Spring 2021, Volume 30

Fiction by Jason Primm

Two Dollars and Seventy-Five Cents

The subway was stopped in the tunnel. The lights started flickering and I was scared they would go out completely. I closed my book and treated the time like the end of yoga class. I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. I thought about the fish in the East River above us and how they weren’t stopped and how long their breaths must be to pull air out of water. Some of them were doing the same thing I was, crossing from shore to shore, Brooklyn to Manhattan. Maybe they were bored of the trip too. The train finally started moving again. When we pulled into East Broadway, everyone reached for their phones at the same time.

I punched in work, and Bailey answered.

“What’s up, Boss?”

She liked to call me Boss when I was late or otherwise doing something stupid. She was half my age and already better at the job than me.

“Been stuck in the tunnel for twenty minutes.”

“That sucks.”

“They said there was a fire at Second Avenue.”

I could hear her fingers moving over her keyboard. She was fact checking me.

“Yeah, I’m reading about it right now. Some homeless guy lit his baby carriage on fire and pushed it down on the tracks.”

“Wow. At least, there wasn’t a baby in it.”

“That’s the delay. They had to check.”

“I’ll be there by 10:30.”

“Gotcha. What do you want me to do about…”

The train cut her off. The guy across from me looked at his phone like he wanted to murder it. He was dressed in a pin striped suit. His hair was short on the sides and parted to the right with gel. He opened his briefcase and started reading some ominous looking legal papers. He was deep in the fine print when a detail made him mad. He put the binder clip back on the stack and slammed the case shut. Our eyes met.

He said, “Can you believe this shit?”


The trains had been fucked up all summer, one thing after another, investigations, track fires, train surfers, signal problems, stabbings. He looked at me a moment to see if I was screwing with him. I nodded to let him know that I was a fellow believer in the shit.

After leaving 42nd St., I expected Rockefeller Center to be next, but we went through 34th St. without stopping.

I asked the lawyer, “Didn’t we already pass 34th St.? Are we going backwards?”

“Fuck if I know.”

We passed through another station.

“That was twenty-third. We are going backwards. Did they make an announcement?” I asked.

“What do you think? Fucking MTA. I’m going to be late to court. My client’s going to fry.”

He laughed at his own joke.

The train stopped at Union Square, but the doors didn’t open. The crowd on the platform was pissed. A few people knocked on the windows and looked at me like I was an asshole for not opening the doors. I shrugged, and the train started moving again. Something was really messed up. We started on the Sixth Avenue line and now we were on the N/R.

A few stops later, we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. It felt like I was leaving Manhattan behind for good, that this was the last ride before I moved back South or wherever the hell, I was going to wait to die. Florida? Somewhere out west where pot was legal? The people at work who were near retirement spent all day looking at second houses or browsing the amenities at over fifty communities. What if I learn too late that my great talents were shuffleboard and bingo?

At DeKalb Street, the doors opened. They stayed open without an announcement. Looking around, I noticed there was a guy in an MTA jacket standing between the cars taking a piss. That’s part of the problem. No pride from top to bottom. He came back in and made the first announcement since the train started going haywire.

“This F train that was going over the R line in Manhattan and the D line in Brooklyn is going out of service. You can stay on if you want.”

A small group of us were undeterred by not knowing where we were going. The lawyer got off the train. I turned when I felt his kick hit the car. His face shook with rage. He not only kicked the car we were riding but when he was halfway up the stairs, he came back down and kicked the next car.

“I want my fucking 2.75 back,” he shouted back down the stairs.

The doors closed and the train started moving. At Atlantic, the train doors opened again.

“This train is switching to the Long Island Rail Road line. Anybody who wants to stay in New York City should get off the train.”

The elderly couple with matching canes hobbled off. The half done woman snapped her compact shut and threw it in her designer bag. The high school student reading Pride and Prejudice dog-eared the page that she was on. The bearded Hasidic guy closed his ornate book. The bum in the corner got up and stuck his head out the door to make eye contact with the conductor. He held up his hand to say, I’m getting off but give me a minute. He rolled his bedding and put it in his granny cart with his lacrosse sticks and dinner plates and wheeled it off the train. The only person left was a young woman wearing bright red Beatz headphones. She had successfully ignored everything on the train. She wasn’t going to let this bother her either.

I said, “I didn’t know that they could do that. Aren’t the tracks different sizes?”

She looked at me a moment and shrugged.

The doors closed and the train went a few car lengths into the tunnel and then started backing up slowly. I could feel a mechanism shifting below us, and the train revving itself to go over something. There was a loud whirr and then a bump as we overcame the unseen obstacle, and we started forward again. It was a tunnel that I had never been in before. There was a bright green reflective strip running along the side. The walls were white tile and clean. A few minutes later, I felt a slow rise and we were in the sunshine on the elevated tracks of the Long Island Rail Road. I looked down at the strip malls, the nail places, the Irish bar-and-grills, the phone shops and vaperies.

I checked my work email and tried to forward something to Bailey. I must have sent it to myself because I got an out of office response from my account. Not the one that I had set up. It was written in the third person. I had become unavailable.

At Babylon, the train stopped. The woman with the headphones got off as though she were exactly where she expected to be. The train pulled out and I was the only rider left. The conductor came into the car and sat across from me and smiled.

“Hi,” he said.


He was in his twenties. He looked very pleased with himself. He glanced out of the window at another Long Island hamlet rolling by and checked his watch. I realized that he wasn’t going to give me an explanation. I was going to have to ask for one.

“So, quite a day on the train,” I said.

“You’re telling me.”

I nodded.

“I couldn’t help but notice that we weren’t following the normal route.”

“Special one, today.”

We both looked out the windows for a few minutes. He must have had this moment before with other passengers.

“Okay. What’s going on?” I asked.

“I took this subway train.”

“What do you mean?”

“I hijacked it.”

He waited for some kind of response from me, but I had used up all my amazement when we switched to the LIRR tracks.

“Am I a prisoner?”

“No, I’ll let you off whenever you want. I’m more of a joyrider. I always leave the train in the same place. They know where to get it.”

“Good. They’ll go easier on you.”

“They won’t do jack to me. This is the third time I’ve done it. They can’t admit that someone took one of their trains. Besides, I’m not mentally competent.”

“You seem okay.”

“Thanks, but I can’t help what I do. If I see a train that I can drive, I take it.”

He snapped his fingers. I looked out the window and read the town off of a water tower, “Hicksville.” We were already halfway across Long Island.

“We are making good time,” he said.

The tracks bent right, and it felt like we were going too fast.

“Shouldn’t you be at the controls?”

“Nah. We aren’t stopping for a while.”

Just as he said this, we were approaching another stop. The train jumped a bit going through the station, and the rattling was so loud that we stopped talking. The people at the station looked up at the train and gripped their styrofoam coffee cups tighter. A few of them took pictures with their phones. Out of the station, the train got quieter.

“Why didn’t you get off?” He asked.

“I wanted to see what the train would do next.”

“Do you have anybody at home waiting for you?”


“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“You know.”

He said this with the certainty of someone looking at a map.

“Well, I loved one person, and she didn’t love me back. And then I loved some unavailable women, people who lived too far away, married people. And then I went out with some younger women, and they got bored of me. And now, it’s just easier to go home after work and watch TV.”

“Shit. Try to put that on a Hallmark card.”

“What about you?”

“I live at home with my mother. That’s why we are going so fast. She’s making a pot roast for me. It’s my birthday.”

“Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks. I’m twenty-five.”

No wonder we were on this train together. We were two fucked up examples of manhood, the home he made with his mother and my decades of childless humping.

A few of the married women tried to contact me later, years after our affairs, years after the divorces ending their unhappy marriages were finalized, their kids finally out of their houses. The cautious ones wanted to have coffee, and the bold ones proposed whiskey and catching up. I didn’t call them back, but I kept their texts and phone messages. I listened to the phone messages when I was lonely.

“We are coming up on my favorite part. I’ll be right back.”

I looked out the window. The strip malls had finally given way to farms. The train slowed to a stop. He came back to the car.

“Help me with the window.”

We stood on top of the orange plastic seats on opposite sides of the long skinny window near the roof. He took something out of his pocket that looked like a cross between a key and a screwdriver. He turned some funny looking bolts, and then we lifted the window out of its frame and set it on the opposite set of seats. He motioned me to stand next to him on the seats and he pointed out a line of light purple in a field across from the tracks.

“Do you see that line of light purple on the horizon?”

I nodded.

“Take a deep breath. Do you smell it?”


“It’s a lavender farm.”

The fragrance filled the train car. It smelled like summer in my grandmother’s living room. There was a painting of the Last Supper above a large color TV built into a wooden cabinet with a record player. On top of that cabinet, she kept a vase of flowers. When I was twelve, I spent a whole month while my parents were divorcing, smelling the flowers. Like then, I was anxious and on the way to somewhere I had never been before.

He closed his eyes and said, “I’m going to sit here a minute.”

He looked like he was meditating. I could take control of the train. I could hit him with something and become a hero. But I didn’t. He judged me right. I sat a few seats down from him and closed my eyes too. The heavy sweet air made me light headed. I dreamed my grandmother was scolding me for something I did with an old girlfriend. She caught us making out on the porch swing. The next thing I remembered was him putting his hand on my shoulder and gently shaking me awake.

“We are out of tracks. Time to go. Do you want to come to my birthday dinner? I asked my mom, and it’s okay with her.”

Now the smell coming through the window was ocean. I could see the water off in the distance on both sides of the train on this narrow part of the island. I walked with him to the back of the train and down a ladder. After a short path through the scrub lining the tracks, we were behind a small house. There was a gate built into the fence that led to his backyard. His mom waved from the window above the sink. She came out wearing an apron. She had long brown hair streaked with gray and tied in a pony tail. She extended her hand as though it were the most natural thing in the world that I would be with her son, the train robber, and introduced herself.


She sat us in the living room and brought us cans of Narraganset beer.

“It’s not often that we have visitors.”

“Thank you.”

“We are having Robbie’s favorite, pot roast. Did he tell you it’s his birthday?”


A timer went off in the kitchen, and she excused herself.

“See, I told you it would be cool,” Robbie said.

He reached over, and we tapped our beers together, toasting our unexpected good fortune. Marybel called us to the dining room. We ate at a dark walnut table with a white table cloth. The pot roast was big enough to feed a family of eight. I reached into a wooden bowl and took a warm roll and held it in both my hands. We talked about the boring things I did for books and her job at the ticket office. She excused herself. My phone buzzed and all the text messages from the day came in at once. A few with Bailey telling me I should call ASAP that there was something that she had to tell me, and then finally, one where she wrote never mind, don’t worry about it. One of the young ones that I thought had ghosted me sent a picture of herself in a black bra. I wondered if she had the wrong number.

Marybel came out with chocolate cupcakes and a bottle of limoncello. She bent over to light the candles. The fullness of her figure made me wonder what I ever saw in the skinny young ones. With the candle lit on Robbie’s cupcake, we sang together. It felt weird, but she smiled, and I followed her bright voice.

She poured us shots of limoncello and before I had finished mine, she poured herself another. She was getting herself drunk.

“So where did you meet, Robbie?”

“On the train. Today.”

“Of course. Robbie makes a lot of friends on the train.”

She reached over and put her hand on my hand. I looked over at Robbie and he seemed oblivious. Maybe he was already planning his next train ride.

“How long have you been interested in trains?” I asked Robbie.

“Since I was a kid. My dad was a conductor. He taught me how to work the controls, when to slow down, when to go fast if you wanted to make up time. That’s how we ended up out here. He bought this house because it was at the end of the line. I keep applying to the railroad. I already know how to do everything. But they never call me back.”

I knew how it felt. Being middle aged, the world had made up its mind about me, about the things that I would and wouldn’t be allowed to do. Robbie excused himself, and I could hear him going up the stairs and a door close.

In a hushed voice, Marybel said, “His father died in a fishing accident. He went out one afternoon by himself. They found the boat. They never found him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a very long time ago.”

I wondered if she knew about the trains. A toilet flushed and the sound moved through the house in a rumble. He reappeared looking sleepy.

“We are going to watch Robbie’s favorite movie, The Polar Express. You are welcome to join us,” Marybel said.

After we finished the cupcakes, we moved out to the living room. Robbie put in the DVD and sat in an ancient brown leather easy chair. He extended the legs and pulled a blanket over himself. Marybel excused herself and came back with a bowl of popcorn. She turned off the lights. Robbie was completely engrossed. In the TV’s blue light, I could see his lips moving along with the boy’s dialogue.

Marybel whispered to me, “He’s seen this movie at least a hundred times.”

He was getting sleepier, and about half hour into the movie, his head sunk down for the final time. Marybel stopped the movie and adjusted his blanket.

“I’m going to be forward. Do you want some company tonight?” She asked.

I followed her up the stairs. We came together easily. I wasn’t trying to be younger than I was, and she wasn’t like the young ones pretending to know more than they do or the married ones trying to beat their sadness into submission.

I woke up at six the next morning. I was warm under a thick quilt, but I had to go to the bathroom. I was only wearing my underwear, and she had her back to me putting on her bra, pulling the cups up to her breasts and reaching behind her to hook them in place. I felt satisfied and unashamed. I hoped Robbie wouldn’t be disappointed that I slept with his mother. Maybe he engineered the whole thing anyway.

I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to buy a ticket from the vending machine for the 7:16 into Jamaica so that I could switch to the express train to Atlantic where I would catch the subway into work. I didn’t want to walk into the lobby of the midtown building wearing yesterday’s rumpled clothes. I didn’t want to get in the elevator that would carry me high enough to kill me three times over. But I had to. It’s impossible to change your life.




BIO: Jason Primm pursues modest goals in a coastal city. When he isn’t writing, he can be found sharpening his slice backhand. His fiction has most recently appeared in Stoneboat, The Sweet Tree Review, Five on the Fifth, Zone 3, and Windmill. He maintains a blog at jasonprimm.wordpress.com.