Friday, December 16, 2011


“Phil, she’s on the tracks!” Someone was shaking me by the shoulders, grabbing me out of my vivid dream and lifting me into the darkness that was my home. “Phil, get the hell up!” It was Candy. I opened my eyes to find him standing over me, big white eyes staring out like flashlights from his gray being.
“What?” I asked groggily, shoving the massive watch that was wrapped around my wrist in front of my eyes, squinting to read the time. 3 o’clock in the morning.
“Phil, it’s Hope.”  Hope. I had just walked with her to her house, waited for her to cry herself to sleep. “She’s on the damn tracks. She’s not listening to nobody. Ya gotta get her off, man,” Candy said, ripping my coarse blanket off of me. I lifted myself off the cold ground that I had cushioned with some clothes that I wasn’t wearing. Candy had already started walking out of my place, disappearing into the blackness that enveloped our lives. I grabbed a flashlight from the worn cardboard box that rested near my unfinished bed. I checked to see that my sneakers were still on before I headed out of my house, which was separated from the outside by once-white sheets covering old chunks of wood that were shoved clumsily into the ground.
I walked through the debris of our subway neighborhood, trying to be careful not to step on the needles that were scattered across the ground. Cigarette butts, coffee cups, and wrappers of different colors coated the floor like confetti. I walked down to the tunnel near the tracks between the 110th street and 116th street stations, and saw her standing there.
“Hope!” I screamed. Silence. Her back was turned towards me. “Hope!” I screamed louder. This time my voice echoed through the tunnel before me. Nothing. She continued to stand there, frozen. I heard a train whistling in the distance. “Hope, there’s a damn train coming!” I shouted. She turned around on the tracks.
I could make out her face in the darkness, and as I stood there, waiting for her to react, I noticed how much she had changed. Her body was now sickly thin, and the sparkle in her eyes was replaced with despair. Anguish was written all over her pale face. This was not the Hope that came into our lives four months ago. Or rather, it was the soulless body of that Hope.
I remembered the day we first met her. She had made quite an impression. At first sight, I was speechless. She was eccentric, to say the least. Carrying an enormous flowery pink and yellow tote bag, she was dressed in faded blue jeans and a blinding yellow sweater with a giant sun sequined into it. “Way to pick an outfit,” Candy had whispered to me as I stared at her, wondering how she had possibly fit that huge bag into the entry hole on the outside.
“Hi,” she said, smiling wide. She had one of those odd but pleasing smiles. One of her two front teeth was missing. It was the only thing that gave her a homeless look – that and the graying hair that seemed to be falling out of her skull in chunks. There was something nervous in her big radiant green eyes, something that I couldn’t quite grasp. Pop approached her first.
“Who are ya?” he asked. His voice was muffled, but threatening nonetheless. He held a knife in his right hand, but rather than pointing it in her face, he let it hang at his side. There was no doubt in our minds that he would use it if he needed to. Pop was the oldest, and he protected us in a way. His pure white head of hair was always covered with a black woolen sweater hat, but you could tell from the wrinkles around his eyes and the white stubble that covered his pale cheeks that he was at least sixty. He came from Brooklyn four years ago, and was one of the first moles in our territory. Nobody knew why he came, and nobody dared question him. That was the thing about us moles. We all came to live in the dark to get away from the people who asked questions.
“I’m Hope,” the lady said, and stuck out her hand, as if the knife he held was a bouquet of roses and he was welcoming her to the neighborhood. Pop looked at her hand for a moment, and looked back at her face incredulously.
“You a reporter?” he asked. He had chased the last one out with that same knife. She looked confused.
“Oh, oh no,” she said, as if he had said something horrible. “I want to stay here.”
Candy chuckled and got up from his makeshift cushion of cardboard stuffed with plastic. “You crazy, lady?” he started, approaching her. Pop put his hand out, stopping him. Candy didn’t say a word after that. He just sat back down on his cushion, looking down in shame. Pop stared at the lady for a while, and after a few minutes of silent but careful deliberation, he walked away. Candy looked at me wide-eyed. He hated anything that smiled, and this woman – well, it was as if happiness radiated from her very being. The yellow sweater seemed to be glowing. Candy shook his head, grabbed his cushion, and headed down to his house. Hope looked at me nervously. I wondered what had brought her here, as opposed to the outside homeless life. She had courage though, walking into the mole life like that.
I got up. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Phil.”
Hope set up her home along the edge of the main tunnel that led to the tracks of the downtown number 6 train. By God, that house was the nicest thing I had ever seen. Instead of the worn-out white sheets that covered the majority of the houses in our neighborhood, Hope used vivid pink ones with orange polka dots printed across them. Inside, she decorated her home with pretty bright things – a beaded lamp, a quilt that she claimed she made, and a vase with real flowers. The flowers were a mystery; they were always fresh, but Hope never seemed to leave the tunnels. Some of us thought that she knew how to breathe life into things. Hope was like that – so full of life. When you were around her, you couldn’t help but think you might be able to make things right again.
Candy soon grew to like Hope, especially after she offered him one of her real nice cushions. “You know something? I knew she’d be good here, Phil. I knew she’d be good for us,” he’d tell me. “She’s something, that Hope, she’s really something.” She somehow managed to put a smile on his face. Once, he told me that he was thinking about getting out. “For real this time, Phil, I’m not playing. I’m thinking I could go find my brother, ya know? Try to start over, get a real life. Nobody wants to live in this dark hole. I mean come on, this is no place to stay for good.” It was the first time he seemed motivated to change. I asked him what had gotten into him. “This is gonna sound crazy man, but you know what? I was talking to Hope, right? And I says, ‘I wanna get outta this hellhole.’ And you know what she says? She says, ‘Why don’t you?’ and man, I realized that, man, I don’t have a God damn answer. I really don’t.” He sat down on the bright blue beaded cushion slowly, lost in thought. After a few minutes, he whispered. “Man, isn’t that weird man? Hope,” he smiled, “her name is like a weird coincidence.” Coincidence. I cringed at the word. It was an atheist’s neologism for a miracle, or some other work of God. Hope. Maybe God shoved a light into our dark lives for a purpose. It certainly grabbed hold of our attention.
One day, I was sitting outside my house on a makeshift chair I designed with the help of Candy, reading the Bible, when Hope came and sat by me. “Hi Phil,” she said, smiling with her missing tooth. “You know what I realized? I realized you’re the only one down here with a real name!” She giggled sweetly, clapping her hands together.
“Na, my name’s actually Joshua. They call me Phil ‘cause I’m from Philly,” I told her, and watched as she giggled again, shaking her head.
“You know, it’s not so bad here. I mean, when I first came here, I thought, this is gonna be hard. But you know what? It’s not so bad.” She was right. It’s surprising how a person can adjust to a place like this. The first night is the worst, but it always gets better after a while. I didn’t exactly want to stay here, but I had nowhere to go. I came to New York City with little money in my pocket, in hopes of finding a good job. I was mugged on 181st street on my first night. I remember falling asleep on a park bench. Within the next couple of days, I was sitting on the street, begging for money. I spent three months living on trash and spare change. Then winter hit, and I almost froze to death sitting out on the bitterly cold streets of Manhattan. That’s when I met Pop. And before I knew what was happening, I was living in a tunnel, surrounded by people just like me. We hated New York for screwing us over, and we took revenge by stealing electricity and living in a dark world where no one would dare bother us.
 “You have a family, Phil?” Hope asked me one day, as she helped me sweep debris out of my house. I could never seem to get rid of the remains of New Yorkers that cluttered my life. I didn’t answer, so she continued to speak. “I had a son, you know? He was such a beautiful boy. Dark brown curly hair. Kind of like yours. And he had the sweetest smile.” She stared off into the distance and continued, as if speaking to herself. “Sixteen. He ran away. That was two years ago. I tried so hard to find him, so hard. He got into drugs. It wasn’t his fault. He got mixed up with the wrong kids. My poor baby.” She was almost whispering now. After a few moments of silence, she laughed, realizing she was speaking to me. “You know, I must have spoke with every dealer in the city.” I looked at her, and wondered how she had managed that. I couldn’t imagine her, a middle-aged woman dressed in bright yellow and pink, speaking to a drug dealer as to the whereabouts of her son. And yet, she seemed to be telling the truth. “Somebody told me he came up a couple of times from the subway tunnels to buy…” her voice trailed off, and she seemed embarrassed. She was silent for a few minutes, and then she got up and left. I knew from the moment I saw her that there was something different about her. Hope wasn’t homeless; she was looking for her son.
Yesterday, my friend Tiny and I were playing cards at my place. It was almost 9 o’clock and he was saying something about going home to sleep. But he never got up, and so I kept dealing the cards. I heard Hope’s voice outside. “Phil, can I come inside?”
Tiny turned around. “Who’s that?” he asked the door of sheets.
“Ya, come in Hope.” I called to her. Hope came through the cloth, and flashed a smile to Tiny, nodding her head in acknowledgement. Tiny repeated the gesture.
“Phil, I need some help.” I was busy rearranging my hand, putting doubles together. “Phil, I think I know where he could be.” She was talking about her son. She did that a lot these days, but only with me. I think she trusted me not to say anything, or judge her son in any way. “I was talking to Rich. He said he think he seen him a few years ago down by the tunnels after 125th street.”
         “125th street?” Tiny interjected. “You don’t wanna go down to that place,” he said, shaking his head, placing a double on the table. “The moles up there are just, well, I mean they’re all shooting up drugs and stuff. Not just any drugs, either, lady, like hardcore shit. There’s people passed out everywhere; you don’t know which ones are dead.” Hope looked anxious. She took a seat. Tiny looked at his cards, smiling. I could tell right away what his hand looked like. The man didn’t know what a poker face was. “Who you looking for anyway, lady? I knew some people down there,” Tiny asked, looking up from his hand.
Hope started to describe her son. “He’s about nineteen now. He has dark curly hair, green eyes. He had an accident when he was little. Crashed his bike right into a big van. My poor baby. He walks with a limp now.”
“Oh I seen that kid. He was friends with…uh what’s his name? Rudy. Yeah, yeah, he was friends with Rudy. He came from Jersey, I think. Poor son-of-a-bitch, OD’d a few months ago. I’m telling ya, these kids were out of it all the time. Raymond or something.” Tiny said without looking up from his cards.
“Randy,” Hope whispered, her voice cracking. I looked up at her. Her eyes were wide, and she stared off into the distance. I watched as the color drained out of her face. I could’ve sworn I heard her heart thumping in her chest. She started breathing harder. I dropped my cards and ran over to her, catching her as she fell to the ground. She looked at me and shook her head. “No, no” she whispered over and over again. Tiny, realizing something was wrong, got up, nodded at me, and left. Hope’s whisper turned into screams. “No!” she cried. Her voice pierced through the darkness, and as I held her close to me, I could feel her shivering. I grabbed a jacket from my bed and wrapped it around her. She screamed for the longest time. I could do nothing for her, so I just held her in my arms and said “Shhh” every once in a while. After some time, she fell quiet, but I could still feel her tears soaking my shirt. I lifted her off my shoulder a bit, and saw that she was still screaming voicelessly from the empty hole on her distorted face. I held her until she stopped shivering.
“Hope?” I asked, wiping away the gray hair that stuck to her drenched face. She just stared off into the blackness, her eyes blank. And in that moment, it was like she was gone. Everything that Hope stood for had just disappeared. It was as if someone had reached into her and ripped her soul out, damaging her for life. I helped her get up off the ground, and slowly walked with her to her house. Laying her down on her decorated bed, I stroked her hair until she fell asleep, tears streaming down her pale face. There was a gold frame by her bedside. I picked it up and saw a young boy with dark curly hair looking back at me, smiling sweetly. He had Hope’s eyes. I realized then that he was Hope’s whole life, and with him gone, Hope was gone as well.
I got up, and started towards the polka-dotted door when I saw a bright blue vase of flowers sitting on a table made of the leftover wood I had given her. I put my fingers on the stem of a red carnation, and pulled it out. Running my thumb over the petals, I realized they were cloth-like. I slipped the fake flower back into the vase, checked to see that Hope was still asleep, and walked back to my house.
It was 3:15 A.M. I screamed her name as I heard the whistling of a train in the distance. Hope turned around on the tracks. A number six train was approaching. The red number was visible in the distance, just far enough for her to read it. As it came closer to her, the bright white dots grew into long beams. Spotlights. They were set on her, and as the train approached, screeching violently, they illuminated her beautiful lone body standing on the gray tracks. She opened her arms wide, as an intense rush of air sent her hair flying wildly around her. She closed her eyes and whispered his name, and for a moment, she was enveloped by heavenly brightness. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and in an instant, the train blocked the image from my sight. When the number six passed, the angel disappeared, swallowed by the radiance. I sat there staring into the tracks and said a quick prayer for her lifeless soul, as darkness descended on our lives once again– this time, for an eternity.

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