“Stuck Between Stations” by Joe Clifford

Categories: ISSUE 01: Babe

Stuck Between Stations

Late Sunday morning, I was on the veranda with my wife, Emily, reading the Times. Someone had written another editorial about the hanging chad fiasco, which gave my wife an excuse to wax bleeding heart politico. I said her opinion didn’t matter, since the highest court in the land had already made its decision, and the right person was in the White House anyway. Emily huffed and left the room. My wife is your typical blue blood, New England Democrat, and it is easy to get her riled with that sort of thing.

I tried to apologize. She said she had to pick up the girls at her mother’s. Lunch reservations at Old Farms in Avon, a weekly ritual. I let it go.

Although it wasn’t officially spring for several weeks, the day was warming nicely along the coast. I slid open the screen, hedgemaids and birdfoots starting to bud along the trellis, terns and sand pipers twittering off the water. I was about to lie down when my eyes fell on a back page headline.

Horseplay Leaves Two Dead on Subway Tracks

I unfolded the paper.

The front door slammed. A car started.

A fight broke out late Friday night between two men as they waited for the 4 train at 125th Street Station in the Bronx. What started as a shoving match ended tragically when both men fell onto the tracks and into the path of the oncoming train.

Both were killed instantly. Friends said the fight started over a girl.

O Typekey Divider

Sandra Flanagan and I grew up next door to one another in California’s central valley. From first grade through high school, we’d been inseparable. We never dated, our friendship too important to risk it.

Sandra received a full scholarship to Berkeley; I stayed in Fresno. I had a good job waiting for me with a family friend’s advertising firm, so I enrolled in business classes at Community, earned my Associates, and started at 60K.

When she first went away, Sandra and I stayed in constant contact. Letters, phone calls, weekend trips back home. Then that slowed. Until it stopped. After a while I got sick of trying. I contemplated driving up to the Bay—it was only a few hours—but why should I? I had my own life, and if Sandra needed to make some grand statement to establish independence, I’d let her. I’d wait for her to get a hold of me. Only she didn’t. Two years went by.

 

Leaving work one afternoon, I found Sandra’s mother, Lana, waiting for me by the front doors. Lana was a single parent, and a bad one at that. When we were kids, Sandra practically lived at our house.

I could smell the alcohol on her breath, despite the early hour.

“Chris,” she said, slurring slightly. “I know I should’ve called first. I don’t know what else to do. You and my daughter used to be so close—”

“We still are close, Mrs. Flanagan. It’s hard when someone moves two hundred miles away.” She tried to touch my arm. I stepped back. “Why are you here?”

She turned on the waterworks as she told me Sandra had dropped out of school.

Out of Berkeley? She had a full ride. How could anyone be so stupid?

Lana asked me if I would talk to her. I asked her to please stop crying. The last thing I needed was for co-workers to walk out and catch us like this.

Lana gave me Sandra’s new number.
I called when I got home, and Sandra seemed happy to hear from me. We talked about this and that, but when I brought up Berkeley, Sandra began blathering about poetry. Only she called it “spoken word,” which apparently she’d started writing and was reading at local coffee shops. She wouldn’t shut up about it. It was like she’d lost all concern for her future.

“Any plans to come home for a visit?” I asked.

“Probably not,” she said, turning moody.

I waited for her to add something. But she didn’t.

“There’s a new bowling alley here. Remember how much fun—”

Sandra sighed heavily. “You could come up to the city.”

“The city?”

“Yeah, you know, San Francisco?”

I hated it when people called San Francisco “the city.” You can call New York “the city.” San Francisco is simply another city—and one I despised immensely. Growing up a few hours south, I’d met a lot of people from there over the years, and they were all the same, cooler than cool, and heaven forbid you admitted liking anything “popular” like Phil Collins or Pretty Woman.

“There’s a party Friday,” Sandra said, perking up. “It’s gonna be hella fun. There is somebody you just have to meet.”

Hella? Somebody I just had to meet? This wasn’t how Sandra talked. “Who?” I asked, trying to keep things light, “your new boyfriend?”

Sandra forced a laugh. “Just a friend.”

I told her I’d drive up, but she said to take the train in instead, and that she’d pick me up at the 22nd Street Station at nine. Then she hung up. She didn’t even say it had been nice talking to me.
Nothing aggravates me more than making plans—picking a definite time and place—and being forced to wait. Stepping off the train, dressed in khakis and boat shoes, I felt like an idiot for forgetting that the Bay Area is always twenty degrees cooler than the valley.

I scanned the platform. No Sandra.

It was forty-five minutes before I saw her coming up the street. If she’d been in a crowd, I would’ve missed her. Her hair was dyed bubble gum pink and she wore a plaid mini skirt with tee shirt that read “Meat is Murder.” And fishnets. Fishnets! And big black army boots. The Sandra I knew shopped at Gap and Esprit; she didn’t dress like some militant lesbian.

Still, when she threw her arms around me, it was hard to be mad at her.

I heard a ruckus by the ticket booth, and two girls, looking equally ridiculous, dressed in men’s vests and ties, came running towards us. Sandra let go of me, and the three of them squealed like fifth-graders. She whispered something to them, and the two girls looked back at me, then took off ahead, trading swigs from a bottle in a bag.

Sandra tugged my hand, peering up at me with a grin.

“Those are your friends?” I said.

She ran after them, leaving me to follow like a dog.

 

Sandra hadn’t brought a car to pick me up like she said, despite knowing how much I hate walking. I kept asking where we were going, but all she’d say was there was a party a couple blocks away. We walked a lot more than a couple blocks.

I found it impossible to get into the conversation. The other two—Becky and Kiki—were two of the most antisocial girls I ever met, and going nowhere fast. One of them worked in a record store. All three of them cursed incessantly and smoked nonstop, a new and unattractive habit for Sandra.

Slumbering streets grew darker with fewer streetlights, as the rundown apartments and duplexes spread out, until we came to a wooded area, a nature preserve of some kind.

I planted my feet. “You mind telling me what we’re doing here?”

“I told you,” Sandra said. “We’re going to a party.”

There was a ravine overgrown with weeds and twisted bramble. Soft hills lined the Pacific night sky. The girls ran recklessly down. I tried to navigate slowly, holding onto branches to stay upright, but I couldn’t and ended up sliding all the way down on my ass, which the girls found very funny.

At the end of the ravine there was a bolted chain link with big metal sign affixed.

Property of United States Military. Trespassing a Federal Offense.

Might as well have been in Greek for how quickly they scaled it.

“What’s the problem?” Sandra asked after she’d dropped down on the other side.

“I don’t know. How about, I don’t feel like going to jail?”

They all laughed. Big, forced, phony laughs.

“You’re not going to jail,” Sandra said. “Jesus. Quit being such a pussy.”

When I climbed the fence, Sandra tried to smooth things over. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Promise.” Then she kissed me on the cheek. It was the first time Sandra had ever kissed me. So close, she smelled like vanilla and raspberries. Before I could say anything, she darted off to join her stupid friends.

I caught up to them in a clearing, where several connected buildings, infested with vines and graffiti, carved into the hillside. Car shells, refrigerator casings, and rusted shopping carts lay scattered about. Music thumped deep within the complex.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Used to be a military compound,” Sandra said, “like back in the Civil War. They shut it down when they built the BART. Now people use it as a dump.”

The girls bounded down dark stairs. I carefully stepped over empty beer cans, the pungent scent of cold earth overpowering as I followed the dim glow below.

The bottom was like a huge bomb shelter, a dozen or so people banging their heads to terrible music without melody. Battery-powered lanterns threw giant shadows against rocky walls. I smelled marijuana. Everyone was dressed alike, that San Francisco hipster look—bowling shirts, chain wallets, two-toned shoes for the boys; punk rock shirts and secondhand skirts for the girls. Like a bunch of twelve-year-olds in a secret fort drinking Dad’s stolen beer. Someone had even spray painted one of those ridiculous anarchy symbols on the wall.

Sandra introduced me around. I forgot names immediately. All except one. Jack Tragic. Not Jack. But Jack Tragic. Every time someone said his name, they used his whole name.

“So this is the infamous Chris,” he said, affecting a fake British accent. I told him it was nice to meet him, which it definitely wasn’t.

Dressed in cheesy, tight black and white checkered pants, like something the Joker would own, Jack Tragic had to be at least thirty-five. His hair wasn’t combed, and, of course, he worked the Don Johnson scruff.

You should’ve seen the way the room gravitated to him. Like he was Jim Jones or something. Especially Sandra. The way they carried on, it was obvious they were more than just friends. The room fell silent every time he had something irreverent to say, like, “That’s why capitalism will eventually eat itself,” or when he’d call America an “imperialist, fascist state.” Conveniently forgetting that the same country he railed against was also responsible for providing the freedom to do so.

As the night wore on, Sandra remained affixed to his side, and any hope of talking to her alone about Berkeley was fading. She appeared almost too drunk to stand, and I knew I’d have to speak my peace with him there.

I’d rehearsed the speech all the way up on the train. It was a good speech, about how some moments define us, and how if she stuck this one out, she’d have something to be proud of the rest of her life.

When I finished, Jack Tragic snickered. “School ain’t for everyone, man.”

“Maybe not,” I said, “but a good education helps get a good-paying job.”

Then he said, “Jobs aren’t for everyone either, man.”

I couldn’t believe it. Just what the world needs, more freeloading bums.

Jackasses stomped to that awful music, tone-deaf singers screeching, and I felt a terrific headache coming on. I had expected to reconnect with someone I cared deeply about, and instead I was getting lip from a guy who made up his own nickname.

After everything she’d been through, how could she throw it all away? And for a poser like this Jack Tragic?

Jack Tragic reached down into a cooler and offered me a beer. A Pabst. Like I’d drink a Pabst.

Then the whole room began to shake, and I thought it must be an earthquake. What a way to go—buried fifty feet underground with the Breakfast Club.

Jack Tragic leaned in. “It’s just the BART, y’know, the subway? We’re not too far from where the trains run. C’mon.” And he slung an arm around my shoulder, like we were best buddies.

With Sandra following, he pushed open an old wood door and led me down a concrete well. Soon we were standing on a narrow ledge, two feet above train tracks. Yellow bulbs in wire cages weakly lit the tunnel.

Then the idiot jumped down, dragging Sandra with him. If a train were to come, no way they could get out of there in time.

Jack Tragic lit a cigarette and pulled a flask from his back pocket. “Come down, join the party.”

“Are you nuts?”

I thought I heard a train, but maybe my mind was playing tricks on me.

Jack Tragic, who had been holding Sandra up, now let her go, and she slumped to the ground. She crossed her legs Indian style, swiping the flask from his fist.

I wasn’t imaging anything. A whistle blew. A train headed our way. Fast.

I crouched and extended a hand. “Sandra, let’s go.”

“You don’t like me, do you?” Jack Tragic said.

“You hear that?” I shouted. “That is a train!”

“I’m not moving until you say we can be friends, Chris.”

“Chris doesn’t like being told what to do,” Sandra said.

“We can be friends!”

Headlights fanned over the rocky floor, spreading up the stone walls, powerful engines booming through the tunnel. And that lunatic just stood there, ready to die and take Sandra with him.

I jumped into the pit and picked her up, clutching her tightly to my chest. My mouth against her neck, I tasted her salt. The tracks quaked. She fought against me, and I felt myself getting hard.

Hot wind. Blinding white light. I braced for the moment of impact.

But nothing.

Only the echo of a train as it slowly passed into the distance.

The door pushed open and there they all stood, laughing. I set Sandra down and she winked, suddenly quite sober. “My hero,” she said with clasped hands.

Jack Tragic slapped me on the arm. “Track veers off.” He tapped a foot on the third rail. “Not on, see? What d’ya think? I’m crazy?” He started laughing, too.

It was a hell of a punch, square in the nose. I got everything into it. I didn’t think it possible to knock a guy down with just one punch. Except in the movies.

Sprawling backwards, Jack Tragic grabbed onto Sandra and they both fell. I went to help her up but a couple guys had jumped down and were pulling me off.

Jack Tragic rolled over on hands and knees, blowing out blood from his broken nose. He wasn’t laughing anymore.

“What’s your fucking problem?” Sandra screamed. “It was a joke!”
Jack Tragic swatted the dust off his Joker pants. “Some people are wound to tight to take a joke, baby.”

“Come back home with me,” I said to her. “You don’t belong here.”

“No, man,” I heard someone say behind me, “you don’t belong here.”

I felt as if I were drowning, barely able to breathe. “Sandra, your mother’s worried about you. I’m worried about you.”

“My mother?” she said. “My mother is a drunk. And you’ve never worried about anyone but yourself and how to neatly fit people into your little world.”

“How can you say that? After how long we’ve known each other?”

She tilted her head, curiously. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

I didn’t get it? That was rich.

I pulled myself up. I didn’t bother with goodbye. Climbing the stairs, voices and music muffled with each ascending step, I rose from the bowels of that old bunker, leaving behind its cold, sodden dankness, emerging in the bright moonlight of the bone yard.
That was the last time I spoke with her. In fifteen years, we haven’t exchanged as much as a greeting card. Strange how somebody can mean so much to you, and then it’s like they never meant anything at all.

I got the job out east for Goran and McVoy a few months later. It’s how I met Emily, her father being the “McVoy” part of the equation. One of my brothers ran into Lana a while back. He said Sandra moved to L.A. and was working in the fashion district, designing tee shirts or something. He couldn’t remember if Lana said she’d married.

O Typekey Divider

I’d been sitting in the same spot for hours, and the sun had long set. Emily hadn’t returned with the kids, the house silent and dark.

I hadn’t eaten all day. I headed to the kitchen to make a sandwich. But we were out of milk. I can’t eat a sandwich without milk. Emily knows that. I called her on her cell to tell her to pick up some on her way home, but the call went straight to voice mail. I hadn’t closed the windows and a cold winter wind blew in.

I made an egg salad sandwich anyway and filled a tall glass with tap water. I ate standing up at the kitchen window. I stared out the darkness, into closely packed backyards packed with barbeques and bicycles, tilled earth for garden plots, the moonlight casting shadows over tool sheds like they were tombstones.

Story by Joe Clifford

Foreground photo by Mikhail Carter