July 10, 2006

the last staircase on the left

A work of fiction.

Josh Sohn

A man with a beard and no eyes gets on the subway. He’s got one of those walking sticks. The guy next to me is busy reading the Daily News, but not too busy to take a good long look at the guy with the walking stick. After he’s ogled the blind guy for a good 15 seconds, he starts grinning.

I can see why.

The blind guy isn’t one of those really sharp looking blind guys. He’s about 45 and overweight and he hasn’t got the sunglasses and it’s not like he’s wearing two left sneakers, but if he were, it wouldn’t shock anyone. He's the kind of blind guy that makes you feel things without him having to say or do anything.

So after a little while, this blind guy starts talking to himself. Quietly. And then the man sitting next to me stops smiling and asks the blind guy if he’s good. What the guy next to me wants to know is if the blind guy is alright to get where he needs to go.
“I’m alright,” says the blind guy.
“You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” he says. “Two more stops.” Then the guy sitting next to me goes back to his paper and I relax. Pretty soon though, the blind guy’s talking again. Not so soft. Too loud to be talking to himself. That’s what I think.
“This morning, I waited 45 minutes for the train. No explanation. No nothing.”
“You’re right about that,” says the guy with the paper.
“Two more stops. Once I get to the last staircase on the left, I’m good. Busy day today. I got a lot—”


Photograph by Molly Cosel

“Last staircase on the left. Once I’m there, I’m fine. My name is Doug, what’s your name?”
“What’s my name?”
“You being serious?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“I have a brother named Mike.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. My sister’s named Mary. I’m Doug. Dad’s name is Mike, too. His Dad’s name—”
“I get it.” I’m watching them talk like this, wanting it to stop. After a while, the blind guy stops talking and starts picking at his fingernails.
“Hey, Mike?”
“You still there?”
“I’m still here.” Mike is smiling up a storm now. Somebody ought to end this thing.
“I waited 45 minutes for the train this morning, Mike.”
“I know.”
“Missed my breakfast because of it.”
“That’s rough.”
“Gotta have my breakfast.” A teenager a few seats away snorts and I glare at him until he gives me a "take it easy" look. I keep glaring at him until the kid shrugs his shoulders and goes back to pretending not to listen. Doug doesn’t notice. What he does is keep on talking.
“They could have at least told me why I was waiting.”
“Should’ve said something.”
“Why is this train moving so slowly?”
“Track work, Doug.”
“I could use some money, Mike.”
“I could use some money.”
“We could all use—”
“Money, Mike. I’m not kidding around.”
“Yeah, I heard you the first time.”
“I got plenty of friends. I’m hungry. That’s all I meant. I could use some money. To eat.”
“To eat?”
“There are things I gotta buy.”
“Like what?”
“What do you mean, like what?”
“Like what?”
“Jesus Mike. Like a nice necktie.” A lady of about 30 who’s got on this enormous grey coat to go with her tiny little pink scarf goes up to the blind man and puts a dollar in his hand. The blind man smiles and tries to touch her. To thank her. She lets him.
“Get home safe, okay?” That’s what she says.
“I wasn’t asking for money.”
“I know. Just take care, okay?”
“What’s your name?”
“Gretchen. This is my stop. Get home safe, okay? Yours is the next stop.”
“I’m not a bum.”
“I know.”
“I wasn’t asking for money.”
“Goodbye, Doug,” she says and then gets off the train. Before Doug can say anything else, Mike says this:
“Pretty lady.” Mike says it and I don’t like it. There are certain things you’re not supposed to say to blind guys on F trains in between stations. I glare at Mike to let him know what I’m thinking about what he’s saying. Mike doesn’t care. He’s too busy smiling to care what I think. Doug gets going again.
“I like girls, Mike.”
“Good man.”
“I was married once.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Beautiful, Mike.” The teenager starts to crack up again, but I shoot him a look so sudden and malevolent that the kid doesn’t just stop laughing, he actually gets up and moves to the other end of the car. It’s something.
“Hey, Doug?”
“Yeah, Mike?”
“You mind if I ask you something?”
“Go ahead.”
“How many people do you think are on this subway car right now?”
“Right now?”
“Right now.”
“On this car?”
“Yeah Doug. On this car.”
“I don’t know. Fourteen. Why?” That’s what the blind guy says and Mike and I both start to count.
“Damn Doug, that’s not bad.” Mike says it.
“Was I close?”
“Real close.”
“How close?”
“I could sure use a little money, Mike.”
“Yeah, you already said that, Doug.”
“Sorry Mike.” It’s too much. I go get a dollar out of my wallet and then I stand up and walk over and put it in the blind guy’s hand. For some reason he doesn’t try to touch me which is fine with me. He says thanks and I mumble something like "you’re welcome" and then something else about how he shouldn’t miss his stop and he tells me that he didn’t ask for money and I say I know and then I go back to my seat. Mike glares at me.

We’re almost at the blind guy’s stop when the train screeches to a halt.

“You feel that, Doug?” Mike says it, not me.
“Heard it.”
“Looks like we’re going to be here for awhile.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I’m hungry, Mike.”
“So am I, Doug.”

I feel like crying. I should be able to cry about things like this and not care about who sees me or how absurd I am. For caring like this. Some people never ride the subway. It makes sense. To avoid feeling what I am feeling. They make sense. To avoid feeling guilty and not knowing why. Some people never ride the subway so that they don’t have to deal with situations like this. With delays and Doug and lights that flicker and dogs in bags.

The next stop is the blind guy’s stop. Here’s what happens.

“This is my stop Mike.”
“Sure is, Doug.”
“I wasn’t asking your opinion.”
“Sorry, Mike.”
“For what?”
“Forget it.”
“You good to get where you’re going?”
“Last staircase on the left.”

That’s when the doors open. Then, out of nowhere, Mike gets up and scurries over to where Doug’s standing and takes him by the elbow. No words, no nothing. Then Mike guides Doug off the train. I don’t get it, but I know it’s something I’m supposed to have seen. Something I needed to see. I stay where I am. Sitting down, blinking.

Josh Sohn is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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