Written by R.S. Janes
I knew something was wrong as soon as I got on the almost-empty train. As it hurtled through the blinking lights of Chicago late at night, I sat down on the seat nearest the doors.
This was many years ago when the old CTA trains had an embossed metal divider on each side of the doors. The divider came halfway up from the floor, anchored to a vertical pole and a horizontal pole, both chrome-plated. What it meant was, you couldn’t see below the head and shoulders of someone sitting across from you on the other side of the doors.
Such was the case here I could see the couple across from me, but not a thing below the shoulders. The woman was middle-aged, with a solid heft from carrying kids and talking on the phone at the same time; she was wearing a plain pale yellow dress and some kind of silly hat that resembled an abstract bird with one large feather coming out of its back. The man was about the same age, skinny and smaller, with a pork-pie hat pushed back away from his thinning hairline; he weaved around with the motions of the train as if his body were attached to a loose spring really drunk, I thought.
I hadn’t even noticed them when I entered the train, but now I heard the woman’s voice braying, brash, domineering cutting through the loud mechanical roaring and squeaking of the El train in motion.
“This is it, baby! I ain’t doin’ this no more! Next time you are on your own! I don’t even know why I’m doin’ it this time I must be crazy! Straighten yourself up there and stop acting funny, goddamn you!”
With that, she grabbed the skinny man, who had been dangerously close to falling into the aisle, and with one hand pulled him up so that he was sitting straight in his seat. He had a cockeyed smile on his face, as if he was quietly enjoying this party immensely, at the same time his glazed eyes seemed unable to focus on what was right in front of him.
As we sped though the Loop, the train would stop and a few people got on, but none in our car. It was just the skinny man, the matronly woman, myself, and another man behind me at the other end of the car, sitting with his feet up on the seat in front of him, desultorily reading a newspaper when he wasn’t snoring. I usually picked the end car of the train for this reason not many people to contend with and plenty of empty seats.
The skinny man lit up a cigarette — not permitted on the train even in those days but, late at night, the conductors tended to look the other way and, still smiling, exhaled smoke with weariness while the woman continued her monologue.
“You always think you’re such a big man and then you get yourself in trouble and who has to fix you up? ME! You worthless piece of trash! I’m gonna take the children and leave your ass flat one of these days, and goddamn if I don’t. You can watch my dust! I’m telling you this is the last time for your funny business! And don’t you threaten me with no knife, because I don’t give a good goddamn and you know it! I’ll cut you right back!”
The skinny man hadn’t said a word, but his expression changed. He flopped back in the seat and his mouth went slack. He tossed the lit cigarette in the aisle without moving to stub it out.
“Look at the mess you’re makin’,” the woman said. “Now I’m gonna have to put that out. You just don’t care about nobody but yourself. Look, don’t you start fallin’ asleep on me, we almost there and I’ll just leave your ass on the train if you go to sleep you hear me!”
She didn’t get up to put out the cigarette, but the man did sit up and take a deep breath. He rolled his head around as if he was trying to get sober, and then slumped forward. The woman put her arm around him, pulled him up, and said:
“It’s the next damn stop! You just stay awake. We’re almost there. You straighten up!”
We had passed through the Loop and now we were on the South Side. As the train slowed to a halt at the next station, the woman was on her feet, pulling the man out of his seat with both hands.
“Come on, we’re here!” she shouted. “Hurry up, get on your feet we got a couple of blocks to walk!”
As they made their way to exit the open doors of the stopped train, I noticed the man’s shirt and pants were soaked in dark arterial blood, starting at his sternum and running all the way to his knees. The blood stood out in contrast to his cream-colored shirt and light gray pants. One of his hands clutched his belly, while the other was draped over the woman’s shoulder. It was the most blood I had seen in person at that point in my life.
“This is the last time, baby,” I heard her say as she pulled him off the train. “You get crazy with that knife again and go fighting and you can die where you lay. I ain’t gonna be there to take you to the hospital no more!”
I watched the couple as the doors closed and the train began rolling again. They disappeared down the stairs of the train station, she holding him up as he was hanging onto her for dear life.
I stood up and grabbed one of the metal poles, readying myself to get off at the next stop. It was then I noticed the bloody mess on the seat where the skinny man had been sitting, and a pool of shiny dark blood on the floor below the man had been bleeding copiously for well over a half-hour. Could anyone lose that much blood and still be alive? Yet, miraculously, he was.
I noticed his cigarette butt had been stepped on the crumpled, flattened white paper pink from gory shoes. I thought maybe I should tell a conductor about the mess, but then I knew what that would lead to a police report: what did I know, what did I see, what happened here? I didn’t know anything except that I was on my way to a party; I didn’t have any answers.
In the morning, if the car were still in service, the rush-hour church crowd, dressed in their Sunday best, would discover the grisly scene, and they would gawk at the seat and have a story to tell after the sermon looks like somebody bled to death on the El last night, bet there was a crime, maybe a robbery or something.
None of the speculation would be true, but when has that mattered if there was some nice gruesome gossip to share?
All Rights Reserved.
“…the rush-hour church crowd… would discover the grisly scene, and they would gawk at the seat and have a story to tell…”