Phyllis Rudin lives in Montreal, Quebec. Her first novel, Evie the Baby and the Wife, a fictionalized account of the Vancouver to Ottawa Abortion Caravan was published in 2014 by Inanna Publications. Her second novel, My True and Complete Adventures as a Half-Assed Voyageur, will be published in 2017 by NeWest Press. Her recent short stories have appeared in AGNI, Massachusetts Review, Prairie Fire, and This Magazine, among others. Visit her at www.phyllisrudin.com.
A Short Story
By Phyllis Rudin
I’m with the Underground. Like my great grandmaman Javal. She garroted Nazis in a farmhouse on the Normandy coast. Me, I teach sulky teens to keep their feet off the seats on the Metro. What can I say? It’s a living.
How did I ever get into such a business you might wonder, the classroom wiseass, the kid who clocked more frequent flier miles for trips to the vice principal’s office than any other punk in the whole school. How did I end up being the Miss Manners of public transit? Allow me to explain.
I’m what’s called a fixer. They bring me in, the big corporations do, once they’ve bolloxed things up but good and need an expert to wallpaper over their mess. That’s the job description. So round about five years ago the Montreal Transit System solicited my services. It had itself a nice little mess to deal with. Riders were behaving like animals on the Metro. Excuse me if you think my comparison is unfair to animals, but that’s how it was put to me at the time. I’m just reporting.
Now it’s not like commuters were ever what you’d call chivalrous down there. They’d always blocked the exits and turned a blind eye to the young mother struggling to carry an industrial sized stroller down the three flights of stairs to the platform. But now the standard of behaviour had degenerated to the point that seated passengers wouldn’t give over for a woman so bulbously pregnant she looked like she was fit to pop right there in the car between Peel and McGill. And their treatment of the elderly, same old same old. Unless a geezer plotzed at their very feet, never would it occur to them to offer up their precious seat.
Out on the platforms worse still, stampeding when a Metro pulled into the station, as if the commuters frantic to board were battling it out for a bombed city’s last known loaf of bread. The weaker element was getting trampled. Broken bones were not unheard of. Spilt blood. A few poor devils even got elbowed onto the tracks in all the tohu-bohu. No deaths yet, but it was only a matter of time before some loser got himself squished under the Orange Line. What had become of the renowned Canadian politesse? Globalized out of existence I guess.
Even though I didn’t condone it, at least I could comprehend that kind of me-me-me attitude owing to my delinquent past. But the good folk at the transit system who clearly grew up more civilized, they didn’t. So how did they decide to handle it, those hot shot MBAs who couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag? They put up signs. Signs, I’m telling you. Like miscreants respond to signs. How many shoplifters will be prosecuted signs have ever convinced a committed thief to put back the Air Jordans he’d just stuffed down his crotch?
Weeks, even months into their tepid campaign, it was still Dodge City down there. Go figure. Complaints from the travelling public were pouring in at an unprecedented rate. But it was only when some of those complaints metastasized into full-blown lawsuits that the MTS finally had the good sense to call in the big guns. Namely me.
The timing was fortuitous. I’d just gotten back from a vacation in Paris. I’d ridden their Metro plenty and observed the performers who infiltrate the cars, do their shtick, pass the hat, and get off at the next stop. During my two weeks in the city, I parted with a mountain of small change for puppeteers, guitarists, pan-pipers, divas, a fire-eater even. They weren’t half bad most of them.
Nothing is wasted in life. Thanks to that Paris trip an idea started to sprout. I buffed it up a bit and pitched it to the transit board. Here’s what we were gonna do; we’d stage performances of proper subway deportment before the captive audience of Metro riders. Our roaming bands of underground players would present mini-productions that entertain and edify, like AIDS prevention skits under a banyan tree before an audience of illiterates. They ate it up.
The way it works is this. I hire the talent. Not hard in this town. I just skim off the cream of the city’s busking crop and bring them on board. Whether they’re English-speaking or français, it doesn’t matter. They perform strictly in mime so that riders from both sides of the city’s linguistic divide can understand them even-steven. I get on surprisingly well with my young workers, though between us there can never be a complete meeting of the minds. After all, I’m hound’s-tooth, they’re leopard skin. But for all our differences they’ve never let me down.
I give my crews absolute artistic freedom. The routines they cook up themselves. As long as they stay on message, I don’t poke my nose in. I’m generous with the pay and they pocket extra on tips. To look at me you wouldn’t take me for an impresario. OK, so maybe I’m puffing myself up. Entrepreneur more like. But some of my young artistes have been picked up by the Cirque du soleil. It gives me a kick. Makes me feel like Colonel Tom Parker.
From the first time my kids swooped into a Metro car in their knock-em-dead body suits, they had the passengers by the balls. The stunned commuters yanked out their earbuds, pocketed their iPhones, and hoicked their noses out of their Kindles and laptops. Live entertainment presented on your metaphorical doorstep is something you don’t get treated to every day. And we wowed ’em. The audiences in Montreal were way more demonstrative than their staid Parisian counterparts, hooting and cheering. I heard tell of the odd standing ovation even. But best of all, to me anyway, the riders were swallowing the pill squished up in the applesauce. Incidents were down, way down.
Word travelled. The New York Times wrote us up. Sealed my reputation. Suddenly I was the city’s darling. The suburban train lines, they were begging me to give them a tumble. Chicago and Toronto were sniffing around. I was a hot property.
So did I let all my newfound notoriety affect me? You bet I did. I got cocky. Broke my own cardinal rule. Fraternized. It was with Gina, the contortionist. She’d been operating freelance on tourist-trap street corners when I scouted her out, barely scraping by. She snapped up the underground gig I offered her; it was the first lucky break she’d ever been dealt in her hard-knock life. Cosette had it cushier growing up.
Now what guy doesn’t fantasize about sleeping with a contortionist? Oh the possibilities. That girl could pick her nose with her toe. Gina could have had anyone with her willowy ballerina looks, her hair balled demurely at her nape. And still, she chose me, me whose overindulged gut barred any possible commerce between my toes and nose.
It all went well for a while. Better. She moved in. We played house. We picked tiles. Dare I make such a shmaltzy declaration? It seemed like love. We were talking babies for God’s sake.
And that’s when I went and did it.
See, every once in a while my schoolboy self, who I generally keep hog-tied in the cellar, breaks out while the guard is taking an unauthorized snooze, reasserts his authority over my person, and seizes control of my speech. When this happens, stand clear. My mouth starts to operate like Gina’s body in that it recognizes no bounds. I should probably go to a shrink to find out why I am visited by this periodic mudslinging compulsion, but suffice it to say, I am. And Gina was my target. Natch. What did I mock her for? You might easier ask what didn’t I mock her for. Her high school drop-out status, her nail technician aspirations, her tongue stud, her dumber-than-a-sack-of-hammers brother she was helping to support, the way she ate corn on the cob. I put together a fairly comprehensive list. But the unkindest cut of all, it shames me to recall it, I ridiculed her rubbery anatomy. Whatever scraps of pride that friable girl could dredge up in herself derived from her body and its origamic ability to fold itself up into swans and butterflies and pretzels. It was a gift. I know. The one time she urged me to give it a try under her instruction, it was a disaster. I looked more like I was positioning myself for a colonoscopy.
She collected her meagre possessions and left. Wouldn’t answer my calls or emails. I couldn’t go knocking on her door; I didn’t have a clue who she was crashing with. The only place I could be sure of finding her to deliver my mea culpa face-to-face was underground. I’d heard through the grapevine that she was still showing up for work. But when I finally caught up with her on the platform at Berri she refused to speak to me. Not in so many words, mind you. She just elongated her neck by a foot or two, ducked her head all the way down to the floor, and flared her arms out to suggest stubby wings mounted on a stout chassis. An ostrich to perfection. Her body was nothing if not articulate.
She was prepared to have me stay invisible to her forever. And I deserved it, God knows. But I couldn’t just let it all go. I got the fixer part of my brain wrestling with the problem. I’d never set it loose on my personal life before. Maybe because I’d never had any personal life before. It determined that a grand gesture would be the ticket. A humbling, face-losing gesture, nothing less. I had to take myself down a peg. Or two or three better.
Which was how I came to be sausaged into a leotard of the type worn by the lissome kids on my payroll. On the Green Line. In full view of the commuting public. It wasn’t a look that suited my beer barrel physique. My belly stretched out the spandex to the max so the ultra-taught fabric down around my nether parts left nothing to the imagination. You could even make out whether I was cut or un. If abasement was what was needed, surely this would fit the bill.
At the Place-des-Arts station I caught up with Gina and her crew. They were just entering a Metro car so I followed them in. They were all a bit discombobulated to see the boss on the Metro, decked out like a Bulgarian weight lifter yet, but they were professionals, indoctrinated by yours truly with the-show-must-go-on ethos. They bounced right back from the shock of my site visit in tights and were about to swing into their routine. I held up my hand to halt the proceedings. I had an act of my own worked up. It was a no-frills production since I was a transit-player newbie but I hoped it would get the job done. They respectfully pulled back and formed a circle around me to let me have at it.
I had one prop. I was shouldering a fully loaded backpack of the type all the students wear when they crowd onto the Metro. They’re big suckers. Scourges in tight places. Those knapsacks whack all and sundry, leaving a trail of bloody noses and black eyes in their wake. In fairness to the kids who inflict all this pain and suffering on their fellow travellers, they probably don’t have a clue as to the proper subway etiquette; that their backpacks are meant to be set down at their feet, made to heel like a summa cum laude graduate of the doggie obedience academy. Well, they’d damn well learn that lesson now.
I started to turn in place. I stepped on the gas until I was spinning like a whirling dervish, the backpack flailing behind me, an accident waiting to happen. My troupe members cottoned on that I needed their cooperation and moved in closer. Every time the backpack swung their way, they made like they’d been struck in the jaw, and staged a fall. And what falls they were! Spectacular in their arch and sproing. Acrobatic marvels. Their athleticism lent my homely little spin-o-rama move some flair even though I was rotating like a demented dreidl. When at last I came to a stop, they were all splayed out artfully on the floor around me like a KO’d set of Rockettes. I looked down to survey the mayhem my pesky backpack had caused and mimed horror. I removed the offending object from my shoulders and set it down at my feet where it belonged. I gave it a good admonishing kick for its misbehaviour and then stood up straight and prim, model-citizen wise, to continue my commute. The end. I took my bow. The rest of the crew bounded up out of unconsciousness to join me.
The riders went wild. Coins rained down on us even though we’d never put out the basket. And not just your lousy nickels and dimes; I’m talking loonies and toonies. Some dame slipped a twenty down my hairy décolletage. Backpacks all over the car thudded to the floor in tribute. We did a second curtain call, all of us in a line, holding hands and bowing Broadway style. I was shvitzing like a pig but strangely energized.
The Metro stopped at Saint-Laurent to discharge its passengers and ingest a fresh load. It was at that point that Gina came out of the woodwork. She hadn’t joined in on my impromptu performance with the others, just stood back and took it all in. But now it was her turn up. I could tell from how she flexed that she’d be doing her hogging-the-communal-pole routine, the one where she drapes herself around the pole like a boa constrictor spiralling a tree trunk, sheathing its entire expanse, preventing anyone else from hanging on. The audiences loved to watch Gina coil around the pole. They would have sworn that she was born not of man and woman but of fusilli and slinky. Julien usually paired up with her on this skit, playing the gimpy passenger trying to get a grip. He keeps thrusting his hand in to grab at the pole, but time and again one of Gina’s ductile appendages contrives to get there first, monopolizing the spot. He finally loses his balance and stages a swooping, slo-mo drop to the floor that has the riders in stitches. Gina peers down. Sees Julien at the foot of the pole in a crumbled heap. She recognizes belatedly her own role in his misfortune and is moved to make amends. For the grand finale, Gina extends her slim frame straight out from the pole like a signal flag in a stiff breeze, allowing Julien all the room in the world to tether himself. It was a great routine, a pert mesh of anti-gravity and burlesque. A sixty-second marvel. They made a good team, the two of them.
Julien followed Gina over to the pole to get things started, but she kissed him gently on the cheek and pushed him away. That partnership was dissolved. Instead, she extended her arm to me. Yes you heard me right. To me.
We performed together and only together ever after. A regular Lunt and Fontanne. The business? I sold it. Now that I’d experienced the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, there was no going back. The twins have become part of our act. They take after their mother thankfully, little Gumbies. Oh, did I forget to mention that I married Gina?
We carry on with our mission, riding the rails, teaching new generations of commuters how to rub along with each other. I have to admit that there are times when I wish we could expand the operation above ground. After all, the world’s an ugly place. You’ve got your gang-wars, your civil wars, your intifadas, your genocides. People just don’t know how to live together peaceably. They don’t learn how at home, they don’t learn how at school, they don’t learn how in church. If Gina and I don’t teach them, who will?