Noise-Making – Teddy Burnette
September 3, 2021
He thought it would be fun to read a novel, front to back, while seated in a subway car hurtling around underneath the city of Manhattan. He told his friend M, I’m going to read a slim novel on the subway, and then I’ll come over to your place and tell you about it. Tell you how it was, reading a book on the subway car, moving so quickly.
He had been feeling myopic, reading in his bed or at the café, looking at the pretty people strolling around him, laughing about drugs or sex, or about having sex on drugs, which used to entertain him but then he had started doing the same things they were talking about more often and realized they were accomplished only for the afterwards. To tell your friend something you had told the person in your bed the night before was between just you two, that you didn’t mind that he had to do a line and then smoke a little bit to take the edge off before he could have sex, but now you were telling your friend in a café and he had become tired of hearing these anecdotes, so he was on the train.
He sat in the subway car, an uptown E that he had boarded at West 4th Street, and looked around him. He had decided that every so often, he would get up and walk around the train car to stretch his legs. This was important. The only other thought that he had concerning his preparation was the act of looking up and around at those near him while he read. Should he? Or should it be a focused, never breaking eye contact from page, sort of experience? He thought that when he told his friends afterwards that the story would work better, and have more impact among the listeners, if he were to not have seen a single person around him. He would mention that his peripheral vision did allow for the “fleeting glimpses” (they would like that phrase) of shoes and laces, of heels and disgusting toes jutting out of sandals. He would glimpse these and then return to his book. The book was 116 pages, well spaced with large font, and he thought this would take him about an hour and fifteen minutes to read, maybe a little longer, depending on distractions.
He sat in the subway car and began reading.
He sat in the subway car and looked up almost immediately after finishing the first chapter, thus breaking his rule, thus he decided he would lie to his friends when he told the story. No one was there to check. He did not care for the truth in any form.
He sat and pondered those around him. None of them had heard of the book he was reading. This was not what he wanted. There was a part of him that wanted his story to include other subway riders who approached him and mentioned that they had also read that book, that they loved it and have you read this other work of his? And he could say, no, this is the first of his I’ve read, but I’m really enjoying it, thanks. And the rider would try to make small talk and would ask where he was headed, and he could finally finally finally say that he wasn’t getting off anywhere, that he was reading this book, that’s all.
He sat, and then stood up and paced around the empty train car he was in after he finished the next chapter. He sat down again. He sat on the subway car and read the poems in the advertisements panels above him. Silly, terrible little poems about products and progress. He thought it was nice, in a way, that a novel couldn’t be presented this way. It wasn’t a mark against poetry; it was simply a more agreeable form to the eye, more at risk of being commodified.
He sat and made a poem out of the second lines from each of the four advertisements that were visible to him. The advertisements were promoting the efficiency of paying your subway fare with your phone. How quick that movement was. One of the lines read: What delight awaits us. And another read: If I hold it freely, it will float away from me. This was about a metro card.
He sat and read, and didn’t know where he was. Eugene Marten was writing about a man lying in bed next to a female corpse. The man worked as a janitor, and had at home a corpse in the refrigerator. Which was unsettling, but not anything more than that. Refrigerators were cold spaces people happened to use for food. The crime isn’t the body being in the fridge. He looked up again. Still no one was in the car with him. He thought about how poetry was read at presidential inaugurations. That a novel couldn’t be read at the inauguration, or even a short story.
He imagined Jonathan Franzen reading The Corrections start to finish at the next inauguration.
He sat and finished the Marten book.
He sat and waited till the train car stopped and then exited. He did not look to see what stop he was at. He climbed the stairs.
He stood in the sunlight and squinted his eyes and missed being in the train car. He went to buy another book.
He sat in a new train car and waited three stops before a seat opened up. He sat and began reading the book he had bought—Anne Garreta was writing about desire and sound and light– and again looked up after the first chapter to apprise himself of what was happening around him. His friend L walked up to him from the other side of the train car at the next stop, and tapped him on the shoulder. Where are you headed? L asked. I’m not headed anywhere, he said. He returned to reading for a second, finishing the page, and looked up and told him that he was reading, that’s all. L asked who the author was, and he told him, and L said he hadn’t heard of that person, was it any good? And he went back to reading.
He sat alone and didn’t think that anyone else would bother him on the rest of the trip. He read the poems on the ads above him, they were different ones. The second lines in each were not so nearly out of place when taken from the full stanza, and he hated that he thought they were stanzas only because they were four or five short lines with a couple words in each line and well, they looked like poems. He kept reading. He didn’t remember what train he had got on this time. He wondered what time it was. He wondered if M had texted him, but he didn’t want to check his phone. He had it on silent in his pocket and had earlier decided that if he did take it out of his pocket he would end this experiment because what was the point of reading and consuming life while life happened around him if he had also made sure that the little fake life in his pocket was still beating away, screaming at him, screaming his name, urging him to validate their needs. He wanted to desperately. They would validate his as well. He didn’t check his phone.
He sat on the subway and thought that so far he didn’t have a good story to tell his friends. He had read a novel front to back, and then purchased another novel and done the same, and so now he sat here having read two novels, seen one friend, and read poems in advertisements. He got off at the next stop and waited for the train to leave the station before he sat down on the platform edge and hopped down onto the train tracks and laid down. He felt the dirt. He looked around for rats; hoping one would scamper over his chest. Make little sounds, little rat-sounds, little scurrying-sounds and let me get out of the way of this train-sounds. He started screaming as loud as he could manage. He didn’t yell words; he thought he could achieve a higher volume by simply making noise, base level noise. He laid on the train tracks and yelled and yelled and yelled, and kept yelling, and felt air and heat and noise rising up out of him from new parts of his body, parts that weren’t involved in this process of exhalation turned to volume turned to violence, and still no one came to peer down over at him from the platform like he had hoped. Where he would be able to see their head and maybe the top of their torso but that’s it, and then he could imagine that he was screaming at them to find their bodies, to run away from him, that he had turned them into something different, something grotesque, that they had turned into floating heads and shouldn’t they run away and shouldn’t they be screaming and yelling like him? And he screamed louder and no one came to check on him, to peek over the ledge and assess the situation.
He brushed his clothes clean of dirt, pulled himself off the tracks, and sat again on the platform edge, looking down at where he had been. He saw where he had been and turned his back on it. He made himself as presentable as he could, and thought he had a good story to tell his friends now. He hurried to M’s; he wanted to tell him about the person on the train tracks. The screaming man on the train tracks. How he had peeked his head over the edge, and for some reason had felt the need to scream too, that he had felt real fear and had sprinted away from the man on the tracks, the yells echoing around him in the station until he saw the light at the top of the stairs and squinted and everything was silent again.