High Tension

By Mary Wisniewski

It was a good day for a fight on the el. The temperature had topped 90 for five days, and the air-conditioning on the train was broken. I got on at Washington and squeezed into a car, grasping the rail on the back of a seat. In the aisle seat was a guy so short I could read my book over his head. He looked to be about 12 years old. My body was pressed all around with the arms, bags, and buttocks of people I couldn’t turn around to see.

The train didn’t move for several minutes. It was hot and airless and smelled of Fritos. The boy was paging through a vacation catalog. There were cruises to Hawaii, Alaska, and the Caribbean. He flipped the pages rapidly, frenetically, barely stopping to look. Occasionally he’d say to the girl beside him, “This looks good. This looks good.” But he didn’t show her anything, and she didn’t pay attention. She leaned her head against the window and stared off toward the front of the car, chewing her gum.

The boy had a close-cropped head like a bullet and tensely muscled jowls that came down to a narrow chin. There was something tight and peculiar about the set of his cheeks, as though he were missing molars. His arms were covered with crudely drawn tattoos–a heart, a three-pointed crown, and other signs I couldn’t read because they were covered by his short-sleeved, blue-and-white-checked shirt. The girl was pretty. Her black hair was permed into long, kinky curls and tied up in a loose bun. The short curls on her forehead were wet with perspiration. She wore a pink tank top, so her tattoos were easier to read. One said “Alonzo” in flowing script. Beneath his name were the dates 1975-1997. A dead boyfriend, or brother maybe. She looked about 20. I wondered if she was the boy’s big sister. Her full, red mouth was set in a dreamy smile.

Suddenly the girl sat up and grinned, showing rows of perfect teeth. “Hey, it’s Juan!” she cried. “Hey, Juan!” She waved to the end of the car. No one responded. The train began to move.

“Hey, Juan!” she tried louder, putting a small hand with purple fingernails to the side of her mouth. No response.

“Hey, Juan!” she shouted. Everyone on the train turned to look at her. She giggled and slumped back in her seat. Finally a tall, thin teenager with a heavy green backpack and a skateboard began to make his way toward her. An old man sitting in front of the girl turned around and scolded, “Was that necessary?”

The girl blushed and said nothing, but the short boy sitting with her closed his vacation guide. “Was that necessary?” he mocked in a high-pitched voice. “Was that necessary? Who do you think you are to be talking to me? You can’t talk to me, old man. I don’t want to go postal, but I will, I swear it. You think I’m a little kid. I’m a full-grown man, 26 years old. Nobody tells me what to do. Was that necessary?” His sentences came out in rapid bursts, like machine-gun fire. He didn’t seem to realize that the old man had scolded the girl, not him.

Everyone on the train turned to look. The power surge sparked by this trio had spread to everyone on the train. Our hair stood up on our arms, and we wondered, Will it ground? Will it ground? Or will it explode? Please, God, let it ground.

“You should mind your manners,” the old man said. He wore a green visor and a Cubs T-shirt.

“Oh, should I? I should mind my manners. Don’t you tell me what to do. Was that necessary? You can’t talk to me.”

“I can tell you–”

“You can’t talk to me. I’m a full-grown man, 26 years old.”

The old woman next to the old man turned around in her seat and glared at the short man. She wore a green visor and a Cubs shirt, too. “Would you be quiet?” she said.

“What gives you the right to say anything to me?” the short man shouted, his finger jabbing at the air. “Was that necessary? Was that necessary? I got enough sass from work today. I don’t need yours.”

The girl slumped against the window, still smiling stupidly. She couldn’t be his sister, I realized; they looked nothing alike. She must be his girlfriend. He wanted to take her on a cruise, to Hawaii, to Jamaica. But she couldn’t care less. She’d been looking, looking around the train until she found–Juan. The vacation guide lay abandoned on the short man’s lap.

The short man and the old man bickered on as the train swept past Division, past North Avenue. How far away was the conductor? Where was the help button? Should I do something? Someone had to ground the charge. But I couldn’t think of anything to say. I felt old and weak. I was older than Alonzo had ever been, and he was dead.

Then I noticed that my knees were shaking. They were shaking so badly I could hardly stand up. They were liquid with rage. How dare he? Who does he think he is? Stupid punk. Psychopath. I wish you’d walked in front of a speeding bus this morning. You worthless bastard. The electricity had me. My knees buckled. I pushed backward and grabbed the rail behind the seat across the aisle. My breath came hard. The short man, quick to sense an insult, sneered at me. “Oh, now we’re moving away. Are we scared? Just can’t take it. Nobody can take it. I got a right to be here. You got no right to talk to me. Was that necessary? Was that necessary?”

He opened his vacation book again and began flipping pages, unseeing. Juan began to chat with the girl, and he muttered angrily. When I got off at Addison, I pushed past the Cubs fans to knock at the driver’s window.

“What is it?”

“There’s this punk harassing people.”

“Where is he? What does he look like?”

“He’s, um, in there,” I waved vaguely. “He’s short. Named Alonzo. No, not Alonzo.” I could barely speak. My mind was bright with rage. The conductor said he’d check on it, and the train pulled away.

Angrily, I picked up my children from their father’s house; angrily, I drove them home and gave them dinner. The older girl spilled her milk. “Was that necessary?” I growled, going for a washrag. At the sight of her tears, my anger sank down into my feet and poured into the ground. I thought of the anger of the old man, and the old woman, and the short man, and wondered what had happened to theirs.