Call of the Mild

Grant Price

“Yah, yah, maybe, hmm, maybe. No, oh no. Definitely not.”

Although it is rush hour, the man has four yellow plastic seats’ worth of real estate all to himself. His head is cocked and his eyes appear to be scanning the ceiling of the subway car as he spits out words through grey teeth. He keeps cuffing his nose with the back of his coat sleeve. Slug trails criss-cross the fabric like pick-up sticks. The car does the two-step shuffle and the man’s scraggly body bobs along with it.

“There? Perhaps?”

The man is called Jerome. Strictly speaking, his name should be spelled with an acute accent and a circumflex, but he dropped them long ago in an attempt to become a streamlined, unencumbered version of himself. That was back when he’d had ideas about how he’d find his Purpose in Life and Live the Dream. Ah, ambition. Such is youth. On occasion, the echo of his former self still brings a smile to Jerome’s face.

Jerome used to tell people he was like one of those vending machines stuffed full of prizes that you were supposed to drag out with a claw, but never could. The listener would ask why and Jerome would respond with a flourish that he had the same problem with his ideas. He could see them inside his Perspex box of a body, sitting atop the remnants of poor decisions and memories coloured carmine with embarrassment and other grim stuff that seemed to grow with each passing year. But he never seemed to be able to grasp them. Even today, Jerome would be the first to agree that his is a classic case of wasted potential. But he doesn’t blame anybody for it, not even himself.

Jerome’s shoes have no shoelaces. He slouches in his seat, head still cocked, mouth hanging slightly open. He could be marionette, or a dog waiting to be taken for a walk.

He is wearing a leopard-print t-shirt, a crackly anorak and a pair of tight jeans that had been delicately liberated from a store several weeks ago. Jerome had performed the old switcheroo, which goes something like this: dive into the changing room, whip off the discoloured trousers, ease on the clean new ones and then hightail it to the exit. Unfortunately, the ruse had been ruined when a zealous employee spotted the tag peeking out from the waistband. Jerome had screamed and brought a rack of clothes to the floor before making a run for it. That area of the city is now off-limits until further notice. In any case, they are good jeans. Figure-hugging, yet resilient.

“But . . . but . . . no,” says Jerome.

The car pulls in to the next stop and a couple hops aboard and sits down opposite Jerome without taking the time to appraise him and realise that perhaps it would be better to park their bodies elsewhere. Jerome continues his scrutiny of the ceiling and pays them no attention. The man and woman are holding hands. Their words melt together and they look at each other through eyes made of cartoon hearts and everything is wonderful until they realise that the scent catching in the hairs of their nostrils isn’t temporary. Jerome, it should be mentioned, has an odour that could generously be called idiosyncratic. Now the couple notices him. The man is an all-action kind of guy, and he is about to stand up and lead his girlfriend away from the weasel-faced creature that has evidently been balled up, thrown onto the yellow plastic seat and left to rot until one of the cleaning staff scoops it into a dustpan, when Jerome lowers his gaze from the roof of the train and speaks.

“I do apologise for the interruption, but might you be able to tell me where the stop for Hopline Square is?” His voice is the sound of air being shot through a broken flute with jagged finger holes. He looks at the couple. They are unable to disguise the horror on their faces.

Jerome is used to this. He knows his facial features leave something to be desired. Fuchsartig, is what a jolly foreign fat man on a bus had once called him. His top two maxillary central incisors protrude awfully and his eyes are small black buttons. It doesn’t help that he suffered from acne as a youth, which has left his skin all nobbled and bobbled like a melted plastic mask. But Jerome is nothing if not patient with people, so he waits for them to recover from their spiritual recoil and answer him.

“Where did you say?”

The question comes from the woman. Jerome grabs a handful of his anorak at chest level and draws it tight. His eyelid quivers. The man’s eyes are narrowed, as though he is trying to sense some kind of trick.

“Hopline Square. I seem to be unable to pinpoint its whereabouts.” Jerome directs his index finger to the roof of the car, on which a spaghetti map of lines has been printed. He hopes he isn’t slurring his words. Sometimes he finds it difficult to tell. The man makes a noise and his lips disappear into his mouth.

It is the last chance saloon for Jerome. He needs to get to the Square to see a man about a dog. He’s feeling positively altricial. The cramps are coming on and he has to avoid a full-blown assault at all costs because he has a weak constitution and his body isn’t built to sustain the express elevator ride to hell. His other options are expended and he only has one left. And, actually, there is no guarantee that this one will work out either. But he has to try. He isn’t ready to give up yet, that way leads to savagery of the soul.

“Go two more stations and switch to the south line until you reach Connan Street,’ says the woman. ‘Then take the suburban line for one stop. Westbound, I think.”

Jerome smiles his ratty smile and it has the opposite effect of what he intends, because it is a smile dripping with what looks to be predatory instinct, not gratitude. He can’t help it. At school he was asked to remain stoic in class photographs. The man places a hand on the woman’s knee and squares his shoulders. They think that perhaps Jerome’s question was a ploy to embroil them in a conversation from which only he can emerge victorious. He is quick to try to set their minds at ease.

“Thank you kindly. You have been most helpful.”

He notices that he is gripping his jacket too severely. He allows his hand to fall into his lap, where it twitches like a stunned fish. He becomes aware that he hasn’t showered for a while. In fact, he cannot remember the last time he stood under a jet of warm water, scraped the downy fuzz from his face, or brushed his excrescent teeth. He will though, one day.

“Always seem to lose my bearings.”

The woman nods. The man’s hand remains on her knee. Jerome’s is already rising to resume its role as a makeshift clasp. The train arrives at the next stop and Jerome sees Wild Bill, a panhandler. Wild Bill doesn’t like Jerome. Jerome couldn’t say that he particularly enjoys Wild Bill’s company either. Fortunately, he is out of his mind on something and lurches past Jerome without the embers of recognition glowing in his eyes. Jerome exhales with relief, which is unfortunate for his new companions because his breath is as bitter as a blocked drain.

Jerome wishes he had a watch. He pawned the one his father gave him. A month or so back he stole another, but that one had to be sold too. He doesn’t have the energy to ask the woman for the time. Besides, their distress appears to be quite enough as it is. He starts counting the seconds in his head, but they soon unravel into a plate of noodle numbers and he leaves them where they are.

Now there is a new sensation. It overcomes him before he can do anything to stop it. His stomach gurgles and he shifts his body and he feels the dissatisfying wetness against the seat of his trousers and he knows he’s done it again. The last time it had happened he’d spent half an hour expunging the contaminated area in a public toilet using an anorexic roll of paper and his hands. He makes an exploratory movement to check the scale of the damage. Only a little has leaked out, but it isn’t odourless. The couple sitting opposite will notice soon. Then others will catch the hint of human ordure in the already-stale air. It is imperative that he leave the scene as soon as possible. The train slows down again.

“Please exit in the direction of travel.”

The disembodied voice lacks humanity. The man who nobody here knows is called Jerome rises to his feet. The anorak covers his behind. The seat fabric is clean. Before he leaves the car, he makes a kind of small, stiff bow to his aides.

“I bid you good evening.”

He says it with as much dignity as he can muster. He does it to show his partners in dialogue that he is not uneducated. Nor is he an insect to be swatted. Far from it. Still, the words sound unnerving coming from him. He does not realise it, but it is one of the reasons why he isn’t able to count on many of the other regulars when he’s hard up. They think he is above his station. Jerome would laugh if they told him that. He doesn’t think people should have to be stuck at a particular station just to align with the expectations of others. He is his own human being.


Grant Price is a writer and photographer living in Berlin, Germany.