something like hope – Mike Canney
January 17, 2022
Emmanuel’s back hurt. Whenever there was a lull in pedestrian traffic, he would rock from side to side to try and knock loose whatever was tight inside him. He had stood in the same spot handing out pamphlets all day. Or, rather, he had been trying to hand out pamphlets all day. To be even more precise, at the risk of being reductive, one would say he had stood in the above ground corridor at Broadway Junction trying to hand out pamphlets his entire adult life. Shortly after leaving Haiti for New York in his 20’s, Emmanuel had been struck by a cab. A settlement from the city had freed his time, if only at the cost of forever tightening something inside his pelvis, and instead of working, he had begun to hand out religious tracts at Broadway Junction.
When Emmanuel was young, he had the ambitions of a young man. The accident had knocked those loose from his head. It was not until he was forced to be bedridden for those months that he picked up a bible and read what he believed to be the word of God written in plain black and white. He used those months to teach himself King James’ English. He felt that Christ’s sacrifice had given meaning to his suffering, and he knew that if people read the same words he had, they would understand as he did. This was why he suffered so greatly in the corridor at Broadway Junction, where thousands of people passed him without taking one of the tracts containing the key to their own salvation plainly printed within.
As years passed by, Emmanuel’s posture slackened and his neck grew thick with age. He became an ornamentation and faded into the background like a poster announcing weekend train schedules, ignored by those who passed him every day. His voice rattled between the concrete floors and low ceilings, vainly seeking an ear to tell them of the salvation that awaited them. Time hardened his stare, and heat began to rise in his stomach, and he filled with ire for those that did not deign to hear about their eternal reward. He began to speak cruelly in his pidgin tongue, interspersing with Creole the ornate twists of phrase he had learned from the King James Bible. He cursed at his inattentive audience, his voices shaking the windows that looked over the train yard. He reminded them of the fires that would lick at their heels, as they walked away from him, constantly moving downstream in both directions from him for all his years. This was the period of greatest professional success for Emmanuel, whose fearsome voice rattled passersby out of their stupor and into, if not fear of damnation, then at least a bemused curiosity that opened their hands to accept a pamphlet. He would grow old remembering these years fondly.
This windfall lasted for the most part of the latter half of the 1980’s, until overseas production of consumer electronics made portable headphones widely available at a price point that the poor commuters who transferred at Broadway Junction could afford. Commuters could now tune out his words, replacing his sermon with whatever popular music they chose. Emmanuel did not know how to respond to this phenomenon, and as he felt his satchel of pamphlets grow a little heavier every day on his walk home, he felt the dull ire in his abdomen grow hot once again. He began to scream, and his pidgin sermons grew louder and less intelligible by the day. This was perhaps the period of greatest artistic success for Emmanuel. His words were garbled by the growing volume and speed at which they were delivered, and the effect was to draw the listener in deeper, the ear’s innate desire to seek out a comfortable word or turn of phrase upon which it can rest bringing the passerby’s attention to the word, only to find a chilling ardor, almost affinity, for the punishments of hell on the rare occasion that a sentence could be understood in whole. Emmanuel would bear the scars of this period on his throat for the rest of his life. The tenor in which he spoke mangled his vocal chords, and another half decade of preaching left him with a deep, sonorous croak that dragged a leg behind it on its way to his lips.
As he grew older, he lost his ability to shout, and as his voice softened he again began to speak of the love of God. Many passersby who had once passed him as children now dragged children of their own by the wrist behind them. They never met his eye, but no longer did they walk with apprehension as they passed. He began to lean on a cane, as the years spent on his feet had begun to bend his spine. His spot was fixed, and remained empty until he arrived in the morning and stayed that way after he left. The corridor had a series of windows on either side. Emmanuel chose to face west, towards the graveyard the platform overlooked with its domed church and cross, but in the late afternoon when the sun began to find its landing place on the horizon, he travelled across the hallway and faced the auto salvage yard and its growing collection of automobiles piled upon one another in a mass grave.
Decades spent stationary in one spot of the corridor at Broadway Junction had given Emmanuel the status of an elder among the others who peddled their wares to commuters. The carts that sold incense and gloves and scarves and (when the neighborhood began to change) cut fruit in ziploc bags and (later on) electronic accessories deferred to him with a begrudging respect. He struck up a relationship that one couldn’t quite call a friendship because of the difference in age with a young boy who accompanied his mother to sell trinkets in the station.
At first, the boy came to Broadway Junction with his mother only on weekends. Emmanuel had spoken to him for the first time just as his voice had begun to scar and the youth’s had begun to deepen. He noticed one morning across the stream of rush hour traffic that the youth was present on a Monday. He was present again the next day, and the day after. As he bore the weight of his satchel home, Emmanuel asked the boy’s mother if there was a holiday from school this week, to which she said no, the boy was suspended. For what, Emmanuel asked. For fighting, she said, and slapped the boy on the back of his head. He’s got the mark of Cain, Emmanuel said, you can’t knock that off with an open hand. She didn’t understand the joke, but her son looked up at Emmanuel as if he did.
As the boy grew into an adolescent, he came with his mother more and more often. One day his mother left him alone with her cart of cut fruit. A police officer began to question the boy. He was frightened, and his command of the English language grew more tenuous with each question asked of him. Emmanuel watched this from his station without interrupting his sermon. The officer tried to take the boy away, and Emmanuel saw the glint of fear in his eye from across the crowd of downturned heads like a coin at the bottom of a pond. Emmanuel walked over and began to tell the officer that he knew the child, that he was waiting for his mother to return, but the man, a new hire, was unacquainted with the station and Emmanuel and took him for a beggar. Emmanuel was dragged down the stairs, pamphlets falling from his pockets, then into a police cruiser and taken to jail. He was released that night and told never to return to the hallway where he had spent the last decades of his life.
The next few weeks were spent in fear and wandering. Emmanuel realized quickly that he had spent so little of his life outside of the station that the city he lived in seemed unfamiliar.
Sordid areas that lay fallow for years had been washed clean by commerce, while in other places the buildings he had passed as a young man that seemed so beautiful and grand had been replaced with hulking monstrosities. This unfamiliar world scared him, but as he shuttered himself in his home he realized how dusty he had let the corners of his life become. He rearranged the furniture, but this did nothing but reveal the dust, decades old now, that had settled quietly on the few flat surfaces of his life. Emmanuel returned to church for the first time since his accident, but he found that the women glared at him with stony eyes beneath their brightly colored hats, and that the sermon lacked the ardor of his own words. He felt that the words of God were obscured by the voice he heard, and instead of feeling his spirit rise, he obsessed over what he understood was the naked truth that he could deliver the word of God better than any pastor. It was his right to do better, and the law of man had no bearing over the righteous acts of the soul. He pontificated aloud to himself in his home, preparing himself for his inevitable persecution, steeling himself for the spears of the Romans that he knew he was soon to face.
Emmanuel returned to Broadway Junction a month later with his heart beating out of his chest. His anxiety was only sharpened by the lack of police cars and uniformed officers he saw patrolling for him. The cowards have hidden, he thought, their perfidy unfit to stand naked in the light of day. He cursed them as he scaled the stairs to the corridor and found his station empty as if he had never left. As he prepared to take his pulpit, he forced a dry swallow and took a deep breath as he felt the rumble of an arriving train. Surely they will come now, he thought, agents of the Devil who hide underneath the black jacket of their master. Surely they will come now and crucify me as they did the Son. I will suffer, doubtless, but they will fail to profane my flesh, sheathed it is in the word of the Lord. He moistened his sandpaper tongue and began to speak aloud. He spoke unbroken for eight hours, and nobody came for him except those same downturned heads that had always passed by.
Time passed as it always had. Eventually Emmanuel’s heart stopped trying to break out of his ribcage and he forgot that he was being persecuted. He continued preaching and attempting to give out his pamphlets, and it wasn’t for some time that he realized he hadn’t seen the boy or his mother since that day. Years went by before he saw the boy–now a man–again. He didn’t recognize his face or his broad shoulders, but recognized the gleam of fear in his eye that hadn’t changed. Emmanuel called out. He walked with a group of friends, who all passed by without so much as turning their heads. He stopped and embraced Emmanuel in that bright corridor.
The embrace drew the surprise of his friends, who watched on in shock. Emmanuel, he said, you’re still here, do you remember me? Miguelito? Yes, said Emmanuel, yes of course I remember. Emmanuel looked up into his eyes and felt the dust knock off of something inside him. You’re grown, Emmanuel said, what happened?
Miguel’s mother refused to return to Broadway Junction with her cart after the incident with the police, for fear of deportation. Miguel had remained a problem child throughout his adolescence, but never forgot about the act of kindness Emmanuel had shown him. He was a salesman now, he told Emmanuel, with none of the shame that many attach to that word visible in his bright smile. He had learned how to read the emotion that people so often betrayed beneath their faces, and he knew what people felt before they felt it themselves. He spoke rapidly about this, and in the telltale manner of youth forgot to ask anything of Emmanuel. Emmanuel was swept up in his old friend’s monologue, and he felt the contagious enthusiasm that seeps out of any words spoken truly and freely. Emmanuel understood plainly that Miguel had a talent, and that it was one that he lacked. Miguel, he said, you must speak to the people. I talk all the time, Miguel said. No, Emmanuel said, you must speak to the people about the word. Oh, Miguel said, I’m not religious, this is your angle anyway, I don’t want to step on your toes. No, he said, these are souls suspended over an abyss, the only thing to do is to claw for each inch until your nails are worn to the flesh, then to claw until that flesh begins to bleed. If I was suspended over the lake of fire, would you not dig into my flesh in order to hoist that same flesh to safety? This is a matter beyond human vanity, Miguel, any gains made herein are absolute. Emmanuel’s tone became desperate. If you can save one soul it will validate his sacrifice, it will validate my sacrifice. The brakes of a hurtling train began to shriek. Come on, one of his friends said, train’s coming, you getting on or not? Miguel felt himself moved by the sight of the old man. Go on without me, he said, I’m gonna stay for a bit.
Emmanuel watched Miguel as he studied the flow of oncoming pedestrians, arriving at this spot from an escalator on one side and descending from a staircase on the other. They converged in this sunlit corridor in an endless, anonymous stream, a series of silhouettes unrelated to the visage they supported, jumbled and mixed and matched until all of humanity appeared to be a random combination of noses and shoulders and ears and genitals, all traveling, unhurried and unbothered, to the other end of the corridor. The only face that seemed real to Emmanuel was Miguel’s, and he felt an old feeling that felt something like hope stir within him as he watched that boy that had turned into a man. Before long, Miguel had a plan. He told this plan to Emmanuel, who agreed.
Emmanuel was to create a diversion on the end of the corridor near the descending staircase. He would tell each oncomer, whether they were listening or not, that the chance to win $100 was just around the corner. Even if only one pedestrian took notice, he would take the pamphlet Miguel would hand him with enthusiasm, unfolding it excitedly on the escalator that awaited him, alerting those coming in the opposite direction to the fact that there was something to be gained inside the pamphlet. It wouldn’t matter that there was never any money, because by the time anyone realized they would be on their next train out of the station. Emmanuel played along with some reservation and watched the spectacle unfold before him. From around the corner from the corridor where he had spent most of his adult life, he watched the plan play out in the shadows cast by the setting sun, as the pamphlets that had for years yellowed in boxes stacked upon his floor began to fly from Miguel’s hands. He watched as soon enough, those that came from the other direction began, almost without exception, to arrive at him with his pamphlet in hand, at rates that he had never known in his life. He saw Miguel’s shadow grow long as the sun fell low over the lot of junked cars beneath. Something like hope stirred inside him again and grew delirious. The shadow appeared to him as if it were his own inverted, its head growing outwards from his own feet. People continued to arrive at Emmanuel with pamphlets in hand, and soon he realized that there would be no more left to distribute. Something loose inside him began to tighten and he put his foot on the head of the shadow as if to stamp it out like a cigarette. The shadow continued to gesticulate and he stamped at what he saw as his own head again. He grew furious, and chased the shadow as it moved, hobbling along towards its source until he found the frozen ice cap from which that noxious river flowed, and struck wildly with the handle of his cane until it crumbled and the shadow dissipated, leaving nothing in its place but human shaped rubble lying on the concrete floor. Charlatan, he screamed, blasphemer, cheat, you who walk hand in hand with iniquity. Miguel didn’t respond, nor did he move from the floor where stray impulses of electricity bewitched certain muscles of his without his knowledge. The stream of pedestrians slowed momentarily, as a few individuals put their bodies between the two. Emmanuel realized with a sickening drop what he had done, and began to flee, his feet moving at a speed they had not reached since perhaps before his accident. One of the individuals that had restrained him yelled for him to return, but he joined the waves of commuters that flowed through that corridor and went down the escalator, trying his hardest to become faceless.