Rat Shuffle

That in-between time struck the city at the clock’s stroke of 4am.

It was still quiet. There wasn’t much traffic except for the very early morning shift, and a few rats shuffling down the sidewalks. Occasionally you could hear the click of the changing of the traffic lights.

Eric had grabbed his morning coffee before work. He stood at the corner and stood watch. He still had 20 minutes before he had to make his way to the train station. If he was lucky, there wouldn’t be any track fires, boozed up denizens, or any other mishaps on the train. He didn’t want to be late.

A woman suddenly caught his eye. She had runs in her stockings, and was wearing only one shoe. In her left hand, a shiny red leather pump was dangling like a dead plaything. The heel was broken.

He wondered if he should offer her a cigarette, but then changed his mind. She might want something else. Thoughts crossed his mind. Eric imagined scenarios for the stranger. Was she getting off of work, or headed home after partying? How did her heel break? Why did some women wear such footwear, knowing the risk of being caught shoeless in the streets.

Yelling broke Eric’s train of thought. A man stormed out of the deli. He didn’t have enough change for whatever he wanted, and soothed his wounded pride by shouting epithets at the store clerks tucked safely inside. He finished off his tirade, triumphantly sailing the leftover coffee in his cup at the window. It hit the window with a smack, and left the milky brown liquid streaming down the glass.

Eventually, something gnawed at Eric to check his watch. He had been too absorbed in people watching. He had 4 minutes to make it to the platform. Looking up at the traffic light, it was still red. It didn’t matter, because there were no cops or heavy traffic around.

Eric dashed for the train. He ran across the street, nearly bumped into an old woman scavenging the garbage can for aluminum cans to recycle, and headed up the stairs.

His lungs were burning as he hustled up the stairs. Two minutes to make it to the platform. He pushed passed the doors, pulled his metro card out of his back pocket, and slipped through the turnstiles. One minute to go.

Eric looked down the tracks, and was greeted with the oncoming lights of the train. Passengers were scattered about the platform. Some were checking their phones, while others were sipping coffee or gnoshing on bagels or breakfast fixings from the deli.

The train pulled up and Eric filed into one of the cars. It was still early enough, so he was able to grab a seat. The train pulled out of the station, and Eric began staring out of the windows. Reaching for his front right pocket, he fumbled about for his headphones.

Another day. Another dollar. 35 minutes until he would arrive at his destination. After arriving two stops before his, that’s when it happened. The brakes were pulled, and the train screeched to an abrupt stop. Track fire.

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Marta

Marta woke up to the sound of birds chirping outside her windows. Her view was obstructed by the clippings of newspapers that covered half the window, and a security gate to keep out unwanted intruders. She never had any visitors. Sometimes she thought to do away with the gate, but living in a city, reminded her that was a foolish thought.

Sometimes she would wonder the streets, until she would find refuge at a park bench. She would pull out some bread that she picked up at the local baker. Often, she would set aside just one sweet bread. It was a tribute for the little birds that would be her only company, surrounding her feet. It was a nice diversion, to quiet the deafening loneliness that never paid rent to live with her.

She would forget about how she came into that ramshackle apartment twenty years ago. She didn’t think about the persistent leaky sink, that was a longstanding amenity to the neighboring rats and roaches. All that mattered was those few moments of peace, which she found at the park. Slowly, Marta would dip her hand into a paper sack, pinch off a piece of bread, and throw it to the ground.

The birds would swoop down and land in front of the bench. Sometimes one would be brave enough to land on her shoulder, or eat directly from her hand. Marta liked to think of the birds as little saints, who would fly to heaven, and whisper her prayers to God. She greatly enjoyed the comfort from their songs, their kindness, and how they looked past her shortcomings.

Perhaps, if there was such a thing as reincarnation, she could be reborn as a bird and return the favor. Sometimes, a dark thought came to her, that the birds were simply taking advantage of her having food. Then again, life was about give and take. What was the loss, to simply share a crust of bread with another living soul?

The Laundromat

Vivian watched the swirling gray water slosh around the laundry machine. As the socks, shirts, and slacks slipped and slid over one another, bubbling suds began to cover the clothes from clear view. The laundromat was always a good place to get away from the apartment, depending what time she came. Sometimes, she imagined herself a sociologist or anthropologist deep undercover. She would mentally record the comings and goings of the local patrons, seeking to clean their dirty laundry while listening out for whatever gossip they could monger up.

She’d laugh to herself, as she watched women with pendulous bodies, overburdened with years of childbearing, heavy loads of dirty clothes in tow, waddle in like they were royalty. They only seemed to take notice of the other ladies, who bared similar appearance. Occasionally, Vivian would catch them huddled together on the block, smoking cigarettes, and making disapproving comments at passerby. They were the old hens of the roost and consequentially the unofficial neighborhood watch. They definitely let everyone know, who ruled the pecking order of the neighborhood, and that you were on notice.

There would be single men, either the college-age yuppie wannabe types, or SRO regulars. Both were often looking to score a number. Sometimes the single men were older, perhaps widowers, or had always been a bachelor. They didn’t seem to mind not separating the light and dark clothing, or tossing detergent, softener, and everything but the kitchen sink into the smallest washers available. This would happen often, if the attendant wasn’t looking.

The attendant on staff would grumble under their breath, mumbling curses as they hurriedly rushed to grab a mop. The need to clean up overburdened washer machines, spewing out soap suds everywhere, occurred a little too often. Kids would take the opportunity, to run and attempt to slip and slide in the wet soapy mess. Otherwise, they would be too busy whamming the buttons of arcade machines, that they never had enough quarters to play. Occasionally, candy and sticker machines would get stuck. This tragedy would create a sobbing child, who would be dragged away, with promises of a beating, or a treat to make up for the loss.

The laundromat was always a curious place. Brimming with life, the denizens of the block would shed their need to always out-do and out-polish one another in appearance. Of course, there would be those few exceptions, but they were often on the prowl for a new date, or side-piece. Vivian enjoyed the smells of the laundry softeners mixing together. The hum of swirling washers and dryers, made a unique rhythm, which complemented the flow of customers coming in and out of the laundromat.

At last, her laundry was done. She stopped peering her eyes over her glasses, keeping score of how many people dropped their soap powder, or how many times a quarter got stuck in a machine. She went to her dryer, and quickly pulled out the still burning hot clothes. They landed cleanly into the laundry basket, except for a few socks that got loose. Vivian focused on folding her clothes, making sure to tuck in the corners of sheets, and turn any shirts or pants outside-in.

After the last item was neatly stowed away, Vivian slung her laundry bag over her back and made her way out into the street.