The Commuter (February 2012. Issue 40.)
The train rolled on, making all local stops, before screaming to a halt in the black and musty tunnel of the terminal, a dank place where Edward imagined the homeless to live among tracks and gears and electrical grids and other apparatuses central to the operation of the trains. Three days away had been long enough as he saw it, as there were expectations he had to live up to, job or no job, since the business world embodied more than what alone took place in an office, and there was quite little debate that morning in whether or not he should don his work clothes, drive to the Park-and-Ride, and catch his usual 8:04. After all, what did his brothers-in-commuting think about his absence? Or hadn't they noticed? That he was unremarkable wasn't impossible.
Now he rushed off, keeping pace with the crowd, when he remembered there was no place where he was expected, no one who might take note if he came late. He bought a cup of coffee, took his time stirring sugar into it, spied an old man helming a shoe shine concern beside the pastry kiosk, motioned for his attention.
"You've been a while without a shine," the old man said.
The commuters, along with upstate day trippers and foreign tourists, streamed past him, while marching from the other direction was another crowd, equally urgent in their transit. Yet they never touched. The social contract survived their desire to walk over those in front of them. Edward, savoring his coffee as though it was the last cup in North America, marveled at the rules of public conduct. He felt his laces come undone. The old man was vigorous with a buffing brush, muttering, "Got to get in the cracks. It's the only way. The only way."
Edward looked again at the crowd and saw a dozen versions of himself. There I go, he thought. There and there and there. He was pleased to count himself among the majority of men his age, although this tiny satisfaction faded as he became keenly aware that he had no idea when he would be welcomed back into their good graces. If he even wanted to rejoin them. More than a small part of him never wanted to work again. It was an exhilarating feeling that emerged, not a feeling exactly but an insight, that he'd known this for a long time, but only now—watching from his shoeshine throne—did he finally accept it.
The old man finished wiping down his shoes with a white rag streaked with polish. Three final swipes over the leather. "Done, done, done."
Edward handed him a five, started walking. He took a seat on the great marble steps near the ticket windows, the constellation of stars flickering in the ceiling overhead. What to do next? He was stumped. And then, all at once… well, at this point it was a fragment of a memory but he recognized its potential: an image of Times Square forged at sixteen, when on St. Patrick's Day he and his friends wandered west of the parade until the bagpipes and drums and tin whistles merged with the riotous dissonance of the city. They were beckoned by names like Peep World, Peep-O-Rama, All Nude Revue, Girls—Live Girls! He wanted to bathe again in the glow of the flashing lights, immersed in the neon sparkle of a sign that read: All Nude Peep 25 cents.
Next, he passed from the shuttle to Times Square, through the tunnel, up to the pavement, smelling the sweet air, with eyes agleam, like someone prepared to do God's work. He swiveled his head in search of a peep show. His pulse beat in his temples, the disorderly excitement surging with his blood. It didn't occur to him it would be a difficult task.
He gawked at signs and lights, finding everything he wasn't looking for: theme restaurants, mega-stores, Broadway plays. A throng of people moved in disarray around him. He stormed over the blocks. Where did they go? He was persistent in his search. At that moment, he formed a connection between the loss of his job and finding this store. Locating it would diminish the fact that twelve years had been cleaved in an instant. To give up before then justified the layoff because if something as simple as this was too difficult for him, he didn't deserve success of any kind. He loosened the knot in his tie to accommodate the lungfulls he drew. Times Square shrank at his back, almost twenty blocks. On the corner of West Twenty-fifth Street and Sixth Avenue, he stumbled across a tiny storefront with tinted plate glass windows. The neon should have flashed and buzzed but the letters were lifeless, gray flecks of bird shit splattered on them. Stapled flyers and circulars covered the entrance, a padded red door, leaving visible a small heart-shaped window of opaque Plexiglas.
Replacing the rubber dick on the rack he began looking around for the peep shows. Their whereabouts lay hidden. He would need to consult a professional, the man at the register.
"What do we have here? A little beach reading?" Edward said, sidling up to the employee, possibly the proprietor.
The man closed the book, agitated by the disturbance. "What do you want?"
"I'm curious: what's the bulk rate on latex pussies?"
"How would you like it if I came out from around the counter?"
Edward wished there was a way to advise the man to treasure these interactions, for one day his job might be taken from him and his brusque demeanor with customers would rank among his regrets. Seeing no way to impart this wisdom, Edward said, "Fair enough. Can you point me in the direction of the peep shows? I can't seem to find them."
"Private viewing booths are back and to your right," the man said, returning to his book.
He walked back and, to his right, discovered a narrow hall with several doors on either side. The floor tiles were stained yellow with age. Some curled from the corners where the adhesive quit. The smell of urinal cakes filled his nose, though he saw no men's room. He approached the first door, tried the knob, found it locked. A voice inside yelled, "Fucking occupied!" He continued down the hall to an open door and closed himself inside. The tiny room had a plastic bench bolted to the wall. Opposite the bench was a large monitor. Next to that was a machine that operated the monitor. Above it, a sign read: $1.00 for three minutes. The booth shared the same dimensions as the changing room at Banana Republic in the Westchester Mall. Here it was, early enough for brunch, and Edward heard the muffled moans of men humping their hands. He sat on the bench and slid a dollar bill into the machine. It began humming and the monitor came alive.
At first he watched only to commit the moment to memory and retell it one day in a bawdy anecdote full of sights, sounds, and smells. The girl had pale skin but dark hair, a fine down across her upper lip. Her pendulous breasts carried the weight of whatever circumstances had led her to a couch in motel-esque room, to be broadcasted simultaneously to who knew how many private viewing booths around the world. Then the girl stared at him, a fragile hypnotized look on her corrupted face. As her hands worked over her body, the look told him that she believed her own hands weren't good enough. The look told him that she needed his hands but since that was impossible she was left with no choice but to satisfy herself, even though that meant not getting what she really wanted. He watched now with his hand unconsciously rubbing his hard dick through his pants. When he realized what he was doing, a fair amount of shame ordered him to stop but he didn't stop. He couldn't. His dick coerced him with its far more persuasive wish to be pulled from his pants. No, no, he feared, the plastic bench was rife with bacteria and viruses. As the dollar ran out and the monitor went blank, he imagined every other naked ass to sweat on this bench, while he continued helplessly to tug his dick and wrinkle his wool pants. He imagined evil microbes leaping from the bench, clinging to the hair on his ass and crawling into his butthole, or swinging onto his pubes, like subatomic monkeys on vines, scurrying the length of his shaft, and sliding into his dickhole, contaminating him with incurable infections that mutated and reproduced exponentially. Still, he couldn't stop.
Fuck it all, he thought, and undid his belt with one hand, frantically fumbling with cash in the other, trying to bring back the girl. Here she came back and he ignored the possibility that while she looked at him she thought of someone else. He ignored the possibility that she was on the other side of the earth and that she couldn't see him at all. He believed in her imperfect face. His sweaty hand pulled his dick sore, red. He might not make it another dollar. One was lying ready on the machine, in case he did make it. He did make it, not the whole dollar, maybe twenty-seven cents worth. What the hell, let them keep the change!
When it was over, when his pants were refastened and his penis was shrinking, when the wet tip was sticking to his underwear and all its persuasiveness had been coughed onto the floor, there was nothing to counterbalance the shame that piled up higher and higher. As he searched his pants to reassure himself that his keys and wallet hadn't fallen from his pockets, he avoided the monitor, though the girl was gone, broadcasted now into another odoriferous corner of the world. The embarrassment was reminiscent of the time, during the summer after sophomore year in college, when his grandparents stayed with his family. One night he came home drunk and, having an overwhelming need to piss, he barged into the bathroom to find his grandfather on the toilet, pants around his ankles, bending at his porous hips and struggling to reach an arthritic hand behind his back to wipe his ass.