Underground – Excerpt from “Death and the Dream” on NYC Subways



Excerpt from “Death and the Dream” 2011, J.J.Brown

What will you tell them about it? What will they understand?” I ask myself this as I tell myself the story again and again over the years. The extreme heat was searing down on Brooklyn that day. The power of the white morning sun was radiating back from Flatbush Avenue in the thick traffic. The dirty feeling of exhaust clung to your face—and the thought “something awful will happen today” passed throughyour mind. You will remember this. But when you remember it, what will you say? What will you tell your daughter and your sister? Could you even tell the family about it? No, you couldn’t. But if you did, what would you tell them?

You know what you will not say. You won’t talk about the smell of pigeon excrement and stale alcohol evaporating from the pavement in the morning sunlight. Better not to mention the sound of your step crunching on broken glass along the uneven curb. And don’t talk about how the hot subway air rising up through the grates surrounding your feet felt like Hades reaching up to claim you. No, they won’t understand. They won’t want to hear about it.

Yet it is here, it persists. The feeling dizzy from the heat, and walking and walking and wanting not to breathe, it stays with you. Knowing you have to breathe creates that awful tension between what you have to do and what you don’t want to do; it remains. Walking, breathing. The sad face of the clock on the tallest building in Brooklyn is still showing 9 AM. No one will care what time it was when you talk about it later, if you talk about it. But yet this detail, this one thing, this photograph you will file away in memory. You will remember this. Can you see it?

Three tall black women are crossing the street slowly in front of you, graceful as new vines swaying in the hot breeze. Their long skirts swish in the rich, spicy smell of incense floating across Flatbush Avenue. A street vendor’s white tablecloths are billowing in the wind, his white cotton robes and white crochet cap shining in the sunlight—and the ominous thought: Yes, this is the moment before the accident. This smell. This incense. Yes, you will remember this. Can you smell it?

Sound waves scream from sirens on a blue truck, and headlights, and the bright sun, and you have to stop in your tracks. You and the tall women in the long skirts all back up onto the dirty curb just to avoid being run over. A police truck U-turns by your feet and rolls up over the sidewalk. You lower your head and turn away from the policemen who climb out of the truck. They flow toward you, dangerous, like a disturbed nest of wasps. A small brown car pushes by you, between you and the police truck, and all the people rush to get out of the way. The car fender presses along your thigh. You will remember the fear of being dragged under the truck, the car, crushed. Can you feel it?

Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues are blocked completely by police cars along the entrance to the underground subway. Police in trucks, police in cars, they move in and occupy the congested street clotted like failing human arteries. The tunnel where you planned to catch the underground train to the Bronx and up to the Metro-North railway floods with police. You were on your way to work. You will remember this. Can you believe it?

A young, blond policeman plants himself solidly at the head of the stairs that lead down to the trains like he is some great tree. He has a smooth face, big shoulders, short sleeves; his hairy forearms are crossed in front of his massive chest. He is a young, untroubled man in the face of disaster. He doesn’t move when you approach.

“Which train is down?” you ask.

“I don’t know, all of them, I think,” he says without looking down at you. He shrugs his big round shoulders and looks away down the chaotic street. “Ask downstairs, I don’t know,” he says evenly. This sound—you’ll remember the sound of his smooth and untroubled voice. You will remember this. Can you hear him?

You look down the stairs trying to see but can’t pick out anything in the hazy air over the dark staircase. The stairs emanate heat, like the inferno below. Yes, it is, it must be Hades. A demonic older woman with fat arms and gold bracelets bounces around you awkwardly. She is trying to get by you. Her chemically reddened hair floats like a cloud around her and you. You will remember this, the color of her hair. Can you see it?

“Downstairs! All the way downstairs,” the woman shrieks, “Why don’t he just tell her? Why I got to go all the way downstairs!” She reaches over you, clawing at the policeman. She shakes her puffy hands at him, her bracelets clanging. Behind you, the screaming woman thrashes insanely. The sound of her voice, you will remember this. Can you hear her?

In front of you no rushing commuters fill the stairs. It is very still. The quiet air vibrates with only heat. Down the hot concrete stairs, through the stench of urine and stale alcohol, slowly you descend into the subway station. A haggard man climbs painfully up the stairs toward you, begging. You avoid looking into his ghostly eyes because you have no money to give. This man, mute in the dark, his bare skinny arms crooked around an empty paper cup; you will remember how he looks at you. Can you see him?

You walk in slow motion, melting in the heat. You pass the train schedule boards, pass the magazine stand, pass a mass of silent people jamming the entrance to the number 4 and 5 subway lines. You press up against a crowd that stands looking at the tracks, their backs to you. You are compelled to press up against them. A young black woman turns away from the tracks to look at you. You are both dripping with sweat. Her face is awash with oil, shining in the heat. Her short, gelled hair gleams. Her pointed red nails scrape the black metal bars of the subway track entrance. Can you hear them?

“Somebody on the tracks,” she says. You see in her broad, red, lipstick-covered lips the horrible, blood-smeared mouth of death.

Flashlight beams move back and forth on the quiet train tracks. Policemen walk on the platform, beyond the yellow tape. Another walks down along the tracks, only his head visible. He bends down, reappears and throws a heavy, black, knotted plastic bag up onto the silent platform. It lands, sounding wet and heavy. Can you hear it?

“That’s the head,” the young woman says, turning to you again, your guide in the macabre scene. She points with her crimson-painted nails to the large bag sinking into the platform.

The policeman on the tracks throws up two more knotted plastic bags that land heavily, sodden. His hands are visible in the beam of another policeman’s flashlight searching over the dark tracks, the empty tracks. A third policeman, young and obese, stands on the platform shaded by a pole. He laughs suddenly and loudly, his mouth agape.

The stench of machine oil, of urine, of sweat is overwhelming. You are saturated with it, drowning in the hot, stinking air. The three bags are there, collapsed, wet and weighty on the dark platform, but you will try not to remember this. As you walk away from the tracks you don’t look back. But as if they are being pulled along, people continue to move slowly past you in a stream toward the tracks, toward the accident. Can you see them?

Back up on the street, the sun has burned off the morning haze. You wind your way along the packed sidewalk at the entrance to the subway and look for the next entrance at Nevins Street. Approaching Nevins it is crowded. And then the stairs, the fear of walking down there, here is the fear that plagues you for weeks, for years, because you relive it. Can you feel it even now?

“Take the R line at DeKalb; all the 4 and 5 trains are down,” a tall man behind the subway booth window repeats in a monotone over and over to the confused people who pour past him. DeKalb. You have never been to DeKalb and have no map. You follow people you don’t know, all flowing along the street as a slow, lost and uncertain tributary of the main stream of commuter traffic.

The dark, wide stairs at the DeKalb station are even hotter than the street. You have to go down there. You hate the subway. You imagine everyone hates the subway. Looking, not wanting to walk down there, walking down anyway, the difficulty breathing, the fear, you relive it for weeks and years. But you have to go down those stairs to where the stale oily water seeps beneath the tracks with the garbage, where the brown rat walks on the slats and small gray mice run along the walls.

The R train comes in clean, cold and fast. Those who just walked over from the accident at Atlantic Avenue stand looking around nervously. You look at the framed subway maps on the tiled R platform walls, and you look at each other. You want to ask every person you see, “Did you see that?” You want to say, “I was there,” but not to have been there at all. You want to ask, “Who was that? What was he like?” Because you want to know and at once to be forever rid of knowing.

A small, young man on crutches with a club foot drags his bad foot along beside him. His shoes are broken and tied up with cord. The platform shoe on his shorter leg is worn down so much that it is rounded like a rubber ball. His bulging foot is exposed; his legs are weak, his dirty hands are swollen. He sits with difficulty and passes his hand over his uncut beard. He counts money slowly, four fresh bills. He rests his crutches bound with tape on the seat next to him and closes his tormented, almond eyes. Can you see him? Was it someone like him?

A short, older black woman in a wig and hat pulls on your shirt from behind, “This train to Manhattan?” she asks you. She leans heavily on a cane. She wears dark glasses.

“Yes,” you say. She seems to stare behind you.

“You take the 4 or 5 usually?” you ask, and she nods without shifting her gaze.

Yes, she was there. And you want to ask, “Did you see this? Did you see that?” But of course she didn’t, because she is blind. She follows along behind you at the transfer following the sound of your steps, leaning heavily on her cane. Can you hear her? Was it someone like her?

A small man in ragged clothes sleeps on benches across the platform. With gunshot-loud cracks of the nightstick, a young policeman strikes the metal poles next to the sleeping man. A train screams through the station and hides them for a moment.

“Hey! Wake up!” the policeman yells. Can you hear him?

The sleeping man sits up slowly and stares at the tracks. Was it someone like him?

The number 6 local train winds slowly up through Harlem,
then above ground in the exhausted golden heat of the South Bronx. The heat is
more intense here than in Brooklyn. You get off at Westchester Square for the long walk to the hospital for work. What will you tell them? What will you say? Something like, “I’m sorry I’m late,” but nothing about the accident. It’s not the first time someone jumped in front of a train. It’s just the first time you saw it.

Passing under the raised train platform, razor barbed-wire spirals top the fences surrounding dismembered cars. Walking, walking beside wild trumpet flowers on vines winding their way up the metal fences. The delicate trumpet flowers tremble and fall in the burning midday heat, from the shaking of the subway platform and the passing empty train. You also are shaking. Can you feel it?

I can’t stop asking myself even now, ten years later, “Who
was it? Was it someone like you? Was it someone like me?”


Death and the Dream, 14 short stories are available at:


Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Death-Dream-J-Brown/dp/0983821100

Apple: http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/death-and-the-dream/id458471199?mt=11

**Free preview of 20% of the Book** at: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/79628

6 responses to “Underground – Excerpt from “Death and the Dream” on NYC Subways”

    • Wayne thank you for visiting and sharing thoughts here. You know, creativity is how I deal with the odd things like this one – that dreaded subway commute every week day. Sometimes even that teaches me. I never look at trumpet flowers on the vines – the morning glories, without being thankful for their beauty after that one, for sure.



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