“How far down would you say we were?” The questioner looked, sounded, and smelled perfectly normal—normal for the New York City subway, anyway, so his interlocutor ventured an answer. “About 30 feet down from the street, give or take. Why?”
“That must mean I’m about 3,000 feet down. Over half a mile. Is it me or is it getting hot? We’re getting closer to the magma.”
The victim, a haircut, shoe and certified Swiss chronometer guy, started to screw his face into that ‘not again’ look. He had been so happy to escape the late-winter nor’easter and be in a dry tunnel. “How do you figure? We’re standing in the same place. I’m only 30 feet down.”
The questioner, decent suit, designer satchel, young, but showing a touch of new desk-job spread, chanced telling the victim exactly how he figured it. “Every Tuesday, I take the D train to my place in the Bronx, shower and change, and come back down to this station, where I go downstairs to get the E train to Queens to meet my girlfriend in Jamaica. After our date, I take the E train back here, and go DOWNSTAIRS again to get the D train home. I’ve been dating her two years now. Always downstairs. I’ve done the trip one hundred times, so I must be 3,000 feet down.”
Chronometer, a reasonable enough guy—it was a Breitling, after all, not a Rolex—tried to find the flaw in the questioner’s logic. Failing that, a flaw in the questioner. Unlikely; they were two reasonable New York men. He had it. “Just walk up to where you came in and take a cab home.”
“Walk up 3,000 feet? That’s three Empire State Buildings. I’m in good shape, but not that good. Good enough that I can have a lasagna dinner with my girl and not show it the next day, or not much, anyway. But not so good that I can walk up to the top of the Empire State Building three times.”
The victim couldn’t decide between calling for exfiltration or continuing to solve the problem of this, he had to concede, nut case. He recalled a science fiction story from Junior High. They opened a new connecting tunnel and trains started disappearing, along with passengers. The new topology turned the system into a Klein Bottle; the trains and passengers were lost in time until the hero mathematician figured it out and had the system brick up the new tunnel. But that wasn’t New York. Boston? Chicago? “I don’t suppose you would consider getting another girl? Stick with this one and you’ll wind up in China.” That’s it. Humor the guy.
“I know a few other girls. One in Elmsford.”
Progress. Time to make sure he still had his satchel, his wallet, his watch; couldn’t be too sure any random nut wasn’t really a grifter or a con man. “So give her a call, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.”
“Really? How do you know? She lives closer to the Bronx than Jamaica does. But the train is gone. Putnam line. Gone when my parents were kids. It’s a bike trail now.”
Three trains had stopped and gone on, but chronometer couldn’t stop himself. “Know any other girls?”
“There’s a girl I like in my office. Woman, really. Lives on 91st Street. Fairy chess player. Hard to resist, you know, but I already have a girl.”
“It’s like chess, but with different rules. If you were playing chess like Spock and Kirk on Star Trek, the 3D board, that would be fairy chess. Not easy to find other people who play. But there’s a problem. The 91st Street station is abandoned.”
“You can’t walk down from 96th? A guy in your good shape?”
“Of course, I could. But why should I, if there’s a perfectly good station there? It’s usable, they use it to film subway scenes. Do you smell donuts?”
The victim—now a true interlocutor—raised his nose. ”Churros. Much better than donuts. Greater surface area to volume ratio. They’re crenelated. And the lady charges a buck for two of them, half the price of Dunkin Donuts. And you’ll have to speak up; the Oud player is clashing with the lady on the trumpet. Apparently, jazz does not just ‘happen.’ But if you’re ever in Wilkes Barre, they’ve got a chain of donut shops, Curry Donuts. Donuts are seventy-five cents, but three for a dollar. Go figure. Ever have a sour cream donut? Beats the crap out of Boston cream. Those Krauts know their stuff. Can’t get French fries in Wilkes Barre, they slice ‘em with a microtome and skillet fry ‘em. Again, surface area to volume ratio.” Keep the guy off the delusion, that’s the ticket.
“You know, I appreciate the talk. But I’m still 3,000 feet underground and I can’t see my way up.”
“Have you considered biking from The Bronx to Elmsford? You could have lasagna and churros all night long and still be in great shape. And, you know.”
“You know. Rhythm. Pacing. Balance. Lower body strength. Quadricep recycle time. Ability to handle a bumpy ride. Knowing what to do when the bronco bucks. All good bicycle qualities to possess, for whatever purpose. You know.”
The questioner was slipping into despair. “There must be some way out of here.”
“Hey! If you’re the joker, that makes me the thief! You look like you have a pretty good job. Are you a man of means?”
“Good salary. No heavy lifting. I’m comfortable. Why?”
“Call Jamaica. Tell her to switch apartments with you. You want out? Do it. Do it now. Before you hit a lava tube.” Interlocutor was serious. He couldn’t live without solving this.
“What would that accomplish?”
“Just do it. Call her. Tell her you’ll pay for the move. If she doesn’t like it, tell her you’ll pay to move her back. And this is really, really important. Tell her you’ll see her every night. Don’t forget. Every night.”
The wedding was in June; 14 weeks and two days after the “episode.” Carter, the man lost 3,000 feet below the streets of New York, now found, with Arthur, the interlocutor, to stand up for him, was joined in marriage to Ilsa, she of the divine lasagna. The wedding took place on board a private Amtrak car, the route entirely above ground. Art made sure the caterers had German potatoes and churros on the menu.
Carter looked at his best man. “Well, buddy, you did it. I owe you everything. One hundred days of coming back from ‘my’ place in Jamaica and going UPSTAIRS to the D train to see Ilsa, coming back, and going UPSTAIRS to the E train. I’m back at the surface. And I really think I should start getting places by bike.”