 5 a.m.? Smoke, who knows how many joints? I rather bury myself in my job, reading hundreds of job applications to find one candidate to fill an insignificant position. It helps keep me sane.
On this dreary November morning, at the peak of rush hour, I score the last seat in the subway and I, ‘count my blessings and ride above the misery’, as Carl was fond of saying when I began to work to help cover expenses. His jovial optimism radiated then, but now, I struggle to ride above that illusion.
I glance at my watch. I smile at the gift of another blessing; I’ll arrive at the office only ten minutes late. Pay won’t be deducted. Squeezed into the narrow seat of the subway, I turn my phone on and bring up a new game of Scrabble.
I look down at the screen. It promises that this day will be a good one because I can use all seven letters in my virtual rack…bingo! A rush flows through my numb cells. I glance at the passengers and see bored faces, smartly bundled up suits, briefcases and lunch-bags riding the subway to work in a daze. I have to remind myself that I am one of them.
The old woman next to me is not one of us; she smells moldy. Her hair is a beehive tangle that has seen shinier days. It is wet from the storm outside. She wears sandals that expose cracked yellow toenails and she rocks her head as she scans the passengers who read, listen to music and nap.
The worn-out Medusa holds a briefcase and carries a pocketbook, but has no umbrella or coat. In a voice that seems to come from the center of the Earth, she blurts, “You dumb bastards! Why don’t y’all get real jobs…why won’t cha ey?”
People shuffle. Commuters notice her ruddy complexion and snigger, averting their eyes; the kids going to school laugh and point. This early in the morning, nobody wants to concern themselves with problems of the soul.
Her elbow jabs deep into my coat. “It’s the bitch’s fault…ain’t it?” she hisses into my ear. I jerk and hit the ‘submit’ button before completing my seven-letter word. I put down viola--left in my rack are the letters t and e.
“Excuse me!” I say, as if it had been me committing the transgression.
“It’s Elizabeth’s fault, don’t cha agree?” The woman cackles, reverberating a grinding clatter down the subway, completely ignoring what I said. “That is, Queen Eliza-bitch’s ancestors!”
Passengers move away, forsaking their need for personal space. I hear coats wrinkle and purses crunch. The energetic cologne on the young man with pinstripes infuses with the deeper tones of the executive woman’s perfume, creating a unique scent that temporarily obscures my neighbour’s stench.
“She seems so nice, chu know?” Medusa talks to the stomach standing before her, “I saw her…the Fall of ‘57…Yeah…she was here to inaugurate Parliament…that’s when we were England’s slaves… her concubines, right? Right!” Her blizzard blue eyes are vacuous like the sky.
The Scrabble computer plays empires off my letter i, covering two double-word red spots.
She turns to me. “But, I ain’t gonna go into Eliza-bitch’s ancestors…we’d be here all night!” A few cocky commuters check their watch, 8:35 a.m. Underground, it is always night. “I blame the Queen for all this.” She scans the car full of freshly-showered people, stoically putting up with the brass corners of briefcases digging into inconvenient parts of their anatomy. “What we need is to revise history. You look like a woman of words,” she taps my phone’s screen. “What can cha write to make England male and Canada female?” Her hands extend into the cramped space, eyes large as globes, expecting an answer. “So? How we gonna write it so that Canada rides England on top?”
I am not sure if she wants me to write something or to right it. The innuendo in the latter part of her sentence forces me to think about Carl, in bed, making love…my body covering his with my warmth. I realize how cold he must be and almost scream, not knowing if I am ecstatic or despondent, so I look down at my cell phone to quell the pain. I read ‘empires violate’ although I still hold the last two letters in my rack.
“Look at the men in suits,” the old woman interrupts my train of thought. “They make a living, right? But, they pay for their success. I’m all about abolition. For me, it’s down with the corporations and fuck the multinationals!” Trying to ignore the woman’s jarring juxtapositions, I focus on my game. I pluralize viola and get my Bingo with, atoners.
“Acht…that’s a good one,” she croaks into my ear, pushing her heavy body closer into mine. “Chu can be a politician smoking crack or post your dick on the internet and so long you say you atone—you gonna be OK. Fuck the politicians!” This time, some passengers echo her manic laughter.
“I worked for the BBC, chu know? Yeah…the BBC. Kinda like a spy of sorts. That’s when I met the bitch. You wanna see?” From her briefcase, she pulls a pile of yellowing papers. Digging through the fragile sheets, she selects a Polaroid from mid-pile. “See? That is me with Queen Eliza-bitch when she was here. See? It says: Expo ’67, Montréal. The bloke is Prince Philip and the other one, my boss at the BBC.”
I do not wish to enable her, but I cannot help glancing at the picture.
“I’m still with the BBC of course,” Medusa shoves the Polaroid back into her briefcase. “It’s just that they don’t get it. I keep sending my information… Do you know how many Jews there are in China?” She torques her body and positions her ruddy face near mine.
Her eyes burn a weak, ‘A few…I guess?’ out of me.
“Damn right! Quite a few. Something like twenty five hundred…same number as in Morocco. But cha think the BBC cares? Me myself, I was baptized, but these things need to be known, right? You baptized?” A guttural growl rumbles in her chest.
I wish I could Google ‘Jews in China.’ Severed from the world above, we create our own realities as we burrow our way through Earth’s umbilical cord.
“It don’t matter. The Pope’s as bad as the bitch!” Her manic laughter is quick to erupt and slow to descend. “But, they don’t have him all over our money, do they? We now have these big-ass polymer banknotes and, will cha believe we still got Eliza-bitch’s picture on them?”
She rummages through her pocketbook; I return to Scrabble. Risking a triple word, I place potent off atoners and the computer adds an, i-a-l to my word and makes potential.
“You can’t deface these mothers here,” she digs into my rib with one elbow while pulling a folded twenty-dollar bill from her wallet. I notice she has many more bills in there. “Not even with bloody permanent marker…it just slides off this shit.” Her laugh sounds like a machine gun. “But they can’t stop me! Those dumb ducks didn’t think about black nail varnish. I used it to give her a moustache; a thin one, just like Duchamp’s—see?”
She’s got me; I turn off my phone. “Marcel Duchamp? Like the one he drew on the Mona Lisa?” I ask, wishing I had not.
The conductor announces Union Station is next. BBC Medusa shows me the banknote and, plastered over Queen Elizabeth’s twenty-dollar lips is a Duchampian moustache, carefully drawn in black varnish. I get up to leave. The woman slides the defaced banknote next to the others in her wallet.
Before I exit, she rushes toward the door and shoves something into my coat’s pocket. The doors open to vomit a stream of commuters onto the platform. She stays behind, waving.
“Pleasure to meet cha!” she shouts before the doors close. The train melts into the dark tunnel, drinking up her laughter.
On the escalator, I put my hand in the pocket and feel a business card. Without glasses, I will not be able to read it, but I pull it out anyway. Curious, I look at the card’s empty backside and turn to read the glossy front, but there is nothing; it is a blank business card.
I trip at the top of the escalator. I skip over the polished marble floor as I examine the blank card and steady myself. The card urges me to act. To do something about my situation. I shake my head. How can a blank, 2” x 4” card force me to compare it to my life’s void? The lack of anything to land my eyes on, to focus, drives me to find out who the BBC woman is, and was.
Ascending to the 25th floor, my head is in the clouds thinking about the business cards I collect at work. They represent people and their skills, their aspirations and their dreams. I can identify the serious candidates by the weight of their card. Tyros home print, intermediary job seekers Vista print and only the dedicated lash out for double glossing and embossing.
I arrive at the office at 9:14 a.m. People look at the clock before saying good morning and avoid asking how I am doing. Nobody wants to hear that I cope with Carl’s accident by burying myself into this boring job.
“Don’t look so gloomy,” I tease the employees, “Only 7 hours and 46 minutes until home time! Well, your home times. I’m staying ‘til midnight, again.” People clear their throat, shuffle in their seats and tap their keyboards.
In my cubicle, papers scatter over the desk, growing into steady piles. I take my coat off and reach into the pocket to hold the blank business card; touching it makes me feel exhilarated as if its emptiness fills mine.
“Tracy!” my boss thunders into the office, “We need to talk!”
She looks for a chair to sit. Applications waiting to be processed cover my cubicle so she stands next to me, towering with authority. “I told you, if you need time, please take it. It is understandable. I hear you plan to stay late again. What are you accomplishing?”
She motions over the paper cordillera that runs through my desk. “These candidates will call to demand a status on their application. What shall we tell them? Give yourself a break and return refreshed next week.”
“I’ll start on them right away,” I lie, clutching the blank business card in my right fist, absorbing its strength. “I’ll have this desk empty by the time I leave today.” My boss leaves shaking her head.
I pull off the business card from the first application and feel the raised letters with my fingertips. “Jamal Alili – IT Operations Specialist,” the card informs me. I spend fifteen minutes trying to figure what that tells me about the person. For comparison, I look at Medusa’s blank card. The BBC card represents a woman accomplished in street smarts, aware of world history and current events. Prominent in her youth, she has tasted life. Mr. Alili’s résumé tells me he is married and has two young children.
Carl and I wanted two children.
My mind goes to that empty place where it is cozy. Where there are no thoughts, feelings, opinions or emotions, where everything is dark as a void. I go to the place where feeling insignificant, transparent and vulnerable are the status quo. I go to where everyone accepts their miserable destinies with joy, as Medusa does.
I must see her again; to ask about the significance of her card, to ask about life, her adventures, to validate my own sanity.
I place the blank business card in my coat’s pocket and run to the exit. My co-workers ask if I am OK, some wish me a relaxing time off as I dash out the double glass doors, toward the stairwell. I run down 25 flights, high heels tapping against the cold concrete, echoing up the tower – spiraling my desperation.
The lunchtime crowd now fills to capacity the train station where I first saw her. Deep in the herd, I think I glimpse Medusa’s knotted hair. I rush toward the subway. A pack of hungry office workers stampedes over me. I lose sight of her. I scrimmage over the wolves. I see silver hair sucked into the car next to mine. I dash through a scented wall of Eau du Officine to look through the dirty windows between cars. I see a mop of gray hair swallowed into a sea of dark suits.
The train reaches the next station and I scramble to the exit. Some people grumble, others venture obscenities quietly, after all, we are Canadians. I reach the door. I sprint in front of oncoming passengers. I get into the next car, but I lose sight of her.
I ride the subway for hours, looking for an invisible woman, trying to understand how she entered the penumbra and why she feels comfortable there. She has money, she has important files, she has her mind and her memories…which part is holding on strong, keeping the frayed threads from flying into thin air?
I muster the energy to climb another subway, looking for a woman who once stood by the Queen’s side and now travels the subway to pass time, to stand beside society, to be steps away from humanity. I want to learn how to become inconsequential.
People around me start to vanish as I ride the long shiny subway by myself. I’m compelled to find out what Medusa thinks, her views on politics and current events. I had always followed Carl’s political opinions. Not because I could not decide for myself, but because I never cared. I look at the empty train and cannot remember a single political view Carl and I held. We were adamant about our opinions, but they perished the moment Carl placed money above life. After his death, I discovered why he had rigged my car. He planned to collect my life insurance to pay for his gambling debts. In the end, the coward could not follow through, so instead, he drove my car into the front lawn Weeping Willow tree.
Our marriage had become mundane and we had stopped talking to one another years back. Co-habiting but sharing nothing else, we became strangers. I played Scrabble on my phone and felt comfortable with my head stooped low and hands on my lap while Carl watched TV or read the newspapers.
I remember the game I had been playing on my phone when I met Medusa this morning. In a daze, I study the board and read, ‘empires … violate.’ This renews my quest. I notice the maintenance crew is onboard, armed with buckets and mops ready to clean the subway car.
A young man with a strong accent yells, “Hey lady! Wake up! This train’s outta service.” The smell of bleach brings me back to reality.
“What time is it?” I stutter.
He eyes me with suspicion. “Ain’t you got you phone with you right there missus?” and moves down the train, pushing his mop from side to side. It is past midnight.
The following morning, I pace the platform, hoping to see the BBC woman’s piercing blue eyes, though I know I am too early.
“Mind where you are going!” a man wrapped in a dark scarf shouts at me. Did I bump into him? I keep moving in the dense fog of people, trying to shrink myself out of the thick wall of humanity. I crouch between a woman applying a rushed coat of lipstick and a man carrying a briefcase when I see a cracked dry foot walk into the subway car. I push to the front of the crowd and hop in the train. The doors shut.
I inch my way into the cab, stretching my neck looking for Medusa. My nose searches for her rancid scent amidst expensive perfumes. I try to hear her screechy voice above the humdrum chugga-chung-chugga-chung the train makes over the tracks. I slither further down the crowd.
The train empties at terminal station. I see a woman sitting at the back, looking out the window. It’s Medusa, but there is no sparkle in her, no fire in her soul.
I rush toward her.
“Hi, remember me?” She does not move when I sit next to her. “You showed me your picture yesterday morning.”
I start to doubt if this is the same woman. Her eyes have turned a cinereous gray and her complexion is ashen. “You gave me your business card, and now I am calling you!” I pull the card from my coat’s pocket and show it to her. “You said you worked for the BBC.”
“Ah…yes. The Bureau of Bureaucratic Crap” she says hoarsely.
“You showed me a picture of the Queen!”
I notice her briefcase is gone. Instead, she carries the wad of yellowing papers, and presumably the Polaroid, in a worn plastic bag. I do not see her purse. “I’d love to see the Duchampian moustache again!” I tease.
The sound she makes is deep and rheumy.
“You again missus?” the janitor from last night asks. “You hangin’ out with this crazy ol’ woman now? You don’t look the type missus.” He swipes his mop on the floor and wishes me a speedy recovery. “You don’t wanna end up like her!” he laughs.
Medusa wiggles in her seat. “Don’t listen to him,” I whisper. “Who is he to judge anyway?” I notice a bruise on the side of her forehead. “What happened?”
“Got beat up again.”
“Who beat you up? Have you called the police?”
For the next three full loops on the subway line, I talk to Medusa. She does not respond, does not flinch. I tell her about my job and my love of Scrabble. I tell her about Carl and how he took our SUV, cut the break line, and smashed it into our yard’s 50 year-old tree. Medusa is stiff as wood. The welt on her face shines.
I get lost in thoughts of Carl; how I hate him for hating me so much, how I despise him for leaving me, how he ruined my life when he took his.
“Fuck the pigs! They’ll lock me up ‘cause I’m a junkie and I didn’t take my meds.”
“But, they can’t lock you up if someone hit you! Did the thugs take your cash?”
“Nah…shot up and now it’s running in my veins!” The manic laugh reverberates. “I’m good here.” She smiles.
“Well, let me buy you breakfast. You must be hungry.” She shows no indication of hunger.
As we ride the subway in silence, I come to realize that I do have opinions that are mine and not Carl’s, that I feel passionately about certain things and that I have the will to carry on, in a meaningful manner. In this state of deep meditation, lunchtime turns into home time and then suppertime into nighttime. Neither of us eats or drinks but we don’t care.
“What will you do tonight?” I ask BBC Medusa.
“Die if I’m lucky, but if I’m not, sleep until my next fix. What else did cha think? You starting to annoy me, chu know?” She buries her head into her chest and takes a nap.
At the next stop, I run out of the train and find myself in a part of town I do not frequent. I am glad it is cold out when I start to walk. I live 10 kilometers away, but I keep walking, gaining strength and resolution with each step I take. One day, Medusa will find her way, but she will have to do it on her own. I can only help myself.
Next morning on the subway, I see familiar faces, meaning I’ll be ten minutes late. I wear the same bored face as my commuter neighbours do and I seem like one of them, but internally, I am renewed. I know I don’t want a yellowing picture to remind me that I once mattered.
When I dash into the office, my co-workers avert their eyes, even though there is no sadness in my voice.
“You know you can take more than a day if you need, Tracy,” my boss’ voice is low like a priest’s. “I was not expecting you back so soon.”
In my cubicle, I pin the blank business card at the top of my message board and dive into the sea of applications that cover my desk.