Do you mind if I sit here? I know it is unusual for one to ask permission to occupy a seat on the Metro train, but I believe it is called for in these times of bad manners and worse intentions. You're sure you don't mind? Worry not, I am an excellent seatmate. Note the impeccable suit I am wearing, the tasteful speckles on my tie. Feel the material. Rub the smooth silk against your shaved cheek. I want you to trust me. We have many partners in this world. Some for the length of a subway ride, others for a lifetime. It is important to have confidence in your partner, to trust him. Or her. Especially her, am I right? We're slowing down. Why are we stopping?
Attention, passengers. Due to an unauthorized person on the tracks, we will be halted momentarily. We regret the inconvenience and thank you for riding Metrorail.
Do you know what that means, Andrew Baker? Is that your name, typed at the top of that piece of paper you're reading? Are you Andy Baker? Et tu, Andy? Rhetorical question. You don't have to answer.
We're going to be sitting here for a while, Andy. We're under the river--you realize--covered by metal, cement, rock, dirt, silt, muck, and water. I hope nobody on this train has claustrophobia. I hope nobody on this train tends to wig out if they get stranded in an elevator or locked in a closet or stuck in a chimney. Public displays of mental instability can be very unsettling, don't you agree?
Unauthorized person on the tracks. I don't have to tell you what that means, Andy. We're both men of the world, am I right? It just makes me very angry when people don't say exactly what they mean.
Let me give you an example.
This is not going to be pleasant. That was Helen's way of telling me she was leaving me. Helen was my girlfriend, Andy, for seventy-seven glorious sun-drenched days in the summer of 1991. We met at a conference on industrial competitiveness and no, we never consummated our relationship sexually. Funny how those two particulars are forever con-
nected in my mind. I know what you're thinking. A girl who happened to be a friend, or a friend who happened to be a girl?
Neither, Andy. I remember precisely where I was when those awful words came out of her mouth. I was sitting on her bed, anxious, hopeful, leaning against the wall and feeling its coolness against the back of my head like a cold compress. Attention, attention: this is not going to be pleasant. Why couldn't she say exactly what she meant? This is going to be horrible, a nightmare, your life is about to be changed forever, your happiness is about to be extinguished. There are three things a fire needs to keep going: heat, oxygen, and fuel. She took away all three. Prefaced by that word: pleasant. So whenever I hear the word pleasant--like on the weather report?--I get this pang, this sadness.
There are other words that give me pangs. Third rail, for example. We all know, Andy, what they say about the third rail. How they use that word. We're all political animals here in Washington, D.C., the most important city in the most important country in the world. Social Security is the third rail of American politics, they say. Touch it, Senator, and you die. But a senator touched me, Andy, and I died.
Did I mention that Helen worked for a very powerful senator? It was day seventy-five of our courtship, at her office barbecue. Picture hot dogs and softball, splintery picnic tables, beer cans cocked at jaunty angles of good cheer. We were introduced, me and the senator. The Boss and the Boyfriend, a historic meeting. Stalin and Roosevelt at Yalta. Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich. He looked me in the eye, called me by my first name. Choked with emotion, I knelt before him. "You are a great patriot," I said. "I hope and pray that you become president one day, to lead this nation to a higher destiny."
"Get up, son," he said, clapping me on the back. I can still feel that back clap, Andy. It rattles in my bones.
"Get up, son," he said. "I ain't the Pope. Yet." They all laughed. The senator, the press secretary, the legislative director. The caseworker, the scheduler. The tinker, the tailor. But not Helen, Andy. Not Helen.
Attention, passengers. We will be holding momentarily at this location. At this time, there is a disturbance at the Foggy Bottom station. Be advised that Metro personnel are on the scene attempting to rectify the situation. We regret the inconvenience and thank you for riding Metrorail.
No, thank you! Thank you for thanking me. Why, no inconvenience at all. Because you know, Andy, some time today, some day this week, some week this year, we will emerge from this majestic hole and walk erect in the sunshine. That's what I like about this Metro system, the inevitability. That escalator inexorably raising you up, or lowering you down. Those blinking lights on the granite platform--hey, it's coming, get ready--a helpful tap on the shoulder, a gentle snapping in your ears. The announcements promising stations just around the bend. Metro Center. Capitol South. Friendship Heights. Last station stop in the District of Columbia. First station stop in the State of Maryland. The promise is fulfilled, always. At the sound of the door chimes, the doors will close.
You might say I'm a student of this Metro system. I take it all in. I never walk or run, up or down the escalator. I let it sweep me toward my fate, motionless, lingering, until the soles of my shoes slide over the end plate, smooth like a slow stream creeping over a rock bed. Look around, Andy. The tiles on the station floors are a series of hexagons, like the cells in a beehive. Know anything about bees, Andy? The queen bee is serviced by her male drones, and then she kills them off one by one. I don't have to tell you what that means.
That's my favorite shape, the hexagon. I like the way they all fit together, reinforcing each other, forming a solid wall without any gaps or wasted space. My favorite color is blue. My favorite candy bar is Three Musketeers. My favorite disaster is the Hindenberg. My favorite President is Lincoln. My favorite number is seven. I like how it has a handle, and a hook on the end, handy for dislodging blockages, deep inside.
Did I mention my favorite candy bar? Did you ever notice that the walls of the Metro station are light brown and porous? Like nougat! Like a Three Musketeers bar, frozen and snapped in two. What is nougat? I've memorized the definition in the dictionary: a confection of nuts or fruit pieces in a sugar paste. When I'm sitting where you're sitting, Andy, and the train is speeding through the station, those nut or fruit pieces all blur together, and it's like staring down at the highway pavement, out the side window of a speeding car. I'd like to stick my tongue out that window, lap up that fine sugar paste, taste the sweetness, savor the juiciness of those nut or fruit pieces. You know what I mean. I spend all my time in passenger seats. In my relationships, the women always drive.
But enough already about the Metro walls. The stains on the walls are much more interesting, Andy. Have you ever noticed that there are water stains throughout the walls of the stations of the Metrorail system? A discoloring, an accident, a spill. No fixed boundaries, a spatter, a splash. I don't have to tell you what those stains remind me of, more than anything else. A dastardly crime, clumsily concealed, bodies entombed underneath, and despite the best efforts of the perpetrator, the blood seeps out, makes intriguing patterns that provide vital clues about the crime. Let me tell you about some of the stains I've seen on the Metro station walls. A balloon rising, the string hanging limp. A solar eruption, spike of fire arcing out of celestial ball. Ghostly figures hovering. A dog howling, its jaw a right angle. Silhouette of Abraham Lincoln, chin jutting.
Attention, passengers. Because of the disturbance at the Foggy Bottom Metro station, all trains on the Blue Line are not moving at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience. The Metropolitan Police Department and emergency response personnel are currently on the scene rectifying the situation, at which point this train will resume its journey. Remember, it is unlawful to eat, drink, or play audio equipment while in the Metrorail system. Please enjoy your ride and thank you for riding Metrorail.
Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a congressman before he became President? Did you know that Lincoln was completely smooth shaven in his early days? If I was a college professor giving an American history exam, this is how I would formulate my essay question: As we all know, Lincoln was smooth shaven as a congressman, yet bearded as our sixteenth president of the United States. Please describe and characterize the social, cultural, psychological, political, and economic factors that caused Lincoln to embrace facial hair, and after you've done that, explain to me the role that facial hair played in his ascendancy to the presidency. Helen used to tell me she hated beards on men, that it signaled a kind of moral laxity, a lack of ambition. I viewed my morning shave as a purification ritual. I lopped off the stubble, first with an electric razor to pound the overgrowth, then a blade to apply the delicate finishing touches. You know what I mean, there's close and there's closer. I would point out to her, again and again, how rarely men with facial hair are used to sell products in mass-media advertisements. I'm just giving you an idea of the kind of rapport that we used to enjoy. Where are all the bearded men in television commercials, I asked? Shaving products, I can understand. But beer? Tires? Credit cards? Given the stunning market failure of facial hair in contemporary society, why would any man grow a beard, and why would any woman enjoy running her fingers through that thistle? All rhetorical questions, to be sure. I didn't expect her to answer me.
"This is not going to be pleasant," she said. I had just shaved that morning. I was sitting on the bed, leaning my smooth smooth face against that cool cool wall. Extra-credit question: No American president since Theodore Roosevelt has been distinguished by a mustache or beard of any sort. Why is that?
"I've met someone else," she told me, slowly wrapping the belt of her bathrobe around her wrist.
"I see," I said, reasoned, rational, ready to explore our options. "What does he do?" I asked. Isn't that the first question everyone asks in this town? Let me just stop at this point and tell you that I was a GS-13, a rising young star in the federal bureaucracy. I had articles published, presented talks at symposiums. I shook the vice president's hand once, in a reception line. My work appears in the Code of Federal Regulations, shelved in any library of any city, county, or state in the land. A federal seal appeared on my business cards. I had credentials. So what does he do, this someone she has met, this embodiment of power and prestige beside whom I apparently pale?
"He's a chimney sweep," she said.
"A chimney sweep? A chimney sweep. What the hell is that?"
"What do you think?" she said, irritated. "He sweeps . . . chimneys."
"But you live in an apartment!"
"I'm not attracted to him for his professional services," she said. That hurt, Andy. That hurt. I was speechless. What does one say in such a situation? What would you say? Please tell me about your new young man! Does he go up chimneys, or does he go down chimneys? Does he ever get stuck? Does he grease himself? What if there's a flood? What if there's an earthquake? Does he wear a top hat? Does he hold an umbrella? Does he speak with a Cockney accent? What percentage of his body is covered by black soot, and do you look forward to helping him remove it every night? And please explain to me, Helen, how is it and why is it that his heavy chimney-sweep boots came to stomp the burning embers of our love into a flattened pile of ash? I was crazed with jealousy, Andy. Every time I thought of Helen and the chimney sweep together, well, the whole business had connotations of a sexual nature for me, and I apologize, Andy, for bringing it up. We're in mixed company here and people are listening, and believe me, I'm the last person who would approve of that kind of talk. But you know what I mean, don't you Andy? Sweeping chimneys. Chimney sweeping. I don't have to draw a picture for you.
Chimney sweeping became my obsession. I did research. I looked in the yellow pages and found three and a half pages of chimney sweeps. And their claim? Positively no mess! No mess guaranteed! I looked in the Code of Federal Regulations, to see if there are any government regulations on chimney sweeping. Nothing! I looked in the U.S. Code. Nothing! I lit a match under a paper cup, watched it shrivel and blacken. Smoke always rises, Andy, it makes its getaway. "This seems so abrupt, so cruel," I told Helen. I'm back on her bed, my head against that wall, having just heard the horrifying news.
"I'm so sorry, I never meant to hurt you," she said, dry-eyed. "But by all means, keep in touch. Do feel free to call me." Like I should be grateful! Like I'm some kind of charity case! Me, a GS-13, who shook hands with the vice president of the United States at a reception! My flesh touched his flesh! Our sweat mingled!
Call number one. "Let me ask you a question, Helen. Why would anyone want their chimney swept? Aesthetics? Compulsion? If soot and ash cake on brick and nobody sees it, is it really there? Do guests at a dinner party politely excuse themselves from the table, walk into the living room, and shine flashlights up the chimney? What is the point, Helen? Methinks the emperor has no clothes!"
"Creosote," she said. "Look it up."
Creosote, Andy. Creosote. I did some re-search. Phenolic compounds obtained by the distillation of wood tar. It builds on the walls of a chimney and causes fires.
Call number two. "But what better place, Helen, to have a fire than in a sturdy brick chimney, attached to a fireplace!?"
"Please do not call me anymore," she said.
"Et tu, Helen?" I shouted into my office phone. She hung up.
Call number three. Cellular. "I'm riding on the Metro, Helen, and I'm wondering, considering, pondering. What does the chimney sweep have that I don't have? I am inside a subway train, a tube diving into deep tunnels, a giant pipe cleaner, whisking through, cleaning it out. Inside this train, I'm holding a Q-Tip in my hand. I'm inserting it in my ear. I'm expertly twisting it back and forth, gently loosening, loosening. My blood is coursing through my heart, Helen, purging the hurt-encrusted deposits of betrayal and pain you left there. Yes, Helen, the blood removes impurities, cleans them right out. Like a Q-Tip. Like a pipe cleaner. Like a subway train. LIKE A CHIMNEY SWEEP!"
Attention, passengers. It has been determined that the situation at Foggy Bottom station cannot be rectified in a timely manner. Presently, we will be returning to the Rosslyn station stop, where passengers may disembark the train. We apologize for the inconvenience. Remember: please take newspapers, magazines, and other personal belongings with you when you leave the train. And thank you for riding Metrorail.
Call number four, Andy. "I'm not talking to you," she said and hung up.
Call number five: click, dial tone.
Call number six: click, a little more emphatic, dial tone.
Call number seven: a man answered. His phone manner was atrocious. Are you surprised?
"Yeah?" he sneered.
"You the chimney sweep?" I asked.
"You the lunatic?" he replied.
"I've shaken hands with the vice president," I countered calmly. "And you, chimney sweep?"
"I've kissed the vice president," he said. "A big wet one." I heard laughter in the background. Familiar female gurgling cascading laughter. A bed jouncing, sheets rustling. This time, I was the one who hung up. Et tu, Helen? Et tu?
Let me set the scene for you, Andy. It was seven years ago--December 7, 1991, a day that still lives in infamy. I'm standing on the platform of the Woodley Park-Zoo station. I'm inside the station, with those ribbed concrete walls arcing into a vast canyon. It's like I'm in the belly of a great whale. Not Jonah, I think, but Pinocchio. Remember Walt Disney's Pinocchio? I'm inside Monstro the Whale.
And who do I see inside this belly? Can you guess? They are staring down the track at that tunnel entrance, two heads bent in anticipation, four eyes watching for that approaching light in the distance. Our eyes meet. Helen's face falls, then quickly recomposes itself. She whispers in his ear. He glances at me, eyes narrowing. He shakes his head.
He had a big brown beavery beard. Black buttony eyes. I made my approach. "How's business?" I asked. Him, not her. Pointedly, not her.
"Get lost, asshole," he smirked. Smirked.
"Is that real, chimney sweep?" I inquired. I pulled on his beard, gently.
"Don't you touch him!" Helen shouted. We started to scuffle. He pushed me, I pushed him. People swirled around us, shouting. I felt a briefcase pressing into my thigh, smelled aftershave, shoe leather. The chimney sweep grabbed the lapel of my suit with his left hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that faint lick of light creeping up the distant rail, tantalizing, getting brighter, illuminating the darkness from whence it came. He embedded his right fist deep into my belly. My belly within The Belly, get it? I doubled over, moaning. Hexagons filled my eyes. He lifted me up. The angry redness of his face shone through his thicket of a beard. There was froth coming out of his mouth. The gusts of the coming train blew his hair into wild billowing tufts. He punched me in the face. Left right left right! The lights on the platform blinked. Blink blink blink blink. The train moved into my peripheral field of vision. The thunderous rattle and screech of metal on metal drowned out my anguished cries. He swung. I ducked. He lurched. I pushed. The chimney sweep went over easy, too easy. He fell onto the track, screaming, and disappeared under the train, which silently, smoothly, filled the emptiness between platforms and would have belched a puff of smoke had we lived in another era.
Let me just stop right here for a minute Andy, and make something clear. The phrase: "accidentally on purpose" does not appear in formal case law, but if it did, it would be one of those legal terms of art that comes as close as possible to describing a certain human situation for which no other term or phrase can approximate. I will now employ this term. I pushed the chimney sweep onto the track "accidentally on purpose." There was no premeditation. There was no voice in my head saying: I hate this particular chimney sweep, therefore, I will push this chimney sweep onto the track. I simply reacted to an external stimulus. How much responsibility do we bear in this moral universe for the involuntary actions of our bodies? Nerves can twitch, Andy, even after death.
Now where was I? Oh yes, mass confusion, hysteria. A mob encircled me, closed in on me, retribution in their faces. At my back, the door of the arriving train opened. "MURDERER!" Helen screamed at me. "Excuse us, sir, we're trying to get off," accused the angry and uncomprehending passengers clutching their newspapers, magazines, and other personal belongings. Oh, the humanity! What would you do, Andy? I pushed my way onto the train and started running toward the back, going through back and front doors, from car to car, strung together like sausages. NO PASSAGE EXCEPT IN AN EMERGENCY, said a sign on each door. If this wasn't an emergency, Andy, what was? I ran down aisles and each aisle on each car looked exactly alike, the passengers looked exactly alike, the bland advertisements, the sleeping heads pressed against dark tinted windows, the drab suits and skirts, the dull metal poles, all exactly alike. As I ran, bleary eyes peaked at me over the serrated edges of Washington Post editorial pages, held by white-cuffed hands. Tourists pondered me, pondered their maps. On the last car, I opened the back door and leapt off the train. It is farther to the ground than you would think, Andy. It was a hard landing. My ankle twisted, but I was already in pain, my stomach throbbing, my face bleeding and sore. I started running. I ran down the track bed and into the tunnel, back toward Cleveland Park.
Attention, passengers! Due to a situation at the Foggy Bottom station, we will not be moving backward, I mean, reversing directions toward Courthouse Square. Correction, Rosslyn. Repeat. We won't be going back. Do not panic. Stand by for further instructions.
I ran into the tunnel, Andy, on a grooved cement bed between the two rails, about as wide as a sidewalk. There were puddles of water on the track bed, grimy drippings from the undersides of steaming engines. The tunnel was very dark despite the lights fringing the sides, one every ten feet or so. They don't illuminate space; rather they mark the line of travel, the soft curves and ridges stretching into the distance, forward and backward. I ran farther into the tunnel, the station behind me a tiny dot of light, the station before me still unsighted. I ran under layers of rock, slatherings of topsoil, shell of sidewalk and street. Above me was the National Zoo, the elephants braying, the lizards silent and stony behind thick plexiglass. It was so quiet, Andy. All I could hear was the sound of my breathing, the pitter-patter of my hobbling feet. The third rail ran alongside, enticing me, beckoning. Don't you touch him, Helen said. Don't you touch! In front of me a faint rattle echoed, a soft breeze growing in intensity, a whiff of motor oil and mechanized locomotion. I had thoughts of a disturbing nature. I am an unauthorized person on the tracks. It is me they are talking about in every announcement in every Metro train and station in the system. I am making people late for work.
And I may be a murderer.
A distant rumbling became less distant. A choking wind blew into my face, extinguishing, making it harder to breathe. An eddy of light curled through the faraway outline of metal rail, suddenly shiny now, and getting brighter, closer. MONSTRO! Two headlights like eyes, one brighter, one dimmer, that blunt squareness of face: flat, massive, inexorable. It was upon me, Andy. I hurdled the third rail and dove against the side of the tunnel, into a little crawl space under and below the train, flush against a wall. The train passed over me, engines whirring, wheels screeching. I pressed my face against that sweet Three Musketeers wall, feeling its coolness against my cheek. This is not going to be pleasant! Just like me, the chimney sweep also had this crawl space available to him. He had the time, he had the inclination, but did he have the knowledge? He could have been crouching in that closed constricted space, so much like a chimney, his beard scratching cool smooth cement, his stomach feeling those awful vibrations.
You're simply bursting with questions, Andy, I can tell. You want to tell your colleagues at the office, your wife and children when you get home. Did the chimney sweep live or die? Am I a murderer or a lunatic or a liar? You think it is important to know these things, that it makes a difference?
Let me tell you about a dream I once had, sitting where you sit now, Andy. I leaned my head against the window, felt the vibrations propagate from substrate to substrate, from the metal of the rails, to the glass of the window, to the soft squishy tissue of my brain. I dreamed I was a foot soldier hiding inside the Trojan horse. I could hear the wheels creaking as we rolled into the city, behind those impossible walls that had mocked my inadequacies for so many years. I shifted positions, trying to get comfortable. The hilt of my sword dug into my thigh, I was sweating under my armor. It was so hot in that horse, Andy, so stuffy. I could feel the breath of my neighbor against my face, smell the breakfast on his weary sighs. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. I could see the faint outline of my huddled colleagues, crouching and squeezed, fingering their instruments of destruction. Nobody talked. It wasn't like me and you, right now, just shooting the breeze. We were supposed to be quiet. King's orders. I mentally went over the day's business: wait for signal; jump out of horse; loot, rape, and pillage; capture the fair Helen; and be home in time for dinner. And then I heard it. Bing, bong. Then a voice, an announcement. Attention, passengers, it said. At the sound of the chimes, the doors will be closing.
Do you know Pinocchio, Andy? Do you know the scene where Gepetto, his cat, and his goldfish are trapped inside the belly of Monstro the Whale? The goldfish swims in tiny circumscribed circles in a small fishbowl of water, all while inside the belly of a great whale, all while deeply immersed within the vast and limitless ocean. Do you know what I mean? Fish within fish, and water within water! It's like an elevator falling down a shaft. You're on the falling elevator, but you're calm, perfectly calm, because you think you can save yourself by jumping before it hits bottom.
Attention, passengers! This train must be evacuated immediately. Repeat. This train must be evacuated immediately. Please exit in an orderly fashion. Doors opening on the left. Remain calm. Proceed in the direction of Rosslyn station. Walk on the ledge against the side of tunnel next to the guide lights. Do not panic. Do not, I repeat, do not touch the third rail, which may or may not be electrified.
But jumping in that elevator won't work, will it, because you're part of that downward plummeting spiral, you're inside that whale retreating into the depths, and it doesn't matter what you do, it just doesn't matter.
Look, Andy! There's smoke seeping through the doors of the train. Do you know what that means?