When you watch a man on the tracks before an oncoming train, that’s exactly what you do: watch.
You can shout at him.
You can yell, “Train!”
You can grip your New Yorker and suck in your breath.
You can exhale when the Brooklyn-bound A stops twenty feet short.
You can widen your eyes when the man stumbles in your direction, toward the platform where you await the Manhattan-bound A.
You can gasp when the man steps over the electrified third rail.
You can listen to the Manhattan-bound A train barrel down.
You can see its blue circle of light.
You can stare at the man, who now stands before you, on the tracks.
You can watch two men stand at the edge of the platform. You can hear them call to the man on the tracks. These men, who do not know each other, could be calling to a child. The man on the tracks was once a child. The man on the tracks is like a child. He is lost. You don’t know why he is lost. None of us know. This will matter later. It doesn’t matter now.
The two men on the platform grip the man’s arms. I stand five feet from the men on the platform. I lunge toward the men on the platform. I pause. I can barely carry my groceries. I cannot lift this man from the tracks. He is a large man. He might weigh three hundred pounds; he might weigh more. I cannot carry him.
Neither can the two men. A third man runs over. I do not know where he runs from. The three of them raise the man from the tracks. The man is on the platform. The Manhattan-bound A train has stopped short.
What do I call the man on the tracks if he is no longer on the tracks? Who is he now?
The three men circle the man who was on the tracks. The man is white. I am white. The three men are black. The man says nothing. The man does nothing. The three men say nothing. They walk away. I want the men to disperse in three directions, in a T, each shaking his head. I want them to give me beauty, symmetry, meaning. But this does not happen. Things do not happen this way. They were there and now they are not there.
The A train rolls forward. The doors open. We walk in, shaking. The man who was on the tracks, who has the face of a baby, stands on the platform. Someone is coming for him. Someone must be coming.
The man who was on the tracks dives toward the open doors and yells, “Train!” Someone behind him clutches his gray windbreaker. The man dives forward again, toward the door, toward me. Again, he yells, “Train!”
I put my hand on his chest.
I say, “No, you cannot get on the train.”
I shake my head.
The man who was on the tracks does not smell like alcohol. He does not look sad. He does not look high. He does not know what has happened, what is happening. He is wearing athletic clothes with vertical stripes. They are simple and clean. He does not get on the train.
The doors close. We pull away. Away from the man who was on the tracks, the man who is now on the platform, yelling, “Train!” The man whose windbreaker is being held, the man someone is coming for, who someone must be coming for. We are on the train, bound for Manhattan. A woman says she is shaking. I am also shaking.
I tell everyone about the man on the tracks. I want to and I do not want to.
I tell my friends in Manhattan, for whom I was bound.
I tell my cousin as we sit on the stoop at the end of the evening.
I tell my roommates. I tell my roommate’s girlfriend.
I tell my date. I tell a guy at a neighborhood bar.
I tell a group of girls at a quiz show in Gowanus.
I tell my dad. I tell my sister.
They say, “Wow.”
They say, “Are you okay?”
They say, “That’s horrible.”
They say, “New York moment.”
They say, “Survival of the fittest.”
They say, “The train hit him and then what?”
They change the subject.
They say something else.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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