I am hanging out on a park bench in Washington Square with Marsala,
an artsy chick in a peasant blouse and faded blue jeans. We just met.
I haven’t done anything creative in years, so I decide to impress
her with stories of myself as a child prodigy. “When I was a boy,
I filled toothpaste tubes with air. They weren’t the plastic tubes
that we have now. They were made of zinc alloy and could hold their
shape when they were empty.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she asks and takes a long
drink from her bottle of cream soda then spits out a yellow jacket that
flew into it and is too woozy from the sweet immersion to sting her.
She is so cool.
I get that ethereal foggy-eyed look that I’ve perfected by practicing
in the mirror. I feel it makes me appear as though I have the soul of
a poet. “I tell you because I sense you are empathetic.”
“Yeah,” she says, “I am,” as she brushes the
insect off the bench and squishes it with her sandal.
“I couldn’t fill them with air directly. I didn’t
have enough lung power for that. I had to press the mouth of the tube
against the opening of the faucet to do it, to get enough pressure.
I filled them with water first. Then I poured the water out.”
I mimic the actions with my hands as I do this. I’m not a professional
actor, but I have had community theater experience. I feel the story
is better if it appeals to multiple senses.
“You went to a lot of trouble. Why?” As she says this, she
is watching a musician with a guitar and a harmonica on a rack that
hangs from his neck. He is singing a Dylan song, Girl from the North
Country, accompanied by a somber man dressed in black and playing bongos.
Separately, their voices are tolerable. Together, they grate against
“I left them on the sink, in the bathroom, looking good as new,
but a little wrinkled. The more they were squeezed and refilled, the
flatter and more wrinkled they got. After a while, they were used up
and wouldn’t fool anybody.”
“Why did you want to fool people?” She takes another swig
of her soda and rolls it around in her mouth to check for bugs. When
she doesn’t find any, she swallows and sighs. I don’t know
why she doesn’t just look at it first. Maybe she likes the danger.
“It was half practical joke and half trompe l’oeil art.
I wonder if anyone picked them up and squeezed them to get the paste,
which was no longer there. If they did, they never said anything. Maybe
they thought it was a joke and were embarrassed that they fell for it.”
I bend over, pluck two blades of grass, press them between my thumbs
and make a reed instrument that I blow in cacophony with the fountain
Marsala winces when I blow the grass harp. “They’re bad
enough. Do you have to add to it?”
“I know they’re bad, but I thought you liked them.”
“They emit a certain perverse attraction, akin to the urge to
thrust a tongue tip into a sore tooth and irritate the nerves. Was your
trompe l’oeil meant to have a perverse attraction?”
“No, I never meant anything perverse. I was innocent in those
days. I saw it as artwork. Weren’t Jackson Pollock’s spot-spatter
paintings and Andy Warhol’s soup cans jokes?” I make that
pleading puppy expression. “Maybe the squeezers thought it was
a work of art too, and they had destroyed it. They didn’t want
to be known as vandals. But it was all right. It was art that was meant
to be manipulated. It was there for the viewer to leave his or her mark
on it, to be used for their tactile pleasure.”
She leans over and drops her now empty bottle into the litter basket,
leaving the scavengers to collect the deposit. “You were a pop
sculptor then, fashioning your masterpieces out of junk.”
“Yes, that’s how I see it, too. Jackson Pollock was probably
a geezer by then, if not already a croaker, but I could see myself hanging
out in a Greenwich Village coffee house with Andy Warhol after an exhibit,
sipping espresso and laughing about how we were putting one over on
the art world.”
She droops her lip into a mock pout, “So, you would rather hang
out with your artist friends than me. I suspected as much.”
“Not at all, they merely make art, while you are yourself a work
of art, a Fabergé egg.”
“I’m an egg? Fried or scrambled?”
“I think I’d like to have you sunnyside up, or in an omelet
with lots of cheese and hot sauce.”
“I’m hungry, too,” she says. “Let’s go
to my place and whip something up.”
“Whips? You never said anything about whips when I asked if I
could sit with you.”
She licks her lips, “You didn’t ask.”
We ride the subway to Marsala’s place in the Bronx, but when we
get near, she says her roommate might be home, so we should continue
to the end of the line, 242nd Street. We can be alone in the woods at
Van Cortland Park. She puts her hand on my knee. To pass the time, she
takes the gold cross pendant from around her neck when we come up onto
the elevated tracks. The sun through the window catches it and glints
in my eye.
“For vampires,” she says. “You’re not a vampire,
“I’m not,” I say, “but you have two puncture
marks over your jugular vein.”
“It wasn’t a vampire,” she says. “It’s
a snake bite. I go into the woods a lot.” She puts her hand on
my knee and swings the pendant like a pendulum before my eyes. “Concentrate,”
The warm sun and the rocking of the car make me sleepy.
“Go all the way back,” she says, “to the first time
you rode the subway.” The cross is clear. Her face is out of focus.
She lulls me into a trance.
“I start riding the subway when I am very young, going to the
circus in Madison Square Garden with my Aunt Bridget. I am afraid I
will get pushed off the platform onto the tracks, just as the train
lurches out of the tunnel toward us. I run, but my foot catches in the
tracks. I try to pull myself out, but grab the third rail. Which is
worse, sizzling from electric shock, or getting sliced in half by the
“You didn’t die,” she says. “You are here with
“I love the circus, especially the clowns who crowd into the little
car. How do so many squeeze in there? They must have gotten their legs
cut off on their way to the Garden to perform for us. I don’t
even leave at intermission. I should have to attend to necessities.
My seat is wet when the show is over. That’s bad, because I have
to ride the subway back to the Ferry and will be a good electrical conductor
when I grab the third rail.”
“Yes,” she says. “It wasn’t you. It was the
“As I get older, I lose my fear of falling and frying. I get brave
enough to get on the last train and walk all the way to the front, crossing
between cars. The platforms over the couplings shift and separate and
I can see the tracks and ties rushing by underneath, all the way to
the first car. In the first car is the place where the driver sits.”
She listens, doesn’t speak. I feel her hand on my bottom, her
fingers sliding into my pocket.
“This is the zombie train. It doesn’t need a driver, but
there is a driver, because it’s a union job. Besides, the zombie
needs something to eat. What do zombies eat? They’re undead. They
eat the flesh of the living, so the driver still serves a purpose.”
“Relax,’ she whispers in my ear. “You’ll feel
“How do the zombies keep the trains from running into each other?
The arrivals and departures must be precisely timed by a chief zombie
in a control room somewhere. If the zombie eats the driver and is still
hungry, does it start eating passengers? It’s not safe to ride
the subway very late at night.”
The train stops. The doors open. I hear the click of heels on the floor.
The doors close.
“There is a rivalry here. Drivers want their old control back.
Zombies want to rattle undead beneath the city and swallow passengers
into the belly of the train at each station.”
The train starts moving again, backwards.
“I never see the zombie, but picture it as a big buttocky creature
wearing Mardi Gras beads and doubloons on a string around its neck.
I don’t know if they have necks, because the doors to the driver’s
cabin are always locked.”
I wake up, riding back toward the Ferry. Marsala is gone and so is my
John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the
early 60's, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine, and became
a scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living
with his dance partner. He has published in Doorknobs & Bodypaint,
Clockwise Cat, Apollo's Lyre, Toasted Cheese, Green Tricycle, Ascent
Aspirations, Alighted Ezine, Lit Bits, Cenotaph Pocket Edition, The
San Antonio Express-News, Antithesis Common, Wild Child, Static Movement,
Greenbeard, Holy Cuspidor, Idlewheel, Cautionary Tale, Sentence, Sun
Poetic Times, Byline, Quirk, ken*again, R-KV-R-Y, The Smoking
Poet, Long Story Short and Rose & Thorn. Links to his work
can be found HERE.