A story from 11/2001, unpublished. Philip K. Marks is a recurring character of mine; he also appears in the story “sift, almost invisible, through” which appeared in the MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris.
Dreamers of Dreams
by Jeff Somers
He didn’t know what to make of it, which was usually how he knew he was onto something. Being completely mystified meant he hadn’t yet understood, that was all. Phil Marks scratched at his growing beard and watched the two men across the subway car from him. Years of watching people more or less professionally made Marks a bold observer; he evinced no shame in watching others, and made no effort to hide the fact that he was watching them.
The first one was young, a kid. No more than twenty-five, Marks figured, feeling all of his own forty-two years suddenly, and with force. He was dressed like a student: torn jeans, white T-shirt, backpack. A pair of sporty sunglasses hung from the V-neck of his shirt. His sneakers were expensive but very old and decrepit, leftovers, Marks thought, of a pre-college loan era. The second man was taller and older, dressed in a black suit, everything black, down to his painfully-shined shoes that glared in the fluorescents of the subway. Marks ran his grey eyes over the second man and imagined, with confidence, that the man’s undergarments were also black.
They didn’t know each other. Marks knew that they had entered the subway car at different stops. Having noticed the Man in Black immediately, Marks had watched him. The man had examined the population of the subway car carefully, and chosen a seat next to the kid, where they sat in silence, ignoring each other, for a few moments. Then, without warning, the older man had turned and leaned in to the kid, speaking too softly to be heard by anyone else on the train. The kid had frowned, and then leaned in to hear better.
They were still in that position. The Man in Black had a hand on the kid’s arm, lightly holding on, and his jaw moved steadily. The kid, still frowning, made no move to pull away, and seemed pretty interested in what the man had to say. Marks watched, and didn’t know what to make of it. What did a total stranger have that a kid like that would find so interesting?
At the next stop, the Man in Black stood up, nodded to the kid, and exited the train. The kid sat on the seat loosely, slumped, as if his muscles had stopped having any effect on his frame. He stared at the advertising poster across the aisle so intently Marks twisted around in his seat to look at it: an ad for English lessons. Learn English in two weeks. Immigrants welcomed.
Marks looked back at the kid and frowned. The kid appeared to be in deep, deep thought, seeing nothing in front of him, and Marks’ instincts told him there was a story about to happen. He reached into one of the pockets in his great coat and pulled out a battered notebook and a pen. Flipping the notebook open to a blank page, he quickly jotted down his impressions of the scene and a few details: Man in Black speaks earnestly to stranger. Young kid down on his luck listens intently for no good reason. Is left with lots to think about apparently. MIB: tall, thin, grey hair and all black clothing, doesn’t look crazy. Kid: also tall/thin, looks like college-age but hasn’t eaten or bought new clothes in a while. Bet everything he owns is in the torn knapsack he carries everywhere.
Marks flipped the notebook closed and stuffed it back into his coat. He figured he’d follow the kid for a bit, see what might happen.
Two stops later the kid stood up and left the train, his knapsack still on the seat. Marks stood and plucked it up, thinking it was a great excuse to talk to the kid should he choose to. Carrying the knapsack, he dived through the closing doors and looked around the platform, finding the kid almost directly across, apparently waiting for the uptown train. Marks paused, looking down at the knapsack in his hand and then up at the kid again. He studied the kid’s posture, the way he was peering intently up the tracks at the oncoming train, and had half-raised his hand in a useless gesture when the kid took a step into nothing and allowed himself to fall directly under the train’s wheels.
Someone screamed, and Marks remained frozen, one hand half-raised, his mouth half-open. He had no idea what he’d intended to do.
A crowd quickly gathered, and several people had their cell phones out to dial the police. Marks shook himself out of his stupor and quickly knelt to the floor and opened the knapsack. He didn’t expect to find a note, but he thought there might be some hint as to why the kid had committed suicide – and he knew he’d never get close to the knapsack once he turned it over to the cops.
Marks was quickly disappointed. Inside the bag there were three paperback novels, a notebook of blank paper, and a bagged lunch. Nothing else. Marks slowly zipped the bag closed and looked up. A large crowd of people obscured the spot where the kid had gone over. The train stood there, emptied and lit, as if it didn’t know what to do either.