by Amir Adam Nafs
The stuff melts. The stuff sets. This week, the gibbous rim of the Greater Lake has pulled in and out of form. In lots, water stands in potholes all day, clots into black ice overnight, then re-bleeds into the asphalt by noon. It rains, it snows, then it falls as some chimera—first a wintery mix, then hail the size of clenched fists.
Slushmelt/snowmelt/stuffmelt, drains into the station through grimaces—grim, narrow fault lines, rusted rictuses—in the vaulted ceiling and buckets, strategically placed, fill at alarming rates. Watching the collection, one can keep time. Crude chronometers, but they are also hallowed in this frame, the buckets—they are something to look at, cause to shift my line of sight away from the man completely disrobing, whose pants are now puddled at his feet.
His language is largely unintelligible—seemingly without vowels, much of it just grunts and mumbles through clenched teeth—brkn, strng, jggd, tetragrammatons throat-sung—but I understand that he is voicing a complaint. I recognize, it registers, in what some call the heart of the heart, that his complaint is warranted. He is squinting up into a vast fluorescence, shaking his fist at the leaking rafters.
He’s scratching his damp flanks. Unbalanced on his feet, swaying in place, I begin to wonder what’s charging through him; I consider the toxicology of his circulation. He’s hung his socks on the rim of a trashcan. He’s folding up his uniform. Ordering it on the gum-stuck platform. I shift my gaze back to a bucket when he bends to smooth a wrinkle. A pneumatic sigh is drafted out of the tunnel mouth. A train, going backwards, pulls in. A disembodied, tinny voice lets us know that the doors will be closing now. What it means to say is that the doors will not stop closing. That they will close like hard, edentulous gums on whatever—on wayward extremities, on goodbye waves, on angel wings. He is airing out his crevasses. He is airing grievances.
One bucket’s collection is now brim-level and holding—arching convexly above the rim as a tense, elastic surface. I’m waiting for it to give. The drops are now falling every four seconds. The vacant intervals are filled with his groans, his white noise. He crackles—tunes in and out, jangling like a radio stuck in angry AM limbo—at the receptive edge of two stations. He is interference.
I count a dozen buckets. No, a baker’s dozen. Someone should empty them. Someone should replace them. Where’s bucket boy? The janitorial staff? Momentarily, runoff will cascade along the platform, hazarding boarding, imperiling disembarkation. Why hasn’t this man been asked to cover up? Menisci quiver.
I calculate that a drop is falling every five seconds. I’m focused, observing elemental properties. I can’t recall ever being this tuned in. Yes I can. Years ago, with her, at Starved Rock. I puked like she said I would and then did what she commanded: focused out to where the washed-out sky met the land. My eyes, for once, failed to mistake the continuous for contiguous, failed to perceive a sharp horizon, correctly diagnosed the inherent connectivity of things, remembered that the valance shell is theory employed for diagrammatic purposes, that at the atomic level there is no containment—just boundless energy shared willingly, constantly, in some kind of forever. And it’s hokey, but at that moment, I resolved to look at everything like that; I made a promise to mind every monad, to appreciate the grain, the granules, the grist, the single snowflakes carried into soritical drifts.
The next drop hovers, hangs like pitch, and when it finally pulls free, it cannonballs into the convexity. The contents fall over the bucket’s rim slow, like molten glass. From there, the water slithers through cracks in the tile to the bright yellow treads warning of the steep drop down to the tracks below. It trickles along the ribbed, yellow rubber until it reaches a cracked, calloused heel.
Though the brain is massively parallel in its operation, truly mindful attention, exclusively serial engagement, demands a singular focus—exempli gratia, the fold between the sky and the rough edge of the earth. It requires selective perception and vision, infinitely tunneled. It often requires a guide, an agent, perhaps in fungoid form. Or a motive, e.g., avoiding an eyeful of a strange man’s rawhide, the full moon of his backside. I follow the spill.
I see the icy water slide along the yellow rubber until it reaches a chalky heel. I see the water slide under the dark arch of a bare foot. I find that the foot is connected to a ulcerated leg, find that the leg is connected to a stripped body, find that the body is lighter than it looks, can lift itself off the ground, can stir itself into sublimation, can be unbound, is ultimately boundless, grounded by a force scarcely stronger than the clasped atomic hands of water.
Amir Adam Nafs is a Syrian-American writer and resident psychiatrist at Northwestern University. His fiction was anthologized in the Best Small Fictions 2016. His short stories have also appeared in American Chordata and The Chicago Tribune.