The train was almost empty. It was late in the evening, that tired, uncertain hour of the night that marks the end of one day and the beginning of the next. Pages of the morning newspaper were still crawling slowly down the aisle, ignored and forgotten. At the far end of the car sat a security guard in his blue uniform, head resting heavily on his hands as he tried to stay awake. A few seats away from him was a well-dressed, serious woman in her 30s deeply engrossed in a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities. In front of me sat a young couple who got on at Jackson. The guy was boyish-looking with crew-cut blond hair; I couldn’t see the girl, but they sat silently, tightly holding hands, leaning against each other. The only other passenger was an overweight, gray-haired nurse sitting across the aisle from the couple and me. She had her arms folded and stared out the window with a hard, unpleasant concentration.

I must have dozed off or been daydreaming, because when I opened my eyes there was a man standing near the doors who hadn’t been there before. He was tall and middle-aged, wearing one of those beige trench coats you see in old spy movies. A white shirt, yellowed with age, and an ugly, faded tie gave him the look of a ne’er-do-well businessman. A beret sat oddly on his head, tufts of reddish hair peeking out around his ears. His face was red too, redder even than his hair, and there was something disturbing about the way he was standing, actually leaning, with all his weight against the silver guardrails that separate the seats from the doors. That’s when I saw the blood.

There was a small, dark island of blood just above his eye. It was no bigger than a button, hard and shiny even in the dim yellow light of the train. I looked closer then at his coat and noticed dirty scratches and scuff marks down the front and sides. The cloth of his pants was blistered at the knees as if he’d fallen or been pushed. But it was the blood that my eyes kept coming back to. Even the nurse stopped her vigil at the window and fixed the guy with a critical gaze.

From far away the wound looked almost like a tiny bullet hole. But however much it bothered the man, he didn’t show it. He was having more than enough trouble just staying on his feet. As the car shuddered and rattled along its way, he swayed precariously to its rhythm, trying to use his weight as ballast. He could have sat down– there were plenty of seats–but it would have required an impossible effort. When the train pulled into Clark and Division it flung him chest-first into the guardrail, and even above the incessant noise of the subway I could hear him groan and begin to breathe hoarsely.

In front of me, the young couple was watching all this with mounting distress. I saw the girl–she appeared to be around 17–look at her boyfriend with a wordless question: should we do something? He shrugged. The train sat at Clark and Division for a minute or two but the layover didn’t help the man gain his bearings. He stood weakly, chin on his chest, one hand clinging to the rail, the other hanging limp and useless at his side.

Suddenly, the question of help looked like it was about to be solved. The nurse, who all this time had been watching impassively, stood up and lumbered toward the guy. She didn’t say anything, didn’t question him; she inspected him. I could see her scanning his face, his eyes, the blood. His body stiffened at her approach and he held himself tense as a statue. A snarling expression appeared on his face. After a few seconds the nurse turned and sat down. No offer of help. No change in demeanor. Whatever she’d seen, she decided this wasn’t going to be her responsibility. She was staring out the window just like before.

Now the train was picking up speed again. It was that long stretch of track between Clark and Division and Fullerton. He glanced at the empty seats as if he had a thought to move in that direction but his body wasn’t listening, it was at the mercy of the train’s motion. When the train shivered, he shivered with it. When it jumped up and down, his entire body jerked in tiny spasms of agreement. And all this time his face kept changing; expressions of pain, exhaustion, and defeat would rise up in his features then sink back under his flesh. As we came out of the tunnel the train rocked sharply and he flew across the car from one set of doors to the other, flailing like a drowning man. His beret had almost truned around and sometime during all that thrashing the wound above his eye must have reopened. A short river of blood began to creep down the bridge of his nose toward his upper lip. He wedged himself against the doors. As we pulled into Fullerton he reached up, touched around his forehead, and rubbed fresh blood sluggishly between two fingers. Then, with a motion surprisingly graceful for a man in his shape, he wiped it off on the bottom of his tie. The doors flew open, practically attacking him, and suddenly he was gone. Out of the car. Out on the platform. I could barely make him out in the shadows.

The boy and girl in front of me were clearly relieved. They pulled closer, sighing a little bit, but also trying to catch a glimpse of him through the glass. Not the nurse though. She looked away from the window to the couple.

“Drunk,” she told them, and there was no pity in her voice.

They looked back at her blankly without answering.

“I don’t like drunks,” she went on. She wasn’t even looking at them now, but there was a coldness in her words that was hard to listen to. After a brief, sharp silence she added, “I was married to one,” and without waiting for a reply or comment she resumed her staring out the window.