The doors of the subway car slid open at 96th and the President climbed in with his men. They blocked him in a line of dark jackets, but I got a good look.
We were heading downtown. By 86th I could tell the others in the car had noticed. A tall man in a velvet vest stood opposite me, his calves two strong and slender trees tapering to his ankles. He saw me staring and winked to let me know whose side he was on.
At 81st the President stood and took off his Ray Bans.
His voice held a buttery cadence; there was no disputing that this was an elected man. Strangely, the noise of his words took a few extra seconds to catch up with the movements of his jaw, like a jet banking through twilit skies. I wondered how the television managed to compensate for the delay.
Next to me, an old man pulled a suitcase from under his seat and unbuckled it, reaching inside with a great rustling of paper.
“How many?” He snapped on a pair of disposable latex gloves, hypoallergenic and dappled with cornstarch produced under conditions of ferocious government subsidy.
The President looked to his men. Two gave tight-faced nods, barely masking a ripple of excitement at the prospect of the treat.
The old man shaped a box of white card, loaded it, and handed it to the retinue. The President ripped it open and gave tarts to the two men, bisecting and swallowing a golden disc in two half-moons. He did not chew. The remaining tart slid into his breast pocket.
Meanwhile, our train continued to crash through those glorious stone channels. The man in velvet turned to the car, yelling to be heard.
“You think maybe the rest of us might like a tart? You think about that?” He squinted at the row of men. The train slowed for 72nd and the doors hissed open.
We couldn’t see the President, but the words came over the men with the same queer delay. My comrade bent down across the car to confer with the old man, but was interrupted by the arrival of the goulash boy. His face streaked with platform grime, the boy ladled out Styrofoam cups of thick brown stew, setting a white curd like a child’s finger atop each one. The others in the car lifted their heads to watch his progress. The boy had handed out a mere handful of portions when one of the President’s men lifted his rear with a robust kick, sending him in squeaking circles into the next car. Splashes of gravy sprinkled the cheeks of a number of passengers. Things were getting tense.
I looked to the old man for guidance, or at the very least a few crumbs. He kept his gaze fixed straight ahead.
At 59th the President’s Education Secretary arrived on board and immediately dropped to her knees, searching for a pen she had dropped years earlier. The Secretary of State came through from the next car with a face like aggravated burglary.
“What I wouldn’t give for a good knish.”
His eyes stared out from deep recessions, their system of nerves and jellies working in fine carpentry. Next to me, the old man moved to unclasp his suitcase, but my new friend reached across the car and took him by the wrist.
“Enough, my man.” Velvet spoke low and clear. The old man looked up with a blank face. I was just glad to be close to the action.
The Education nominee was now on all fours checking under the seats. Her skirt had ridden up, exposing the deep cream of her thighs. Transfixed, the President’s men began to jab each other about the ribs. Velvet held his eyes the old man, communicating his soul’s interior in navigable terms.
“Whatever you’ve got in there, it’s for the whole car. Alright?”
The old man scrunched his eyes in the affirmative. At 42nd, the doors slid open again, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency climbed aboard. I lifted my fez out of respect. Again came the jet-delayed voice.
“Henry. A moment.”
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency stepped to the front of the car and shook hands past the Secretary of State and through the row of jackets. After a brief conference the doors opened for 34th, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency stepped off and into the waiting crowd, smiling.
All up and down the car, the old man began handing out pretzels, knishes, hot cups of oxtail soup, and sweet coffee from a hissing samovar. A state of plenty appeared to be taking root. Someone wheeled out an old Victrola and dropped the needle on some Jelly Roll. Velvet began moving his feet, looking like he might offer a dance in the aisle for the shared admiration and select arousal of those present.
Having given up her search, the Education Secretary was sitting on a bench touching up her makeup with a pocket mirror. She sucked at a knuckle of soup marrow, careful not to smudge her lipstick. From the back of the car came the clink of bottles, that sweet sound of impending larking. A slim girl wearing a French twist came down the line with a tray of sparkling gin fizz, each glass carrying a wedge of moistened lime.
The President stood to be heard over the medley of sweet sounds, his jet-delay weaker amongst all the merriment. “We have tremendous problems in our inner cities. Tremendous. You wouldn’t believe it. But people tell me.”
His eyes rolled about the car like milk from a guilty saucer. The Education Secretary put down her gin fizz to applaud, her fingers arched backwards to avoid any untoward clanking of jewellery. The President stretched out a stiff finger; she stepped past the row of men to approach him.
“My God.” His tongue moved at the corners of his mouth. “The things we’re going to do for this country.”
He slipped a moist flat inside the hemline of her skirt and let his fingers do what they wanted. His men jeered and hollered. The doors slid open for 23rd, and the President ordered their whole group onto the platform with a last dancing rage of his eyes.
We weren’t going to be intimidated by this kind of thuggery: not here, in this place. The gin fizz girl topped everyone up and made sure the newcomers had fresh glasses. Someone flipped the Jelly Roll to a new side, a tune so warm and bone-comfortable we immediately fell into the very heart of absolution.
We were feeling so good by Brooklyn that I forgot all about visiting my mother. Instead, I stayed in the car, dipping my pretzel into steaming stew and pouring a torrent of gin fizz into my gullet. I smiled to my new friend, and he smiled back, his trim flanks glowing with assent. A certain knowing was brewing between us. So long as the old man kept the samovar hot and full I didn’t see why any of this would ever have to stop.