For once in a long series of evenings, I got out of work on time, walked briskly across town and down into the bowels of Terminal Tower to wait for my train to University Circle. As is typical of most evenings, I had recently missed the train and would have to wait another fifteen minutes or so for the next one. Walking onto the platform, I cranked the volume of my headphones to drown out the adult contemporary music blaring through the station speakers. The first bench was occupied by a group of young thugs, three of them, all sitting on the back of it. As I passed, I looked at them and they looked at me, laughing. I couldn't tell if they were laughing at me or at a previous joke from which I happened to draw their attentions.
A lone woman sat at the next bench along the platform. She had stringy, greasy hair pulled back into a long ponytail and sported baggy jeans and a baggy leather Ohio State jacket. The transit benches in Terminal Tower are shaped like mouths from smiley faces. We sat at opposite ends. This woman formed one dimple; I, the other. The grated metal bench was littered with the usual detritus of transit stops: some tattered Classifieds (job listings, specifically), an open can of grape Faygo cola, a crumpled McDonald's bag, loogies.
As I lowered myself onto the bench, she shot a long, suspicious glance at me, which I caught peripherally. I made as if I didn't notice, fiddled with my bag, pulled out the novel I was reading, and took a long look away from her, down the tracks, make believing I was looking for the train to come around the bend. I knew it would be a while.
I opened my book and tried to read, music blasting in my ears, but kept the woman in the corner of my eye. I could make out that she was rolling a joint on her left thigh. She navigated the task with aplomb, keeping the paper in the palm of one hand and sifting the grass into it with the other. Intermittently, the scent of dank sifted through the grape cola smell. Though she concealed the act very well, I could tell my presence made her uncomfortable. Or maybe it was me that was uncomfortable. More than likely, a little of both.
About a minute later, she finished the job and placed the spliff into her jacket pocket. Then she became unruly, shifted back and forth, looking over her shoulders. While her back was to me, I chanced a more direct glare and noticed that this woman sported a neck tattoo. Stenciled on the right side of her neck, in blue-green ink:Syx. The font resembled Garamond , though the actual lettering was comprised of snakes. The last snake, head of which situated itself on the bottom right of the last 'X,' vomited a serpentine underscore. Or maybe it spat venom. Either way, it was a masterpiece -- both revolting and terrifying all at once. She turned back at me, leveled an icy gaze. The woman had a hardened face, pockmarked, scarred, with a prominent jaw. She could easily take me. And then some. I shifted back to my book.
She bent down to pick up the discarded McDonald's bag and as she did so, a knife fell out of the inside pocket of her coat. It clattered briefly against the terra-cotta floor. The knife was not very serious -- just standard kitchen issue, with a faux wood plastic handle. Nonchalantly, she picked the thing up and slipped it back into her jacket. Then she grabbed the fast food bag and began rifling through it, pulling out a few wrappers and littering them on the ground. Eventually, she tipped the whole thing over. At this point, the book reading on my part was merely a ruse: I used it as interference when spying on her. She had taken to staring at me again so again I glanced down the tracks. This time, though, I honestly hoped the train would come.
I thought I saw a headlight coming, or convinced myself that I had, so I stood up abruptly, turned and made my way closer to the thugs at the other bench. I rested against a pillar. She took this opportunity to spit in the area I had vacated. At the pillar, I actually did get some reading done, though I would glance up momentarily to catch the woman staring at me. No matter, for the train had arrived. I made a conscious effort to let her pass in front of me when entering so that hopefully we could sit apart. The plan worked, for she moved to the front of the train; I found an open seat in the rear. Considering that confrontation over, I went back to reading. I laughed a little, to myself, over the kitchen knife.
The train ride was ricketier than usual, with the car listing back and forth violently. The driver slammed the brakes at every stop. I became motion sick while trying to read, lost track of time and place. Disoriented, I thought I heard from the conductor say, over the blare of my headphones, that we had reached University Circle. Hurriedly, I grabbed my bag and ran out the doors just as they were shutting. Immediately, I realized I had made a mistake -- I had gotten off one stop too early and found myself at the desolate E. 105 stop. Across the tracks, behind a chain link fence, the new Juvenile Justice center, under construction, stood like a gigantic cage. A diesel spotlight churned through the night, illuminating ironwork and scaffolding.
At the other end of the platform, I saw her outline silhouetted against the spotlight. She strode down towards me. I tried to act casual, paused the music in my earphones. She and I were the only two to exit the train there. Our only company was the diesel generator across the tracks. The red rear light of the train slowly disappeared around a turn. She came right up to me, hands thrust in her jacket, her shoulder tense. Fear paralyzed me.
"You know what my name is?" she yelled.
I pulled away my earphones, as if music had been playing. "Excuse me?"
"What you think my name is?"
"Um. . ."
"I bet you don't guess it."
She pulled her nappy ponytail over her shoulder on the right side of her neck. I recalled the grimy tattoo.
"Is it Syx?"
"Shit boy, how you know that?" Her mouth opened in disbelief, flashing me a row of rotten teeth. "You musta seen this." She pulled her hair away and canted her neck close to my face. Syx spat onto the railroad tracks. The tattoo was less remarkable close-up. The ink job was splotchy and there was no detail to it. Plus, it featured a snake vomiting. I noticed little nicks and cuts on her neck, as if she was learning how to shave. A particularly gnarly gash peeked its way above the collar of her sweatshirt.
"That's nice," I said. "Fancy."
She shrugged; used the sleeve of her coat to wipe the excess spittle from her lips. Syx reached into her pocket and pulled out the joint. She put it in her mouth and lit the end, took a few drags. Puffing her cheeks out to exhale, she said, "You ain't from round here, yeah?" She blew smoke in my face.
"Not really, I got off at the wrong stop," I said.
"What's you name?"
"Roy," I said. It was made up; a lie.
"Ain't all that much down here, Roy" she said. "You picked a shitty ass stop." Her mouth puckered and she released a smoke ring. "You want some?" She offered me the J.
I questioned its true composition -- considered, briefly, the prospect of a three-day-long formaldehyde blackout. "No," I said, "I'm good. Thanks."
Syx did not seem to register this response. She still held it out to me, but turned to face the Juvie Center. "That's gonna be a big place. Prolly where my babies is going."
"Huh." I stated, not really caring to push that statement any further. Though I did partake in looking away from her, at the construction site. Thegenny lights were fading. Its motor wheezed, revving up and down sporadically. "I think that thing is running out of gas." I turned back to her and noticed that she had taken out the knife.Syx held it at her side. She did not threaten me with it, but held onto it, as if it were a flower or a pencil or something normal.
"Will you help me with my babies?" she asked, desperate.
I didn't know what to do. She kept bringing the joint closer to my mouth. The cadence of the genny kept accelerating. "Why don't you have some Roy?" she kept saying, nearly matching its rhythm.
Then the knife was there, beside the joint. Both pointed at me. An ember and a blade in an either or situation. I closed my eyes, selected the ember, pulled its lifeblood into my body, felt it circulate, ruminate. The shit was probably laced but it felt really fucking good so I partook again. Maybe again and again. When I opened my eyes, the knife was no longer before them. Instead, from what I could make out in the low low fading light,Syx was using it to etch inverted crosses (or something -- I was really high) on each of her fingertips.
"My babies," she said. I tried to return the joint but she did not seem to notice. I tapped her shoulder. She snapped up, blade at the ready, staring deep through me and away, past me but into me. Eyes and a knife. And me. She froze like that.
I fiddled with my bag and looked beyond her, down the tracks. I hoped against all fathomable and just hope that the train would come. I thought I saw headlights but it was the spastic light wheezing out its last existence. The knife had returned toSyx's side. I still held the spliff. Her long ponytail hung over slouched shoulders. Everything sputtered to death and the world grew uncomfortably quiet.
We became enveloped in darkness.